Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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30/12/2014

Not In My Name

What follows is my take on the ‘assisted dying’ debate. Forgive me for my plain speaking, but as you will read, this issue is a deeply personal one. I hope, in speaking out, it is also recognised that my opposition is to the position being taken, not necessarily the people taking such positions.

Unlike many friends, I had the benefit of growing up with four grandparents. In fact, I had the luxury of what we might say are five grandparents, with my Grandfather's second wife - although known as 'Auntie Norah' - being for all intents and purposes another grandmother.

It is only in the last few years as I reach my mid-thirties that I have experienced that strange feeling of becoming an 'orphaned grandchild', with three of my grandparents passing away within around eighteen months of one another. I am now left with just my maternal grandmother, Nannan Colette - a mother to six, a grandmother to sixteen, a great grandmother to ten and counting. (The title 'Nannan', I should add, seems to be part of the Sheffield dialect - a derivative of 'Nanna' it would seem.)

The most recent passing was my Auntie Norah, this summer just gone. Our last time together was in the hospital, Norah had been admitted following months of pain from an ulcerated leg. During conversation, on that late-August evening, she spoke about her recent spell of respite in a care home -how terrible it was. Plans were discreetly being made to return Norah to some kind of permanent care on her eventual discharge but that night her heart stopped and she was gone. It would almost seem she knew her fate and decided to take her leave.

Prior to that my Granddad Joe, her husband of forty years, passed in similar circumstances. He too suffered a decline, albeit a slower one over a number of years that included deterioration in physical health and in his cognition as dementia took hold, with his heart eventually giving up. At ninety one, and again with an unhappy time spent in a care home, his passing felt timely - a blessing of sorts.

As sad as I was at these two much loved grandparents dying, I was thankful for their peaceful release from the constraints and affliction age had consigned them to.

Their passing was in stark contrast to that which I had witnessed in 2010, watching my young-at-heart Granddad Roy lose a year-long battle to lung cancer. His final weeks were spent in a hospital being well cared for by a dedicated palliative care team. As the visitors streamed in and out, he was afforded precious last moments with his loved ones. I wrote him a letter explaining how I felt about him and thanked him for all the things he'd contributed to my life. He refused to share the letter with my Nannan Colette but she has since told me he described it as 'fantastic’.

Despite being under expert medical care, Roy’s final twelve hours were nonetheless horrific as he drowned in the fluid of his lungs, his contorted face akin to Edvard Munch's Scream. We, the loved ones, took it in turns to sit with him and nurse him, hug him, pray to God to take him, please just take him. I watched his last breath with an exhausted relief. The trauma of those final hours remains – some of my relatives have needed counselling to get past it. For me, the awful memory of seeing of a loved one in such a state has, with time, faded into the background of the years of other memories.

All of their deaths are felt; most noticeably at times of year such as Christmas, an empty chair in the living room, a missing voice at our dinner tables on a weekend get together, a blank space on greetings cards. But there is also an acceptance that their time had come to an end and with that, a measure of comfort and peace.

Yet there is one death I have yet to mention, one that remains an open festering wound, over a decade old, and with little prospect of healing – the death of my Nannan Else, my paternal grandmother, in 2002.

Elsie was a feisty, sometimes difficult lady and spent her final years wrestling with her demons - bitterly divorced from my Granddad Joe and an early widow to her second husband. Elsie moved from her family to Skegness on the east coast of England in 1991 vowing a fresh start, forbidding any talk of a return to Sheffield as old age began to take its toll on her treasured independence. We paid her regular visits, often for months at a time during summer school holidays.

In the sunset years of Elsie’s life, her health problems – diabetes, severe asthma and a crippling arthritis – increasingly took hold but never stopped her from being fiercely independent. Elsie would continue to care for her neat bungalow which she loved dearly, travel abroad to places such as Malta and drive her 17-year old car Fiat Strada which she named ‘Alice’.

Amongst the cold, dark months of late 2001 to early 2002, her health declined. Winter was always a vulnerable time of year, the quietness of her seaside resort village, the poor weather and the distance of her family would routinely leave Elsie feeling low. This time her physical well-being followed suit. Elsie was taken into hospital, at the time of a national MRSA scare, and confined to a single room as she had been identified as a carrier of the bacteria. This isolation brought her even lower. During those months Elsie regularly expressed a wish to die to medical staff, to end her physical and mental imprisonment. Yet on our visits her mood would lift and she even began to allow talk of moving to sheltered accommodation, back in Sheffield, once fit to be discharged.

Hopes of recovery were ended when my father received a telephone call in late January from a doctor. Elsie was reportedly experiencing kidney failure and they were at a crossroads – to treat her ‘all guns blazing’ or ‘allow nature to take its course’. My father was asked to consult his wife and come back with a decision. The doctor advised the latter, citing Elsie's previous wishes for release. Before my parents could arrive at a decision, within twenty four hours a further telephone call was received to say treatment was now deemed futile and a unilateral decision on the second option had been taken.

My parents visited Elsie the same day; she seemed sprightly and talked of going home, seemingly unaware of the prognosis. My parents returned back to Sheffield. A few days later they received a further telephone call to say Elsie's health had deteriorated. On arrival at her bedside, they found Elsie was barely conscious – under sedation - and would remain this way for the next few days.

On reflection, my parents have since noted the lack of observable care during these final few days – the all-pervading stench from a mucus drainage machine left to the point of overflowing, the lack of food and water provided, the generally poor state Elsie was kept in. On reflection, the medical team had seemingly given up, Elsie was no longer a worthy patient.

The vigils ended with a further telephone call in the middle of night at the beginning of February. Elsie had passed away.

What followed should have been, as with my other deceased grandparents, the difficult yet fairly routine weeks of planning her funeral and clearing out her house. Instead Elsie wasn't put to rest for nearly three months, during which she was subject to two full autopsies - her body in such a state an open coffin was impossible.

What my parents were greeted with on arriving at the hospital shortly after news of her death were two detectives and a high ranking member of the hospital management. Elsie had been taken to a chapel of rest but was not afforded the usual dignities given to the recently deceased; instead she was left in her dressing gown as ‘evidence’. An alarm had been raised by a bank nurse after she discovered the automated morphine machine taken apart, with a morphine overdose having been administered manually to Elsie.

From there our family had to wait on an 18-month long investigation by Skegness police, much of it mishandled and with evidence of collusion with the hospital staff. My parents even came under the spotlight – my mother in particular, given her lifelong career as a nurse, became the lead detective’s target despite a barrage of evidence to the contrary, including detailed forensic evidence.

The investigation was eventually closed with no charges brought, no sight of conclusion. An inquest followed, the police and nurses involved smoking cigarettes together at the doors of the magistrate’s court as my parents entered the building, later joking with one another in the waiting room as my parents sat waiting for answers. No answers were forthcoming, an open verdict reached.

The search for truth, for justice, was singlehandedly taken up by my father for a further three years - a working class man, left to fight huge institutions alone, armed only with pen and paper. His dogged pursuit led to an official apology from Lincolnshire Police, an apology of sorts from the coroner who had overseen a shambolic inquest and, ultimately, a General Medical Council investigation. The GMC investigation proved inconclusive but shed some new light on the grossly conflicting records and testimony given by the nurses involved.

It was also confirmed Elsie's initial diagnosis of renal failure by her doctor was incorrect – the detailed autopsy reports had highlighted this, as does her death certificate. The resultant pathway she had been placed on in the first place, what is often referred to as the ‘Liverpool Care Pathway’, turned out to be a grave error of judgement.

Other routes have been pursued to gain further clarity over what happened to Elsie. These routes have led to dead ends with the authorities citing too much time has passed, they don’t have jurisdiction over retired medical professionals – and ultimately what amounts to, as far as we can say, an unwillingness to take on the challenge of this case.

The reason I share something so personal now is, nearly thirteen years on, there are those who would, albeit inadvertently, wish this kind of situation to become a much more widespread possibility through the introduction of 'assisted dying' legislation.

