Saturday 29 November 2008

Ignoring Africa

The idea that Government and individuals should support world development and poverty reduction overseas is not as widely supported as some may think. This turned out to be the main point which Lincoln’s MP wanted to make when she talked in the Cathedral last night. When she was a Minister for Overseas Development with a brief for Africa, if ministry staff seemed to forget this she used to remind them by producing the headline in a local paper which followed a statement she’d made in the Commons about a war situation where sexual violence was endemic which was something like ‘Merron gives money to rape victims in Africa but not in Lincoln’. She kept urging members of her inevitably sympathetic audience to make tackling this one of our priorities.

She is now a Minister in the Foreign Office but still with a brief for Africa, and she responded to the Dean’s invitation to share the perspective this had given her with many of the commonplaces of world development discussion: tragically high maternal and malarial death rates can be reduced by quite simple measures where there is the money and the will; different funding routes are appropriate in different countries depending on the nature of the Government and the presence of particular non-governmental agencies; poverty reduction is in our own interests given the links with everything from crime to drug production. The issues involved have clearly taken over her own life; she spoke of the immersion experience provided by Action Aid who had sent her to live briefly in a village in northern Ghana and a further period of work for VSO which she’d undertaken during one parliamentary recess.

The picture is a view across souther Malawi from the top of Zomba Mountain at the foot of which I was born.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Rectory PR

My house (photographed by a Churchwarden when it was being built in 2005) is perfect for the job but is also probably a bit of a PR disaster. It was commented again this week (on a Funeral visit as it happens) how big it looks and how sorry people were to see the loss of the ‘scout hut’ (as it was perceived) on the site. And, since I hear these comments directly quite often, I imagine that the impression in much of the community must be that ‘the church’ has too much money, indulges its clergy and doesn’t care much about community provision.

The site was bought by St Michael’s in the 1930s, small piles of bricks were abandoned on it when war time restrictions prevented building, and an ex-RAF hut was moved to it after the war. This was replaced by a new building in the 1960s and huge numbers of people have affectionate memories of packed Youth Group meetings and flourishing uniformed organisations meeting in both old and new halls. The new hall had deteriorated by the end of the century and eventually had to be shut on safety grounds; the remaining external users weren’t willing to join in the sort of joint community project which something like a Lottery bid to do it up would have required. The money raised by selling the site has been put into the project to create proper community facilities and disabled access in St Michael’s church itself, which is where our present Youth Group meets among other things.

It is actually a coincidence that the site was sold to the diocese to build a parsonage, but it is understandable that those in the community don’t perceive ‘the church’ being divided up in this subtle way. The 1930s Rectory in which my immediate predecessors lived had its own problems and was being disposed of to a builder when I arrived; attempts through a long vacancy to identify a suitable replacement house or building site had failed and I was quite happy to move into a much smaller Curate's house. The availability of a building site at the centre of the parish a few years later was the first opening the diocese found for resolving the need to provide a proper Rectory for the future.

It is large, although the parsonage need to provide study, loo and entrance lobby, and the planning need to look like a bungalow and thus put one bedroom downstairs, makes a ground plan that looks even larger. It seems like ‘protesting too much’ to point out on a Funeral visit that this week we turfed one of the children out of the main sitting room to make way for a church meeting and scrapped ice off the windows of a car which doesn’t fit into the double garage because it is full of the things needed for the Christmas Fair at one of the churches.

Monday 24 November 2008

The plain meaning of the Bible

Does the Bible have a plain meaning? Clearly much of it does. But equally clearly understanding of things such as the nature of poetry, of Graeco-Roman biography and letters, and of changing world views, would warn anyone off such a simplistic notion, and that is just in relation to the New Testament. The idea certainly doesn’t appear to be something the Bible or the Anglican Communion has ever taught. Even so, it seems that some Anglicans think it is a required belief.

The question arises because the Jerusalem Declaration agreed by the pilgrimage event held there shortly before the Lambeth Conference is quickly being used as a shibboleth (for example, those attending the launch of the new break away Anglican Province for North America early next month will be invited to sign it). The Declaration says that ‘the Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading’.

Most of this sentence appears to be an interesting take on what have been recognised to be the cornerstones of Anglican theological reflection: scripture (the canonical Bible translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed - including the word ‘interpreted’ in this list would be equally normative), tradition (‘respectful of the church’s historical reading’) and reason (‘respectful of the church’s consensual reading’ - unless this phrase was chosen to keep the Bible hostage by meaning others should only teach what the drafters agree).

But how did the word ‘plain’ get in there? The Bible itself teaches very little about the Bible. What the New Testament does teach is that the Bible is incisive, inspired and useful, and that parts of it are difficult to understand. Anglicans have explicitly never been required to believe more than this. Yet assent is being invited to a novel additional proposition that the Bible has a plain meaning, a proposition which itself actually appears directly to contradict part of this biblical teaching.

