Friday 14 January 2022

Boris, Pelagius and me

I have never worked in Downing Street (and in fact have only been there once) but I spent over 30 years as a UK civil servant, and have an abiding interest in - and, it has to be said, a certain admiration for - the way government works in this country. I appreciate I may be in a small minority in regard to the latter disposition. But this accounts for my initial remarks below. What follows those is by way of reflection and commentary.

First, 10 Downing Street is no-one’s “house” or “home”. It is is part of the government department known as the Cabinet Office which has about 5000 staff. Perhaps 200 of these people could be said to work directly for the PM, in the extensive suite of offices which lie behind the famous facade. The majority of them are civil servants, employed by the Crown, and formally answerable for their conduct not to the PM or his party, but to a senior civil servant known elsewhere in government as a permanent secretary. The reasons for this very long-standing separation of responsibility are well-attested and clear; but they include the fact that it would be impossible for a PM to carry out his or her vast and onerous political responsibilities while simultaneously managing a government department. So while the PM has *political* responsibility for the activities of his office, he is in no sense responsible for the management of most of the staff who work there - and indeed cannot be. He is obliged to leave that to others appointed to that function. He naturally has a say in which civil servants work directly for him, particularly in the most senior roles, but he does not employ them. He cannot possibly know exactly what every member of staff is doing at a given moment. His job is political oversight and leadership, not staff management or administration.

The nuances of this arrangement do not appeal to the endlessly, pathetically reductive UK media which is keen to conjure the impression of a culture of possibly illegal activity taking place in the PM’s “house”, and even with his permission or even connivance, at a time when the rest of us were prohibited from engaging in anything similar (let alone in countless other more necessary or desirable activities). And they are in any case - even the more serious outlets - uninterested in the dry, unsensational details of how our system of government actually works.  But, like it or not (and I don’t very much) our media is a reflection of our society: we are as a people perhaps predisposed to glossing over boring - and perhaps mitigating - facts when we are offered the red meat of anger, indignation and censoriousness - particularly when the perceived offence is hypocrisy.

“It’s not the parties I object to; it’s the hypocrisy”. “It’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us”. Others have written extensively, movingly and sometimes wisely about why, especially in circumstances of urgent, sacrificial necessity, we should all be subject to the same restrictions. I agree with them. There is an essential communal aspect to a proper response to the emergency: no man is an island. (I am asthmatic and so notionally not required to wear a mask in the prescribed circumstances. But I do anyway, because I genuinely believe we are all in this together.)

But there is something, if not peculiarly then characteristically, British about the ferocity of our denunciation of perceived hypocrisy. I frankly don’t find this very attractive. There is a whiff of implicit self-righteousness, and even puritanism about it which makes me uncomfortable. Aha, (you may think) sounds like he’s got something to hide!  Well, you’d be right. I’ve got plenty of things to hide. The extent of my own sinfulness is hidden from all except God (and occasionally, and only ever partially, another priest). Among my many failings, ladies and gentlemen, is the fact that I am a hypocrite. I sometimes say things I don’t believe. I judge others for faults I myself possess, and I knowingly fail to live by laws and precepts which I cheerfully and unironically enjoin others to obey. For these offences alone, I deserve to have the book thrown at me. But …

When the late Lord Hailsham (a lawyer and a practising Anglican) was asked how he would defend himself on Judgement Day, he said he wouldn’t: “I will plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court.” Well, that’s my plan, too. I deserve punishment but will plead for mercy. For my faith teaches me that I am helpless to save myself: I depend entirely on the grace of God.

This understanding was explicitly rejected by the 4-5th century British monk Pelagius who believed that human beings have the free will to achieve perfection without divine grace - in other words, that we can save ourselves by our own efforts. Although condemned as heresy in 418, this belief persisted (and arguably still persists) and Pelagianism became known by some as “the British heresy”.

It seems to me that we have inherited something of this. Our readiness to denounce others for failing to live up to their own principles has its roots in a rejection of Original Sin and an implicit belief in self-salvation. As we point at and “call out” others, we do not pause to reflect on our own sinfulness, the fallen human nature we share with those we condemn, nor even a fleeting “there but for the grace of God”.

