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

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Great War Centenary Should Bring us to our Knees

'The protagonists of [the First World War] were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the horror they were about to bring into the world.'

This is how Christopher Clark's book on the origins of the Great War ends. I have been reading The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 over the summer, aiming to reach the fateful last week of July during the centenary of those days in 2014. It has been a vivid experience, reading about the events that shaped the 20th century in real-time 100 years later. 

I knew of course what it would all lead up to on 4 August, when Britain declared war on Germany. But I now see how vague I was about the causes of the events that would change for ever the course of European history. Thanks to this extraordinary (and readable) book, I realise better than before how very complex it all was, the shifting alliances, the economic leverage that locked nations into preferential relationships, the personalities of national leaders, their inability to read correctly their neighbours' intentions and assess risks accurately, the obscure processes by which momentous decisions were often taken. All this Clark examines carefully in the light of evidence not all of which was available to earlier historians.

Pace some writers on the Great War, Clark refuses to lay blame in any one European quarter, whether it is Austria-Hungary for its peremptory ultimatum threatening war unless Serbia complied with its conditions; Russia for raising the stakes by resorting to general mobilisation in support of Serbia and the pursuit of pan-Slav unity; Germany for entertaining the idea of war before Russian forces grew to overwhelming strength; France for uncritically associating with Russia's intentions as a way of keeping Germany in check and winning back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine; or Britain for being so distracted by the Irish question that it failed to notice what was happening on the continent until it was almost too late. 

Clark concludes that the outbreak of the war was a tragedy not a crime. It was not inevitable, and indeed, it took many of its protagonists by surprise. There is 'no smoking gun in this story, or rather, there was one in the hands of every major character'. He says that we must understand that the Great War might easily not have happened, & why; equally we must understand how & why it did happen. 

All our churches will be commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War next week. Some of us will be required to preach about it. What to say that does justice in a theologically and spiritually intelligent way to this bewildering history? That is my challenge right now as I prepare to give a sermon at Sheffield Cathedral on Sunday morning at a requiem in memory of those who went to war and never came back.

What I am clear about is that the rhetoric of 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' needs to be put into a bigger context than was normal at the time. This is inevitable: we see things from the vantage point of history that our forebears, immersed in that awful conflict, could not see so clearly. If the Geat War was a tragedy, not a crime, then there were no winners or losers, for all of us were and still are its victims. Anyone who has walked among the military cemeteries of Northern France cannot fail to see how this attrition afflicted all the war's participants equally terribly. 4 August is truly a day for lament. It puts a question mark against the nationalisms that still define relationships between the world's peoples, where the idea of patriotism still has not acquired a genuinely global context.

The question is, what if anything can we learn from our history? Here it would be fatally easy to draw simplistic lessons, as if the world of 1914 is comparable to that of a century later. But the past is another country; they do things differently there. Perhaps the differences between then and now can help show us how far we have advanced in developing global and continental institutions that can at least broker negotiations between nations in conflict even if they cannot (yet) prevent wars. In important ways, the Europe of today is less febrile, more safe, because of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. This is something to celebrate.

Yet our world is still an incredibly dangerous place, as the events of summer 2014 have made clear. Across the globe, war is still pursued as 'the extension of politics by other means' as Clausewitz famously defined it. Historians will no doubt go on arguing about the causes of the First World War for a long time to come. But what is not in doubt is that this is a centenary that should drive us to our knees. The prayer for peace was urgent enough 100 years ago. It has not grown less urgent since. 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A Summer's Day in Devon

I write this from Devon, the little village of Holne tucked into a southern fold of Dartmoor. We are staying in the half-timbered Church House Inn where we began our honeymoon 40 years ago this week. So this is a nostalgic visit to a place that is securely lodged in our shared marital memory. 

It would be nice to think that we are sleeping in the same room as then. We may well be: we can't remember. In fact, we don't recall very much of the early part of our honeymoon, so exhausted were we by the exacting rigours of getting married. But we do remember the warm welcome, not least on the part of the two golden retrievers who are memorialised on a fading photo of the newly-weds standing in the porch. We have called retrievers Holne-Dogs ever since.

What we learned back then was that the Church House Inn was the favourite place of Archbishop Michael Ramsey and his wife Joan. Here they spent their summers. As a newly ordained deacon in Oxford, I used to go with my contemporaries to post ordination training sessions with Michael Ramsey, by then retired just outside Oxford. When he discovered that we had honeymooned in Holne, this was all he wanted to talk about. Forget theology or ethics on which like the rest of the cohort of young clergy I was keen to hear the great man's thinking. For him, Holne was a corner of paradise and given the slightest encouragement he would rhapsodise about it. Once, when we saw each other walking along Cornmarket on opposite sides of the busy road, he beckoned to me to cross. We met in the middle, and there he said: 'talk to me about my beloved Holne' while the traffic swerved past on either side. 

