Thursday, 26 November 2015

Firm ground is not available ground: "Dunes"—a poem by A. R. Ammons

 Lone post amidst dunes and trees near Wells-next-the-Sea
Some of you will have seen my last blogpost which included a number of photos from Wells-next-the-Sea. Wells opens up on to a truly wonderful beach with many sand dunes that are endlessly being reshaped by wind and tide.

Well, when I got back home, on the doorstep was a second-hand book of poetry I had ordered some weeks ago by A. R. Ammons his "The Selected Poems" (Expanded Edition), W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. I tracked down a copy because I am currently reading "Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein's Existential Investigations" by Gordon C. F. Bearn which has as its epigraph a poem by Ammons called "A Coast of Trees". I was so taken with that poem that I immediately decided to explore some more of his work which I did not know at all. I'm glad I did. Here is his poem "Dunes" which seems to speak eloquently of the kind of non-foundationalist naturalism I have been exploring in recent years and which certainly informed my thoughts as Susanna and I walked along the coast among the dunes.

Dunes by A. R. Ammons

Taking root in windy sand
  is not an easy
to go about
    finding a place to stay.

A ditch bank or wood’s-edge
    has firmer ground.

In a loose world though
    something can be started—
a root touch water,
    a tip break sand—

Mounds from that can rise
    on held mounds,
a gesture of building, keeping,
    a trapping
into shape.

Firm ground is not available ground.

Dunes at Wells-next-the Sea
Dunes at Wells-next-the Sea

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

" . . . named after an utterly forgotten divinity" — a set of Hipstamatic photos from Wells-next-the-Sea

Susanna and I have just returned from a week away on the North Norfolk coast at Wells-next-the-Sea — a lovely, calm and restful time was had by us both. When we got there the cold, overcast and windy weather seemed to insist that I fire up the Hipstamatic app on my iPhone and load a combination of their "US1776" film and the "Americana" lens. The fact that on the second day I bought a second-hand copy of "Evening Land" by Pär Lagerkvist (trans. by Auden and Sjöberg) only re-enforced the appropriateness of the choice. Even on the one sunny day we had this choice seemed right. As always, click on a photo if you wish to enlarge it. 

Dozens of Largerkvist's poems might be cited before offering you the pictures below but this one, from "Part II,  seems appropriate especially given the wide open expanses of sand and sea we walked over and beside:

Surrounded by a void, 
as a constellation is by space,
with infinite distance between its luminous points,
its timeless manifestations of itself.

So in complete calm,
in dead perfection,
lives the Truth about the great Nothing.
The soul of the void.

Like a constellation
named after an utterly forgotten divinity.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

An Inclusive Community — An address given at evensong in Queens' College Chapel, Cambridge

Queens' College Chapel before the service
I gave the following address this morning at the Memorial (Unitarian) Church in Cambridge in preparation for giving it at Queens' College evensong as part of a series in which their chapel society is looking at how they engage as community. If you click on the picture below you will be able to see who were the other speakers in the series.


In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (John 14:2 NRSV)


Firstly, I’d like to thank the Chaplain, the Revd Tim Harling, for inviting me to speak tonight. I honoured to be here with you.

I have been asked to speak this evening on an attractive, but notoriously difficult subject, namely, “An Inclusive Community”. Thinking about what such an inclusive community might look like and how it may be achieved is likely to be one of the most difficult questions we’ll ever have to consider in our lives. What follows are simply my own considered thoughts on the matter, thoughts with which, of course, you need not agree but, at the very least, I hope they will encourage a helpful conversation on the matter afterwards over drinks.

As a minister in the four-hundred-and-fifty year old Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian tradition I continue to be inspired and influenced by one of the great eighteenth-century teachers and practitioners of Universalism, George de Benneville (1703–1793), who encouraged those who wished to follow his example to:

“Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. [And to] Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.”

(You can read a pdf copy of  "The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville" by clicking on this link)

Following on from this, my address is based on two assumptions. Firstly, that an inclusive community would be a good thing and, secondly, that the word “inclusive” should be taken in the fullest sense possible; at the very least, this must include every individual human being in every age and clime who has found, is finding, or will find themselves living in this extraordinary world of ours.

