Three years into the business of being Air b&b hosts, it’s tempting to think of ourselves as experts, even professionals. Indeed, where we live, hospitality is regarded as an industry, albeit a fairly minor one, so thinking of it as a business is not unreasonable, I suppose.
Occasionally, we get guests who tell us we should charge more. I take this as a compliment. But I also take care to explain to them that were we to start charging fancy prices, we would get a different kind of guest, people who would just treat the place as a hotel. We justify what we charge, which is not cheap, but not as expensive as it perhaps could be, because we are not running a hotel but inviting people to share something of the peace and beauty of where we live.
The peace and beauty that we are surrounded with is free – which makes it all the more beautiful. There is a delicacy about everything and we want people to appreciate that, without feeling a sense of entitlement by virtue of having paid more than we need to make the whole enterprise viable. So I think we get a certain kind of guest. We get people who value the place – and we make a great many new friends.
Our guests are usually filled with wonder when they arrive here and we, as we get to know them from a respectful distance, learn to be surprised by the innate goodness of people. We have seldom had guests where some kind of transformative revelation does not take place – for us, as well as for them.
Last week an Israeli family came to stay. Since we’re pro-Palestinian we were a little apprehensive about this visit. We decided to avoid any talk of politics and simply get on with the job of being good hosts. They were charming guests. All the same, we viewed them with a degree of suspicion, avoiding the big topic. But such things are not so easily avoided and, as they were leaving, one of them remarked on how peaceful it is here “not like our country”, he said.
I have little memory of what was actually said after that, but I do remember the moment when it became clear that these people were deeply troubled by the way the Palestinian people are being treated. I mentioned Beit Hanina, a village I had known when it was still Palestinian. He said “Yes, I served as a soldier there”.
“What did it feel like?” I asked, in genuine amazement
“It was horrible. I hated it” he replied.
I think that it was at that moment that we all four hugged one another, only just managing to hold back the tears. We talked a little about the peace initiatives he and his wife are involved with in Israel. But it wasn’t that which caused the walls of distrust and preconceptions, on my part, to come down. I don’t think our Israeli guests felt anything like that in regard to us.
This was a moment of profound understanding. It revealed us to ourselves and to one another as the children of a loving God. We even spoke a common language, theologically, although we didn’t get into that in any detail, only to agree that what is being done to the Palestinians by the secular state of Israel runs counter to Jewish scriptures. We were able to agree about this from a place of reverence, from an implicit sense that what is being done to the Palestinians constitutes a violation of the holy, a kind of sacrilege, that it is an offence to God. We were able to weep together about this.
Jesus once said that those who mourn are in fact blessed. I think this is the first time that I have really understood what these words mean. They have to do with a renewed encounter with the enemy, the person we distrust or hate, because of their politics or nationality, an encounter which takes place from within our shared humanity. These encounters happen from time to time in conflict situations, as they did between soldiers on the Christmas Day Armistice during the First World War. They have a profoundly sacramental significance. They hallow what is otherwise ‘unhallowed’, what is unholy in the eyes of a loving God. They are our only hope for survival.
‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ (Henry IV part 2), or at least it should. Aspiring leaders of political parties, and of government itself, lack the unease that would give them the kind of authority which comes with what I would describe as a kind of noble humility. The UK’s broken politics, partly the result of an electoral system which is no longer fit for purpose, is in some measure to blame for this sense of lack, when it comes to genuine authority in political leaders. You vote for a party, but you have very little choice when it comes to who will be the best leader of the nation even if you belong to the party you voted for (the same is true in the US, albeit for different reasons) especially in a time of crisis, such as we are facing at the moment. But the leadership and authority vacuum we are experiencing is also one of our own making. We get the politicians we deserve – ‘full of passionate intensity, or ‘lacking in all conviction’. (W.B. Yeats ‘The Second Coming’)
Something comparable is going on at the beginning of the book of Isaiah. Things are ‘falling apart’ for lack of visionary leadership, because people have either abrogated their political responsibilities (they no longer either think or care about what will become of their future) or they are happy to go along with the charismatic personality of the moment, trusting that all must work out well in the end somehow or other. Then, as now, there was a need for someone of vision and authority who would deliver the nation from the consequences of its infatuation with charismatic leaders and who would speak the language of hope.
