Sunday, 11 November 2018

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words: Thoughts on an Armistice Photo

For me, this will be the abiding image of this weekend's Armistice centenary commemorations.

Amid so much that has been moving in the ceremonies in France and Belgium, and here in the UK, I keep coming back to this photograph. It was taken at Compiègne in northern France where the Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in 1918. It has added poignancy because it was on this very spot that Adolph Hitler received the surrender of France in 1940, a highly symbolic location chosen out of revenge for the Treaty of Versailles.

That clasp of hands, the touching embrace that followed: it came across as completely authentic, entirely unstaged. It touched me deeply, and I wasn't alone. Here's what a non-European posted on Twitter. I'm from the Middle East. This picture moves me nearly to tears - curiously, more than I find it moves young Europeans. Do young Europeans even realize what has been achieved? It's nothing less than sacred, because peace is sacred, because human life is sacred.

I ended my last blog by writing that "there is nothing left to say. Except to be thankful". That's still true today. A picture's worth a thousand words. Yet there is more to say, and I want to write it while the events of this extraordinary weekend are still vivid in the memory. Here are three comments I'd like to make.

First, and most important, could we have asked for a more powerful image of reconciliation and friendship than this? France and Germany had fought each other no fewer than three times in the century leading up to the end of the last war. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Great War of 1914-18 had cost both nations dear. France, especially, had suffered unimaginably. Among elderly French people, bitter memories even of the earlier conflict were still alive in the 1960s when I started visiting France. To them, the second world war with its terrible destructiveness was an inevitable aftermath of those earlier wars, a continuation of a story of European conflict that would never come to an end.

Up to the time I was born, exactly half-way through the twentieth century, it was inconceivable that these two great European powers could ever be friends. Do young Europeans even realise what has been achieved? asked my middle-eastern Tweeter. Maybe even older Europeans like me haven't quite taken it in. To anyone with a feeling for modern history, it does seem like a miracle. Not that these two leaders should stand together at such an emblematic site, but that their meeting should be so genuine, their gestures so spontaneous, so deeply felt by them both. These are the kinds of events that define history, and that promise great hope for the future. Isn't this what those who fell in war went to their deaths for?

Secondly, as I tried to argue in my last blog, we need to understand what's made this difference. I don't think that reconciliation just happens, or that time is automatically a great healer. Many - maybe most? - of the conflicts of our time are caused precisely because of old wounds that are opened up afresh, unhealed memories that are allowed to fester. What's different on continental Europe is the intention not to allow historical injuries to blight the lives of succeeding generations. "Parents have eaten sour grapes" as the prophet Ezekiel says (18.2), but that's no reason for their children's teeth for ever to be set on edge.

You know what I'm going to say. It's the European project that has created an environment where relationships can be negotiated afresh. The European Union, as we now have it, has brought peoples together in a purposeful way. It has helped fashion a different kind of narrative and discourse where nation-states stop fracturing the continent and instead start living together in peaceful, collaborative relationships in a common European home. We mustn't forget how hard-won that achievement is. Monsieur Macron said today in Paris that "patriotism and nationalism are opposites", that "nationalism is treason" because it is driven by a nation's self-interest, not the welfare of others. This is what causes wars. How much better to affiliate to families of peoples that will protect us from the nationalisms that tear our world apart. It's not that we shouldn't love our country - only that we shouldn't think of it as somehow better than any other country. I don't hesitate to say that renouncing nationalism is one of the most urgent tasks facing our world today. If we don't succeed, I fear it may end up destroying us.

Remembrance means many things - gratitude, sadness and pride among them. But lament for the past needs to be part of it too, and this means a mental and spiritual toughness that is capable of thinking forward to a future that is different from our broken history. So to me, this Armistice centenary and Brexit are closely linked. The peace of 1918 and the peace of 1945 both point to the crying need for nations to reimagine their "belonging", to think beyond national self-interest to the common flourishing of humanity. During the referendum campaign, we heard endlessly about "what's best for Britain", and not nearly enough about what the UK has to contribute to Europe and the wider world. Europeanism is not the end of a process but a beginning, for if we are incapable of thinking globally, then it's likely that the globe itself doesn't have a future worth working for. Clearly, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron understood the profound political significance of the day. How we remember shapes us in the present and (for good or ill) sets directions for the future. The logic that connects the Armistice with the European project is inescapable. It says: choose a different way, a more excellent way. Cultivate love, reconciliation and all that makes for peace. It's all there in that photograph.

Thirdly, and as a bit of an afterthought, it seems to me that there someone is palpably absent from the photo. It's our Prime Minister. Now, there may be all sorts of good reasons why she couldn't be there just then. Maybe she needed to set off for London to be back in time for the evening's Festival of Remembrance. We would all understand that and support it. Maybe the Macron-Merkel photo was set up as "Europhiles only" and she would have been de trop. Perhaps she was asked and politely declined. Nevertheless, her absence is striking.  At Compiègne on 11 November 1918, there were not two signatory nations but three: France, Germany and Great Britain. In the light of that, how could the British not have been included in this powerful image of postwar reconciliation?

I don't know the answer. But what I read in the photo is a European future from which Britain is absent. And that distresses me beyond measure. Just think what a three-way embrace would have symbolised, how powerful its message would have been! But Brexit means Brexit. So while it's a wonderful photograph to treasure out of this weekend of commemorations, it's also a forlorn one, at least as far as Europeans in Britain are concerned. We could have been part of this true European entente cordiale, this tender reaching out of hands to those who have become firm friends and allies.

But while they are better together, we have turned away. We are on our own. And that is unbearably sad. 

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Playing Politics with the Armistice?

 In the summer of 2016, my mother lay dying in a North London hospital. Her long life had begun in Weimar Germany in the aftermath of the Great War. The rise of the Nazis from 1933 cast an increasingly dark shadow over her teenage years. It became clear that like every other Jewish family, hers was now gravely under threat. In 1937, her parents got her out of Germany and she came to England as a refugee. They meanwhile fled to the Netherlands for safety. When the Germans invaded, they were hidden underground by two evangelical sisters who believed it was their vocation to shelter Jews.

My mother's hospitalisation happened during the Referendum campaign. She was not much given to political debate, but the idea that Britain might leave the European Union exercised her deeply. "This country wouldn't do anything so stupid, would they?" she asked me more than once. I tried to reassure her, believing at the time that despite episodes of irrationality, the British people were on the whole pragmatic with an instinct for common sense, and that this flirtation with Brexit would pass. Then came the vote on 23 June. Afterwards, she simply commented, "What a terrible terrible shame". A month later, to the day, she died.

Why am I writing about her on Armistice weekend? It's prompted by the moving report of our Prime Minister's visit to war graves in Belgium and France. She said that it was "a time to reflect on our shared history". I tweeted about it, commenting: "The logic points to building a peaceable future in our common European home. To turn from Brexit would honour the centenary of the Armistice". A friend took me to task. "No, don't play politics with the Armistice. It doesn't belong to Remainers".

