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Category - "Life’s lessons":

The Reasonable Society: by Sir Robin Day


Like most of my fellow compatriots, the last fortnight has felt so tumultuous that the very basis of our communal lives seems threatened. This blog deals with the Church of England, so at first glance you might argue politics is an area we should steer clear of. But Church and State are not separated in this country, in fact they are intertwined in a perpetual dance in which the survival of each depends on the ability to accommodate the views of the other.

Our General Synod is now in purdah as they engage in ‘Shared Conversations’, trying to find a modus vivendi. Please pray for them, and the Church.

Many years ago, I copied out by hand the 577 words which follow, words to live by. Please take the time to read them, and think how we can hold on to these values in the face of the multiple tsunamis which beset us.




I have only one life to live and only one country I wish to live it in. In this country, we do not live in a valueless moral vacuum, like astronauts floating weightless in a a lunar spacecraft. We are entrusted with a set of values through which our reasoning is tempered with humanity, moderated by fairness, based on truth, imbued with the Christian ethic, applied with commonsense, and upheld by law. If there is a gulf of hypocrisy between the professing and the practice of these values, that does not mean that we should abandon them.

Our society…whatever its present troubles, is by nature and tradition reasonable in the way it lives and governs itself. That way is by peaceful reform rather than violent revolution. For all that we have to be ashamed of or anxious about now, we have only to look at what enormous social and economic progress we have made in these islands during the last hundred years, without bloodshed, under the much-abused parliamentary system which is the cornerstone of the Reasonable Society.

In the Reasonable Society, there can be no place for absolutes, no place for theories which must be rigidly adhered to, no place for dogmas which must be defended to the death…there should be no principle which is too important to be reconsidered for the sake of others, no interest which cannot make some sacrifice for the common good.

The idea of the Reasonable Society is deeply rooted in our temper and tradition. That temper and tradition has much in common with our climate…and also perhaps with the quality of light and colour which goes with that climate. To a visitor from a country where the climate is fierce, where the sun and sky are harsh and brilliant, the English light is gentle and the colours have a certain softness – the qualities of light and colour captured with such magical effect by the genius of our greatest painter, Turner, in his landscapes.

The Reasonable Society, and the institutions which have grown with it, has flowered in the temperate climate of our mental habits. Equanimity is preferred to hysteria. Experience is a wiser guide than doctrine. Absolutes are alien to us. We know that absolute equality would extinguish liberty; that absolute liberty would demolish order. We shrink from extreme measures. We harden ourselves to take them if we must, though sometimes we are almost too late. Humour, both coarse and subtle, is part of our very being. Humour is our sense of proportion our sense of proportion is the essence of our reasonableness.

The Reasonable Society is not, as may be thought, merely a convenient idea to play about with  in argument. It is fundamentally indispensable to the practical working of the British system of democracy. This is because we have no written constitution, no fundamental law to be applied, no judicial review by a supreme court, no basic rights engraved in marble. It is arguable that we should move towards such a constitution…but for the time being, and the foreseeable future, our constitution is expressed in six unwritten words: ‘The Queen in Parliament is supreme’. Such a constitution has only worked, and can only work, with the accompaniment of the conventions, traditions, customs, compromises, voluntary restraints and the national sense of fair play, all of which go to make up the Reasonable Society.


Chapter 6 of ‘Day by Day’ by Sir Robin Day, William Kimber & Co, 1975.

Sir Robin Day defined the modern political interview. He died, aged 76, in 2000. You can read his obituary from the Daily Telegraph here.

Milk And Sugar?


A Parsee (Parsi) Family, by William Johnson, Western India ca. 1855-1862 via SMU Central University Libraries @ Flickr Commons

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for  thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13.2)

Did you see Yasmeen’s story on Facebook? She has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here:

I am British/Egyptian and currently live in Egypt. Here there are now hundreds of thousands of Syrians if not more. In the past years since the Syrians started coming here to get away from the violence in their country, I have to say people here have been impressed and humbled by how they have dealt with their misfortunes. They have been very industrious, working hard, starting small businesses and in general doing whatever they can to make a living instead of burdening society. They are well known for their cooking, especially their sweets, and many of them have opened small dessert shops and the less well-off sometimes sell their pastries ready-packaged to passers by.
Keep in mind that Egypt is a country with its own poverty problems already and we have thousands of beggars on the streets. Many of the Syrians who came could easily have joined in the throngs of people waiting for hand-outs. But they are proud, hard- working people who will not accept extra money you try to give them when buying things from them even. They want to work for what they have. They have rented the homes they are now living in too.
Before the Syrian crisis, I knew several Syrian people who are well-educated and well-travelled and some are even dual nationals. But they are very patriotic to their country and although they could have lived in western countries most chose to stay in Syria.
My point is that Syrians are only travelling to the west because they are desperate to survive. Not because they want the western way of life as some are accusing them. Their country was beautiful with breathtaking landscapes and a rich culture. Also, they are hardworking, skillful people who, if given a chance, will gladly work hard and add to society and the economy and not depend on aid.

“Like sugar in milk”

But this is of course not the first time in history that large numbers of displaced people have sought sanctuary in other lands.

Do you know the story of how the Zorastrian Parsis first arrived in India? More than 1,000 years ago, at the time of the Islamisation of Persia, Zoroastrians went in several different directions in an effort to protect their religion and culture. The ones who went to India became known as Parsis, but there are other large Zoroastrian communities on the border of present-day Iran and Afghanistan.

A Zoroastrian priest arrived with a group of refugees in what is now the state of Gujarat. The Qissa  tells how about 18,000 Parsis came in seven junks, five of them landing in Div, one at Variav near Surat and one at Cambay. They asked the local king, Jadi Rana, for asylum But the king pointed to a vessel of milk, filled to the very brim, to signify that his kingdom was already full and could not accept any more additions to the population. In response, the priest asked for some sugar, which he stirred into the milk, where it dissolved without trace – and without a drop being spilled. He asked the king again: “If you take us into your kingdom, we will be like the sugar in the milk: we will become one with your kingdom, and will only make it sweeter.” 