But the prophet who volunteers for this job feels far from qualified to do it. It would seem that he has been compromised in either his personal or his public life in the past. He is, by his own admission, a man of ‘unclean lips’ (Is. 6:4). All the same, he is told that he will be speaking to a people who have inured themselves to obvious good sense and that they are beyond the point of recall, beyond hope. God, it seems, is partly responsible for this. He allows the situation to be as it is and in doing so obliges the people to come to terms with the fact that it is they who must change, or they will get the leaders they deserve. Being dulled to the things which make for life; life in community, life in relationships, life in God, they are set to be dominated by individuals whose primary agenda is self-gratification, specifically the gratification afforded by power.
Those who only want power generally have little of substance to offer the people over whom they will exercise it. They will fudge or avoid interviews, or simply manipulate the conversation in order to avoid issues that are life determining for the nation, because they do not know what to say or do and because they believe (often rightly) that their own luminous personality will persuade everyone that problems are easily solvable, or do not exist at all.
I also sense in Isaiah a deliberate omission. There is not much talk of visionary leadership in the immediate future, although it will come in the fullness of time. Perhaps the writer of the book wants the people to begin to wonder if they are missing something, and, if so, to ask themselves what they could do to take control of their politics in a way which demands hope, rather than vague optimism from their leaders.
They may even identify an individual who shows great promise but who is not of the political party of their preference. They feel guilty and uncomfortable about supporting such a person, so they need others to whom they have delegated power, and with it responsibility, to take the first step and do what is necessary, even if it means betraying party loyalties. The person in question may need to do the same. They will also need to do a bit of self-examination with a view to being willing to take responsibility for their own past political decision making, not all of which they may be proud of today. They may want to change their mind about policies they have supported, knowing that they must do this publicly, or they will not win the people’s respect or inspire hope for the future. Changing one’s mind about actions taken in the past is really a change of heart, or what people of faith would call repentance.
When we repent of our actions, or of those words or actions which have betrayed our responsibility for those who have mandated us with power, we are bound to come in for criticism and even for abuse. This is where we start to see the difference between power and authority when it comes to leadership. The supreme example of this kind of self-abnegating leadership is set by Jesus who allows himself to be treated as one in need of repentance, so that those who are called to lead with authority in secular politics need not be ashamed to do this themselves. A person who only wants power will seldom repent.
A person of authority will be continually vigilant about how their words and actions will directly impact on the lives of those they are mandated to serve, service being the last and perhaps most important mark of true leadership. A leader who serves takes the trouble to listen and to be at one with his or her people. We get these servant leaders emerging from time to time in all sorts of contexts. Sadly, we have just lost one in Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities. It is urgent that we find another in the forum of UK politics. I believe that if we take our political responsibilities seriously, even to the point of breaking down the barriers of party and personal interest, we will see one emerging in Rory Stewart.
With Pentecost comes the season of calling and gift, words that are often conflated with ministry. Like ministry, the word ‘gift’ can be deployed to elevate the most ordinary activity into something approaching the sublime. You can have a ‘ministry’ to song, or to routine admin, or even, as a friend of mine was once told by her mother in law, a ‘gift’ for stacking – stacking plates, apparently. It is also the season for talking about God in a way which can sound controlling and manipulative of God, and sometimes of other people, as if God is there to be told what to do. From this, follows a distorted perception of calling. We talk about God ‘calling’ us to a particular ministry or course of action, one which can often coincide with our particular life plan or which conveniently melds with our own fantasies; in the case of the ordained ministry, the lure of status and of a degree of power over others.
Despite these vanities, the call to the ordained ministry is real. It is every bit as hard core as the ministry of Christ on which our own priestly ministry ought to be modeled. It is sacrificial, in an ordinary and everyday context. The best priests go largely unnoticed, except by those they serve with love. The ordained ministry is also a unique gift, not because it sets a person apart from others, but because it confers a responsibility on that person to embody the gift of God into the world, beginning with the people they are called to serve.