He's right in his last point of course. The Armistice is not the property of this or that faction, or even this or that nation. It is part of our common European history, indeed, of our history as a human race. Its solemn commemoration this weekend should unite us, just as it should unite us with both our allies and our former enemies. I'm heartened that this centenary has so engaged people across our nation and continent. Last night's news carried reports from schools where children have written poems and imaginary letters in honour of the war dead. To them, a centenary must seem incredibly remote. Yet they have caught the theme of "war and the pity of war" (as Wilfred Owen called it) with real imagination. One nine-year old said that the thought of leaving his family at home to go to the front and possibly be killed was unbearable. How could they do it? he asked.

But I bridled at the allegation that I was "playing politics". I replied that far from indulging in political games, I was entirely serious. If we don't learn to allow history to shine a light on our present predicaments and future destinies, I argued, we are just not learning from the past. And when we don't do this, as has been said so many times, we condemn ourselves to repeating its mistakes. Wars are not inevitable. They happen for reasons that need to be understood against the context of the time. History doesn't repeat itself. Every generation has to learn for itself how to navigate the events of its own day. But the twentieth century's two world wars with their shocking waste of life are a stark warning to all of us. We can sleep-walk into catastrophe because we are not interpreting the signs of the times. Remembrance Sunday is an annual reminder to do precisely this: remember, reflect, pay attention, resolve that never again - if humanly possible - will precious human lives be sacrificed on the altar of conflict and war.

For my mother, brought up in the shadow of one world war and living through another, the peace in Europe we have enjoyed for seventy years was, if not a miracle, a very great achievement. This was why she cherished our membership of the European Union. For underlying everything else it aspired to was a project that began with the need to find reconciliation and build a lasting peace in Europe. To her in the last weeks of her life, it seemed inconceivable that progress, so hard-won across the continent since the last war, could be sacrificed in such a casual way. Why throw it all away? she asked. Why indeed?

We heard far too little about this during the Referendum campaign. Since the vote, politicians on all sides of the debate have obsessed about the economy, trade deals and the financial implications of any Brexit deal that might be negotiated. I'm not going to say these things aren't important. But they may not be what matters most. To my mind, our place in the world and our relationship with our own continent are even more significant because they have so much to do with the flourishing of human life across the planet, social justice, the welfare of the most needy in our societies and our care of the environment. Our sights should be set so much higher than simply our own national wellbeing.

On Remembrance Sunday we recall how Britain entered both world wars to support nations that were threatened by aggressors. Not turning away from others in need was a powerful motivator. We are right to remember, with pride and gratitude, how our country responded so honourably when our continent was at risk. We presented our best selves to the world. The challenge now is, how to present our best selves to the world in this postwar era where we are beset by threats to world peace and stability beyond the imaginings of our parents and grandparents.

What kind of world did the glorious dead lay down their lives for? Is it playing politics to conjecture that for them, a kinder, more compassionate world, more sensitised to human suffering and need was somewhere in their minds? Should we not go on aspiring to build this kind of world as we keep the Armistice centenary? And shouldn't we honour all the global, continental and national institutions, however flawed, whose purposes include friendship, stability and peace? The EU is not perfect - far from it. But it has played an important role in contributing to the peace of Europe for the lifetimes of most of us. I've heard veterans of the last war speak with dismay about Brexit as a kind of betrayal of so much that they fought for. That makes sense to me, born as many years after the end of the war in 1945 as my parents were after the Armistice of 1918.

That's why the war graves of Europe are emblematic for all who care about peace. This centenary is indeed "a time to reflect on our shared history" as Mrs May says. But a shared history leads naturally to thoughts about and hopes for a shared future that would be so much better together rather than apart. How we remember the past shapes us, and shapes the future. Yesterday at Thiepval in the Somme where she was laying a wreath, someone called out from the watching crowd, "Please don't leave us". That person too made the connection between Armistice and the future of our continent. Our nations went through so much during two world wars. Former enemies are now firm friends. The European Union has sealed that friendship in so many important ways. We are all the better for it.

Not to walk away from our friends is a lesson I draw from the Armistice. We didn't in 1914 and 1939. We shouldn't now. That's not playing politics. It's trying to learn from the events we commemorate this weekend. It's asking how, a hundred years later, we go on building on the hopes and dreams of those we remember who laid down their lives for the sake of a better world, and for whose sacrifice we remain for ever thankful.

This image says it all. It was taken yesterday at Compiègne where the Armistice was signed in 1918. It has added poignancy because it was here in 1940 that Adolph Hitler insisted on receiving the surrender of France out of revenge for the Treaty of Versailles. Here's what someone who had seen it posted on Twitter last night. I'm from the Middle East. This picture moves me nearly to tears - curiously, more than I find it moves young Europeans. Do young Europeans even realize what has been achieved? It's nothing less than sacred, because peace is sacred, because human life is sacred.

There is nothing left to say. Except to be thankful.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

The Centenary of the Great War: Thoughts on Good Remembrance

“This is without doubt the saddest story I have ever heard.’  That’s the first line of Ford Maddox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier published just as the Great War began.  It captures the dying of an era, the end of innocence.  You read it knowing, as the protagonists did not, that the lights were going out all over Europe.  I have heard it said that the war that was declared in the summer of 1914 did not truly come to an end until 1989.   Perhaps, with the hindsight of another thirty years, we might say that it has still to come to an end. The red horseman of the Apocalypse with his bloodied sword who takes away peace rides this earth yet.  Wilfred Owen called it ‘the pity of war’. 

In a week’s time we shall keep Remembrance Sunday and commemorate the centenary of the 1918 Armistice. It is one of the last truly national rituals left to us. Whoever you are, you are aware of poppies and war memorials, of the Royal Albert Hall, the Cenotaph and the Chelsea Pensioners.  You are drawn into the ceremonies that symbolise the remembrance, the gratitude and the care of a nation.  Every society, every people needs a day such as this both to remember and to think.

I once thought that we should have to work harder in the future to keep the collective memory alive of what it is like when nations go to war, and civilisations are nearly destroyed, and so many have their futures taken away from them or carry their physical and emotional injuries with them for the rest of their lives.  But in the last twenty years we have seen attendances at Remembrance ceremonies soar, especially among the young. For the landscape of war remains only too well known to us.  Our world is as precarious today as it has ever been, more so in some ways with the pressure on liberal democracies and the rise of nationalisms and the far right.  I shall never forget that on the very day of my installation as Dean of Durham the Iraq War began. Its aftermath lingers on. The unfinished business of war casts a long shadow. Its victims, like the poor, are always with us. 

