I have been reflecting much on my experiences of last year. I shall not reach any conclusions until after a retreat next month at the earliest, but one thing that is coming to the fore is my sense of a gulf between the 53% of England that voted for Leave (higher amongst self-identified Anglicans) and what I think of as the ‘institutional mind’ of the Church of England.
By ‘institutional mind’ I am principally thinking of what is expressed by those in positions of authority, so the House of Bishops first and foremost, but extending more widely to include General Synod and also the para-church organisations like the Church Times. An example of what I have in mind is the letter from 25 Bishops that triggered my article in response. This is not about hostility to the Leave position; rather, what troubles me is my sense that there is a theological lacuna in the insitutional mind, a gap where an understanding of the nation – and therefore of England – needs to sit.
Here is my sketch of what I am thinking about.
In Scripture there is consistent reference to the nation and the nations, Israel being a paradigmatic example. I need to do more work and reading on this, but nations are clearly a part of the created order – fallen and redeemable. This is a point of conflict with the prevailing liberal mindset (which I see as also culturally dominant in the church, part of the institutional mind) which does not give a nation any existence that is separate to the viewpoints and habits of those individuals which aggregate together into a ‘nation’ (or a ‘family’ or a ‘corporation’ or a ‘government’). In contrast I see such entities as part of the principalities and powers – and I see the Biblical treatment of such things as an essential aspect in our understandings. We cannot understand the cross, or the teachings of St Paul, without understanding the principalities and powers. The Biblical understanding of nation does not map neatly onto modern understandings of the nation, let alone the nation-state, and let alone the rich complexity of a ‘United Kingdom’ but there is something here which is essential for the Church of England to grasp if it is to fulfil its vocation.
For historical reasons, principally rooted in the experience of WW2 but not restricted solely to that, our dominant culture sees the expression of national identity as immoral, inherently risky and liable to cause disaster. This can be seen in so many ways – the whole Brexit debate itself is rife with examples – but for me, a paradigmatic instance was Emily Thornberry’s scorn towards the display of an England flag. This distance between the somewheres and the anywheres is now becoming an accepted short-hand, so I can say that my concern with the institutional mind of the Church of England is that it is a resolutely ‘anywhere’ mentality. This is ironic, as the whole tradition and theological standpoint of the Church of England is ‘somewhere’ – rooted in each local parish, and bound up with an emphasis upon the incarnation as a leading theological doctrine in our self-understanding.
Which is why this phrase isn’t leaving my mind: we shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. One of the texts used to justify the disdain for national identity within our church conversation is the wonderful passage from Galatians – in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek etc. I believe that this passage is being misused. I do not for one second doubt that our identity in Christ trumps our various national identities. We are called to a Christian identity that is more foundational than any national identity. Yet what I wish to insist upon is that this Christian identity does not evacuate the national identity of meaning or continued application. On the contrary, it is only through being set within that larger Christian identity that the national identity truly finds itself and is able to flourish and shine.
Jesus, after all, was a particular man born in a particular time and place within a particular culture. His universality is not something imposed ‘top-down’ from Heaven, as if he came down from the sky fully-formed, rather it is built up out of that identity – they are the building blocks. Jesus never stops being a Jewish man from first century Palestine. This is what I mean by ’emaciated incarnation’ – the anywhere ideology seeks to downplay all the particularities and distinctives that makes us different from each other, as they are perceived as problematic. In contrast I want to insist that these distinctives cannot be taken away from us, for they make us who we are. We are not called to be national eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.
The great beast of global capitalism generates an immense social and cultural pressure pushing a ‘smoothing’ of individuality. Capitalism wants us to become efficient ball-bearings that do not hinder the accumulation of profit. My concern about the institutional mind of the Church of England is that this ideology – this Royal Consciousness – has surreptitiously crept in and taken over. Of course it is wrong to value a distinctive national identity! Don’t you know that it inevitably leads to bigotry and racism and fascism and all the other terrible things that the twentieth century taught us?
