Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Hope Valley Hill - by Helios (aka Keith Kenniff)

Caesura CD cover
Well folks, for many reasons, I'm not going to be able to get Sunday's address up online but, in any event, it wasn't one of my best so here, instead, is something more uplifting, namely a plug for a musician whose work I have long-admired, Keith Kennif. He has two monikers "Helios" and "Goldmund" and also works with his wife Hollie in "Mint Julep".

Here's his website:

http://www.unseen-music.com/

And here's a taster of his music. First the track that pulled me in - Hope Valley Hill from the Helios album Caesura and then a new track with Hollie. Do check him out. Enjoy.



Monday, 25 July 2011

A spin on the Pashley Guv'nor along the Lodes Way

Me with the Guv'nor at White Fen
I took the day off today - much needed after the past few weeks - and took the Pashley Guv'nor out for its first ride along the lovely Lodes Way. Here's how it came to be in my stable of bikes.

My two close friends Agnes and Ronald Gabriel who recently died (see last week's address An Achievable Perfection) very kindly left me a little money to spend on something I wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. As readers of this blog know one of my passions is the bicycle and I've always had a soft spot for classic cycles. I have a Dursley-Pederson, my regular day-ride steed is a Viking Ian Steel from 1956 fitted with a Sturmey Archer 3-speed gear, my round town bike is an 80's Raleigh Superbe and my single speed fixie is a lovely 80s Colnago.

Over the years Agnes and Ronald gave me a couple of lovely bicycling books from the 1920s and 30s and since both of them were born in 1928 the possibility of getting hold of Pashley's wondrous Guv'nor (pity about the apostrophe . . .) began to dawn on me as an appropriate thing to get as both a reminder of them and something which will continue to bring me pleasure for many years to come. The excellent Evan's cycles in Milton Keynes got me one to test ride on Saturday and, need I tell you, I brought it home with me. It's a real delight. It is based on a Path Racer made by Pashley in the 1930s and, as they state it's "just the ticket for exploring the English countryside." Below are a few photos from the ride. For those of you waiting for Sunday's address I'll get it up sometime tomorrow early evening.

Here's a link to a pdf catalogue of the bike.

And here's a link for the marvellously enthusiastic and informative site The Guvnor Owners' Club.

The Guv'nor in Lode High Street
Swaffham Bulbeck Lode
Looking south back towards Cambridge over Baker's Fen

The Guv'nor at Wicken Fen Cafe

Preparing the Guv'nor Blend tea after the ride - amazingly the tea comes with the bike!

Monday, 18 July 2011

An achievable perfection


Agnes and Ronald in Avignon 2007
Yesterday I conducted the memorial service of two of my good friends, Agnes and Ronald Gabriel. In that service, along with a couple of other people, I made a few reflective comments in remembrance of them.

These comments preceded a short ceremony involving the lighting of candles. I began by lighting a tall candle to represent life itself and, as light begets light, from it I lit a slightly smaller candle that stood for Agnes' and Ronald's lives. From their candle Ronald's son, Stephen, then lit four more standing for the love and compassion Agnes and Ronald shared and gave to each other, their families, friends and colleagues; for their healing work as doctors with children and with adults; for their creativity as artists, writers, teachers and academics; for their generous spirit of adventure which encouraged all of us to live life to the full. And then, in the spirit of love I extinguished Agnes' and Ronald's candle saying that as we did this we could see that the Candle of Life still burnt as did the candles of love, healing, creativity and adventure that had been lit from their flame.

We used this ceremony at both their individual funerals (they died only six months apart) and during them the candle I lit after the Candle of Life had been for Agnes and Ronald as individuals. But I knew them only as a couple (they had got together in the very early seventies) and so, in this memorial service, before scattering their ashes in our memorial garden behind the church, it seemed highly appropriate to reunite them in the symbolism of a single flame.

Candles for Agnes and Ronald after the service
This reminded me of something I often say at the end of marriage services, words which are connected with the lighting of a single candle. At the beginning of the service the couple individually light the two outside candles of a three pronged candelabra. Then, after the promises have been exchanged and before I pronounce the couple married, together, they light the middle candle and I say some words uttered by the Baal Shem Tov:

From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.