The priest or deacon is called to be in the world but not of it. Here, ‘the world’ can be understood to also mean the system or organisation. When the church behaves like an organisation, and systematises calling, those who are called to serve it as priests and deacons must embody a resistance to the system itself. Resistance to the system is part of their calling to be as Christ to the world, in the way he saw and loved the world and its people. It follows that the specific ministry to which they are called is likely to be felt way beyond the confines of the institutional Church.
Smaller worshiping communities, who may already feel somewhat out on a limb in regard to the wider Church, can feel slightly abandoned when a talented person ‘graduates’ to the ordained ministry, unless, of course, that person returns to serve them after ordination. Parishes need their returning ordinands (OLM’s), not only to prevent further numerical diminishment, but because these new clergy will bring energy and love, two attributes of the Holy Spirit, to a community that already knows and loves them for who they are. If they are returning to a liturgically orientated worshiping context they will be at an advantage, having something of the enlivening Spirit that has shaped prayer over the centuries and that will continue to give substance and depth to their calling.
Traditional worship, drawing on the enduring faith of centuries, shapes a person’s life in God, and in the context of eternity. This suggests that the future of the Church lies in a greater sense of the eternal, of the ongoing nature of the worship that has been handed down to it and that becomes part of a local church’s collective subconscious. This in turn suggests that the Church needs to select those candidates for ordination who visibly demonstrate a life that is lived from within God. Such a life will be vulnerable to the pain of others and to the rejection that they will experience from those who view them as a threat to the status quo, because their detachment from power makes them all the more powerful. They will become truly inspirational leaders, as opposed to individuals with a given set of skills that can be honed in such a way as to lead to their own preferment within the existing hierarchy, or even to surviving in one that has professionalised the role of the parish priest almost beyond recognition.
Such poor spiritual resourcing also leads to an increasingly introspective institutional mindset. To many people, the Church seems unclear about its meaning and purpose. It becomes lost in detail, or in issues that are only tangential to its life in God, so obscuring the face of God from the people it is called to serve. In the life of the institutional Church this suggests a need to review the way status and hierarchy appear to have become detached from the idea of genuine servanthood. Those who feel out of touch with the Church are often people who feel distanced from an over busy parish priest, from a bishop whom they seldom see, or from issues being debated that should, and perhaps have, been resolved long ago.
This is when the most justifiable cause can make the Church seem out of touch and irrelevant to the world, to people who are desperately seeking a sense of the sacred in a world governed by pragmatism and the need to achieve and be recognized. The battle for recognition of women in ordained ministry has been fought and largely won, in organizational terms at least. The battle for recognition of the full humanity of LGBTQ+ still has far to go. In the case of people with disabilities it has barely begun. In all of these areas urgent work remains to be done in re-building bridges and learning to re-establish trust between those who have been hurt by the past, and by the ongoing hurt being suffered by many in the present. It is a contemplative task which should define the institutional Church to the world and be at the heart of its calling.
I could write about the Alabama abortion law, and the seductive power of perverted religion. But I won’t, or at least not to the exclusion of the bigger picture, because, not having had to face having an abortion, I do not feel I have a right to speak to the horror of being in that position. I have no right, except to demand something more than mercy from the religious Right in America, those who seem indifferent to the suffering being endured by the women concerned. It is as if a woman who is pregnant by her own father, or who has been raped, possibly by a partner, is roughly the equivalent of a football, something to be kicked around the religious political morality field, as she may well have been in life. The abortion issue is not about the difference between right and wrong, or even between life and death. It is ultimately about playing hard, and winning – in sexual politics.
The sexual power games being played out in Alabama and other conservative States, reflect those of the wider political spectrum. In their Machiavellian way, the players obscure the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark. Given the malignant power of America’s current President, who has been described as the most amoral in modern history, such a situation is, of its very nature, hopeless. It is hopeless because it is without a God who defines the paradigms of good and evil within which issues like abortion, to name only one, can be discussed, rather than played out. Such a God has a merciful face.
We see this face most clearly through the ambiguity and paradox of the Gospels and in so many of the half finished sayings of Jesus. Take the story of the woman caught in adultery (‘caught’ – really?) and the almost non-verbal exchange that takes place between the Christ and her accusers. He asks which of them is without sin, and then reveals the secrets of their own hearts to them by drawing patterns in the sand. Perhaps one or more of them was her rapist, or the bullying partner forcing himself on her because it was somehow ordained by God.
