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, 27 July 2017

After the Act - 50 Years On

Today marks a big anniversary. On this day in 1967, homosexual activity between consenting male adults in private was no longer criminal. This Act of Parliament is rightly regarded as having made history. It marked a watershed of modern times.

My times, I can say, because I remember it well. If you were an adolescent of seventeen, this highly public debate about sex and sexuality couldn't fail to be of absorbing interest. I hadn't long come out as a Christian, and without understanding much of the theology (or much of human nature, for that matter), I remember being obscurely relieved that Michael Ramsey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, supported decriminalisation.

As we all know, 1967 did not, to strike a Churchillian note, mark the end of a campaign, or even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it was the end of the beginning. Progress, especially in the last quarter of a century, has gained momentum. It has seen the equalisation of the age of consent, the inauguration of civil partnerships, the acceptance that gay couples should be eligible to foster and adopt children, and most recently, legislation to allow same-sex marriage. All the major political parties have strenuously supported equality legislation. Our understanding of homosexuality is vastly more sophisticated than it was fifty years ago. Gay culture has moved into the mainstream and enriched us all. These are all achievements to celebrate today.

But as we know, or ought to know, full equality for our LGBTQ+ friends has yet to be won. This is not only or primarily about legislation. It's as much about changing attitudes, winning hearts and minds as politicians used to say.  And this is the hard part. The extent of discrimination against gay people is deeply worrying. You want to hear gay people tell you about it? Try watching the excellent BBC3 series of documentaries Queer Britain (warning - not always comfortable viewing). You'll learn about religious prejudice against gay people, the bullying many young gay people experience at school, the mental health problems many face, the staggering proportion who are homeless because they have been thrown out of their homes - you wouldn't be human if you didn't feel for these victims who simply want to be allowed to love in the way that feels natural and right.

The first programme in the series was entitled, "Does God Hate Queers?" And that brings me to what I want to say most of all on this fiftieth anniversary. It is that we people of faith must, absolutely must, purge ourselves of words and actions - yes, and thoughts too - that discriminate against gay people, and assert or imply that religion is against them. And I mean the policies and practices of our faith institutions, not simply our behaviours as individual men and women. 

When it comes to legislation, which is what today is celebrating, the glaring statutory anomaly is the Church of England's continued inability to permit same sex marriages to be solemnised and blessed in church. The website of our national church says, somewhat disingenuously, that the C of E is not allowed by law to conduct equal marriages. But this exemption was specifically asked for by the Church! Parliament agreed to it, no doubt to help expedite the passage of the equal marriage measure through its houses. But politicians are increasingly unhappy about this exceptionalism as we've heard in some public utterances on the subject in the past few weeks. And it's clear from the two most recent meetings of the General Synod that the mood of the governing body of the Church is not very happy with the status quo either.

I've argued in a series of blogs (for example, here) for the Church's full acceptance of same sex marriage. And make no mistake. However tolerant and generous the Church's discourse about gay people, it's actions not words that count. Of this, equal marriage is now the acid test of equality. To accept it, not grudgingly but willingly and joyously, would make all the difference. Not to do so perpetuates the message that this is an institution that continues officially to practise discrimination. That can't be interpreted away (though some try very hard). This untenable position we are now in as the national church in England is a tragedy for its standing and reputation in the nation, especially among the young. To them especially, its stance feels archaic and cruel and wrong.

The Episcopal Church in Scotland has charted the way towards celebrating equal marriages in church. Here in Northumberland we live just south of the Scottish border, a few tiny minutes of latitude. But they make all the difference! In the English Middle March, I'm more than ever aware of our two churches' varying polity on this point. Actually, I'm not pessimistic about the Church of England's change of heart in the longer term. I'm as sure as I can be that in a decade or so, maybe less, the English Church will have followed where Scotland has led. Our church has a strong sense of justice and fairness, and it will assuredly act on these God-given instincts. It always has in the past, even if, as with slavery, contraception, the remarriage of divorced people and the ordination of women, the wheels have ground slowly. And equal marriage is, after all, only the law of the land! It's a good law. We should be heartily glad to catch up with it and embrace it.

But given the pace of change we have seen in our society in the last two decades, I believe we have to demonstrate far more of a sense of urgency. The Bishops intend to bring back to the General Synod a teaching document in sex and sexuality in due course. It's right that time is taken to do our theology and ethics rigorously and reflectively. But it's hard to imagine what stones remain unturned when it comes to same-sex relationships and Christianity. We have examined the scriptures exhaustively, we have reflected carefully on the tradition and on our human experience. We have done our best to understand the science. But we can agonise too much, I think. We can be too afraid to be decisive and take the long view. We can put off acting courageously, doing the right thing, by engaging in the displacement activity of endless process. "How long, O Lord?" On this auspicious day, I'd love to think that the Church of England could cross this rubicon and proudly (adverb intended) celebrate the wonderful part gay people play not only in our church but in our society.

