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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Lost Sons

SPCK have just published my new book, Lost Sons: God’s Long Search for Humanity. I don’t want to indulge in self-promotion (moi?).  But now that it’s out I hope you’ll allow me to say a little about it.

Earlier this year the title felt as though it had a rueful irony to it.  A book is like a baby: a unique individual whom you have begotten. Its life becomes separate from yours; it has a character, temperament and will of its own. This offspring just didn’t seem to want to be born. It felt like a lost child.  The labour pains were considerable.

I’ve pondered why this might have been.  Maybe the content touched me too personally.  I am after all a (late) father’s son and a son’s father.  So the theme of sons who are lost and found was bound to bring up material from my own past and present.  It would take a psychotherapist (e.g. my wife) years to get to the heart of what all this might mean. 

The book looks at stories in the early part of the Bible that tell of sons who are ‘lost’ in various ways. Abel is murdered, Canaan cursed, Ishmael abandoned, Isaac destined for sacrifice, Esau supplanted, Joseph betrayed, Moses hidden. Adam is the archetype of them all, and us: the child who hides himself from God. In each case I try to show how Jesus in his passion and death is God’s ‘Lost Son’. It is not that these Old Testament stories are all ‘types’ who prefigure Jesus. But the first Jewish readers of the gospels would have known these stories intimately and would, I guess, have brought their own associations to the passion story, seeing ‘pre-echoes’ if you like in these lost sons.

But the wonderful thing about God’s Lost Son is that he is ‘found’ again in the resurrection.  And this turns out to be true of many of the ancient lost sons. Ishmael is rescued from the desert.  Isaac is not killed on the altar because an angel stays his father’s hand.  Esau is reconciled to the brother who supplanted him as Joseph is with the brothers who sold him into slavery.  Moses is discovered in the bulrushes and brought up in the royal palace. So the book is about resurrection as well as death, even if sometimes we have to go looking for it in dark and baffling places.

This may remind you of the parable of the Prodigal Son or, as I think it’s better called, the Lost Son and the Loving Father. It was constantly in my mind as I was writing.  In the introduction, I tell how that marvellous parable seems to have a counterpart in the Hebrew Bible in the moving story of Abraham and Isaac (depicted by Chagall in the painting on the book’s cover – see to the right, and don’t miss the little crucifixion scene in the top right-hand corner). In both stories it isn’t just the son who makes a journey to a ‘far country’ (an idea that appears in both stories) but the father as well: physically for Abraham, imaginatively for the father of the Prodigal. Perhaps the book is an invitation to make that journey as both father and son, ago into a far country and in doing so, enter more deeply into the mystery of the passion.

I dedicated the book to my wonderful not-lost son Aidan.  My three equally wonderful girls are asking when I intend to write a book called Lost Daughters and dedicate it to them.  I am thinking about that.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Responsible Tweeter

This is my 50th blog as the Decanal Woolgatherer.  What to write to mark this half-century?

This has been my first year of trying my hand at using social media.  In that time I have become especially interested in the opportunities and threats they pose, and what constitutes a responsible, ethical use of them. In particular, Twitter has caught my imagination for its elegant miniaturism, how so much can be said in so little.  But this can be for good or ill – and for interesting or boring.

I wrote an early blog about the spirituality of Twitter which you will find buried on this blogspot below the output of the last few months. But I thought I would try my hand at twelve principles or commandments of Tweeting.  Others have offered good online guides to Twitter that contain many or all of these.  However I’ve encapsulated each principle in 140 characters or less so they can be lifted out of the blog and tweeted self-referentially in the very medium for which they are, not so much a set of imperatives as a series of hints and nudges. The emphasis is on the positive: mostly 'dos', a few 'don'ts'.  

Here goes then.


1        Be judicious. Powerful tools need careful handling. You are on a public stage.  Apply the same criteria as you would to any public medium.
2        Be chaste. Promiscuous tweeting suggests addiction. Only press ‘send’ when you have something to say. If not stay silent.
3        Be courteous. Don’t disparage or insult others (you risk libel as in any print medium). In dissent, be questioning rather than assertive.
4        Be disciplined. 140 characters impose a verbal boundary. Stick to it and don't sprawl lazily across multiple tweets on the same topic.
5        Be conversational. The art of tweeting is to engage with others, not hurl speeches into the void. Invite responses and give them.
6        Be interesting. Life is not all information, observation, profundity or humour, but don’t bore followers with trivia. Try to be original. 
7        Be tentative. The question-mark is a great way of turning bald statement into an invitation to explore. Better to travel than stand still.
8        Be communitarian. Social media are at their best in creating online communities and relationships. It is good not to be alone. Join in.
9        Be discreet. Don't break confidences, substitute for meeting, hold private conversations publicly or disclose improperly. Keep boundaries.
10      Be wise. Twitter can raise awareness, affirm spiritual and humane values and inspire others. Serve truth, goodness, justice and wholeness.
11      Be generous. Share your own good things: stories, photos, blogs etc., and others' too.  Retweet/favourite the best. But don't self-promote.
12      Be relaxed. Don't obsess about follower numbers (sins of pride or envy). Small communities are often the best. Learn, grow, chuckle, enjoy. 

