Monday, 18 December 2017

No Crying He Makes

Was ever a Christmas carol so maligned?

I'm thinking of Away in a Manger. At this time of year there's always a steady stream of people, mostly carolled-out clergy, who share their grumpiness about this sweet, innocent and much-loved carol. Special opprobrium is reserved for the middle stanza:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

Here, for example, is a blog I read over the weekend. What a load of nonsense is written in some Christmas carols. Of course, many are excellent. But along with the gold there is a lot of dross. Take the line in 'Away in a manger' which asserts boldly: 'Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes'. Really? On what basis is that stated? It's certainly not in the Bible. The author then turns his wrath on I Saw Three Ships before majoring on We Three Kings of Orient Are. What have they done to deserve it?

It's a depressing take on a familiar aspect of Christmas, this proscribing of what generations of children and adults have loved singing and found to be strangely heartwarming. So let's think about no crying he makes. The usual criticism is that the infant Jesus would hardly be a normal (or "real") human child if he did not cry. So the line questions (it's alleged) whether this nativity would be a true taking of our humanity into God. Moreover, it hints that goodness consists in being seen but not heard, as in another popular and sometimes maligned hymn Once in Royal David's City where the author writes: Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he.

I find this logic faintly absurd. For one thing, every parent knows that all but the most distressed children do, from time to time, wake up but do not cry. Especially is this likely when his or her mother is at hand to offer comfort, reassurance and nourishment. So in the picture language of the carol, the Holy Child lying in tranquility is emtirely consistent with what we know about the behaviour of our own children in their infancy. But the image takes us beyond this. It seems to say to us that this Child knows himself to be in a completely safe place. He is in loving communion with his parents, with his guests, with the animals. His little world is one where the song of the angels is already being fulfilled, because here, in this intimate circle of the nativity scene, there is “peace on earth, goodwill to all people”.

Let’s pursue what this no crying represents in the way the Christmas story has been told down the centuries. It echoes a very long "apophatic" tradition that sees in the incarnation a mystery so profound that silence is the only way of doing it justice. So almost universally, the old master paintings of the Nativity depict a scene full of a peaceful, restful, quietness. Angels and shepherds, and often magi as well, revere the new-born King in a carefully composed atmosphere of stillness. Often, the Child is depicted as asleep, but if he is awake, he is gazing peacefully on his parents, or the shepherds, or the animals among whom he is born. “No crying he makes!” And even when shepherds journey and angels hover, their movements are gentle as befits this great mystery. There is no dissonant commotion or harsh noise to shatter the restfulness, the serenity of the scene. At the crib, human hearts are stilled. We are silenced because no words could do justice to the glory we behold.

In terms of visual art, these nativity scenes probably go back to St Francis who is credited as having created the first Christmas crib as a kind of icon to inspire the devotion of the faithful. But the tradition that links incarnation with silence goes back even further. The key text is in the Wisdom of Solomon (18.14-15): For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half-gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne into the midst of a land that was doomed. The early fathers loved that saying. In the development of the liturgy, it was quoted, almost word for word, in one of the antiphons for Christmas morning. In wisdom literature, the "word" was the logos or mind of God, so it was only a short step to read back into it the Christian meaning of incarnation, the "word" or "wisdom" of God becoming enfleshed in the person of the Child born at Bethlehem.

We could almost say, in the imagery of the carol, that the little Lord Jesus is awake yet silent in the face of the mystery of his own incarnation. It's the kind of thought you find in the poetry of Thomas Traherne who imagines a new-born child wondering with joy at the realisation of being alive and inheriting the world. Who's to say that new-born babies don't experience this kind of wonderment at suddenly finding themselves outside the womb and gazing at a loving mother's face? That at least is the direction taken by psychoanalytic writers who regard the bond of love established between a mother and her child as determinative for the whole of human life.  Or we could think of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen where he imagines the ox and ass kneeling in front of the manger as midnight strikes on Christmas Eve. Are these poetic images "biblical"? Hardly, if you're looking for texts to justify them explicitly. But are they biblical in the more profound sense of being completely true to what the scriptures want us to hear, understand and cherish? Undoubtedly!

So it's not surprising that we find this gentle silence that enveloped all things referenced in our Christmas hymns and carols. Think of these well-known, oft-sung examples:

The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!

Silent night, holy night...

