The great green herring of the IPCC

So those who know me know that I’m a dissident, old-fashioned and curmudgeonly sort, “afflicted with the malady of thought” – and that applies especially to Green things, where I find myself repeatedly annoyed by what I think of as ‘the great green herring’ of climate change.

I see the IPCC process as simply yet another form of the technological imperialism, the death-complex, that drives out our common humanity in favour of unacknowledged puritanical theologies and self-hatreds (I don’t doubt warming, nor human contributions to that, but all the coverage is about the most unlikely outcome). Fear is the mind-killer.

I like Schumacher’s idea of appropriate level technology, and the importance of the human scale, emphasising our biological and social nature and the importance of what we have in common. That is where we need to concentrate our attention – not with pandering to the fear-factories of modern media because we think that being seen is sufficient.

To put that in concrete terms – our future is not going to be electric cars, nor will it be people riding around on horseback, it will be everyone using a bicycle, and our communities will be geared around that, not the interests of the motorists.

The truth is that no matter what measures are taken to respond to climate change we are not going to be able to carry on in the way that we have been. We are still tracking the ‘world model’ outlined in the Limits to Growth, which means that in ten to fifteen years – AT BEST – we are going to go through a breakdown and collapse.

Personally I think it has already started – and it will solve the climate change problem fully no matter what we do. I first started studying climate change in 1989 – I still have my Greenpeace report on Global Warming on my bookshelf! – but what made me start questioning the orthodoxy was discovering LTG. You can’t be worried about both LTG and climate change – the one cancels the other.

Human life will carry on. Human civilisations will carry on. I think that the UK is well placed (in many senses) for a good future. The only question is how much damage the death-complex will make as it struggles with its own demise. When something is unsustainable that means that it will not be sustained, it will come to an end. Our machine civilisation, this asophic industrial fascism, will come to an end.

I am interested in what comes afterwards. What comes afterwards will be determined by the stories that we tell each other (which is why the Dark Mountain group is so important). I think a healthy story has to be rooted in the greatest story ever told – the only story that leads to long-term, healthy and sustainable communities. It’s also why we need a much better national narrative – more on that another time.

For a sense – a much more effectively-written sense – of what I am on about, have a read of this by Wendell Berry. Our human future begins with a hug.

Click to access Berry-Health-is-Membership.pdf

IDWTSLACP – why the crazy conversation is important (OR: why the UK has a more hopeful prospect than the US in the coming years)

One of the dire consequences of our present cultural breakdown is the collapse of a shared space of discourse – a common frame of reference, a mutual framework of values – against which, within which, we can hammer out our differences without threatening the stability, and therefore the safety, of the community as a whole.

One of those shared values is democracy, which has as a necessary component the notion of ‘loser’s consent’. In other words, democracy is the means by which we have agreed to resolve our differences. We make our arguments and then there is an election (or a referendum!) which produces a decision for one path or another, and then there is a gathering around that decision with a common resolve to make the decision work, or apply.

The two shocks in the English-speaking world, of 2016, did not receive that expected loser’s consent. However, the working out of that refusal of consent took a different path in the UK and in the US.

In the UK there was a concerted effort on the part of the governing class to overthrow the verdict of the referendum. However, in contrast to what happened in other EU member states, the governing class was not able to succeed. Through a sequence of further democratic votes, most notably the impact of the Brexit party in the EU elections of 2019, and culminating in the General Election of December 2019, the democratic decision was re-affirmed, Mr Johnson received a mandate for Brexit and – slightly to my surprise – he has actually implemented it.

Please note that this is not an argument saying that Brexit was the ‘right’ decision. This is simply saying that in the UK a democratic verdict was implemented – there was a time of strife but in the end the institutions of the state, the limbs of the body politic, did actually reflect the choice that was made.

