Fifteen years of blogging

I thought I’d mark an anniversary.

Fifteen years ago today I wrote my first blog-post. To be truthful, in my initial zeal I wrote two, one a technical/ admin one, and one on loving my job – I must have had a particularly busy day looking at that list of things now! They are best seen on my old blog here.

I sustained a very high pace of posting to begin with – that is, for the first few years – but as real life became ever more complicated, and as I started to get negative feedback from *certain parishioners* that my, eg, regular film-reviews merely made them ask ‘what does he do with his time’ I started to share much less. That process continued until I was mainly using the blog solely for my newspaper articles, and in the last year or so, I haven’t even had those!

Which is a way of saying two things.

The first is that I miss my blog. It is my pensieve, and writing is very good for my mental health. I do not serve either God or the world with integrity if I do not speak my truth. The second is that, in line with an overall healing that is going on with me (on the inside) and a sense that the unexamined life is not worth living, I feel the need to start blogging seriously and relentlessly regularly again. There is much to be said for a distribution channel that is not subject to the whims of a commercial entity, nor the painful antagonisms that have, for me, made Facebook a very unsafe space. On my blog, in contrast, I feel safe – and nobody needs to spend any time here if they do not want to (Spider Jerusalem is my hero). My agenda will continue to be: “Exploring priesthood, prophecy and faith in the context of a culture in crisis.” It’s still the best way of summing up what I do.

So.

This is Planet Sam.

I hope you enjoy the ride.

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)

Shared worship when we are physically apart

This is the text of an email that I sent to members of the congregation when the closing of churches was announced.

Dear friends,

Even when we cannot be together physically, we can still be together in spirit. My aim is to provide resources so that we can worship together at certain times, and this email sets out how that will happen, the Lord being our helper.

It’s important to remember that this is not a new experience in the Judeo-Christian tradition, even if it might be novel for the Church of England. In 586 BC the army of Babylon destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and removed all the upper tiers of Jewish society into Exile. The Jews weren’t simply prohibited from entering into their place of worship – their place of worship was razed to the ground and the Jews were moved some 500 miles to the East! This is the context in which the book of Daniel is set. Consider this from chapter 9: “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill— while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. He instructed me… ”

Even though Daniel is a long way away from Jerusalem he remembers it and, crucially, is praying at the time of the evening sacrifice. In other words, his rhythm of prayer was matched to that which had operated before the Exile, and that which would operate again after the Exile was over. It is this sense of a shared pattern of worship, often at the same times of day, that has united faith communities that are physically separated.

For us, I think the natural place to begin a shared pattern of worship and prayer is Sunday morning at 10am. We also regularly have a communion service on Wednesdays at 10am and so I intend to support a shared time of worship at those two times in the week until we are able to gather once more in our churches.

I have prepared a liturgy which can be downloaded via the link in this email, and this is how I plan to use it:
– it is intended to be printed out on a single piece of A4 and then folded,
– it can be used by a person on their own or, if there are more people, then different people can do different elements, but I suggest that the Prayer of Preparation, the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are all said in unison;
– having a regular place within the home to say the liturgy would be helpful (ideally one with access to the internet available);
– having a candle that can be lit at the beginning of the service, and extinguished at the end, supports a prayerful atmosphere;
– there are four elements that I shall provide for each Sunday (and Wednesday) – these are the Collect, a reading, a homily from me accessible on youtube, and a suggested hymn, also hopefully with a link to a youtube recording of it being sung. These will be shared by email in advance – probably Saturday and Tuesday afternoons;
– I plan to share further prayer resources in the coming days that can be used at other times during the day.

My hope and prayer is that even if we are not meeting physically we shall still share this journey together spiritually. We can look forward to an intensely joyful celebration when we eventually join in worship again.

Grace to you and peace,

Rev Sam

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.

So that was 2019

Well now. Quite a year.

