Catholic order is now optional for the Church of England

By way of further thoughts…

Forward in Faith see a distinction between order and office. That is, someone can carry out (truly and legally) the office of a Bishop even if she is not – because cannot – be a member of the order of Bishops.

This means, at present, under the five guiding principles, the Church of England envisages Diocesan Bishops not sharing in the shared sacramental life of all their clergy.

I do not understand how the more Catholic members of the church can accept this.

Making Catholic order optional paves the way for lay presidency. It also radically undermines those for whom Catholic order is important but who accept the decision of the Church of England on women’s ministry.

There is, as Martyn Percy originally argued, no integrity here. It’s taken me a while to fully catch up with the implications of his argument. I don’t like what they are.

Yet another voice in my mind simply says ‘whatever’. Are we simply arguing over custody of a corpse?

We need to plan for the hardest Brexit

gib eu

So the EU have thrown the future of Gibraltar into the Brexit negotiations. What a googly (curve ball for readers from across the pond). I trust that the British government will not give any ground on Gibraltar’s sovereignty – how to revive UKIP in one easy move!

If there is a mutually satisfactory and fully agreed settlement between the EU and Britain within the next two years then I will see it as a contender for the greatest diplomatic triumph in human history. Theresa May would deserve any and all accolades that would come her way.

Which is another way of saying – this is very unlikely to happen. To agree a trade deal with the EU – who don’t have a good track record of agreeing free trade deals – alongside settlement of bills and agreements on defence co-operation and all the rest of it – and then to get that deal agreed in each of the 27 nations (including sub-nation elements like Wallonia) – and to get the substance agreed within the next 18 months (so that there is time to get it legally ratified before the deadline kicks in) – I can’t see it happening.

Which means we need to start actively planning and preparing to shift to trading with the EU on the basis of WTO rules (which is what the United States does, for example).

This doesn’t actually worry me. I see this as being a much greater shock in the short-term, but probably much better for our national future, and economy, in the long term. Let’s get on with agreeing trade deals with the Anglophone community, India and Africa – there’s a very big world out there that we can now start playing in.

It will also add to the pile of burdens on the existing EU. Will it cause a final collapse? Probably not – but at some point there will be a straw added to the camel’s back. Britain is, at least, getting a head start on learning to live without the EU which will hold us in good stead and help us help other nations pick up the pieces when the collapse comes.

Let my people go

There are three theological concepts which hold together indissolubly from an Anglo-Catholic point of view. The first is the incarnation, in which human flesh became divine. The second is the sacramental life, in which creatures of bread and wine become bearers of the divine. The third is social justice, in which we commit ourselves to work for the revealing of the divine in the human.

These are all aspects of what it means to talk about the Body of Christ – Jesus, the host, the church as a whole – working in the world.

For the Anglo-Catholic, the way in which we gain some assurance on these things is by talking about proper order within the church – so, valid ordination of priests for example, and also a prohibition on lay presidency. These things are not abstract and arcane, however much they may appear to be so to outsiders. Rather, an acceptance of proper order is how those three theological concepts are given practical effect – right doctrine, right worship, right behaviour.

What is increasingly concerning me is that this entire understanding of the faith has been quietly set aside in order to pursue unity between different factions of our church. Sadly, the political compromise that has been reached – the five guiding principles – destroys this understanding not simply for those who are opposed to women’s ministry, but for those who support it.

The Church of England, as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church has, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, the authority to ordain priests. The Roman Catholic church, for one, denies that the Church of England has such authority which is why I (and many others) could never become Roman Catholics – to do so would mean accepting that the sacraments that we have celebrated have not had validity. I cannot fathom the internal anguish that would enable a priest to accept such a verdict.

At the moment the Church of England is processing questions about women’s ordination and consecration. I believe that the Church of England has authority to make a decision in these matters. That is, when the Church of England says that women can be priests, and puts that decision into effect, it is acting in a way that does not jeopardise proper order. Women priests ordained after such a decision are validly ordained and so on.

