An agony of values – and an ongoing identity for the Brexit Party

Jean-Claude Juncker calls Brexit the ‘original sin’; Daniel Hannan writes that Brexit is turning us all into devils; it seems that theological language is inescapable. That is because theology is the language that we use when we are talking about our values, and the Brexit debate has thrown our values up in the air. Which values shall we choose? Which is really a way of asking: who are we as a people?

Much of the argument about Brexit has been conducted around economic values. The Remain argument is that the economic cost of exiting the trading arrangements of the European Union are too high for us to bear. The Leave argument is that shackling ourselves to a declining protectionist bloc misses out on the great opportunities of the wider world. Yet if we only argue about economics, we give those arguments themselves too high a value.

The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has formulated a ‘trilemma’ which I believe captures something very important for our argument. His trilemma goes as follows: there are three centres of value which are currently being debated in modern politics. The first is associated with free trade and global capitalism, and the changes that need to be made in order to allow economic growth to flourish. The second is national identity, and all the ways in which different cultural habits make communities what they are. The third is democracy, and the way in which disputes are resolved.

Rodrik’s trilemma is simply to say: you can have two out of three, you can’t have all of them, and we need to honestly and consciously make a choice.

Consider China. China has chosen to maximise economic growth, and to assert Chinese national identity – but in doing so, is drawing on non-democratic methods. In a similar way, but using the EU as their ‘national’ identity, the Remain perspective values free trade and a European Empire (© Guy Verhofstadt) and is explicitly happy to manipulate democracy to gain the required results.

An alternative perspective, which characterises contemporary political ‘common sense’ and the Conservative party, is to similarly choose economic growth but to emphasise the democratic values over against the national identity values. In other words, where there are local cultural habits that might prevent the efficient workings of capitalism, those habits can be discarded. This is the ‘Washington consensus’ that has been imposed upon economies around the world on a regular basis, often catastrophically (and those that resist this model, such as Korea, do rather well).

Which leaves a third alternative, which is to emphasise democracy and national identity, and de-emphasise the needs of free trade. This is the position of ‘national populism’, the assertion that the interests of global finance cannot be allowed to destroy local cultures. This is the position that has been hugely fuelled by the financial crisis and the reaction to austerity. It is what ultimately lies behind the vote for Brexit, and it is, I believe, the explicit value position that we in the Brexit Party need to stand for.

With his mess of a deal, Prime Minister Johnson has chosen the standard Conservative and mainstream consensus position. This can be seen in very many ways, but most saliently and explicitly in his abandonment of the Unionists in Northern Ireland. There can be no clearer image of the way in which economic interests (the desire for free trade agreements for GB) are given a higher value than national identity interests (the sense of the United Kingdom as one country).

The Remainers occupy, as stated, the non-democratic position on the trilemma. This leaves a huge opportunity for the Brexit Party to distinguish itself as the only party which gives a priority to both national identity and democracy. Put bluntly, there is now only one Unionist party in GB – and it isn’t the Conservatives.

This position does not mean that we reject free trade agreements, only that we say that there are higher values to take account of. We say that it is not worth selling out our country. We say that Johnson has sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage – actually, pottage is mixed vegetables, so perhaps our line needs to be that Johnson has sold our inheritance for a mess of Brussels…

I believe that if we consciously choose this third position of Rodrik’s trilemma we will occupy a position that is distinctive, has integrity and will be immensely popular, increasingly so as awareness of what is in Johnson’s deal starts to develop. It is the position, after all, which is very well embodied in the Party’s position on British Steel. Making strategic investments in certain companies for the national interest is not compatible with making free trade our highest value – but it is fully compatible with a national populist position.

So why do I call this an ‘agony of values’? The word agony comes from the agon, the athletic competitions (and religious feasts) of ancient Athens. We are involved in a struggle to assert different values, to change our politics for good. This is a value claim, which is why it is resonating so strongly with people. This is a contest, an agony, and these are the values that it would be inspiring to fight for – which not only will enable us to win, but will make our winning worthwhile. Let’s fight for something good – and leave the Conservative party with a more contemporary sense of agony.

FRIENDSHIP IS THE RADICAL CHRISTIAN WITNESS OUR POLITICS NEEDS

One possible area of unanimity to be found over Brexit is simply that it is a mess. I do not believe that anyone can be happy with where we find ourselves. How can the church most help? How can the church best model a different way of engaging, both with the issue of Brexit and with each other across the divides, in such a way that we are a faithful and healing witness to the nation?

I would say: friendship. Jesus famously calls us friends, and I believe that there is something holy in the nature of Christian friendship which we are being called specifically to model at this time. A very good part of the recent letter from the Bishops of the Oxford Diocese stated: “There are leavers and remainers in every congregation, but this can never be our primary identity as Christians.”

Which is to say that there are values and aims which Christians hold that transcend any particular political claims. Christians share with each other not simply doctrinal claims, such as “Jesus is Lord”, but also an awareness that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that progress in human affairs is ultimately and wholly dependent on the grace of God.

These shared values are then embodied in particular virtues – and it is those virtues which (as the Church has classically understood, following Aristotle) enable a genuine friendship to take hold. The virtues that we need today include hospitality to alternative points of view, humility in a shared search for the truth that we insist it is possible to find, patience in recognising how long this process may take – and over all these we must put on love, to bind them together.

Why, though, do we in the church find it so challenging to model such virtues? How is that we find it so difficult to be distinctive salt and light in this time of worldly tumult?

