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

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Rowan and Cuthbert: off-beat bishops

So Rowan is laying down the office of Archbishop.  It isn't a huge surprise.  And I'm only one among many who want to pay tribute to him. 'It was the best of times' (because he has given such wise, spiritually intelligent leadership); 'it was the worst of times' (because the worldwide Communion has been hopelessly divided on gay relationships and women bishops). I won't complete the Dickens quote about the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness, of belief and incredulity.  But I do want to say thank you for being a steady leader in such a turbulent decade.  And to reflect a little on what he has taught me about being a bishop and a Christian leader today.

Next Tuesday we shall celebrate St Cuthbert's Day, and in anticipation, we have a special service in his honour later today (apologies to Patrick).  As I walked across Framwellgate Bridge earlier, and looked up at the Cathedral, I thought, not for the first time, how much we owe to Cuthbert here in Durham.  Without him (or, I suppose I should say, his body, brought here by his loyal community) there would be no cathedral, no university, no city.  Then I thought about Rowan and how different it is being a bishop in the 21st century from the 7th century when Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne.

And yet....  Perhaps there are important things in common.  Here are three off-beat similarities that occurred to me by the river.

First, Cuthbert did not want to be a bishop, and I suspect Rowan did not hanker after high office either.  In Cuthbert's Life, it says that although he was elected bishop by the synod, and messages sent to him on the Inner Farne, he refused to move.  Even the king had to go down on his knees and plead with him.  At last, 'he came forth, very tearful... very reluctantly he was overcome by their unanimous decision and compelled to submit to the yoke of episcopacy.'  Nolo episcopari was pretty much a necessary condition of becoming a bishop in the early church: to say 'I do not want this' and to mean it.  It's refreshing to think that an archbishop or bishop does not seek the office too much; it's dispiriting to watch others who seem to want it more than is good for them.  Now like Cuthbert, Rowan is about to lay aside the role.  And to be able to do that is also a mark of grace.

Secondly, Cuthbert was an elusive bishop, never quite saying or doing what people expected of him.  This says something about his spiritual freedom, his sense that God came before everything else.  (On state occasions, Archbishop Michael Ramsey used always to acknowledge the altar before bowing to royalty, muttering to himself 'God first'.)  Rowan has seemed to me to stand in this tradition of authenticity and integrity.  He has not said or done the obvious. He has kept us guessing at times, always a shrewd leadership tactic.  I once heard that instead of attending the State Opening of Parliament, he had been examining a PhD thesis on Dostoevsky.  In an era of cliche and soundbite,  it is good to know that an archbishop can remain his own person and not be shaped by the possible or impossible expectations of the crowd.  We shouldn't underestimate what that may have cost him personally. 

Thirdly, Cuthbert was a man of profound humility.  For him, being a man of God meant knowing his place: a creature close to other creatures (in that respect, England's St Francis), a servant who saw his vocation as speaking about God's love and washing feet, and above all Christ's slave. I am sure Rowan would not thank me for putting it this way, but I see a family likeness here.  But hang on, you say, surely all this is central to Christian ministry. Reluctant bishop, yes, elusive bishop, yes - these are perhaps a little unusual, even off-beat.  But to say that he is a humble man of God?  Well, I am simply asking whether it isn't unusual to see genuine goodness quite so visible in those entrusted with high office of any kind.  I know from my own experience, 17 years as a dean, that a senior role carries spiritual hazards.  Humility is usually the first virtue to fall victim.  We should be grateful for leaders who do not think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. These are the people who are truly transformational.

When I wrote my book Wisdom and Ministry I was not especially thinking either of Cuthbert or of Rowan Williams, though I might have been.  Wisdom changes things: we are called to change lives for the sake of Christ. Who knows how many lives are touched not by self-important rhetoric or grandstanding to the media, but by thoughtful, intelligent, articulate leaders who know themselves and are not afraid of speaking the truth by which they live and die.  This is why I am thankful for Rowan Williams as he prepares to step down.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Twitter and the Life of the Spirit

I am new to Twitter, and only got into it in the new year.  I'd never bothered much with social networking sites.  At best, I thought, they are a mindless way of passing the time by indulging in gossip; at worst, decidedly risky, for as we know reputations have been famously brought down by idle tweets. 