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Female Bishops: on not letting it go

This is the blog I did not want to write.  It is of course about the vote in Synod on women in the episcopate. 

Tuesday 20 November at 6.15pm is now one of those ‘you’ll always remember where you were when it happened’ moments. We had just come out of evensong.  At the service we had heard one of the finest of all psalms, 104: ‘O Lord how manifold are thy works: in wisdom hast thou made them all, the earth is full of thy riches’.  We had prayed for the Synod and its work.  Afterwards a group of us chatted amiably outside the Deanery gate in the dark, waiting for the result. When it came, it was a palpable shock.  We couldn’t believe it. I felt for all the female clergy and how devalued they must be feeling.  I felt for the whole church in throwing away a wonderful opportunity to enrich its ministry.
When I looked at the voting figures a few minutes later, I was baffled. The overall majority in favour was much bigger than I had dared to hope: nearly three quarters of those in the chamber. That, read against the fact that 42 out of 44 dioceses had supported it, meant that the resolution had achieved the convincing majority politicians would die for. It looked like a fair following wind (of the Spirit?) for women in the episcopate. It was only the Byzantine synodical rules of engagement that did for it.

Since then, I have had many conversations with people inside and outside the church. Inside, there is shame, anger, despair.  Outside there is incomprehension and the sense,  even among those who wish us well, that the Church of England has shot itself in the foot, lost its authority and put its role in the nation at risk.  As we can see from the quality press, it has stirred up a national debate about how fit the church is any more to fulfil that role. To quote Father Brown, it was never impossible that the vote could go down, but it would be incredible.  This is what our fellow-travellers are saying to us.  There is no answer to it.

In Tuesday’s backwash, there was an ominous symptom of attitude in the church that needs examining.  We were told that General Synod will not now meet in February but only in July 2013. This is extraordinary.  When the nation is in crisis, Parliament is summoned within days to consider it and guide those who have to make rapid decisions in life-threatening situations.  When the Church of England is in its gravest crisis for decades, the Synod postpones its next meeting and decides that it will be sufficient to meet in 8 months’ time.

This looks like a bad case of loss of nerve. It's as if we are in denial that the situation is as serious and urgent as it is.  This is how it’s being perceived in the nation. Most significant at a time of trial, it looks like a failure of governance. There is a big reputational risk here. Just when you want your governing body to be there and exercise its proper authority, it vanishes like the Cheshire Cat into the thicket not to be seen again till the sun comes out next summer. I urge the Synod to meet in the next few weeks to show both church and nation that it has noticed what is happening and is doing something about it.


‘Where are we now on women as bishops?’ I asked in a previous blog.  Actually, the same as where we were on Tuesday morning: poised to take this life-changing step with conviction, confident that theology, the nation’s zeitgeist and the will of the church are all behind us. The trouble is, the system for doing that is now discredited. It is time for reform.  Here are some of my thoughts about this.

1.  Voting by houses in the Synod should be abolished.  In an age of collaborative ministry, we are all one in the chamber.  There is no case for a system which, in an extreme example, could have a motion carried unanimously in the houses of clergy and laity but be lost by a single vote in the house of bishops.  The majority would be 95% in favour but it would still be lost in a vote by houses.

2.  W
e should overhaul the system by which laity are elected to the Synod.  Having deanery synods as the electoral college for each diocese is the weak link in the chain because not enough laity are convinced that serving on a deanery synod is a good use of their time.  This opens the way for parties and pressure-groups to exploit the system and get their adherents on to deanery synods to vote in partisan General Synod candidates.  I should like to see a universal franchise of all the laity on electoral rolls (who are already eligible under the rules to stand as candidates), just as the licensed clergy are already franchised.
3.  All candidates for election should be required to state where they currently stand on the likely big issues of their quinquennium so that the electoral colleges know what, as well as whom, they are voting in. Elected members are representatives not delegates, and they must be allowed to listen to arguments and change their minds.  But some preliminary indication is needed.

4.  The General Synod needs to be a lot more versatile and light-footed so that it can meet at short notice for a day to debate real emergencies. This is one of them. Arguments about spaces not being available are specious. Most of the nation’s cathedrals could easily accommodate such a meeting, and among them, half a dozen would be available quickly.  


Someone replied to one of my tweets: ‘just let it go; get over it’.  Well, here is why I am not letting it go, because the system that resulted in this fiasco is itself wrong.  Had a majority in the house voted against, that would have been a different matter.  I don’t have a problem with losing an argument and accepting that the organisation wants to go in a different direction – so long, that is, that the process for reaching that place is fair.  My issue today is that it isn’t.

