About Sam Charles Norton

Rector of West Mersea

A church for England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film, TV, novels of 2017

Last year my New Year’s Resolution was to keep a list of all the popular culture I consumed. It has been a very interesting exercise and one that I plan to continue. It is a good prompt to me to read more and watch less! Here is a list of some of my cultural highlights of the year:

Novels:
I re-read Lord of the Rings, and all of the Game of Thrones books, and CS Lewis’ space trilogy. All good.
I read some more horror again, after much time away – Clive Barker, James Herbert, now re-reading Stephen King (which may take some time!)
Best books read: Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Xenocide by Orson Scott Card; Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
I read about 25 novels – so one a fortnight.

Movies (at home)
I watched more than 60 – so more than one a week. Some favourites: John Wick (1&2); Ex Machina; I, Daniel Blake; Nymphomaniac (both parts)
Worst film watched: The Circle

TV
Probably watch a bit more TV than movies now – influence of Netflix!
Kept up with Game of Thrones, Walking Dead and all the Marvel series – though I have now given up on that (Inhumans! erk).
Enjoyed the first few series of Downton. Loved Westworld, American Gods, Wolf Hall, Star Trek Discovery and The Crown.
Also: Strictly! for the first time.

Cinema – roughly one a month, they were all good. Basically I’ll see the main popcorn movies on a big screen. Best of these was probably Blade Runner, closely followed by Dunkirk

Lego Batman
Logan
Lion
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Spiderman: Homecoming
Baby Driver
Dunkirk
Kingsman: Golden Circle
Blade Runner 2049
Thor Ragnarok
Justice League
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

For next year? I just can’t wait for Infinity War…

So that was 2017

Didn’t achieve most of my resolutions from last year – in fact, I have pretty much got the same ones again this year!

Was Dame in the panto again…

…and had a small role in the May play too.

Bought a lovely boat!

And sailed as far as Ipswich…

Another wonderful Greenbelt

Saw a lovely colleague ordained to the diaconate

Continued to struggle with the CofE, especially with regard to workload and institutional priorities – whilst being more and more enthused with the gospel itself

Got stuck in to my doctorate

Got on a motorbike again

Lost Ollie

Missed my kids

(There would have been images to go with all this but WordPress is not co-operating!)

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.

Ollie RIP

A sad beginning to Christmas Eve in the Mersea Rectory – my dear companion of almost twelve years (he was on the cusp of turning fourteen) passed away peacefully in the night, after a couple of days of illness. He was a good dog.

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GOPmar09

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ollie jun 08

startled

What is Justin Welby afraid of?

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks during a news conference at Lambeth Palace in London

I am feeling ashamed of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As you might imagine, this is not a comfortable experience for someone who is a loyal Anglican.

This has been provoked by Welby’s response to the Carlile report.

The Carlile report concluded that, in its investigation of the allegations against George Bell, “the Church of England failed to institute or follow a procedure which respected the rights of both sides. The Church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past when it had been too slow to recognise that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect oversteered in this case. In other words, there was a rush to judgement: the Church, feeling it should be both supportive of the complainant and transparent in its dealings, failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the Bishop. Such rights should not be treated as having been extinguished on death.”

In other words, the Church got things wrong – it did not make a proper investigation into the strength of the allegations against George Bell, and consequently defamed the late Bishop and destroyed his reputation without good cause.

This seems to me something that is a serious moral error and one that needs to be repented of.

Yet the Archbishop says this: “Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good.” He is balancing the heroic elements of George Bell’s life, which are well-known and well-attested, with the single, uncorroborated (and clearly partly factually mistaken) allegation of wickedness.

I believe that this is in itself wicked.

As I do not believe the Archbishop to be a wicked man – indeed, he has for the most part seemed a good thing so far – I am forced to wonder about his motivations for being so maladroit on this topic. The only thing that occurs to me is that he is terrified of the opprobrium that falls upon the church when it gets things wrong with regard to safeguarding – indeed that is what Carlile alludes to in the extract above. Welby has taken the easier, more worldly-mollifying course of action, rather than one which is principled and concerned above all with the truth.
This cannot end well.

This acting from fear is so far from what we need. I am still someone longing for an unafraid Anglicanism. I had been hoping we would get some fearless leadership from Dr Welby. I am now more worried that we will get an extremely efficient leadership that takes us vigorously in the wrong direction.

St Anthony of Padua pray for us!