I don’t know what the inquiry into the Downing Street shenanigans will conclude. But I strongly doubt that anyone there was “laughing at us” as has been repeatedly suggested by the Government’s critics - whom, by the way, I don’t blame for exploiting this to the maximum. (I do blame the media, but I think most of them are literally incorrigible.) By the same token, I am not interested in excusing or exonerating anyone who has been at fault. I just reflect that if I had been working last spring at No 10 under the extreme pressure that they perennially do, and someone had suggested a glass or two of wine in the garden, I might well have said yes. There but for the grace of God.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

On having one's chairs at home

There is (or used to be) a saying in the north of England that someone who had their wits about them - typically an older person who might be expected to be failing mentally - had "all their chairs at home".  I've always liked the homeliness of this expression, suggesting as it does the possession of all one's mental furniture as a metaphor for continuing sanity.  For the first time in a while, I've got two rather special chairs of my own at home, and trust the pleasure of possessing them will keep dementia at bay for a few more years.  I'd like to tell you their story.

It concerns two men. The first is the Rt Hon Sir Philip Sassoon Bt GBE CMG: born in his mother's mansion (she was a Rothschild) on the Avenue de Marigny, Paris in 1888. He was a gay, Jewish baronet, millionaire, MP, Government minister, mover, shaker, top-drawer socialite, and cousin of the WW1 poet, Siegfried. The other is Reuben Ridley: born to working-class parents in Clarissa Street, Haggerston, east London in 1902.  He was a lorry driver, and my maternal grandfather.  The two men never met and had, on the face of it, nothing in common.  Except some chairs.

Sir Philip Sassoon
Sassoon lived from 1923 until his death from influenza in 1939 at Trent Park, a country house in Hertfordshire just to the north of London.  It was, according to Robert Boothby, one of the houses of the age, "a dream of another world – the white-coated footmen serving endless courses of rich but delicious food, the Duke of York coming in from golf... Winston Churchill arguing over the teacups with George Bernard Shaw, Lord Balfour dozing in an armchair, Rex Whistler absorbed in his painting... while Philip
Trent Park House today
himself flitted from group to group, an alert, watchful, influential but unobtrusive stage director – all set against a background of mingled luxury, simplicity and informality, brilliantly contrived..."  During WW2, the house was used as a centre to extract information from captured German officers (which activity was the subject of the Stephen Poliakoff drama Close to the Enemy, premiered last year on BBC TV) and then as a rather luxurious prisoner-of-war camp for captured German generals and staff officers.

Reuben Ridley
By rather sharp contrast, my grandfather spent all his working life as a driver and then as transport manager for a hardware wholesaler, Osmond & Matthews, of Curtain Road, Shoreditch. One day (I assume after the war) he was called to make a delivery to Trent Park House and was en passant offered a number of dining chairs from among a variety of items of furniture from the house which were being discarded.  (This may have been in preparation for the house's conversion to a teacher training college in 1947.) He agreed to take four, and took them to his house in Leyton. Where they stayed, for years. One got destroyed, somehow; but of the three that remained, one was given to me as a teenager by my grandparents for my bedroom, suitably re-covered in a jazzy 1960s material; and I inherited the other two, by default, on my grandmother's death in the 1980s. 

Sometime later, I was visited at home by a colleague from the government department in which I then worked.  He was an antiques buff, and asked about the chairs which were dotted around the house and which I had long since stopped noticing. I told him the story.  Did he think they were very old?  "Late Regency", he said, "No later than 1830."  I was suitably impressed.  Apart from a George III penny of 1806, they were the oldest things I owned, and I found a new respect for them.  But they were not much use except as bedroom chairs, and in a poorish condition. I pretty much soon forgot about them again, and for 20 years until a few months ago they were stored in our vicarage attic.

I thought of them again when, in 2016, we bought the little house on the Essex coast which is our retreat and to which we plan to retire.  I got them down from the attic.  They were predictably filthy, and in an even worse condition than I'd remembered.   But they were part of my family history and I wanted to rehabilitate them. Our neighbour recommended a local furniture restorer who came round to collect them.  We agreed that, given their condition, he would cannibalise one of them with the aim of restoring the other two.  He brought them back this week, and here they are:

To say that I am delighted with them doesn't cover it.  I am absolutely cock-a-hoop, over-the-moon - "made up" (as they say in Liverpool).  They are elegantly simple in form yet finely turned, carved and ornamented; and perhaps now almost as good as they were when they were hand-made the best part of 200 years ago.  If I am right to assume from their age, quality and such provenance as I have that they did indeed grace the grand, glittering household which Sassoon created in the 1920s, who knows who may have sat on them before me? WSC, GBS, royalty?
Yet I cannot look at them or sit on them without thinking of my Cockney grandparents and their terraced house in Leyton, one of the chairs next to the single bed in which my brother and I would lie awake, top to tail, listening to the eerie clangs and hoots from the adjacent Temple Mills marshalling yard.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if they were still being sat on in another 200 years?  Against that possibility, I am setting down what I know about them - while I still have all my chairs at home.