But, as we sit together in this Christian place of worship, the problem with such a beautiful, inclusive aim, as de Benneville intimately knew, is that no actual, existing Christian church has ever been able, itself, to be this inclusive community. It is relatively easy to see why this is so.

Firstly, we can see through the two-thousand years of Christian history how this or that interpretation of Jesus’ status and role has all too easily decided to exclude from legitimacy other, different, interpretations — of which there have been, and still are, many. The historic creeds of Christianity were, of course, one of the most notable products of this dynamic which pushes against the fact that there never has been a single thing called Christianity but only ever Christianties.

Secondly, and even when and where there has been significant agreement on creedal matters of belief, we can see that although certain styles of worship may appeal to one group they do not appeal to everyone.

So, on both obviously theological and other grounds, often more related to aesthetics, we can see how genuine, inclusive community has remained beyond the reach of any actual, existent Christian church.

But, of course, if we are considering inclusivity in the broad way I am, we must acknowledge that Christianity in any of its forms has never been, and never will be, the only way good men and women have responded, and will continue to respond, to the world around them and to the generally shared human sense that there exists something we can meaningfully call the divine, the holy or the sacred. The two problems I’ve just pointed to and which push against the existence of an inclusive Christian community, are now multiplied exponentially. So, for example, theologically and aesthetically speaking Islam is not Christianity, Judaism is not Buddhism and so on.

Neither must we forget the countless good men and women who have not held, and never will hold, any supernatural or metaphysical religious beliefs at all and who choose to call themselves atheists, humanists or naturalists. In the eyes of de Benneville, and a Universalist like myself, a truly inclusive community must contain these people too.

As if all the foregoing diversity and difference were not difficult enough to deal with, it is obvious that the truly inclusive community must also contain those whom some of us might at present consider to be utterly beyond our various religious pales, whether the reason given for this is colour, sexual orientation, gender and/or anything else.

And lastly, according to Jesus anyway, the inclusive community must also contain, not only those who believe and practise differently to us (as his parable of the Good Samaritan shows—Luke 10:29-37), but also those whom at this moment we consider to be our enemies, because enemies, howsoever conceived, are also somehow to be loved and blessed by us. This is a phenomenally hard teaching to internalise and act upon at anytime, let alone after the kind of events we have all witnessed this weekend in Beirut, Baghdad and Paris.

All these matters, and many more beside — and I have not even begun to scratch the surface of the need for a truly inclusive community fully to take into account all forms of sentient life, as well as the countless non-sentient aspects of reality — all of these matters help us see that, although in different ways each of our own communities and traditions may aspire to being inclusive, it is in fact impossible for any single Christian church, or any single religion or philosophy to be, itself, the genuinely inclusive community.

So what are we to do? Are we simply to abandon the beautiful vision and simply accept that we are forever going to exist as disparate, distinct, exclusive and, perhaps, even mutually antagonistic communities?

Many people, of course, do take this view and are living it out in a variety of ways — sometimes quietly, by hunkering-down behind self-imposed, fixed, sectarian boundaries; sometimes by means of extremely violent outward actions undertaken outside their own, community’s immediate circles.

But it seems to me, to the tradition to which I belong, and to important thinkers and activists in many other religious and philosophical circles that to cite the Catholic priest, cultural historian and ecotheologian, Thomas Berry (1914-2009), today:

Diversity is no longer something that we tolerate. It is something that we esteem as a necessary condition for a livable universe, as the source of Earth’s highest perfection . . . To demand an undifferentiated unity would bring human thought and history itself to an end. The splendor of our multicultural world would be destroyed (Thomas Berry, Five Oriental Philosophies, Albany: Magi Books, 1968, ibid. pp. 45-46).

Genuine, inclusive community is only going to be possible to achieve when it is consistently conceived on this global, highly diverse, multicultural scale and this will require all of us to re-centre our vision of inclusive community, not upon the old and vanishing dream of achieving inclusivity via some shared, ortho-doxy (a right-belief), but by seeing ever more clearly that we need not believe alike in order to love alike. In other words, the inclusive community I have in mind is one which must centre upon the, admittedly always difficult and endlessly unfolding task of developing a generally shared ortho-praxy (a right-doing).

