The Tower of Avalon

The Norman tower of the church of St Peter and St Paul in West Mersea is very unusual – it is an example of Norman architecture in England that predates the Norman conquest of 1066. This is because the patronage of the church here had been gifted to the monastic community in Rouen in Northern France, and that community invested in the building of the tower – most probably in order to aid the boats that were travelling between here and France to navigate their way in the Estuary through lighting a signal fire at the top.

The view from the top of the tower is wonderful. It provides a real overview of the whole town, alongside the expected views of the Estuary. It is a remarkably peaceful place from which to watch the world. I like to think of the people lighting their fires in previous centuries in order to provide both practical guidance and a symbol of safe harbour to the sailors.

There was a tower here before the Normans. If you look at the side of the tower you will see tiles embedded in the structure, most clearly on the corners. These were taken from the Roman ruins on this site – the ruins of, it is believed, the summer residence of the Roman governor from when Colchester was the Roman capital of Britain, Camulodunum. Beneath the churchyard at the East end of the church lies a roman mosaic, now covered up. I have no doubt that there are many hidden mysteries in the depths of the earth surrounding the church.

This ancient site has had layers and layers of history built upon it. I wonder what the core identity of the site might be, or whether, like an onion, if we continue to peel back the layers we find that there is nothing left in the centre. A hill top site with commanding views over a natural harbour, where there is an abundant source of protein ready to hand. People have lived and thrived here for a very long time.

An alternative image. It is said that to be a samurai in ancient Japan, the samurai had to make their own sword – that only by making their own sword could there be an effective union between the weapon and the wielder. In order to make the sword, the samurai had to melt and reforge and hammer the steel hundreds and hundreds of times. Nowadays a metallurgist might say that this allows all the molecules of the steel to align in one direction, enabling a much greater strength and sharpness for the blade – but that, whilst true, doesn’t seem as interesting to me.

For really, what the samurai is working on is not the sword but their own soul.

Within St Peter and St Paul’s there is melting and reforging and hammering going on, as it has been going on for hundreds of times a year, for hundreds and hundreds of years. We follow the ancient rite given to us by our master, by which we are ourselves remade into his instrument, his blade. This is called liturgy, which might best be understood as simply meaning ‘the work of the people’ – work, in communion with God, by which our souls are forged and reforged for the master’s work.

The oldest part of the existing church is a segment of the north wall, near the priest’s door. This is Anglo-Saxon, contemporary with the church in Bradwell where St Cedd arrived in Essex some 1400 years ago. Since that time there has been a heartbeat of work and praise centred on this site, day in, day out, week in, week out, year in, year out, sometimes strong, sometimes weak but always consistent in its central message.

Why did the Roman governor want to come to Mersea? There must have been something here to attract him – were the oysters enough? And why did St Sebbi, the King of Essex in the seventh century, build the Strood to enable easier access? He was known to be exceptionally devout, and the building of the Strood was a huge undertaking that must have been quite a strain upon his treasury – the equivalent of building the M25 in our day. There is something about Mersea, about this site on Mersea in particular, which draws people in. For those with awareness it is one of the thin places in this land, a marginal place, where the light gets in.

I daydream about Camelot. What was Colchester called in Roman times? I trust the links of language, which often preserve insights lost to our more conscious awareness. A castle on a hill, a seat of government, the front line against invasions from overseas – lots of crooked rivers that might be site of Camlann. There is no evidence for this of course – the story of Arthur is almost entirely legend.

Yet if that daydream has merit – where is Avalon? Where is the island in the pool, the MeresIgge, to which Arthur retired hurt, where he sought sustenance and ministry from those who might be expected to have expertise, such as a monastic community? Where a sword was found, and then lost, and might be found again.

And did those feet, in ancient times…?

England slumbers, as beneath a blanket of snow. Yet it seems to me that we are waking up, as if from a long and disturbed sleep, filled with dreams of machines and factories and the dark satanic mills of higher learning. The soul has been forged and honed to an edge of sharpness, ready to separate joints and marrow. Is there one worthy to wield it?