I would like to thank Jeremy Soames of J.Soames Upholstery of Brightlingsea, Essex for his careful and sensitive work on restoring the chairs, and to commend it to others.

The contemporary picture of Trent Park House is by JulesFoto. The estate became part of the University of Middlesex in the 1990s, and was sold to the Berkeley Housing Group in 2015. As far as I can determine it is not currently in use, though the park is excellent for dog-exercising and picnics.

Thursday 15 June 2017

A Child of the Universe

I went to a corporate summer party in the City of London, and found myself sitting next to a man in his 30s.  We chatted about this and that as strangers do: work, home, life in general. I noticed his wedding ring and asked if he had a family.  He replied: "Well, I will do from Sunday".  I assumed this meant his wife was about to give birth; but he explained that, in three days' time, he and his wife would assume the care of his 7-month old great-nephew. The man's niece, the child's very young mother, was unable to care for her son, so a family decision had been made to hand him over to his childless great-uncle and his wife, to bring him up as their own son.

This information was delivered in such a matter-of-fact kind of way that I briefly wondered if I had understood correctly. "So you and your wife are going effectively to adopt your niece's child?"  He confirmed this impassively. They realised how much this responsibility would change their lives; but they had previously and inconclusively considered adopting, and were now being drawn into it naturally (as it were), by circumstance.

I was unaccountably moved by this, and it was not until later that I was able to think about why.  The man and his wife had no children of their own, and this was a matter of regret (I put it no more strongly than that - childlessness is not necessarily a tragedy, and he did not not appear to regard it as such).  But their desire for a child had been answered unexpectedly, indeed rather suddenly, and without the immediate need for official sanction. The boy would not be "theirs",  but would be a blood relative of his adoptive father.  If not the ideal circumstance for the boy's upbringing, it was as satisfactory a solution to the situation as might be devised.

It occurred to me that such arrangements were probably much more common and unremarked upon in the past (I had a "great-uncle" who was not my grandmother's brother but who had been taken in by her family when he was abandoned by his own parents) when they were an obvious and normal way of dealing with parental absence or inadequacy.  There were no official channels to be gone through, no social workers: just a child who needed bringing up, and relatives or others who, whatever their existing burdens, recognised a familial-social duty when they saw it, and made a space for it in the family circle.

A priest must always examine his own motivation; and I reflect that my own childlessness is also a matter of regret, and that, to me, an eventuality such as this would once have seemed like a gift from above, or at least a vocation. I am not sure that is how the man himself saw it: for him, it was just a circumstance that had arisen to which a potentially satisfactory solution had been found.  But I could not escape the strong feeling that God was present in it; and, as we said goodbye, I instinctively raised my right hand in blessing.  I sensed him recoil all but imperceptibly, and so simply (but unobtrusively) traced the sign of the cross on his forehead, and left.

I shall probably never meet him again, nor hear anything of his family's progress in their new life together. But I do pray that God will bless him, his wife and their little boy.  For, whether they know it or not, they are doing what the Lord asks of them.

Monday 27 June 2016

The South American Way of Death

Oh what a circus, oh what a show! Argentina has gone to town over the death of an actress called Eva Perón. We've all gone crazy, mourning all day and mourning all night, falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right.

But who is this Santa Evita? Why all this howling, hysterical sorrow? What kind of goddess has lived among us? How will we ever get by without her? *

You can visit the Duarte family tomb, in which Evita's remains officially rest, in Buenos Aires's Recoleta cemetery - so exclusive that it's said to be cheaper to live the life of a king than to die and be buried there. One tomb has recently changed hands (one wonders about the circumstances of the sale) for 250,000 US dollars. The Duartes' resting place (left) is a shiny confection in black marble and wrought iron, through which pilgrims' offerings of plastic flowers are permanently entwined. I say pilgrims, for it is indeed a shrine of sorts, where Argentinians worship the woman who, during her lifetime, was officially and secularly canonised as "the spiritual leader of the nation". (Her tomb, together with my opening quotation from Evita, reminds me a little of the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. One commentator wrote that the gates of Kensington Palace in the days before her funeral were "like a Marian shrine". Like Diana's, little seems to be known about Mrs Perón's own religious faith.)

