“Despite the efforts of Marcion and others to detach Christianity altogether from its Jewish roots, it proved impossible to make sense of the Christian message without connecting it to the history and sacred books of Israel.”
Marcion of Sinope was a 2nd century theologian who believed that Jesus had come not to fulfil the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, but to preach a completely different God. This was a loving heavenly Father, radically different from the belligerent, judging God named Yahweh. Christianity therefore was completely discontinuous from Judaism, and so the Hebrew Scriptures could have no place in the Christian canon.
Marcion was denounced as a heretic by the great Church Fathers of the 2nd century, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian, and was excommunicated by the Church in Rome in 144 CE; but his teachings were in large measure a catalyst which helped lead to the formulation of the canon which came to be accepted by the orthodox Church. As a result, Christians have always read the Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments, making connections backwards and forwards in order to make sense of the whole of God’s revealed Word.
The Reformation in the 16th century enabled people to read the Old Testament in their own language, and this on turn led to a greater interest in learning biblical Hebrew and reading the Hebrew Bible in the original. The writings of the Old Testament were formative not only in the religious thinking of Protestant Europe, but also in their political thinking. The Puritans who drove the English Revolution and the moves towards constitutional monarchy, and in the following century the Founding Fathers of the independent American republic, were all inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures. It is impossible to imagine modern democracy without this biblical foundation.
Yet in the late 20th and early 21st century, developments in Church life and worship have led many churches to pay less and less attention to the Old Testament. The Parish Communion movement first brought about a decline in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, both of which had included readings from both Testaments. The Eucharist became the main service, and often the only service, that many Christians now attend. Although the Lectionary encourages the use of three readings, Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel, many churches have found this unpalatable. It makes the service unacceptably long. People don’t want to listen to that much Bible. The sermon would have to be shortened, or we would have to leave out a hymn or a ‘time of worship’, and we can’t have that. I’ve heard all these ‘reasons’ put forward. Although many cathedrals still use all three readings, in the church I attend we hardly ever hear a reading from the Old Testament.
What effect will this have on people’s faith, in the long term? If Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is right, it will mean that the Christian faith will become incoherent, it will no longer make sense. Is this why more and more people are simply walking away? In the Evangelical churches, which are often reckoned to be the most ‘popular’, ‘successful’ and ‘growing’, there is an increasing tendency to be almost exclusively Jesus-centred. Instead of worshipping God the Father, we worship Jesus. We pray to Jesus, we sing to Jesus, often calling him our God, we ask Jesus for forgiveness, we use a form of Creed (in which we ‘affirm our faith in God’) which makes no mention of creation or the Father or the Holy Spirit, but only of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This sickness may very well prove terminal. Because Marcion has won. Many parts of the contemporary Church are not Christian at all: they are Marcionite.
I wasn’t going to write a review of the year 2022 after all nothing much has happened this year, has it? apart from a pandemic, a war in Europe, a recession, three prime ministers and a succession of ‘governments’, none of which has a clue about how to solve the problems of the country, even if they wanted to, after all they and their predecessors caused the problems, but never mind, the rich go on getting richer and richer, so why should the ‘governments’ that have served them so well even care? and that’s without thinking about the impending apocalyptic climate disaster which is what’s most likely to kill us all, so life right now often feels like we’re dancing in the ballroom of the Titanic, but hey, Strictly Come Dancing is the most popular programme on British TV, so there can’t be much wrong with the human race can there?
Yes, I am feeling a tad sad and angry and depressed about the state of the world and the nation, and who isn’t? If you’re not feeling that, you probably haven’t been awake this year. But just when I’m tempted to start really wallowing, I try to remember the wise words of the great prophet Gandalf:
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
What is given to us, in our time when the country and the world are so very broken, is to try little by little – and what we can do usually feels like it is so very very little – to mend the broken bits we can mend. And hope. Hope that others will do the same. And even if we are all doomed, to go on hoping for as long as hope remains.
