A brief thought about the Irish referendum

I believe that abortion is always and in every case morally wrong (and hugely destructive for the mother).
I also believe that there are rare occasions when it can be less wrong than the alternative.
In practical terms, I think the UK should move to a 12 week limit for abortions, rather than fully illegal.
Which is what has just been voted for in Ireland.
Yet I can’t help but feel incredibly sad at the change.
Lord have mercy.

Freedom needs authority and accountability

As a fairly classic introvert, when I have to go on a long train journey I like to book ahead and make use of the ‘quiet carriage’ – the one where people are asked not to use mobile phones (that is, not to have public conversations) or make any other excessive noise. Bliss for introverts!

On my most recent journey, coming back from Cornwall, I was sat opposite a mature couple, both of them teachers – and very quiet they were too. However, the same could not be said for many of the other occupants of the carriage. In particular there was a group of youths who were rather boisterous and a young mum whose progeny was well behaved, but who delighted in telling all and sundry about that progeny, and much else besides, on her mobile phone.

The teachers across from me became increasingly exasperated. When the ticket inspector came along, they asked him if he would be able to do anything. He demurred, clearly feeling rather awkward, and then commented ‘it’s alright, they’re getting off at the next stop’. Which they did, and the remainder of the journey was suitably restful.

However, am I alone in thinking that something has gone wrong with our society? This is in so many ways a trivial example, yet it is one that can give a clear insight into the issues. The train company had set up a carriage for the purpose of being quiet, and this was very clearly advertised within the carriage itself, and by announcements from the driver. That purpose was thwarted by two groups of people, either because they were unaware of the purpose of the carriage or because they didn’t care (I rather suspect the latter).

Those who had the responsibility for ensuring that the purpose of the quiet carriage was upheld were clearly uncomfortable at the thought of trying to ensure that this happened. I don’t blame the conductor for not wanting to make a scene. We are all too familiar with stories where someone tries to uphold civilised standards of behaviour and is then berated with a deluge of foul-mouthed invective (at best) from the transgressor. The teachers, I am sure, were also fully aware of the malign consequences that might have come their way from seeking to exercise any authority.

Our culture worships individual choice, and exalts it as one of the highest of human virtues. The notion that authority is something that is needed for human flourishing is not a comfortable one for us, we would much rather tell stories of heroic individualism, where the single will triumphs over the system.

In doing this we are rather like flowers that despise the soil in which they are nurtured, and on which they depend.

Where there is no recognised authority, those who are able to exercise their will the most clearly will be those who are strong in some way, either force of personality or simple physical strength. Physical intimidation has become a much more commonplace form of negotiation in our modern society, and this is not a sign of health. Without authority the weakest are pushed to the edge, for there is nothing to restrain the vicious.

Where there is a recognised authority, however, and where such authority is generally respected and followed, then a much safer general environment is established, and those fruits of civilisation that require a certain amount of gentility are enabled to flourish. Put differently, without a due regard for authority, we succumb to the dictatorship of morons.

Yet authority is not a single value that can be asserted on its own. How, after all, might we distinguish between competing claims for authority, between the different institutions of civic society, or between different individuals and groups within them? Any form of authority must eventually rest upon a social consensus around what has most authority – that which, when fully appealed to, is allowed to over-ride other claims. In other words, every form of social authority must ultimately rest on some form of religion.

This does not necessarily mean one particular religion – it need not even necessitate any general belief in a God or gods. What it means is that there is something which that society values and holds to be most important within its common life, and which acts as the keystone in the overall arch of shared values, and therefore the shared enforcement of those values.

Crucially, what it means is that those who are in a position to exercise authority are themselves able to be held accountable for what they do. Just as respect for authority would have enabled my train conductor to uphold the purpose of the quiet carriage, so too does a proper system of authority allow those who might be abused by a corrupt conductor (give me money to keep talking loudly) recourse to something higher.

Without this ‘something higher’ – what religious people call the transcendent – human relationships resolve down to something less than fully human, something far more fully explicable by biological processes or comparisons with the animal kingdom. Such a flawed civilisation cannot last, and will be replaced by one that is still able to draw upon spiritual nourishment.

If we wish to live in a society that has recognisable continuity with the very best that our civilisation has enabled in previous centuries – if we wish to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and build sustainably upon their achievements – I rather think we need to pay due care and attention to the role that religion played in their culture. It is as if our forebears had paid in regular amounts of capital into a bank account, which we have now been drawing upon for quite some time – indeed, I would say we are now overdrawn.