Both Recoleta, near the city centre, and La Chacarita, the much larger and less expensive cemetery in a distant and dusty suburb, are as far from the English idea of a final resting place as it's possible to get in the Christian world. They are veritable cities of the dead, who occupy their own homes in their own streets - some of which are quite large enough for entire families of Evita's descamisados to live in comfortably. 

Indeed, some of the mausolea are grandiose to the point of pomposity, in the form of chapels complete with altar, candlesticks and prie-dieux, as if waiting for a priest to say mass in them, perhaps in imitation of early Christians celebrating on the tombs of saints. The coffins of the dead are beneath the altar and in chambers under the floor, sometimes running to several stories. Others bear huge statues of the family head or founder, and of patron saints and guardian angels.  Some are not much bigger than phone kiosks, resembling large stone cupboards; yet even the most modest can be assumed to have cost a small fortune to build and endow. The best are beautifully swept and polished, flowers clearly regularly renewed, their locks, steps and glass doors gleaming. Others are virtually derelict, unvisited and forgotten, the photos of the dead faded almost to invisibility, little temples of dust, memorials of and to decay. Walking these silent streets of the long departed, I was oddly reminded of Pompeii.

Death, one realises quite quickly, is big down here. Visitors to tombs touch them for luck as they might the statue of a saint in a church, as if to connect physically to the dead and to perhaps to share somehow in their assumed felicity. Roman Catholicism in South America seems more recondite than in the northern hemisphere; an age-old whiff of animism and folk-religion hangs in the air and is subtly - and probably necessarily - accommodated. One suspects that the ancestors are being prayed to, as well as (or even rather than) for. 

In La Chacarita is the tomb of Carlos Gardel, the French-Argentine singer, songwriter and "King of Tango" who died in a plane crash in 1935 at the height of his fame, and who has tragic superhero status across Latin America. Its walls of pale marble are covered with beaten and burnished metal plaques from well-wishers, thanking him (not God) for his life and his magical gift that enhanced the lives of so many. Some barely stop short of asking him for spiritual favours. The leading foot of his life-size verdigris'd statue (presenting him in the "Oxford" bags and double breasted and lapelled waistcoat of his day) gleams brassy gold from the hands that touch it daily.

I wrote recently that our life beyond the grave is but the next stage of our life here. For the Christian there is only one life, and it is eternal, provided and sustained by and for God. I sense that this notion of continuum, which can seem radical to western Christians, is pretty much unquestioned by South Americans. They seem to make no bones about, indeed positively engage with, the physical reality of death. They do not internalise, privatise or over-etherealise it as we perhaps do. It is just the door between the house and the street.

* From Evita, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber

Monday 13 June 2016

Ramipril Dreams: Recalling the Dead

This morning, just before I awoke finally, I dreamed I saw my mother. She was youngish, perhaps in her 40s, and was coming out of an office in the West End of London where she never worked, wearing a fur jacket she never owned. She was wreathed in smiles, the end of a happy day with colleagues who had become friends, and pleased to see me unexpectedly. When she saw my expression she asked me what was wrong: had I lost something, was I carrying too much? The answer to both questions, I realise now, was yes; but I said that I had just got off a bus without paying my fare and gone past my stop, chatting to the woman sitting next to me, and remarking to her how rare it was that someone nowadays would bid you "Good morning" in valediction.

I've been dreaming, memorably, a lot recently. I put it down to the recent increase in my anti-hypertension medication, although the blurb that comes with the capsules does not list vivid dreams as an observed side-effect. And while the dreams are not nightmares, they often involve me in situations which give rise to anxiety or mild distress - ironically associated with raised blood pressure. My mother has featured in a number of these dreams. In them, she is never the poor, pain-wracked creature of her last miserable year; but rather the one I remember from childhood: in her prime, hopeful, always smiling, somehow glowing.