The nature of our Brexit

The quirks of editorial deadlines mean that I write this article just two days after Theresa May has forged enough of an consensus with the EU to enable talks about an eventual trade agreement.

I’m mostly extremely happy about what Theresa May has agreed. The financial settlement is the first element, which might end up being around £40bn spread over several years. Given the scale of our contributions to the EU, and the amount that will actually be reimbursed back to us (our rebate is going to continue) this amounts to a net transfer of around two years worth of our prior EU member state contributions. So not a lot in the overall scheme of things. This will then end, at which point we are free of all financial obligations and in a position to enjoy something of a windfall. Excellent.

The second element is about citizenship. It always seemed to me transparently obvious that both sides have an interest in a civilised settlement that preserves all the accrued rights enjoyed by our respective citizens, and that seems to have been accomplished. Again, ongoing recourse to the ECJ is time-limited and will cease after eight years. So: also excellent.

The third element, which has risen in both prominence and political temperature, relates to the Irish border. Any eventual solution will have to be integrated into whatever trading agreement is eventually adopted – there is no way of answering the border question separately. I’m glad that the talks were not fully derailed by this issue but I also have a strong suspicion that the Irish Taoiseach has overreached himself.

Although it was Arlene Foster’s phone call that disrupted Mrs May’s planned announcement of a deal – leading to a week of frantic diplomacy – the essential Unionist point, that there can be no internal barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, is widely accepted. This simply had to be spelled out in extremely clear terms, hence the reiteration in the text of the agreement that the UK as a whole is leaving the EU’s internal market (‘single market’) and the customs union, and that there will be no .

However, in order to get this agreed, there was also inserted into the agreement a text that will continue to cause problems between now and March 2019. The crucial paragraph in the text is this one: “The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”

In essence, Mrs May’s strategy with respect to Ireland is to aim for a wider EU-UK trade agreement that solves the border problem itself. If that isn’t possible then she has agreed to seek ‘specific solutions’ to the border problem, which will be some form of technological and pragmatic compromise.

The kicker comes with the third option, which is what Mrs May has agreed to (in principle – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed). In the absence of a wider EU-UK deal which solves things, or a technological solution, then the UK as a whole is committing itself to ‘full alignment’ with the regulatory system of the EU.

This is a potential disaster, and not something that any Leaver could willingly countenance. Full alignment for the UK would mean that we would track the EU’s internal market regulations without having any say in how they are developed. This is a worse situation than we are in at the moment. Tactically, for the negotiations, it gives the EU an incentive to be uncompromising on the question of the border, as they would benefit from the UK remaining aligned. Strategically it compromises all the most exciting elements of Brexit, involving the pursuit of free trade deals with other countries around the world.

So I see this element as the most problematic. However, I recognise that giving this concession was pragmatically necessary, as it has allowed the movement through to trade discussions. I would see two priorities for the UK negotiators over the coming year. The first is that any trade agreement has to include services, which maintains the existing recognition of UK institutions by the EU. I am hopeful that this will be included as it is in the EU’s interest as a whole, even if not in the interests of all members of the EU, such as those cities like Frankfurt and Paris which seek to take some business away from the city. The second is that the UK needs to be set free to negotiate trade deals for itself from March 2019, even if such deals cannot take effect until the end of the transition period.

I am extremely keen that we move quickly to have an effective CANZUK agreement; that is, a open trading system between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. We have so much in common already – a shared head of state, a shared language, a shared common law tradition, alongside all of our shared history and familial connections. I would give this the highest priority – certainly higher than an agreement with the United States, attractive though that would be.

On the whole, I think that Mrs May has done rather a good job, certainly enough to ensure that she stays in post until this process is complete. There is still a very long way to go, but I am now much more confident than I was that there will be an eventual free trade agreement with the EU, and that our exit from that structure will be well managed.

Researching Church understandings of Mental Health care

the spiritual mindFollowing encouragement from the church hierarchy, in January this year I began a Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology through the Cambridge Theological Federation. It has taken me a while to get back up to speed academically – quote from my supervisor ‘this sounds too much like a blogpost’ – but things are falling into place, and I’m starting to feel that a part of my soul that has been locked in a box for about twenty years is emerging slowly into the light once again.

