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

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Are they not all the seas of God?

I've blogged about my family history before. My mother was born in Weimar Germany into a Jewish family in Düsseldorf. Soon the Nazis came to power. Things went from bad to worse to terrifying. Almost too late, my grandparents found a way of getting their two children into Britain. My mother was sent to this country as a teenager and began life all over again in England. She married here and five years after the war I was born. 

She crossed the sea as a refugee, and this country took her in and gave her asylum. The British record in welcoming persecuted Jews from continental Europe is not without ambiguities. Nor did all the refugees find as ready a welcome in Britain as had been hoped. But it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. When so many of her relatives and friends perished in the death camps, my mother survived. And that was thanks to this country that saw a need and tried to respond to it. It was in the spirit of a people for whom humanitarian care has mattered.

75 years later, Europe is facing the biggest refugee crisis since the war. This time the sea that is carrying hundreds of thousands of desperate, frightened people towards its shores is the Mediterranean. Many of them are fleeing vicious perscution and untold hardship, and have paid unscrupulous middle-eastern or north African people traffickers to cram them into vessels that are not seaworthy 50 metres from the shore. It is a dangerous voyage. Only the reckless or those who have abandoned all other hope would attempt it. The Italian search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum has saved no fewer than 150,000 refugees from the sea in just one year.

But incredibly, just when cooperation across Europe is so much needed to help these hapless refugees, Britain is refusing to support it. Yesterday's Guardian reported that 'British policy was quietly spelled out in a House of Lords written answer by the new Foreign Office minister, Lady Anelay: "We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean," she said, adding that the government believed there was "an unintended 'pull factor' encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths...The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats."'

It is hard to believe that such specious stuff can emanate from the Upper House. Indeed, it is not just specious but heartless. Can this be the same nation that acted in such a principled way in the 1930s? But it is an unintelligent response too because it seriously misreads the human psyche when life is under threat. The CEO of the British Refugee Council Maurice Wren was quoted yesterday: 'People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you’re running for your life and your country is in flames. The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep....The answer isn’t to build the walls of fortress Europe higher, it’s to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection.' In today's Guardian Amnesty's UK director, Kate Allen, says: 'This is a very dark day for the moral standing of the UK. When the hour came, the UK turned its back on despairing people and left them to drown.'

I'm not pretending this is straightforward for any of us in Europe, especially those on the front-line in the south. But Britain simply cannot pass by on the other side. It would be an act of cynical, shameful neglect. The word 'unforgivable' has been used. To the British as members of the EU, what happens across the continent ought to be our proper concern, no less than the English Channel and the thousands in the Calais refugee camps who have made it across continental Europe and are ready to take the last big risk of passage into England. Far from shrugging the Mediterranean boat-people off as someone else's problem, we should be taking a lead in contributing our effort and resources to help.

It's a principle deeply embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures that we should care for the stranger who comes among us, especially the vulnerable and poor. I would not be here now if it weren't for this honourable humanitarian ethic of embrace. 'Are they not all the seas of God?' asked Walt Whitman. We owe it to those who are in such a terrible plight to make sure that when they are in peril on the seas off Europe, they will find through our willing minds and hands God's help and care that they need so much. We owe it to our fellow human beings not to turn our face away in this hour of crisis. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Extraverts and Introverts: a plea for understanding

I once attended an act of worship whose leader issued this challenge: 'we're going to sing a song of praise to God that children love. It has actions. Here they are [demonstration]. So come on all you introverts, let yourselves go and enjoy it!' We duly complied, as we English tend to do in front of others. Maybe I was the only one who felt grumpy about it. Maybe not. But it left me thinking about introverts in the church and why we should have been singled out for mention that day. I don't suppose you would get away with challenging black or gay or even female worshippers like that. 

But it wasn't the church's equality and diversity policies that made me think. Rather, it was my own experience of church life. The other week a simplified Myers-Briggs personality-type questionnaire was doing the rounds on Facebook. Never one to resist a challenge, I took the test. Yet again, I came out stubbornly as an introvert - INFJ for those who know what that means. Since I first did it 30 years ago, I have always emerged as irredeemably introverted. Despite my formative Christian experience in vibrant evangelical churches, despite all these years of leadership in parish and cathedral, despite all the exposure to crowds of people many of them strangers, despite loving this privileged kind of ministry that takes a priest into so many different communities, despite all that I am still an introvert.

Time was when I used to wish I were different. But a wise spiritual director helped me to accept who I am and celebrate the gifts I bring. I now understand how we introverts learn over a lifetime to behave in extraverted ways: getting up to speak in public, working a room full of people we don't know, being genuinely interested in others, asking for money to support the church, knocking on unknown doors to offer pastoral care or support - it's all part of the job as every priest knows. And introverts are often very good at it, because of their nurturing both of the inner spiritual life and the great importance they attach to authenticity in personal relationships. Good 'performance skills' are required in all leaders, and introverts are as accomplished in this as extraverts. It's true that extraverts find some aspects of leadership more congenial than introverts, and less costly personally. But some of the finest leaders in all sectors are introverts, people who don't make a lot of noise or draw attention to themselves, but are quietly effective in what they do. 