There are those within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion who disagree with this, for various reasons, including questions of proper order. However, those who do not believe that the Church of England has authority to make this decision are committed to an alternative path of church order. We have seen the implications of this with regard to Philip North’s prospective ministry in Sheffield. A crucial question has been whether, as a Diocesan Bishop, Philip North could accept the ministry of women priests in the Sheffield Diocese (and by ‘accept’ I mean be sacramentally efficacious, ie act within the ‘proper order’ outlined above).

I do not see how this is possible. That is, I do not see how a Diocesan who rejects the authority of the Church of England on this question can then exercise a Diocesan ministry within that same Church. This is, of course, the point that Martyn Percy has made so forcibly. I am starting to believe that the only way forward for those who reject the decision made by the Church of England on this matter is to walk separately in some way – more on this below.

The House of Bishops has been concerned to prevent such a separation, in order to preserve some form of unity. I have my suspicions that this is driven by several unholy reasons as well as – or possibly instead of – the more respectable desire for unity. I am quite certain that there are elements within the House of Bishops which are simply playing a long game and hoping for the Forward in Faith group to die out.

Yet my concern now is as much for those who take an Anglo-Catholic perspective who have accepted (on good Anglo-Catholic grounds) the authority of the Church on this question, and who choose to remain. The political compromise of the five Guiding Principles does not just place Forward in Faith into an impossible position; it also undermines those Anglo-Catholics who remain. It does this because it does not take sacramental life seriously. This is why I believe that it paves the way for lay presidency at some point in the future. If the proper order of the church can be set aside in this situation, if it becomes simply another part of the political negotiations, then from an Anglo-Catholic perspective that proper order no longer exists. It can only exist if it is taken as of the essence of the church; that is, where it is absent, there the apostolic church has also been removed.

(This is not to put boundaries around God’s grace, or even to say that this is the wrong development – it is simply to say that, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, it is impossible to hold on to proper order whilst at the same time accepting the five Guiding Principles. They contradict each other.)

The House of Bishops has become a house of low virtue, possibly because it has become animated by a fear of death in the form of numerical decline and financial ruin. I do not believe that the five Guiding Principles can in any way provide a way forward for the church. What is most important is that the House begins to cultivate some stronger virtues.

The first one is simply honour. Beneath all the theological gloss we need to accept that this has been a long and bruising political fight and as with all genuine fights there are winners and losers. What is essential now is for the victors to act with honour and magnanimity, and not succumb to a desire to force ‘scorched earth’ upon those who have lost the debate.

This could take the form of a generous dispensation for those who are opposed, not in the form of individual payments to individual clergy that object (how we have fallen for that modern idolatry!) but rather that the Church of England should divest itself of those parishes and properties associated with Forward in Faith; that is, to recognise that in this divorce, some of the marital assets belong to each partner.

The Church of England has too many churches and following an honourable path might allow for two things to happen – far friendlier relations with those who would then leave, who would not then see themselves in a fight to the death with those who simply wish to exterminate them, and also an opening for the Gamaliel principle to operate – that is, if the rejection of women’s ordained and consecrated ministry is against the will of God, then time will tell.

In order for this to work, the second virtue that the House needs to cultivate is honesty. Bishops need to be set free to speak clearly and openly and honestly with each other and with the wider church over which they exercise oversight. The burial of dissent has led simply to monstrosities and we need to bring things out into the open. Most especially the integrity of the church as a decision making body has been embarrassingly compromised and the church has brought itself into disrepute. We need to remove the bandage from the infected wound in order to properly cleanse it and heal.

The third virtue is humility. The Church of England as such is not an eternal institution. It had a particular worldly birth and it may yet have a particular worldly death. It may well be that this process of divestment is how the Church of England should come to an end – setting out many different lifeboats and leaving behind a sinking shell for the state to continue to manage.

If this happens, the chances are that the conservative evangelicals may well follow Forward in Faith out of the door. After all, what trust can they possibly have in the processes of the Church of England now, especially with one eye towards the ongoing argument around equal marriage?

