About Me

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

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Cathedrals: a success story?

What do we make of the latest statistics about cathedral attendances?

I've been a cathedral dean for half my ministry, and was a canon residentiary before that. So I once knew a fair amount about Coventry Cathedral and Sheffield Cathedral. 12 years at Durham completes a trio of three very different cathedrals (and if you count my years as an honorary vicar choral at Salisbury, that makes four).

In the last decade or so, the rhetoric has been that cathedrals are 'a success story of the Church of England'. (Some immodestly replace the indefinite article with the definite.) I've often wondered what this means, and whether success/failure language ought to belong to the way we perceive church life. In the heritage sector, there is now much more talk about the importance of 'intangible values', not just the things we can observe and measure. I'm not the only one to worry that church growth/fresh expressions language is seduced by the easy appeal of measurables ('bums on seats'). I doubt if these are what ultimately matter when it comes to understanding the dynamics of a faith community.

The metrics of weekday service attendance in cathedrals (which has doubled in 10 years) are telling, but it's not obvious what they mean. Here in Durham, the simple act of transferring the daily eucharist from the early morning to the middle of the day tripled or quadrupled attendances at a stroke. Some worshipper are regulars, but many (often the majority) are guests who are pleased to find that they have stumbled across a service during their visit. It helps to convey the message that cathedrals are active, working churches.

But pace some other deans, I doubt if many Durham Cathedral regulars are coming in preference to attending Sunday worship. I see a number of familiar Sunday faces at all our weekday services (that day's volunteers in the Cathedral, for example). I know plenty of others whom I've met at Sunday services in their parish churches. What weekday worship can offer is the chance of 'double belonging': parish on Sunday, cathedral during the week, especially on festivals and holy days. It's a mark of these people's discipleship that public worship isn't simply a Sunday only business.

The other key aspect of weekday worship is its evangelistic potential. John Wesley famously called the eucharist a 'converting ordinance'. The same is true of the daily office, especially choral evensong. It can come as a surprise to unchurched visitors that the Cathedral is not simply a grand heritage site, and that religion actually goes on inside it. ('So you still hold religious services in this place. How amazing!') I've known people in all the cathedrals I've worked in who came to faith through attending evensong. We have a steady stream of choir parents who are confirmed here as a result of coming to hear their children sing. St Paul says that worship 'shows forth the Lord's death until he comes' - a strongly missionary idea. So cathedrals work hard at making liturgy not only beautiful and transcendent, but also accessible, humane and warm.

Perhaps cathedrals are themselves a genuine 'fresh expression', not like a parish church, not better or worse, simply different. In Durham we rarely use the word 'congregation' because that doesn't really describe the communities that gather here for prayer and worship. They are more like the third order of a religious community, associating to and identifying with the 'foundation' in its discipline of daily and weekly common prayer. The extent of some of our worshippers' utter commitment to daily prayer both moves and shames me.

Cathedral life can mean loss as well as gain. You won't find in a cathedral the same quasi-family intimacy you get in a parish. You won't find the same sense of locality that parish boundaries create. On the other hand, a cathedral can affirm and help develop a person's rule of life by offering a range of services and opportunities for spiritual exploration that are beyond the scope of most parishes. And it's definitely not true to say that most worshippers drift in and out of cathedrals without properly 'belonging'. A recent study of cathedrals has found, perhaps surprisingly, that cathedral people feel a strong sense of loyalty and commitment to their place. In all the cathedrals I have worked in, their communities have been made up of loyally committed people. But they practise a different kind of 'belonging'.

I don't think this aspect of cathedral ecclesiology has been sufficiently studied. It would be good to set a theologian this task so that cathedrals can understand 'success' in more nuanced ways, and can shape their mission in the light of it.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Seasons of Durham Life 2: November

'Now is the time for the burning of the leaves' says Lawence Binyon of the late autumn. The trees are stripped bare. It can take you by surprise if there is an overnight storm or a sudden sharp frost. This year, November has brought calm, warm days as if to coax the golden leaves to stay a little longer. But they know it is time. And now the trees in the College and on the river banks are almost bare. The peninsula is bedding down for winter.

November is an up-and-down month in the Cathedral. It begins on an upbeat with All Saints' Day: all light and splendour and warmth. But next day it's All Souls when we remember our dead. So the liturgy takes us from alleluias to 'requiem aeternam' in the space of just a few hours. All Souls sets the tone for so much of the month: elegiac, reflective, sombre. By now it is entirely dark at evensong each day. The Cathedral vaults are lost in the gloom, though they still echo to the singing of choristers. Sometimes there are just a handful of worshippers strung out along the length of the quire, almost lost in the dark 17th century stalls. The nave may be quite empty. 