I have long loved this image and am happy to keep using it in certain contexts - especially when you are lighting candles - but I'm aware that the mention of the words 'light' and 'heaven' leads many people when they hear this story to start thinking metaphysically and theologically of a world beyond and behind our own. As you know, I'm trying to encourage people to think differently about this and to see what we call the Divine as being very much part of this natural world. So, today, - to keep the latent metaphysics in check - I want to link this admittedly attractive and alluring image of a united, heavenward streaming flame with another illustration which keeps us very much down to earth. What this illustration is I'll tell you in a moment but as I re-explore it today I want to take the opportunity to pull it into close proximity with some of the thinking of the anthropologist Tim Ingold that we have explored in a couple of ways over the past few weeks.

It is important also to reveal at the outset that throughout this address I'm holding together in my mind the word 'God' and 'Life'. This has a powerful resonance in the immediate context because when Ronald died and Agnes, Stephen (Ronald's son) and I were preparing the service we decided to use the words which begin all our services here: Divinity is present everywhere. The whole world is filled with God. But, in certain places and at certain times, we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time. Late in the evening the day before the funeral Agnes suddenly said to me 'I don't want you to say God I want you to say Spirit of Life.' She surprised herself here because she had always been quite happy with the word God but at that moment, all of a sudden, she strongly felt it was the wrong word. The word God was used elsewhere in the service but she was adamant that it should not be used here. I want to follow her intuition a little further today.

Before coming to my illustration I want firstly to consider one of Jesus' most problematic, difficult, and even impossible, calls is found in the Gospel according to Matthew where he calls us "to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

This is a teaching that has had the potential to cause a lot of angst and it is perhaps why Luke early on nudged the teaching in a different way. In his gospel he changed 'perfection' to the slightly more achievable - though still very hard - "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).

Everything hinges, of course, on what is meant by that word 'perfection.' One of the major problems here is that we, i.e. huge swathes of humankind - following Plato - has tended to interpret the word to be speaking of some kind of absolute  state of being rather than as gesturing towards a dynamic and open-ended way of being.

Our human conception of in what consists the Father's, that is to say God's, perfection was, in part, arrived at by taking what human beings believed were the best human characteristics/feelings and then expanding them out to infinity. So right from the start there existed a strand within human thinking that placed perfection infinitely beyond our reach. Then, and utterly insanely, those who held to such a view continued to encourage people to try to achieve it. Complete madness.

This later meaning isn't helped by the fact that the Greek word which underlies our English word is 'telios' which means 'end' or 'purpose'. We preserve this Greek word in our language in the technical philosophical/theological term 'teleology'. In theological circles the teleological argument, sometimes known as the argument from design, holds that there exists an order and direction in nature and that this shows in some way the existence of God - a God who is perfect, static, immutable and wholly complete. The most famous current and deeply problematic version of this argument in our culture, as many of you will know, is known as "intelligent design". In this view God's plan is perfect and so the world is playing out wholly to this same plan and will do so until it reaches completion, i.e. God's perfection. So perfection at the beginning, a perfect unfolding, a perfect end. As the book of Revelation puts it: God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (1:8, 1:11, 21:6 and 22:13).

But the idea, that life is "a movement towards terminal closure" (Tim Ingold, "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description", p. 3) is one that you will remember Tim Ingold - and I for that matter - wants strongly to challenge. Ingold (and I) wants to encourage us to replace the idea that life or the life-process is ends driven with, " . . . a recognition of life's capacity continually to overtake the destinations that are thrown up in its course" and he noted that:

"It is of the essence of life that it does not begin here or end there, or connect to a point of origin with a final destination, but rather that it keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents. Life, in short, is a movement of opening, not of closure" (Tim Ingold, "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description", p. 3-4).

I think there is good reason to think that Jesus understood his own way of being-in-the-world in a similar fashion and I think this because his teaching's overall weight isn't one which seems to be encouraging anyone follow a life tending towards closure but, instead, continually to have life and hope and to have it abundantly. So, at this point I'd like to suggest that we may better understand the teaching to be perfect 'as your heavenly Father is perfect' as a call to be 'perfect as life is perfect' in its continual movement of opening not closure. Perhaps this is what Agnes had intuited when she wanted to speak of God as the Spirit of Life.