With the well known maxim “think global, act local” in mind, it seems to me that for such a splendid, self-consciously inclusive, diverse, multi-cultural, practical global human community to have even half-a-chance of coming into being then, locally, we will all have to learn to do something still very difficult for most people, namely, to start acting upon the realisation that each of our current existing religious and secular communities has, and will only ever have, partial access to truth, to beauty, and to goodness and that, therefore, we will all need, humbly, to be prepared to move to one side, to shuffle-up along the pew so-to-speak, so as consciously to make room and time for other faiths and philosophies to contribute to a global conversation about in what might consist the common good.

In 1946 my own tradition tried to express the need to make this difficult move through one of it’s symbols, the off-centre cross. Here is how one of the symbol’s Universalist originators, Gordon McKeeman (1920-2013), later described it:

The Circle is a symbol of infinity — a figure without beginning or end. The Cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is placed off-center in the circle of infinity to indicate that Christianity is an interpretation of infinity but neither the only interpretation of the infinite nor necessarily for all people, the best one. It leaves room for other symbols and other interpretations. It is, therefore, a symbol of Universalism (Gordon McKeeman to Ronald and Jesslyn Bartlett, members of First Parish Universalist Church, Stoughton, in 1989).

My own church community’s conscious decision to move the cross to one side, explicitly to make room for other religious and philosophical views has been regarded by some as a regrettable betrayal of our birthright Christian faith. That, since 1961, the cross has generally been replaced by the off-centre, cross-like flaming chalice which, since 1946 has become the global symbol of the modern Unitarian movement, will simply be taken as confirmation of this.

But I gently beg to differ, for I truly think that explicitly making room and time for others who believe differently from us is, in fact, not a betrayal of what Jesus taught but is, instead, a very powerful and effective way of allowing a fuller flowering of his message of light-giving, reciprocal, mutual love both to God and neighbour to occur.

And, in the end, I cannot but take great heart from the words attributed to Jesus by the writer of John’s gospel that, “In [his] father’s house there are many rooms” and, had he not thought this were the case he would never have told us so (John 14:2).


Stockleigh Pomeroy, August 2015 and Cambridge, November 2015

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Walking on a mountain of wonders—the peace for which we all yearn

This morning over breakfast I read an article in the Guardian newspaper with the title,  "Austerity a factor in rising suicide rate among UK men—study." The stand-first read, "1,000 extra deaths and an additional 30-40,000 suicide attempts may have occurred after the economic downturn, according to research."

In my own role as a minister I can certainly say that since 2008 I have seen a marked increase in mental health issues, particularly amongst men, aged between twenty and fifty and that economic factors play a key role in this. Naturally, when they are talking to me in my role as a minister of religion, there also often explicitly arises associated metaphysical questions concerning the meaning, or lack thereof, of life. My experience of this is, I should say, is echoed by my good neighbours in Cambridge,  the charity called "The Samaritans".

Anyway, the contents of the article rather hung over me during the morning (not least of all because I have just been asked to conduct another memorial service for someone who has taken their own life) and, just before lunch, I realised how much I needed to get out of the study and into an entirely different physical and mental place. As nearly always this turned out to be the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and I spent a restorative hour walking-off my "dark cloud".

Felicitously, I had on me a copy of "Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein's Existential Investigations" by Gordon C. F. Bearn which I had stumbled across a few weeks ago and, over a mug of tea in the café, I sat down and read the preface. At one point Bearn quotes a passage from Stanley Cavell's "The Claim of Reason" that raised the basic question so often put to me in my study:

My major claim about the philosopher's originating question—e.g.,  (How) do (can) we know anything about the world?" or "What is knowledge; what does my knowledge of the world consist in?" — is that it (in one or another of its versions) is a response to, or expression of, a real experience which takes hold of human beings (quoted in Waking to Wonder, SUNY Press, 1997, p. xi).

Bearn's book is an attempt to answer this question of the meaning of life via a Nietzschean reading of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Bearn thinks (as I noted a couple of Sundays ago) that “the answer to our existential anxiety does not lie beneath the surfaces of our lives, but in our acceptance — Nietzsche’s “Yes” — of the groundless details of those surfaces themselves: the wonder of the ordinary” (Source: SUNY Press).

