That's Not MY National Anthem

That’s not MY National Anthem…

… It’s too small. It’s not about the nation or the people at all, but about one over-privileged individual. Its whole ethos is one of the causes of the mess we’re in today. (Unless, like me, you reckon Her Majesty’s real enemies are Her Majesty’s own Government, and it’s their politics and knavish tricks we are praying will be confounded…)

This is MY National Anthem…

… It’s national and international, it’s European, it’s joyful, it’s for the people, it’s for the brother/sisterhood of all humankind.

Yes, that’s MY National Anthem.

Re-enchanted Christianity? I don’t think so

Two important and challenging reads from this week. First, in the New Statesman, from Anthony Sheldon’s review of A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond.

Susskind asks the right question – what will replace the dignity work gave? – but falls short on answers. The building of relationships, family, adult education, communities, the arts, sport and volunteering are barely mentioned. Oddly, religion too is dismissed as no longer giving meaning to lives. But in this century there has been an explosion in people searching for meaning in spirituality and religion.

Where are those people going to look for, and find, meaning in spirituality and religion? I’ve given the whole of my working life to the hope that the answer might be: in the Church of England. But how likely is that, I’m now asking myself, when it’s clear to people that the Church of England is more interested in telling them who’s allowed to have sex, than in telling them how they can know and experience God?

And then, in the Church Times, an opinion piece by the pseudonymous Ines Hands, entitled We are failing the next generation of Anglicans.

The loss of confidence in traditional worship stems from the fact that its tenor (solemnity, ceremony, and repetition) has few if any parallels left in modern life. Interpreting this as a barrier to participation, the response has been to adapt the life and worship of the Church so that it more closely resembles life outside the Church.
Certainly, the Church should have its eyes open to wider society. But it is absurd for the worship of the Church to be dictated by what we imagine those outside the Church want. I recently asked a friend, another lifelong Anglican of about my age, whether he expected other faiths to adapt their worship to outsiders. Without hesitation, he said that he would expect no such thing.
Likewise, for change to be dictated by the presumed tastes of children is frankly, bizarre. If children are routinely excluded from the eucharist and other liturgical rites, if the term “all-age” is applied only to patronising forms of worship, what children implicitly understand is that the way adults worship is boring and incomprehensible when they should infer that it is rich and sustaining. All worship is all-age. It is involvement and exposure that breed attachment. We cannot afford to disregard how much children learn from the attitudes that adults – parents in particular – unconsciously enact. If adults have little confidence in, or respect for, traditional worship, then it is already as good as lost.

You never heard of “Messy Synagogue” or “Messy Mosque”, did you? How is it that we have so lost confidence in what we do in church that we have virtually killed the dignity and beauty of worshipping and encountering the Mystery?

What went wrong?

I’m re-reading some of the spiritual and theological titles that have meant most to me over the years of my spiritual journey and ministry, and today I came across this paragraph in A. M. Allchin’s The Kingdom of Love & Knowledge. This was published in 1979, so over 40 years ago:

… the developments of the last ten years, both in North America and Western Europe, have suggested that we are faced with an undeniable spiritual hunger, a renewed thirst for the experienced knowledge and love of God. We observe a desire to rediscover suppressed or neglected aspects of man’s being, his search for the transcendent, his capacity for delight and wonder, for a non-exploitative attitude towards the world around. We see a desire to re-integrate the body into the totality of life, not least the life of prayer and worship. The problems of ecology, the rediscovery of the sacredness of the material world, the nature of spiritual, indeed mystical, experience, these are questions which are alive now in a way in which they were not ten or fifteen years ago.

That spiritual hunger and thirst is just what I’ve tried to convey with the strap line to this blog: Enchanted by God: Looking for a re-enchanted Christianity. Yet 40 years have passed, and it sometimes seems that most of what the Church has done and tried in the mean time, most of its new schemes and initiatives and projects and other good wheezes, have had precisely the opposite effect. They have trivialised the Gospel, dumbed down worship with inane lyrics to (some) new worship songs, managerialised Church structures, tried to make Church ‘relevant’, ‘entertaining’, ‘appealing’ and simply made it look stupid, and generally robbed worship and God of mystery.

The only notable exception I can think of is the ordination of women, which has hugely enriched the ordained mystery, but not yet allowed the dangerous gifts of women to re-enchant the faith.

What went wrong with Allchin’s vision? How can we put things right? If, indeed, it isn’t already too late?

Abuse in the Church of England

If you haven’t yet watched Exposed – The Church’s Darkest Secret, I urge you to do so, right now. Broadcast on BBC2 earlier this week, it will be available on BBC iPlayer for another 28 days. It is harrowing and horrifying viewing, but I would say it’s essential viewing for anyone who cares, and believes that any and all forms of abuse – sexual, physical, emotional, or spiritual – should have no place in the Church of God. They need to be identified, rooted out, offenders removed from office and brought to justice, and above all, victims believed and supported.