(A personal aside: whilst I am – obviously – a committed Brexiteer, it was actually a sense that this needed to happen, that there was a risk of something profoundly wrong and damaging about to take place, that moved me to stick my head up above the parapet with the Brexit Party. That was a terrifying experience on all sorts of levels; but it was the right decision, and, I believe, it was of God. A small but healing (for me) act of prophetic drama.)

This outcome – that the UK voted for Brexit, and the UK has now got Brexit, for better or for worse – gives me a degree of confidence in the future of our society. Our institutions eventually worked, and that means that our institutions continue to enjoy the consent of the population. When things go wrong – as they seem to be doing with our COVID response, whatever your view on the underlying science – then people will turn to the existing systems to remedy what has gone wrong. In other words, if Johnson is eventually considered to be an incompetent and bumbling fool then he will be thrown out of office, either by the Conservative MPs as they face the prospect of losing an election, or by the voters in a General election themselves.

The reason why I think that this is so essential is because I think if it hadn’t happened – if Brexit had been somehow denied by overt and covert means – we would find ourselves in the situation that the United States finds itself in today.

When Trump was elected, against the odds, there was a parallel reaction of the establishment to try and overturn that democratic shift. It took various forms, Russiagate was the most blatant, but there were others. Again, this is not a point in favour of Trump, it is a point about the democratic process. When one side of a democratic context refuses to accept the basic legitimacy of a decision that they did not support, then it is the framework itself that breaks down – and when the framework breaks down then there is no longer a possibility of a consensual future.

In my view, what we are seeing in the United States today is the product of both long-term and short-term factors. The long-term factors need not detain us now (see MacIntyre amongst others) but the short-term factors are quite straightforward. The deplorables have been demonised, and they have demonised in turn. Trump was denied legitimacy, and now Biden is denied legitimacy. Consent in the democratic process is being withdrawn, and that withdrawal is escalating. Place this into a context of cultural polarisation and add free access to automatic weapons, then stir.

I am very worried about the short-term (up to five years) future of the United States. I do not see how to get through the crisis that now obtains without things getting significantly worse, up to and including a degree of civil conflict, and possibly the secession or breakdown of the United States itself.

If there is to be a shared future – and this applies to the UK also, even though I hope and pray that we have now avoided the worst outcomes – then I believe there are two linked things that simply must be put in place. The first relates to political leadership, the second relates to how ordinary people conduct themselves with each other.

Political leaders must demonstrate honesty. The normal jostling for advantage, the reliance upon ‘spin’ to present events in a light that is most flattering to the speaker, these belong to a more luxurious and decadent age. We need plain speaking, frank admissions of what has gone wrong, what the true situation is. Leaders need to trust people again – and that cannot happen if the full truth of a situation is not disclosed.

Similarly, if there is to be a renewal of our shared cultural space there needs to be an acceptance of the legitimacy of difference. To denounce different perspectives as malicious – which is what happened in the Brexit debates – and fail to engage in the substance is part of the cultural breakdown that leads to greater conflict.

One might say: if there is to be reconciliation between the warring factions, that reconciliation can only be built upon a shared truth.

Which is why the ‘crazy’ questions simply must be addressed. They must be engaged with, patiently, and the truth must be excavated and brought out into the light. It will not do to repeat talking points shared on the one side or the other. There must be a recognition of the sincerely held beliefs held by those who oppose. There has to be an affirmation of the shared humanity of the other side. Without this there is only perpetual conflict and dissolution.

I am hopeful that the UK has been enabled by grace to find that more creative path. On this day of Epiphany, the light that enlightens the nations, I pray for the US – an amazing nation, a beautiful people – currently in the grip of a devilish crisis. Lord have mercy.

Can an Archbishop be a Christian witness?

On the day that the IICSA report was published, the Archbishop of Canterbury released what was described as a ‘personal statement’, which was remarkable for its absence of Christian language, sentiment or perspective. Why?