It occurs to me that, in my recalling her in my dreams, I am subconsciously praying for her. I am commending her to the God who created her and in whose closer presence I hope she now rests. And I am commending her, not in the condition in which she passed from this life; but as she was when her life was at its fullest. Some will say that my prayers, conscious or subconscious, cannot help her; that she is dead and beyond my help. What can my commendation avail one who rests in His closer presence? "Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher", in his sharp suit or pressed Levis, "all is vanity". I am not going to argue with them, though I confidently ignore them. Prayer for the dead comes naturally and easily to me, and I believe it is of God. It is not chantry prayer, no vain petition for time off purgatory. It is the prayer of the beloved. It is my prayer, prayed in faith, and it is heard.

We claim to believe - and I often preach - that eternal life is a continuum. It is here and now, and it is there and then, its progress uninterrupted as it passes through the grave and gate of death: "Now is eternal life, if risen with Christ we stand", we sing (well, some of us, anyway). The dead are still on their pilgrimage towards God, just further on than I am. If I prayed for them when they were within my sight, why should I not do so now that I see them no longer? If I believe it helped them then, I must believe it helps them now. 

The Eucharistic Prayer (or Great Prayer of Thanksgiving) includes what is called the anamnesis: the "calling to mind" of the mighty acts of God in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. By calling them to mind, we in some sense relive them, re-enact them, cause them to happen again, for us, at every celebration. This recalling is part of our offering to God. We do something similar, though in a different register, when we recall and commend those who have gone before us. Each soul is a creation of the Lord, and made in his image. We offer this extraordinary gift back to God, with love and gratitude. For "all things come from you, and of your own do we give you". 

Saturday 7 November 2015

Re Remembrance

Every time Christians celebrate the Eucharist - their principal act of worship because ordained by the Lord himself - they engage in an act of remembrance. The Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of consecration, sometimes called the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, includes these words: 

And so, Father, calling to mind his death on the cross,
his perfect sacrifice made once for the sins of the whole world;
rejoicing in his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension,
and looking for his coming in glory,
we celebrate this memorial of our redemption.*

This passage is what's technically called the anamnesis. It's related to the word amnesia - loss of memory - except it means the opposite: it means the very act of remembering. "Calling to mind" that Jesus died, rose again and ascended to his Father. Why do we call to mind, remember, this almost every time we worship?  Because it defines us, reminds us of who we are, who God has called us to be.  We need to hear it over and over again, particularly every time we do what he told us to do, lest we forget why, and so forget who we are.  This is our story, this is our song.  We retell it, re-sing it, relive it.  We are a people for whom remembrance is a defining act.  Do this in remembrance of me.

There are those who believe we should stop remembering the dead of the last century, especially those of the two world wars. They say that our remembering glorifies war. They say it's time to stop it.  We don't actively remember the dead of Agincourt, Waterloo or the Boer War: why, after so long, do we need to remember the dead of Passchendaele or the Battle of Britain?  I suggest because the two world wars and some of those that have followed them finally brought home to us the true cost of war.  Unlike those which preceded them, these were not wars that solely concerned individuals fighting in faraway places in pursuit of honour, territory and glory.  These were wars that directly affected every person on this island: rich and poor, male and female, young and old.  They were wars that formed us - defined us, if you like - in some sense made us who we are. My father fought the Japanese in the jungle swamps of Burma; my mother's family home in east London was destroyed in the Blitz. They, I, we are different people from those we would have been if those conflicts had not taken place. You and I need to remember who we are, where we have come from, and how we got to where we are now. 

Among the condolence cards I've received in the last couple of weeks is one from a priest friend, and on the front of it is a picture I would guess painted in about 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War. It shows a priest celebrating the Eucharist in the traditional way: at the high altar with six candles, his back to the people, the deacon at his right hand (both in black vestments), a server kneeling on the altar step, the subdeacon and thurifer at the side, and a cloud of incense above them all. (Well, this was close to the apogee of Anglo-Catholicism.) But, in the picture, above the living, are the recently dead. Alongside the statues of the warrior saints, like St George, can be seen the spirits of the war-dead: soldiers, sailors, nurses, even clergy.  Nearly all young and all in uniform. They are both obscured and revealed by the incense, their ethereal forms taking on the neutral colour of the church wall, ghost-like. But they are there.  That is the point.  They too stand before the altar of God, and worship as we do.  In Holy Communion we draw as close to Him, and to them, as it's possible to get in this life.