But a major difficulty I have when talking with many of the existentially troubled folk who come into my study is that they are desperate to be assured (or persuaded) by me (as a religious person) that behind the scenes there is, in fact, a super-stable meaningful something (or being). It's not hard to understand why this is the case, after all, when so much of the surface of your life feels so utterly meaningless where else are you going to look for meaning? Our way of life (especially in its institutional religious forms) endlessly drives people to try to look behind the surface of life but then here I am saying along with Nietzsche, "No, don't do that, there's nothing there, stay on the surface, stay on the surface—the meaning you are looking for is there!" (As many of you will recall, in the preface to the second edition of “The Gay Science” (1886) Nietzsche wrote: “What is required is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!”.)

But, no matter how much I find this to be the case, I nearly always find that this is a hard message to offer someone who is in great existential pain before me—and I confess to the fact that many times I don't feel immediately able fully to reveal that I think in this fashion because it feels as if such a revelation would do more harm to that person at that moment than it would do good. The best I can hope for is that a sustained conversation with them becomes possible—though that doesn't always turn out to be the case. People who drop in on a speculative basis (remember that the church where I am minister is in the middle of a city) can  find my lack of immediate and unequivocal assurance of a behind the scenes God (or power) a bit disappointing and that often means they go on to seek out someone else to talk to—someone who will tell them all kinds of things that are going on in heavenly, metaphysical realms.

Anyway, all this made me highly grateful to read the following words which appear at the very end of Bearn's preface:

On my interpretation the peace for which [Wittgenstein] yearned will be ours when we give up the search for metaphysical comfort, when we give up the thirst for explanation, when we awaken to wonder. The happy surpriseour good fortune—is that the absence of what we thought essential to our satisfaction can itself satisfy. Coming face to face with the dumb fact that some things do and some things do not make sense can incite the feeling that one is, in Wittgenstein's words, "walking on a mountain of wonders" (Waking to Wonder, SUNY Press, 1997, p. xviii).

I cannot but help think Bearn's is absolutely right in saying this but God knows (pun intended) it's a philosophical approach to life that can be a hard one to sell. But then, as Spinoza says at the very end of his Ethics:

If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare (Bk 5, P42 trans. Edwin Curley).

It was my good fortune that I had all of these thoughts in the Botanic Garden surrounded by its many beautiful surfaces and so able to find a real measure of peace. For a happy hour I was able to walk on a mountain of wonders.

While I walked I used my Ricoh GR to record a few of the beautiful surfaces around me.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Some Thoreau (and Mooney) inspired photos of the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

I post here just a few photos from a visit last week to the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens.

In the midst of all the opportunities to take colour photographs a few views struck me as being worthy of taking in black and white. On my Ricoh GR (the camera I used to take the photos below) there is a black and white setting called TE, toning effect. It reproduces a process somewhat akin to selenium or sepia toning. It suited both the scenes and my somewhat Thoreauvian mood.

I was undoubtedly in such a mood because my friend, the philosopher, Ed Mooney, has just published a truly wonderful and insightful book called "Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion." I recommend it unconditionally. Here are two reviews about the book:

“Henry David Thoreau brought to philosophical writing a personal voice and a situated, embodied sensibility. Edward Mooney proves himself a worthy heir to Thoreau's legacy by speaking to his readers as an extracurricular intellectual and spiritual companion. We follow along as Thoreauvian saunterers, adventuring through rich fields of reverie, with Mooney as our engaging and always insightful guide. Excursions with Thoreau is a powerful illustration of how philosophy can live up to its name as the love of wisdom, grounded in wonder and defined by transformative encounters. It sheds new light on the work of a great American philosopher of the nineteenth century, and will introduce readers to Mooney's distinctive mode of narrative reflection on human experience and its meaning.” –  Rick Anthony Furtak, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Colorado College, USA

“Without wasting time on the tired question of whether or not Thoreau is a philosopher, Mooney's decisive arguments uncover for us the profundity and strangeness of the thinker's ideas. Mooney carefully and elegantly uncovers a Thoreau who is attentive to questions of life and loss that led him to formulate a complex ethics while rethinking the meaning of the communal. By bringing Thoreau into conversation with such thinkers as Marx and Kierkegaard, Mooney reveals challenges in Thoreau's writings that have still not been sufficiently addressed. Excursions with Thoreau is beautifully written and will be indispensable for future conversations about that writer.” –  Branka Arsic, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, USA