Part of the reason why it was so remarkable is that Archbishop Welby has displayed a distinctively Christian witness at other times. When his unconventional family background was disclosed Welby remarked graciously that he ‘found his identity in Jesus Christ’. He has also sought to speak clearly about Jesus whenever he is interviewed, which is a standard for all clergy to aspire to. He is clearly capable of explaining and advocating for the Christian faith – which is surely a minimum job requirement in his present role.

So the remarkable absence of a Christian witness from the Archbishop’s ‘personal statement’ cannot be explained away with accusations against our Archbishop’s own perspectives or theology. That would be both unkind and untrue.

There may be a clue in the text. Within the statement there are two mentions of the word ‘Church’ and one use of the word ‘pray’. There is no mention of Jesus, let alone reference to the great theo-drama of repentance and grace, of forgiveness and redemption. In other words, if we change the word ‘church’ to the word ‘institution’ then we have something that could have been sent out by any organisation in the corporate world.

This is the problem. It is boilerplate drafted by lawyers. So how have we come to such a pass as this? Someone who is evidently capable of distinctive and inspiring Christian witness is – in the very position when such witness would be most expected – unable to give, or is prevented from giving, a distinctively Christian response.

At which point I call to mind that salt that has lost its saltiness is no longer good for anything, and is fit only to be trampled underfoot.

The problem is clearly an institutional one, not a personal one. Those with greater insight and information than I may be able to specify which institutional forces are responsible for this eclipsing of the capacity for Christian witness on the part of our Archbishop of Canterbury. I suspect that it is insurance companies not wanting a public admission of liability, but I could well be wrong.

Yet what most concerns me is that, as an institutional body, we may have lost the capacity to exercise theological discernment on such a situation as this. We do not see how shocking and damaging it is for there to be an absence of distinctive Christian witness at a moment when – for awful and terrible reasons – the attention of our nation is upon us. Our leading representative is constrained to speak in the language of secular reputational management, and I want to ask ‘what does it profit a man if he protect a reputation yet lose his own soul?’ We have given the devil a foothold.

Because we cannot see, we cannot respond with faith. Clearly when it comes to our corporate response to all that IICSA has investigated we have gone out from the presence of Jesus – “and it was night”.

It seems to me that in order to maintain a capacity for manifesting a Christian witness we need to have an institutional memory of what it means not to be captured by what Scripture calls the principalities and powers. When the early church became acceptable to the wider culture, those who were most sensitive to the risks of being captured by the interests of the Empire withdrew to the desert, and we still benefit from the insights discovered then.

As the Church of England we need to remember what it is to go in to the desert, to live by faith alone, to be willing to let go of everything except the knowledge of Christ and him crucified.

Doing this will require real spiritual leadership, not corporate reputational management. We choose the latter rather than the former because we are frightened of the desert. We cling to inherited status. We strive to protect our image. We are unwilling to sell everything we own to gain the pearl of great price.

And because we fear, we die. The spirit of the Lord is departing from our places. We cling to the vessel, but have forgotten that the purpose of the vessel was to share the holy wine.

So what is to be done? We must remember our faith and let it once again bear a genuine weight in our corporate life. We must repent, and speak the language of repentance, and return to the Lord who has torn us and will heal us. We need to start taking the living God seriously again, and then let Him look after our reputation.

What is God doing with the Church of England?

(Something shared with my Deanery colleagues, as part of our conversation about finding a way forward)

This middle section of Thomas Hardy’s De Profundis really speaks to me:

Considerabam ad dexteram, et videbam; et non erat qui cognosceret me (Ps142.4)

When the clouds’ swoln bosoms echo back the shouts of the many and strong
That things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long,
And my eyes have not the vision in them to discern what to these is so clear,
The blot seems straightway in me alone; one better he were not here.

The stout upstanders say, All’s well with us: ruers have nought to rue!
And what the potent say so oft, can it fail to be somewhat true?
Breezily go they, breezily come; their dust smokes around their career,
Till I think I am one horn out of due time, who has no calling here.

