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.

FRIENDSHIP IS THE RADICAL CHRISTIAN WITNESS OUR POLITICS NEEDS

One possible area of unanimity to be found over Brexit is simply that it is a mess. I do not believe that anyone can be happy with where we find ourselves. How can the church most help? How can the church best model a different way of engaging, both with the issue of Brexit and with each other across the divides, in such a way that we are a faithful and healing witness to the nation?

I would say: friendship. Jesus famously calls us friends, and I believe that there is something holy in the nature of Christian friendship which we are being called specifically to model at this time. A very good part of the recent letter from the Bishops of the Oxford Diocese stated: “There are leavers and remainers in every congregation, but this can never be our primary identity as Christians.”

Which is to say that there are values and aims which Christians hold that transcend any particular political claims. Christians share with each other not simply doctrinal claims, such as “Jesus is Lord”, but also an awareness that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that progress in human affairs is ultimately and wholly dependent on the grace of God.

These shared values are then embodied in particular virtues – and it is those virtues which (as the Church has classically understood, following Aristotle) enable a genuine friendship to take hold. The virtues that we need today include hospitality to alternative points of view, humility in a shared search for the truth that we insist it is possible to find, patience in recognising how long this process may take – and over all these we must put on love, to bind them together.

Why, though, do we in the church find it so challenging to model such virtues? How is that we find it so difficult to be distinctive salt and light in this time of worldly tumult?

To act in a gracious way, turning the other cheek to those who seem to hurt us and trample over things that we hold precious, requires us to draw on spiritual reserves. To model a different pattern of life, the way of the Spirit rather than the way of the enemy, requires sustained practice. It is not something that comes easy to our flesh, which clings so hard to the ease of worldliness. It is always easier to say ‘I thank you Lord that I am not like this sinner’ than to say ‘I repent in dust and ashes’.

Might it be that we in the church struggle to demonstrate a distinctive witness of friendship across the Leave/Remain divide because we have fallen out of the practice of friendship within our own church life? We have spent many decades arguing with each other over matters of church order and sexuality, and that has come at a cost. We have not always enabled ‘good disagreement’ and have instead allowed the fruits of bitterness, strife and resentment to plant seeds. Have we used up all our spiritual reserves in internal dispute, leaving us incapable of withstanding worldly pressures when it comes to engaging with critical political issues like Brexit?

Our most important task, now as always, is to immerse ourselves in prayer, seeking the still small voice amidst the earthquake, wind and fire of Brexit. Such prayer would have the effect of loosening the hold that our opinions have upon us, as we remember and laugh at our own frailties. With humility, and forgiveness for others as well as for ourselves, we might be in a better position to see the truth of where we are, and thus the way to where God wishes us to be.

It will also enable us to be better friends. I am fond of Stanley Hauerwas’ ‘Modest Proposal for Peace’: let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other. In the same spirit, I suggest that we Christians agree that we will remain friends with those on the other side of political debate. We will seek the image of Christ in the face of our opponents; we will resolve to disagree gracefully, affirming that what we share is greater than what divides; we will repudiate a spirit of accusation in favour of a shared and humble recognition of mutual sinfulness. Above all, we will cling to an insistence that there is a truth here to be found, a truth which will set us free from this mess in which we have become embedded.

In doing so, I believe that we will be witnessing to our nation and our world that there is a better way for all human beings to follow. We will do justice to our faith, and to each other. Let’s be friends.

Forest Values

Soon after I arrived in the Forest last year, I went in to the Fountain pub in Parkend and was struck by the large painting of Warren James on the wall there. “Who’s he?” I wondered. So I did a bit of digging, and I am struck by how many lessons there are from his life for us now. He is a local inspiration.

For those who don’t know, Warren James led a rebellion by Foresters against exploitation by the authorities in London. In order to ensure a ready supply of wood for building ships Parliament in London passed a law in 1808 ‘enclosing’ the Forest, meaning that the ancient rights of Foresters were made illegal – such as being able to gather wood or graze sheep in the Forest. Not surprisingly, this meant that the Foresters themselves became much poorer.

Resistance to the law was muted because there was a promise made to the Foresters that the enclosure would only continue for a period of 20 years – that is, for as long as it took the oaks to grow big enough to withstand grazing. Sadly, that promise from London wasn’t kept despite Foresters presenting petitions to Parliament to have their rights restored. The Foresters continued to suffer, and this outraged Warren James, and he began to organise resistance to the Enclosures, which culminated in a rebellion involving thousands of Foresters tearing down the fencing that kept them out of the Forest.

