Saturday, 27 March 2021

Unexpected journeying 2/2

Where to start? I'm the youngest of four children, all brothers, part of a staunchly conservative evangelical family. Wikipedia describes my father like this: "Wenham had the distinction of being a conservative theologian, a defender of biblical inerrancy", although as specialists would detect he propounded a few unorthodox views. My mother came from another evangelical family. So I have evangelical genes through and through. We had animated mealtime discussions, but I don't recall any mention of the decriminalization of homosexuality, which following the Wolfenden Report (1957) was eventually passed into law when I was 18. Nor am I aware of being very conscious of the issue. I noticed CS Lewis in his Surprised by Joy referring to gay activity in Malvern College when he was a boarder there, but I don't recall speculating whether there was any in the boarding houses of the public school where I was a day boy. The idea of "fancying" (in the ugly term) boys didn't enter my head. The only fancies I had were for those who were very definitely the fairer and more exciting sex. I am immensely grateful for the innocent foundation for life that my parents gave me. I had a most happy and privileged upbringing.

So then I went to Cambridge - all men's college of course - and immersed myself in the evangelical Christian Union, work and visiting Footlights where my best friend was President. I look back with chagrin at myself as blind and deaf. I now realise there were a number of gay men among my friends, but when one of them asked me what I thought of homosexuality, my answer was somewhat dismissive, like, "Well, sex is meant for procreation, so it must be between a man and a woman. Otherwise it's wrong." For him that conversation held infinitely more significance than for me. Many years later I apologised to him and he remains a friend, which says much for his graciousness. I continued to enjoy the sitting-beside company of both men and women; but face-to-face love was reserved for women, eventually one in particular who agreed to marry me.

Which is a long preamble to explain why, when I was finally ordained into the priesthood, I remained thoroughly orthodox in my religious convictions and teaching. Much as I dislike such labels, I would have called myself a conservative evangelical, Bible-believing, strict on remarriage, anti-women bishops, anti-homosexuality and sceptical about charismatics (who believe that the Holy Spirit is still miraculously active today). And now I return to my previous post, which was about the revolution - or was it evolution? - in St Peter's attitude to non-Jews, moving from believing them to be unclean to welcoming them as fellow-believers just like him, and sitting down to eat their food. Luke in Acts describes the step-by-step process which my commentator says God was taking him on to think the unthinkable and to accept the unacceptable, and of course change the history of world Christianity.

My journey was similarly gradual. I have previously recorded two milestones, but never in my blog what might be regarded as the first. As I journaled shortly after: "That night, 30th September 1994, opened my eyes to the tangible reality of encounter with God. Whereas I had been able to assert God's activity in retrospect, I now began to find him in the present." It was an event witnessed only by my wife in our home, but the results of which were noticed for better or worse by many more. In other words I had discovered that my charismatic friends were right. The Holy Spirit is more than an odd old expression. Maybe that was what prepared me for subsequent changes, such as coming to the conviction that women may hold leadership roles and even become bishops! My faith in the authority of the Bible remained, but it too was changing to understand it in its cultural context and apply it in our contemporary context. I've found it nowhere better expressed than in the late Rachel Held Evans' Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. 

from Meriam Webster dictionary
The last bastion to fall was undermined bit by bit, and I have recorded it a number of times in this blog. I remember my children with their straightforward faith telling me that of course God unconditionally loved their gay friends, as if I was mad to doubt it. I discovered that one of my Facebook friends was a lesbian and a Christian. I met parents of gay children who had been driven away by the attitude of their churches, parents who were painfully conflicted by the church's teaching and their children's experience. And inevitably I began to reflect. The critical moment came in a quite unexpected place, that is a churches' summer festival in Somerset, called New Wine. It was a charismatic evangelical event, where the accepted tradition about homosexuality at the time was generally similar to my original one, for example I don't think an openly gay worship leader would have been allowable. Being interested in the subject I went to the first of two seminars on the subject of equal marriage, where the line was that if you were gay you should either remain celibate or marry a partner of the opposite sex. In the Q & A session at the end a woman stood up. She related her road of faith and declared that she was a lesbian with a partner, and woe betide anyone who dared to separate them. 

