Things Ancient

My first degree was in Classics – Latin and Greek – at Trinity College, Dublin. ‘What use is that?’ you may quite reasonably ask. And I’ll come back to that.

Meanwhile I keep an eye on what happens in this area. I picked up a piece in The Atlantic which reported that Princeton University will no longer require students in Classics to actually study the ancient languages. It’s a decision made in the cause of access and openness. The Atlantic reports the Princeton website as saying, ‘the department wants to “create opportunities for the advancement of students and (future) colleagues from historically underrepresented backgrounds within the discipline.” This will mean “ensuring that a broad range of perspectives and experiences inform our study of the ancient Greek and Roman past.” Let’s not pretend, given the context of modern American academic culture, that the terms here refer simply to diversity writ large. Underrepresentedbroad range of perspectives and experiences—these are buzzwords saying, essentially, “for Black people and Latinos too.”

The.prize for long labours in this area goes to the scholars who have just completed the 23 year task of writing a new dictionary of Ancient Greek – the Cambridge Greek Lexicon.

No mention of Classical studies can avoid acknowledging Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s affection for the Classics and his desire to pepper his speeches with quotes. He is known for his affection for the great Athenian statesman of 2400 years ago – Pericles. Strangely, Pericles too was derailed by plague.

In a weak moment, I read Boris’ extraordinarily self-serving book about Churchill. Uncharacteristically he talks at some length about how, when Churchill wishes to speak to the bloodstream of the English-speaking peoples, he reaches for punchy words with Anglo-Saxon roots rather than the more flowery and complex Greco-Roman roots – ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few …’

And what did I gain from studying Classics? Well clergy have to be wordsmiths – attempting to put words around the joys and sorrows of life and building frameworks of meaning around the great mysteries. The study of Classics teaches you above all about how language works – how to shape a sentence for emphasis, about how to write with economy. It taught me skills which I have used every day and still use,

Clergy work from home too

The debate about whether or not people will ‘return to the office’ is hotting up.  People value the lifestyle gains – the loss of those hours spent on a stressful commute, the possibility of choosing to live somewhere more rural and maybe even less expensive.  

Employers seem to vary in their views.  Fewer big – and expensive – office buildings will help the ‘bottom line’.  But they worry about the loss of potential creativity when people are not interacting around the water cooler.  There is a whole new jargon – like ‘proximity bias’ which means that those who are most visible are more likely to receive whatever favour is around.

Meanwhile the housing market is changing.  People are expanding their house searches into areas which they wouldn’t have felt able to consider before.  Garden sheds, garages and attics are being scrutinised for their potential as work spaces.  I suspect that what are becoming known as hybrid patterns of working may become the norm – one or two days in the office and the rest at home.  Schroeders are saying that they will expect everyone to live close enough that they can be in the office ‘tomorrow’ if required.

Clergy of course know all about this.  And so do farmers.  The Rectory sits – in theory at least – in the middle of the parish or congregational area and assumes, I suppose, a model of ministry which is pastorally orientated.  The Rector works sometimes from a dedicated study and often from a spare bedroom.  It’s a model with great strengths – but in reality its appropriateness erodes when people’s lives are lived on networks rather than in neighbourhoods.

In my days as Rector of a parish in Northern Ireland, I worked on what is now a fashionably hybrid model.  In effect, I did the spiritualities in the Rectory and decamped to the Parish Office for administration, management, meetings and all the rest.  I found it helpful to have a definite separation between those two.  But I know if course that the administration and management are all part of the spirituality.

Meanwhile clergy life experiences its own version of these questions.   Vestries are very aware of the cost of maintaining a rectory.  Some wonder if a smaller house would do.  Others suggest it might be better for clergy to be able to buy their own homes and have a foot on the housing ladder rather than to live as Canon 17 requires ‘in the house provided’.  That has its merits but it isn’t the system which we operate – and clergy have a tax break which protects them from Capital Gains Tax on a house which they own but do not occupy.  I do think that the pastoral rationale for our present system is less compelling than it was.  But what the tied housing system does do is to preserve at least the aspiration that clergy will be able to move to ‘wherever the call comes’ without being inhibited by differentials in house prices.