(An article for the Mersea Society magazine)

Let’s stay the hell out of Syria

It would seem that things in Syria are coming closer to the boil. There are several different conflicts taking place in that benighted country, and it would be worth teasing out the different levels in order to try and seek more understanding (and even so, in a short article like this, I’m going to have to oversimplify).

On one level this is a civil war between the Assad government and insurgents seeking to overthrow him. We think of the insurgents as being ISIS, the extremist Islamists well known for their horrific torture videos shared on YouTube. Anyone who is opposed to them must be on the side of right, right? Complicating this Syrian civil war, however, are the other elements that are also seeking to gain freedom from the Assad government, such as the Kurdish groups that seek to be affiliated with the autonomous region in Northern Iraq. Some of the principal supporters for the Assad regime in this conflict are the Christian groups fleeing ISIS persecution.

On the next level there is a great-power conflict being conducted through the Syrian civil war by proxy. This has mostly been the responsibility of the United States, that has interfered in Syrian territory, normally from bases in Iraq, in order to contend against ISIS – although the US has also been seeking to overthrow the Assad government in addition to this. In order to maintain this seemingly incoherent position, the US and its allies talk a lot about ‘moderate rebels’ who are the ones who are resisting Assad but are not ISIS. It is debatable whether such moderate rebels do in fact exist. However, what has changed the dynamic of this situation out of all recognition – and what has rendered the US mostly impotent as well as incompetent in Syria – has been the significant intervention by Russia, which has installed its own military forces on behalf of Assad. There is now no possibility of the Assad government being overthrown without a military defeat of Russian forces on the ground. The prospect of that even being attempted – let alone the desirability of aiming for that in the first place – is remote.

The third level of this conflict is about the regional struggle for supremacy between Iran (Shia Muslim) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni Muslim). Assad is allied to Iran and is largely a proxy for it. Saudi Arabia, by far the most powerful ideological and financial supporter of Islamist terrorism, is sponsoring the anti-Assad factions on the ground as a means to oppose the spreading influence of Iran. It is worth saying that Iran was one of the major strategic winners from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as southern Iraq is Shia dominated, and sympathetic to Iranian leadership. The conflict in Yemen, similarly, is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – a war which Britain is helping to support. Iran, in addition, has been hugely helped by the lifting of sanctions as a result of the Obama-led agreement

There are two very significant neighbouring powers in this conflict. The first is Israel, which is alarmed by the indications of Iranian hegemony, not least as expressed through the sponsorship of Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation that is dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel, and which is now the effectively dominant authority in southern Lebanon. Israel will not sit idly by if implacable enemies are enabled to strengthen themselves on her border. The other neighbouring power is Turkey which, despite nominal NATO membership, would appear to be another nation which is falling for the charms of President Putin. Turkey’s own principal concern would seem to be ensuring that the Kurds of their south-eastern corner are not enabled to gain their own independence.

So the situation in Syria is complex. Into this complexity strides the delicate statesmanship that we associate with the current US president, indulging in some headline-friendly air strikes that seem to have no discernible impact upon any actor in this conflict, forming something much closer to a puppet theatre than a coherent military strategy.

I would simply want to ask: why are we involved?

The nominal reason advanced for supporting the US strikes was that President Assad had been using chemical weapons upon his own population. Clearly reprehensible, if that was indeed the truth. It would seem rather odd, however, for Assad to be doing this, raising the risk of an attack, at just the point when he is on the point of winning the civil war. Dictators are not known for being scrupulously rational, it is true, but they are generally known for acting in their own self-interest.

In any case, let us assume that he did indeed order a chemical attack on his own population. It is still legitimate to ask: why are we involved? There are, after all, many awful things happening in the world. China is oppressing Tibet. North Korea is oppressing its own population terribly. The ongoing wars in and around the Congo have been a bleeding wound for decades. Why do we want to be involved in this particular conflict at this particular time?

Even if we decide that there are very good reasons for wanting to be involved in Syria right now – what prospect is there that our intervention will make the eventual outcome better rather than worse? There is little that is more obnoxious in this world than a vain and self-righteous posturing that preens itself whilst causing greater distress.