Lichen
OK, with that thought in mind we can turn to the illustration I referred to at the beginning of this address. Some of you may remember it - it is 'lichen' and why it connects with my close friends will quickly become clear in a moment.

Lichens are fascinating composite organisms consisting of a symbiotic association of, on the one hand a fungus and, on the other, some kind of photosynthetic partner which is usually either a green alga or cyanobacterium. Now I'm not a biologist and so cannot speak in any meaningful way about the important scientific issues involved in this. No, what fascinates me as a minister of religion is how it seems that the two partners involved in this living symbiotic relationship appear to have got involved with each other *after* they had achieved a certain kind of perfection as separate organisms. Indeed the individual organism still exist and thrive apart from each other.

Now Agnes and Ronald were just such individuals - both achieved success as senior consultant psychiatrists in the NHS during the 1960s and then in later decades in Canada. They both individually had lively social and artistic interests and successes. Then one day they met each other and the perfection of their individual lives - a perfection remember which is tied to openness not closure - was itself the very possibility of their having an ongoing perfection as a symbiotic organism. They were individually alga and fungus with their own distinct kinds of perfect flourishing. But, together, they became lichen and in this new form they also flourished in a new kind of perfect way - a way that helped them continually to overtake the destinations that were thrown up in the course of their collective life.

But, in keeping with the trajectory of this address, please remember that Agnes' and Ronald's perfection did not consist in achieving some absolute moral or physical state - they were not some holy or saintly couple - God Lord, no, they were as prone to the same failings and foibles as any of us. Instead their perfection as a couple was not a trajectory of a single light streaming heavenward towards a static absolute perfection but one which is better thought of as a 'horizontal', plural and symbiotic streaming into or, perhaps better, a comminglement with the world.

What was wonderful about them was that in the eleven years that I knew them at no point, even during very serious illness and then eventual death, was there ever a sense that they were somehow converging on a moment of closure. And, because they were not converging on closure but instead were continually commingling with the world overtaking the destinations that were thrown up before them we who knew them were encouraged to live likewise.

It seems to me that we as a religious community must learn from this. Churches often understand themselves as coming from something perfect (God - Alpha) and as a body which should be seeking to *restore* this same perfection in a New Heaven and a New Earth (Omega). Indeed the image of the spark of perfect light existing within us (as individuals and as a community) is, thanks to our culture, very strong and we can see why it is tempting to talk about those sparks re-uniting as a single pure flame to stream back heavenward into God's perfection. But I'd quite like to encourage us to see the world differently - including flame and light - and, though not as glamorous as light, the image of lichen can help.

It helps us understand our life together (our symbiosis) not as occurring between Alpha and Omega, converging on closure on a single perfection but as Alga and Fungus - a plural, commingled life which continually (and 'horizontally') overtakes the destinations which are thrown up before us. To be people of Life, light and lichen.

So, I say again, perhaps something like this was what Agnes suddenly saw when she insisted on speaking of God as the Spirit of Life. I am happy to have been able to accede to her request, not least of all because of the fruit it has born in my own life.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

"We need not think alike to love alike" - or what the sun tells us


MP3 Please read Mary Oliver's poem below before listening to the mp3.

Reading: "The Sun" by Mary Oliver

Have you ever seen 
anything 
in your life 
more wonderful


than the way the sun, 
every evening, 
relaxed and easy, 
floats toward the horizon 


and into the clouds or the hills, 
or the rumpled sea, 
and is gone - 
and how it slides again 


out of the blackness, 
every morning, 
on the other side of the world, 
like a red flower 


streaming upward on its heavenly oils, 
say, on a morning in early summer, 
at its perfect imperial distance - 
and have you ever felt for anything 
such wild love -
do you think there is anywhere, in any language, 
a word billowing enough 
for the pleasure 


that fills you, 
as the sun 
reaches out, 
as it warms you 


as you stand there, 
empty-handed -
or have you too 
turned from this world - 


or have you too 
gone crazy 
for power, 
for things? 

Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Vol. 1, Beacon Press 2004)

***

As the notices revealed, last week was, in all kinds of ways, very fraught and insanely busy. I knew early on that I would be left with no more than a couple of hours to prepare this address and so, to help the situation I took what is for me an unusual decision to choose a reading at the beginning of the week upon which to base my address - the idea being that I could think about it intermittently and at least have half an idea in my head about what to say by Saturday afternoon when I at last became free. I chose Mary Oliver's poem "The Sun" for two basic reasons. The first was that I thought it would trigger some reflections that would be wholly unrelated to the weekend's events - I just wanted to forget about them for a bit. The second was because of it's final stanza in which she asks whether we have turned from the world and gone crazy for power and for things. I really did feel that the events of the last two weeks - culminating in yesterday's marches - were stopping me from seeing the beauty of the sunset and had especially got me caught up in questions of political and religious power. Questions which, I ought to add, I think must be considered by us in our own gatherings because we are a religious movement that gained its basic shape through protesting and tackling both religious and political forms of oppression.

Anyway, as it happened, after choosing the poem I not only continued to forget to look at the sunsets but also forgot even to think about the poem. I got to Saturday morning but because I'd had to prepare the forthcoming memorial service for Ronald and Agnes with Ronald's son Stephen (all the while keeping an anxious eye on a live twitter feed about the two marches) by the time I actually got to sit down with the poem at about 3pm I felt utterly unable to draw out of it the strong message that I know exist within all of Oliver's poems. All I could make out of it was "OK folks, aren't sunsets lovely." God help us, sermons that are really no more than such platitudinous statements are the thing I hate most about much liberal religion and this was a feeling I shared with my Old Testament and Hebrew tutor, Father John Davis. I found this out after the two of us had attended a terribly sentimental funeral service in my college chapel in which the deceased had been consigned, I kid you not, to a beautiful sunset. As we were leaving Father John told me how when he died he wanted a proper funeral in which he was sent forth to God Almighty who would judge the quick and the dead not some vague sunset. On balance, given only a choice between these two, I'd chose the sunset over the excessively judgemental God but I knew what he meant and I was proud and honoured when he died to find out he had asked me to read from Ecclesiastes at his own requiem mass.

But that's somewhat by the by - the main point is that I couldn't see how to speak to Oliver's poem in a way that had any real depth to it and so the poem had to go. Then I remembered that Richard Howett, our local MEP, brought to the unity service a poem of peace written by John Andrew Storey, a Unitarian minister with Quakerly leanings who died in 1997. It was a touching thing for Richard to do and, since I knew John Andrew Story it had especial personal resonance for me. On my shelves I have an anthology published after he died and I thought, well, maybe this poem would be in there and I could use that. Alas, it wasn't but, as I looked through it, the following piece and poem shone out at me. Why this was the case will be obvious the moment you hear them.

Reading: The Ultimate Reality and Sunset

Many years ago, taking a walk on the cliffs at Sheringham, I was halted in my tracks by the magnificent spectacle of the sun making its majestic descent into the sea. It was the most beautiful sunset it has even been my privileged to witness, and as I watched that breathtaking sight the thought came to me again - as it had come many times before - that it would be utterly impossible to describe such an experience to a blind person. What words would you use to describe a sunset to a blind person? 
The thought came to me too that we have the same problem when we try to describe or define God. I do not think it can be done, and I do not think we should even try. We all need more humility in talking about that Ultimate Reality we call 'God'. We should seek not to impose a definition but show a way of life and demonstrate a religious discipline that can lead to personal experience - and experience that involves not only ethical endeavour but also the practice of prayer/meditation. For me the value of religion is in this, that it shows us the path which, if faithfully followed, leads to a personal experience of the Divine.
When the experience comes one can only bow down in speechless reverence. On returning to our holiday flat I sat down and scribbled in the back of my diary some words which eventually became the following poem:


Evening in Sheringham 
walking the cliffs,
skies reddened,
no breeze stirred, 
no bird sang.
The sun set on a silent world
What beauty for the eyes,
what treasured memories for the mind.
A thought occurred - 
how could one tell the blind 
of such rare gifts, 
with what poor words describe the changing shades,
the sea's reflections,
as the rays are caught?


