Tuesday 29 December 2015

New Year fears and hopes

2016 begins with more voluntary groups which add value to local life coming under pressure, a pattern reflected here in 2012 and again in 2014.

Abbey Walk Gallery, the one independent arts venue in North East Lincolnshire, is to close, with the loss of exhibition space, artists’ studios and small retail outlet (one of the few carrying my own book of poems).   It was never making money (it only appears to have survived because the two dynamic people running it never took any money out of it for themselves) and exhibition space continues to be used at the National Fishing Heritage Centre – but Grimsby will be much poorer without it.  North Lincolnshire seems to manage this all slightly better with both the large 20-21 Visual Arts Centre at the top of the main shopping street in Scunthorpe and the Rope Walk on the waterfront at Barton, although we were told a short while ago that the latter is mainly financed by its very successful restaurant.

Green Futures, the community business in this parish which operates the former Council nursery and supplies our weekly veg box, is appealing for the £15 000 it needs to keep going through the last weeks of this financial year.  Among its great strengths is the way it involves some of those who find (re)entering employment difficult, so forebodings about what it would then be able to continue to do in the financial year 2016-7 are serious.  It is a fragile and rare symbol of fresh possibilities (both ‘green’ and human) which it would be impoverishing to lose.

Shoreline, the not-for-profit organisation which owns the former Council Houses in North East Lincolnshire, is having to make cuts and redundancies which include ending grants to the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau and a major Credit Union.  The loss of these grants repeats a pattern which has worried me for some time – the major austerity moves removing lifelines from precisely the small voluntary groups which people imagined would take up some of the strain.  Shoreline’s decision here is probably inevitable (its money needs to be invested in its core purpose) but one can’t help feeling that the loss of robust advice and credit management support for its less able tenants could in fact result in higher levels of arrears, evictions and homelessness, all of which would cause misery and cost Government more in the long run.

My 'new year resolution' is to seek ways in which our over stretched churches can do more in these sorts of areas of human flourishing in 2016, but I've failed to follow through so many existing 'priorities' in 2015 that I think success is doubtful.

Meanwhile, the three Bishops in this diocese sent out a Christmas card which is a photograph of themselves, and my picture above is the play of light in Lincoln Cathedral noticed when I was there to preach at Evensong on the Sunday before Christmas.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Anglicanism divides (continued)

People are joining our churches all the time – but the congregations never seem to get bigger because others either die or fall away.  And all this starting and stopping seems to happen quite independently of any conscious mission strategies which we adopt and try to implement, which I take to be one of God’s jokes. 

I found something sad in speaking to two of those who had simply stopped coming to one of our churches over the last year to find that one objected to a liberal approach to homosexuality in one sermon while another couldn’t stand the Anglican Communion’s failure to be totally inclusive - it seems almost unfair on a relatively small church in which I hadn’t ever heard the issue mentioned to find itself two good members down in this contradictory way.

I did name this situation in sermons at each church recently, reminding people that I had once (but actually a very long time ago) undertaken an exercise intended to help all of us understand where those we disagree with on either side of this issue are coming from, and offering to do so again.

I’ve been following two quite different expressions of the two points of view this week.

First, Michael Gove interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury for The Spectator and wrote this:

If one of his own children were to be gay and fell in love with another person of the same sex, and asked his blessing, how would he react?  ‘Would I pray for them together? You bet I would, absolutely.  Would I pray with them together?  If they wanted me to.  If they had a civil service of marriage, would I attend?  Of course I would.’  But, I challenged him, conscious of what many evangelicals believe, wouldn’t you say to them that while you love them, their relationship was sinful or inappropriate?  ‘I would say, “I will always love you, full stop. End of sentence, end of paragraph.” Whatever they say, I will say I always love them.’

Which led one liberal Christian commentator (Bosco Peters in New Zealand) to respond with this:

If God as a loving father, loving parent, is a primary (some will say God-given) image, is that not what we would expect from God?  From Jesus?  If we ask God, if we ask Jesus, questions like “If one of your own children were to be gay and fell in love with another person of the same sex, and asked your blessing, how would he react? Would you pray for them together?  Would you pray with them together?  If they had a service of marriage, would you be present?”, do you think the Archbishop of Canterbury is more loving than God, than Jesus?