As I mention above, I have witnessed the torture a dying love one can have to endure; I understand the campaign for 'assisted dying' is based on an attempt at greater human benevolence. Yet the experience of what happened to Elsie - which a leading expert who we met along the way advised us is much more commonplace than we would dare to think - can't but make me anything but opposed to it.

This is not simply a matter of the person facing a potentially horrific end but those tied up with the situation. We cannot opt out of our interconnectedness on this issue. The waves of any death are felt, rippling across the years that follow. Imagine then the tsunami of a death clouded in such uncertainty and suspicion. It proved devastating for my family.

The case for 'assisted dying' has been pushed forward in the main as part of the liberal-left agenda, a progressive platform I have historically supported in word and deed. As a Christian with ties to two liberal denominations, the Unitarians and the Quakers, I have read much about how ‘assisted dying’ is another natural step forward for humanity, it is a fight for the right of the afflicted and dying following on from gay rights, women's rights etc. And so, for someone like me who supports typical liberal-left issues, as someone who supports the basic right of two gay people to be married under the law of the land (whilst cautious about the inherent complexities of how this plays out constructively in the temple), as someone who upholds the basic right of a woman to have a safe abortion (though I hardly think the current figure of 180,000 abortions a year in Britain can be viewed as cause for celebration), there is this automatic assumption I should applaud along. To avoid being viewed as a reactionary brutish conservative, I must sign up to this next notch on the campaign bedpost. Forgive me for my plain speaking but that’s how it seems – it seems that some of my liberal-left brethren, having won much of the battle for gay marriage, now have this impulsive need to do something else that confirms just how progressive and enlightened they are. And by tying it in with other largely unrelated campaigns, there is this air of absolute confidence that they are once again standing on the right side of history.

Having said this, I do not wish to demean the right-to-die campaigners like Debbie Purdy, Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb – those for whom this is a deeply personal issue. I cannot know what position I would take were I to face such daily struggles. As someone who spent many years enjoying the thrill and risk of contact sport, the case of Daniel James especially shakes my resolve. However, the same goes for other issues, such as capital punishment. I cannot say for sure, as much as I hope I wouldn’t, that were I to experience a loved one brutally murdered that I would not in turn change my perspective on what should happen to the perpetrator. But, again, it is a question of interconnectedness – we cannot start making laws to serve the few when there is the very real potential of massively damaging society as a whole.

You only have to start digging a little deeper into the ‘assisted dying’ debate to see where any ‘little law’ on 'assisted dying' inevitably leads us. Take this comment from an online discussion about 'assisted dying' on a Unitarian message board:

“I fully support this. Of course there must be safe guards but I do not wish to see people suffer needlessly and that includes me. If the politicians are honest too then they know that the state cannot indefinitely support an ageing population.”

It is just one opinion some will say, but I cannot help believe this is the double-edged logic at work behind the current campaign and we can see the reality of the slippery slope in existing cases such as Nathan Verhelst who sought euthanasia following an unsatisfactory gender reassignment, or the case of an 89-year old retired teacher – only identified as ‘Anne’ – who sought euthanasia because she felt left behind by technology or the case of deaf twins, Marc and Eddy Verbessem, who sought euthanasia after they were diagnosed with a genetic condition that might leave them blind. It is no surprise two of these cases happened in Belgium where the initial ‘little law’ has been progressively extended to now include ill children of whatever age being allowed to request their life be ended.

Or consider the case of Elsie, a forthright old lady taking up a hospital bed who, when it gets too tough, expresses a wish to die.

‘Euthanasia’ can be roughly translated as ‘a good death’ but what good is there when people who have complex problems that need our help - help which dedicated people have sought to create and provide over the generations, giving us the safety nets we have today – are put to death? It seems me that a truly progressive campaign would be to spend more of our time fighting for better care, or perhaps quietly commit to giving up our time and money to deliver better care. Certainly, the battle against HIV, which is now starting to be won following years of such dedication, would not have been won if the onus had been on a 'good death'.

And it is not just the ‘self-righteous healthy’ who are against ‘assisted dying’. Without trying to get into a 'my dad's bigger than your dad' style argument, it is not an exaggeration to say for as many people afflicted by injury and illness campaigning for ‘assisted dying’, there are as many people in similar positions arguing against it. Baroness Jane Campbell, for example, is a compelling voice against the ‘little law’ proposed by Lord Charles Falconer, saying, “It frightens me because in periods of greatest difficulty I know I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges life holds for me.” She has described it as a ‘lure to the grave’.

Lord Norman Tebbit, who cares for his severely disabled wife, has also raised an important point about the impact it has on the relationship between the cared-for and the carer, “The Bill would provide a route to great savings in public and private expenditure, and to a great pressure on the elderly, the sick and the disabled to do the decent thing and cease to be a burden on others. Those who care for such people are all too familiar with the moments of black despair that prompt those words, “I would be better dead, so that you could get on with your life.”"

Today, in publishing this post, I wish to add one more voice to those against the proposed ‘assisted dying’ legislation – not in my name.

Elsie - known to us affectionately as 'Big Nannan'

25/11/2014

The Fellowship magazine, Issue 2

My good friend Bob, minister at Oldham Unitarian Chapel and chair of the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians, has worked hard on getting the second issue of 'The Fellowship' to publication.

It's a great read - outlining what this newly-formed group is aiming for in terms of vision and approach to faith, and with Bob's own article, taking a refreshingly robust stance on social justice issues. For me, the magazine and broader FNSC project is providing something I have missed - a community of simple, non-dogmatic faith that is yes, open-minded and inclusive, but also not ambivalent.

In saying this, I hasten to add that my article in the magazine is not the direct or indirect subject of my praise - as much as I am satisfied with it, I am referring to all of the other ones!



The full text of my article, as originally submitted, can be read below...

"'Reviving the Liberal, Radical Faith'

Many Christians, in addition to the master teacher and example they find in Jesus, will often readily name prominent Christians from history they find particularly inspiring. As a Unitarian Christian who has regularly attended a Quaker meeting over the past two years, I would say William Ellery Channing and George Fox are such figures that immediately spring to mind.

Since I first came to Unitarian Christianity in my early twenties, Channing has provided me with a coherent, comprehensive theology – a body of written works I constantly turn to and find guidance in. Setting himself against the dominant view within 19th century New England churches of a fallen, deprived humanity in need of supernatural rescue, Channing’s Christianity – a deeply-rooted humanism that proclaims we are not fallen, simply yet to rise to our divine potential – is profoundly inspirational on a daily basis, particularly in my work with young people.

Fox, on the other hand, speaks more to me for his simple, prayerful faith and utter commitment to living it out. Dressed in a self-made leather suit, shoemaker Fox must have cut a strange yet compelling figure roaming England during the turmoil of the 1600s preaching an uncompromising message of the light within, a subversive message of Christ being accessible to all without mediation of a priest, a radical message of absolute pacifism – and, controversial to some at the time, the reassuring message that women also had souls! His journal, treasured by both spiritual seekers and historians alike, recounts many tales of standing up in churches to denounce practices such as the exacting of tithes, of preaching in market places where he knew the reaction of some would be viciously violent, of audaciously speaking to those in power – even meeting with Oliver Cromwell and reportedly leaving Britain’s stern Puritan overlord moved to tears. Fox reminds me that Truth is not necessarily found in the sophisticated, the educated and the genteel but in the rough and ready, the troubled and the malcontent.

Without Channing and Fox, I may well have given up on Christianity, having no alternative to what had become, for me personally, the alienating doctrine of the churches I grew up in. In this sense, I am indebted to them.

Yet perhaps the real debt goes to someone else. For without this someone else, we might suppose the ministry, and lives, of Channing and Fox would have been brutally cut short.