A final thought.  I firmly believe that we shall have female bishops in our church one day, perhaps soon.  It’s not a question of whether but of when. I have a hunch that when it comes back for decision, it will be in a sharper, more convincing, more unafraid form than it did this time.  That will be a much better outcome for the future.  Tuesday’s will turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory for those whom history will inevitably pass by. We have seen this all before, in relation to slavery, contraception and remarriage after divorce.  The church usually gets it in the end by God’s grace.  I simply want to see us get it in my lifetime. 
I pray for that, and have not lost heart.  

Saturday, 10 November 2012

An Open Letter to the next Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Justin

So it’s official.  After weeks of speculation, and helped by Ladbrokes, we now know that you’re to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. As your dean and colleague in Durham, I want to offer heartfelt congratulations and to promise my prayers as you begin this great journey.

I have fond memories of Coventry days when I was precentor at the Cathedral and oversaw your ordination.  You and I got to know each other a little then.  I thought at the time that you were someone with a remarkable story and rather special gifts.  You talked about your experience in the oil industry – but not much: you were too focused on being a deacon and then a priest, and too excited by the ministry that was opening up before you.

When you came to Durham last year, this was still true of you. It was moving to install you in the great bishop’s throne in our cathedral.  I almost wanted to say that I hoped its height and grandeur wouldn’t go to your head.  But I knew I had no need to tell you that. Your genuine modesty, your lack of self-importance, your wry take on the world and most of all your deep spirituality would take care of you. You were more interested in washing feet than living like a grandee as a successor of Durham’s prince-bishops. You were completely committed to being a bishop who would put God and people first.

Who would have thought that a year later you would be leaving us? I won’t deny that I feel a personal sense of loss. You have begun to be a real champion of this part of England that feels remote from the centre of things, already a very needy place before it was hit hard hit by the financial crisis. In the statement of needs that I helped write for the diocese before your appointment, we said we wanted a bishop whose heart would be in the North East (we also said we hoped the next bishop – you – would stay for several years!). Well, your heart has been with us, even when you have been in London doing the business of church and state, or overseas pursuing reconciliation in divided societies like Nigeria. It is not your fault that you have been taken from us now.

The whole world will be giving you advice as you contemplate what kind of archbishop God wants you to be.  I’m not going to add much to that: it’s not words you need right now but the knowledge that you will have wise and caring people around you to help you discern the shape of this great and awful vocation, this siege perilous.

But I can’t resist saying just this. I hope you will take with you the memory of our northern saints as you learn what it means to inhabit this office. In Durham, you are the direct successor of Aidan, founder of our diocese, and of Cuthbert in whose shrine in the Cathedral you have often prayed. In a blog earlier this year I compared Rowan Williams with Cuthbert as ‘off-beat’ bishops.  I wanted to say that a Christian leader needs to be a bit elusive, not always saying or doing the expected thing, not afraid of being surprising and keeping people guessing.
Already the public wants to pigeon-hole you: evangelical rather than catholic, pro this and against that.  You are bigger than that, as anyone who knows you will confirm.  You know that it needs great self-awareness to resist these easy either-ors. It also takes resilience and courage to be your own man in leadership.  It depends on keeping the spiritual garden watered by long and regular spells of solitariness, meditation and prayer. I know how important this is to you, to go to the heart of faith and keep it alive and fresh. I hope the pressures of high office drive you more and more in the contemplative direction which is the source of wisdom. I believe they will because your personal authenticity is so important to you. And I believe that you will surprise, inspire and delight us too.

When Donald Coggan was installed as archbishop, his secretary mis-typed ‘enthronement as ‘enthornment’.  That gave him food for thought.  The role was daunting enough then. How much more complex and demanding it is today. Who knows what the next few years will bring for our world, for our church and for you personally.  To be a bishop or an archbishop feels to me like a kind of crucifixion.  Yet Jesus wore his crown of thorns not only with dignity but also with hope for the joy that was set before him. I pray that joy and hope will be yours at the spring equinox when you come to be seated on the throne of Augustine.

So take the cup that is given you in Canterbury, and as you wonder how on earth you find yourself there, smile a little at God’s strange work, be thankful, and discover in the doing of his work that all shall be well.  

And thank you.

With affection and prayers,



Sunday, 28 October 2012

Now Voyager! Travelling the Solar System

What's been the most moving TV programme I have seen for a long time?  It may surprise you that it was a BBC4 documentary on the journeys of Voyager 1 and 2 through the Solar System. 

They two Voyagers were launched in 1977 to study the outer planets of the Solar System: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  A blog can hardly do justice to the quantity and quality of the information beamed back to us across the void.  The turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter with its storm-system known as the Great Red Spot, the rings of Saturn and the shadows on them caused by its magnetic field, Uranus (which largely kept its secrets from Voyager) and Neptune the ethereal blue planet that is the sentinel of the Solar System: all these and many of their diverse and fascinating moons have been disclosed as never before. 

The two Voyagers are receding from us (in different directions) by several thousand km/hour.  Yet their 1970s technology, so clunky by current standards, is still working and is capable of transmitting information across billions of miles, and for as long as they can continue to be powered.  It’s an eerie thought that these humanly-made objects are now crossing the threshold between the sun’s influence, passing out of the environment that is earth’s home, and entering deep space. This is as far as anything made by humankind has ever travelled.  

