Sunday 30 September 2018

The pursuit of rightness

The only thing I thought I knew about Francis Fukuyama was that he said the fall of Eastern Bloc communism was ‘the end of history’ - and that he was wrong.  A brief and narrow perception or hope that liberal western democracy was the only remaining game in town now seems to be a hubristic confusing of our own quite local passing context with eternal truth.  Any sense that subsequent events and fresh developments would not open up new directions simply seems daft, especially in the face of the reassertion (in our immediate context) and continuation (in the context of swathes of other) of religious and national self assertions.

But I read this week that he didn’t mean that at all.  He wasn’t speaking about ‘end’ in the sense of ‘finish’ but in the sense of ‘ultimate direction’.  He wasn’t predicting that nothing new would happen.  He was sensing and expressing a shift in where our hope was now focussed - not in imposed shared ownership but in chosen shared responsibility.  He was asserting that it was by this criterion that we would be judging things like those religious and national self assertions.

Perhaps there was a touch of President Obama’s ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’ in what he saw.  Obama was quoting Martin Luther King, who was in turn quoting a popular contraction of a passage in a nineteenth century abolitionist sermon.  Theodore Parker was not saying everything will work out for good in the long-term.  He was expressing, despite the moral confusion and setbacks which he could not understand, a deeper certainty and faith that justice was the criterion by which this all would eventually be judged.  The rightness of emancipation remains clear even as modern slavery is endemic.

So I’ve returned to the concluding words of the scriptures set for Harvest Festival today: ‘seek first the kingdom and righteousness of the Father and all the things you need will be given as well’.  (Tom Wright’s newly published translation  simply offers ‘God’s way of life’ for ‘righteousness’ in this particular text; he says ‘we want a word which can pack ‘justice’, ‘covenant faithfulness’ and ‘right standing or relationship’ all into the same hold; ... there isn’t such a word’.)

‘Seek’ isn’t a casual word.  There are touches of ‘search’ and ‘pursue’ about it.  Chase determinedly anything consistent with a final goal of justice, chosen shared responsibility and being in the right place before God.  It is towards there that our universal moral compass swings. That is our end.  Everything else follows – even when so much of what we experience seems to contradict this.  

Meanwhile, the flocks of birds apparently flying around St James’, Cross Road’s for the Harvest Festival this morning were created by the young people there to reflect an earlier part of the reading: ‘Have a good look at the birds in the sky – they don’t plant seeds, they don’t bring in the harvest, they don’t store things in barns – but your father in heaven feeds them’.

Sunday 23 September 2018

Not a transaction we initiate

When Communion is celebrated, the intersection of time and eternity is such that we are remembering something we didn’t experience and looking forward to something we can’t imagine.

It sounds a bit like a sentence by Rowan Williams – and it was said at a lecture he gave for the clergy of the diocese in Ripon Cathedral this week – but it was actually something said by a Hospital Chaplain as he thanked the speaker.

Rowan Williams is, of course, always worth hearing and always stretching (as here and here ten years ago and here two years after that – all insights to which I return frequently and gratefully); I’ve even got something out of those parts of his 2013 Gifford Lectures I’ve been able to understand (although I discover that my bookmark is stubbornly half way through the third of the six lectures where it has been for a very long time). 

I remember especially a piece of work he did (with Sarah Coakley) in the 1980s which highlighted the sense that our praying is always the work of God – we can become aware in our silence that we are caught up in the exchange of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit which is the life of God. 

Romans 8’s reminder that the Son takes the needs of the world to the right hand of the Father, and the Spirit makes our inarticulate groans into prayers, means that this isn’t something remote from human experience and hope.

So his lecture this week was indeed about prayer not being a transaction we seek to initiate but a slipping into action always already going on, something taking us into and towards the new creation which is God’s desire and purpose.  And Romans 8 was his primary reference.

But, this time, I've come home still dwelling on the Hospital Chaplain's paradox - with Jesus life and the Kingdom of God both close and within.