The trouble is that all this is so big in its scope. We look back to 1914 and 1939, and the other conflicts of our age - lesser maybe in scale, but not lesser to those who were its victims. How do you begin to take it in?  A few years ago I was in Russia, in what was once Stalingrad, now Volgograd. There is a vast war memorial there, a colossal sculpture in the tradition of socialist realism that dominates the skyline for miles around. The eternal flame that burns beneath it, the perpetual guard that is kept there, - the need never to forget is everywhere. Yet the hugeness of it didn’t move me as much as something I saw in the museum dedicated to the terrible Battle of Stalingrad of 1942/43: a helmet that had lain frozen for months alongside the body of its owner in that terrible winter, a sweetheart’s letter that was the last thing a dying soldier pressed to his face as he bled in the snow, a battered, forlorn tin mug, a torn photograph of a mother and father who were not to know they would never see their son again. It spoke of unbearable sadness, of the tears in things. 

This for me put a human face on war, because the huge was brought down to the level of individuals.  If you talk to me about the slaughter of millions, my mind seizes up. But talk to me about the suffering and the dying and the bereavement of individual people with names and homes and loved ones, and I begin to know what you mean. Tell me the stories of men, women and children with faces I can picture, and voices I can imagine, and the words become flesh and the reality of it all begins to dawn.

Today’s news has told us that a bugle carried by the poet Wilfred Owen will be sounded at his grave tomorrow, 4 November, exactly 100 years since he was killed in action in France. It was one week, almost to the hour, before the Armistice. He took the bugle from a dead German soldier. Perhaps he wondered who that German was, where he had come from, what family he had left behind at home. “Bugles calling for them from sad shires” says his “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. Calling for them both, on opposite sides of a conflict neither of them wanted, yet united in death by a musical instrument. “Strange Meeting” indeed.

Our Armistice ceremonies and traditions are a way of holding and handing on raw memories of pride and shame, bravery and cowardice, outrage and fear, comradeship and sacrifice. We find our own meanings in them, we think our own thoughts and pray our own prayers during the two-minute silence. The risk is that the rhetoric of remembrance becomes too broad, too elegiac, too generalised for us to make sense of it. I’m reading a rather wonderful book by Rachel Mann, Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God. Her writing originates in her memories of her Grandad Sam and Grandad Bert, both of whom fought in the Great War. They survived it, yet remained its victims all their lives. Her reflections range far and wide across the landscape of conflict and how we remember it, yet she constantly comes back to these two men who anchor her writing in what is specific to them and their families. Particulars matter.

What does Christianity have to say about all this? 

Every Sunday is a remembrance Sunday, for every Sunday we remember a dying and a death. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. It is individual and specific: one man's pain and darkness, one man's broken body and shed blood, one man's mother and best friend looking on in grief as his life ebbed away on the cross. ‘Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still/Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill/While in the frailty of our human clay/Christ our Redeemer passed the self-same way’ says the much-maligned yet (to me, anyway) moving ‘O valiant hearts’. That hymn from the Great War comes straight out of the struggle to make sense of the new experience of mechanised warfare and death on a scale never known before. It’s moving because it interprets those deaths in the light of the death of Jesus; it asks God to “look down and bless our lesser Calvaries” where God suffers in every human soul, each one cherished by God, each death mattering to him, or might we dare to say diminishing him just as it diminishes us?  The cross ties our human suffering to God’s for eternity. We remember. God remembers.

A rabbi was asked whether a garment that had been symbolically torn in grief could be sown up and used again. Yes, he replied, but you mustn’t disguise the tear.  The scar must always show.  In other words, we always carry our collective and individual memories around with us. Time gives a perspective from which meanings can become clearer, the picture comes into focus.  However we must learn in the ceremonies of remembrance not to make it better by easy speeches that gloss over the particularities of suffering, loss and grief with the language of willing self-offering and the glorious dead.

In particular, we mustn't elide our piety as essentially sympathetic bystanders with the raw experiences of those who have served in conflict. Rachel Mann comments on the last line of Siegfried Sassoon's poem "The Attack": “O Jesus, make it stop”. She observes that the difference between prayer and blasphemy is hard to draw. Could we hear the final cry from the cross in Matthew and Mark in that way, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The experience of wondering where God is, the outrage at a God who does not come to rescue us is familiar to human experience. And the resurrection, especially in Mark’s short ending, does not make it “all right”.

At least, not yet. We glimpse a future that could be different, indeed, will be different according to our Christian hope. In the eucharist, we "remember forward" to what will dawn one day, that other country whose “ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace”. It seems as far away as ever for now, further away, I think, even than it seemed earlier in the lives of my post-war generation. Our world is not in a good place as we mark this centenary. All the more reason, then, to make sure remembrance leads us into prayer for the future of humanity. And into reflection, so that we ask ourselves what we have learned from the past and how we intend to act on it. Memory, prayer, wisdom and resolve are the antidote to despair.

These are among the things that will make for "good remembrance".

Thursday, 18 October 2018

How shall we mark Brexit in Church?

I posted a tweet today. It was a question, addressed to the two national churches of our island, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. I also copied in Westminster Abbey because they know about these things too. My question is, will there be church services to mark Brexit Day? 

You may laugh. With the nation so hopelessly divided about Brexit, and the negotiations themselves mired in difficulties, how on earth can we contemplate marking the 29th March 2019 liturgically? Everyone agrees that it will be a momentous event in our history, but that’s about it. Remainers and Brexiters will want to tell entirely different stories about how we got to this threshold and what we believe, or hope, or fear, lies on the other side. One side will look for celebration, the other lament.

But let’s think a little more deeply. For one thing, it would seem very strange not to hold public services around Brexit Day when we are used to marking other big national events in this way. Liturgy is one of the ways we gather up and ritualise the events that are shaping our collective lives, whether it’s the centenary of the Great War, the end of the Falklands War, celebrating a royal jubilee or in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and natural disasters. By doing this in public, high-profile ways, we hold up a mirror to our common life and understand the place we occupy within the larger story of our peoples.

And of course, we offer our story to God. That’s primarily why people of faith have a strong instinct that we should gather together at times of transition. At every threshold, especially when we are at our most febrile, we need to pause to look back as well as look forward, try to discern where God is in the events we are passing through, ask ourselves what he is calling us to be and do in the future, and above all, offer our lives afresh to him in faith and hope. 

If ever we needed to do this, it is going to be next March as one chapter of our nation’s life comes to an end and a new one begins. Yes, this process has been and still is controversial, divisive and extraordinarily painful. But that’s precisely why we need to try to find words and ritual actions that will help carry us across this threshold as we pray for whatever awaits us beyond. 

And they need to be actions that we can perform, and words that we can say together. It will be far too soon in the spring to talk about the healing of memories. It could well be that things will become more bitter and fractious before they begin to mend. But if there is going to be healing, then the memory that we came together at a time of division and tried to reach out to one another could sow a seed of reconciliation that we can build on in the years ahead. And yes, a seed of forgiveness too, for many things have been said and done in this Brexit journey for which we shall need to say we’re sorry.

