Wednesday 31 December 2014

Ponte Vecchio

The only bridge to survive Allied bombing.  The shops are one thing, but the best bit is the enclosed ariel corridor running from one palace (the second picture shows this best) to another across the river, having to loop round a  mediaeval tower on the way (the thid picture shows this).

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Hopes and fears

It is a over a year since we returned from our sabbatical term in Jerusalem - and we miss it.  A year in which everyone’s attention has been held by repeated instances of extremist or radicalised Israelis or Palestinians killing others, and of the personal and structural retribution meted out as a result mainly on individual Palestinians and Palestine but also on individual Israelis; a year culminating on Human Rights Day in the tragic army dispersal of olive tree planting in part of Palestine designated as soon to be inaccessible to Palestinians.   
There is a feature of our stay about which we talk but which hasn’t yet appeared in this Blog.  Whenever we were in a group which visited a Christian community off the beaten track in the West Bank (which isn’t a claim at intrepid travel – the area is small and we were there for three months), the people we visited always began a welcome by expressing at length disproportionate thanks for our having come to see them.  They clearly felt that Christians on hurried visits to the holy sites simply bypassed them.  They clearly imagined that any news we would take away, for example, about the restrictive implication for them of living near Israeli settlements would inevitable fuel effective international demands to change the situation.

On this last point, I don’t know how right they are.  Perhaps the sudden flow of European parliaments expressing the wish to recognise the state of Palestine indicates they are right.  My own experience suggests they are wrong.  Expressing their situation and concerns is as likely to provoke a hostile reaction as a supportive one.  Even setting out those two opening paragraphs as carefully as I can will be viewed by some neutral readers and most partial readers as being loaded against the state of Israel and its need for security simply for having not yet named them.  The fact that I haven’t begun ‘a year in which everyone’s attention has been held by the Islamic fundamentalist take over in Iraq and Syria and the related persecution of Christians there’ would be cited as some as evidence of priorities skewed by latent anti-Semitism.

There are those whose attention to the communities of the West Bank is not as casual or fleeting as ours.  Some are Jewish and/or Israeli Human Rights organisations which can hardly be anti-Semitic.  Others externally include  ‘ecumenical accompaniers’: ‘ international Christian volunteers to the West Bank to experience life under occupation, provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace’.   It is  perhsp telling that the General Synod’s expressing explicit support for this programme in 2012 resulted in a degree of rupture in relations with formal Jewish bodies in England.  These bodies  and other critics of the programme see it as politically naive or slanted (hence the rupture in relationships) - while in turn many Palestinian Christians, including many promoters of non-violence, fear that their plight is actually an embarrassment to those seeking to keep inter-faith relationships in good repair elsewhere.

Which relates, but only tangentially, to another aspect of this whole complex situation about which I have been thinking but which hasn’t yet appeared in this Blog.  Those in church leadership in liberal western Christianity are likely to be aged 55-75 and are thus likely to have studied Theology in the 1960s and 1970s.  Their (our – just, I am 54 and began a University course in Theology in 1979) theological formation is therefore strongly orientated by awareness of just how anti-Semitic our tradition has been and how strangely neglectful of the essentially Jewish roots of Jesus and the New Testament.  From the shifts in teaching of the Vatican II (1963-5) to the publication of Geza Vermes’ classic Jesus the Jew in 1973, a whole new perspective emerged; a perspective centred on essential repentance for the anti-Semitism deeply, disturbingly and destructively embedded in most of the history of Christendom; a perspective centred on the obvious but somehow airbrushed, concealed or forgotten kinship with Judaism.

This is a perspective which flavours what we teach all the time (for example perhaps, provoking visits to concentration camps in Germany and to places marked by blood libel in England, and ensuring awareness of everything from the Jewish shape of Jesus’teaching to the Jewish heritage of our own town).   Such a perceptive is obviously not incompatible with support for Palestine - but it is really messy (emotionally, theologically and politically) unpicking why this is so.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Money, sex and power

Those most likely to convert to Islam in England are white working class women in their twenties.  This is what Grayson Perry suggests.   He has included one of them (Kayleigh Khosravi) among the portraits we saw last month at the National Portrait Gallery , also featured then on his television series ‘Who are you?’.

One has to keep this in perspective.  The most recent request I’ve had for a certificate recording her Baptism as an infant was for a young woman who needed it as she prepared to be received into the Catholic church.  And the numbers given for English people converting to Islam each year are a fraction of the numbers who are confirmed in just the Church of England each year.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated by what emerged when he asked ‘What does Islam offer to a young white woman in her twenties?’.

The answer, I found, appears to be a refuge from the nagging consumer pressures and constant, often sexual, scrutiny of women all pervasive in western society.  Conversion also offers a strong and supportive sisterhood within the congregation of the mosque.