Regulars in cathedrals wouldn't wish it otherwise. When you have several hundred thousand visitors streaming through the Cathedral, you welcome these weeks marked by a quieter pace between October half term and Advent when it all starts up again. It can feel like a mini-Lent, a chance to breathe and take stock. The Cathedral has its own tranquil beauty in this quiet empty season. 'Ordinary time' is a precious gift in the liturgical calendar, just as it is in human life.

The 2nd or 3rd Sunday of November is Remembrance, with Armistice Day close by. The service that culminates in the two minute silence and act of remembrance echoes the reflective character of the month. In the 12 years I have been Dean, I have been intrigued by how big this service has become. It's interesting how many students and young people come nowadays. Undoubtedly, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq have a lot to do with it, along with a deeper awareness of what we owe to our armed services, and how fragile peace really is. And perhaps, too, a greater sense of citizenship and how ceremony in public life, whether it is celebration or lament, can bind a society together. 

But November is also marked by a number of celebrations that are special to Durham. There are red-letter days marked by joyful services and processions as we remember those who have played a part in the story of  North East England. St Margaret of Scotland, a great 11th century friend of the Cathedral, and St Hild, the foremost female leader of the Saxon church in the 7th century, are commemorated on successive days when we go in procession to their altars swinging the incense and singing hymns. Other Durham people remembered this month include the much-loved 20th century Archbishop Michael Ramsey in whose memory a new stained-glass window was installed a few years ago, and the 15th century Bishop Thomas Langley, Chancellor of England, whose tomb is in the Galilee Chapel and who founded the two schools associated with the Cathedral.

The litany of famous North East names are gathered up in another November occasion, the annual celebration of Founders and Benefactors (or 'Bounders and Malefactors' as it is affectionately known). This service on the last Sunday of the church year brings people together from across the North East to celebrate the generosity of past ages towards our great public institutions. Civic leaders come to give thanks for the life of Durham City, its University and the Cathedral without which neither would have existed. The service culminates in a procession to St Cuthbert's shrine where posies are laid on his tomb as our tribute to the humble man of Lindisfarne to whom the North of England looks as the fountainhead and inspiration of so much of our past and present. This year we celebrate the centenary of this service in its modern form, though its roots go back to the Middle Ages when a 'Liber Vitae' recording the names of the Priory's benefactors was laid on the altar in their memory each year. We now have a modern Liber Vitae which names all who have supported the Cathedral through generous giving and loyal voluntary service in recent times, and this too is laid on the high altar together with the facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

After this burst of colourful splendour, it is back to a few more days to reflect as the daylight continues to fade, and the year grows old and prepares to slip gently into its night. By then it will be Advent. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Seasons of Durham Life 1: October

October feels like the start of the new year in the Cathedral. It’s true that the rhythm of Cathedral meetings is already a month old, the Chorister School term has begun, the choir is back from its summer break so that once more daily choral evensong is restored to us - how we have missed it!

But more than anything, October in Durham means the influx of thousands of students. No sooner have the summer tourists gone than it’s time for another invasion. The freshers make up the first wave – returners have a few days grace. You step out of the medieval gate of the precinct and find the Bailey festooned with welcome banners over the colleges, the narrow streets heaving with young people, bewildered parents with cars packed to the gunwales, baffled by Durham’s arcane traffic system while delivering their offspring for the first time. On Volvo Sunday as it’s called, residents don’t try to drive off the peninsula. It only takes one driver in a big 4x4 attempting a 9-point turn in a street no wider than a car’s length and you lose the will to live.

All new students are presented in the Cathedral to be matriculated by college. This is the formal ceremony of admission to the University. The name comes from the matricula or register that a representative student from each college signs during the occasion. There are so many students that it takes five ceremonies to get all of them through. For most, it will be their first time inside the Cathedral; for some, their first time inside any Christian church.

I scan their faces. Most are expectant, some look anxious or uncertain about what is about to happen, a few fold their arms as if defying the occasion to move them. How they dress tells you a lot. As Dean and ex officio member of the University Council, I sit on the platform with the Vice-Chancellor and senior staff and give a welcome. I tell the students that I hope that they will always feel at home in this great place, whatever their faith. I invite them to make the most of what it offers. I also say that students bring great liveliness to Durham, and that’s a gift to us, despite the grumbles of a few locals about how the University is ‘taking over’ our little city.

