Kitchen table pew

I had to struggle last night to get online for the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion from Perth Concert Hall. Their concerts are a sort of Passiontide ‘trigger’ for me. As the struggle with the technology subsided, the music began to do as it always does for me. Yes German is another challenge – but Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, Peter’s denial and bitter weeping transcend language and hit home. The Concert Hall seems to be taking its online presence very seriously and professionally – several cameras and clever fading in and out made it an experience of almost television standard. I missed the atmosphere of the Concert Hall – but the experience was real to me.

Meanwhile I took an interest this week in the Facebook discussion among some of our clergy following Lord Braid’s Judgement about the Scottish Government’s decision to close churches. Lord Braid suggested that ‘online broadcasts and services…. are best viewed as an alternative to worship, rather than worship itself.’ An interesting discussion followed about whether worship was a more or less satisfactory online experience ‘live’ or recorded’ and about what happens to sacraments in online worship. I was reminded of the argument in the early days of recorded worship about whether a taped blessing could be considered to ‘work’ or not.

I’ve been reading Rowan Williams’ ‘Candles in the Dark: Faith, Hope and Love in a time of Pain. He made this interesting comment: ‘I have found that the experience of concentrating on ‘spiritual communion’; of quieting myself down to focus on the great gift of God in Jesus, absolutely present in this act, these things; of doing all this in the quiet of home, in a moment of physical stillness and quietness – all this brings home to me the truth that our common life, in and out of church, depends simply on what has been done for us, and in response we can only gaze and adore and give thanks.’

My position on all this at present is that of the person In the pew – which happens to be the laptop on the kitchen table. Online worship is certainly different. But it seems to me that it offers many new possibilities even if it is not the same experience as being in church. I’ve just been part of the congregation at Chichester Cathedral and I’ve been able ‘helicopter in’ to all sorts of places – churches where I have been in ministry or have other connections or where I am just interested. Congregations can build whole new communities like this. It seems to me that the skills required to shape and lead this kind of worship lie somewhere between worship leading and broadcasting. Some have become very effective at doing this. I’ve heard congregations just talking to one another before the service and at the Peace. I’ve heard people reading and leading prayers – and talking about their faith. I’ve heard simple and very effective music. There are new freedoms here even if the online world imposes restraints of its own.

I don’t think this is going to go away – it’s going to be part of church life for the foreseeable future even when we are able to meet in church buildings again!

After Covid – Michael D

President Michael D Higgins of Ireland is a most delightful man – cultured, intelligent and compassionate. Often known simply as ‘Michael D’ He is also a poet and, like most people in Ireland, quite a character. If you haven’t seen the wonderful take-off of his state visit to Britain, you will enjoy this

President Higgins on State Visit to Britain

Meanwhile he has been musing on the future after Covid with Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. But first you get a sense of how he deals with the relative isolation of these times in his official residence in the Phoenix Park in Dublin

“I go out with my dog,” he says via Zoom, “and I walk around the periphery here. I see people at the other side of the ha-ha at the edge of the Áras, and we discuss dogs at a much exaggerated social distancing.” 

The question which absorbs many of us at the moment is how life is going to be when the pandemic crisis eventually comes to an end. In particular we wonder how we can avoid a repetition of what happened after the financial crash of 2008 where basically we bailed out the banks and life continued pretty much as before..

I find myself constantly wondering how we can understand better the flaws in our society which have been ruthlessly exposed by Covid – where wealth and social class have greatly affected risk and where BAME communities have been disproportionately affected. If the government in London does ultimately concede the enquiry which is so badly needed, we may have a chance of finding out. The worst thing will be for us just to pick up and be delighted that we can carry on ‘as normal’. To some extent, we will all do that – socialising and maybe even beginning to travel again – but we owe it to those who have suffered so much to do much more.

President Higgins, who used to be a Labour politician in Ireland, says that there is a real challenge to the ‘ever-smaller government’ mindset:

“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”

The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”   

Can I make a difference

I’m not a climate warrior. But gradually I have been becoming sensitised to the climate emergency. I’ve been reading and reviewing books like Naomi Klein’s ‘This changes everything’ and they have shifted my outlook. I’ve always been a cyclist. Sadly during the last years before I retired my travels around the Anglican Communion meant that I had a terrible carbon footprint. But in Scotland I tried to use train and bus as much as I could.

One of the things which went deep for me was the Volkswagen ‘dieselgate’ scandal. In our extended family, we have had many VW’s – Passat Estates and Golfs – admired their reliability and solidity. My most recent Golf also been one of the most economical and lowest in emissions – until I found that it wasn’t.

