Monday, 23 November 2015

Religion at the Cinema

So the Church of England is not allowed to show the #JustPray video of the Lord's Prayer as a cinema ad. The evergreen popularity of Star Wars would have guaranteed that it would be seen by huge numbers of all ages. The days before Christmas seemed an ideal time. But at the eleventh hour Digital Cinema Media (DCM), the company that manages advertising in the big cinema chains has said no. It would go against the policy of not accepting ads 'connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion'. It might offend people. (Did DCM make it clear at the planning stage that this was its policy? I think we should know.)

It's an intriguing debate. You'd expect this kind of thing in France where the Republic has a fiercely defended doctrine of laïcité which means that public space is strictly neutral when it comes to religion. Hence the annual rows about whether the Christmas crib can be displayed in the foyer of public buildings like the Mairie. We see it in this country too, though not yet with the same shrillness. Watch whether your town hall carries a sign wishing you a 'Happy Christmas' or 'Seasons Greetings' (with or without an apostrophe). See if your kids are allowed to perform in a school nativity play that focuses on an infant called Jesus.

People go to the cinema to be entertained, not offended - that's the gist. But there's a lot of cinema advertising that very much offends me. Far from being value-free, it's heavily freighted with all the bogus assumptions of consumerism. It tells me what I need, shapes my hungers, tempts me to spend money I don't have. It persuades me to buy into a set of values that is alien to my core beliefs. From fast cars and seductive fragrances to chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, the advert says: you must have this and have it now! Your humanity will be diminished if you don't! Here's where fulfilment and purpose lie! All deeply theological and filled with unconscious commentary on the human condition and the nature of desire. And DCM's policy statement about refusing to show anything 'connected to personal beliefs' is just naive. All advertising is about personal values and attitudes - it's precisely 'beliefs' that advertisers want to influence as they try to persuade us to buy their product!

But in an age of toleration (which I'm so grateful to have been born into), I do not have the right not to be offended. Nobody does. As a Christian, would I be upset if a cinema ad showed the Islamic call to prayer and devout Muslims streaming into the mosque? Or Jewish people at the Western Wall praying uttering the Shema? Or Hindus on pilgrimage to their sacred river? Of course not. I'd be glad to think that humane spiritual values were being promoted and the lives of other faith communities affirmed. What about atheists and their ads on London buses, 'There probably isn't a God, so get on and enjoy your life'? No problem. Let the argument happen, I say. It can only do us good to listen carefully to others, exercise free speech without fear, disagree passionately if we want to, and even take the risk of changing our minds. When Richard Dawkins says he's relaxed about the Lord's Prayer advert because people are big enough to cope with it, he's saying something important.

But even if I don't have the right not to be offended, it's proper to place boundaries on what is allowable in public discourse. Here's what DCM is possibly arguing. Western democracies struggle with this, and it's far from clear what crosses the line of acceptability and what doesn't. Threats to public or personal safety are the easier cases. Religion and politics are more difficult. The temptation is to draw the line too far in and exclude content that is not only harmless in itself but offers stimulus to thought and discussion. The effect is to infantilise us by being over-protective and parental. No-one is arguing that radical Islamist propaganda or promoting the political programmes of far right extremists should be showed on our cinema or TV screens. But who is going to place the C of E's gentle Lord's Prayer video in the category of the deviant and dangerous, to be suppressed at all costs? Does DCM not rate the intelligence of the viewing public very highly?

It's dug itself into a hole here. No doubt DCM is trying to be even-handed and respond consistently to endless requests to promote this or that ideology or creed. And of course it's free to show or not show whatever it wants. But it hasn't done the calibration carefully enough. Maybe the religious landscape is too mysterious to navigate. Then their leaders need advisors who can help them become more literate when it comes to faith. But make no mistake. By not showing the Lord's Prayer, they are making a clear statement about the beliefs and values that they do wish to promote. And because they are in control of what we see, that removes from us the audience the chance to make up our own minds.

(I'm tempted here to add something about the profoundly theological character of cinema. Film is a rich resource for theology and spiritual reflection. In particular, Star Wars has given rise to a large and fascinating literature about human destiny and redemption. The big cinema chains have never fought shy of showing films about religion. Cinema is a space where there is deep and passionate engagement with religion both explicitly and in more analogical and metaphorical ways. So DCM is out of step with its own medium.) 