The third figure who I find increasingly important in my reflections on what it is to be a Christian disciple and seeker today is Sebastian Castellio, the French preacher who led the revolt against the notorious burning of early unitarian thinker Michael Servetus in 1553 and in doing so, brought ruin up himself and his family. Castellio wasn’t an avowed unitarian, he might well be described as ‘softly trinitarian’ – nor had he ever met Servetus personally. Yet the attempt ‘to kill an idea by killing a man’ provoked him to publicly stand in opposition to John Calvin and his Geneva Council allies. Making what was a ground-breaking case for a free Christianity, Castellio famously argued, "When Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings…” going further to add, “"Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours. At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one another?" Although initially a voice in the wilderness, Castellio’s campaign for toleration eventually began to take hold in Europe.

Watching with horror at the modern-day barbarism of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group, I am sure many of us who find affinity with historically non-conformist churches cannot but see the parallels between the moving yet ultimately tragic stories of our ancestors and the struggles modern day heroines and heroes are facing in the Middle East. As I write this, news has just broken of the torture and public execution of Mosul-based lawyer Samira Salih al-Nuaimi who spoke out against the destruction and desecration of mosques and shrines deemed to be heretical by ‘Islamic State’ fanatics.

If the Fellowship is to embark on a revival of our liberal, radical Christian faith, then religious freedom must be a banner we are willing to carry forward. And not just talk about mournfully, but act upon – for George’s sake, for William’s sake, for Samira’s sake, for all our sakes."

19/11/2014

Staying Rooted, Together

Below is the sermon I recently gave at Oldham Unitarian Chapel (on Sunday 16th November 2014). This is part on an ongoing 'apprenticeship' I am serving under Reverend Bob Pounder - a good friend and mentor - with much appreciated support from the congregation at Oldham. I am unsure where this foray into lay preaching will eventually take me, though I hope it will might help in the currently suspended plans (mainly due to venue issues) to get a Free Christian congregation going in Stockport.
~

Friends, this time last year we were celebrating the bicentenary of this chapel. 200 years of liberal, radical Christian witness in Oldham. Today we come together again for the 201st anniversary and I can’t help but wonder aloud how we feel about that? Are we still celebrating or are we now at a stage resembling a bit like the aftermath of a big birthday party - the wider family having gone home, the presents unwrapped, the mess all cleared up - the concerns of the coming weeks, months and years firmly back in focus.

Over two centuries, the form of Oldham Unitarian Chapel has changed. Starting out as a fellowship of exiles under Reverend Richard Wright in 1812 and using rooms over shops on Henshaw Street, within three years work had started on the original Lord Street building to, somewhat audaciously, provide room for three hundred worshippers. By the turn of the century, further redevelopment had just been finished with the chapel rebuilt, again with a view to housing an increasing congregation - with a new impressive Sunday school to boot.

In this day and age such complexes are the preserve of migrant communities, such as our Muslim neighbours, and a smattering of so-called mega-churches. Oldham Unitarian Chapel, now in its third or fourth incarnation depending on how you look at it, is a much simpler and small outfit these days – housed as we are today in a flat-roofed classic post-war building. As I am sure you are aware, time tends not to be so forgiving with this era of building – and when comparing them to the wonders of the Victorian age, you might be forgiven for feeling like we have somehow lost our ability to inspire.

Yet, through you and your ancestors’ hard work, the chapel continues to survive - with the recently added windows, in 2009 and 2013, and the completion of the One World Café, there are signs of a spirit of adventure alive and at work within these walls.

But, and here’s the big but, we would be misleading ourselves to believe the building is what makes Oldham Unitarian Chapel a church.

Let me stop now our walk through Unitarian and Free Christian history and take a sideways leap into one of the traditions we stand closest to, the Quakers. As you will know, aside from my friendship with Oldham Unitarian Chapel, I attend the Quakers in my hometown on a regular basis – partly because no Unitarian or Free Christian church exists there anymore but increasingly so, because I have a natural affinity with Quakerism.

George Fox, the fiery 17th century preacher who sparked the Quaker movement, was known for his confrontational manner, taking on the priesthood and wider establishment of the day on a range of issues.

On one occasion George Fox entered a church building to hear a discussion amongst the congregation, chaired by the priest. We must remember this was fairly commonplace during the turmoil of the 17th century where, in addition to the reformation, many people were openly questioning their faith having witnessed brother turn against father and subject turn against king during the civil war.

George Fox listened intently to the discussions – then, in keeping with his character, inevitably rose to speak. This extract from his journal continues the story:

At last one woman asked a question out of Peter. What that birth was, that is to say, a being born again of incorruptible seed, by the Word of God, that liveth and abideth for ever? And the priest said to her, "I permit not a woman to speak in the church"; though he had before given liberty for any to speak.

Upon this, I was wrapped up, as in a rapture, in the Lord's power; and I stepped up and asked the priest, "Dost thou call this, the steeple-house, a church? Or dost thou call this mixed multitude a church?" For the woman asking a question, he ought to have answered it, having given liberty for any to speak.

But, instead of answering me, he asked me what a church was? I told him the church was the pillar and ground of truth, made up of living stones, living members, a spiritual household, which Christ was the head of; but he was not the head of a mixed multitude, or of an old house made up of lime, stones and wood.”

From this short extract, I propose, we can find the three core foundations of what really makes a church – beyond the walls, the glass, and the leaky roof!

1. First, we see that George Fox valued people over bricks and mortar. Quite significantly, he talks about members being ‘living stones’. By this, I propose, he suggests the church rests on the strength of its people – living in the sense of being growing and changing, but also with a certain immovability and rootedness in a shared faith.

This is echoed by William Ellery Channing, who makes the following observations about the early Christians,

“The church as at first constituted presents interesting and beautiful aspects. It was not a forced and arbitrary, but free spontaneous union. It grew out of the principles and feelings of human nature. Our nature is social. We cannot live alone. We cannot shut up any great feelings in our hearts. We seek for others to partake it with us. The full soul finds at once relief and strength in sympathy. This is especially true in religion, the most social of all our sentiments, the only universal bond on earth. In this law of our nature the Christian church had its origin.” (p. 318, ‘The Church)

2. Second, we see George Fox likened the church to a ‘spiritual household’ – and, I suggest, we can take from this that like any family, each member has a place and a contribution to make.

It should also be emphasised George Fox championed the role of women, and it is worth noting that his founding of the Religious Society of Friends which at one time is said to have claimed 10% of the population, rested primarily on the intellect and efforts of women such as Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Hooton and Mary Fisher. Margaret Fell in particular strikes me as a calm, engaging and quietly methodical figure; serving as a perfect complement to the rawer, rugged and plainly awkward figures of George Fox and other Quaker men – I wonder if this rings any bells at Oldham!

This position, I would argue, fits with the overall pattern of the gospel if we look at the make-up of Jesus’s closest companions – we can also look to Paul who reminds us in Corinthians of the need to recognise the differing gifts which each person can bring to the church. It is important we recognise and value the behind the scenes organiser just as much as the man or woman in the pulpit.

If we unpack this further, we might also say that just as a family passes guidance followed by responsibility from generation to generation, so must a church. We must actively mentor and then hand over to our young.

3. Third, and most importantly, we see George Fox had a sense of the ‘Lord’s power’, a deep spiritual experience, a real sense of a greater scheme of things beyond our own immediate concerns.

We must acknowledge that he was a charismatic, and for many of us, the sense of being wrapped up and caught up in rapture might be something we have not experienced nor will experience to the same intensity.

Yet, if we go the other way and declare there to be no spiritual life, declare Christ has no longer any relevance, declare there is no God – however we may each come to define such things – then I think we essentially give up being a church and being disciples in the truest sense of the words. We instead descend into cults of personality, academia and pedantry.

Some religious liberals have indeed gone this far, within the Quakers, the Unitarians and the wider Christian movement. There is no compelling evidence that is has brought them renewed purpose or growth in an increasingly secular society – quite the opposite. Thomas Green, a prominent Quaker in the mid-20th Century cautioned against this tendency. In the opening words of the 1952 Swarthmore Lecture, he notes:

“The worship of God is the primary purpose of the religious life. A desire that God may be glorified on earth as He is in Heaven is what distinguishes true Christian service from altruism. A passion for justice or the natural emotion of pity may inspire a social reformer, but the Christlike love of men which can outlive their indifference, ingratitude and hostility has roots in fellowship with God. If worship is neglected or allowed to deteriorate in quality then the moral and humanitarian concerns of a religious society will eventually lose their vitality. ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’ Unless we are faithful in waiting upon God, guided by His Spirit and endowed with His power, we cannot hope to make headway in the struggle against the evils of our time.”