I hope you seek out the book. I hope you enjoy the photos below too.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

On the bravery of Private Godfrey—a Remembrance Sunday meditation

The cast of Dad's Army, Private Godfrey is on the left
READINGS: Ecclesiastes 9:17-18:

The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Two passages by William Stafford from Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War: William Stafford, Kim Robert Stafford, Milkweed Editions, 2003:

22 March 1968
The Fallacy of Retrospective Certainty:

People can select in the past certain events or persons and ascribe to them a crucial role in what eventuated. Sighting back past a chain of occurrences, one can say, “If someone had done this, then what followed could have been improved thus. Why didn't they act this way?” And sometimes the conclusion is, “Why don't I act that way, now?” “I would have killed Hitler, they say, meaning, “I believe in assassination under some circumstances.” A question: “What person would you assassinate now?” And if their principle is pushed to the further extreme they can be made remiss if they are not killing a succession of (retrospectively certain) troublemakers. But of course in actual life killing is not practiced or believed in by balanced people who realize the difficulties of judging consequences: it seems better to be civilized, to rely on group realizations, to cultivate order.

23 November 1967

A job: To help make it possible for others to feel they can use pleasant methods to save the world. To influence foreign governments. To spring off little pieces of insight and save them out of gross events and scenes.


In order to help us heed the words of wise Qoheleth we heard earlier found in his book, Ecclesiastes, I want to begin simply by recounting the story-line of a 1969 episode of the British TV Comedy, Dad’s Army. It was aired in on November 20th that year, just a few days after Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day.

A précis of the Dad's Army episode “Branded” by Jimmy Perry and David Croft (adapted from Wikipedia's précis)

If you prefer you can watch the half-hour episode on Youtube at this link or listen to the radio version at this link.

Following a exercise on the stealthy approach to an enemy soldier, Captain Mainwaring calls Sergeant Wilson into his office. He reveals he has received a letter from Private Godfrey, informing him that Godfrey wants to resign from the platoon. Given Godfrey's vital role in the platoon as the soldier who makes the tea, Mainwaring is unwilling to let him go and, naturally, asks him for an explanation. Godfrey tells him that his decision came about after a recent incident in which he found a mouse in his kitchen but was unable to kill it even though they were infested with them. Mainwaring fails to see what this has to do with Godfrey’s resignation until Godfrey says that it made him realise if he couldn’t kill a mouse he couldn’t kill a German. Godfrey then also reveals that in the First World War, he was a conscientious objector, a “conchie”.

Mainwaring orders Godfrey to go home. Wilson is tolerant and understanding of Godfrey's need to follow his conscience but Mainwaring is extremely angry at the thought of a man not wanting to fight and, assuming Godfrey to be a coward, makes up his mind to shame and humiliate him in front of the troops. With characteristic pompousness, he convenes a parade of the rest of the platoon to inform them of Godfrey's apparent cowardice, but his thunder is rather stolen by the arrival of the Air Raid Warden, Hodges, who wants to discuss an upcoming Civil Defence drill.

Once the platoon learns of Godfrey's past there begins an unpleasant process of ostracisation and, whilst many — including Corporal Jones and Privates Pike and Walker — are undecided about their response to Godfrey's decision Private Frazer is characteristically vocal in his condemnation of Godfrey's cowardice, and he has no hesitation in expressing his disgust to the other man's face. Mainwaring decides that Godfrey will remain in the unit until a replacement can be found.

The action then moves to the Civil Defence training drill in which Warden Hodges instructs the men on how to retrieve unconscious bodies (represented by sacks of straw) from burning buildings filled with smoke. Mainwaring is unimpressed by the amount of smoke in the building and, incautiously, adds extra rags to the stove which fills the building with far more smoke than is safe. Mainwaring and Godfrey are the last two men to go through the building and Mainwaring informs Godfrey that he has no intention of letting him use his ‘conchie tricks’ to get out of the exercise (not, of course, that Godfrey had any intention of trying to do this) and that he intends to follow Godfrey through the hut to make sure he completes the exercise.

