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

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Cathedral with a North East Accent

I have just drafted an essay on Durham as a 'northern cathedral'. It is due to be published later this year in a collection of pieces about being the church in the North of England.
It's been an intriguing assignment. I have always had a feel for the gritty North Eastern qualities of this place. But it's harder to put into words. What is the 'Idea of North' (to quote the title of a beautiful book by Peter Davidson)? What is the idea of the Christian North? How does a place like Durham Cathedral embody it? What does it mean theologically?

My essay focuses on three aspects: the Cathedral's northern 'sense of place' (the kind of thing I was trying to set out in Landscapes of Faith), its northern Christian stories (especially those of Cuthbert, Bede and the Prince Bishops), and its mission activities today that have a distinctive northern 'accent'.

I am still trying to understand something I began to realise 30 years ago when I was Vicar of Alnwick in Northumberland. I had never lived in the North before, and I soon began to learn that in some ways, to a Londoner, the North is another country: they do things differently there. I read Bede and learned about the northern saints. But I found myself unmoved by the uncritical way they were often talked about by enthusiasts for 'Celtic Christianity'. The purple prose and romanticised imagery somehow didn't do justice to their sheer strangeness. It all felt a bit too cosy.

I began to go to Holy Island for quiet days. There I listened to the elements. Sometimes they were still and serene, inviting me to go deeper into the contemplation of God and the discovery of myself. That was not necessarily reassuring: even the bluest of skies can be bracing rather than soothing. Often they were wild and disturbing, shaking the foundations of a comfortable faith as in Donne's 'Batter my heart Three-Person'd God'.

Both are aspects of the Saxon saints: their quest for a faith that was unafraid of truth. But one word kept coming back to me as I returned again and again to Lindisfarne. It still does. It's exposure. As I got to know the North East, I seemed to find it everywhere. I wrote a poem that tried to sum up what this spirituality meant for me. (To my surprise it won a Northumberland poetry prize. I have hardly written poetry since. Moral: even modest success doesn't necessarily encourage the Muse.) I called it 'Northern Saints'.

You look in vain for some
Shelter at our northern
Shrines.  That is their
Forbidding glory.  These are
Bleak places without
Trees.  Nothing much
Grows here except
Holiness.  They have been
Hospitable only to
God and to prayer.  Yet a
Presence has touched the
Uncurious soil.  Its
Resonances linger on,
Bricked up beneath
Jarrow’s forlorn pavements,
Battered by the
East wind’s assault on
Lindisfarne, or
Congealed in the hardened
Veins of men pitted against
Northumberland.  You might be

Tempted to say that these shrines are
God-forsaken, for he has been
This way once and passed on.  Yet their very
Emptiness is religious.  There is
No hiding here, no
Evading his absence, no
Obscuring comfort to help you
Pretend.  Naked the
Sullen land confronts the
Souring sky, and the
Sharp line of their
Meeting is the etched-out
Truth of the north, that in such
Cruel juxtapositions is the
Holiness that forges

Saints. Religion should be as
Exposed as this.

There is more than a hint of R. S.Thomas and his poetry of the via negativa. But the last line still seems right.

At the end of my essay I say that I have tried to hint (no more than that) at ways in which I see Durham Cathedral as rooted in the distinctiveness of North East England not as something that is merely incidental, but as an essential aspect of its Christian character and identity. The 'idea of north', which includes the idea of a Christian north, is perhaps an aspect of Durham Cathedral’s unique contribution to the witness of the church in England.
To put it simply, its northern landscape setting, its history and culture, its people and communities and its relationship with locality and region, Durham Cathedral is perhaps able to affirm, in a highly public and visible way, that God cares about North East England as part of his love for the whole of creation. It can pose questions raised in the titles of the two books I mentioned earlier: 'what kind of God' is at work in the North to point to the kingdom of justice and peace? And what does it mean to talk about ‘the kingdom of God and North East England’? It can help to interpret difficult theological and spiritual questions as the life of this region poses them. It must make the most of its assets as a glorious edifice on its rocky Wear-girt acropolis to which so many are drawn.

