About Sam Charles Norton

Rector of West Mersea

Understanding the problem of immigration requires spiritual intelligence

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

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

net migration to june 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your Church of England future

Three questions will reveal your destiny!

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

2. Would you receive communion from a female priest?

3. Would you receive communion from a gay priest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No matter what happens, we praise God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen leads to joy.

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

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

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

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

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

Of lust and the Bishops

The notes from my sermon on Matthew 5 21-37

St Paul – fed with milk not with solid food – you’re going to get some solid food this morning – I’m going to talk for about 20 minutes, and it may raise lots of questions that you may wish to discuss with me privately – please do so
Jesus in St John – there are some things that you cannot cope with yet; the Spirit will guide us into all truth – well, we in the church are on that journey with the Spirit

~~

Jesus says that to look at people lustfully is already committing adultery in the heart
lust is a deadly sin – remember, sin is anything which breaches relationships, either horizontally with other people or vertically with God
so lust is essentially a corruption of love – it still looks outwards from the self, but it treats others only for what they can provide for our own bodily appetites; rather than giving other people their own dignity, other people simply become means to our own ends
this runs completely counter to everything that Jesus teaches and embodies

having said that lust is a deadly sin, it is worth pointing out that on the scale of sin – lust is the least dangerous of the deadly sins as it is misplaced love, not an absence of love – need to tackle the pride which is the most deadly sin, as that is when a person has become completely curved in upon themselves

everything that Jesus teaches and embodies, which is all about recognising the human significance of all those who are not seen as worthy by the religious establishment of his time, such as the Samaritan woman at the well
his is a movement of inclusion, to bring into a relationship with God all those who had been excluded, the Samaritans and the tax collectors, and lets not forget that he teaches that the prostitutes get to Kingdom ahead of the priests – which is why priests can find Jesus unsettling

~~

so let me say something about the priests – and before I go on I should say that I am very conscious of the other elements that Jesus teaches in this passage, especially that those who call other people fools are liable to the fires of hell

so with that in mind I would like to talk about the House of Bishops of the CofE

they have recently released a document about same sex marriage in which they have reaffirmed the traditional teaching that marriage is a union of one man with one woman for life, and that any expression of sexuality outside of that context is sinful

in saying this, they are drawing on a perspective about what is the true end or purpose of sexuality, that is, what sex is for. The tradition, derived in part from Aristotle the Greek philosopher, says that the purpose of sexuality is procreation, and any form of sexuality that is not open to the possibility of procreation is therefore deficient and more or less sinful, dependent on how far it is driven by lust

this is why the Roman Catholic church does not accept contraception – and I can understand why they do so, for the implications of accepting contraception are quite profound, and would undermine a large part of the RC teaching on sexuality

however, the Church of England has a different perspective, and in the teaching of this church, marriage is instituted of God for three reasons, not just one – for the procreation of children, for the right ordering of our passions, and for the mutual society and help between a couple

this is, in part, why the Church of England some eighty years ago accepted the use of contraception by married couples – that is, the Church accepted that there was an expression of sexuality that was not open to procreation but was nevertheless not sinful, for it served the wider purpose of enhancing the love between a couple – the right ordering of the passions fostering the mutual society within the marriage

[a brief aside: to my mind there are still question marks around how we are to understand marriage, as the traditional core of marriage – around providing a structure for procreation – has now been almost entirely eclipsed, and I believe that we need to do some serious theological work specifically focussed on procreation, and establishing a parental covenant or something like that, because we need to take parenting more seriously]

the trouble for the church is that, once this step has been taken, there isn’t a coherent place to stand from which to reject same sex relationships. Let me explain that a little further – if we accept that it’s OK to have sexual expression when it is not open to procreation, then it means that we accept that non-procreative sex is valid when placed in the context of the right ordering of our passions and the mutual society of the couple concerned. There is then the possibility of what we might call holy passions amongst those who are not both fertile and straight

~~

to reject the validity of same sex relationships must then rest upon a more spiritual argument, which is what our House of Bishops needs to be concerned with

now one line of argument is simply to say ‘Scripture says…’ It is undoubtedly the case that Scripture is uniformly negative about the sexual expression of homosexual relationships. However, to rest the argument at that point is, at best, sub-Christian. We are not a community that does without rules, so long as those rules are rightly understood as being based upon grace and serving a higher purpose.