There could be two approaches to a Brexit liturgy. One would be to construe it as a vigil of prayer on the eve of crossing this threshold, offering what we are about to do - for better or worse - to God’s wise and loving providence. Many of us remember the vigils of prayer that were held across England before the General Synod vote in 1992 in relation to the ordination of women to the priesthood. People of utterly different convictions recognised in one another a common, God-given need to call upon God to help us at a time of deeply divided opinion. I could see us doing something like this as we contemplate a future none of us can yet foresee. Might a national day of prayer and fasting be appropriate?

The other approach would be to ritualise the transition we shall be negotiating. This would be harder to do in an inclusive way, but that shouldn’t stop the church from trying to interpret it in the light of what we as Christians believe about nationhood, about our place in the wider Europeans and worldwide family of peoples, about our commitment to the enduring values of peace, justice, inclusion, collaboration, honour, loyalty and truth. We need to articulate a vision of the kind of society we want to become, a vision for the kind of world we want to live in. It would include thankfulness for all that has been good in the past, penitence for what has fallen short, and the offering of our nation’s life in the future with as much confidence and hope that we can muster. The register will need to be humility not self-congratulation, reticence not assertiveness, acknowledging that there is so much that we cannot know about where this Brexit Road will lead us. But equally, in the spirit of St Paul in the midst of his ordeals, we must confidently affirm that we do not lose heart.

I’ve made no secret about how very disappointed I was that the Church of England ducked the challenge of holding a debate about Brexit before the Referendum, both in the General Synod and, I’m told, in the House of Bishops. The Synod debate, when it happened, took place after the Referendum - too little too late. It was such a lost opportunity: the national church in England ought to have contributed as an institution to a big conversation about what we believed at that time England’s place in Europe should be. It still should. But it seems afraid to. Sadly.

Now, once again, our national churches have the chance to help us as we reach a historical crossroads. Yes, of course the context will be continuing disagreement, opposing views that are passionately held. But this is precisely where our churches can make a real contribution - by naming our conflicts and divisions, the difficulty of the process we are in, and then by ritualising this painful collective journey in ways that signal what Justin Welby calls “good disagreement”. I’d say that it was not only desirable but necessary. And possible.

As readers of my blog know, I’m a heartfelt Remainer. I admit that I am deeply afraid of what is going to happen in six months’ time.  I am angry and frustrated about Brexit and I dread turning over the page in the 2019 calendar that will tell me that March 2019 has arrived when that fateful threshold must be crossed. I can’t see anything that may happen before then that will change my mind. For me this is not a good night and I don’t want to go gently into it. Raging? Well, yes.

But that’s precisely why I recognise that the church must try to speak into our confusions and help us see our hopes and fears in the larger context of God’s wisdom and care for humanity. Churches are at their best, not when they preach moral sermons but when they stand with our people so that they can weep or rejoice with them - or both. Especially is this true at the liminal places of life, when we are more than usually aware of our human fragility and our need of one another and of God. Churches are good at entering into the flow of public and personal history. It’s what’s needed now.

March 2019 will see us journeying towards Passiontide and Easter. The gospel of death and resurrection will furnish us with all the spiritual resources we need as we ask how best to mark our departure from the European Union. So I want to ask our church leaders: what will we do to help the people of our nation at this time of change? How could our cathedrals and greater churches play a role in regions and localities? How could local churches become places of prayer, resolve, hope, even healing? 

There’s an abundance of liturgical and spiritual imagination to draw on in every part of the church. Wouldn’t it be a terrible failure to be defeated by this challenge on the grounds that it’s just too difficult? I admit that it will be hard. But perhaps the nation is looking to us to respond, as it often does at times of uncertainty. I hope and believe that we will prove equal to the challenge. But we need to be thinking about it now. What are we doing to prepare? That’s my question. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

"Our Actions are our Future": thoughts on World Food Day

Today is World Food Day. I've learned that it's been observed on this October date since 1981 to draw attention to global hunger and stimulate action to support the most needy people of our world. It's also an opportunity to reflect on the food we eat and its significance for us personally and as societies. Recent themes for the day have included food security, agricultural co-operatives, food prices, migration and rural poverty. This year's focus is "our actions are our future".

As it happens, I've been thinking a lot about food this year. I went to the surgery in June to get myself checked out by the practice nurse. She looked me in the eye and said: "you're overweight with a BMI* that's well above the safe limit of 25. You need to reduce". So for the last four months I've been reducing. My ambition has been to get back to the weight I was in my mid-twenties. That would give me a BMI just within the safer zone (for as the nurse also pointed out, when you're a male of my age, you are automatically at risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke. This year I've had to learn about the first two on that ominous list - but that's another story).

As we all know, there's nothing like dieting to get you thinking about food. I don't say obsessing about it - but it has a way of taking up more than its fair share of mental space. If you've watched Michael Mosley on TV (Trust Me, I'm a Doctor) or read his books, you'll know that he believes in the habit of regular fasting to stabilise our attitude to food. His 5-2 diet - five days of normal eating each week, two with significantly reduced calorie intake - has been widely adopted. My sister who is a professional personal trainer recommends it.

And of course, this matches the importance attached to a healthy rhythm of feasting and fasting in the world's religions. In the Christian shape of each week, Sunday is a festival (commemorating the resurrection) and Friday a fast (in memory of Good Friday). Lent and Eastertide offer annual seasons for self-denial and celebration. Every feast day has its vigil or fast. I dare say that if we ate and drank accordingly, we'd be healthier as a result. When I've got down to the weight I want to be (86kg since you ask - nearly there!), Christian discipline or askesis, if I stick to it and eat and drink sensibly, ought to make sure I stay there.

Eating sensibly maybe comes down to eating reflectively, thinking about what we eat and why. Here's where World Food Day comes in. "Our actions are our future." What actions might these be? There's any number of possibilities, whether we're talking about personal, or collective, political, actions. It's obvious to all of us that the unequal way the world's resources are distributed means food affluence for some (most of us in the west), food poverty for far more in the developing world. No little personal act of mine is going to make a difference to that global fact on the ground.

Yet we also know that a lot of littles can add up to a great deal. They can symbolise to ourselves and to others our resolve to work for political and economic change, to influence public attitudes so that imbalance is redressed in favour of those who are in most need. It's an offence to our human inventiveness and capacity for problem-solving that millions of people still cry out for their daily bread. It also means thinking locally: about supporting or volunteering at our nearby food-bank, for example, or at this time of year, asking what harvest festival gifts we can bring to church that will make a difference to the lives of others.

So I'm trying to be a little more reflective about what I eat and how. The sacramental quality of food becomes more important when you are careful about your habits - how much is symbolised by our eating and drinking, especially when we are with family and friends where the beautiful word companion comes into its own - literally, a "bread-sharer" as in the French word for a chum, copain. All of this is gathered up and transcended in the Christian eucharist, the sharing of bread and wine together in memory of Jesus who died and was raised up, who commanded us on the eve of his passion to do this in remembrance of him and in a shared meal, revealed himself as the risen Lord.