We need to have a much more hard-headed assessment of what is genuinely in the national interest – for ourselves first and foremost. Once that has been done we might be able to weigh in the balance how far it makes sense for us to support other nations in their endeavours.

For my part, can I respectfully suggest that supporting air strikes or more against the Assad regime achieves nothing except escalating the temperature of a volatile mixture of ingredients, directly contributing to the immiseration of more and more innocent civilians, and aligning ourselves against the bad guys by choosing to support the even worse guys.

Put simply, please can we stay out of this unholy mess?

The future of the Church of England: Insanity or Robert the Bruce?

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results” – said Einstein, allegedly.
Then again, Robert the Bruce took inspiration from a spider, that kept going despite repeated failure – was he insane to do that?

I ask because this question seems very relevant to discerning which direction the Church of England needs to be going in. What isn’t in question is that the Church of England is dying – there has been a consistent decline in church membership for several generations now (see David Keen’s blog).

So: if we carry on as we are, we are facing certain doom (as an institution; let’s not indulge ourselves in the egotistical delusion that Christianity in England rises or falls with the CofE!).

Yet there have been other times in history, in the Bible stories, where disaster comes upon the people as a form of the Lord winnowing the tribe, in order that the faithful remnant might thereby prove their faith – and then be vindicated and give triumph. (I think there are conservative cohorts in different branches of the CofE that have this as their major background narrative). Some of my thoughts have been similar.

Is it the case, then, that what the Church needs to do is simply carry on being faithful in the way that it has been thus far? That the processes in the world that have led to a rejection of faith will turn and that people will once more embrace the faith? And – crucially – that the faith that is then embraced will be recognisably what it has been before? Again, some of my thoughts have been along these lines.

I am coming to the conclusion that simply persisting in the faith as we have received it is not enough. Yes, we must remain faithful – and continue to pray and share the sacraments and so on – but I am more and more convinced that the sorts of solutions I’ve argued for before are inadequate. Not wrong, simply insufficient for what needs to be done.

Most of the money raised by the Church of England goes to pay for the clergy, so if something is going to change then it has to centre on them. Most of the problems that clergy experience relate to the burden of establishment (buildings, PCCs, graveyards etc). So I wonder if the change might need to be separating clergy from all the legal aspects of establishment, and charging them simply to be ‘ministers of word and sacrament’ in particular areas. We could keep the houses as the link to particular parishes – so long as that housing was then offered for life (a soap box I shall avoid jumping on just now).

The thing is, if the sheep aren’t fed, they will leave or die (and sheep leaving or dying seems to be a good way to sum up the history of the Church of England over the last sixty years at least). We need to ruthlessly prioritise what we are investing in – and stop investing in the paraphernalia of establishment.

Set the clergy free to be what they were called to. Stop incumbency driving out priesthood. I don’t think it’s just me.

Yet perhaps what I am really describing with all of the above is less what the Church of England needs to do as a corporate body so much as what I need to do in my small part of that body: to be the change I want to see. After all, I have said a lot of this before. It’s not enough to say these things, I have to do things differently. To stop turning the institutional wheels and give myself over much more fully to proclaiming the gospel.

Might even be exciting.

Open Source Anglicanism

What would an open source Church of England look like?

I ponder this because it seems that there are many indicators showing that i) centralising leads to failure (Tainter) and ii) the open source alternative is much more humane, creative and resilient.

Three more specific points to add:

1. There is a collapse of authority, the idea that ‘Father knows best’ or ‘the Leadership has decided’, and this extends far more widely than simply within the church. All traditional institutions are struggling.

2. The burden of our buildings is crippling us. Whilst Simon Jenkins is indeed writing drivel we are just as clearly not in a sustainable position.

3. Incumbency drives out priesthood; or, why do we invest so much in clergy only to then ask them to do things that they are neither called to or trained for? Might we not simply release them?

There remains a role for central authority in open source systems, even if only to mark out the labels for different things. In the same way, I would still see a role for episcopacy and priesthood in an open source church – some people’s theology is actively harmful, not just non-Anglican! Yet what it would look like I am not sure.

