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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A Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne

It's the start of the summer break for me. Time to spend extended time away from the day job. I'll be returning in September potentially to new challenges, having had an offer (possibly two offers) to return to university and continue my studies. In some respects I am at a crossroads, having to weigh up what is important to me (and those closest to me) - having to think long-term and short-term at the same time, which is difficult.

For now though, I intend to switch off a little - allow the quiet to make things clearer.

The first stage of this was a camping trip to Northumbria. I have long held on to a wish to visit Lindisfarne - also known as 'Holy Island' - and last week this is what I did, taking in a number of sights and walking the 'Pilgrim's Way' with my youngest brother.

The 'Pilgrim's Way' is a 5 mile long route  across an expanse of sand dunes (only accessible at low tide) between the British mainland and Lindisfarne - a 10 mile round trip in total. In places it is muddy, hard-going and desolate - it is also apparently dangerous in places, should you end up too far away from the ancient wooden posts marking the way and end up in a patch of quicksand. But to be walking a route used for time immemorial provides a sense of significance.

The island settlement itself is also fascinating - not least the fact it faded out of religious significance and served primarily as a fishing village for the past few centuries. There's something inherently intriguing about British island communities, I find. Perhaps it's the sense of slight detachment - they're linked to the British mainland but not as easily caught up in our culture, a natural haven for dissenters I would think.

Aside from musing at island life, a big highlight on Lindisfarne was visiting The Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, which sits next to the old priory ruins and celebrates many of the pioneers of the ancient English church. What strikes me is the fact that whilst the early pre-Roman church had strong roots in Northumbria, casting 'downwards' across northern England, it was nonetheless very much a decentralised and organic movement - and diverse in the sense it brought together Celtic and Anglo-Saxon believers. This was followed later by centralisation and institutionalisation brought about by the coming of the Roman Catholic church to Kent, casting itself 'upwards' across England, culminating in the 664 A.D Synod of Whitby which brought Christians together essentially under one church roof. Of course, going on a thousand years later we then had the Protestant Reformation which brought about a whole new diversity of Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Unitarians, amongst others - these in turn became institutions in their own right and now face decline, extinction even.

This reminds me of James Martineau's observation in 'New Affinities of Faith' that the Holy Spirit appears to go through cycles, of upsurge and fossilisation. It makes me wonder about what will become the Movement(s) of the Spirit for today's world? Maybe it is already happening, and I just haven't recognised it?

What also struck me - on a much simpler level - was the way the tourists visiting The Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin seemed inclined to just sit and pray in the pews. Others had taken to writing prayers for the evening service - one had written in the visitors' book how they had driven there six years ago, sporadically in a fit of despair, and felt the visit triggered a turning point. It was an experience unlike the many other old churches and cathedrals I have visited where tourists spend most of their time looking through the lens of their camera phones. Maybe this part of the world is truly a 'thin place', a place where God's presence is somehow most keenly felt, having been a focus for pilgrimage and prayer for so long?

Whilst on the island, looking out back to the mainland, myself and my brother both commented on the relatively faint yet strange howling, almost singing, that appeared to be travelling in on the sea breeze. We assumed it was something to do with the currents of air whirling their way over the sand dunes. However, on our return trip, we observed the sound was emanating from a few hundred moving black dots in the far distance - it turns out Lindisfarne is routinely serenaded by a choir of grey seals! 

I have little else to say about this trip other than it was everything - in my holding on to that wish to visit - that I hoped it would be. I haven't come back in any sense particularly more enlightened but I have come back a little bit more enriched...


Theologies of the Spirit

I've long given up on trying to put together or uncover any comprehensive theology. But this talk, given by Unitarian minister Reverend Jo James, probably sums up as much as possible (and much better than I could ever muster) where I am at - albeit with perhaps a greater lean towards Christianity.


The New Old Church

I've already posted a little (from what I remember) about my affinity with the so-called 'Celtic Church' movement. I want to say a bit more here.

I have long been a 'Searching Christian' - taking on various labels such as Unitarian, Quaker, Friend, Non-Subscriber, Free Christian - as I've made my way through denominations (and their own internal factions). At least half of this search has been theological, trying to work out my beliefs - since around the time of my awakening to theological issues around 2000/2001, having been a Christian since childhood.

But, from my time way back in 2006 (where I found myself attending a Zen Buddhist group) to now, there has been creeping in of questions around praxis. By praxis, I mean worship - how we gain inspiration from / insight into the divine - and running alongside that service - how we express our faith by doing good out there in the world.

This lead me initially to the Quakers in 2010/2011, though I departed last year (with a heavy heart because it meant leaving people I cared about) for a number of reasons - not least my observation that they were drifting the same way as the Unitarians in terms of their erosion of theology / vision in the name of a vague pluralism, their intellectualism and their intense, unquestioning adherence to middle-class left / Guardianista causes. I have said enough about this on this blog but, having 'done battle' already in the Unitarian denomination, I simply wasn't willing to get involve in another lost cause.

