Queue for the Queen

Nobody shouted where to go.

We came, intent on following;

The mats and metalled pens

the only guides we need.

One path we tread

through twists and turns,

a nation slowly on the move,

from Edmonton and Pontefract,

Cheam, Didcot, Exeter and Bow.

We come to keep the night watch

Of the one we loved.

‘God help me to make good my vow,

and God bless all of you

who are willing to share in it.’

You kept your vow, Ma’am.

Tonight we must keep ours.

Those words came to me as we wound our way through the first snake of the queue in Southwark Park that would lead to the Queen’s lying in state. I joined the queue just after 10pm on Friday 16 September, together with our daughter and son-in-law. This was a cultural moment, the passing of an epoch, and we had to share in it. Somehow, the need to process it here is a therapy, as so often in grief. Someone precious has been taken from us, the embodiment of the kingdom. At the same time, our constitution is on display and functioning. A nation is revealed.

In the middle of Southwark Park is a bandstand, and the avenues of metal barriers funnelled us down a set of zigzags that snaked round the edge of the crowd. Heavy plastic matting marked the paths. Large flood lights shone at intervals, casting shadows. Soon we were the crowd, following dog-legged avenues that led us back to the bandstand, shifting a few yards with each turn. Everybody chatted easily, united by a sense of purpose and determined to keep each other’s spirits up. A sweet Ghanaian couple from North London, a book salesman from OUP who was born in Bangladesh. A lady from Halifax discussed the Piece Square back home and introduced her Japanese daughter-in-law. Many nations bringing their heritage to enrich one nation. Onwards we snaked, like a production line that is suddenly in motion and then stock still. For the fifteenth time we neared the band stand – would we ever escape it, standing empty and silent? Perhaps it should have been belting out ‘Colonel Bogey’ or ‘The Great Escape’, but at midnight we wouldn’t want to stir the neighbours. Ten thousand people in a park, moving when ready, quietly chatting, patiently waiting. We know what to do.

On the final turn, we approached the gate. Police held the traffic and we moved along Cathay Street. Were people asleep in their beds unaware of the silent footfall beneath their balconies? Beneath the fletton bricks of Paradise Street we received our purple wrist bands marked ‘LISQ’. Then the brakes were off and the moving tide of humanity swept along Bermondsey Beach and past a merry gang of fireman in Bermondsey Wall, halting among the former warehouses of Butler’s Wharf. Whoever picked this route was a genius, leading us through London’s vanished docks, down streets and past courts bearing the names of our Victorian trading past. If anywhere shouted ‘change’ it was here, yet the dockers steel walkways above our heads had been preserved, and cinnamon warehouses repurposed as restaurants for the rich.

In my childhood, Tower Bridge was synonymous with Thames Television and universally grey. Now it is refurbished, and its towers lit in purple in the dark, an alkaline litmus test of Britishness that bleeds into the water. If in any way Britain is your home, it stirs the soul. HMS Belfast, the navy cruiser that served on D-Day, has her superstructure lit in purple. She was launched by Mrs Chamberlain when the Queen was only ten, and must wonder how it is she has outlived her Queen.

A team of volunteers guide us through another snake beside the Bridge Theatre and while I wait, I chat to two of them, both Civil Servants. Imagine the email memo that summoned them. Legislative affairs directors and finance clerks don their light blue vests and feel the power of directing willing human traffic. Why were we held in our metal pens at the end of the snake while the path cleared ahead of us? Simply so that when we were released, we could pick up speed and stretch our calves and quads. A mind that studied crowd control had shaped this route. Deep vein thrombosis would be discouraged.

As we round the back of Southwark Cathedral we pause, and the tower looms above us. Beyond it the Shard is ever present. A line of people five deep stand almost silent, thoughtful, uncomplaining, wrapped against the cold. Then, as we draw level with Shakespeare’s Globe, the line halts. A halt becomes a stasis. Not for the first time, I ring my brother who is three hours ahead. They have reached the London Eye, but nothing is moving. Westminster Hall is closed for cleaning at 2am, and a funeral rehearsal is also stopping anything from moving. Outside the Globe, wreaths of rosemary are hung ‘for remembrance’. We all begin to freeze as the wind blows off the river. Then we see a tea stand hard at work, and a new queue forms. Four ladies at the front spend twenty minutes getting their order right, and it is the only time that the harmony of the night is disturbed. A young man called Jack* waits with me, and a more irate lady in a very woolly red hat. I am shivering in my suit. As more and more are wrapped in blankets, we resemble something more pathetic, we poor, we huddled masses. If the Globe were offering us Waiting for Godot it would seem almost appropriate. Yet the operation of the tea stand is the only complaint. We know where we are heading, and we are glad to do so.

Finally, the queue is moving, and behind us there is a hint of dawn, which is greeted with muffled joy. St Paul’s stands regally over the water, emblem of all that survived the blitz. Dawn disturbs the pigeons from their perches near Tate Modern and they sweep above our heads. By now we are counting bridges (where did they find Roberto Calvi?), spotting landmarks, pondering how eyesores stand side by side with regency splendour, a queue of buildings lining the north bank as haphazard as ourselves, brought together in no particular order by history.

We pass the lurid concrete forest of pillars, covered in graffiti, that prop up the Queen Elizabeth Hall (A crime it bears her name! Blow up the pillars! Tear it down now! What were they thinking?! ‘We (she?) gave the architect a knighthood so that no one would say that!’). Under Waterloo Bridge and there, glistening and gleaming in the morning light is the Mother of Parliaments. The early enthusiasm of Southwark Park, and the cold of the night, are replaced with a growing sense of sombre destiny.

After the dark of the night, the Elizabeth Tower rising above Westminster bridge shines in all its newly gilded splendour. Everyone reaches for their phones as we turn left to descend to the embankment, with the impulse to take the perfect photo. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please avoid taking photos while walking down the stairs, to avoid accidents.’ We laugh to hide our embarrassment. Imagine having to say that every three minutes all day long.

We pass the covid memorial wall and admire Parliament’s venetian reflections in the Thames. The weather is perfection. At last we are crossing Lambeth bridge, and we enter the final snake. A TV camera sits on a high mast, and as we walk the forty or so laps of the famous snake, slowly we edge nearer. The security check tent is ringed by armed police, then we are through. Tired, with aching back, and building emotions, the sense of the journey falls away and suddenly we have arrived.

Standing at the top of the steps I sigh at the grandeur of the hall. A VIP group slips in from St Stephens Hall. As we descend the steps and wait our turn, I pray, giving thanks for Her Majesty, her faith and service, and praying for the nation’s spiritual renewal. Then everything is a silent assault on the senses. The crimson, navy and gold of the royal standard. The yeoman warders and the guards stock still as Madame Tussauds. The Parliamentary messengers marshalling us with silent dignity and gestures. The height of the coffin. Here is our Queen in regal splendour, her reign completed, her service discharged. Beneath the mediaeval beams the candles flicker. We three turn together and bow.

As we leave, the older man ahead of us turns and walks backwards to the exit, transfixed by the sight. A row of journalists look down from their perch, intrigued. We reach the doorway, turn to look back, and Meg dissolves in floods of tears. We hug and I lose it as well.