I see this, not simply as an acquiescence to worldly thinking but as an abandonment of our own, distinctive, Anglican charism. The Church of England needs to be a Church for England. We shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. Telling that story simply aligns the church with those economic forces that depersonalise and dispossess the people in this land. We are seen as hostile and alien, court chaplains whose ultimate service is to Mammon not to the living and incarnate Lord.
I have much work to do to flesh this out. It links with understandings I’ve gained from Tom Wright about apocalyptic language, and Stringfellow and Wink and Richard Beck and many others. But I think this is what God is calling me to say. Abraham is much on my mind – and has been ever since May of last year – and he, after all, becomes the father of many nations. I need to learn what that means – and apply it to our situation today.
This time last year I wrote: “I think I will continue to become more politically engaged, although I don’t know what form that will take.”
The form it took was a surprise, and not an entirely welcome one – I’ll tell the full story on another occasion – but the process has changed me, and at some cost. I have lost friends this year, but those who have not been scandalised are more precious to me than ever. One New Year’s resolution: to see more of my friends, tried and true.
Politically I feel some small measure of pride in what the Brexit Party accomplished, and that I played a part in that. Much more fundamentally, I said yes to the vocational pressure. The passage of Scripture that was impressed upon me all this year is the story of Abraham and Isaac – and in the end, God gave me a ram. I don’t know what is going to happen next, but there are some exciting possibilities.
In other news…
I still love my new job, in parish and Diocese. Being a part-timer in two jobs brings challenges, and I’m not as on top of things as I would like to be, yet I can see that coming in time, and parishioners and colleagues are lovely. The Forest is a remarkable place, and I am slowly immersing myself in it, in culture and history. Living closer to my children is a blessing.
I didn’t attend Greenbelt this year. I bought a ticket -was all set to go – yet in the end, it was at the peak of anti-Brexiteer hysteria, and I just didn’t feel safe enough (I wasn’t strong enough) to put myself in that environment. I’ll be back in 2020.
I abandoned the PhD, for a multitude of reasons, some of which have only become clear in retrospect. Academia really is a branch of Remainia. However, I did attend some important training in Rome this year, and that was satisfying and fruitful – with hopefully more fruit still to come.
I passed my motorbike test without a single blemish. I now have one of these. I use it for commuting, so have easily clocked up more than 5k in mileage. I plan to use it much more in 2020.
I published an article in the Church Times. That may have been the single most significant thing to come out of my political engagement, and the consequences are still being worked out. I hope to write more for them next year, and I have begun to work on another book: we will not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation.
We have a puppy…
I have advised many people down the years that it is impossible to please everyone. Even though I know that to be true, it has still been a characteristic of my own nature for a very long time, probably since being severely bullied in primary school. A fear of being rejected, and of painful consequences if I became unpopular.
Well the story of 2019 is that God pushed me out of that place of safety and self-protection. It was terrifying, but I said yes to Him, and the consequences that I was afraid of came to pass. Yet here I stand. I am more at peace with myself on the inside than at any time since I began training at Westcott, possibly any time since I was ten years old. I discover that I like who I am, I like the person that God has made – not blind to the extensive flaws but more open to the benefits of what is distinctive about me. I don’t think like other people, I see things differently. I think God may have a use for that difference, and I’m looking forward to working out the consequences.
I thought, to begin, you might tell me
how you’re feeling.
The masters you serve and how they’ve
treated you. Your career, such as it is.
Your life, Clarice.
I thought we might talk about yours.
Mine? What is there to say about mine?
I’m happy. Healthy. A little nomadic at
the moment but that’ll soon change. You,
though. You, I’m worried about.
No, you’re not. You fell in love with
the Bureau – with The Institution – only
to discover, after giving it everything –
that it doesn’t love you back. That it
resents you, more than the husband and
children you gave up to it ever would.