Furthermore, the church has the authority to change the rules that we live by – this is an authority explicitly given by Jesus himself to the disciples, to Peter in particular – that what we bound on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

We are given a worked example of how the church is to change the rules in the description of the council of Jerusalem in Acts, when there was an argument over whether the gentiles had to be circumcised in order to enter the Kingdom. Scripture was very clear that if a man wasn’t circumcised then he couldn’t join the community – but ‘it seemed good to the spirit and to the [disciples]‘ that this rule should be discarded.

So the question isn’t about what scripture says in terms of a rule for us to follow, but what is the deeper spiritual question at issue. So, to go back to what Jesus says in our reading this morning, the spiritual argument has to be something along the lines that a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is necessarily characterised by lust rather than love. That a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is not pure.

That position is at least a coherent one, and it is one that has the benefit of being shared by the tradition, and by the majority of Christians in the world.

Yet I do not agree with it, and on this issue I would align myself (with the caveat about marriage I mentioned earlier) on the progressive side of the church debate. Whilst the church hierarchy is still arguing about this, our wider society, including the majority of those in our congregations, has quite clearly come to the conclusion that gay relationships are simply human – yes, open to lustful exploitation, but also vessels for the amazing grace of god – that within a committed relationship it is for the couple themselves to determine the right ordering of their passions to foster the mutual society, help and comfort appropriate to their relationship. In this they are treating homosexual relationships on the same level as heterosexual relationships – they are including all within the covenant community – and this seems to me deeply in tune with what Jesus was pushing for.

This seems to me to be what the Roman Catholics call the ‘sensus fidelium’ – the mind of the faithful. We are not there yet, but that seems to be the way that, at least in this country, we are being led, and I do see that as a movement of the spirit.

~~

Our Bishops, however, are in the almost impossible position of trying to reconcile two sides that have become more and more opposed, and the dominant impression that I have is that they are acting from fear – that they are terrified of causing disunity both within the Church of England and between the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. I am not without sympathy for that – it seems like an impossible job to me

but there is one area where I would want to raise a criticism against our Bishops, and it is this: within the report, indeed within all the ways in which our Bishops discuss this issue, the gay and lesbian community are seen as ‘other’ – not seen as within the church, but seen as a problem amongst those who are outside, to be touched only at a distance

I don’t believe that we as a church community will be able to make progress on this question until we accept that we are talking about a part of ourselves, part of our own body, when we talk about the differences between the homosexual and the heterosexual, and the right ordering of our passions.

Those who are baptised are a new creation, and their identity is found first and foremost in Christ. That must be the starting point for our conversations – we have to take our baptism seriously, and consequently, we have to listen to what the Spirit is saying through that part of our body which is gay.

~~

Christ did not come to lay a burden upon us that we cannot bear; rather, Christ came that we might have life and have it in all its fullness. That fullness of life does not come when we surrender to our passions and allow them to dominate us; nor does it come when we needlessly tear out pieces of ourselves out of a misguided quest for spiritual purity.

We need to start from the love of God, that Christ came not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. We need to begin from a place of rest, resting in God’s love for us, and allowing that love to lead us into all truth. We will not get to God by making ourselves pure; no, it is by allowing God’s love to lead us that we will become pure in heart.

May God give us the strength and the grace to remove all lust from our hearts and minds, that we might truly be vessels for his inclusive love. Amen.

