Monday, 7 October 2019

Sursum corda

We are the weather (the creative title for a new book) succinctly evokes our interdependence with nature. 

Equally evocatively, recently published research suggests that less than half the cells in our bodies are human: the majority of our body’s cells are everything from air in our lungs and fungi on our skin to bacteria in our gut and viruses in our blood.  We are an ecosystem.  The boundary between us and the rest of nature is nowhere near as sharp as we might have thought.

What these evoke is more immediate and fresh than the well valued reminder that we are all star dust, all made up only of elements first created in the stars.

But an observation which I tripped across this week renews that image for me as well.  It is that the instinct of the alchemists was right.  Gold can be made from base metal.  In fact, all the gold we have was so made in the nuclear reactions at the centre of past stars.  All the alchemists lacked was a realisation that their work on this planet could never be sufficient to begin to replicate the process.

I want God to make my baseness golden.  It turns out that this is a real possibility - yet a possibility which earth-bound resources cannot alchemise.  Which, of course, takes me back to the beginning of George Herbert’s Easter

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.  Sing his praise
                                                  Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                                                  With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Meanwhile, the long needed re-wiring of St Michael's, Haworth began this week, and I am eager to see the impact of the new lighting scheme which will emerge in November

Saturday, 28 September 2019

A frightening prospect

There are lots of things to fear about the prospect of an unpredictable result of an election if we had one soon.

Many people would vote on the issue of Brexit – those looking for a ‘no deal’ exit might vote Conservative, those looking for a confirmatory referendum on a fresh version of the Theresa May ‘exit’ deal might vote Labour, those looking to ‘remain’ might vote Lib Dem.  But a new Government would claim a mandate for its whole Manifesto.  So what if a voter wanted ‘no deal’ but didn’t want a particularly right-wing Conservative programme, or wanted the results of renegotiations put back to the people but didn’t want a particularly left-wing Labour programme?  How would the will of the people be expressed or interpreted by all that?

Meanwhile, the will of the people expressed in Cameron’s other referendum meant we retain the present ‘first past the post’ electoral system.  A good showing for the definite ‘no deal’ Brexit party and/or for the definite ‘remain’ Lib Dems might actually produce some very unexpected results.  For example, a previously safe Conservative seat might find the majority ‘no deal’ votes split between Brexit and Conservative candidates and a previously second placed ‘remain’ Lib Dem MP elected as a result.  Or a previously safe Labour seat might find that the Lib Dems had leached off many Labour ‘remain’ voters and a previously second placed ‘no deal’ Conservative MP elected as a result.

And it can’t be unlikely that as a result the new Parliament would have no party with a clear majority anyway, reflecting the truth that the country is fundamentally divided, and leaving us in the parliamentary stalemate in which we are at present.  It is theoretically possible that it would have substantial blocks of Brexit, Conservative, Labour, Lib Dems and nationalist parties no easy combination of which could combine to form a majority administration at all.

In these circumstances, I couldn't see people, publicists, politicians or press becoming politer and more subtle in presenting their perception that the will of the people is with their own point of view.

Which leaves me with the potato people created at last night’s Friday Church in preparation for St James’, Cross Roads’ Harvest Festival next week.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Mercy brings mercy

The footnotes in the edition of the New Revised Standard Version published as the Jewish Annotated New Testament are always worth a look, but I wasn’t much helped preparing to preach on Luke 16.1-8 this morning by its The parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation. 

The writings of Kenneth Bailey can also produce significant alternative perspectives, but his opening many commentators affirm that this parable is the most difficult... the seeming incongruity of a story which praises a scoundrel has been an embarrassment to the Church since Julian the Apostate used the parable to assert the inferiority of the Christian faith and its founder didn’t promise well either.

Both sources turn out to be sniffy about the very popular suggestion that the steward might simply have been removing exorbitant interest charges, something Bailey traces back to a single 1902 Expository Times article which makes groundless assumptions about the original social context.

Anyway, as a fool rushing in where angels have failed to point out where the stepping stones are, I attempted a re-write.

There was a huge corporation which had a credit-control manager.  Suspicions were raised that this manager was allowing serious losses to occur.  So he was summoned and told, “bring your passwords and access codes along to Human Resources first thing in the morning” and he knew he was losing his job.
He asked himself, “What can I do without it? I am not good at anything else, and I could never pay my mortgage on social security.  Perhaps there is one thing I could do so I could still hold my head up high in this industry.” 

