Thursday, 22 September 2016

Gathering Fragments One Year On

It's the autumn equinox. Night has overtaken day. Up here in Northumberland, the leaves show little sign of turning. But the rose-hips are swelling in the hedgerows and the rowan glows bright red alongside the magenta hawthorn and deep purple elderberries. The scent of coal fires re-lit in village hearths now hangs in the still September air. Golden stubble fields are ploughed chocolate-brown ready for winter. The new academic year has begun: children file past our front door morning and afternoon chatting excitably on their way to and from school. 

The year has come full circle. This time last year, I was in my last few days in office as Dean of Durham. It was a week of high emotion. I was filled with real sadness at the thought of leaving a place and people we loved. I blogged about it here: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-deans-last-blog.html?spref=tw. At the same time, we were looking forward to our new life across the hills in the Tyne Valley. It would, we imagined, be quieter and gentler than Durham. Cathedrals are wonderful and exhilarating but they are fast places. You need to be intellectually and spiritually agile; you need plenty of stamina. It's not that I was running out of steam (whatever Mrs S says), but I did think I should retire before it became apparent to me and to everyone else that I was overstaying my welcome. And I wanted to be able to have something to give to church and community in retirement, try different things, volunteer in new ways.

It has turned out to be an eventful, not to say turbulent, year. If you've followed this blog you'll know about Storm Desmond and how it invaded our home last December at precisely the same time as one daughter gave birth to our second grandchild and another was rushed into hospital for an emergency operation. Having fully recovered, she sensibly got married in the spring and is now expecting a baby. But then in the early summer my 93 year old mother fell ill and died a few weeks afterwards. All this on top of laying aside a life's work, moving home and beginning again in a new place in an entirely different role, that of being "retired". Oh yes, and the EU referendum campaign and the awful prospect of Brexit.

It's the first anniversary of my farewell in Durham Cathedral next Tuesday. By coincidence (is there such a thing?), I am giving two addresses to a clergy conference that day and the next on "Ministry for the Long Haul". I asked the Bishop why he thought I was qualified to speak to his clergy on this topic. After all, I had never lived or worked in the demanding urban environment that is mostly the setting of their ministry. He replied, "Well, you've completed the long haul. Tell us what's kept you going and sustained you over forty years. Tell us what's been important to you". Fair enough I thought a year ago when we spoke. I'm now trying to work out what to say to these good people. No spoilers! You never know who is reading this blog. I'll post the talks next week. If they've gone well, that is.

But it's been valuable to have to undertake the exercise of thinking about forty years of public ministry as I look forward to the anniversary. I might not have done it otherwise. I had never tried to articulate to myself, let alone to anyone else, what I'd found to be central in inhabiting the vocation to be a priest, though I suppose some of it got expressed in the ordination addresses I gave a few years ago that later became my book Wisdom and Ministry. So I went back to my farewell sermon in the Cathedral on 27 September 2015 (how hard I'd worked on that one!): http://michaelstalks.blogspot.com/2015/09/all-in-end-is-harvest-farewell-sermon.html?spref=tw. The clues are all there, I realised, for I'd intended the sermon to be a valedictory not only to Durham but to all the places where I had served as a priest. My text was the words of Jesus in St John after he has performed another of his "signs" and fed the crowd: "gather the fragments so that nothing may be lost" (John 6.12). So that is what I've tried to do in these two addresses, share some harvest gleanings in a way that I hope is helpful and finds echoes in what others have experienced in ministry. 

It's always important in life to do our best to make sure that "nothing may be lost". I believe it to be a key spiritual task, and especially in later life. One of the gifts of retirement has been to have time (even amid the dramas of the past year) to look back and ponder. I've blogged under the "woolgathering" title for some years but this is the first time in my life when it feels as though it can mean something creative because proper time and thought, reflection and prayer can go into it. 

But the more wool I gather, the more I realise that what I think and say on this first anniversary is still provisional. At this early stage, my musings on the story of my ministry are no more than a ballon d'essai, a first go to test whether I've got it even partially right. Who knows what themes may emerge later on in retirement when the foreground has receded a bit and distance lends perspective? 

That last bit was a photography-inspired spoiler, by the way....

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Bishop David Jenkins: in memoriam with great affection

Bishop David Jenkins' death has been announced today. I want to begin by sending my condolences and prayers to his family. 

David was, I believe, one of the great bishops of modern times. There will be many obituaries and public eulogies that survey his career more formally as a theologian and especially as Bishop of Durham where his influence was deep and lasting. I simply want in this blog to pay my own personal tribute to him as someone I got to know late in his life, long after his retirement.

I was one of the great crowd in Durham Cathedral at his enthronement in 1984. To my surprise, the Church Times had asked me to cover it: as a Northumberland parish priest I was relatively local. Proudly armed with my press pass, I took up position in the crossing with a grandstand view. Next to me, I remember, the artist in residence was sketching the occasion. 

None of us could have foreseen the impact the sermon was going to make. The service was already newsworthy because of the lightning strike on York Minster where he had been consecrated not long before. (What a lot of theological nonsense was talked about that disastrous fire!) But when David spoke about the bitter miners' dispute from a pulpit positioned at the heart of the great northern coalfield, the effect was electrifying. I can't recall any other sermon quite like it. It wasn't just the unforgettable phrase about the "elderly imported American". It was the conviction with which he preached, the passion with which he was ready to "speak truth to power" as we say now. If I didn't write in my report that we had a prophet among us, I certainly felt it. We all did. And as we know, as he started, so he continued. The voltage never faltered.

I didn't know then what, as a superannuated preacher I know now, which is that preaching in this way takes a lot of effort and real courage. I don't know what it cost him. But I do remember, working as I did then at the northern tip of the coalfield, how much this sermon was talked about. And not just in church. The working people of the North East loved the thought that once again they had a "miners' bishop" as Westcott had been at the turn of the century, whose prophetic fire burned for social justice. 

But as we know, this was just as true of the way David did theology. As a former professor at Leeds, he knew what he was talking about. In this he was one of a long line of scholar-bishops of Durham. And like them, he knew that theology needed to be done in and by the whole church as a community of faith, not just by academics in their libraries. He looked for a church that was not afraid of asking theological questions, of finding a language that would articulate and celebrate its own inheritance of faith in an intelligent and contemporary way. 

