Sunday, 30 October 2016

A meditation for Halloween—code and anti-code, structure and anti-structure

Reading: From “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor (Belknap, Harvard, 2007, p. 51)
Certainly one consequence of the eclipse of anti-structure was this propensity to believe that the perfect code wouldn’t need to be limited, that one could and should enforce it without restriction. This has been one of the driving ideas behind the various totalitarian movements and regimes of our time. Society had to be totally made over, and none of the traditional restraints on action should be allowed to hamper this enterprise. In a less dramatic way, it encourages the tunnel vision with which the various “speech codes” of political correctness are applied on certain campuses, and lends the positive ring to such slogans as “zero tolerance.”

The epoch of the French Revolution is perhaps the moment in which at one and the same moment anti-structure goes into eclipse, and the project of applying a code without moral boundaries is seriously contemplated. This emerges most clearly in the attempts of the various revolutionary governments to design festivals which would express and entrench the new society. In these attempts, they drew heavily on earlier feasts, for instance, on Carnival, on pilgrimages (the model for the Fête de la Fédération), and the processions of Corpus Christi (la Fête Dieu). But the nature of the enterprise was in a certain sense reversed.

That is because the dimension of anti-structure was totally missing. The aim of the exercise was not to open a hiatus in the now reigning code, but to give expression to its spirit, and inspire identification with it. The anti-structural elements of Carnival were sometimes borrowed, as in the dechriscianization of Year II, but this destructive mockery was directed against the old religion and the ancien régime in general. It aimed to complete the destruction of the reigning code’s enemies, not to suspend the code itself.


Tomorrow sees the celebration of Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, an evening which will be viewed by many of us as more-or-less harmless fun during which we may or may not choose, via a book, radio play or film, to indulge a little in what the sometime provost of King’s College, Cambridge, medievalist and famous ghost story writer, M. R. James, once called “a pleasing terror.”

Halloween is, of course, much more than this and I think a great deal of value may be learned by taking time to explore something of its rich and complex history. By way of a brief general introduction to the evening click on this link to read Ronald Hutton's excellent overview written for the Guardian back in 2014.

But even if and when we get a reasonably good handle on the history of the event most of us here today are still unlikely to view it as something that has any deep theological/philosophical/social importance for our own, present-day, liberal, secular culture. However, it seems to me that a consideration of Halloween can help reveal something of great importance about which our present day culture should be highly alert and very concerned.

In his book A Secular Age Charles Taylor notes that pre-modern societies included in their overall make-up a complementary “play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code” and that this either took “the form of the code’s being momentarily suspended or transgressed; or else . . . the code itself allows for a counter principle to the dominant source of power; it opens the space for a complimentary ‘power of the weak’” (Charles Taylor: A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2007 (pp. 48-49). He goes on to note that it is “as though there were a felt need to complement the structure of power with its opposite.” (ibid. p. 49).

Taylor is, of course, in part pointing here to the common-sense recognition that the pressure of any dominant code needs to be relaxed from time to time in order to allow it’s own people to let-off steam. But Taylor also points to another important reason why the relaxation of any dominant code might be required. He notes that were the code and structure to be “relentlessly applied” it would drain us of all energy. This, in turn, means that to continue to be effective, “the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle.”

Now, without going into the complex and creative detail of the season that surrounds Halloween, it seems reasonable to suggest that in our pre-modern European culture it’s celebration fits well into Taylor’s idea of an existence of a code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure. So, for example (and sticking to our own culture’s old, and rather Manichean world-view), on this eve, God’s good and ordered world really was perceived as becoming suddenly filled with bad ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of various kinds, all of whom were lead by Satan who was perceived to be a real leader of a real anti-structure to heaven (i.e. hell).

Taylor’s work suggests that we may, perhaps, best understand Halloween and its temporary reign of darkness as an anti-code and anti-structure as something that, overall, helped people to commit ever more deeply to God’s code and structure. The unspoken paradox hiding in all this is, of course, that God’s contining power was, in some structural way, dependent upon Satan’s own balancing power.

If you are interested in such things a powerful modern re-telling of this basic story can be found in the second film (“Dark Knight”, 2008) of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” based on the DC Comics character Batman. In it we see that the meaning and import of Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent and Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s own “good” and “just” code and structure is, in Gotham City, tightly intertwined with the Joker’s “evil” and “unjust” anti-code and anti-structure in which we can find no motive, no order, and no desire except that of delighting in havoc as he watches the world burn.

Although violence and moral ambiguity remain very much with us I do not need to rehearse with you why the pre-modern overall world-view no longer works for most of us here today (except, of course, in the form of an occasional, fictional, pleasing terrors like a Batman film or an M. R. James ghost story). Suffice it to say, the rise of the natural sciences and associated, generally secular, non-religious philosophies, have had a great deal to do with this. The result is that today we simply no longer believe in ghosts, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, let alone in the idea that Prince of Darkness and his minions (or the Joker and his henchmen for that matter) are really going to be carousing through our communities on Monday evening. Such beliefs are no longer for us (à la Wallace Stevens) “necessary knowledge, required as a necessity requires.” In short, as Taylor observes, in our modern secular context “anti-structure is no longer recognised at the level of the whole society, and in relation to its official, political-jural structure” (ibid. p. 50).

What we need to see clearly in all this is that from the seventeenth-century onwards, western philosophy and science became increasingly concerned to develop a universal perspective from which could be derived ideal moral and political codes by which the greatest number of people — ideally all people — might come to live. As you heard in our readings for Taylor “the epoch of the French Revolution is perhaps the moment in which at one and the same moment anti-structure goes into eclipse, and the project of applying a code without moral boundaries is seriously contemplated.”

In other words from this date onwards as a European and North Atlantic culture we began to articulate various secular world-views that aspired to contain everything and which, intentionally, left no real possibility (nor need) for the existence of any anti-code and anti-structure to keep things in balance.

However, as Taylor notes:

The idea that a code need leave no space for the principal that contradicts it, that there need be no limit to its enforcement, which is the spirit of totalitarianism, is not just one of the consequences of the eclipse of anti-structure in modernity. That is certainly true. But it is also the case that the temptation to put into effect a code which brooks no limit came first. Yielding to this temptation is what helped to bring modern secularity, in all its senses, into being (ibid. p. 51).

Let me reiterate this vitally important point. Modern secular culture is founded on yielding (not always consciously) to the temptation to brook no limit to its own absolute principles. It may have used and, indeed, continues to use the language of inclusivity and diversity as it has grown and developed but, because it has come to believe (as a necessity requires) that outside it’s own codes and structures there really is nothing you could call super-natural (i.e. beyond this world), it has become, in a fundamental, technical sense, a certain kind of totalitarian world-view. Despite the many benefits that our secular modern culture has undoubtedly brought us it is with this point, that it is in fundamental, technical sense, a certain kind of totalitarian world-view, that I arrive at my major theme today.

As we know from other historical examples, every sustained attempt to suppress divergent voices and codes and structures leads, eventually, to societal break-down and revolution. Our own present day, totalising secular culture has not been completely blind to this danger and it has attempted to address this problem by encouraging anti-codes and anti-structures to move from the public domain into the private. Taylor notes:

The private/public distinction, and the wide area of negative freedom, is the equivalent zone in these societies to the festivals of reversal in their predecessors. It is here, on our own, among friends and family, or in voluntary associations, that we can ‘drop out’, throw off our coded rules, think and feel with our whole being, and find various intense forms of community. Without this zone, life in modern society would be unlivable (ibid. 52).

For at least a couple of centuries this strategy worked remarkably well but, increasingly, it seems that the dangers of this private/public distinction are revealing themselves all over the place and it is this that I wish to alert you to today. Although the modern private space for private anti-codes and anti-structures offered, and to some extent still offers, undreamed of creative and liberating possibilities it has also brought with it “hitherto unexperienced dangers of isolation and loss of meaning” — dangers the full extent of which we just didn’t see coming.