This time last year I wrote: “I think I will continue to become more politically engaged, although I don’t know what form that will take.”

The form it took was a surprise, and not an entirely welcome one – I’ll tell the full story on another occasion – but the process has changed me, and at some cost. I have lost friends this year, but those who have not been scandalised are more precious to me than ever. One New Year’s resolution: to see more of my friends, tried and true.

Politically I feel some small measure of pride in what the Brexit Party accomplished, and that I played a part in that. Much more fundamentally, I said yes to the vocational pressure. The passage of Scripture that was impressed upon me all this year is the story of Abraham and Isaac – and in the end, God gave me a ram. I don’t know what is going to happen next, but there are some exciting possibilities.

In other news…

I still love my new job, in parish and Diocese. Being a part-timer in two jobs brings challenges, and I’m not as on top of things as I would like to be, yet I can see that coming in time, and parishioners and colleagues are lovely. The Forest is a remarkable place, and I am slowly immersing myself in it, in culture and history. Living closer to my children is a blessing.

I didn’t attend Greenbelt this year. I bought a ticket -was all set to go – yet in the end, it was at the peak of anti-Brexiteer hysteria, and I just didn’t feel safe enough (I wasn’t strong enough) to put myself in that environment. I’ll be back in 2020.

I abandoned the PhD, for a multitude of reasons, some of which have only become clear in retrospect. Academia really is a branch of Remainia. However, I did attend some important training in Rome this year, and that was satisfying and fruitful – with hopefully more fruit still to come.

I passed my motorbike test without a single blemish. I now have one of these. I use it for commuting, so have easily clocked up more than 5k in mileage. I plan to use it much more in 2020.

I published an article in the Church Times. That may have been the single most significant thing to come out of my political engagement, and the consequences are still being worked out. I hope to write more for them next year, and I have begun to work on another book: we will not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation.

We have a puppy…

I have advised many people down the years that it is impossible to please everyone. Even though I know that to be true, it has still been a characteristic of my own nature for a very long time, probably since being severely bullied in primary school. A fear of being rejected, and of painful consequences if I became unpopular.

Well the story of 2019 is that God pushed me out of that place of safety and self-protection. It was terrifying, but I said yes to Him, and the consequences that I was afraid of came to pass. Yet here I stand. I am more at peace with myself on the inside than at any time since I began training at Westcott, possibly any time since I was ten years old. I discover that I like who I am, I like the person that God has made – not blind to the extensive flaws but more open to the benefits of what is distinctive about me. I don’t think like other people, I see things differently. I think God may have a use for that difference, and I’m looking forward to working out the consequences.

The Lord will provide.

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.

Echoes

LECTER’S VOICE
I thought, to begin, you might tell me
how you’re feeling.

STARLING
About what?

LECTER’S VOICE
The masters you serve and how they’ve
treated you. Your career, such as it is.
Your life, Clarice.

STARLING’S VOICE
I thought we might talk about yours.

LECTER
Mine? What is there to say about mine?
I’m happy. Healthy. A little nomadic at
the moment but that’ll soon change. You,
though. You, I’m worried about.

STARLING
I’m fine.

LECTER’S VOICE
No, you’re not. You fell in love with
the Bureau – with The Institution – only
to discover, after giving it everything –
that it doesn’t love you back. That it
resents you, more than the husband and
children you gave up to it ever would.

LECTER
Why is that, do you think? Why are you
so resented?

STARLING’S VOICE
Tell me.

LECTER
Tell you? Isn’t it clear? You serve
the idea of order, Clarice – they don’t.
You believe in the oath you took – they
don’t. You feel it’s your duty to
protect the sheep – they don’t. They
don’t like you because they’re not like
you. They’re weak and unruly and
believe in nothing.

An agony of values – and an ongoing identity for the Brexit Party

Jean-Claude Juncker calls Brexit the ‘original sin’; Daniel Hannan writes that Brexit is turning us all into devils; it seems that theological language is inescapable. That is because theology is the language that we use when we are talking about our values, and the Brexit debate has thrown our values up in the air. Which values shall we choose? Which is really a way of asking: who are we as a people?