Going to services is part of life for surprising number of students. I say surprising because the environment of higher education in Britain is mostly resolutely secular. They head for their college chapels, or for churches in the city of all styles and denominations, or both; and some of them become regulars at the Cathedral. Some were brought up in faith and are committed worshippers. Some have recently found faith and are excited by its life-changing impact on their lives. Some are curious, some come because of the building, the liturgy and the music. October always sees a noticeable increase in congregations both on Sundays and weekdays. One or two even find their way to the daily service of morning prayer (which we say at 8.45am: later than most cathedrals, not because we are lazy but because it’s an hour when some students at least will be up and about and on their way to lectures or supervisions). Some start volunteering in the Cathedral as welcomers, servers or singers in one of the voluntary choirs.

You mustn’t think that the Cathedral’s life is dominated by the University. It isn’t.  But when you are working and praying (and in the case of the clergy living) cheek-by-jowl with it, indeed, when you are historically the institution that gave it birth, it’s understandable that it features prominently. This is especially true at the beginning and end of the academic year (when students flock into the Cathedral once more, this time for their graduation ceremonies).

What other cathedral has such opportunities for outreach to students at such a key time in their development? Hundreds walk past it, even through it, every day on their way to their studies, shopping or socialising. Some of these young men and women will be in positions of great power and influence in the future. We owe it to them to grasp this opportunity. And we try to be alive to how the gifts we inherit in Durham – our wonderful building, its community, its saints, its heritage, its music – are among the tools God has given us to use in this mission that is both his and ours.

Seasons of Durham Life: a monthly blog

The seasons of the year are like tides that ebb and flow. We experience them as peoples and societies, as churches, as local communities, and in our personal lives as men, women and children. To change the metaphor, each time of year has its own distinctive colour, its own native accent.

No two months are alike. The turning of the seasons with their solstices and equinoxes, the public calendar of holidays, celebrations and commemorations, the liturgical cycles of feasts and fasts of every faith, our own personal and family anniversaries: all these go into the rich and complex colouring that makes up the year.

I’ve been thinking about this during the autumn. Recovering from surgery in October, I have had time to take gentle walks around Durham’s river banks. To me they have never looked lovelier than this autumn. Perhaps that’s simply because in convalescence I have had to walk slowly, so I have noticed them, watched the leaves turn from green to gold to brown, then fall and return to the earth in coppery piles underneath the trees that gave them birth.

I thought I'd blog on this unending variety show of the changing seasons. To anchor it in a particular place and community, I’m going to try to reflect the distinctiveness of each month in Durham Cathedral starting with October. Maybe it will shed a little light on what goes on in cathedrals from one month to the next, indeed, something of what a jobbing dean gets up to. This isn’t stuff that tends to feature in my blog  - I almost said because of its sheer ordinariness. But that’s precisely the point: it’s in the ordinary as much as the unusual or spectacular that we see, and begin to understand.

So you may like to read on to the next post on this blog. This first instalment is a belated reflection on October. November will follow soon.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A Comet and a Painting: can Philae inspire us to face the apocalypse?

Regulars know that I take to blogging as a way of responding to what has stimulated my imagination. I can't complain of a lack of material this month.

1950 was a good year for Comets (the capital 'C' is meant). Late in 1949, the De Havilland prototype jet aircraft 'Comet' that some of us remember was rolled out to great acclaim. Tests began in earnest in 1950. Meanwhile in the altogether vaster arena of the Solar System, two key theories about comets were first proposed. One was the 'dirty snowball' concept about a comet's make-up; the other that comets originate in an obscure region beyond the planets in the Oorst Cloud that surrounds the Solar System. The next year, the theory that a comet's tail is caused by the solar wind acting upon it was also put forward. All three are now established as central to our understanding of what comets are and how they behave.

All this in the year I was born....

What's prompts this recollection is of course the news in the past hours that the Philae-Lander has settled on the surface of Comet 67P. While the status of the landing craft's security and functionality is not yet certain, everyone agrees that it is a momentous achievement on the part of the European Space Agency.

Two years ago, I blogged on the journeys of Voyager One and Two (it's still on this site: 28 October 2012, Now Voyager! Travelling the Solar System). These journeys to give us stupendous images of the Solar System's outer planets were already the stuff of dreams. But Philae's landing on her - and surely now our very own - comet makes Voyager seem like a sight-seeing trip. I tweeted that the bouncy landing, not at all wanted by the scientists, had something of a jump for joy about it. Maybe that echoes what many of us were feeling: the sheer exhilaration and gratitude that we are alive to see this day. I said that it would take a Thomas Hardy to do justice to the poetry of this event.