The programme examines the scandal of Peter Ball, formally Bishop of Lewes and then Gloucester. In 1993 a young man told the police that, when he was a novice monk, Ball had taken advantage of his own position as mentor and director, to abuse this young man on numerous occasions, forcing him to strip naked together with the then bishop, and submit to physical embraces, beatings, and mutual masturbation.

Ball was arrested and questioned, strenuously denying the allegations, and exercising his right to remain silent. (Why is it that courts of law don’t reckon “No comment” as an admission of guilt, and find the accused Guilty immediately?) One of the most chilling moments is when Ball is asked about the naked beatings, sadly shakes his head and murmurs, “You wouldn’t understand.” Sometimes you wonder whether he ever even knew he had done something evil…

The Crown Prosecution Service told Gloucestershire Police not to prosecute, and Ball accepted a caution and resigned as Bishop. Within two years he had been granted Permission to Officiate again, and was able to minister in churches and as a school chaplain: a clear sign, then, that in spite of his own admission of guilt – that’s what accepting a caution means, for God’s sake – the church hierarchy believed he was the innocent victim of false accusations.

It becomes clear, however, that the pattern of abuse was persistent and long-lasting, going back to the 1970s, and continuing after his short-term suspension and reinstatement. He emerges as a man who loved his position of power and influence. Vain and arrogant, he deliberately courted the friendship of the powerful, wealthy and important. Margaret Thatcher was a frequent host, often inviting him to dinner. Prince Charles was a supporter and admirer, who went on believing long afterwards that Ball was innocent, that “monstrous wrongs” had been done to him by “that dreadful man” who was making accusations. As Bishop of Lewes Ball was a friend and supporter of several of the other notorious paedophile priests in Chichester Diocese, not only colluding with them, but on at least one occasion taking advantage of one of the teenagers who had been groomed, and was being systematically abused, by one of those priests.

Lots of people knew about what had been happening, but they were not important or influential enough to be believed. When a small number of heroic people – the newly appointed Safeguarding Officer for Bath & Wells, and a former detective turned professional safeguarding consultant, and a former victim of clergy abuse – began to investigate, they were hampered again and again by powerful men taking them to task. Sir This and Lord That and Chief Constable or Right Reverend The Other would phone them up and give them a rollicking, telling them that Ball was a wonderful saintly chap, and his accusers were liars, losers, only out to make money out of the situation. The ‘smoking gun’ in the end was the Tyler Report, compiled by the Revd Brian Tyler, a former CID officer and now private investigator. Eric Kemp, the Bishop of Chichester, had instructed Tyler to carry out the investigation in order to defend Ball and discredit his accusers. Instead of this Tyler became convinced that the accusers were telling the truth, and Ball was in fact guilty. His Report seems to have been quietly filed away within Chichester Church House, until this ‘second generation’ of investigators brought it to light.

It wasn’t until 20 years after Neil Todd first came forward, that Ball was finally tried, pleading Guilty to a token number of charges, in order to avoid a longer charge sheet, and was sentenced to 32 months in prison, of which he served only 16. The greatest tragedy was that when the investigations were finally being reopened, Todd could not face the ordeal of being questioned all over again, and forced to relive what he had suffered. He took his own life. Ball was never charged with having indirectly been the cause of his death.

High-up figures in the Church, including former Archbishop George Carey who had spent years telling the police he was ‘unhappy’ about the suffering the investigations were causing to Ball (!), finally admitted they had been wrong, and gave a sort of apology.

Has the Church learned anything from this sorry, terrible story? There are signs it has learned something and is trying harder, but Phil Johnson, a former victim and now a member of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission, says there are still times when he thinks ‘they’ wish he wasn’t there.

And what about me? I found these two programmes disturbing and challenging. I never knew Ball except by reputation. When I heard about the first allegations back in 1993 I didn’t want to believe them, so I didn’t believe them. I suspect that was how many people reacted. But those who were in a position to find out the truth, and to know, should have known better. And I know now that I was wrong, and the present emphasis on caring for the victims of abuse, helping them, trusting them and above all believing them, is the right one. Never again will I grumble about the mandatory safeguarding training we’re required to undergo periodically. Instead, I mean to welcome it and suck every bit of learning from it that I can.

There are other questions I’m sure we should be asking, too. Should a monk really be so ambitious for fame, position, and influential friends and contacts? What about humility, obedience to the abbot, conversion of life, contentment, lack of ambition? Ball and his brother, not content with joining an existing monastic order, founded one of their own: that ought to ring alarm bells. It’s like in the United States where it’s common for men (usually men) who feel called to the ministry to start their own churches, rather than join established denominations, and that has led to numerous instances of abuse, immorality, fraud and loss of faith. Spiritual leaders need to be under authority, under the oversight of superiors, and where that oversight is absent or lacking, it’s all too easy for them to go astray. Where was the oversight over George Carey? Who oversees the Archbishop of Canterbury anyway, and was the lack of any such oversight partially the reason for his terrible misjudgement in the Ball affair? And, how do we disempower the Establishment, which allows the powerful men (usually men) like Sir This and Lord That and Chief Constable or Right Reverend The Other to continue to close ranks, defend their own kind, prevent justice from being done, and victimise the vulnerable and powerless?