Meanwhile, Chris Sugden (probably the most articulate, influential and prominent spokesman for what he sees as the ‘mainstream’ conservative point of view) appeared again on Radio 4’s Sunday programme and managed to claim both that homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and that his own extensive research in Africa revealed that those who support the criminalisation of homosexual activity do so mainly to protect young people from grooming.

If you start from the point of view that homosexuality is not an inherent disposition for some, and then you appear to conflate it with paedophilia and skip over the mammoth issue of heterosexual grooming of girls and exploitation of young women, then I can see that you wouldn’t end up taking a liberal position, but I can’t think he has done the conservative position any favours. 

Meanwhile, spring shoots are coming up in St Nicolas’ churchyard.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

One word for it

I thought I’d read the very short set Epistle for last Sunday (Philippians 4.4-7) with attention.  I noticed the opening words because we sing them: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say Rejoice...’.  I looked at the Greek of the last words which we pray ‘The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep...’; it turns out that ‘surpasses’ is close to ‘outranks’ and ‘keep’ is ‘guard’, so we may have something closer to ‘God’s peace has more authority than your anxiety’ (which sits with the ‘do not worry’ in the text) than ‘God’s peace is beyond your understanding’.  I noticed the Advent theme (‘The Lord is near’) and the pedagogical theme (pray and give thanks).

Then, at the new Bishop of Grantham’s welcome service in the Cathedral on the Sunday evening, I heard him use almost the only other words in the passage as his text: ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone’ (4.5a).  He championed gentleness as an underrated virtue and said Jesus had also taught it saying ‘Blessed are the gentle for they shall inherit the earth’ (at least the last bit of which turns out to be an exegetical sleight of hand – there is a quite different Greek word at Philippians 4.5a than at Matthew 5.5).

But, as you see, he had sent me back to the Greek text again to find that Paul was using another of the epi- words which it turns out are difficult to capture in English, in this case epi-eikes,  Epi- is sometimes ‘over’ and eikos is sometimes‘fair’, so the word inhabits territory such as ‘beyond reasonable’.  Neither ‘lenient’ nor ‘conciliatory’ does the job, but they are in the right area.  Aristotle, it turns out, names the territory as ‘better than justice’.  There is almost an element of 'positive discrimination' about it.  I'm reminded of the original sense of buxom with the right amount of both strength and flexibility ‘like an archer’s bow’.

Modern English doesn’t have a single word for this.  I worked through fourteen translations of the New Testament from Tyndale’s ‘softenes’ to the New Living Translation’s ‘considerate’ (which seem to work if the opposites are hard and inflexible, thoughtless and unsympathetic).  ‘Gentleness’ does appear in three, but it is ‘forbearance’ which wins by appearing in four.  Moderation (King James), magnanimity (New English) and tolerance (Jerusalem) also appear, which covers quite a range.  None seem to capture the essential sense of not allowing the letter of the law to deny real justice – although The Message tries hard with ‘Make it as clear as you can that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them’.

So perhaps not so much ‘let people be impressed by how sensitive you are’ as ‘let people find it very odd how sympathetic your judgement is’.  Touches of ‘the woman taken in adultery’ and ‘the prodigal son’ – of course.  ‘The Lord is near’ are the words which follow next in the text so they provide the important context rather than just the next thought – my natural tendency to be judgemental or insist on my entitlements is less easy to sustain when aware of that.  It strikes me that the whole themes of forgiveness and release from debt may all actually flow from epieikes, which makes it all the more astonishing that I haven’t noticed it before, even when studying the relevant verses.

We noticed the carving above the door of the French Protestant Church in Soho Square when we were in London last week and it does seem to link with all this as well.

Monday 14 December 2015

Ai Weiwei

To describe something is to change how it is valued.  To depict it or to pray for it is do much the same thing. 

It is a simple insight I found mentioned again earlier this month.  It is one I find I was thinking about seven years ago, remembering then Irina Ratushinskaya finding a fellow prisoner’s urgent pleasure in discovering that she was a writer and thus someone able to name their situation. 

We found ourselves in Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy on Saturday and I hadn’t expected it to make anything like the impact it did.  He shares some of her experiences beginning with a childhood as the son of a poet internally exiled during the Cultural Revolution.

He had recovered the metal from collapsed reinforced concrete following an earthquake in which the disproportionately high number of children killed appeared to reflect the corruption which had resulted in sub-standard school building.  These strands of metal were stacked in a huge hall like an undulating landscape with fractured cliffs along it and with the otherwise concealed and forgotten names of the children listed in their hundreds on the walls around.