So, here in Thame, in our little corner of the world repair shop, Alison and I go on doing our very very little bit. Alison continues to enjoy being a member of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, and joins members of the community on Zoom each week for prayer and encouragement, as well as Zoom daily prayer with members of our parish church each weekday morning.
I am still allowed to officiate at the 8 o’clock BCP Holy Communion service once a month (sometimes more often, like a run of two for this Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, which falls on the feast of The Circumcision of Christ), and at St Catherine’s Towersey for their Common Worship services. Small congregations, but they seem to like me. They keep asking me back, anyway.
We’ve ventured out of Thame a few times for weekends and holidays – nothing abroad, yet. In March we went to Salisbury for a weekend for Alison’s MA graduation. It was one of the nicest graduations I’ve been to, because most of those receiving awards had been studying Theology at Sarum College, so it was appropriate for the awards ceremony to be a Christian service. Held in the church of St Thomas, with its astonishing Doom painting over the chancel arch. The speaker was Dr Eve Poole, who talked about how Theology was the best subject to study, in fact the only necessary subject, because it knows how to deal with the soul; and the soul is the only thing that differentiates human beings from Artificial Intelligence. This will become even more essential, the way that technology and communications are developing.
I am really missing Alison’s MA, and in particular her dissertation on A Spirituality of Child-Bearing. We had so many great conversations and discussions about this, while she was researching and writing it. It called into question – no, I would even say it undermined or exploded – many aspects of Christian theology and practice, or of Church teaching. They weren’t always things we really, really, believed; quite a few of them were things we were already, to say the least, uncomfortable with. For example, the doctrine of Original Sin, and its Calvinist extension of total depravity. The almost Gnostic dualism of much Church teaching, which denies the body and prioritizes the spirit, so that virginity and celibacy are prized above marriage. The emphasis on asceticism, fasting, and self-denial, instead of grateful enjoyment of all life’s good things. Most of the theories about the Cross, and how atonement works. And especially (of course) patriarchy, the suppression of women, the denial of their gifts. Because almost all the other things I’ve listed either flow from, or lead to, the monstrosity of patriarchy.
After all those years of Alison being connected with Sarum College, it was hard to sever the connection. So I have been taking courses there: a week’s intensive Introduction to Biblical Hebrew in August (wonderful, mind-blowing, hopefully ongoing), and a series of one-day courses on Reading Scripture Together, in which a Sarum staff member and a rabbi look at Bible passages and discuss the different ways our two faiths understand them.
We’ve taken a couple of short English holidays. In May we spent three nights in Lincoln, a city we have never visited before (can you believe it?) It’s hilly, but you probably know that. And we would recommend the pizza restaurant Dough LoCo, which not only serves great pizzas but also has an inspiring story. It started as a result of one couple baking pizzas for their neighbours during the first pandemic lockdown, from which a restaurant grew as if by magic. We were by far the oldest customers when we went there. But that seems to be happening more and more often, I can’t imagine why. Then drove on to York for 6 nights, exploring the city and driving out to explore some of the Yorkshire abbeys, including a day in Whitby which is always fun. Talks about Dracula among the abbey ruins… I wonder what St Hilda would make of that?
At the end of September-beginning of October we stayed on Holy Island, stopping in Durham on the way to revisit some old favourites:
Holy Island is always wonderful, of course, and we were lucky to have fine weather. It is so blissful when the tide comes in and the day visitors depart, leaving the island in peace.
On the return south we stopped in Chesterfield for one night. It’s a town that has seen better times, but the restaurant we enjoyed was the Sicily Restaurant where there really was an authentic taste of Sicily: friendly welcoming staff who were ready to advise about food and wine.
We’ve had times staying with Martha and Paul in their ‘new’ home in Frome, and with Esther and David in Suffolk. Naomi in Haddenham is the nearest of the children, so there’s rather more popping backwards and forwards, and fewer (i.e. no) overnight stays.