What's struck me most forcibly of all during these dieting weeks is how our eating habits are intrinsically bound up with the future of our planet. George Monbiot in his Guardian column has done more than most to highlight the effects our addiction to meat-eating is having on climate change. Last week the International Panel on Climate Change published its report. It tells us that unless temperature rise over pre-industrial levels is held to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world faces catastrophic environmental damage which will lead to untold human consequences. Moreover, we have just twelve years left in which to address this crisis. Excessive meat consumption is part of the problem.

I'm struck by how disparate our attitudes to climate change are. Our government officially accepts the science behind the IPCC report and recognises the urgent need to reduce fossil-fuel dependence. Yet in the week after the report's publication, it reduces subsidies on electric cars and stands by while a court verdict allows fracking to begin again in the North of England. The public largely "gets" the message about fossil-fuels (don't use your car more than you have to, don't travel by air if there's a train you can catch, think about burning renewables rather than coal or gas) and plastics (you don't see many plastic bags being dispensed at supermarket checkouts nowadays). Yet it's far more resistant to the message about meat-eating, even though the cost to the planet of clearing forests for grazing, and of greenhouse gas emissions from cattle is unacceptably high.

So I link this year's World Food Day theme, "our actions are our future" with that of two years ago, "climate is changing; food and agriculture must change too". Food is not only about personal choices. It's political too. And as I've said, it also has profound theological and spiritual aspects. In the Lord's Prayer, daily bread really means "bread for tomorrow". I find that suggestive: if our decisions create futures for ourselves and others, so do our prayers. As for the present, our attitude to food and drink, like everything else, goes with the kind of care and responsibility we associate with mindfulness. The reflective eater, the mindful eater, the responsible eater, even the prayerful eater - I like the sound of those adjectives. They speak of wisdom. Late in time, as old age beckons, I'm trying to learn how important mindfulness is.

On last night's Look North there was a piece about the legendary Teesside Parmo that featured in a recent MasterChef broadcast. Obesity campaigners have pointed out that this North East delicacy consisting of chicken deep-fried in breadcrumbs topped with béchamel sauce and dripping with melted cheese comes in at around 2000 calories. That's close to what an average adult male needs each day to maintain his body weight. I don't want to score points but I somehow don't think this menu is for me.

By the way, I'm not a vegetarian though I love vegetarian food. I'm not teetotal. Most of fasting and dieting comes down to, not don't ever eat or drink this or that but if you do, do it with restraint. My wife tells me that portion-size is everything. Avarice and gluttony are among the seven deadly sins. Avarice is uncontrolled desire for what we don't need, gluttony uncontrolled consumption of it. Food and drink aren't the only things we desire to excess or consume too much of. But our eating and drinking can tell us much about ourselves. Which is why World Food Day is important, if only to make us think.

*body-mass index.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

"Called upon or not, God will be there"

Last week I wrote about sitting on the Areopagus and thinking about St Paul's debate there with the Athenians. I want to return to Greece in this blog. A brief week among its classical antiquities is no more than a taster, but I have to admit that like so many other travellers before me, I've fallen under its spell. I ask myself, how can I never have visited the country before? I'm grateful that I've got there before I die.
If you ask me what the highlight was, I have to pause. How do you compare Athens, Olympia, Epidauros, Mycenae and Delphi? They are all magnificent, all utterly absorbing, all providing not just great beauty but so much food for thought. This includes many of their museums where the artistic heritage of these places is presented and interpreted in fascinating and exemplary ways. But for my wife and me, there was something special about Delphi. Let me try to say why.
We visited it on a grey, damp windswept day. It was the tail-end of the Mediterranean mini-cyclone Zorba that landed in Greece the same day that we did. As I wrote last time, for us who live by Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, there's nothing odd about ancient sites in a storm. Indeed, so extraordinary is the site at Delphi on its steep valley-side below Mount Parnassus that the lowering skies only lent it greater dramatic force and sense of place. We stayed the night in the nearby village. It was a new experience to sleep on what felt like a cliff-edge.
Delphi was the centre of the Hellenic world, its navel or omphalos. The myth said that Zeus had sent two eagles to fly towards each other from the eastern and western edges of the world. Delphi was where they met. The site was dedicated to Apollo. Here, the prophetess or sibyl Pythia sat on a tripod set above a cleft or "chasm" where vapours emerged out of the ground. Intoxicated by the fumes, she dispensed wisdom to those who consulted her. She was famous for her enigmatic responses. The Lydian king Croesus asked her if he should attack the Persian king Cyrus. The Oracle replied that a great empire would fall if he did. Croesus did not ask which empire, assuming she meant the Persian. Of course it was his own. 

The landscape setting is incomparable. The Via Sacra or pilgrims' way snakes steeply up the hillside through ruins that date back to the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries BCE (the fifth was the "golden age" of Pericles' Athens). Highlights include the Temple of Apollo, treasuries built to house the spoils of battle offered to the gods, the Sibyl Rock where the oracle was said to preside, a theatre and right at the top, a stadium. From these heights you look down to the gymnasium and the famous, much-photographed circular Tholos of Athena. The museum houses a memorable display of sculptures, including the legendary Charioteer in bronze, one of the most famous statues from antiquity. (Hadrian is there too, by the way, the Roman emperor who fell in love with Greece and came to Delphi, an unexpected point of contact - in addition to the weather - with our distant Northumberland homeland and its Roman Wall.) 

But it was not for any of these reasons that we were especially touched by Delphi. For me, it was crystallised by a retired school teacher I was talking to about our Greek trip. She is a reader in her local cathedral. She told me she had taken many school groups to Greece and got them performing scenes from Greek drama (did she also mention Shakespeare?) in the ancient theatres they visited. Delphi was one of them. "Of course, the thing about Delphi" she remarked "is that it's a sacred place. Even after all these centuries, you feel something there, something in the stones that remember how mortals once went there to look beyond themselves, commune with the gods and seek their wisdom". I paraphrase but she put into words what I'd been sensing. When I checked it out with my wife, she said she had experienced it too.

She (my wife) is a psychotherapist with a particular interest in Carl Gustav Jung whose influence on analytic practice has been profound. Above the door of his practice in Kusnacht. Switzerland, he carved an inscription: vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit. "Whether called upon or not, the god will be there." That saying is attributed to the Delphic oracle, said to be the answer the Spartans got when they consulted her about taking up arms against Athens. Jung elevated it into a universal principle about how urgent it is that humanity seeks a deeper wisdom than is attainable through reason alone. He once said that he had not encountered a problem or question in any of his patients that did not turn out to be religious in origin. The divine, always present in human life even when it is unacknowledged, is the source of hagia sophia, the holy wisdom that alone can grant mortals a new vision of our better selves, the potential we are called to realise if we are to become what we are meant to be - in his language, find individuation.