In a republic, power changes hands in the charged hype of an election. The people pluck someone from relative obscurity, and we start to discover who they are. An inauguration is a strange combination of celebration and exasperation. In a constitutional monarchy, the crown changes hands in grief – the grief of a family and the grief of a nation. Any sense of rejoicing is absent. It marks the end of life as well as the end of service, and a new monarch receives the crown under God, not as the successful candidate, but as a servant called to be faithful. It has been a privilege to mark that passing in such as public way.

*Jack was filmed by Channel 4 news as we reached the end of the queue, along with a girl called Zoe. They had met in the queue just a few places behind us, and become firm friends, finding they had lots in common. They had agreed to meet again in London on the Monday for the funeral. See what you make of the video – was this #LoveInTheQueue? The making of a Richard Curtis movie? I would love to know.

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Bumping along in the post-Covid backwash

Image: Marian Trizuliak/Unsplash

Heading into this New Year, life ought to be feeling better, as restrictions ease and the days lengthen, but if the truth be told, things feel odd. It’s hard to put your finger on it. There is a mood, an inertia, a stasis, that I cannot quite pin down. If this is the return to real, normal life, what is it that we are missing? How have we been affected by the storm we have endured these last two years? (Indeed, is it actually over yet?) It’s hard to say, but while our focus has been on infection rates and vaccination statistics, several things seem to have had a bigger effect than we realise.

Let me say that I have come through this so far without catching Covid. I am triple-jabbed and thankful for the protection that the vaccines have given me. I have not endured the experience of some, and I know only too well as a pastor that Covid has been a dreadful experience for many millions who have caught the virus and then suffered horrendous complications. I am so thankful for all in our caring professions, for the brilliant work they have done under inexorable pressure.

My concern here is to discuss the collateral damage to the wider culture in the wake of the pandemic. As we bump along in the backwash of Covid, it is time to look at how it has distorted our culture, and how that distortion may never come back into shape. Here are a few things that I am starting to notice, almost as though they are now permanent fixtures in our changed culture:

1. Distance. Two years ago it felt rude to avoid people on the street and give them a wide berth. If you hung back in the supermarket queue, you were implying that the person in front had an odour problem. Now we all keep our two metres, even when we don’t have to (unless you are on the London tube), and it is normal for us to sit in church with the seats spread out. As a pastor, I have tried to visit people where I can, by going for a walk together, or having brave souls round to lunch in a much-ventilated conservatory. However, the normal pastor’s offer ‘Can I come round one evening?’ feels unusual, and growing connection with people is going to take longer than we thought.

2. Facelessness. Matthew Mason has written a brilliant piece on this subject, ‘With unveiled faces’, surveying the rich theme of the face in Scripture, and the way that masks have distorted our social interaction. He says, ‘when we are confronted by a human body with a masked face, we encounter a person only in an attenuated sense. In the absence of a countenance, a personal encounter is all but impossible. In spending months behind masks in public, persons have been defaced and our communities therefore effaced.’ I believe he is right. When infection rates were high, and the virus was potent and life-threatening for some, masks were an understandable limitation on our daily lives that cost little. I hope they worked, but I have my doubts. They came with a huge social cost. Human beings have been made with faces that can convey dozens of different expressions. Have you ever sat in a train or an airport departure lounge and watched the faces around you? Faces filled with excitement, romance, fear or boredom; older faces etched with experience, younger faces filled with beauty. As a preacher I ache to see a response in the faces to which I preach, to feel a connection, to see more than an eyebrow, but masks have made preaching feel sterile. Because we do not show our faces, we do not bear our souls, and our shared experience of singing God’s praise is a muffled, uncertain sound, challenged by hyperventilation. Even when we see our faces unmasked on Zoom, the lens distorts, the broadband flickers, there is no close eye-contact, and the subtle intuitions that can be conveyed in a human glance, expressed through all forty-two muscles of the face, are the most muted part of the encounter, a strange grey apology for real communion with one another.

3. Newsgloom. Broadcast news is gloomy at the best of times, but the past two years have deepened that significantly. We hear the daily case and death statistics, and the general tone is solemn and brooding. One friend says he limits himself to one news bulletin a day because it is so depressing. We have become a culture so sad, and so determined to show the virtue of its sadness to anyone who might dare to be happy about something, that we have forgotten how to smile. Newsgloom smothers us like a fire-blanket, ready to stifle anyone who dares to be cheerful.

4. Boredom. Those who came home alive from World War Two often found the routines of daily life boring and hard to adjust to. They had endured unspeakable drama, and life would always be dull by comparison. The early days of the pandemic had that sense of drama, of strangeness and a sense of public cohesion. Great things were done together, and there was a supreme public effort. Now that has dissipated. We have become used to being at home, working from home, and following the same routines that were learned early on in lockdown. We have become compliant. That makes us boring to others and bored with ourselves. Admittedly, two months before lockdown I left a job that had taken me all over the country and all over the world, and we settled in a new housing estate, so for me it may be more pronounced. Yet so much still seems to be on hold, and that brings a boredom that crushes the soul.

5. Creative stasis. I find that two years of Covid restrictions have stifled my creativity. I can’t prove this, of course. Any of us can get a creative block at the best of times, but look at the date of my previous blog post! I know some people have written novels while furloughed, and some great new hymns have emerged, but I find the combination of factors just leaves me mentally gridlocked. With all the extra technology, life just seems to take longer and have less soul. Maybe I always found my inspiration by sitting on a train. It gave me a wider context and space to think, which seems to be lacking. It’s also hard to show initiative when you can’t plan long-term, because who knows what the next wave will bring? We made some plans for the summer in our church members’ meeting, but you don’t want to be too ambitious or nail things down in detail if it all gets thrown in the bin by a new variant.

6. Bigstate. The Government put tough limits on our civil liberties, as we would have expected in a war, and how could we disagree? While some restrictions have eased, I still feel queasy about reporting every flow test into a system that knows me, and knows so much about me, and will supply me with many more tests for free. At the same time, people have come to expect more from the state – a furlough scheme should things ever get bad again, and grant aid and rate relief for every failing business. We found the magic money tree without Jeremy Corbyn’s help, and it keeps on printing more. The state has changed in the last two years, but I don’t think we have noticed, or have any idea about how to stop the juggernaut.

7.  Fear. Our social discourse is now shot through with an Orwellian fear. Radio adverts assault us with emotional stories about Covid to urge us to get vaccinated, as though none of us have. The word ‘variant’ has been loaded with a doomsday tone that tells us any such variant will probably be worse. Labelling Omicron with a Greek letter most people did not know gave it a menace it did not possess. While the journalists quietly admitted that it might be less severe, they piled on the agony by telling us ‘it was too soon to say.’ Still each day the deaths are tolled, masking (forgive me) the fact that every day people die of many things, and every year half a million die in Britain. If you cease to believe in God and eternal life, this life is all you have, and death means the destruction of the future. We are living in a culture of fear without hope.