Of course, the hand of the law came down hard on Warren James, and he was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for his resistance. Two weeks later, that sentence was changed to one of transportation for life, and Warren James was sent to Australia in 1832, where he died in 1841.

James was a committed member of my church in Parkend, and I have no doubt that his resistance to London was rooted in his faith. The Bible is quite clear that enclosure can be an evil (Isaiah 5.8) but a more fundamental Christian value is that we have to look after each other. That is exactly what James was doing, and this is what I think of when I think of ‘Forest Values’ – standing up for those who are struggling to make ends meet; insisting that promises are honoured; resisting the emissaries from London who choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore.

I am struck by the parallels that run between the issues that James faced and the ones that we face today. There is an economic struggle, driven by imperatives from an overmighty centre (consider that the steel plant down the road in Newport could be saved immediately if we come out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement). We have received promises from Parliament that this will happen, and then with the passage of time those promises are not honoured. In the meantime, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer…

The biggest difference between Warren James’ time and now, of course, is that now we have the vote. When we see an injustice, or a problem that needs to be solved, we can use our votes to effect a change in a situation. At least, that is the theory. We might be forgiven right now for thinking that our votes don’t matter as much as they used to – because, say, we didn’t know what we were voting for, or we’re just small-minded and intolerant bigots and therefore our views don’t matter.

Those who say such things don’t share Forest Values. Each vote has the same weight as any other, whether cast by rich accountants or poor carpenters. That is only fair – and fairness, alongside mutual help, respect for the law, dignity for all of us, and other values like these, are what I believe most of us hold to – and what I worry that those who follow London thinking have given up on. We can do better than this.

This is why I’m standing to represent the Forest in Parliament. I want to represent the values that Warren James stood up for – Forest Values, looking after all the people in this wonderful Forest of Dean.

RACISM, THE BREXIT PARTY, AND THE FRIENDSHIP NEEDED FOR OUR NATION’S HEALING

I was warned when being interviewed to stand as a candidate for the Brexit Party that I would be accused of all sorts of horrible things. Indeed, one of the key moments in the interview came when I was asked to imagine that I was being interviewed on TV and the first question was, ‘The Church of England is against racism – how then can you stand for a racist party?’

So I cannot claim that I have not been forewarned that these accusations would come. Still, the sheer extent of the claim has been surprising.

To be accused of racism is a serious charge. It would for example, if proven, lead to my being (rightly) dismissed from my present work – and I’m sure that is true for other candidates. So there is a lot at stake.

To make such a serious charge flippantly is highly unethical (and certainly unChristian). It is not an accusation to cast around casually, but to avoid flippancy means assembling evidence. I am open to there being evidence that I am a racist – not least because I understand the nature of ‘unconscious bias’ – and if there is such evidence it would mean that I need to do a lot of work on changing myself, for, be assured, I believe that racism is a very great evil and a blasphemy. More: if I was led to the conclusion that the Brexit Party was racist then I would leave it, immediately. (I wouldn’t be on my own, of course – in fact I strongly suspect that there wouldn’t be a single PPC candidate left.)

To make the charge seriously also involves considering counter-evidence, in order to reach a fair judgement. So here I would point out that all PPCs are required to formally renounce racism (and other prejudices) and work to the highest standards of public life. I would also point to the very wide diversity of ethnic representation amongst our PPCs. If you look at the list of Brexit party candidates, it reflects the diversity of modern Britain in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion and so on. It would seem a little odd, to put it no more strongly, that none of this diverse range of people are aware of the alleged racism of the Party that they support. On the surface, this diversity of PPCs would seem to accord with what the mainstream claims to value. It is the wide space between what the mainstream claims to value and what it actually does in practice that I think we need to pay attention to.

I do not believe that the Brexit Party is racist – actually, that is too bland. I believe that the Brexit Party is consciously, explicitly and intentionally anti-racist. I believe that this anti-racism has been embedded within its structures from the very beginning and is a thread running through all that we do. As I said above, if there was someone who was genuinely racist hidden within the system, I think the system would move incredibly swiftly to excise such an individual upon discovery. The onus is upon those who are accusing us of being racist to demonstrate how and where.

As I see no such evidence myself – and see so much counter-evidence – I am forced to speculate on an alternative explanation for this phenomenon, an alternative explanation for the great heaps of moral opprobrium dumped upon the heads of Brexit Party supporters.