He was much maligned for this, and it was cruelly unfair. I remember at the time that I met up with a well known conservative evangelical theologian. "All this slanderous nonsense being put around about David Jenkins" he said. "It's quite clear to me that the man is a thorough incarnationalist who firmly believes in the resurrection." These controversies can't have been enjoyable for him and his family. But they did serve the church well, if only because they got people taking about theology in the unlikeliest of places. I think David saw this as an aspect of mission. I got into trouble when I preached about his latest contribution about Easter. But the (then) Duke of Northumberland rang me up shortly afterwards and said: "Sadgrove, I want to know more about this new Bishop of Durham. Come across to the Castle for a malt and tell me all about it." I obeyed, as you do. After two hours of discussion he said: "Well, it all seems very sensible to me. What on earth is all the fuss about?" I've often wondered why the search for a genuinely contemporary language in which to express faith was, and still is, so threatening to so many. 

I came back to the North East in 2003 which was when I first met David personally. He was always up for theological discussion and I wish I'd responded more readily to his invitations to come down to Teesdale to see him. But I treasure the memories of the times I did. And I also relish a story told me by Martyn Percy, now Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Martyn wanted to send a gift to mark my installation. David had published his book The Calling of a Cuckoo - Not Quite an Autobiography not long before. An ideal present, Martyn thought. He want to a book launch, bought the book, explained to David that it was gift for the new Dean of Durham, and would he like to write a message in it? Martyn says that David thought for a few moments, then said: "all I can think to write is: God help him! But I'd better not. He might take it amiss." So he simply signed his name. Very understated. Very Durham. Very David too, I think. 

As I got to know the parish clergy of Durham, I was seriously impressed by the reputation David had built up in the diocese. Many of these middle-aged and elderly clergy could not speak highly enough of him. "You knew you were cared for and loved by him" some of them said. "You knew he would listen carefully to you, take an interest, support you if you got into difficulties." That is high praise indeed. And unusually, it was also coming from more than a few clergy of a very different theological or political stamp. It's not too much to say that he was very much admired, respected and loved across the diocese.

One more charming reminiscence. Once, we found ourselves standing robed next to each other at a big service. He was always well-behaved in public as behoves a retired bishop, but he never lost his wicked sense of fun. We turned over a page in the service sheet and saw that a worship song was coming next. He looked at me and grimaced. "Terrible theology" he remarked. "What is one to do with this jejune kind of stuff?" And then he said, "I won't if you won't." So we maintained a dignified silence and thought our own theological thoughts. 

The last time I saw him was when he summoned a colleague and me to talk about his funeral wishes. It was a lovely conversation in his flat in Barnard Castle. He had aged considerably but his acuity and good humour had not left him. He had chosen readings and hymns but, with typical humility, wanted to know what we thought. He changed his mind about one or two things. Above all he wanted nothing pompous or grand, just an act of worship that would be true to the values he'd tried to live by. Above all it must be true to God's love as we see it in the face of Jesus Christ.

As Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins stood in the succession of Cuthbert the Bishop of Lindisfarne who is interred in Durham Cathedral. I write this on his feast day. David might have smiled at the timing of his death. But I am one of very many who are profoundly thankful to have known him a little and to have seen the spirit of Cuthbert and of Cuthbert's Lord alive in him. May he rest in peace. 

Sunday, 21 August 2016

My Mother - a Courageous Life. In Memoriam

How do you begin to pay tribute to your mother who has died?

It's now a month since her death. My thoughts and emotions have been in strange, unexpected places. The landscape of loss is always bewildering. My last blog recalled how in her final illness, she met her second great-grandchild for the first and last time. I said it felt like a Nunc Dimittis. All of us who surrounded her bed were moved at the joy little Madeleine brought to an elderly woman who was about to bid the world farewell. She lost consciousness a few days later and the end, when it came, was a merciful release.

Soon afterwards, I went to register her death. I cannot praise Islington Register Office highly enough. In bereavement, you need to know that you are dealing with professionals who know what to do. There were complications with the registration that I won't go into; suffice it to say that It took a full four hours to complete the process. The staff were all superb, not just in terms of their efficiency, but pastorally too. We clergy have a lot to learn from our secular colleagues. 

The registrar was intrigued by my mother's name: Dorothea, "also known as Dorothy or Doreen" said her will. She noted that she had been born in Germany but had married in England. She asked if I would tell her the story - not because she needed to hear it as a registrar but because it looked interesting, and maybe because she sensed it would be a kindness to me. So I related what you'll already know if you've read my blog before. 

She was born into a middle-class liberal Jewish family in Düsseldorf. They had long been assimilated into a completely German culture and identity. She was a schoolgirl in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Things rapidly went downhill for the Jewish community. She recalled how, in the September of that year, not one of her school friends turned up for her eleventh birthday party. Stones began to be thrown at her and other Jewish children in the playground. One night, her father asked her to help him take a pile of books out of his precious library down into the cellar and throw them into the fire. She remembered that most of them were by a single author, Thomas Mann. How could a child begin to understand why the writings of that great novelist had been proscribed by the Third Reich and anyone found in possession of them would be severely punished? 

In 1937, my grandparents decided to send her brother and her to England for safety. This was far-sighted of them at a time when many Jewish people were still hoping against hope that everything would be all right. She was assigned to a little boarding school in the small market town of Ledbury in Herefordshire. How curious that it was to Ledbury that a young family who were to play a hugely significant part in my own life would come after the war, to a house a few yards away from that school and the Miss Ballards who ran it. For - perhaps you've guessed it - this was precisely where my own wife was brought up, and lived until she left home. But of course my mother had left the town by then to take up nursing in London.

Meanwhile, her parents remained in Düsseldorf until life became impossible. They sought refuge in Holland where my grandfather began to rebuild his business as a successful leather goods manufacturer. However, in 1940 the Germans occupied the country. My grandparents were driven underground - literally. They spent the rest of the war being protected by a couple of devout, extraordinarily brave, evangelical sisters in Edam who housed them in their cellar and cared for them. They survived, but my grandfather died shortly afterwards. My grandmother "Omummy", however, came to the UK to join her children and lived to a great age. I once blogged a tribute to her too, because of the great influence she had on my life as a child and then as a young adult.