The Christian question is, of course: who is the deus in that saying, this god who is always present in our midst? This was precisely the matter St Paul addressed on the Areopagus when he observed the dedication on one of the altars he had seen, To an unknown god. I wrote about this last time. Christianity gives a name to this deus, says Paul, and tells us that he is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead. In him, what is unknown becomes known, the hidden God is disclosed to us. This God invites us to know and to love him and, yes, vocatus atque non vocatus, always find him alive and present among us by the power of Hagia Sophia, his holy and life-giving Spirit.

Delphi bears witness to humanity's long search. It's one more in the long list of places remote from Christian revelation where I've unexpectedly glimpsed "the idea of the holy". In our own parish of Haydon Bridge you can find what is left of a Roman Mithraic temple standing alongside Hadrian's Wall. I quip with the vicar that we are one of very few parishes in rural Northumberland where there is a religious site belonging to another faith community. We shouldn't dismiss the spiritual potency of these places. It's a narrow view of Christianity that limits the ways in which God discloses himself, for there are many names by which he is perceived.

But for us Christians, there is a name that is above every name. Albert Schweitzer wrote at the end of his great book The Quest for the Historical Jesus: "He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, Follow me! and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is."

Here is Christianity's answer to Delphi, the fulfilment of all that it reaches out for. Here is where our spiritual yearnings and hungers are met; where all our oracles and dreams are transcended; where we find our God-given selves at last.  

Monday, 8 October 2018

Musings on Mars Hill

Last week I stood on Mars Hill in the centre of Athens. Above me, the Acropolis stood proud, its Propylaea, Temple to Athens Nike and Erechtheion glowing in the afternoon sun. Below you could see the Ancient Agora with the Temple of Hephaestus an island of white marble amid a sea of foliage; and on the lower slopes of the Acropolis, the cluster of famous olives that echo the lone olive tree that stands on the rock by the Erechtheion, said to be the gift of the goddess Athene to her city. Far away was the glint of ocean, the “wine-dark sea” Homer called it, but on this luminous afternoon more like a golden frame surrounding a tableau of marble sculptures.

You can’t see the Parthenon itself from Mars Hill, but it is the unseen presence whose power permeates classical Athens. I had not visited it before, and was not prepared for its sheer immensity. It’s by no means the best-preserved of Greek temples, but it is one of the largest, and the one that is most freighted with symbolism. It is the emblem par excellence not only of ancient Greece, indeed of classical civilisation, but also of the modern nation as it emerged in the early nineteenth century from Ottoman rule. 

Last week I saw it twice close-to. On the first occasion, Greece was being deluged by torrents of rain thanks to a rare Mediterranean cyclone. The Acropolis was dark, brooding and windswept, somewhat forbidding, it has to be said, and not a place to linger. I doubt many tourists have seen it in those conditions though when you come from North East England you are perfectly used to visiting antiquities like Hadrian’s Wall in the pouring rain. We went back there at the end of our week in Greece. It was as the picture postcards said it should be. The Parthenon was ravishing and serene. You could understand its hold on the imagination of the romantics who came to Athens as part of the grand tour. And you could appreciate the sentiment that longs to see the Parthenon Marbles, removed by Lord Elgin and now in the British Museum, reinstated in the new Acropolis Museum just below the rock, one of the best museums I’ve ever visited.

But back to Mars Hill, the Areopagus or Hill of the god Ares. He was the god of war, and one thing you learn when you come to Greece is now bellicose classical Athens was. To succeed in warfare was everything. The defining myth of Ancient Greece was the Iliad and the Odyssey. I read some of Homer on my iPad while I was there, and was reminded how readily the blood flows in that great work. You are not spared the details of how good men and bad perish alike in war, thanks to the intervention of the gods who notoriously take sides in their support of either the Greeks or the Trojans in this decade-long conflict. At Delphi we saw a frieze depicting the Trojan War and the part played in it by the capricious deities whom the Greeks worshipped.

I had thought that the Areopagus was a proper hill with a ruined temple or two on top, and an open space for argument and debate. In fact it’s no more than a outcrop of the Acropolis, separated from it by a narrow fault. You clamber up a steep ancient stair cut out of the rock and emerge on an uneven plateau - perilously slippery for the marble has been worn smooth by twenty-five centuries of human footfall. I stumbled around for a few minutes until I decided that the least hazardous way of experiencing this place was to sit down for a while.

Up here climbed St Paul one day some time around 50AD. He was brought here by the Athenians, for Mars Hill was where philosophers had argued and debated since the days of Pericles five centuries before. Perhaps he had come down from visiting the temples of the Acropolis, or up from the Agora; either way, his mind was full of the vivid experiences this first and last visit to the city had given him. Athens has that effect on travellers. And the Athenians, who had learned curiosity from Socrates, wanted to know more about this strange doctrine Paul was propounding that seemed to point to new deities they had never heard of, “Jesus” and “Anastasis” (Resurrection). And of all the novelties the Athenians loved so much, nothing pleased them more than new ideas they could discuss among themselves on the marble Areopagus.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by
human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

I read these words from Acts 17 on my phone and wondered what Paul thought he was doing, according to St Luke’s account. Some think that this attempt to engage with Greek culture was a one-off experiment that failed. Brilliant rhetorician that he was, quoting poets and philosophers and winning intellectual arguments on the Areopagus was not the way to promote the gospel. From then on, it is suggested, the Apostle resolved not to tangle with Greeks who sought wisdom, any more than with Jews who looked for signs. His sole task was “to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified”.

Except that his time on Mars Hill, whether it was an hour or a day, was not seen as a failure by St Luke. When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. A street below the Acropolis is named after Dionysius the Areopagite, said to be the first bishop of Athens. There is a strong memory that Christianity began to take root in the city. After the collapse of Roman civilisation in the fifth century, Christians occupied part of the Parthenon and worshipped there. Movingly, at the foot of the steps up the Areopagus you will see a bronze tablet displaying the Greek text of this story of Paul’s visit.

On this Thursday afternoon, there were not many philosophers to be seen arguing about religion on the Areopagus. But it was still a crowded place animated by lively conversation. There were throngs of tourists taking selfies, of course. But there were also a great many young people, some enjoying lovers’ trysts, others talking among themselves and enjoying the warmth of an autumn afternoon. Everyone had their mobile phones and were sharing photos and social media posts and for all I knew, reading and discussing Acts 17. 

What would Paul do if he came there today? The same as he did on that day nearly two thousand years ago. He would engage with the culture of the day, contemporary wisdoms that clamour to be heard in the market-place of ideas, try to point out how they both cloak and yet give clues to our fascination with unknown gods. He would draw out of anyone prepared to listen how the universal human longing is for truth and reality and meaning in life. “To search for the God who is not far from any of us” - “closer to us than our own souls” says Mother Julian - “so that perhaps we might feel after him and find him”. And yes, speak plainly about Jesus and the resurrection, and about the reckoning we must all face because know it or not, we are all accountable to our Creator. 

