Kith and Kynren – an England worthy of our love: reflections on the north-east’s latest cultural sensation 

On Sunday night, I enjoyed one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, watching an epic ‘Tale of England’ performed by hundreds of volunteer actors in the grounds of Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, until recently the residence of the Bishops of Durham. Inspired by the Oscar-winning work of Puy du Fou in La Vendée, western France, Kynren (meaning ‘generations’) presents a vivid and densely-textured pageant of legend, myth and history, telling the stories of England from King Arthur to the two World Wars. If you saw the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, you will know the sort of territory we are in. 
Viewed from a specially-built 8000-seater grandstand, the action is played out on a broad stretch of ground overlooked by the Castle. There is a man-made lake in the centre, from which much of the stunning scenery emerges. Although the use of water as a surface for action can sometimes look contrived (with actors moving along submerged walkways), the combination of water, light and dry ice is highly successful in creating powerfully suggestive images; it is, in addition, obviously potent to see our island story emerging quite literally from the waters.  

The surrounding dry land is also put to good use. Horses charge, pull carts, or amble along with a Roman centurion in the saddle. Sheep, cattle and geese are driven across the stage with breathtaking obedience. Kings are crowned, battles rage, dancers dance, and the bodies of miners killed in explosions are carried to their burial. Wonderfully, the Stockton to Darlington Railway is recreated: we see the first train steaming past us, clean, punctual and with seats apparently to spare. 

So three cheers and a kiss on both cheeks for Jonathan Ruffer, the astonishing Christian philanthropist who has bought Auckland Castle (with its Zurburan paintings), created two charities, and declared his intention to make Bishop Auckland, if not the centre of the universe, then at least a tourist destination to transform the region and the quality of life of its inhabitants.  

Which brings me to a first reflection. 

I grew up not far from Bishop Auckland, in a small village on the other side of Durham City. Later, my family moved to east Durham, where I worked for a year as a supply teacher. We were in former pit villages which, although they had been a byword for strongly supportive community life, would never receive awards for architectural beauty or outstanding services to the tourist industry. They tended to be composed of row after row of soot-smudged terraced houses, interspersed with a church, a chapel, a couple of shops and a pub. I therefore grew up with a belief that, despite the Norman glory of Durham Cathedral, I belonged to an ugly part of the world, blighted by poverty, lacking self-belief, condemned to a repeated cycle of little expectation and less achievement. 

Now, it is a dreadful thing when the people of a region believe that they are no-hopers; when it’s the Nazarenes themselves who believe that nothing good can come out of Nazareth. So the thought that all of this might change is remarkable. I know that the process began years ago with the greening of the slag heaps, grass growing where once the grim dark matter of mining waste had stood in little mountains across the region. But now Mr Ruffer promises to advance that work and complete it so that Bishop Auckland will soon have a Spanish gallery, a series of gardens, an exhibition of the history of faith in the UK, and ‘the best tea room north of Antarctica.’  

What he offers, in fact, is nothing short of resurrection, not only for a tumbledown castle but for an entire town and region. It is resurrection for a people told for generations that they couldn’t, now seeing that they can. Today, a thousand volunteers learn to enact mediaeval battles and work as part of a slick welcome team worthy of anything in London, Paris, New York. They learn a host of technical, logistical and practical skills to bring off what will be one of the great success stories of our cultural history. So who can say what they won’t achieve tomorrow? Their being from ‘round here’ makes it all the more marvellous. The local is powerful and beautiful, not narrowly parochial but the place where the whole wide world begins.  

This is heady, potent, gospel stuff, and it gladdens the heart to see it. Let us all catch hold of Mr Ruffer’s Christian vision and see that, just as a town can be made new by faith and focus, so can we all. 
A second thought moves from the local to the national, asking what our history is and how we should express it. 
It was obviously necessary to bring Kynren to a rousing conclusion. So we were taken from a speech in praise of ‘a love of England, my dear England’ to the speeches of Winston Churchill (‘their finest hour’), and on into ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, sung while a few members of the audience, primed by reviews, waved the little Union flags they’d brought (or bought: the merchandising has also been exemplary) as the entire cast appeared on stage in all the summative finery of the costumes of every era. This piece, the programme explained, was a ‘fitting and uplifting finale, to celebrate all that is great about the British nation.’ 