It was as a nurse at Charing Cross Hospital in London that I think she first found a true sense of belonging in this country. She was loyal to the friendships forged there right up to the end of the life. But after the awful upheavals of her childhood, my mother wanted nothing more (she told me this during her last illness) than to settle down in England as a family woman. She met my father at evening classes and they married in 1947. I was born three years later and my sister four years after me. Her quiet, domestic, seemingly uneventful existence in suburban north London belied the real drama of her story, and the perseverance that she needed to make something of her life in a strange land as a survivor of the Nazi holocaust. 

Her big and lasting regret was that because her schooling had been so disrupted, she was never able to go on to higher education and pursue the life of the mind. I'm not saying that she would have become an acedemic (but who is to say? - her brother did precisely this, and had a most distinguished career as a medievalist at Oxford). But she was a very gifted linguist. She spoke English without any trace of a German accent, not to mention Dutch and French as well. Later in life she took up Spanish and Italian, and then had a stab at Latin. She was an avid reader on every subject imaginable. Her home, which we now have to clear, is crammed with her books on music, art, history, biography and philosophy in addition to the European classics of literature and poetry. She would always have four books on the go, one for each room in the house where she would read. As a child I just took it for granted that being surrounded by books is a normal state of life, just as I took it for granted that there would always be classical music playing on the radio or gramophone, and it was part of a mother's duty to teach her children to love it. It was many years before I realised that this isn't how all youngsters are brought up. 

Among the many kind things that were said about my mother after she died was one that has particularly stayed in my mind. The writer described her as "courageous". It hadn't occurred to me to describe her in that way, but of course I now see that it is indeed true. She lived through the biggest catastrophe to befall Europe in centuries, and it involved a cataclysmic fracturing of her own life. She was reticent about speaking of those times, as many survivors are, so it took me time even to begin to understand her past and how it shaped her life, and - though I only saw this very obscurely at first, how it has shaped my own life too. Yes, it takes courage to go on living through such terrible times, and when they are past, to reconstruct a life and live it positively and hopefully even in the face of memories that no one should have to carry. 

So it was important at her funeral to salute her courage and honour her remarkable story. I think it did, thanks to all who took part and contributed so well to create a ceremony that was beautiful and even joyous as well as being poignant and sad. Music by Mozart, Bach and Schubert, readings from Paul Tillich, Thomas Wolfe and Rainer Maria Rilke, and personal tributes by members of the extended family all felt just right. They were her. Afterwards there was a reception at which lavish quantities of food and drink were enjoyed - my mother always wanted her guests to be generously provided for. It was a warm sunny day, the kind of summer weather she loved.

It was a good leave-taking. May she now rest in peace. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Liminal Times: a Nunc Dimittis?

The talk is all of comings and goings. Today one prime minister leaves office, another takes his place. Doors open for some and close for others. We are living in liminal times.

But this is always true of life, however little attention we normally give the thresholds we cross. Yesterday, when pundits were all over the media assessing David Cameron's stewardship as prime minister and speculating about Theresa May's, I went to London to see my ageing mother. It's been distressing to watch her suffering in the past few weeks. It began with her being urgently admitted to hospital. Then, when we and she all thought she was well enough, she went to a nursing home nearby. After a few days there was another crisis and she was back in the hospital again, on the same ward she had left the previous week. The nurses were pleased to see her back: "we so loved Dorothea" they said. It was touching. You could tell it was sincere.

She is a lot weaker than she was. Most of the time she is asleep. There is no pain and no discomfort as far as we can tell. When she is awake she is completely lucid, knows exactly where she is and why. But she and we all recognise the truth. As they say, it's simply a matter of time now.

However, yesterday something rather wonderful happened.

My daughter met me off the train: she was spending a couple of days in London in connection with her work and had taken Madeleine her 7 month daughter with her. We fought our way on to a bus (how hard life is in London when you are dependent on wheels, whether buggies or wheelchairs). It seems that Madeleine has enjoyed her time in the capital, stimulated by its bustle and activity. We got off near the hospital and walked up the hill, uncertain about what we would find. The sky was overcast and it was beginning to rain.

In the ward, my sister had already arrived. My mother was asleep and did not look likely to waken any time soon. We waited. Life went on around us. Doctors and nurses came and went. Screens were drawn round beds, then undrawn. A man was shouting in some distress down the corridor. Our granddaughter was quite content to take in the new sights and sounds and scents of a hospital ward, not having been in one since her own delivery last December.

Then, after a bit of nudging, my mother opened her eyes. She saw Madeleine who was looking directly at her. There was what I can only call an epiphany, a transfiguring recognition. An old and tired face came alive with a radiant smile. There was laughter in her eyes, and the hint of tears. "How lovely" she said, "how lovely!" and gazed at the great-granddaughter she had never met till that moment. And Madeleine smiled back. It was as if the clouds had been rolled back and the sun had come out. In that recognition scene, a corner of a hospital ward seemed luminous with peace, joy and love.

So much of human life seemed to be squeezed into those few minutes. For a brief while there was a constellation of four generations in that intimate space. If Madeleine lives to my mother's age their years will have spanned nearly two centuries. "Here's your line of descent" said my daughter to her. It wasn't fanciful to see my mother's strong Jewish features traced in the baby's face. The last time we gathered round a hospital bed like this was thirty years ago when we said farewell to my grandmother, my mother's mother. She was about the same age my mother is now. My children were small. There was talk then, I recall, of passing the family likeness down the distaff side.

What was going through my mind during this Proustian experience by the bedside, this beautiful and poignant encounter between the very old and the very young, between a long life nearing its end and one that has hardly begun?

Inevitably, it was the picture painted by St Luke near the beginning of his gospel. When Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be "presented", the holy family are received by two elderly frequenters of the temple, Simeon and Anna. Who knows how old Simeon is, but Anna, we are told, is 84. Simeon gathers up the infant in his arms and blesses him. He has seen what he has lived and longed to see: the child in whom his hope and the hope of all nations rests. "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace." He can die fulfilled and - we can presume - happy. They both can - for why mention Anna at all unless she too is caught up in this meeting of age with infancy?