Why did I find all this powerfully moving?

For two reasons.  The first is the tribute the Voyagers’ journeys are still paying to what human beings are capable of.  But this isn’t simply the technology that launched them on this odyssey.  The spacecraft are carrying discs that are a greeting from Planet Earth to any ET who may chance to come across them.  They contain a record of what the world was like in the 1970s: landscapes, townscapes, human language, beliefs, buildings, writings and culture.  Among this testimony to homo sapiens sent into space was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps because there would be some consensus (which I’d endorse) that he was the greatest composer of the western world.  

Of course the chance that any extra-terrestial will ever see pictures of children across the world and listen to their greetings is practically zero. But the real point was not to inform ET.  It was to inform us, and by an act of the imagination, underline the infinite preciousness of planet earth and the miracle of life that has evolved on its surface. To think of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues hurtling through inter-stellar space for aeons to come should make us realise how marvellous a thing it is that we are here at all, so privileged, so gifted and yet so precariously placed in the face of the threats that are posed not by outside forces but from our very selves and our capacity for self-destruction.  We hear the echoes of our own life from a far-off place, and that makes us hear ourselves in new ways.

There is a real agenda for theology here, because the Voyager journeys not only put questions about the cosmos and its meaning but also put the psalmist’s question (apologies for the non-inclusive language): ‘what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you visit him?’ That question of Psalm 8 is asked because the psalmist has looked up into the sky and been awed by its tracts unknown.  If the Voyager programme has helped instil a greater sense of awe so that we begin to know our place in the universe, it will have been worth it.  I wish I could believe that the past 35 years have seen the human family take that question seriously, become more aware, more responsible, wiser.  But we must not lose heart.

My second reason for being touched was more personal.  The Voyagers were launched in 1977.  That was also the year that our first child was born and launched on the adventure of being alive. She too has been travelling for all that time.  Like them, she is an explorer.  She is bound to be because she is a human being, and it’s the vocation and destiny of every human being to discover worlds undreamed of and try to make sense of life’s mystery. 

This is where cosmology and religion belong together.  It's one of those places where faith seeks understanding to the enrichment and delight of the human mind and heart. 

Monday, 15 October 2012

Turn on the Lights! Cathedrals and Spiritual Capital

I have been reading a report called Spiritual Capital: the Present and Future of English Cathedrals.  You can download it at:

I think I knowthe cathedral world reasonably well.  I first came into full-time cathedral ministry 25 years ago, and have been there ever since (to come clean: Canon of Coventry, Provost, then Dean, of Sheffield, and now Dean of Durham.  I should also add that as a young priest I was a vicar-choral at Salisbury Cathedral where I sang services a few days a week.  This is a cluster of very different cathedrals, and each of them has taught me much.).  The deans of England hold regular meetings that give us a national perspective on cathedrals.  So I read this report with more than usual interest.  I need to read it again before I can absorb all that it says (and our Cathedral Chapter will wish to discuss it carefully later this year) but here are some rather general - and provisional - comments.

What makes this report especially interesting is that it doesn’t start with a theory of what a cathedral is.  It is entirely led by evidence.  A research project lasting much of this year gathered information from six cathedrals, Durham being one.  One of the important aspects of this was to ask the public to complete a professionally designed questionnaire.  There were also face to face meetings with a great variety of individuals and groups of all ages and experience. I was keen to have choristers, ex-choristers and other young people contribute to this discussion. The researchers wanted to hear from as wide a range of people as possible: visitors, worshippers, volunteers, civic leaders, those promoting tourism, people who had never visited a cathedral at all (hard to find, those), people who loved art and music, people with or without an explicit faith, people who regarded themselves as having a spiritual dimension to their lives (however it was expressed) and those who were convinced atheists.

What this complex survey was trying to do was to understand not only who comes to cathedrals but why.  It is motives, attitudes and perceptions that can and should be our teachers.  How welcoming is our cathedral perceived as being?  What about how money is asked for?  How are visitors and pilgrims changed by coming inside, touched by what they see and experience?  Why do people choose to worship in a cathedral – or not?  How can we describe the ‘spirituality’ of a cathedral?  How does a cathedral enrich the spiritual and social capital of diocese, city and region – and what do they in turn have to give the cathedral? And so on.   

At the end, the authors tentatively offer some reflections on how cathedrals might flourish in the future.  They suggest that cathedrals should:

·       Continue the on-going work of reflecting together on the nature of this cathedral’s spiritual capital and how it can be put to work.

·       Maintain alertness to the specific and changing zeitgeist of its community and in particular the unresolved ambiguities.  (This is a comment on how cathedrals help the wider community at points of tragedy, not only through ceremonies and services but also through their knowledge of where social action and other kinds of engagement are happening.)

·       Explore how to make connections with those groups in the community that may be less familiar with the cathedral and less likely to come into its orbit (such as lower socio-economic groups, local businesses etc).

