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

Friday, 28 March 2014

Equal Marriage: crossing the threshold

Today, equal marriage has become law in England. I want to welcome it and offer congratulations, good wishes and prayers to all who will be getting married today and in the coming weeks. It’s been moving to read stories of the very first ceremonies held in the small hours across the country.

I don’t know what I can add to the debate we have had in state and church over the past months, or for that matter, to what I’ve already blogged on the subject. But here are some thoughts from a Christian perspective as we cross this historic threshold.

First, I recognise how hard this has been for many fellow-Christians, some in this country, but especially overseas. It is unfair to dub all who dissent as homophobic: there are many people of integrity for whom equal marriage is hard to accept. It would have been for me at one time. We need to allow time. Our bishops don't find themselves in an easy position here, so I welcome Justin Welby’s realism about this change and his wish for the church not to campaign against it and pursue hostile agendas but at least to call a truce, and more positively to welcome and embrace gay couples in Christ’s name as they find their home in the church.

Secondly, we shouldn’t be afraid of how this development enlarges our understanding of marriage. Some say that equal marriage is an invalid distortion of marriage as traditionally understood. But if it is, so was the 19th century change in marriage law to allow men to marry their deceased wife’s sister (once forbidden as incestuous in the table of kindred and affinity). More recently, remarriage after divorce and the church’s provision of services of blessing were equally contentious at the time. My point is that neither of these changed the nature of marriage: they simply enlarged its scope by admitting to it people who were once excluded. Equal marriage is another stage in the long evolution of an institution that has been reshaped at different times down the centuries. But its essence is what it always was: the covenanted union of two people for life. That has not changed.

Thirdly, I think we need to be more intelligent about thinking biblically in relation to equal marriage. It’s not enough to quote texts by themselves, as if they prove or disprove a particular position: what’s necessary is to understand the direction in which scripture is leading us in the way we reflect on human relationships. I was struck by a conversation the other day with a convinced evangelical who asked: why does the church come across as so hostile to equal marriage when it’s so clear from the Bible that covenanted monogamous lifelong commitment is always better than casual, promiscuous coupling? For the covenanted relationship is precisely how God marries himself to humanity. Shouldn’t the church positively welcome equal marriage as affirming this rich biblical insight into God’s nature and ours? And even if we aren't sure, isn’t it better to risk a more generous way of reading biblical writings rather than a narrower, in the spirit of a text I come back to in so many controversial settings: ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). This is the kind of hermeneutical risk I see Jesus taking with Torah texts in the gospels.

Fourthly, let me acknowledge the pain and anger of gay people who continue to feel excluded by the church’s stance on equal marriage. The recent guidance from the House of Bishops has not reassured them, and it’s now clear that some bishops were far from comfortable with the advice they had issued. However, I do not think that this represents a stable position. As equal marriage becomes accepted by society and, as the indications are showing, by the majority of lay people in the church, we shall see a shift in the official stance. In time, the church will accommodate itself to this development, and recognise that by blessing same-sex marriages and even solemnising them, it is affirming the principle that covenanted unions are fundamental to the way we see (and more important, the way God sees) human love. Precisely the same happened with the remarriage of divorced people in church, and with female bishops. It takes time for change to be received and its theological significance understood. It’s not much comfort to those asking the church for recognition now, but in time I believe we shall get there.

And finally. After today, we shouldn’t talk any more about equal marriage, or same-sex marriage or gay marriage, just marriage. I’m glad that one more layer of discrimination and prejudice has been stripped away. It’s a day to celebrate generosity, justice and love. And while I’m sad that the church won’t officially be part of today’s celebrations, that doesn’t stop us rejoicing with all who rejoice, praying with them and blessing them in our hearts.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Week of St Cuthbert: too much attention?

The end of Cuthbert Week. His day was 20 March. On Wednesday and Thursday we had great celebrations in the Cathedral. Today there were family activities in and around the building. This afternoon I welcomed over 120 pilgrims on the annual ‘Cuddy’s Corse’ from Chester-le-Street to Durham. This is a walk organised by the Northumbrian Association to re-enact the last leg of the monks’ long journey bringing Cuthbert’s body, together with the Lindisfarne Gospels, to Durham his final resting place. Led by a Northumbrian piper and the Banner of St Cuthbert, we walked in a merry procession to the shrine where we said prayers.

