Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Poetry for Lunch

Apologies to R. S. Thomas for the title - inspired by his poem 'Poetry for Supper'. 

Today I invited a small audience in the Cathedral to enjoy eight of my favourite poems. This was one of a series of informal lunchtime talks we have been offering in the nave on weekdays in summer. The task I set myself was to choose eight poems I might want to take to a desert island. It was no more than an excuse to read aloud and invite others to listen if they wished. The only condition I set myself was that on this occasion, it would all be in English. And that each poem, or extract from a longer poem, would be able to stand by itself.

Here's my A-list with a summary of how I introduced each poem. It's today's choice. It changes by the hour - so much great poetry to choose from. Ask me tomorrow and the list could look quite different. 

1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
How could I not choose Shakespeare? The Sonnets are a wonderful treasury of the ebbs and flows of human love. At our silver wedding celebration 15 years ago, we asked our children to offer readings and one of them chose this famous sonnet about 'the marriage of true minds'. As an encapsulation of love at its most profound, has it ever been bettered? What other writer offers such profound insights into human living and loving? 

2. John Donne, Holy Sonnet 5
'Batter my heart, Three-Person'd God': what a way to begin a prayer! All of Donne's turbulent inner life comes out in this passionate sonnet. Its fusion of the spiritual and the erotic is not what you might expect from a Church of England Dean (of Saint Paul's) but there is no disguising the searing emotional honesty of this great poem. The image of the God who has to take us by force and ravish us in order to make us chaste is both courageous and unforgettable.

3. Ben Jonson, 'On my Son'
I did not know this poem until my son pointed me to it when I was writing my book Lost Sons. It is a moving elegy on the child Jonson lost at the age of 7. I doubt there is any loss in the world worse than losing your own child, and this deeply felt poem is filled with all the sorrow and yearning of a very great grief. He calls his 'dear boy' his 'best piece of poetry'. The poem was the choice of one of the contributors to a remarkable anthology I was recently given, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.

4. Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'Ulysses'
People don't read Tennyson like they used to, but his poetry is second to none in its 'ear' for the feel and sound of words. Ulysses gazes into the far horizons, reflects in old age on his travels and adventures, and concludes that even in the twilight of our lives, we must go on being pilgrims and explorers. The poem rises to a famous heroic conclusion: 'to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield' - this is the spirit of the true lifelong adventurer. It's a poem to arouse and inspire, at least for me.

5. Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'The Kingfisher'
Hopkins was one of greatest 19th century religious poets. His poetry frequently has a tragic aspect, coloured by the personal sense of unworthiness he carried all through life. But he touches ecstasy too. Here he celebrates not just the natural glory of a creation that knows how to be true to itself, but the glory of human beings where, in his final beautiful lines, 'Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men's faces.'

6. W. H. Auden, 'Musée des Beaux Arts'
I have admired this poem from schooldays. It has been in my mind recently as we have watched the tragedies of the Middle East being played out on our TV screens while we sit in armchairs drinking coffee and stroking the cat. The paradox of how ordinary life carries on while a disaster happens in front of us is brilliantly caught by Auden. Is he saying: recognise the absurdity, but then try to see with a new compassion, so that when life goes on, it is not because we passed by on the other side?

7. R. S. Thomas, 'Via Negativa'
What Hopkins was to Victorian era, Thomas was perhaps to the 20th century. His poetry was honed in the harsh, unforgiving Welsh parishes where he was a priest. His tough writing, so strong on the tension between God's absence and presence, reflects a faith that has to be fought for, but even at its bleakest, there is no denying the conviction that lies at its heart. The negative way of spirituality focuses on what we can't know or say about God which, Thomas reminds us, is just about everything.

8. The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13
You get the Bible and Shakespeare on your desert island, thank God. I chose to read St Paul's great poem about love in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, thus coming full circle and ending where I began - in the English Renaissance, and with the great theme of love. This is one of the best-known passages in the entire Bible, but it never fails to move me. And because it gathers up and offers all that has lasting meaning in life, it felt like the right place to end. 


