Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Two gifts

The section of Mourid Barghouti’s poem Midnight (which she had marked in the copy by our bed) read at Deborah’s funeral yesterday:

The soul retains its passion
even on the cross,
the body has its dance,
even on the ropes.
The war enters into farce:
They bomb a butterfly!
It becomes
even more farcical:
the butterfly has not died
but, with its fragility still intact,
has grown yet lovelier,
towering above the hubris of the general
and his science of war.
Here is half the triumph:
the butterfly, armed with
nothing but its beauty and the thrust of its wings,
enters the contest, sure of death.
It will die, it knows it will die,
– from the qualities of the killer and from its own qualities.
from the window of a future despair,
it will return,
flapping its wings in the rooms of fancy.
The soul retains its passion even on the cross,
even on the ropes, the body has its dance.

And the view of the sun on the snow on Pen-y- ghent today (taken by one of her sons from the edge of the site in which she had just been buried).

Monday, 21 December 2020


Deborah Mullins, teacher, textile artist, friend of those unjustly treated, greatly admired and loved  

8 September 1959 - 20 December 2020

She died just at the time people would have been beginning Sunday worship on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, reading the same Gospel as was read at our wedding on a feast of the Annunciation: "Here I am, servant of the Lord; let it be as he has spoken".

She and Mary shared a birthday, together singing "Our souls are overwhelmed by God, mercy cascades down the generations, and the promise remains that justice will reverse the inequalities and oppression we allow". 

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Ruth for today

When Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi for twenty-three years until 2013, died earlier this month, Radio 4 re-broadcast the last talk he had given for it, which I find also to be the last thing on his personal website. 

It was Mental Health Awareness Week and he made a link with the story of Naomi, the almost unrecognisable impoverished and distraught widow returning to her Bethlehem home.  Woven though the book Ruth, he said, is the Hebrew word hessed, a word meaning more than simple kindness

Tyndale, he pointed out, invented the English form loving-kindness to translate it.  It is a sort of committed covenant-kindness.  It is what transformed Naomi’s well-being.  It could be expressed in the necessary peer-support and community-support of the bereaved, depressed and mentally ill-at-ease. 

I wonder how far it was his awareness of mental health issues which gave him a fresh perspective on Ruth, or how far his detailed knowledge of Ruth enabled him to give us a fresh perspective on Mental Health Awareness Week? 

In February 2017, I touched on those teaching Christian Theology at Birmingham University in the 1980s: 

Neither John Hull’s blindness nor Frances Young’s son’s disability were simply ‘raw material’ for ‘theological reflection’ but rather the realities integral to their lives, the lenses through which they read scripture, the questions with which they interrogated tradition, the filter through which they sifted other Christians' explorations and experience. 

Later that year, in November, I was intrigued by the ideas of ‘framing’ a picture and of ‘curating’ an exhibition as partial images for preaching: 

What is 'brought out' of both our rapidly changed culture and our faith stories when they are exhibited next to one another? 

Either way, I spoke of local mental health support networks in our on-line worship this morning, and then explored other possible connections in the following parts of Ruth

Ruth is only able to glean because (in accordance with repeated injunction in Deuteronomy and Leviticus) those harvesting did not gather absolutely everything from the fields, aware of those who would need to scavenge behind them: the poor, the alien (Ruth was a Moabite), the orphaned and the widow.  I have noticed this many times before. 

I didn’t indulge myself in pointing out the way these categories are those not protected by the parallels trio of market forces, Government protection and ordering, and family-community networks.  Nor did I canter again around the links to the monastic vows of poverty, obedience, and commitment to relationship within the vowed community alone. 

I did (despite my November 2017 warning to myself that an habitual choice of a favourite frame which perhaps unconsciously will only ever bring out a strictly limited selection of colours or features) identify asset stripping and marking the documentation of asylum seekers with ‘no recourse to public funds’ as obvious parallels, and mention how attention to fair trade, Food Banks and overseas aid each might represent a church or village’s alternative understanding. 

Boaz is only able to operate as the re-deemer of the situation (the family or community elder facing a situation which has gone awry and making adjustments to property and relationships as if they were the ones which were already in place) because a better qualified potential re-deemer said it would be too costly for him to do so.  I hadn’t noticed that before. 