·       Articulate clearly its understanding of its distinctive role as a cathedral and maintain dialogue with the diocese about how this contributes to and complements the diocese’s understanding of its own mission.

·       Explore how the cathedral can best resource and support the bishop so that he is strengthened and spiritually upheld and nurtured in his ministry.

·       We are clear from the study that this ministry of holding the community’s ambiguities and the internal contradictions they trigger is costly. It will only be sustained if it is deeply rooted in the cathedral community’s rhythm of prayer and worship.

I’ve sometimes summed cathedral ministry up by saying that what we need to do in our cathedrals is to turn on the lights and fling open the doors. Cathedrals are wonderful places of mystery (and this comes out in some of the comments quoted in the report).  But mystery must not be an excuse for complacency, for not trying harder to do justice to their potential as places of sanctuary, meeting, learning, dialogue, evangelism, supporting the bishop and diocese, social service and transacting the business of their communities. There was a time when cathedrals seemed to float in Olympian splendour above the life of both church and world.  That isn’t true any longer, thank God.  But there is so much more potential to be realised. 

We know that up to 11 million people visited the 42 cathedrals last year (over 600000 of them came to Durham). That tells us something about the pulling power these places have, and the limitless opportunities for evangelism, interpretation, education, service and spiritual formation that cathedrals have. It will be our own fault if we don’t respond energetically and inventively to these openings which are handed to us every day on a plate. This report will help us.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Going Slow: organisational time or God's time?

So the name of the next archbishop of Canterbury has not been announced this week after all.  It was promised, though I thought at the time it was ‘courageous’ (in Sir Humphrey speak) to think the appointment could be done and dusted so speedily. It seems that the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) wasn’t able after all to agree on whom it wanted to recommend as its first choice and runner-up. That’s what been reported anyway.  Who knows how long it will take?

Predictably the airwaves and cyberspace were full of chatter.  A lot of it sounded frustrated in tone, raking over the flaws in the process, re-running pros and cons of the (putative) candidates.  Questions abounded.  Why haven’t they decided? What has gone wrong? Who is blocking whose candidacy? Who is still in the race? Who is not? 

In my counter-suggestible way, I thought (as my friend Stephen Cherry would put it) there has to be another angle.  What if this long wait was not a problem but an opportunity?

So I tweeted (a trifle disingenuously perhaps) that maybe the CNC simply needed time to say its prayers.  What if the realisation had suddenly struck its members that discernment of vocation won’t and can’t be hurried?  That too quick an announcement would smack more of appointing the chief executive of a bank than of recognising someone’s God-given call to occupy St Augustine’s chair? 

In a process-driven church, it shouldn’t surprise us if there sometimes turns out to be some dissonance between organisational time and God’s time. I have been ordained nearly 40 years, but I remember vividly (and thankfully) the painstaking journey of discernment by which the church tested my inward vocation to become a priest. It took years, not months let alone weeks.  My motives, needed to be scrutinised and understood, especially by me.  There needed to be theological and spiritual reflection with others making the same journey to elicit the meanings of ordination.  I needed skilled accompaniment and wise guidance.  And when I was ordained, this was only the beginning.  It takes a lifetime to inhabit a vocation, make it authentically your own under God, just as it takes a lifetime to inhabit a marriage.

So I’m not sure I altogether trust vocational processes that happen too quickly, that are driven by organisational time. God’s time happens at a different pace. Perhaps it is more like the hidden, barely perceptible processes like the leavening of dough or fermenting of must.  Jesus presumably chose the image of yeast for a reason.  The spiritual tradition teaches us that the Deity is more often a ‘three mile-an-hour god’ than a high-speed divinity.

Slow is good.  Its outcomes take time, but allow space for prayer, listening, discernment.  No doubt the job of being an archbishop of Canterbury is truly impossible.  If so, the discernment of the one who is called to carry its heavy burdens desperately needs not to be done in haste.  Or, in God’s time, festina lente. That way, the decision will carry proper integrity, and the next archbishop will have the reassurance he very much needs that he truly was and is not only the CNC’s man but God’s.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Next Generation is Announced

A few weeks ago, my wife Jenny and I both received the same text message from our eldest daughter.  It consisted of a gnomic message, ‘You can all chill out now’, and a strange image. I turned the phone upside down and sideways on to try to decode the picture but it eluded me – in any case, on a smart phone the image simply turns with the device.  Then my wife got it.  ‘It’s a baby!’ she exclaimed, ‘an ultrasound’, and it all became clear.  This was Jo’s understated way of telling us that we were to become grandparents.  (The invitation to ‘chill out’ referenced frequent conversations since her wedding about becoming pregnant, something that various female members of our family hoped would happen quickly.)

It was like the news of President Kennedy’s assassination, Diana’s death and 9/11, or perhaps I should say the happier tidings of London winning the Olympics: I knew I would always recall where I was and what I was doing when this family news broke. As it happened, on all four occasions I was not doing anything very special, and this simply underlined the significance of these unforgettable kairos occasions. 