The truth is that there are many different Anglicanisms that are presently sharing the structure of the inherited, established church. Is there anything which binds them together beyond institutional inertia, is there any place of theological integrity, congruent with our inheritance, on which we might all stand? I rather hope that there is such a place, and the the house of Anglicanism can keep many rooms. I have learnt a great deal from those whose expression of faith is not Anglo-Catholic, and I remain of the view that there is a distinct vocation for the Anglican theological vision.

Yet in order to find out what binds us together it is imperative that we cast out the spirit of timidity from the House of Bishops. In this as in so many other areas we act like a vessel that has been holed below the waterline but the officers on deck act like a people who do not know how we have been struck – let alone what to do about it! I reiterate that in making these criticisms of the House of Bishops I am not criticising particular individuals but rather the culture has embedded itself within it – it is a fallen principality that stands in need of redemption.

We need to recognise that unity as such can become a false idol, and that it can become opposed to the truth that sets us free. We need to risk dying, for only by doing so might we also be born again – and renewed to preach the gospel effectively in this time and in this nation.

Do the five guiding principles commit the Church of England to lay presidency?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Philip North and the situation in Sheffield. One thought in particular is simply this: if the five guiding principles (5GP) are accepted, then the Church of England has abandoned the theology that makes objecting to lay presidency coherent. In other words, if we accept the 5GP, then the Church of England will end up accepting lay presidency. I think that this is a facet of the discussion that has been missed, so I shall try and spell out what my thinking is.

There are two grounds to the theology that cannot recognise women bishops as legitimate. The first rests upon the authority of Scripture, viz all the language about headship and the need for teaching in church, for example, to be male. My concern here is not with this first ground.

The second ground, however, rests upon the notion of apostolic succession, and the sense that, in order to properly exercise a priestly authority, that authority needs to have been granted by a church authority which is itself properly constituted and derivative from the apostles themselves. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are generally recognised to have such authority; the Church of England claims a similar authority for itself (hence the third principle states that the CofE “continues to share the historic episcopate with other Churches”).

This language of historic episcopacy carries with it a particular understanding of what it means to carry out the ‘cure of souls’, and the relationship between an individual priest and the bishop under whose episcope that priest serves. It is, at heart, a shared ministry; that is, the link between the priest in a diocese and the bishop of that diocese is not simply an administrative matter. Crucially, it is this link between the priest and the bishop that establishes the legitimacy of the priest presiding at Holy Communion.

Now the 5GP are intended to bridge a theological gulf between those who can accept women as bishops and those who cannot. This may be of the Holy Spirit; disunity is a sin after all. However, I do believe that we need to fully understand what it is that we are committing ourselves to in order to achieve such unity.

Martyn Percy did highlight this problem in the questions he raised for Philip North. I believe that the issue is more far-reaching. In order to ensure unity between those with different views on the question of women bishops the 5GP are teaching in practice that the classic Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) understanding of holy orders is not a first-order question. That is, it is saying that it is perfectly possible to be a Diocesan Bishop whilst at the same time believing that a proportion of those clergy over whom that Bishop exercises oversight are not true priests.

From a Protestant point of view this is a simple pragmatic compromise. From an Anglo-Catholic point of view, the most essential element is now lost: the link with a wider church is now sundered.

Once this has been accepted and established – what possible bar is there against lay presidency? (Which is, of course, already practiced in parts of the Anglican Communion.) If there is no longer any necessity for an apostolic link in those who are to work as priests in a Diocese, why not open up presidency at the Eucharist to all? Clearly the apostolic link is no longer of the esse of the church, if it can be laid aside in this way. (I have to say, I’m rather astonished that the leaders of the Society have gone along with the 5GP. It may well be that there are aspects to this that I do not see, or there is information that I am unaware of.)

The 5GP may, as I say, be of the Holy Spirit. It may well be that the Anglo-Catholic emphasis, shared with the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches, is simply no longer capable of bearing divine grace in our present context and milieu. Alternatively, it may be that it is the Church of England itself which fits that description.

I just think that the church needs to be aware of what it is signing up to in the 5GP; a little more theological leadership and a little less management.