There's a metaphor here. 

I don't know whether Philae will help change the consciousness of the human race. We dared to hope as much of humanity's first steps on the Moon. We were right: extending horizons has always been a goal of human exploration not primarily as an act of colonisation or possession (whatever was intended at the time), rather enlarging the imagination and learning to see ourselves in new ways. 'Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp' said Robert Browning in Andrea del Sarto: whatever else he means, it must be to do with our potential to transcend and renew ourselves, take hold of a larger vision of life; 'or what's a heaven for?'

As a person of faith, I still want to say that events like today's still have the capacity to change minds and hearts. Science is God-given, even if God isn't always recognised in scientific endeavour. But I am a lot less sanguine than I was in those heady days of the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969. When I saw today's image of a leg of Philae perched under what seemed like a rocky cliff, I didn't grasp the distortion of perspective. Simply as a photograph, it reminded me at once of something very different: those vast apocalyptic canvasses painted by Northumberland artist John Martin of Haydon Bridge (whatever had that lovely little village done to him to beget a son of such morbidity? Maybe in our retirement we'll walk the John Martin trail through the woods and gorges of the South Tyne and Allen Valleys and find out). In his darkly grand vision, human beings, all our civilisation and achievement, is depicted as transient and insignificant compared to the mountains, rocks and cliffs that rear up on all sides only to fall on and crush hapless men, women and children. See for example The Great Day of His Wrath, the third painting of his famous Last Judgment triptych. (If you Google it you'll find his paintings online.)

Why, when I saw the Philae image today, did I associate to that painting without hesitation? I think because in my mind from a few hours earlier was yet another shocking report from Syria about the plight of millions of innocent people in despair at the cruelty of their fellow human beings. Philae delights us and excites nothing but admiration, yet still there terror on every side. It's the shadow that falls across us all, even in our best, our most ecstatic moments. We are perched precariously under a huge and ominous cliff.

But then I mused: if ESA can pull off such a feat on a far-distant comet through concerted international collaboration, surely the four deadly Horsemen of the Apocalypse could be tamed if there is the will to do it? It's a stupendous ask, but as Advent approaches with its bitter-sweet themes of Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven, the world's peoples should galvanise one another to find the same intentional energy and collaborative focus to apply ourselves to constructing a better world. People of faith are already taking a lead. We may think that the Philae-Lander mocks our inability to make any lasting difference. But I believe it can also inspire us to act collectively to save our planet and its peoples. We must make sure it does. There isn't an alternative.

Isn't this what God calls us to as we gaze on a remote comet and marvel?

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Germany: thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

The week Coventry will mark its most significant anniversary of modern times. On the night of 14 November 1940 the German Luftwaffe sent 515 bombers over the medieval city and destroyed it. The operation was code-named 'Moonlight Sonata'. 568 people are known to have perished. The Cathedral was reduced to a ruin. 

50 years later, I was on the staff of the 'new' Cathedral. It fell to me to devise an act of worship to commemorate the city's destruction. It was a big challenge because the service was bound to be heavily freighted with symbolism. Many of those who would be attending were survivors of that terrible night. They had lost members of their families and seen their homes destroyed in the firestorm. Listening to their stories would be the key to understanding what we needed to do in the light of how they remembered half a century after the event and what meanings they attached to it. 

For me, an unforgettable focus of the service lay in its two principal guests: the President of the newly united Germany Richard von Weizsäcker, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Because of the central place Coventry Cathedral has always given to forgiveness and reconciliation, we wanted to explore how these senior representatives of Germany and the UK might publicly recognise each other's presence during the service. After months of negotiation, it was agreed that there would be a simple exchange of symbolic gifts representing our two nations, a handshake, and a form of words for each of them that included the prayer 'May God bless the people of your country'. You can imagine the power of that moment: so small in scale, so huge in significance. 

Earlier that day in the ruins, another remarkable event had taken place. It was unplanned: only a few people were there to witness it. A Luftwaffe pilot who had flown a bomber over Coventry in 1940 had decided to come to the commemoration. By then of course, he was an elderly man. He arrived alone, walked up the nave and stood silently in front of the rubble altar gazing at the gaunt charred cross that had been made out of two scorched roof timbers that had fallen across each other during the fire. He took in the words carved in the wall behind the altar: 'Father, forgive'. And quietly he began to weep. One of the Cathedral clergy happened to be there, took him by the hand and embraced him. He said it was a transfiguring moment of his life, as if the whole world's history of alienation, bitterness, bloodshed and cruelty had fallen away. In that moment, reconciliation became real. 