A deeper thought as sunlight fades - 
the power behind the sunset's glow?
Life-Force or Universal Mind,
no creeds reveal,
no church can show,
for 'God' can never be defined.
Only experience can know
what words can't tell.
With inward eyes at last we find 
that which is Ultimately Real.

(The Inquirer, 23 July 1994)

But, before I come to the immediate point of this address there is one more connection to be made. Because of John Andrew Storey's mention of the futility of describing a sunset to a blind person, I could not but help being reminded of a section of Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief - a book which as you know is my constant companion - where he is talking about Jesus' healing of the blind man found in Chapter 9 of John's Gospel:

"Any demands for proof of the truthfulness of [Jesus']teaching are similar to people demanding evidence from a blind man on how and why he came to see the light. A healed blind man, remaining the same person he was before, could only say he was blind but now he sees. Exactly this and nothing more can be said by the person who did not previously understand the meaning of life, but then suddenly came to comprehend it. Such a person would only say that he previously did not know true goodness in life, but now he knows it. Like the healed blind man, who says 'I do not know anything about the correctness of the healing or the sinfulness of the healer, nor anything about some different, better healing. I know only one thing and that is I was blind, but now I see" (Leo Tolstoy, Gospel in Brief, trans. Dustin Condren, Harper Perennial, 2011,  p. 80).

OK. Now we may cut to the chase - but I ought to make it clear that as I was writing this address it was not until the last minute that it became clear to me that I was actually on the trail of some real quarry. If I hadn't you would have been hearing from me an old address!

To see it we must return to the multi-faith service held here on Friday. Whenever I take part in, or as this time, conduct the kind of multi-faith service we had here on Friday I am struck by *how* differently the world shows up to the many people who are taking part. I'm also struck by the fact that, to be truthful - it's one of the painful duties I have - I simply don't comprehend much of what is being said by the contributors. I used to worry about this a great deal and did what many people do which is simply side-step the whole issue by convincing myself that it was possible simply to translate what I was hearing into something clearly intelligible to me - intelligible in a rational, proof-oriented sense. So, for example, I'd hear a Hindu talk about Brahman, or a Christian speak about the Trinity, a Muslim talk about Allah and I would say to myself well, really, we're all referring to the same X - with X being whatever was my preferred understanding of God at the time, let's say Spinoza's 'God-or-Nature' or Hegel's 'Absolute'. But half-an-hour of proper conversation with my Hindu, Christian or Muslim friends very quickly reveals that they most certainly are not referring to such a Spinozean or Hegelian conception of divinity when they are talking about Brahman, the Trinity or Allah. Hmm.

The problem here seems to be a theological/philosophical one and attempts to solve the problem naturally also mostly centre around theology or metaphysics. But over the last four or five years, increasingly I have begun to feel that it is a pseudo-problem and consequently it doesn't require a solution - least of all a theological/philosophical one - for us to be together in an important and meaningfully unified way as we were on Friday. If we go back through the readings, in reverse order, I hope you'll catch a glimpse of what I mean.

Tolstoy recognises that there are some important things in the world that for you suddenly show up as true. The man who is blinded to the meaning of his life (and remember Tolstoy is understanding blindness in this account as not being able to see meaning in life) is suddenly healed in some way; before he could not see a meaning in his life, now he can. Tolstoy points out that this cannot be talked about in a way that allows you to prove whether this is correct or not, or even whether there is a better kind of seeing/meaning around the corner. Again all you can say is 'Before I did not see the meaning of life, but now I see it and I do not know anything more than this.'

Returning to John Andrew Storey's analogy it should be clear to see - and no pun is intended - that should the sighted man try to show the blind man a sunset the attempt MUST fail and, even if the blind man were able to use the words and 'imagery' that relate to sunsets in a grammatically coherent way (that sounded like proof he did understand) we *know* he doesn't know about sunsets in the way the sighted man does.