I do understand that the writers didn’t have too many other avenues to explore in search of a big finish (certainly having concentrated on Kings and Queens and derring-do), but I found the choice of music troubling and unsatisfactory. 

Our problem is that we have no English history that is separate from our British history; we certainly have no supply of popular patriotic songs that are unconnected with the spirit of lofty entitlement that led Britain to rule the waves, forging and maintaining a mighty empire with ‘wider still and wider’ bounds. Expressing the love of our country (even if we could separate England from the rest of Britain) will therefore always lead us into contentious company, like that of the wife of a British captain who allegedly refused to let the Maharajah of Kashmir escort her into dinner, claiming he was a ‘dirty Hindu’. Even Churchill, for all his fine speeches and bulldog spirit, is far from straightforward, especially in the still strongly Labour north-east. 

Which is perhaps why Kynren would have been well advised to follow (in some way) the 2012 Olympics, whose inclusion of the NHS and our musical and fashion expertise allowed a very different atmosphere to pervade their account of our history. 

Indeed, with our nation standing as it is, threatened by post-Brexit fragmentation, terrorist attack and ecological trauma, perhaps our most urgent task is the creation of a culture of celebrating all that holds us together. We need to commit ourselves to the late Jo Cox MP’s ‘greater unity’, finding words and music which express this, proclaiming a message of cohesion in diversity to our violent and divided world. We should not forget past virtues or make light of our vices, but see clearly that our past taste for dominance (driven by whatever mixture of motives) must be replaced by a present and future thirst for cooperation for the good of all people.

We need if not a new flag then a new understanding of our old flag; if not new songs then new songs to add to our old songs.We need a new belief in the power and potential of the local for the sake of the national and international. It is only if we do this that Kynren will continue to have a meaningful tale to tell to future generations. If we do not, it is hard to imagine the survival and thriving of a ‘dear England’ that is worth the love of anyone. 

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Idling with intent: why nothing matters on holiday

My summer holiday is almost over and the merciless return to work will begin with a long drive home tomorrow. I say ‘merciless’, but my work is not particularly poorly paid, demeaning or dangerous. Like the majority of middle class graduates, my most bitter complaint would be that my work consumes some of the time and attention that I would sometimes like to lavish on other pursuits. It’s not much of a hardship: I am a hugely privileged person, and am not blind to that fact.

Yet even for people like me there is a long looking-forward to the weeks of summer, an enjoyment of them when they’re here (more or less whatever the weather), and a slight greying of the spirits when the calendar clicks forward, returning us to the rigours of our regular duties. No doubt this stems in part from an emotional attachment to summer that was formed in childhood, when the school bell rang our release in mid-July, not calling us back to class till the following September.  

This six-week liberty is not one that many adults enjoy, however privileged their lives. But even if we manage only a few days actually off, there is for many a shared sense of life slowing down, especially in summers with a World Cup or Olympic Games. There is such a feeling of general pause that many will not go on holiday in the height of summer as it feels like a wasted opportunity to relax in the firm’s time. 

For those who do take time off work, one thing is certain: they will be spending many more hours with people with whom their relationship is normally conducted in the remaindered moments between work and bed. This can be a shock. Whether home and life are shared with a lover, a group of friends or a spouse and kids (not to mention other possibilities omitted for purely stylistic reasons), the summer brings us into the crammed company of those to whom our devotion might otherwise appear theoretical or even formulaic. But there are always plenty of pieces in the weekend papers in which the stresses and strains of this proximity are grimly enumerated, and those affected by it might consult them. 

Which brings me to a campsite in South West Scotland where my own family and I have just spent a week surrounded by lots of what I’ll dare to call other ordinary families. They, like us, will have been drawn by inexpensive accommodation, the near-by beach, and an endless selection of children’s activities which managed to keep even our own pixel-fixated children occupied and non-vegetative. Although it was very far from paradisal, it was not a place of obvious tensions. Some of the dads (it usually is dads) may have been worried by the prospect of prolonged exposure to the wife’s mother, noisy kids, moody teenagers, a damp dog in a warm caravan; even perhaps to whatever single version of themselves remains when they are removed from the opportunities for invention that any workplace generously provides.  