I've been reading Susan Cain's book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking [Viking 2012]. She has a lot to say about leadership in a world where extraversion goes with popularity and that loves the charismatic and the celebrity. She quotes two respected gurus among a vast literature on what makes a good leader. One says that what effective leaders have in common is 'little or no charisma, & little use either for that term or what it signifies'. Another affirms that 'many best-performing companies are run by Level 5 Leaders with no flash or charisma but only with extreme humility & intense professional will'. I find this encouraging.

I was especially interested in what she had to say about the prevailing evangelical culture in North America. She attended a large act of worship in one of the US's most flourishing mega-churches. First there's the warm-up. '"Good morning everybody" beams S---, then urges us to greet those seated near us. Most people oblige with wide smiles and glad hands.' Then comes the sermon. '"If you're a business leader, you need to read the Book of Jeremiah over and over because he was a genius CEO."' Straight out of the Harvard Business School then (another institution that comes in for interesting scrutiny). The author says she can't help thinking of an 'Unleash the Power Within' seminar she attended, with all those electric smiles and shining eyes. 

She acknowledges that it is all well-meant and well-done. This is a church with a great record of outreach and social care. 'But at the same time I can see how hard it must be, inside this world...for [this church's] introverts to feel good about themselves.' The (introverted) conservative evangelical pastor who took her into the service said afterwards 'with gentle exasperation': 'greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing - there was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation... Sometimes I feel like I'm going through the motions. The outward enthusiasm and passion that seems to be part and parcel of [the church] culture doesn't feel natural. Not that introverts can't be eager and enthusiastic, but we're not as overtly expressive as extroverts. At a place like [this] you can start questioning your own experience of God. Is it really as strong as that of other people who look the part of the devout believer?'

I can hear extraverts cry: 'choral evensong is all very well for you introverts. What about us?' That's an important question. I guess that the task of liturgy is to embrace all sorts and conditions so that everyone is included and no one feels alienated as somehow a second class worshipper. That was Thomas Cranmer's great project - to create a liturgy that was genuinely common prayer, words and rituals that would not divide people but unite them in one koinonia, a fellowship of faith and love. This postmodern world has made the ideal much harder to attain than in his day. For now there are supposedly no grand narratives any more, only bits and pieces, all equally valid, with which we play at bricolage and piece texts and actions together in whatever way we choose. Extraverts and introverts are bound to do that in very different ways. 

But I would like to think that together we can create liturgy that is generous enough to have space for everyone. I doubt if an introvert would introduce a liturgical silence by saying 'Come on all you extraverts, just shut up and be quiet for once!' What matters is how we are natural and easy about acknowledging in public the extraverted and introverted sides that make up each of us. That calls for traditional Anglican grace and sensitivity that I need to learn and re-learn as much as the worship leader with whom I began. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Hallowe'en is Coming: some thoughts

It’s that time of year again. The shops are full of lurid spectres, ghosts, creepy-crawlies, masks and skeletons. ‘Halloween is almost here!!! Come to Wilko for all your goulish gear and requirements.’ (Shouldn’t that be ghoulish?) The Yorkshire Trading Company in a Durham shopping mall has a tall skeleton attired in spooky white and wearing a black cross. Dangling above is a big red disc promoting a ‘Bloody Weapon £1’. 

The history is colourful. It poked fun at death and the devil by partying and misrule: lighting fires, dressing up, mumming in the streets or taking part in a danse macabre. People play-acted dead souls who returned to knock on the door looking for hospitality. Much of this goes back to primitive atavistic fears about winter and keeping light and warmth alive during the darkest season of the year and threat posed by the spirits of ancestors if they were not treated with respect. To a pre-modern society all too familiar with cold, flood, disease and famine, it was an ominous time of year, this day midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. 

In the Celtic calendar, Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the gateway of another year, though it’s not certain that the day’s mythology included the dead coming back to haunt the living. In early Christian times, the ambiguities of the season were not forgotten. All Saints Day on 1 November and All Souls next day kept the memory of these life-and-death, light-and-dark motifs. The name Hallowe’en is purely Christian, ‘the eve of All Hallows’. But Christians have differed on whether or not to embrace Hallowe’en ceremonies and the permitted chaos that went with them. Yet the tradition has persisted. In Europe and North America it’s seen as a day of parody and irony. Its defenders say that none of it is meant literally, but like all humour it makes a serious point about what lies beyond the familiar horizons of what we can see and touch.  Others add that the psychoanalytic observation that it acts out the deep fears and anxieties hidden in our psyche, our ‘shadow’. Both are healthy instincts that should be playfully encouraged, not suppressed. 

So if Halloween recognises mystery, and parodies death and the demonic, why don’t I care for it? It’s not the commercialism, rampant, plastic and shoddy though most of it is. It’s more about what it means. 

