About Elizaphanian

Rector of West Mersea

Brexit, the Church, and God’s bias to the poor

In 1983 the then Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard (once of the England cricket team) published a book entitled ‘Bias to the poor’. In it he argued that Scripture shows that God has a consistent preference for looking after the poor and weak of society, and that, to use the modern expression, God was a God of social justice.

This seems incontrovertible to me; that is, I do not think it possible for a person to be a Christian and not be concerned for those who are poor or marginalised or excluded from engaging with the wider society. The message of Scripture, perhaps best exemplified in the marvellous words of the Magnificat in Luke’s gospel, are clear and consistent on this point.

The ‘bias to the poor’ is something that is deeply embedded in the Church of England’s self-understanding, and is something of a commonplace amongst clergy. However, I want to bring out one way in which I think the church has gone astray in its understanding of what this means. Put simply, I think the Church has confused the imperative of caring for the poor with one particular form that such caring might take and, moreover, missed elements of caring for the poor – of integrating them with wider society – which is of huge contemporary relevance.

To explain that point, I want to tell a story about King David – the story about how he was chosen. The prophet Samuel had previously chosen Saul to be the King of Israel – Saul was a fine, handsome, tall and muscular man, accomplished and acclaimed. He led Israel to disaster. When Samuel asked God to lead him to the new King, that he might anoint the King, Samuel was led to the sons of Jesse. Each one paraded before him, but God did not give his consent. Finally, Samuel asked Jesse – do you not have any other sons? And Jesse said, ‘there is still my youngest’ – and this was David. God said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected [Saul]. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16)

Poverty in scripture is never simply about material wealth, but also about status in society. When Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest, he brings a little child into their midst and says that unless they become like a little child they will not enter the Kingdom – and the point of this is that a little child has absolutely no status in society. This principle was embedded in many Christian practices down the centuries. In the Rule of St Benedict, for example, the monks are told that “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger”.

In other words, God doesn’t simply love the poor and seek for them to be given material relief. He also ‘often reveals’ his will through what is said by the poor. This is because those who have little stake in existing systems can often see those systems more clearly – as opposed to those who have a great stake in the existing systems (the High Priests) who lack such a perspective.

Which brings me to the Church of England. So far as I can tell, there isn’t a single member of the House of Bishops who is in favour of Brexit. Which means that, if we look at who tends to be against Brexit, and who tends to be for it, the Bishops are lining up with most of the rest of the establishment – and on the other side are the poor and excluded of British society.

The researcher Matthew Goodwin, of the University of Kent, recently published a paper describing the attitudes and approaches of those who supported Brexit. He finds that such voters are not generally motivated by racism or cultural insularity (which are the usual, reflexive brickbats offered by those opposed to Brexit in order to reinforce a sense of moral superiority) but rather a combination of two things: a sense that, for decades, whole communities had been cut off from the increasing prosperity of wider British society; and, secondly, a sense that those who were making the decisions affecting those communities were more and more distant from the communities themselves. Hence the success of the slogan ‘take back control’.

So here we have large sections of British society who are poor and excluded – exactly the sort of people for whom the Bible expresses an especial concern – but who are entirely unrepresented in the hierarchy of the national church.

Something has gone very wrong.

In Ancient Israel, the role of prophet was one that had a particular place within the Royal Court. There is a fascinating story in the book of Jeremiah which details the conflict between the ’employed’ prophets in the Court – notably Hananiah – and the prophet from the North, Jeremiah himself. Jeremiah was foretelling disaster at the hands of the Babylonians, whereas Hananiah proclaimed that the Babylonians would be defeated. Hananiah, put simply, was telling the Royal Court what they wanted to hear, and preserving the Court in what we would today call a ‘bubble’, where they were unaware of what was happening in the wider political context. Jeremiah, on the other hand, was persecuted for his teaching – and he was proved correct.

The trouble with the Church of England is that it has allowed the bias to the poor to be restricted to the safe, middle-class and soft-socialist nostrums that constitute acceptable discourse for the mainstream centre-left of this country. In doing so, it has failed to recognise that God doesn’t simply care for the poor, he also speaks directly through them, most especially when they cry out for justice and liberty.

If the Church of England is serious about being a Church for the whole nation, especially its mission to the poor, it might do well to start listening to what God is saying through the poor of this country – or, if that is too much, perhaps even listen to the ‘consensus of the faithful’ on the subject of Brexit. After all, Anglicans were significantly more likely to vote for Brexit than the average. The Bishops don’t just represent the more affluent minority of the country, they also represent a much smaller minority of their own church. I just hope that God doesn’t have the same fate in mind for us that he did for Israel under Babylon.