Maybe stipendiary priests located in different places but without any legal authority or connection to buildings or church councils? There simply to preach the Word and administer the sacraments, and let all the rest of it float upon the waters of the wider Body?

I know we can’t carry on as we are – and I don’t know that many people that actually want us to. After all doesn’t open source characterise the early church rather well – a community of people that shared collaboratively and threw themselves into a radical dependence on God?

The code that is shared in open source anglicanism is the gospel as the Church of England has received it – along with the accumulated liturgy and wisdom and liturgical wisdom that goes along with it, not understood statically, but as something that is open to progressive improvements. Despite its problems, Common Worship is quite a good format for this.

Anyhow. Thinking out loud, which is appropriate for the post-Easter lull. Needs much more work. Need also to get my wife to design a logo…

Seeking the truth about antidepressants

Pills
Judging by some recent headlines it would seem that the controversy over antidepressants has been resolved. On February 21 2018 the medical journal The Lancet published on-line a study (Cipriani et al, 2018 – hereafter, ‘The Cipriani study’) containing a meta-analysis of antidepressants, with a view to “compare and rank antidepressants for the acute treatment of adults with unipolar major depressive disorder”.

The Cipriani study was a meta-analysis of other studies. That is, it was a statistical exercise at one remove from clinical experience, concerned to gather as much information as possible from a diverse range of studies (this is a well established and respected form of analysis for seeking more robust conclusions than can be gathered from any single study).

Nearly thirty thousand citations were identified and from these some 522 trials were considered in the meta-analysis, covering nearly 117,000 patients. These trials were those which covered antidepressant use, comparing antidepressant use with placebo or an alternative antidepressant, where there was “a primary diagnosis of major depressive disorder according to standard operationalised diagnostic criteria”.

The Cipriani study concluded: “the findings from this network meta-analysis represent the most comprehensive currently available evidence base to guide the initial choice about pharmacological treatment for acute major depressive disorder in adults” and that “All antidepressants were more efficacious than placebo in adults with major depressive disorder.”

This gave rise to some remarkable headlines and reporting in the national press. The Guardian newspaper, for example, headlined their discussion of the paper with the headline “The drugs do work: antidepressants are effective, study shows.”

I believe that we need to be a great deal more cautious than those journalists. To begin with, it is worth making note of the claims actually made in the Cipriani study itself. The authors of the Cipriani study claim that they provide information for the initial (not the long-term) choice of medication (as opposed to non-drug treatments) for those with acute major depressive disorder (not all depressed patients) in adults (not children). Furthermore, the authors acknowledge that the short-term benefits of antidepressants “are, on average, modest”; that the long-term effects of antidepressant use are “understudied”; that there is “paucity of knowledge about how antidepressants work”; and that “the certainty of evidence was moderate to very low” in the studies that they were assessing. These are commendably cautious comments.

However, even with those caveats, the Cipriani study is open to a more rigorous critique. As mentioned above, the Cipriani study is a meta-analysis. It gathers the most comprehensive survey of relevant research on antidepressants and subjects that research to a statistical analysis, with the aim of extracting a more general truth. The worth of any meta-analysis is entirely dependent on the quality of the research that is thereby aggregated. If there is a systematic flaw in the original research, then that flaw will be reinforced by the meta-analysis – in other words, if the original research is garbage then all that a meta-analysis will provide is highly processed garbage.

The first major problem is that 78% of the papers assessed in the Cipriani study were funded by the pharmaceutical industry. The authors contend that this made no difference to their conclusions, stating “In our analyses, funding by industry was not associated with substantial differences in terms of response or dropout rates. However, non-industry funded trials were few and many trials did not report or disclose any funding.” This conclusion is open to some question, as other research demonstrates that studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry are five times more likely to report a positive effect of a drug.

The second major problem is that the research assessed remains predicated on the ‘disease centred model’ of depression. On this understanding of depression there is an underlying problem with the brain, understood as a physical construct, which a particular drug therapy can rectify. One analogy commonly used is that of insulin for diabetics: the normal functioning of a pancreas is impaired in those suffering from diabetes, giving rise to various unpleasant symptoms up to and including death. The administration of insulin makes up for the lack of insulin normally provided by the pancreas, thus enabling the diabetic to resume a normal life. Thus, a disease centred model for antidepressant drug use views the drug as addressing a specific problem within the human body which gives rise to the symptoms of depression. The drug treats that underlying problem – the ‘disease’ – and as a result the patient is cured, ie returned towards a more normal biological state.