To me, being infantilised is a lot worse than being offended. And in hard cases, I'd rather take the risk of including rather than excluding. I know that precedents haunt all decision-makers. But DCM is being needlessly risk-averse. So I hope it will have the courage to change its mind about this innocent little film. To treat us as grown-ups won't be the end of civilisation as we know it.

Monday, 16 November 2015

After Paris

Terror in Paris is not more of an atrocity than it is in Beirut, Baghdad, Bali or anywhere else in the world. It's simply that it's so near home, so familiar. The massacre of innocents is awful because everyone's death 'diminishes me' as John Donne famously said. It diminishes us all. When anyone is a victim of another person's cruelty, the human family is that bit more broken. At times like this, all we can do to begin with is to be silent, shed our tears for the dead, remember, say our prayers, and if we are in a position to, comfort those who mourn. And allow ourselves to feel what we feel: sadness, compassion, bewilderment, and surely a fierce burning anger.

But after the shock the time comes again to speak, pick up threads, search for words that will help. If nothing else, our attempts to order our thoughts and articulate them may help to stabilise us somewhat. It's important to try to grasp what is ultimately without any sense, or begin to. On this third day of national mourning in France, I'm trying in a piecemeal way to absorb the images from Paris, so many of them beyond words, unbearably poignant. I want to learn from the news coverage and pay attention to the best informed commentary and interpretation that has been offered since Friday night.

Here, for what it's worth, is where I have got to.

1. I believe we need to be emotionally honest about these terrible events. It's no use pretending that I am not profoundly shaken by them, or that I am not afraid of what may follow. Afraid of yet more outrages against innocence, against all that is precious in human life. Afraid for our world, for our European home, for France, and for London my home city where many of my family and friends live and work. And yes, afraid for myself, wondering if it is safe to walk the streets of our cities, travel by bus or train, go to the cinema or the concert hall.... I fervently believe that life must go on, but I don't quite buy the defiant 'as normal' that usually follows that phrase. There is no 'normal' in the aftermath of terror. It is more a case of 'face the fear and do it anyway'. But unacknowledged fear feeds off itself and through its tyranny paralyses us. This is what terrorists want. We need to recognise that we are frightened if we are to keep calm and carry on, if we are to reawaken hope.

2. There are, I think, theological and spiritual consequences of any atrocity that we need to face without unflinching. However simplistic the dogmas promoted by the radicalised religion of these young jihadists, we can't allow our religious response to it to be shaped on their black-and-white terms. Suffering is always a big challenge to religious faith, and we wouldn't be true to the nature of faith if Paris didn't pose deep questions to us about where God is in all this. It's not a problem for jihadists who shout Allahu Akbar as they slaughter their victims; but it is very much a problem for the adherents of mainstream Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The scriptures give us plentiful texts to help us reflect on this baffling fact of human life such as Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms of lament and the Passion Narratives. Perhaps the godforsakenness of Jesus on the cross ('My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?') is the place to start. A questioning faith that acknowledges our bafflement and has room for our doubt and our outrage will help us a lot more than the tired formulae and futile easy speeches that rehearse utterly discredited answers. 

3. Among the pieces I have read since Friday have been some that persuade me that I need to understand radicalised Islam far better than I do. (Indeed, I need to understand Islam itself far better, especially the millennenarian Caliphate aspirations of radical Sunnis.)  What is it that motivates the jihadists of Daesh? What do they want to achieve? The rhetoric of 'death-cult', 'holy war', 'nihilism' and 'psychopathy' is understandable, but it doesn't explain what we're facing. If we are going to tackle Daesh, we need to know our enemy and I'm not persuaded that enough of us do know our foe accurately. I'm particularly worried that western leaders, schooled in liberal secularism, don't have the necessary background to understand the dynamics of degraded religion and its motivation to destructiveness. The strategy has to rest on a proper intellectual consensus, something that has been lacking ever since 9/11 shocked us into facing up to how our world order had changed and we found ourselves precipitated into the ill-conceived 'war on terror'. (I recommend a penetrating and chilling piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, 'What ISIS Really Wants' which you can find online at www.theatlantic.com.) 