The remainder of the platoon, having passed through the hut have all left the scene and, having gone through the hut himself, Godfrey waits alone for Mainwaring. When Mainwaring doesn’t appear, a very concerned  Godfrey bravely decides to re-enter the smoke-filled hut in order to save Mainwaring who has obviously been overcome by the smoke.

The action finally moves to the aged Godfrey’s home bedside as he recuperates from smoke inhalation. After the doctor leaves he is visited by the entire platoon who, by now, have somewhat got over their earlier distaste for him. As an extremely uncomfortable Mainwaring attempts to express his gratitude to Godfrey for saving his life he suddenly notices above the bed a photo of a much younger Godfrey in military uniform wearing the Military Medal — the equivalent of the Military Cross for non-officers and a medal of far higher rank than any of those held by the rest of the platoon. (Mainwaring, by the way, has no medals at all, because he only served in the Army of Occupation in France, "during the whole of 1919 — [saying] somebody had to clear up the mess.”) Mainwaring is utterly confused by this photograph. Godfrey then reveals that, although he refused to fight in the First World War, he did volunteer to join the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer. 

His sister, who is also by his bedside, explains that during the Battle of the Somme Godfrey was responsible for a tremendous act of heroism in rescuing several wounded soldiers from no man's land under heavy fire (which, with characteristic modesty, Godfrey immediately downplays). Suitably ashamed at their earlier treatment of him as a coward (although Frazer, typically, insists that he knew it would be the case all along) the platoon begin to apologise and, at Wilson's suggestion, Mainwaring has no hesitation in declaring Godfrey the platoon's medical orderly. As the platoon begin to leave the bedroom Mainwaring admits to Godfrey that he is still unable to understand one thing, namely, why Godfrey never wears his medal? Godfrey replies by saying that he feels it “would be rather ostentatious.” Mainwaring replies, “Ostentatious!? Well, if I’d won the MM I should have been so proud that I would have worn it on my chest for the whole world to see.” Godfrey replies, “That would have been alright for you, sir, because you look like a hero.” Mainwaring, chuckles pleasedly at this comment but, as he does so, Wilson delivers the final line of the episode, “Well, it just goes to show, sir, you can’t always go by appearances.”


On the bravery of Private Godfrey—a Remembrance Sunday meditation

Arnold Ridley as "Private Godfrey"
My very brief remarks today about remembering centre on the much-loved character of Private Godfrey taken in relation to some thoughts by the American poet and conscientious objector William Stafford.

I would like Godfrey to stand for us today as an exemplary figure symbolising all those who, as conscientious objectors, found ways to play important, and I would say, vital and necessary roles in our societies during times of war. The basic point I’d like us to hold in mind is that, even when the moral need for war is as powerful as it was during World War Two, conscientious objectors and pacifists remain essential to the overall well-being and decency of our society. They seem to me powerfully to remind us that we know, deep in hearts, how our world both could, and should, be. It’s important to add here that I am not seeking to persuade you to become, yourself, a pacifist, but I am seeking to persuade you of their vital and necessary role in any decent, balanced and healthy society and that their contributions make them also worthy of remembrance at this time of year.

William Stafford tellingly felt his position as a pacifist was “not so much an achieved position as a desired position” and that he understood peace and reconciliation as a fundamental process, a daily job. In other words, conscientious objection wasn’t for him a matter of merely adhering to some predetermined absolute, definite, doctrinal principle but always an ongoing, lived response to the complexities, ambiguities and anomalies of reality.

This mix of always-unfolding complexities, ambiguities and anomalies is powerfully brought home to us in Stafford’s words about “The Fallacy of Retrospective Certainty”. In the here and now, none of us can ever be certain which people are going to be the really dangerous ones. And thank heavens for this, because how many apparently bad apples have you have known that have gone on to be good, kind and decent people, or at least not turned out anywhere near as badly as you thought? Many, I’m sure, and it reveals the truth of Stafford’s comment that, at least at certain times and certain places, “One must learn to waver” in matters of judgement — especially in those judgements that will result in the taking of another life.