Please, do watch these programmes. And weep, and think, and pray, and let your default position ever hereafter be to believe anyone who has the courage to speak about the abuse they have suffered, no matter how powerful or godly their abuser may seem to be.

Oysters? No way

We enjoyed a lovely 4-night stay at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. It was partly to celebrate Alison’s 70th birthday, but also to get away from the Middle-of-England for a few days. Is that the same as Middle England? I’m not sure, but Oxford is about the furthest away from the sea that you can get in these islands, and Alison was really wanting to see the Sea again.

The weather was kind of what you expect from the seaside in January. Windy, misty, damp, cold. The wind farm out at sea, which we caught a glimpse of on the day we arrived, was invisible after that until the morning we left to return home – when the weather, it goes without saying, was the best it had been all week. Much of the time you couldn’t see the top of British Airways i360, which was closed for annual maintenance. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the roof of the seafront hotels. At least the city was not overrun with holidaymakers, so it was always possible to find somewhere to eat. We enjoyed some good meals. But not oysters and champagne, which I wasn’t tempted to try, and which I truly believe nothing on earth could ever induce me to try. Even though your 70s are supposed to be a time for trying new things. I draw the line here.

If you were to fancy trying them, I suppose you would go to Riddle & Finns.

Riddle & Finns. Champagne and Oysters on Brighton seafront

This is their seafront place: it looks appealing enough, doesn’t it? But I googled how to eat oysters, and confirmed what I had suspected and feared: that you eat them raw, and alive, and swallow them down whole out of the shell. If you knew the difficulties I have swallowing stuff (e.g. paracetamol, a particularly troublesome thing to be swallowed), and knew that according to my family I even have to chew yoghurt before I can get it down, you would realise that this is a perfect recipe to have me gagging and throwing up the whole of my stomach contents on the well-kept floor of Riddle & Finns.

So forgive me if you should get a glimpse of my bucket list and be dismayed that ‘Enjoy a breakfast of oysters and champagne’ is strangely missing.

Decadent poets I have loved

Long long ago, when I was a teenage wannabe poet, I took a special fancy to 19th century decadent poets. Two of my favourites were the bad boys shown here: Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne. It wasn’t so much that I loved their poetry – though it had a certain, well, decadent, appeal – as that I loved the idea of them. Their wild, anarchic lives, rebelling against social norms and accepted bourgeois morality. Myself, I could hardly have been a less rebellious youth, on the outside at least. But inside I was a roiling mass of hating and wishing I could overthrow the established order, as long as I could do it without any risk or danger to myself.

Nowadays I’m rather glad I didn’t become an opium addict, or an alcoholic, or contract syphilis from prostitutes. But then, I didn’t become a poet, either.

And today I’m feeling disillusioned as I think about poor old Swinburne who didn’t die young and had a rather miserable old end. He had some alarming sexual proclivities, it’s true, and once spread a rumour that he had had sex with, and then eaten, a monkey. But it seems he may not really have been as decadent as he pretended to be. Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” (And Oscar Wilde probably should know.)

Swinburne’s grave in Bonchurch Churchyard
By Deeday-UK – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27960003

I used to visit Swinburne’s grave in St Boniface Churchyard, Bonchurch, IoW, and stand there thinking maudlin poetic thoughts for minutes on end. In this respect, he is unique among poets I have admired and wanted, without knowing anything about them, to emulate.

The Meaning of Life

[Just a taster of my #NaNoWriMo effort this year.]

How fortunate we are to live in times when, faced with difficult questions, we can turn to our digital friends and helpers.

Siri, what is the meaning of life?

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

OK Google, what is the meaning of life?

“The meaning of life, or the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”, pertains to the significance of living or existence in general. Many other related questions include: “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, or “What is the purpose of existence?” There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The search for life’s meaning has produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question…”

(Oh, come off it, Google, you’re just reading from Wikipedia!)

Alexa, what is the meaning of life?

“42”

(Make what you will of these differences between different operating systems, MacOS, Google and Amazon.)

But is it true that contemplating a thing – a blade of grass, a cockroach, a lover’s face – for long enough, will convince you that life has meaning? Without having read his book, I’m attracted by the story of Victor Frankl. He was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, whose experience of some of the worst cruelty and brutality that has ever been inflicted by supposedly civilized human beings upon their fellows, led him to the conclusion that a person’s sanity and even survival in adversity, will depend on their ability to find meaning in their suffering. Man’s Quest for Meaning, he called his book, and with it he developed his concept of logotherapy. In contrast to Nietzsche’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure, Frankl bases his theory upon Kierkegaard’s will to meaning: that the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in human life, is the need to find meaning. I’m guessing that whether it helps us survive or not, may depend on the value of the meaning we find. “Trying to live in harmony with other people” may work better than “42”. Just sayin’…