Saturday, 16 August 2014

J'Accuse!... Cliff Richard: Ordeal by Media

The way Cliff Richard has been treated is shocking. At least, it has shocked me. 

Not only was his house searched while he was known to be out of the country, but the search was conducted under the merciless glare of the nation's media. It seems that the media were alerted prior to the event, though precisely by whom remains unclear. So without warning the poor man is catapulted into headlines that are always hungry to see a celebrity toppled. And this when he has not even been cautioned or interviewed let alone arrested and charged with any offence. He has not been given the chance to offer any defence or explanation in respect of whatever suspicions are held. It is scarcely believable that such a thing could happen so publicly in 21st century Britain.  

Yesterday, my wife alerted me to a Facebook feed about the breaking news. Someone, commenting on the story, announced triumphantly 'I knew it!' You can sense the tone of satisfaction: suspicion confirmed, the worst believed, a reputation sunk. I doubt that a single FB post will inflict much more damage than has already been caused. It's just an indication of how quickly people jump to conclusions and pronounce sentence, a universal human trait to be sure, but magnified hugely by the sheer power and influence of social media.

By coincidence, the story broke on the day I finished reading a novel about the Dreyfus affair. I blogged about it yesterday, so I won't repeat myself. Briefly, what did for the alleged traitor (among other things) was the way in which public opinion was manipulated by a hostile press egged on by people in power who were already shaping the outcome. Dreyfus was perhaps the first person to undergo trial by media in its modern sense. It turned out that he was innocent. But it very nearly meant the end of him. 

Like everyone else, I know nothing about the facts in Cliff Richard's case. My protest is not against the propriety of the police acting on a serious allegation and searching a householder's premises when there are sufficient grounds and it is lawfully authorised. I've no reason to think that due process has not been followed here. But I can't believe that it could ever be right to proclaim it to the media as seems to have happened, and thereby feed a prurient public. It is Cliff Richard's right to be treated like any other British citizen when suspicion is raised: innocent until proved guilty. There are no exceptions to this principle that is so fundamental to our legal system. Celebrities have rights too.

It will take many months, perhaps more than a year, to assess the evidence, pursue other relevant enquiries and come to a conclusion about whether charges should be brought. During this time, Cliff Richard will be in limbo, not knowing what will await him, but under intense public scrutiny and already as good as criminalised by some sections of public opinion. Who knows what that will put him through? It is rough justice to treat a human being with such disregard for his rights, his welfare and his privacy. 

Now South Yorkshire Police are blaming the BBC for this sorry chain of events. Someone has to take responsibility. Who is going to hold their hands up, admit that a terrible mistake has been made and say sorry? It will be too late to undo the mischief they have caused, but it might just help recover our belief that the noble legacy of Magna Carta is not entirely lost.

Geoffrey Robertson QC has stated the issues clearly in an excellent piece in the Independent. You can read it at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-way-the-police-have-treated-cliff-richard-is-completely-unacceptable-9672367.html

Friday, 15 August 2014

J'Accuse!...Dreyfus and the Principalities and Powers

In 1895 in Paris, Alfred Dreyfus, an army officer, was convicted of handing over French military secrets to the Germans. He was condemned to life imprisonment for treason, was ceremonially stripped of his military rank, his insignia were removed and his sword was ritually broken before he was sent to Devil's Island for the rest of his days. He was 35.

Evidence subsequently came to light that suggested that Dreyfus was not the traitor after all. A new head of intelligence, George Picquart, reported that he had scrutinised the documents on which Dreyfus' conviction had been based, and deduced that another man, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was the spy. However, a re-trial astonishingly affirmed Dreyfus' guilt, a verdict that sent my predecessor Dean Hensley Henson into an 'unspeakable rage'. It took four years of tortuous legal process for him to be pardoned and a further seven before he was officially exonerated. He was re-instated in the army, and served with distinction in the Great War. He died in 1935.