I don't say that it was necessarily my mother's Nunc Dimittis. Who knows? But something in my waters tells me that this was a final as well as a first meeting with her great-granddaughter, a valediction as well as a welcome. Ave atque vale. I could be wrong. I would love to be, as long as she is comfortable and free of pain and in her right mind. She has surprised us all her life, probably surprised herself for not only surviving the Nazi holocaust that should have meant extinction but living long enough to see her children's children's children. 


But it did seem that we were poised on the edge of a threshold at a profoundly liminal point in all our lives. Everything felt slowed down in one of those rare experiences when the present moment is transformed into a glowing sacrament that transcends time and place. I believe my mother felt it that way. So if this should be an end as well as a beginning, if one door is soon to close as another has just opened, I need to remember how it could not have been more beautiful, nor more filled with the presence of God. In these two cherished faces from either end of life, and in the love that flowed between them, Gerard Manley Hopkins' words became true for me:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father, through the features of men's faces.

My mother was right. "How lovely!"

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Brexit and The Archers

Here's a bit of fun stuff for the post-#Brexit blues. Or not. It may depend. You may think I'm trivialising the solemn or solemnising the trivial. 

The Archers was (were?) born the same year as me, in that annus mirabilis 1950. I've been an avid listener since I was a teenager. In the days of our analogue innocence, woe betide anyone who interrupted those hallowed 15 minutes. Nowadays, the BBC iPlayer has loosened the tight grip the 7pm pips used to have on my daily routine (though I'm old enough to remember when it was 6.45pm - perhaps some readers of my generation can recall when the change was made).

Let's not go in for exaggerated claims. I won't say that all I've ever learned in life has been picked up from The Archers. But as a north London suburbanite brought up behind privet hedges and net curtains, I did learn quite a lot about the countryside. To us townies, it was a foreign country. They did things differently there. That was part of my justification for listening to it, or so I told my mother. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Mrs Dale fan. She was disconsolate when it folded. But I don't know how much medical knowledge she or anyone ever distilled from Dr Dale's surgery or his worrisome wife. By contrast, I used to say to her, The Archers was educational. It was far more than entertainment (we didn't call them soaps in those days). You were informed about the realities of farming and how people interacted with the land. You learned. So it was essential listening. And also, a lot of the time, huge fun.

This marriage of informing and entertaining was always the mission of The Archers. It was originally conceived as a way of getting information across to farmers and smallholders about how to increase productivity after the austerities and food-shortages of the war and post-war rationing. There was regular advice from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who had a role in devising the scripts. You didn't just learn about the daily round and common task of the life in the countryside: good husbandry, farm-management, the vicissitudes of seed-time and harvest and the hazards of unseasonal frosts. Nor was it just about Doris Archer's kitchen, jam-making and beef stews. You picked up a lot about rural poverty, employee relationships, estate management, pesticides and livestock movement not to mention the (sometimes overwrought) dynamics of village life. This daily window on an "everyday story of country folk" had its ups and downs. But you felt you were in the company of people who knew what they were talking about when it came to the landscapes of middle England.

But the programme has never been merely quotidian in its concerns. Some of its big stories have focused on events that have been very much in the headlines: organic farming, foot-and-mouth disease, farm tenancies, road building, badger-culling, flooding and GM crops. The Archers were never afraid of being topical, even controversial. Locals expressed their views forcibly on the village green, in the shop, in the Bull, even in church. The cut-and-thrust was part of the point. The programme didn't need to take sides to acquaint a listening public with the joys and sorrows of a green and pleasant land from which many were increasingly distanced in towns and cities.

Which brings me to my point. Why have The Archers studiously avoided getting drawn into the greatest political decision of our generation, the European Union Referendum? Our friends at Felpersham Cathedral (@Felpercathedral) installed an #EUReferendometer to monitor all mentions of the referendum on the programme. (Discursus: I wonder where did they put it - in a transept? the crypt? the triforium? underneath the high altar? Or did the Dean or a minor canon have to wear it under their cassock and surplice like a heart monitor?)

The Cathedral issued a weekly report on referendum talk in the village. There was little to report: just one significant kick, a conversation between Adam and David about the implications of EU membership for farming. (David was for Remain. Adam, surprisingly, said he would be voting Leave - as a gay man, had he forgotten the progress so energetically promoted by the EU in relation to LGBT equality?) Apart from that, not a single conversation about any substantive referendum themes. Not one!  The referendometer flatlined for the best part of four whole months. There was just a bland exchange or two about how important it was to vote and how the village hall was given its customary role as polling station, but without getting into any issues ("I know better than to ask you which way you're going to vote", or weasel words to that effect).

When it came to the EU debate, Ambridge was the most silent, undisturbed place in Europe. The Bull was untroubled by any argument. There were no sermons in church, no meetings in the village hall. Peggy didn't fall out over it with the vicar. Debbie runs a farm in Hungary, yet she had nothing to say from the perspective of eastern Europe. Brian and Justin are used to thinking big about farming, but they had more pressing things on their mind than the Common Agricultural Policy. Young farmers Pip and Josh bucked the trend of their generation by not being engaged with it at all let alone coming in as fervent Remainers. Even Susan kept her counsel, a phenomenon unheard-of in all the years she has presided over the village shop. A cloud of EU-unknowing hung over the village. The referendum was strictly off-limits. It was the topic - love it or loathe it - that dare not speak its name except (we are guessing) in dark corners out of reach of the microphone. Out of reach of us.

I find this profound silence perplexing. The Archers has a good track record in helping listeners understand how the big news stories affect the countryside and the rural economy. It knows from long experience how to weave them seamlessly and unselfconsciously into fictional drama. I wasn't expecting it to take a position on the EU, but I was 100% sure it would deliver on its past form of squaring up to hot topics like the referendum. I was wrong. More wrong than I could ever have guessed. Its avoidance of the EU debate has been near complete. And, I think, cowardly and disappointing.