I had these memories in mind as I watched the beautiful, poignant ceremony at the Cenotaph on TV this morning. I am always moved by it, but today I was especially touched by the Commonwealth High Commissioners laying wreaths, and then, for the first time, the Irish Ambassador - a marvellous, conciliatory gesture. But then I asked myself: where were the ambassadors of our allied nations in the wars of the past century? There was a powerful interview with a Dutch veteran who spoke of the huge debt Holland owed the British for its liberation, despite the calamity of Arnhem. I may have missed it, but we did not hear anything from the French, the Russians or the Americans. Are their ambassadors invited to the Cenotaph? Are they invited to lay wreaths?

And inevitably, the logic pushed me to ask: what about Germany? Is that nation represented in any official way in our Remembrance ceremonies? My experience at Coventry, not to mention many visits to Germany, suggests that it is not as difficult as it sounds to make small but important gestures of friendship on these vitally important national occasions. Germany has been prominent among our continental partners since 1945 in helping build the common European home that we share. Anglo-German friendships flourish all over Britain through sporting, civic and cultural exchanges. Is it not time to give this public recognition on this most solemn day? 

I don't want to be insensitive to the feelings of ex-service men and women, though I have never come across rancour or bitterness in any of those I have known. The opposite, in fact. But if you ask why this touches me personally, as well as being suggested by my Christian faith, it's all part of my family history. As the child of a British father and a German mother, I began to learn at an early age that nursing ill-feeling is simply feeding a poison-tree, to quote William Blake. My Jewish mother and grandmother had been driven out of Germany by the Nazis and had lost relatives and friends in the death camps. My father served with the UK armed forces but I never recalled him uttering a word of hostility against his former enemy. 

Today, 9 November, is not only Remembrance Sunday. This year, it also happens to mark the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany in 1989. All thoughts in Germany today have been on the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the end of division, the hopes for the new future that opened up for the German people a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps this is the time to think in new ways about those who did us grievous harm but now count themselves among our friends. Not 'forgive and forget' - reconciliation is far more difficult and costly than that. But maybe, 'we can't forget, nor should we. But we can begin to forgive'. It could add an important dimension not only to what we remember today, but how to remember well. 

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. He prayed for them from the cross in those words quoted in the ruins at Coventry, 'Father, forgive'. Nothing less than this is needed if we are truly to heal memories. You could say that this is how we 'remember forward' towards the better world we hope and pray for and, on this day, publicly pledge ourselves to help build. 

More about Germany in the two previous blogs inspired by Neil MacGregor's magnificent series of programmes on BBC Radio 4. 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

'Germany - memories of a nation'

I've been signed off work while recovering from surgery. So with time hanging heavy on the sofa, I went to the iPlayer and downloaded all 30 of Neil MacGregor's programmes on Germany - Memories of a Nation. The series ended yesterday, and inspired me to blog about the part Germany has played in my own life. 

I've no hesitation in saying that this series has been among the very best radio listening this year. BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service all give me huge enjoyment each day, so that's a big claim to make. Neil MacGregor is a consummate radio performer - suave, authoritative, interesting, personable, and with just the right degree of tentativeness in his judgments that makes you want to go on thinking about what he has said. Whether it is the Holy Roman Empire, Dürer's engravings, the death camps, hyper-inflation or beer and sausages, he has the gift of a born educator which is to make us curious. I hate to invoke what's rapidly becoming a cliché, but it does seem to me that he is something of a national treasure.

So what do I take away from these excellent programmes? Here are three (tentative) observations about Germany that have been taking shape in my mind as I've been listening. 

First, the infinite capacity of the German people for invention. I guess that what inspired MacGregor to embark on this series was the endless creativity of Germans in the arts, whether it is literature, painting, architecture, sculpture, music or performance art. Most of the 'objects' which act as focal points of the German story are art-works of various kinds: the coins of the Hanseatic city-state of Hamburg, the imagery on Weimar bank notes, a painting of Goethe, Gutenburg's Bible, Ludwig of Bavaria's Valhalla presiding over the Danube, the exquisite sculptures of Riemenschneider and Barlach, the Meissen porcelain hippopotamus, Bauhaus design, even the Volkswagen. The list is endless. Add to that a soundtrack drawing on German music from Bach to Weill and you have a true Gesamtkunstwerk, a 'complete art work' that embraces virtually all that human creativity is capable of. 