We Christians are never cut off from the departed: they are the Church Above, as we are the Church Below.  Though separated by the narrow stream of death, we worship as one. One Church, one faith, one Lord.  On this day especially we honour them because without their sacrifice we would not have our freedom.  Our freedom to live and love and worship as we do now.  Their deaths helped to form us, helped make us the people we are before God.  And because we are Christians, we are bound to remember them.

* Common Worship: Eucharistic Prayer B

"The Place of Meeting (at Holy Communion)" by Thomas Noyes-Lewis (1862-1946)
(c) The Martlet Bookbinding

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Patriotic Games

I remember a TV interview with writer Alan Bennett in which he discussed his 1983 film about the Cambridge spy, Guy Burgess, (An Englishman Abroad), In it, he said this: 

"For the Englishman, to be sceptical about his inheritance is part of that inheritance."  

This was, I think, in a context less of wanting to exonerate Burgess's treason than to explain it: viz that Burgess was ironically too English not to betray his country. Perhaps the kernel of truth I recognised in it then explains why I remember the comment 30 years on. I recalled it when I heard David Cameron describe himself as "a patriot" (pronounced with a short a - why do I say paytriot?) at the launch of the Conservative party manifesto for the 2015 UK General Election.  I reflected that such a sentiment would be entirely normal, indeed probably expected, in an American and perhaps a French election; but that in Britain, it will have undoubtedly made some people wince.  I have no doubt that it was partly aimed at those flirting with voting for UKIP as the only truly patriotic party in England; but I think it was genuine.  Rather like his neither-hot-nor-cold Christian faith and his promise that we will have seen the back of him by 2020, the wonder is not the fact that this is how he feels, but rather that he doesn't mind saying so.

For it is a truth universally acknowledged that the English (I do not include the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish in this) are embarrassed by overt expressions of patriotism.  We regard it as in slightly poor taste, somehow, to appear to extol the virtues of our own country, perhaps for fear it suggest they might in some way exceed those of any other. We don't mind patriotic feelings; we don't even mind singing Jerusalem along with the Last Night of the Proms, but we'd rather not sing it in church, thank you very much.  Harmless flag-waving is fine for festive national occasions, especially those associated with the monarchy; but most us wouldn't dream of flying a Union Jack or a flag of St George in front of our houses.  Those who do are dismissed as ignorant, nationalistic bigots.  How different from the USA and Scotland (and even, I've noticed, Sweden).  The English are allowed to be patriotic if they wish, as long as they keep it to themselves.

Yet having a love for one's country seems to be a natural enough instinct.  I can love my country while remaining realistic about it - indeed critical of it (rather as I am with my Church, and even certain, well, persons) and I would never claim that it is better than another.  I just have a special feeling for it. I think it is beautiful. Love is like that.

Over the past century, Britain has been in the front line of two world wars, one of which robbed it of half a generation of its young men, the second of which devastated its cities and left it bankrupt. It has lost a vast empire, and almost its entire heavy industrial base.  It has lost its former confidence, self-esteem and religious moorings, and many of the institutions which bound it communally.  It is divided within itself and uncertain about its place in the family of nations. It does not know who it wants to govern it. 

And yet. This morning (15 April 2015) the IMF announced that Britain now has the second largest economy in Europe, and the fifth largest in the world. Geographically, it is the size of one US state (Nevada). As we might say these days: "How is that even possible?"

Saturday 14 March 2015

Waterloo Sunset

Some concern has been expressed about a service held in an Anglican church in London which included Muslim prayers. You can read about it here.

I am not outraged by this, partly perhaps because I am not a "conservative evangelical" out of sympathy with my "liberal catholic" diocesan bishop and those who share his ecclesiological outlook; but also because I accept that it was done with the nicest possible (and thoroughly Christian) motives, including hospitality, reconciliation and love of neighbour.  Yet the outcome is yet another occasion on which the Church has made itself look rather silly, not least because it does not appear to have occurred to the vicar of the church in question that the service would be seen as in any sense controversial (if I did not dislike the expression so much, I would be tempted to exclaim, softly but patronisingly: "Ah, bless!")