Their dawns bring lusty joys, it seems; their eves exultance sweet;
Our times are blessed times, they cry: Life shapes it as is most meet,
And nothing is much the matter; there are many smiles to a tear;
Then what is the matter is I, I say. Why should such an one be here?

Let him to whose ears the low-voiced Best seems stilled by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom, and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here.

Like many others I have long been frustrated with the pervasive sense of unreality that seems to govern decisions made within our church. So many initiatives, so much cheerleading, so much refusal to face what is happening (for an example, see this General Synod paper on ‘resourcing the future’ from 2015, which begins “This is a moment of great opportunity for the Church of England.”)

“… things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long…”

I want to begin our conversation in a different place. I want to ask “What is God doing with the Church of England at the moment?” For what I see is long-term structural collapse, that has been rolling forward for at least fifty years, with roots that extend backwards much further than that. I want to ask ‘what is God doing?’ because if we have no awareness of what God is doing we will not have the capacity to co-operate with what God is doing, and then all our doings are as nothing worth.

Most especially I want to insist of what is happening with the Church of England, the collapse that we are living through, that this is not an accident. I see the hand of God in this. If we thank God for the good why do we evade that with the bad? It’s as if we are comfortable saying thank you to God for good things and blessings that we received, but have somehow lost the capacity to experience God’s hand in the bad things that we experience. The bad things are assigned to rational or secular causes, or considered meaningless – which is an atheist framework. I want to say: the structural collapse of the Church of England is the working out of God’s Wrath, and unless we recover an understanding of what is meant by this language we will not be able to navigate forward.

So I ask: what is the most prominent cause for God’s Wrath when described in Scripture? Surely it is a lack of faith, a failure to worship the living God alone, a falling away from the first commandment which then has consequences for social justice, and, in time, political fallout too (most notably the Exile). We live in a society when it is comparatively easy and acceptable to live out the second commandment. I think we have settled into that comparative ease, and let the first commandment slide.

Before anything else, therefore, I think we need to honestly lament, and cry ‘God have mercy on us’ for our corporate lack of faith, with perhaps a day of fasting and prayer. We need to be able to grieve for what we have lost, and spend time recognising that we have played a part in this collapse due to our lack of faith.

What does our lack of faith look like?

I wonder how many of you saw Justin Welby’s ‘personal statement’ released following the publication of the IICSA report (text available here) I find it remarkable that the response of the institution to criticism is such a perfect example of legal boilerplate, without any reference to Jesus, let alone the theological drama of repentance and forgiveness, redemption and salvation. If the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot offer an authentic Christian witness at a moment like this (and I do not doubt his personal capacity to offer such a witness, this is a critique of the institution, not of him) what hope have the rest of us?

In my view the collapse of the Church has its roots in a lack of faith (that’s what I take from Scriptural precedent) and in our particular case it is a fundamentally doctrinal collapse, specifically, that as an institution we have unconsciously absorbed the secular framework of our surrounding culture. We have, in Scriptural language, gone whoring after foreign gods. The result of this is that we can no longer use spiritual language with confidence, and so we spend our time parading our secular virtues in order to be acceptable to the society in which we live. We are happy to demonstrate our sociologically convenient bona fides – such as giving support to measures designed to combat climate change, or genuflecting in church in solidarity with Black Lives Matter – and yet we have forgotten the rich spiritual language within which the second commandment can only make sense. That is, unless we have a true relationship with the living God we simply will not know what true love of neighbour looks like.

Most damagingly of all, with this collapse of doctrine the framework within which to understand the role of a priest has vanished. Instead of a ministry of Word and Sacrament we have had an evacuation of priesthood in favour of incumbency. I read this in a Sheldon Hub forum last week: “I have only been ordained for 18 years. I wasn’t trained (on a 2 years full time residential course) to be the CEO of a small-to-medium sized enterprise, and one which is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, in part because of its attitude towards matters of human sexuality, & its attitude towards equality. I wasn’t trained in charity management. I wasn’t trained in people management, or H&S, or food safety, or in being a “venue manager”. And simply saying that all of those things are someone else’s responsibility within the church doesn’t take away the fact that as the incumbent, the buck stops on my desk if they are not taken heed of and someone is hurt as a result of ignoring them.”

