Friday, 21 June 2013

'Landscapes of Faith' is here!

I hope this is not seen as an act of shameless self-promotion.  But yesterday, an advance copy of my new book Landscapes of Faith: the Christian Heritage of North East England was delivered. It is published by Third Millennium International, and I have to admit that I am proud of how good it looks. It will be available in early July, maybe sooner.
 
'What's the use of a book without pictures or conversation?' asks Alice. Well, this glossy large-format book at least has plenty of pictures. And even if some will look mainly at the photographs and sit loose to the text, why not? I have bought many a book just to enjoy the images.
 
I spoke about 'my' book. I must at once nuance what it says on the cover.  I am not the author of all of its text or images, more like the mysterious Mr W. H., the 'onlie begetter' of Shakespeare's Sonnets. I had an idea which caught on. A lot of talented people have played a part in its realisation over the two years we have worked on this project. I pay tribute to them and thank them.  It's only really 'mine' in the sense that I have long wanted to have something attractive and accessible that would celebrate the North East's Christian past and how it lives on. I didn't want to focus simply on famous buildings like Durham Cathedral and great artefacts like the Lindisfarne Gospel Book. There are many less well known, even secret, places that tell their own moving story about a living Christian presence right up to today.
 
I have loved writing my sections of text and travelling up and down the North East to photograph for the book. The timing is deliberate: we wanted to contribute something to this summer's exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels in the University's library on the Durham World Heritage Site. The Gospels are so emblematic of the North East that it seemed apt to publish a book that set it in this larger regional context.
 
But Landscapes is not confined to the 'classical' Saxon and Norman periods. We wanted to portray the rich Christian heritage of this part of England in the broadest possible way, from Saxon shrines to urban parish churches, and from remote Methodist chapels to the self-conscious splendour of the legacy of the Prince Bishops. We wanted to reflect how landscapes and townscapes have both influenced how Christian communities have been shaped, and how these communities in turn have shaped their settings.
 
In the book, I wrote:
 
We need to know our history, read our landscapes, understand our communities.  We need to sit still in our north-east’s sacred spaces and listen to what they have to tell us.  This book is offered as a contribution to this all-important conversation with our past, present and future.

The title Landscapes of Faith implies something that is visible and tangible, that can be travelled to and enjoyed for all that delights and inspires.  But the true ‘landscapes of faith’ are those of the mind and heart of individual human beings and the communities they belong to. The places we visit in this book are signs of this life of faith, hope and love that despite the depredations of secularising modernity persists across the North East as it does everywhere.  It continues to express itself with the same conviction and vitality as it has always done.  The saints, long dead, still speak to us of a message they described as good news, a life-changing gospel. They would have understood the phrase ‘landscapes of faith’ and wanted us to invest it with new meaning for our own times.
 
I hope that this book may make a small contribution to what I see as the important task of rescuing the idea of 'heritage' from a dangerous obsession with simply preserving the 'past' at all costs. Instead, we need it to be a living entity with surprising power not simply to give us pleasure, education and enjoyment, but to touch our lives in ways that are both inspiring and life-changing.
 
ISBN 978 1 906507 89 3.  www.tmiltd.com

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Bishops and Same-Sex Marriage

I got into trouble on Face Book yesterday over the Bishop of Leicester's statement as convenor of the bishops in the House of Lords about equal (same-sex) marriage.

To recap, Lord Dear's so-called 'wrecking amendment' was decisively defeated in the House of Lords. It had been supported by most bishops, though a number abstained. None voted against. Bishop Stevens' statement said that in the light of the clear majorities in both Houses, the bishops needed to 'recognise the implications of this decision and to join with other Members in the task of considering how this legislation can be put into better shape'. In that context he mentioned fidelity in marriage and the rights of children. 'It is crucial that marriage as newly defined is equipped to carry within it as many as possible of the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace.  Our focus during the Committee and Report stages...will be to address these points in a spirit of constructive engagement.'

On FB, I suggested that given the bishops' well-known and publicly aired hostility to equal marriage, to speak in this rather different tone will have taken courage. For some of them, to recognise that the fight is over and equal marriage is the wish of the majority must have been a bitter pill to swallow. So I want to honour the spirit of Realpolitik that the bishops have shown, even if some of us, with Lord Harries and the Bishop of Salisbury, wish that the Church of England's leadership could have shown a more open and generous attitude to gay people during the debates.

I was in trouble with those who responded by saying that this was too little, too late and too grudging. But I'm reminded of Jesus' parable about the two sons whom their father asked to go and work in his vineyard.  One said yes, but didn't go.  The other said he wouldn't but in time came round and went. It was this son Jesus commended as having ultimately done the right thing. I read the statement as a sign that the bishops intend to be collaborative over equal marriage and help make the measure a better one. For me, this is honourable because it is doing the right thing in the end. Better to be late in doing it than not doing it at all.