For example, it is vital to realise that it is in these very modern, private, fantasy spaces that many of the new violent religious fundamentalisms have been enabled to grow and strengthen alongside other countless and sometimes deeply problematic and destructive activities and lifestyles. These hitherto unexperienced dangers are now no longer simply playing out in the discrete, private lives of individuals but are, in important ways, beginning to spill out into the public space.

As they have developed and grown some of these neo-anti-codes and structures have come to believe that they can themselves replace, in toto, our prevailing secular codes and structures — violent fundamentalist Islam and the still burgeoning alt-Right being but two high-profile contemporary examples.

But, as I hope you can see, such neo-anti-codes and structures are not really functioning in our wider culture as genuine anti-codes and structures which are, in some way, in meaningful balance with their opposites. As Taylor notes, they are “anti-structures to end all anti-structures” and that their dreams, if carried through, will turn into a “nightmare.” This is, surely, a good reason for we moderns to be afraid, to be very afraid — a traditional Halloween theme if ever there was one.

Considered in post-theological shadowy (ghostly) fashion, Halloween helps us to see there exist terrors that are very real indeed, ones that are walking abroad in our streets in the form of some very nightmarish neo-anti-codes and anti structures that are at least as scary as anything our forebears could imagine.

But we cannot solve this problem by imagining we can roll back the clock and restore the old balance that existed between our old codes and anti-codes, structures and anti-structures. We simply cannot re-enter that pre-modern world view. So, instead, we have to find ways forward that start with an honest, critical  recognition of both the pros and cons of our present secular, scientific codes and structures.

And I point out these post-theological scary monsters out to you today, not to send you away to hide, fearfully and trembling, under some metaphorical or real bed but, instead, to encourage you as good adults charged with looking after frightened children, bravely to stand up and shine a bright light onto these same neo-anti-codes and anti-structures to help discover how and why our own secular codes and structures have helped them come into being.

At the very least I hope thinking about this will help us have a conversation about how we might go about creating a new, realistic kind of radical democracy; one which has no suppressed, hidden desire to impose on any one any kind of totalitarian world-view and which also fully understands the need for the explicit, public existence and play of all kinds of balancing moral codes and structures, anti-codes and structures. Nothing less will serve to keep the most scary monsters at bay.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Autumn colours and skies over Grantchester and Haslingfield

I rode out to Haslingfield today to visit a member of the congregation for a lovely lunch and conversation and decided to make my way there on the Pashley Guv'nor going by way of various lanes and tracks to Grantchester and then along Cantelupe Road.

It was a truly glorious autumn day that put me very much in an elegiac mood. I was a little early so I took the opportunity to stop for ten minutes to have a drink of tea, eat a banana and to listen to Finzi's lovely, short Op. 20 orchestral piece, an elegy called "The Fall of the Leaf" whilst all around me golden leaves fell in the wind.

I took a few photographs along the way and post them here for your pleasure. All taken with an iPhone 6+ using the Hipstamatic app. (Just click on a photo to enlarge it.)

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Dark, true, impure and dissonant

The etymology of the place name "Pinvin"Penda's Fen 
My Harvest Festival address a few weeks ago began with these words:

The articulation of a certain kind of modest, low-key national identity seems very important to me, however, with every fibre in my body I want to protest against the current slow-burning return here in Britain, Europe and the USA of a kind of old-school, sectarian nationalism that seems bent on dividing the world up into an imaginary “us” and imaginary “bad”-others — be those “bad”-others labelled, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or merely foreigners of all kinds who look and talk differently to “us”

Following on from this I offered you a further, related meditation encouraging us to think about how, as a liberal, free-religious community that is both Unitarian and Universalist in outlook, we might so protest. As you know, to help do this, I’ve been concerned to promote a conception of cosmopolitanism that has been defined by the British-born, Ghanaian-American philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah (who is also the current BBC Reith Lecturer) as “universality plus difference.”

The challenge is, of course how to let the universal allow particulars and, at the same time, how to let the particulars speak of the universal. Today I want to attempt the latter. In what follows the particular of which I speak is England and Englishness but, please don't be concerned if you are not (or consider yourself not to be) English. At the very least I simply hope my reflections will help you to begin to think how your own national identities can speak of the universal.

Now, in the post-Brexit vote situation, one of the things that is being forced upon many of us, very much against our will, is the need to define ourselves no longer as British (let alone European) but as being strongly English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish.

As I have just noted, I think the articulation of a certain kind of national identity seems very important to me but it is one that I think must never be strong but always modest, and extremely low-key. Not only that but, speaking personally as an Englishman who is an heir to a radical, dissenting, non-conformist religious tradition, if I am going to be forced by political and cultural circumstances to articulate an English identity then I’m going to make damn sure it’s a highly subversive and anarchic one, one that by continuing to value and promote plurality and a radical openness to difference and complexity is self-consciously going to try to undercut every attempt to produce a strong English national identity.

With this thought in mind I’d like to place before you, not a singular, strong dream of nationhood, but a contemporary yet still historically rooted religious and social vision of England and Englishness that is anarchic and highly plural.

It is a vision which finds its roots in a story about King Penda, the last pagan king of England who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, became king in 626 and ruled for 30 years before being killed by the army of Oswiu of Bernicia at the Battle of the Winwaed (a still unidentified river) on 15 November 655 (or 654). The battle has been taken to mark the end of Anglo-Saxon paganism and the beginning of Christian dominance in this land.

Still from the film "Penda's Fen"
In the very early 1970s the English playwright David Rudkin (b. 1936) was living with his wife in Worcestershire and she used to drive to her work as a teacher through a village called Pinvin [PINVIN]. One day she came back and told Rudkin, “It’s a strange thing. There was a sign up to say that the road to Pinvin was closed and whoever put it up had spelled the name wrongly . . . with an F [PINFIN].”  Rudkin replied, that maybe that was how whoever did that said or heard it, or maybe it was a Welshman putting F for V. Here is how Rudkin continues the story:

So, I looked it up in a dictionary of place names, and of course I found there that the name is deeply layered. Going back behind Pinvin there is Pinfin and behind Pinfin there is Penderfen and behind Pendafen there is Penda’s Fen (“The Edge Is Where The Centre Is—David Rudkin and Penda's Fen: An Archeology”, 2nd Edition, Circadian Press, New York, 2015, pp. 13-14)

It helped Rudkin begin to write a screenplay in which he could begin to explore not just how multilayered is our language but also our landscape and, of course our own individual and national identities. In 1974 this idea finally saw the light of day in a BBC Play for Today film called “Penda’s Fen” directed by the great Alan Clarke (1935–1990).

It's a truly remarkable film and, in an ideal world, I’d love to show it to you at this point in the proceedings in its pristine pristine beauty thanks to the British Film Institute which has finally made it available on DVD. Alas, time and copyright means I cannot so I will have to make do with the following synopsis, which is a slightly expanded version of Rudkin's own.

In the pastoral landscape of Three Choirs England, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire & Herefordshire, a quietly radical and openminded clergyman’s adopted son called Stephen, in his last days at an English public school, has his idealistic value-system and the precious tokens of his self-image all broken away — his parentage (for he eventually discovers he is adopted), his sexuality (as he discovers he is strongly attracted to other boys), his nationality and conventional patriotism (to an old-school imperialistic vision of England) and his religious faith (as his own evangelical and highly conservative interpretation of Christianity—unlike that of his adoptive father—begins to collapse with the experience of a more creative, and natural, religious syncretism).   

Below the slopes of the Malvern Hills often travelling by bicycle in and around mysterious Pinvin, Penda’s Fen, Stephen has encounters with an angel, a demon, with the ghost of Elgar (whose music he almost fetishistically devours), the crucified Jesus and, as we shall hear in a moment, with Penda himself, England’s last pagan king. 

The way these experiences and visions intertwine is to me quite beautiful and compelling and only watching the film can properly do them justice. But, suffice it to say they all serve bring Stephen to a moment of crisis and epiphany in the final scenes.