So, from a lap top at home, one by one he accessed the accounts of those who owed most.  He contacted the first at home and asked, “How much can you actually pay?”  He got an answer and he said, “if you’ve paid that by direct transfer overnight, I’ll close your account as fully paid at the start of business tomorrow.”  He did the same thing with a lot of the others. 

The following morning he turned up at Human Resources at the appointed time and found his line manager was also there.  Spread out in front of him with a print out of all the accounts which had been altered and closed overnight.  They both knew exactly what the situation was.  They looked each other in the eye.

Just how many different ways might this story end?

Suggestions at West Lane Baptist Church this morning included the sacking of the credit-control manager, his prosecution, his praise for bringing in a flow of cash just as the corporation was about to go bust, and the sacking of his line manager for extreme failures in supervision.

His line manager said, “we have never before recovered this amount from our bad debtors in a single week, and we’ve never found anyone so aware of the weaknesses in our computer systems;
I tell you what, we would actually benefit from you coming on board in a new role to deal with our worst defaulters and to ensure our computer network is much more secure – if only the people in corporate social responsibility and those on our ethics committee had half your understanding of the lives of our clients and the weakness of our systems and a quarter of your problem solving skills”.

The problem of securing the viability of this or any other interpretation is the loss of the original context in which the Galilean rabbi spoke the story. 

Bailey does have an intriguing hint in his close reading.  The two striking elements of the story are the steward’s ruse of having the bills altered and the master’s commendation of this dishonesty.  Just perhaps, it is this parallel (irresponsible remission of what is owed financially on one side and radical forgiveness on the other) which is the clue – extraordinary mercy shown, unexpected mercy received.

If so, the final sentence has a striking tone.  The master commended the dishonest steward because he had acted shrewdly - for the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light becomes not so much if only the people in corporate social responsibility and those on our ethics committee had half your understanding of the lives of our clients and the weakness of our systems as much as if even those involved in corrupt business practice are often onto the mutual value of forgiveness, mercy and remission, why are so many religious people (for the avoidance of doubt, that would include me) not only not onto this but actually mired in judgmental strictness instead?

The top picture is the relaying of track this week on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway a few hundred yards from our house and from the ‘Railway Children’ tunnel.

The bottom picture is the discovery, at yesterday’s Heritage Open Day, that the 1848 church school room at Stanbury (now our St Gabriel’s church) also had its own badged crockery.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

A frightening vacuum

There is an objective crisis the disturbing nature of which is being drowned out by partisan noise (the manoeuvres we once condemned in others we now embrace ourselves, the strategies we once deployed yourselves we now denigrate as the undemocratic moves of others).

Six things are true.

1.  The Prime Minister does not have the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons.

2.  There is also no willingness in the House of Commons to pass an actual motion of no confidence (which is the route by which opposition parties have toppled such Prime Ministers in the past).

3.  And there is not majority for having General Election (which was how such Prime Ministers would have simply resolved the matter before the Fixed Term Parliament Act but can no longer do so).

So, the Prime Minster cannot govern nor be removed (although he can continue to make policy announcements and follow through those which do not require parliamentary approval).

4.  There is no majority in the House of Commons for rescinding Article 50 (don’t let the partisan noise about a ‘remoaner parliament’ distract anyone about that).

5.  There is also no majority for leaving the EU under the terms agreed by the previous Prime Minister (several parliamentary votes prove that).

6.  And there is no majority for leaving without a deal (a couple of parliamentary votes prove that).

So, the House of Commons could not resolve a way forward on the issue of our EU membership even if it was sitting at present.

The objective crisis isn’t fundamentally that we have ‘people versus parliament’ or ‘Prime Minister against parliament’ or ‘parliament sidelined’ (however loudly partisan noise brays that these things are the case). 

It is that we have hit parliamentary ‘stale mate’ – and what happens when we have no Government or parliamentary moves open is a genuinely dangerous situation.

Meanwhile, the hands on one of the faces of St Michael’s, Haworth’s tower clock are also twisted and mutually unmoveable – the flag on the tower heavy with rain broke loose and tied itself around them – so the clock cannot operate at the moment at all.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Primary motivations

I am told that an analysis of those who voted to leave the European Union shows the pressing concern for about a third was national sovereignty, for about a third the control of migration, and for about a third anger for those being left behind.