For me, Godfrey stands as someone who has deeply learnt this lesson. Intuitively acknowledging the complexities, ambiguities and anomalies of reality he rightly wavers before the idea of killing the mouse and, naturally for him, he also, rightly, wavers before the idea of killing a German whom he knows is a living being just like him, and just like the mouse. Godfrey is highly aware of the difficulties of judging consequences and in his own life consistently decides that “it seems better to be civilised, to rely on group realisations, to cultivate order.” Part of Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s great genius as the show’s writers was to be able to show us clearly and simply how Godfrey’s wavering is not at all the wavering of a coward — after all his wavering about the rightness of killing results in a clear, conscious decision to serve his nation by joining the Royal Army Medical Corps — instead, Perry and Croft show us the wise-wavering of a very brave, sensitive and insightful man.

In my opinion we must never forget that we are always in need of people like Godfrey who remind us of the complexities of life and of the fact that, were we ever to decide only to have amongst us “shouting rulers amongst fools” — as Captain Mainwaring and the platoon would be without Godfrey — we are always going to be diminished as human beings and in the deepest of trouble.

To be sure, most of us realise that it wouldn’t at all be a good idea to put Godfrey in charge of the platoon (and Godfrey would be the first to agree with this) but think about it, would you really want to be part of a platoon (or a society) that didn’t have in it a Godfrey? I don’t think most of us would. We look at Godfrey and see a man continually helping the whole platoon to understand the immense value of becoming a rounded and nuanced group of people and to see that it is always important “to rely on group realisations”. In so doing, Godfrey also continually helps them “to cultivate order” — an appropriate order that is flexible, pluralist, gently and democratically arrived at.

As you heard, on 23 November 1967, Stafford wrote in his journal the following words:

“A job: To help make it possible for others to feel they can use pleasant methods to save the world. To influence foreign governments. To spring off little pieces of insight and save them out of gross events and scenes.”

For me, Godfrey stands out as a person who bravely carried out this most difficult of jobs. He always sought to help the rest of the platoon (and us) to feel that it was always possible for us to use “pleasant methods to save the world” and his chief tools in this holy and divine task were, in addition to his innate gentleness and compassion, his sister’s (Dolly and Cissy’s) tasty cakes and his own unparalleled ability to make an excellent and restorative cup of tea.

As we see him lying in bed recovering from his most recent act of bravery, we watch him beautifully and gently able to “spring off little pieces of insight” and, in so doing, he manages to save the platoon and particularly Captain Mainwaring, from “out of [their previous] gross events and scenes.” The platoon, and I would argue, all of us, emerge from this touching episode transformed, we are improved, made better by Godfrey whether we are pacifists or not. We end up displaying a way of life that can, I think, be said to “influence foreign governments” even if only just a little. But let’s not forget every little thing counts in the long and difficult march to global peace.

Before I close I think it is very important to add that the actor who played Godfrey, Arnold Ridley, served during the First World War with the Somerset Light Infantry and fought in the Battle of the Somme where he was severely wounded. He also served in the Home Guard during World War Two. As you can see, Ridley was, most certainly, not a conscientious objector. It appears that when he first read the script he said to Jimmy Perry, one of the writers, “its good to mention conchies as they were called, because they went through hell a lot of them, and a lot of them had high principles. I'm very honoured to play it."

So, I today I simply ask that, in our remembering of those who bravely and selflessly fought, killed and laid down their lives for us in war, we never, ever, forget those conscientious objectors and pacifists who bravely kept alive a vital aspect of humanity that would have been lost without their own contributions to the war effort. As a nation, as much as a platoon, we need always to love, remember well and give thanks for our nation’s many Godfrey’s.

May it be so.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The forms of leaves—a set of black and white photos taken in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

This year the colours of the trees have been wonderful and, whilst walking in the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens I have taken many colour photos as, for example, in this recent post. But the wonderful colour can blind us to other aspects of reality that can be, to my mind, equally beautiful and striking.

On the way back from an errand connected with my work as a minister I stopped in to the Botanic Garden on a grey, grey day for a bowl of soup and a mug of tea. I only had with me my iPhone and, given the light, decided only to take a few black and white photos of leaves on the ground because, for some reason, that I day my attention was drawn to the almost infinite variety of shapes and forms the leaves had. So I opened up my "Provoke" camera app and took a few photos on the way in (including, I'll admit, one colour photo which I couldn't resist taking) and on the way out. I hope you enjoy these variations upon a theme.