But the Church is now rather an old hand at making itself look silly; and there are perhaps deeper reasons why this service (at which I should emphasise I was not present) should not have taken place.  These do not turn on its alleged illegality (so often the first port of call for outraged Anglo-Presbyterians) nor even of a possible - I would say more worrying if nonetheless commonplace - technical breach of canonical oaths. They refer to the principle that nothing must be proclaimed or preached within one of our churches which the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church does not believe to be True.  The claim that the Quran is the literal word of God whose last prophet is Mohammed is one which I understand and respect. But I do not believe it to be true, and neither does the Church.  The Church's belief ("uniquely revealed in Holy Scripture and set forth in the Catholic Creeds") is that Jesus Christ is the incarnate God who died for our sins, rose from the dead, sits at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us, and will come again as our Judge.  This is the Absolute Truth as far as it is concerned, and nothing that is incompatible with that can with integrity be proclaimed by or in it.

Another point, which I know has been made many times before, is this. While I have no doubt that the Muslims who attended the service were both grateful for and touched by it, I suspect such sentiment is fleeting.  A true and lasting meeting of hearts and minds takes place when those of (sometimes profoundly) differing creeds find brotherhood without needing to dilute or mingle their beliefs. Seriously religious human beings can look their differences in the eye without loss of integrity or (please God) love.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Back on the agenda: Doing God

I was told yesterday an amusing anecdote relating to Robert Runcie, the last-but-three Archbishop of Canterbury.  Following a Lenten service somewhere or other, he asked people in the congregation what they had given up for Lent.  He was met in the main with predictable responses about alcohol and chocolate.  One man, however, said he couldn’t reveal what he had given up.  “You needn’t be shy”, said Archbishop Robert, kindly, “I’m a priest.”  “Well”, said the man, hesitantly, “to be candid, I’ve given up masturbation.”  Runcie paused momentarily, then smiled.  “In which case”, he replied, “Easter is going to be fun!”

But my favourite quote is this (which I heard him say in a TV interview): “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, and a source of perpetual embarrassment to the English.”  Perhaps the reason I remember this adaptation of St Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 1:23) is that it captures something of how the English relate to the Gospel, and their supposed tendency to suppress its less comfortable aspects.

I am reminded of this in the context of David Cameron’s speech at the Downing Street Easter reception, in which he revealed something of his own relationship with Christianity.  This has caused some to sneer, partly because they read in his words a crude attempt to curry electoral favour with Christians (which frankly strikes me as rather improbable); but mainly because of their slightly anodyne character.  He speaks warmly about the Church’s social and pastoral work; he praises its priests and its schools, and he reveals something of his own (rather infrequent) religious practice.  He does not mention Christ’s agony on the cross and its meaning.  Not once.

His critics were quickly out of the blocks.  In the red corner, no less a personage than the Reverend Giles Fraser; and in the blue, Tim Stanley, Telegraph journalist and blogger.  Their contributions make some important points and are worth reading.  Their gist is that Christianity isn’t just about being nice or “moral”, about helping people, about warm words.  It’s about something horribly raw, something life-changing, something overwhelmingly, beautifully true.  Of course I agree with them, and am myself impatient of the prissy bloodlessness that sometimes sanitises worship and dilutes witness in the interests of good taste.  True Christian faith has dark as well as light, fast as well as feast, sorrow as well as joy – all of which must be faced and entered into by those who would follow Jesus.

And yet I suspect there are many for whom Cameron’s words will have struck a chord.  Many who have an associational rather than participative relationship with the Church - who are not opposed to it, who in fact are quite supportive of it, but who are nervous of its perceived certainties, silly internal arguments and what Cameron calls (in a subsequent Church Times article) “doctrinal purity”.   These are they who are grateful for the Church’s presence in times of grief and joy, for its benevolent presence in the community, and for the peace to be found, when necessary, in Larkin’s “serious house on serious earth”.  I can see that these might well find the meaning of the Cross difficult to grasp.  It is quite a journey.

Five years ago this month, I was present in St Paul’s cathedral when the Bishop of London hosted a panel discussion in the “margins” of the G20 conference.  On the panel were Gordon Brown (then PM of course) and Kevin Rudd, at that time PM of Australia.  Someone asked Mr Rudd to say something about his own faith.  Describing himself as a “common or garden Christian”, he gave a simple yet eloquent account of the way in which the Gospel informed his own life and work.  When Gordon Brown was asked the same question, he pointedly (and characteristically) avoided it, but referred approvingly to the so-called Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you).  This is, of course, not a uniquely Christian precept; but it was the nearest he could get to an expression of personal belief.  I do not believe this was because he had bought into his predecessor’s idea of religion being toxic in a political context.  I wondered, rather, if he had no conventional religious faith, or one that was weak and variable - but was just too hideously embarrassed to say anything that might reveal this.