Torture

Torture is wrong.
It’s also blasphemous (defacing the image of God).
It doesn’t work – indeed it is deeply counter-productive for strategic purposes.
Real-life is not an episode of 24.
Close Guantanomo.
Support Amnesty International.

I thought that needed saying, as I do like Trump in many ways, including ways that are deeply politically incorrect – but I vehemently and emphatically disagree with him on this.

Brexit is about more than economics

The American academic Jonathan Haidt published a book called ‘The Righteous Mind’ in 2012. It performs the remarkably useful task of explaining progressive and conservative outlooks to each other.

At the heart of Haidt’s argument is that there are several different grounds for the human moral ‘sense’. In just the same way that the human sense of taste can be broken down into several different components – sweet, salt, bitter and so on – so can our sense of morality. Haidt specifically advances five different grounds on which human beings base their sense of moral judgement. These five are care, fairness, loyalty authority and sanctity.

Haidt’s book explains how he reaches one particular conclusion (and it is very persuasive) – those on the left of the political spectrum tend to rely heavily upon only two of these five different grounds, those of care and fairness. In contrast to this, those on the conservative end of the political spectrum rely upon all five when reaching their moral judgements.

haidt chart

To put that differently, both conservatives and progressives see care and fairness as important when it comes to making moral decisions. However, the difference between conservatives and progressives comes when considering issues that relate to the three other grounds for our moral sense: loyalty, authority and sanctity. There are issues which relate to these latter which are of great moral importance to conservatives which simply have very little value to progressives.

One example is the nation.

For a conservative, the nation is a focus for all three grounds of loyalty, authority and sanctity. In the case of the United Kingdom, this is centred on the Queen, to whom all public officials (authority) have to swear an oath (sanctity) of obedience (loyalty). There are equivalents in every other nation – consider how sensitive the question of ‘flag burning’ is in the United States.

However, for the progressive point of view, none of this makes much sense. These things which conservatives value are not seen as having much value at all. Unless these things impinge upon questions of care and fairness then progressives do not have much interest in them.

This difference underlies so much of our political debate, and can be seen most clearly in questions around immigration. To the progressive the most important questions are around care and fairness – how can we take care of the immigrant or refugee? What is a fair response? However, for the conservative, although those questions carry weight, there are other questions relating to loyalty, authority and sanctity. They will perceive significant harm from immigration if those entering into the nation have divergent values on these questions, and this may prove more important in coming to a decision than the questions of fairness or care.

This is why I believe a great deal of the analysis about Brexit has fallen short. Much of the analysis – especially on the left – has treated the question of Brexit as being principally a matter of economics or social justice. That is, there is the question of whether our economy will benefit or be hindered by a Brexit; then there is the question of who might benefit or who might be harmed as a result of no longer being a member of the European Union. This is as far as much analysis has gone.

Yet to the conservative perspective such an analysis is proof of the poverty of progressive thought. The crucial questions have been about ‘sovereignty’ – that is, the independence of the nation on which centre those values of loyalty, authority and sanctity. To the conservative perspective it may well be the case that the economic argument for Brexit is weaker than the economic argument for staying, yet that does not carry much weight when compared to the prospect of a restoration of national sovereignty and independence. The more conservative perspective would be prepared to take a very sizeable economic ‘hit’ in the interests of the other values being affirmed.

The sadness of our time – and the great gift that Haidt’s research offers to us – is that the progressive side of the political divide, which has been dominant for many decades, simply does not see the nature of the conservative perspective. So often the arguments devolve into caricatures, that the conservative is unfeeling and heartless (ie deficient on the ‘care’ and ‘fairness’ criteria for moral judgement). The consequence that flows from denying a healthy respect and affirmation for the moral needs of authority, loyalty and sanctity is that this desire takes on darker and more destructive forms.