These weren’t new insights to me, what we call “contextual theology”. But they took on a new significance as I sat on Mars Hill for a while. Being “missional” is, I think, a more sophisticated task than we sometimes imagine. Especially has this become true in our complex digital age, as Pope Benedict said when he described contemporary media as the Areopagus of our own day. The environment is as slippery as the polished marble on Mars Hill. It’s easy to put a foot wrong.

But it’s heartening that there’s a new energy for faith-sharing today, and that includes the project of helping people with no explicit religious background - worshippers of unknown gods? - make sense of Christianity and discover intelligent religion. If local churches can place themselves in mind and imagination on Mars Hill and ask what it means to bear Christian witness in this place and at this time, there’s every reason to be hopeful for the future of Christianity.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Brexit, Mountain Madness and Waiting for Angels

There's a lot of "magical thinking" around at the moment. The clock is ticking ominously towards Brexit-Day next March. The Prime Minister clings stubbornly on to her Chequers plan which politicians of all hues, not to mention EU leaders tell her has little hope of flying. Canada and Norway are back in the frame as possible Brexit models. There's talk about how a no-deal Brexit could do the nation a power of good. So much busking, so little planning, still no clarity - it isn’t looking good.  When was a modern nation as confused as this, as exposed to European ridicule, as diminished in its standing on the world stage? It's sad to watch any country agonise like this. It's tragic when it's your own.

Much of the Remain perspective on Brexit draws on metaphors of height. "Falling off a cliff edge" is a favourite. "Staring into the abyss" is another. To me, the government’s confusion is redolent of mountain madness. Above a certain height (is it 7000 metres?), your capacity to think clearly and make sound decisions is significantly lessened, which is why climbers die as a result of poor judgment. Your ability to calibrate risk, assess the weather conditions and the passing of time (how much daylight have you got left?), your physical and mental condition, your stamina levels can become dangerously skewed. Not to mention your ethical judgment when it comes to helping others who have got into trouble in high places. How many mountaineers have died because they didn't recognise the moment when they should and could have turned back?

A chance encounter on social media today got me thinking about this image of surviving at a dangerous height.  In H.G. Wells' famous short story, a traveller finds himself in a secret, enclosed mountainous land where because of some inherited genetic condition, everyone is blind. Ah, he tells himself, "in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king". It proves otherwise. He attempts to escape by climbing his way out of this kingdom where no-one can see except him. But the heights are fraught with danger and he doesn't have the equipment or the skill to scale them safely. He falls to his death. That seems like an eloquent image of our political leaders struggling to keep their heads clear when they are well above their safety zone, where the Brexit air is too thin and conditions too treacherous for them to keep their footing.

One image from the Bible stood out as I thought about it all today. It's the well-known story of Jesus' temptations. Two of them are about high places, as it happens, but here's the one that struck me forcibly.

Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, 'if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you", and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone."' 

Many people who are not in the least suicidal report that same irrational pull towards danger-at-a-height. They feel some strange, unaccountable instinct to do precisely what Jesus is tempted to do, throw themselves off. It's as if there is something enticing about the cliff-edge or mountain-top, the tower of a great building, a parapet of high bridge, the rim of some chasm in the ground. We can be seduced into thinking we are safer than we are. "Our interest's in the dangerous edge of things" says Robert Browning in one of his greatest poems, "Bishop Blougram's Apology". I sometimes wonder whether our leaders are increasingly finding themselves in this fraught terrain.

What strikes me in the gospels' temptation story is how uncannily accurate the devil is when he suggests what Jesus might do. "Throw yourself off, because you know the angels will come and rescue you." Really? How can he possibly know that, whether he is the Son of God or not? It's an absurd temptation, and yet Jesus takes it seriously. Is this because he knows himself, knows his demons (so to speak), knows that the absurd is exactly what so many of us find ourselves doing when we lose our ability to think clearly? Knows that blind faith is never reasonable, never makes any sense, despite the specious appeal that irrationalism of every kind always holds out for a life that is happy and painless and filled with certainty, and trouble-free.

That's to speculate, of course. But there's no speculation about how Jesus sees off this temptation to do what makes no sense. He focuses on where his own rationality and self-knowledge lead him, back to the God from whom he draws his identity and his sound mind. He answers the devil, 'Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."' In other words, let faith and trust in God be informed, not by idiocy or self-interest but by a reasoned discernment of what God requires of us. And if I read the gospels aright, among the ways God wants humanity to know him and serve him, thaumaturgy, overt dramatic displays of supernatural power are not among them. Rather, he wants us to be sound in mind so that as disciples ("learners"), we make good judgments about what is in our own interests, and even more important, what is in other people's. It's what the Bible calls wisdom.

I think there is a clear strain of irrationalism in a lot of the pro-Brexit rhetoric we are hearing. The increasing shrillness of it is evidence here - shout louder because the argument is weak. It's been abundantly clear from before the referendum that the EU as a rule-based organisation could not compromise its four freedoms, and that any credible Brexit proposal from the UK would have to honour them. Instead, there is still talk about unrealisable ways of managing the Northern Ireland border, some of them recklessly putting the Good Friday Agreement at risk. We were told during the referendum campaign that achieving trade deals with the EU would be straightforward when we knew that Canada's has taken a decade to be realised. No-one can tell us how this country is going to recruit people to the NHS, the hospitality and agricultural industries. Warnings against Brexit by those whose business it is to understand and manage the economy are contemptuously disregarded as fear-mongering. This wearisome litany could go on and on.

So I'm thinking: are our leaders perched on the high pinnacle of some building of the mind, an edifice they have imagined for themselves where the rules of real life don't apply, where they can step out into empty air and look forward to being rescued by the angels? Are they so locked into the Brexit group-think ("the will of the British people", "what's best for Britain", "no People's Vote") that they can no longer see the risks they are running? I think I can safely say that there is no angel waiting to bear us up, no divine intervention that will protect us from our own folly. Why should there be? The stones our nation may dash its feet against will be unforgiving and hard. God gives no command concerning us.

We are already on our own as a nation set on this course of action. Europe and the world don't owe Britain any favours. We have fewer friends abroad than we used have and that isn't likely to change soon - the hurt Brexit is inflicting on our partner EU nations will take a generation to heal as will the bafflement beyond Europe as to why the UK would want to walk away from hard-won alliances. Whatever judgment we make about Brexit, we are responsible for it and will have to bear the consequences not just for a few years but, if many are to be believed, for decades to come. And our children and grandchildren whose future we have robbed know all too well that they are the ones who will carry the sins of their fathers and mothers for much of their lives - sins not of Brexiters' bad intent (let's not judge motives here - no doubt they were sincere, they meant well and the idea was good) but of unreason and poor judgment.