My area of interest is to do with the overlap between psychiatric care and spiritual care, with, possibly, a particular focus on deliverance ministry. I’m particularly interested in the conceptual foundations of psychiatric diagnosis (ie what are psychiatrists actually doing when they diagnose someone) and comparing and contrasting that with the Christian notion of the cure of souls, so: where do they correspond or overlap, where do they contradict or have tensions? I’m very interested in the Critical Psychiatry Network, and a big fan of Joanna Moncrieff’s work. The trigger for the research was a series of particular pastoral problems both in the parishes here and more widely, hence the ‘Practical Theology’ part. I’m hoping, at the end, to have something which will be of distinct practical use for my fellow clergy.

I’ve now handed in my first essay – 7000 words on John Swinton’s Spirituality and Mental Health Care – and I might put some of that up on the blog. Yet what I need to do most is to start journalling my research; as my supervisor puts it, don’t get it right, get it written! So there will be a significant increase in both the number of blogposts and their academic calibre! I’m looking at depression next.

On hoping that the Conservatives might become more conservative

I_Daniel_Blake_Photo
I recently watched, and greatly enjoyed, the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. This is a deeply moving portrait of a good man crushed by an inhumane and incomprehensible system. It might seem strange that a conservative is so sympathetic to such a classically socialist visionary as Loach – but that is because conservatism is generally greatly misunderstood, not least by the Conservative party itself!

To be a conservative is to be concerned above all with the husbanding of resources. I prefer that phrase to one that means something very similar – ‘the preservation of capital’ – because it is not only a more traditional expression, it is also one that is less likely to trigger premature associations with the word capitalism, with all the things that go with it.

The resources that need to be husbanded fall into four principal areas.

The first is economic, that is, all the various forms of financial wealth and property that our society values. This form is most easily associated with a conservative point of view, and runs alongside a respect for the rule of law and a high regard for private property and the rights associated with it. This approach, when taken to an extreme, shades into forms of libertarianism, whereby the state is only deployed in order to ensure the rule of law and such other elements as are essential to the continuity of the rule of law (such as the police and the armed forces). Libertarianism and conservatism are not the same, principally because conservatism also values three more forms of resource.

The second resource which conservatives seek to husband is ecological. Under this heading would come all the shared physical goods that a community enjoys that aren’t owned privately (or that only have private consequences). Much that comes under the heading of ‘green concerns’ has a natural connection with this area of conservatism, that is, everything which seeks to conserve our natural environment and preserve it in good repair. So a bias against pollution, a recognition of the need to preserve clean air and water, the preservation of species and biodiversity, all of this and more is conservative.

A third resource is social, and my favourite way to think of this form of resource is to think of Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’. These are all the ways in which human beings gather in order to seek mutual enrichment, and together these make up the very real and important human good which is called society. Under this heading would come things like the MICA centre, or the Lions, or Blindspot – activities and organisations and institutions which bind people together with mutual support. Much of what makes human life worth living falls into this section.

The last resource is human; that is, individual human beings, in all their glory and potential. Things like health care and education are important not principally because it keeps the economic wheels turning but rather because they enable individual human beings to thrive.

In the conservative vision, all of these forms of resource can be husbanded harmoniously together – so the preservation of our natural environment enables human beings to thrive and contribute to the social organisations which strengthen mutual trust and thereby ease the commercial endeavours that enable our prosperity – which then helps to pay for better care of the natural environment and so on. In a healthy society these things all work together in a virtuous circle, each one reinforcing the other.

Given this, how has Conservatism come to be seen as ‘nasty’ and uncaring? In many ways – as portrayed in the Loach film – the consequences of Conservative policies have indeed been despicable, but that is because they have been deeply anti-conservative, and have manifestly failed to husband the sorts of resources that I have described above.

I understand this through the use of my estate agent metaphor. I mean no offence to estate agents in using this (the estate agents I have had to deal with have always been very civilised people) but merely to bring home a clear distinction. If you sell your home then you are also letting go of a place which contains all sorts of sentimental attachments, memories and meanings. None of these are relevant to the price that an estate agent will place upon the property, for they are not relevant to the person who will be purchasing it.

In the same way, the problem with so much Conservative policy in the last few decades has been an over-emphasis upon the first form of resource described – financial – at the expense of all the others. The Conservative party was taken over by cynics who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing – or at least, not the value of the other three forms of resource described above. One tragedy of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was that ‘One nation’ conservatism became identified with a ‘wet’ economic perspective. I rather suspect that if the Conservative party is to regain its strength and morale that it will need a strong voice that is both deeply ‘dry’ and strongly ‘one nation’.

At the heart of a properly conservative outlook, then, is a particular vision of what it means for human beings to flourish – human beings that are situated in a particular place at a particular time within a particular society – and a recognition that such flourishing can only take place when all the resources that enable that flourishing are husbanded properly.