The story is the subject of Robert Harris' latest novel An Officer and a Spy. Not knowing anything about Dreyfus beyond the bare facts of this cause célèbre, I found it to be an absorbing read. As in all his books, Harris, an ex-journalist, researches his material with meticulous care - and in the case of the Dreyfus Affair, there is a lot of it. Harris' makes Picquart his mouthpiece and his use of the historic present (how John Humphrys must hate it!), together with his mastery of the plot's endless twists and turns, makes the novel a superbly vivid read. 

You don't necessarily expect beach reading to be memorable, but (always the mark of a good book) I am continuing to think about its big themes. For make no mistake: this was the most dramatic political scandal in modern France, and one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in western judicial history. It sharply divided public opinion at the time, led to protests on the streets, and even now more than a century later its consequences continue to reverberate in French political and religious consciousness.

Three factors made it so toxic. The first is that Dreyfus was from Alsace. He came from lands that had been occupied by the Germans since the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870. France's humiliation in the generation before Dreyfus was an open sore that was never going to heal (as the Great War demonstrated). So anyone accused of treason in relation to this bitterly hated enemy would inevitably incur huge public wrath. And this was perhaps the first example of an event where the power of 'public opinion' would count for so much.

The second is the conduct of politicians and the military. What came to light during the affair was the extent to which the very highest echelons of the French army had colluded with lies, forged documents and falsified evidence all because of an a priori doctrine that if Dreyfus had been convicted by a military court, its findings had to be sacrosanct. It took courageous 'intellectuals' (a word first coined during this affair) to insist that the conduct of the case raised serious questions about the integrity of the nation's senior leadership. The novelist Émile Zola was in the forefront of this 'Dreyfusard' protest against the corruptions of power and the comprehensive culture of the cover-up. He wrote a famous article that appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, J'accuse! as a result of which he was also arraigned before a court of law. 

But by far the most powerful forces at work in the affair were due to the fact that Dreyfus was a Jew. His conviction played right into the barely-suppressed anti-semitism of the fin de siècle. This ugly strain ran from top to bottom of French society. A torrent of abuse towards Jews was rapidly unleashed, some of it acted out as physical violence. Jews were not only mercenary and manipulating. Dreyfus had demonstrated that they were not to be trusted. Their claims to assimilation as authentic French citizens were exposed as hypocrisy. And even when Dreyfus was reinstated, the anti-Semitic genie would not willingly get back into the bottle, as is evidenced by the treatment of French Jews under Nazi Occupation, and the spate of anti-Jewish episodes that continues to this day. 

So Robert Harris' book, while it doesn't set out to moralise, does offer food for thought about our contemporary society: how we deal with one another as nation-states, how we lead with integrity in public life, our covenant with the armed forces, how we conduct judicial processes, how we listen to victims, and above all, how we handle religious, ethnic and cultural difference in society, especially when it comes to minorities. All this could be said to be about how we 'speak truth to power'. Dreyfus was an historical watershed whose central issues are still very much with us, in Britain no less than France. We need to be vigilant if we care about our values as a nation.

It's amazing how much you can learn from what you read on the beach. 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Great War Centenary Should Bring us to our Knees

'The protagonists of [the First World War] were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the horror they were about to bring into the world.'

This is how Christopher Clark's book on the origins of the Great War ends. I have been reading The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 over the summer, aiming to reach the fateful last week of July during the centenary of those days in 2014. It has been a vivid experience, reading about the events that shaped the 20th century in real-time 100 years later. 

I knew of course what it would all lead up to on 4 August, when Britain declared war on Germany. But I now see how vague I was about the causes of the events that would change for ever the course of European history. Thanks to this extraordinary (and readable) book, I realise better than before how very complex it all was, the shifting alliances, the economic leverage that locked nations into preferential relationships, the personalities of national leaders, their inability to read correctly their neighbours' intentions and assess risks accurately, the obscure processes by which momentous decisions were often taken. All this Clark examines carefully in the light of evidence not all of which was available to earlier historians.