One of the changes we have made has been to replace Alison’s 16 year old and 180000 mile Golf with a new Renault Zoe electric car. I’ll write about that in future postings. We felt that it was one of the actions which we could take in the face of the climate challenge.

But the question that troubles me is always the same – about whether any actions which I take as an individual are ever going to make any difference. Will there be fewer wildfires in California and floods in New South Wales? Will the polar bears on their ice floes rise up and salute us? In other words, is this just ‘virtue signalling’ or is it a real contribution?

I’ll write some more about living with an EV, about the shambles which is the charging network [as described in the most recent edition of Which April 2021]. And of course the big question remains about whether the future really is electric ….

Thought for the Day on St Patrick’s Day

This morning’s Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland. One of the great blessings of these strange times is that I no longer have to go to the studio – just nip upstairs to a spare bedroom!

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. 

It’s St Patrick’s Day – and these are the words of St Patrick himself – the opening of his Confessions, his statement of faith.

So forget the St Patrick’s Day razzmatazz – the parades, the green beer and the rest – which have become part of St Patrick’s Day as the Irish diaspora celebrates its identity.  Patrick is simplicity, humility and quiet faith.

Covid of course has put us in a place where that’s what we are left with in the world of faith.  Churches are closed.  Organised and institutional religion can’t function as it usually does.  A priest writing in the Irish Times recently said, ‘The pandemic means religion for religion’s sake is gone. That’s not a bad thing.  Leadership will not come from a moribund clerical caste, but from those who must now step up to the bar’

None of us can know what the long-term impact on faith and faith communities is going to be.  But I suspect that there is going to be, as that article suggested, something of a shake-out.  Authenticity will trump tradition.  The spiritual will outweigh the institutional.  Spontaneity and the personal will outdistance routine.

I haven’t mentioned the snakes – because of course St Patrick is also celebrated for getting rid of snakes from Ireland.  And that is seen as symbolising the driving away of evil.

So Patrick can also stand for better and more wholesome lifestyles

We are just beginning the long process of coming out of lockdown.  We crave social contact, friendships and ultimately the ability to move around.  But it won’t just be the same.  We are living in a time which gives us the opportunity of rediscovering simplicity –greener lifestyles, better relationships, a focus on home as a place of family but also of work and learning – and maybe a little of Patrick’s spiritual simplicity. 

Lockdown – gilded cage for some

I’ve now lost track of how long we’ve been in lockdown.  We miss the stimulation of social contact.   I devour the papers.  l read a lot.  We trawl Netflix and the rest hoping – usually in vain – for diversion.  We try to have a walk most days.  I’ve been decorating in our house. 

Beyond that, we look after our grandchildren as we are allowed to do.  And we Zoom with friends.  

We may be bored.  But it’s a privileged lifestyle in retirement,  We live more simply than usual and we spend less.  Our pensions keep coming.  We aren’t unemployed or likely to be so.   We aren’t struggling to keep a business which we have built up afloat.  We are fortunate

Irish Times journalist Una Mullally wrote recently that,

The divide is between those who have not been financially hit by the pandemic and those who have not just been financially devastated, but have seen their livelihoods implode

But perhaps the greatest social, cultural and political force right now, and into the future, is resentment. Resentment is a potent force and sometimes lacks a basis in reality, gets weaponised and finds the wrong targets. But this time it’s authentic.’

This is bad enough when we are still in the midst of the pandemic.  But it has profound implications in the post-Covid world.  Things surely will not just ‘go back to normal’.  Some like the retired and those who have been paid by the government will continue to be relatively secure and will enter the post-Covid world with some reserves accumulated when we didn’t have much to spend money on.

Those for whom Covid has brought financial disaster will start in the new post-Covid world at a significant disadvantage – and they will have to rebuild not just their finances but their initiative and their hope.’

This is inequality – and to some extent injustice.  It certainly strikes at the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative.  Plainly we aren’t – and there are all the other differences as well .. big houses and small apartments, for example

Writing in the Church Times (19 February) Bishop Peter Selby drew attention to the Financial Conduct Authority forecast that ‘

one in three adults is likely to cut back on essentials; one in ten to will use a foodbank; one quarter will be financially vulnerable, and one eighth will face increased debts — all increases of about 15 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, the charity sector has been hit by a tidal wave of demand and a serious reduction in income.