But here’s a thing. Oh, it’s quite true that I heard the odd comment from a father encouraging his kids back into the soft play (“Have you been to the top? Go and have another try!”) so that he could relinquish his responsibilities for a while. (And, yes, I will declare an interest and confirm that I was given three half-mornings off for good behaviour in order to enjoy some solitude and catch up with reading.) But by far the most common sight I saw was groups of people (family or friends, I can not say) who seemed entirely content to be together, enjoying their company and progressing happily from one activity to the next. There were the kids shinning up the climbing wall, encouraged by proud grandparents; other parents watched their children attempting archery or fencing. There were sportier types who sped round the site on go karts. And then there were dozens of people loitering in the shallow end of the pool, quietly chatting as their children swam around like mermaids, rejoicing and delighting in the watery fun of it all. 

Here they were, absent from work, apparently surviving each other without concern. They weren’t busy or productive, strategic, planned, on task; they weren’t on some vaguely purposeful annual leave (dread phrase) or even on vacation, with work to do in their luggage: they were simply and unequivocally on holiday, happy to be doing absolutely nothing except enjoy the company of those lovers, friends or families who meant the world to them.  

And even in this celebration of idleness, we find something to learn and imitate; for nothing is wasted. What these Scottish campers and caravanners remind us is that the essence of summer is to be a time of final ripening as the grain stands tall beneath the longed-for sun, awaiting the scythe and the judgement of the buyers. In standing round together, enjoying a break towards the seasons’ end, holidaymakers remind us that, although there is value and character-formation in the dignity of our daily work, there is also much to be said for a proper Sabbath-rest as we allow the company of loved ones to do its own imperceptible work of perfecting us (‘fitting us for heaven’, as the carol puts it) just as surely as the ripening sun perfects the corn. 

As my own holiday draws to an end, I will think of it as a sort of sacrament of life’s final fruitfulness, something I have received as a sign of my own calling to be part of God’s abundant harvest, and a reminder of the work burnishing that will continue until my life’s end.

Of course, I can’t wait to get back home, either, for I am hugely advantaged in ardently loving the work I do. But, before the autumn leaves have fallen, I will try to find another slice of time to seek out all those friends who matter most, not for what the encounter might appear to achieve, but simply because of the mightily creative and restorative value of human relationship. 

 

Shiny Church or Soggy Church? Each has its place

A recent flowering of summer journalism by Harriet Sherwood in the Guardian, about the inevitably ‘critical’ future of the Church of England, sets out with clarity a Tale of Two Churches, from which we apparently have to choose, and between which there seems to be a good deal of suspicion and displeasure, at least as far as clergy tweeps are concerned.  
First there’s shiny Church. This is broadly urban and evangelical, with an umbilical cord that stretches back to Holy Trinity, Brompton, the spiritual home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the progenitor of the Alpha Course, the famous programme of dinner parties and Christian initiation for people with big questions and perfect teeth. This is beautiful church for beautiful people, appealing principally to the white, bright and polite, the brand of successful Christianity that has come to dominate the C of E, setting the ‘Renewal and Reform’ agenda that will decide on the training of future clergy (especially senior clergy), the setting of budgets, and the way we treasure or trash our legal and liturgical traditions.

On the plus side, shiny Church would claim a clear understanding of Jesus, the Bible and our response to them. It boasts a contemporary culture and aesthetic, and has a robust approach to finance, being wholly unembarrassed to talk about the sort of growth we should expect for our money.

Its detractors ask whether it’s a Church for everyone, or just for the southern middle classes, those for whom a bad day is finding that Waitrose is fresh out of vanilla pods. Does it really cater for the black and white working class, the newly-arrived, the modestly-educated, or those who’ve been round the block a few times and felt more than their fair share of life’s thorns?

In the other corner is soggy Church. This is the broad, rural, traditional C of E, sunny side of middle stump, as seen on TV. To their critics, these places are hotbeds of lukewarm nominal Christianity, people who might just mow the churchyard or bake a cake for the bring-and-buy, but who’d run a mile if asked for their Christian testimony. They don’t really have one, and wouldn’t want you to think them over-familiar with God. They’d certainly never mention Jesus without a qualifying Christ.