And I've also been thinking about a young member of the clergy in the row behind me who spent a quite inordinate amount of time on her mobile phone.  I wondered how her apparent need to be connected made her appear so disconnected from the experience and insights to which the Bishop of Leeds had explicitly asked us to take time together away from out busyness elsewhere.

It turned out that she was tweeting – distilling and sharing what was being said - and it was in fact me who was spending the time being distracted by judgmental thoughts even while listening to Rowan Williams carefully call me yet again to lay myself in silence before God (thus vulnerable, he suggested, to the possibility that I would see myself ever more clearly as my senses adapting to be in the light of Christ).

The picture is another one of light again this week spilling into St James’, Cross Roads .

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Having one Herbal by me

A few months ago, I was shown the medical dictionary which Patrick Brontë owned and annotated.  Published in 1823 (when he had been incumbent of Haworth for three years) it is touching that some of his most detailed notes in it relate to alcoholism (alcohol abuse contributed to or caused the death of his only son) and cataract surgery (which he underwent himself without anaesthetic).

The Brontë Society staff member who showed it to me wondered how common it would have been for an Anglican incumbent of the time to have such a dictionary.  I didn’t know that, but I did know that 175 years earlier the most influential guide book to Anglican ministry (George Herbert’s County Parson) strongly recommended the parson “seeing one Anatomy, reading one Book of Physic, having one Herbal by him”, the latter to enable the preparation of remedies (“for salves, his wife seeks not the city, but prefers her garden and fields before all outlandish gums”).

It set me to wondering what the equivalent might be for me.  Clearly the National Health Service has removed or greatly reduced the need for a country parson to act as a medical practitioner, although I was being encouraged recently by an ecumenical colleague to make sure that some people in our churches had First Aid qualifications as a basic part of our safeguarding provision.

It is actually a short course as a Mental First Aider which I need to undertake next; other local clergy have highly commended a piece of locally provided training of this sort.  It links with a larger piece of work in which the ecumenical colleague and I have been engaged alongside the ‘social prescriber’ who is based at Haworth’s Medical Centre.

Social prescribing was being explored in North East Lincolnshire in 2015 and it lies behind the column I wrote for the Keighley News a few weeks ago.  The social prescriber’s role is to give proper attention to a patient referred to him or her as potentially being better prescribed society rather than medicine.  This involves the social prescriber having an extensive informed knowledge of local provision (perhaps health walking groups, bereavement support groups or social groups for the potentially isolated - much of which may well be provided by churches or at least use church premises).

When we met our local social prescriber, we asked him which needs he found most difficult to meet – what gaps there are in local provision.  He said it was the needs of men, often in middle age, and most often with mental health problems.  I was already aware of a family in the village raising money for MIND following the suicide of a young mother last year (those who order their Mermen for MIND calendar will find me in the background in November – so do so) and my colleague was already supporting someone seeking to establish a mental health peer support group. 

So we have worked with others to kick start an informal forum in Haworth (we’ve just had our second lunch and chat together, with churches, Councillors, Medical Centre and police among those represented) and we have been following this up with those who do provide mental health support not too far away to make sure more does happen in the Worth Valley soon.

I’ve also had pastoral contacts recently which provoke a quite different idea about what the modern equivalent of Herbert’s ‘Herbal’ and Bronte’s medical dictionary would be for a contemporary parson.  I suspect it would be an on-line subscription to the sort of professional website with up-to-date information about benefit legislation, the sort of web-site which advice centres and lawyers access.  But that is for another day.

The mask was produced at Friday Church at St James’, Cross Roads last week as we continue to prepare for Harvest Festival this year when the set Gospel reading will be about the way in which birds do not worry about fashion or barn storage.

Sunday 9 September 2018

Wuthering Heights' Half Life

There are two views of Wuthering Heights.

One is gained from reading the book, from which flow reactions of at least admiration, analysis, astonishment, criticism, cynicism, emotional engagement, disbelief and vituperation in a variety of measures.

The other is gained from a general cultural impression of an abiding and tragic love story set on wind-swept moors, something which in the end is quite detached from the book itself.

