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

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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

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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.

First they came for the white man

Many will be familiar with the message shared by Martin Niemoller, a German Pastor who spent seven years imprisoned by the Nazis:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller’s point is a profound one. If we allow a society to develop which victimises a particular class of people, then a dynamic is established which will end in our own destruction. A system that requires sacrifices and scapegoats will slowly work its way threw a list. In the Nazi society, the scapegoats were principally the Jews, but also gypsies, homosexuals and handicapped. We now view such a society with utter horror. Yet have we gone too far in the other direction?

Consider briefly the story of James Damore, a former employee of the internet company Google. Google is officially committed to diversity and inclusion, that is, they are concerned to ensure that they are not prejudiced in how they recruit people to work for them. There has been discussion within the company as to why, despite their best efforts, the ratio of male to female amongst their employees was heavily skewed towards men.

Damore wrote a memo drawing on research in the human sciences which indicates that there are significant differences between men and women. These show up not just in terms of intellectual capacity for certain tasks, but also in terms of interests. Damore argued that whilst there were things that could be done by Google to make it a more welcoming environment for women, there may be certain innate constraints that would mean Google would never gain a perfectly balanced ratio of male and female employees – and that this was OK. He called for a conversation around these topics.

For this, Damore was fired from his post.

To my mind, this story sounds like a description of a witch-hunt. The modern gods of diversity and inclusion were offended, and so the source of the heresies needed to be hunted out and expelled from the community. Doubtless there are now many employees of Google enjoying warm fuzzy feelings of self-righteousness – “we’re the good guys”!

What happens when perfectly calm and rational debate is silenced in this way? As Tyrion Lannister put it, “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” Acting in this way simply gives fuel to those who are much less calm and rational, such as those who recently gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to march for ‘white supremacy’. Whenever I see such a situation I am reminded of the words of Kahlil Gibran, “for what is evil but good, tortured by its own thirst, and forced to drink of stagnant waters”.

James Damore is a white man, and that means he is – to use the contemporary jargon – writing from a position of utmost privilege, and as a consequence his words do not need to be considered on their own merits. When there is a struggle for power within a community the different tribes within that community will use all sorts of ways to signal their membership of one tribe or another, and that signalling will serve for the deployment of various sorts of power.

So, James Damore, who is both white and a man (two strikes against him) articulates views that threaten to disrupt the pursuit of what are seen as the highest goods (diversity and inclusion) and is thus deprived of his employment.

The pursuit of diversity and inclusion, what might be thought of as a programme of ‘anti-Nazism’, or a Niemoller manifesto – include those who were excluded! – is now embarked upon the same path as Nazism itself. It has found a scapegoat to embody all that is evil, and will work with all the forms of power available to it in order to victimise and expel that evil. The evil, of course, is the white man.

The challenge is not simply to avoid the manifest evils of Nazism but to engage much more radically in interrogating the human desires which gave rise to such evil. Without this, one form of Nazism (white race is all good!) is simply replaced by its inverse and equal (white race is all bad!). We need to shift away from thinking of human beings as members of categories at all.

What I have in mind is Martin Luther King’s vision of people being judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. Whenever we treat a person as a member of a category we go wrong. That category can be anything we choose – black or white, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight or otherwise engaged – but when we treat a person simply as a member of a class, rather than treating them as a unique individual with their own identity and character – then we are on the dark road that leads to the industrial elimination of that class.

We have to be more creative, honest and open in our search for improving our world, and not rely upon the lazy virtue signalling of the politically correct establishment.

What is the music of Jesus?
Sermon for West Mersea Patronal Festival 2017

I had planned to make these remarks at our AGM this year, but for many good and varied reasons there were very few of us at that meeting, so I have kept them back for a more popular occasion.

When I was on retreat last December I read Amanda Palmer’s fascinating book ‘The Art of Asking’. In amongst other things she discusses her accommodation in New York when she was just starting out. The landlord was clearly a remarkable character, who was concerned as much to establish an artistic haven as to maximise his rent. He saw his role as one of enabling others to flourish creatively, rather than to do so himself.

That struck me as being very close to the role of incumbent within a parish. “In the beginning was the Word” and that applies to each of us individually, we each have a word from God that we need to speak. We often call this our ‘vocation’ – the word that God spoke which gives us life.

You are each marvellous and amazing and miraculous and wonderful – my job is to help you become all that you were originally created to be.

How might that be done?

I want to share with you an ecological term of art, which is legibility. If we think of an old growth forest then we are considering something complex that has been built up over time. Comparing that to a modern commercial tree plantation it is easy to see how that is more ‘legible’ than the first – much more efficient, much more capable of being exploited by the landowners. Similarly, if we compared the City of London with all its small streets and byways with a modern city, say Milton Keynes or an American city, the latter are much more ‘legible’ than the former.

St Peter and St Paul’s is an old growth forest, a medieval city. My role is to curate that variety, sometimes pruning, sometimes fertilising, but always with a view to preserving the breadth of life that is possible in this place. What I believe we need to avoid is an emphasis upon what is legible, able to be controlled from above, which sees human beings as resources to be extracted in favour of a different agenda. This may mean that not everything we do will make coherent sense; it means that we will have to live with frustrations and contradictions.