This is at the heart of what it means to be a northern cathedral. Its unique history and heritage can, and must, be put to work for the service of the gospel in the present and point to the future that God is creating. But the ancient story of Cuthbert and his community give us another, more primitive, model of mission to discover: learning once again to be a mobile cathedral, travelling light, moving out to the people of our time as God’s love for the world always does, here in North East England, and everywhere.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Women in the Episcopate - almost there!

This is a great day for the Church of England and for Anglicans across the world. Today, the Reverend Libby Lane is consecrated in York, the first woman to be ordained bishop in the Church of England. A large crowd will be gathering at the Minster as I write. So with millions of others, believers and well-wishers, I want to offer congratulations and prayers. Every pioneer has the privilege of becoming a name in the history books. It is quite something for the Church of England to have arrived at this point after such a long journey.

I've blogged before about how, on the night before I was ordained my Bishop sat me down and said: 'Michael, you do realise, don't you, that this year the General Synod has agreed that there are no theological objections to the ordination of women? This is the position of the church in which tomorrow you become a public minister. If you don't like the idea of female priests and bishops, now is the time to step back.' That was in 1975. It has taken 40 years for a woman to become a bishop in England. Exactly the time it took the Hebrews to enter the promised land. And as in that story, not without many ordeals on the way. Libby is privileged to be the 'first'.

But it will also be a burden she has to carry. She will be under intense scrutiny from all sides, and not just within the church. People will be watching her to see how she inhabits the role of a bishop, what dimension her womanhood adds to the episcopate, how she holds on to her sense of female self in a hierarchy that will still be overwhelmingly male for years to come. We all want her to flourish and are sure that she will make an excellent bishop. If we had any doubts, they were laid to rest by the testimony paid by her charming curate on TV today. When a curate speaks well of their vicar, always believe them! And I hope and believe that even those opposed to idea of female bishops wish her well and with the rest of us hold her in their prayers.

I've added almost there to the title of this blog. Why is today not yet the end of the journey? For three reasons.

The first is simply a matter of time. Only when there are roughly as many women as men among the bishops will we be able to say that equality has been achieved. It will come, though the gender balance of the House of Commons suggests that it may take longer than we would like.

The second reason is more intractable. It's a great pity that Libby's consecration has been coloured by the debate, not all of it good tempered, about the consecration of a traditionalist bishop in a few days' time. The Archbishop of York has requested those bishops who are present at that service and who have themselves ordained women to exercise 'gracious restraint' in not laying hands on a man who does not endorse female ordination. The Archbishop includes himself in this. That isn't my theme today, so I won't say more now other than to regret that divisions that get acted out ritually in the worship of the church cast a real shadow over what should be a joyous celebration. There may be bishops attending today's service in the Minster who will not lay hands on Libby. We remain a broken and divided communion.

My third reason is about the role Libby will take up. She will be the first female bishop, yes, but as suffragan to the Bishop of Chester she will not have in her own right the authority he holds as Diocesan. The media haven't cottoned on to a key aspect of the debate about female bishops which is that it's not simply about exercising a bishop's ceremonial, teaching and pastoral roles. It is very much about jurisdiction in the church. Only a diocesan bishop has this: some theologians believe that the bishop's crozier is a symbol not only of the pastoral office as a shepherd, but also - perhaps especially - of jurisdiction over a diocese. A woman does not yet have episcopal jurisdiction in the Church of England (other than what is delegated to a suffragan by a diocesan). This will come when the first woman is ordained to be a diocesan bishop. No doubt this will happen very soon, maybe in the next few months. When it does, I hope the media will pay attention because that will also be truly ground-breaking.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Responsible Adult: on being grown-up in religion

Two unconnected stories have hit the headlines and made me stop and think.

The first is the sentencing of a teacher who had sex with a 16 year-old pupil of his. The trial judge gave him a suspended sentence, saying that the girl had 'groomed' him.  In other words, his culpability was mitigated by himself being a victim of her manipulative behaviour. This sentence has met with a strong and, in my view, entirely understandable, reaction. The teacher was the 'responsible adult' in this relationship. And as everyone who works in caring professions knows, whether in education, the church, medicine, social work or mental health, the practitioner holds the power in this unequal relationship. To have a sexual relationship with someone for whom you are professionally responsible is regarded as abusive, unambiguously so when that person is legally a minor. It is 'sex in the forbidden zone'.