Of course, silence is not the only Nativity motif. Just as important in the spirituality of Christmas are the themes of carolling, exultant celebration, joyous music-making, heaven and earth joined in praise of the God who comes among us. Nor should we neglect the "noise" and pain of the Nativity story: that it happened in a cave because there was no room at the inn; Herod's massacre of the innocent children, the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. These represent some of the realities of the suffering world into which Jesus was born. The Coventry Carol is just one medieval example that recognises the painful realities into which the Infant comes. It's important that we don't repesent the mystical silence of the Nativity as some kind of escape from the real world (a perennial Christmas temptation, whether in liturgy, consumerism or partying).

But it's also important not to worry away at the detail of the poetry and art that adorn the Christmas message. To read Away in a Manger and object to its imagery is to read poetry as if it were cold prose, and confuse symbolic language with material fact. That's the trouble with a lot of religion today: it has lost touched with the imagination because it has forgotten the kind of language it's handling. So what's required is not to demythologise our Christmas carols but to re-enchant them, or rather, allow them to re-enchant us. In this respect, children seem often to be closer to the truth of Christmas than adults, to grasping the essentially symbolic, metaphorical, poetic character of religious language. Is this one of the reasons that Jesus spoke about becoming like little children if we are to enter the kingdom of God? And could our children and grandchildren help us celebrate a more childlike Christmas if only we paid attention?

Maybe as we grow older, we become more relaxed with the symbolic register of Christmas language. Perhaps that's because our conception of "truth" is enlarged as we reflect on what life has meant for us, and we realise that "truth" is a far bigger thing than we once dreamed. Perhaps the memories of past Christmases become stronger with age, especially those of our own childhood or our children's. Once, decades ago, I sang Away in a Manger at a funeral on Christmas Eve. I've never forgotten how poignant it was, the contrast between infancy and old age, gift and loss, happiness and grief. Above all, the carol spoke of the Christian hope we glimpse in the Christ Child:

Be near me Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
close by me for ever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

It was one of the most moving funerals I can remember. Even Victorian poetry can work miracles. So if I find myself on my deathbed one Christmas time, I'd love it if some little children could come and sing Away in a Manger for me. I would try to join in if I could. It would be immensely comforting. It would bring happiness and hope. But as for no crying he makes, I can't promise I myself would get through it without shedding a tear or two.

**Image: the east window of St Cuthbert's, Haydon Bridge by Charles Kempe (1837-1907), created at around the time "Away in a Manger" was written.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 11: The Farne Islands

As I write this, all the talk is about offshore business deals and tax havens. So let’s go out to sea this month. But not (this time) to Northumberland’s most famous offshore island, Holy Island. It’s at its best when the tide is in and the causeway covered, and the day trippers have gone home and it’s truly an island again for a few hours. There isn’t a Christian site in England that I love more than Lindisfarne, unless it’s Durham Cathedral.

But how many have taken one of Billy Shiel’s boats from Seahouses and made the crossing over to the Farne Islands? Even the outermost islands are barely five miles from the mainland, yet the waters around them can be decidedly choppy. Don’t be surprised if there are no sailings, or if there are, landing on the Inner Farne or Staple Island (the two where public access is permitted) isn’t possible.

There are about twenty-eight islands all told (I say “about” – it depends whether you are counting at high tide or low). They are formed of the same dolerite rock that we know so well in Tynedale through the Whin Sill on which the Roman Wall was built. The Farnes are now owned by the National Trust, though until 1844, the freehold belonged to Durham Cathedral which leased them to a succession of adventurous people. (When I was Dean of Durham, I was relieved not to have to manage an extensive North Sea archipelago on top of everything else that crowds into a Dean’s in-tray.)

Three things make the Farnes a must-see for Northumberland people: their rich wildlife, their close connection with Saxon Northumbria and the northern saints, and the story of Grace Darling.
Let’s take nature first as she has been around on the Farne Islands the longest. The amazing variety of bird and marine life you can see and enjoy is what draws most visitors. Everything depends on when you decide to sail there. May, June and July are good months because you can land on both the islands that can be visited. Grey seals are a big attraction, either in the water or stretched out on the rocks. The bird life is extraordinarily prolific.

Arctic terns pose a hazard during the breeding season (from late May to July they will dive-bomb humans to protect their young, so make sure you take a hat). The puffins are justly famed for their beauty while the throngs of eider ducks, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and shags crowding the cliffs are a real education in bird life. Outside the high season, the islands revert to the brooding loneliness that somehow captures the essence of this bleak and windswept North Sea coast. A boat trip in winter can be a bracing and thought-provoking experience.