All of this is part of the great ‘shake-out’ which is coming as the crisis period of pandemic moves away and we begin to be able to recognise the long term changes which it has brought

For ever Zoom?

The Zoom question is still with us. And, from my ‘person in the pew’ perspective, I’m not surprised. However resourceful we are – and however resourceful those who lead worship in church are – the churchgoing experience is still a long way from being one which raises the spirits, builds community and sends us out to change the world.

So where does the Zoom experience stand in all this? I went back to the interesting report to the Scottish Churches, ‘Adapt and be Flexible – the Mission doesn’t Stop”. The report is based on an online survey of 369 congregational leaders of 27 denominations across Scotland. I’m not sure if the ‘person in the pew’ was invited to comment!

To be personal for a moment, it seems to me that Zoom offers us the opportunity of experiencing the breadth of the church. I’ve been visiting churches I know from past ministry and places which we have links with. I’ve experienced diversity and challenge and, particularly in Holy Week and Good Friday, been deeply moved.

I think that Zoom is certainly going to be with us for the immediately foreseeable future. Most obviously that is because it has answered the question of how those who are unable to come to church can be held within the worshipping community. But that in itself begs the question – is Zoom primarily a way of making ‘what we normally do’ accessible on line or does the medium demand a different approach? It has seemed to me from the beginning that worship on Zoom sits somewhere between worship-leading in church and broadcasting. The medium makes it possible to use videos, photographs, music of all kinds – it encourages participation from all sorts of people many of whom find it far less challenging to talk to a microphone at home than to stand up and speak in church. Some have been rising to that challenge but it must demand an enormous amount of work and preparation – it becomes a ‘thing in itself’

One question I looked for in the Report was about whether worship on Zoom reduced apparent denominational differences. So much of church identity in bound up in buildings, how they are furnished and how they are used. Does the ‘close in’ Zoom camera liberate us from that?

And does Zoom harmonise with the carbon neutral strategies which we are attempting to implement.

These are debates which will continue. I suspect that we are hardly at the beginning of thinking about the long term changes which Covid has brought. I continue to broadcast Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland – up the stairs to the spare bedroom to deliver the material on Skype. I can’t imagine that we shall ever go back to expecting contributors to come to the studio for a two minute broadcast! No – the Mission doesn’t Stop. But it may require us all to be more resourceful and imaginative in how we communicate and share what our faith.

Locally-based prosperity – the Preston Model

This is my friend Peter Rankin. We shared a flat together in Dublin three floors above a maternity home in the appropriately named Hatch Street. Later we lived in Rooms together in Trinity College, Dublin – the loo was three floors down and next door which was a bit of a challenge. Among the memories … we stood in Merrion Square in 1972 as the British Embassy was burned and wondered what the future held. And Peter was my best man

Peter came from Ballymoney in Co Antrim. I never understood how this came about – but from the beginning he was a left wing socialist. He served two terms as Leader of Preston Council – another person of real political talent lost to Northern Ireland. He died just three years ago as a result of a brain tumour – far too soon and so much left to do. But it pleased him that he could surprise his political colleagues by producing a friend who was a bishop to speak at his Civic Funeral. And I was honoured that he wanted me to do that for him.

The picture shows Peter receiving a ‘Council of the Year’ Award just before he became ill. Preston Council won it because of the success of what came to be called the Preston Model – a model which sees the council work with ‘anchor institutions’ to keep jobs and investment in the city. I’ve been reading ‘Paint your town Red’ – How Preston took back control and your town can too – by Matthew Brown and Rhiannon E Jones. It tells the story of the successful development of the model – and it suggests that this kind of politics is the only way in which Labour will ever regain power.