To act in a gracious way, turning the other cheek to those who seem to hurt us and trample over things that we hold precious, requires us to draw on spiritual reserves. To model a different pattern of life, the way of the Spirit rather than the way of the enemy, requires sustained practice. It is not something that comes easy to our flesh, which clings so hard to the ease of worldliness. It is always easier to say ‘I thank you Lord that I am not like this sinner’ than to say ‘I repent in dust and ashes’.

Might it be that we in the church struggle to demonstrate a distinctive witness of friendship across the Leave/Remain divide because we have fallen out of the practice of friendship within our own church life? We have spent many decades arguing with each other over matters of church order and sexuality, and that has come at a cost. We have not always enabled ‘good disagreement’ and have instead allowed the fruits of bitterness, strife and resentment to plant seeds. Have we used up all our spiritual reserves in internal dispute, leaving us incapable of withstanding worldly pressures when it comes to engaging with critical political issues like Brexit?

Our most important task, now as always, is to immerse ourselves in prayer, seeking the still small voice amidst the earthquake, wind and fire of Brexit. Such prayer would have the effect of loosening the hold that our opinions have upon us, as we remember and laugh at our own frailties. With humility, and forgiveness for others as well as for ourselves, we might be in a better position to see the truth of where we are, and thus the way to where God wishes us to be.

It will also enable us to be better friends. I am fond of Stanley Hauerwas’ ‘Modest Proposal for Peace’: let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other. In the same spirit, I suggest that we Christians agree that we will remain friends with those on the other side of political debate. We will seek the image of Christ in the face of our opponents; we will resolve to disagree gracefully, affirming that what we share is greater than what divides; we will repudiate a spirit of accusation in favour of a shared and humble recognition of mutual sinfulness. Above all, we will cling to an insistence that there is a truth here to be found, a truth which will set us free from this mess in which we have become embedded.

In doing so, I believe that we will be witnessing to our nation and our world that there is a better way for all human beings to follow. We will do justice to our faith, and to each other. Let’s be friends.

Forest Values

Soon after I arrived in the Forest last year, I went in to the Fountain pub in Parkend and was struck by the large painting of Warren James on the wall there. “Who’s he?” I wondered. So I did a bit of digging, and I am struck by how many lessons there are from his life for us now. He is a local inspiration.

For those who don’t know, Warren James led a rebellion by Foresters against exploitation by the authorities in London. In order to ensure a ready supply of wood for building ships Parliament in London passed a law in 1808 ‘enclosing’ the Forest, meaning that the ancient rights of Foresters were made illegal – such as being able to gather wood or graze sheep in the Forest. Not surprisingly, this meant that the Foresters themselves became much poorer.

Resistance to the law was muted because there was a promise made to the Foresters that the enclosure would only continue for a period of 20 years – that is, for as long as it took the oaks to grow big enough to withstand grazing. Sadly, that promise from London wasn’t kept despite Foresters presenting petitions to Parliament to have their rights restored. The Foresters continued to suffer, and this outraged Warren James, and he began to organise resistance to the Enclosures, which culminated in a rebellion involving thousands of Foresters tearing down the fencing that kept them out of the Forest.

Of course, the hand of the law came down hard on Warren James, and he was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for his resistance. Two weeks later, that sentence was changed to one of transportation for life, and Warren James was sent to Australia in 1832, where he died in 1841.

James was a committed member of my church in Parkend, and I have no doubt that his resistance to London was rooted in his faith. The Bible is quite clear that enclosure can be an evil (Isaiah 5.8) but a more fundamental Christian value is that we have to look after each other. That is exactly what James was doing, and this is what I think of when I think of ‘Forest Values’ – standing up for those who are struggling to make ends meet; insisting that promises are honoured; resisting the emissaries from London who choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore.

I am struck by the parallels that run between the issues that James faced and the ones that we face today. There is an economic struggle, driven by imperatives from an overmighty centre (consider that the steel plant down the road in Newport could be saved immediately if we come out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement). We have received promises from Parliament that this will happen, and then with the passage of time those promises are not honoured. In the meantime, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer…

The biggest difference between Warren James’ time and now, of course, is that now we have the vote. When we see an injustice, or a problem that needs to be solved, we can use our votes to effect a change in a situation. At least, that is the theory. We might be forgiven right now for thinking that our votes don’t matter as much as they used to – because, say, we didn’t know what we were voting for, or we’re just small-minded and intolerant bigots and therefore our views don’t matter.

Those who say such things don’t share Forest Values. Each vote has the same weight as any other, whether cast by rich accountants or poor carpenters. That is only fair – and fairness, alongside mutual help, respect for the law, dignity for all of us, and other values like these, are what I believe most of us hold to – and what I worry that those who follow London thinking have given up on. We can do better than this.

This is why I’m standing to represent the Forest in Parliament. I want to represent the values that Warren James stood up for – Forest Values, looking after all the people in this wonderful Forest of Dean.

RACISM, THE BREXIT PARTY, AND THE FRIENDSHIP NEEDED FOR OUR NATION’S HEALING

I was warned when being interviewed to stand as a candidate for the Brexit Party that I would be accused of all sorts of horrible things. Indeed, one of the key moments in the interview came when I was asked to imagine that I was being interviewed on TV and the first question was, ‘The Church of England is against racism – how then can you stand for a racist party?’

So I cannot claim that I have not been forewarned that these accusations would come. Still, the sheer extent of the claim has been surprising.