How then shall we turn again to the Lord, who has torn us and will heal us?

I believe that we have to be utterly ruthless and relentless in narrowing down our focus upon our core task – which is the Great Commandment, to proclaim the gospel and teach people to obey all that Jesus has commanded. As an institution we spend a vast amount on training clergy to be ministers of Word and Sacrament – to teach the faith and administer the spiritual medicine of the gospel – and then we ask them to do so many things other than that.

I am using the language of ‘we’, and clearly talking about ordained ministers. I believe passionately in the ministry of all the faithful, I am, after all, a Vocations officer for the Diocese as well as Assistant DDO, but I see something in the current emphasis on lay ministry as a manifestation of the doctrinal collapse I pointed to earlier. We (corporately, as an institution) don’t have an understanding of spiritual matters any more, and so we think that those set aside for the especial purpose of handling those spiritual matters are replaceable. I want to insist that the truth is precisely the opposite – we need to let priests be priests (not incumbents) – and set them free to manifest their full calling. We need to take spiritual matters seriously again. If we do that, it will in turn liberate the laity to manifest all their gifts, to be the church in the world.

There are other things I want to say here – about learning how to proclaim gospel in today’s society (both content and medium), which I am feeling a particular calling towards, and the need for us to concentrate on the intense discipling of small numbers of people, teaching them how to share transformed life and faith in turn, but this has already gone on for long enough.

I could be excited about these possibilities. I remain utterly convinced of the truth of the gospel as the Church of England has received it, and I also remain a loyal Anglican. I just feel so often like one “horn out of due time, who has no calling here”, whose role is simply to disturb the order as I watch the wheels continue to turn and crush the life out of clergy.

We need to concentrate on feeding the sheep, for if the sheep aren’t fed, they leave or they die – and that, to my mind, describes the history of the last fifty or so years of our Church. My lament is that, because we have corporately and unconsciously imbibed so much atheist thinking, we have forgotten what the food we can offer looks and tastes like, and so we scratch around trying to find more or less acceptable secular substitutes, chasing the latest fads out of fear and desperation, and the more this goes on, the more we fade away.

“…if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst…”

With love and respect to all of you, and looking forward to the continuing conversation,

Sam

PS totally gratuitous plug: I have a chapter in this book, being released on Thursday, which expands on some of the themes here

I am not a white Christian

Yesterday our Archbishop of Canterbury sent out this tweetabc white christian:

The single most important lesson I learned about racism I learned from an African-American named Steve. Before I went to university I had a gap year, three months of which were spent wandering around North America with a friend. We began with a week in New York, staying in the flat of a radical couple in which I was introduced to many intellectually exciting things – amongst them Noam Chomsky and Abbie Hoffmann – but what I most clearly remember was Steve’s insistence that racism was the belief that there are separate human races. I remember him talking about the census form, asking for information on racial category – and him saying ‘I write in “human” when they ask me about my race’.

The point I took from Steve was that as soon as you start thinking in racial terms, racism as an evil ideology is the inevitable consequence. The more that there is an insistence upon one racial category, the more that thinking in racial categories becomes endemic.

(This is not to deny that there is something real being described (objected to) with #Blacklivesmatter – there is clearly a deep-rooted structural racism within US society generally, and their police forces in particular, which needs to be addressed. At the end of our three months we returned to New York, and before meeting up with Steve again, we spent some time sat on the floor of the Greyhound station. I vividly remember policemen walking by us, ignoring us, and then hassling the African-Americans further along. That was when I realised just how deeply the racism was embedded in US society.)