When we went into the church next door to the inn this afternoon, an elderly couple were also paying a nostalgic return visit. They used to live in the village and had moved away in the early 1970s. When my wife mentioned the Ramseys, she told us how Joan often used to come and keep her company in her kitchen. The villagers seemed proud that an archbishop and his wife loved coming there. 

The church, ordinary enough on the outside, hides a great treasure inside: its marvellous 15th century woodwork. There is a magnificent rood screen and a pulpit with a spectacular array of painted panels depicting saints and bishops. Some bear the marks of later history, like Gregory the Great whose face has been angrily scratched out, presumably by a reformer or a puritan. A conservator was working on these gorgeous furnishings and spoke about them in ways that showed how much of a labour of love this was. The church is also proud of the fact that the Victorian writer Charles Kingsley was born in the vicarage and was baptised at the font.

Holne is a peaceful place that you reach by driving cautiously along narrow meandering Devon lanes that cut right into the surface of this hill country. From time to time a distant view of the moor breaks through the steep banks and tall hedgerows . Hydrangeas and honeysuckle flower colourfully in front of sweet little cottages. Cats bask in the balm of a warm July evening. We have seen a handsome golden retriever in the village, just like the ones who befriended us 40 years ago. 

A driver stops to ask us the way to Hexworthy. We haven't the faintest idea. It somehow feels apt to lose your way in this honeysuckled lotus-land of Holne.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Black Flags over Mosul

The black flags of Isis are flying over Christian churches in Mosul. It is heartbreaking to think of what they symbolise: the ruthless persecution of innocent Christian men, women and children who are fleeing for safety from the city that has been their home for generations. The doorposts of Christian homes are now marked by a blood-red symbol: the Arabic letter N for Nazarene. It means they are to be slaughtered.

Mosul was already ancient when Christians first settled there in the 2nd century. It stands on the Tigris, one of the rivers that watered the Fertile Crescent and on whose banks some of the oldest civilisations in the world were established. Across the river stood the proud city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, where Sennacherib built a great palace in about 700BCE - you can see his magnificent palace reliefs in the British Museum. 

Mosul played a central part in the growth of Christianity in early times. By the 6th century, it was a bishopric of the Assyrian (Chaldean) Church. Some of the world's oldest Christian communities were founded in what is now Iraq, and the valley of the Tigris was home to many of them. Christians were indigenised there before Islam arrived. And when it did, a modus vivendi enabled Christians and Muslims for most of the subsequent centuries to live peaceably together. 

These ancient Christian communities harmed no one, did not subvert Islam, did not antagonise their Muslim neighbours. On the contrary, their members were exemplary citizens, aware of their minority status in an Islamic environment but respected as adherents of a fellow Abrahamic faith, a people of the book. They did not look for conflict, simply for a safe space in which to practise their faith peacefully as their forebears had done since time immemorial. 

The swift arrival of the radical Sunni movement called Isis has changed all that with a viciousness that has surprised the west. Crosses and statues over Christian churches have been toppled. An 1800 year old church has been destroyed. Christians have been warned: 'if you want to stay alive, convert to Islam at once, or pay the Christian tax (protection money) or get out of the city'. Most are fleeing, perhaps never to return. This exodus was already beginning ten years ago as in other places in Iraq; now it is in full spate. Few are left, for this is no place to stay when lives are at such risk. As are those of Shiite Muslims too - something we mustn't forget.

We weep with these exiles who weep beside the waters of Babylon. We pray for them, and as churches in safe, peaceful western Europe, we shall support them through refugee and aid agencies that are working to bring assistance as quickly as they can. They need to know that they can count on us not to forget them in their great need. They need to know that we shall keep their story alive in the media so that the nation is aware of their plight.

But there is something else we must do. It is to resist demonising Islam because of the cruelty of this rogue movement. Isis, like its parent body Al Qaeda, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, is utterly untypical of mainstream Islam. We mustn't allow these terrible events to cloud our response to a noble world faith with its values of dignity, honour and reverence for life. Instead we should make common cause with our Muslim friends and neighbours to denounce violence and terror, and support them as they speak out against the atrocities perpetrated in their name. The more they can do this, the more chance there is that radicalisation will be stanched before its poison gets expressed in bullets and bombs.

I once sat down with a senior imam I'd got to know. He too was a Sunni, from Saudi Arabia, not a westernised Muslim like most I had met. He gave me a copy of the Qur'an in which he had underlined the passages that spoke well of Christians. 'You are among these' he said, pointing to the Cathedral. So I asked him about the passages where Christians are derided or criticised. 'Those are about renegades who deny the Abrahamic faith' he said, 'not loyal, faithful, god fearing people like you.' 

I guess that Islam's reading of Christianity is a more complex matter, where so much is coloured by history; but I remember that encounter with warmth. It helped me to understand the respect with which Islam has in its best époques regarded Christianity. This, I think, is more characteristic of it than the bitterness and hatred that each day's headlines seem to underline and which do so much to fuel the Islamophobia that is becoming a worrying aspect of modern western attitudes.