I used to belong to the wonderful group called the "Archers Anarchists". Their core belief is that the programme isn't make-believe and its participants aren't actors. The place and the people are real. I'm afraid that after the referendum, Ambridge has become less real than it used to be. The cynics and mockers are right. It's a little bit of an imagined but lost England, a feel-good audio theme park that is untroubled by the messy complexities of national and global politics even when they bear directly on it. If the Archers don't care about rural life enough to engage with a national debate with such momentous consequences for all the Ambridges across the UK, why should we bother to take them seriously any more? 

Ambridge: you have let us down. I doubt you would have changed anyone's mind. I'm not suggesting you should have tried. But had you been a bit more spirited, we would have gone into the polling booth better informed, whether we live in an urban or a rural environment. I'd have thought it would be an unrivalled opportunity for The Archers to come into its own once again, assert its own relevance, get itself noticed. You showed with Helen and Rob that you knew how to handle a difficult story really well and get the nation talking about it. So why duck out of the referendum? Were you under orders from On High? We need to know. 

Ok, let's not get too solemn about it. There's more to life than Ambridge and the referendum. (There really is!) I'm sure the BBC will take this in good part. It comes from a well-wisher. We want Ambridge to flourish as we learn how to inhabit a post-Brexit world. No doubt we'll hear about that from time to time even if it's too late to help us make this biggest political decision of our lifetimes. But we shall keep calm and carry on listening. We're too hooked to do anything else. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Brexit: An Open Letter to the Archbishops of the Church of England

Dear Archbishops

I am writing to you as the Presidents of the General Synod to ask that an emergency motion on the outcome of last week's Referendum should be placed on the agenda of the forthcoming meeting in July.

It's now clear that our nation has suffered its biggest cataclysm since the last War. Its causes are complex and it's too early to understand them fully. However, we can now see that the future looks deeply uncertain politically, economically and in terms of the UK's place in the world of tomorrow.

It has, I admit, worried me greatly that our national church has not spoken as an institution about the Referendum. We have all known that the vote was coming since the general election of 2015. It would have been possible to schedule a General Synod debate in February 2016 even though the Referendum date was not yet known when the agenda was being planned. I find it extraordinary that in the face of a national decision wth such momentous ethical and social justice aspects to it (and I would add, theological too), the Synod and the House of Bishops have been collectively silent. It feels to me like a failure of spiritual leadership towards the people of England.

I did not anticipate that the Church of England would take a position on the European Union (though that is in marked contrast to the other national church in these islands, the Church of Scotland). Nor do I expect this now. However, at a time when England is so divided between London and the provinces, when the future of the Union here in Britain is at real risk, and when the entire continent of Europe is facing unprecedented turmoil, it seems to me all the more essential to allow a proper debate to help our nation find wisdom and stability as we move into an unmapped landscape.

The Church of England has always had a strongly international outlook. The Anglican Communion has of course required us to be an outward-facing church. But so have our flourishing relations with the churches in Europe, both east and west. I know how much these relationships mean to both of you. I am also grateful that that you both spoke personally about the Referendum during the campaign, along with other bishops, and this will have been helpful to many, not only within the churches. 

However, not to grasp the opportunity posed by the imminent York Synod would, I think, baffle a great many people who, if not all committed Christians, are our friends and fellow-travellers. I realise that a great deal of synodical time is already committed to the shared conversations about human sexuality. I entirely support this as essential too. But you can imagine the headlines following the Synod's failure to debate this matter that is preoccupying the nation's mind: "Church of England shuns Brexit crisis debate in favour of sex!"  That would not play well publicly.

As the founder of "Christians for Europe" and in a long series of blogs, I have not apologised for bringing a Christian perspective on the EU Referendum and making the case for Remain. But I am not asking the Synod to rerun the arguments on either side. What matters now is to chart a course for the future. The voice of the church needs to be heard as we try to set our bearings in this crisis. The General Synod can and must help us do that.  So I urge you to allow a debate to take place that may make an important contribution in this process.

With best wishes and prayers,
Michael

Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit: how to go positively into exile

It's permitted to be sad this week, and more than a little angry. Post-referendum, we are still in the aftermath of a colossal political, cultural, social and - yes - spiritual convulsion. Raw emotions will subside in time and give way to a forensic analysis of where the UK now finds itself, not to mention the European Union and the rest of the world. But it's far too early to be cool-headed just yet, at least for me.

Yesterday my wife and I went to evening prayer in the tiny "old church" on the remote hillside above the village. It was a gloomy afternoon: a steady rain had set in, and the dark dripping avenue of yew trees we walked along seemed to echo my despondent spirits. The church has no electricity so we sang the hymns by candlelight. One of them was "God moves in a mysterious way / his wonders to perform." Yes, I thought, that's not in dispute. But would I rise to the massive act of faith that could see how "behind a frowning Providence / he hides a smiling face"? Time would tell.

We recited the Psalm set for the service, Psalm 60. O God, you have rejected us, broken our defences; you have been angry; now restore us! You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering. You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel. That feels right, I thought. It's not that a song of national defeat is transferable to post-Brexit Britain. I'm not making facile connections here. Rather, it's the mood that the Psalm caught so exactly: bewilderment, pain, despair, loss of bearings, how to understand the "mysterious way" in which God moves.

I thought of other laments in the Psalter. The most famous is Psalm 137. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept / when we remembered you, O Zion. It's one of the angriest Psalms in the book, fuelled by the violent emotions that follow any severe trauma or dislocation. The people are in exile, far away from their own country. They have lost their temple, their king and their land. They are at risk of losing their very identity, their soul. 

Their big question is, How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? How will they learn to recognise God both in the events that have brought them to this unwished-for exile, and in the place itself? What happens to faith and hope when they are driven out of a landscape that is familiar into a "strange land" where everything looks different and has to be negotiated afresh? 

This seemed to me to be a good metaphor of Brexit. There's a sense in which we are bound for an exile. Some welcome it, others don't. But it's a plain fact that it is going to be a strange land for all of us. Even Leavers have acknowledged that there is so much they "don't know". It's clear that there are few landmarks and no obvious plan, no historical precedents for our nation to follow. We are on our own. We can expect to be disorientated. We shall have to set our compass bearings as best we can. And given the hurt we have caused our friends and allies in the European Union, we have no right to expect that it will be an amicable departure, though we must hope and pray that it will be. 

