Monday 20 August 2018


For a resistance fighter, a spectacular victory becomes the moment of great danger.  Once the convoy or the oil field or the ammunition dump is exploded, those responsible are targeted men. 

So it was for Elijah.  At Mount Carmel, he humiliated the apparently all-conquering Taliban-like prophets of Baal in fire brought down from heaven and then he slaughtered them.  It ignited Queen Jezebel, no less, who swore his destruction - and he fled for his life.

Being hunted down and under the stress of trauma, he went a hundred miles south to the edge of the Negev, then a further day’s journey into the desert itself.  There he collapsed under the shelter of a rare tree, prayed for death, and, mercifully, fell asleep.

At which point (the exquisite five verses from 1 Kings 19.3-7 were read on a recent Sunday) God’s messenger-angels touched him.  They did so twice.  They provided warm bread and cold water. 

One might have hoped they would also provide an answer to his final despairing prayers – you are safe, the likes of the prophets of Baal and Jezebel will be defeated.  

But instead their message to the man at the extremity of coping seemed simply to be – go further into the wilderness.

And there, alongside those whose bereavement or depression or pain or mental illness or approaching death seems unremitting and unbearable, I was glad to stop reading. 

To stop reading with the second angel-touch and the words ‘take the sustenance here however tiny, else the journey will be too much for you’.

If we read on we find Elijah has indeed traversed the Negev and Sinai deserts for forty days, come to a new experience of God and a new understanding of what he should do.  But that isn’t yet, and we didn’t read that far.

We only read the verses in which God’s messenger-angels found him in wilderness, touched him, and told him that he needed to go deeper into the desert, a journey which would be almost too much for him.

So, I thought of Paul asking God three times to take away whatever the thorn in the flesh and the message of Satan which beset him might be, and get only the answer ‘my grace is sufficient for you’ (2 Corinthians 12.9).

And I thought of the viaticum - literally, the things which pertains to the ‘via’ (the ‘way’).  The word comes from the necessary supplies granted to a Roman ambassador as he set out.  It is used in the Catholic church particularly of Communion give to the dying.  Way-bread.  Food for the journey.

It seems vastly insensitive and crass to say to those facing what is unendurable that God’s message might be stick with this, go deeper into it, and you will see that it can bring you to fresh insight into God and enhanced self-understanding.

But always simply to pray instead that the all-powerful God will be heal, defeat evil and take it all away seems to miss what the messenger-angels were saying to Elijah.

It is something just hinted in my own comfortable and untraumatic experiences - from an occasional willingness to stay with difficult questions rather than settle for the first obvious or more comforting answers through to learning tiny things about myself through hardly challenging experiences of fasting.  So it is something I just might more fully recognise if and when debilitation comes or I am granted a final illness.

And Jesus’ own ministry began actually being led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, and ended with going deeper into suffering rather than magicking it away.  That can't be a coincidence.

The poor pictures are young Palestinian dabka dancers from Bethelehem in Halifax a few days ago.

Updated 25th August.  Another clergyman's Blog has a new post partly about his own depression and then adds the following, with the highly relevant strap line 'with, through and beyond':  A small group in my benefice have been working on a liturgy we are going to be offering for the first time in October. The aim is to bring sufferers together in gentle solidarity in the hope that we learn, together, to live ‘with, through, and beyond’ depression and anxiety. 

Saturday 11 August 2018


If Jeremy Corbyn had written a newspaper article promoting interfaith understanding which included joke comparisons about the kippa (skullcaps) and ringlets worn by some Jewish men, or if Vince Cable had written one promoting a multi-ethnic society and recording what he thought was a  witty remark about what a Sikh turban brings to a schoolboy’s mind, would anyone be defending either of them?

Meanwhile, the pictures are of the two most striking memorials at Harwarden church, taken when I was next door at Gladstone's Library last week.

Monday 6 August 2018

The flood begins

The unsustainability of local authority budgets is not fresh news. 

During my first months and year here I have sought briefings from local organisations and individuals and have had many casual conversations – and local authority finances have come up more than one might expect.   

Again and again, I’ve found myself reporting what the then Chief Executive of North East Lincolnshire Council said to a gathering of local clergy there perhaps five years ago.  He said that it looked as if in about five years time – that is to say, about now – the Council might not be able to afford to meet in full all its statutory obligations.  What that would mean was, when all its income was needed to meet the cost of what it was legally obliged to do, there would be no money at all to spend on anything further - however good and however much it would want to do those things.

So just over a year ago, as I moved, the headlines and comments in the Grimsby Telegraph were about the closure of public toilets in Cleethorpes and local astonishment that the local authority was withdrawing from a vital service in a tourist area, and the headlines and comments in the Keighley News turned out to say exactly that same things about the public toilets in Haworth.

And just over a year on, last week, the national news is about the first County Council to announce that it was near technical bankruptcy and would be reconfiguring services to make a ‘core offer’ to meet only its minimum legal obligations.

A junior Government minister then appeared on the Radio 4.  He said that this was only a single Council – without reference to the sort of thing I’ve typed above or about other Councils now close to making the same announcement.  He mentioned millions of pounds in one new Government funding stream – without reference to how little this is in comparison to the actual reduction in local authority funding over the last few years.  He praised specific local authorities elsewhere for their creative approach to making savings – without reference to the way the particular local authority was the first to exhaust all such options ahead of its announcement.

I wondered whether he was genuinely ignorant or being wilfully deceitful – and how anyone so ignorant or deceitful is kept in post.  My guess is that he was neither - that he so focussed on his own policy commitment (to austerity and small local Government), and so habituated into channelling only the briefing notes he had, that he genuinely doesn’t see what is really going on.

(And I’m not really pointing a finger here.  We have reached the point in the Church of England at which it is quite possible for national and regional statements to be about our agreed strategies, talked up with positive indications, so that the bigger picture and seriousness of the situations we face are not mentioned at all.)

I’ve looked back and found that it was actually only just over four years ago that I posted something about cuts in youth provision, clearly building on what I must have heard from the Chief Executive perhaps at about that time:

The level of cuts required... means that it isn’t possible to take a small slice out of every department, nor to make large cuts in departments which deliver services required by law, so swingeing cuts take place in departments which deliver services which, however desirable, are not required by law.  And this will go on.  Further equally sharp reductions in budget will follow...  It is difficult to conceive of desirable but not legally required services surviving at all.  The whole profile of a local authority will change.  Present protests on this and other issues predicated on the local authority continuing to play its present role will come to be seen as almost literally antediluvian.  

So this is about much more than the loss of public toilets (or libraries or youth centres, or of responsibility for some of them being transferred to Parish Councils or voluntary groups).  It is not even simply about the most vulnerable being endangered or impoverished by minimal social provision.  It is about the effective removal of a whole layer of (literally) civic society.  And junior Government ministers will continue to appear on Radio 4 and say ‘move on, there is nothing to see here’ as it is being removed.

The picture is the centre of the cross behind the altar in the chapel at Gladstone’s Library, just over the Welsh border near Chester.  I spent a couple of days there last week partly in retreat and partly engaged in some study.