Still from the film "Penda's Fen"
The penultimate scene of the film shows Stephen at his public school listening to his headmaster giving the boys a graduation day speech which concludes with him citing the opening lies of the very English hymn, Jerusalem. On reaching the lines, “And did the countenance divine, Shine forth upon our clouded hills?” we cut to shots of the Malvern Hills at sunset
until we finally settle on a shot of a pensive Stephen sitting on the top of the hills looking out over that truly astonishing view of the Severn valley, the hills of Herefordshire and the Welsh mountains, parts of thirteen counties, the Bristol Channel and, on a good clear day, even the three cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. Then, over the horizon, what I take to be his birth parents (whom he has never met) slowly appear and, on sitting down before him, they begin to speak. It’s a strange and disconcerting dialogue.

Mother: Are you an English boy?

Father: Such a light in his eye.

Mother: True English boy?

Father: It is he. It is he. He has the light.

Mother: We knew the child would come. He’s been promised us for so long. But that we should find him is too lovely to be true.

[The father tries to reach out and touch Stephen]

Mother: No, if we touch him, he’ll vanish. It’s written.

Father: The child is innocent. He does not know his inheritance. Nor does he know the courage he will need to exercise his right in this dark world. Not that they put us to the fire any more. Oh, Stephen. Stephen. Think of that torment. To be burned. Shackled to the mockery of a tree and burned. Living. Burned away. 

Mother: What torment is that? Through the flames we see our Lord. He reaches out his hand, to bring us from the shadow of this world.  When we were burned, we cried in joy. The Crosstians [sic] think we scream. We cried in joy. When we are burned, why, we are turned to light. 

Father: Look [pointing towards the sun setting over the landscape]. Your inheritance. The kings of the Earth, you can govern. They walk in their sleep. Yours is the right to inherit the power. To will their will. Power, Stephen, to turn the rock of the world to wealth. Power, to fall and not to die. Like Joan the Maid. To fall and not to die. 

Mother: You have to come with us. You are our child of light. You have to be born in us. Then you become pure light.   

I take this scene to be summing up some of the most dangerous ideas, hopes, aspirations and will to power that are present in all forms of strong nationalism. Ideas of true nationhood, the hope that a strong and pure leader of the nation is to emerge, fantasies about the beauty and value of bloody and painful martyrdom, dark dreams about dynastic or racial inheritance, kings, order, power and wealth. And lastly, but not lastly, corrupt ideas about purity, especially the purity of race and religion. All these things Stephen’s birth parents lay before him to tempt him back into their conformist world-view. But during the course of the film we have seen that these are the very things that Stephen has understood he must reject and casting off if he is to be true not only to his own complex, multilayered self but also true to the complex, multilayered nature of the English landscape, culture, politics, music and religion which has indelibly shaped him throughout.

Immediately following his “mother’s” last words the following remarkable and inspiring lines spring forth from Stephen’s lips, words that echo, but significantly modify and further pluralise, the vision of inclusiveness once grasped after by St Paul in his letter to Galatians which you heard earlier in our readings.

“No. No! I am nothing pure. Nothing pure. My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man. Light with darkness. Mixed! Mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure. I am mud and flame!”

In shock at hearing this blasphemy his birth parents reply that if the light (remember they think they are the light) cannot have him then neither can the darkness. At this point Stephen jumps up and begins to run away from them down the hill. As he does this his parents take a polaroid picture of Stephen fleeing which, immediately upon coming out of the camera, they set light to. Instantly Stephen falls to the ground and begins to burn. Writhing in pain and agony, he suddenly cries out “Penda!”. The burning stops. All is still. When Stephen looks up his parents are gone and there, alone on the bare hillside above him, is seated King Penda. Then Penda begins to speak to Stephen, beginning with some words about his birth parents:

Still from the film "Penda's Fen"
There you have seen the true dark enemies of England. Sick father and mother who would have us children forever. Stephen, our land must live. This land we love must live. Her deep, dark flame must never die. Night is falling. Your land and mine goes down into a darkness now, and I, and all the other guardians of her flame are driven from our home up out into the wolf’s jaw. But the flame still flickers in the fen. You are marked down to cherish that. Cherish the flame till we can safely wake again. The flame is in your hands, we trusted you, our sacred demon of ungovernableness. Cherish the flame. We shall rest easy. 

And then, as he leans forward to touch Stephen’s head, Penda says a final blessing:

Stephen, be secret. Child, be strange. Dark, true, impure and dissonant. Cherish our flame. Our dawn shall come.    

Then, suddenly, Penda is gone and Stephen is alone again on hillside. Finally, as the playwright Rudkin himself says:

In the final image, [Stephen] turns away from his idealised landscape, to go into the world and adulthood with a value system more anarchistic now, and readier to integrate the contradictions of experience.

Personally, I find this inclusive, pluralistic, syncretic, complex, many layered vision of England and Englishness utterly intoxicating and I, for one, want to celebrate and live in a land and among people who understand they are nothing special, nothing pure. A mixed race, one that is woman and man, light with darkness, mud and flame. Mixed! Mixed. A land and people inhabited by a sacred demon of ungovernableness. Dark, true, impure and dissonant.

This understanding of England and Englishness is not, of course, the one that will be sold to us by any of our politicians and religious leaders in the coming months and years. But, at the very least, I hope it is a vision that will inspire this local radical, liberal, pluralist religious community and that here, in the heart of another dark fen, we can keep alive and flickering the same rebellious, inspiring and anarchic flame of inclusive impurity that King Penda passed on to young Stephen.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Are we entering a post-modern 1930s?—a few dark reflections following an evening talking about Equal Marriage and why it matters

A rainbow over the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Yesterday evening we were pleased to welcome to the church Derek McAuley, the Chief Officer of the GA of U&FC Churches, to speak to students as part of our new Student Ministry project.

His subject was, “Equal Marriage — Why it matters”. As many of you will know Derek played a major part in the national campaign to bring about this change in legislation along with his colleagues in the Quakers and Liberal Judaism. 

In a nutshell he said he thought it matters in three key ways; it matters to the couples involved; it matters to the society in which we live; and it matters to us as a liberal, free-religious community. I could say something about each of these themes but it was the second of these that particularly concerned me and which has prompted this brief post.

In liberal circles we might be tempted to think that, because the legislation was passed and has now gone into law, that equal marriage is now somehow simply an uncontested fact of life, part forever of our society’s new, more liberal and tolerant reality.

But is this the case? There are ever increasing indications that it is not. Figures from the Home Office suggest there has been a significant rise in homophobic attacks following the Brexit vote. A report in the “The Independent” on 28th July examining the scale of “post-referendum racism” also found signs that some racists seemed intent on extending their attacks to the LGBT community. Incidents reported in that article include a crowd walking down Drury Lane, London, two days after the referendum result was announced, chanting: “First we’ll get the Poles out, then the gays!” The actress Juliet Stevenson also reported a Romanian lesbian being attacked in Oxford and suggested the incident showed “Strains of 1930s Germany”.  See also this article, again in The Independent.

Mindful of these events Derek wondered whether Equal Marriage may well turn out to be the “high-water” mark of the LGBT+ campaign and that from now on in we will need to be defending this gain from significant forces that want to see these kinds of liberalisations and openness rolled back. It was a comment with which I could not but concur.

As if to reinforce my own gloomy feelings on this matter, when most people had gone and only a few of us were left tidying up and preparing to close the church, a man came into the church and stood in the vestibule. As I always do when this happens I went over to him to say hello and to find out what he wanted and whether I could help. It quickly became apparent that he was very drunk and claiming to be homeless. He may well have been but we didn’t have much chance to talk through anything constructive around this because he quickly started blaming "fucking Syrian refugees" for his situation. I demurred because I don't think such claims can be left unchallenged by anyone and I said that his dreadful situation wasn’t the fault of refugees (Syrian or otherwise) but of more complex, home-grown poor, political decisions that were forcing both him and refugees into similar, distressing and degrading situations. His reaction to this was to move right up into my face and tell me he was a British working man and that I was fucking this and fucking that, a fucking Corbyn supporter (I never mentioned Corbyn and, I should add, although a leftist, I'm not a member of the Labour Party) and that he wanted me to step outside the church for a fight to settle this. I did not, of course, go outside and, over the next quarter of an hour, I was able quietly to persuade him to leave the church without him getting violent.