The man who more than anyone else taught the faith community how to "sing the Lord's song in a strange land" was the prophet Jeremiah. He too was crushed by the way events had turned out for his people. He saw the disaster of exile coming and said so, much to the displeasure of his audience. If ever a prophet suffered in himself the conflicted experience of the people he was warning, it was Jeremiah. In the light of the past few days, I can understand that.

But he said something very important. It goes like this. There is no point in railing against it. Exile is going to be a fact. We are where we are. So understand that this will be your new reality for the foreseeable future.  It will be hard and painful at first. But if you can make the best of it, invest in it, trust that God has not after all abandoned you but has come with you into this far-away, hostile environment, you will find that life can begin again. In one of the bravest utterances in the Hebrew Bible he pleads: Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29.7). It's an extraordinary - and wonderful - thing to say.

So here's my thinking as another week begins. We are at the start of a journey that will take us into exile - for leaving the EU is precisely what this is in a political and economic sense at the very least. Our place in the world is going to be very different from what it was. Brexiters (those at any rate who haven't had second thoughts about their vote) are telling us that it will be all right. Remainers are fearing the worst. Who knows what this strange land will be like? We are not going to find out this week, this month or any time soon. It's going to take years for the landscape so fractured by this earthquake and aftershocks still to come to rearrange itself and settle down. 

But we should not be swayed by either the optimists nor the pessimists. The best will probably not happen, but neither may all our worst fears be realised. And even if many of them are, and as a nation we come to regret our decision as foolish and mistaken, we mustn't be overwhelmed by negativity or despair. What matters is to maintain our faith in Providence as it works itself out in the present. We must do our equivalent of building and planting good things in the land of exile, as Jeremiah not only urged his hearers to do but did himself. Above all we must keep faith with our country and with Europe by saying our prayers. As I blogged on that bitter Friday morning, we must not lose heart.

Church leaders have called for reconciliation and healing after the vote. Our churches both in the UK and in continental Europe will have a part to play in this. But it can't be hurried if it's to be deep and lasting and reach into communities that have experienced deep and bitter division. Nor must we rush into it for the sake of quick closures or the ever-alluring demands of niceness. When there is a deep wound, healing takes time, and surgery may be needed first. But the last words from the cross can help draw us all into the everlasting movement of God's wise and loving purpose for the world. There have been times when we have cried with the psalmist and with Jesus himself, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? But might we begin to pray in a different, more trustful voice: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit? If we can, it could sow the seeds of hope for our future. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

On Saying Farewell to the EU: the morning after

Here is the blog I've written for the "Christians for Europe" website in the light of the Referendum result.

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This is the day we hoped and prayed would never dawn. 

But it has. The UK has voted to leave the European Union. After months of debate, the voters have decided. And even it's by a narrow margin, so narrow that less than half of the eligible adult population are behind a Brexit, that's the outcome. To say we are disappointed doesn't begin to express it. But a vote is a vote. We respect it.

There will be much to reflect on in the days ahead. There will be post-mortems. Why didn't we Remainers succeed in making our case for EU membership? Why did the nation fall for the self-interested inward-looking arguments of the Leave campaign? Why did our national politics become so divisive? 

And more important, there will be big questions about the uncertain future that now lies ahead. What will become of the EU after this outcome? Will the UK's Union hold together or will Scotland go its own way? How do we reconfigure our trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world? We suddenly find ourselves in a strange Brexit-land where there are no landmarks and no map. The next few months and years could be turbulent not only for the UK but for Europe and the world.

How should we as pro-EU people of faith respond?

During the campaign, "Christians for Europe" has tried to help frame the referendum as a matter not simply of pragmatic politics ("what's best for Britain") but also of social ethics and a theology of society. We've emphasised the central tenets of our faith: loving our neighbour, standing in solidarity with the disadvantaged, seeking the common good, promoting life together rather than apart. We've wanted to argue that the European project is based on a fundamentally Christian vision of nationhood and common life.

All this still stands. So even if, to our immense sadness, the UK will soon be walking away from the EU, it mustn't stop us from being good Europeans who will continue to work closely with the peoples of our continent who are our natural allies and friends. We must go on taking a global view of our place in the world and not draw in our horizons as if we were some insignificant offshore island. We must continue to work away at trying to create a more wholesome politics of respect and compassion both internationally and in our own country.

In that spirit we shall go on seeking the welfare of the human family and playing our part as good citizens of our nation and our world. That will involve the healing of the divisions that opened up during the Referendum campaign, and we are committed to this too in both word and action. And it goes without saying: we must now, more than ever, say our prayers. 

The Christian gospel of Jesus's death and resurrection makes us people of hope. We do not lose heart.

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Perhaps I can end on a more personal note. If I say that I am heartbroken, I don't want you to think that I'm dramatising. But as this "day after" dawns, it's hard for me to see any good in it. So much of my own story is intertwined with the story of continental Europe - if you've been reading this blog regularly, you'll understand how. So it feels as if part of my identity is being stripped away, all that is symbolised by the words "European Union" displayed in the cover of my passport. I've been immensely proud of my EU citizenship. I've regarded it as a privilege to think of myself in that way. To face the fact that I am going to lose a fundamental aspect of myself feels terrible. It's as if a light is going out.

When it was clear that Leave were on their way to winning, Paddy Ashdown tweeted: "God help our country". I share his sense of desperation. Or is it desolation? Or devastation? All those words seem to fit. At a stroke, we find ourselves in exile. It feels like a lonely place to be.

But I know, of course, that it is not the end of the world, however bad it seems. What I wrote at the end of the official blog is the most important sentence of all. It's a quote from St Paul's second Corinthian letter where, having catalogued the ordeals and suffering he has had to face for the sake of the gospel, he speaks of his indomitable hope in the God of resurrection. "We do not lose heart."

I need to say those words to myself over and over again. It will take time to come to terms with what we have done as a nation. There are "fightings within and fears without". We undoubtedly face times of great difficulty. It may be that the UK may come to rue the day. But Paddy Ashdown has given me the clue about facing the future. "God help our country" is the best prayer we can say right now. For praying is all I can think of doing at this moment. 