Why is that, do you think? Why are you
Tell you? Isn’t it clear? You serve
the idea of order, Clarice – they don’t.
You believe in the oath you took – they
don’t. You feel it’s your duty to
protect the sheep – they don’t. They
don’t like you because they’re not like
you. They’re weak and unruly and
believe in nothing.
So, went with family to Rome for part-work/part-holiday trip. Rome was fascinating (more on that another time) but this is really about how disappointed we have been with the service from airbnb. We hit a problem with the host (the sort of problem that a hotel could have resolved in 5 minutes) but then hit a much more significant problem with airbnb. So this is by way of establishing a record. Lessons learned I guess.
Airbnb stipulates that the host must provide “bathroom towels available for the Guest’s use”.
When we arrived at the airbnb flat we had booked, we rapidly discovered that the towels provided were inadequate; that is, they were small and thin – imagine a large tea towel and you will get the idea. The image above is of a towel embedded in a coffee cup – a normal coffee cup, not a large one!
We arrived late at night on the 5th May; in the morning I contacted the host to raise the issue of the towels:
On 6th May – I sent a whatsapp message, ‘Hi – we can only find hand towels, are there any bath towels?’
On 7th May, after a bit of confusion, host says ‘I can bring them tomorrow Morning, very big, OK?’ I had a feeling I would need to use the airbnb site for communication, so on there I wrote ‘Just to clarify – and to confirm my whatsapp message – we only have handtowels not bathroom towels. It is essential that we are properly equipped. Please resolve this within the next 24 hours, thank you.’
On 8th May, in the evening, I wrote ‘Hi -, despite your promise yesterday that we would have towels this morning, they have not arrived. We are very sad and unhappy.’ To which the host responded, ‘Sam, you already have towels. You Just asked for bigger ones, so i think It’s not enough to be sad! Life Is beautiful. I Will be there within today, to give you the towels as promised.’
On 9th May, the host wrote ‘I’m very sorry but yesterday I had a problem, and I couldn’t bring you the towels… I will be there in the morning!’ (a pattern is emerging here…) and I wrote back ‘I shall take this up with airbnb :(‘
That was the last communication I had with the host – we were there for a further week after this. Airbnb itself, however, was not great. I left it 24 hours, to see if the threat of contacting airbnb would encourage the host to pull his finger out and deliver what he had agreed to deliver, but no go. So on the 10th May I contacted airbnb support. This didn’t get a response (and the message has now been removed from the airbnb site – hmm….)
I tried again, and I’ve now archived the conversation, so here it is – airbnb in italics
10 MAY 2019
Hi, I’m trying again as my other request for help hasn’t gotten anywhere. We have no bathroom towels for a ten night stay, and there are other issues (possibly legal ones) on which I need advice. Please help. Sam
? Thanks for your message — Airbnb Support will reply as soon as a specialist becomes available.
Thanks for reaching out to us regarding this issue. I’ve forwarded your inquiry to a member of my team who can better assist you. They’ll be getting in touch with you soon.
In the meantime, please feel free to respond to this message with any further questions or concerns.
Thank you for the quick reply. I don’t know what happened to my message yesterday!
11 MAY 2019
I am Patricia from Airbnb, the Trip Department, I am glad to assist you today.
I verified the message thread between you and your host and from what I can understand, you have towels at the listing, but you would like to have bigger ones.
As there are towels existing at the listing, it is the host decision if he can provide different types of towels and different sizes.
Let me know if there is something else I could help you with.
Hello Patricia, no reasonable person would consider the towels provided to be bathroom towels (bathroom towels being specified in the airbnb contract). I can send photos of them alongside the provided tea towels for comparison if you would like evidence. I would also like your comment on the fact that we arrived back in the flat to find an estate agent showing customers around the property; we had not been warned of this and our belongings were on open display. This is unacceptable. The host also charged us the tourist tax – please confirm that this was legitimate – and took photos of our passports, again, please confirm that this was in accordance with the law. Finally please comment on the two day delay between my registering my concern and airbnb engaging with me on this issue, and explain why I had to comment on Twitter before gaining a response. Thank you for your attention.