As I have said, we may continue to deliberate, doubt and differ on who, what and where God is but let us stay true to the inscription on the stone that rested above the old chapel’s door – “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind and strength.”

Friends, the future for Oldham Unitarian Chapel – as with any church in this day and age – is uncertain and it is likely it will only find its way by further acts of reincarnation. Yet let us be audacious enough to pray for and commit to this chapel reaching its 301st anniversary, let us also pray and commit to this chapel continuing as a church, a people on a spirited adventure together, a source of fruit for the community, a light to the world. Amen.


Matthew Grant - 9th November 2014

09/11/2014

Re-Root

This morning, instead of my usual trip down the road to the Quaker meeting I know and love, I instead headed northwards. Dutifully following the directions announced by the mobile phone, I found myself venturing up and down dale, along  remote winding country roads. I am sure there was a more direct route, for the destination was a relatively nearby settlement, the village of Gee Cross. The reason for the re-routing of my Sunday morning was to attend a service at Hyde Chapel, a Unitarian and Free Christian congregation located within the heart of Gee Cross that serves for all intents and purposes as the local church. 

Despite attending Quaker meetings on most Sundays for around three years now, at this point in the year - as the nation comes together to remember its war dead - I have always tended to gravitate towards Remembrance Day services rather than the meeting house. This is not because I am pro-war, I am in fact pretty much a pacifist like my Quaker brethren. However, I do feel the 'Peace Testimony' of the Quakers is something, whilst admirably upheld in a militarised society, that ends up being quite dogmatically enforced, and in turn, the ministry around it can at times feel quite formulaic. It is for this reason I tend to go to a local war memorial or village church for Remembrance Sunday, where the perspectives and sentiments are far more mixed and free-flowing.

This is the first and foremost reason for heading north. But there are other more complicated reasons, which I will most likely explore further in future journal entries if and when I have established the clarity and conviction with which to express them. Put simply, these reasons are based on a growing uncertainty over whether I belong with the Quakers as a pluralistic, increasingly 'non-theistic' movement and a decision made this week to explore other churches.

The service at Hyde Chapel struck a fitting tone, one of remembrance and thanksgiving alongside a powerful sermon or testimony, delivered by an elderly member of the congregation, to the destruction wrought by World War One. I found the recitation of Archibald MacLeish's poem, 'The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak', to be deeply moving:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.

They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.

They say: We have done what we could 
but until it is finished it is not done.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave. 

They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, 
they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for 
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.

And so it was I left, having been greatly enriched and rooted by the service, having briefly met a few friendly, down-to-earth people who made me most welcome; resolving to return again.

For the remainder of the afternoon I spent the now limited hours of daylight on a short walk with my wife taking in the late Autumn air, spurred on in part by the BBC weatherman who had warned this would likely be the last day of still blue skies with unrelenting heavy rain and gales forecast for the coming week. Walking alongside the canals admiring the colourful montage of narrowboats, some of which filled the air with the raw primitive smell of smouldering wood and coal, and then on down by a pattering brook and up across quiet fields, we both remarked on how blessed we are to live amongst such readily available peace. On our way back home, we stopped off at the war memorial to observe our own impromptu moment of silence as we read the names upon names of the fallen from the village we now call our own; neighbours who went off to faraway lands and never returned. The frequent occurrence of various forenames sharing the same surnames reminded us that, for many families, the devastation of World War One was sweeping and without mercy. This echoed the words of the lady from the morning's service, recounting as she did the loss of three uncles on the battlefields and the further loss of another uncle to catastrophic post-traumatic stress which left him permanently hospitalised, trapped in a different no-man's land - a total of four out of six brothers who never returned. 

It is surely a crying shame we have continued to add names to our war memorials over the past century, decades scarcely passing by without British involvement in violent conflict abroad.

Tonight I took it upon myself to visit our local Anglican church, set just behind the war memorial, which alternates its Sunday evening slot every other week between a Celtic Eucharist service and a Taizé service. As I mention above, I am questioning whether the Quaker movement is where I can continue to be and to grow as a Christian - yet I understand that contemplative methods of worship are, for want of a more apt way of putting it, that which I am most at synch with and find most uplifting. And it is for this reason I have tonight visited a house of worship belonging to a denomination I was baptised into as a child but have for so long felt miles apart from. As it turned out, the Celtic Eucharist service was not as contemplative as I had anticipated, yet it did provide opportunity for prayer and inspiration - I took part in the act of communion in good faith as I have always done, despite my Quaker leanings, recommitting myself to the Christian life, to discipleship in both the practical and the mystical sense.

On the short walk home again, I felt a strong sense of Christ with me. Again, I was appreciative for the peace so readily available.





07/11/2014

Walking the Way

This week I happened upon this quote from Derek Lin, an American Taoist writer:

"Seeking The Tao

Many people are searching for the right path for themselves. Perhaps the mainstream religions do not suit their spiritual needs, so they look around for something different.

Some of them are dabblers who sample one tradition after another, never spending enough time for in-depth understanding. Perhaps they are looking for the silver bullet, something that solves all of their problems in one shot. The Tao is not suitable for such individuals, because years of cultivation and actual application of the teachings are absolute requirements.

Real cultivators understand that the teachings reward persistence and patience. They know that, in the long run, there is nothing better than the Tao that has endured for thousands of years. They delve into it with confidence, because it is something that has passed the test of time.

The Tao Today

What is your motivation for seeking the Tao? Is it something exotic and mysterious that has attracted you? If so, you may be disappointed by the plainness and simplicity of its teachings. Follow the Tao only if you can feel, in your heart of hearts, that it is the right path for you. Devote time and effort to it, and you will find yourself amply rewarded from here to the rest of your life and beyond."

I could write much more on this but I am really still mulling over my thoughts. 

So far, what I can say is I find it chastening yet I also find it affirming at the same time. So called 'spirituality', the modern day word used in place of the less fashionable 'religion' and even less fashionable 'discipline', is not easy - it's not about simply 'being accepted for who I am' and 'exploring different ideas', the phrases to often trotted out by religious liberals (including myself). It is about growth, about transformation, and this involves a long journey of starts and stops, of faltering moments and moments in which we must actively return. 

This might sound like common sense - I suppose it is. But common sense is something we are prone to losing sight of. Again, we must actively work to rediscover it.

02/11/2014

A small protest from the Kop

I may well be turning into a grumpy old man ("as opposed to the grumpy young man?" I can almost here a loved one heckling from the crowd). I have written yet another letter of protest, this time to The Star, the local newspaper in my hometown of Sheffield. 

As more regular readers will know, I am a lifelong fan of Sheffield Wednesday FC. Football is one of those things, for the English as well as some of their European neighbours, that draws hugely on tribal, emotional instincts rather than our God-given reason. In fact, more often than not it completely overrides reason! I am no different - I have cried over lost cup finals, I have pitch invaded in absolute joy, I have uttered the classic line, "I'm never coming again..." only to then return the following week to the same seat in the same stand, brimming with optimism.

Football was very much birthed in Sheffield, with the city having the honour of the oldest surviving football club in Sheffield FC, the oldest surviving ground in the form of the slightly sloping Sandygate Road which is home to Hallam FC (apparently the second oldest surviving club), the oldest professional stadium which has been home to both professional clubs at various points and the 'Sheffield Rules' which formed the basis of modern day football rules. And of course, there are the two professional clubs, Sheffield Wednesday FC and Sheffield United FC, which have in the increasingly far off past won the major domestic honours. All of this might be news to any readers from Manchester or London (he says, slightly bitterly).