Pace some writers on the Great War, Clark refuses to lay blame in any one European quarter, whether it is Austria-Hungary for its peremptory ultimatum threatening war unless Serbia complied with its conditions; Russia for raising the stakes by resorting to general mobilisation in support of Serbia and the pursuit of pan-Slav unity; Germany for entertaining the idea of war before Russian forces grew to overwhelming strength; France for uncritically associating with Russia's intentions as a way of keeping Germany in check and winning back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine; or Britain for being so distracted by the Irish question that it failed to notice what was happening on the continent until it was almost too late. 

Clark concludes that the outbreak of the war was a tragedy not a crime. It was not inevitable, and indeed, it took many of its protagonists by surprise. There is 'no smoking gun in this story, or rather, there was one in the hands of every major character'. He says that we must understand that the Great War might easily not have happened, & why; equally we must understand how & why it did happen. 

All our churches will be commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War next week. Some of us will be required to preach about it. What to say that does justice in a theologically and spiritually intelligent way to this bewildering history? That is my challenge right now as I prepare to give a sermon at Sheffield Cathedral on Sunday morning at a requiem in memory of those who went to war and never came back.

What I am clear about is that the rhetoric of 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' needs to be put into a bigger context than was normal at the time. This is inevitable: we see things from the vantage point of history that our forebears, immersed in that awful conflict, could not see so clearly. If the Geat War was a tragedy, not a crime, then there were no winners or losers, for all of us were and still are its victims. Anyone who has walked among the military cemeteries of Northern France cannot fail to see how this attrition afflicted all the war's participants equally terribly. 4 August is truly a day for lament. It puts a question mark against the nationalisms that still define relationships between the world's peoples, where the idea of patriotism still has not acquired a genuinely global context.

The question is, what if anything can we learn from our history? Here it would be fatally easy to draw simplistic lessons, as if the world of 1914 is comparable to that of a century later. But the past is another country; they do things differently there. Perhaps the differences between then and now can help show us how far we have advanced in developing global and continental institutions that can at least broker negotiations between nations in conflict even if they cannot (yet) prevent wars. In important ways, the Europe of today is less febrile, more safe, because of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. This is something to celebrate.

Yet our world is still an incredibly dangerous place, as the events of summer 2014 have made clear. Across the globe, war is still pursued as 'the extension of politics by other means' as Clausewitz famously defined it. Historians will no doubt go on arguing about the causes of the First World War for a long time to come. But what is not in doubt is that this is a centenary that should drive us to our knees. The prayer for peace was urgent enough 100 years ago. It has not grown less urgent since. 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A Summer's Day in Devon

I write this from Devon, the little village of Holne tucked into a southern fold of Dartmoor. We are staying in the half-timbered Church House Inn where we began our honeymoon 40 years ago this week. So this is a nostalgic visit to a place that is securely lodged in our shared marital memory. 

It would be nice to think that we are sleeping in the same room as then. We may well be: we can't remember. In fact, we don't recall very much of the early part of our honeymoon, so exhausted were we by the exacting rigours of getting married. But we do remember the warm welcome, not least on the part of the two golden retrievers who are memorialised on a fading photo of the newly-weds standing in the porch. We have called retrievers Holne-Dogs ever since.

What we learned back then was that the Church House Inn was the favourite place of Archbishop Michael Ramsey and his wife Joan. Here they spent their summers. As a newly ordained deacon in Oxford, I used to go with my contemporaries to post ordination training sessions with Michael Ramsey, by then retired just outside Oxford. When he discovered that we had honeymooned in Holne, this was all he wanted to talk about. Forget theology or ethics on which like the rest of the cohort of young clergy I was keen to hear the great man's thinking. For him, Holne was a corner of paradise and given the slightest encouragement he would rhapsodise about it. Once, when we saw each other walking along Cornmarket on opposite sides of the busy road, he beckoned to me to cross. We met in the middle, and there he said: 'talk to me about my beloved Holne' while the traffic swerved past on either side. 