My name is Bre, a Case manager here at Airbnb. Before I continue, let me thank you for your participation in our Global Community as a guest! Airbnb is truly grateful you have chosen to travel with us!I am sure you have many rewarding experiences ahead of you!
Thank you for contacting us on Social Media regarding the troubles you’ve had with your host requesting larger towels to better accommodate you. I apologize if this matter has affected your Airbnb reservation. rest assured I will be helping provide a swift resolution.
I will be reaching out to your host in efforts to align with your ideal outcome to receive the requested towels. I will be in touch soon with an update regarding this. All I’d ask is your continued patience while I work to rectify this matter.
Thank you. Please also see my earlier message to your colleague Patricia; I would be grateful if you also addressed the questions that I asked of her. Sam
By the way, the request is not for larger towels simply as a preference, the request is that the contracted-for bathroom towels are actually provided. We are half way through our ten night stay.
12 MAY 2019
So, 3 days in and still no nearer a resolution. I am very disappointed with airbnb.
This is Bre again here with Airbnb. I hope this message finds you well. I tried giving you a call, but I was ubable to reach you. I apologize for the delayed response, I just spoke with your host today. He informed that he will be providing larger towels tomorrow to make your stay more accommodating.
Please let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns.
Hello Bre, please review this dialogue. You have not answered the concerns that I raised at 17.38 on 9 May. Are we to understand that airbnb now consider the matter dealt with? We are 7 nights in to a ten night stay before the contract is fulfilled. This is not acceptable. Sam
I have taken some time to look at your previous correspondence with our support members. In regard to the tourism tax, this is common for hosts to be obligated to collect occupancy taxes in some areas that Airbnb currently does not remit the taxes on their behalf, While I am not a legal advisor, I am not authorized to determine if this is legal in the area, however we do encourage hosts to be in adherence with any local regulations.
I do apologize for the time it has taken to get your concerns addressed. We are currently in peak season and have received a high influx of cases from both guests and hosts which has contributed to the delay.
1. Do airbnb consider it acceptable for a host to invite an estate agent into the property (a self-contained flat) without warning the guest? 2. Is it acceptable for a host to take photos of identity documents? 3. Is there a way of contacting airbnb legally which is more reliable than this messaging service? A legal address that I could write to would be appreciated. Thank you. Sam
13 MAY 2019
Hello. Nearly 24 hours since my last message and airbnb have not responded. Nor have any towels arrived. I consider airbnb to be in breach of contract. Please advise me on how I can take this further. Thank you. Sam
15 MAY 2019
Thanks for reaching out to us regarding this issue. I’ve forwarded your inquiry to a member of my team who can better assist you. They’ll be getting in touch with you soon.
In the meantime, please feel free to respond to this message with any further questions or concerns.
This is LaNiece here with Airbnb, we apologize for the delayed response.
I am a case manager I have the pleasure of supporting you. If it is past your local time of 6pm during our communication is it okay if I call ?
I apologize for the inconvenience you may have experienced during this process.
You may respond to the message or email I send.
Good evening Sam
LaNiece here with Airbnb I just spoke to the host and asked him about the towels. He advised he left them at the front door entrance. Please let me know if they are there give me 30-45 min to respond to you I will wait your reply.
16 MAY 2019
LaNiece here I will close this tomorrow when I arrive in have a good night.
Hello LaNiece, there have been no towels for the duration of our ten night stay and we are now heading home. I am astonished that you think the service that airbnb have offered is sufficient. As I stated earlier, I need to be put in touch with someone who can deal with my case properly, rather than one more different person (I think I have now had four people dealing with me?) who simply begins from scratch each time (and believes the host!!). Please do not close this case, it is not resolved. Thank you.