Finding the argument unanswerable, Jadi Rana stipulated only that

  • they were to adopt the local language (Gujarati);
  • their women were to wear the garments of the local women (the Sari);
  • they were to cease to carry weapons; and
  • marriages were only to be performed in the evenings (as the Hindus do).

He then gave shelter to the refugees and permitted them to practice their religion and traditions freely.

Lord Bilimoria discusses the Zoroastrian Parsis in India:

Bilimoria points out that despite their small number, Parsees have achieved international acclaim in almost every field. Among the best known are the conductor Zubin Mehta, Ratan Tata (who turned the Tata Group into a global business), former cricketer Farokh Engineer and the Indian war hero Field Marshal Manekshaw. Parsees excel in the arts too – not many people realise that Freddie Mercury was a Parsee. Bilimoria himself is best known for starting the Cobra beer company, but his first entrepreneurial venture involved supplying Indian-made polo sticks to British outlets, including the exclusive department store Harrods.

He attributes the community’s success to the way Parsees are raised. “You are brought up in this principled way. You see the charitable work that’s being done, the way Parsees not only look after each other but put back into the wider community,” he says. “You just have to go to Bombay, where my father’s family are from, and see the number of Parsee charitable buildings and communities, hospitals, schools – you can’t help but notice it and it’s been done over the generations.”



Who is to say that those who now throw themselves on the mercy of the West would not similarly sweeten our nations were we to welcome them in?

Duvet Days And The Heavenly Vision: Evelyn Underhill

duvet dayOne Needful Thing

I read the other day the story of a brownie who lived in a wood. He had a little wheelbarrow, and passed his time in a very moral and useful manner picking up slugs and snails. Yet there was something lacking in his life.

The King of the world passed through that wood very early every morning, and made all things beautiful and new, but the brownie had never seen him. He longed to, but something prevented it. He had one cherished possession, a lovely little green blanket which had fallen out of the fairy queen’s chariot and which he had not been able to help keeping for himself. It was very cold in the wood at night, but the blanket kept him so warm and cosy that he never woke up to see the King of the world.

And one day there came to him a shepherd who looked deep into the soul of the brownie and said to him: ‘Haven’t you seen the King of the world?’ And the brownie said, ‘No – I do want to, but somehow I can’t manage it.’ Then the shepherd replied: ‘But I seem to see something in your soul that keeps you from the vision; something that looks rather like a blanket.’

And at that a terrible fight began in the heart of the brownie, a battle between wanting to go on being warm and comfortable in his blanket and longing to see the King of the world.

Perhaps…the ultimate choice which lies before us may turn out to be the brownie’s choice between the heavenly vision and the blanket.

OK, I cheated. Evelyn Underhill does not mention the word duvet, you are right. But if I put up a picture of a brownie and a blanket, would you have read the post? ;>)

The extract is from a conference paper delivered by her in about April 1924, and anthologised in ‘Invincible Spirits: A thousand years of spiritual writings‘ chosen by Felicity Leng.

King George VI: a Courageous Model for the CofE?

This photograph was taken immediately after the king’s Christmas broadcast in 1939. He looks wooden, almost rooted to the spot – still ‘petrified’ or turned into stone. He has just been through an ordeal, which he has undertaken because he believes it to be part of his duty as king, a role for which he was never prepared. The country has been through the turmoil of the abdication of his elder brother in 1936, and the then Duke of York  acceded to the thrones of seven countries (Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, New Zealand, South Africa, and of course the United Kingdom) as: His Majesty George the Sixth, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India.

All this was thrust on a man who wanted nothing more than to live the life of an English country gentleman, far from the prying eyes of the media. One of the reasons for this desire to stay out of the limelight was, as anyone who saw the film ‘The King’s Speech‘ will know, that he had a debilitating stutter. However, the Fates, or some would say the Almighty, decreed otherwise, and then, heaping impossible task on impossible task, expected him to lead our country in a war against Germany. Three months after the declaration of war, George VI made a faultless broadcast to the nation which genuinely, together with the speeches of Winston Churchill, stiffened the resolve of his people to walk into the new year, not knowing what they would face except that it would be hard and painful, trusting only to God.

The archivist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor (Castle) throws a little further light on this broadcast:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown”. And he replied “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light, and safer than a known way.”

This quotation from a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins may be found in St George’s Chapel, engraved on a panel on the gates to the George VI Memorial Chapel. ..

Minnie Louise Haskins was born on 12 May 1875 in Bitton, Gloucestershire. An academic by profession, she lectured in Social Sciences at the London School of Economics from 1919 to 1944, having previously served as a supervisor of women’s employment and industrial welfare in the First World War.  A keen amateur poet, she had her first collection of poems published in 1908 in an anthology called the ‘The Desert’. However, it was not until 1939, when King George VI quoted from ‘God knows’ in his Christmas Broadcast, that her verse came to public notice. Acting on the suggestion of Jean Allen from Bristol who alerted him to the poem, the King decided to include the quotation in his seasonal radio address to the Empire, to serve as a message of encouragement in the dark days at the start of the Second World War.

In the late 1960s, when a new side chapel was added to the north side of St George’s Chapel as a permanent resting place for George VI, the (by now famous) words were inscribed on a panel to the right of the iron gates.  A booklet written for the dedication of the memorial chapel on 31 March 1969 in the presence of his daughter, HM the Queen, offers an explanation for their inclusion: “These words meant much to him and he hoped that they would be remembered by all who dedicated themselves to the service of God and the nation.”