Not on the Damascus road nor in a Tel Aviv apartment but in a Somerset field, I was finally turned round. It wasn't a voice from the sky, but it was a clear conviction which has never left me in spite of doubts. We sought the woman out. She told us her story, which included being banned from leading the youth group in her church years earlier and made unwelcome there. Since then she had not lost her faith, simply her fellowship. When I embraced her and her partner, she commented, "You know, you're the first Christian who has hugged me since I came out." And so supporting LGBTI+ people has become important to me. I want them to know that they are just as much loved and just as unconditionally as any other of us human beings. I have been indignant at the bile and vitriol directed at gay Christians by others who also call themselves Christians. This terribly happened when Christian musician, Vicky Beeching, admitted to a newspaper journalist that she was and always had been gay. She wrote her story in her painful book, Undivided, (see my review here Undivided by Vicky Beeching) in which incidentally she picks up the parallel of the story of Peter and the Gentiles. This week I hesitate to use the word, but the reaction to her coming out has been as near to verbal crucifixion as I have witnessed.

Having met and talked to LGBT people and their parents, especially within the church, I know that it's not a lifestyle choice. It is in their hardwiring. Which is why "conversion therapy" of any sort is so cruel. It's saying either, "You are an egregious sinner, who needs to be converted," or, "You are dangerously ill and need to be healed." I am glad the Church of England has called for it to be banned, but sad that other Christians disagree (Evangelicals urge PM not to ban conversion therapy). In her very good Thought for the Day on Radio 4's Today programme, Catherine Pepinster (listen here) quoted the late Cardinal Basil Hume: "In whatever context it arises and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons whether of the same sex or a different sex is to be treasured and respected." Yes, all faithful love is to be treasured.

Who's to say whether I'm still an evangelical - not that I have much time for exclusive labels? I'd simply say I'm a sinner who tries to learn from and follow Jesus.

And so, to my dedicatees, and all your sisters and brothers, I will say, God welcomes you without reservation in His Church and you will find many churches who will also welcome you unreservedly. You're no worse a sinner than I am; and you don't need to be cured. You are loved for who you are.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The God of surprises 1/2

This and my next post are dedicated to three of my friends who have been severely wounded by their treatment at the hands of those who brand themselves as "evangelical Christians".

I don't like internecine sniping amongst so-called brothers and sisters, and so I shan't indulge in it here. I don't believe it's helpful or right. So I'm hoping that the Lord will set a watch over my fingers and my brain. My intention here is simply to tell my story. 

Jane and I customarily read the Bible together using notes entitled Life Every Day. Over the past fortnight we have been following the story of the early Church's mission to the Gentiles (non-Jews). You may remember that it began as an exclusively Jewish sect centred on Jerusalem. However in his own ministry Jesus Christ had given glimpses that his mission was not merely to men but also to women, not just to the Jewish nation but to whomever he met from despised Samaritans to Romans and others. And when he gave his followers his great mission statement, it was a mission starting "in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The notes traced how the Church, in particular Simon Peter, one of its leaders, was slow on the uptake - and it was only by a series of nudges followed by a crisis event in Caesarea that he eventually got the point. Here a few quotes from Jeff Lucas's notes. "Slowly, gradually, the Church is inching towards the idea that Gentiles could be part of the Christian family, but other events would have to unfold first. God is patient." "Gradually, Peter's heart and mind are being opened up. A cataclysmic revelation is about to come, but not before God slowly, carefully, prepares Peter for it. Wisdom is found in the journey with Jesus, if we are open to it." The crisis event for Peter was a vision of unclean food which he was told to eat and then a summons from a Roman centurion, Cornelius, arrives asking him to come to his house. That day all his inherited prejudices were shattered. He talked and ate with those he'd previously considered beyond the pale and found them already within the fold of divine love. As he reports back to his critics in Jerusalem, "If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" That rightly but not finally shut the critical party up. There continued to be eruptions of exclusive sentiment, I suppose until the mother city of Jerusalem is ransacked in AD70.