17 MAY 2019
I personally did not state that this was resolved.
I asked and advised that I will follow up today. I did speak to the host, so I had to ask. Rather, the reservation has ended or not if the host out right lied about this to me I will be addressing and updating you. Consulting on how I can help with some sort of compensation. You should not have to beg for towles.
I do apologize for any confusion that was created with the message I sent last night.
Hi LaNiece – thank you so much for this message. There are lots of things I need to discuss about this with airbnb – please can I have your assurance that the case will not be closed until it is all resolved? I would be very grateful, thank you. And no, there were no bathroom towels provided – part of the problem is that there is disagreement over what counts as a ‘bathroom’ towel, but I am happy to provide further information and documentation on that. However, whilst that is an issue that could have been easily and simply resolved, I have since become very frustrated with airbnb’s customer support. If I can continue to deal just with one person – yourself – then I think we may be able to get somewhere. Thank you. Sam
18 MAY 2019
Hi LaNiece, just following up on this. I thought it would help if I set out my concerns more systematically, as we can then work out how to proceed with each element:
1. The ‘towels’ provided were not bathroom towels. Bathroom towels are specified in the contract, so I regard this as a breach of contract.
2. The host’s behaviour was a little odd. The most concerning thing was coming back to the flat on one occasion (early on) to find an estate agent showing a couple around the property. We had not been warned of this, and feel it to be an unacceptable violation of our privacy. We are also worried about the fact that he took photos of our passports.
3. Very early on the host offered to replace the towels (from 9th May I think – the message system should make it clear) which he did not do, despite promising this to both ourselves and to you as ‘official’ airbnb.
4. It proved very difficult to get hold of airbnb to try and resolve this issue. After not getting anywhere using the standard messaging system I resorted to using Twitter in order to gain your attention. This is not good.
5. I have found the airbnb support system less than good, mostly because of the repeated changes of ‘lead person’ for the case. I am very much hoping, LaNiece, that this chopping and changing has now come to an end!
6. Up to now we have really enjoyed using airbnb and have recommended it to others. We are concerned that our positive rating on airbnb may be affected by what the host says about us. We were very sure to leave the property in a good state (and have taken pictures as evidence to back that up) and would like to leave an honest review, but we do not wish to jeopardise our own continued use of airbnb. Please reassure us on that question.
I think that’s it. I look forward to hearing your response to my concerns 🙂
20 MAY 2019
Please reassure me that I have not been forgotten in the last 48 hours. Is it time for me to contact you on Twitter again? Sam
A most interesting little snippet: people identify much more strongly with Leave or Remain than with traditional party affiliations, and this has surprising consequences. According to a recent survey only 9% of Leavers would object if their child married a Remainer, but 37% of Remainers would object if their child married a Leaver!
I would like to work towards a reconciliation between the two factions into which our country has been divided. Theologically, reconciliation is the fruit of forgiveness and repentance – forgiveness from the one who has been hurt, and repentance from the one who has done the hurting. Of course, at the moment there is not even agreement on what counts as ‘hurt’ – I think there are many things that count – so perhaps the priority is to ensure that there is a careful delineation of differences, so that we actually gain some clarity over what it is that divides us.
A good principle in argument is that criticisms of a position have most effect if you have first demonstrated that you understand that position in terms that the advocate of that position would accept as a true account. In other words, to criticise Remain requires Leavers to articulate the Remain position in such a way that Remainers say ‘yes, that is what we think’. This is best done in an iterative fashion – an attempt to articulate it is made by a Leaver, and the Remainer then comments yes or no to the various elements, the Leaver adapts the articulation in response, until there is agreement between both sides as to what the Remain position is.