I’m not quite sure where this leads. But it certainly suggests to me that, when the economy opens up again, people who have been financially secure during lockdown need to think about the impact of their spending on jobs. Those who have suffered need to be able to rebuild as quickly as possible.

Sixteen years!

Facebook pushes the memory – Consecration Service in Perth sixteen years ago today with Alison, Simon, Mark and Anna.

It was a moment of transition – unexpected and unlooked-for. Yet it felt right. I’m sure some of the people who took the risk of electing me wondered if it would be ‘all right’. And I certainly did. Great trust was placed in me. We never intended to leave Ireland – yet it became clear that people like me who had made a commitment to work for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland were gradually leaving and finding new challenges in new places. The phase of the conflict which was ‘our time’ was over.

I knew so little at that point. Very little about Scotland and the SEC. Very little about the geography – I had to buy maps to find my way around. So it was a steep learning curve – just over four years later I found myself elected as Primus of the SEC.

I remember that I enlisted all sorts of people in my learning process and I certainly underestimated how different Scotland is. Ireland is steeped in religion – much of it linked to historic conflict. Scotland by contrast is secular, shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment. It took me a while to work all that out – indeed I’m still working on it.

This was the beginning of an extraordinary period in our lives. It brought great opportunities, great challenges and great fulfilment. We travelled extensively and met all kinds of remarkable people.

I remember that people often asked questions because they wondered if we were ‘just visiting’ and would return to Ireland when I retired. But I sensed from the beginning that this was a one way journey and so it proved to be. We are happily retired just outside Edinburgh within reach of Anna, Simon and Mark and our four grandchildren. Of course we keep close links in Ireland – long friendships and our cottage in Donegal which we hope to be able to visit some time this year. But Scotland is home now.

Categorised as Blog Entry

After Covid – Worship

I’m glad that I am not in pastoral leadership of a congregation at present.  Clergy have been learning all sorts of new skills – and people have adapted well.  But it’s going to take time to rebuild congregations and, in particular to draw younger people back in

I have enjoyed being able to be part of congregations in many places The opportunity for people to see what is happening in other congregations and in the worship provided by the Scottish Episcopal Church must surely reduce our tendency to congregationalism.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve picked up two examples of thoughtful consideration of how clergy and congregations can meet the challenge of providing worship online.

The first was a half page in the Irish Times from Maria Jansson, Dean of the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Waterford in the south-east of Ireland.  The headline was ‘Pandemic means religion for religion’s sake is gone.  That’s not a bad thing.”   ‘Leadership’ she says ‘will not come from a moribund clerical caste, but from those who must now step up to the bar.’  Ouch!.

It is clear that she has been on a journey of exploration.  One initiative which she mentions is, ‘Prayer at Breakfast’ which lasts 6-8 minutes each day.  As she says, if she did the traditional thing of heading into the Cathedral to ‘say the Office’ she would be lucky to have three people with her.  Prayer at Breakfast has now being going for more than 100 days and 130-160 join in every morning.

She describes the challenge as being to establish authentic Christian community again rather than ‘going through the motions’

The second came from Church News Ireland which reports that Badminton Benefice, a group of 10 rural parishes in the Diocese of Gloucester, has been offering online services in the first lockdown.  What they do is worship according to the Book of Common Prayer and they say that the increase in their congregations has been 1500%.

it seems to me that worship on Zoom crosses two lines – probably more than that but it’s a start.  The first is where worship leadership and broadcasting meet.  Broadcasting has quite a bit to contribute – pace and tightness to start with – and the opportunity of hearing a number of voices.  The second is about the movement in worship between formal and informal.  I’ve always been interested in that – how you move easily and quickly from one to the other.  It seems to me to be good to hear a congregation talking informally – before worship begins and at the Peace.

I am pretty sure that the online presence of worship is going to be here to stay.  Obviously it has its place in enabling the housebound to be part of the congregation.  But it also has value as yet another ‘way in’ to worshipping life.  If you can peep round the church door to see what it is like and whether there are ‘people like me’ in the congregation – without actually having to open the door – that surely is helpful!

Build the Wall!

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

‘Build the Wall’ said Donald Trump over and over again. The slogan was always a way of energising his base more than a piece of practical politics. The reality of course didn’t really matter. According to Pew Research, Mexican immigration into the US has been in long term decline. The significant factor in this has been economic recession which has removed exactly the jobs which migrants find attractive. Of those who are stopped at the border, Mexicans are no longer the majority. But the US retains a magnetic attraction as a land of wealth and opportunity – and safety – for many people who are simply desperate.

