Saturday, 19 May 2018

That Sermon

When was a sermon last discussed so avidly?

Bishop Michael Curry is known as a passionate preacher, but his preaching must have startled some of those present in St George's Chapel today. For some people, any sermon is by definition an ordeal that has to be endured when you go to church. In my book, the number one sin of preaching is to be boring. No-one could accuse today's preacher of that.

#RoyalWedding has been trending on social media all day, but I didn't expect the sermon to feature so prominently in the discussion. Many - very many - seasoned listeners to sermons loved it. There were clergy who admitted that they wished they could preach like that. "The best sermon I ever heard" someone said. But there were criticisms too. Some thought the opening was arresting, but that it lost its way half way through. Others wondered if the rhetorical manner was a bit full-on for the Windsor environment and this royal occasion ("fine for America, just not very C of E"). A few (not many) asked if it had more style than substance, whether it was sufficiently personal to the bride and groom for a wedding sermon; and whether it may have gone on a bit too long. But whatever our response, the sermon - or rather the preacher himself - carried a deep symbolism. As someone tweeted, "British establishment embraced black culture today and royalty married into it. This was passionate preaching with civil rights roots. What's not to like?"

It's easy to come to quick conclusions about what we see and hear. Who would have wanted to be in Michael Curry's shoes with the whole world looking on? I admit to feeling uncomfortable about the analysis this sermon has been subjected to so swiftly - on the very day when the nation is rejoicing with a young couple who have pledged to walk together in marriage. For it was a beautiful event. And yes, the Church of England does these things supremely well. There was so much in the service that was moving and humane, not least how Harry and Meghan have the capacity to help us be more in touch with our own humanity and the love we have to bring. That was among the gifts of the service. I think we need to take time to absorb what we have witnessed today and reflect for a while before we rush to judgment about the content. And that includes the sermon.

For I'm not yet quite sure about my own response to it. Oddly, it feels a bit complicated, as if it's I who have been put under scrutiny rather than the Bishop. Sermons can have that effect sometimes. As I watched, I wondered if I'd been preaching for too long in cathedral environments like St George's (yes, it's a royal chapel, not a cathedral, but you know what I mean). Maybe I'm too used to my own quieter register to feel at home with Bishop Curry's personal, extraverted, apparently more spontaneous, style. Perhaps it reminds me of the fervent evangelical preaching I grew up with in adolescence and once longed to emulate. If so, it's good to be questioned by today's sermon, challenged about what kind of a preacher I am, how directly I connect with the audience, whether anything I've said has lodged in the memory afterwards, whether any word of mine has ever touched lives let alone changed them.

Although Michael Curry's style is not mine, I have to say that I admire a sermon that seems to have spoken to so many people. He illustrates the power of good rhetoric to persuade hearers - persuade them that what he has to say is worth listening to, must be taken seriously and reckoned with. Here is a preacher who doesn't tickle his audience's fancy, doesn't work the crowd as an entertainer. He's serious about it as a man of conviction whose truth-seeking invites us to become truth-seekers too. I don't know how many times he used the word "love" in his sermon, but this wasn't repetition for mere effect. You felt in your bones that here was a man who utterly believed in it, believed in its power to change the world.

A cynic might say: you never know what's going on under the skin of the powerful rhetorician. It could merely be a great performance. But I've learned as a preacher that performance comes into things a great deal. Sincerity, in preaching as in everything else, is never enough. Never underestimate the importance of performance skills. And judging by what we all saw and heard, I'd say that Michael Curry was a highly practised performer who had learned how to put performance to the service of God. Preaching means taking your listeners on a journey, bringing them from where they were to an entirely new place they may never have dreamed about. That's what good performance always does whether it's music, theatre, liturgy or preaching. Performance is transformative - so long as it isn't mere performance, which it never is in the hands of its great practitioners.

I said I admired the sermon. I need to be candid. I meant that I found myself envying it. Or rather, envying the gifts and confidence of a preacher who could be so much at ease with his audience that he could preach like this in an environment that would intimidate most of us. I realised that this was what I was feeling when I came across a social media comment from a priest who wrote something like, "today's sermon sets a challenge for the rest of us preachers tomorrow morning". Yes, I thought, a lot of us will be feeling that way tonight.

But as I thought about it, I recognised what it was that I was envying. It wasn't Michael Curry's content, style, rhetorical ability, performance skills, any of the things I've mentioned already. It was simply this: that he had found his voice as a preacher. And this more than anything else is what makes the preacher convincing: that he or she is comfortable in their own homiletical skin. Earlier this week I was discussing preaching with the curate whom I mentor regularly. He asked me when I thought I had found my voice. I replied that I was still finding it and would be till I died, but maybe, after a decade or so of ordained ministry I was beginning to discover what was and wasn't authentic in my preaching. Maybe.

When I retired in 2015, I published a book of sermons called Christ in a Choppie Box. (Who reads books of sermons these days? Some people still do, amazingly.) I'd asked a professor of theology in the University who regularly attended the Cathedral to choose what she thought was "the best of me" (as Elgar wrote on the score of his Dream of Gerontius). She decided to include a lecture on preaching that I'd once given at a diocesan conference. This, she said, set out my aims as a preacher, what I thought I was doing every time I entered the pulpit. Re-reading it, I see how the quest all along has been to try to enable the word to be made flesh, incarnate it in the words of the sermon. To find our voice is to come to the point where the preacher is becoming as much the proclamation as the words he or she utters. "The medium is the message" may be a tired cliché but all the same it's a central truth of preaching.

This is what I heard today, a preacher who had found his voice and was embodying his message. So for the rest of us who find ourselves in church and cathedral pulpits from time to time, it's not about becoming more like him, tempting though it is to imitate those we admire. Rather, the challenge is to go on finding our own voice so that when we are in the pulpit, we are as authentically ourselves as it's possible to be. So if you are preaching at Pentecost, don't try to be a Michael Curry. Be yourself, the best version of yourself you can be. And what's true of preaching is true of all Christian ministry. It all comes down to our formation as ministers of God. Becoming the human beings God wants us to be - what could be more important?

Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England is published by Sacristy Press.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