Of course, Germany is not unique in this respect. The same could be said of France, Italy, Spain, Britain and the Americas, not to mention the great civilisations of the Middle and Far East. We shouldn't try to evaluate the cultural achievements of one people against another. This was precisely the mistake Germany made under the Third Reich in its mindless pursuit of Wagner's 'holy German art' and its purge of all that the Nazis reckoned to be 'unGerman'. MacGregor quotes Heine's prescient saying, 'where today they burn books, tomorrow they burn people': what other people has ever treated its own heritage so callously? But no one is going to deny that the contribution of German-speaking peoples to the world's cultural legacy has been immense. Without it, we would be immeasurably the poorer. 

My second observation is perhaps a special case of the first. It's the German propensity for myth-making. It takes a certain kind of mentality to invent stories about your people that turn out to be pervasive and formative. In this, the Germans have been past masters. I'm thinking of how, after the collapse of Roman civilisation in Northern Europe, it was a 'German' (yes, I know it's an anachronism to use that word) who reinvented the idea of a people united under a single figurehead and bound to one another by common values and traditions. Charlemagne, or Karl der Gross (depending on whether you tell the story the French or the German way) created the notion of a Holy Roman Empire that gave identity and meaning to the disparate Allemanic world for more than a thousand years. His coronation at Aachen in 800AD launched a myth that even today has not lost its potency. 

This was just the beginning. In his turn, Luther's Bible helped fix the German language into a vehicle that could articulate the voice of a whole people, just as Shakespeare and the King James Bible did for England. The poetry of Goethe, the paintings of Kaspar David Friedrich and the folk-tales collected by the Brothers Grimm helped create the romantic idea of Gemany as a mythical northern land of forests, mountains, light, shadow and far horizons. Next came Bismarck whose Prussian determination forged the new myth of a United Germany, fought for with 'iron and blood', 'Deutschland über alles', meaning not world domination so much as putting 'Germany' as a nation above all other loyalties to region, state or locality. The Nazis' consummate myth-making about Aryan supremacy was only another iteration of a long series of imaginative re-inventions. Which is why, if I have a criticism of the series, I missed a programme about Wagner and his own capacity for mythologising, surely a key influence on the distorted vision of Hitler and the Third Reich.

My final observation is something I hadn't thought about before listening to these programmes. It's a throw-away remark MacGregor makes that while the public art of other nations celebrates their victories and honours their citizens' achievements, so much 20th century German art does the exact opposite. It memorialises shame, sorrow and defeat. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the Topography of Terror where the SS once had their headquarters, Barlach's grieving soldiers in the war memorial at Magdeburg, Käthe Kollwitz's heart-searching etchings of bereaved mothers are among many Gedenkstätten where contemporary German art memorialises the tragedy of its own story. There is a strain of melancholia in the German psyche that is exactly captured in Dürer's famous etching of that name, and which perhaps helps explain the paradox of its people. If every nation has its archetypal flaw, perhaps this is Germany's. (It raises the question of what the British or French flaws might be.... Scope for another blog?)

I was especially struck by one programme that focused on the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp, the 'beech woods' where Goethe used to walk. The inscription says, not 'Arbeit Macht Frei' as at Auschwitz, but 'Jedem Das Seine', 'to each their own'. It's a Latin saying quoted by Luther; Bach wrote a cantata with that title. The elegant contemporary lettering was designed by Franz Ehrich, an inmate who had been a Bauhaus artist. This to me captured the paradox of Gemany: how a dark shadow falls even in places of inspiration and beauty; or put it the other way round, even in the terrible crucible of suffering and death that Nazi Germany became, the creative instinct could never be extinguished. Someone bothered to affirm the best a human being was capable of, an unconscious protest against all that diminished and demeaned.

Today, 25 years after the Iron Curtain was torn down and Germany became a united nation once again, there are still painful memories of a dark past to be healed. In this respect, I think Germany has found a language with which to acknowledge, 'own' and speak about its tragedy and shame in a way that France, with its own conflicted story of defeat, occupation, Nazi collaboration and anti-semitism has found much harder. Armistice Day can help us all to feel and remember, not just loyally but accurately. That MacGregor's fine series concluded at the Reichstag on the threshold of Remembrance weekend and the anniversary of German reunification is surely an intended part of the narrative. It has certainly made this listener think - and be grateful. 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Germany - memories of childhood

Neil MacGregor's wonderful 30-part BBC Radio 4 series Germany: Memories of a Nation came to an end today. 