Our new Bishop was with us on Thursday, the day itself. He tweeted beforehand: ‘Durham Cathedral for my first St Cuthbert’s Day pilgrimage. I suspect Cuthbert would not have liked all the attention.’ It’s an interesting comment. We know from Bede that Cuthbert hoped to be buried on his beloved Inner Farne, but reluctantly recognised that his brothers would want him back on Lindisfarne. We know that he was famous for his simplicity and humility: he would have fought against adulation. If that wasn’t enough, we can be sure that as a Saxon he would have hated the idea of lying interred beneath a Norman cathedral. So the Bishop is right. I reckon Cuthbert would have liked his distant successor's tweet.
Yet this isn't all of the truth. The veneration of Cuthbert as a saint began only a decade after he died. His body was disinterred by his community and miraculously found not to have been corrupted. At once he was pronounced a saint – this was how they ‘canonised’ saints in those days. And this gave Cuthbert back to the world as a man in whom it was believed God had vested special spiritual power. When the Vikings destroyed his monastery on Holy Island and drove his community inland to find safety, they took with them their two most precious possessions: the Lindisfarne Gospels, and Cuthbert’s body. So ‘all the attention’ paid him goes back over a thousand years.
The paradox is that saints tend to be humble and self-effacing: that’s what makes them so attractive to us. The ‘attention’ we give them is a way of honouring a collective memory of goodness and sanctity that is precious. It recognises that their influence is profound, their capacity to inspire us and enlarge our vision undying. Not on account of their words and actions by themselves, but because of what inspired them, Jesus Christ and the gospel. We can be sure that Cuthbert would have said: don’t focus on me, put Jesus at the centre, the Lord for whom I lived and died. All the saints would say the same. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be saints.
Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham Cathedral recognises this. Above the stone slab with his name on it hangs a 20th century tester showing Christ in Glory surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. It’s as if Cuthbert is lying in his tomb looking upwards directly into the face of Christ the Lord of all. And Christ in turn looks on him as a beloved child, as he does all of us. In the Hebrew Bible, it says that Moses was with God face to face, ‘as someone looks on their friend’. This mutual gaze of recognition and divine friendship is at the heart of religion.
And this, I think, is what St Cuthbert represents to all of us who speak of him as the ‘glory of our sanctuary and ever-living symbol of our apostleship’, as one of our Durham prayers puts it. Through his memory, his companionship and his prayers, he helps us to know Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly day by day. And that makes him truly evangelical in his appeal.  

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Lent in Black and White

My last blog was about hearing. This one is about seeing. 

What are you giving up for Lent? someone asks. Colour photography I reply, not wishing to be drawn further. An answer fit for Pseuds’ Corner. But I’m serious. Let me say why.

The point of Lent is to go back to first principles, try to live more simply, practise discipline (askesis, whence ‘asceticism’, meaning simply ‘training’). This isn’t an end in itself: it’s in order to prepare for Easter, the heart of the Christian year. So I asked myself: given my love of photography, could there be a way of keeping Lent through the way I use my camera?
One way would be to give it up altogether. That’s worth serious thought: photography takes time, and one of the gifts of Lent can be to create space for other things, especially God. Another would be to focus on a specific theme as a way into thought, meditation and prayer. That would require imagination, but I imagination is needed to keep Lent creatively.

What I decided to do was to turn off the camera’s colour function and work only in black and white. I do quite a lot of monochrome already, but this has always been by processing colour images. To set the camera to black and white exclusively, and not to photograph in colour at all has felt like a real shift in approach. And I have to say that with the advent of bright March days when landscapes are filling up with the fresh clean colours of spring, it has felt like quite a sacrifice.
However, there have been real rewards. As I often say about photography, it’s to do with seeing in new ways, not just looking at the surface of what is there but ‘seeing into the life of things’ as Wordsworth put it. The camera’s lens and viewfinder are already disciplining our way of seeing by making a choice of what to focus on and putting a frame round it. That involves renunciation – think of all the things we’re not photographing!  Using the medium of black and white is a further refinement of that discipline. And when you get used to ‘seeing’ reality as monochrome, it makes you compose images in new ways. So if Lent is about seeing life differently, photography can be a good metaphor of it.

I prefer the term greyscale to black-and-white because it recognises the infinite subtlety of the medium. Greyscale photography is different from colour because it simplifies the image. Colour is a gift, when it forms part of the photographer’s intention, but it can also be a distraction. Too much of it, or too much variety, or colour that draws too much attention to itself confuses the image and make it less clear what it is supposed to be for.
Greyscale, by concentrating on structure and form, texture, lighting and contrast can bring out patterns and meanings in an image. It can sometimes communicate more directly. Before the invention of the colour photograph, this was understood intuitively: it’s possible that mass photography in that era produced better results than nowadays because there were fewer choices to make And of course in the days of film, it wasn’t possible to take hundreds of snapshots ‘just in case’ as we tend to do in this digital age. Digital is powerful, but it does breed photographic promiscuity.

There may be an unspoken elitism about black and white photography because of its retro aspect: it fits directly into the classical tradition of the documentary image from its 19th century beginnings. I do not want to pander to elitism, because I believe photography is the most democratic of all art forms. I simply want to train my eyes and imagination to see differently, and to discover how the chiaroscuro world of greyscale is just as wonderful and haunting a place as the colourful cosmos we live in. The light and shadows of black and white can be particularly attuned to life’s beauty and tragedy. It is capable of interpreting them with startling clarity. It can cleanse and purify our vision by simplifying it. And because simplicity and Lent belong together, it could be a fertile way of entering into the richness of this season.
I’ve tweeted some early fruits of my mono Lent; and have also written more about photography on my other blog at deanstalks.blogspot.