We are in an environment now where the progressive emphases of the last few decades are going to be subject to immense scrutiny, as the blowback from progressive over-reach comes home. We need to ensure that those benefits that have been gained are not lost by a return to an over-rigid and authoritarian affirmation of the nation. Yet we will not gain that happy medium by being terrified of all expressions of national pride. On the contrary, without a healthy sense of British national pride, we will end up being subject to unhealthy forms and much that is good would be lost.

Ultimately, we do not have to be afraid of the nation. The twentieth century did show us what happened when national identity was pursued to an evil and absurd extreme, yet it is possible for there to be an equal and opposite error – to pretend that a nation is simply an optional extra, of no significance or moral value. Such a view is dehumanising and a product of a very specific set of cultural circumstances in the modern, technocratic and rationalistic West. That excessive view is what has now reached an end point, and which will die out within the next generation. The challenge that faces us is how to manage that ending without too much collateral damage.

The task that faces us is how to affirm our sense of national identity without at the same time reverting to an authoritarian politics. I believe that we can navigate these waters successfully, but to do so we have to allow an honoured place for the moral sense about what is worth being loyal to, giving authority to, or considering sacred.

What’s really wrong with the House of Bishops

house-bishops
I found Martyn Percy’s article of some interest.There are many points that I sympathise with, but a more honest title for it would be ‘a handful of thoughts stretched out in order to justify a link with Martin Luther’. Please also see Ian Paul’s response, which – in the words of my pantomime character – is “harsh, but fair”.

To my mind, however, neither Percy nor Paul come close to fully engaging with the problems in the House of Bishops, and as I have just enough ego to think I have a contribution to make on this question, here follow my thoughts.

The most obvious problem is that the House of Bishops is obsessed with things that are ‘less than God’. To the popular mind those things are all related to the gender and sexual revolutions of the last few decades, matters about which Jesus spoke very little. To me, what the House of Bishops seems most obsessed with at the moment is ‘growth’, an obsession which is rooted in fear, and which does nothing to communicate the nature of God to our world.

Yet this obsession with things which are ‘less than God’ is rooted in a more profound malaise – the House of Bishops is not spiritually serious. By this I mean to say that they don’t seem to believe that the substance of Christianity is a matter of eternal life and death. The House of Bishops seems to be filled with just the same sort of social justice pleading that a liberal atheist would be perfectly at home with, with the consequence that the Bishops sound just like every other well-meaning middle class worrier.

Why would anyone put up with all the manifold nonsenses of the Church of England if there wasn’t some sense of ultimate importance embedded within?

The Bishops, in other words, seem to embody the cultural cringe that most Christians in England suffer from – that feeling when you are a reasonably intelligent and committed believer, but in mixed company refrain from mentioning anything to do with Christian faith for fear of causing offence, or, worse, being mistaken for a fundamentalist. The trouble is that the Bishops are there precisely to articulate the Christian faith in the public sphere and – surely! – to run the risk of offending when they do.

What the Bishops have failed to do is articulate a coherent narrative, not about what Christianity is in general and as a whole, but what Christianity means for the English people at this point in our national life. There is, perhaps, less of a need to talk about Jesus and more a need to talk about the implications of Jesus for the problems that we face as a single community. The Bishops of the Church of England are embedded through their establishment at the heart of the national polity – and they need to make use of this to engage with the life of the nation.

I would like to see the Bishops make some arguments in particular: that Christianity is Truth with a capital T; that Christianity is where all the benefits of our civilisation derive from (including the benefits of science and technology); that the rapid growth and displacement of Christianity imperils all those benefits; and that all religions are not of equal value.

I would particularly like to hear a bishop say unequivocally that Islam is a false religion (not without any redeeming merits, but substantially falling short of the glory of God). Should that ever happen I would start to feel that the Church of England might possibly have a long-term future in this country.

What is not understood in the secular realm – which would seem to include the House of Bishops – is that religion is the principal glue that binds together a community. The atomisation and anomie of our society stem directly from the breakdown of a shared Christian faith. If the English people are to survive in a form that has recognisable continuity with what has gone before then it will do so through a renewal of its commitment to the Christian faith – albeit one that may be Anglicanism 2.0 We do have a lot of spiritual work to do.