I wondered whether genuinely putting-things-right (declaring right-eousness) would always be costly.  I wondered whether placing this next to the personal and business costs of lockdown is the place where current experience and Ruth illuminate each other now.  

Finally, of course, Naomi’s loss of relationship and future is re-deemed by Boaz and Ruth’s child Obed being put into her arms as her own, although actually the child of a distant relative of her husband’s and of her widowed Moabite daughter-in-law.  Obed is to be grandfather of David, among whose descendants was expected to be the ultimate re-deemer.  

For a Christian Advent Sunday, this hope which points forward to events in Bethlehem, the town of David, because he was of the house and line of David. But jumping straight to that simple point might be to short-change ourselves if it isn’t to then exoplore how a very Ruth-shaped the story goes on to be.

Monday, 19 October 2020

A Shifting Constitution

I wrote the following a few weeks ago, but did not post it.  The joint statement today by the Anglican Primates across the British Isles prompts me to do so.

1.  This summary will be superficial, but, as far as I can see, less superficial than most television interviews on the subject at the moment.

2.  For centuries, England (and Scotland, both together as one new United Kingdom from 1703) has had a colonising, exploitative and violent relationship with Ireland, a relationship which continued into and beyond Ireland’s incorporation into the United Kingdom in 1801.

3.  A line was drawn (literally) with a divorce settlement in 1921.  This gave independence to what became the Republic of Ireland, but retained the six north-eastern Irish counties (where a unionist and mainly Protestant majority was otherwise threatening insurrection) as part of the United Kingdom.

4.  At one deep emotional level some of the life of the island remained as if there was a single whole Irish nation.  The Irish Rugby team is still drawn from both the Republic and the United Kingdom.  There is a single Anglican Church for it all, including dioceses with some parishes in the Republic and some in the United Kingdom.  The constitution of the Republic came to claim jurisdiction over the whole island (in practice, an ambition to have eventual jurisdiction over it). 

5.  Whenever national boundaries and the emotional identification of a less powerful population within an area do not fully coincide, levels of discrimination inevitably occur, and some level of terrorist kick-back almost always seems to follow.

6.  So when the Northern Irish ‘troubles’ emerged in the late 1960s it was initially around civil rights which were being denied to many of the nationalist (Irish republican supporting and mostly often Catholic) population by many of the unionist (United Kingdom supporting and most often Protestant) population.

7.  The eventual ‘Good Friday Agreement’ settlement in the late 1990s did something unique and stunning.  It respected both those with nationalist and those with unionist convictions and identities.  The Republic took the extraordinary step of removed from its constitution its claim for jurisdiction over the six counties.  The United Kingdom took the equally extraordinary step of agreeing cross border institutions to be part of future decision making.

8.  One significant factor which made these steps conceivable was the accession of both the Republic and the United Kingdom to the European Economic Community (later the European Union) in 1973.  It came to be as easy to move people, capital and goods across the internal Irish border as across the Irish Sea.  Everything from food standards and human rights came to be identical in both the Republic and the United Kingdom.

9.  Those who warned that consideration should be given to how the United Kingdom leaving the European Union might disturb this balance were dismissed as being part of ‘Project Fear’, and were later promised that imaginative and innovative solutions could easily be found to preserve an open border even when regulations began to diverge on either side of it.

10.  It should have been and it is clear that there are really only three basic possibilities as this divergence begins to happen if one wants to prevent the undercutting of the economy on one side of the border by such things as goods being produced to lower standards or by paying workers less on the other side.

11.  One option would a hardening of the border, with things like customs checks and tariff payments.  This would be as practically challenging as seeking to create a secure economic boundary between, say, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire - a challenge spectacularly increased by the memory that Irish border posts had been magnets for terrorist activity in the past and so might easily become so again.  This option would begin to deny nationalists in the six counties their identification with and free movement into and out of the Republic.

12.  A second option would be a hardening of a new ‘border’ in the Irish Sea between the six counties and the rest of the United Kingdom.  This would be practically equally disruptive to everyday commerce (the example most sited being a supermarket lorry being checked for paperwork on every perishable item on board each time it took a ferry across).  This option would begin to deny unionists in the six counties their complete equality of economy with and their free movement into and out of the rest of the United Kingdom.