So I call it mountain madness. I pray - but don't yet dare to hope - that we all get down to safer levels where we can breathe properly, see the hazards we've been facing, and think clearly again. Yes, of course nowhere in life is risk-free, but we shall be a lot better off where evidence and logic and realistic projection are leading us rather than up here among the perilously tempting eternal snows where the view may be magnificent but the dangers are very great. Even a small slip could cost us our lives. Better get back down while there's some daylight left. It's late in the day, but not too late - yet.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Brexit: The Prime Minister Speaks

So Mrs May has come back from Salzburg empty-handed.

Brexit-watchers can hardly be surprised. The Northern Ireland border was always going to be a tough challenge if the Good Friday Agreement was going to be honoured. As was finding a modus vivendi with the other 27 EU nations unless it was going to be on the basis of the Single Market and Customs Union. The impossibility of squaring the circle is the right metaphor. You can find as good a match as you want, and you can get closer and closer an infinite number of times. But you can never make the circumferences or areas exactly equal. It all comes down to π.

Salzburg is Mozart's birthplace. Its name literally means the Castle of Salt. Well, the EU leadership has certainly gone through the PM's Chequers proposals like a dose of salts. How she must have wished for some Mozartian Magic Flute to come to her rescue, confer wisdom, protect her against her foes, lead her into the right path! Instead, negotiations on these two critical points have reached an impasse. The EU is clearly in no mood to bend to her wishes. So she has no room to manoeuvre unless she compromises on both of them.  And as she keeps reminding us, there is no Plan B other than to crash out of the European Union with no deal.

The Prime Minister has just spoken to the nation. The robust tone was consistent throughout her short speech, the Leitmotif being "we cannot accept...". Some of her red lines will find ready agreement across the nation, such as "we cannot accept the break-up of the United Kingdom". Of course not. But as everyone can now see, this is a non-trivial risk for the Union, especially those who live and work in Northern Ireland. I don't suppose many people foresaw this when they voted Leave in 2016. Like the false prophets in Jeremiah, the cry was "peace, peace, where there is no peace". And the cavalier way some leading proponents of Brexit are ready to treat the Good Friday Agreement is both breathtaking, and desperately sad.

But what about her opening "we cannot accept"? She said today, "we cannot accept anything that does not respect the result of the referendum". This begs so many big questions, all of which have been fully rehearsed in the two years the nation has been debating the consequences of the vote. I don't want to plough in well-worn furrows. We were reminded ad nauseam by Brexiters that Parliament is sovereign, and this includes its powers to rescind what has been decided in the past - which is precisely why the referendum and Parliamentary endorsement of it was to reverse the decision first made by the nation in 1975 to confirm our membership of the EU (with the strong support of the Daily Mail - newspapers can change their minds too!).

Add to that the clear proviso that the referendum was advisory to Parliament, and it really won't do lamely to appeal to the referendum result as if it were set in stone like "the laws of the Medes and Persians that can never be revoked". This is immature politics that devalues the intelligence of voting people and infantilises them. In a democratic society, we are free to change our minds, and frequently do at general elections. As I've said, the second EU vote was itself a change of mind following the first.

There's one more issue here, and I recall writing about it in an earlier blog. We know that the majority of elected members in Parliament were for Remain. Not just by a margin of a few percent like the UK electors, but a really significant majority. The point is this. If these MPs believed in 2016 that it was in the interests of the UK to stay in the European Union, what changed with the referendum result? Remainer MPs should be principled enough not to sacrifice their convictions on the altar of a public vote, especially when it is as close as the result was two years ago. They are not delegates who must vote as instructed by their constituencies. They are independent representatives who, having regard for the views of their constituents, nevertheless are free to vote, and indeed must always vote, in accordance with what their conscience tells them is in the national interest, without fear or favour.

What has happened in Parliament that even our Prime Minister, who is undoubtedly a woman to whom principle and conscience are important, is enslaved to this theory that the referendum result is inviolable and sacrosanct? Yes of course, to act with integrity, to follow principle and your own conscience in the face of fierce and loud opposition does take courage. It is fatally easy to be compromised when the stakes are so high and the pressures very great. And who appreciates the demands that are placed upon political leaders in times like these? I'm not at all defending the PM's approach to Brexit when I say that we can all feel for her in these ordeals she faces, not only among her EU colleagues, but (especially, I think) the brutal EU-psychodramas that the Conservative Party has enjoyed acting out for so many decades now. "Bastards", John Major called the far-right Tories when it came to Maastricht. You get the point.

I'm not expecting the PM to read this. But if by chance she were to, here's what I'd want to say to her.

1. None of this fiasco was of your making. You were landed with this poisoned chalice by your predecessor. Having promised he would see the consequences of the referendum through, he promptly walked away from his duty. I wonder how he can sleep at night.

2. Most of us do not want Brexit to be a disaster for the nation. We want you to succeed in your negotiations, not just to get the best deal for Britain, but what is best for Europe too, in the spirit of friendship, understanding and peace-building that is why this EU family exists in the first place. We want to go on being friends, partners and allies of the EU27. To crash out would sour relationships that are immensely important not only to our immediate neighbours and ourselves, but geopolitically too.

3. Don't underestimate how big a loss the UK's leaving the EU will be to the twenty-seven. It's not just the four freedoms or our payments into its budget. It's about the real and deep partnerships that have been so carefully built up across areas such as security, science, culture, environmental care and medicine as well. EU leaders are not punishing Britain for leaving, but they are sad about it, and that helps to explain some of the tough rhetoric coming out of Brussels. The parting of friends is always painful, and we are seeing this being acted out as we watch.

4. Please don't make our nation the laughing-stock of Europe and the world. What happened at Salzburg was humiliating, not just for you personally but for all of us who love our country and count ourselves fortunate to be British. Negotiation is what grown-up people do when things get tough. Whatever comes of Brexit, it needs to be with our dignity intact. I'm very much afraid that we have lost stature in the world during these past two years. Maybe that's good for a nation, not to think of itself more highly than it ought to think. But if it's respect that we've forfeited, shouldn't that make us think carefully about the course we've embarked on? I hope so.

5. Please, please, consider it possible that you may be mistaken about a People's Vote. I am no enthusiast for referenda in a representative democracy, but once that genie is let out of the bottle, you can't put it back again. I think the cry for a third referendum (not the second - that's what 2016 was) will become unassailable in the coming months. Please, please, consider letting the nation, especially its young who were disenfranchised in 2016, speak once more, with the option of remaining in the EU on the same terms as we currently enjoy. After all, if Brexit is really what the UK wants, then Brexiters have nothing to fear from going round the tracks in the light of what we have all learned in the last two years. Minds change, not because people are fickle or wayward, but because circumstances change and new evidence emerges. Previously unknown information, newly assessed risks, clearer perceptions of what Brexit would actually mean, all this comes from the intensive scrutiny Brexit has been subjected to in the last 27 months. Such a triage is a good thing. I'm sure you welcome it. I believe you have the courage to ask the nation in a People's Vote what it now believes about its future in the light of what it now knows. Don't be afraid.

6. It may be small comfort, but I want to assure you that the prayers of people of all faiths are with you. And the thoughts of many more.