4. This hardly needs saying, at least to people who are likely to read this blog, but I'll say it anyway if only to remind myself how important it is. We absolutely must not hurry to throw blame around in the aftermath of an act of terror. If we are white Christian Europeans, I'm particularly thinking of those with different ethnicities and faith allegiances from ours. Some of the less responsible media are already linking the jihadists with Syrian refugees recently arrived in Europe. 'It is very important that we do not close our hearts and start equating the issue of refugees with terrorism' Barack Obama has said. Friday's massacres in Paris are bound to fan the flames of hysterical anti-immigrant feeling on the far right (I have real anxiety about the imminent regional elections in France where we have already seen worrying signs of a sharp shift of opinion towards the 'Front National'). If ever there was a time when we needed to care for the stranger in our midst and to love our neighbour as ourselves it is now. As for our own fellow citizens, our Muslim brothers and sisters are feeling especially vulnerable in these times. We must reach out to them in friendship and stand with them to affirm the shared values of our two Abrahamic faiths. 

And of course, we must go on expressing our complete solidarity with the victims themselves, with the people of France, and with all who suffer at the hands of the wicked. I'm touched by the worldwide displays of the Tricolore on public buildings and FaceBook profiles. To see my own Durham Cathedral lit up in this way was especially moving for me. It may be a small enough gesture, but a little is better than nothing. The blue, white and red of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité originated in the days of Enlightenment and Revolution. But at heart they are Christian and humane aspirations the vast majority of us hold dear in our democracies. They are hard won. We must defend them and pray for our enemies who hate us and all who stand for these noble values. 

But we need to do it intelligently. Faith needs to seek understanding. It's how to be wise at times like this that I'm reflecting on in the aftermath of such sickening awfulness and pain. And the Archbishop of Canterbury is right. If we want to change the world, prayer is where it begins.

Friday, 13 November 2015

What is the Vocation of Britain in Europe?

It sounds like a grand rhetorical gesture to ask this kind of question. What prompts it is a recent piece by Angela Tilby on the EU referendum in the Church Times. She asks whether the UK has a 'vocation' to belong to the EU, given its historic religious, cultural and political roots in continental Europe.

I like the idea that peoples and nations can have a vocation. I imagine that this is a way of saying two things. The first is that the existence of nations and peoples is not a matter of chance but is somehow meant. A theologian will want to say that it belongs to the process of creation, and as the Abrahamic faiths present it, this is not random but intentional. In its mythic account of human origins, the Book of Genesis traces the existence of the known world's peoples back to the beginnings of humanity itself. I read this as saying that the concepts of order and pattern that 'creation' represents are continued into history as the human family organises itself into differently shaped communities in particular places.

So if peoples and nations exist not through accident but artistry, then purpose and destiny become interesting dimensions to ponder. They aren't different in principle from questions of personal destiny ('why am I here?') and collective destiny ('why are we all here?' 'What is the human race for?'). Some may say that these questions are ultimately unanswerable because they are not well formed in the fist place. Nevertheless, we find ourselves asking them which perhaps says something about their validity. So if theology can pose these other questions about humanity as a whole and myself as part of it, I think we can ask the same question of a nation or a people.

There are risks. Here in Britain, our forebears talked about the colonisation and empire as 'civilising' or 'Christianising' the world. Triumphalist lyrics like Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory are poetic ways of celebrating (or misunderstanding) the idea of a national vocation. The emergence of nation states in post medieval Europe was bound to give rise to this kind of sentiment: it was natural for each nation to give a reason for its very existence by talking or singing it up. National anthems across the world express vocational ideals and aspirations (Britain's is an interesting exception to this rule because it is not really about nationhood, rather its focus is the person of the Sovereign).

But I think we can still talk more modestly about a 'national vocation'. Maybe that's a way of talking about a nation's soul. For instance, when we allude to England as the 'mother of parliaments' we mean that our democratic constitution and parliamentary processes model a politics that can be, and has been, offered as a gift for others to emulate and adapt according to their own vocation and way of being. This 800th anniversary year has linked our politics and judicial system to the first sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. I was struck at Runnymede by how much of the discourse around the Great Charter was couched in terms of England's 'gift to the world', especially among American commentators.

The EU referendum is making us ask questions about Britain and our place in Europe. But much of the campaigning talk both for and against membership goes beyond the pragmatic implications of staying in or leaving. There is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) vocational subtext about what the United Kingdom really is in itself, what it means to be true to its historic identity, and how it can best realise its potential. But we can't explore those questions without also asking what the European Union is for, how its member states contribute to the achieving of its purpose, and whether we want to be part of its vocation or not. Is it primarily about economic co-operation and the single market? Or is it about politics, peace-keeping and policy-making across nations?