The other story is the defiant publication of 3 million copies of the post-attack edition of Charlie Hebdo. Its cover shows the weeping Prophet carrying the slogan of solidarity with the victims, 'Je suis Charlie'. Underneath is the statement 'All is forgiven'. This too has met with a mixed reaction from Muslims and other people of faith. Some have said that to publish a cartoon like this a week after this terrible slaughter is a calculated and provocative act that simply pours fuel on the already fiercely burning fires of religious hatred. Pope Francis seems to underline this in what he said today: if you utter a curse against his mother, you can expect a punch. 'It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.' Though others have referred to the Prophet's non-violence in the face of abuse and commented wryly that Charlie has captured precisely that.

What's the connection between these stories?

The link for me is how we respond when we are provoked. It's implied by the judge that the school teacher was provoked into having sex by an irresponsible schoolgirl. It's implied by some people of faith that the jihadists were provoked into committing atrocity by irresponsible journalists and cartoonists. So their reactions were understandable even if they were not defensible.... But the truth is that in both, a provocation has been met by behaviour that is utterly destructive. The question is not whether schoolgirls should incite their teachers, or whether satirical journals should pour scorn on religious faith. Many of us don't find much to admire in those behaviours. But in a liberal democracy, religion can't and shouldn't be privileged from being ridiculed. The key question is, when we are provoked, what is the right way to respond?

I find the phrase 'responsible adult' helpful here. It's the well-known way of referring to the person who holds the caring role in unequal professional relationships, like that between teacher and student. As I've said, that role confers power over another person. But we can transfer it to how we think about Charlie Hebdo. What do you do when your faith, your prophet or your saviour is mocked and insulted? It's a question of who holds power and therefore responsibility. I don't much care for words and images that under the rubric of free speech are calculated to provoke and hurt. It's a kind of grooming, a provocation to react. As I blogged last time, even when I am hurt or offended, I hope I shall defend the right of others to offend me within the law. But in this exchange I believe I am required to be the 'responsible adult'. I must not collude with the offence others give by brandishing a gun any more than I should collude with seductive behaviour by producing a condom. If I give in and play by the rules of the child, I cease to be an adult myself.

So my plea to all of us who are people of faith is that we stay grown-up and don't revert to infantile reactions, however much our instincts drive us to. This is what both the Jesus modelled in the way he handled abuse. The passion narrative makes much of how he did not retaliate and thereby endorse the behaviour of those who mocked, insulted and murdered him. He remained the 'responsible adult' toward his abusers, just as he did in his relations towards the weak, the vulnerable and the young. I quoted a New Testament letter in my last blog: 'when he was abused, he did not return abuse'. 

It is worrying that a lot of religion reacts very primitively in its handling of both sex and conflict. Faith communities, Muslim, Jewish or Christian, often find it hard to respond to the challenges of contemporary life intelligently and wisely. But in a world where abuse is rife and people go on damaging one another, religion has the opportunity to break abusive cycles by showing a more excellent way. The Fourth Gospel spoke to us over Christmas about how grace and truth have come into the world. This is faith's answer to provocation, wherever it comes from, whoever perpetrates it. 

It's what being a 'responsible adult' means. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie: thinking and praying in the shadow of a massacre

As I write this, a vast crowd is gathering in Paris in a defiant cry for freedom and unity following last week's terrible massacres. Many world leaders are joining them, among them David Cameron. I wish I could be there too. Yet I am there, wholeheartedly, in spirit, in imagination, in sympathy, in everything except body.

Much has been written about these events and their aftermath. The Twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie has trended beyond all expectation. I have added to the volume of tweets expressing sorrow, prayers, outrage, and condemnation. Above all I have wanted to join the worldwide chorus of Non!, the refusal to cave in before the fear violence is meant to evoke. Bombs and guns will never, ever, intimidate the pen. Not in any society that treasures democracy and is pledged to live by it. 