It is a shame that Sheffield does not make more of its footballing history, with it tending to focus more on its past as a world-renowned producer of steel. As a side note, the city also has a fascinating history of radicalism, rooted in Methodism and to a lesser extent Unitarianism.

It is even more of a shame, to me at least, that the city's most recent exposure in the national media has been the furore over Ched Evans - the Sheffield United FC striker recently released from prison after serving two and a half years for rape. Many Sheffielders are opposed to his return to football with Sheffield United FC but it also has to be said a significant proportion of United fans would like to see him return. Again, regardless of all the arguments over his 'innocence' (he is currently appealing his conviction), I think this desire from some fans for his no-questions-asked return ultimately comes down to a tribal, emotional attachment to him as one of their footballing heroes of recent years and the basic desire for their current team to win games. The same could be said of those Wednesday fans who defend to-the-hilt the recent return of Sheffield Wednesday FC striker, Gary Madine, to footballing duties following a prison sentence for two separate incidents of serious physical assault whilst out on the town.

All that said, the case of Ched Evans - who is very likely to get a new lucrative contract with his old employers as soon as the media storm wanes - is indicative of a change in the composition and culture of the English football scene. It is a change to one in which massive sums of money, often 'invested' by dubious benefactors, rule over the game completely - a change that I feel is for the worse. I have tried to raise this, in my own small way with my letter to The Star, as I believe all football fans need to re-find their sense of reason - at least outside of 3pm to 5pm on a Saturday - and stand up for their clubs as community-based organisations with a moral compass. The letter goes as follows:

"Dear Editor, 
The recent debates over whether United should or should not re-employ Ched Evans point to wider issues within English football. 

Our city’s biggest football clubs, both United and Wednesday, started out as community organisations – taking on a business dimension with the growth of professionalism. With the formation of the Premier League, which both clubs were party to, the business dimension of football has increasingly taken over at the expense of the community aspect.

Consequently, we should not be surprised if the asset that is Ched Evans, who cost the club £3million, is reclaimed by United. Just as the investment, Gary Madine, was also maintained by Wednesday. The only hesitation from the United boardroom is likely to be the impact on ‘the brand’.

So whilst Sheffielders may hotly debate such things from a community angle – and many will rightly be opposed to convicted criminals who have caused lasting harm to their victims having an easy route back to fame and fortune – the sad reality is we are out of step with the way the beautiful game has gone."

Viva la revolution!

31/10/2014

To Know

Yesterday, in what was originally intended to be a quick stop-off for a cup of coffee at my parents' house before going on my way, I ended up finding myself in a lengthy theological discussion with my father and youngest brother.

I don't really do theological discussions - I kind of gave up on trying to arrive at a systematic theological position a few years ago which leaves it hard to then advocate for a particular theology. I also tend not to be very open in day-to-day interactions about my thoughts on faith (saving them instead for this journal!). I have been advised by a good friend and mentor that I essentially need to 'come out' and be more open as a Christian - though I consider belief to be ultimately a private matter and that what counts most, in terms of expression of faith, are my actions.

I also ended up drinking tea.

My father has always leaned towards a more radical, non-trinitarian Christianity - largely influenced by contact with Jehovah's Witnesses in his younger years, though never taking up affiliation himself. He did do some seeking as a younger man - it was just the other day he told me how he read the Koran during his younger years (which I guess would have been around the early seventies) - but I would imagine, without the internet and scale of multiculturalism we have now, his access to the wider world of faith beyond Christianity was much more limited. For example, a few years ago when I told him we were getting married in a Unitarian & Free Christian chapel and took him to see it, he was pleasantly surprised that another historically non-trinitarian church other than the Jehovah's Witnesses existed.

My youngest brother, on the other hand, attended an evangelical church during his mid-teens before becoming an agnostic and seeker in his twenties, as he is today. He is questioning and to an extent disillusioned with what mainline Christianity has to offer. His questions are the big ones,

"Does God exist?",
          "What is God?",
                    "Does God answer prayers?",
"Does the worship of Christ not amount to death-worship?"

I sometimes wonder whether we have a genetic predisposition within our family towards a more radical, open-minded Christianity - whether there is something about the way our brains are structured and wired, what with us seeming to have a common tendency to more analytical, divergent thinking, that in turn lends itself to dissenting positions.

Yet I would also say, as much as this is a gift in that it is liberates us from following the status quo and drives us toward new frontiers - not just theologically, but in life generally - such tendencies can be a block to an experience of living faithfully. We can end up too busy caught in the infinitely various, abstract intricacies of theology - it all becomes restlessly hypothetical rather than contentedly lived.

This, I suggest, is a problem for liberal-minded faith in general. It is perhaps what I saw at work during last week's Meeting for Worship where a heartfelt expression of the Spirit became, at least in my humble opinion, reduced to a question of semantics.

Interestingly enough, I finished the discussion with my brother by saying I would send some reading recommendations his way -  namely the Tao Te Ching and the Dhammapada. This may seem odd, coming from someone who identifies primarily as a Christian. But, as I explained to my brother, I have found in my own search that sometimes we need to take a step away from Christianity and encounter non-Christian spirituality for a time in order to then come back to the faith of our upbringing with a fresh perspective.

On browsing through my bookshelves this morning, with the thought of supporting my youngest brother still in mind, I picked up Anthony De Mello's book, 'The Song of the Bird', opening the pages randomly before spontaneously reading what was in front of me:

"TO KNOW CHRIST

A dialogue between a recent convert and an unbelieving friend:

“So you have been converted to Christ?”
“Yes.”
“Then you must know a great deal about him. Tell me: what country was he born in?”
“I don’t know.”
“What was his age when he died?"
“I don’t know.”
“How many sermons did he preach?”
“I don’t know.”
“You certainly know very little for a man who claims to be converted to Christ!"
“You are right. I am ashamed at how little I know about him. But this much I do know: Three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt. My family was falling to pieces. My wife and children would dread my return home each evening. But now I have given up drinking; we are out of debt; ours is now a happy home. All this Christ has done for me. This much I know about him!"

Christ as the archetype, as a way of trying to see more clearly and trying to live more cleanly; this is my theology.

30/10/2014

Against 'The Light'

I have written a letter to The Friend, magazine of the British Quakers - and an excellent one at that, as far as church magazines go. It raises a small protest against the branding of the redeveloped Large Meeting House as 'The Light'.

"Dear Editor, 
As someone relatively new to Friends, after a spiritual search lasting some years, I remember well the joy I felt on visiting Friends’ House for the first time. The adventurous redevelopment of the Large Meeting House is something I am looking forward to seeing first hand.

However, I continue to have this nagging feeling that the marketing of it as ‘The Light’ smacks of following the patterns of the world. It seems to go against the principle of plain speech, instead attempting to somehow line up with ‘The Shard’, ‘The Gherkin’ and other buildings titled as ‘The’ something or other. 

More importantly, it confuses the spiritual experience of Friends with a material object. It seems as absurd as calling a state-of-the-art elevator, ‘The Christ’! I have heard the Buddhist master Lin Chi quoted on issues of iconoclasm, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” I wonder, also, what George Fox would say?"

This, I believe, points to a wider theological incoherence within the Religious Society of Friends - a trend I was pleased to see Ben Pink Dandelion take on in the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture.

26/10/2014

Opened and Cut

This Friday just gone I was sat at my work desk, first thing in the morning, muttering and sighing, when a close colleague made the slightly teasing, slightly concerned observation that I had seemed 'a bit grumpy' during the week. I retorted, with the dry wit I am apparently known for, that I was in fact 'in a spiritual desert'. The colleague laughed, 'how dramatic!' she cried.

It was a passing conversation but there was truth in it, for I have felt caught up in the busyness of the world these past few weeks. I have had a hugely creative, productive and enriching past two months yet I readily admit such an intense focus on work can leave me irritable, restless and hard to live with. The way I often describe this state of being, in my inner dialogue, is that my heart gradually becomes encased in a stone-like casing as my mind increasingly tangles itself up in a web of machinations.