So here goes…
The Remain position views the European Union as a force for good in the world. It sees the legacy of the repeated conflicts between European nations, most especially in the twentieth century, as a tragedy, and the development of the European Union as the foundation of peace in Europe that ensures that such conflicts do not recur. The enhanced friendship between nations that the European Union allows for is well expressed through the ability of all citizens within the Union to move freely between the members states of the Union. The Union upholds excellent standards in human rights, workers rights and environmental protection. In addition, the economic aspects of the Union underpin the wealth that we enjoy. To discard these benefits by Leaving is an act of financial folly and cultural self-harm that we will regret for decades. For Remain, being a member of the European Union is a significant part of their personal identity, and a source of pride.
I don’t see that as an exhaustive summary of the Remain position, but I hope I’ve captured the key points – and I invite any and all comments to enable that presentation to improve. It is not an ignoble position to hold, and there are many values within it that I would wish to affirm, especially the importance of friendship across national boundaries.
I would also invite those who wish to understand the Leave position to carry out a similar exercise, and to help that process I would like to recommend several books.
The first is Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’, subtitled ‘why good people disagree about religion and politics’. Haidt argues that those who hold to a more ‘progressive’ perspective – what we would call left wing – recognise two sources of moral value, those being care (do no harm to people) and fairness (treat people equally). In contrast, those who hold to a more conservative position also value three other sources of moral value, loyalty (do not betray your group), authority (respect for traditions) and sanctity (recognise what is holy and reject what is disgusting). The key element for the Remain/Leave dialogue is that the two sides give different weight to what it means to be British.
Which leads to the second recommendation, Linda Colley’s book ‘Britons’. This is a very readable work of historical analysis, that outlines how the British sense of national identity became formed against the ‘other’ of continental Europe, starting with the religious division against the papacy in Rome, but incorporating over time the wars with Napoleonic France and the traumas of the twentieth century. This book helps to understand what it is that Leavers are valuing with their loyalty, authority and sense of sanctity.
Bringing this perspective up to date is Matthew Goodwin’s and Roger Eatwell’s ‘National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy’. This analysis has been written after the Brexit vote and considers the way in which the wave of national populism can be found in many diverse countries, and why it is only going to get stronger over time. The analysis centres on what the authors call the “four D’s”: Distrust of the existing political class, Destruction of communities and patterns of life, the Deprivation that has followed economic disclocation, and the De-alignment from traditional political parties that is the result. I would particularly recommend this book to anyone who thinks that the vote for Brexit in 2016 was the accidental result of anything that happened during the three weeks of the referendum campaign.
Paul Lever was the British Ambassador to Germany, and he has written an excellent account of how Germany and the EU inter-relate: ‘Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way’. I hadn’t appreciated quite how far German thinking had shaped the setting up of EU institutions, such that the Federal structure of Germany is replicated on a larger scale in the EU, and that the inevitable consequence of this is that the EU will become a single state with all that this implies, including a single army. The EU is a thoroughly Germanic project.
For a sharper sense of what this implies I strongly recommend a read of Yanis Varoufakis’ ‘Adults in the Room’, which is an account of Varoufakis’ short tenure as a finance minister in Greece, and the way in which a democratic vote in that country was overturned by the EU machinery on behalf of French and German banks. It is difficult to credit the European Union with any moral authority after reading this!
So far, reading these books will give a sense and understanding of a general Leave perspective. For an additional recommendation, which would help to understand my own specific point of view, I would recommend Joseph Tainter’s ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’, which analyses around a dozen different Empires in human history, seeking to account for why they collapsed. In brief, they collapse when a central authority takes more from subject territories than it returns in benefits. I believe that his analysis applies quite well to the European Union – and that the Union will therefore collapse before too long.
I hope that it is possible to pursue civilised conversations about the differences between the Leave and Remain perspectives (and I confess to have occasionally added more heat than light to the debate). We are one nation after all.