I should make clear that I am criticising the House of Bishops as a corporate body (a principality), and I do not wish to criticise any single Bishop – the ones I have known personally all seem very impressive to me, and doing a job that I could not do. Archbishop Justin Welby especially is making a lot of the right noises – then again, he’s also wholly in favour of the managerialism that Percy (rightly) is so critical of. There have been others who seem to have been spiritually substantial, and I don’t see it as an accident that one of them, sadly soon to retire, presided over the strongest growth in a Diocese over the last twenty or so years.

Percy quotes Evelyn Underhill as saying that the people are hungry for God. This is more true than ever, as is the critique that follows implying that the Church does not provide proper food for its flock, which means that the sheep either leave or die. Yet there is another Underhill quotation of which I am fond: “The real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice [...] her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life.”

The real problem with the House of Bishops is that they are not spiritually serious. The people intuit this, and thus ignore them. Would that we had a proper prophet – not the social-justice facsimile of prophecy which so many liberal thinkers champion – but one who insists on the priority of the first commandment over all else, and works out, in fear and trembling, the implications for the decisions that we face as a nation today.

Such a person could never get through the selection process to become a Bishop of course. Such is the nature of the problem we face.

Was Uzzah just neurotic?

I’ve been writing up something for the PCC about what we consider sacred, and looked back at the story from 2 Samuel 6 about Uzzah – he’s the guy who is struck dead by God for touching the Ark of the Covenant.
uzzah
(picture from here)
I wonder – was he simply a really stressed-out guy? In other words, was he just someone nervous, terrified of his responsibility for carrying the ark, incredibly jumpy (totally the wrong sort of person for the job in other words) – who, when disaster struck and the oxen stumble, reacts simply as a human being to steady the Ark – and then realises that he has broken a major taboo and the stress overwhelms him and he drops dead of a heart attack?

I ask this because it would seem odd for a God who accepts crucifixion for himself to get that upset about a wooden box.

So that was 2016

Well that was a fun year.

Highlight has to be the trip to Cuba with friends which was fascinating and restorative.

cuba-pic

Came back to the Brexit result – yay.
Also in politics this year, Trump won – yay again.

Married life seems to be treating me well – I have managed to be simultaneously better fed and much fitter than I have been for ages (have lost a stone and half in weight) – much further to go in every sense.

victoria-yorkshire

Work has been immensely good in very many ways, lots and lots of positive developments, with a few strange curve-balls along the way. 2017 will see a new start in many senses (one step back, two steps forward). Helped not a little by my starting some doctoral research – I’m exploring a theological critique of psychiatric diagnoses. There will be more about that on the blog next year.

Family has had fun moments, but overall is a source of sadness, as all my children are now in Wales, and I see them for half-terms and holidays. My faith in the system is not what it was – but my faith in Exodus 14.14 abides.

be-still

Did hardly any sailing this year, but a) we’re very close to buying our own boat at last and b) we’re half way through our next sailing qualifications (even passed the ColRegs exam the other day!).

Had a smaller role in the panto this year – and there wasn’t a May play – but I’m dame again in a couple of weeks, and taking great pleasure in it all.

I am going to take the unusual step of posting some resolutions. My intentions are – to lose weight and get properly healthy again; to write much more, especially on the blog – I am hoping to get back to my first rhythms; and – to sail to Amsterdam in the summer. There is a lot to be done – and I am very much looking forward to doing it!

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.

Why are people making such a fuss about Russia?

The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government has alleged that the Russian government ‘hacked’ the US election in order to ensure that Donald Trump became president.

Several thoughts occur to me on reading this.

The first is: this production is brought to you by the same team that told you about the weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein, in order to justify the second gulf war and trigger the overall destabilisation of the entire Middle East that so many people are suffering from.