In turn I have found myself attending the church down my road - a two minute walk away. It is a Methodist church and my initial contact with them came about because they supported me with a community action project I've been involved in for the past 18 months. I have found them to be a church community that is unpretentious yet caring, Christ-centred but with latitude. They don't make grand proclamations about their adherence to social justice issues, they just get on with it - be that providing support for our road safety campaign and a previous campaign to save a park from being sold off to developers or collecting for refugees or the running of a weekly group for vulnerable adults with learning difficulties. This is certainly a big part of praxis I was looking for - the same praxis I had witnessed at Oldham Unitarian Chapel (too far to travel to each Sunday).

But there is still that question about worship and I have be honest, the hymn sandwich worship at this local church is more of an ordeal I put up with rather than something I look forward to. I am part of a small group called 'Faith Conversations', bringing together Methodists from across the area, and it is interesting that - apart from the theological debates - the issue of how we worship comes up regularly. Many of the group feel the same - the traditional service doesn't cut it for them but nor does charismatic worship, which is certainly a feature in some of their growing churches.

It has struck me, over the years, that there are many Christians searching for a new way of being and doing within their churches - and whilst the growth in charismatic churches mixing Alpha Course theology and Hillsong-style worship clearly offer a model for growth, it cannot be the only model of church for all personalities.

For me, I am increasingly drawn in private to 'Celtic Church' worship, which mixes contemplative music and chants with prayers. Here are two of my favourites...

In terms of theology, what is also worth noting is 'Celtic Church' expressions tend to have a distinctly panentheistic flavour - a position I have held ever since reading Marcus Borg's 'The God We Never Knew' around 2005ish. From the few books I have on the 'Celtic Church', I was also pleased to read recently about 'pelagianism' - drawn from the teachings of Pelagius - which goes against the traditional Christian ideas around 'Original Sin'. I have long thought 'humankind is not fallen, it is yet to rise' and this seems to have some consistency with this view.

This is where I'm at right now. They still feel like forays but this summer I am planning a camping trip to Scotland, primarily to climb Ben Nevis, and it might just be that I find my way to one of the 'Hearts of the Celtic Church' by re-routing to Lindisfarne or Iona...


Aftermath and Opportunity

We are now two weeks into Britain following the vote for 'Brexit'. We have also just received the damning verdicts of Chilcot.

It is interesting (and dismaying) to me the scale of the outpouring of grief, rage, condemnations, scaremongering over 'the state of the nation' following a democratic decision to leave the current European project compared to the truth emerging about the Iraq War (or for that matter, the truth which emerged from the second Hillsborough  Inquest).

I have been reading around all sorts of newspapers and blogs, as I usually do. In fact, so much so that I have had to, at times, actively switch off. In particular I have shared these articles with friends:

Ultimately, I stand by my decision, after much deliberation, to go with the 'Brexiteers'. I have had debates with those family and friends in opposition to this, and have been accused amongst other things of lining up with Nigel Farage and Michael Gove along the way. My response, even before the Chilcot Inquiry Report, is, "Well, if I'm lining up with Nigel Farage and Michael Gove, and all they stand for and how they behave, then I suppose you line with Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson." Although I am guilty as the next person here of point-scoring, I suppose the point I really want to make is we need to listen to one another, not reduce one another into camps.

As I see it, the two threads running through vote for Brexit and the Chilcot Report is the divide in the UK between the socio-economically comfortable and the socio-economically uncomfortable, and that this also has a class-cultural dimension to it (and I would argue it is not defined primarily by race and religion as the far-right would have us believe). I believe this 'unhappy Britain' is made all the worse by a democratic system that stifles plurality and promotes technocracy.

I don't believe the poor are simply poor simply because of their choices. I don't believe British democracy in its current form is 'fit for purpose' in terms of bringing people from all backgrounds into politics, whether that be as politicians, as activists, as confident voters.

I don't hold up Jeremy Corbyn as the new messiah, as some seem to do. I agree on a number of issues but I also think certain aspects of his political instincts are deeply flawed. I remember how a friend, involved with the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, told me how in the run-up to the General Election in 2015, two Labour MPs visited the province. According to what he told me, one landed in Belfast and went straight to speak with activists at the Labour office, the other landed in Belfast and went straight to speak with activists at the Sinn Fein office - the first was Andy Burnham, the second was Jeremy Corbyn. But, having said this, I like what is happening with Corbyn because I think he represents something greater - just as much as the kickback with Brexit, he potentially represents a growing resurgence in the democratic spirit, perhaps a little of the Chartist spirit of old.

I believe now is a time of opportunity - and although that may come with anxiety, upheaval, trials and tribulations - it is a time we might radically re-shape our country for the better.