The challenge for us all is to identify what is wrong without succumbing to thinking in racial categories. We have to use the right language to describe the problem, otherwise we simply repeat and amplify the original sin, we surrender that which is most distinctively Christian: that our identity in Christ surpasses all of our other identities, without obliterating them. In other words the most fundamental truth about anyone is that they are made in the image of God, and the most fundamental truth about me is that I am a Christian. As was once so wisely said, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

When we succumb to using racial categories and then – much more dangerously – use those categories in the form of accusations then we have left behind the Holy Spirit and are giving service to another. It would seem that a tormenting spirit is upon our Archbishop, and he has hurled a spear of accusation, which is the tool of the enemy. I shall step to one side and allow the spear to embed itself in the wall beside me.

In Christ there is neither black nor white. There are no black Christians or white Christians or Christians ‘of colour’. To add an adjective before the word Christian is to risk, blasphemously, the full meaning of the word Christian. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Healing can only be built upon our recognition of our common humanity, not on cornerstones of blame and accusation.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

I am not a white Christian. I am Sam, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.

The pathway and the plank

Much commentary about the effects of this COVID crisis seem to me to be assuming too much. In particular, there is an assumption that it is both possible and desirable to return to how things were before the virus so disrupted our patterns of life.

In saying this I am not simply referring to the point that human behaviour has changed, and become more cautious, and that the damage being caused by social distancing will remain even were the legal elements of the lockdown to be lifted. (I am sympathetic to the idea that we can rely on common sense to carry us through, à la Sweden, but I am not wholly persuaded that our shared understanding is yet adequate for that task.)

No, I think there is a more fundamental challenge, and to make that clear I want to employ two contrasting images.

The first is of a pathway up a mountain. It is a good path, and as we ascend higher up the mountain, so the scenery becomes more breathtaking. In this image, the ascension up the mountain corresponds to our economic growth, which takes us ‘higher and higher’. In this image the virus is like a small landslide. There is now a blockage up ahead, and we’ll have to go a little lower in order to get around it – but then we can resume our upward path. In other words, in this image, there is nothing fundamental about our situation prior to the virus that makes it at all problematic to go back. We will get back to the pathway once this crisis is over.

My second image is different. It is of walking the plank – that is, of a wooden path being extended over the side of a ship, and walking along it until there is a catastrophic departure from the path which can never be regained.

My view is that the crisis is tipping us off a plank, not just setting us back on our path. There are lots of reasons why I think that – mostly to do with the Limits to Growth – but it’s the reflexive assumption of the pathway image that most concerns me.

Our culture has assumed that constant economic growth is the best of all possible things, and we live in the best of all possible worlds that has such economic growth within it.

This economic growth has become an idol, and worship of the idol has stored up for us a vast cornucopia of problems, ecological, sociological and financial. The virus has given this idol a huge shove, and now we are watching the idol topple.

To get through this, which will take many years yet, we need to imagine things differently. We will need to work out ways in which we can look after each other during this crisis, and develop the equivalent for our own time of rationing during World War Two (my preference is a UBI but there are other possibilities).

Most of all, I think we need to learn how to swim. There are sharks around, but also a rowing boat or two.

Are we smarter than yeast?

One result of the coronavirus crisis is that many more people now understand the nature of exponential growth, and the way in which it can cause overwhelming problems. There is much finger-pointing focussing on whether our various national leaders did the right thing or not, given information available at the time.

At some point – in a few months or a few years – we will be on the other side of the coronavirus crisis. We will have adapted to it, either through finding a vaccine or through social adjustments. That particular problem will be fixed, more or less successfully.

However, coronavirus is only one problem. Just as epidemiologists were sounding the alarm back in January, so too have students of the Limits to Growth been sounding an alarm for many decades. The timescale is different, yet the underlying issue is the same.