To preserve what is excellent requires some account of what is excellent that is independent of our personal choices or whims. It needs an understanding of the transcendent; it needs a religion.

The only question that matters for us in this country is which religion shall be followed.

The Tower of Avalon

The Norman tower of the church of St Peter and St Paul in West Mersea is very unusual – it is an example of Norman architecture in England that predates the Norman conquest of 1066. This is because the patronage of the church here had been gifted to the monastic community in Rouen in Northern France, and that community invested in the building of the tower – most probably in order to aid the boats that were travelling between here and France to navigate their way in the Estuary through lighting a signal fire at the top.

The view from the top of the tower is wonderful. It provides a real overview of the whole town, alongside the expected views of the Estuary. It is a remarkably peaceful place from which to watch the world. I like to think of the people lighting their fires in previous centuries in order to provide both practical guidance and a symbol of safe harbour to the sailors.

There was a tower here before the Normans. If you look at the side of the tower you will see tiles embedded in the structure, most clearly on the corners. These were taken from the Roman ruins on this site – the ruins of, it is believed, the summer residence of the Roman governor from when Colchester was the Roman capital of Britain, Camulodunum. Beneath the churchyard at the East end of the church lies a roman mosaic, now covered up. I have no doubt that there are many hidden mysteries in the depths of the earth surrounding the church.

This ancient site has had layers and layers of history built upon it. I wonder what the core identity of the site might be, or whether, like an onion, if we continue to peel back the layers we find that there is nothing left in the centre. A hill top site with commanding views over a natural harbour, where there is an abundant source of protein ready to hand. People have lived and thrived here for a very long time.

An alternative image. It is said that to be a samurai in ancient Japan, the samurai had to make their own sword – that only by making their own sword could there be an effective union between the weapon and the wielder. In order to make the sword, the samurai had to melt and reforge and hammer the steel hundreds and hundreds of times. Nowadays a metallurgist might say that this allows all the molecules of the steel to align in one direction, enabling a much greater strength and sharpness for the blade – but that, whilst true, doesn’t seem as interesting to me.

For really, what the samurai is working on is not the sword but their own soul.

Within St Peter and St Paul’s there is melting and reforging and hammering going on, as it has been going on for hundreds of times a year, for hundreds and hundreds of years. We follow the ancient rite given to us by our master, by which we are ourselves remade into his instrument, his blade. This is called liturgy, which might best be understood as simply meaning ‘the work of the people’ – work, in communion with God, by which our souls are forged and reforged for the master’s work.

The oldest part of the existing church is a segment of the north wall, near the priest’s door. This is Anglo-Saxon, contemporary with the church in Bradwell where St Cedd arrived in Essex some 1400 years ago. Since that time there has been a heartbeat of work and praise centred on this site, day in, day out, week in, week out, year in, year out, sometimes strong, sometimes weak but always consistent in its central message.

Why did the Roman governor want to come to Mersea? There must have been something here to attract him – were the oysters enough? And why did St Sebbi, the King of Essex in the seventh century, build the Strood to enable easier access? He was known to be exceptionally devout, and the building of the Strood was a huge undertaking that must have been quite a strain upon his treasury – the equivalent of building the M25 in our day. There is something about Mersea, about this site on Mersea in particular, which draws people in. For those with awareness it is one of the thin places in this land, a marginal place, where the light gets in.

I daydream about Camelot. What was Colchester called in Roman times? I trust the links of language, which often preserve insights lost to our more conscious awareness. A castle on a hill, a seat of government, the front line against invasions from overseas – lots of crooked rivers that might be site of Camlann. There is no evidence for this of course – the story of Arthur is almost entirely legend.

Yet if that daydream has merit – where is Avalon? Where is the island in the pool, the MeresIgge, to which Arthur retired hurt, where he sought sustenance and ministry from those who might be expected to have expertise, such as a monastic community? Where a sword was found, and then lost, and might be found again.

And did those feet, in ancient times…?

England slumbers, as beneath a blanket of snow. Yet it seems to me that we are waking up, as if from a long and disturbed sleep, filled with dreams of machines and factories and the dark satanic mills of higher learning. The soul has been forged and honed to an edge of sharpness, ready to separate joints and marrow. Is there one worthy to wield it?

(An article for the Mersea Society magazine)