The EU's treaties and founding documents set out its core values. They are: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. They speak of the aspiration to be 'an ever growing union of peoples'. They celebrate the (relative) freedom from conflict of this historically war-torn continent since the middle of the twentieth century. They celebrate European heritage and culture as a gift to the world. (I wish they mentioned religion too, because of the absolutely central role Christianity, Judaism and Islam have played in the shaping of the continent since Roman times. I may try and say something about this in relation to the 'soul' of Europe one day.)

So what is the vocation of Europe? Here's my suggestion. It's to model how independent nations can freely and democratically associate in a union that puts the common good before narrow self-interest, and offers to the world both a model of collaboration and common purpose, and contributes to the global quest for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. This is what I see our common European home standing for. As I argued in my last blog, Britain has everything to give to this noble task, all that makes it such a good place to live in, all that makes us love it. This is why for many partner nations, a European Union without Britain is unthinkable.

So I'm baffled by the hostility to  the EU that I see all around, not just in this country but across the continent. Call me naïve (I'm sure many will) but the European project, this experiment that has done so much for our continent, is where I see national and global vocations begin to converge, and that has to point to a kinder, better, more peaceable and more just world. It's not a case of sacrificing our precious national identity. Rather, it's precisely by cherishing it that we, with every other EU nation, bring our distinctive gifts to the fashioning of a whole that is greater (and yes, more glorious) than the sum of its parts.

It's a call for us to be grateful for what we prize, and share it generously. It's also a call for us to be open to receive what other nations have to give. This mutuality is what true God-given community is all about. It's what 'family' means. Why would the UK not want to be part of this humane and visionary enterprise?

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Churches and the EU Referendum

So now we know what the Prime Minister wants from Europe. His letter to the European Council contains no great surprises. But it left me feeling despondent. Our continent is facing a huge crisis as thousands of migrants arrive helpless on our southern shores. There is no consensus about how best to respond to them. For one nation to thrust its wish list into the foreground at a time like this seems self-serving and not at all in the best tradition of British-ness. I'm sorry - and a little ashamed if I'm honest.

Let me come clean. I believe that our future as a nation has to lie in the European Union. I admit that my own personal history comes into it, and with it, a strong emotional pull towards 'the continent'. My mother's side of the family comes from Germany. Being Jewish, they suffered terribly in the Nazi holocaust. Some perished; others were fortunate enough to survive in hiding or flee to this country for safety. My mother was one of those. I've blogged about it before.

That's no argument of course. But personal identity comes into things. I had to fill in a questionnaire the other day to register with the GP in our new home. How did I describe myself, it asked? The only applicable box said 'White British'. No denying that it's what I am. So I ticked it. But it's not all I wanted to say about myself. So I added: '/European'. My Twitter profile says that I am 'a European at home in North East England.' That's closer to who I am. I belong to the North East. I belong to England. I belong to the United Kingdom. I belong to Europe. But even that isn't all. I belong to a particular family now living in a particular village. At the other end of the scale I belong to the entire world and to the family of humanity. I love all these circles of belonging and want to be loyal to them all. I want to be a citizen, and participate in the life, of each of them. Our many identities matter, from the least to the greatest.

You don't need me to rehearse the arguments for Britain's membership of the EU. When it comes to the economy, trade, politics, higher education, science, security, social care and culture, scores of people who know what is what are doing this expertly and persuasively. That's not to say that the EU is a perfect organisation. The PM is right about the needs for reform and reducing the burden of bureaucracy. Yet despite its shortcomings, the evidence is that our participation in the EU has benefitted us enormously. And, it's important to say, it has benefitted the EU too. No wonder the family of European nations, let alone America and China, view the possibility of Brexit with alarm. So should we.

Does the 'idea of Europe' have a theological and spiritual aspect? I believe it has. For one thing, Christianity, like Judaism, Islam and every other world faith, transcends the nation state. Religion says: our 'belonging' is vastly bigger than just our national identity. To think in purely national terms about humanity is severely to limit our vision. So communities of peoples like the EU point to a future that is collaborative, where acting together can effect positive change that puts a nation's self-interest in the larger context of the common good, as catholic social thought has made increasingly clear. The UK is itself evidence that as peoples we are always 'better together' than apart. To develop partnerships and synergies is, I think, a collective expression of the biblical principle that 'it is not good for man to be alone'.