Germany has always been part of my life. My very earliest childhood memories are of Germany in the early 1950s. As I've written before, my mother was born into a German Jewish family. She came to England as a refugee in 1938. After the war my parents needed to go back to Germany to sort out the family's affairs. I recall that on one of these trips we were in an attic room in some modest B&B. I was lying in a cot which tells you how young I must have been. Through the little window across the street was a church with a huge copper-green spire. Its two bells were tolling a semitone apart; to me even as an infant, the elemental sound somehow bore into my soul, seeming to be filled with both an ethereal beauty and a profound longing. 

The fact that my very first memory is both musical and religious makes me stop and think. Then I remember playing with toy cars and bulging pine cones on the rush floor under the tables of our Gasthaus restaurant. I could make out the tips of pine trees outside, so it was either the Harz Mountains or the Black Forest where I know from photographs we spent time. Another recollection is of the island of Nordeney in the North Sea. I was amazed and not a little alarmed by the artificial wave machine in the local swimming pool, my first experience of reliable German 'Vorsprung durch Technik'. 

My mixed parentage made me a European: the first five years of my life seemed happily suspended between two languages, histories and cultures. My mother had become a fluent English speaker as a nurse in London during the war, and my father learned German when he met her. So our home was bilingual: I'm told I spoke German with a distinct North-Rhine accent (my grandmother was from Cologne and my mother from Düsseldorf). I was read to and sung to in German as well as English. My father found German music stations on the immense wireless set that stood proudly in the corner of the living room and whose valves took many minutes to warm up and start buzzing and glowing. 

What was never spoken of (after all, I was under 5) was what my mother's family had undergone in Nazi Germany. I only gradually began to piece this together and even now am learning about aspects of it that I had not known before. The first stirrings of awareness happened when I went to school. I must have picked up early on that in 1955, a mere 10 years after the end of the war, it didn't do to be heard speaking German in the street. When I was collected at the school gate, I insisted that we always speak English. Soon I had dropped German altogether. I never quite lost an intuitive understanding of how the language works, but in adult life it felt as though I needed to learn it all over again - one of many regrets as I look back and think about what has been lost.

As a teenager I fell under the spell of France where I spent my gap year. The nearest I got to Germany was in its eastern province of Alsace where I worked for a few months near the beautiful city of Strasbourg. I lived with a Protestant family whose Grand' Maman could recall German and French battle lines drawn on opposite sides of the road in her village during the Great War. Alsace had been part of Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, to be liberated and French again after 1918. The church services were mostly in German, and everyone spoke the local Alsatian patois, a Germanic dialect incomprehensible to all but the natives. In a land so fought-over, it was understandable that attitudes to Germany were ambiguous. Maybe, I reckoned, you could be a Francophile or a Germanophile, a Romantic or a Teuton but not both.

Since those days I have been back to Germany many times to preach and take part in events in the Rhineland, Bavaria, Dresden (in the days of the Democratic Republic), Berlin and on the Baltic Coast of Schleswig-Holstein. I began to re-connect with the country, acknowledge my roots, and recognise my debt to it for the way it has shaped so much of my life, often unconsciously. This hasn't always been easy when its history is so coloured by terror and shame. 20 years ago in Düsseldorf, I went to the Goethestrasse where my mother's family had lived. It is a street of fine 19th century villas, but where her house should have been, there was a gap. An allied bomb had scored a direct hit; now an unlovely block of flats had been built on the site. It was a painful discovery (though if by some miracle my mother had still been living there, that bomb would have seen to it that neither she nor I would be here today). 

These are among the reveries that have been reawakened by Neil MacGregor's series on Germany. This blog started out as a response, but it rapidly turned autobiographical. Should I apologise - or is this part of understanding why I've found these programmes so stimulating - and, to my surprise, moving? I'll write a Part 2 that tries to reflect on some of the issues this series has raised. It feels timely. This weekend sees not only Remembrance Sunday in this Great War centenary year, but also the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany in 1989, not to mention the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938 which many see as the true igniting of the Nazi Holocaust. Food for thought during the coming days. 

Meanwhile, you'll find all the broadcasts on the BBC iPlayer where I think they will be available for a year. Well worth tuning into. 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Poppies: memories and many meanings

I wrote about poppies last year. You write about them at your peril....