Lauren Livesey, a member of the staff at the Bronte Society, drew attention to this divide in a lively talk at the Parsonage Museum last week.

She located the 1939 film starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as the turning point.  Everything  from the film’s primary focus on the two characters of Heathcliff and Cathy to its omission of the second half of the book created the new cultural impression, she suggested, which others have closely followed since.

She pointed out that this happened half the way back to the publication of the book.  Not quite so - 1847-1939 is 92 years and 1939-2018 is 79 years - but the basic point is illuminating; basically, the alternative Wuthering Heights is a television-era product and dominates all living memory.

She spoke of the Monty Python 1970 sketch which turned the book into sweeping semaphore signals between Heathcliff and Cathy (and then her husband and others), a spoof which would simply not have worked if it wasn’t referencing a recognised culturally embedded image.

She also spoke about Kate Bush saying her song (which the Monty Python sketch was not referencing as the song was actually produced later in the 1970s) emerged from her awareness of the story rather than from her having read the book.

So some of those who react emotionally to Emily Brontë’s burial place in our church have been engaging with the book at many levels over a long period.  And others are doing so because they resonate with the second Wuthering Heights.

I’m grateful to the talk for making sense of this to me – previously I had been much more puzzled about what model of marriage could possibly be in the mind of those from far away who even request we conduct or bless their weddings in our church.

Lauren also showed us a long clip from a film of Pride and Prejudice which she said serious Jane Austen fans found mystifying as it has Elizabeth Bennet stand on a rocky promontory on a wind-swept moor amidst swirling music – the viral form of Wuthering Heights somehow infecting the more genteel home counties’ story.

It did mean we could exchange stories.  Lauren’s was simply of the tour guide telling people that Pride and Prejudice was written in the Parsonage.  Mine was of a recent visitor to Emily’s Brontë’s grave telling me she had also recently visited Winchester Cathedral and seen there the grave of Jane Eyre.

The picture is a further view of Chiharu Shiota’s installation at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Saturday 1 September 2018

Forgotten praise made visible

Breaking a long journey home on the M1, we pulled off at Junction 38 to enjoy the Yorkshire Sculpture Park again.

Mr Finch’s hand-sewn woodland animals – sort of higher-class textile Beatrix Potter illustrations – were hugely popular.  Apparently they are part of ‘a magical kingdom’ where their ‘job it is to collect and sort other creatures’ wishes, which are breathed into envelopes and posted in toadstool postboxes’. 

The imagination and workmanship were superb, but I couldn’t quite shake off the judgmental thought that this was typical of a nation which has largely forgotten how to pray, especially as we then, almost symbolically, walked across the grounds to the disused eighteenth century estate Chapel.

There we found it was full of thread woven together by Chiharu Shiota, a European-based Japanese artist.  She wanted the vacated and vacant silent space to make visible the music which has been offered there over many years, some sheets of which were intertwined in the thread.  Her work bursts out of the skeleton of a piano and forms shapes some of which are reminiscent of mediaeval stone arches and vaulting.

She writes of making a connection with the ‘collective consciousness’ of the Chapel, and it was an obvious step from there to T.S. Eliot’s often quoted

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion.  You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.  You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

In fact I dwelt not on Little Gidding but on Common Worship’s

From the beginning you have created all things
and all your works echo the silent music of your praise.
In the fullness of time you made us in your image,
the crown of all creation.
You give us breath and speech that with angels and archangels
and all the powers of heaven
we may find a voice to sing your praise.

Some people find praying about an echo of silent music problematic rather than poetic, but here it was.  It took me back to what I take to be the phrase’s origin at the beginning of Psalm 19 (I haven’t yet been able to chase down a specific reference to justify the claim that the phrase is attributable in this form to John of the Cross):

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

Looking up the Psalm now, I find that the use of the word voice may not be fully justified here.  Apparently, the Hebrew is (measuring) line, although early Greek, Latin and Syriac translations do have sound which is why this is followed in many English translations.  Perhaps it is the creator's metre which we detect in Chiharu Shiota’s threads – as much a reflection of invisible structures as an echo of silent music.