Much of the argument about Brexit has been conducted around economic values. The Remain argument is that the economic cost of exiting the trading arrangements of the European Union are too high for us to bear. The Leave argument is that shackling ourselves to a declining protectionist bloc misses out on the great opportunities of the wider world. Yet if we only argue about economics, we give those arguments themselves too high a value.

The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has formulated a ‘trilemma’ which I believe captures something very important for our argument. His trilemma goes as follows: there are three centres of value which are currently being debated in modern politics. The first is associated with free trade and global capitalism, and the changes that need to be made in order to allow economic growth to flourish. The second is national identity, and all the ways in which different cultural habits make communities what they are. The third is democracy, and the way in which disputes are resolved.

Rodrik’s trilemma is simply to say: you can have two out of three, you can’t have all of them, and we need to honestly and consciously make a choice.

Consider China. China has chosen to maximise economic growth, and to assert Chinese national identity – but in doing so, is drawing on non-democratic methods. In a similar way, but using the EU as their ‘national’ identity, the Remain perspective values free trade and a European Empire (© Guy Verhofstadt) and is explicitly happy to manipulate democracy to gain the required results.

An alternative perspective, which characterises contemporary political ‘common sense’ and the Conservative party, is to similarly choose economic growth but to emphasise the democratic values over against the national identity values. In other words, where there are local cultural habits that might prevent the efficient workings of capitalism, those habits can be discarded. This is the ‘Washington consensus’ that has been imposed upon economies around the world on a regular basis, often catastrophically (and those that resist this model, such as Korea, do rather well).

Which leaves a third alternative, which is to emphasise democracy and national identity, and de-emphasise the needs of free trade. This is the position of ‘national populism’, the assertion that the interests of global finance cannot be allowed to destroy local cultures. This is the position that has been hugely fuelled by the financial crisis and the reaction to austerity. It is what ultimately lies behind the vote for Brexit, and it is, I believe, the explicit value position that we in the Brexit Party need to stand for.

With his mess of a deal, Prime Minister Johnson has chosen the standard Conservative and mainstream consensus position. This can be seen in very many ways, but most saliently and explicitly in his abandonment of the Unionists in Northern Ireland. There can be no clearer image of the way in which economic interests (the desire for free trade agreements for GB) are given a higher value than national identity interests (the sense of the United Kingdom as one country).

The Remainers occupy, as stated, the non-democratic position on the trilemma. This leaves a huge opportunity for the Brexit Party to distinguish itself as the only party which gives a priority to both national identity and democracy. Put bluntly, there is now only one Unionist party in GB – and it isn’t the Conservatives.

This position does not mean that we reject free trade agreements, only that we say that there are higher values to take account of. We say that it is not worth selling out our country. We say that Johnson has sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage – actually, pottage is mixed vegetables, so perhaps our line needs to be that Johnson has sold our inheritance for a mess of Brussels…

I believe that if we consciously choose this third position of Rodrik’s trilemma we will occupy a position that is distinctive, has integrity and will be immensely popular, increasingly so as awareness of what is in Johnson’s deal starts to develop. It is the position, after all, which is very well embodied in the Party’s position on British Steel. Making strategic investments in certain companies for the national interest is not compatible with making free trade our highest value – but it is fully compatible with a national populist position.

So why do I call this an ‘agony of values’? The word agony comes from the agon, the athletic competitions (and religious feasts) of ancient Athens. We are involved in a struggle to assert different values, to change our politics for good. This is a value claim, which is why it is resonating so strongly with people. This is a contest, an agony, and these are the values that it would be inspiring to fight for – which not only will enable us to win, but will make our winning worthwhile. Let’s fight for something good – and leave the Conservative party with a more contemporary sense of agony.