The tragedy of Daniel Blake was that he was caught up in a system that did not recognise the human and social resource that he was; he was not valued and the rejection killed him. A naturally conservative response to such a situation would be to call for a universal basic income – in order to properly value, nurture and affirm all the human beings in our society. To not do so is to conduct our common life in the manner of a transactional estate agent – such an approach might be Conservative, but it is a long way from being conservative. It doesn’t simply fail, it deserves to fail.

Men are made of flesh

men womenIf you take the food bowl away from your dog once it has started eating, it will probably resist. It might even bite. Sane dog owners recognise that to do such a thing is not just stupid, it’s cruel.

Imagine a conscientious vegetarian – someone who has always enjoyed red meat but who has become convinced by the moral arguments that killing animals for sustenance cannot be right. Now imagine someone that knows this person well sitting down in front of them with a perfectly prepared steak. I would imagine the vegetarian would not bite, but it would still be a potentially cruel and insensitive thing to do.

So what of men, who have distinct bodily appetites, and in the best of whom there is a wrestling with those appetites in order to function well in society and generally be a blessing to women not a curse?

In a perfect world all men would be in such control of their appetites and drives that women could say or do whatever they wished without risk of any adverse consequences of the relevant sort. That especially applies to what is worn.

However, we do not live in such a perfect world. We men are simple creatures of flesh and blood, and will therefore tend to react in certain very obvious and understandable ways when our buttons are pressed.

As with the dog food and the vegetarian, this can sometimes be manipulated for cruel purposes.

For my part, I actually think that Mike Pence has a good point. In the context of an increased awareness of safeguarding issues, this sort of chaperoning is clearly the way forward. More than this, I suspect that the medium-term answer – that is, for so long as men struggle with their own sinful desires – is to segregate sinful men from all possible temptations. We need a return to male-only spaces, within which men can do their work without any risks to women.

Brexit thoughts

brexit image
Much of the discussion about Brexit is fixated on the economics of the change. This is undoubtedly important, especially if there is no agreement at all – latest estimates reckon half a million job losses under that scenario, although that compares to some four million jobs created in the UK since 2010. I also wonder how many jobs are at risk through things like automation and robotics, in other words, what is the ‘churn’ of jobs and how significant an impact will Brexit have upon that. Then there are the questions of how far we can re-orient our economy to different patterns of investment and working and I end up thinking that this is simply a moderate shock to the economy, which will not mean very much over the next ten and twenty years.

In any case, all these discussions ignore the question of sovereignty, which remains the most important issue for most Brexiters. On that point it would seem that the relationship between the EU and the UK can now be seen in all its naked glory, or lack of such. This, I believe, will help Brexit in the long run, as I can see public opinion solidifying against the EU if they remain recalcitrant on things like opening discussions on a Free Trade Agreement. I would still expect there to be an agreement – it’s the closest to the maintenance of the status quo – but I’m not as confident as I was.

What I am most struck by, however, watching these negotiations, is the assumption that the EU will continue to exist in something like its present form for those next ten and twenty years. I am rather sceptical of that. I think the EU is facing some deeply unsettling and existential questions, and I do not see any sign of those problems being addressed.

Just today there are striking images of the crisis in Catalonia. The situation in Greece continues to destroy any claim for moral credibility on the part of the EU. The visegrad group continue to defy Brussels, in accordance with popular democracy but against the Commission’s wishes. Most fundamentally the Euro continues to destroy southern european economies in order to give Germany a helping hand as they break the law on economic surpluses. I believe it to be true that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation – and there is obviously a great deal of ruin in the EU – but I am pretty sure that the future for the UK, even without a free trade agreement, is much brighter than for the EU. I think there is a very real possibility that the EU in its present form will have ceased to exist within five years. If it has antagonised the UK in these negotiations, to the extent that opinion in the UK tends towards letting the Europeans look after their own defense, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see an EU that is mired in internal violent conflict and economic dislocation, vulnerable to power-supply diplomacy from the East and lacking any means to integrate or solidify their own internal political cohesion.

If I was Theresa May I would say rather explicitly – given the cool reaction to her Florence speech – that if discussion hasn’t started on the potential free trade agreement by Christmas then we shall proceed to trading on a WTO basis immediately on our exit in March 2019 – and we won’t pay a single penny after that. Germany will have to meet the bill, but for how long?