The book sets the scene like this: ‘In 2019, a report commissioned by the UN described the effects of a decade of austerity in the UK as a deliberately imposed and unnecessary ‘social calamityinvolving ‘systematic disadvantage’ inflicted particularly on women, children, people with disabilities, older people and BAME communities’

What follows is a description of Preston’s programme of community wealth-building which ‘supports democratic collective ownership of the local economy through a range of institutions and policies‘. What that means is that they adopted ways of procuring goods and services for local institutions which kept as much of the wealth generated in the local community. They developed co-operatives, community land trusts, public and community banking.’

The result of all of this was that in the 2019 General Election, Preston was one of the few constituencies to buck the national trend which saw heavy losses for Labour in its heartlands.

When he received the award, Peter said, ‘

“I was so pleased to receive this award. It was a thrill and a fantastic credit for everything we have been doing in Preston. We created a partnership with other public enterprises to work more closely with Lancashire businesses. The Preston Model of community wealth building is working very well.

“We are thrilled that our initiative is recognised across not just the UK but across Europe as well. We are fortunate that Preston and Lancashire is home to many innovative and growing businesses. Supporting our local business community and creating jobs for Preston and Lancashire people is an important part of our work in Preston.

And now it’s time for me to go again to Preston and to cycle the Guild Wheel Cycle Path with Peter’s wife, Lynn. Peter was particularly proud of it so it is one of our ways of remembering him together.

The problem with reconciliation

President Biden is turning out to be a remarkable President. But he has a major problem. His instinct during his long career has been to ‘reach across the aisle’ – meaning that he is always seeking bi-partisan support for his programmes.

But he is gradually having to recognise that he will not get the co-operation he hopes for from the Republican Party. While there are some ‘below the line’ signs of co-operation, the party is still in thrall to Trump and his ‘big lie’ that he won the election. Biden may have to recognise that he must press ahead without that co-operation hoping that the broad base of public support which he programmes have been attracting will see him through the mid-term elections. The alternative is to wait and maybe end up facing the elections with nothing much on the record.

I learned something like this in the long struggle to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is natural and correct to assume that reconciliation in Ireland will be between Protest and Catholic, Orange and Green. But the reality has often been that the two main blocs have been almost totally preoccupied with their own internal politics – fighting about the leadership of each separate community. Since the demise of Arlene Foster as Leader of the DUP, Unionism has fragmented into four or five groups all struggling for the leadership of that community. They have little appetite for a deep engagement across the political, cultural and religious divide. But that of course isn’t the whole story. The centre ground is growing and there is hope of political movement,

But President Biden finds himself facing a Republic party which is partly bought into Trump’s narrative of the election – partly preoccupied with voting reforms designed to strengthen their position. – partly trying to work out whether Trump will run again in 2024. To give up on the hope of bi-partisanship goes against the grain.

But that is what he may have to do.

Thought for the Day

Voices from around the world speak about the Covid experience. We need vaccination for all. My Thought for the Day on BBC Scotland yesterday

Covid has changed the lives of all of us – constraints on what we can do, anxiety and, for too many, painful bereavement.  

We focus on the figures and statistics – including of course the hopeful vaccination figures.  But we need to hear the voices and the lived experience of people – and not just in our relatively hopeful context.

I was fortunate to travel a lot as a church leader – I have friends and contacts in many places.  I listen to their voices.  From Brazil, where there have been 16 million cases and nearly half a million deaths, a friend says – ‘it’s sad to hear at an increasing pace news that people we know, including friends and relatives, are dying because of the virus

Another in South Africa said, ‘We used to hear figures and now we know names’

And from a children’s HIV/Aids Hospice in Kolkata, India, which I have visited, and which people in our church support – they tell me: ‘All the children live in communal spaces meaning the spread of Covid could be severe.  Every child is affected by HIV meaning they are immuno-suppressed’

I’ve now had both my jags.  It was a good moment – a slight ‘lump in the throat experience – a time to be thankful for what science can do.  But another voice said, ‘None of us is safe until everybody is safe’

The virus mutates and the variants spread – Kent, India and now Nepal.         The policy of trying to determine which places are safe enough for us to visit on holiday is now chaotic.  In those very limited terms, nowhere is 100% safe.