On the other hand, perhaps not. Perhaps they had simply lost sight of the purpose of the Law they were there to uphold, a Law designed to make it easier for people to know God. Perhaps, they, like so many politicians today, were simply lost in the dark corridors of power, which they had created for themselves. Because of the power issues that are really at stake, political battles of all descriptions are being waged in the dark, or what in French might be called le néant, the absence of anything, especially the absence of those elements which give life and lead to wisdom. These battles lead to a collective sense of hopelessness, the moral darkness which we are all inhabiting.
The knowledge of a merciful God is the embodiment of hope and should therefore be the ground on which laws are made, and to which they return all of us who are called to obey them. Only in allowing for the possibility of knowing and being known by this merciful God is it possible to entertain the idea of justice, in all human relations. The same is true in regard to the healing of which our materialist western societies are so desperately in need. It is our own need for healing which cries out to us from the earth which we have raped and rendered sterile for its many other creatures.
There is a connection to be made between the loveless Alabama ruling on abortion and the equally loveless abortion of life in all its forms in the natural world. The connection begins and ends with mercy.
Right now, I’m re-watching The Bletchley Circle. I was initially drawn to it because I thought it would take me back to the original World War II Bletchley story, about a group of singularly gifted women who intercepted and decoded vital enemy information and thereby saved countless numbers of lives. The relatively new drama, which was originally released in 2012, is set in 1952. It picks up on the only possible common denominator with the wartime story; that solving problems, and possibly saving the world, is so much more straightforward when you work together and when you only have one enemy to deal with at a time.
Or perhaps that is an oversimplification of what foiling the enemy in wartime really entails. Most of us have not known armed conflict at home, but it seems we are no nearer to solving the problems that divide us as nations and as societies than we were over 70 years ago.
For one thing, if we start from the premise that there is a common enemy, the enemy appears in so many guises that it is hard to name. Whatever it is, it sets us against each other, fomenting distrust and hatred in subtle and various ways. Sometimes, the enemy takes the form of a question which might determine a nation’s future, like Brexit. At other times, it embeds itself in the issue itself, so that the question becomes a vehicle for distrust and hatred. What you believe about Europe defines you in the minds of those who think differently, as a potential threat, a latent enemy. It can also hide unpalatable truths about how we think of our fellow human beings, whichever side of the question you come down on.
Twitter, and other instantaneous forms of pseudo-communication, foment this kind of distrust. A thread may begin as an invitation to exchange ideas, and even to find common cause, but this is seldom where it ultimately leads. Too often it degenerates into a platform for verbal abuse. Twitter is not for the faint hearted, but neither does it afford much help to those who are simply seeking the common good, including perhaps, a solution to the problem of climate change.
But, working on the assumption that most people feel that the risk to the planet posed by human-induced climate change is having a detrimental effect on the common good, social media becomes the primary motivator for change in this crucial area of concern. It is not that we all agree on how, whether, or when the slide to extinction needs to be reversed. It is simply that we seem to be of one mind about the need for it to happen. Could this signal the return of Wisdom?
Wisdom, if not outdated, is certainly misunderstood. It is usually coupled with a rather pedestrian idea of common sense. But common sense makes no sense at all if it is not held in a deeper place of commonality, apart from humanity’s proclivity for auto-destruction. In other words, apart from what used to be called sin. We should have learned by now that we, as a species, are incapable of halting our own relatively imminent destruction (within the next century, if not much sooner), not to mention the destruction of countless thousands of other species with whom we share this planet and for whom we are accountable before Wisdom, the ultimate Good that embodies all other good, through Whom and in Whom all things were ‘made’, and here I refer to the beginning of the gospel of St. John.
The idea that we are accountable to a good which embodies all that has ever been good from ‘before the beginning’ puts a different slant on how we might confront together the enemy that threatens us. It is as much an existential enemy as it is a physical one. Being accountable to Wisdom, to the One ‘through whom all things were made’, means that we share in that life force. You could say that the life force of Wisdom is at one with all that is good and true about human beings, so that human nature is essentially good. This is what the mediaeval spiritual writer, Julian of Norwich taught for times which were as turbulent, in their own way, as ours.