Jo and Will have spent the past week with us in France. The Leitmotif  has been the baby who is to be born in early February just before Lent begins.  (Since first children are often a few days late, and with Shrove Tuesday in mind, the poor child’s working title in utero has become ‘Pan’, short for pancake.)  Names have been discussed and allocated to long- and short-lists; the joys and ordeals of confinement have been dissected in all their particulars; advice has been given on lifestyle and diet during pregnancy; suitable reading about childbirth and parenting recommended.

It’s only just beginning to strike me what a big change this is going to mean for us all.  For a whole family, a first childbirth is a rite of passage which brings new roles and responsibilities: at a stroke, it is not just an infant who will be born but new parents, aunts, an uncle, a great grandmother and – to come to the point of writing this at all – grandparents.  At a stroke, my wife and I will be elevated to the third generation.  Among our extended family who are still alive, we shall be almost at the top of the genealogical tree.  We shall be officially old.  At least, that is one way of reflecting on this news.  It makes us think about how life is passed on, how our genes have done their work. It comes at a time when retirement is no longer over the horizon but hurtling towards us with a speed that is sometime alarming.  And after that, another great rite of passage: death. 

But I don’t entertain such thoughts for very long.  It’s a cliché to say it but I don’t feel especially old.  In one sense I don’t feel ready for grandparenthood yet.  I tell myself I am still (relatively) young, with (relatively) plenty of energy and love of life.  No, the feeling that is uppermost at this early stage of adjusting to this news is how wonderful it is, what a miracle the transmission of life to the next generation really is.  I find I am thinking back to Jo’s own birth, being there in the maternity ward as she came into the world, holding her within minutes of her being born. I recall the midwife addressing our new-born daughter: ‘one day, it will be your turn to go through all this’; one day you will know the struggle and the exhilaration yourself.

Well, that day is now coming.  I am thinking about it a lot, imagining what it will be like to hold my own flesh and blood once again, and watch this so-wanted child grow up and receive and learn to give back the love that will be so abundantly showered on this new member of the human race.  And thinking too of how divine Love is at work in the mysteries and sacraments of ordinary human living and loving. 

There will be much to blog about in the next few months. 


Sunday, 19 August 2012

Sunday Trading: a human right?

Sunday trading is back in the news again.  The coalition Government promised that the current relaxation of the Sunday trading laws would be ‘for the Olympics only’.  Now, it seems, they are considering rescinding the legislation for good. 

What do we think about this? 

When it comes to Sunday, I am not a sabbatarian.  For one thing, it isn’t the sabbath (which is Saturday, the seventh day).  For another, there’s no evidence from the New Testament that the early church transferred the Jewish sabbath to the first day of the week, the day of resurrection.  They seemed to have believed that sabbath observance belonged to the ceremonial law of the Hebrew Bible and like circumcision, should not be imposed on gentile Christians. Strict sabbatarianism of the kind you get in the Hebrides is, I think, a misreading of the gospel.  

However, I have a lot of sympathy with those who want to keep Sunday as a day of rest and recreation, and who do not want to see Sunday trading laws deregulated still further. Let me say at once that I am not thinking of the corner shop, the souvenir outlet at a leisure facility, the small-scale operation on the high-street where things are still done on a human scale.  It’s the might of the megastore that concerns me, the gravitational pull of out of town shopping malls that have done so much to suck the life out of many town and city centres.   

Here’s why I am against this idea. 

1.      It isn’t good for human life to be tramlined by the same routines day in, day out. Sunday offers a different rhythm.  It’s a gift that opens up other possibilities for how we spend our time.  Time for family and friendships.  Time for the things we enjoy.  Time to ponder and reflect.  Time for relaxation and renewal.  Time to give to others through volunteering and service.  Time for sport, exercise or culture.  And if we are Christians, time for worship, fellowship, prayer and spiritual growth. 

2.      Specifically, those who work in the retail industry (including many of our poorest paid workers) deserve a weekly break like anyone else.  It is one thing for the legislation to protect the rights of such people.  Experience shows that it can be hard for employees at the bottom of the pyramid to resist strong pressures from the top to work in their free time. The unions are right to point out that if the law is further deregulated, these pressures will increase, risking a high cost to employees’ mental and physical health, and to their relationships and quality of life. 

3.      Most important of all is what such a move would say about our values.  It would carry the strong message that what matters most in life is the freedom to shop when we want for however long we want.  This supposed public appetite for shopping is being elevated almost to the level of a human right.  We should resist this vigorously.  The relentless tide of consumerism is possibly the most eroding of all the forces of modern life that are eating away at our wellbeing as individuals and as a society.  It says that what matters most is what can be traded, bought and sold as commodities.  It proclaims that the endless quest to acquire more and still more should be endorsed.  It encourages greed, and in particular, envy, possibly the most deadly sin of the seven.  It says that we are in love with money and the power it gives us.

