Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Dean and Di Canio: reflections on an eventful week

The media caravanserai has come and gone. Paolo di Canio has made a statement clarifying that he is not a fascist. Tomorrow the Black Cats play away at Chelsea.  Meanwhile, I shall have Sunday services.  What has this past week been all about?  Let me try to reflect.

It has not really been about football. As I said in my blog, I'm not competent to say aything about it despite reading avidly The Secret Footballer which lifts the lid on what goes on in the beautiful game. But even football cognoscenti take care what they say and where. Like religion at both its best and its worst, football arouses fierce passions and loyalties. At their best they inspire and exhilarate and build up community. At their worst their power can be frighteningly destructive. Think of homophobia and racism: not a happy story for either.

Some people thought I was indeed transgressing into football commentary. The comments on my blog speak for themselves. I decided not to delete them – it’s instructive to read them just as they are, even the ugly ones. A few seemed to think that all that mattered was Sunderland AFC and its football fortunes, whatever the manager-coach said or did. I hope I made it clear that it mattered to me too. But not at any price. There has to be integrity in public life: ethics is important. Premier League players and managers are as visible as you can get. They are influential role models. That’s why PDC had to make it clear that he did not endorse fascism in any form. It’s still a puzzle to me why he did not do that when he was asked to at his first press-call. But that’s history.  

Others asked how I dared to pronounce on PDC’s personal beliefs and motives. Now I was careful not to impute anything to his thought-world.  What I was concerned about was what he had publicly said and done. This is all any of us can be judged by. A propos of that, it's been bizarre to have readers speculate about my motives too. I've been accused of wanting my 15 minutes of fame; someone even said I had whored myself to the media.  This just shows how wrong people can be when they try to get behind the things we say or write. I don’t take it amiss when someone disagrees with what I say or do: open debate is healthy and good.  But I do demur when I am placed on the therapist’s couch and diagnosed from afar on the basis of a few hundred words in a blog.

A more serious accusation was that the church should stay out of such matters. This is an old chestnut.  Political leaders of every hue, with whom the church strongly disagrees at times, nowadays acknowledge its proper role in critiquing the life of society. Faith is about the whole of life, not simply the 'religious' part of it. To put it simplistically, God cares about the city of Sunderland and the Black Cats just as much as he cares about its churches and believers. That’s why the church must be in conversation with the affairs of our life in society. It’s as much God’s business as the church service.

So it’s right at times to raise questions about fairness, truth-telling and ethics. And this is all I was doing: asking questions (firmly, but courteously I hope) and inviting a response. I should perhaps not have thought that I could do this merely as a private individual under the rubric of ‘all views my own’: inevitably, my public role as dean came into it. But if the office helped lend weight and secured the desired outcome, I do not think I should regret it.

I did not publish my blog without first taking stock: wisdom lies as much in choosing when to speak as it does in choosing what to say. It is perilously easy to abuse the office of a vicar, dean or bishop. I would like to believe that I tried to be responsible in this. Some asked why I chose this particular issue: why not all the other injustices and atrocities being perpetrated across the world? Well, we can’t take on every wrong under the sun. But I do have a particular interest when it comes to Sunderland and the North East. So if there is a chance that by trying to bear witness we might just make some small difference, isn’t that better than doing nothing? Yes, we risk making mistakes. But when the day of reckoning comes, I’d rather be accused of having done something, however flawed it may be. As Burke said, evil triumphs when good people do nothing.  

I admit that I was not expecting my blog to be noticed by anyone other than a few friendly followers on Twitter (and thank you to them and others for helpful, encouraging comments). But let me end by saying something positive about the media’s role in all this.  It’s easy to knock the media but the coverage, at least of my bit of the story, has been exemplary. I have been fairly reported, often quoted at length. Some columnists even found something to smile at (football and religion also have in common that they can be seriously short on humour).

Today’s story is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapping. Maybe I should have heeded the old publishing adage never explain, never apologise rather than write a further blog. But there's no prohibition on reflection. As for the coming week, that could prove even more eventful if the Black Cats win tomorrow. That will be something to celebrate.  And why not?  Go for it, I say!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Update on Open Letter to Paolo di Canio

Today, Paolo di Canio has issued the following statement.
“I have clearly stated that I do not wish to speak about matters other than football, however, I have been deeply hurt by the attacks on the football club.

“This is a historic, proud and ethical club and to read and hear some of the vicious and personal accusations is painful. I am an honest man, my values and principles come from my family and my upbringing. 

"I feel that I should not have to continually justify myself to people who do not understand this, however I will say one thing only - I am not the man that some people like to portray.

“I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation, I am not a racist and I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone.

“I am a football man and this and my family are my focus.  Now I will speak only of football.” 
 
My open letter to Paolo di Canio was written out of concerns that I know many shared.  I wrote it with care, trying to voice what I thought were the important questions that needed asking.  Mr Di Canio’s statement has provided these answers and I warmly welcome that.  This will allow everyone to move forward and focus on football at Sunderland, and the job to be done at one of the North East’s great clubs.
 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

An Open Letter to Paolo di Canio

Dear Paulo di Canio
 
We have never met, and I am the first to admit that I don't know very much about football. You do, and I respect that. However, I hope you will allow me to say something about your appointment as manager at Sunderland FC as personally as I can.
 
My relationship with the Black Cats goes back a long way. I married into a family of fervent lifelong Sunderland supporters.  My wife and I got engaged on Cup Final Day 1973, figuring that if Sunderland won her father would say yes to anything and if they lost, he would be past caring.  All these years we have wanted SAFC to do well. We have been glad when it did, and sad when it didn't. We know how much its football success has meant for the people of Sunderland and the North East who are rightly proud of your new Club.  
 