The second is: this production is brought to you by the same team that developed and financed a coup in the Ukraine which toppled President Yanukovych and triggered a long civil war that has immiserated the entire nation.

The third is: this production is brought to you by the same team that has – over a period of decades – sought to put sympathetic regimes in place throughout the world, in order that the interests of the US ‘deep state’ are catered to.

So, before thinking ‘the CIA said it, therefore it must be true’, let us simply bring to mind this history and ask ourselves not ‘was Trump helped by the Russians?’ but instead ‘why is the CIA seeking to undermine the outcome of this democratic election?

I believe it is because the CIA – rightly – perceives Trump to be an existential threat.

After all, one of the most salient differences between Clinton and Trump in this last election was their foreign policy. Clinton was the establishment candidate – the one that sought to continue the framework kept by GW Bush and Obama for the last sixteen years. That framework has several key features, such as: continued drone warfare in the Middle East and elsewhere, reliance on Guantanamo bay to hold undesirables (deplorables?), hostility towards Russia and China as rival great powers. In sum, this is the ‘neo-conservative’ agenda, as put in place in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The principal locus for this struggle between the American intelligence establishment and other world powers has shifted from the Ukraine to Syria, for the simple reason that Putin’s Russia decided to intervene militarily (at the invitation of the Syrian President Assad). The media are full of stories about the tremendous human suffering that the people of Syria are experiencing, and it is appalling, yet what is not so readily apparent is that it is the Russians who are most likely to achieve a lasting peace. If the US establishment gets its way, the war in Syria will carry on for generations more.

Consider that the worst thing to happen to any country is for the rule of law to collapse. (There is a very interesting TED talk on why this is so appalling – search on line for ‘TED talk Gary Haugen locusts’ – it is well worth twenty minutes of your time).

The Syrian civil war is between President Assad (recognised as the legal ruler of the state, supported by Russia, also widely recognised as a very bad man) and ‘moderate’ Islamists (basically a branch of IS but supported by the US and Saudi Arabia, so we don’t get told such things). At this moment in time, with Russian forces fully engaged, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever for President Assad to be driven out of power.

Our choices are therefore: a) escalate the conflict by seeking to establish a ‘no-fly’ zone – the choice advocated by Hillary Clinton, and which would almost certainly have led to a shooting conflict with Russia, or b) allow Russia to cement Assad in power, ending the civil war, and concentrate on defeating IS – this is the course advocated by Trump.

There are those with a vested interest in keeping Oceania at war with Eurasia and with the astonishing election of Trump they can see that their desires are about to be throroughly thwarted. Trump is clearly planning to radically recalibrate the foreign policy of the United States, as can be seen by his various appointments to his Cabinet.

If we are concerned to preserve our way of life, we need to pay attention to what truly threatens it, the enemies both internal and external. Externally, the greatest threat that we face is located in the Middle East, not because of the ‘hard power’ controlled by IS, but because of the soft power. In other words, here is an ideology which cannot be compromised with, and which is steadfastly committed to the elimination of all that we value in our own ways of life. We need to take this seriously, and where there are clear allies in our struggle against them – and Russia is certainly that – let’s not get distracted.

Yet the internal threats are most evident at this moment in time. After all, if you believe that Trump is going to be a disaster, from where do you get this idea? Might it be from the mainstream media by any chance? The same media that – in addition to completely misunderstanding Trump – has consistently been used as a mouthpiece for the views that the CIA have most wanted to be accepted; as with the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the ‘popular revolution’ in the Ukraine; the establishment of Pinochet in Chile… need I go on?

Truly, if we are to preserve our way of life, perhaps the most important thing is to exercise the values of our way of life more effectively in our own lives: to think critically about what we read, to exercise free speech (and notice what and whom can and cannot be criticised with impunity), to strive for the ways of peace and not war. Those things are only worth defending where they actually exist.