A year of huge change…
Having lived in Essex for almost all my life (and when not there, been principally in London/ South East) I have moved a long way away to the wonderful and beautiful Forest of Dean, close to the Welsh border (and closer to children), doing a new job split between two things that I would enjoy doing full time!
A great leap of faith, which seems to be working out so far. Funny that.
Good for the family too, though not without cost in terms of disruption and upheaval. Fortunately the new home, despite teething problems, should serve us well for the coming years, and it is lovely to be in a Diocese that takes seriously the potential that a non-functioning house has for causing stress and domestic damage.
I miss Mersea – people more than place – but both.
I lost the chance to be an ugly sister in Cinderella due to the move, and suspect that, re: Panto playing, there may be some time before it comes back, if it ever does.
Yet one of my best moments with the Mersea Island Players came with the Mersea Island Music Marathon, which, for so many reasons, will be a life-time memory. I knew in my bones that I was leaving Mersea at that point, which made the finale all the more moving.
A slightly disappointing Greenbelt, where I became even more conscious of not quite fitting in – yet I remain a committed Angel, and I shall continue going each year – not least as it will now be a much more important opportunity to catch up with friends.
I’ve kept the newspaper article going, not without some misgivings. I chose a style – was led to choose a style – many years ago, which is more deliberately controversial and provocative than I think I am in person. I will seek to change that this year. I’m pondering much about scapegoating (Girardian) and what is happening over Brexit. I think I will continue to become more politically engaged, although I don’t know what form that will take.
Had some lovely sailing, but not enough, and we wait to see what will happen with the boat, whether we will use it often enough to make it worthwhile to keep it or whether to sell it – and if we keep it, where to keep it! It’s good to have an excuse to go back to Mersea of course.
Have had to take an intermission (pause) for my doctoral studies, due to the move, but am keen to get fully back on top of that. It’s not going to be what I thought it was going to be, but I think it will still be worthwhile and fun.
I have enjoyed my new motorbike greatly, and plan to get through the main test in the early part of 2019 and to upgrade, almost certainly to a Deauville 650.
Lost some close colleagues and friends in the year, but also saw wonderful colleague ordained to the priesthood. I feel like Mersea is in good hands (not just his).
Have started to read a lot more – brain is generally ‘waking up’ again after too many years of being both ill-used and dis-used, but that time has not been a total loss, as other parts of me have grown.
I always re-read these annual summaries each time I do a new one. Seems like I don’t change much! I’m happier than I’ve been for many years though. God is good.
The prophets of ancient Israel were those who called the nation back to a faithful religious life – back to right worship, that is, worshipping the right things, and back to social justice, which meant ensuring that nobody was excluded from sharing in the national life.
The Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of what a nation is, which means that it doesn’t know how to call a nation back to a faithful religious life. This is something of a problem when the name of a nation is in your self-description. Captured by modern, secular individualism, the church seeks to market the gospel to modern, secular individuals – which means that those for whom issues of loyalty, authority and sanctity matter are alienated from their natural spiritual home.
Nations are part of the creation and they have their place in that creation, which is why nations are talked about so often in the Bible. Nations are real things, spiritually real – they are part of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers – and our culture is very familiar with what it means when a principality is raised up into the shape of an idol, when it is given a greater value than it deserves to have, and it becomes demonic – we all know enough history to be aware of what that looks like. It is a great sin to overemphasise nationhood: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, the claims of Christ are higher than any national claim.
This does not obliterate nationhood however; it does not mean that we are to abandon any sense of what it means to live within and be part of a nation. What is missed in our church and our culture is that there is an equal and opposite error, of obliterating any sense of national identity and seeking to do away with any expression of it. It is part of being fully human that we are formed within a community of people, and the most fully human person who has ever lived was not an exception to this. Jesus did not appear to us coming down from on high, full of heavenly glory: no, he lived at a very particular time in a very particular place, he took part in the very particular customs of a very particular nation and from that solid foundation he transcended those particularities to become a source of universal salvation. It is as members of one nation or another that we are redeemed, none of us are redeemed as abstract human beings, devoid of context or roots in a particular land and nation.