Some (more) thoughts on Brexit

The June 2016 referendum resulted in a small but clear majority in favour of leaving the EU.

If this verdict is not implemented by our political class then the centre ground of British politics will be hollowed out. It will be the gravest political crisis that our nation has faced in peacetime.

That we are still contemplating the verdict not being implemented by our political class two years after the referendum is a terrible result.

I think Theresa May’s approach has been appalling. ‘Theresa the Appeaser’ indeed.

What would I do?

Assert the following, in order:

the UK, in accordance with the result of the referendum, will leave the EU;
it will therefore become a ‘third nation’ in EU terms;
the UK should seek:
i) to have healthy relations with the EU on the basis of being a third nation, covering such things as air transport and so on;
ii) seek mutual recognition for large parts of our industrial sector;
iii) be open to a mutually beneficial Free Trade Arrangement, at a point that the remainder EU shows that it is open to such a thing;
be prepared for the EU, for its own reasons, to resist the above;
be prepared to change the overall orientation of our country’s foreign policy in the light of such resistance (if the EU acts as a hostile state towards the UK then certain conclusions follow);
pursue CANZUK and similar arrangements with those states with whom we share close ties of history and family.

This craven, pusillanimous, faithless capitulation to the institutional inertia of the establishment elite is driving me mad. It has to stop.

It will stop, of course – and the UK will exit the EU, and in twenty years time we will look back on the summer of 2018 as the year the heat addled our brains.

Bad faith and failures of imagination

Theresa May has been leading the Brexit negotiations from a position of bad faith. Which is a damning thing to write as an opening sentence, yet seems an inescapable conclusion in the light of the Chequers agreement and the consequent honourable resignations of David Davis and Steve Baker. After all, Davis has been formally responsible for our negotiations with the European Commission as we seek to leave the European Union. It is now clear that Davis’ department – the Department for Exiting the European Union – was deliberately sidelined by May as a team reporting to Downing Street, led by a civil servant, prepared an alternative plan to that which Davis and his team had been working on.

The plan that Davis and Baker were working on was one that was developed in good faith. It was based upon the Lancaster House speech that Theresa May gave in January 2017, in which she explicitly sought to regain control over our own laws as a result of the referendum – Brexit meant Brexit at that point. Yet at the same time as those with formal responsibilities for developing our position were working openly, May was fostering a clandestine document (well, clandestine to Davis and Baker, it was shared with Angela Merkel in advance of being shared with the Cabinet).

This is bad faith. Why did Theresa May follow such a path? I do not believe that she is an instinctively bad or dishonourable person, so where can we identify the causes of such underhand behaviour? I believe that the answer is found in a simple word ‘establishment’. There is, after all, an immense bureaucracy which is the ‘continuing state’ in our government. Most of these voted to Remain in the EU, for that is the environment in which they have been formed, and on which, in many cases, their careers depend. These establishment attitudes are buttressed from outside by all the other seemingly permanent fixtures of the British political landscape, from the Financial Times to the CBI. As Jacob Rees-Mogg has put it, the establishment considers the vote for Brexit to have been a terrible mistake, and has therefore put all of its efforts into seeking to minimise the consequence of the decision taken by the British people in the referendum.

This is a path to disaster.

There is no benefit to be found in seeking to split the difference between the referendum vote and the inertia of the establishment. That leads us to the worst of all worlds – even Peter Mandelson agrees with that! The Chequers agreement compromises in too many ways, leaving the UK as a ‘rule taker’ and implicitly under the suzerainty of the European Court of Justice. In this scenario, Brexit simply doesn’t mean Brexit.

Imagine an animal caught in a trap. The animal can stay caught, or the animal can seek to sever it’s own limb and escape. What makes no sense is to apply medical methods to minimise the direct impact of the trap upon its flesh, to pretend that nothing has happened, that the trap falling upon its limb was simply an illusion that can be wished away.

Our governing establishment was caught in a trap sprung by the referendum vote. The only coherent and rational responses to such a vote are either: to explicitly repudiate it and overthrow it through non-democratic means, accepting that this would irrevocably destroy British democracy – or, to sever the wounded limb and act with freedom, accepting the losses to establishment interests.

That the establishment has not done so, that it has chosen instead to meekly submit to the framing of all the issues in terms set by the European Commission, represents the most colossal failure of imagination in our governing class since the ill-advised venture into Suez in 1956. It is into this failure of imagination that Theresa May has been seduced, and it is this that will destroy her, unless she is somehow brought to a realisation of her peril.