The trouble with this ‘disease centred model’ when it comes to depression is that there is almost no evidence in its favour, and a very large amount of evidence against it. Whilst it has been a dominant way of understanding depression for the last few decades, it is now becoming discredited. According to the British Psychological Society, “it is timely and appropriate to affirm publicly that the current classification system … in respect of the functional psychiatric diagnoses, has significant conceptual and empirical limitations. Consequently, there is a need for a paradigm shift in relation to the experiences that these diagnoses refer to, towards a conceptual system which is no longer based on a ‘disease’ model.”

My sympathies are with a group of psychiatrists, medical practitioners and researchers who align themselves with the Critical Psychiatry Network. According to their chair, Dr Joanna Moncrieff of University College London, “…the disease-centred model of drug action has been adopted, and recently widely publicised, not because the evidence for it is compelling, but because it helped promote the interests of certain powerful social groups, namely the psychiatric profession, the pharmaceutical industry and the modern state.”

Coming back to antidepressants specifically, I find a summary given by Dr Richard Byng (a GP) to be well formed: “while most people get better while taking antidepressants we won’t know if, when you are better, this is due to placebo, other positive things you are doing, the natural course of mood changes or, least likely, a positive effect of the drug.”
In short, we are a long way away from knowing the full truth about the effectiveness of antidepressants, despite the optimistic headlines in places like the Guardian.

Caveat: nothing in what I say here should be taken as underestimating the immense amount of suffering endured by those struggling with depression. My concern is about seeking the most effective way to alleviate that suffering – in other words, about what can help people be healed.

We need to sift the sixties

We are so caught up in the arguments following from our cultural fragmentation that we miss opportunities to step back and ask ‘how did we get here?’ Most historical explanations can go back as far as patience can take us, certainly I think the agricultural revolution is an oft-overlooked factor in our contemporary gender politics, yet it is surely the 1960s that are worth pondering as the background to our present malaise.

After all it was in the 1960s that ‘everything changed’. Traditional defence was pushed aside (as with the Lady Chatterley trial and the consequences of the Profumo affair); progressive laws were introduced with regard to abortion, sexual rights, divorce law and the abolition of capital punishment; popular (youth) culture transformed itself with new musical styles and the consequences of the ready availability of the contraceptive pill; changing patterns of work and home life leading to the equal pay act and so on.

So much of this seems unarguably good, yet I do believe that certain social currents were established in the 1960s that we now need to pay much closer attention to, and these seem to be coming into a focus around gender relations.

All right thinking people believe in equality of treatment for the sexes before the law. That, perhaps, is a weaselly phrase (who counts as ‘right thinking’, and who decides who counts?) yet it is only in the darkest corners of the internet that arguments against a full equality of treatment for one sex – or another – can be found.

Yet what this insistence upon equality of treatment seems to have set in train is the notion that men and women are functionally equivalent. This leads to some absurdities, as when a military force lowers the standards for entry (the US Marine Corps) in order to enable more women to enter. The ideal of an elite fighting force is being sacrificed upon the altar of political correctness. This is an ultimately self-destructive path.

We need to learn once again that an acknowledgement of differences in the aggregate between different groups – as between men and women – does not necessitate the unequal treatment of any one individual man or woman. If there is a particular standard that needs to be reached in order to be a marine, let that standard be maintained. Some women will be able to achieve it. Of what worth is the achievement if it is known that the standards were lowered? Isn’t that in itself a deeply patronising and insulting stance to adopt?

There is now so much research indicating the profound differences between the typical man and the typical woman, in terms not simply of obvious biological externals but internal brain architecture and hormonal equilibriums. Remarkably, some of the most eloquent testimony comes from women who are transitioning to a male identity, and taking testosterone supplementation for that purpose – and who are profoundly shocked and chastened to discover the different ways in which male sexuality informs the psychology as a result of that extra testosterone.