There is a logistical challenge about how we vaccinate the world population. It will be discussed at the G7 meeting this week.   It is also a conceptual, moral and spiritual challenge.   The question to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbour’ can have only one answer in this case – it’s everyone and everywhere.  It’s now also the question for us.

To Vaxx or not to Vaxx

Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Health Minister Matt Hancock said of the 19 people in Royal Bolton Hospital who have Covid,

The majority have not been vaccinated and, of them, most could have been vaccinated, which is frustrating to see, but is also a message to everyone. It just reinforces the message that people should come forward and get vaccinated because that is the best way to protect everybody.’

I was quite taken aback by his directness. Openly criticising the voters is not a great look. Of course it’s frustrating that people should – for whatever reasons – decide not to have the vaccine. It’s an argument which belongs in the same area as the one about seat belt wearing.

But on some level, people surely must have the right to choose – and I guess they have that right whether their choice arises from a genuinely held fear or from contextual issues or even from conspiracy theories.

But equally surely the right to choose can’t be exercised in a way which takes no account of the consequences and particularly of the consequences for others. Those of us who have been offered and have accepted vaccination have seen that as a way of keeping ourselves and others safe. Those who refuse vaccination have the same obligation – to act in a way which is most likely to keep themselves and others safe.

Sadly the nature of Covid – and of the ever more transmissible strains such as the Indian variant – is that it is hard to see how those who refuse vaccination are going to be able to fulfil that obligation to the rest of society even as they exercise their right to choose. Society could decide that to uphold that right in this circumstances is not viable. That would mean that vaccination would become compulsory. But that is clearly both impossible and undesirable.

There is no simple answer to this issue – it’s just one more example of the way in which Covid and our response as a society to it has in effect removed significant areas of personal freedom from every one of us. And part of the journey back from this terrible period in our lives is going to be that of working out how those freedoms are going to be restored.

The world needs vaccination quickly

I have fond memories of my four visits to India – three to Kolkata where we had a diocesan companionship relationship and one to Kerala in the south. India is chaotic and crowded. And now it is an unfolding tragedy of suffering, pain and desperation where about 20000 people are dying every day.

We have now received both our vaccinations. There is a feeling of relief about that moment – but also a nagging concern that ‘none of us is safe until everyone is safe’. According to the Economist, the probable global death toll is 7.1 – 12.7 lives and the pandemic ‘has spread remorselessly from the rich, connected world to poorer, more isolated places. As it has done so, the global daily death rate has climbed steeply.’

The irony is of course that the Indian Covid variant now threatens a reverse of that rich to poor movement. The only way to stop it is to get vaccinations into arms as quickly as possible.

The reality is that rich countries have over-ordered vaccines because they did not know which vaccines would work. Britain has ordered nine doses for every adult. So what needs to be done to get an effective vaccination programme in the countries of the developing world? We have the means of protecting people all over the world – we just need to find a way of doing it.

Most obviously, rich countries could donate their surplus vaccines through COVAX – and that is happening to some extent. Then there is the need to waive intellectual property rights – this is moving slowly through the World Trade Organisation. Then there is the need to speed up manufacture and supply and that is already happening. The Economist reports that annual global vaccine capacity is moving from 3.5 bn per year to total output of 11 bn.

But back to the daily reality in India:

This is Mintu. He lives in the Aurima HIV/Aids Hospice in Kolkata which I have visited and which we have supported. My friend Ross Stirling Young, who has led fundraising to build a new wing at the Hospice, says on his Facebook today that Mintu has now tested positive for Covid. Mintu has helped with care for some of the younger children. It seems almost inevitable that Covid will now run through the Hospice – the children have all been affected by HIV and so they are immune-suppressed. Ross says further that the massive stigma associated with HIV means that access to hospitals is not always possible.