This is why, as much as I continue to attend and feel inspired by more traditional 'programmed' worship services, it is the uniquely Quaker 'Meeting for Worship' that I feel I depend upon.

George Fox spoke of experiencing 'openings' through silent contemplation, moments of pure clarity and connection with God, with Christ - whilst his loyal supporter and eventual wife, Margaret Fell, described the first ministry she heard from George Fox, a product of such 'openings', as cutting her to the heart. This for me describes in a nutshell the great potential - and the continuing draw - of Quaker worship.

We have been previously asked by elders to begin reflecting on the future direction of our fellowship. This, as I understand it, is borne out of two concerns; firstly, the question - posed by Ben Pink Dandelion, speaking at the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture - of whether the foundations of Quakerism are being slowly eroded away alongside, secondly, a more pragmatic question particular to our meeting of how a decentralised, collaborative church can sustain itself as some of its most active members become too old to shoulder practical responsibilities whilst younger members find their commitment  constrained by their working lives.

As I sat in the silence today, it was this issue that frequently entered into my consciousness - to the point I felt I was perhaps being prompted to minister on it. However, I remained silent and was, in due course, deeply thankful for restraint. A Friend who I had never heard speak before in ministry rose at around 11:25, nearly halfway through our hour of silent prayer, opening and cutting me with his words.

He began by recalling how, in the last moments of Corporal Nathan Cirillo's life - victim of the Ottawa terrorist attacks - a good samaritan Barbara Winters crossed the road (at the risk of being shot herself) to cradle and assure him, "You are loved."

The Friend then went on to reflect that to know we are loved is to know God, and vice versa, for God is love - and we each must concern ourselves with clearly showing love to one another, this is our essential purpose. This was followed by the famous reading from Paul's letter to the Corinthians:

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 

As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Tears welled up in my eyes, I bowed and held my head in my hands for a time, for I recognised starkly my sin over the past week or so - yet I also was reminded too that for all my transgression of love I was still loved and capable of loving.

There was further ministry in the remaining half-hour and some commentary during 'Afterwords', mainly focused on whether Paul's portrayal of childhood as negative was correct. On this occasion, and though I too contributed to the subsequent discussions, I privately felt the initial ministry should ideally have been left to stand alone in the silence - for 'the letter killeth'.

Perhaps in all of this we were handed the spark not just for personal return and growth but for the wider return and growth of our little fellowship.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Below is a somewhat belated reflection on ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams – my ‘book of the summer’. Had I written my thoughts down at the time of reading or shortly after, as I typically do when I read a book that has a significant impact on my perspective, I can’t help feel the following words would have flowed much more easily. However, other commitments took hold and so instead I have found myself writing this post over the past week or so in a much more stuttering, hesitant fashion than usual – and this may well be reflected in the reading of the final product of my labour.

Over the summer – whilst on holiday in Budapest with my wife - I read the Richard Adams novel, ‘Watership Down’, the precursor to the animated film of the same title I remember vividly from my much younger years – and fondly so, despite its serious, somewhat menacing tone compared to the rest of my childhood viewing which usually consisted mainly of He-Man and the Looney Tunes cartoons.

It is quite obvious, re-encountering the story in my thirties, that ‘Watership Down’ is as much a commentary on human affairs as it is a fantastical story of anthropomorphic rabbits living in southern England. And it is an insightful one at that, looking at the varying forms of communities and forces at work within them.

The novel, which the author explains originated as short stories told to his daughters during long drives through the countryside, must at some point have taken an evolutionary leap into the tale of adventure covering a range of complex human conditions - now resting in England’s library as a modern classic.

There are a wide range of threads that can be pulled from ‘Watership Down’; the one I found myself constantly reflecting on was the concept of storytelling as a tool of empowerment within communities. This is most obvious with the frequent interspersing of stories of ‘rabbit legend’ into the on-going struggle of Hazel and his Lapine-speaking comrades to find a new home following the systematic destruction of their warren to make way for a housing estate.

Quite pointedly, very early on the prophetic Fiver – a close companion of Hazel – attempts to warn Sandleford warren of the impending disaster but is dismissed by the chief rabbit, partly due to their lowly status and partly due to the hierarchy’s vested interests in maintaining a status quo.

Having embarked on an exodus from Sandleford, Hazel, Fiver and their group journey across the Hampshire countryside in search of a new warren encountering danger at every turn. And just as with the Jews journeying out of Egypt, there are moments in which the migrants become despondent and need reassuring. It is at these points the group’s storyteller, Dandelion, regales them with tales that point to ideals about their origins, development as a species and future course. At the centre of such stories is the mythical rabbit known as El-Ahrairah, ‘The Prince with a Thousand Enemies’, who in many ways takes on a Moses-status for the rabbits. Within the stories there is also the ever present Lord Frith, God manifest in the Sun, who acts in the world primarily through messengers such as the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who in some ways (though not all ways) has a Christ-like deity status:

“Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inlé is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off. You all know how some rabbits seem just to throw their lives away between two jokes and a theft: but the truth is that their foolishness comes from the Black Rabbit, for it is by his will that they do not smell the dog or see the gun. The Black Rabbit brings sickness, too. Or again he will come in the night and call a rabbit by name: and then that rabbit must go out to him, even though he may be young and strong to save himself from any other danger. He goes with the Black Rabbit and leaves no trace behind. Some say that the black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is--or so they taught me--that he too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task--to bring about what must be. We come in to the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another. If that were so, we would all be destroyed in a day. We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inlé and only by his will. And though that will seems hard and bitter to us all, yet in his way he is our protector, for he knows Frith's promise to the rabbits and he will avenge any rabbit who may chance to be destroyed without the consent of himself. Anyone who has seen a gamekeeper's gibbet knows what the Black Rabbit can bring down on elil who think they will do what they will."

The parallels we might draw with our own Judeao-Christian mythology are self-evident. This is most evident in the proverbial sayings upheld by the rabbits:

“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

Which has obvious similarities with:

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” (1 Peter 5:08 – 5:10)

~

As Hazel and his band of rabbits go further forward in their odyssey, the author also raises the question of the flipside of storytelling. Early on we see the wandering bunch come to a warren of plenty, seemingly perfect for their need. At first they are welcomed by Cowslip, who is viewed as the de-facto chief of the warren, and Hazel’s group have seemingly arrived at their new home. Yet all is not as it first appears with the host rabbits gradually revealed to be something akin to H. G Well’s Eloi – well fed, even tempered yet disconcertingly apathetic in spirit. They have in fact come to a state of having no central story, appearing stupefied by their material comfort. As the state of unease is increased, it is revealed the rabbits of this warren are in fact knowingly living as livestock for the local farmers, being fattened up and randomly trapped according to the will of their aloof sponsors. Adams writes:

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy's warren and paying his price?”

As I read this I couldn’t avoid mulling over Western European society in the early 21st century. I frequently feel, with the onset of consumerist capitalism, we have become trapped in a state of disempowerment and moral ambivalence. It seems at times we have lost any collective sense of narrative of where we are travelling, spiritually-speaking. By narrative, I do not just mean the collapse in Christianity but also, as Richard Koch and Chris Smith explain in ‘Suicide of The West’, the collapse of our story as inheritors of the Reformation and Enlightenment, a narrative that raises us up as individuals, as citizens of liberal democratic states, as students of reason and science, as equal children of God, each with the unique potential to act positively in the world; as participators, as co-creators, as shapers of a brighter future – as seekers of the Kingdom. Instead it feels we, like the rabbits of Cowslip’s Warren, have – with the rise in material comforts and their subsequent pursuit – become unaware of and unaffected by such grander schemes of things and the sense of common purpose this bestows.