To be accused of racism is a serious charge. It would for example, if proven, lead to my being (rightly) dismissed from my present work – and I’m sure that is true for other candidates. So there is a lot at stake.

To make such a serious charge flippantly is highly unethical (and certainly unChristian). It is not an accusation to cast around casually, but to avoid flippancy means assembling evidence. I am open to there being evidence that I am a racist – not least because I understand the nature of ‘unconscious bias’ – and if there is such evidence it would mean that I need to do a lot of work on changing myself, for, be assured, I believe that racism is a very great evil and a blasphemy. More: if I was led to the conclusion that the Brexit Party was racist then I would leave it, immediately. (I wouldn’t be on my own, of course – in fact I strongly suspect that there wouldn’t be a single PPC candidate left.)

To make the charge seriously also involves considering counter-evidence, in order to reach a fair judgement. So here I would point out that all PPCs are required to formally renounce racism (and other prejudices) and work to the highest standards of public life. I would also point to the very wide diversity of ethnic representation amongst our PPCs. If you look at the list of Brexit party candidates, it reflects the diversity of modern Britain in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion and so on. It would seem a little odd, to put it no more strongly, that none of this diverse range of people are aware of the alleged racism of the Party that they support. On the surface, this diversity of PPCs would seem to accord with what the mainstream claims to value. It is the wide space between what the mainstream claims to value and what it actually does in practice that I think we need to pay attention to.

I do not believe that the Brexit Party is racist – actually, that is too bland. I believe that the Brexit Party is consciously, explicitly and intentionally anti-racist. I believe that this anti-racism has been embedded within its structures from the very beginning and is a thread running through all that we do. As I said above, if there was someone who was genuinely racist hidden within the system, I think the system would move incredibly swiftly to excise such an individual upon discovery. The onus is upon those who are accusing us of being racist to demonstrate how and where.

As I see no such evidence myself – and see so much counter-evidence – I am forced to speculate on an alternative explanation for this phenomenon, an alternative explanation for the great heaps of moral opprobrium dumped upon the heads of Brexit Party supporters.

What we are seeing in this political conversation is what happens when one side (the Westminster bubble, as disseminated through the mainstream media) sees the other (Leave voters, those who are excluded from the mainstream conversation) as irretrievably morally compromised. We Brexit supporters are “a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists” as Mr Cameron so memorably phrased it.

It strikes me that what has happened is that a dehumanisation has taken place.

The actual people who support Brexit, who are standing for or supporting the Brexit party in all their glorious diversity, we are no longer seen as people. We are no longer seen for who we are, with all our varied beliefs, hopes and fears. We have become signs, sigils, icons – we represent something other than ourselves, we have come to represent that which the mainstream most despises. We are ignorant, or racist, or poorly educated, or prejudiced in countless other unacceptable ways. Furthermore, as this representation carries such an immense amount of rage with it, it is clearly psychologically loaded. It is part of a fixed belief system in which the mainstream have invested a very large part of their sense of identity. See Ben Habib’s interaction with Oliver Kamm for a very clear example of this.

I speculate here, for I am sure that there are many different varieties of projection involved, and it is certainly not the case that every critic of the Brexit party is guilty of what I am describing, but there seems to be a sense of the self as righteous, which is formed over and against a sense of the other as unrighteous. When the other challenges the righteous self, this is profoundly threatening, and destabilising. If this other is not wholly evil, does this mean that my self is not wholly good? To entertain such a notion is a profoundly disturbing thought. If we truly do live in a culture of narcissism then to threaten the beloved self-image is to invite a reaction of rage…

There seems some initial plausibility to this. It would explain the polarisation of our politics, and the digging of trenches, and the failure to actually engage with the other. Of course, this dehumanisation also has frightening historical antecedents, which we need to become conscious of and keep prudently in mind. Obviously, these are just the beginnings of a line of thought that needs so much more careful and prayerful consideration.

So, if there is even a little bit of truth in my speculations, how then are we to respond?

I think that the only way forward, for each of us personally and for the nation as a whole, is to attend to the need for friendship, most especially to consciously and actively cultivate friendships across the partisan divides. A real friendship is only possible, according to Aristotle via Aquinas, when there is a shared aim. I believe that Leavers and Remainers share many aims in common – that actually we do all want to live within a decent society, within which the vulnerable are cared for, children are encouraged to reach their full potential, and we are all enabled to share in the joy of this creation. It is what Christians call the Kingdom.

If we can articulate those shared fundamental values – and if we can restrain ourselves from recklessly accusing others of not sharing those values (and that applies both ways) – then perhaps we can start rebuilding a sense of mutual trust, and a civilised framework for working through our differences, and we can move beyond our current imbroglio.

In other words, Brexit no longer just means Brexit. This staggeringly chaotic process also gives us the opportunity to renew our national conversation, to refresh our deepest values, to learn more about each other – and, dare I say, to love more about each other? We as a people, as a community, as a country: we can do so much better than this. I, for one, am going to try.

Why am [was!] I standing as an MP for the Brexit Party?

This is something shared in my work context – obviously out of date now!

Dear friends,

I thought it might help if I shared a little about what has led me to the place of standing for the Brexit Party as a potential MP. This will be in two parts – a bit about my own vocational journey, and a bit about my own fundamental values and beliefs.