13.  A third option would be to secure a level of agreement to keep regulations either side of the border as closely in line as possible.  The great challenge here would be what mechanisms could plan and adjudicate such a thing.  This option would begin to limit the break in governance between the Eurpoean Union and a separate sovereign United Kingdom which was the prized goal of ‘Brexit’ in the first place.

14.  So this is what is sometimes called a ‘wicked problem’, one for which there is no easily available solution.  The present European Union and United Kingdom Governments have done what they felt was as good a deal, as good a compromise, as they could.  It is has elements of the second and third options (12 and 13 above).  The United Kingdom Government proclaimed this to be great, held a General Election to seek a mandate to agree it, and have agreed it.

15.  A Bill is now proposed to allow the United Kingdom Government to make whatever unilateral changes it sees fit to this deal.  Within the United Kingdom, the response of many has been astonishment that what last year was said to be a triumph is now said to be hasty and ill thought out. 

16.  But those in the United Kingdom noticing and discussing such things have mainly missed the emotional register of the response to this in the Republic.  The Bill has been published without any of the consultation or joint decision making envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement.   

17.  The parallel is not exact – but imagine a partner who was abused through a long relationship, then through a short marriage, and subsequently since a divorce, but who had finally come to a new cooperative approach about how to deal with shared possessions and property, and that this has resulted in a legally binding agreement.  The partner learns one day out of the blue that the other partner had repudiated the agreement and claimed unilateral power to change any element of it at will without any external accountability.  It does really feel that bad.

16.  The Bill would allow the Government to make such changes without any parliamentary scrutiny.  And it includes provision that such changes would explicitly never be subject to any legal challenge.  It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the limited areas covered by the Bill, this is a bid for near dictatorial powers.  Sweeping powers do exist elsewhere for the Government use of Statutory Instruments (rather has Acts of Parliament) but there are parliamentary and legal safeguards in place to prevent these being used as quasi-dictatorial powers.

17.  Meanwhile, those in the United Kingdom feeling the impact on themselves may have been distracted by the fact that the particular Prime Minister of the day into whose hands the new powers would be entrusted had consistently lied about the European Union from the days he was a journalist (sacked for doing so) to the days he was making specific the claims in the most recent election campaign (highly rewarded for doing so).  He had also only recently been prevented by the highest court in the land from abuse of prerogative powers.  His Government has even more recently been rebuked by the Speaker of the House of Commons for taking Covid 19 actions without submitting to parliamentary scrutiny.  And so on.

18.  But actually it does not matter at all when creating quasi-dictatorial powers whether the Prime Minister of the day is a charlatan or someone with an acquired taste for non-accountable Government action or a saint.  That is hardly the issue as he or she will at some point be replaced.  The issue is about the creation of such unchallengeable powers at all.

19.  The Lord Chancellor ought to be the one who sees through this.  He gave an interview at the weekend [at the time of writing] which included an apparent admission that he would resign if any resulting breaking of international law went ‘too far’.  So we and Northern Ireland may be about to replace parliamentary and legal safeguards with the safety net of his individual judgement about when our abuse of process and neighbours has become extreme. 

20.  One wonders (as an aside) if he had dreamt when an aspiring politician that he was watching an interview in which a Minister of Justice attempted to reassure people that the abolition of parliamentary or legal scrutiny of an aspect of his Government’s programme did not matter because the watcher could depend on the Minister’s conscience kicking in at an unspecified level of illegality.   If so, he must have imagined that he would be the United Kingdom Minister about to step in and condemn that foreign tin-pot dictator’s Minister, rather than be that Minister himself.

21.  A different bill is making its way through Parliament at the moment.  It not only allows MI5 to behave illegally if it believes this to be in the best interests of the country, it allows the Police, Customs and Excise and others to do so too.  So, for example, the recent compensation awarded because an undercover police officer had infiltrated a group of environmental protesters and fathered a child on one of them would not be necessary in the future.  There is a pattern here.   