So much for an oversimplified account of our past few days' reading. Why have I bothered to write about it? Well, I'd already been drawing my own parallels when last Saturday we read: "God was doing a new thing, and they struggled to understand it. Let's be open to the God of surprises. He is trustworthy, but not predictable.   To ponder: When did you last change your mind about a long-held view or opinion?"

Rodin, Le Penseur (wikipedia)

Readers who have put up with my meanderings over the years may perhaps recall occasions when I have admitted to doing so eg Women bishops - an apology and Love unknown. I think all I'll say at this point is that I have found Jeff Lucas's reflections reassuring and his questions challenging. Next time I shall turn to the issue which has stirred me to write again. (cont)

Monday, 8 March 2021

Unhappy Families

Really, what family needs twenty homes to live in? (See It is extraordinary how many houses and how much land (and seabed) is either held in our royal family's name or actually owned by them. (See I am not in least bit envious of them. Their wealth doesn't seem to bring them much joy. As a wise man once put it, "for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content." 

I do understand that, if you're born saddled with great wealth and all that goes with it, you have a problem. And if you're surrounded with vested interests who want to benefit from your wealth and status, then you have a major problem. It becomes more than a burden when your wealth attracts unremitting media attention. It becomes a deadly nightmare. And so I can understand why Prince Harry and, his wife, Meghan Markle decided enough was enough - in every way. Admittedly they lived in only one (rather large) house called, ironically, a cottage, in contrast to his brother and his aunt (two each) and his father (with five). However I don't think it was property envy that provoked them to up sticks and resettle in the environment where she had made her living. I'm writing this before watching their interview with Oprah Winfrey; so I don't know what they will say about their reason for going. But judging from the sudden PR operation and the leaking of hostile emails from "the Palace", I'd assume the couple weren't happy merely to play the Royalty game.

Photo: ITV
Monday morning Well, lots of journalists watched the CBS interview last night, and started to comment this morning. Indeed they are predictably making a meal of it. On our local radio station there was a royal "biographer" who clearly had it in for Meghan in particular, and there was no obvious reason if not because of her mixed heritage. What was the point of 'bleating' when everyone has had 'dark thoughts'? And why now, when Harry's grandfather has been so ill in hospital? If there's one thing that's clear it's that the Sussex couple don't control the broadcast networks' schedule. She hoped the royal family would make no response to the interview to "display their utter disgust and contempt for their exposing of the family (dirty) linen in public."

I suspect if the royal family was not surrounded by the multitude of courtiers, equerries, special advisers and press officers ("the firm") and if they were allowed to be free of the constraints that we, the public, put on them, they would prove to be quite a nice bunch of people. However, what has been striking about this weekend has been to pick up the sense of proprietorship that the press, and in particular the tabloids, has for the royals. It's as if the country owns the royal family. I've heard someone say this morning that the Queen is devoted to duty but not such a good mother. Who knows? And who presumes to judge? What parent is complacent about their parenting skills?

Although the departure of Harry and Meghan from the royal orbit has, in my opinion, impoverished the royal family, they could have bequeathed it a great gift. That is that breaking free from the shackles of the institution is the best way to human flourishing, and defying the demands of the media is possible.

Perhaps also they might cause the establishment to reassess the role of royalty. Is a head of state helped by having excessive wealth and property? And don’t give me that guff about how good they are for our tourism income! What an insult - the monarch compared to an art gallery or a theme park! Do they need a huge retinue of hangers-on with a vested interest to hang on? Perhaps we have something to learn from our “friends in Europe" about effective constitutional monarchies.