8. Extremism. I used to think that conspiracy theorists limited themselves to the death of JFK, 9/11, and the ‘fake’ moon landings, almost as a marginal hobby. You could buy the books in The Works when they were remaindered for £2. It was all tosh. I am staggered that people I have met can actually take these theories seriously, even to the point of raiding Covid testing stations, marching down Whitehall, and publishing their own newspaper. Someone I met on street outreach tried to convince me that we were living in a glass dome somewhat like the Truman show, that the Queen is dead, and Trump is the Messiah. She made predictions about Trump’s imminent return that would make a Jehovah’s Witness blush. We have to try and understand what makes people believe such nonsense in a post-truth world, and teach people to think for themselves and recover their critical faculties. But it is not just that end of the spectrum. The other extreme, the ardent lockdowners, are just as dedicated to their cause. In Western Australia, on 23 Jan the State Premier Mark McGowen announced 23 cases of Covid, with no hospitalisations. He published the stats on Twitter and people replied, pleading for a lockdown. ‘Please Mark lock us down for 2 weeks just to be safe. Protect us for (sic) this horrible disease. People are going to die in fear if you don’t.’ As David Robertson pointed out, this is Stockholm Syndrome. The public discourse has become afraid of both extremes, and it is increasingly hard for the middle ground to be heard.   

If this is the backwash of Covid, how can we live differently in such tormented times? Christian churches are called to be a ‘colony of heaven’ settled within a world that lives very differently. In so many ways, the shared life of a church should be tangibly different, and refreshingly so. We should be a place of community and belonging, not distance and distrust. We should be a place where people come to express their souls together, because to sing God’s praise is a transforming experience, the discovery of our true destiny and fulfilment in worshipping him. At the heart of a church’s life should be the gospel – good news! The great antidote to Newsgloom is the idea that a benign and gracious God is in sovereign control of history, and his purposes have not run out of road. Gospel churches gather to tell his story, for history is in his hands. We gather to remove the inner masks of the soul, to be our true selves, accepted by God in Christ and on the basis of all he has done for us, so that we can leave religious pretence behind. We do not buy into the fear narrative that prevails, because we know the God who is above all the things that we fear. Rather, we are people of hope and the future. A vital part of the Christian faith is the bright, eternal hope towards which we are travelling through life. Old age becomes, not the twilight zone of nostalgia and fading memory, but the bright approaching future of heaven and eternal life. The Christian church hasn’t changed as a result of Covid. What we believe, the great truths that make us who we are, and the ways that we should live together and serve others, are just as they were two years ago. Covid has changed the world around us, and in those changes the local church has become the startling contrast that the world is looking for, the aroma of heaven that people so badly need.  

I have a dream

MLK

I have a dream.

I have a dream of a world where every nation affirms this truth to be self-evident, that all nations are created equal. It is a dream of a world of rich diversity, of many cultures and languages, shaped by different climates and histories, woven together to make a rich tapestry of nationhoods settled side by side. I have a dream of a world where nations live together in humility and respect, seeking to learn from one another, travelling and trading together, marrying and giving in marriage so that the cords of tribe and blood thread through national boundaries and are woven deep into the fabric of each other’s national story. I have a dream of a world of nations where each country rules itself, respecting the right of other nations to decide differently, to travel a different road, organise a different way, design different homes, create a different culture and write their own story, yet all the time knowing that our destiny is tied up with the destiny of each and every nation of the human race. I have a dream of a world where nations do not find the need to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred, but learn to listen, to understand, to share the cup of human sympathy with people from all nations as we sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream of a world where all nations fill the earth as God intended, and seek to steward its beauty and riches together for all, in a world where all nations seek to live together for the glory of God.

I have a dream.

I also have two nightmares. The first nightmare is nationalism, the idolatry of one’s own nation to the exclusion of all others. It is the nightmare that hates, suspects, blames, excludes, and ridicules other nations as the source of all our problems. It promises that if we cut ourselves off from these evil, conspiring nations that surround us, we have no fault in ourselves and we can create a haven from the world on the shores of our exceptionalism. It is the nightmare that believes the secular lie that the human race should be divided by the anthropologist’s categories of race, that ours is to be classed as superior, and that such perverted science somehow gives us the right to exclude, oppress  and exploit others, or worse. It is the nightmare that provokes others to be our enemies, to distrust and hate us by the way we exploit or threaten them. It is the nightmare that replaces contentment with selfish ambition, that makes a nation want to expand beyond its borders and control others, to exhume ancient grievances and use them to our own ends, to spread violence and export death. It is the nightmare that destroys, and leaves a generation of the young laid side by side in cemeteries of futility while streets and homes lie in ruins.

The second nightmare is globalism, the idea that the powerful can conform this world of nations to their will. It is the nightmare that says ‘Our way is best. We are the civilised, the rich, the wise and the mighty. You must become one of us. This is the way the world is now. It is our world.’ So often this nightmare takes root from good intentions, to sever the root of nationalism and end the curse of war. It begins with high ideals, the powerful urge to improve the lot of others, the desire to spread civilisation, education and proper drains to all, to bring stability across national boundaries, to spread the rule of law.  It begins with a dream of freedom, but it becomes a system of power in which the proud nations dominate and oppress the humble. Quiet and unassuming cultures are suppressed, local knowledge and the wisdom of the centuries is ignored, the rich inheritance of many heart languages conformed to a few imperial tongues that most never fully understand or count as their own. The dream becomes a nightmare when a treaty between nations signed as equals becomes an empire that must control, an orthodoxy that must not be challenged, and a government beyond scrutiny that operates without consent. I have a nightmare of empires that rise with high intentions, but which succumb to the hubris of Babel, and like Babylon the Great they fall with a great crash. And when they fall, because they gathered wealth together in a few places, they leave many nations impoverished, peoples scattered, lives destroyed, justice frustrated and cities in ruins.

Must these two nightmares always shape our lives? All the while there is evil desire in the human heart, they will. The present convulsions of several nations and empires only serve to bear out what I am saying. The divide between populists on the one hand and liberal/imperial elites on the other shows that both sides have pursued their own nightmare, to try and defeat the other. It is time to reject both and to listen to the prophet of old who called us to ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8). It is at this point that many Christians shrug their shoulders at the evil of the world and say ‘It will only happen in the New Creation.’ Yes, it will. My dream will be perfectly fulfilled in the New Creation, when evil will be banished forever, and these words will at last be true ‘He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them as their God’ (Rev 21:3) To quote Martin Luther-King correctly, as he quoted Isaiah, ‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low.’

But is that just for the New Creation? The Lord Jesus taught us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10). We are to build a world where evil, hatred, oppression and despair are met by the redemption that is found in Christ alone. We will not find the answer in the idolatry of nationalism, or in the idolatries of empire. We will begin to find it only when we pursue the dream of nations living in humility under God, reconciled in Christ as friends.

The cure for Brexit hypertension

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Britain collapsed into Easter, exhausted by our broken politics. Easter was a strange lull. Whole news bulletins went by without any mention of Brexit. Laura Kuennsberg had a holiday. John Bercow cleared the lobbies. Christians humbled themselves before their crucified Lord, and then celebrated his resurrection, even as we mourned the senseless murder of Sri Lankan Christians. In our church, one of our much loved members died of cancer in the early hours of Good Friday, and my daughter’s church mourned the death of a young Christian couple on holiday. These are the really great things of life and death.

Then after Easter, with a six month delay in place, and all combatants hanging on the ropes battered and bruised, we tried to build up for the next round, but it was all about St Theresa leaving the ring – when, and how soon. April and May have been the Brexit phoney war, but our national identify crisis is soon to be back upon us.