For others, these churches offer precisely the sort of hospitality and service a national Church should give: not clubs for zealots; more drop-in centres for the quietly bewildered. For these people, a more questioning and reticent C of E is just what they need, a place if not to belong then at least to take their turn to squint down the telescope at the end of the pier and see what fragments of horizon are discernible.

But is this Church of the ‘soggy middle’ really a church we should be pouring our cash into? The hope is that people will be drawn into a threefold process of social, liturgical and finally intellectual belonging. First they will participate in quiz nights and toddler groups, then graduate to a Mothers’ Day service or Shoppers’ Carols. After a long time they might get used to fairly regular worship, provided it’s not too full-on or cringe-making. And only then (if ever) will they begin the process of committing themselves to anything like an orthodox belief. They will probably never be ready to trade their summer holiday for a week’s camping with the youth group, and their levels of giving will never threaten their second car or house or chance of higher education for their kids. They know they ought to live more simply, but never quite get round to it; and they have heard the stories of dramatic conversion, but carry on living in their plain old humanity, in which they sit as comfortably as in an old cardie and broken down slippers. But they do at least still come, for all their flakiness. Indeed, it is their soggy normality and lack of zeal that is their greatest gift. These are the ones who, when they mention to friends and family that they’re going to something at the local church, won’t be dismissed as cranks and Jesus freaks. Their middle-England level-headedness (and still going to church?) arguably speaks more eloquently of the Anglican way and its viability than a thousand ecstatic utterances or expository sermons on the Epistle to the Romans.

The very obvious point is that there’s room for both shiny and soggy churches. It is true that our immediate reaction to one another is not especially commendable, but this must change – and not into a sort of multi-grade syncretism in which sensible evangelicals start to giggle about vestments and thuribles (and gosh, you find an awful lot of this in twitter). Both have their distinctive work to do and each must be encouraged by the other with understanding and good will for mutual flourishing. For the alternative, see Labour Party, 2016.

I therefore commend the following Eleven Commandments, not because they all have to do with the R and R controversy, but because, like the man in the lounge bar on the corner stool with the freshly-pulled pint, I am in the mood for putting the world to rights, and today is as good a day as any. So:

1. Accept that Mission Action Planning and all the rest of it has its place. It’s not a panacea, or our Lady’s forgotten words to Richeldis. It’s a game, but like the best sort of game its important product is the process the players engage in together. In this case, what matters is that the PCC and Vicar make themselves ask what the Good News is, what’s good about it, and why and how others might want to get involved. Even reluctant Planners will hereby start to travel a more fruitful road.

2. Don’t confuse principled objection with thwarted ambition. We can’t all be a dean, and there’s an end on’t.

3. Maximise the numbers of worker priests, not just to cut the wage and pension bill. We need public faces of the Gospel who are bilingual in Church and world. All the baptised have a share in this work, but those who have been specially prepared and commissioned for the work of evangelism need to step boldly into this role. Ordain men and women locally and plentifully so that each small community has someone to preside amidst the life and worship of the place. Think and work ecumenically, within and beyond the C of E.

4. Sort out the size of the dioceses. At present they’re pastorally too large and administratively too small. Use stipend money wisely so that fewer bishops and priests cover the ground not as pastors to individual groups, but as overseers, teachers, encouragers.

5. Keep an open mind on buildings. It is true that we can’t keep every little Victorian sanctuary in tip top condition in perpetuity, but neither must we rush to close next Monday any church that wasn’t full last Sunday. Buildings remain a wonderful mission opportunity just by existing. Let’s stay imaginative and bold. Selling up isn’t a tragedy; hanging on isn’t necessarily a victory.

6. Ditto communities. As long as a parish can pay the insurers and the gas bill, dig them and dung them another year. Their ministry will be non-stipendiary by now, probably. Make no unseemly haste to withdraw.

7. In following Jesus Christ, emphasise always the creation of supportive communities that bear the five marks of mission: proclaiming the Kingdom; nurturing new believers; responding to need; battling injustice; caring for the earth.