The big question is whether the media will have the strength of purpose to resist the temptation to take easy pickings from those who, though very privileged, are just as human as the rest of us. And will the public be prepared to forego their voyeuristic obsession with those born to wear coronets? Because we,
as a society, are succeeding in making some human beings very unhappy.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

A virtual stoning

These are tiring times. At least, I am tired. And I have been wrestling with whether to write this post at all. However I have been challenged by a blog from a friendly vicar in a group of country parishes entitled 'Silence' about a subject of which I was blissfully ignorant. The challenge came in his alluding to the famous words attributed to the German pastor, Martin Niemöller: "First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me." Having first been impressed by Nazism, by 1934 he came to see its inherent evil. 

My friend George was reacting to the storm stirred up in London by a tweet of a theologically literate clergyman about the proposed national clap for the late Captain Thomas Moore. He said he would be praying for the repose of the kind and generous soul of the man who had become the icon of practical gratitude to our NHS, but he wouldn't be joining in the clap. I think he had rightly detected that such gestures, since their rather pure and altruistic inception as an expression of national gratitude to front-line medical and care staff, had become politicised and devalued. It's certainly my perception that NHS staff are weary of such gesture politics. If you want to know more of the background you can find it in this article from yesterday's Guardian: Social media lynching. In case you're in doubt about some of the references, Jarel Robinson-Brown is, his own words, "someone who is Black, gay, and Christian" which may explain the lynch-mob who went for him on Twitter led by such luminaries as Kelvin Mackenzie (former editor of The Sun) and self-publicist and populist Nigel Farage. As far as I know, neither of them is a keen supporter of the CofE. 


That the UK equivalent of the ultra-cons might work themselves into a lather over one arguably ill-timed tweet is predictable, though that they have nothing better to do than to act as 21st century thought police speaks volumes about them. The more troubling aspect of the affair is that the authorities in whose care the curate is, far from supporting him, seemed initially to have been more anxious to appease the hue-and-cry. "Jarel Robinson-Brown’s comments regarding Captain Sir Tom Moore were unacceptable, insensitive, and ill-judged. The fact that he immediately removed his tweet and subsequently apologised does not undo the hurt he has caused, not least to Captain Tom’s family. Nor do Jarel’s actions justify the racist abuse he is now receiving. A review is now underway, led by the Archdeacon of London." To give them their due, the diocesan authorities are now rowing back to a much more pastorally nuanced position. But my initial reaction before I had found the story was, "I know nothing about this particular case, but in my view when those in authority take to the public forum they are most likely trying to bolster their own establshed credentials than exercising due pastoral care - which is their primary role in a case like this."

George's question remains a good if hard one to answer. "When the vulnerable and isolated are attacked by the powerful and established, whatever we think of their ideas, it must immediately make us ponder: do I stay silent or do I speak up?" 

(Jarel Robinson-Brown's recent article in The Church Times "Can rage be holy?" is worth reading.)

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Modern magnificat

I hardly ever attempt to write poetry - as will become obvious. However on Sunday, which was still within the Christmas season, I was provoked to do so. Over the past year one of my joys, of which there have been a number, has been regular engagement with a church which lives out the good news to the marginalised in a way that I find resonates with my understanding of Christ, or, if you prefer, real love. So here it is.

Child of our time, God of eternity,
pity our dreadful extremity
terrors of plague, horrors of war
refugees drown, glaciers melt.
nurses and carers drop
peacemakers killed
mindless mobs follow demagogues
down self-interest’s hell hill

Child of single girl, God of humanity,
here in our world, knowing infirmity,
looks with compassion
where we dare not look.
he does not turn away
from society’s prey
holds the hand of men dying of Aids
hugs the child who daren’t say she’s gay

Child of our flesh, God of infinity,
here in our pain, knowing fragility,
walks through the brambles
where we dare not go.
he does not avoid
the depths of our fears
nightly he sits in the cell on death row
watches with the widow in tears

Child of seeking, God of identity,
at home in the halls of complexity,
and muddy streets of poverty
yet homeless himself
careless of debate
he embraces all
colours and children, beggars or rich,
‘love, love,’ is his call.

Child of the world, God of diversity,
silenced not by all our perversity
speaks through autistic girls,
old men in suits and in robes.
Christ, give us eyes to see
your compassion to be
in our streets where you are, aching to bless
with our presence his beloved.