The peacock is on a new headstone on a grave in Haworth Cemetery, possibly the most gracious headstone there.

Monday, 21 September 2020

A wake of blooded feathers?

Yesterday morning at St Michael’s, Haworth, our first attempt at Covid-safe All Age Worship was a challenge.  Social distancing somehow trying to meet interactive worship.  Experimenting with the corporate worship just as degrees of local lock-down are about to be re-imposed.  Two dozen people did come.  Enough of them picked up the invitation to bring feathers, and two families were able to use them for a bit of banner making.  We had one household bubble putting glue on the banner from one side, opposite the other household bubble using gloved hands to fix the  feathers on.

Ahead of St Michael’s Day at the end of the month, we were touching on some of the Bible’s angel stories, including Jacob wrestling with an angel.  Jacob emerged with both a blessing and a limp, which is perhaps potentially a likely result of any genuine encounter with God.  I like the allusive nature of the resulting new hanging in church - the departing angel leaving scattered feathers in its wake.

“Empathy is costly.”  So said one of those I visited in the afternoon, reflecting on her emotional reaction to much of the news and the situation of people around us.  “If I didn’t feel so much for others, perhaps I wouldn’t be as anxious,” she was almost saying.  “Being humanly aware is never going to be emotionally easy,” might be another, possibly more positive, take. 

Sympathy is in part what is implied by its linguistic root: syn-pathos - alongside the pain of another.  By contrast, empathy (although actually an early twentieth century English translation of a nineteenth century German psychological term) implies being en-pathos, in the pain of another.  So, yes, empathy is always going to painful; not just alongside someone’s pain, but in it.

Which might give me another very partial tool for explaining the story of God-in-Christ.  God is fully human in Jesus of Nazareth, so it is not strange that God being alongside us like that should be ultimately costly.  “Divine empathy is necessarily a journey towards the cross”?  So those created in the image of God should simply expect to detect some resonance of all this within ourselves?

Finally, touching base with a colleague this morning, we reflected together on the normality (rather than ‘strangeness’) of these times.  Like all the others brought up in relatively prosperous homes in post-War Britain, we came to assume the absence of war, isolation from discrimination, a stable climate, the protection provided by antibiotics and vaccines, freely available health care, a consensus around the concept of human rights, reliable pension provision, and networks of protective insurance. We came to assume a naturally secure context. 

Which, of course, isn’t what most human beings knew through history or know around the world today.  What comes to us as ‘strange times’ alert us to what we should have always have recognised to be ‘normal times’.

I don’t know whether these three things hang together – emerging from the latest bit of struggle both fractured and blessed, feeling the cost of being attentive enough to others distress, finding the upheavals around us reveal what is normal for most people – chasing the scatter of almost blooded feathers (the colour wasn’t planned but came from the boa  donated at the service) behind the disappearing messenger from God.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

The nations tremble

From time to time (most recently for special services for Remembrance Sunday, Haworth 40s Weekend and the anniversary of VE Day) I have chosen to have sung I vow to thee my country or Jerusalem

Some regular church goers find including these hymns in worship deeply problematic  - and I’ve suggested before that most people recognise one of the chief lessons of the wars of the Twentieth Century to be how positively dangerous ‘love [of country] that asks no questions’ is. 

Others, seeking the church’s hospitality and support to remember those who have been killed in the ambiguities of war and opposition to tyranny, are puzzled at any church’s censorship of patriotic material which appears in at least some church hymn books.

So what I often do is introduce the hymns in their obvious religious context, spelt out clearly in the second verse of I vow to thee my country (where the vision of the kingdom of God is that ‘there is another country... and all her paths are peace’) and allusively in the second verse of Jerusalem (where Revelation’s vision of a new Jerusalem is echoed by ‘I will not rest... until we have built Jerusalem’).

But I’ve now re-visited for the first time in years the image of the page of William Blake’s handwritten preface to Milton on which Jerusalem appears.  I’d simply forgotten how the poem sits beneath an excoriation of the political and cultural leaders of his day (including, as it happens, the Eton/Westminster and Oxford educated Prime Ministers of the time) and their captivity to classical studies rather than biblical fidelity.  