In the intensively connected world of the 21st century, no nation state can function as if it were autonomous. National jurisdictions are subject to a vast number of external pressures, some benign, some not. Financial markets, transnational enterprise and digital information all flow freely around the globe: national boundaries just do not feature. Climate change, human trafficking and global terrorism pay no regard to them: addressing them will be done together or not at all. This is where Europe, along with other big alliances, helps to act as the glue to bind peoples together. We need more of this sense of being part of many families of nations, not less. To aspire to be 'an ever closer union of peoples' is a noble vision about the future of the human race itself. In it may lie the survival of humanity. For me, the burden or proof lies with those who would leave the EU, not those of us who want to stay in and deepen our ties with the continent of which we are historically a part.

I could say much more and perhaps will in future blogs about Europe. But even if you don't agree with my stance thus far, I hope you will be able to assent to what follows. The PM has said that the referendum in 2016 or 2017 could be the most important decision we British will ever make in our lifetimes. What should be the role of the churches in this?

First, the churches should help set the agenda for the debate. John F Kennedy might have said that the Christian way to frame the question is to ask not what our continent can do for us so much as what we can do for it. This altruistic note runs wholly counter to the way the leadership are trying to motivate us one way or the other. I find this deeply worrying. In the nation's life, just as in personal life, it's always true that 'it is more blessed to give than to receive'. Social theology can help frame the debate so that the vision of the common good is not lost, especially when it comes to peace and justice in the world, our response to the voiceless and the poor, and how we address the degrading of the environment and its effect on our climate. What will merely sustain us in our lifestyles or confirm our island presumptions ought not to be at the top of the agenda. It's not for the churches to tell us how to vote. But by offering intelligent and wise commentary on the issues, and helping to interpret their theological and spiritual significance, they can help us vote in a better informed way. And, what matters most, to vote as citizens of God's kingdom and not merely citizens of this earthly kingdom of the UK.

Second, the churches should help set the tone of the debate. By that I mean that they should demonstrate the importance of courtesy, of rigorous intelligent argument, and most of all perhaps, of listening attentively to things we may passionately dissent from. All this goes into making sure that differences of view will be, in a favourite phrase of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 'good disagreement'. The churches in Scotland played this role in the run-up to and aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. It was appreciated. But they were only able to do this because they had participated publicly in the debate themselves, and modelled how to do it in an adult and considered way. I hope that all the churches in Britain will emulate their example. 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Jeremy, the Church of England and Same Sex Marriage

So Jeremy Pemberton has lost round one. An employment tribunal has ruled that the Church of England was not guilty of discrimination when his permission to officiate was revoked by his Acting Bishop. The grounds were his defiance of the prohibition on C of E clergy to marry a partner of the same sex, though celibate civil partnerships are permitted. The Bishop's argument had been that the Church's doctrine was that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. Jeremy is appealing.

The lawyers will go on debating this, but at first sight, I don't think we can argue with the secular tribunal's reading of the Church's position. The Church has ruled on the definition of marriage. Right or wrong, it's hard to dispute that to go against the rules is to breach the clergy vow of canonical obedience. We may think it's plain inconsistent, not to say unjust, to allow the clergy to enter into civil partnerships (which, let's not forget, many bishops fiercely resisted when they came in) but balk at marriage to their same-sex partners. But there it is.

It's the rules themselves that need questioning. The Church has ruled many things in the past that have imposed a discipline on its members, especially on the clergy as its public officers. But later, as situations have changed, it has changed its mind too, either by rewriting the rules or quietly forgetting they were there in the first place. I've written about this before, so this isn't new. But here are some instances we shouldn't forget.

Take contraception. In the early twentieth century, birth control was as contentious a matter at Lambeth Conferences as homosexuality has been in recent decades. Bishops argued fiercely that to tamper with the beginnings of human life flew in the face of the Bible and Christian tradition; and contraception accessible to all would be bound to encourage immorality. But I guess not many C of E couples today refer to these official statements when deciding on contraception. And theology has successfully integrated it into an entirely biblical view of creation and procreation so that it's been a matter of principle and not just pragmatism.