Can I then make a plea, to myself and to all my friends, to listen, and to try and empathise with the other side?

The leave and remain camps are arguing their cases for different reasons. Both do so sincerely. Where the argument goes wrong is where they try to explain the other side.

The leave argument is a constitutional case. Leave to take back control of our money, laws and borders, to renew the parliamentary life of government and shift power back from Brussels. It is to do something wholly new, radical and risky – to run ourselves, even when that is out of step with the international consensus. It is not fundamentally an economic argument, except in regard to being free traders. The bus slogan was not what it was about. It is a revolt against globalisation and a desire to pursue nationhood.

I may be wrong but I think the Remain argument is mostly an economic one. Leaving will damage the economy, which is on the precipice, jobs will go on a large scale, EU tariffs will destroy our exports. The current system works for us pragmatically so why chuck it all in the bin?  It is a view expounded by captains of industry, the CBI and the TUC. Many academics fear it will threaten their academic links with continental universities, and cut research funding. We never seem to hear any remainers saying they want to stay in the EU to gain some great influence at the heart of Europe, or because the EU is the great guardian of democratic accountability.

Is there any point in either side pounding each other with these arguments? They leave the other saying ‘So what, but….’ and flinging their counter-argument back. It is like listening to two grown men comparing football and rugby. What’s the point?

How should Christians negotiate this divide? Can I suggest we take hold of two virtues – humility and contentment – and rediscover a biblical idea we lost at the Enlightenment – a biblical understanding of nationhood.

The problem is that we are being pulled two ways, by nationalism and globalism. Nationalism idolises our nation above all others, sees us as being blessed by some kind of exceptionalism and the rest of the world ought to admire us. Classic examples are imperial Britain, Apartheid South Africa, Jim Crow American white supremacy (though the American Dream is still nationalism), not to mention the BJP in India, or the new attitude in China.

Globalism fights against nationalism, but is equally doctrinaire. In the name of progress, especially economic growth, we need to supersede borders and pursue a world order, or should that be ‘our world order’ in the west,  because globalisation looks very different if you come from Peru or Burkina Faso. Imperial languages and cultures dominate, multinational corporations overpower developing governments, or indeed any government that wants to stand up to them. Towers of Babel are built by oppression and domination, but the globalist says ‘That is the way things are now. If you can’t beat em, you’d better join em!’

Nationalism lacks humility, but so does globalism. Both of them are possessed by the same ‘but we know better’ attitude. Nations should live under God with humility, esteeming other cultures as rich and diverse compared to their own, at ease with the fact that they are just one nation of many, that nations rise and fall in God’s providence, and that we have much to learn from each other, that we are small and just passing through. ‘The Lord looks down from heaven. He sees all the children of man. From where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.’ Ps.33:13-15.

Both nationalism and globalism lack contentment. Nationalism will blame the other for all our woes, without realising that the nations of the earth have been exploring and trading with each other ever since the sons of Gomer climbed into a boat and sailed down the Mediterranean in search of other coasts (Gen. 10:3-4). Nationalists are possessed by a discontented hatefulness towards other nations that so often spills over into war. If we could only live at ease with ourselves under God, and recognise that Germans will build better cars, Italians will perform better operas, Guineans will grow the best mangoes, Indians will grow better spices and Filipinos will make better Kleenex, we could contentedly trade our whisky and Land Rovers and costume dramas and play our part in the world. But does that require us to be bound into some regional or global power block purely for economic reasons? Must we be part of the globalist juggernaut because economic growth is all that matters? If it gives us oceans filled with plastic and skies filled with CO2 vapour trails, because we think secular western wealth is everything, what have we missed? We have missed the truth that every nation should live ‘under heaven’ with humility and contentment, where our first duty is to love and worship God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to seek justice, live mercy and above all walk humbly with our God.

How many steps from the political precipice?

cliffs-509915_1920Who would be an MP this week? The pressures on Parliament are colossal, the consequences of their decision unknown, party loyalties are breaking down, the government whip is in tatters, the Speaker is making decisions on the hoof. Journalists seem to be struggling to know how to report it (except for the exceptional Brexitcast), which means the public cannot comprehend what is going on. Are we in similar territory to 1940 (the final 15 minutes of the film Darkest Hour make interesting viewing in this context), or is this more 1974, or perhaps 1931? It is certainly in the same league as these other seismic moments in British politics. The tectonic plates are shifting. No one knows who will be left standing after the shocks subside.

In the context of all this noise, a decision has to be made. Is it betraying the wishes of the British people to pass Mrs May’s agreement? It is a convoluted ‘dog’s Brexit’ of a deal. The backstop is a nightmare if we end up in it, and it will require the EU to demonstrate a great deal of good will if it is not to cause uproar in British politics. We could be tied into a customs arrangement that could run for years, while goods made in Northern Ireland will carry a UK(NI) label, effectively differentiating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland would be more closely tied to the EU than the rest of the UK under the backstop, a situation that might be tolerated as a necessity for a year, but could have untold consequences in the venomous politics of Northern Ireland. Many see this all as a ploy to tie the UK to the EU long enough for a remain-friendly government to come along and lead us back in, in which scenario we would then have to sign up to the Euro and Schengen, and a bigger budget contribution. The Withdrawal Agreement has a lot to be said against it.

On the other hand, it is only the Withdrawal Agreement. This often gets forgotten, but it is not our long-term relationship with the EU. It could cease to apply as soon as January 2021, if both sides get on with negotiating the long-term relationship. The Withdrawal Agreement contains some good measures, such as the rights of EU and UK citizens to residency, how the jurisdiction of the ECJ comes to an end in the UK, how we leave Euratom and the European Investment Bank, and so on. If we throw these achievements away, think of the attrition this would cause in UK/EU relations. Above all, by voting it down by two catastrophic margins, the UK has registered in no uncertain terms that it is a bad deal, but if no-deal is not available we have to hold our noses and go for it. Our only hope of a no-deal is that some EU state (Lithuania?) or the EU Parliament might yet veto the deal and reject any article 50 extension, in which case no-deal comes back into play. On balance, I think this deal is better than no Brexit, and if no-deal is not available, MPs should vote it through.

That leaves us some much bigger questions to ponder. First, how on earth did we end up in this crouch? The way the UK has handled these negotiations has been dreadful. We should never have submitted to the EU timetable that delayed the meat of the agreement until we had sorted the bill, citizens’ rights and the Irish border. We should have insisted on what everyone knows, that if DPD can deliver a parcel to my door that I can track on the internet, then the technology exists to operate an open border in Ireland (and indeed in Dover) without border guards and fences. This is something the European Parliament admitted long ago.

The whole process of leaving the EU is laughably complicated and stupid. After two years of talks, all we have agreed is a Withdrawal Agreement, a document long on white space and rich in putting the obvious into legalese. We have not even started talks on the trade deal that will make the backstop obsolete! Why on earth not? What could possibly have been wrong with several parallel tracks of talks to agree each area? The trade agreement talks might even have finished first, and all this misery could be over. And remember, this was all new territory for the EU, so there was no precedent to follow, no established way of working, not even ‘the sketch of a plan’ before we voted leave. It was all cooked up after the referendum to be as awkward and possible, in the hope that we might change our minds and come running back, maybe holding that second referendum as the Irish did. Indeed, in less politically correct times we might have said that the whole process was ‘all a bit Irish’, because Ireland gained a prominence and leverage that was all too convenient.