What have been my thoughts in the past few days? They have swung this way and that, I admit it: when events are so wicked, it can take time for our initial responses to stabilise. At first I entertained the notion that when religion is mocked or insulted, as in the long tradition of satire in which Charlie Hebdo stands, we should not be surprised if its committed practitioners react violently. But that's the first step on the dangerous path where understanding an evil can veer into subtly shifting responsibility for it. We can start to think that when people say certain things or draw certain pictures, they should expect a retaliation. So while we are appalled, we toy with the thought that they partly brought it on themselves: whether through malice, unwisdom or just carelessness, they were responsible. But this is absolutely how not to see it. Responsibility for this atrocity lies with those who pulled the trigger - with them alone. 

What they did was an act of hatred of the freedoms our democracy stands for. We need to calibrate those freedoms. In any society, rights are not absolute. They have to be negotiated and consented to. Freedom of speech, precisely because of the power it gives, has to be handled responsibly. Paddy Ashdown tweeted last week: 'Some say that because you can say something, it doesn't mean you should. But free speech means that because you shouldn't say something, it doesn't mean you can't.' To put it that way round is clarifying. There are things I shouldn't say or write; if possible, I shouldn't even entertain the thought behind them. Not because I am not free to, or am afraid to, but because it erodes the value of another human being, damages people, or is exploitative or hurtful or just plain rude. That is a judgment everyone must make. And within the boundaries of what is lawful, we should expect a huge range of opinion as to what is or is not responsible in an environment where so many freedoms are given us. Charlie Hebdo is not everyone's cup of tea. But however people use these freedoms, and even if they abuse them, violence is never the answer. 

Voltaire has predictably been much quoted: 'I disagree with what you say, but shall defend to the death your right to say it'. It's hard to improve on that. I guess that saying that makes me what I have realised in a new way I am: a citizen of modernity, a child of the Enlightenment. The assault on Charlie Hebdo was a clear attack on the values of the Enlightenment at the very heart of its French homeland. Freedom to speak, equality before the law, toleration of dissent, all this was in the sights of the Islamists as they named their victims and gunned them down. They did what they did not out of reverence for truth and justice on behalf of the Prophet. It was an act of naked fear. 

To be a post-Enlightenment society means standing for the belief that the tyranny of ideas, any ideas, even the best, can never belong in a civilised society, let alone the distorted and debased doctrines of radical Islam or other extreme fundamentalisms. The principle of laïcité lies at the heart of the secular French Republic. That clear separation of the state from religious belief and practice is the direct heir of Enlightenment thinking. It's not that religion is to be repressed, but that everyone should be allowed to practise it according to their conviction in an environment of toleration. Or not, as the case may be. It's important for people of faith to understand that liberal secularism, so hated by some strands of Christianity, is not the tyrannous proscription of faith but the guarantor of a space in which it can find its free expression. At its best, it is the ally of good religion, not its enemy.

This much has become clearer to me in the past few days: that we must speak and act not out of fear or hatred but out of the love of truth. Yes, the Enlightenment itself did not always live up to its own best vision of a civilised society: witness the Terror that followed the French Revolution. But just as in Christianity and Islam, we need to rise to the highest aspiration of a noble movement, not the corrupted versions certain periods of history bear witness to. And the Enlightenment has given us gifts we should celebrate and be profoundly thankful for. It's arguable that it could only have happened in a Christian environment with its respect for the individual, for personal freedom and for the pursuit of truth. 

The preacher in the Cathedral today got it right. He said that he certainly did not like it when his Lord was maligned or mocked or his name used as a swear word. It is hurtful and grievous. Yet nothing anyone can say or do to Jesus Christ today can go beyond what he has already suffered in his passion and crucifixion. He stands before us as the Lord of truth and love. And, as the New Testament tells us, he did not resort to retaliation when he was ridiculed and insulted. 'When he was abused, he did not abuse in return.' 