What has often seemed to happen as a result of the liberation let loose by the 1960s is that women have been encouraged to be men, that women can do anything that a man can do. This seems to me to be such a profoundly mistaken approach; not only is it the case that making women into not-quite-good-enough men doesn’t help either sex, it also radically underestimates and undervalues the distinctively feminine strengths that women have always been able to bring to bear. The culture of feminism that so denounces patriarchy seems to have no conception of just how strongly men wish to please the women in their lives, and the impact that this has upon the power balance between the sexes.

What is worse, this mistaken evaluation of female strength has gone hand in hand with a vilification of male strength, and this has a current form in discussions of ‘toxic masculinity’. In a culture that has claimed that men are superfluous, and that has pushed that notion to its logical conclusion through the divorce courts, we have ended up with generations of young men that have been deprived, not just of contact with their fathers, but of contact with any truly virile examples of what a noble man might look like. Men need competition; boys need proper ‘rough and tumble’ if they are to learn both their own power and the importance of boundaries. What we now have are so many examples of rootless and hollow men causing chaos in ways large and small. The natural counter to this is not to continue taking away responsibility and authority from all men but rather to ensure that those men who bear authority are well equipped to do so. Which means we need to talk about virility and virtue – both words with distinctly masculine (vir) roots.

What seems to have happened is that an embrace of radical individualism has been allowed to undermine all the blessings that come from community cohesion. We need to strike a new balance between those two necessary elements of a healthy common life: not a return to some mythical bygone era in which everyone knew their place and stuck to it, nor an environment in which every single solitary person is allowed to follow their own desires irrespective of the harms that might follow from their choices, but rather a place in which the community can serve the individual and the individual in turn can serve the community. The truth is that neither can flourish without the other – the present emphasis on individual freedom and personal choice seems to have as its most salient feature a radical rise in personal misery and depression.

These things are all connected. As we see the consequences of choices made fifty years ago we need to sift them to work out what was good and what was bad, restoring a healthy discrimination and judgement that will enable all of us to flourish.

Unacknowledged Materialism and the decline of the Church of England

I have been a little unwell, and postponed various meetings, which has left me, unusually these days, with the time to think and thus to blog. I find my thoughts coming back to what it is that the Church of England has really got so wrong, that has led to its not-quite-terminal-yet long decline.

If I had to put my finger on one thing, I would say that most members of the hierarchy of the church are philosophical materialists. That is, they might pay lip service to spiritual realities but in practice no real choices are made on the basis of those spiritual realities. They would almost certainly all demur from such a description – at least, those who knew what it meant would demur – but the demurral would not achieve much in practice. Which is my point.

Philosophical materialism is, roughly, the dogma that the only things that are real derive from mass and from motion, and stems from the thought of Francis Bacon. He excluded two of Aristotle’s four causes from reasonable (ie scientific) consideration, that to do with formal cause (a determining pattern) and final cause (the purpose for which something exists).

This materialism became culturally dominant in England quite some time ago, to the extent that it is now simply a matter of common sense. To reject such a materialism is socially not respectable; at least, not until extremely recently. It is why all language of miracles is rejected (miracles are, most of all, to do with the final cause of events). It is what lies behind the notion of ‘hard’ sciences – because Bacon’s two causes are the ones that are most tangible.

To take just one example with regard to the hierarchy, this – possibly unconscious – materialist bias is shown when the language of spiritual warfare is used in their presence, and the squirming and unease is palpable. Mostly I think this is a caution relating to charismatic forms of devotion – very unEnglish – but there is often something wider too. I diagnose it as a cowering before the mighty edifice of science. In opposing science the Church of England came off worst, it lost, and anything which smacks of reviving that fight is to be shunned for fear of more pain.

However, where materialism is accepted, the work of the church becomes less about a knowledge that leads to salvation than about those things which can be clearly understood in materialist terms: hence the emphasis upon the palliative care of the suffering and the embrace of a managerialist ethos.