The dilemma facing British Muslims after Westminster

isis barbarity
I write these words the day after the horrific terrorist atrocity in Westminster. Khalid Masood was a person who subscribed to a militant form of Islamic thought. As such, the attack on the civilians walking along Westminster Bridge fits with the pattern of other recent ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ in Berlin and Nice.

The British Council of Muslims released a statement saying “We are shocked and saddened by the incident at Westminster. We condemn this attack and while it is still too early to speculate on the motives, our thoughts and prayers are for the victims and those affected. We pay tribute too to the police and emergency services who handled this with bravery. The Palace of Westminster is the centre of our democracy and we must all ensure that it continues to serve our country and its people with safety and security.” The head of the Council, Harun Khan, said: “This attack was cowardly and depraved. There is no justification for this act whatsoever.”

There are no grounds for doubting the sincerity of these words. From the earliest times of Islamic military conquest there have been clear guidelines prohibiting the use of force against non-combatants. The companion of Mohammed and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, taught the Muslim army “You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man.”

Even more than this, surprise attacks – which the attack in Westminster certainly was – are explicitly forbidden. Does this mean, then, that we can share in the liberal consensus as articulated by Western leaders like George W Bush and trust that Islam is a religion of peace? That those who commit ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ simply do not understand what it is that they are claiming to protect?

I believe that the situation is more complex than this and that British Muslims are slowly being impaled upon a painful dilemma.

In August 1996, Osama bin Laden was careful to issue a declaration of war against the United States, which was published in the London newspaper Al Quds al Arabi; bin Laden knew his theology! This fatwa (religious proclamation) can be seen as initiating our present experience of ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’. It was followed two years later by a further fatwa issued by bin Laden and co-signed by several others, amplifying and expanding the declaration of war, and including the following sentence: “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…”

Given that bin Laden was scrupulously trying to keep to Islamic law and theology, how could he come up with such a conclusion? His answer, when pressed on this, was to say that killing of innocent lives was legitimate if it was understood as retaliation for the killing of innocents by the United States. The Koran is quite clear that proportionate retaliation is fully acceptable, surah 2.178 stating “O believers! retaliation for bloodshedding is prescribed to you: the free man for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the woman for the woman”.

There is therefore a debate within Islam about whether bin Laden and those who have followed in his footsteps are in fact theologically justified to apply the rule of retaliation to the question of murdering innocent civilians. It is surely beyond dispute that the United States and its allies (including the United Kingdom) have been killing innocent people across the Middle East, most recently through the extensive use of drones. Where this situation obtains, what is the response of a faithful Muslim to be?

Some Muslims believe that bin Laden is not justified in applying the rule of retaliation in this situation, some do. Within Britain, according to the most thorough recent survey (ICM for Channel 4, April-May 2015) some 4% of British Muslims believe that it is acceptable to use terrorism for political ends, including suicide bombing. This works out to around 100,000 people.

Khalid Masood was one of them.

The dilemma that British Muslims face is that the theological debate is not some abstract matter without practical consequence; rather it is one that will govern their relationship with the wider British society. Moreover, the need for that community to make a very clear decision and act on it will only become stronger over time, as more and more terrorist atrocities take place.

When the ICM poll results were announced, Trevor Phillips, former head of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, wrote this: “There is a life-and-death struggle for the soul of British Islam — and this is not a battle that the rest of us can afford to sit out. We need to take sides… There is one truly terrifying finding [of the ICM poll]. Muslims who have separatist views about how they want to live in Britain are far more likely to support terrorism than those who do not. And there are far too many of the former for us to feel that we can gradually defeat the threat… Muslims want to be part of Britain — but many do not accept the values and behaviors that make Britain what it is; they believe that Islam offers a better future. And a small number feel that these sincerely held beliefs justify attempts to destroy our democracy. Britain’s liberal Muslims are crying out for this challenge to be confronted. The complacency we’ve displayed so far is leaving them to fight alone, and putting our society in danger. We cannot continue to sit on the fence in the hope that the problem will go away.”