After all, it is not that we are short of visions of how life in our country might proceed outside the European Union, visions that are realistic and joyful, that act in harmony with our deepest instincts and traditions. The referendum was an expression of the most profound animal spirits of our national life. Imagine a stallion that has been put to work in the fields, that then catches the scent of a mare in season. The farm-hand is desperately trying to keep the stallion tethered, and the stallion doesn’t quite know what it is that has filled his nostrils – but he has begun to recognise that there might be more to life than pulling a plough. We are the stallion, and the establishment is the farm hand – and the farm hand needs to be placed upon his backside sharpish.

We are not a people that sit comfortably with rule from a foreign power, and the original sin of Ted Heath’s referendum campaign in the 1970s has led us directly to the situation that we are in now. We will not be able to move forward unless we act honourably, in good faith, with a well-ordered imagination oriented towards our future.

Some Brexiters – Michael Gove the most notable – think that the Chequers agreement is the best that can be achieved at this point in time. His horizon of calculation is the current composition of the House of Commons, where there is no majority for the harder, or I would say cleaner, forms of Brexit. This is despite the fact that 80% of MPs campaigned on the basis that they would respect the result of the referendum and implement it; and, more significant, the fact that over 400 constituencies have a leave-voting majority. I believe that it is a profound mistake to act on the basis of what parliament may or may not approve – parliament needs to bend before the choice made by the British people.

If the Conservative party sticks with this approach – that is, if the parliamentary party preserves Theresa May in power and she clings to this establishment compromise – then it will split, and rightfully so. Then, within a few years, a government will be brought to power that fully embraces the spirit of Brexit. If the conservative party doesn’t do so, another party will replace it. The governance of Britain will be inherited by the first party to fully embrace the spirit of Brexit, the first party that keeps faith with the choice made by the British people, the first party that is willing to lead our imagining of a better future.

From the seas to the trees

It was announced in the parishes this morning that I have been appointed as Vicar of Parkend and Viney Hill in the Forest of Dean, and Associate Diocesan Director of Ordinands for the Diocese of Gloucester. After fifteen years as Rector here on Mersea moving will be quite a wrench, but I do believe that it is the right time to do so, and I am very excited by the opportunity to make a fresh start. Please keep us all in your prayers!

Current mood:

A little rant about Brexit and the Church of England

Whilst I have been following much of the continuing conversation around Brexit fairly closely, I have tended to avoid writing too much due to the unfavourable ratio between heat and light that has shaped so much of the debate. I am moved to write now, however, due to a remarkably poor piece of writing that I have discovered in the Church Times, which ever so gently seems to suggest that those in favour of Brexit are not simply warmongers tossing aside a hard-earned peace, but also in the wrong with God. So herewith some comments follow, paragraph by paragraph (read Professor Chapman’s article first).

Paragraph 1: David Cameron was indeed an appalling Prime Minister, with a deeply anti-conservative world view, like most of the commentariat and those who live within that bubble of thought. I disagree that we are in a ‘fine mess’, but we’ll come on to why.

Paragraph 2: Chapman writes that the situation is complex and bleak – why? Because the EU is established upon four freedoms (he only mentions three) “and there are no solutions possible short of accepting these principles”. I wonder what the specific problem is that is being assumed that requires such purported solutions – it would seem that the problem is ‘how to participate in the European market on existing terms’, which is precisely what Brexiters have voted against. The economic part of the argument is that the long-run growth rate of the British economy is likely to be larger if the UK is outside of the EU than if it is inside. So a Brexiter doesn’t see this as a problem that needs a solution – and is certainly resistant to accepting the principles required, as they would prevent us from pursuing trade agreements with the more rapidly growing parts of the world economy.

Paragraph 3: participation in the EU “requires adjudication through mutually accepted standards and mediated by a court”. Indeed it does, which is why Brexiters would prefer trading on WTO terms – also through mutually accepted standards and mediated by a court. We do not particularly seek the Norwegian or Swiss models, unless as part of a temporary transition process. Linking the free movement of goods in Ireland to the continuation of the Good Friday peace process is mistaken both practically and morally – and the use (abuse!) of this issue by the European Commission is shameful.