It is, put simply, not a spiritually serious position to hold. Which is rather disappointing given the nature of the job, and it is why, in my view, the Church has been a long time a-dying. It cannot give spiritual sustenance when deep down it doesn’t believe that such a thing is real. Where the flock are not fed, they die or they leave.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that the decline of the Church of England stems from an intellectual surrender to the doctrine of secular materialism. The Church has surrendered to science, and forgotten its own genius.

We need to rediscover the magic of our faith. In every sense.

I’m doing my own part to chip away at this through my own research, looking at one area in particular where this has happened (psychiatric diagnosis) yet I am very conscious of being in a distinct minority within the church community: odd, and therefore lonely. (I seek to avoid the vainglorious notion of being the only one left, I’m sure there are at least 7000 more that have not bowed the knee to Baal.)

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if God wants something to be done about it. It may be that God wants the Church of England to enter into glory. I just can’t help but believe that we need to see our situation clearly before we will be enabled to hear God clearly – and this is my contribution. I will start to believe that we are healing – and therefore open to growth once again – when the language of spiritual warfare, of idolatry, principalities and powers, angels and demons are once again comfortably and normatively used by those in spiritual authority over the church.

The fragility of civility

I wonder how many of you have seen the Channel 4 interview that took place between the journalist Cathy Newman and the Canadian academic psychologist Jordan Peterson. I thoroughly recommend seeking it out on YouTube if you haven’t seen it, as Peterson is a stimulating and lucid thinker. Yet what most struck me when I watched it was the remarkable lack of civility displayed by Ms Newman.

Repeatedly – and by ‘repeatedly’ I mean on at least two dozen occasions – Ms Newman appeared to listen to Peterson before then stating “What you’re saying is X”, where X is a remarkably dishonest and misleading construal of Peterson’s remarks. This is an example:

Peterson: …if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcome.
Newman: Right, so you’re saying that anyone who believes in equality, whether you call them feminists, call them whatever you want to call them, should basically give up, because it ain’t gonna happen.
Peterson: Only if they’re aiming at equality of outcome.
Newman: So you’re saying give people equality of opportunity, that’s fine?
Peterson: Not only fine, it’s eminently desirable for everyone, for individuals and for society.
Newman: But still women aren’t gonna make it. That’s what you’re really saying.
Peterson: It depends on your measurement techniques. They’re doing just fine in medicine…

newman bacon

What I want to bring out here is the remarkable lack of civility that Newman brings to the discourse, compared with the abundance of civility that Peterson displays. Just imagine how the conversation would develop if, instead of Newman saying “What you’re saying is X” she simply asked “are you saying X?”

We might call this the John Humphrys-isation of our journalistic traditions, whereby the task of the journalist is no longer to dispassionately seek the truth and share that truth with their audience or readership – so, in Newman’s case, to ensure that those watching Channel 4 at that point were given a clear understanding of Peterson’s ideas – but rather the journalist believes that their task is to be an advocate for one partisan tradition over against another. When a guest is perceived to be advancing a cause antagonistic to the journalist’s own tradition then they are traduced and mis-represented, as has become so wonderfully clear in the Newman-Peterson interview. Still, at least Peterson was allowed on to the television programme in the first place. The views of the majority of the British population tend not to be given any air-time at all.

I wonder whether this is one aspect behind the popularity of costume dramas like The Crown, Downton Abbey or Howard’s End, which show the country – people like us – operating in a vastly more civilised manner. I am not simply referring to the possibilities of grace and ease that are afforded by being stupendously rich. Rather, I refer to a shared culture of acceptable behaviour that had at its core a distinctly Christian ethos of shared mutual respect – distinctively Christian as it rests upon the idea that all human beings are made in the image of God, which is one of the elements of Christianity that marks it out as different to other world-views. If a person is made in the image of God then it becomes a form of blasphemy to treat that person without respect. In Downton Abbey, this could be seen very clearly with the servants, under the benign stewardship of the Butler Mr Carson. There was a clear standard of correct behaviour which all were required to adhere to.