As to what the bishops say about marriage, I agree that the proposals are not nearly strong enough on marriage as a covenanted relationship of fidelity.  In this respect, the Archbishop is right: same-sex and other-sex marriages would not be entirely equal. But for this reason, I don't think it is correct to speak about the measure as 'redefining' of marriage. The public covenant between two people who love and wish to belong to each other can and should be precisely the same in both.  It's no more a redefining of marriage than the remarriage of divorced people. In some ways, that is the more radical step to take because it entails considering in what way a covenant that has been broken for whatever reason could be entered into a subsequent time with another partner. So if the church is (largely) content to bless and even solemnise such marriages, this next step of making the institution more inclusive should not necessarily pose new difficulties. To enlarge the scope of an institution is not the same as changing its essential meaning.

There is something worryingly familiar about the bishops' statement however.  It is too often the case that the church is on the back foot, at first resisting social change that is wanted by the majority, then coming round to it slowly and grudgingly. This was precisely the case when artificial contraception was being debated in the early 20th century. Lambeth Conferences were root and branch opposed to the idea that sex could be for recreation as well as procreation. It would have been better to adopt the Gamaliel position of saying 'let us wait and see whether this might be of God'. Much the same can be said about women as priests and bishops in the church.

If you scroll down my blogs on this Woolgathering site, you'll find my piece on Gamaliel and equal marriage.  It's clearer now than then which way history is moving. It's not too late for the Church of England to be on the right side of it this time. Without grudge.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Emotional Monarchist: thoughts on Coronation Day

Today has been a day to think about the monarchy once more. On the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, I preached about the Coronation Oath this morning (weblink below). At evensong we welcomed a large crowd to celebrate the anniversary at a service wonderfully sung by the combined choirs of two local schools, which included Handel’s favourite coronation anthem Zadok the Priest.  I led prayers of thanksgiving and on behalf of the congregation offered congratulations to The Queen.

It posed the question, not for the first time, what kind of monarchist I am. That question needs putting in context.  Like every Church of England priest, I am required to take the oath of allegiance to the Sovereign every time I am appointed to a new post. I have twice been appointed to cathedral deaneries by the Crown, and am also a deputy lieutenant of the County.  So it’s a natural presumption that I am committed to the idea of monarchy and recognise that the constitutional Sovereign has a part to play in the life of both state and church.

I believe I now know where the seat of my loyalty to and affection for the Sovereign lies. It is not so much intellectual as emotional and spiritual. With my mind, I recognise that monarchy is not the only, and not the most obvious, constitutional arrangement for a modern democratic nation-state. Other successful nations are not monarchies. I also recognise the abuses of power perpetrated in the past by absolute monarchs, especially when undergirded by religion under some such rubric as the divine right of kings.  And I am sensitive about the risks of deference, where too high a doctrine of subject-hood and obedience can undermine true citizenship where all participate for the common good.

But the heart has its reasons….

At last year’s Diamond Jubilee, and again today, I have felt a deep sense of attachment to the British monarchy and of gratitude for the way in which our Queen has expressed it over six decades. I don’t need to recapitulate the virtues of dignity, wisdom and Christian faith that have characterised her reign. I said this morning: ‘On this anniversary, we give thanks once again for the faithfulness with which as a Christian queen, Elizabeth has consecrated herself to live her coronation vow. We celebrate her obedience to this vocation: unlooked for, unwanted, thrust upon her by history, yet embodied with dignity and wisdom. Leadership wedded to humane discipleship is a gift to any people’.

The point is, I think, that the reign of a particular king or queen usually happens over a longer time span than any political administration.  This allows a nation’s loyalties to be built up and tested over many years. Perhaps (lots of maybes here) this sense of tradition (= ‘what is handed on’) and continuity helps a nation retain its hold on a sense of history that reaches further back than the last few years.  Perhaps it also helps inculcate the ability (on a good day) to avoid short-termism and take a longer view of the future. Who knows?  It’s important not to claim too much here, but the questions are worth asking.

But most of all, a long reign helps bond sovereign and people together in an almost mystical relationship that is affective rather than cognitive – felt in the heart and spirit rather than simply known in the mind. Of course, that relationship (to which many would give the name of reciprocated love) will itself be subject to fluctuations – like any other. But I think we can say that there is a personal dimension to this relationship of Sovereign to people which draws out our affection, and possibly more, whether we have met her physically or not. And this is where the particular and unique way the Sovereign inhabits (I almost wrote ‘incarnates’) the office is everything.

Elizabeth the Second is the only monarch most of us have known. Who is to say that her example hasn’t helped shape the way my post-war generation came to understand the virtues of duty and responsibility, loyalty and trust, not to say Christian discipleship?  As we honour her today for her consecration to her Coronation Oath, we thank her for what she has embodied for us with dedication for so many years.  We thank God.  And if some of us were a little moved at what we saw and heard today, should that surprise us?  Perhaps quite a lot of us are emotional monarchists, in one sense or another.

Today’s sermon is at http://deanstalks.blogspot.co.uk/