Looking again, I see that the first verse is not actually, as I sometimes too gently suggest in my introduction to it, merely rhetorical.  There is no hiding from the fact that it is actually savagely and sarcastically satirical.  It is really saying something like “nobody could possibly be stupid enough to think that this country is built on Christian values - or that the basis of its commercial innovations and wealth has been anything other than diabolically exploitative”.

The second then has to mean “stoke my zeal and revolutionary commitment to overthrow all this”; Blake was himself even once put on trial for sedition.

And placing a quotation from Numbers at the bottom of the page (“If only all the Lords’ people were prophets”), something I think I did vaguely remember, cannot in context mean much short of “If only more people were woke”.

Which makes it an interesting choice for singing at the party concert concluding the annual season of radically accessible concerts in the Royal Albert Hall each year.

Which sort of brings me to Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, not habitually chosen for our special church services, nor even printed in any of our hymn books, but which both also claim a  religious position (less than biblical, Blake would notice) that it was Guardian angels who commissioned Britain to rule, that God intended and created the nation’s strength. 

Having significant and amplified voices suggest that it is scandalous that these words might not be sung at the party concert might, to say no more, give a hint as to why our present negotiations about our future trade relationships with our neighbouring countries are not going quite as swimmingly (as ‘oven readily’) as we had been encouraged to believe they might do.

Not, ironically, that many people would be listening.  I’m not sure people have really realised quite what a small proportion of the nation’s population now hear or watch (as, to be clear, I very often do myself) the Boat Race, the King’s Carol Service, the Last Night of the Proms or (with the notable exception of her most recent special broadcast) the Queen’s Speech.  Or, to be honest, adhere closely to the Church of England.  

The very act of still treating any of them quite as emblematically as they once were, and the periodic sometimes apparently manufactured controversies about the dire implications of alterations to any of them, must actually be the things which a modern Blake would have enjoyed ridiculing most - as he would undoubtedly would have trumpted a glorious welcome for fresh zeal in a nation noticing how differently history reads when it is the victims rather than classical heroes and their champions who are placed on our pedestals.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

More woven strands

Among the readings set for Sunday is that of Joseph being put down a (dry) well by his brothers.  They had intended to kill him, but one (Reuben) persuaded them on this course of action instead, although his hope of then rescuing Joseph was thwarted when he came back and found the well empty, his brothers having pulled Joseph out and sold him into slavery.

I’ve found pictures of Joseph being thrust into the well and of Reuben’s mournful discovery that he is missing in a Fifteenth Century Biblia Pauperum.  Strangely to modern eyes, they illustrate Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb.  Reuben’s “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” is explicitly being seen as a prototype for Mary Magdalen’s “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him”.

It makes me notice that neither Joseph nor Jesus are merely found where they had been confined (or merely restored to their old lives), but each is ‘sent ahead’ (one into Egypt, one into Galilee) where new stories are to unfold.

But I also thought of Jeremiah being thrust into a cistern (again a dry one, but muddy enough at the bottom for him to sink into it), which is another of the stories which we are not invited to read at a main Sunday service.

Some of those with influence had been sufficiently unimpressed by his vehement contradictions of the  Government’s repeated insistence that it is coping well with a breaking crisis that they are willing to do away with the gainsayer.  

But a Cushite in royal service called Ebed-Melech (it seems he is a eunuch), confronts the King with the injustice being perpetrated in his name, so that Jeremiah is rescued. 

And it is Ebed-Melech who held my attention.  He might simply be an anonymous ‘servant of the King’ (which is what ‘ebed melech’ means), but he is rewarded by being spared the consequences of the disaster which does quickly befall the King, court and country, and is given great status in the Talmud. 

He struck me how relevant he is as a sort of potential ‘patron saint’ for everyone from whistle-blowers to Amnesty International.  

And (in weeks in which we are reminded how easily black people’s role in our histories are forgotten, marginalised or disguised), it seemed important to notice that a Cushite would come from the Upper Nile valley region; the hero of the story may have been an Ethiopian or (in our terms) Sudanese slave.

Which also creates a further connection in my mind between Hebrew Scripture and early Christian scripture as an Ethiopian eunuch form a royal court makes an intriguing appearance in the Acts of the Apostles.