George Orwell wrote that England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality, and it seems to me that the mind of our House of Bishops has been captured by that same intellectual disorder; it is, in fact, a theological disorder. Some ten years ago a kind friend introduced me to the folk group Show of Hands, and took me to a show of theirs in Putney. It was the first time I had heard any of their songs, and I was blown away. One song especially:
And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
It’s pubs where no-one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look, and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we come from?
I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack
That’s my flag too and I want it back
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
We need roots
We can’t let patriotism, the story of who we are as a nation, be monopolised by the morons and the bigots, but if we don’t have a healthy understanding, a theological understanding of what a nation is then that is what is going to happen by default, they will take up that space – and then the demonic will take it over. Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, ‘Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil, for what is evil but good, tortured by its own thirst, and forced to drink of stagnant waters’.
The task of the Church of England is to provide fresh living water to our nation and by doing so to tend to the soul of England. It is because the Church has failed to even engage in this spiritual struggle that we have lost our moorings as a society and the church dies.
These words: I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.
Blake was a prophet, and I have always taken Jerusalem to be about the Kingdom, about engaging the imagination in such a way that working for the Kingdom in a particular place, for a particular people becomes possible… I think I’m supposed to work specifically for that. In England, amongst the English – here I stand, I can do no other.
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!
“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results” – said Einstein, allegedly.
Then again, Robert the Bruce took inspiration from a spider, that kept going despite repeated failure – was he insane to do that?
I ask because this question seems very relevant to discerning which direction the Church of England needs to be going in. What isn’t in question is that the Church of England is dying – there has been a consistent decline in church membership for several generations now (see David Keen’s blog).
So: if we carry on as we are, we are facing certain doom (as an institution; let’s not indulge ourselves in the egotistical delusion that Christianity in England rises or falls with the CofE!).
Yet there have been other times in history, in the Bible stories, where disaster comes upon the people as a form of the Lord winnowing the tribe, in order that the faithful remnant might thereby prove their faith – and then be vindicated and give triumph. (I think there are conservative cohorts in different branches of the CofE that have this as their major background narrative). Some of my thoughts have been similar.
Is it the case, then, that what the Church needs to do is simply carry on being faithful in the way that it has been thus far? That the processes in the world that have led to a rejection of faith will turn and that people will once more embrace the faith? And – crucially – that the faith that is then embraced will be recognisably what it has been before? Again, some of my thoughts have been along these lines.
I am coming to the conclusion that simply persisting in the faith as we have received it is not enough. Yes, we must remain faithful – and continue to pray and share the sacraments and so on – but I am more and more convinced that the sorts of solutions I’ve argued for before are inadequate. Not wrong, simply insufficient for what needs to be done.
Most of the money raised by the Church of England goes to pay for the clergy, so if something is going to change then it has to centre on them. Most of the problems that clergy experience relate to the burden of establishment (buildings, PCCs, graveyards etc). So I wonder if the change might need to be separating clergy from all the legal aspects of establishment, and charging them simply to be ‘ministers of word and sacrament’ in particular areas. We could keep the houses as the link to particular parishes – so long as that housing was then offered for life (a soap box I shall avoid jumping on just now).
The thing is, if the sheep aren’t fed, they will leave or die (and sheep leaving or dying seems to be a good way to sum up the history of the Church of England over the last sixty years at least). We need to ruthlessly prioritise what we are investing in – and stop investing in the paraphernalia of establishment.
Yet perhaps what I am really describing with all of the above is less what the Church of England needs to do as a corporate body so much as what I need to do in my small part of that body: to be the change I want to see. After all, I have said a lot of this before. It’s not enough to say these things, I have to do things differently. To stop turning the institutional wheels and give myself over much more fully to proclaiming the gospel.