With coronavirus there has been much talk of ‘flattening the curve’, principally so as not to overwhelm the available health-care resources. We can apply the exact same reasoning to the growth of human population and resource consumption on planet earth.

If we do nothing, and the exponential growth of the economy continues, then there will come a point when we overwhelm the resources available to us. That will be catastrophic.

So are we smarter than yeast? Yeast in a petri dish will grow exponentially until all the resources are exhausted, and will then die off. Can we do better than that?

It’s possible that we can. To do better, however, needs us to behave in a wise fashion – and our culture is radically unwise. I call it asophic, blind to wisdom – it is so unwise that it no longer even understands what wisdom is.

Wisdom would have meant acting differently in January when it became clear that there was an extremely contagious virus now on the loose in the world.

Wisdom means cultivating humility before the truth. This is a spiritual task. The Western world is unprepared to meet the crisis of our times because it has become a spiritual desert. We need to repent.

The church is not innocent of blame in this. It has colluded in the privatisation of faith and the academicisation of theology. We no longer teach people how to pray, or cultivate the fear of God. With you is my contention O priest.

I see our present situation as a dress rehearsal for what is to come – and what is coming soon. We are about to experience a great economic unravelling, as the house of cards of our economic system, based on debt, suffers a seizure.

For those that believe in God, this can be received as a gift. There is still a little time left to get our house in order, before the multiple, overlapping and mutually reinforcing crises of our time come together and collapse our culture.

I started teaching about this fifteen years ago, and wrote a book about how the church should understand and respond to it ten years ago. I couldn’t find a publisher for it then. I’m hoping to find one now. People might be more willing to listen.

The Lentiest Lent

I came across this comment from a clergy colleague on Facebook – “This is the Lentiest Lent that I have ever Lented”. It struck a chord.

The themes of Lent are certainly magnified for us today. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when we are marked with ash to signify our mortality, ‘from dust you come and to dust you shall return’. We are enjoined to spend the forty days of Lent in fasting, self-denial and acts of charity, and these disciplines are to help us to return to God. For much of the year, in good times, it is more possible to forget God, for life is comfortable. In Lent we are to instead adopt a more austere discipline, letting go of pleasures and pastimes in order to remind ourselves of what is truly important.

Which is where a great deal of meaning is now to be found. As a society and nation – indeed, as a community of nations – much of our normal pattern of behaviour is on hold. We are being required to assess what is really important, and what is merely optional; what gives life, and what takes life away.

We are, in short, being invited to return to the Lord.

In this, the Long Lent that we are journeying through, and for which we cannot confidently predict an end, we are in fact entering into a Sabbath. There is much important theology about the Sabbath, and the importance of observing it. At its heart is a sense that the Sabbath is a gift. For one day of the week the people of God are to put to one side their normal burdens of existence, their ‘work’. They are instead simply to be, to exist. They are not to do, to achieve, to strive. All the doings must stop, must come to a complete halt, in order that the people of God might remember who they are in the sight of God. Then, on that basis, they are to re-engage with their normal patterns of life and labours, and slowly work towards the redemption of the world.

If we are to follow God’s will through this time of coronavirus I think we would do well to think of it, so far as possible, as a time of Sabbath, when we can pause in our strivings and spend time listening to God, seeking to understand what God is telling us at this moment in time. I think it rather unlikely that God wishes us to return to the status quo ante. Instead I think we are to exercise discernment, and to sift all our previous habits, as with Lenten disciplines, and ask what gives life, and what takes life away.

There is a related theme in the Old Testament, which is summed up in the word Jubilee. The people of Israel were required to keep a Sabbath year as well as a Sabbath day, during which time they were not to farm their land. In that year they were simply to consume what the land naturally produced. They were also to renounce efficiency in doing so, leaving the gleanings for the poor and the animals. By doing this, the land would be blessed. After seven cycles of this (49 years) there would then be a Jubilee year, during which time all debts would be forgiven and each family would be returned to its ancestral home.