Paragraph 4: I’m never sure whether Remainers like Chapman fully appreciate the implications of the arguments made in this paragraph. He writes, “there is no incentive to offer concessions that might mean other countries would start their own renegotiations with Brussels”. In other words, the Commission is not negotiating with a view to the best long-term interest of the population of the EU but with a view to preserving their existing power structure – which implies, therefore, that it is not sustained by widespread support. Rather than arguing for the principles at stake, this is about power. Chapman is speaking from a position of fear, which is not a particularly Christian stance. The last part of this paragraph, about nations finding it ‘much more effective to work as part of a massive economic bloc’ is pro-EU boiler-plate, without a great deal of empirical support. It is undoubtedly good for the major multinationals to work in a market in which local differences have been erased. I find it disturbing that an Anglican priest – and professor! – cannot see any tension between an Incarnational theology and support for companies like Monsanto.

Paragraph 5: “sovereign states have far more geopolitical power when they pool their sovereignty” – again, this reveals much about what is assumed to be important. This claim may or may not be true (I think not), but what seems unthinkable to Chapman is the notion that someone might prefer to have less power in order to have greater sovereignty. The EU largely runs according to German dictates, either explicit or implicit – see Varoufakis’ book for details on how the latter works. The construction of the UK economy over the last three decades can be seen as being shaped by German industrial interests. I’m not sure what the point of Chapman’s last sentence is, or how it is relevant.

Paragraphs 6-8: Conservative MPs, if assessed by their votes in the referendum, are indeed split – yet equally clearly the majority of MPs, and the overwhelming majority of party members, are now committed to implementing Brexit. There is an issue of principle here – the people of the UK voted by a clear majority to leave the European Union. It is perfectly in order to say ‘I think this was the wrong decision, but the people have decided and we now need to make the best of it’ (which I think is May’s position); it is a very different proposition to say ‘I think this was the wrong decision and I am now going to do everything I can to frustrate it’ – such an attitude places someone outside of the democratic process and is an unashamed bid for power. Again, in favour of large multi-national corporations – a bit of a theme in Remainer dialogue.

Paragraphs 9&10: here the fear comes fully into the open, a fear of Britain being ‘forced into a third-country status, which could have a disastrous impact upon the economy’. Trade with the EU represents something like 12% of the British economy, which is less than trade with the rest of the world and very much less than that of the internal economy itself. I have no doubt that there will be some disruption to business, especially the large multinational corporations mentioned earlier, yet there is nothing here of which to be especially afraid. The economy changes constantly and I rather suspect that the car industry in particular is facing major technology-driven changes in the next five to ten years that will have a much larger impact upon employment in the supply chain than anything which will be agreed or not between ourselves and the EU.

Paragraph 11: “The EU has preserved peace for the longest period…” This is incorrect. Peace in Europe has been preserved by NATO. Indeed, looking at the situation in Greece a compelling case could be made that it is now the EU itself which is the largest source of conflict within Europe! Chapman goes on, “that peace is fragile in the face of the simplistic populism and extremist nationalism” which he sees as dominating national politics. Clearly, Brexiters are simplistic populists – the very idea that there might be a coherent argument in favour of leaving the EU that doesn’t reduce to ‘simplistic populism’ is outside of Chapman’s experience. Which is an argument for him to read more widely. I recommend Roger Bootle, Andrew Lilico and Daniel Hannan as people whose arguments he needs to get acquainted with.

Paragraph 12: “our Church leaders might need to stand up for a vision of pan-European peace and a common humanity” – for clearly, those in favour of Brexit reject such things. In Chapman’s argument, the EU is cast in the role of ‘source of all good things’, certainly membership of it represents an extremely high political value – and I would simply ask the good Professor, how can we be certain that it is not functioning as an idol within your theology? Like all human institutions it is a fallen principality, which the British people have chosen to leave. Is there really no room for seeing positives about this? Again, the comment about “upsetting some churchgoers” is revealing – I rather suspect that there is much unexpressed anxiety amongst the great and the good of the Church of England that the people in the pew voted for Brexit at a much higher rate than average. Clearly the great unwashed must be re-educated and forced to repent of their intellectual failures.

Might it not just possibly be the case, however, that God was at work in the Brexit process? That the EU has become something deeply antagonistic to God’s preference for the poor? That an institution which prioritises the bailing out of French and German banks at the expense of impoverishing the Greek population simply no longer possesses any moral credibility whatsoever? And that the sight of an eminent theologian and teacher of the clergy defending such a fallen principality in these terms tells us all that we need to know about why the Church of England is in the state that it is in?

How do you defend a nation?