Then there's a more recent change of mind: the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Traditionalists regard this as problematic both in principle and because it puts at risk wider ecumenical relationships. I won't rehearse the arguments on both sides. What I want to point out is that the Church has listened hard and changed its mind about the ethics and theology of how gender equality is reflected in the leadership of the Christian community. We can blame a secular 'society' for putting pressure on the Church, but such pressure may be precisely the prophetic voice that calls for and initiates change that is both right and just.

Most relevant to Jeremy's case is the remarriage of divorcees in church. I am old enough to have taken part in many a synodical debate about this. It's a sharp question: how can a promise of lifelong fidelity be dissolved by being overwritten by a subsequent identical vow? Didn't Jesus teach unambiguously that 'whoever divorces...and marries another commits adultery'? Nevertheless, the Church has found a way of acknowledging the 'fact on the ground': that marriages break up and couples look to the Church to sanctify a new start. Here too theology has looked again at its reading of scripture and tradition. It's a daring step because it clearly re-construes what we mean by the vows of marriage. But as the proponents of this change of discipline argued at the time, it didn't follow that the Christian understanding of marriage had itself been compromised.

In each case, the direction of travel has been from exclusion to inclusion. It hasn't meant a change in Church doctrine, rather the way in which it is lived out. We don't have to look very far in the New Testament to see that this was the question that exercised the mind of the early church and bitterly divided its communities. As soon as the gospel began to travel outside the Jewish world, it raised a sharp question. When gentiles felt the force of religion and wanted to become Christians, did they need to become Jewish first and be circumcised in order to be received into the church? The clear answer was no. But it took time to 'discern' it, and there was much fierce debate and painful falling-out on the way. We find it hard to imagine today what a profound change of mind and heart it involved.

So I have come to believe (not without struggle) that the Church of England should recognise and honour equal marriage. Fundamentally, what matters is that equal marriage (that is to say marriage) embraces the promise of lifelong fidelity. (The state still needs to spell out its understanding of loyalty and faithfulness in same-sex relationships, but the principle is there.) Christianity promotes covenanted unions because they confer shape and discipline on our otherwise wayward human sexuality. And like the remarriage of divorcees, this 'enlarging' of marriage is precisely not a change of understanding but a matter of inviting a previously excluded group to come inside, take on its undertakings and enjoy its benefits. If I have to choose between being more inclusive or less, I shall take a risk and go for the more. It's what I see Jesus doing in the face of bitter opposition. I what I see the early church demonstrating in its welcome to gentile believers.
 
This week, the new Church of England website on marriage has gone live. It's geat timing for us as my daughter and her fiancé are planning a church wedding next year. In many ways it's exemplary: warm, inviting, and helpful. But if you are a gay Christian man or woman in a committed relationship, how does this read to you? The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. And although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage, your local church can still support you with prayer. At any time you are welcome to come and pray with us, or ask us to pray for you. Yes, the law is the law. But the website doesn't explain that the Church of England wanted it that way. How I wish we could say something different!
 
I blogged on all this a couple of years ago. I said that 'there is no likelihood of turning back the tide of events. So the Church must learn to live in the light of them.' We can either do that grudgingly, or we can broaden our vision of the Church as a universal community that is for LGBT people as it is for everyone else. Our claim to be generous, hospitable and open is not just a matter of smiling nicely at people. The evidence is in what we say and do when our gay friends ask us to recognise and celebrate their loyalties and loves as we do those of heterosexual couples.
 
It's no comfort to Jeremy Pemberton and many others in his position to know that one day, the Church of England will revisit its theology of marriage and change its mind and its rules. I am not underestimating the difficulty of doing this, nor how it may be received in some partner churches and other faith communities in this country and overseas. We need to heed the Archbishop of Canterbury's call for 'good disagreement' because that's the only way in which discernment can take place. But two thousand years of Christian history beginning with the New Testament show how theology and practice always need to be responsive to changing contexts. It's part of our call to become mature in Christ.