However, this instruction was often ignored. The people of Israel lacked faith that there would be enough to go around, and so kept farming no matter what happened. When the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and took the Israelite leadership into Exile this teaching was remembered, and we read in 2 Chronicles that as a result “The Land enjoyed its Sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were complete…” (2 Chron 36.21)

I hear the stories being shared now, of the way in which the dolphins have returned to the canals in Venice, and the blue sky can be seen in previously polluted cities, and I wonder if this is a sign to us. That we have gone too far with our doings and our strivings and achievings, and that we need to spend time resting in God, simply being human. We have been forced to become more local, more simple, calmer and quieter. This seems to be of God to me.

Let’s ensure that when this remarkable time of confinement has come to an end, we return to a busier life with a clearer sense of what is important, of what gives life and what takes life away. If we do, I believe that God will richly bless us.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29.11)

We shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation

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.

I’ll keep you posted.

Shall we prepare ourselves for the last ever Conservative Prime Minister?

So, Theresa May – and hopefully her WA – are now moving in to the rear view mirror.
I wrote a little while back about God’s plan for Brexit and my main sense is that, no matter what the decisions of individual actors, there is a larger picture going on, determining whether those decisions have any effect.

[Brief aside: I’m more and more persuaded that the EU is going to break down in the next few years (principally through a renewed financial/Euro crisis) and if it survives it will only do so on a radically reformed basis. It will either be a union – maybe a smaller union – propped up by German money, in which case there will be a ‘continuity EU’; or else there will be a new organisation inheriting elements of it. It’s the fact that the French have so many problems that makes me think it will be the latter.]

What is on my mind is the sense that so many actions being taken will not have the effect that is expected; indeed, I think they will often have precisely the opposite effect. In particular, there are lots of assumptions that whoever replaces Theresa May will occupy the post of Prime Minister for a good stretch of time. Consider this line of thought:

– it’s very unlikely that the Conservative Party will elect someone who rules out ‘no deal’ – indeed, I expect the Euro election results to be so bad for the Conservatives that those running for leader will each seek to ‘outFarage’ the others, and make an active embrace of ‘no deal’ as a realistic option a key part of their platform;
– there is a clear majority against no deal in Parliament;
– if we get to end September, with no movement from the EU on, eg, NI, along with lots of noises from Macron etc that ‘this can’t go on’, what will that majority do when they are facing the very real prospect of a no deal exit? in particular, what will the likes of Dominic Grieve do?

I would expect that, with the prospect of a no deal looming large at the end of October, as soon as Parliament reconvenes after the conferences, Jeremy Corbyn will submit a vote of no confidence. Enough MPs will vote for it – so the new Conservative leader will no longer be Prime Minister – they would probably be the last ever Conservative PM. (Would July – October be the shortest modern premiership I wonder?)

Once that happens there will then be lots of back-door politicking out of which either:
a) nobody else commands a majority – therefore an election, or
b) Corbyn (or possibly ANOther Labour person) cobbles together a cross-party coalition for the purposes of implementing a second referendum with Remain on the ballot paper (against what? don’t know, can’t guess) and forms a government on the basis of at least a one-year supply and confidence agreement with other groups (SNP, Libs, CHUK and pro-Remain Tories).

The EU will, in this situation, be cheering on the second referendum crowd from the sidelines, and I would expect them to be happy to provide an extension for that purpose. Unless Macron goes mad of course.

I’m guessing the latter, and this will absolutely enrage the voting public and catalyse a major shift in UK politics
(MPs will hide from the consequences for as long as they can – I can’t see them voting for a new GE if they can avoid it). A second referendum will be truly awful, but afterwards, whatever the outcome, there will be an epochal GE, out of which I expect to see two major parties remaining – TBP and whatever the Remain party turns into once we have left the EU (possibly an enlarged LibDem/Green alliance).

For what it’s worth, I’ll definitely be voting for the non-Boris candidate!