This kind of response is, alas, becoming less and less unusual and, to pile woe upon woe, when I got home and glanced at the headlines I saw the report of the Polish woman who was "booed" by the Question Time audience in Hartlepool last night after saying she no longer feels welcome in the UK following the Brexit vote. She added that she had lived in Britain for 23 years and had “never been discriminated until Brexit came about.”

When I got round to watching the whole programme this morning on YouTube I have to say that the general tenor of this edition of Question Time put the fear of god into me because it gave a frightening indication of the deepening mess we are entering into. Thank heavens Yanis Varoufakis was there to put forwards a coherent, leftist, intelligent, dissenting voice. But it has to be said that his voice came across as of one "crying in the wilderness."

But my basic point here for those who read this blog — and who I imagine are mostly of liberal inclination — is that this nationalistic racism and hate is truly now out in the mainstream and its presence and slow but seemingly uncontrollable spread is unimaginably dangerous to us all. I cannot but feel Varoufakis is right when he suggests elsewhere, that we are moving into “a post-modern 1930s” and I’m not at all convinced that we, on the liberal end of the political or religious spectrum, have yet properly woken up to the seriousness of our situation.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Anglarchist: For the Liberties of England

Over the last month I've given two addresses on the subject of the resurgence of what seems to me a highly dangerous kind of nationalism and suggested a few nascent thoughts about how we might go about strongly resisting it. If you are so minded you can read them HERE and HERE.

But, even as I (in both my religious and political activities) push strongly against this kind of nationalism, I realise that, given the high likelihood that the UK is going to leave the EU and that this, in turn, may well cause the break-up of the UK itself, it is clear that someone like me (very much an Englishman) has a duty (and no-choice but) to begin to think of ways to develop a sense of what it is to be English that doesn't, itself, then turn into a problematic, narrow-minded, reactionary nationalism.

It was with some relief, then, to discover that Paul Kingsnorth and Warren Drapper (whose work I know and have admired through my interest in "The Dark Mountain Project) have begun a project to produce an anthology of writings called "The Anglarchist: For the Liberties of England."

They are currently seeking crowd-funding to publish it and I've already put some of my money where my mouth is. Having done this I realised that some English readers of this blog may also be interested in doing likewise and, as an encouragement to consider doing that, below I reproduce their brief synopsis. If you click through the link below you can also watch a short three-and-a-half minute long film in which Kingsnorth and Drapper introduce the idea further.

The Synopsis

The Anglarchist is an anthology of work which examines England as it was, as it is, and how we might like it to be. It will pull together the threads of English political and social philosophy in the hope of weaving a platform for a new positive patriotism.

Some may feel uneasy about speaking of England in a positive light, in case they are somehow seen to be fuelling the crass, jingoistic nationalism which the English have long found distasteful and rather embarrassing. But to remain silent is to give the bigots free rein to dictate their own vision of Englishness. This is why we must distinguish ourselves from those on all sides of the political argument who would use English identity as a divisive tool. In the light of Brexit, rapidly shifting political landscapes, ecological crisis and global economic upheavals, the future of England has never seemed more uncertain.The Anglarchist hopes to help shape it.

The term 'Anglarchist’ has been coined to celebrate the existence of a gentler strain of radical political thought which runs throughout English history. It rejects both the angry jingoism which can be found on the right and the placeless intellectualism which often characterises the left, and looks instead to our forgotten history. From the social guarantees of the Charter of the Forest (sister document to Magna Carta) to William Morris’s most perfect of Utopias, News From Nowhere, there exists a uniquely English concept of liberty. Maybe it has something to do with us sharing a small, rain-dampened island, with our neighbours and with each other, but radical English philosophy is awash with ideas of kindness and kinship (a word which has the potential to go beyond the boundaries of species, let alone the misguided divisions of race and culture). To quote George Orwell: “The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.”

This anthology will celebrate that gentleness in the hope that we can build a new and radical vision of England and Englishness. Not as a singular dream of nationhood, but as a diverse and inclusive celebration of England as our home. Where a nation seeks to define its people, a country is defined by its people. How can we - all of us in England today - redefine our Englishness to suit the times we are living in?

With a diverse range of contributions from writers such as Jay Griffiths, Robert Macfarlane, Tom Hodgkinson and associate editor Paul Kingsnorth, The Anglarchist will look at every aspect of England and the English. From the wonderful richness of our history, heritage, political philosophy and ecology, to the darker recesses of the country’s past imperialism, growing inequity and blatant class divide, this anthology will endeavour to paint an honest, but ever optimistic, portrait of England. We hope that this will be the first step in an essential journey (and perhaps the first in a series of Anglarchist anthologies). To get to where we want to be we must first understand exactly where we are.

As well as pledges we are also looking for contributors to help build a positive patriotism based on tolerance, diversity and the Liberties of England.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Please let some out, do it today, but don’t let the loveless ones sell you a world wrapped in grey

Proverbs 4:23 over Heidegger's front door in Freiburg 

Proverbs 4:23

Keep your heart 
      with all vigilance,  
for from it flow 
      the springs of life.

Mark Wrathall interviewed in the film “Being In The World”

Moods don't happen without our heads but that doesn’t means they happen in our heads. The analogy I like to use is a radio. The radio gets tuned into different stations and as you tune the dial you get different songs playing. That doesn’t mean all the stations are inside the radio, it just means that without the radio getting tuned to them you're not in a position to pick them up. The traditional philosophical way of understanding the world and thinking [is divided into] inside, subjective stuff, thoughts inside of us, and then facts, objects out in the world. One thing that this way of thinking about the world does is it makes all sorts of things inside of us like moods, emotions . . . subjective things that we project out on the world, on to things. So, you want to say the world’s not happy or sad [but that] we’re happy or sad and we project our happiness out on to the world. The phenomenological tradition started to undercut the distinction between subjects and objects. What that did was allow us, in a much more natural way, to make room for moods and emotions to be out in the world. 
           I think this matches our common sense way of talking about it . So, we talk about the mood in the room, there was a happy mood as we walked into the party, or the mood of the nation is downcast right now, or depressed as a nation. I think that’s capturing something real about our experience of the world and the way that the world isn't just these neutral facts but that it lines up in particular ways; it’s illuminated in particular ways and when we get in the right mood it’s a way of getting in tune with the world so that it can show certain features to us. So when you’re happy the world looks different, and it’s not just that you’re interpreting the world through a different filter, but it’s that your happiness tunes you in to features of the world that you weren’t paying attention to.

“Wrapped in Grey” by Andy Partridge from the XTC album “Nonesuch” (1992)

Some folks see the world as a stone
Concrete daubed in dull monotone
Your heart is the big box of paints
And others, the canvas we’re dealt

Your heart is the big box of paints
How coloured the flowers all smelled
As they huddled there, in petalled prayer
They told me this, as I knelt there

Awaken you dreamers
Adrift in your beds
Balloons and streamers
Decorate the inside of your heads
Please let some out
Do it today
But don’t let the loveless ones sell you
A world wrapped in grey

Some folks pull this life like a weight
Drab and dragging dreams made of slate
Your heart is the big box of paints
And others, the canvas we’re dealt
Your heart is the big box of paints
Just think how the old masters felt, they call...

Awaken you dreamers
Asleep at your desks
Parrots and lemurs
Populate your unconscious grotesques
Please let some out
Do it today
Don't let the loveless ones sell you
A world wrapped in grey
And in the very least 
you can stand up naked 
and grin



My personal theological and philosophical reflections on the conversations that occur in my study and whilst out and about as your minister do not, of course,provide an absolutely accurate measure of the mood of the whole country. However, careful reading and the questioning of friends in various places up and down the isle, strongly suggest to me that there does exist a generalised grey-wrapped feeling that, in so many spheres of life, our world is going to hell in a hand-cart or, as some dark wit suggested during this week’s Marmite scandal, it’s going to hell in a hand-basket.