And the comparison with the Church of England on this cusp of the old and the new year, of the old and the new Cantuar?  Some may think this forced, but to me it is very real. We too know that we are on the verge of great upheaval, which can be summed up by the pressures to treat every human being as loved by God and worthy of respect, no matter what their gender or sexual orientation. But this is a tug of war, with counter-pressures to treat every human being in relation to their standing under the status quo ante. Part of the upheaval is a change of guard at the top, but we desperately need a Cantuar who can offer a new way of deciding on the future of the Church of England. Rebirth and renewal is painful, the process is painful, but the rewards are enormous.

Let us pray, inspired by George VI, the people of England at the onset of war and during the blitz, and Minnie Haskins :

Lord, we face the unknown at a difficult and painful time for our Church. Trusting in your word as a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path, we go out into the darkness. With faith that this will be better than a light, and safer than a known way, we put our hands into yours. Amen.

cf Psalm 119.105

‘Saying Goodbye: You Don’t Need To Have Lost To Care’

Many of us will have prayed today for those who feel sad at Christmas. I want you to imagine for a moment the exquisite mixture of joy and pain felt by Christians who prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, than which nothing can be more joyous, while feeling acute pain for the loss of their own child or children.

Loss at any stage is traumatic and early loss is often not acknowledged or discussed. You may have heard of the organisation ‘Saying Goodbye‘ .  For the first time, a series of services of  remembrance for those who have suffered miscarriage, early-term loss or early infant loss have been held since September 2012. The movement has already spread to the United States, where similar services are taking place.

Professor Lord Winston, a Saying Goodbye Ambassador commented:

“Miscarriage is often something that’s not acknowledged or talked about in the UK, and people certainly do not appreciate how utterly distressing it is for women, and indeed their extended families. It’s a loss of a precious life, and whether the loss happens in early or late pregnancy it’s traumatic, and a natural grief process must be allowed to happen. Sadly a lot of doctors and nurses see miscarriage on such a regular basis, the right support and follow up advice is just not offered, which results in the vast amount of women never coming to terms with losing their baby, and sadly they are not able to move forward with their lives as they become stuck in a cycle of grief. I am delighted to be an ambassador for a marvellous new organisation called ‘Saying Goodbye’. Following losing five babies themselves, Zoe and Andrew Clark-Coates, the directors of CCEM, decided to launch the first national set of commemorative services, which will allow families to come together to mourn their babies. I hope that these services will be a turning point in the nation, and through this new organisation miscarriage will become more widely understood, and families will know that their pain and loss has been heard and recognized.”





The services will provide an opportunity to join with others who have experienced a loss, and together we will say: our children did exist, and they may have only been on this earth for days, weeks or months, but they were truly loved, and will always be missed! They are held in Anglican cathedrals and minsters and follow an Anglican format but also include secular music, poetry and other elements. Everyone is welcome regardless of faith.



The Saying Goodbye Services will be taking place at numerous locations in 2013. Many are still being planned, but we are delighted to announce the following events:


‘Saying Goodbye’ launched the video at the top of this page on You Tube this morning. They hope very much that you will help them spread the word about their work. You can find them on twitter at @SayingGoodbyeUK, and on Facebook here.

Sandy Hook and the Christian Vocation: Taylor Carey

We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;

we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;

we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:

all people do, in faith or unbelief.


We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,

and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,

bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:

faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.


God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,

and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;

for one and all Christ gives himself in death:

through his forgiveness sin will find relief.




Any attempt at a ‘theological’ reflection on the appalling events of last Friday in Newton, Connecticut, carries with it a terrible risk of glib domesticity. How can we speak of love, healing and reconciliation when we – thankfully – have no idea of the chaos engulfing the families of victims and survivors alike? What could it possibly mean to speak of a loving God and solidarity of prayer, amidst the reeling shock, horror and haemorrhage that have been visited on a few ordinary families? And what perspective can we possibly bring to a tragedy so deep and all-consuming that is not simply an irrelevant failure to grasp the true horror of reality?


There are times when we are confronted by evil so grotesquely profound that all of our settled assumptions, our comfortable realities and our convenient truths simply crumble before us. We are left amidst the ruins of our optimism, robbed of our faith in our fellow human beings and bereft of a foundation upon which to rebuild our worldview. September 11th, 2001 was one such time; from Beslan to Virginia Tech there have been far too many others. After each occurrence, the sickening revelations of evil leave us feeling as if our trust has been plundered, sapped and destroyed. Though few would dare say they know how the parents of the twenty murdered schoolchildren feel, each of us does sense the loss in some small but deeply sorrowful way. The bonds of humanity are perilously weak; yet in the darkest hours of grief, we feel, if just for a moment, a sense of common assault.


This Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew. From his death cell in a Nazi prison, he penned some of the most profound and haunting works of Christian spirituality ever written. How can we even begin to understand the unimaginable bleakness, the desolation and the isolation he must have felt? How can we ever grasp the full force of his language, his thoughts and his spiritual journey, which endured month after month of withering hope, and, of course, ended with a hangman’s noose? In a similar way, how do we go about absorbing the sheer depth and density of the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a courageous young woman who recorded her own spiritual growth even amidst the appalling suffering of Jews in Amsterdam during the Second World War? And how much do we really comprehend when we turn over that last page of her recollections, marking the beginning of her own squalid passion, culminating not at Calvary but in the gas chambers at Auschwitz?  Our own domesticity hangs around our necks like a condemning placard. For most of us, our theologising remains inadequate and outmoded.