And the scriptures set for Matins yesterday brought us round again to the familiar call from Micah 6:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

Do justly

Most of what our state chooses to do has to be shaped by treaties into which we have freely entered and from which we can freely withdraw (in each case, aware of some of the consequences and unaware of others).  For example, we are involved (and will soon not be involved) in the European Union’s provisional free trade agreement with the South American Mercosur countries, a treaty which would oblige the various partners to observe international climate justice agreements, and we may be about to exchange that position simply to be obligation to be subject to World Trade Organisation terms of trade instead (the result of a different treaty, and, ironically, a body the membership of which is not determined directly by the general electorate); this is all in part so that states don’t take competitive advantage of each other by preferential or punitive terms or by acting less justly to workforce or to planet.

In these circumstances, what is the assertion of individual sovereignty fundamentally about?  Is it that my state should have freedom to act as it likes – for example, simply to assert its power by the imposition of tariffs on other sovereign states or its lack of power by acquiesce to trading conditions set by other individual sovereign states, free to dominate where it can and free to find itself dominated where it cannot?  Or might the over-ruling (sovereignty) we seek be a shared search not to take advantage of each other, to agree fair remuneration and safety for workers and reduce our harmful human impact on our environment – to do justly?

Love mercy

Our state is set in the middle of unavoidable tides of population growth and movement.  A cartoon which sticks in my memory would serve as an example – people being sucked up from a third world cityscape into a hovering machine from which emanates the reassurance “Don’t worry – it is only your midwives, engineers and IT specialists we are taking”.   Meanwhile, those who are told to ‘go home to the country you came from’ (in a Presidential tweet, chanted by a mob, shouted at them in the street, blazoned by the Home Secretary on the side of a bus, hinted at  in plain sight in forms like ‘they are taking over our schools’, sneered behind their backs, in formal expulsion notifications) do not have in common that they are migrants or the children of migrants and do not have in common that they are less assimilated into local culture than those whose home here is never questioned in this way.  They do have in common that they are visibly part of either an ethnic or religious minority.  They may have served in the armed forces (or be unemployed) or be married to a Prince (or single) or support a local baseball or cricket team (or have a sporting hero from another country) or have spent their whole working life working in a caring profession while paying taxes (or not).

In these circumstances, what are controls on migration fundamentally about?  Is it that I should have as much freedom of movement as can be managed (perhaps for holiday, business or retirement living) while those unlike me should not?   Is it that I should hold to myself and those like me as much security and resources as I can set a boundary around?  Or might the movement possibilities (migration control) we seek be a search to move in tiny ways towards partial solutions to the hard problem of how to be slightly less inequitable in the midst of the climate and resource crises in which we live – to love mercy?

Walk humbly

Our state contains many who are left behind in all this.  The example frequently and helpfully identified is those who have seen the most recent traditional industries decline around them, who have felt very little ‘trickle down’ prosperity take their place, and who do not perceive political processes around them as being concerned with any of this, communities whose plight is only now beginning to be more visible as they find the political possibilities to be heard (it matters not whether this is by calculated targeted political views or by desperate lashing out).  But this is only one feature - many more are not so visible, those unable to work because their possible asylum status is still being explored, those whose minimum wages from work caring for the people with dementia or cleaning our most prosperous business premises requires them to work in two jobs to afford basic living in our capital, those in the process of benefits reallocation or who have been sanctioned to live for a few weeks on no income.

In these circumstances whose voices should we be amplifying and heeding concerned at their vulnerability and non-inclusion (anger for those being left behind)?  With an awful realisation about the extent to which our prosperity is predicated on others desperation, alongside and aware of whom should we be developing our opinions and policies – to walk humbly?

The picture is from Greenbelt.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

As others see themselves

The top two pictures are from Greenbelt last weekend, a general scene and a session organised by USPG exploring David Lammy’s “the world does not need any more white saviours”.  The bottom two are from the relaunch of the twinning between Haworth and Machu Picchu this weekend, Yorkshire and Peruvian flags on Main Street and a web link in the Old School Room.  

The link in my mind is how fertile encountering alternative perspectives and personal links can be in potentially focussing what we see: I think it was USPG which took the Bishop of Lincoln to a climate justice event in Fiji where face-to-face encounter with Bishop of Polynesia’s concern about the impact of rising sea levels on small Pacific islands has resulted in a much higher profile for the issue in Lincolnshire churches.

Thursday, 29 August 2019


The town is as proud of its Shrove Tuesday races...

... as it is of John Newton and William Cowper...

... with this image among the Newton memorials in the Parish Church...

... this playfulness in the grounds of the Cowper Memorial Church.... 

... and Cowper's writing shed ('not much bigger than a sedan chair')

... alongside lace workers' ingenious light amplifying...

.. which gives rise to our phrase 'flash light'.