The phrase, “grey- wrapped”, is, of course, derived from Andy Partridge’s song "Wrapped in Grey." Given that I used Partridge’s song “Harvest Festival” a couple of weeks ago to help to draw out what seemed to me to be an important aspect of Harvest, I have found myself re-listening to XTC’s back catalogue once again — something I do with great pleasure at least once a year. Anyway, last week, following a longish conversation with someone who found themselves heavily wrapped in grey, I went back home to recover and to try to recalibrate my own seriously downcast feelings and mood. With a cup of tea in my hand I took XTC’s 1992 album “Nonesuch” off the top of the pile of CDs and put in on, very loud. It would be possible to write many addresses on the themes found in all the songs found on this album but, last week, for obvious reasons, “Wrapped in Grey” stood out.

Listening to it I realised it could help me begin to bring before something we might consciously, and more often, adopt, something that might help us deal with our current (and to my mind well-founded) grey-wrapped state of mind. But, before we turn to the song itself we need to do a little philosophy to prepare the ground.

Heidegger thought the most distinctive thing about human beings was our involvement in the world. That is to say our distinctiveness was not to be found in our ability to sit back and think rationally about the world — as did Descartes, who thought we were primarily thinking things, “res cogitans” — but, instead, it was to be found in some fashion through our active involvement in the world. Think of love. It is possible to sit back and think rationally about love, to collect statistics and to observe changes changes in our general psycho-physical make-up when we tell a researcher we are experiencing love, but we all realise that we only properly begin to understand love when it strikes us personally.

The example of love brings me to moods and emotions and, as you heard in our readings, Mark Wrathall makes the important point that, if you follow Heidegger in this (and I do even as there is much in Heidegger's thinking that one wouldn't want to follow), “moods don't happen without our heads, but that doesn’t means they happen in our heads.” I would want to add that for “head” I think we can, and should, also read “heart”, and so we can also say, “moods don't happen without our hearts, but that doesn’t means they happen in our hearts.”  Wrathall’s preferred analogy for this thought, you will recall, was a radio.

“The radio gets tuned into different stations and as you tune the dial you get different songs playing. That doesn't mean all the stations are inside the radio it just means that without the radio getting tuned to them you're not in a position to pick them up.”

However, the traditional philosophical way of understanding the world, a way that still deeply permeates our culture, sees the world as being divided up into, on the one hand, “inside subjective stuff, thoughts inside of us” and, on the other, “facts, objects out in the world.” But, as Wrathall notes, this way of thinking about the world makes moods and emotions merely subjective things that “we project out on the world, on to things” and he points out that this makes us want to say that “the world’s not happy or sad” but that “we’re happy or sad”.

However, when in the mid-1920s Heidegger and phenomenological tradition in general began to undercut the distinction between subjects and objects this allowed us, in a much more natural way, to make room for the idea that moods and emotions are not simply inside us but, instead, are a creation of our complex interaction with other beings like us and also with other things, both abstract and concrete. Again the point is, and this is vitally important to grasp this if my message of hope today is to land, moods don't happen without our heads/hearts, but that doesn’t means they happen in our heads/hearts.

Walking into a party is splendid way to illustrate this. As Wrathall observes, “we talk about the mood in the room, there was a happy mood as we walked into the party.” This “happy mood” is not simply something going on in our head but is something that is bound up with the room itself, its decor and temperature, with the tenor of the conversation and the type of music being played (or not), the attitude, expressions and clothes of the other party goers and, of course the food and drink. Wrathall is trying to help us see that feeling “a happy mood as we walked into the party” or that “the mood of the nation is downcast or depressed right now” isn’t simply an internal matter projected out onto so-called “neutral facts” but rather being in this or that mood is a way of getting in tune with the world so that it can show certain features to us that we hadn’t noticed before. The mood is both inside and outside us both subjective and objective.  It is not, and again this is important to note if my message of hope is to land properly, this is not simply to see the world through rose-tinted spectacles, it is actually to allow something new to emerge in (and, therefore, change) the world.

So, whilst it is true that in an important sense the world doesn’t change when we are in one mood or another, in another sense the world does change because we see in it, and draw out of it, new features and new possibilities that are really there even though they had not been disclosed to us before. Here we discover what it is that Heidegger made us the kinds of beings we are, it is, in a nutshell, our ability to disclose whole new worlds of meaning.

A beautiful, small-scale but paradigmatic example of this is seen in the sport of high-jumping. The world of the high-jump, like all sporting domains, is a very rule bound world and you must stay within the very limited, given rules in order to compete. Once upon a time most high-jumpers used various techniques to get over the bar such as the straddle technique, the Western Roll, the Eastern cut-off and the scissors. But, in the summer of 1968, the American athlete, Dick Fosbury won the Olympic gold medal by clearing the bar in the manner we now know all know so well by using a technique now called the Fosbury Flop. In short he was able to disclose a small scale but still wholly new way of being-in-the-world.

It is important to understand that the Fosbury Flop was not simply waiting to be discovered back in, say, the Middle Ages, and that it needed a space to be created by us and a huge number of things needed to be lined-up in a particular way before it could be disclosed to us. What is true of the high-jump is, of course, true also for music and styles of music, painting, poetry literature, political, theological and philosophical thought, technology and so on, ad infinitum.

Now we can return to the song “Wrapped in Grey” to get a sense of how this Heideggerian insight is at play in Partridge’s lyric hopeful lyric. A lyric in which he is encouraging us to understand we really can disclose new worlds of meaning that can truly change or significantly modify, a current (grey-wrapped) world.

Partridge begins by observing that “Some folks see the world as a stone, Concrete daubed in dull monotone” and the implication is that the person he is talking to (which includes us of course), find themselves in a world wrapped in grey. But, pointing to our innate but so often unrecognised and unused, human ability to disclose new worlds of meaning, he notes that our heart “is the big box of paints”, a tool-kit which, by using, we can disclose new worlds of meaning, just as did so many other masters such as Rembrandt, Breughel, Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Jackson Pollock, Bridget Riley and Georgia O'Keeffe in their own times and places. This innate ability is compared byPartridge to the fact that most people simply continue to live and think that there is only the original “canvas we're dealt”.

Partridge initially seems to picture this facility to disclose new worlds of meaning as simply internal, it’s the box of paints in your heart, all “huddled there, in petalled prayer”. But in the chorus, Partridge, like all the best artists, reveals he is highly alert to the interpenetration of what we used to call inner and outer worlds and he sees that this box of paints, this tool of world-disclosure, is what allows a prayerful person to “Awaken you dreamers, Adrift in your beds.” It helps us begin to disclose “Balloons and streamers” which “Decorate the inside of your heads” and this disclosure cannot but come out in the form of a new mood and world that is capable of stopping “the loveless ones sell you a world wrapped in grey.”

In the second verse Partridge returns to idea of a world wrapped in grey by using the image of “dragging dreams made of (grey) slate” and this allows him to cycle back to reinforce the hope expressed in the chorus. But, in its second iteration, the chorus explicitly references the fact how master artists are able to disclose new worlds of meaning, “Just think” he says, “how the old masters felt, they call...”

To reference this “call” is to pick up on another Heideggerian insight, namely that the world, when it is fully lived in by a sensitive, master artist, is capable of calling forth from them something new, some new vision that is more than canvas they’ve been dealt. It calls them to awaken dreamers asleep at their desks and, with the lines “Parrots and lemurs Populate your unconscious grotesques” he seems to me specifically to be invoking the astonishing new world of meaning disclosed by the artist Henri Rousseau.

But notice, too, that this involvement with the world through "the big box of paints", calls forth from the master artist, a new authentic self. Not only is a new world disclosed but also a new way of being a self. New ways of being human are called forth too.

So, to being to conclude, in our own age with its downcast and depressed mood — which is, I think, really out there — it seems to me vital to hold on to the hopeful insight that there is always already available to us this big box of paints which can disclose new, better, more colourful and uplifting worlds of meaning and call forth from ourselves new ways of being. So, although I truly feel, as do many of you, that our world is at present wrapped in grey, this grey canvas with which we're being dealt need never have the last word.

I’d strongly encourage us, therefore, to heed the words of the proverb that was so important to Heidegger (it appeared above the door of his house in Freiburg), to “Keep your heart, [i.e. your big box of paints] with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” and then to seek all kinds of ways to open it up and use it.