All of this is to say that any reflection on the tragic events at Sandy Hook elementary school last Friday must begin with humility. We simply cannot think here of offering ‘solutions’ or somehow neatly repairing the torn fabric of broken humanity. The injury is too real, too complex and too deep for that, as it is in any situation where innocent children – the joy of all our lives – are brutally killed, and we realise that we can no longer make the basic assumption that school is a safe place. Mapping out a Christian perspective in these circumstances begins with the rejection of a neat theodicy, just as it begins with the acceptance and embrace of the reality of pain and grief. In this sense, we really do have a ‘vocation’, a calling to be and to do, rather than to theorise and account for, circumscribe and explain away.


Moments of disaster unsettle our categories. The trappings of conceptual security with which we daily surround ourselves are cast away, leaving us vulnerable and naked. But if this has the capacity to weaken and destroy, it also has the capacity – however indescribable in its pain and sorrow – to reveal and ‘make anew’. This is no trite process of ‘justification’ or ‘acceptance’; nothing justifies the deaths of twenty children, nothing makes that acceptable. Rather, this process is a slow realisation of God’s presence at the very heart, the absolute centre, of human activity. As Bonhoeffer and Hillesum bear witness to, it is the realisation of a God who grieves and mourns with us, and whose promise to abide among us is one, at base, which we can trust. There is no simple solution to the gut-wrenching chasm in our thinking which the presence of evil opens up for us each time it strikes; but the Christian commitment, properly understood, is to live through tragedy, accepting the shocking pain and torment it brings, whilst still, somehow, remaining attuned to a world charged with the divine creativity of a vulnerable, grieving God.


‘Theology’ in this sense is not a neat system of abstract ideas, but rather what happens in embodied lives of faith. It finds its home in the authentically lived Christian life, which maintains a commitment to seeing every aspect of our existence as a space in which God’s creative work might bear fruit. Grief and sorrow form an equally important part of this schema as joy and jubilation; so it is that we find ourselves very much pursuing the theological vocation as we bear witness to the pain and tragedy in Connecticut, amidst the ongoing political chaos and emotional tumult. Central to this witness is a reflection on our received assumptions and entitlements, and a sober analysis of the contingencies of human justice and societal functionality in a broken and fallen world. Certainly, there are political practicalities to realise – Congress desperately needs to attend to long-overdue reform in the areas of gun control and mental healthcare provision – but the basic Christian commitment to be there for the neighbour and bear witness to an undefeatable love in times as grave as these cannot be forgotten. The legacies of Bonhoeffer and Hillesum attest to the importance – and the essential coherence – of such a task.


As the Archbishop of Canterbury said on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, in a society where fear remains a common denominator of social interaction, and communities are weaker and more atomised than ever, new laws and regulations are long overdue. But the distinctly Christian vocation in times such as these continues to be found in self-giving and neighbourliness, manifested in a radicalism which dares to proclaim and act upon a love so gratuitous, that it endures even the fiercest storm of a chaotic – and often tragic – world.


The opening poem is from ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Letters and Papers in Prison’ (SCM Press, 1953). Translated Church Hymnatry, 4th edition (Canterbury Press, 2005).
The illustration is Abstract by: Jo Fagan via Seed

Queering The Pitch – Review of ‘Dazzling Darkness’: Chris Fewings


A review of Rachel Mann’s new book Dazzling Darkness

When I strayed into the Church of England in 1976, there were no women priests or even deacons. Very few Anglicans doubted publicly that same-sex relationships were sinful. It had never occurred to me to question that God was a He. Though at school we joked about ‘the operation’, I don’t think I was fully aware that people really did change their sex. Rachel Mann, author of Dazzling Darkness, published this month, is a lesbian Anglican priest who began life as a baby boy called Nick.

It’s an intensely personal book of theology, exploring a number of themes each explored in more depth by others elsewhere (as the author acknowledges), but in the unique context of the life of Rachel Mann, boy, young man, young woman, atheist, philosopher, born-again Christian (briefly), vicar, explorer of what Henry Vaughan called in God ‘a deep but dazzling darkness’. She has undergone two major courses of surgery, one chosen and longed for, the other imposed by illness. She celebrates life in memories of her raucous youth, in heavy metal music, in poetry, in relationships, in ideas, in wrestling with life and everything life throws at her.

It’s a book about stripping: stripping masks off her self and her God, stripping away our assumptions, stripping off youthful ambitions, seeing even physical health and happiness stripped away, and being left naked before God. She comes clean about her need to dramatise herself and be centre stage. She dares to show us the most recent phase of her gender journey: having anathematised all her maleness in her twenties, she has turned round and embraced her younger self as part of her identity. She doesn’t hesitate to present the psychological aspects of her need to become a believer rather suddenly in her twenties.

The term ‘queering’ isn’t much mentioned in this book. It’s a word which has come to means questioning all our assumptions about gender: not just accepting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and relationships on equal terms with ‘cisgender’ heterosexual ones, but asking questions about any defining lines we draw around our sexual identities – and yet without bland assertions like ‘we’re all the same’. At a cultural level in the West, the twentieth century queered many gender assumptions – women in trousers, women as heads of government, same-sex relationships – yet men wearing skirts can still shock.

But it’s not just gender assumptions which can be queered. One approach to worship is straight bowling: with a familiar run-up we direct our prayers at a clearly visible wicket. Result! We feel the consolation of God’s presence like a ray of light from above. At the other end of the scale, we fumble around in pitch darkness, throw googlies, and bump into God in unexpected places.

There’s nothing new about images of darkness, downness, smallness, foolishness, powerlessness or unknownness about God: take a look at Calvary. Yet there’s a tendency to exalt these into a mystical tradition. This is dismissed by some Christians (‘it begins with mist, centres on “I” and ends in schism!’) while others imagine that only an elite can indulge in it. I think it’s an aspect of most people’s lives, coming to the fore whenever our neat concepts about life break. We have to keep rewriting ‘mysticism’ to stop it getting ossified in familiar language: it is a deeply reverent way of iconoclasm. It is a falling in love, a loss of control.