When I was a teenager and through to my mid-20s I was intent on a political career, and I joined the Civil Service as a means of being trained for that – seeing government from the inside. However shortly before turning 25 I had my vocation experience when God made it clear that I was supposed to go into the church. After some painfully stubborn resistance I gave in to that call, and I have always believed that choice was final and irrevocable. However, over the last several months I have felt an increasing sense that God was revisiting that decision, and asking more from me. This has not been a comfortable process – I love my work in both parish and Diocese, and ____ and I have felt very settled in the Forest. I really do not want to disrupt that. However, I have learned that it is futile to fight God, however much our desires might run contrary to his.

I’ve spent a lot of time praying through the verse ‘Do you love me more than these?’ which Jesus asks of Peter on the beach. In the end I’ve had to say that, however much I love my congregation and my colleagues and my candidates, I do love Jesus more. (Apologies for how pious that sounds, it is meant sincerely!)

Yet even with all that, I can imagine the question being raised ‘OK, Sam, politics – but why the Brexit Party?!’ One of my core political passions is centred on social justice. I don’t believe that it is possible to be a Christian and not be concerned for social justice – although that still leaves lots of room for political disagreement about precisely how the desire for social justice is best pursued.

So how does that fit with supporting the Brexit Party?

I think I need to make two points. The first is simply: the Brexit Party is not UKIP version 2. I couldn’t support UKIP in its present form; indeed, the Brexit Party is going out of its way (and rightly) to ensure that it is inclusive, and that there is no prejudice on grounds of race, gender, religion, sexuality, handicap and so on. I have had to sign up to a four-page document promising to pursue the highest standards in public life, which I was very glad to do. If you look at the roster of candidates that have been announced you will see a lot of diversity – and that includes several people who voted Remain in 2016.

The second is that I believe the 2016 referendum allowed many people who were previously excluded from having a voice in our national life to speak up – and what has happened since then is that those in positions of power have sought to put those people ‘back in their box’. I know that this is something on which people of faith and good will can disagree, but, for me, this is a grave injustice. I want to ensure that this group of people – those who are generally poor and excluded in sharing in our common life – are listened to. I am ‘inspired by love and anger’ to quote one of my favourite hymns, by possibly my favourite hymn writer – and yes, I remain a committed Greenbelter, where I regularly listen to that hymn writer’s talks.

I believe that the technical question of Brexit will be resolved in the next year or two, but afterwards there will need to be a process of national reconciliation, wherein we learn to trust each other once again, and we heal the split between Leave and Remain. That is what I suspect I’m supposed to get involved with – and possibly not even as an MP, for I am well aware that following what I think is God’s will in this process gives no guarantee of ‘success’. My favourite prophet, Jeremiah, ended up failing, but he did God’s will in any case. I don’t have certainty that I’ll be elected, or that the Brexit Party will win, or even that Brexit is God’s will – all I know is that I am being called to stand up and speak out. That’s it.

In all of this, I would ask for your prayers, that God’s will be done, not just with me, but with our overall political situation.

With thanks for our fellowship in the faith,

Sam Norton

Vicar of Parkend and Viney Hill

Associate DDO and Vocations Advisor Diocese of Gloucester

Some theses about spirituality and ‘mental illness’

1. There are phenomena that people experience within their own mental life that are often life-denying at a minimum, life-destroying as a maximum. Please do not interpret anything else that I say here as in any way denying this first and most basic truth. My issue is all to do with a) how these phenomena are understood and b) how those who have to endure them are treated, both by ‘professionals’ and by wider society.

2. There is no such thing as ‘mental illness’. There are physical illnesses that have mental symptoms (eg Alzheimers). To describe the phenomena of thesis #1 as ‘mental illness’ is to wrongly apply a form of language (‘illness’ and ‘disease’) from one area of life to a different area of life. It is a category error, a philosophical mistake. That it is a mistake with a vast apparatus of the state and capitalist industry supporting it does not make it true.

3. The language of modern professional psychiatric care – as best summarised in the risible DSM (see this, which I think is brilliant) – is a perfect example of a Kuhnian paradigm which is overdue for being overthrown. In just the same way that the Copernican paradigm eventually couldn’t cope with all the epicycles that had to be introduced as a result of telescopic observations, we are not far from the time when contemporary psychiatric understandings will collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy and contradictions.

4. Pharmaceutical drugs do not work in terms of curing the phenomena of thesis #1. They do have benefit in terms of the placebo effect (which I do not see as trivial) and in terms of stabilising a volatile situation, ie they can suppress symptoms. Put simply they are a tool of social management. They do not heal people; at worst the side effects simply increase the phenomena of #1.

5. We cannot understand the phenomena of thesis #1 by looking at individuals in isolation but only as human beings embedded within a particular community and context. The phenomena of thesis #1 are inescapably social.

6. It is in the interests of the state that those who exhibit disorderly or otherwise unwelcome behaviour are pacified and controlled. Any full understanding of the phenomena of thesis #1 needs to have abandoned political naïvete.

7. It is in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry that there be new diagnoses of new forms of disorder, which thereby justify the creation of new drugs with new patents that form new income streams for those companies when old patents expire. Any full understanding of the phenomena of thesis #1 needs to have abandoned commercial naïvete.

8. The philosophical roots of contemporary psychiatric care lie in atheism and materialism – in other words, it proceeds on the assumption that there is no such thing as the soul.

to be with the freakshow

language of demons and angels

personal agency

human centred care

taking the soul seriously

it is possible that the greatest failure of Western churches in the twentieth century is that they have capitulated to the psycho-complex. If we are unable to cure souls, then what on earth is the point of us?