This is not, to reiterate, merely to view the world through rose-tinted spectacles but a genuine promise that, in doing this, we will be helped to “stand up naked”, that is to say as our true, authentic, creative selves, and grin defiantly at all those who want make our world as a stone, concrete daubed in dull monotone. So I call upon you all, “Please let some out, Do it today, Don't let the loveless ones sell you A world wrapped in grey”. Such a coming out really does have the power to change the world.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.


After giving this address in church this morning a number of us had a long conversation over coffee and tea about how disturbing it was that the universalist theme of my address, long a favourite theme of our own religious tradition could, today, suddenly sound so radical and counter-cultural. The nationalist and racist rhetoric that has become noticeably more apparent in the UK since the EU referendum has taken many of us by surprise and it has revealed, I hope, that our Unitarian, Universalist and liberal Christian message of hope remains a highly relevant and vitally important one that we must continue to preach loudly and proudly when, and wherever we can. It is a salutary reminder that the liberal openness and freedoms we have taken for granted within our own community for decades need constantly to be publicly affirmed, maintained and promoted by us in our own time.


1 John 3:18 (New Revised Standard Version)

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

1 John 3:18 (Good News Translation)

My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.


George de Benneville (1703-1793), born in London in 1703 to aristocratic Huguenot French parents in the court of Queen Anne, was a Christian Universalist clergyman. Whilst serving as a sailor as a teenager he traveled around the world and this experience caused him to begin to question his own religion and compare it to other world religions. During these voyages de Benneville had a mystical experience and, later, a near-death experience which he described in his autobiographical “The Life and Trance of Dr. George De Benneville.”

This begin an eighteen year period (c.1723-41) as an itinerant Universalist preacher firstly in France, Germany and Holland where he was sentenced to death more than once. Whilst in Europe he also began to study and practice medicine. Following this period, in 1741 he emmigrated to Pennsylvania where he worked as a physician and apothecary whilst continuing in his free time to preach a Universalist gospel. There he both socialized and traded herbal preparations with Native American groups in the area and his work remains, to this day, an important source of knowledge about their medicine. George de Benneville died at home in Pennsylvania in 1793 where his long life had led him to proclaim that all people everywhere are loved by God, and cultures, races, and sexes have no bearing on the worth of a human being.

What you’ll now hear is his account of the event that first propelled him towards a Universalist position taken from a book called “Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George de Benneville” (trans. Rev. Elhanan Winchester, Germantown, PA: Converse Cleaves, Publisher, 1890). Following this are a few passages written during his later life in Pennsylvania by which time he had become a convinced Universalist.


From “Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George de Benneville” (trans. Rev. Elhanan Winchester, Germantown, PA, Converse Cleaves, 1890, pp. 8-9):

When arrived at the age of twelve years I was very wild, believing myself to belong to a different class from mankind in general; by this fond imagination I was self-exalted, and thought myself above other men; but God soon convinced me to the contrary. As it was designed that I should learn navigation, I was sent to sea in a vessel of war attached to a small fleet bound to the coast of Barbary with presents, and to renew the peace with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripolis. Being arrived at Algiers, as I walked upon deck, I saw some Moors who brought refreshments to sell; one of them fell and injured one of his legs; two of his companions having laid him on deck, kissed the wound and shed tears upon it; then turning towards the rising of the sun, they cried in such a manner that I was moved with much anger, and ordered my servant to bring them before me. Upon demanding the reason of their outcry, they, perceiving that I was angry, implored my pardon, and told me the cause was owing to one of their brothers having hurt his leg by a fall, and that they kissed the wound in order to sympathize with him, and likewise shed tears upon it, and as tears were saltish, they were a good remedy for the hurt; and the reason for their turning towards the rising sun was to invoke him who created the sun to have compassion upon their poor brother and be pleased to heal him. Upon that I was so convinced and moved within that I thought my heart would break, and that my life was about to leave me; my eyes were filled with tears, and I felt such an internal condemnation that I was forced to cry out and say, “Are these men Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!” Behold the first conviction that the grace of our Sovereign Good employed: he was pleased to convince a white person by blacks, one who carried the name of a Christian, by a Pagan, and who was obliged to confess himself a Heathen. 


Selections from the writings of Dr George de Benneville (1703–1793) and found in Albert D. Bell's biography, "The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville":

Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.

Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.

Our Sovereign Good is the Infinite and Everlasting Love, the only indwelling, all-embracing, undergirding and overshadowing spiritual reality, which is at once the source, the instrument and the object of its power.

He will restore all of His creatures, without exception, to the praise of His glory and their eternal salvation.

The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in colour, language and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and the female of all species. We do not find those differences obstacles to love.

Unity testifies to the many parts of the whole. Each body has features which may be recognized separately, but these have no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body.

The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things. 

My happiness will be incomplete while one creature remains miserable.



Last week, in our Harvest Festival meditations and conversation, I wanted to explore with you how, in the face of the disturbing rise of nationalism in Britain, Europe and the USA we might learn to celebrate a cosmopolitan harvest festival — where the word cosmopolitan is understood in the way suggested by the British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, as being “universality plus difference.”

As I wrote and then gave last week’s address I increasingly realised it would be worth returning to a key figure in our own history about whom you heard in our readings, Dr George de Benneville. Speaking personally, in my own religious life no other figure within our tradition has been more influential upon my own thinking and basic religious stance than de Benneville.

He was a man who came to internalise and live in a way that fully expressed the importance of “universality plus difference” and, as you heard earlier, he began to move towards this recognition when as a teenager he had a life changing encounter with some Moors [i.e. Muslims]. Like so many people then and, alas, today, the very young de Benneville was simply unable to see the value in ways of being, or as Wittgenstein might put it, “forms of life”, that were in many important ways different from his own. Now, when I speak of value here it’s important to be aware that I’m not only speaking of being able to see some kind of intrinsic value in another form of life but of being able to see how the encounter with another form of life adds value to one’s own.

Let me explain what I mean by using two lessons from which I have personally benefited. One occurred many years ago whilst I was studying theology in Oxford, the second also occurred many years ago but it has only recently properly been understood by me.

So, the first lesson occurred whilst studying Unitarian, Universalist and liberal Christian history. As we delved deeply into the tradition our teacher suddenly said to us something along the lines of “Remember, as we study our traditions that the person who only knows their own traditions thereby reveals that they do not even know their own traditions.”

What our wise teacher was pointing to was the well-known phenomenon where it is only a so-called “outsider” who can help us more properly to see the things which we think we understand intimately, even fully. We need only think of how the arrival of a friend at our own house helps us notice that we haven’t dusted for a while and that, really and truly, it’s time to get the hoover out and clean up a bit. Think, too, of how taking someone from another land and culture around our own locality can help reveal all kinds of things one never noticed before and also helps us to raise important questions that had never before occurred to us.

de Benneville’s encounter with those three Moors (i.e. Muslims) was one such event for they helped him see something about his own personal Christian faith and practice that was deeply problematic, even defective — after all he was hardly showing love to his neighbour in his harsh and angry response; that wasn’t true love, which shows itself in action. This event of grace forced him to ask “Are these men Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!” and, as his life unfolded to open him up to a loving form of life that clearly expressed “universality plus difference.” This was no more beautifully put than in the words you heard earlier:

“The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in colour, language and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and the female of all species. We do not find those differences obstacles to love.”

This observation brings me to a second lesson I only properly internalised during my recent sabbatical. Many years ago someone pointed out that we are often kept faithful to our own religious/philosophical traditions only thanks to the graceful encounter with other religious/philosophical traditions. Think about it. If one is never challenged to think about adopting some different religion/philosophy there can really be for you no mature, conscious way of remaining meaningfully loyal to the religion/philosophy you already hold. Here’s my story about that some of you will already have read on my blog but which I haven't yet publicly spoken about from this lectern.

After my morning shower back in February this year the cross I had worn daily for many years fell off; the leather cord had simply worn through. Naturally, I hunted out a length of new leather cord and when, a couple of days later, I came to put the cross back on, to my surprise, I found I couldn’t do it.