When we went into the church next door to the inn this afternoon, an elderly couple were also paying a nostalgic return visit. They used to live in the village and had moved away in the early 1970s. When my wife mentioned the Ramseys, she told us how Joan often used to come and keep her company in her kitchen. The villagers seemed proud that an archbishop and his wife loved coming there. 

The church, ordinary enough on the outside, hides a great treasure inside: its marvellous 15th century woodwork. There is a magnificent rood screen and a pulpit with a spectacular array of painted panels depicting saints and bishops. Some bear the marks of later history, like Gregory the Great whose face has been angrily scratched out, presumably by a reformer or a puritan. A conservator was working on these gorgeous furnishings and spoke about them in ways that showed how much of a labour of love this was. The church is also proud of the fact that the Victorian writer Charles Kingsley was born in the vicarage and was baptised at the font.

Holne is a peaceful place that you reach by driving cautiously along narrow meandering Devon lanes that cut right into the surface of this hill country. From time to time a distant view of the moor breaks through the steep banks and tall hedgerows . Hydrangeas and honeysuckle flower colourfully in front of sweet little cottages. Cats bask in the balm of a warm July evening. We have seen a handsome golden retriever in the village, just like the ones who befriended us 40 years ago. 

A driver stops to ask us the way to Hexworthy. We haven't the faintest idea. It somehow feels apt to lose your way in this honeysuckled lotus-land of Holne.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Black Flags over Mosul

The black flags of Isis are flying over Christian churches in Mosul. It is heartbreaking to think of what they symbolise: the ruthless persecution of innocent Christian men, women and children who are fleeing for safety from the city that has been their home for generations. The doorposts of Christian homes are now marked by a blood-red symbol: the Arabic letter N for Nazarene. It means they are to be slaughtered.

Mosul was already ancient when Christians first settled there in the 2nd century. It stands on the Tigris, one of the rivers that watered the Fertile Crescent and on whose banks some of the oldest civilisations in the world were established. Across the river stood the proud city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, where Sennacherib built a great palace in about 700BCE - you can see his magnificent palace reliefs in the British Museum. 

Mosul played a central part in the growth of Christianity in early times. By the 6th century, it was a bishopric of the Assyrian (Chaldean) Church. Some of the world's oldest Christian communities were founded in what is now Iraq, and the valley of the Tigris was home to many of them. Christians were indigenised there before Islam arrived. And when it did, a modus vivendi enabled Christians and Muslims for most of the subsequent centuries to live peaceably together. 

These ancient Christian communities harmed no one, did not subvert Islam, did not antagonise their Muslim neighbours. On the contrary, their members were exemplary citizens, aware of their minority status in an Islamic environment but respected as adherents of a fellow Abrahamic faith, a people of the book. They did not look for conflict, simply for a safe space in which to practise their faith peacefully as their forebears had done since time immemorial. 

The swift arrival of the radical Sunni movement called Isis has changed all that with a viciousness that has surprised the west. Crosses and statues over Christian churches have been toppled. An 1800 year old church has been destroyed. Christians have been warned: 'if you want to stay alive, convert to Islam at once, or pay the Christian tax (protection money) or get out of the city'. Most are fleeing, perhaps never to return. This exodus was already beginning ten years ago as in other places in Iraq; now it is in full spate. Few are left, for this is no place to stay when lives are at such risk. As are those of Shiite Muslims too - something we mustn't forget.

We weep with these exiles who weep beside the waters of Babylon. We pray for them, and as churches in safe, peaceful western Europe, we shall support them through refugee and aid agencies that are working to bring assistance as quickly as they can. They need to know that they can count on us not to forget them in their great need. They need to know that we shall keep their story alive in the media so that the nation is aware of their plight.

But there is something else we must do. It is to resist demonising Islam because of the cruelty of this rogue movement. Isis, like its parent body Al Qaeda, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, is utterly untypical of mainstream Islam. We mustn't allow these terrible events to cloud our response to a noble world faith with its values of dignity, honour and reverence for life. Instead we should make common cause with our Muslim friends and neighbours to denounce violence and terror, and support them as they speak out against the atrocities perpetrated in their name. The more they can do this, the more chance there is that radicalisation will be stanched before its poison gets expressed in bullets and bombs.