Today, 27th July, happens to be my forty-third wedding anniversary. I've every reason to be profoundly thankful for the gift of marriage that has so enriched every aspect of my life. (I hope my wife would say the same, but it's for her to speak for herself.)  So my plea for equal marriage in the Church comes out of my own experience as a married man. Marriage is good for us. It should be open to everybody. So on this day of celebration, I urge us all in the Church of England to say yes to equal marriage. Please. With gladness and hope in our hearts. And soon.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Silence That Sings

I am on a silent retreat this week. That is to say, I am conducting a retreat for a religious community. So the experience is not quite the same as when you opt to go on a retreat for your own spiritual refreshment and renewal, or just because you need some peaceful time away. When you are giving addresses each day, and seeing retreatants who have asked for a conversation or want to make their confession, you are not there for yourself but for others. There is work to be done. 

Nevertheless, this week is a gift. Even though it's less than a month since I got back from leading an ordination retreat, it's still a welcome and a precious time. At the heart of the religious life is daily prayer, the eucharist together with the four offices of morning, midday, evening and night prayer. This community's beautifully reordered church, its architecture and furnishings noble but restrained, speak of spiritual values we should emulate. In its clear light, you feel that this church is a place of truth where we come to transact the business of God and of ourselves as we are before before him. There's no hiding from God here. You feel that you are seen, and known. That can be uncomfortable, painful even. But you also sense that this place of truth is also a place of humane companionship where pilgrims share bread and walk together before God. And a place of love where you are held in the embrace of a community that lives out the love of God himself.

Worshipping here has a stabilising, calming effect. The ancient plainchant of the psalms and canticles have a spiritual clarity that matches the quality of light. Words are spoken very slowly, softly and deliberately so as to reverence the sacred truths we are taking upon our lips. The daily prayers give the day focus, shape, direction and structure. Life feels intentional: there is a quiet prayerful purposefulness in the way the community goes about its business. There is something graceful about this life lived together that imbues ordinary things with meaning. No one is in a hurry. Walking purposefully becomes a religious act in itself. You begin to understand how in the religious life, space and time, activity and stillness become suffused with the spirituality of the conventual church and all that happens there: eucharist, prayer, scripture, psalmody, silence. (Because of the importance of the psalms in the community's daily prayer, I am offering reflections on the psalms of the day and trying to show how the whole of human life is contained within these marvellous texts. I'm also suggesting how they can help us to pray more authentically.  You can read my addresses here. I am adding them each day as I give them.)

It's the silence of places like these that we secular Christians tend to seek when we go on retreat. For some people this is more difficult than for others. As an introvert, I'm fortunate not to find this a problem myself. I've always valued silence and solitude, perhaps to a fault - who can say? In any case, retirement is necessarily a lot more silent than life used to be when time overflowed with activities, meetings, conversations and all the business that goes into an ordinary working day. That has taken some getting used to, though it is most welcome (for now).

But silence of the kind I'm finding here is more than just the absence of noise or music or conversation or digital stimuli. It's a rule of life, a discipline that's chosen, whether permanently or simply for a while, to help us quieten our spirits, practise stillness, become more aware, learn how to listen, discern God's presence in our midst. It's this that religious communities strive so hard to maintain and protect. At first it can seem odd to live in this way, especially at meal times when common courtesy and our innate sociability suggest that conversing amicably is the natural accompaniment to eating and drinking. So it is, most of the time. But silence is far from living in some private world of your own. On the contrary, it gives you the chance to meet and get to know others in surprising ways even if you never exchange so much as a single word outside the liturgy. When you pray with people and sit at table with them day by day, strangers become friends. Don't ask me how it happens. I'm just saying that it does. 

This kind of silence, inhabited by a community of prayer, can feel highly charged. A retreat can be an intense experience, especially when it takes place at a time of personal change or transition. My retreat before being ordained priest was like that. It was an important place to explore my hopes and expectations of ordained life, offer my vocation and my gratitude for it, try to be realistic about the failures and the flaws in my life of which I was acutely conscious at that momentous threshold. I was all alone (always the introvert!) on that retreat in a Benedictine house where the silence, and the holy warmth of the community, and the beauty and generosity of its liturgy made me so welcome. For me, then, it was a vital place of truth. 1976 was a blazingly hot summer. Perhaps that has helped the memory to glow. I sat in the gardens on the parched grass and read Jean-Pierre de Caussade on The Sacament of the Present Moment, and George Herbert's A Priest to the Temple together with many of his poems. But it's the quality of the silence that I most remember. I realise forty years later how thirsty I was for it.  I've been on many retreats since. But that experience stands out as life-giving in a special way.

The Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem about silence that inspired the title of one of Thomas Merton's best known books. It begins:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Silence can sing when we have ears (whorlèd or not) to hear. There is a music we become aware of when we elect for silence, attune the senses and start listening. You never know what kind of music it will be. But as the desert fathers used to say, you "go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything". It's a matter of being open to the Spirit of God, that's all. Like William Blake hearing angels singing in his garden, and seeing heaven in a grain of sand.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Defer! (Or not...)

Defer, defer,
To the noble Lord, to the noble Lord,
To the Lord High Executioner!
He (the LHE) is, as everybody knows, a personage of noble rank and title... whose functions are particularly vital! We love Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado for its wit as much as its music. And we are not many minutes into the opera before it's clear that it's intended as a priceless parody of power and its abuses. You don't have to have your head physically chopped off to be "executed" by those whose power has intoxicated them. There are victims of power in every kind of institution. And this includes the church. (On which, you will find a lot of thought-provoking reading on my friend Stephen Parsons' blog Surviving Church.)
Dame Moira Gibb has recently published her report An Abuse of Faith on how the Church of England (mis)handled the reports of the shocking abuses perpetrated by Bishop Peter Ball. It is a dreadful story that has brought shame on the whole church. Many have commented on the report as a whole. I simply want to highlight a couple of paragraphs that leaped out of the text as I read it, and which I think we need to take seriously as a church.
We have seen that Ball was:
- older than those he abused; 
- in a position to identify and exploit troubled boys and young men; 
- able to rely on and exploit connections with famous and powerful people.

But, most significant of all, he was a bishop. In the structures of the Church, a bishop has a crucial and central role, underpinned by an essential autonomy. Even a retired bishop could draw on a particular spiritual authority over those he might seek to exploit.