11th January 2021  

Sculpture Safe in His Hand by Sarah Lomas


Thursday, 19 November 2020

Taking away and giving - we're not the only ones with COVID-19

After the heady and headline-grabbing political news of last week, I've noticed two hopeful pieces of news this week, which seem to have slipped by most media unremarked. One came in the shape of a speech on Tuesday; and the other was a comment on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning. 

Andrew Mitchell MP
The first was a speech made by Andrew Mitchell MP for Sutton Coldfield (formerly International Development Secretary) in the House of Commons, introducing a private member's bill entitled "Doctors and Nurses (Developing Countries) Bill". The gist of his speech is "The case we make to Parliament and the Government today is as follows: it is immoral and selfish for Britain, with its wealth and infrastructure, to poach doctors from the developing world. However, by taking the action I have suggested, we can turn that into a win-win for us and for developing countries." When we persuade a doctor from the developing world to come here, we do so in the knowledge that our gain will inevitably be their country’s loss. In this country, we have 215 doctors, nurses, health workers and midwives from Sierra Leone; from Nigeria, 4,099; from Pakistan, 3,394; from Ghana, 1,118; and from India, just short of 20,000. He pointed out the disproportion of the ratios of doctors per head of population here compared to that in countries we import from, and "how much we rely on those doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers who bring their talents and skills to this country to support our NHS from overseas. We respect them and we are hugely grateful to them. Indeed, if I may use a second world war analogy, much beloved by some of my hon. Friends, the heroes of this war against covid are not, as in the battle of Britain, the men and women of the Royal Air Force but, all too often, workers from overseas working in our hospitals, giving their all in our care homes, putting themselves in harm’s way, and often living on the minimum wage." 

So he proposed, "Why not do the following? For every doctor or nurse we poach from a developing nation, we should ensure that that developing country—on losing their trained professional to our advantage—receives from the existing British development budget sufficient resources to train up and replace them, two for one? When we are lucky enough to secure such professionals from the developing world, we should replace them twice over, and expand their public health services accordingly." 

What a brilliantly simple idea! Undoubtedly we owe a debt of gratitude to the nations from whom we poach professionals to prop up our National Health Service. Undoubtedly it is immoral to rob the poor to enrich the wealthy. Remember David and Bathsheba - and Nathan's parable? We're in the same territory.

Prof Andrew Pollard
The other news came in an interview with Professor Andrew Pollard from the Oxford Vaccine Group. Nick Robinson was asking him about the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. There's good news on that front as well as last week's from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna who seem to be in an efficacy arms race. The good news was that the Oxford vaccine seems to lose none of its effectiveness with us oldies; and moreover it's the vaccine in which the UK government has most heavily invested, having ordered 100 million doses. (Quite why the government wants a stockpile of 340 million doses, which it has ordered in total, even at two per person, with a population of 68 million beats me - maybe they intend to give the surplus away...) However the good news was that the Oxford vaccine unlike the BioNTech and Moderna equivalents does not require to be stored at temperatures more suited to the Arctic than the Tropics. "Right from the beginning our goal has been to develop a vaccine that could be distributed everywhere, and that's not a question just for the UK where of course we've got the infrastructure that can be put in place to manage whatever the storage requirements are, but we're looking globally. We really want to get to every corner of the world if indeed the vaccine is shown to work." As he implied later, if the virus persists in some parts of the world, the possibility of reinfection will always be there. 

How good it was to hear someone else looking beyond our shores and realising as Prince Charles remembered in Berlin on Sunday that no man and no country is really an island entire unto itself. Obversely how chilling to hear suggestions that the £16.5 billion defence budget increase might be at the expense of the overseas aid budget. I gather that the Treasury is trying to claw back some of the billions that have been splashed out on covid-related contracts from our overseas aid commitment of 0.7%. Tragic. 

A friend of mine commenting on Andrew Mitchell's proposal wrote, "This is what we ought to be doing and, if it happens, would make Britain truly great, and me proud to be British!" I agree.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Scaredy dogs - or dangerous dogs of war?