Is this just a form of curmudgeonly conservatism? A pining for a long-gone age of deference and a refusal to acknowledge the huge advances in human welfare of the last hundred years? I would argue not. It isn’t simply about the possibilities of polite discourse, undertaken in a shared spirit of enquiry and humility before the truth. It is rather one aspect of an overall coarsening and vulgarisation of our national character and culture which has some very stark and chastening consequences.

One that particularly alarms me relates to the welfare of our children, especially our daughters. If we consider the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, amongst the victims of that particular terrorist atrocity were young teenage girls dressed up in ways that exaggerated their age and such secondary sexual characteristics that they might have possessed. There is a link between such display and the way in which the white girls of Rotherham were preyed upon by abusive gangs. In other words, a culture of civilisation protects the vulnerable and the innocent, whereas in the culture that we have now – which is all about assertion and aggression from both men and women – it is the vulnerable and the innocent that suffer the most. Am I the only person who thinks that something like Nickelodeon is designed to stimulate a paedophiliac culture, in Hollywood and then more widely? I worry for the stars of Stranger Things like Millie Bobby Brown, who at the age of 13 is being taken up into the Hollywood publicity machine and made-over to look much older. This is not healthy. This is not right.

I would not wish for one moment to say that there has been a previous golden age to which we must return – that’s a delusional and destructive path to choose. Yet surely there are creative ways in which we can revive the best of what has gone before, alongside all the gains that have been accrued since? A way of restoring a sense of truth, beauty and goodness to guide our common choices around ways of behaving and relating to one another?

What we have without such a shared sense is a disintegrating culture in which all civility is removed in favour of the naked struggle for power. We see the consequences every day, not least in all the arguments that continue to rattle on about Brexit. No longer are different people with different abilities united around a common aim; rather, those differences are exalted and exploited in order to service the media gods of drama and conflict.

Civility is both fragile and marvellous. We neglect its cultivation at our own peril.

A church for England

So here is the trailer for a new series on Netflix that I am planning to watch and hoping to enjoy:

One of the key elements in the story is that a person can ‘upload’ their identity so that it can be stored and then be ‘downloaded’ into another body, thus granting a certain sort of immortality.

This is one manifestation of the ancient gnostic heresy, which sees bodies as barriers to enlightenment.

Christianity, in contrast, proclaims the Word made flesh – and thus sees flesh as inherently capable of bearing divinity, thus, worthy of respect and affirmation. If you really want to protect the bodies of human beings in the world today it doesn’t help to consider them metaphysically dispensable…

Interestingly, contemporary philosophy of mind and neuroscience would concur that the idea (of disembodied intellects being the essence of who we are) is inadequate to describe our shared humanity. We do not exist apart from our bodies, and cannot exclude our bodies from our sense of self, not even of our concept of mind. No, the Biblical witness that we are embodied souls (to be resurrected one day in the body DV!) is proving remarkably robust.

So far, so uncontroversial to an informed theologian. Now for my radical turn.

Jesus was the Word made flesh, and the scandal of the incarnation is about particularity – how odd that God should choose the Jews. Jesus was a particular man who lived in a particular time and place; so far as we can tell he was very typical of a man of his time, for all of his untypical aspects are otherwise remarked upon – his teaching, his demeanour, his morally and religiously radical behaviour.

In other words, all those aspects of humanity that are tied in with a particular time and space – to be a Jew in the first century in Palestine – these also become bearers of the divine.

Which means that all our own particularities share in that potentiality; and they can only do so if they are real.

By which I mean: ontologically real. Most especially, a nation, or national identity, is a real thing. It meant something for Jesus to be a Judean. The nation is a principality, a creation of God, fallen and in need of redemption, yet also granted a place in God’s economy.

Which brings me to the Church of England, which is dying if not yet quite dead. I rather wonder whether part of the affliction from which it suffers has its root in a metaphysical blindness about the true spiritual nature of the nation which it claims to serve. That is, it would appear that, unlike the laity, almost all of the leadership has no interest or care in the salvation of England as a nation, as opposed to the individuals who live within that nation.

Might it not be the case that, if the Church of England is not to die out from lack of use, a part of the solution would be a recognition that the Church has to be for England as such?

At the moment this is just a seed of an idea. Yet it ties together so much.