And so our words about God, the way we pitch our faith to strangers, the quality of our pitch dark desolation, is always up for ‘queering’. Throughout our lives, things we took for granted can be turned upside down – and childhood naiveties can be revisited and embraced. Belden Lane’s book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes set out to explore the ‘mystical’ tradition in the context of ordinary life, death and desolation. Dazzling Darkness is another compass point on this shifting landscape. Rachel writes:

The love which stands besides us, which bleeds with us and will not walk away is beyond explanation. … the love which came to me was costly. It was dark love. Sacrificial love … only truly known … where our usual strategies of control and success have failed. … I found God in Christ squatting beside me in the darkness.

For me, and for many the most challenging part of this book will be the sex re-assignment surgery. (No physical details are described.) With searing honesty Rachel faces this head on:

There is simply no doubt that to have sex reassignment surgery is a profound act of violence against the natural body. In effect, with the help of the NHS, I took perfectly normal, functioning male genitalia and utterly destroyed and refashioned them. It was a decision that no rational normal man would take. And though I most certainly, at a personal level, gained far more than I lost, I wiped out my manhood.

She explains how deeply and how consistently she longed to be female from the age of five. Controversially, she draws a parallel with the cross: without celebrating violence, she declares “I do not think we should be afraid of the thought that there are circumstances in which reconciliation cannot avoid violence.” Paradoxically, it is after becoming completely at home with her new female body that she finally found much to celebrate in her male self.

I’m out of my depth here because I’m simply not familiar with the issues, and I guess I need to hear a variety of stories of gender dysphoria. I suspect that there is a whole spectrum of inner male and female, perhaps on more than one axis. I’m aware that I have a lot more to learn about what it means to male or female.

Some theologians fall into a darkness so dazzling they can no longer write or speak of it. I hope Rachel Mann will continue to explore, to reflect, to question, to write, and to enlighten.

Rachel has written about the book online here. You can buy it on paper or digitally direct from Iona Books.

Revd Dr Christina Bearsdley has written a guide to the pastoral care of trans people.

The illustration is via Shutterstock, Image ID: 89074480: “a collection of NASA images digitally enhanced by Antony McAulay of some of the wonderful nebulae of our universe”




“Something Good in Everything I See”: Taylor Carey



‘Abba’. No, not the cherished name of the God which Jesus Christ invites us so boldly to call out to in the institution of the Lord’s Prayer. No, I’m talking about Mamma Mia, Super Trooper and Money, Money, Money, to name but three songs of a band that formed much of the parentally-dictated soundscape of my youth. The rule was simple enough: if we were in a car, and the journey was long, there was Abba. So let me say all these years later, from the depths of somewhere deep, ‘Thank you for the music’.

Thank you for the music indeed, because, as the Revd Dr Ian Bradley reminded us some weeks ago, it is in our singing to the Lord that we affirm the tenets of our faith, find ourselves in a Christ-oriented community, and raise our eyes to the ‘spacious firmament on high’. Who could fail to be awed by the loving devotion of a Charles Wesley, an Isaac Watts or a Joseph Addison? Or, moving from the congregational to the choral, the tangible faith of a James MacMillan or a John Tavener? Sacred music, in its broadest sense, articulates the basic human desire to be lifted above the everyday, and provides fleeting glimpses, perhaps, of those shards of transparency connecting and sustaining humankind, made in the image of an all-loving God. As ever, Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it rather better:

‘Charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil’.

But music is bestowed with an even greater significance if we consider its place in the narratives of creation and redemption. The Book of Job furnishes us with a musical metaphor bound up in a prolonged examination of the nature of God: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy?’ (Job 38:7). The act of singing is, at its most fundamental, an act of communication. And it is this that sits at the heart of the Christian understanding of creation; a communicative self-giving of a Trinitarian God; a gratuitous overflowing of love which is poured out as if in song. This is at once the beginning and the constant now of creation, for it is in this communicative act that we find the cradle of authentic Christian spirituality. Far from being a parsimonious category of mystical experience which seems increasingly threatened by advances in scientific explanation; spirituality, in the words of Rowan William’s profoundly challenging book The Wound of Knowledge, ‘must now touch every area’ of our lives, so that we might gain ‘an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theatre for God’s creative work’ (p.2). That bestows upon us, I think, a commitment to openness and contemplation, a commitment to always straining an ear for that quiet cosmic note, so subtle and yet so powerfully present at the absolute centre of things. We are charged with echoing that divine self-communication, with being caught up in and harmoniously joining our voices with the resounding chorus of the heavens. That is the authentic spiritual vision of Christianity, and it is liberal, it is open and it is stunningly gracious.

So much,then, for music. But I didn’t write this sermon to lounge around solely in the spirituality of Scandinavian pop groups – fruitful though I’m sure it would be. I want to come back to the agreement we reached on what an authentic conception of Christian spirituality demands – openness, contemplation, humility, linguistic tentativeness, liberalism – in just a moment. But I wrote this address with a keen sense of crisis. Theology, I am increasingly concerned, is going wrong. Global trends in the world’s major faiths, and certainly the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, show an unmistakable drift towards a narrow-minded conservatism, and a repressive, judgemental fundamentalism which is exclusive, divisive, and, I am convinced, utterly limiting. We are slipping back into old ways, and discovering new ways, of condemning and cursing when we should be encouraging and blessing. But underpinning it all is the basic problem of language: our communication has failed, and communities of faith and within faiths increasingly find themselves shouting past one another in what are highly fragile, delicate debates. As Rudyard Kipling might lament equally well in this context, ‘Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’.