For all who admire the saints of the North, especially Aidan and Cuthbert, the Inner Farne is a place of pilgrimage. When Aidan founded his monastery on Holy Island in the seventh century, he began to seek retreat and solitude there, a habit that was famously followed by St Cuthbert. Bede tells us a great deal about his longing to live the life of a hermit, his frequent visits to the Inner Farne, the cell he built there, his habits of daily prayer and his cultivation of the island.  
He died in his hermitage on 10 March 687, for ever after kept as St Cuthbert’s Day. He hoped to be buried on his beloved island. But he correctly anticipated that his brothers would want his body returned to Lindisfarne. There it was interred, soon to become a shrine for pilgrims until the Viking invasions forced his community to leave in search of a safer resting place. The little chapel on the Farne dates from the fourteenth century and was built for the tiny monastic cell (usually just two monks) established there by Durham Cathedral Priory after the Norman Conquest. The furnishings date from the seventeenth century and once belonged in the Cathedral, hence their unusually rich decoration. The medieval pele tower was also built by the Cathedral Priory and is now home to the National Trust rangers who live on the island for much of the year.
Grace Darling is one of the North East’s best-known women. She was born at Bamburgh in 1815. The Darlings had lived on Brownsman Island since the end of the eighteenth century. In 1826 they moved on to Longstone Island where Grace’s father William Darling was the keeper a newly built lighthouse. On 7 September 1838, Grace looked out of a window and realised that a ship had foundered and broken in two in rough seas on a nearby rocky island, Big Harcar. The Forfarshire had been carrying 62 people.
William and Grace, realising that the sea was too turbulent to allow the Seahouses lifeboat to reach them, took their Northumberland coble and at great personal risk rowed out to them in the lee of the rocks. They were able to rescue seven survivors (nine others had managed to float a lifeboat and were picked up by a passing ship). Grace died at Bamburgh in October 1842, having become the archetypal Victorian heroine and a household name. She is commemorated in Bamburgh Church where St Aidan had died in 651. There is a museum in the village that tells her story. It’s worth noting that although the Forfarshire is by far the best-known ship to have sunk off the Farners, there are in fact scores of wrecks around the islands that demonstrate how treacherous these waters have been – and still are – to shipping.
While you are in north Northumberland, you’ll want to visit Bamburgh with its beautiful church, its grand castle, its museum and its marvellous beach. And after an invigorating sea voyage, what could beat fish and chips at Seahouses before you set off for home?

Friday, 8 December 2017

Well done Coventry!

30 years ago this year, Coventry won the FA Cup Final. The city went wild with delight. It was said that a quarter of a million people were out on the streets to welcome their team home. Coventry was awash with sky-blue. The newly-hung cathedral bells, not yet formally dedicated, rang out for the first time to celebrate. No-one who was there will ever forget that weekend.

It's also 30 years since our family moved to Coventry. I went there to take up a post as residentiary canon at the Cathedral. I was installed on 10 May, the Sunday before the Big Match. In my sermon I wished the Sky Blues well at Wembley. There was hollow laughter, I recall. Who'd have thought that I of all people would be aware of an upcoming football event? And who'd have thought that Coventry had any chance of defeating Spurs who had won the trophy twice in the previous seven seasons?

And now, exactly three decades later, Coventry is once again walking tall. The city has been named UK Capital of Culture 2021. It deserves the honour. I can say that as someone who has known it well. We spent eight happy years there. It's where our children mostly grew up, so we have always thought fondly of the city as, in a sense, still "ours". (That's also true, by the way, of another of the 2021 candidate cities, Sunderland, where we have lots of family connections. They too put up a first-rate bid and it's a pity that when it comes to the Capital of Culture, it can't be a case of Alice's oft-quoted words "all have won, so all must have prizes".)

A few years ago I blogged about going back to Coventry. That occasion was the golden jubilee of the consecration of the "new" Coventry Cathedral in 1962. As I wrote then, I'd been one of the millions who'd visited the Cathedral that year. I was twelve when my parents took me. I can vividly recall my impressions on that late spring day, most of all of Graham Sutherland's huge tapestry of Christ in Glory, John Piper's marvellous coloured glass in the baptistery, and not least, looking down at my own reflection in the black mirror-like surface of the nave floor. I was not a religious boy in those days, but I was both stirred and moved by that great building. It seemed to speak beyond itself to something bigger and more expansive than I think I'd ever known. Looking back, I guess it was one of my early spiritual experiences, an intimation of resurrection. Twenty-five years later, one of my first jobs at the Cathedral was to organise the silver jubilee celebrations.