Clement quote about father nursing

Giving up on Trump

Before I begin – yes, I’ve already had people say “I told you so…”

So, I liked Trump – certainly much more than Hillary, and that hasn’t changed.
What I most liked about Trump was the possibility that things might change, that the hegemonic principalities and powers would be

20181002 Farewell sermon
May I speak in the name of the living God…
And now… the end is near… and so I face… my final curtain
It has been a full fifteen years here. I was tempted to start by saying ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ but that would be misleading, because the balance between the best and worst has not been even – the good massively outweighs the bad, personally and in terms of the life of the church. I have so much to be grateful for, I have so many people that I feel grateful to. Very early on, I think after my first annual meeting here, I was very gently and lovingly told off for not thanking anyone by name – and that was fair, and in my annual meetings since then I have always tried to thank people; there is, however, a terror that comes from the process of naming people because there will always be someone important who in any fair system will need to be thanked but where my human frailty and forgetfulness leads to an omission – if this applies to you I can only beg forgiveness and a chance to make amends after this service

Thanksgivings
thank the wardens down the years: from West Bill Norman and David Walker, Andrew Hester, Richard Grout, Terry Walker, Peter Banks, Barbara Peter, Alan Brook and Val Bocking; Tony Clifton, Marianne Jones and Janis Meanley at East; Pat Moore, Bill Tamblyn, Jane Watson, Hilary King and John Walker in Peldon; Annette Brown, Sue Sargeant, Katrina Lewis in the Wigboroughs
thank John Pantry – in my first days here, when the Bishop rang me up and said that there was this well known evangelical coming to Mersea my heart sank, I thought ‘not more evangelicals’ – but I couldn’t have been wrong, thank you for your consistent loyal support through the years, thank you especially for your music for our services here
they’re not here but shout outs to Mandy and to Mark Brosnan who were also lovely colleagues; the retired clergy: Bernard, Scott, Brian, Keith, Martin, John F and now David – not forgetting the readers, Anne and Peter and Jill – this benefice would not function without you, thank you for all that you have done and all the support you have given me
thank the families workers, Pauline, then Cindy, then especially Heather – you are such an asset to the mission of this church and you’ve done all that I asked of you, thank you – keep gluing the families together!
thank Carol – huge thanks, thank you for your diligence, and your hard work, and your expertise on marriage law! Thank you for keeping me sane, I think we’ve made a good team – I hope you have a wonderful retirement and that when you retire the church gets someone at least half as good
Pat – for your faithfulness esp with MP, for introducing me to In Christ Alone and other things
the secretaries and treasurers and other PCC members, you don’t get thanked enough but all you do has been appreciated, especially those who handle fabric and the social and catering. I would make a particular shout out to East Mersea PCC who could keep things brief, I suspect my record of 16 minutes for a PCC meeting might last for some time
a particular thanks to three men with whom I used to share a regular Monday evening drink in the White Hart: Terry Walker, Peter Banks and Stephen Rice – I think some of my happiest and most affirming times were with you three – thank you for your support, your loyalty and your friendship
I want to thank my house group, which has had a varied membership through the years – you have been an immense support and comfort to me; I am persuaded that you can’t properly be Christian unless you have a group of Christian friends with whom you can be yourself and learn and grow – you have been that for me, I sometimes think that you have had the best of me in these years, but that is because of who you have been – thank you
people in the community
Kathy Bowman – for speaking to me directly and not relying on gossip, for taking on the burden of setting up the friends, and then, frankly, for doing such a great job of it – thank you – and to all the others who have been involved in the various Friends groups across the benefice
the mayors – Alan, Peter, Carl – and especially John – that was a bittersweet privilege to have the honour of taking his funeral, I will miss him – and thinking of John, I have to thank MIPS – I joined in with you just when my first marriage was turning toxic – and you have given me far more than I think you realised – you were a place where I could simply be myself, away from work, away from home and with an accepting community of friends – I have had such fun with you, thank you – I know some might resist this comparison but actually, as a group you’re very much like what I think the church is called to be
I want to thank all of the choirs who have joined in tonight, on so many levels I am grateful and moved for this – particular thanks to Caroline, I really wish I’d been able to finish your teaching!
Ian J – people coming in from outside don’t necessarily realise what difference is made – nothing to compare to – you have made, you are making, I trust that you will carry on making a difference to us. I would say: don’t give up on us – you ask us all of the right questions but you may need to help the church rediscover that treasure which it carries, which are the right answers
so I want to say a few words about the music marathon – a coming together of so many strands – that moment will last with me forever. I had just applied for the job in the Forest of Dean, I knew in my bones that I was going, and I didn’t know if I was going to be leaving this church in a good place, but that night – when the community had been coming in and going out – when the church was properly the hub and a resource for the people – when the doors were open and the spirit was breathing – and then the wonderful finale – I took that to be a sign from God, a promise that it was going to be OK, that my decision was the right one – it was as if God was saying ‘look, you can go now, this was why I sent you here, your work is done’
I hope that was a true insight

Sermon proper
Leaving my native country
Jesus says to Peter, do you love me more?
I wonder if Abram wanted to leave Haran; because so much of me really doesn’t want to leave here. God said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.” I too am about to leave my native country, my relatives, my father’s family to go to a land that God has shown me
My father is buried here on Mersea, in a double depth grave so that there is space for my mum too. My father’s family traced back to Norfolk at the time of the Norman conquest – we are East Anglians – I am very English. But I don’t want to over-emphasise that, and certainly not as a matter of blood. I’m going to a place quite close to where my maternal grandfather grew up: he was a miner in South Wales, in a little place called Mountain Ash, and he was once – before he got a singing scholarship, studied with Caruso and became for a little while a nationally famous tenor singer in the 1930s; he spent most of his working life singing in music halls and the stage – I don’t think he was ever a dame but you wouldn’t be wrong to think that I have inherited something from him – so I am very proud of my Welsh blood, and there’s even a large slug of Irish in there too – but culturally I’m an Englishman, I’m an Essex man, I’m a boy from the Blackwater. I was very moved recently to be shown a picture of dad taking part in the old gaffers race

loved being your priest
Jesus says to Peter, do you love me more than these?