It brings back a memory. One October night over 30 years ago, the front door bell rang during dinner. My little daughter came with me to see who it was. When I opened the door I was faced with the sight of a full-sized open coffin. It took me a few moments to take it in. There was no-one to be seen: its mischievous young bearers were hiding down the street. It was as if it had arrived out of nowhere, a sinister memento mori meant especially for me. When the trick-and-treat kids came running, I found some sweets for them and they went away satisfied, as did my daughter who did not see why she should be left out; she got her fistful of liquorice allsorts too.

I found it eerily discomfiting. That’s the whole point of Hallowe’en, you say: it’s meant to unsettle you. Well maybe. But there’s a bigger point here. In earlier Christian societies, it belonged to a triduum: three days of religious commemorations. Hallowe’en was the vigil, a day of preparation. Next day came the joyful celebration of the saints brought the light of Christ into our world, and after that, All Souls with its solemn memories of the dead and the opportunity to think about dying and death in the light of the crucified and risen One. It would have made all the difference that the rituals, parody and play-acting were firmly held within a Christian framework. Lose that, and Hallowe’en becomes an end in itself, one more occasion of self-indulgence, an anti-game perhaps, laden with an unhealthy aspect that relishes frightening ourselves and others.  

Some churches ritualise Hallowe’en by devising games and rituals that focus not on darkness but on light, not on 'ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night', but on the wholesome goodness of the saints. My question about that is whether there’s still room to acknowledge the reality of the shadow, all that is threatening, oppressive and demonic in life as the traditional symbols and rituals encouraged. Perhaps what’s needed is a way of ritualising both together within one Hallowe’en ceremony. It could look like a foreshadowing of Good Friday and Easter when we recall both the awfulness of Golgotha, the ‘Place of the Skull’, and what follows, the new life and expectant hope of an empty tomb in the spring time garden. These are the places where truly human beings and saints are formed.

Has this more holistic kind of approach that moves purposefully yet playfully from death to resurrection already been tried? It would be good to know. I can see how it might have the makings of a cathartic ritual and a great party.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Conversation about Faith and Science

I have just come back from a stimulating hour at the Durham Book Festival. I was on a platform in front of an attentive crowd to interview a local author. Tom McLeish is a Professor of Physics at Durham University. He is also a committed Christian and a reader in his local church. He and I have got to know each other in our University roles, have enjoyed theological chat and even played Brahms together (he is a proficient horn player). He has just written a stimulating book called Faith and Wisdom in Science (published earlier this year by OUP). This was the theme of our conversation.

I've read a few books on the topic of 'science and religion' (I'll explain in a moment why I put that phrase in quotation marks). To be honest, some of them were theologically naïve, and the best of the rest were usually worthy but dull. Tom's book is in a class of its own. For one thing, it's so well written. For another, it gives us a fascinating glimpse of the scientific practitioner at work. Tom draws on his own and others' research to illustrate his argument (and not an equation in sight!). The range of his writing is extraordinary: the sciences, music, classical and medieval literature, cultural history, social anthropology and of course theology. For me as a theologian, it was a surprise and a privilege to be given new insights into biblical texts at the hands of a physicist. 

The book's argument is that we need to get away from the sterile antithesis implied by the words 'science and religion'. Wisdom, Tom says, is about recognising that science and religion are both ways of speaking about everything, and therefore, are always about each other. So we need a science of theology and a theology of science: two human narratives that between them triangulate our reading of the world. Only in this way will we get beyond the the argumentative mentality (as practised by Richard Dawkins and others) that in turn pushes theology into indefensible corners such as literal readings of the creation narratives in Genesis. 

The centrepiece of the book, surprisingly, turns out not to be Genesis at all, but the Book of Job. Tom argues that it is here that we see how Hebrew wisdom contemplates the cosmos and begins to discern meanings in it. There is observation about how nature 'works', not least its wild, baffling elements, and there is insight into its moral fabric, including how simplistic theories of rewards and punishments simply can't work. If I were still teaching OT wisdom literature to undergraduates, I would put this Job chapter on my reading list. It's superb, beautifully done.

Wisdom is a contemplative activity as well as a practical attitude to life. And this, says Tom, is how science should be. Before the term 'science' entered common currency, it was known as 'natural philosophy'. Philo-Sophia: the love of wisdom as it is expressed in the natural world. I find it striking that Tom should write about the place of love in scientific endeavour. Not just the love of explanation or of an elegant theory but love of practising the 'art' itself (yes, he writes about science as an art too). Maybe that's been said before, but I found the idea most appealing. 

As a superannuated mathematician, I had more than the odd pang of regret that I no longer inhabit this scientific thought-world. The author has a passion for helping the young to love science and is its best possible advocate. He wants church leaders to become more articulate in the sciences so that the conversation between faith and science comes out of alliance, not confrontation. Tom: almost thou persuadest me to become a scientist (apologies to Acts 26.28 in the King James Version). Or at least enjoy the occasional gentle foray into maths and physics when retirement comes.