Living there, I became fascinated by this city of paradoxes. There was something homely and familiar about its medieval streets, so Warwickshire, so quintessentially England. Yet the pre-war planners (quoting Tennyson's "the old order changeth, giving place to new") had already laid waste to Butchers' Row, what we would now regard as a priceless piece of heritage townscape comparable to the Shambles in York). And what they didn't destroy, the Luftwaffe made swift work of on that terrible night of bombing on 14 November 1940, codenamed "Operation Moonlight Sonata". What does it do to a city to have been reduced to ashes, to be the only one in Britain whose cathedral was destroyed by enemy action?

After the war, a brave new city arose like a phoenix. Ancient and modern stood inextricably bound together in both the way the city was re-engineered, and in the experience of its citizens. So much was symbolised by the old and new cathedrals standing side by side, or rather, in these two physical expressions of one single Cathedral. With the exception of the Cathedral, the architecture of the 1950s and 60s has not fared as well as what survives of the middle ages. Perhaps Coventry was rebuilt in too much of a hurry. These days the city is not the gleaming emblem of modernity it once was. Its industries experienced a steep decline from the late 1970s so that by the time I was living there, unemployment was high and the future of its manufacturing industries looked bleak.

Yet somehow, the spirit of Coventrians was not broken by this turnabout in its fortunes. Yes, they could be good at looking west to Birmingham and envying the seemingly unstoppable success of their near neighbour. (Coventry is to Birmingham as Sunderland is to Newcastle and Bradford is to Leeds - these pairings of cities with very different characteristics are an intriguing aspect of modern Britain.) But look at what the new Commonwealth immigrants who came to work in Coventry after the war brought to the city. I found I was living in one of the most vibrant, multicultural places I'd ever known. My suburban assumptions about what it meant to be British were challenged like never before or since. We loved visiting the places of worship of other faith communities and getting to know our warm-hearted, hospitable hosts. I think that it was there that I consciously began trying to think of myself, in a famous if much maligned phrase, as a "citizen of the world".

It's important that "City of Culture" is interpreted in the widest possible way. Hull has demonstrated this most successfully in 2017 and we salute that city. Culture is a slippery word that can quickly take on a whiff of elitism if we aren't careful. The point about culture is that it is essentially demotic in character. This is because it is about what has formed and made us to be the people, the societies, the communities we are, how we have been grown. That's much more than simply a matter of museums and libraries, literature and poetry, art and architecture. Somehow, I have a hunch that the people of Coventry will be very good at sharing who and what they are, and how they have travelled together as a city across the centuries and through the recent past into the present.

As for what we call culture in the more traditional sense, there is more than enough to make the trip to Coventry worth while. Many have pointed out that Hull and Coventry (together with my own village of Haydon Bridge) have in common the poet Philip Larkin. One of the best twentieth century English poets, while he lived and worked in Hull, it was in Coventry that he was born. I have to say that in my time, Coventry had not done nearly as much as Hull to honour him, so I hope 2021 will put that right. Similarly, though less noticed, the Nuneaton-born Victorian novelist George Eliot, as great in her century as Larkin was in his, also lived in Coventry. Her greatest novel Middlemarch ("the magnificent book that...is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people" said Virginia Woolf) is very probably based on Coventry.

I could go on to write about the legendary Leofric and Godiva, Coventry's history as one of England's great medieval cities, its industrial heritage, its Herbert Art Gallery and Motor Museum, to say nothing of the Cathedral itself which constitutes one of the best expressions of mid-twentieth century artistry and craftsmanship in England. I could mention the rich diversity of performing arts in the city in both dedicated venues and in the streets and squares. I could write about the two universities that contribute so much to Coventry's intellectual and cultural landscape. And I could write about how Coventry has become a symbol of international reconciliation and peace-making that has evoked the admiration of people across the world.

But most of all, it's the people who make the place. When it was announced that Coventry had won their bid to be City of Culture, I was touched to hear ordinary Coventry people speak about their city and why they loved it. I'm sure the citizens of all five shortlisted cities would have said the same of theirs. Perhaps Coventry, with its cosmopolitan and internationalist outlook, can represent the best of what they would have contributed to this celebration of all that we cherish and are proud of in the culture of these islands.

A final thought. Why can't we have a UK City of Culture every year? The quality of this year's bids shows how much potential there is across the nation to promote art, heritage, tourism and regeneration. We need more local celebrations like this to shine a light on the cultural riches of the UK's towns and cities outside London - not just on places but on their communities. It would be a modest enough claim on central funds. Thanks to the enterprise of their citizens, Hull and Coventry show how a little can go a very long way. Let's go for it, and let Sunderland have the next turn in 2022.