8. Christian communities can grow together in peace, love and unity if, in our preaching we all acknowledge that there is a breadth of view on all subjects and a wide divergence in how we interpret scripture. A preacher can and must preach according to his or her own conscience, but just to acknowledge the diversity is a step towards valuing those whom we may find frankly unappealing.

9. Don’t confuse Christian unity with a shared taste in music. There are all sorts of reasons why we believe what we do, and why we prefer the aesthetic of some religious expression to others. This means that why and whether we find other Christians attractive or convincing is a hugely inexact science. In response to this, we would be well advised to concentrate solely on the Lord’s commandment to love our neighbour without delving too deeply into their theology.

10. Use all existing means of growing in unity within the C of E. We all naturally find vast numbers of other Anglicans strange and reprehensible, their doctrinal positions bizarre, their liturgical practices outlandish; there is a high likelihood that even their shirts and shoes will be unforgivable. This is precisely why clergy have deanery chapter and post-ordination training; it is why they go to each other’s inductions and the Archdeacon’s Visitation. It is why they absolutely must go to at least one Chrism Eucharist. They must, in short, take every opportunity available to get to know, understand and value one another, so that personal and tribal suspicions and antipathies can be erased in the common life of the diocese, so that we begin to understand, value and trust what others are doing. And even if we can’t value it, we will understand and trust each other sufficiently well to talk helpfully about our differences.

11. In all things, hold fast to our Anglican DNA and persist in ‘keeping the mean between extremes’. Our principal Anglican inheritance is the recognition that a Church of compromise, breadth and diversity is a better response to theological difference than setting fire to our opponents. (As Churchill might have said, Learn, learn is better than Burn, burn.) This process of maintaining our reconciled diversity is not only good for us: it’s one of the clearest lenses through which we Anglicans view the resurrection, and is therefore the primary lesson we share with our violently unreconciled world.
It is inevitable that, at a time like this, an Archbishop like ours (given to us by divine providence) will look to a programme like Reform and Renewal. It is equally inevitable that others will find it a misplaced and mistaken solution to all that ails us. But, however naturally I conform to one of the stereotypes, I will not be drawn into believing that we must be either shiny or soggy, either ‘missional’ (dread word) or pastoral. I do believe that the Holy Spirit continues to be a guide for the Churches; that our bishops and diocesan secretaries are good, holy and wise; and that we, provided we cling to the boat and to each other, will learn from the best of our different treasuries and so be equipped to proclaim the Word made flesh, leading many to the liberty and life he comes to bring.

 

Moths and Thieves – a homily for today

Proper 14 Year C

Genesis 15.1-6; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40

 

“Do not be afraid, little flock!”

 

In these few beautiful words of consolation and endearment, Jesus assures us that all will be well, though in doing so he inevitably gives us opportunity to reflect on what our own fears might be and what they tell us about ourselves.

 

He offers two images or categories of things to fear: moths and thieves (12.33). The first destroys gradually all that we are; it includes the slow gnawing of hunger and cold (12.22) and the personal unravelling that can be caused by injustice or the law’s delay: “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me” (12.13) .The second type rips from us in sudden violence all that we have; it is typified by “those who kill the body” and then can do no more (12.4). Among such are numbered “the synagogues, rulers and authorities” (12.11) who, as Paul discovers most prominently in the New Testament, can inflict all manner of pain, ordering an execution or flogging or imprisonment, as mood or expediency dictates. Moths and thieves, all of them.

 

And we must accept and admit that there is plenty of scope for fear at this time of local political uncertainty, global upheaval, ecological challenge and the spate of random killings that continues all over the world.

 

“But do not be afraid!” we hear: “it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

 

Here is a promise to gladden our hearts! We know where we are with kingdoms: they mean crowns and cavalry and getting our own way, and silken girls bringing sherbet. So the command that follows this attractive promise, to sell all our possessions and give our money to the poor, is an unpleasant shock, a verbal kick in the guts that worsens phrase by phrase. The confidence that this kingdom will shower us with gold, putting us in charge and erasing all our fears is stolen in a sickening instant. What use is a kingdom which I inherit by making my way down the ladder, stripping myself of all my goods and wasting the proceeds on those who are beneath me, unable to do anything for me? Surely this is folly, to embrace the very fears I’ve been fleeing?