Another problem has been Mrs May’s Messiah complex. She has concentrated the process in No 10, bypassing David Davis and his successors. I wonder why. Is it because she finds it hard to entrust the hard work to others? She must be the one who brings home the deal. She has some striking similarities with American President Woodrow Wilson. He came back from the peace conference in Versailles in 1919, convinced that Congress should pass it into law. He saw himself as the architect of a great peace and that the treaty was the work of ‘the hand of God’, even though it divided the spoils among the European victors’ empires rather than pursuing his ideal of self-determination. But Congress rejected Wilson’s treaty, perhaps because he had never kept channels open with them through the whole process of negotiation. What he achieved in Europe died in Congress. Had he carried Congress with him, the peace deal might have been fairer, and World War Two might have been avoided. The parallels should not be pressed too closely with Mrs May, but she does have only herself to blame for failing to involve the UK Parliament, and the devolved assemblies, in her process. Had she allowed them to have key indicative votes throughout the process, the EU would have known what would fly and what would sink. Instead, she has allowed us to look divided and shambolic, while a clique of Brussels bureaucrats hold the trump cards and smile to themselves. Even now, on the third ‘meaningful vote’, we could strengthen Mrs May’s hand by sending the WA back to the Brussels summit with an explicit amendment: if the backstop is to last longer than a year, the UK and EU Parliaments must be able to vote to approve any extension, and for a fixed term of a year at a time.* Send that into the Brussels summit on Thursday, and Parliament has strengthened her hand. Let the EU leaders respect Parliamentary government.

Does that risk No-deal? Maybe, though the EU hates the idea. We are prepared and stand to gain a great deal. There has been so much talk of the no-deal ‘cliff-edge’, though whenever I have heard a politician say that, the interviewers never ask them to specify what that cliff-edge entails or what exactly we have to fear. No one spells it out, because I suspect we will trade with the EU much as we trade with China, India and Brazil – successfully!

However, there is another Brexit precipice that really scares me – the political precipice of no Brexit. Last week I heard an interview with Iain Duncan-Smith by Peter Hennessey. As the polls were about to close on Referendum Day, Duncan-Smith had given up hope of winning, when he called his election agent in Chingford. He told him that on the council estates people were queuing to get into the polling stations. People were being introduced to a polling booth who had never voted before. It was the first indication of a political earthquake. If we pass this off as ‘a freak snapshot of public opinion’ (as some remainers have), I am concerned about what people will do. This plays into the hands of extremists, and there are some horrible political alternatives out there. People give in to racism when they think they have been ignored. I will never vote for a racist party ever. I wish I could be as confident of the public as a whole. If you look at the steps that took Spain into civil war in the 1930s, or Northern Ireland into the troubles in the late 1960s, we are not that many steps from an equivalent danger. The fabric of our political life is close to threadbare. At a time when we should be charting a course for a post-Brexit future where we can shape our own industrial, employment, agriculture, fisheries and most of all trade policies, we lack any real leaders. Pushing continued membership of the EU will play into that leadership vacuum, and I fear that might precipitate some people into desperate political alternatives. May God spare us from such a catastrophe.

*Addendum. 18/03.19 18:15. In the light of Mr Speaker Bercow’s ruling that a meaningful vote must be different from previous motions to be permitted by the Speaker, this amendment might be a way out of its ever deeper bind for the Government. 

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

President Macron’s Armistice speech – is nationalism the only evil?

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On Sunday 11 November 2018, President Macron of France gave a powerful speech at L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Before him were gathered leaders of the allied powers, including Presidents Trump and Putin. The UK was represented by David Lidington as First Secretary of State. There was no member of the Royal Family present. The Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall is a bigger focus in the British mind.

Those gathered in Paris heard Macron launch a stinging attack on nationalism:

Let us remember: do not deprive anything of what was purity, ideal, superior principles in the patriotism of our elders. This vision of France as a generous nation, of France as a project, of France carrying universal values, was in those dark hours exactly the opposite of the selfishness of a people who look only at their interests. For patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is treason. By saying “our interests first and what do the others matter!” we erase from a nation what is most precious, what makes it live, what brings it to be great, which is the most important: its moral values.

These words were obviously intended to hit out at both President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, and at the manoeuvres of the Putin regime. But we need to define nationalism carefully. Nationalism is not ‘the opposite of patriotism.’ Patriotism is an essential part of our cultural identity and, as Macron explained, is to be lived according to moral values (but which ones?) Nationalism is the perversion of patriotism, because it takes love of one’s own nation one step further by idolising our nation and fearing all others. It does not take much to make that step, because the human condition is sinful, arrogant and inherently proud, and if that is true at the personal level, it is magnified at the national level. Patriotism easily descends into nationalism, a danger we must always be aware of.

But here is Macron’s bigger mistake, even to the point of subtly re-writing history. The First World War was not caused by nationalism, so much as imperialism. True, it was a Serb nationalist who lit the touch-paper by assassinating Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. But the explosion this caused came about because Europe was in the grip of huge rival empires, so powerful that some of them were clubbed together in security pacts to stand against the threat of the others. Britain, France and Russia were tied together by treaty, and Russia felt a close affinity to Serbia as another Slavic nation so they went to her defence. Germany stood with Austria-Hungary against Russia, and so Britain and France came into the war. It was a clash of imperial powers. At the heart of the imperial mindset is hubris, expressed so well in the French word Superieur. We know better, and because of that we have the right to rule other nations and extend our empire. The honour of the empire must not be threatened, and war is justifiable if the empire’s repute is in some way impugned. The primary issue that caused the slaughter of millions in the First World War was imperialism, not nationalism.

At the end of the war, President Wilson of America outlined his fourteen points that would form the basis of the post-war settlement. Being convinced of the right to national self-determination, he had no desire to perpetuate any empire, but the British and French governments steadfastly stood by theirs, while watching the German/Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires crumble, waiting to grab the spoils of war to extend their dominions, particularly into the Middle East as well as Africa. At the same time, several European nations used Wilson’s speech to justify their own claims to self-determination, and countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic States and Finland claimed their freedom through the peace settlement. Empires had been vanquished, and in their place came bitter nationalisms that led to the Second World War.

President Macron praised ‘the United Nations, a guarantor of a spirit of cooperation to defend the common goods of a world whose destiny is indissolubly linked and which has learned the lessons of the painful failures of the League of Nations and of the Treaty from Versailles.’ I agree with these words. But his enthusiasm for ‘the European Union, a union freely agreed, never seen in history, and delivering us from our civil wars’ is more worrying. He is a true believer in the EU, but does not realise that his vision is an imperial one. The European project must not be challenged. Those who want to leave are presumed to have hostile intent by doing so, and must not be allowed to do so easily. He spoke of the danger that others want to ‘ruin this hope by their fascination for withdrawal, violence and domination [which] would be an error that future generations would rightly take on historical responsibility.’ [Forgive google translate here please!]

But that is precisely where he is wrong. Withdrawal from the EU does not mean a resort to violence and domination. The seeds of domination are already sown in the ever closer union that the EU elite insist upon, that brings down governments and overrides the will of the people in order to preserve the wider EU ‘project.’ Such imperialism is the very thing that will cause nations to feel the EU’s oppression, and make them want to tear away from the EU. Suppress that desire for independence, and you could end up in another European war.