No doubt full-on, full-blooded Christians will continue to look down on David Cameron’s “religion-lite” (G Fraser).  And, as unrealistic as it may be, I would rather he had said something solid about Jesus and about his own discipleship.  I would rather he went to church more often.  But he has broken a taboo.  The British Prime Minister has said something highly positive about religion, Christianity, the Church of England and his relationship to them.  He has done so publicly and without embarrassment.   We do seem to have moved on.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Maria Miller, Nigel Evans and public humiliation

I do not know Maria Miller.  I have no special regard for her, beyond the (rather significant) role she played in the passage of the legislation introducing same-sex marriage.  She took a lot of flak over this - rather bravely, I thought; and an acknowledgment of this was perhaps partly behind David Cameron’s initial decision not to ditch her when the press campaign to force him to do so got going.  Gay marriage was his baby; and he knew that Mrs Miller had borne much of the heat of the battle to secure it on his behalf.  For those with ears to hear, his reply to her letter of resignation goes beyond the usual formulaic expression of regret.

Otherwise I have no view on the case, beyond the commonplace observation that those in high places do well to ensure their affairs are in order.  In our unforgiving public square, ignominy awaits the careless.

And what ignominy it was in this case.  There was a near as we ever get to a concerted campaign to force her out. “One of David Cameron's more decent instincts”, wrote Polly Toynbee, not usually one of his milder critics, in the Guardian, “is to protect his team from the wolves.”  Well he had a good go; but in the end even he could not withstand the blistering heat of the attack.  Which incidentally featured a huge banner, sponsored by the Sun and held aloft outside Parliament, depicting a millipede with Miller’s face and bearing the legend: “Time To Quit Miller. Just Thought We’d Flag That Up”.  Classy stuff.

Anyway, quit she (eventually) did, and honour was satisfied.  Well, if it was not exactly honour, it was perhaps our own peculiarly British variety of schadenfreude, which delights in seeing wrongdoers – especially prominent ones - brought down and punished.  I was reminded of nothing so much as of accounts of how, in the 18th century, crowds with drinks and snacks would gather outside Newgate prison, so that on the eighth strike of St Sepulchre’s clock, they could enjoy a good hanging (or two).  Perhaps there is something in our makeup that relishes public humiliation.

And our proxy in all this is, of course, the press – on the future regulation (or not) of which Maria Miller was working at the time of her demise.  We leave the papers to do the self-righteousness, name-calling, and crude vindictiveness for us, since they exist to speak truth to power and celebrity in ways that we cannot and would not.  And when they go too far (and they cannot easily restrain themselves), we can back off, and claim they are not doing it in our name.  But we know they are pandering to our baser instincts; and when our pleasure over the latest downfall or humiliation has subsided, we sense that we have colluded in something not very noble.  That may lie behind the entirely proper, yet unexpectedly fulsome, joy with which Nigel Evans MP’s acquittal on sex charges was greeted the day after Miller’s resignation.  When we know we have been complicit in bringing someone down, we unconsciously compensate by raising another up.  I suspect the anti-Leveson libertarians overlook the subtle moral game the British play with their press, and that ultimately, we will consent to its regulation.

Since this is my first post for a long time, I hope I may be permitted a theological reflection.  The gospel reading for Passion Sunday this year was the account of the raising of Lazarus.  The passage features the famous verse “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).  It is sometimes assumed that Jesus wept over the death of his friend; yet he had already in absentia announced Lazarus’ death and predicted that he would rise again to glorify God.  When he reaches the tomb in which Lazarus’ body lies, and sees Mary (Lazarus’ sister) there weeping, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (NRSV).  He is moved not by Lazarus’ death, but by Mary’s distress.  Jesus – true God and true man – shows that, to be moved by another’s distress, is both deeply Godlike and deeply human.  It is a profound expression of the love of neighbour to which he repeatedly calls us.

I am delighted for Nigel Evans: I cannot imagine what life has been like for him over the last year, and I give thanks that his Christian faith seems to have sustained him.  But I am also sorry for Maria Miller who is, for all I know, a perfectly nice person and perhaps not incorrigibly wicked.  In any case, her demise and probable distress isn’t doing a thing to cheer me up.