God will not abandon us, for all that we have done something extraordinarily foolish. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. We must trust him. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Day Before the Vote: how to prepare

Tomorrow is the last day of the referendum campaign. What's the significance of the "day before"?

The temptation will be to engage in a frantic bout of last-minute canvassing, arguing, blogging and generally engorging ourselves in a social media frenzy. As someone who passionately believes that the EU is good for Britain and Britain for the EU, I'm as desperate to win the contest as every other Remainer. When the race is neck-and-neck, that final sprint to the finishing-line can make all the difference.

But I'm wondering whether to be "desperate" is quite right. If this has been a real debate in which we have been listening well and paying attention to one another (fond hope!), our campaign needs to end in a considered way. To crash into the buffers at the stroke of midnight is not how to conclude a serious process of laying bare what really matters in the decision we must make the next day.

At "Christians for Europe" we've tried to model a reflective approach to the referendum. We haven't always got it right but we have not wanted to disparage anyone, impugn their motives or shout. We've wanted to respect people who differ from us in good faith, even if disagreement has sometimes been sharp, like Paul and Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles. If we have given offence, we are sorry. "Good disagreement" is becoming something of a mantra in faith circles, but it's precisely what we believe about how at our best we should be listening and talking to one another.

But we don't at all apologise for stating clearly what we believe, which is that Christianity requires us to have regard for the neighbour, the stranger and the needy. Our faith urges us to live together in community rather than apart. Its social theology highlights the imperatives of solidarity and the common good. This is why we believe it points us in the direction of playing a leading role within the EU, not turning our back on our friends and allies. We believe that God cares about our nation, our continent and our world. We believe that by being a leading member of the EU, our nation will have a democratic, peaceful "reach" that transcends the boundaries of Europe. We believe that it's in the interests of peace, justice and the integrity of creation that we remain and don't leave. That's an ethical, theological and spiritual position to take. It's much more than mere pragmatism.

If you follow this blog, you'll know that I've been trying to nuance that set of affirmations in a number of different ways since late last year. There's nothing more I can add at this late stage. Except, to come back to where I started: what tomorrow could mean for us. Bear with me. 

The day before the referendum, 22 June, is Saint Alban's Day. He is celebrated as the first British martyr who, when Christianity was under severe persecution, was executed for sheltering a Christian priest. The pagan Alban had been so impressed by the devotion of his guest that he converted and became a Christian himself. When the Romans came to search his house, he changed into the priest's clothes and presented himself to the soldiers. His punishment was to suffer what would have been due to the priest. Bede tells of this, Britain's "proto-martyrdom" in words that indicate how moved he was to have heard about it. 

Britain (as distinct from its member nations) doesn't have a patron saint. Alban is the obvious candidate. He embodies everything that is noblest in human nature when it is redeemed by grace and love. His hospitality to and care for someone who needed sanctuary is a powerful metaphor of one central issue in this campaign. Every Christian, every decent human being, must be alarmed at the xenophobic, not to say racist undertones of the more extreme Brexiters' discourse. The Hebrew Bible commands us unambiguously never to forget "the stranger who is in your midst". Jo Cox lived and died campaigning for some of the most needy people on the planet. Justin Welby was completely right to condemn UKIP's hateful, hate-filled poster with its sinister echoes of the 1930s. Alban shows us the more excellent way of love. What better patron saint for the British people to be proud of?

And he took this way of loving to the very end. St John says this is precisely how Jesus "loved his own". He laid down his life for a friend, just as Jesus did. If ever one human being modelled what a whole nation could be like, it is Alban. To give up your life for others is how the gospel says we must all live. What I've disliked more than anything else in this campaign has been the self-serving rhetoric of so many of our political leaders. "What's best for Britain, what's best for you the electorate" can only be part of the story, and not even the most important part. The headline ought to have been: how can this great nation of ours that in two world wars "laid down its life" for its European friends and allies suffering under the iron fist of fascism, do the same again in 2016? What's good for Europe, for the wider human family? I've no hesitation in saying that the UK has an outstanding contribution to make to global politics and the mending of a broken humanity. I unhesitatingly say that we're best placed to do this inside the EU. Alban can be our model of Britain-in-Europe.

So how shall we spend St Alban's Day? By learning from his example, I say, and trying to imitate it. In this final blog before the vote, I'm asking that we find time tomorrow to reflect on the values our faith teaches us and ask how they translate into our decision. Put it this way. The X on your ballot paper stands for two things. The first is the title of "Christ" himself (from the initial Greek letter of the word Christos, χ). The second is that it represents the cross on which he gave his life, the inspiration that led Alban to make the supreme sacrifice that he did. Your simple X on your voting slip is filled with a profound and eloquent symbolism. 

What would this Christ want us as a nation to do at this cross-roads (pun intended) in our history? I'm not falling into the trap of imagining I know where he would cast his vote - if he had been unlucky enough to have to make a choice. But the faith I follow bears his name and it leads me to believe that what I must do is to try to imitate him in his living and dying. That means I simply cannot vote only with my own interests in mind, but must think first and foremost of the millions of others in our country, our continent and our world who are very much less privileged than I am. That's what St Alban's Day unambiguously teaches me.

Here's a suggestion. Why not stop campaigning at noon tomorrow, and spend the rest of the day reflecting on the values that matter most profoundly to us? A great decision needs vigils of prayer, not just good debate; so that when we come to vote, it becomes an act of prayerful, courageous love that springs directly out of our heart and soul and mind and strength. If it calls us to lay down our lives or our self-centeredness, so be it. That's the cost of discipleship, isn't it? Alban our native British saint can inspire us to make the generous, unselfish choice. 

In this spirit, "Christians for Europe" will stop posting at 12 noon tomorrow. After that, we could get on with the day job, cook a nice dinner, go for a walk, play football, read a novel, watch a movie... anything to give our over-stimulated brains a rest for a while. Maybe even take a nap - therd could be a long night ahead. 

Oh, and it goes without saying: reflect quietly, think carefully and say our prayers. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Everyone's death diminishes us, but tragedy changes things

What can I say in the aftermath of Jo Cox's shocking murder? What language can we borrow when an MP is assassinated doing what she loved - serving her constituents and seeking the welfare of her  Yorkshire community and the community of suffering people across the world? There's a real sense in which she "laid down her life for her friends". She died because she was an elected member of Parliament. Her death was an act of witness to the values she cherished. A vocation to public office carries risks. She gave herself to her role and paid a terrible price. 