As regular readers of this blog know, my wife and I spend time regularly in France.  There, Sunday trading is tightly regulated.  In a country that is officially far more secularised than the UK, whose mantra is laïcisme, this is not because of the influence of religious faith.  It’s more to do with the strong bonds of family life and the unions’ resolve to uphold it.  So Sunday is a marvellously peaceful day with its own pace of life.  Families make the most of it.  Sport and leisure flourish.  It’s true that people do not go to church in huge numbers.  It’s also true that in some towns, some smaller shops are open for business.  But not the big supermarkets and megastores.  So the traffic is lighter and the atmosphere less febrile.  The continental Sunday, once much maligned in protestant England, has a wholesomeness about it that we have now almost lost here. 

I have to say that I am gloomy about the future.  By a curious act of group-think, the coalition has got itself believing that unregulated Sunday trading will encourage greater consumer spend and therefore help get the economy out of the pit in which it has been stuck for so long.  I doubt this very much.  At best, it will attenuate the public’s shopping habits across twelve hours rather than six.  But the evidence of this economic crisis is that the public is not as naïve as the government appears to think. We are not inclined to part with more money than we can afford simply because more shopping hours are available to us. Internet shopping is available 24 hours a day, but it is not encouraging consumers to spend in ways that stimulate demand and therefore create capacity and productivity. 

My concern is as much with the symbolic effect of this likely change, and for what it says about our collective understanding of what our life together in our contemporary society should be like.  There is something worryingly cynical about a government that smuggles in this unwanted change under the banner of the Olympics when the original rhetoric promised otherwise.  So I hope that Christians will resist it, not for spurious sabbatarian reasons, but because we care about human life and its flourishing.  And because we follow a way that points the human heart to where treasure truly lies.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

How was it for you?

So how was it for you?  Have you had a good Olympics?  Have we? 

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.

W. H. Auden in post-Christmas doldrums.  I wonder whether the week after the Olympics will be a bit like that: somewhat forlorn and empty, holidays nearly over, the news reverting to its normal catalogue of woe, nights drawing in, the sense of clicking back into ordinary time once more. 

I think the Christmas analogy is worth pursuing.  Every Christmas we hope (and if we are religious we pray) that somehow our celebrations may make a difference to the world, with ‘peace on earth’ not just a dream but maybe – just maybe – coming true.  Well, the test of a ‘good’ Christmas is whether it has at least made a difference to us: our attitudes, our relationships, our resolve to live better lives and bring what wholesomeness and redemption we can into the lives of others.

We can be proud that in Britain we’ve had a very good Olympics. Maybe we’ve surprised ourselves, seen a side to this nation that we hadn’t quite glimpsed before.  Of course, it’s been exciting to win medals and come out near the top of the league table: excellence is always something to celebrate and we congratulate athletes who have put heart and soul into the Games. 

But what has made these Games so good has been the spirit of them, the warmth of the welcome people from all over the world have experienced in our country, the knowledge that we have brought people together from every corner of the planet and had a thoroughly good time. I want to use the theological language of ‘re-creation’ and ‘joy’ to talk about it: somehow, nothing less than this does justice to the past 17 days. We have had seen world’s peoples being together in peace and harmony. You could say that it is a glimpse of the Old Testament prophet’s vision that swords would one day be turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks.  You could even say that it has hinted at the kingdom of God. 

We have heard a lot about ‘legacy’ in recent days. But legacy should mean much more than the Games leaving behind them splendid sporting facilities, urban regeneration and new housing, important though these are. The best legacy would be a ‘better, kínder, more Christlike kind of world’ as Provost Howard said after the bombing of Coventry in 1940.  And when we look back to this golden summer of the London Olympics, we must not let go of the memory of people of every race, background, creed and political conviction competing together for the sheer love of sport. This huge common endeavour of recreational play symbolises what reconciliation and friendship should mean.  And a symbol is not an empty gesture at an impossible vision.  What we have experienced has been real.  The task is to keep the memory alive, allow its life-giving anamnesis to flow into every corner of the life of our broken, divided planet.   

Towards the end of his poem, Auden speaks about temptation and evil in an allusion to the Lord’s Prayer.  He says: 

                        They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
                        That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
                         More dreadful than we can imagine. 

No doubt we shall have to face ordeals enough in the months that lie ahead.  The economic crisis afflicting Europe, conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, the threats of climate change and all the cruelties human beings go on inflicting on one another: it is all still there.  But I believe that celebration makes a difference to how we respond to them.  It makes us care more because we glimpse a bigger vision of how the world could be, and how we ourselves could be.  Every time we come together at the Christian eucharist we play-act a world that is different, transformed, healed.  If we can hold the Olympics in our minds as a cherished piece of God-given play-acting, who knows what difference it could make? It really could 'inspire a generation'.  It really must.

And now we have the Paralympics to look forward to....

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Spirituality and the Olympic Opening Ceremony

I admit it: I was sceptical.  The more the BBC ramped up the hyperbole in the countdown to the opening ceremony, the less inclined I was to watch.  It will be studded with slick celebs, I thought, cheerfully grandiose and gung-ho, full of the tired rhetoric of sport and nationhood.  Or it will be just plain embarrassing, like the Eurovision Song Contest. I’ll give it a few minutes, I decided, maybe dip in and out every so often.