1968: The Year I Came of Age

It's fifty years ago this week that the second French Revolution didn't quite happen. May 1968 is remembered as the month when students brought France to a standstill. Their protests caught on across the nation and beyond. That month felt as though it could be a watershed in the political and social life of Europe.
Those caught up in the événements came to be called soixante-huitards, 1968-ers. Perhaps I can just about lay claim to that title. I was in France in the first half of 1968 between leaving school and going to university. It was a long way from Paris to the orphanage where I was working in southern France. In the rural uplands of the Ardèche, beautiful but impoverished, what went on in the capital felt like another world. It was only when working people started striking in solidarity that it began to feel real. I recall cycling over the main line from Paris to Marseille. With no trains running, the tracks were already rusting over. That's when it hit me that it doesn't take much to bring normal life to a halt.
I was born in 1950, and had my eighteenth birthday in France (a big rite of passage, your first birthday alone in a strange land). I was not quite an adult because the age of legal majority in the UK was only reduced to eighteen on 1 January 1970. Technically I became a grown up at an Adrian Mole kind of age, nineteen and three quarters. Nevertheless, looking back fifty years I see how formative those months in France were, this threshold between childhood and adulthood. It was the first time I had lived away from home. I had left school. I was financially independent (earning the princely sum of ten new francs a week - but with full board and lodging, there was not a lot to spend your money on in this deep countryside). I was speaking a foreign language. I was walking tall. Not yet legally adult, but then not not-adult either.
In that liminal place, I obscurely admired the students at Nanterre who, protesting against being policed by the university authorities, claimed the right to have sex with their partners in their own bedrooms. To me as a devout evangelical Christian, this seemed not so much to be about sex (God forbid!) as taking responsibility for their own lives as grown-up human beings. This was precisely the personal path I was navigating myself. I now know of course, how the events of May 1968 were a confused concatenation of ideals and causes, some ideals more noble than others, some causes lost from the outset. Historians will argue about that for decades. But that they coalesced around a generalised dis-ease with hierarchical rule and authoritarian control is a plausible reading of that spring. The Fifth Republic certainly felt the shock-waves: it was never closer to the brink of collapse than it was in May and June 1968. And maybe postwar France came of age - or thought it did - as a result.
I was a late developer when it came to political awareness. The "never had it so good" days of the late 50s and early 60s didn't encourage radical questioning among most middle-class baby-boomer kids. I'd briefly woken up to the reality of world events in 1962 with the Cuba Missile Crisis. But in my teenage years, my conversion to conservative evangelical Christianity took over my life. Politics took a back seat and never got anywhere near the front of my consciousness. (When I was visiting schools in connection with the EU Referendum campaign two years ago, I was heartened to find how politically engaged so many teenage students are today compared with then.).
But in France in the spring of 1968, politics was impossible to ignore. Which was important at that stage of my personal development. A few months later I went up to Oxford. The spirit of Nanterre was alive and well that first academic year. The Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students (ORSS) famously besieged All Souls College in protest against the privileged academic life symbolised by its emblematic plum pudding. In my college (Balliol), ORSS students daubed the senior common room with revolutionary slogans in red paint to mark a visit by Ted Heath. They marched along Broad Street carrying placards demanding "Prove there are no files!" which provided the agenda for a tutorial on linguistic philosophy I was having with Anthony Kenny at the time.
It was a long time ago. But in important ways that era influenced me. I was not altogether conscious of it at the time - far from it. But more and more as I look back, I realise how formative the late 1960s were when "revolution" was the metaphor being claimed in so many areas of life and endeavour: politics, theology, education, art and culture. It wasn't so much a case of "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" as Wordsworth said of his own revolutionary times. But I couldn't fail to warm to the soixante-huitard mantra, "Be realistic. Ask for the impossible!" with its blend of radical questioning and witty sense of paradox. 1968 in France had its ugly side. But in its best moments it had a lightness of touch as well.
For Philip Larkin, 1963 was the year (when "life was never better than...."). For me it was 1968 that was the watershed in my journey towards adulthood. To be in France and be a back-row witness of what happened there that year gave me insights that have, I think, been profoundly important for the rest of my life. It taught me (or began to) not to accept the status quo but critically to test assumptions, ask questions of people who have (or claim) authority, not be afraid of argument, go back to the sources of established political, intellectual or theological standpoints. It made me into a liberal - even if it has taken a lifetime to understand what thaword means. But I believe I glimpsed, even then, that Christian faith is fundamentally liberal in the sense of being generous, inclusive and exploratory. For it calls us not to be enslaved to entrenched positions but to become questioners of the environment we live in, as Jesus himself abundantly demonstrated. That's the kind of Christianity I've tried to practise as a disciple and as a preacher.
Which is why I'm glad - proud even - to be a Soixante-Huitard. I now recognise how much I was shaped by that liminal year. The fact that we are still talking about what happened fifty years later shows that its historical importance continues to be felt. And if I am typical, then it's not just societies that have been influenced by it, but individuals too.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Brexit: Will Students Turn the Tide?