Jo's sister has told us that when they were children, "all Jo wanted was for everyone to be happy". She made this her life's work. People who knew her have written tributes that it's been extraordinarily moving to read. Most of us never met her, yet it seems oddly natural to be calling her by her Christian name. We feel as if she was somehow our own elected representative, even our friend. We wish we had known her and seen for ourselves the spirit of this remarkable woman: her passion for justice; her longing to make the world a more peaceful, happier place; her fiery love for humanity especially its weak and voiceless members in distant lands and on her own doorstep. If we had problems, we could imagine taking them to her surgery and she would have listened, understood. She would have cared and helped. And what fun we'd have had with her as her guest at the kitchen table with her family, sharing bowls of pasta and salad washed down with good wine, stimulating conversation, political anecdote and I'm sure uproarious laughter.

Why do we feel this way? Not because we want to write hagiography, though it's easy to canonise people we admire, especially when their lives are dramatically cut short. We're especially prone to hagiography when they died precisely on account of their vocation to a noble task. Something of that sort did shine out of Jo's life. But if I've read her correctly, she'd have been horrified at the idea of anyone rhapsodising in stained glass window language about her. I think she'd have been baffled by the degree of worldwide attention that's been given to her death. She'd have said: this isn't about me. Think about the people I care about and do everything you can for them. 

And that's the point. Anyone less prone than Jo to status-anxiety or self-importance it's hard to imagine. She was one of the world's spontaneously generous people. What we are drawn to in people like her is not - or not only - their heroic qualities, the achievements that mark them out as extraordinary. It's that these very qualities were allied to her sheer human ordinariness, indeed, seemed to flow directly out of it. It's unbearably poignant to learn about her devotion to her husband Brendan and their children, her happy temperament and love of life, her gift for home-making, hospitality and friendship. For most of us who live in intimacy with someone else, vocation is famously the third partner in bed with us. Not so with Jo. She seemed to practise a kind of stabilitas that was immensely life-affirming.

I need to tread carefully here. John Donne's time-honoured words tell us that "every man's death diminishes me". If we didn't know this before, we know it now. When death is "wrong", whether it's murder, accident, premature illness or armed conflict, it affects us. When it suddenly ambushes a man or woman who in some way stands for us, it is symbolically happening to us too. When that person is young and at the top of their game, has everything to live for, and is living such an exemplary, courageous and fulfilled life, it diminishes us more than ever. Who among us with any shred of human feeling has not wept for the senseless waste and cruelty of Jo's being taken from us? Even as I write, I am feeling it all afresh. Why ever did God allow this? Can God himself even answer that question?

The temptation for most of us in the shock of grief is to be angry, bitter and vengeful. What a wonderful example is being set by Jo's widowed Brendan in his loss. He speaks about honouring Jo by carrying on doing what she would have wanted and gave her life to, trying to roll back the tides of hatred that threaten to engulf our world. Inspired by this remarkable couple, I want to say that this senseless act of violence is very much not just a terrible waste, though in the rawness of our emotional response right now, that is precisely what it is. But we know from our own experience of the death of those we love that their memory goes on touching our lives. They live on in us and we are better people because of them. 

Jo's death has released a huge outpouring of admiration, gratitude and affection. This includes people who energetically disagreed with her views on such big issues as refugees, the EU, poverty, sanctions, immigration or human rights. But death transcends our differences. It's the great leveller that strips away pretence and illusion so that we have to focus on what we have left: our common humanity. Wealth, privilege, status and power count for nothing in the face of death, only what has been of lasting value in our lives. It is necessary that death should "diminish" us if only because it pulls us back to what really matters: that we should live not for ourselves but for the others who have a claim on us. Her death shows us the unselfconscious beauty of this way of being a human being. And the best thing about Jo seems to have been her native simplicity. It all seemed as natural as a bloom emerging to full flower. I imagine it wasn't: achievements like hers are always hard-won over a lifetime. Nevertheless it's precious gift to be able to live in the way she did. We honour it and admire her all the more because of it. 

This isn't a Princess Diana moment - the collective grief we feel seems more earthed in reality than that. Perhaps Jo's Yorkshire grit is helping us to get things in perspective. It's too early to say whether something in our politics and in the habits of public life may be shifting. Could the discourse of politicians, journalists, campaigners, everyone with influence over others (even preachers!) be touched by her death? Could we become less cynical and compromised, more respectful, compassionate and humane? Could our motives and aspirations be purified a little? Many have posed these questions in the last few days. Tragedy can have the effect of cleansing our vision so that we see and act in new ways. Perhaps Jo's death can help us to be more serious about life, find more fulfilment in our work, put laughter, joy and generosity back into our relationships. The spirit in which we engage in the final days of the EU referendum campaign, so febrile and bad-tempered up to now, may give us a clue about how Jo's death has changed things. 

As a Christian, my faith is founded on another death. That death too was the cruel waste of an even younger life in which so much promise was never to be fulfilled. "Those whom the gods love die young" wrote Herodotus of soldiers who perished in war. "The unfinisheds are among the most beautiful of symphonies" said Viktor Frankl, writing about the millions of victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The extent to which we are diminished by a tragic death is itself a tribute to the value of the life that has been lost. But faith goes on to say: in that death we remember every Good Friday lie the seeds of transfiguration, of resurrection and of eternal life. "Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain" we sing at Easter. 

What might Jo have become with so much yet to bring to us! How might she have brought her own happiness to make a difference to our fractured world? To murder such a good person makes no sense. We feel the heartbreak at the heart of things. But we cherish the memory of a rich and rewarding life that will not lose its capacity to inspire. Perhaps we can dare to hope that some redemption might come to our nation's broken sense of self as a result of this shameful deed and a life that was sacrificed. Faith wants to believe that it's possible. 

But this much we can say for certain. She will keep the flame of hope alive for that better world she fought for so well. She restores our belief in humanity at its very best.  Grief and gratitude walk hand in hand.  Ave atque vale.