There is a deeper problem still. In the final part of his speech he spoke of the dead, standing as he was in front of the French tomb of the unknown warrior. He said ‘That on the tombs where they rest, flourish the certainty that a better world is possible if we want it, if we decide it, if we build it, if we demand it with all our soul.’ Expressed in those words is the modern secular mindset, that there is no God, and that we can build our own destiny if only we have the will. Surely, in reflecting on what two world wars have done in Europe, this hubris is utterly misplaced.

We should rather be looking for a different road, neither the imperial road that leads to war and domination (and eventually defeat) nor the road of nationalism that idolises our country and hates all others. Rather, we should be following a road where our national life is lived out under God, where we confess our national sins and personal hatreds, where in war we love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, and where we know that we do not have anything as a nation that we have not received from the hand of a good and gracious God. It is my hope and prayer that as we reflect on the war that killed so many, our desire will not be just to rail against nationalism but also against empire, and to follow a third way, the biblical road of nationhood lived out in humility under the sovereignty of God.

 

In Brussels and Strasbourg – a Brexiteer on holiday

IMG_20180728_151138In any disagreement, it is good advice to go and step into the other person’s shoes. Our summer holiday provided the perfect opportunity, as we based ourselves first near Brussels and then in the Nord Vosges west of Strasbourg. We’ve had more holidays in Eastern France and the Low counties than anywhere else, because we love the culture and history of each nation, as well as the manifest beauty of each landscape. Yet I am convinced that Brexit is right for the UK, and increasingly sure that something similar would be good for many EU countries. But have I missed something? Why do dedicated Europhiles love the EU? Seeing things from the perspective of the heart of the EU might be helpful.

When you visit the Parliamentarium in Brussels, the visitor centre at the EU Parliament, you can have the whole raison d’etre of the EU explained to you. The EU exists because of Europe’s history. It is a fear of the past that drives the determination to integrate into an ever closer union. Set into the wall in a darkened room in the exhibition, screen after screen narrates the sad story of early 20th century carnage. Europe was laid waste by war, and only in the ruins of the late 1940s did a new Europe begin to be fashioned.

It is important to realise that for continental Europeans this experience goes much further back, to Napoleon and beyond. While Britain played a major part in defeating Corsica’s most famous son, we kept out of the conflicts that followed, particularly the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, because we were too busy fighting colonial wars elsewhere and were more concerned to extend our expanding empire. For the French, their war with Prussia was yet another bloodletting between neighbours, so dreadful that when it was over they commissioned a great monument to the fallen, the basilica in Paris known as La Sacré Coeur. It was completed in 1914! The killing fields of the Western Front in WW1, in which my Gt. Uncle died, another Gt. Uncle was wounded and my Grandfather also served, were yet worse for the French, especially on battlefields such as Verdun in the centre of France. In January 1918 President Woodrow Wilson made a speech setting out a new doctrine in international relations, his ‘fourteen points’ that established the principle of national self-determination. When the armistice was signed in November 1918, this let loose a wave of nationalism. The old empires of Europe – Russia, Germany and Austria Hungary – gave up territory to make way for new states such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and Poland re-emerged. Empires were to be a thing of the past, at least for the vanquished.

What Wilson had not reckoned with was the growth of National Socialism, in Germany, Italy, and Spain, and the success of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. All these countries practiced a cult of religious nationalism, idolising their leaders and their nations with rituals and parades that seem utterly absurd to us now, but which people obviously believed at the time. When such nationalism had laid Europe waste again, in a total war that killed civilians as deliberately as it killed soldiers, there was a new consensus to build something bold and new.  The Parliamentarium exhibition is filled with quotes from the founding era of the European movement, and it is fascinating to see how they explain themselves. One that struck my notice was the Geneva Draft Declaration (II) on European Federation:

‘During the lifetime of one generation Europe has twice been the centre of a world conflict whose chief cause was the existence of thirty sovereign states in Europe. It is a most urgent task to end this international anarchy by creating a European Federal Union.’

Two world wars were blamed on the existence of ‘sovereign states’ across Europe! Independence and national sovereignty must always lead to war – a claim no doubt challenged by countries like Sweden and Switzerland. For a more recent voice expressing the same view, turn to Liliane Maury Pasquier, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.[1] She said:

‘As an organisation that brings together almost all European states on the basis of common values, principles and legal standards, the Council of Europe is today best placed to help meet the challenges raised by growing nationalism and avoid the building of new walls….upholding multilateralism as an essential weapon against sovereigntist attacks on our shared values.’

Do you see the same idea being expressed? The problem with Europe is ‘sovereigntism’ and ‘nationalism’ as the inevitable causes of war, while the only way to break that is to achieve what the EU calls ‘ever closer union.’ Indeed, the European Parliament’s other new and grander home in Strasbourg is built to look like a work still in progress, its circular walls intentionally unfinished to convey the idea of a single Europe still being constructed. There is in the EU psyche a genuine conviction that they are the only means by which Europe can be spared again from another appalling war. For that reason, they see Brexit as potentially unleashing the dogs of war. If it can be frustrated, and if necessary governments that support it can be destabilised so that the British change their mind, the European project can continue on its way.

Yet I believe that the European Union is fast becoming the most likely cause of another war in Europe. The EU is becoming an empire, concentrating power at the unaccountable centre, fighting to protect its own interests, bending its own principles to ensure that it stays together at all costs. This way of going on is nothing new. It was how every empire operated, and alienated and oppressed those it dominated until they rose up against it. It happened with Napoleon’s France, and in the British, Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires, and you can see the new empires of the US, China and America learning the same character traits.

Wars are caused when empires and nationalisms collide. Both are evil. The view I seek to express on this blog is that the biblical understanding of nationhood avoids both extremes, and seeks to plough a third way, the way God intended us to live. Nations are to live together peacefully, side by side, each rejoicing in its own national conversation, cherishing its own language, culture and history, but also rejoicing in the culture, language and history of its neighbours and relating to them peacefully and generously. Each nation should be humble enough not to think of itself more highly than it ought to think. It ought to recognise that national borders are porous, not least because of marriage and migration, and thus every nation is always in a rich process of change and development. When a nation idolises itself, it always ends up hating and distrusting its neighbours. When a nation thinks so much of itself that it feels the urge to dominate all other nations around it, it has started to form an empire, which can only be achieved or maintained by oppression.  There is a close connection between nationalism and empire. One often leads to the other.

Empires caused the First World War. Woodrow Wilson saw national self-determination as the antidote to empire, thereby giving rise to nationalism, and the kind of self-obsessed idolatrous nations (Nazi and Bolshevik) that went out to build new empires by aggressive force. Empire will never be the antidote to nationalism, because idolatrous nationalism always leads to empire, given the opportunity.

At the centre of the carnage of too many European wars sits the city of Strasbourg, a city in France that sits next to the Rhine, and whose tram system crosses over into Germany. It has changed hands several times, and as a visitor one is not quite sure whether it is German or French. Staff who can tell you are not French may greet you in German then be confused to find that you are British. It is entirely understandable that the people of Strasbourg and Alsace never want to see war again. But what can keep them, and all Europe, from war? Two independent nations, humbled by the follies of the past, ought to be able to live alongside one another without ambitions that lead to war. Instead, I fear that an empire with its Parliament in Strasbourg will only serve over time to make other nations hate the place.