I expect we can all remember 23 and 24 June 2016, the day of the EU Referendum and the morning after. I stayed up all night to watch the results come in, though I knew, when Sunderland and Newcastle declared early on that Remain had probably lost the vote and I might as well go to bed. I finally succumbed at breakfast time next morning, so slept through the breaking news that David Cameron had resigned.
Now, nearly two years later, the memories feel as vivid as ever, and I can get just as despondent about it if I dwell on it too much - which isn't a good idea because life goes on. But it's clear that the deep divisions the campaign opened up have not healed, and show no sign of healing in the foreseeable future. Our country is a lot more febrile than it was a few years ago. Racism and xenophobia are more evident than before, we are told. Public discourse has coarsened. Political tempers are frayed, stirred up by the nationalist right wing tabloid press. The Government is as hopelessly divided as ever with no prospect of a Brexit that will win consent either in Parliament or among the public. The state we're in is not good by any standards. 
But it's the day before the Referendum that I'm also remembering today. A student, then a first year undergraduate at a nearby university, came out to spend a day in the country. He and I went for a walk in the sunshine and talked about what might happen next day. It was, I recall, the first time he had participated in a national public vote. Typically he was taking it very seriously, and spoke with real insight - and some anxiety - about the consequences of the Referendum for the nation and for his generation in particular should the vote take the UK out of the European Union. I felt heartened that this good, young man cared so much about it and was speaking with a wisdom beyond his years about the choice that faced us all next day. If he cared in that way, there was every reason to think that thousands of others did too.
Which is why, when I saw a headline in today's Observer, Students plan summer of defiance in push for 'people's vote' on Brexit, I recalled that conversation. Under the headline is a summery image of Kent University with the tower of Canterbury Cathedral just visible on the horizon. "The UK's European University" it styles itself. Then this. "These are anxious times for this generation of students. Many fear that, however well they may do academically, life after university will be much more difficult for them than it was for their parents. They worry about the burden of debt after graduation, house prices that seem impossibly high and beyond their reach, and fierce competition for decent jobs.
"On this campus, though, there is one over-arching concern about their futures that sharpens the sense of generational unfairness: Brexit" (my italics). One national student activist is quoted. “It’s wrong to think students only care about student-specific issues like Erasmus [the exchange programme]. They care passionately about staying in the customs union and retaining freedom of movement, they understand the rights and protections that the EU affords us all and will do anything to defend that. That’s why young people voted to remain and it’s why we should get a say on the terms of the final deal.”
It isn't always easy to mobilise students. But the general election showed that in constituencies with large student populations, they were becoming a force to be reckoned with the real power to influence results. And while not all students are Remainers, it seems that the vast majority of them are. To those who were 16 or 17 two years ago, it still rankles that they were not given a voice at the Referendum, unlike their Scottish peers in the independence Referendum of 2014 (a decision by David Cameron's government that still baffles many of us). And now that they (over a million of them) have reached voting age, they are clearer than ever that it was the "silver generation" (mine) who had largely made this decision to deprive them of the European citizenship they had been born with. “We are the people who are going to live with the consequences of this for the rest of our lives – and our children – and this is why we’re so passionate about it. This is going to massively damage our futures.”
I don't think we always realise what it feels like to the young, when matters are sufficiently momentous, to have your future decided upon by their elders. They are right to point out that it is they, not we, who will inherit this legacy of isolationism. "We are Europeans" proclaim their T-shirts. To them, it's unthinkable to imagine otherwise. So now, two years later, with the UK's future relationship with the EU still unclear and the long term consequences of Brexit scarcely understood, it's clear that students are in no mood just to put up and shut up. I think they mostly "get" the argument that the Referendum result can't simply be ridden roughshod over, as if it hadn't happened. But they don't see a wafer-thin majority as an unchallengeable mandate, the mystical "will of the people" to quote elected members including the Prime Minister who imagine that the Referendum has given the last word on the subject to the British people.
So the students are organising. Once the exams are over, we can expect lobbying, protests and demonstrations. And a change of gear in the public debate about Brexit. For once students become involved in a big way, we shall find that the issues they care about are not just trade, immigration and security, not just, in that tired, self-interested phrase we heard so much in the Referendum, "what's best for Britain". They care about social justice, human rights, peace-making, the environment, culture, research and the arts. They care about the welfare of other nations, not simply our own. What a difference their contribution could make. I say, bring it on as soon as possible.
The Observer article predicts that this could happen on a scale that may take our elected representatives by surprise. What are the students looking for? It's very simple. They want to have their say on the final Brexit deal whenever it's been agreed - if it ever is. The letter-writing has already begun and student unions in a number of universities have signed a letter to parliamentarians. It's quite possible that this could add considerable momentum to the rising tide of opinion that wants to see both parliamentarians and the general public involved in the final decision about Brexit once the negotiations are concluded. And one of the options on the voting paper must be that the UK decides not to leave the European Union after all, but to remain a full member, however sorely that would try the patience of our longsuffering EU friends in Brussels.
I wonder if my generation may one day thank the young of our country for saving us from the disaster that Brexit would have been. The public is now much better informed than it was two years ago about what Brexit could mean, and the risks incurred by embracing harder or softer versions of it. I don't want to ascribe messianic motives to our students. But maybe, just maybe, their intervention could make all the difference.

We baby boomers will not be around for many more decades. But millennials have the rest of this century to look forward to - or fear. It's their future that's at stake. St Benedict says in his Rule that "the Lord often reveals what is better to the young". We need to listen to them.