The debate over homosexuality crystallises these concerns. It has sapped the energies of all major religions, particularly in their dialogue with the secular world, and – sadly – fuelled the growth of reactionary, bigoted and fundamentalist factions within Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Our greatest obstacle to having a meaningful dialogue on this issue remains a fundamental problem of language. Here we return to the theme of spirituality and the song. Music begins at the cross-roads of the communicable and the incommunicable. It lifts us beyond the rhyme and rhythm, metre and tempo of our everyday speech, and inverts the speech-act relationship. Music acts out our speech, constituting and framing our language by its broader, more sweeping movements. Our language is always evolving, always getting to grips with what lies just a few inches off the page – that’s why we have our Wordsworths and our Coleridges, our Constables and our Turners, our Sullivans and our Elgars. Musicians, poets, artists and imaginative writers exist because we can’t parsimoniously circumscribe that ‘muddled bundle of experiences’ which constitute our lives, and, as Williams reminds us, can and must be seen as a potential theatre for God’s divine action. Of course, that which more than anything else we so utterly fail to linguistically circumscribe is God Himself – and quite right too, says St Thomas Aquinas. God in a box is not God at all.

But this is a far cry from modern conservative fundamentalism, which despises linguistic humility as weak, tepid and spineless. It is equally loathing of any notion of ‘mystery’ – except when it wants to obscure an ugly truth – and it scorns talk of the limits of prescription and doctrine. ‘My God is a great God’ is a commonly expressed sentiment – you’ll find it said often enough amongst student Christian groups here, and not least those fond of giving out toasties – and it sounds pretty harmless. But it actually doesn’t take all that much to add on a second phrase: ‘…and I know his mind, I know his will and I know exactly what he despises and loves’. Or perhaps you might prefer the slightly nauseating: ‘Jesus loves me! This I know / For the Bible tells me so’. OK, so that was an unfair attack on an otherwise benign hymn by the utterly benign Anna B. Warner – but that sentiment is, I believe, where so many of the narratives of biblical inerrancy, textual literalism and plain ignorance feed into an increasingly entrenched, fanaticised and hostile fundamentalist Christianity. To bring it back to one specific point of contention: my issue with the current state of affairs within my own Church and many others is not that some Christians in all conscience have cause to doubt the moral legitimacy of my sexual orientation, or to doubt my salvation; but that there is a complete tone-deafness to diverse perspectives and an automatic dismissal of anything daring to present a messy, nuanced picture of the ‘muddled bundle of experiences’ that we call human life. Returning to music, conservative fundamentalism has quite forgotten the obligation to strain the ear for the divine cosmic chord. Heads are buried in the sand, and meanwhile the hating goes on.

And that hatred is singularly illogical, singularly hypocritical and singularly blasphemous for a people wedded to the notion of an all-loving God. And when that heretical hostility is combined with a total lack of humility and a conception of God so limited, so much a projection of our own transitory needs and desires, fears and shortcomings, we are left with nothing but hard-headed intolerance and bigotry. The mind of God becomes another weapon in the arsenal of things which we can throw at the enemy in a debate, even as that disarming acceptance of God screams back at us to stop – return to the Book of Job: ‘Where we you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ Who are you to dare think you can be so much of a judge, so self-sufficient in your administration of justice? Have we learnt nothing from a Christ who is crucified so scandalously and so tragically by God’s own people under God’s own law? (cf. Rom. 9.30-3, Matt.23.13, John 8.41).

Certainly, this isn’t a call for ‘anything goes’. We are furnished by the Gospel with a clear ethical understanding and moral landscape; this is given direction by, and finds its fulfilment in, the Christ we meet at the foot of the Cross. But far from shoe-horning our culturally inherited prejudices into fundamentalist deployments of highly ambiguous biblical texts, this involves at root a commitment to openness, to radical diversity and to a humility in our ‘feeling out’ of a Christ-oriented life. In fact, of course, that is what St. Paul is at least in part discussing in Romans 3: is something like sexuality simply a satisfaction of private emotional needs or a series of decisions about what we want our bodily selves to mean?  Does anyone need reminding – and perhaps we all have times when we do – of the consequences of treating sexuality like a drug to be administered free of moral danger? I remain deeply hurt by the prevalence of promiscuity within heterosexual and homosexual communities, and the readiness with which such behaviour perpetuates a dehumanising cycle of ‘uninhabited flesh’, as Paul would recognise. Bodily meaning – making human sense of our bodies and using them as part of our communication – is not some virtuous optional extra to be tagged onto our normal throw-away routines. The reality of the pain and suffering caused by our willingness to shut down from echoing God’s loving music through our own corporal lives stares us all in the face. Sexual licentiousness causes gross unhappiness and emotional tumult, as perhaps we can all admit we know. Refraining from the narrow-minded judgementalism of fundamentalist religion doesn’t mean establishing carte blanche for us to smear our own preferences and transitory needs all over the world.

What then, is the solution? Here, we return to Abba – still in the sense of the Scandinavian pop group. You probably all know the song: ‘I have a dream’ – it opens the West End musical Mamma Mia! Once again, theologians can only hope to catch up with where God is already working amidst 1970s musicians. Here’s the line that grabs me: ‘I believe in angels, Something good in everything I see’. Forget the angels bit for now: ‘something good in everything I see’. That to me speaks of a fundamental orientation towards the inherent goodness of creation, the commitment to seeing no one thing as wholly irredeemable or evil. That, to me, sounds not too distant from the Christian conception of grace. I echoed Ian Bradley’s excellent recent book near the beginning of this sermon in saying that we have slipped from a language of encouragement and blessing to a language of condemnation and cursing. We are perpetuating a fundamentally blasphemous hatred at the heart of our theology when it comes to so many issues of contention: sexuality, gender, leadership, the use of force, education and economics. We need to rediscover a posture of humility, rooted in the notion that we must always ‘strain an ear’ for that subtle call of a God that escapes the bounds of parsimonious conceptualisation; a God that constantly escapes and unsettles our categories, upsets our convenient judgements and challenges our settled assumptions. And we need a reorientation towards seeing the inherent goodness of creation as a gift of God, the product of gratuitous love – even amidst the most taxing questions of suffering and evil. Once we have laid that sure foundation – to be found in Christ’s unconditional outpouring of love upon the Cross – and once we can commit to something good in everything we see, then we can begin to establish a meaningful, gracious discussion on issues that remain difficult for us all. In an age when all the signs in theology are pointing the wrong way, towards narrow-mindedness, towards arrogance and heretical self-sufficiency, and towards the triumph of destructive hatred over disarming love, it is my hope and prayer that we rediscover that commitment to openness, to that consciousness of authentic spirituality and our own humility, not just for people like myself, but for the glory of God and His creation, that heaven and earth might yet abound in His harmonious chord of love.