What we are seeing in this political conversation is what happens when one side (the Westminster bubble, as disseminated through the mainstream media) sees the other (Leave voters, those who are excluded from the mainstream conversation) as irretrievably morally compromised. We Brexit supporters are “a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists” as Mr Cameron so memorably phrased it.

It strikes me that what has happened is that a dehumanisation has taken place.

The actual people who support Brexit, who are standing for or supporting the Brexit party in all their glorious diversity, we are no longer seen as people. We are no longer seen for who we are, with all our varied beliefs, hopes and fears. We have become signs, sigils, icons – we represent something other than ourselves, we have come to represent that which the mainstream most despises. We are ignorant, or racist, or poorly educated, or prejudiced in countless other unacceptable ways. Furthermore, as this representation carries such an immense amount of rage with it, it is clearly psychologically loaded. It is part of a fixed belief system in which the mainstream have invested a very large part of their sense of identity. See Ben Habib’s interaction with Oliver Kamm for a very clear example of this.

I speculate here, for I am sure that there are many different varieties of projection involved, and it is certainly not the case that every critic of the Brexit party is guilty of what I am describing, but there seems to be a sense of the self as righteous, which is formed over and against a sense of the other as unrighteous. When the other challenges the righteous self, this is profoundly threatening, and destabilising. If this other is not wholly evil, does this mean that my self is not wholly good? To entertain such a notion is a profoundly disturbing thought. If we truly do live in a culture of narcissism then to threaten the beloved self-image is to invite a reaction of rage…

There seems some initial plausibility to this. It would explain the polarisation of our politics, and the digging of trenches, and the failure to actually engage with the other. Of course, this dehumanisation also has frightening historical antecedents, which we need to become conscious of and keep prudently in mind. Obviously, these are just the beginnings of a line of thought that needs so much more careful and prayerful consideration.

So, if there is even a little bit of truth in my speculations, how then are we to respond?

I think that the only way forward, for each of us personally and for the nation as a whole, is to attend to the need for friendship, most especially to consciously and actively cultivate friendships across the partisan divides. A real friendship is only possible, according to Aristotle via Aquinas, when there is a shared aim. I believe that Leavers and Remainers share many aims in common – that actually we do all want to live within a decent society, within which the vulnerable are cared for, children are encouraged to reach their full potential, and we are all enabled to share in the joy of this creation. It is what Christians call the Kingdom.

If we can articulate those shared fundamental values – and if we can restrain ourselves from recklessly accusing others of not sharing those values (and that applies both ways) – then perhaps we can start rebuilding a sense of mutual trust, and a civilised framework for working through our differences, and we can move beyond our current imbroglio.

In other words, Brexit no longer just means Brexit. This staggeringly chaotic process also gives us the opportunity to renew our national conversation, to refresh our deepest values, to learn more about each other – and, dare I say, to love more about each other? We as a people, as a community, as a country: we can do so much better than this. I, for one, am going to try.

Why am [was!] I standing as an MP for the Brexit Party?

This is something shared in my work context – obviously out of date now!

Dear friends,

I thought it might help if I shared a little about what has led me to the place of standing for the Brexit Party as a potential MP. This will be in two parts – a bit about my own vocational journey, and a bit about my own fundamental values and beliefs.

When I was a teenager and through to my mid-20s I was intent on a political career, and I joined the Civil Service as a means of being trained for that – seeing government from the inside. However shortly before turning 25 I had my vocation experience when God made it clear that I was supposed to go into the church. After some painfully stubborn resistance I gave in to that call, and I have always believed that choice was final and irrevocable. However, over the last several months I have felt an increasing sense that God was revisiting that decision, and asking more from me. This has not been a comfortable process – I love my work in both parish and Diocese, and ____ and I have felt very settled in the Forest. I really do not want to disrupt that. However, I have learned that it is futile to fight God, however much our desires might run contrary to his.

I’ve spent a lot of time praying through the verse ‘Do you love me more than these?’ which Jesus asks of Peter on the beach. In the end I’ve had to say that, however much I love my congregation and my colleagues and my candidates, I do love Jesus more. (Apologies for how pious that sounds, it is meant sincerely!)

Yet even with all that, I can imagine the question being raised ‘OK, Sam, politics – but why the Brexit Party?!’ One of my core political passions is centred on social justice. I don’t believe that it is possible to be a Christian and not be concerned for social justice – although that still leaves lots of room for political disagreement about precisely how the desire for social justice is best pursued.