Now some might feel this is a very negative conclusion - a way of saying well some people will never see 'God' - but it's not at all like that. The key thing to remember is that both the sighted man and the blind man can only live in the world (and in response to the world) as it is showing up for them and here is where John Andrew Storey, in my opinion, goes to the heart of the matter. He says, you will remember, that in the light of this what all of us must do [and the only thing we can do] is "show a way of life and demonstrate a religious discipline that can lead to a personal experience - a discipline that involves not only ethical endeavour but also the practice of prayer/meditation."

And this is what I saw and experienced in that multi-faith service. People acting compassionately together because of the way the world shows up to them - because out of that showing we all knew we had to come and be here together in solidarity - in unity. Not a metaphysical unity but a very real, social and physical unity.

I began the whole service by reminding people that in this church's memorial garden is a stone plaque upon which are engraved some words of the 16th-century Transylvanian Unitarian Bishop, Francis David (1510–1579): 'We need not think alike to love alike'. And here, on Friday, it was embodied. Beautiful.

So now we may return to the beginning and to Mary Oliver's poem. It is a simple but vital call to respond to how the world is actually showing up to us and not to pretend to another person that we are acting out of the world as it shows up to them. What the sun seems to be telling Mary Oliver and, therefore, us, is that we have to live fully and honestly by what we *do* see. We can't do anything else, we can't get behind, or beyond how the world actually shows up for us. As Wittgenstein once said: "Don't think, but look!" (Philosophical Investigations §66). And, on Friday, if you actually looked and didn't think, you could see, really see, that 'We need not think alike to love alike.'

*****

Sunday, 3 July 2011

A place called England: tracing paths of the world’s becoming – a case study

My 1956 Viking Ian Steele at Coploe Hill
Before giving the address I played the children and the congregation a song written by Maggie Holland called "A Place Called England". Apart from (St) George and (King) Arthur the names that appear in the song are not famous people but ordinary people Maggie knew or knows.

This song won her a BBC award and she tells us that it was 'inspired by Christopher Hill's book "The World Turned Upside Down", Leon Rosselson's song of the same name, Naomi Mitchison's "Sea-Green Ribbons", William Cobbett's "Cottage Economy", Hamish Henderson's "Freedom Come-All-Ye", Jean Giono's "The Man Who Planted Trees" and "animated discussions with (rightly) proud and passionate Scots like Dick Gaughan".'

The song has become an important in some of the debates about how we might reclaim a positive sense of English identity. Here's a live version of the peerless June Tabor performing the song and the lyric is reproduced below. Get June's version HERE and Maggie's HERE:



I rode out on a bright May morning
Like a hero in a song
Looking for a place called England
Trying to find where I belong
Couldn't find the old flood meadow
Or the house that I once knew
No trace of the little river
Or the garden where I grew


I saw town and I saw country
Motorway and sink estate
Rich man in his rolling acres
Poor man still outside the gate
Retail park and burger kingdom
Prairie field and factory farm
Run by men who think that England's
Only a place to park their car


But as the train pulled from the station
Through the wastelands of despair
From the corner of my eye
A brightness filled the filthy air
Someone's grown a patch of sunflowers
Though the soil is sooty black
Marigolds and a few tomatoes
Right beside the railway track


Down behind the terraced houses
In between the concrete towers
Compost heaps and scarlet runners
Secret gardens full of flowers
Meeta grows the scent of roses
Right beneath the big jet's path
Bid a fortune for her garden
Eileen turns away and laughs


So rise up George and wake up Arthur
Time to rouse out from your sleep
Deck the horse in the sea-green ribbons
Drag the old sword from the deep
Hold the line for Dave and Daniel
As they tunnel through the clay
While the oak in all its glory
Soaks up sun for one more day


And come all you at home with freedom
Whatever the land that gave you birth
There's room for you both root and branch
As long as you love the English earth
Room for vole and room for orchid
Room for all to grow and thrive
Just less room for the fat landowner
On his arse in his four-wheel drive


England is not flag or Empire
It is not money it is not blood
It's limestone gorge and granite fell
It's Wealden clay and Severn mud
It's blackbird singing from the may-tree
Lark ascending through the scales
Robin watching from your spade
And English earth beneath your nails