Will I live long enough see the Church of England embrace equal marriage in my lifetime? I don't know, if I'm honest. But I'm seeing enough movement of hearts and minds among Christians to hope so.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

How to Read a Human Life: the art of biography

It's a massive book: two weighty tomes so far, a third one promised. I doubt if I'll read it. But I was intrigued by Matthew Parris's recent review in The Times. 'Charles Moore’s second of three planned volumes on the life of Margaret Thatcher nevertheless becomes close to drowning in its own scholarship. This may not be Mr Moore’s fault. It may be hers. In the end she doesn’t quite float.' He goes on to say that 'there are people who, under the magnifying glass (of biography) shrink' and wonders whether Mrs T may turn out to be one of those. Maybe, he ponders, there just isn't enough of interest to fill three bulky volumes.

The late great Denis Healey famously said that her problem was that she just didn't have enough 'hinterland'. He meant by that useful word the dimension of a person's life that lies behind how they are to us, what we see: their historical sense, their cultural awareness, how they reflect on experience and place themselves within narratives that are bigger than themselves and their immediate concerns. This is what lends texture to a person's life, gives it complexity like a fine rich wine. These are things that make us interesting.

However, I think there's more to it than Parris suggests. I think he means that what can 'shrink' under the gaze of the biographer is not the subject him- or herself, but their reputation, their place in history, how we evaluate them. They may be less interesting than we thought. Or that by reading about them, we come to admire them less than we did before, indeed find we don't like them very much. Biography, like psychotherapy, is an act of mapping, truth-seeking and interpretation. It can be a bit like detection. It shouldn't flinch from what it uncovers.

But I want to ask: isn't everyone interesting simply by virtue of being human? St Augustine said he couldn't understand how people gazed with awe at mountains and oceans, at palaces and temples, but passed by the mystery of their own selves without a second thought. That's strikingly prescient of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

     O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
     Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep.

Eleanor Farjeon once said about an indifferent biography that while the assemblage of information was impeccable, the book read as more a compilation of the material than a distillation from it. For the challenge of biography is much more rehearsing a timeline and chronicling the facts. It's to penetrate below the surface, make connections, help us gain insight into how a person has been shaped by history and culture, society and community, the external environment that in viticulture is called by that evocative word terroir. And it's to try to elucidate the motifs and patterns of another human being, what their relationships and personal life tell us about who and what they are. (This is why 'unofficial' biographies tend to be a lot more illuminating than officially sanctioned ones.)

In my book Wisdom and Ministry I offered ideas about how wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible might enrich the practice of public ministry. I included a chapter on life of King David as it's depicted in the Second Book of Samuel and First Book of the Kings. It's one of the greatest narratives in the scriptures, told with extraordinary insight into the dynamics of human nature and relationships. This hidden, highly ambivalent, aspect of David's character colours the whole of his career as monarch. How he (mis)manages the interplay between public role and private person is vividly and marvellously explored The light and shade that make up 'King David' are exposed in a way that makes me think that the author of the 'Court History' is one of the ancient world's very greatest writers with a rare emotional and spiritual intelligence when it comes to reading the human heart.

This brilliantly told story is not biography in the modern sense. Yet the skill of the writer is such that we see on every page the humanity of this flawed man. Like the best biography or the best fiction, this author knows. And therefore we are the wiser too, better able to understand the always-changing tides of human life. We shouldn't run away from complexity as many do, but embrace it as an essential aspect of God's creation (see Psalm 139, 'fearfully and wonderfully made'). This is a really crucial aspect of all Christian ministry, education, the caring professions and - yes - politics. 

So biography gives us important clues not just about other people but ourselves too. Even the most ordinary people are endlessly fascinating because we are all fundamentally mysterious and complex. Blake Morrison's memoir about his father, And When Did You Last See Your Father? is a brilliant example of how the commonplace and everyday comes to life in the hands of an accomplished writer who can paint a portrait in words. I found myself thinking 'yes! yes!' as I read it and recognised in this cameo of an ordinary Englishman a man who, like the rest of us, turned out not to be ordinary at all.

I don't know about Charles Moore's book. But I suspect that what fascinates us about Margaret Thatcher is indeed what was 'ordinary' about her. As in everyone, it's partly visible and partly concealed. The biographer has to respect and be reticent before the 'mystery' of the person, for so much remains unknowable even to ourselves. Only God ultimately knows. Nevertheless, in a biography we ask to be shown something of what is discoverable, and in Mrs T's case, this means the woman as well as the politician, and especially how each of her personae informs the other.

But biography needs some distance in time to see things more clearly. It's an art that can't be hurried. It may be too soon for that kind of distillation just yet.