Consider this statement from a leading US politician: “We’ve got to send a clear message that just because your child gets across the border that doesn’t mean your child gets to stay. We don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws and encourages them to make the dangerous journey.” No, not Trump, that was Hillary Clinton when she was campaigning to be President. Personally I can’t fathom any moral justification for separating children from parents – and I’m glad the policy seems to be changing – but there is an issue here that needs to be addressed openly.

That issue is, simply, ‘how do you defend a nation?’

Some might say that there is no such thing as a ‘nation’ – just an agglomeration of individuals who happen to coincide by location. Such a viewpoint is useful to big business and bureaucracies for it makes their lives so much easier – there is less grit in the wheels of industry – and it is also why such perspectives tend towards support for the EU. There is an equal and opposite error which makes the nation the source of all value and meaning. One of the principal lessons of the twentieth century relates to the terror that can be unleashed when such a perspective is put into power – and the catastrophe consequent to this latter perspective goes a long way to explaining the attraction of the former.

I would want to argue against both these perspectives. I believe that there is such a thing as a healthy pride in national identity, one which avoids the Syclla of deracination and the Charybdis of fascism.

Nations are real things: there is such a thing as ‘England’ or ‘France, moreover, such things as nations can be born and thrive, they can also die. Which is why I think it does make sense to talk of ‘defending’ a nation. A nation is a group of people who (originally) share a particular territory, and in living upon that territory develop a cultural complex of language, law, morality and behaviour which is distinct from other such complexes in different parts of the world.

I believe that nations are not just real things, but that they are precious things. They are part of the glory of the human being – that we have the capacity to thrive in such diverse and multiform fashion. (This is, of course, on great display at the moment in Russia, not just in the teams playing football but even more so in the groups of fans who follow each team. This is why it makes sense to feel shame when we see England supporters behaving like Philistines in their journeys abroad – so far so good in this World Cup!)

It makes sense to identify with a nation – to say, for example, ‘I am English’ or ‘I am French’ – and to know what this means. Some, however – who tend to live in one of the major ‘world cities’ like London, and to have received at least a university level education – do not know what this sort of identification means, and they do not recognise any deficiency in their lives associated with it. The writer David Goodhart describes this contrast as being between the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’. The somewheres know where they are from and they draw value and strength from that identification. The anywheres do not identify with a particular location and do not feel any particular need to do so. Much of the dispute in our present political culture can be traced to this division between the somewheres – who will be concerned about national identity and so more resistant to immigration – and the anywheres – who are relaxed about national identity and so more open to immigration.

This debate tends to be reduced to one about racism, yet as I have argued before, the question here is not about race but about culture. After all, a significant element – possibly the overwhelming element – of national identity is the cultural expression of it. English culture, in common with other Western cultures, places a very great weight upon the notion of human rights, which is the modern term for a much more ancient notion emphasising the respect for the individual.

This respect is derived from Christianity and cannot properly be sustained without that religious foundation, the idea that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore inherently worthy of respect, irrespective of any achievements or wealth or family connections that might otherwise be considered relevant. No, Western culture is built around the idea that there is something sacred about the particular human being.

Our mistake, however, is to think that the glory of an individual human being can be understood apart from the culture in which they came to birth. It is rather like admiring a flower without paying any attention to the ground into which it has planted its roots. In other words, an insistence on the sacredness of the individual does not have to blend with a disregard for the community, the culture, the nation of which they are a part. That is the mistake which our modern West has made, with such terrible consequences.

So, to return to my original question, how do we defend the nation? We defend it by living out the values and virtues that animate that nation, by recognising that, to take our own nation as an example, some things simply ‘aren’t English’, some things simply wouldn’t be done by someone who shares our values and perspectives upon life. We take steps to ensure that people who live within the nation are taught how to operate appropriately within it, learning the language, the laws, the customs that enable a free and easy inter-relationship between all who are sharing the same space. It also means being very clear when actions are taken which ‘aren’t English’ – and ensuring appropriate, vivid and clarificatory punishments for such things.

We need to hold our leaders to the same standard. When English politicians act in such a way as to nurture a sense of Englishness, all well and good. When they do something to undermine it, they too need to be brought up short and rebuked. Most of all, when something is pursued by the nation that brings shame upon us, it needs to be seen as detrimental to the national interest and renounced. What might do such a thing? Something like separating children from their parents in service of some bureaucratic edict. I think that would qualify.

A brief thought about the Irish referendum

I believe that abortion is always and in every case morally wrong (and hugely destructive for the mother).
I also believe that there are rare occasions when it can be less wrong than the alternative.
In practical terms, I think the UK should move to a 12 week limit for abortions, rather than fully illegal.
Which is what has just been voted for in Ireland.
Yet I can’t help but feel incredibly sad at the change.
Lord have mercy.