If we wish to fully address the problem of our home-grown terrorism we need to be much more robust in the assertion of our values. That will mean saying that some values are better than others, and therefore some belief systems – those systems through which values are taught and embodied – are better than others. We cannot combat terrorism without a vigorous reassertion of our own inherited beliefs and values. Ultimately, that means Christianity. It is a sign of the painful nature of the dilemma facing British Muslims that the peaceful majority will only be able to root out the violent minority if the wider community becomes much more devoted to a non-Islamic faith.

Understanding the problem of immigration requires spiritual intelligence

The most successful movie ever made is a story about resistance to immigration. The movie in question is Avatar, a movie that does not have a particularly original story. In large part it mimics Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, simply with the location shifted from the 19th Century American West, with American Indians, to the far future, when we have colonised other planets.

The core story runs like this: there is a native population, which carries on its distinctive life with all the joys and sorrows that intelligent life is usually suspect to. Into this settled environment comes an invasive force which is aggressive and disruptive, and which threatens the existing order. Through a process of struggle and growth the native community comes together in order to resist the invaders and repel them. The status quo ante is restored, leaving behind a strong residue of community cohesion, identity and integrity.

net migration to june 2016

It is unarguable that the native population of Britain has experienced a huge influx of migration, with an especial acceleration of immigration following the election of Tony Blair in 1997 (see chart). It is therefore unsurprising that this has caused a great deal of concern, and that this concern has been expressed in both healthy and unhealthy ways. My question would be – is the situation in Britain analogous to the one portrayed in Avatar, and all the other great stories about indigenous resistance?

After all, whenever indigenous resistance is seen anywhere else around the globe, it is portrayed by our media as heroic. When we read of tribes in the Amazon seeking to preserve their environment from developers we cheer them on.

The only native tribe that is never cheered on is that of the white Anglo-Saxons. As with Avatar, the white Anglo-Saxon tribe is always the villain doing the immigrating and disrupting other cultures, it is never the one being disrupted.

Historically this is perfectly accurate. Despite the liberal shibboleths about Britain always having been a nation of immigrants, we are far more accurately characterised as an emigrant culture. Stories which portray the invaders as white males are simply describing what has so often happened.

So are we simply now getting our ‘come-uppance’? Having invaded so many areas around the world, is it simply now our turn to be invaded by others? Perhaps.

What I wonder is whether there is anything left worth saving in our indigenous culture; first and foremost I wonder whether any sense of the British inheritance of Christianity can be salvaged.

In Avatar, the invading culture is driven by economic interests. There is a substance called ‘unobtainium’ which is ridiculously named and ridiculously valuable. Economic interests have also been the principal driver behind immigration into Britain (alongside, if Andrew Neather is to be believed, some deeply cynical electoral manipulations by the Blair administration).

Essentially, lower cost workers have been imported into this country in order to drive down the wages (and therefore the costs) of those employing them. The upper and middle classes have enjoyed cheaper services whilst the lower classes have been pushed to one side to live on welfare. This was clearly one of the major factors behind Brexit, when the lower classes came together to say ‘enough!’

I cannot help but see this reaction as a healthy one, and a spiritual one – which again links in with stories like Avatar. The resistance to the invading forces can only ever work when there is a spiritual element involved; that is, when the resisting culture is able to call upon a greater power to aid their purposes.
eywa
So how might such a spiritual element apply in the present British context?

In Avatar, the hinge of the story is the conversion of someone from the invading culture to the native culture. The invader comes to see the higher quality of the host culture, that it provides a richer and more fulfilling path for their life. Most especially, the spiritual dimensions of life are a key element driving the conversion – the invader comes to see that their own culture is explicitly lacking in a vital aspect of life.

At present, in Britain, the domestic ‘host’ culture could not fairly be described as a spiritual one. Our cynical society, knowing prices but not values, offers very little that might appeal to the deeper parts of human nature. We offer an environment which makes it fairly straightforward to make money, if you have the luck or the advantages to develop such opportunities, but we offer little else.

Our cultural elite are blind to such considerations, and have been so for many decades. As such, it is not simply that they cannot develop appropriate and relevant solutions to the immigration crisis, it is that they would not be able to recognise such an appropriate solution even if one were to be presented to them already formed.