At the end of last week I was looking at what the New Testament teaches as being unnatural (men wearing long hair was one of the very few examples), discussing what demon possession might mean (in relation to the television programme Apparitions), and reading Daniel and Revelation at Matins (including complicated plays on numbers in both); the claim that this should all be understood only in a ‘plain’ sense does appear somewhat surreal.

The picture is one I took on a previous school trip to Gainsborough Old Hall a couple of years ago; it is the kitchen roof.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

St Hugh's Day

The myth of the Magna Carta is more effective than its historical reality. In other words, it is widely assumed that all sorts of principles have been established in constitutions and law in direct succession to it, but actually its influence as an icon of liberty is much stronger than the tiny bits of historical truth behind this assumption. Where a sense of justice is strong (and in these places Magna Carta is often quoted or simply referred to) bad or inadequate constitution or law cannot stamp it out. Where a sense of justice is weak then no system of constitution or law (even one which writes in principles which genuinely echo some parts of Magna Carta) can properly secure it.

This was the most interesting thought in a lecture for the College of Canons at Lincoln Cathedral yesterday. It arose out of the experience of those who have been trying to use the Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta not only as a tourist attraction but also as a tool for opening up discussion about rights and society. The lecture strayed a long way around the nature of religious freedom, seemed to depend more than can be justified on a minority stream of liberal Islamic study, and used the word ‘iconic’ more often than I could really cope with, but this is where it ended up.

A fellow Canon drew a parallel with the Precentor’s sermon we had heard earlier: the Christ who was at home in no particular place can thus be ‘relevant’ in every place. However, noone raised the related question about how far ‘the myth of God incarnate’ depends on historical reality to have power. The Bishop of Lincoln did raise the question about whether St Hugh’s life and politics might have influenced the charter issued fifteen years after his death, and I suspect that this is less whimsical than he or the lecturer allowed.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln Co-op has launched a £9.99 Cathedral Christmas pack with a book of photographs, a bag and an application form for a free annual pass. The book was created by the simple expedient of asking the public to submit pictures, and the results are hugely attractive. I sent in two: the one at the head of this piece they did not use, but the one of the roof drainage channel which I posted in this blog on 21st June does appear.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Friday 14 November 2008

A Winter Burial

‘Is that a boat?’
whispered the child
as the coffin
was carried out.

‘Yes, in a way’
his mother said
as the fresh thought
kindled her hope.

And the low sun
flamed over it
as it drifted
beyond her reach.

The picture is an outline of a Viking boat possibly put on a pillar in Stow Minister by someone who'd seen one on the Trent.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Crosslincs caution

Richard Dawkins would have a field day if the letters page of the latest issue of our diocesan newspaper fell into his hands. The lead letter simply reproduces a discredited and self evidently impossible but nevertheless increasingly widely circulated e-mail hoax that NASA has proved that there is ‘the missing day’ which anyone who takes Joshua and 2 Kings very literally would expect. One of the two other letters (which responds to something I’d written) makes the schoolboy howler of confusing things which are genetically influenced with those which are genetically determined.

Often when something is written which assumes a liberal theological position one of the incumbents of a large evangelical church writes to say this isn’t or shouldn’t be what the church teaches. I’d find it very tedious were it not for my recognition that when something is written which assumes a fundamentalist theological position I have been known to write to say that another position ought at least to be considered.

I’ve not much idea what the best thing would be to do next. Settling down into a confrontational exchange of letters wouldn’t be very edifying. On the other hand, simply watching the diocese circulate such sub-standard apologetics isn’t very constructive. The really frustrating thing is that it is those who would most want Richard Dawkins effectively rebutted who are providing him with the open goals.

The picture is one I took at Alton Abbey last year.

Monday 10 November 2008

Retreat reading

When John Cassian famously advised monks to flee from women and bishops, he had in mind the most obvious danger of being in proximity to a bishop - you might end up getting ordained... Theodore of Pherme was made a deacon, but constantly avoided exercising his ministry, when necessary by running away...; [for him it is] as if ordination involved some sort of attempt to lay hold of a destiny that would take a lifetime of prayer and watchfulness to grow into... It is a story which ought to make all ordained people uncomfortable, if only in its clear suggestion that exercising a public role in the church’s worship involves standing in the furnace of divine action which unites earth and heaven; if we can’t see that this is a dangerous place, we have missed something essential... As for Theodore, the ordained person may be at risk because of the spiritually intense place where they must stand, but they are also at risk from the more prosaic, but still spiritually damaging, effects of hierarchy and deference...; the calling to monastic witness is not going to be easily compatible with a life in which it is easy to be ensnared by the fantasies of others and caught up in the illusory position of dignity... I wonder too whether the ambivalence about ordained ministry has something to do with the license that the ordained person has to talk - to instruct, explain, exhort, even control...; there are plenty of stories about the need to avoid both theoretical discussions and over-confidence on theological questions. Speech that is not centred upon... the painful confrontation of inner confusion [and] the painstaking making space for each other before God... makes us do stupid things.