Have you noticed that dogs usually bark, growl and bare their teeth when they are frightened? That, I imagine, is why so many small canines are so yappy and aggressive. They hope that by getting in the first yap or nip they'll scare off what they see a big threatening hulk of a beast. It's apparently what tourists are recommended to do when confronted with a tiger defending her young - not the nipping, just making a loud noise. It's certainly what we were told to do in the Mount Kenya forest if we encountered elephants or, worse, buffaloes. So there was the occasional clashing of pangas on our way up.

I wonder if this is the reason for the continual shouting about China and Russia indulged in by our government and our large friend across the pond. We're like a Jack Russell terrier and a stout Rottweiler seeing an Afghan hound and a Great Dane in the park. If we had any self-confidence, we'd not bother to see sinister intent whenever they looked at us. Instead we snarl that one looks messy and the other leaves larger deposits than other dogs.

Or maybe we're like street gangs. I gather that often the motive for carrying knives is fear. If I'm threatened, I'll get in first with my weapon, and so we brandish our verbal aggression to forestall a perceived threat. However, what if the threat is imagined but not real? Our politicians and the media whom they feed are busy creating a narrative of threat, which may or may not be real. Certainly China is a major player now in terms of global economic power, and by our standards is among the most repressive states in the world. Russia, geographically huge, was once our ally in fighting the greatest scourge of the last century, but is now a declining economic force.

I don't pretend to know the facts and fiction of all the anti-Russia stories we're fed. (Nor the ones about China, or Iran.) There are a lot of puzzling elements in accounts which go apparently unquestioned. For example, why in a time of supposed international transparency and cooperation should a state bother to hack vaccine research, especially when it had made a deal with Astra Zeneca for the leading contender in the field? Or why should it send two incompetent spies on a plane together in an attempt to bump off another one in a CCTV-abundant country? 

Clearly the government would prefer us not to know as, according to the ISC report, it didn't ask the security services to investigate any potential interference with elections or referendums in the UK, thus leaving it able to say with a straight face, "See, the report found no evidence of Russian interference." Of course, if you don't look for something, you won't find it. (Sadly now it appears that even the Opposition has entered the anti-Russia game questioning the right of RT to broadcast here.)

If a government is in trouble, the traditional way out was to find a war to fight and call the country to unite against a common foe, whether Argentina or Iraq. Failing that, the current policy is to wage a war of words, to create a phoney enemy and maintain a barrage of propaganda, in cooperation with the media - which on the whole your country will believe. The trouble with this policy is that it does not tend towards peace. It tends to real war, economic or physical. And the people who suffer in war are the ordinary citizens. You have only to look at the effects of the United States' sanctions on countries such as Russia or Iran. Personally I don't wish to be part of a nation of self-righteous warmongerers. it may make us feel great, but it doesn't hide the fact that we have feet of fear. 

However, it's reasonable to ask, in what way can our government possibly be "in trouble" with its landslide majority in Parliament? Primarily because it is presiding over a country both divided and economically threatened by Brexit. The more the headlines are dominated by pandemic stories, or failing that Russia and China stories, the less notice journalists will take of the surrender of our EU-won protections (for example of food standards and the environment) and the loss of Parliamentary oversight of our national interest (for example of the NHS). Ironically even the Dominic Cummings' story would have served as a welcome distraction, because there was no way that he would have had to resign. The first "enemy" that presented itself was the Covid-19 pandemic, which our Prime Minister faced with Churchillian bravado. Sadly, although the country was remarkably united in defensive measures, the victory hasn't been won, and if and when it is, it will prove to have been terribly Pyrrhic. And so instead we have let slip the dogs of hostility on our ever useful bogeymen with a succession of stories fed to the horse-leech media.

Or maybe the "trouble" is merely a matter of Mr Johnson's and Mr Trump's approval ratings, which are disturbingly (for them) low.

In the words of the nineteenth-century poem:
"O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing." Or, in other words, "Shut up, you warmongers - and give peace a chance!"