We were struck during this review by a manifest culture of deference both to authority figures in the Church, particularly bishops, and to individuals with distinctive religious reputations – or both. This deference had two negative consequences.  Firstly it discouraged people from “speaking truth to power”. Then, on the few occasions where people did speak out and were rebuffed by a bishop – the summit of the hierarchy – there was nowhere else to go. That reinforced the barriers to stepping up in the first place.
(5.6.2-3, my emphasis)
This "manifest culture of deference": why is it so dangerous?
I once gave a lecture to theological students on wisdom in ordained ministry. (I was invited to speak to them because I had written a book Wisdom and Ministry based on addresses I gave at an ordination retreat not long before.) I warned against deference. I said that not only was it not good for those on the receiving end of it, but that it was even worse for those who were giving it. When I'd finished, there was quite a lot of discussion about this point, beginning with one poor student who had to ask what the word itself meant.
I explained that as normally used nowadays, it doesn't simply mean respect or regard or even reverence but carries the more negative connotation of submissiveness and servility. In both good and bad senses, it is clearly a "power" word. But the question here is not so much how power is being exercised but how it is being received and responded to. Deference, in the literature about leadership and authority, means a dysfunctional response to power, whether that power is being exercised in a good or bad way.
It's easy to see why deference is bad for the person receiving it. It's a kind of flattery that can distend the ego and distort good judgment. If I am given deference, even if I understand that it belongs to the office I hold, not to me personally, I can be tempted to think that I am beyond criticism. It can feed my hubristic instinct that I tend to be more right than wrong. Again, I can find myself wanting to bestow favours on someone who defers to me. That would make it a kind of bribe which, as the Book of Proverbs says, is like throwing dust into the eyes so as to compromise their vision. Of course, at its least worst, deference is meant as a courtesy. But in an environment where courtesy is (rightly) valued, I can be tempted to take deference too literally, not realising that the pedestal on which I am standing is not at all a safe place but could topple at any moment if I am not careful. "Let those who think they stand take care in case they fall" says St Paul.
It's harder to see why deference is bad for the person giving it. But look at it from the perspective of the person deferred-to and it becomes clear that its effect is to pull both parties into dangerous and destructive collusions. For example, if my deference makes it difficult or impossible for me to criticise or challenge the person I've put on the pedestal, then I've given away the power that properly belongs to me as a separate person with my own integrity and conscience. At best I am disabled. Worse, I may be infantilised. Worst of all, I may have sold myself to another. With this can come a loss of dignity which will be damaging to my self-respect.
Deference is a risk wherever there are unequal power relationships. This means it's a hazard most of the time, for so many relationships are not equal (nor should they be). In our adult relationships, we can think of teachers and students, bosses and workers, doctors and patients, landlords and tenants, financial advisors and clients, the elderly and their carers, and of course clergy and people. We trust people with authority and expertise to know what they are doing. This is the healthy way of acknowledging who and what they are with a duty of care towards us. But an unhealthy deference magnifies and then distorts the power that exists in the relationship. This was precisely what enabled Peter Ball to practise such appalling abuses. Priests and bishops are in high-trust relationships where it is natural to assume that the person in authority is acting responsibly and justly. But if deference means that questions, suspicions or doubts are not allowed to be expressed, then abuses of power can masquerade as responsible care rather than being seen for the ugly reality they really are.
Here's a memory of a little incident from a long time ago. I was at a lecture given by a bishop (now dead) on the subject of authority in the church. It touched on the abuse of power but didn't explore why power gets abused. So I put my hand up and asked if he thought there was a problem of deference in the Church of England and whether this could lead to distortions in how authority and power are understood by senior clergy. He eyeballed me, laughed and asked me in turn, "Do you have an authority problem of your own then, Michael?" That was all I got. I smiled (a trifle too deferentially?) and left it at that. But I wondered why he did not want to engage with my question which was a genuine attempt to understand my own propensity both to give deference and to receive it.
"Speaking truth to power", the phrase quoted by Dame Moira Gibb in her report, is never easy. But it is especially hard to interrogate power that is held within the church itself. When you swear an oath of canonical obedience, it is not always straightforward to suggest to a bishop - however carefully and courteously - that he or she might perhaps look again at some decision, revisit some process, reappraise some judgment about a person, or that he or she may simply have made a mistake. The Oath of Canonical Obedience is both a legal avowal and a spiritual promise on the part of licensed ministers to our bishops.  Perhaps it could benefit from being examined to make sure that its language does not inculcate deference but is properly understood in the setting of how institutions are governed, led and managed in the twenty-first century. I hope that bishops would welcome this.
In case anyone thinks this post is subversive or even seditious, let me say what I do believe needs to feature in healthy relationships with those who have authority over us in the church. My five virtues are: respect, honour, responsibility, loyalty, and accountability. These are all vitally important attitudes. Without them, no institution could exist for long, let alone be stable and flourish. All of them, I believe, ennoble not only those who receive them but also those who give them. What's good about these words is that they can all be prefixed by the words critical or in conscience. This means that they are given out of an intelligent appraisal and judgment that recognises the claim to authority as reasonable, conscionable, good and right. I don't think you can have "critical deference".
When we are under lawful authority and where power is properly exercised, accountability and loyalty are never absolute. They are always subject to other, higher authorities to which we owe allegiance, whether it is the law of the land, the law of conscience or the law of God. This is recognised in the Oath of Canonical Obedience by the phrase "in all things lawful and honest". So "critically" is in no way to limit or compromise these accountability words, simply to draw attention to the necessity of behaving as intelligent people who understand what it means to be employed by or hold office in an institution. If you like, it's about cultivating adult-adult relationships rather than reverting to immature parent-child ones, to draw on the insights of transactional analysis. And as Dame Moira implies, it's a vital aspect of safeguarding the young and vulnerable because in a culture of deference, the risks they face at the hands of potential or actual abusers who abuse positions of power are very great indeed.
In the cathedrals I've worked in, no-one now swears obedience to the Dean. But I'm aware, having held a senior church post for two decades, how dangerously collusive deference is. As a Dean, you preside over a Chapter that oversees numerous employees and volunteers, works to a considerable budget, holds property assets, is a significant public presence to its diocese, city and region, and all this in great buildings which hold real spiritual power. I tried to encourage colleagues and worshippers to question, critique or challenge anything in my actions or behaviours that concerned them or with which they disagreed. Some did, some didn't. Those who did were often right, though not always. But I regard it as a mark of grown-up relationships that we should try to work collaboratively. Maybe it's becoming more possible in the 360 degree world we now live in. It needs to be, because every diocese, cathedral or church has no choice but to be an organisation of consent where respect has to be earned and can't be taken for granted. What's good in that is that deference won't sit easily within a ministry that is genuinely collaborative.
Tomorrow the General Synod is due to discuss the vesture of clergy. One member wants to see bishops throw away their mitres because, he says, they encourage deference. He cites the same section of Moira Gibb's report that I've quoted. I very much doubt whether wearing, or not wearing, mitres will make any difference to the culture of our church. It's going to be a lot harder than that!

But to see what a less deferential church might look like in practice, watch Sean Bean as the parish priest in the recent BBC TV series Broken. To some he is "Father", to others "Michael". He is a flawed man, but precisely because of that, becomes a wounded healer for other people because he breaks through the default deference some (even now) have for a priest. And his parishioners love him. "You marvellous priest" they tell him one by one as they come up to receive communion from him at the end of the drama. Why do they tell him this? It must be because like Jesus, he is among them as one who serves. Tout simple. It's most moving. We should learn from him.