Oh, and we got COVID. After managing to avoid it for over two years, we caught it in June – at church! – when they started to lift restrictions. Neither of us had it very badly, but a couple of weeks later Alison began to show symptoms of Long Covid. We were out for a walk when her legs suddenly gave way. She didn’t faint, she just fell down. This was pretty scary and led to whole batteries of tests, MRI scans, ECGs and what not, to make sure she didn’t have anything really nasty. Naturally our imaginations supplied a long list of what really nasty could entail. (Stroke, heart disease, brain tumour etc. etc.) They found no signs of Any Of The Above, but neither could they explain what Alison did have. The likeliest guess was that Long Covid can sometimes cause sudden drops in blood pressure. Since Alison’s familial high blood pressure is well controlled by medication, the result of these sudden drops was falling over. And the workaround was tinkering with the doses of her blood pressure meds to try and get it right. Since then she is greatly improved in the sense that her ‘normal’ blood pressure became higher, she’s not falling down any more. But she still gets very fatigued if she forgets not to overdo things, she occasionally suffers dizziness which could make renewing her driver’s licence problematic, and she has the ‘brain fog’ that many people report as a lingering after-effect of the virus.
That’s enough of this, I guess. I’ll save reports about some of what we’re currently doing for another post. Perhaps.
It’s been a long time. But today – a few days before Christmas, what else should I be doing? – it feels like the right time to wake up the blog and the WordPress site. They’ve been resting long enough. Paying a year’s subscription feels like the incentive I need to get back to creating content on a more regular basis.
The big question: have I got anything to say?
I’ve felt for a while that I haven’t, really. What can one say, as we emerge (or do we?) from these months of pandemic and recovery, and draw near to the end of a spectacular annus horribilis. Three Prime Ministers, and still no sign of a Government that knows what it should be doing, or how to do it. A war in Europe, costing tens of thousands of lives, and God knows how many billions of roubles, dollars, euros, pounds. A global food and energy and cost of living crisis. And a fast-approaching climate catastrophe that may kill us all. How can one dare say anything?
Yet, there was a time when people thought I had something to say that was worth listening to. I even got paid to stand up in front of them and speak. I still get invited to, though now I’m retired I don’t get paid for it.
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.)
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.
In 2013 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published their book The Blunders of Our Governments, a study of the cock-ups of British Governments in recent decades. Here’s their opening paragraph:
“Our subject in this book is the numerous blunders that have been committed by British governments of all parties in recent decades. We believe there have been far too many of them and that most, perhaps all, of them could have been avoided. In previous generations, foreign observers of British politics viewed the British political system with something like awe. Government in Britain was not only highly democratic: it was also astonishingly competent. It combined effectiveness with efficiency. British governments, unlike the governments of so many other countries, knew what they wanted to do and almost invariably succeeded in doing it. Textbooks in other countries were full of praise, and foreign political leaders often expressed regret that their own system of government could not be modelled on Britain’s. Sadly, the British system is no longer held up as a model, and we suspect one reason is that today’s British governments screw up so often.
When I first looked at this book, probably in 2014, I just thought it would be too depressing to read. Who could imagine that, five years later, there would be so much more evidence, and even more incontrovertible evidence, of the authors’ assertions? It has become a truism, repeatedly written about and discussed in the media, that our ‘political class’ have failed us, that our whole politivcal system is no longer fit for purpose, that Britain has become a laughing stock, over which former friends scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering how we can so far have lost our sanity.
The blunders that have clustered around the whole Brexit debacle are so egregious, that they probably draw attention away from all the other blunders of the same period (failure to deal adequately with the 2008 Crash, austerity policies, out-sourcing to private companies, Universal Credit…) So, just a recap (I’ll probably forget some of these, so do prompt me if memory fails.)
David Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership in the first place
… without sufficiently defining the terms of whether the result would be advisory or mandatory, or what majority would be required to force so great a constitutional change
Parliament leaping to accept the narrow 52-48 result
Mrs May’s decision to hold a General Election to help her implement ‘the will of the people’
Her precipitate invoking of Article 50 before there was any kind of plan about how to implement it
Spectacular failure of a succession of (let’s face it, often ignorant and incompetent) negotiators to negotiate or reach any kind of deal until beyond the eleventh hour
Failure of MPs to agree to any proposed Brexit plan
All of this to appease the most extreme Eurosceptic members of the Tory party
And all the while, this process is accompanied and orchestrated by the right-wing press whipping up hatred and issuing threats against anyone who dissented from the new orthodoxy. And no one challenges the lies that continue to be told to smear opponents. In the interest of ‘balance’ and the reporting of the most sensational events, the most extreme individuals and groups have constantly been given more airtime than the voices of reason. (Ask yourself how many times Nigel Farage has appeared on the News or in panel discussions, compared with, say, Caroline Lucas?)