  The illustration is: A Revival Band covering ABBA at the LGBT event Europride 2008 in Stockholm from Wikimedia: ABBA 2008,7,30 Reprint from Flickr by Bengt Nyman



Thought for the Second Sunday before Advent: Revolutionary Change

There is only so much you can do with Elastoplast or duct tape and pretending that if things are unpleasant or unwelcome they don’t exist. I make no apologies for using an image from the Tarot to illustrate today’s readings, particularly the gospel, but if this offends you please read no further.

In two days time, General Synod will vote on whether to recognise the 21st century by admitting women to the episcopate. And next spring a new Archbishop of Canterbury will be enthroned. Make no mistake, both these events will change the Church of England. It is my hope and my opinion that both changes will be for the better, but so far we have seen only the velvet glove of Bishop Justin Welby – if you ask those who have negotiated with him, either over oil or in the middle of the African bush, I imagine they would assure you that the iron hand is definitely there underneath.

Wikipedia describes the meaning of the card as follows:

A variety of explanations for the images depicted on the card have been attempted. For example, it may be a reference to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God destroys a tower built by mankind to reach Heaven. Alternatively, the Harrowing of Hell was a frequent subject in late medieval liturgical drama, and Hell could be depicted as a great gate knocked asunder by Jesus Christ, with accompanying pyrotechnics.

In this manuscript picture of the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus forces open the fiery tower gate of Hell to free the virtuous dead from Limbo. The enactment of this scene in liturgical drama may be one source of the image of the Tower.

To some, it symbolizes failure, ruin and catastrophe. Many differing meanings are attributed to the card:

  • To others, the Tower represents the paradigms constructed by the ego, the sum total of all schema that the mind constructs to understand the universe. The Tower is struck by lightning when reality does not conform to expectation..Life is self-correcting. Either [people] must make changes in their own lives, or the changes will be made for them.
  • [Are we]  holding on to false ideas or pretences; a new approach to thinking about the problem is needed. [We are]advised to think outside the box… It may be time… to re-examine belief structures, ideologies, and paradigms … The card may also point toward seeking education or higher knowledge.
  • Others believe that the Tower represents dualism, and the smashing of dualism into its component parts, in preparation for renewal that does not come from reified, entrenched concepts. The Ivory Tower as a parallel image comes to mind, with all its good parts and its bad parts.


This all sounds like very good advice from my pew in the Church – how does it seem from where you are sitting?

Two hymns:

And thou wilt bring the young green corn, the young green corn for ever singing…

And Laurence Housman’s

Father eternal, Ruler of creation,
Spirit of life, which moved ere form was made;
Through the thick darkness covering every nation,
Light to man’s blindness, O be Thou our aid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.


Races and peoples, lo! we stand divided,
And sharing not our griefs, no joy can share;
By wars and tumults love is mocked, derided,
His conquering cross no kingdom wills to bear:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.


Envious of heart, blind eyed, with tongues confounded,
Nation by nation still goes unforgiven;
In wrath and fear, by jealousies surrounded,
Building proud towers which shall not reach to heaven:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.
How shall we love Thee, holy, hidden Being,
If we love not the world which Thou hast made?
O give us brother love for better seeing
Thy world made flesh, and in a manger laid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

The Reconciliation Remembrance Service in Dar Es Salaam

The military cemetery in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

German East Africa

The story of German East Africa in the First World War is essentially the history of the colony’s military commander, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who spent the war harrying the forces of the British Empire, tying down with his band of 3,500 Europeans and 12,000 native Askaris and porters, a British/Imperial army 40,000 strong, which was at times commanded by the former Second Boer War commander Jan Smuts.  General von Lettow ended the war as one of Germany’s heroes, and his Schutztruppe was celebrated as the only colonial German force in the First World War not to have been defeated in open combat (although they often retreated when outnumbered). The German light cruiser SMS Königsberg also fought off the coast of East Africa. She was eventually scuttled in the Rufiji delta in 1915, and was subsequently blockaded  by the British. Another and smaller campaign was conducted on the shores of southern Lake Tanganyika over 1914–15. The Treaty of Versailles divided the colony between  Belgium (Ruanda-Urundi), Portugal (part of Mozambique), and the remainder to Britain, which named it Tanganyika.

 The Aftermath of War

So far as I know, the military cemetery in Dar es Salaam is unique, not only  in having German and Allied soldiers buried side by side but in also having a joint Remembrance Day service.

We lived in Dar es Salaam for five years in the 1990s and it was our privilege to attend these services each year. They were quite the most thought-provoking and moving services of their kind I have ever attended. First, there is a strong feeling of exile, of commemorating those that are now permanently ‘part of a foreign field’. Secondly, we are accustomed to these services being held in the northern hemisphere in mid-November, when all colour and life are disappearing from the landscape with the onset of winter. The contrast could not be stronger: November is the hottest part of the year in Tanzania, and we wore cotton dresses and held umbrellas against the sun’s rays as we walked over the lawn made of coarse tropical ‘grass’, tended as well as humanly possibly by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Our namesake, Ally Sykes (whose biography I edited) still plays an important role in the service, I am glad to see.