For this to happen, however, one thing is essential. In our common life together lots of decisions need to be made, small and large. We need to respect and affirm our differences from each other. As St Paul puts it, the head cannot say to the foot we don’t need you. We need each other! But we can only do this if we love each other more than we love our own preferences. Our unity is in Christ alone.

To that end, the PCC have supported me in developing what we have called the “Big Sing”. This is an informal and relaxed service which is designed to reach those who haven’t been reached, or who have been put off, by what we do as a church. One remark that has always stayed with me from the priest of my sponsoring parish, where I began my own journey to fulfilling my vocation, was “the empty seats also have a voice”. I believe that it is essential that we reach out to those who are not part of our fellowship. The Big Sing will not be for everyone – there will be more emphasis upon modern styles of music for a start – but I would ask you to please support it, please invite a friend if you think they might enjoy it.

Which brings me to a point about our church more generally, at a wider, perhaps a national level. I am a fan of Game of Thrones, both the books and the television series. It is a fantasy sequence, a sort of cross between The Wars of the Roses and Lord of the Rings. The foreground conflict is about the struggle between various noble houses for control of the throne of the kingdom, hence the title ‘Game of Thrones’. Yet overshadowing that conflict is the looming reality of an army of ice zombies that are about to march south upon humanity, who represent the real danger.

I rather think that this describes our own beloved Church of England. We squabble simply because we are not spiritually serious. We have taken our eyes away from the most fundamental concerns, and now we waste our time bickering about secondary questions – adiaphora.

What would it look like if we were spiritually serious? I recently had a conversation with Ian (organist) which I have been thinking a great deal about. Ian pointed out that if he wanted to learn about Mozart, he might read all sorts of good books about Mozart’s life, be taught lots of interesting things about his relationships, his context, his life and death – but if he never heard Mozart’s music then the most essential element of who Mozart was – his vocation, his ‘word of God’ – would be missed.

So the question becomes: what is the music of Jesus?

My answer is a work in progress, but at the moment it looks something like this: Jesus was a teacher, yet to say that ‘the music of Jesus’ was his teaching would, I believe, remove the most essential thing. For Jesus’ teaching was almost always embedded in the whole of a life. Jesus spent his ministry performing signs, acts of power which were often healing or exorcisms. It is these ‘signs and wonders’ that I believe to be the music of Jesus, and I believe they culminate in the events of the great three days, that is, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

More particularly, I don’t believe that we can capture the music of Jesus simply by considering his works as ‘doing good’. Please don’t misunderstand my point here. I do believe that it is the work of the church to ‘do good’. I have been struck by the accounts of the Grenfell Tower blaze, and the way in which the local churches became community hubs of service and aid. As Giles Fraser put it, the churches did the most essential things right: they opened their doors and turned their lights on, and the community was able to use them.

Yet I believe that the church can become distracted by thoughts of ‘doing good’, because it is in fact much easier (and more socially approved of) than the harder spiritual tasks that we are in fact called to. The feeding of the five thousand was not a proto-food bank; rather, it was a highly political event which had, amongst other things, a dismantling of social divisions at its heart.

Put simply, the music of Jesus is both more political and more spiritual than ‘doing good’ can capture. This is why our worship is more important than anything else, why we need to root our lives in the sacraments which shape us spiritually. Politics and spiritual warfare fit together like hands and gloves – it is not an accident that Jesus was executed by the state. I believe that it is only through a concentration on the spiritual essentials that we will gain the spiritual maturity that we need to cope with our differences.

I believe that there is a particular genius to the Church of England, to being a broad church, pursuing a via media between different extremes, within which a large variety of people can find spiritual nourishment and healing. I have been influenced greatly by the Tractarian movement, what is now called ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ which has a three-fold emphasis: the claim that God became physical flesh; that we can meet God through the physical substance in the Eucharist; and that we are called to serve the physical flesh of Christ in our neighbours. There is one comment from a key leader of the Tractarian movement that has served for me as something of an aim and guide, not as an achievement(!), and it is this: “Even if the Church of England were to fail, it would still be found in my parish.” (John Keble)

May we show forth something of the spiritual power of Christ as we find our own vocations here on this wonderful island of Mersea; may we hear the music of Jesus, and play it for others to hear as well. Amen.

On the importance of character arcs

Matthew-CrawleyIf another character – Falcon, or the Winter Soldier – takes up the shield of Captain America, he will not be Captain America. I want to know the story of Steve Rogers.

If another character – like Jane Foster – picks up Mjolnir to become ‘Thor’, that will not be the story of the Odinson.

Most human stories have no wider significance. There are no wider lessons to be learnt. They are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Those are not the stories that I wish to invest my scarce and precious time absorbing. ‘Life is hard, random accidents happen at all times, beware’. Thank you for telling me something that I did not know.

Think of Brienne in Game of Thrones. If she doesn’t end up with some sort of decent narrative closure with Jamie then that will be a very long story without much meaning (there is some meaning already, I’ll grant that). Whereas if Jamie, for his crimes, is exiled and has to spend the rest of his life confined to the island of Tarth… well, that’s a story worth telling.