~

With the rabbits returning to the road again, journeying far from Sandleford and the above mentioned ‘Warren of Snares’, they encounter a third warren. This warren, known as Efrafa, is ruled as a tyranny by General Wormwort (whose name, interesting enough, refers to a plant with healing qualities) who employs a highly-rational yet utterly loveless method. Efrafa is described in cold, menacing terms:

“As the warren grew, so Woundwort developed his system to keep it under control. Crowds of rabbits feeding at morning and evening were likely to attract attention. He devised the Marks, each controlled by its own officers and sentries, with feeding times changed regularly to give all a share of early morning and sunset-the favourite hours of silflay. All signs of rabbit life were concealed as closely as possible. The Owsla had privileges in regard to feeding, mating and freedom of movement. Any failure of duty on their part was liable to be punished by demotion and loss of privileges. For ordinary rabbits, the punishments were more severe."

It is worth keeping in mind the author, Richard Adams, was born in 1920 and therefore part of a generation that witnessed, as young men and women, the rise and fall of Fascism followed by the tide of Soviet Communism. Both were initiated as revolutionary movements seeking to sweep away what they saw as the fossilised, corrupted modes of society yet, with the taking of power, they morphed very quickly into inhumane systems designed simply to preserve the privilege of the new elites through exerting total control of the masses. The only stories expounded by such regimes were ones tapping into primeval fears of predators and plague. And whilst some churches may have slipped into the heresy of collaboration, the essence of Christianity remained at odds and was therefore the target of many attempts at eradication.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph to this entry, I was reading ‘Watership Down’ in Budapest. On reaching this stage in the adventure, I was becoming more and more aware of the city’s tragic history of tyranny. The fictional story of rabbits and the tragic history of this beautiful ‘Paris of Eastern Europe’, naturally came together causing me to reflect on how we, as human beings have a tendency to fall from, rather than rise to, our divine potential.

This, I feel, is where we see the utmost, pressing need for ‘metanarrative’ as found in the Gospel, and for that matter other religious scripture and traditions. It not only serves – at its best - to bind individual human beings together and provide them with direction, but can act as a check and counter to those darker human impulses and frailties – a side of humanity Adams acknowledges more directly on occasion during conversations between the rabbits:

“Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.

And:

“There's terrible evil in the world."

It comes from men," said Holly. "All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they've spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.”

I sit writing this with Syria and Iraq continuing to dominate the headlines, the Islamic State movement taking centre stage in another unfolding, deeply miserable chapter of human history. In ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ we see another General Wormwort coming to the fore – a figure with some mystique but a wolf in sheep’s clothing nonetheless. As Adams notes, and without wanting to spoil the end of the enrapturing story that is ‘Watership Down’, he has adopted a state of being that can only lead to destruction – most pointedly, including self-destruction.

“Bigwig was right when he said he wasn't like a rabbit at all,' said Holly. 'He was a fighting animal - fierce as a rat or a dog. He fought because he actually felt safer fighting than running. He was brave, all right. But it wasn't natural; and that's why it was bound to finish him in the end. He was trying to do something that Frith never meant any rabbit to do.”

So, let us rediscover and revive the stories that have shined on in the darkness for generations gone by, not slavishly so but with a sense of free inquiry and adventure - and in doing so, let us hope we each and all re-find our way.

~

A few snaps from Budapest:





19/10/2014

Gentle Soul, Gentle Night

The last visit we paid to Auntie Norah was on Thursday 28th August, the end of our summer holidays. She was in hospital, which I am ashamed to say, triggered the visit. Prior to this visit I had perhaps not seen her for up to a year, often remarking I needed to visit but not making time to do so, always pursuing other priorities. I would often begin my visits by apologising for my absence, to which she would reply with her unfailingly genuine and unassuming manner, "Don't worry love, I know how busy you young'uns are..." A comment which in many ways inadvertently heaped more shame upon me.

Prior to the visit I had heard horror stories about just how ill Auntie Norah had become, about her ulcerated legs that had apparently been leaving her in crippling pain throughout the summer. It was mooted things had become so bad that she may yet face having a leg amputated, we wondered aloud as we made our way there as to whether she would survive such drastic surgery. As I walked down the ward, consciously averting my eyes from other patients, I felt a sense of foreboding about what state she would be in - with the memories of my Grandad Roy's final hours still vivid, performing a macabre dance in my mind's eye. 

We couldn't find her initially, and then I heard her familiar Barnsley accent from behind the blue plastic curtain, engaged in a perfunctory conversation yet nonetheless warm. Five minutes later, the junior doctor having now moved on to the next stop of what must be a seemingly endless round, we each greeted Auntie Norah with a hug and I handed over a 'Get Well Soon' card. She appeared tired but was in otherwise seemingly good form. When asked how she was, a customary question we Brits seem to ask one another and always habitually lie in response to, she responded that she was feeling much better - the morphine was 'working wonders', 'marvellous'! Auntie Norah then went on to say, as we  inquired about her summer, that it had been difficult but she had lived many years, she had enjoyed life and it was the young people fighting cancer and the like that we should all really worry about. On reflection, such simple, powerfully selfless words would not be out of place in the scripted, intensely practised scenes of a Hollywood movie yet they were made here as casual, off-the-cuff reflections.

Unbeknownst to me, Auntie Norah had spent part of the summer in a care home rather than the cosy council house on the outskirts of the city which she'd shared with my grandfather for the past 40 years - 'respite' they term such things, although having heard so many stories from different sources about the nature of care homes, I question respite for who? During the visit, Auntie Norah's own brief tale of her time in the care home did nothing to dispel this impression, with her retelling a short story of being left on a commode for two hours in the night, unable to get up and back to bed - and when the care worker finally arrived, then being 'told off' (I imagine as a small child might be scolded by an early 1900s schoolmistress) for not getting back to bed independently. It had not been discussed with her, as far as I know, that on leaving hospital, plans were being made for a move to a care home full time. If it had, or she had simply logically predicted her fate, then I cannot help but think it somehow contributed to the following hours. The treatment of the elderly, particularly so in care homes, is one of the major social justice issues of our times. However, unlike other oppressed minorities which have risen up in previous years to claim what is due to them from state and society, the voices of our very senior citizens are rarely heard, quietened by their medical conditions - and, if we are to be blunt, silenced by the coming of the gentle night. Again, we - the relatively young and able - are shamed by our negligence, distracted as we are by other things.

We hadn't expected my Auntie Norah to end up in hospital in this way. Granted, she had reached the fairly grand old age of 78 years but she always seemed younger than her years, often out and about socialising - including a weekly trip to the gym. My Auntie Norah was my late Grandad Joe's second wife. She was around 12 years his younger, the pair meeting at a large food processing factory. My grandfather had lived to the grand old age of 91 but his final years of life were marred by a slow but unrelenting decline in both his mental and physical well-being. My Auntie Norah had become my Grandad Joe's live-in carer, attending to his most basic needs, but the radically changed nature of their partnership had clearly not diminished the romance between them - one of my most vivid memories is of my Grandad, a gentle but very reserved man, suddenly reaching with one arm from his favourite chair by the window to the sofa beside him to give my Auntie Norah a hug and a peck on the lips. When my Grandad passed away just less than two years ago, there was a sense of timeliness and a hope Auntie Norah could perhaps enjoy some years relieved of what had become an overbearing duty to her much-loved husband.

From what I have been told, Grandad Joe and Auntie Norah fell in love at some point between the late 60s and early 70s. They left their existing, apparently deeply unhappy, marriages for a life with one another - my Grandad is said to have told my father in later years, "I loved your mum but I could no longer live with her..."  In such times and in the traditional close-knit working class environments they inhabited (alongside the Jehovah's Witness influence within my family), I imagine this was fairly scandalous. 

I witnessed, as a grandson, the damage this event caused as my grandmother, Nannan Else, would regularly rail against them. Even as a small child I could see she was a deeply hurt woman, and now I recognise just how consumed she was by the fires of her grievances. She would frequently air her embittered views both at family gatherings and when I was alone with her. This left me feeling torn. I knew her comments - whilst rooted in the truth of her betrayal - were 'not right' but couldn't object to them for fear of rejecting her, a lady I adored and, in some respects, feared. This feeling of being torn has obviously lessened with age and the subsequent growth of wisdom but it still casts a shadow with seemingly trivial matters, such as where to place their photographs, still creating questions of love and loyalty. There is of course a certain indelibility about childhood influences that no amount of time, awareness and reason can shift. Maybe this was why Jesus took such a hard line on the responsibility of adults to provide protection and guidance to children?