the simple truth is that I have loved being your priest and my best moments have been when I have been able to do priestly things. I have had quite a remarkable last two weeks or so, which seems to have summed up everything good
I’ve taken services – I’ve had some very important pastoral conversations – I’ve taken communion to someone in their home – I’ve chaired a PCC and attended a wonderful harvest supper – we have had Terry’s priesting and first communion – with an impromptu baptism inserted into the middle of that, which Terry managed to be completely unfazed by – it’s not a bad introduction to being a priest, all things considered! I took a candidate to a confirmation service in Tiptree, and wondered if Spencer was ever going to take the plunge – I took my last funeral this morning, in Great Wigborough – it was of the matriarch of a family that I have come to know quite well – the son in law has been on an extremely onerous committee with me for the last ten years, and I married their daughter a few years back – there are forms of ministry possible when you have stayed long enough in a place to really know and be known. It was a good thing to end my ministry with: it’s what I always wanted. I have loved being your priest.

I have loved living on Mersea, I have loved the rural nature of the villages, I will always keep you in my heart and I will pray for you, most especially that the search for my successor will be swiftly concluded and that God sends you a good woman or man to continue the good work that you are doing

I love the local church – the local churches – I believe that the gospel is alive in you
Do not even for one moment believe that my decision to go is in any way about anything wrong with the churches in this benefice. Don’t get the wrong idea – I am fully aware of your several shared and sometimes peculiar faults – but that is my job, to know all of the ways in which you – we – all fall short of our best selves – and to bring to people the rumour of God’s amazing grace which is how we heal and become better

It would be fair to say, however, just as an aside… that I have been driven mad by the hierarchy and the institution – and one kind person, aware of my struggles, said to me that if I stayed it would kill me – I think that’s true. I have tried my best to protect the benefice from the craziness and sheer incompetence of the wider church – but that has been interpreted as a lack of collegiality and they’re glad that I’m going. At this point I was going to say that I hope they don’t cause too much damage – but they have in this past week they done far more damage than I ever expected…

but that is not the note on which I wish to leave you
I have to let go. I have to let you go.
I have to trust that as you keep the faith the Lord will be with you, and you will be protected by Him – trust in God, trust also in his son Jesus Christ our Lord
so I am consciously trying not to be afraid, and to be excited, and to enter into this little death

idolatry and death
The German theologian Bonhoeffer once wrote, when Jesus calls us, he bids us come and die. I never expected to leave here. I’m starting to see that this may have been a form of idolatry – giving too high a value to something, which distorts a life – it may be simply that I have loved being here too much, that I have identified with it too much. When God calls us it always involves a sacrifice – to let go of something that we really value – it is always followed by receiving something of greater value, but taking that step requires faith – and faith is the opposite of fear, do not be afraid.

the core issue for me is, as I’m sure you know, about missing my children in Wales – it doesn’t work for me having them for one week in six, that’s not how I’m built – with the move they will be with me, instead, every other weekend – I think that will work much better, for all of us. But I have started to realise other things about God’s planning; I think this has been the lever that God has used to get me out of this job,

The thing is I haven’t been happy for some time – I don’t think that I have properly flourished or been effective for maybe two years now I think – in part it has been simple exhaustion – but it wasn’t clear to me what God wanted me to do – I listened to the Leonard Cohen song that Stephen read for us over and over again: show me the place, show me the place, show me the place where you want your slave to go

early signs – things that proved to be more of a struggle – particularly the boat – I have found that when I cooperate with what God wants for me things are not a struggle – and since deciding to apply for my new job it has been like dominoes falling – instead of beating up against a heavy head wind, it’s as if I’ve done a controlled gybe and we’re now running before the wind – lots of things are calmer and more peaceful, and it’s all happening so quickly!

death and resurrection
St Paul writes, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it will not bear fruit
I think this process of leaving Mersea is a death for me; the person that I have been will pass away, and a new person will take his place
I am wearing the stole that my father’s mother bought for me when I was first ordained – she was a church warden for several decades in a small church near Wickford, where I was baptised. My father died very suddenly at the age of 55 – I took his funeral, wearing this stole – one of the last conversations about resurrection – a clear and simple faith, took me by surprise, brought me up short – it made me wonder if I was too stuck in my head, with academic abstractions.