From pages 64 to 67 of Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Retreat Bible Study

I take it that a purpose of monastic life (from the Desert Fathers to contemporary Benedictine monks) is a radical experiment to see what human life is really like when the distortions of our appetites and their consequences are removed. If so, the reports back from this frontier are much more ‘relevant’ to normal life than most people are willing to think.

The first reading at Matins this morning (from Deuteronomy 17) warned God’s people that if they had a King he should not be allowed to have too much gold, too many horses or too many wives. I take this to be awareness that given total freedom the man might want to monopolise the available wealth, power and sex whatever the detriment to others. One of the few African absolute monarchs today is known for spending more on his private jet than the country’s health service (too much gold), to sack judges who make judgements against him (too much power or, figuratively, too many horses), and to hold annual half naked parades at which to select a new wife (literally too many wives). I notice that even The Independent not only depends on its advertisers (appealing to our consuming) and focusses mainly on news of those in authority or celebrities (acknowledging to whom we choose chiefly to attend) but also now includes the word ‘sex’ somewhere on its front page banners more than once a week (being open about what will catch the attention of potential buyers).

So to take vows of poverty (no gold), obedience (no horses) and chastity (no wives) must in part be not so much simply to be disciplined about these dynamics but to be curious about what happens when they are removed. Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the use of my wealth’ but ‘I’ll not allow the acquisition and use of money to motivate me at all’. Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the decisions I make’ but ‘I’ll not insist on making the fundamental decisions at all’. Not ‘I’ll be responsible about sexual morality’ but ‘I’ll not allow sexual possibilities to influence my relating’. We do well to attend to what they then find out.

Saturday 8 November 2008

Friday 7 November 2008

Retreat words

Back from the annual three nights at Alton Abbey, the substantial home of six Anglican Benedictine monks in the Hampshire beech woods. A small group of us have been doing this for twenty years. We don’t have to plan our pattern of activity or worship because we know the rhythm of the Abbey’s life and prayer and we know which large chunks of the day we keep on our own and which we keep catching up with each other.

I thought I had learnt by now not to bring too much with me; the point for me is supposed to be paying attention to what (if anything) emerges in the silences and not to keep it at bay with a project or reading list however spiritual or worthwhile. But the one valued slim volume I did take with me turned out to have notes in it made on our visit four years ago. There was what seemed to me a depressingly up to date summary of all the character faults, ministerial distortions, and habits which get in the way of others, clearly set out without my needing to do any self examination at all. I’d rather thought the process was like the occasional wash round under the draining board to keep things clean; I discover it is more like puzzling away at what on earth to do about apparently permanent stain along the grouting behind it which no amount of scrubbing or bleach seems to have been able to shift.

The little book was Rowan Williams’ lectures on the spirituality of the Desert Fathers Silence and Honey Cakes and one of the many things he reminded me is the basic one:

The church is a community that exists because something has happened which makes the entire process of self-justification irrelevant. God's truth and God's mercy have appeared in concrete form in Jesus and, in his death and resurrection, has worked the transformation which only God can perform and only God can tell us: that he has already dealt with the dreaded consequences of our failure, so that we need not labour anxiously to save ourselves and put ourselves right with God. The church's aim is to be a community that demonstrates this decisive transformation as really experienceable. One of the chief sources of the anxiety from which the gospel delivers us is the need to protect my picture of myself as right and good.

Just as well. Still, it might be nice if it was a different set of faults to reflect on in four years time rather than just the same ones further ingrained.

Sunday 2 November 2008

More holiday heritage study

The Taliban are not the only ones to have destroyed religious statues through puritan zeal. There is evidence of such destruction all around us. One of our churches (St George’s, Bradley) actually has surviving Reformation records of the Churchwardens taking down and burning the rood screen there, and this mentions in particular the statues of Mary and John standing at the foot of the cross. The absence of almost all mediaeval glass and brasses in our Cathedral is a monument itself to the Commonwealth soldiers who trashed the place over one weekend a century later. So I was struck by this carving in Prague Cathedral (even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to capture a decent quality photograph of it) showing the seventeenth century destruction there: there is even a man at the top of a ladder cutting the rood beam down with the two statues beside the cross; notably others are carting off the loot.

Saturday 1 November 2008