So how does that fit with supporting the Brexit Party?

I think I need to make two points. The first is simply: the Brexit Party is not UKIP version 2. I couldn’t support UKIP in its present form; indeed, the Brexit Party is going out of its way (and rightly) to ensure that it is inclusive, and that there is no prejudice on grounds of race, gender, religion, sexuality, handicap and so on. I have had to sign up to a four-page document promising to pursue the highest standards in public life, which I was very glad to do. If you look at the roster of candidates that have been announced you will see a lot of diversity – and that includes several people who voted Remain in 2016.

The second is that I believe the 2016 referendum allowed many people who were previously excluded from having a voice in our national life to speak up – and what has happened since then is that those in positions of power have sought to put those people ‘back in their box’. I know that this is something on which people of faith and good will can disagree, but, for me, this is a grave injustice. I want to ensure that this group of people – those who are generally poor and excluded in sharing in our common life – are listened to. I am ‘inspired by love and anger’ to quote one of my favourite hymns, by possibly my favourite hymn writer – and yes, I remain a committed Greenbelter, where I regularly listen to that hymn writer’s talks.

I believe that the technical question of Brexit will be resolved in the next year or two, but afterwards there will need to be a process of national reconciliation, wherein we learn to trust each other once again, and we heal the split between Leave and Remain. That is what I suspect I’m supposed to get involved with – and possibly not even as an MP, for I am well aware that following what I think is God’s will in this process gives no guarantee of ‘success’. My favourite prophet, Jeremiah, ended up failing, but he did God’s will in any case. I don’t have certainty that I’ll be elected, or that the Brexit Party will win, or even that Brexit is God’s will – all I know is that I am being called to stand up and speak out. That’s it.

In all of this, I would ask for your prayers, that God’s will be done, not just with me, but with our overall political situation.

With thanks for our fellowship in the faith,

Sam Norton

Vicar of Parkend and Viney Hill

Associate DDO and Vocations Advisor Diocese of Gloucester

Some theses about spirituality and ‘mental illness’

1. There are phenomena that people experience within their own mental life that are often life-denying at a minimum, life-destroying as a maximum. Please do not interpret anything else that I say here as in any way denying this first and most basic truth. My issue is all to do with a) how these phenomena are understood and b) how those who have to endure them are treated, both by ‘professionals’ and by wider society.

2. There is no such thing as ‘mental illness’. There are physical illnesses that have mental symptoms (eg Alzheimers). To describe the phenomena of thesis #1 as ‘mental illness’ is to wrongly apply a form of language (‘illness’ and ‘disease’) from one area of life to a different area of life. It is a category error, a philosophical mistake. That it is a mistake with a vast apparatus of the state and capitalist industry supporting it does not make it true.

3. The language of modern professional psychiatric care – as best summarised in the risible DSM (see this, which I think is brilliant) – is a perfect example of a Kuhnian paradigm which is overdue for being overthrown. In just the same way that the Copernican paradigm eventually couldn’t cope with all the epicycles that had to be introduced as a result of telescopic observations, we are not far from the time when contemporary psychiatric understandings will collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy and contradictions.

4. Pharmaceutical drugs do not work in terms of curing the phenomena of thesis #1. They do have benefit in terms of the placebo effect (which I do not see as trivial) and in terms of stabilising a volatile situation, ie they can suppress symptoms. Put simply they are a tool of social management. They do not heal people; at worst the side effects simply increase the phenomena of #1.

5. We cannot understand the phenomena of thesis #1 by looking at individuals in isolation but only as human beings embedded within a particular community and context. The phenomena of thesis #1 are inescapably social.

6. It is in the interests of the state that those who exhibit disorderly or otherwise unwelcome behaviour are pacified and controlled. Any full understanding of the phenomena of thesis #1 needs to have abandoned political naïvete.

7. It is in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry that there be new diagnoses of new forms of disorder, which thereby justify the creation of new drugs with new patents that form new income streams for those companies when old patents expire. Any full understanding of the phenomena of thesis #1 needs to have abandoned commercial naïvete.

8. The philosophical roots of contemporary psychiatric care lie in atheism and materialism – in other words, it proceeds on the assumption that there is no such thing as the soul.

to be with the freakshow

language of demons and angels

personal agency

human centred care

taking the soul seriously

it is possible that the greatest failure of Western churches in the twentieth century is that they have capitulated to the psycho-complex. If we are unable to cure souls, then what on earth is the point of us?

Clement quote about father nursing