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.

gop20061027

gop20101021

GOPmar09

olhol3

olhol4

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?

The great strategic error of the green movement

We have witnessed scenes of appalling devastation in recent weeks as a sequence of hurricanes has caused havoc in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. First Hurricane Harvey dumped vast quantities of rainwater on Houston; then Irma flattened many islands; now, at the time of writing, Maria has blasted Dominica and Puerto Rico.

In the face of such damage and suffering there are many arguing that there is a link with global warming. The Guardian, for example, carried a column by Bill McKibben comparing these hurricanes to the time when a long-time smoker starts coughing up blood – it is not that there will be bad consequences of our choices in the future, rather, the bad consequences are here, now.

The underlying point is that our human activity has caused this bad weather. There is one straightforward sense in which this is true, which is that if the climate is getting warmer (which it is) then there will, over time, be more energy available to produce these hurricanes. Yet this argument, especially when compared to the link between smoking and lung cancer, runs together arguments that should remain separate.

The first way in which it misleads is that it is not known how far the amount of warming that the climate is experiencing is being driven by natural variability rather than human activity, something which is known as ‘climate sensitivity’. There are different estimates for this, which are being adjusted regularly as the science evolves. At present, the best estimate for the human element – that is, what might be attributed to a doubling of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere – is around 1.5°C. (Source) It should be noted that this is much less than is claimed by what might be called the ‘alarmists’, and is difficult to pick out from the natural variability of the climate.

The second way in which this misleads is that it makes the science of hurricanes rather more simple than it actually is. The heat of the water is not the only factor that can lead to more intense hurricanes. This year it would appear that a significant factor is the very low amount of ‘wind-shear’ (cross winds) that would normally work to lessen hurricanes but this year has had the opposite effect. There is no clear link between wind-shear and global warming.

In simple terms, when someone like McKibben makes the comparison with cancer caused by smoking he is distorting the truth. Sadly, McKibben is not the only one. Whenever in recent weeks I have read an article about the hurricanes that claims some attribution to global warming caused by human industries I think about all the times that green writers complain about people, noticing snow outside, and saying ‘so much for global warming’. The plural of anecdote is not data, they say, and this is true. Just because it is snowing in England does not, of itself, invalidate a broader climate shift.

The same is true for hurricanes. Just because we have had a bad hurricane – or even a bad hurricane season – this does not, of itself, signify a climate shift. There would need to be a sustained pattern of change before we can confidently say that there is a phenomenon that needs explanation, let alone agree on what the explanation might be. If we look at the last ten years, we can see that there has been no rise in the number of hurricanes in the Caribbean.

My real worry is that, by placing so much emphasis upon global warming in their general advocacy, the green movement has built their house upon sand – and when the rains and the storms come, that house will fall down.

What I mean is that the green movement has really emphasised global warming as the problem that dwarfs all other problems. In doing this they have done two things: hitched their wagon to science, and a science that is not especially robust; and put to one side the much richer insights that previous generations of green thinkers have pursued.

What I have in mind are the wider, more spiritual aspects of green thinking, as best exemplified by someone like EF Schumacher and his ‘Small is Beautiful’. If we reflect upon what it means to be human, and what gives value to our lives, then we will be less concerned to fill our lives with more and more stuff, and more concerned to ensure that our natural environment is kept healthy, so that we in turn might remain healthy too. We would seek patterns of human living that emphasise a respect for all creatures, including other human beings in all their diversity – and be willing to protect our own elements of that diversity too. We would by more fully aware of all the diverse ways in which we are hitting the Limits to Growth – which, in contrast to climate science, has models that have been vindicated over time – and we would seek to tread lightly on the earth, in harmony with the natural rhythms of this wonderful world that we live in. We will, most of all, regain a much healthier understanding of the place of science within a wider and wiser understanding of our lives as a whole.

Such an approach would, I believe, have much more resonance than one that has become absorbed into a technocratic and bureaucratic juggernaut that has left concerns for basic truth behind (for more on why, see the jaw-dropping exposé of the IPCC process written by Donna LaFramboise).

People have a good, stout sense of when someone is talking rubbish to them. Sadly, the green movement has been rumbled on this point, and talk about global warming is now tuned out. The cost for this is immense. The green movement has something essential to contribute to the national conversation, at scales both small and great, yet their over-investment in one particular ecological scare has meant that their voice has been eclipsed, and a generation of activism has been wasted. I would respectfully suggest that, if the green movement wants to make more headway in our present society, they need to stop talking about global warming for a while.

Christianity has declined because it no longer believes in magic

Eucharist icon

Some thoughts prompted by reading John Michael Greer here. JMG says, “I’m far from the only person to notice that something very strange has been happening to Christianity for quite a long time now. The liberal denominations that used to be the mainstream capitulated to atheism back in the 1950s — you’ll have to look long and hard to find ministers in any liberal church who actually, literally believe in the objective reality of the God whose weekly worship they’re paid to conduct—and now function mostly as charitable foundations and political-action committees with a sideline in rites of passage.” Then later on he says, “Valerie Flint, in her brilliant book The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, has documented that a core reason Christianity was able to spread so rapidly across Europe, winning support from local warlords and kings, was that Christian monastics and clergy earned a reputation for being better at magic than their Pagan rivals: better, that is, at delivering the goods that religion is supposed to deliver.”

I think there is a very great deal of truth in this (I leave aside the category mistake that JMG makes about ‘God’ and gods).

Specifically, I see the death of the mainstream churches (in the West) as rooted in a surrender to a scientific spirit which – as part and parcel of that spirit – also rejects any acceptance of magic and (what is commonly called) the supernatural.

If the church doesn’t dispense magic – and the most magical elements of Christianity are the sacraments – then it no longer has a spiritual purpose, and JMG’s description is justified.

Magic here must be understood in its proper sense, not Harry Potter-esque action at a distance, but rather as the changing of consciousness in accordance with will. In Christian terms it is about the renewing of our minds.

How many clergy actually take spiritual warfare seriously in their daily lives? I am only beginning to, and I am aware of how far I have to go in developing this, yet I am very conscious that – most especially from the viewpoint of the institution – I am a bizarre outlier. It’s a marker for how far the scientistic spirit has taken root within the church itself.

I am conscious of having written about this in greater depth in my book: “With you is my contention O priest!” I am quite certain that unless we attend to this deep spiritual wound within our common life then everything else we do will be of nothing worth.

Which is another way of saying: the first commandment must come first, and because that is laughed at within the church, this is why we die.

(Perhaps the problem is that different factions within the church claim the right to say what the first commandment means. At least the RC church doesn’t have that problem.)

Something to add to my musings about the Church of England. I do not yet have a solution; but I am working on it.