All this is triggered by my disgust at the show runners of Downton Abbey. A clear dereliction of duty. The soul of the story has gone – why continue? A mere accumulation of events, and what is the significance in that?

Have Conservative hopes gone up in smoke?

The appalling tragedy of Grenfell tower has come very rapidly to symbolise all that is wrong with right-wing beliefs. Here was a tower block that had no water-sprinklers installed, that had the wrong sort of cladding, that was overcrowded – and it was in the one local authority that best epitomises excess wealth. Here the obvious story is one of heartless landlords pruning back their costs and the iniquities that follow from handing over to private capitalists the responsibility to ensure that public housing is safe. In short, this is what happens when you let rapacious right-wingers run the system for private profit – death, horrible, horrible death.

All this as the cherry on top of the cake which was the 2017 election – I suppose that the only thing that Conservatives can feel grateful for is that it didn’t happen immediately before the election, otherwise it would be Jeremy Corbyn grimacing outside number 10. He, after all, was the beneficiary of ‘the big mo’ – momentum – and enjoyed a huge swing of support amongst younger voters. There is clearly something remarkable about Corbyn, a premium upon authenticity, which allows him to engage with groups that have previously had little interest in the political process.

So are the Conservatives now completely stuffed? Brexit seems to be going wrong, the Prime Minister has been stripped of all her authority and most of her dignity, and public opinion appears to have settled on the idea that Conservatives are selfish and wicked. Is there any way back?

I rather think there is. More than that, slightly dependent on when it takes place, I would put good money on the Conservatives winning an outright majority at the next election. Why would I say that?

Well, in the first instance, this last election campaign had to be one of the most atrociously led and managed of any conducted by a major party since the war. To turn an opinion poll lead of over 20% into a hung parliament six weeks later takes a quite phenomenal level of incompetence. The fact that it began by focussing exclusively upon the personal qualities of the Prime Minister herself means that she has to bear much of the burden of blame. Yet what that also means is that she will not be allowed to lead the Conservatives into the next election, and it is therefore reasonable to expect that the outcome will be better for them.

Secondly, in the light of the popularity of the Labour manifesto’s commitments, and the opposite situation with the Conservative, we can anticipate that the policy platform proposed from the right will be both more coherent and more attractive than what was offered this time. Again, this can only help.

Third, there is a good chance that the recommendations of the boundary review commission will be implemented in the life-time of this new parliament, which would be worth around twenty seats or so, dependent on all sorts of assumptions (many of which, admittedly, were shown to be foolish by the last results).

More than all this, however, I suspect that the Conservative party will remember what it is that has made it (reputedly) the most successful political party in the Western world: that is, it will remember how to be ruthless in the pursuit of power. By this I don’t simply mean that our present Prime Minister is living on borrowed time. I mean that there will be a thorough investigation of what the Conservatives have done wrong and what Labour did right, and there will be shameless stealing of both programmes and methods as the Conservatives seek to entrench their hold on power.

What I would expect is that, in a few years time – once Theresa May has absorbed as much public hostility as possible and become our Lady of Sorrows – she is elegantly replaced by a leader who knows how to emote in public in an engaging way; someone who can use social media effectively; and someone who can sell whatever Brexit compromise has been reached by that point.

I suspect that whoever that person is will be a socially-liberal Tory. Since the seventies there has been an increasing tension within the Conservative party between the more traditional social conservatives with values that might be thought of as ‘country’ – call these the ‘Tories’ – and those who are more concerned with free-market economics, with values that might be thought of as being more financially focussed – for now, call these the ‘Conservatives’.

What Grenfell has crystallised, I believe, is a thorough rejection of ‘Conservative’ values in the sense just described. That is, in a society which well remembers billions of pounds being handed over to subsidise incompetent bankers and preserve their bonuses, voters simply will not believe that there is not enough money to pay for adequate housing for every member of this nation. Rather, arguing for the benefits of a private sector approach simply comes across as heartless and grasping, a ploy to preserve benefits for the elite whilst ignoring the plight of the poor. There is no future for that approach.

However, looking at the larger picture and the wider political movements (of which Brexit itself is a prominent part) there is clearly a place for a politics which emphasises the values of a community. Not an abstract community defined from above but the natural and organic sort of community that spontaneously develops amongst people of good will who live in close proximity to each other – that which has been seen most vividly in the streets of North Kensington as the community there has rallied around to support those who have lost their homes at Grenfell. Those sorts of values fall very naturally into the ‘Tory’ framework I mentioned above.

I said ‘socially liberal Tory above’, by which I simply mean someone who is comfortable with the main elements of the sexual revolution and gender equality as I can’t see any mainstream leader being successful if they try to go against those things. It would be best if such an acceptance was unquestionable, and could not be portrayed as a purely political gesture.

Does such a creature as a socially-liberal Tory exist, or is this just a product of fevered and wishful thinking? Well, this isn’t a prediction for her future career trajectory, but Ruth Davidson really does seem to tick most of these boxes… Watch that space.