Mintu’s story is the human and individual face of a global tragedy. And it is a tragedy which is far from finished yet.

Churches and Climate Change – it matters what they do

It was good to see the Church of Scotland adding itself this week to the lengthening list of churches which have decided to disinvest from fossil fuel companies. Churches may be small investors in relative terms – but it is important that they should say clearly that investment in fossil fuels can no longer be treated as the norm or seen as ethically or morally acceptable.

It was also encouraging to see my former diocese in the Scottish Episcopal Church – the Diocese of St Andrews – announcing the winners of a competition in which young people were asked to share their ideas for a Carbon Neutral Church. In my experience, young people don’t need to be persuaded of the importance of this issue.

it really does matter what churches do in this. Churches too easily live within their own world and – I speak from experience here – spend far too much time talking to themselves in their internal dialogue. The decision to disinvest is important because it happens on the interface between faith communities and the wider society.

My reading in this area also reminds me that fossil fuel companies are generally valued by the size of their reserves. But it is becoming inconceivable that all of those reserves might ever be extracted and used – it’s the ‘leave it in the ground’ plea. If that is the case, those reserves lose may their value and become ‘stranded assets’. So the decision to divest may actually become one which is prudent.

I think – with some shame – of my own carbon footprint in the years before I retired. I used trains and buses as much as I could around Scotland. But I was living in the rural community to the north of Perth and it was hard not to be car-dependent. In my work of representing the SEC in the Anglican Communion, I took too many flights. But Covid has made that kind of travel impossible. Yet the national and international relationships of churches have continued.

One more thing – reporting of response to the climate emergency tends to focus on what governments are saying and doing. People like me take note of what faith communities are doing. But I hadn’t realised – until I was casually listening in the car – how much ‘push’ for change is coming in the world of industry,

It is good to hear that investors – particularly institutional investors – are pushing companies on GHG targets. But it was also news to me, as the Guardian reported recently, that there is a list of 100 companies which are the source of 71% of fossil fuel climate change.

None of this ever moves as fast as we might hope – but it is moving!

Brexit everywhere

What does the Hartlepool by-election result tell us? Many things, no doubt. But surely that the political dynamics which gave us Brexit are still very much in play – and not much that the Labour Party can do about it.

The same dynamics have brought an end to Arlene Foster’s time as First Minister of Northern Ireland. Under her leadership, the DUP made two strategic errors – the first when the supported Brexit; the second when they believed Boris Johnson when he said that there would be no border in the Irish Sea.

Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times, put it like this:

“They were exactly the consequences that unionism should have most feared. Brexit would destabilise the UK as a political entity. And it would, by dragging them out of the EU against their will, alienate the Catholics of Northern Ireland. It was a missile precisely targeted against Ulster unionism’s own protective walls. The DUP said: “Fire ahead!”

Meanwhile, on a slightly more cerebral level, I’ve been reading Professor Anthony Reddie’s book ‘Theologising Brexit’ – having listened to him recently on the Corrymeela Podcast. Professor Reddie is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture and a leading authority on Black Liberation Theology. He describes his book as concerned with ‘providing a theological articulation of the subtextual nature of Brexit that was the collective dis-ease with immigration, ‘race’ and notions of ethnic and cultural difference in Britain, as opposed to discussing the merits or otherwise of the European Union.’

In suggesting that churches and faith communities have largely failed to make a theological or prophetic response to Brexit, he mentions that ‘Anglicans were more disposed to vote Leave than any other religiously defined group in the United Kingdom when it came to Brexit.’ And he went on to remark that it was the Anglicanism of the Vicar of Dibley – where there wasn’t a black face in sight – which would have voted leave while the Anglicanism of ‘Rev’ would have voted Remain.

It seems to me that, as Arlene Foster discovered, Brexit poses political questions which it is very hard to answer. Meanwhile stresses and strains in the United Kingdom are growing – and the previously unimaginable prospect of some kind of rapprochement between North and South in Ireland becomes something which can at least be talked about.