But I've been surprised how I've taken to it.  It feels a bit like discovering photography a few years ago.  Perhaps it's because they are quite similar.  Photography captures the essence of something by putting a frame around it. Composing an image is to limit the viewer's horizons in ways that 'focus' (pun intended) attention so that we see afresh and perhaps gain 'insight'. In the same way, Twitter imposes the discipline of 140 characters which requires us to put a (pretty small) frame around what we want to share and try and communicate in a sharply focused way.

Someone once spoke of 'the sonnet's narrow room'.  That means the 'given' shape of 14 lines with rhythms that are set: the poet who wants to write a sonnet isn't free to vary its structure.  The challenge of doing something interesting, creative and beautiful inside that 'narrow room' has fascinated poets since Petrarch.  Shakespeare's Sonnets are like Bach's Goldberg Variations: they show the endless variety that is possible at the hands of a master even when the terrain on which to work is no bigger than a pocket handkershief. 

I think Twitter may appeal to people who are miniaturists.  We like the idea that much can be said in a few words.  We value understatement and reticence, where a wealth of meanings can reside at the margins of what is said, implied by nudges and hints rather than stated openly.  'Tell all the truth but tell it slant' said Emily Dickinson, one of the great practitioners of saying much in a small space.  The truth at the centre of Christianity can be expressed in a tweet: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth. (No quote marks: that would bring it to 142 characters.)  Perhaps if you can't say it at tweet-length, then it isn't worth saying. 

The Word made flesh, words made flesh.  There's a relationship because in good communication, it's not simply a matter of words being uttered, but of something being done, and so enfleshed in some way, incarnated.  Philosophers of language talk about speech acts ('how to do things with words'), but words always do something if they are more than lazy, or as we say, idle, words.  Twitter, I think, can powerfully concentrate the power of very few words to do all sorts of things: make us cry or laugh, tell us what we did not know, encourage us to act or warn us to be careful, make us think in new ways, interrogate us or draw us into a dialogue, drive us to be more aware and to pray. 

The Diocese of Durham is tweeting a daily Bible verse or reflection during Lent, and I have been doing the same in a rather different register.  The Bishop's tweets from his recent visit to Nigeria were a sobering impulsion to pray.  Maeve Sherlock, a working peer who worships with us when she is in Durham, is fascinating on the daily doings of the House of Lords.  Margaret Masson, Senior Tutor across the road at (my) St Chad's College, is another artistic, intelligent tweeter on things literary, spiritual and quirky.  My colleague Stephen Cherry tweets wisely and theologically in a sharply observed way and with a wry smile.  Maggie Dawn the theologian and spiritual writer is one of the best who realises the possibilities of this medium.  I am following the daily tweets of Captain Scott in his dreadful Antarctic journey of exactly 100 years ago.  The North Pennines AONB brings daily fresh air, nature and wide landscapes from Upper Weardale.  I followed the General Synod debates about women bishops via official and unoffocial tweets. Durham Cathedral's tweets sometimes tell me things I did not know....And carefully selected news feeds give updates and links to breaking stories: I follow The Guardian, BBC News and the Tablet.

True, there is infinite scope for triviality, prurience and time-wasting; potential too to hurt people and cause damage.  But understood and used sensibly, it can bring people together in true online communities to celebrate, share wisdom, learn, laugh, become more aware of the world and its pain, collaborate in what is just and good, and to pray. In all this, it can be not only wholesome but a real tool for mission.  To my mind the 140c discipline makes it a more serious medium than the sprawling Facebook.  We shouldn't be too solemn about a medium that is meant to be enjoyable. But as it's there, let's use it for good to build up social and spiritual capital.  Happy are those who can say something wise in two or three brief lines, for they are worth hearing and heeding.  

I think history's greatest teacher, the Master of the brief yet profound saying, would have loved Twitter.  Who is that? Jesus of Nazareth, of course.  Read the beatitudes.