So here's two cheers for a place called England
Badly used but not yet dead
A Mr. Harding sort of England 
Hanging in there by a thread
Here's two cheers for the crazy Diggers
Now their hour shall come around
We can plant the seed they saved us
Common wealth and common ground

In this address I want to try to show how the things I have talked about in the previous two weeks play out. In a nutshell what I said in those earlier addresses was about us developing an ability to read the world - i.e. better able to respond conversationally to what it seems to be saying to us and, secondly, to do this by understanding ourselves, not as a discrete disconnected things in a world of other discrete disconnected things, but as a sentient "line of becoming" which, itself, is but one of the sentient world's countless complex paths of becoming and ongoing renewal. The hope is to bring us to a " . . . a recognition of life's capacity continually to overtake the destinations that are thrown up in its course" and to see that, as the anthropologist Tim Ingold said:

"It is of the essence of life that it does not begin here or end there, or connect to a point of origin with a final destination, but rather that it keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents. Life, in short, is a movement of opening, not of closure" (Ingold p. 3-4).

(Tim Ingold's new book is called "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description")

I begin this address (though it is not really a beginning for we are always-already in the world) with the forthcoming event to which I referred in the notices - namely the most unwelcome visit of the far-right English Defence League to protest against the building of a new mosque here in Cambridge. Although it is clear one must find a way to challenge such views it is never absolutely clear what is the most appropriate way to do this. However, what is absolutely clear, is that a process of discernment must take place within the wider community as a whole with all the affected voices being heard. Ensuring that something of this process does occur has taken up much of my week. However, by the time I got to Thursday afternoon I was wiped out, flagging and more than a little down. I've never found it easy to get myself, alone, out of such a mood and have learnt that to get out of such a slough of despond I need a conversation with the world. The quickest way to get that help is to go out into the world - consciously to take one's own line of becoming into the countless other lines of becoming that form the very meshwork of existence itself. I have a number of ways of weaving myself consciously back into this meshwork but on that day chose to ride my bicycle because I felt I really had to get beyond the city limits. But where to go? Again it is key to listen to the world - noticing how it is showing up for you. On Monday of last week, after conducting a funeral, I was invited back with the rest of the mourners to the home of the daughter of the deceased in the village of Duxford. I hadn't been to the village for a while and, as I drove there and back I was reminded of some of the lovely lanes nearby. Alas, I got back that Monday evening to the beginning of the shenanigans around the EDL and all too quickly forgot about those quiet roads. But now in my mind I saw their distinctive weave and felt their pull on my own line of becoming. The conversation had begun (though do remember that when I set out I did not know it would result in something that could become an address).

I got on my bicycle (the 1956 Viking Ian Steele - photo above) and made Duxford in good time and decided to spin on south to Ickleton. Here there is a site of a Roman villa and to the west, just over the river Cam in Great Chesterford, there was a large Roman fort and town.

Great Chesterford is one of the earliest Roman sites in Britain and may have been occupied during the initial campaign season of Aulus Plautius in A.D.43. It may even have been first used by the men of the legendary Ninth Spanish Legion. Here the landscape reminds us of what was for the people of this land a very frightening alien invading force. But, like all Roman sites, it quickly became something we now call a Romano-British town and so a major co-mingling was begun - the Romans here became British, the British became Roman. A mile east of the town was what the scholars call a Romano-Celtic temple - that is to say even the gods got to some serious co-mingling.

I couldn't but help but be reminded that the members of the EDL, just like you and me, are products of such a riotous national and religious co-mingling.

Musing on this word from the world I took off further south to cycle up Coploe Hill. Half-way up it is an old chalk-pit which has become a nature reserve and there I've enjoyed many flasks of tea. I decided to repeat the pleasure. If you look west from here you can see some rare 'strip lynchets' which are banks 'formed at the end of a field by soil which, loosened by the plough, gradually moves down slope through a combination of gravity and erosion.' These banks were, of course, made by those who were descended from all that commingling in the valley below - and here, for centuries these people tilled the good earth until, slowly but surely, they became again in their own minds one people. A process that had to be repeated yet again, of course, when the Normans came.