This week I read a piece about an ITV newscaster who had opted not to wear a poppy on screen. It wasn't that she was against it: she did wear one when not in front of the camera. Her argument was that ITV didn't allow her to wear anything as a broadcaster that identified her as a supporter of other charities such as breast cancer awareness, mental health or child poverty (I've forgotten her actual examples). So why, she argued, should the poppy, paid for and worn in support of the Royal British Legion, be an exception to that rule? 

I admire the logic and the ethics, but I'm afraid she is misreading the symbolism. She hasn't quite cottoned on to what the public mostly think they are doing when they wear the poppy. In social sciences-speak, she has got the semiotics wrong. 

The poppy is far more than the logo of a particular veterans' charity. As the poppy field in the Tower of London moat demonstrates, it is not quite like most other symbols. The fact that millions of people have already visited that display speaks for itself about the universal meaning the poppy has acquired in the 100 years since it became the emblem of loss and bloodshed 'in Flanders Fields'. I don't say that it's unique - national flags and religious symbols are other instances - but it's rare for an 'invented' symbol, especially a modern one, to cross over successfully from restricted to universal meanings. This is in contrast to 'natural' symbols like light, motherhood or the journey which have always carried archetypal meanings.

In today's Guardian there's a trenchant piece about the Tower of London poppy field by Jonathan Jones.  He argues that as a symbol, 'poppies muffle the truth' by substituting for the sheer horror of the Great War a generalised grief laden with noble notions of honour and pride. It is too beautiful for its own truth. 'I strongly believe that an adequate work of art about the war has to show its horror, not sweep the grisly facts under a red carpet of artificial flowers.' As a purely British symbol, it does not even include the fallen of allied nations such as the French, let alone the slaughtered youth of Germany. What is more, it airbrushes out of John McCrae's poem the clear imperative to the living to 'take up our quarrel with the foe'. And it certainly doesn't do justice to Wilfred Owen's bitter protest against the nationalist rhetoric of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori which is quoted by Jones, as it so often is in protest pieces. 

There's much that is persuasive about this argument (which doesn't deserve the Daily Mail's cheap jibe of 'sneering' against an earlier online article by the author). Yet once again I find myself asking whether it's got the semiotics right. It's too either-or. The trouble with symbols is that they are so complex and elusive, 'multivalent' as the theorists say. They never only mean one thing or the other. What may promote beautiful high-minded thoughts in one person can have the effect of drawing the next person into a raw experience of horror and despair. It's never possible to use the language of 'should' or 'must' when talking about symbols because the way we read and respond to them is a highly complex matter of shared meanings, collective and personal experience, cultural history, social psychology and emotional make-up.

I doubt that I am speaking merely for myself when I say that when I wear the poppy, I don't restrict its meaning only to the fallen of our nation or its allies. Jones mentions Christopher Clark's brilliant book on the complex origins of the Great War, The SleepwalkersWhen I read it earlier this year, I was thinking about how we would memorialise the centenary of the war's outbreak on 4 August 1914 in Durham Cathedral. One of the readings offered at that vigil as the lights in the nave were extinguished one by one was 'In Flanders Fields'. Far from seeming incongruous in a setting where we intended to remember all the war's victims, it was in fact profoundly moving because the words and symbols were able to move us from the particular to the universal, from the tragedy of individual losses to the catastrophe of the whole human condition.

I mentioned religious symbols as among those that have 'crossed over' from the particular to the universal. Take the Cross. Like the poppy it is capable of an infinite variety of readings. Historically it stands for terrible suffering exacted on the innocent by unspeakable cruelty. 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' Yet it soon came to stand for the fruits of that awful death as well: reconciliation, forgiveness, promise, peace, even triumph. It's an 'also', precisely not merely 'instead of'. You can see this development of a rich and complex idea happening in the pages of the New Testament just as you see it in the different ways people have responded to the visual image, indeed, in the different ways we find ourselves responding to that same symbol at different times in our lives. I think Jones' simplistic complaint about how the poppy has degraded and softened the symbolism of war would not stand up to scrutiny in the case of the cross which strikes me as a remarkably similar development. 

So I shall continue to wear my poppy. I do it with grief for so much loss and waste of human life, with shame for the folly of the human race and my part in it, with sorrow for the crucifixions of so many in the conflicts of our day, with prayer for the peace and healing of the world, and yes, with gratitude and pride for the courage, loyalty and service of so many past and present who have laid down their lives in war. I do it too as an act of personal resolve: to play my part in handing on the 'quarrel' with all that is cruel and wrong to the next generation so that together we can build a kinder, better, more peaceable world for those who will inherit it from us.