 

But the command continues and the promise is fleshed out: we must make ‘purses for ourselves that do not grow old’ containing ‘treasure in the heavens that does not fail’. For “where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.” This flips over the question of fear and asks what is it that I really desire and treasure? What makes me tick? What do I place at the centre of my life?

 

If I shift my centre to focus everything on the inheritance of the Kingdom of God, my fears will begin to evaporate as my faith grows in the ‘things unseen’ of the Letter to the Hebrews. Selling my possessions and giving alms to the poor will then make absolute sense. But surely, it will be argued, such abandonment of ordinary prudence requires a belief in the imminent ending of the world which Jesus may have had, which the early Paul had, but which most of us do not. Our long-term economic strategy is going to be a little more nuanced than simply giving everything away.

 

And this is, of course, quite true. But we who are focused on God’s Kingdom of justice and peace (either through family background, intellectual conviction or an Emmaus-like experience of the risen Christ) will have a commitment to generosity in alms-giving as part of that life of service described in the second half of the gospel passage (12.35ff). Here we learn that our unfailing treasure and never-aging purse is our service of the Master, ‘dressed for action and with lamps lit’. His return is at an unknown hour, and he looks to find us not with our feet up, the drinks cabinet open and the television on; but alert, awake, constant in his service, that ‘perfect freedom’ of which the Prayer Book speaks.

 

The decision to live like this was made by us or for us in our Baptism, and is one that we have made our own through Confirmation, or in the regular reception of the Sacrament of the Altar. The lamp that we must keep lit and held aloft is therefore not an Olympic flame but the candle given us in baptism ‘to show that we have passed from darkness into light’. In the same way, the garment in which we are dressed for action is the baptismal robe worn by those who emerge from the waters of rebirth. It is echoed in the long white alb worn by priests at the Eucharist. And this is why I always put on the vestments for mass not in the secrecy of a vestry, but in the sight of the whole congregation: a sign that all the baptised are celebrants of this banquet; all are called to play their part in the Divine Liturgy and to put on the motley in service of the world.

 

Each of us will work out with our community exactly what form this service will take, given that we can serve only as we are (running from what frightens us and towards what attracts with the glint of treasure); and naturally we can serve only according to the needs of where we are, always ready for the coming of the Master, finding in our own places the means and materials for making purses that never grow old, keeping their stitching tight and their treasure safe.

 

Such an activity requires certain good habits of thought and action to be successful. Of these, we may first highlight passion. For once we are not using this in the strictly theological sense, but in the ordinary sense of the word: a passion, an excitement, a dedication to the cause. Without a certain naïve passion for the teachings of Jesus, we will find it impossible to sustain any faith or hope in things not seen, especially in an age of careerism, professionalism, managerialism. Any role as descendants of those who have gone before us in faith will be a dry and empty claim, capable of becoming real only if we assume the passion that inspired and sustained Abraham, Sarah, Noah and the rest.

 

Our second ingredient is penitence. This is not merely sorrow for our sins, but rather a more general awareness of God as God, me as me, and the immense gulf that lies between us, one that is bridged only by the divine mercy. This awareness and accurate appraisal of reality is the beginning and bedrock of the generosity and humility we will absolutely need if we are to welcome and serve a Kingdom so very different from the one we’d hoped for, selling our possessions and giving alms to those who can give nothing in return.

 

Finally, prayer. This is more than a pious adjunct to an alliterative list of desirables. Time spent with the Trinity in silent adoration is the absolutely irreplaceable and irrefutable means to the formation of my centre in Christlikeness without which I will not be able to play any part in the unfolding of the kingdom, still less be a gospel for others to read and to illumine them in their way of service. But if, like a miser gazing on gold, I can bring myself by grace to know Jesus as my treasure, I will want and need to spend time with him, to delight in serving and meeting him in a thousand ways, and to await his return in the fullness of time.

 

This will not put an end to the attacks of moths and thieves. But our fears will at least diminish as they are leavened by faith and hope. For as we await the day of the Kingdom, putting on the long white robe of work and worship, keeping our Baptismal candle alight and seeking out ways of loving service the Lord’s beautiful and truthful voice speaking to us his living Word: “Do not be afraid, little flock! It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

 

Amen. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.