American Dirt is a story which tries to get inside the experience of Lydia one Mexican migrant and her eight year old son on their flight to ‘el Norte’, the United States. I thought it was a great book – a real page turner.

Lydia has seen fifteen members of her extended family brutally murdered after her investigative journalist husband published an expose of the leader of a local cartel. She is convinced that her only hope of survival is to get to the US – somehow escaping the network of informers which the cartels maintain across the country.

The book describes the various twists and turns of the story – particlarly the experience of riding La Beste – the freight trains which run through Mexico towards the US border. This is staggeringly difficult and dangerous. Along the way, there is unexpected kindness and there is betrayal. The final part of the book describes her experience as part of a group being led by a guide – or Coyote – on a three day trek through some of the most inhospitable and desert border regions between Mexico and the US.

There has been controversy about this book – some of its popularity stems from a recommendation from Oprah Winfrey. There has been some ‘what does a person like this really know about the experience of the migrants?’ criticism. But it was the best I have read in a while.

Categorised as Books

Hello Again!

This last year of lockdowns has been challenging for everyone.  And we have certainly found it so.  If it wasn’t for a regular commitment to caring for our grandchildren, we would have lost touch of what day it is.

During the twelve years when I was working in Scotland, I wrote over 1600 blog posts.  I wouldn’t have time to do that now – that’s retirement for you.  It was a big commitment but there were a couple of reasons why I did it.  Partly as a diary – partly because when I came to Scotland I was relatively unknown to the people I was working with and it gave them access to what I was thinking and doing – partly because it was a way of climbing over the church wall and engaging with wider Scottish society or as we sometimes say being in the ‘public square’.  It was also a kind of running commentary on the life of the church and the nature of leadership at that time.

I’ve been contentedly retired now for three and a half years.  So I’m not the same person as I was when I retired in 2017.  I have more time to read and longer to think.  Some of what I write will come from that

And now is utterly different.  I think Covid has changed almost everything – touched everything in ways that we could not have anticipated.  It’s unsettled us and infused a tinge of fear – even as it locked us down and kept us apart from family and friends.  It has  closed churches so we can’t ‘do what we do’ – the long term impact of that is unknowable.  Covid has also made an unholy alliance with Brexit to give a good shaking to what we call in ecumenical circles the ‘four nations’ of the British Isles and what politicians in London like to call ‘the nation’.  But we need to begin thinking about how it will be ‘after Covid’.

There are many other issues to address and I am looking forward to exploring them.  One of the benefits of being retired is that I have more time – time to read and explore in ways which would have been impossible before.

If you want to find out more, read the ‘About’ page.

Categorised as Blog Entry

John Hume

The Church Times asked me to write briefly about John Hume who died yesterday. It will take generations to bring Northern Ireland to the point where it is at peace with itself, its painful memories and its history. But the contribution of John Hume and his generation was get to a point where the history and the memories were no longer costing lives. Many of us would regard that as more than we ever expected to see in our lifetimes – John Hume was one of the major figures who make that possible

Never a showy or a band-standing politician – John Hume’s intelligent leadership and dogged persistence were central to Ireland’s long march away from violence and towards peace.  The most intractable conflicts across the world are those which feed on a tribal mixture of religion, politics, identity and painful memory.  John Hume’s example in Northern Ireland showed that even these conflicts can yield their toxic power to determined and long-term efforts in the cause of peace.

I left school at 18 in Belfast in 1969 as the Troubles were beginning.  I was 46 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.  Through all that time and beyond, John Hume gave hope to my generation that better times might come.

Two of John Hume’s achievements are particularly important.

The first was that he internationalised the conflict.  Irish-America, through agencies like Noraid, tended to support a romanticised version of the conflict.  John Hume cultivated the friendship and respect of key Irish-Americans like Edward Kennedy and the friendship of Bill Clinton.  Their involvement in the movement towards peace was to be of fundamental importance.

The second was the Hume-Adams talks – John Hume’s effort to make a pathway for Sinn Fein and the IRA away from politics through drawing Gerry Adams into talks.  He knew that such a process would be messy and that he would be accused of compromise with violence.  But he knew and taught us all that, however costly, such processes are absolutely necessary.  For John Hume and the SDLP, the cost was the growth of Sinn Fein as a political force which came to eclipse their own party.  Such personal and political sacrifice are rare and precious. They were the essence of the political capacity and the spiritual depth of a truly remarkable man