I once sat down with a senior imam I'd got to know. He too was a Sunni, from Saudi Arabia, not a westernised Muslim like most I had met. He gave me a copy of the Qur'an in which he had underlined the passages that spoke well of Christians. 'You are among these' he said, pointing to the Cathedral. So I asked him about the passages where Christians are derided or criticised. 'Those are about renegades who deny the Abrahamic faith' he said, 'not loyal, faithful, god fearing people like you.' 

I guess that Islam's reading of Christianity is a more complex matter, where so much is coloured by history; but I remember that encounter with warmth. It helped me to understand the respect with which Islam has in its best époques regarded Christianity. This, I think, is more characteristic of it than the bitterness and hatred that each day's headlines seem to underline and which do so much to fuel the Islamophobia that is becoming a worrying aspect of modern western attitudes. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Losing a Son to the Holy War

It is shocking to learn of Muslims from Britain who have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria and Iraq. The summons to jihad has proved irresistible. These young men are often bright and talented with great futures opening up before them. Now they are committed to killing in the name of a holy war.


I have been moved by listening to the father of Nasser, one of these young men. Nasser is from Cardiff and planned to go to medical school. He was brought up in a committed Muslim family whose values are 100% British. ‘This is my country’ says his father. ‘It is his country. He was born here in the hospital down the road. He has been educated here.’ Now he features in a recruitment video called 'There’s No Life Without Jihad'What has devastated his parents is that this has come out of the blue. ‘I was shocked, I was sad, I cried’ his father says. ‘It feels as if the ground under my feet has disappeared.’ Another of his sons is also missing, presumed to have gone with his brother. It’s a double tragedy.


It seems that the lad’s idealism wedded to his feeling for suffering people has made him a ready victim to those who have set out to radicalise him and others like him.The video depicts a man his parents can’t recognise any more as the son they love and have nurtured, so far-reaching has been the change in him. They have to conclude that his mind has come under not just the influence but the control of others; it has flipped into a wholly different way of reading the world from his moderate (his father’s word) Islamic upbringing. This kind of extreme religion is a world away from his formation as a child and an adolescent. He has, so to speak, been kidnapped by practitioners of religious craziness. He is a hostage. 


Every parent will empathise with this father’s moving testimony to his lost son. You worry about your kids: will they pass their exams? will they get involved with drugs or crime? will they find good partners? will they turn out to be the responsible citizens we bring them up to be? But jihad isn't on the radar. When something like this happens, I imagine it is a kind of death. I think of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. He had no choice but to watch his son abandon his family and leave for a far country. He could not know if he would ever see him again. He knew the sorrow of bereavement.


But that father never stops loving his son. When he falls on hard times, comes to his senses and decides to return, his father goes running to meet him. There is embracing, reconciliation, the joy of a welcome home. From the way he talks about him, I sense that Nasser’s father is like that. Far from disowning his son, he will go on loving him. It’s too painful to keep the family photos on show, so he has put them away. ‘Then we will have to wait.’ This is precisely what love entails. Like Jesus in the upper room, when we truly love, we go on loving to the end. However much waiting it means. 


And I believe that this is the clue. It would be so easy to be furious with a son who has done something as bizarre as this. The point is, he is a victim too. It's hard to see it this way, but it's important. He is no longer his own person: he has become someone else. This is how radicalisers work. Young men don't join radical jihadist groups. They are recruited. The blame lies not with the victim but with those who are exerting coersive power over him, altering his mind, reducing it to a state of unthinking obedience to the group’s doctrine. To see this happen to your child must be heartbreaking.


These are parents who have done all they could for their son. Now there is nothing left for them to do except to wait, and say their prayers, and if possible, try to find hope. In all its precariousness and pain, this is what love means: to go on holding and embracing him in their hearts, right to the end. 


We are with them in this terrible ordeal. As is God who is always the Compassionate and Merciful.