Unless spiritual aspects are taken seriously by our government, all those elements which depend upon such spiritual aspects will pass by unseen. Those elements are community cohesion, the practice of particular virtues, all that makes a common life harmonious and viable. Without the spiritual glue that binds a community together there is no basis for resistance to an invading community. The unobtainium is therefore easily obtained.

All that will happen is that the invading spirituality, showing itself to be stronger than the native spirituality, will supplant that native spirituality. To many minds this will seem unconcerning. If the economic processes could continue, what would it matter if the idols in the corner of the living room are named one thing rather than another, that the holy books are written in one language rather than another? Who cares?

That is the voice of the blind, one that cannot contemplate the consequences of their own myopia.

In the end, to be concerned about immigration is to be concerned with spiritual issues; ultimately, our concerns are with what is ultimate, what is of most value. Any culture coheres around a common awareness and appreciation of what is held to be most important; in this society we have historically called that God, and we have developed the language for understanding those ultimate values through our Christian inheritance. It is not wrong to be concerned about immigration; on the contrary, to be concerned about immigration is to be concerned about the most important human issues that there are.

Now it may well be that our culture has decayed too far to be rescued, that all is lost. That would be a different story to the one told in Avatar, and so many like it. I rather think that there is still some spiritual life in our nation, and it is beginning to wake up. For my part I shall do my very best to assist that process!

What is your Church of England future

Three questions will reveal your destiny!

1. Do you accept the notion of ‘penal substitution’ as an adequate account of salvation?

2. Would you receive communion from a female priest?

3. Would you receive communion from a gay priest?

If your answer is yes, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Reform, and join up with the ‘Southern Anglican Communion’/GAFCON.

If your answer is yes, yes, no then you will be sympathetic to Fulcrum, and you will seek to keep the CofE on the road as far as possible.

If your answer is no, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Forward in Faith and you’ll probably end up with Rome.

If your answer is no, yes, yes then you will be sympathetic to Affirming Catholicism and when the realignment comes you’ll join in with TEC.

(There are, logically, other options, but not many people will buy into them!)

I think the issue is how long before TSHTF and the split becomes formalised. I wonder if there are plans already afoot?

Oh, and if it wasn’t obvious already, I’m ‘no, yes, yes’.

(I initially wrote this ten years ago. Don’t see much need to change it, other than updating the names!)

Leonard Cohen’s Amen – how to live faithfully in the context of suffering


I would like to talk about suffering, and I want to use Leonard Cohen’s songs as a means through which to explore what it means to respond with faith in the context of suffering.

I believe that suffering is a human universal. We all suffer. Now it is possible to engage with this as a philosopher, and that leads us to consider what is called The Problem Of Evil (with capital letters). That Problem can be simply stated: how can a loving and all powerful god allow us to suffer? Or, more precisely: God is all powerful, God is all good, there is evil in the world – you can only logically choose two of the three.

I am not going to give you an intellectual answer to that tonight. There are some intellectual answers but they don’t reach me; they don’t make a difference to me as a human being seeking to live his life in the context of suffering.

To enter into suffering is to enter into a mystery of our human life, possibly the defining mystery. When Christians talk about the world as fallen, as broken, we use these stories and this language to describe the reality of our life as we experience it. The Bible never gives an intellectual answer to The Problem Of Evil – what it suggests is that an intellectual answer is a blasphemy, an attempt to justify God to our own conscience, an resistance to allowing God to be God and thereby accepting our creaturely state (for more on that see the book of Job).

I see Leonard Cohen’s work as fitting into this Biblical tradition, and this is why his songs speak to me. Cohen’s perspective is fundamentally Jewish, Biblical and liturgical. Yes, he spent time doing other things, especially his training as a buddhist monk (I would also add that his writing is saturated with Christian references, and to my mind he ‘gets’ Christianity) but Cohen himself said that he never felt any need to change who he was, a Jewish man.