If Julian was right about how Wisdom conceives of human beings, then the cardinal sin of our times is one of despair about the human condition, despairing in our will and capacity to the good. On the whole, despair comes in the shabbiest forms of disguise. Cynicism, apathy and procrastination, when it comes to the need for change in the way we feed ourselves and go about our daily lives, are perhaps the most common to all of us. It is not that difficult to stop using cling film, for example, or to insist that supermarkets only use bio-degradable bags for loose vegetables. It is also often possible to walk to wherever we need to get to by allowing sufficient extra time.
Overcrowded days and over busy schedules are significant, if indirect, contributing factors to global warming. And this takes us to the heart of the problem, or enemy, that we face. The enemy is nihilism, destructive purposelessness brought about by not having the will or the time to simply be at one with Wisdom, the source of Life itself.
I have been waiting for the Twitter teacup storm to die down, following a Radio 4 interview in which I took part on Palm Sunday. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00046pc .We were being asked whether believing in the Resurrection, and that Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins, was optional when it came to defining yourself as a Christian. I think the BBC had hoped for a soundbite conflict. They were to be disappointed. The conflict, between angry sceptics and equally angry conservative Christians, manifested itself only later on my Twitter feed.
The radio discussion itself was too evenly yoked (we all more or less agreed) and unevenly managed in terms of distribution and fair ‘come back’. So, given these constraints, there was not a great deal of room for nuanced discussion about two central tenets of Christian belief. We could have talked more about the difference between faith and belief, for example, and how the constraints of immature belief, as learned perhaps in childhood but allowed to lie dormant ever since, stifles the longing of the human heart for something meaningful in regard to these defining moments of the Christian story.
There is a difference between believing something and believing in something. To believe something as a demonstrable fact pertains to the realm of evidence and the intellect. It becomes a propositional truth, something that can be proposed, or proved, and argued for or against. To believe in something takes us in one of two directions. The first, if left to itself, leads to a dead end, like believing in Father Christmas long past the age of 6. It will leave us disillusioned because believing in begs often unanswered questions – why do we still believe? Or for what purpose might this event have taken place, or be true in the fullest sense? These questions take us in a new direction.
In the case of the defining moments of the Christian faith, admittedly conflated for the purpose of this brief discussion, you could say that the purpose of Christ’s dying and rising again has to do with unconditional love. This is why mature belief shocks and even disappoints those who resist journeying to its limits in order to rediscover its very particular truth. Mature belief becomes faith. Faith lays bare our need for love and requires of us love in return.
Faith is invariably a conversation premised on love. Fast forward to the Resurrection, as that is the season we are now in, and we have what initially appears to be an ordinary encounter, albeit in the saddest of circumstances, a conversation between a grieving woman and someone who she takes to be the gardener. The conversation is utterly changed, transfigured by love, in the naming of two names – “Mary” and “Rabbuni”. The latter would have been the respectfully affectionate name used to address a loved teacher, someone the woman would have known well enough to laugh and argue with, as one does with a teacher who has been life changing. Here, I think of my own PhD supervisor, Professor Daniel Hardy. These teachers give of themselves and it is from their generosity of being that we truly learn. It is also where faith is nurtured, on many levels, and brought to maturity. So learning is at the heart of loving conversation.
When we are asked whether we believe something, or in something, it is the imagination that is being called into question. Imagination is essential to the learning process, as is the question ‘why’? or, as Professor Hardy would have put it, ‘How so?’ We are being asked to deploy our intellects in the freedom of imagination to the service of truth. You could say that this is the purpose of all scientific and philosophical enquiry. It is also why we do theology. We do theology in order to know the kind of truth that is discovered through an encounter with the embodiment of Divine love and grace, as the writer of St. John’s Gospel proclaims (John 1:16).
We work with our minds, especially in regard to the great mysteries of faith, in order to understand with our hearts. Perhaps an equivalent understanding exists in the realm of science and mathematics, as well as in certain branches of philosophy. But doing theology brings with it a further challenge. Having understood with our hearts, we can only do what the apostles Peter and Thomas did, worship the living God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Therein lies the real sticking point for angry sceptics when it comes to faith and belief.