I am indebted to Mr Stanley Ngobei, who is in charge of  looking after the cemetery, and to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who gave me his telephone number. Mr Ngobei kindly and generously scanned the pages of the 2009 service sheet and emailed them to me. Hooray for the 21st century!

Remembrance Sunday Order of Service

1. THE CALL TO WORSHIP (Father Geoffrey Riddle)
Let us gather together to commemorate and commend to the mercy of our Heavenly Father, the giver of life everlasting, all those who have died in any war for their country and those who suffer from its consequences.

Lasst uns in dieser Gedenkfeier an die denken, die im Krieg ihr Leben liel3en fur ihre Heimat und an alle, die unter den Kriegsfolgen zu leiden haben. Wir befehlen sie der Gnade unseres himmlischen Vaters an, der ewiges Leben gibt,

God is love: let heaven adore him;
God is love: let earth rejoice;
Let creation sing before him,
And exalt him with one voice.
He who laid the earth’s foundation,
He who spread the heavens above,
He who breathes through all creation,
He is love, eternal love.

God is love, and he enfoldeth
All the world in one embrace;
With unfailing grasp he holdeth
Every child of every race;
And when human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow’s iron rod,
Then they find that selfsame ,aching
Deep within the heart of God.

God is love: and though with blindness
Sin afflicts the souls of men, .
Holds and guides them even then.
Sin and death and hell shall never
O’er us final triumph gain;
God is love, so Love for ever
O’er the universe must reign.


ban1-4Mungu Mwenyezi, Tunakuomba uwape wote waliotoa uhai kwa ajili ya nchi yao arnani ya milele. Uwafariji walioptata taabu na sikitiko kwa ajili ya vita na mateso ya vita. Lakini sisi utujalie roho ya upatanisho. Tusichoke kutafuta njia zinazoleta amani, umoja na uhusiano mwerna kati ya watu wore. Amin.

UK (Father Geoffrey Riddle)
Almighty God, we ask you to hold in your care all those who gave their lives for their country. Grant them eternal rest. We ask you to sustain all those who, as a result of war, have suffered physically or mentally or have lost loved ones. Grant us, 0 Lord, a mind of reconciliation and give us courage and inspiration to do all in our power to bring about lasting peace and unity among all nations. AMEN.

GERMAN (Pater Ralf Weber)
Allmachtiger Gott, schenke allen, die ihr Leben fur ihre Heimat gegeben haben, Deinen Ewigen Frieden. Sei Trost und Zuversicht fur alle, die unter den Kriegsfolgen gelitten haben und noch leiden. Uns aber schenk den Geist der Versohnung. Lass uns nicht mude werden in der Suche nach einem dauerhaften Frieden und nach Einigkeit unter alien Volkern. AMEN.

4. MUSLIM PRAYER (Sheikh Ali Hadi Mussa SaIum)

5. HINDU PRAYER (Mr. Dinesh Vaishnav)

6. SIKH PRAYER (Manjit Singh)

7. THE LAST POST (Army Buglers)


9. REVEILLE (Army Buglers)


11. THE ODE (Diane Corner – British High Commissioner)
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going
down of the sun and in the morning.
ALL RESPOND – We will remember them

12. OUR FATHER (led by Father Geoffrey Riddle)
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. AMEN

VATER UNSER (led by Pater Ralf Weber)
Vater unser im Himmel. Geheiligt werde dein Name. Dein Reich komme. Dein Wille geschehe, wie im Himmel so auf Erden. Unser tagliches Brot gib uns heute, und vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern. Und fiihre uns nicht in Versuchung, sondern erlose uns von dem Bosen. Denn dein ist das Reich und die Kraft und die Herrlichkeit in  Ewigkeit. AMEN.


13. GEBET (German Ambassador)
Gutiger Gott, wir sind hi er versammelt, urn derer zu gedenken, die im Dienst fur ihr Land gestorben sind. Erfulle uns mit soJcher Liebe und Standhaftigkeit, dass wir egoistische und unlautere Motive hinter uns lassen. Lass uns Dir zur Ehre leben und so alien Menschen dienen durch Jesus Christus, unseren Herren. AMEN


15. GERMAN HYMN “Hilf, Herr meines Lebens”
Hilf, Herr meines Lebens, dass ich nicht vergebens, dass ich
nicht vergebens hier aufErden bin.
Hilf, Herr meiner Tage, dass ich nicht zur Plage, dass ich nicht
zur Plage meinem Nachsten bin.
Hilf, Herr meiner Stun den, dass ich nicht gebunden, dass ich
nicht gebunden an mich selber bin.
Hilf, Herr meiner Seele, dass ich dart nicht fehle, dass ich dart
nicht fehle, wo ich notig bin.
Hilf, Herr meines Lebens, dass ich nicht vergebens, dass ich
nicht vergebens hi er aufErden bin.


SCHLUSSSEGEN (Pater Ralf Weber)
Jesus Christus, unser Herr und Erloser im Leben wie im Sterben, leite uns und alle, die seine Stimme horen,
God’s eternal loving-kindness
in Eintracht ihm zu folgen:
und der Segen des Allrnachtigen Gottes, des Vaters, des Sohnes
und des Heiligen Geistes, sei mit uns und mit allen, die wir
lieben, jetzt und allezeit. AMEN.

FINAL BLESSING (Father Geoffrey Riddle)
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour in Life and Death, draw us
and all who hear His voice to be one within one fold:
And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Spirit, be among us, remain with us and all who are dear to
us, this day and for evermore. AMEN.

And We Shall Remember Them


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