I don’t worry about that any more. I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses… And I believe in the resurrection, I believe in it more and more as time goes on.
This isn’t simply because I find the objections less and less credible, and as a matter of historical evidence I don’t see a more plausible explanation for a small group of demoralised fishermen running around talking about a resurrection and converting the Roman empire than a simple affirmation that they were describing what had happened.
It is also because I see the resurrection being carried on daily in people’s lives, whenever grace breaks in, whenever the enemy is put to flight. I see the resurrection woven in to the warp and weft of our world – when through the woods, and forest glades I wander – or when I walked with Ollie on the beach on so many mornings – the reality of God, for me, is undeniable. There is a Word that is written in a book, and there is a Word that is written on the creation by the Creator. It’s all the same God

I believe in the resurrection, and that is why I am prepared to enter into this death – I am throwing myself onto God’s mercy, and like Abram I am dragging my household with me, I trust that the Lord will enable us all to flourish and that we will be blessed; if nothing else my love, you will have trees

What it means to be a prophet
Faith – we’ve come a long way together, since we first met when I was visiting with your mum, and then taking you through confirmation, and then in house group – lift up your hearts! Faith said something to me in our last but one house group – she said what do you want us to remember about you – I thought a lot about that, and I thought, what I most want to share with you now, with my last sermon as your Rector, is what it means to be a prophet. The prophets of ancient Israel were those who called the nation back to a faithful religious life – back to right worship, that is, worshipping the right things, and back to social justice, by which was meant ensuring that nobody was excluded from sharing in the national life. I think we need the spirit of prophecy in our church and nation today.

The Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of what a nation is.
This is something of a problem when the name of a nation is in your self-description.
Nations are real things, spiritually real – they are a form of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers – and our culture is very familiar with what it means when a principality is raised up into the shape of an idol, when it is given a greater value than it deserves to have, and it becomes demonic – we all know enough history to be aware of what that looks like.

But what is so often missed is that there is an equal and opposite error – nations are part of the creation and they have their place in that creation – that’s why nations are talked about so often in the Bible – it is a great sin to overemphasise nationhood – that’s why in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, the claims of Christ are higher than that – but this does not obliterate nationhood – it does not mean that we are to abandon any sense of what it means to live within and be part of a nation – it is part of being fully human that we are formed within a community of people – and the most fully human person who has ever lived was not an exception to this. Jesus did not appear to us coming down from on high, full of heavenly glory – no, he lived at a very particular time in a very particular place, he took part in the very particular customs of a very particular nation and from that solid foundation he transcended those particularities to become a source of universal salvation. It is as members of one nation or another that we are redeemed, none of us are redeemed as abstract human beings, devoid of context or roots in a particular place.

George Orwell wrote that England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality, and it seems to me that the mind of our House of Bishops has been captured by that same intellectual disorder; it is, in fact, a theological disorder. Some ten years ago Peter Banks introduced me to a folk group called Show of Hands, and took me to a show of theirs in Putney. It was the first time I had heard any of their songs, and I was blown away. One song that I heard that night I’d like to share with you:

And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
It’s pubs where no-one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps
And we learn be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look, and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we come from?
I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack
That’s my flag too and I want it back
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
We need roots

We can’t let patriotism, the story of who we are as a nation, be monopolised by the morons and the bigots, but if we don’t have a healthy understanding, a theological understanding of what a nation is then that is what is going to happen by default, they will take up that space – and then the demonic will take it over. This is a task that the Church has to engage with, for it is the Church of England that is called by God to tend to the soul of England. It is because the Church has failed to even engage in this spiritual struggle that we have lost our moorings as a society.

The trouble is, the church of England that there was has died, and our hierarchy is in deep denial about it.
St Paul writes, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it will not bear fruit

I am a product of boarding school and Oxbridge culture – to me choral Evensong is normal – more than normal, it’s beautiful and spiritual and it is how I came back into the Church of England when I started to question my atheism, and recognise just how shallow a perspective I had. Atheism cannot guide a civilisation, a country, it can’t even guide a single person, it just doesn’t have the resources to do that.

But if I have learned one thing from my time here in Mersea it is simply that this background makes me odd in our country today – I have come to see that when the Book of Common Prayer says that worship must be conducted in a language understood by the people this is not just about the words that are being used but also about the musical forms that are sung and the formalities that are depended on – that there is a form of life that is passing away. The Spirit of the Lord has moved, and the glory of the Lord is departing, and Elvis has left the building.

There is so much life still bubbling away in the Church of England, in the local churches, in so many different ways, but I believe that if that life is to burst up from the ground the established church needs to die a death in order that it might be raised to life again. We need to give certain habits of thought and behaviour an honourable burial. We need to say ‘we are no longer in that place, we have entered the wilderness’. We need to not look back to the fleshpots of Egypt. Only by so doing can we hope for God to move again in this land; only then will revival come.

I believe that our institutional church is in deep denial of the truth of our situation. It is afraid of dying, and this fear of dying drives management initiatives and top down control systems and the gospel is slowly Ofstedded out of existence as Pharoah keeps telling the people of God to make more bricks with less straw. And what is fear of dying but a failure to believe in the resurrection?

I believe that we can do so much better than this

thoughts about the future
I don’t know fully what form my ministry will take in Gloucestershire. I know that my parish load will be very different – I’m hoping that I will be able to enjoy being less of an incumbent and more of a priest – I’m also looking forward to the part of the job which is about mentoring those called to the priesthood – I have loved doing that, first with Mandy and then with Terry, and I like to think that I do have a gift of encouragement, that I can nurture people’s gifts.

but what I am wondering is whether I will have the opportunity to teach more widely. Jesus says to Peter, do you love me more than these? And when Peter says that he does love Jesus, Jesus then says, three times in different ways, “Feed my sheep”

I feel called to work on feeding sheep, which means teaching and helping people to understand and have great confidence in the faith. You have every right to have confidence in the faith. It’s true! And the truth sets us free. St Paul writes: So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. This is so true. Keep the faith!