Now, most of you will be well aware that, although I have a deep, intimate, lifelong existential relationship with Christianity, I find it a tradition about which I have no choice but to be highly critical and this is especially true when it comes to its (“orthodox”) understandings of God (its metaphysics). When my cross fell off I was in a particularly critical mood and this undoubtedly contributed to my unwillingness (really my inability at that moment) to put it back on. Even so, I confess that I sorely missed its physical presence around my neck and so I began to cast around for something else that might replace it. Eventually I settled on a depiction of the four seasons, an image that I felt would suit well my religious naturalist inclinations and I decided I would put it on after my last service before my sabbatical on May 1st. On the appointed day I duly carried out my promise.

My genuine intention was to see, in the privacy of a sabbatical, how it felt to be “flying under another banner” until I returned to work in September and before deciding whether or not permanently to keep wearing this symbol of a new religious allegiance.

To my utter surprise less than 24 hours after putting it on, I found I had to take it off — the feeling was astonishingly visceral. It wasn’t so much that the symbol of the seasons was wrong, that I was somehow embarrassed by it, or even that it didn’t express something true about my own developing religious position (for it did); no, it was simply that it didn’t speak properly of the fundamental, existential governing demand in my own religious life and this is why, on the first full day of my sabbatical, I found myself putting the cross back on.

The cross I put back on is called “The Way” and it’s huge original is to be found hanging on the north wall of the west tower of Ely Cathedral. When I first saw it, it spoke to me (and Susanna, my wife, who also wears it) with great power because it represents an unfolding road which may be understood both to be running towards the cross(roads) and also away from the cross(roads). This echoed my own constant attraction to, and movement away, from the cross but it was only in the act of self-consciously choosing to wear another symbol that I was able to be reminded of this so clearly and feel it again so viscerally.

In this particular depiction of the cross I find I come face to face with Jesus’ infinite ethical demand (found in the Sermon on the Mount) that, simultaneously and irresistibly, calls me (because of its goodness and beauty) and repels me (because it seems—is—impossible to achieve), namely, the basic teaching that I must love my neighbour and enemy as myself and that it is in these acts of love alone that I will find God, even when the metaphysical God of Christianity has completely gone — and I assure you that, for me, that God is dead. (I said something about this just a few weeks ago.)

When I wrote this on my blog at the end of May I said that even if nothing else were achieved during my sabbatical I would feel that this realization would, alone, be enough because it helped me see that my a-theism (which is real) is through and through Christian and Universalist and it is this Christian (Universalist) Atheist faith that continues viscerally to motivate me both as an individual human being and in my public role as an heretical minister of the gospel. Other things were achieved during my sabbatical but, in many way, this remains the most important and graceful thing that happened to me whilst I was away from you all.

To reiterate, the point which connects with de Benneville’s own experience, is that I could never have come to this realisation without the graceful encounter with a kind of naturalistic/humanistic paganism. I could not have become more grounded as the person I am without this encounter with another possible way of being in the world and what is true of naturalistic paganism is also true in different ways of my own personal encounters with Buddhism, Hinduism Judaism and Islam. This was the case in de Benneville’s own life in his encounters, firstly with the Moors/Muslims of Algeria and then with the Native American Indians when he settled in Pennsylvania.Without them his own tolerant, open-hearted, Christian Universalist faith would simply not have been possible.

This helps us see that religious encounters with another religion/philosophy do not (generally) lead towards a dilution of one’s own faith but, instead, that they are often a central requirement to the proper development of any secure and mature personal faith. It helps us see that we all owe a huge amount of gratitude and thanks to those who are different to us in countless ways because their faithfulness helps our own. And, as de Benneville clearly and beautifully said, we do not find those differences obstacles to love.

So, to conclude, I’ll leave you with some words of de Benneville’s you heard earlier that we use every week towards the end of our evening service. They are a clarion call to us confidently to engage in a certain kind of religious mission to the world; a distinctive liberal religious mission that, in the current nationalistic climate, remains as important to proclaim as it was in de Bennville’s own day:

“The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things. Let us, therefore, preach the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.”

Sunday, 2 October 2016

A cosmopolitan harvest festival—“universality plus difference”—some reflections on the disturbing rise of nationalism in Britain, Europe and the USA

Harvest display of items required by the local foodbank
READINGS: Leo Tolstoy’s interpretation of Luke 10:1-2:

Then Jesus chose seventy people from his close followers and sent them to places he wanted to be himself.
          He told them. “Many people do not know the blessing of real life. I’m sorry for all of them and I want to teach them all.  But just as the master [husbandman] is not enough to perform the harvest of his whole field alone, I also cannot do this alone.”  

Cosmopolitanism in a Time of Petty Nationalism by David Breeden (July 28, 2016)

To be Humanist is to say, with the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, “My city is the world.” (In Greek the English word “world” is “kosmos.”)
          Humanists are necessarily cosmopolites, not because we are always leaping on jets touring the planet, but because we have realized that all perceived differences in humanity (homo sapiens sapiens) are superficial. The academic philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah usefully calls cosmopolitanism “universality plus difference.” This phrase expresses the realization that perceived human difference is at once tiny and all-encompassing.
          This is the idea that Humanist Gene Roddenberry attempted to express on the bridge of his fictional starship Enterprise.
          Humanist cosmopolitanism is not a statement of power or egotism or conquest, but one of humble acceptance of humanity’s true (multifaceted) place in our shared reality. Borders are artificial. Wholeness is the truth. Difference is at once an illusion and a potentially deadly reality. 
          As various Star Trek plots have expressed, we will either learn to respect both universality and difference or we will perish.

Andy Partridge (composer and member of XTC) speaking about his song “Harvest Festival”

As a kid, I had no idea what the harvest festival ceremony at school was supposed to be about. This bizarre mix of Christianity, Paganism, Help the Aged, a jumble sale and fridge raid, all seem to crash together (with schoolboy lust interest) in the lyrics of this song.
          I decided to move the arrangement from acoustic guitar to piano simply because of the evocation of an English school assembly. Music master seated at the grand in the hall, girls one side, boys the other. Furtive but powerful glances shooting between the ranks of confused white shirted trainee adults. A smile from a girl across the room can have an atomic blast impact on a spotty, shy lad of thirteen. Ground zero at your heart.
          I'm very proud of the lines “see the children with baskets, see their hair cut like corn, neatly combed in their rows”. This, for me, is the whole confused dream of school harvest festival distilled into a few words.

See the flowers round the altar
See the peaches in tins 'neath the headmaster's chair
Harvest festival
See the two who've been chosen
See them walk hand in hand to the front of the hall
        Harvest festival
        Harvest festival
        What was best of all was the
        Longing look you gave me
        That longing look
        More than enough to keep me fed all year
See the children with baskets
See their hair cut like corn neatly combed in their rows
        Harvest festival
        Harvest festival
        What was best of all was the
        Longing look you gave me
        That longing look
        Across the hymnbooks and the canvas chairs
        The longing look you gave me
        That longing look
        More than enough to keep me fed all year
And what a year when the exams and crops all failed
Of course you passed and you were never seen again
We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed
Then out of nowhere invitation in gold pen
        See the flowers round the altar
        See that you two got married and I wish you well



The articulation of a certain kind of modest, low-key national identity seems very important to me, however, with every fibre in my body I want to protest against the current slow-burning return here in Britain, Europe and the USA of a kind of old-school, sectarian nationalism that seems bent on dividing the world up into an imaginary “us” and imaginary “bad”-others — be those “bad”-others labelled, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or merely foreigners of all kinds who look and talk differently to "us".

The re-emergence of nationalism is a dangerous genie that is not easily going to be persuaded to go back into its bottle and our historic commitment to various species of humanism (both religious and secular in flavour) means that we’ve long felt along with the Greek philosopher Diogenes that we are first and foremost citizens of the world and that the world is our city, and this also means, whether we like it or not, that a liberal religious movement such as our own, sooner or later, is going to have to challenge nationalism.