It’s not just the Governments that have blundered. Somehow the whole electorate, the whole country, has taken leave of its senses and continues to follow the path of most damage. At least Alice got out of Wonderland, and managed to return from Through the Looking Glass to the world of reality and sanity. I wonder if we will ever be so fortunate?
The following morning dawned bright, warm and sunny, and we were hopeful that we’d be able to get up on the glacier this time. We walked round the corner to the Helicopter Line, where once again we were allocated to the groups, given our wristbands, reminded of the safety procedures (Never approach a helicopter from the rear; don’t try and open the door yourselves, our crew will help you out when it’s safe…) This time we made it across the highway and through the short stretch of bush to the actual landing site. We even saw a helicopter coming in to land at the far end of the open ground. And then the message came over the phone: Cloud has come down, it’s too dangerous to fly, flying cancelled until further notice.
Apparently this is common, even normal. Fewer than 50% of people who book a helicopter flight up onto the Franz Josef glacier actually make it up there. And there would be another opportunity for a helicopter ride later in the tour: just not onto the glacier.
So it was back to the coach, and on the road again. It’s 144 km from Franz Josef down to Haast, described by Denis as the most remote settlement in New Zealand. And the west coast of South Island is the wettest part of the country, with up to 7 m (that’s seven metres) of rain annually. It felt like quite a lot of it fell during that morning1, during which we stopped to have a quick run through a bit of rain forest to see one of the waterfalls.
Rainforests don’t have to be tropical: there are temperate rainforests too, of which those in this part of New Zealand are typical. They are like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before.
From Haast the SH6 takes you inland up the Haast Valley, and over the alps again, then south among some of the glacial lakes of South Island. Lake Wanaka on our right, then Lake Hawea on our left, and so down at last to Queenstown, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It’s 248 km from Haast to Queenstown: this was a long day on the road.
So: what was my favourite place in New Zealand? There are so many candidates, so many wonderful sights and scenes. But I think I’d have to say, Queenstown. Not because it’s the birthplace of (commercial) bungee jumping, or a favourite centre for lots of other extreme sports that you have to be mad to pursue. Just because it is an almost unbelievably beautiful setting, a charming small city with so much going on, and set in the midst of scenery that looks like it’s straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Which is because so much of it was used by Peter Jackson when he made the film.
How can you not love a place with sunsets like this?
It was up before 0600 the next morning to leave the hotel at 0730 to catch the ferry to South Island. In the near perfect summer weather we were having, it was a beautiful crossing, leaving the port of Wellington and sailing the 92 km over the Cook Strait and along the Marlborough Sound to Picton.
Leaving Wellington Harbour
And this is why it’s called Aotearoa: the land of the long white cloud:
From Picton our coach took us first into the Marlborough wine producing region, to visit the Wither Hills Winery. Wine-tasting! We were surprised throughout our time in New Zealand, that the wine in the restaurants seemed quite expensive. On reflection there was a much higher mark-up than we’re used to at home, compared with the prices in the supermarkets and liquor stores which were substantially less.
And then back to the city of Nelson, where we were to stay for our first two nights in South Island. Nelson is a sweet little city with its cathedral, and straight main street where most of the shops and restaurants are situated. It turns out that the ring used as the ‘One Ring’ in the film Lord of the Rings was made by a local jeweller in Nelson. Wow!
On a balmy summer evening there were lots of great eating places along Trafalgar Street, with people sitting at pavement tables. We ate pizza at Bacco, with a nice bottle of Montepulciano from the local Marlborough region.