Our visit to see Auntie Norah was cut off abruptly as we were conscious medical staff needed to return to make a further assessment of her legs, the decision on how to proceed still not finalised. We were mid-conversation about photographs; Auntie Norah's big passion. We were talking about our brother's wedding and bringing her a photobook she could show the wider family. By wider family, I mean the patchwork of two families that Auntie Norah and Grandad Joe came to be grandparents for - a disparate collection of people sewn together following their marriage, in many ways only ever becoming something like a 'family' through connection with them. Such are the unique complexities of reconstituted families.

We went home that evening, talking in the car about how well Auntie Norah in fact seemed, moving back and forth to discussion around the possibility of surgery and her moving to a care home. That night I returned home and fell asleep, Auntie Norah back off my mind, my attention turning to other things. Awakening in the morning, I experienced a hazy recall of a dream, a feeling, in which Auntie Norah was in some kind of peril. Again, it was passed to one side - I got ready and ventured into town to buy some new shoes and a suit for my coming return to work on the Monday. The shopping trip was interrupted by a telephone call, my mother delivering the news Auntie Norah's heart had stopped in the early hours of Friday - they had resuscitated her but she had not regained conscious, and any prospect of recovery was ruled out, her passing now inevitable and imminent.

Such news was a shock, the words from Lemony Snicket's 'A Series of Unfortunate Events', spring to mind:

"It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. It's like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down through the air and there's a sickly moment of dark surprise."

It turns out our visit to see Auntie Norah in hospital would be our last encounter with this lovely, humble lady - a grandma in very nearly all but name. For those left behind, we can really only wonder, and at best theorise, as to what lies beyond the gates we must all one day pass through. Speaking personally as a disciple of Christ, as a practicing Quaker, I draw hope from the experience that at the heart of each soul rests a powerful energy (for want of better words) which is beyond material destruction and connected to a larger unfathomable source - that which, in the Book of Daniel, is called the 'Ancient of Days', that which Psalm 139 portrays as an inescapable, pervasive Spirit present within all life, that which the Jesus story reveals as ultimately good. Having now sat at three funerals this year, I am more conscious of the relentless passing of time, our need to appreciate the life we have been given and the recognition we have no legacy but our impact on other travelling souls, our imprint within the ever-lasting memory of God; this is both the great comfort and the terrible burden of the Christian.

04/09/2014

Unions, Old and New

The following articles, on the question of gay marriage in the church, are very insightful and have caused me to consider further, and try to clarify, my own views.


Speaking personally, I hold absolutely no truck with people who express anti-homosexual views in terms of the right of every gay person to live their lives openly and without fear, to embark on consenting relationships as they see fit, to form their own social and campaigning groups - to basically enjoy the same rights as  heterosexual citizens in a liberal democracy. 

In Britain we have come a long, long way to this point but we have a stained record like other countries. We cannot be too smug and self-righteous. The case of Alan Turing - the great British scientist who helped win the fight against the Nazis but was persecuted to the grave by the very state and society he helped survive because of his homosexuality - sticks bitterly in my mind. But, actually, it doesn't matter whether you are a talented or famous gay person - or an upstanding and moral gay person even - because your rights and responsibilities are the same as mine. What I expect for myself from my country, I must surely expect for you.

It is for this reason I don't have a problem with two gay people being brought into a union equal to heterosexual marriage under the secular state's law - and subsequently benefiting from the same status, privileges and protections that this union tends to bring. I agree with David Cameron's views, expressed in a op-ed piece for the London Evening Standard:

"I am delighted that the love two people have for each other — and the commitment they want to make — can now be recognised as equal. 

I have backed this reform because I believe in commitment, responsibility and family. I don’t want to see people’s love divided by law. 

Making marriage available to everyone says so much about the society that we are and the society that we want to live in — one which respects individuals regardless of their sexuality. If a group is told again and again that they are less valuable, over time they may start to believe it. In addition to the personal damage that this can cause, it inhibits the potential of a nation. For this reason too, I am pleased that we have had the courage to change."

I am sure it must muddle the minds of some diehards on the Liberal-Left (as well as the Right) that this has happened under a Conservative-led government - but it makes sense to me that the traditional values expressed by conservatives around family life, commitment and personal responsibility have fuelled the move to making marriage between gay people acceptable under the law of the land.

It is not simply about 'living and let live', a worthy liberal-left value but one that sometimes gets played to the extreme - as seen in the call by some of my fellow Unitarians for polyamory to be the next big campaign issue.

Going back to the original article cited, I do think there needs to be better understanding of the Christian position against allowing gay marriage within their halls and houses of worship. It cannot be dismissed solely as 'fuddyduddyness'. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says, the Christian position against gay marriage is deeply connected to a unique theology, to its understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for. The Bible clearly places an absolute priority on committed heterosexual relationships, specifically a young man and a young woman coming together in lifelong union -  in turn, readying them for the creation of children, which the Bible frequently venerates in both a literal and metaphorical sense. There is an ideal, a positive bias if you will, that cannot be simply chipped away at.

However, having said that, I feel we Christians need to keep three things in mind:

1) The New Testament in particular tends to operate in broad brushstrokes rather than smallprint, it speaks most highly of fidelity as one of its recurring themes.

2) The fact is homosexual relationships aren't going to go away. Although I feel it would be arrogant to say our understanding of the human condition is definitively greater now than the eras in which the Bible emerged, maybe we can reasonably say it is broader in some respects. We know now that homosexuality occurs naturally amongst human beings - it is not a matter of choice, nor a case of sexual deviance.

3) The church ultimately operates on pragmatism as well as idealism. If gay people are excluded from the life of the church, the knock-on effect (not to mention the hurt caused) is the church loses a potential source of wisdom, talent and energy.

On this basis, I understand and support those individual churches that, having reflected and prayed about it together, discern a call to provide support and generosity to those gay people wanting to seal their legal commitment to one another with a religious ceremony.

I would argue that in a way this mirrors the decision of most churches to allow people who are divorced to re-commit. There are citable passages in the Bible against such things but most churches have decided to place the greater value of fidelity over smallprint. Again, we might still say the remarriage of divorced and widowed individuals are not the church's utmost priority - which remains the bonding of the young-at-heart-and-in-love into secure, fruitful, resilient relationships - but the church has nonetheless decided to be supportive and generous with its older, been-there-done-it couples.

However, other churches may not choose to do this - they may prefer to continue to hold to a stricter view of who and who cannot marry. The same goes for other religions too. This should be their right. Just as many religious groups have strict rules around who they will marry in terms of the bride and groom having to be recognisably committed to the faith. And there needs to be a widespread acceptance of this - an acceptance that does not involve then engaging in a war of attrition. So long as they are not propagating hatred, religious groups should be left to live according to their ideals.

This is my position, as much as I can say at this point, on the question of gay marriage.

~

To add, further to this post (6/09/14):

There is a course a specific question over the 'established church', the Church of England, as to whether it will be forced to adopt gay marriage legislation in the medium to long term because it is inevitably so tied up with the state. Speaking as someone pretty much out of the Anglican fold, my gut feeling is that any act from outside to force this upon the C of E might eventually prove to be the trigger for disestablishment - a prospect which some of the younger Anglicans I know seem to welcome, but in practice has all sorts of ramifications.

There is also a question of where it leaves 'Civil Partnerships', the precursor to gay marriage which is currently excluding of heterosexual couples. The government appears to want this legal arrangement to quietly slide into history before its eventual 'no fuss' abolition, a very British way of dealing with things. A concern must surely be, if this is opened to heterosexual couples as some would like, that a campaign will then emerge to extend it to polyamorous arrangements - which would then seriously undermine the fundamental principle of fidelity, working in tandem with equality, which has underscored the other changes.