There are several aspects of the EU that already have the hallmarks of an empire. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg can override national legislators and tell them to think again, thereby challenging the will of the people. The rules of the Eurozone were bent to get Italy and Greece into the Eurozone, and then when it proved unsustainable, everything had to bow to the survival of the Euro, even if that meant bringing down elected governments in Athens and Rome. The Schengen treaty is also seen as essential to European unity, even when a migration crisis makes such open borders seriously questionable. The EU is also good at colonising institutions that operated quite happily without it. The European Space Agency existed separate from the EU for many years, and has member states who are not EU members, such as Switzerland and Norway, as well as relationships with Canada and Israel. For years ESA operated free from EU interference, but since 2004 the EU has been taking a closer involvement in the running of ESA, and would like it to be considered an agency of the EU. Not only that, the EU Commission is determined to prevent the UK using ESA’s Galileo GPS satellite system post-Brexit, even though the UK has chipped in £1.4bn. What this means is that the EU has colonised another institution, and is determined to push out member states that will not toe their line. Imagine what it would be like if the EU created a European army, thereby undermining the cohesion of NATO.

I understand the fear of another European total war, and why people would be motivated to pursue any grands projets to try and prevent it. However, the answer is not another European empire. Empires have done as much if not more damage in Europe that nationalism. Neither will keep the peace of Europe. There are plenty of other ways for independent sovereign nations to cooperate together peacefully without surrendering their sovereignty, and so to live together on this war-scarred continent with humility and respect.

[1] Don’t confuse the Council of Europe with the European Union. The Council of Europe is a gathering of MPs from the national parliaments of 47 European states, as a ‘pan-European forum for inter-Parliamentary dialogue’, which keeps a focus on human rights through the European Court of Human Rights and is not part of the EU. It meets in the old EU parliament building in Strasbourg.

The Irish referendum – a bleak day for human rights

justice-626461_1920The Irish referendum last Friday is being hailed as a great day for freedom, a key moment for the liberal consensus in creating a modern, progressive future. The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said: ‘Today we made history’ ‘A quiet revolution has taken place, a great act of democracy.’ The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said ‘What a moment for democracy and women’s rights.’

I’ve spent the weekend away, with a dying mobile phone whose twitter app kept crashing – it was a blessing to be spared the weekend on Twitter! Back home this morning I listened to Baroness Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General and leading human rights campaigner, speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, berating the DUP in Northern Ireland for blocking a similar liberalisation of abortion. She did so in really striking terms, (which is why I have to blog this morning):

‘This is an issue of fundamental human rights, and in fact the situation in NI is currently putting the UK Government in breach of its international human rights obligations, so says the UN, so we’re calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties and then legislate without delay…..You can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights….’

This is Alice in Wonderland stuff. Quite extraordinary! Everyone is patting each other on the back, speaking of human rights being established at last, talking about our international obligations and so on, when no one seems to have noticed what the Irish referendum was all about.

It was about abolishing a fundamental human right that is currently written into the Irish constitution. Continue reading “The Irish referendum – a bleak day for human rights”

Rural mission in the Vale of Dibley

england-2960807_1920A couple of weeks ago, Helen and I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon touring South Oxfordshire looking for wedding reception venues as we start to plan our daughter’s wedding. Sitting at home that Saturday evening, I somewhat naively put up the following tweet which soon gained a life of its own.

Visited four lovely village halls today in S Oxon and West Berks. How wonderful it would be if each of them had a gospel church planted in them in the next 10 years. This is a big area of need, and influence. The movers and shakers live in these villages.

Steve Kneale picked up on it and blogged about the final phrase, and then some local Anglican clergy in the Thames Valley weighed in, the thread developed a life of its own, and I was accused of arrogance. So, a couple of weeks later, after a chest infection as well as a trip out of the UK, I want to explain what I was on about.

Villages are sneered at by the urban elite. They are still seen as places where locals marry their cousins, children are born with six fingers, everyone speaks with an impenetrable yokel accent and people have the intellectual capacity of Alice Tinker from The Vicar of Dibley. Villages are seen as backwaters by many young ministers, who choose the trendiest church-planting locations or the bigger suburban churches with the best prospects, knowing that there is a shortage of people coming forward for ministry, so they can afford to be choosy.

Continue reading “Rural mission in the Vale of Dibley”

Heidelberg, Luther and the cross: the critique of reason and experience

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26 April 2018 marks an undervalued milestone in Reformation history. We are familiar with Luther’s ninety-five theses posted in October 1517, and his passionate defence at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. However, the Heidelberg Disputation, which took place on April 26 1518, is less well known, though its significance could not be more relevant. Allow me to fill in the background.

Luther was growing in fame (or notoriety) as a preacher following the events of October 1517, and Pope Leo X wanted him disciplined by the Augustinian order to which he belonged. The man tasked with this challenge was his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, who famously had already heard Luther’s endless confessions of numerous sins, and who had guided him along his spiritual journey. Staupitz wanted Luther’s discipline to take the form of a public disputation. So the Augustinians gathered in Heidelberg to hear Luther present forty-two theses. (This was the age of the list!) Two theses in particular set out the key principles of what has come to be known as Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’:

  1. He is not worth calling a theologian who seeks to interpret the invisible things of God on the basis of the things that have been created.
  2. But he is worth calling a theologian who understands the visible and rearward parts of God to mean suffering and the cross.

The reference to the ‘rearward’ parts of God is an allusion to Exodus 33-34 where Moses hid in the cleft in the rock and glimpsed just the rearward parts of God as he passed by in all his glory. There is so much of God that cannot be comprehended merely on the basis of human reason. For Luther, medieval theology was a theology of glory, but it did not comprehend what God had done for us in Christ at the cross.  The church buildings of the medieval Catholic Church still stand across Europe. Whether it is the Duomo in Florence, Notre Dame in Paris or St Peter’s in Rome, they stand as a testimony to Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on the glory of worship. These great structures are human achievements, the epitome of human glory and effort offered up to God. Yet their glory is at variance with the way of the cross, where God reveals himself in his Son, through suffering, rejection and death.

The Renaissance period, that preceded the Reformation, placed a high value on human reason. In scholarship their watchword was ‘back to the sources’, going back to the original Latin, Greek and Hebrew classical texts, and in art they studied form closely in a more realistic way (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci). They called their movement humanism, because it was about valuing human reason, and believing that human reason could in the end study, understand and explain anything. Does that sound familiar? Although Renaissance thought was not atheistic, it marked the beginning of the intellectual process, traced through the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which has led to the cold certainties based entirely on human reason that we see in the New Atheism today.