Most particularly, for me Cohen is a modern psalmist. He articulates for today the sort of thing that the Psalms articulate in Old Testament, the full range of human feeling and emotion. He was also deeply influenced by modern Jewish liturgy – but I shall come back to that. Yet one key way in which his work is Jewish is that it is always under the shadow of the Holocaust, often in surprising ways (as with Dance me to the end of love). This is a thread that runs through his life and his work and there are many references to it, often with an echoing and paralleling between more personal elements and the more large scale prophetically judgemental and obvious ones.

All that being said, let me begin with the ‘title song’ – Leonard Cohen’s Amen.

This song contains demands made of God, the demand to hear from God when we have made the time to listen and we still cannot hear, when “we’re alone and I’m listening so hard that it hurts”: tell me that you love me, tell me that it all makes sense, tell me when there is fairness and the suffering has been justified, tell me that you want me then…

This is a plea, a form of lamentation, a classically Psalmist form of song. Cohen is clearly articulating what it feels like to suffer and to bring that suffering to God. Tell me, tell me.

As such, this is a thoroughly orthodox and faithful response to our human condition.

Here are some further examples of Leonard’s spiritual orthodoxy:

Treaty (pleading honesty with God)
I’ve seen you change the water into wine
I’ve seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

If it be your will (surrender to God)
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

Show Me The Place (begging for guidance)
Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bendin’ low
Show me the place where you want your slave to go

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

Anthem (prophetic cry for righteous judgement)
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned,
they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Villanelle For Our Time (the wound of self-knowledge)
From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

Where Cohen’s orthodox and faithful response to our human condition comes over most effectively for me is through his use of biblical words at key points, that is, where the Biblical words are used liturgically. The most famous example is of course Hallelujah which means ‘praise to God’:

and even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the lord of song,
with nothing on my tongue
but Hallelujah

No matter what happens, we praise God.

From his last album, there is the word Hineni which means ‘Here I am Lord’ and means surrender to God’s will; it is the response of Abraham, Samuel, Isaiah in the Old Testament.

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Finally, for my purposes here, is the word Amen, which means “so be it”.

I mentioned the book of Job earlier. When Job suffers, his friends come to see him and say that he must be suffering because he has done something wrong. That answer is comprehensively rejected (it is rejected by Jesus too). We are taught that there is no necessary link between suffering and individual merit; rather vengeance belongs to the Lord. In his song Amen Cohen is pleading for some answer, in just the same way that Job pleads for an answer. Specifically, and with the shadow of the Holocaust in the background, and an extravagantly offensive promise of Christianity in the foreground, Cohen sings

Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…
Tell me again
When I’ve seen through the horror
Tell me again
Tell me over and over
Tell me that you love me then
Amen

Here I believe we have articulated the only human response to The Problem Of Evil that can ever satisfy.

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Ivan articulates the most powerfully effective form of The Problem Of Evil. He asks if, were the price of making heaven on earth the suffering of one innocent child, would we accept it? Ivan says no. It is not that he doesn’t believe in God, simply that he declines his ticket of entry into creation, on the grounds that it is unjust.

In contrast to this, the faithful response is to say ‘Amen’ to creation. To accept the ticket. To accept that pain and to trust. It is to say Yes to God.

In the Jewish liturgy, Amen is the response to a blessing.

Amen leads to joy.

You got me singing
You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had
You got me singing
Ever since the river died
You got me thinking
Of the places we could hide

You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on
You got me singing
Even tho’ it all looks grim
You got me singing
The Hallelujah hymn

This is the yes to God, this is the acceptance of the life that we have been given, this is the receiving of the whole package, good and bad, evil and joyful – as a gift. This, I believe, is the only spiritually healthy and life-affirming way to navigate through our sufferings.

Cohen as an artist is seen as depressing or melancholy. I have never found him to be this way; on the contrary, listening to him always fills me with joy. I gain a sense of being understood and exalted, as Cohen gives a fully human response to our situation. Cohen articulates the pain yet returns always to the beginning and end of faith.

This is holiness. This is the spiritual drink that sustains us, this is the food of life… and this is why I love listening to him. He brings me closer to God.