He had emerged from a period of detention about which he was forbidden to speak or paint but during which he had memorised every detail of his cell.  These memories were reconstructed at half size in closed boxes set out across another room into which one could peer either through the only high level windows or through openings above the shower and toilet sharing the intrusion of the guards who continued to watch him there.

There was much else, including two copies of an encyclopaedia of artists, the English edition open at a double page spread which includes a page about him, the Chinese edition open at the same pair of pages identical on one side but with a page about a western artist replacing the page about him on the other side.

I’m sorry not to have a camera with me to add illustrations to these few words about the exhibition.  There is something about the sheer scale of these pieces and those constructed as a forest of marble grass or stacked wood rescued from derelict temples.  

Instead, the hundred year old postbox (from the reign of Edward VII 1901-10) on Grimsby’s Pelham Road just happens to be the most recent photograph I’ve taken.

Monday 7 December 2015

Maps again

I’m back to maps and place names again, itching at the weekend to share with the young people at our monthly alternative evening worship the way they could view the world differently if the map spread out before them was upside down, divided across the Altantic rather than the Pacific, and set out on an ‘equal area’ projection, a world in which we lived tucked away in a remote corner and, instead of us, it is disappearing islands in the middle of the Pacific, once thought of as being at a safe distance from anywhere for nuclear tests, which take centre stage. 

It wasn’t my turn.  I ought to dig out for next month my battered copies of the resource material I developed from copies of Christian Aid’s Peter’s Projection in the 1980s and continued to use with clergy through the 1990s.

In fact I’ve been reading The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller, a poet with Jamaican and Rastafarian roots, published last year.  It includes repeated exchanges of points of view between a cartographer and a rastaman, the latter saying On this island things fidget, even history - the landscape does not sit willingly as if behind an easel and Draw me a map of what you see, then I will draw a map of what you never see, and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose? and His work is to make thin and crushable all that is big and real as ourselves

There is a circuitous road on Jamacia which still follows the route a Miss Musgrave took on her carriage so that she did not have to view native homes on her way to the Hall - and to think such spite should pass down to the present generation.

Brief quotations don’t carry the impact of the twists and illustrations in my initial two favourite poems which have the cartographer ask How much have we not seen or felt or heard because there is no word for it – at least no word we know? and the rastaman warn My bredda you cannot plot your way to Zion.

It also includes expositions of many Jamacian place names, which sent me back to Brian Friel who died in October.  One of the first academic directions we were given when beginning to study at the Irish School of Ecumenics approaching thirty years ago was: if we wanted to understand the Irish situation a tiny bit better, read Brian Friel. 

Obituaries highlighted above anything else his 1980 play Translations.  I haven’t forgotten the way it has the English ordnance survey in 1833 fixing alien Irish place names with easy to handle English equivalents, the immediate use of which enabled them to direct military operations and oppression efficiently.  Or the one map-making soldier finding the only language he had in common with an Irish girl was a tentatively exchange of Irish place names, which is how we leave them until she artlessly reveals that the process has continued as she tells her mother the names of all the north Norfolk villages around his home.

Meanwhile, this weekend our garden doesn’t know whether it is late autumn (the shrub on the left still has its final leaves to lose) or early spring (the one of the right is already in blossom), and there are other examples of the same confusion along the streets near-by.  The partial job done by our categories, labels and maps is essential to carry our love and our understanding - but it is not enough, and it is dangerous when we think it is where we find our whole truth. 

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Our War Zone

The Pope has visited the war-torn Central African Republic and the ubiquity of the ludicrous headline ‘The first Pope to enter an active war zone’ (which I’ve found at the BBC, in the religious press and internationally) must, I suppose, mean it was a clever ‘attention grabbing’ line from a Vatican Press Release which has initially been uncritically bought into by most reporters, although a quick search a few days later shows that most have toned this down with something like ‘in living memory’.  

My second thought was that the truth is that, from the barbarians working their way down Italy repeatedly to sack Rome in the fifth century to the Allied troops working their way up Italy to liberate Europe one and a half thousand years later, it is as often the war zone which has come to a Pope as a Pope who has gone to a war zone.  

But my present obvious thought is that he and we all live in a war zone now, not because terrorism continues to brings the consequences of war to European capital cities, but because everything from drones (many ‘driven’, as it happens, from Lincolnshire air bases) to the present on-line lobbying of MPs ahead of their vote on bombing Syria means war no longer happens elsewhere for anybody.