The strip lynchets (very hard to see in this photo) run
from the field on the far-left of the picture to the centre. 

The Anglo-Saxon arch
Fortified by tea and a banana and this second word from the world I set off once more intending to turn west off this road shortly after the top of the hill. However, I was so wrapped up in my thoughts about the commingling of peoples that I quite missed the turning and eventually found myself at an unexpected T-junction a mile or so beyond the turning I needed. Ooops. Going on would add too many miles to my ride so I had to turn around and retrace part of my route. On the way back I noticed a small signpost to Strethall church which lies at the end of a short single track road - perhaps a quarter of a mile long - that stops abruptly in a farmyard hard by the church. I had the time and the inclination to go and look and I'm glad I did. The small eleventh-century church (1050-1100) church - unlocked - is a real delight. On stepping inside one is immediately struck by the chancel arch which H. M. Taylor describes as "one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon workmanship in smaller parish churches" - and he is right. Often it's just the architecture that shows up when you look at such things but today I heard something else for the Anglo-Saxons were also much commingled and the cause of further commingling of lines of becoming. As most of you will know when the last of the Roman soldiers left Britain in AD 410 a mixture of folk arrived here from north Germany, Denmark and northern Holland - Saxons, Angles and Jutes and, just for good measure, some Franks and Frisians too.

From "Our Father" by Joan Gale Thomas
My habit upon entering a church - at least when I'm on my own - is to go straight to the altar rail, kneel and say the Lord's Prayer - itself, of course, a prayer that commingles us with far-away lands and the line of becoming that was Jesus of Nazareth and thence the complex weave that we call the Christian tradition. Anyway, I've always done this and I imagine I always will. As I say the prayer I know, really know, that generations of my forbears have done likewise and that this speech-act weaves me into this ongoing line of Christian becoming as well as with those of all who have found in this particular church a sense of deep meaning and worth. Saying the Lord's Prayer is for me an embodied thing far greater than simply the superficial meaning of the words. But, on this occasion, it spoke in a particularly special way because in 1970 when I was 5 years old my grandmother - who taught me the prayer - gave me a book which illustrated the text with what I thought were magical drawings. You have one before you now and you will see that it speaks of, and illustrates, children of all nations together going to worship. Consequently, in this place and at this time, the words of this ancient prayer spoke to me in a particularly compelling way as being about the deep comminglement in God of all peoples' lines of becoming - a third word from the world.

It was for me a very moving moment and was still very much with me as I mounted on my bicycle and cycled on to the turning I had missed earlier. At this point the road climbs to a 100 metres from which highish point you can see right across the fields to the big house called Ickleton Grange and thence to Chrishall beyond. And, right down the middle of it all, is the wonderful sight of an open road - a veritable path of the world's becoming - calling you down into this landscape. Everytime I have traced this road I have stopped here before enjoying the descent. And standing there, looking at the carefully tended summer fields, with the skylarks singing all around and with the world's words which throughout the ride had been speaking constantly to me about the commingling of peoples who went on to work this land together, suddenly into my head and onto my tongue sprang the verse from the song I played you earlier:
Looking north-west with Ickleton Grange on the right
England is not flag or Empire
It is not money it is not blood
It's limestone gorge and granite fell
It's Wealden clay and Severn mud
It's blackbird singing from the may-tree
Lark ascending through the scales
Robin watching from your spade
And English earth beneath your nails

The whole landscape was speaking to me in this way - it was saying to me that belonging to this landscape - this common wealth and common ground, this England, whatever the land that gave you birth - is conditional only on having a love of freedom and of the English earth, and for those who do so love, those who are prepared to get English dirt beneath their nails, for them there really is room both root and branch.

Here, atop this lovely Essex hill, despite my tiredness, there came swelling up the physical and spiritual energy necessary for the coming week's struggles. I set off into the valley and homeward bound still unsure, to be sure, about how exactly to proceed, but knowing deeply why I will never ever support any ideology - political or religious - that seeks to despoil this extraordinary place of welcome, inclusivity and commingling of people and ideas called England.