When sheep aren’t fed they either leave or die – which is a good description of the Church of England for the last one hundred years. Rectors come and go, churches come and go, but the word of the Lord stands fast for ever and it is through the word of the Lord that the flock are fed. I’ve had some wonderful presents already from the village parishes; the good people of East gave me a lovely present on Friday night, but they also gave me a cheque and I have been wondering what to do with it. I am thinking that I am going to invest in a decent video camera and some editing software and maybe set up a youtube channel – which means that those who like my teaching can have somewhere to follow it, and those who don’t like it don’t have to come anywhere near it!

I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land

Blake was a prophet, and I have always taken Jerusalem to be about the Kingdom, about engaging the imagination in such a way that working for the Kingdom in a particular place, for a particular people becomes possible – and I think I’m supposed to work specifically for that in England, amongst the English – here I stand, I can do no other

Jesus says to Peter, do you love me more than these, and my answer is yes, I do. I do love Jesus more than I love you, more than I love being with you – and I have really loved being with you

Jesus goes on to say, when you are older people will take you where you do not want to go. Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” In leaving you, in leaving behind so much and so many that I love I am following him, God help me.

Following Jesus is all that we can do, for in the risen Lord is life, and life in abundance.

God be with you till we meet again.

Well what would you do about Brexit?

As a committed supporter of the UK leaving the European Union – you might have noticed – you will understand the strong sense of despondency that has been settling upon me over recent weeks. It really is quite a remarkable achievement for Theresa May to have united the Johnson brothers in opposing her plan. The flaws in what she has negotiated have been rehearsed extensively elsewhere; for me, the crucial point is that we will end up with less sovereignty than before the Referendum. If this passes the House of Commons then the Conservative party will deserve to be renamed as the BBP – the Brexit Betrayal Party. They will be defined by that one act against the democratic will of the United Kingdom and will deserve to fade away into ignominy.

It is a fair question, however, to ask ‘Well what would you do?’ It is comparatively easy to carp from the sidelines about the omnishambles of this present government; it is rather more difficult to say precisely what would be done instead. It is not that Theresa May is without virtues – I would credit her with duty, diligence and courage at least. It is simply that her framework for understanding this issue would appear to have been captured (after the departure of her advisor Nick Timothy) by the existing establishment, which clearly has an agenda for reversing the decision to leave the European Union. If the UK is truly to leave the orbit then Theresa May, sadly, has to be removed from office. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon, or easily.

So what would I do? There is the proverbial joke about a man asking for directions (must be a made-up story – men never ask for directions) and being given the response ‘Well I wouldn’t start from here…’ So I shall answer the question in two parts, the first relating to what might have been done from immediately after the Referendum, the second relating to where we might go from where we are now. Then, finally, a religious comment – as I do believe that this is a matter that relates to the souls of nations, which are real things.

Immediately following the Referendum in 2016 the most important thing is that I would have stated explicitly that the people had decided that the UK was to leave the European Union, and that it would therefore have been what the EU calls “a third country”. The aim, therefore, would have been to establish a framework of relationship between the UK and the EU on that basis. This was very much the thrust of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech – the ‘deep and special partnership’ and so on – but because there was no emphasis upon the nature of the UK as a third country, with all that is implied by that description, the clear thrust of the Referendum verdict has been steadily diluted and diminished into the dog’s breakfast of the Withdrawal Agreement. At so many points those who benefit from the institutional status quo have pointed to areas where they didn’t want the UK to be treated as a third country – this even applies to committed Brexiters like David Davis. Truly this is ‘have cake and eat it’ territory. Instead of all that, there needed to be a hard-headed embrace of the only long-term sustainable position, that we are to be a third country with all that this meant. We could then build close arrangements with the EU from that stable foundation, in ways that are mutually acceptable. Instead we have had this panicked attempt to try and preserve what is unsalvageable.

So where to go from where we are now? Sadly, I think the only way forward that does not promise to rend our social fabric from top to bottom is what is called a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which I’d prefer to call a World Trade Brexit. I believe that the threats to our economy from this are exaggerated. There are threats, and they are not trivial, but even the Project Fear forecasts from the establishment indicate that a no deal Brexit would be less damaging than the recession following the financial crisis of 2008. We need – our political class needs – to have a much wider horizon for their thinking than simply the first few months of possible disruption. It beggars belief that the long term future of our country is being sold for the mess of pottage that is a few months of economic turbulence. I would also desire to see an enthusiastic and rapid embrace of what is called CANZUK – an agreement with Canada, Australia and New Zealand that builds upon our common shared inheritance. Fleshing that out might need another article though.

Which brings me to my theological point. A good rule of thumb for a priest is ‘God is not in the drama’ – that is, when emotions are in a heightened state, and all around are losing their heads and blaming it on others. This is the ‘earthquake, wind and fire’ – and God is found in the still, small voice of calm. What we most need at this point in time is not vehement advocacy but rather a slow and careful delineation of disagreement between those opposed to the EU and those in favour. I do not recognise myself in the regular caricatures of what a Brexit supporter is supposed to believe; doubtless Remainers have the same experience.

I would hope that such a process might lead to a reconciliation between the different parts of our nation, which are so strenuously opposed to each other at this time. It is understandable why that is the case – the vote for Brexit was an immense shock to the dominant consciousness of our time, and it will take time for all of us to adjust to what it meant. Yet we do need to leave the European Union. That choice was a long time coming, and not the consequence of short-term campaigns or slogans on the side of a bus. If that choice is overturned by the establishment – against the Referendum, the votes of the House of Commons and the manifestoes of over 80% of those elected at the last general election – then I do fear for what is to come. It might be diabolical.