But mention of humanist cosmopolitanism requires me to note that, whilst it is true there have always existed humanisms that have strong tendencies towards colonialism and imperialism — Soviet style communism, fascism in general and neoliberalism are three examples that immediately spring to mind — there has always existed another kind of humanism, one that, as Breeden puts it, “is not a statement of power or egotism or conquest, but one of humble acceptance of humanity’s true (multifaceted) place in our shared reality.”

One such cosmopolitan, humanist strategy we can choose to adopt that will help us push against divisive and potentially deadly nationalisms is to hunt out and celebrate, universally relevant stories and festivals that are capable of gifting us with a deep sense of distinctive local, national belonging and identity but which, at the same time, are capable of seriously undermining any attempts to create simple binary, black/white, right/wrong, pure/impure, insider/outsider oppositions.

I think that harvest is one such festival because, on the one hand, it is clearly a festival of universal importance but, on the other hand, it can only be properly understood and actually celebrated in different, local, geographical and cultural settings. Here we harvest corn, there they harvest grapes; there they harvest sugar cane, here we harvest sugar beet; here we bring the harvest in as the days shorten and the night lengthens, there they bring the harvest on days split evenly between light and dark; here we toast the harvest with a pint of ale or cider, there they toast the harvest with a glass of wine. Surely then harvest is, potentially anyway, a perfect example of a cosmopolitan festival, one which powerfully combines “universality plus difference.” It’s a universal festival that is joyously always-already different everywhere and, as such, can push against nationalism whilst still gifting us with a more modest, colourful and creative sense of in what consists a localized, national identity.

Now, I cannot speak for any other culture’s harvest festival (I hope some of you will be able to do that later on) but, today, I want to use a song by Andy Partridge of the band XTC to show that one of the things that makes the harvest festival in England distinctively English is that it is, itself, a humble acceptance of humanity’s true (multifaceted) place in our shared reality — which is for us a culture proudly mongrel and plural, a jumbled-up people part Viking, Dane, Angle, Saxon, Jute, Celt, Frisian, Frank, Roman, African, Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim, black and white, gay and straight, boy and girl and all in between. Despite being so very English it is a festival that simply cannot be reduced to any single religious, social, political nationalistic meaning or identity.

As you heard earlier the English songwriter Andy Partridge is well aware of this reminding us that, as a whole, it is a “confused dream” of an affair, a “bizarre mix of Christianity, Paganism, Help the Aged, a jumble sale and fridge raid” and it is precisely this imprecise, anarchic, subversive, highly plural state of affairs that I love beyond measure and which I want particularly to celebrate today. It’s a splendid harvest fruit of our mongrel, mixed-up culture.

Although on these isles harvest has almost certainly celebrated in one way or another ever since we stopped being primarily  hunter-gathers and began to cultivate the land during the neolithic period sometime between 5000 BC and 4500 BC, the harvest festival we celebrate today dates only from 1843 when the Reverend Robert Hawker devised a special thanksgiving service for his church community at Morwenstow in Cornwall.

A complete address could be devoted to Hawker alone and I’m fairly certain that the eccentric jumbled-upness of our harvest festival has its (rhizomatic) roots in him. So, to give you just a few examples, it is claimed that he dressed up as a mermaid, once excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays and that he dressed in a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman's jersey, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket which, he claimed, was the ancient habit of St Padarn. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a pig as a pet. Yo bro! is my response to this and makes me realise that my habit of wearing leather trousers on a Sunday is child’s play compared to Hawker!

Anyway, by the time of my childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the harvest festival he helped create was far from being a contradiction-free, purely Christian one (as many of his more orthodox Anglican contemporaries desired), but had instead developed into the highly eclectic and colourful ad-hoc mix we’ve already noted.

So let’s now turn to this most English piece of pop music which gives the listener an impression of this strange but still celebratory English festival of thanksgiving.

It begins with a couple of introductory bars of school-piano followed immediately by the scraping of chairs as they are pushed back across a floor. These two sounds are intimately connected with the world of English school assemblies and suddenly we are there ourselves, standing up with the children, ready for proceedings to begin.

The next lines are immediately able to evoke a more specific world, not just of school assemblies in general, but of a school harvest assembly: “See the flowers round the altar/See the peaches in tins ‘neath the headmaster's chair” and we hear of the “the two who've been chosen” and how they walk “hand in hand to the front of the hall.”

It is in the chorus which follows that the song’s narrator reveals a harvest gift vitally important to him: “What was best of all . . . was the longing look you gave me” shot across the hall to him by the chosen girl. As Partridge says in his own commentary on the song, “A smile from a girl across the room can have an atomic blast impact on a spotty, shy lad of thirteen. Ground zero at your heart.” This glance, a fruit of this particular harvest festival, was more than enough to keep him fed all year.

One of the many things that makes Andy Partridge such an interesting songwriter to me is that he is often able both to evoke the world of English suburbia and a much older, primordial even, rural world. He is highly alert to the ways, traditions and sights of both and if the “tinned peaches” in the song are designed to evoke something of modern English suburban life, the next line is surely designed strongly to evoke this older, more primordial, rural life: “See the children with baskets/See their hair cut like corn neatly combed in their rows.” Indeed, Partridge is himself very proud of this line which he feels “is the whole confused dream of school harvest festival distilled into a few words.” Remember, too, how at this point the chaotic out of tune recorders help locate us even more strongly in the world of the English school assembly.

The chorus returns to reinforce the harvest gift of that longing look, but notice the additional line, “Across the hymnbooks and the canvas chairs” which, in a wonderfully economic way, adds two more details highly specific to the local time and place.

The middle eight, again with remarkable poetic economy, allows our intuitive knowledge of what a failed harvest feels like to a farmer to be tied powerfully to a school child’s experience of failure in their exams. Though I have been fortunate to have brought one harvest home I'm not myself a farmer, but I am an experienced failer of school exams, and so I can viscerally feel the pain of this line in my gut: “And what a year when the exams and crops all failed.” 

We immediately discover that the failed harvest for our narrator includes, not just failure in their exams, but the failure of the harvest seemingly promised by that “longing look.” He failed his exams and was forced to stay in his home town; she passed her exams and left, never to be seen again . . . or so he thought. And so this teenager begins the long process of becoming an adult, a complex journey which is summed up in the line, “We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed.”

Here in this line we find, I think the fruit of the harvest which lies at the heart of the song. It's an extraordinarily rich and profound line because with it Partridge manages simultaneously to evoke both a highly negative reading — understanding "screwed and cut and nailed" as about being hurt and painfully injured in various ways by life (and Christ on the cross is clearly the religious image underlying this) — and also a positive reading, with screwed and cut and nailed being understood as the simply process of being built into this or that kind of human being. As we know from personal experience we are all, in varying degrees, screwed and cut and nailed in both the senses Partridge evokes.

And then there comes a kind of redemption heralded in the wedding “invitation in gold pen” which comes seemingly from out of nowhere.  We find the narrator now in a church setting whose general layout, decoration and ritual powerfully echoes that school harvest assembly all those years ago and he sees again the two who were chosen to walk hand in hand to the front once again. Secular past and religious present are collapsed together in the line: “See the flowers round the altar/See that you two got married and I wish you well.” Remember, too, the introduction in the music at this point of an organ and joyous wedding bells.

So what is the final fruit of the harvest for our narrator, screwed and cut and nailed in both of the senses I’ve already pointed to? Well, I think we can conclude by returning to Tolstoy’s interpretation of Jesus’ words found in Luke. In his “Gospel in Brief” we read that “Many people do not know the blessing of real life.” But the character in our song seems to be someone who has begun fully to know that the blessing, the harvest of life is to be found in learning to accept with gratitude ALL of real life’s broken, impure mixed-up richness where joy and woe, love and loss are always-already and forever woven fine — a life in which we are constantly screwed and cut and nailed to make us the complex, jumbled-up people we are.

But this (difficult) kind of universal harvest can never be brought in alone (by ourselves as individuals or as single and separate nations nor, as Tolstoy's words suggests, even by God). Instead it can only be done by us, all working together in our chaotic and jumbled-up and splendid diversity.