But it was compulsive viewing.  This was not the theatre of stardom, 'us' watching 'them' dazzle us.  This theatre belonged to the thousands of ordinary people who took part in it.  And therefore it belonged to us all.  I didn’t expect to enjoy it but I did.  I didn’t think I would be moved but I was. 

Everyone said that the director Danny Boyle was faced with an impossible task.  Not simply how to follow Bejing four years ago, but how to present our country to the world.  In that, he succeeded brilliantly.  It was an astonishing technical feat that left so many unforgettable images, many of them of great beauty.  Who will forget the nostalgic rural idyll being torn apart, those industrial chimneys forcing their way out of the ground, the Wagner-like forging of the Olympic ring, or the Olympic cauldron being born out of fire?  Or the scores of nurses with their hospital beds, or Peter Pan and other themes from children’s literature, or Mr Bean (alumnus of the Chorister School here at Durham) at the keyboard during Chariots of Fire? As theatre, ballet, ceremony, call it what you will, it was hard to fault. It was entirely different from Bejing (thankfully), and in its originality, from any other sporting event I can recall.  It was far, far better.

But more important was what the ceremony had to say about us.  Is there such a thing as our national character, a collective British personality type if you like?  The opening ceremony isn’t simply a shop-window for the world: come and spend at GB plc.  It’s a mirror held up to ourselves.  The important question is whether we recognise ourselves in what we see.  And that comes down to telling the truth about us.  That is a far bigger challenge than pyrotechnics and clever effects.

I think we saw some important things that spoke about Britishness in the 21st century.  I’m not thinking so much of pride in the beauty of our landscapes or our pioneering achievements, though it is good to remind the world – and ourselves - about them.  I’m more interested in intangible values like care and compassion, inclusivity and diversity, flair and creativity, modesty and understatement, the confidence to be at ease with ourselves, our ability to question ourselves, our enjoyment of life.  We saw something of our complexity: this was an event to probe beneath the surface and explore.  It was good to see humour play a big part in the show, something we British are surely best at in the world.  The trouble with sport is that it takes itself absurdly seriously much of the time.  The large dose of subversive irony and self-deprecation (involving even Her Majesty) came over as authentic.  But the fun was at no-one’s expense.  It was all done with affection. Of pomposity and deference there was none.  Of respect: plenty.

In this complex, richly textured offering, what about the spirituality of the British?  Here again, my expectations of a completely secular ceremony with religion airbrushed out were surprised. The lone chorister singing ‘Jerusalem’ at the start (an echo of ‘Once in Royal’ at the beginning of the Nine Lessons and Carols?)seemed to announce a spiritual dimension to the evening.  Danny Boyle’s programme note speaks about the vision of ‘building Jerusalem’.  Blake’s great poem is subtly ambiguous: it would have been so easy to blast it out in the arena as if it were the Last Night of the Proms.  Instead, Boyle was true to Blake's text, which is his Christian vision of a just and caring society. But it has to be formed and helped to flourish with the native gifts and characteristics that make us what we are.  This nuanced awareness is, I think, an aspect of the spirituality of our islands that we cherish.  It’s embedded in the way we do liturgy and theology. In its eloquence and simplicity, that moment carried great power.  

The other moment where faith broke through was in the invitation to remember ‘those who are not here’.  After the spectacle and the celebration, what heralded the arrival of the athletes was not a grand rhetorical climax but the silencing of the crowd, an act of recollection, the words of a prayer.  For yes, unbelievably, we had all of ‘Abide with me’ sung quietly while a simple ballet on the theme of being lost and found was performed on the stage.  It was a clever choice because of its Cup Final resonances; and yet once again, it was subverted in a way that restored meaning to a great hymn and personalised it.  ‘Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies’: who would have thought we would hear such words charged with Christian hope and expectation at an Olympic opening ceremony?  For me it was among the most moving aspects of the whole event.  

There is more to 'spirituality' than when it surfaces and becomes explicit.  It has an intuitive side that doesn't get expressed in words but is still alive in most people's experience of life.  Perhaps in the joy and exuberance of last night, something more about life and about God was hinted at.  Perhaps some may have experienced it as a kind of liturgy.  Perhaps, even, the sight of thousands of people of every age, background and ethnicity throwing themselves into this genuinely democratic celebration offered a glimpse of Jerusalem and of the kingdom of heaven itself. 

When words of faith do get uttered, especially when we are not expecting them, we should listen not only to what they say but how they are said.  This was what I did not foresee last night.  And for once, I’m prepared to trust how I responded as I watched.  I believe there was spiritual truth to be glimpsed in what we saw and heard. Yes, it was a performance and a great one.  But the trick was to make it more than a mere performance, to enable it to say something intelligent and interesting, even profound, about how we are to ourselves and to our world.  And, the ceremony seemed to be saying, how we are before God too.