Freedom needs authority and accountability

As a fairly classic introvert, when I have to go on a long train journey I like to book ahead and make use of the ‘quiet carriage’ – the one where people are asked not to use mobile phones (that is, not to have public conversations) or make any other excessive noise. Bliss for introverts!

On my most recent journey, coming back from Cornwall, I was sat opposite a mature couple, both of them teachers – and very quiet they were too. However, the same could not be said for many of the other occupants of the carriage. In particular there was a group of youths who were rather boisterous and a young mum whose progeny was well behaved, but who delighted in telling all and sundry about that progeny, and much else besides, on her mobile phone.

The teachers across from me became increasingly exasperated. When the ticket inspector came along, they asked him if he would be able to do anything. He demurred, clearly feeling rather awkward, and then commented ‘it’s alright, they’re getting off at the next stop’. Which they did, and the remainder of the journey was suitably restful.

However, am I alone in thinking that something has gone wrong with our society? This is in so many ways a trivial example, yet it is one that can give a clear insight into the issues. The train company had set up a carriage for the purpose of being quiet, and this was very clearly advertised within the carriage itself, and by announcements from the driver. That purpose was thwarted by two groups of people, either because they were unaware of the purpose of the carriage or because they didn’t care (I rather suspect the latter).

Those who had the responsibility for ensuring that the purpose of the quiet carriage was upheld were clearly uncomfortable at the thought of trying to ensure that this happened. I don’t blame the conductor for not wanting to make a scene. We are all too familiar with stories where someone tries to uphold civilised standards of behaviour and is then berated with a deluge of foul-mouthed invective (at best) from the transgressor. The teachers, I am sure, were also fully aware of the malign consequences that might have come their way from seeking to exercise any authority.

Our culture worships individual choice, and exalts it as one of the highest of human virtues. The notion that authority is something that is needed for human flourishing is not a comfortable one for us, we would much rather tell stories of heroic individualism, where the single will triumphs over the system.

In doing this we are rather like flowers that despise the soil in which they are nurtured, and on which they depend.

Where there is no recognised authority, those who are able to exercise their will the most clearly will be those who are strong in some way, either force of personality or simple physical strength. Physical intimidation has become a much more commonplace form of negotiation in our modern society, and this is not a sign of health. Without authority the weakest are pushed to the edge, for there is nothing to restrain the vicious.

Where there is a recognised authority, however, and where such authority is generally respected and followed, then a much safer general environment is established, and those fruits of civilisation that require a certain amount of gentility are enabled to flourish. Put differently, without a due regard for authority, we succumb to the dictatorship of morons.

Yet authority is not a single value that can be asserted on its own. How, after all, might we distinguish between competing claims for authority, between the different institutions of civic society, or between different individuals and groups within them? Any form of authority must eventually rest upon a social consensus around what has most authority – that which, when fully appealed to, is allowed to over-ride other claims. In other words, every form of social authority must ultimately rest on some form of religion.

This does not necessarily mean one particular religion – it need not even necessitate any general belief in a God or gods. What it means is that there is something which that society values and holds to be most important within its common life, and which acts as the keystone in the overall arch of shared values, and therefore the shared enforcement of those values.

Crucially, what it means is that those who are in a position to exercise authority are themselves able to be held accountable for what they do. Just as respect for authority would have enabled my train conductor to uphold the purpose of the quiet carriage, so too does a proper system of authority allow those who might be abused by a corrupt conductor (give me money to keep talking loudly) recourse to something higher.

Without this ‘something higher’ – what religious people call the transcendent – human relationships resolve down to something less than fully human, something far more fully explicable by biological processes or comparisons with the animal kingdom. Such a flawed civilisation cannot last, and will be replaced by one that is still able to draw upon spiritual nourishment.

If we wish to live in a society that has recognisable continuity with the very best that our civilisation has enabled in previous centuries – if we wish to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and build sustainably upon their achievements – I rather think we need to pay due care and attention to the role that religion played in their culture. It is as if our forebears had paid in regular amounts of capital into a bank account, which we have now been drawing upon for quite some time – indeed, I would say we are now overdrawn.

To preserve what is excellent requires some account of what is excellent that is independent of our personal choices or whims. It needs an understanding of the transcendent; it needs a religion.

The only question that matters for us in this country is which religion shall be followed.

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?