In Heidelberg, Luther contended that when you come to the cross of Jesus, reason fails. There is a hidden revelation of God in the cross, and you can only grasp it by faith. God told Moses to hide in the rock, because he could not see his face and live; he would just glimpse his back as he passed. Luther said that the cross is likewise a glimpse of the ‘rearward’ parts of God that can only be seen by faith, which itself is given by God. The cross is the biggest, most glorious revelation of God, the heart of human history and the centre of all theology, and yet at first sight its glory is veiled. ‘The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Cor 1:18). If you look at the cross with only human reason to guide you, it will offend you. Why would God send his own Son to die? Why would be punish his own Son? Isn’t that child abuse? How can God possibly be revealing himself in this dreadful event, this shambolic slaughterhouse? These are the questions that our secular world throws at us for believing in Jesus. They put us on the back foot, because we think we ought to give some intellectually respectable answer that will satisfy the proud demands of human reason, but the cross defies human reason. God’s purpose in the cross of Christ was to expose the limits of human reason. We expect God to reveal himself in some vision of glory, power and majesty, but he humbles himself even to death on a cross, in shame and weakness. Why? Because he has to teach proud human beings to be humble, and admit our weakness and sinfulness. Luther knew well the life of the medieval academy, where they valued human reason so highly, but he could see how man-centred it was. The scholastics had argued about so many things in theory in their ivory towers. Catholicism was built on human reason, and its whole theological system put its trust in human ability and merit. All of that has to die when we come to the cross. At the cross we realise that our wisdom is folly, and we must learn from Christ.

But Luther was also undermining another great theme in medieval theology: mysticism. The cross teaches us not to trust human experience. There was a strong strand of mysticism in Catholic belief. You could trust experience, and my spiritual experience is valid for me just as yours is for you. The disciples all had their experience of Jesus, and they thought they knew who he was. They had seen his miracles, listened to the Sermon on the Mount and talked with him while walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi, but then they had to face this terrible day when their master was betrayed and crucified. Even Jesus himself, in his great cry of dereliction on the cross, cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15:34 CSB). Similarly, we can look at our own experience of suffering and conclude that God has abandoned us. So many people have logical reasons for not believing in God, because in their desperate experiences they cannot find him when they want him. The cross tells us not to place our confidence in our experience, but to trust God in the darkness, for the abandonment of that bitter day, when Jesus bore our sins and carried our sorrows, is gloriously answered by the resurrection. Suddenly on Easter morning the meaning becomes clear. God has accepted the sacrifice of his Son, and vindicated him by raising him for our justification. Reason fails at the cross, and experience fails as well. Both of them are shown up in this much bigger revelation of God in Christ, dying and rising. If we will come and surrender to the crucified God, our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will put reason in its place, and experience in its place, and worship Christ, and begin to find the meaning and purpose of our lives in his world.

Luther’s theology of the cross is essential for every Christian, and should get much more attention than it does. It also speaks to two pressing issues in our generation. First, the cross-currents of contemporary biblical scholarship among evangelicals are in danger of leading to a new age of scholasticism, in which extra-biblical sources carry almost more weight than the text of Scripture itself. We think we know what Scripture means because we have analysed the writings of other authors of the period, we have inhabited their world, seen how the phrases and genres of Scripture were used elsewhere, and then allowed the extra-biblical material to have a greater validity than Scripture itself. On this basis, evangelicalism is in danger of slowly placing itself above Holy Scripture, and failing to sit under its complete authority.

Second, in an age of prosperity and individualism, Christians have succumbed to the guidance of their own experience. Society says that we have a right to be healthy and wealthy, and that above all we should do what feels right. The prosperity gospel is simply offering back to society its own expectations and experiences. The whole drive of the church gathering is to provide an experience that feels good, and that people go away moved, though that feeling is based entirely on individual experience (and may have a lot to do with the lights, the music and the coffee!). It is also worrying to consider how often, when churches have to make great decisions, it can be that what feels right wins the day. We are far more led by experience than we are by Scripture itself.

This Easter, remember the great anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation at the end of April, and the way in which Luther called the world back to the theology of the cross. Ask yourself how much your understanding of God is based on your own human reason, and how much it is surrendered to the Christ of Scripture and is humbled at the foot of the cross. Ask yourself how much you lean on your own subjective experience, and how often you find the limits of your own understanding. Then step beyond them to the glory shrouded in shame that is the revelation of God in Christ at the cross, and there you will begin to grasp the depths of Christian theology.

 

Image: Memorial Plaque for Luther Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 in University Place, Heidelberg, Germany. Anneyh/Wikipedia.

‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism

danger-851895_1920Pessimism is an essential element of British culture. This fact is realised by all nations on earth except the British themselves. We actually believe our own pessimism with such inevitable gullibility that we rarely notice when things turn out differently. After all, we invented the weather forecast and the shipping news. It could so easily be Britain that Salman Rushdie had in mind when he described a sad and forgetful city in Haroon and the sea of stories:

In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.

We are beset by gloom at the moment. We emerge slowly from the dark of winter, only to be assaulted by a beastly storm (blamed on the Russians!), and switch on the news to hear yet more Brexit woe. It is all going to turn out bad. The economy is going to tank. As soon as we leave we will ‘fall off a cliff’, jobs will be lost in their millions because our goods will no longer have any kind of access to vital EU markets at all, Dover and Felixstowe harbours will be filled in with concrete, and a wall that will be the envy of Donald Trump will be built along the Irish border. Meanwhile, millions of Poles and Romanians will flee immediately, leaving our care homes and hospitals entirely unstaffed. And we will be paying the bill to the EU forever, and it will turn out to be much bigger than we ever agreed to. ‘We’re all doomed.’ It is all too dreadful to contemplate.

Before this all gets too much, allow me to review some projects of the recent past that had the misfortune to be enveloped by this British cloud of pessimism. Let’s start with Heathrow Terminal 5. Continue reading “‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism”

Why we should preach like Billy Graham

435px-Billy_Graham_bw_photo,_April_11,_1966Just once in my life I had a face to face chat with Jim Packer. He was speaking at a conference on preaching in Edinburgh in 1992, and he had tried in his talk to describe what it means to preach with ‘unction’. Being a young man unhappy with a throwaway statement, I cornered him at tea time in the garden of Rutherford House and asked him what he meant. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you will know it when it happens to you.’ I’m sure I had a good few follow-up questions ready to bowl at the great man, but I blinked and was elbowed aside by a late-middle-aged pastor in thick rimmed glasses and a decidedly obvious toupee, who said ‘Dr Packer, my people tell me I should preach like Dr Billy Graham. Are they right?’ The moment was gone to explore unction. Jim Packer told him that he shouldn’t mimic Billy’s preaching, though he admitted that God had his hand on Billy Graham in a remarkable way.

We have spent the last few days reflecting on Billy Graham’s passing. (I wanted to use the word ‘mourning’ there, but there has been too much rejoicing and praising God for that word to seem appropriate.) It has been so good to see news coverage of him in his prime in the 1950s and 60s. Watch Billy Graham on YouTube! There are interviews where he politely and capably deals with the likes of Larry King or Woody Allen. (I’ve also been touched by the sensitive way that he has been portrayed in the Netflix drama The Crown.) In all these recordings you gain a sense of the man’s integrity and transparent godliness that is refreshing and bold. But above all it has been the numerous clips of his preaching that have affected me. Tonight I listened to his sermon preached in Chicago in 1971, and YouTube is full of such videos.  That leaves me wondering whether Jim Packer was wrong, and that there are some ways in which we should preach like Billy Graham. Here are some thoughts. Continue reading “Why we should preach like Billy Graham”