What I found particularly striking about this was how it relates to a reflection which I first posted here over six years ago.

Deuteronomy 17 warned God’s people that if they had a King he should not be allowed to have too much gold, too many wives or too many horses.   I take this to be awareness that given total freedom this man might want to monopolise the available money, sex and power whatever the detriment to others of his doing so. 

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 hold annual half naked parades to select a new wife (literally too many wives) and to sack judges who make judgements against him (too much power, or, figuratively, too many horses). 

Is a purpose of monastic life a radical experiment to see what human life is really like when the distortions of our appetites and their consequences are removed?  So to take vows of poverty (no gold), chastity (no wives) and obedience (no horses) 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 sexual morality’ but ‘I’ll not allow any sexual possibilities to influence my relating at all’?  Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the decisions I make’ but ‘I’ll not insist on making the fundamental decisions at all’?   

What Grayson Perry heard Kayleigh Khosravi say to him was that she found in her new faith an alternative to our society’s consumerism, sexualisation and loss of any meaningful sense of interdependence - allowing purchase power, sexual attraction and competition to shape us. 

The sad thing for me, of course, is that she didn’t suspect that the Christian church would be the place where she’d find this critiqued or resisted – where sacrificial generosity and the forgiveness of debts (a form of mutuality as much as a vow of poverty), marital fidelity and the honouring of each individual (a form of integrity as much as a vow of chastity), and love of neighbour and a bias towards the marginalised (a form of solidarity as much as a vow of obedience) would be normative.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Timothy Smithson's Will

I have now received a copy of the Will of Timothy Smithson, and it turns out to provide an interesting encounter with one aspect of Grimsby history.

So, first, the historical context.

In the eighteenth century, Grimsby, although it had Borough status and returned two Members of Parliament, was no bigger than a modern village and no bigger than the other tiny market towns of north-east Lindsey such as Barton and Caistor.  What soon became known as the 'Old Town' clustered around the church and the Riverhead.

At the very end of the century, two major developmental initiatives were taken to kick-start something bigger, but, in the end, neither managed to do so.

First, a dock was built along the mainly silted up Haven – today this is the portion of Alexandra Dock between the Riverhead and the A180.  The enabling Act was passed in 1796 and the first use was in 1801.  But those who financed the development, which included all the major landowners in the Wolds, did not have sufficient supplies of goods to export and proved to be naive about what the quantity of trade by others would be.

Secondly, from 1800, the common land immediately east of the new dock was parcelled up and initially leased and then sold for building development –  this ‘New Town’ occupied the land which today is between Alexandra Dock and the railway line.  The population of Grimsby doubled (to over 4000 people by 1831) but actually far fewer of the plots were developed than had been expected and many ended up being used as market gardens.

It would be more than a generation later, in the 1840s, that the development of Grimsby took off with the completion of agricultural enclosure and improvement and with the coming of the railway, but that is quite another story.

Back to Timothy Smithson’s Will, made in 1816, three years before his death.  Although he describes himself as a Farmer of Great Coates, almost all of the document deals with an extensive portfolio of property  - including ‘all my nine freehold messuages or tenements with gardens and appurtenances situate in Great Grimsby in a certain street or place called Flower Square’ (some of which were let to tenants). 

Flour Square (the contemporary spelling is twentieth century) is at what would then have been the northern end of the New Town, on the marshy coastal strip of Fitties rather than on the Common proper, and is today just north off the Lock Hill roundabout. 

Smithson allocates the nine properties in turn to his eight oldest surviving children; the daughter married to a joiner (Charles Hudson) gets a property with a joiner’s shop.  His youngest children, by his second wife Mary, were still under age, and he makes provision for Mary and these children to have income from property trusts.  His ‘dear wife’ also gets ‘my two best beds, half of my best chairs [and] also my mahogany dining and tea tables’.

Of additional interest for me are the names of the two much younger farmers (aged in 1816 39 and 44, as against Smithson’s 66) to be the trustees.  They are ‘my two good friends’  Richard Taylor of Great Coates (whose memorial and grave have featured in this Blog before) and Charles Nevill of Little Coates (about more of whom in a moment).  

There is obviously something of a community among these more substantial tenant farmers, each managing the largest businesses in the two villages; they formed part of the sort of class prosperous enough to take advantage of new investment opportunities in neighbouring Grimsby.

The earliest surviving gravestone in Little Coates churchyard is that of Charles’ grandparents(from 1781) .  His parents’ gravestone also survives nearby, and a picture from it has appeared in this Blog before.  

Charles’ sister Ann married a Joshua Chapman, and they were to be the great-grandparents of the Joseph Chapman whose fortune was made when  Grimsby’s growth and trade eventually really did take took off and whose legacy paid for the building of most of the present St Michael’s, Little Coates almost exactly a century after Smithson drew up his Will.