Islam honours the same God of Abraham as Christians and Jews. He is not a coercive tyrant; on the contrary, as the Qur'an insists, he is 'Allah the compassionate and merciful'. We do not confuse those who follow the noble path of Islam with the crazed extremists who have so violently twisted its meaning and practice, and by wreaking havoc on the streets of France brought the name of a great world faith into disrepute. Jesus prayed from the cross for those who did not know what they were doing. These atrocities are beyond comprehension to us, beyond our capacity as mortals to forgive. We burn with anger on behalf of victims who can no longer cry out for themselves. Yet is it not precisely in the heat of our rage that we must pray that hardest of all prayers that Jesus uttered at the darkest moment of his passion: 'Father, forgive'? Or try to?

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Putting Israel Back on the Map: an open letter to Harper Collins

Dear HarperCollins

Cato the Elder famously said in the 2nd century BC, Carthago delenda est: 'Carthage must be destroyed'. Or, as we might say in today's digital speak, 'deleted', airbrushed out of existence.

This is what Collins Bartholomew, one of your imprints, did to a sovereign UN-recognised state in a recently published atlas of the Middle East. It simply left out Israel altogether from its map of the eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Gaza apparently make up the shoreline. You tell us that the atlas was destined for an English-speaking audience in the Gulf states. Your spokesperson said that to have included Israel would have been 'unacceptable' in that majority Muslim environment and that this amendment to political geography apparently reflected 'local preferences'. 

When I read the story in this week's Tablet I thought it must be some new year hoax. I could scarcely credit it that a responsible cartographer with a world-famous brand could play fast and loose with the map of nations in this way. But I have researched it on the web, and it is so. One news report says that you put this omission down, a trifle disingenuously, to a 'genuine error'. That's hard to square with your own talk of reflecting 'local preferences', so the message is a bit confused to say the least. However, you have now apologised and have promised to remove the bowdlerised atlas from sale. Just so. These books must be destroyed. At once. As Cato might have said, Libri delendi sunt. 

You ought to know better than most people that maps carry enormous political power. Especially when used as educational tools, they influence thinking and shape minds. We are used to the idea that map projections carry political and ideological meanings. They can reinforce the hegemony of the mighty and the powerlessness of the poor and weak. Dr Jane Clements, Director of the Council for Christians and Jews, is quoted in the Tablet: 'maps can be a very powerful tool of de-legitimising "the other"'. The names assigned to territories and locations bear messages about history and status. Like the historian, the map-maker is a person of power because the narrative or the visual image tells the story his or her way. Both history writing and cartography are acts of interpretation. It is a highly responsible role. To write history or draw maps without understanding the delicate interpretative tasks involved is to play straight into the hands of those who have reasons, always sinister, for distorting reality. If they are not to serve propagandist ends, these kinds of collusions must be vigilantly guarded against. 

Your website uses the adjective 'trusted' in relation to your maps. It is worrying that you could ever have permitted an inconvenient truth like the existence of the state of Israel to be edited out of an atlas that was intended to be 'trusted' across the Middle East. It does the complex, conflicted politics of the region a disservice not to acknowledge in a map what is undeniably a painful and difficult reality. It does not contribute to the hard tasks of understanding the truth of the present world order, let alone learning to live peaceably together as peoples of different beliefs, cultures and ideologies. It may well be 'local preference' to pretend that a fact on the ground does not exist. But it does. Israel has been there since 1948. And one of the major tasks awaiting our generation is to help the troubled Middle East towards a better future in which all its peoples flourish. Including Palestine. Including Israel. If your politics were as responsible and green as your admirable policies on the environment, you would never have allowed yourselves to fall into this compromised situation which looks for all the world as though it is driven by fear of your Arab customers. I'm afraid that your apology has come too late to avoid reputational harm.  

For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that I don't carry a card for Zionism. Yes, I passionately believe in the right of the state of Israel to exist, and in the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland, live safely and securely in it and enjoy the democratic privilege of self-determination. I'd rather assumed that as a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, HarperCollins would share that belief. Perhaps you will be willing to reaffirm it, and help your large audiences across the Middle East understand your position. 

Let's be charitable, and put this mistake down to naïveté rather than malice. After all, it is still Christmas, the season of peace and goodwill.  But please don't do it again. It's unsettling. It damages your integrity when you obscure the facts of geography, history and politics. It's not easy to forgive.  

Yours sincerely,
Michael Sadgrove