But today I am wondering what to do. Your appointment raises very difficult questions. You see, I am the child of a Jewish war refugee who got out of Germany and came to Britain just in time. Some of her family and friends perished in the Nazi death camps. So I find your self-confessed fascism deeply troubling. Fascism was nearly the undoing of the world. It cost millions of innocent lives. Mussolini, who you say has been deeply misunderstood, openly colluded with it.  You are said to wear a tattoo DUX which speaks for itself. This all adds up to what I find baffling. 
 
You say that you are not a racist, but it needs great sophistication to understand how fascism and racism are ultimately different.  I can promise you that this distinction will be lost on the people of the North East where the British National Party is finding fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of its pernicious and poisonous doctrine.  You did not necessarily know this before you came.  But I believe that unless you clearly renounce fascism in all its manifestations, you will be associated with these toxic far-right tendencies we have seen too much of in this region.
 
At your press conference today, you had the chance to do this, to say in so many words that you have been misunderstood (just as you say Mussolini was).  You were asked where you stood on fascism, but declined to give an unambiguous response.  One sentence is all that it would have taken.  I’m genuinely perplexed as to why you didn’t take the opportunity that was handed to you. Maybe your minders told you to stay on-message.  But don't you see that it is no answer to plead that this press call was about football, not politics.  Where a Premier League club is concerned, you can’t ever separate the two. Politics and high-profile sport, like religion, are about the whole of life.  Football is deeply political. To say otherwise may be convenient, but it's naïve.
 
Premier League players and managers are big role-models for the young.  Is fascism what you or Sunderland FC want our children and teenagers to admire and emulate?  And if this doesn’t trouble you personally, should it not trouble those who appointed you?  The Club now stands to suffer loss of support as well as see its standing and respect damaged not just in this part of the world but internationally. Its reputation has been hard won. I am just one of thousands who would be sad to see it squandered.
 
So there it is. Please tell me how to go on supporting the Black Cats with a good conscience, even from the sofa, because believe me, I want to. Please tell me that I have misunderstood, or missed some fundamental issue here. I am simply telling you with a heavy heart that it feels hard at the moment to stay loyal.
 
Yours sincerely,
Michael Sadgrove
 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Easter: Off-beat Reflections

It may have been the coldest Easter Day on record, but in Durham it was golden. I wish it could have gone on for ever. In an ultimate sense it does, of course: resurrection is not just for Easter. And now we are celebrating the Great Fifty Days of Easter that take us to Pentecost with alleluias all the way.

The sights and sounds of Easter Day linger on. The lighting of the new fire an hour before dawn in the cloister garth as dark as grave; the rattles, whistles, bells and cymbals that accompanied the first great alleluia! shout; the quantities of water freely ladled out of the font as candidates were baptised; the new copes lending brilliant colour to the day’s celebrations; magnificent choral music (including an Easter piece by Widor of Toccata fame, said to be the loudest anthem in the choir’s repertoire); the pleasure on choristers’ faces as my wife and I gave them eggs and chocolates after the services. Worshippers came in great numbers and, from what they told me afterwards, were genuinely touched and inspired. As I was.

But two memories stand out, both of them surprises.

The first was of administering communion at the dawn vigil service. Twenty were confirmed, of all ages from young choristers upwards. It is always moving to see the candidates kneeling round the great Cathedral font as the bishop moves round the circle laying hands on them. They received communion before anyone else. And as they knelt at the altar and I gave them the sacred host, a wonderful scent filled the nave sanctuary.

It took me a short while to realise what it was: the perfume in the chrism oil that had been liberally poured on to their heads at the font. Two weeks before, I had preached on the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with her precious ointmentThe aroma filled the house, says the gospel. But yesterday’s was the scent not of burial but of resurrection. It was an unexpectedly tender and beautiful experience.

The second also happened during communion, this time at the mid-morning sung eucharist. I was administering at the west end. What felt like a never-ending flow of people came up to receive the bread or to be blessed. Most of these I didn’t know personally: regulars are always far outnumbered by visitors and guests at the great festivals.

But at the end someone came up whom I knew extremely well. It was my eldest daughter carrying her month-old son Isaac, our first grandchild. I put out my hand to touch him and give him his first church blessing. That touch was charged with a significance I can’t put into words. It was as if all of life seemed to be gathered up in this tiny child. I wondered if Simeon felt something like it when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple. It was as if I was being offered a great gift.  It wasn’t I who was the giver, but he. The intensity of the moment subsided as it had to.  But it will be unforgettable, I am sure of that.

They were both off-beat experiences: not about sight or hearing which tend to dominate our consciousness, but about scent and touch. I have heard it said that these are the more basic, primary among our senses. A baby depends mainly on them to recognise mother. And at the end of life, touch and smell outlast the other senses leaving a person who is gently slipping away with something like the experience of beginning life.

I don’t pretend to understand these things. But I did glimpse how in a wonderful way, Easter speaks to each of our human senses. Our meeting with the risen Christ is not just a matter of seeing and listening but of allowing him to encounter all our human faculties, so that we can become more fully human through his resurrection. To recognise this and not to be afraid of it is what it means to be embodied, for the incarnate Jesus and for us.

‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’ said Irenaeus famously. That’s one of the gifts of Easter.  Maybe it's not so off-beat after all.

My sermon on the anointing at Bethany is at http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk.