July 2009

I have a horrible feeling some of my long-held northern prejudices are about to come pouring out…

When I was a kid certain names were regarded as either posh, weird or funny. Some names go in and out of fashion with the generations, but some just remain posh, weird or funny. My grandma was called Emma – a name I found odd and old-fashioned when I was young; now it is a beautiful and common (in the best sense of the word) name and our lovely daughter-in-law bears it. Emily, James, Katie, etc are other examples.

But today, while we were looking around Hawkshead (near Coniston in the Lake District of northern England…), we overheard a father setting his family up for a photo. He addressed his sons by name: Casper, Felix and Max.

Now, without wanting to give offence to anyone with those names, they all smack of ‘south’ and ‘posh’ and ‘public school’ to me. So do names like ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Rupert’. Am I the only one to find this sort of nominal dislocation (!) funny?

I have never come across anyone called ‘Casper’. When I was a teenager we had a mongrel dog and my mum decided to call it Casper. He was a nightmare and uncontrollable – until we had his bits removed by the vet. Then he became promiscuous in a bisexual sort of way – even trying to mate with esteemed visitors like the Baptist Minister and attempting to breed with trees in the local park. I can’t get this association out of my mind.

But, if you think I am being picky, you should have tried being a blond, blue-eyed lad in Liverpool in the 1970s with the name ‘Nicholas’. I used to get called ‘copper bum’ as a variation on ‘knickerless’ or ‘nickel arse’. And you wonder where I got my hang-ups from…

That aside, I also saw the street name in Hawkshead that had been changed at some point. I liked the social history wrapped up in the original name and regret that they changed it to the name of a wussy poet – even if he did go to school in the village.

Hawkshead street name


It was encouraging to watch the news last night and see that the BBC has been (officially) readmitted to Zimbabwe after several years of (official) absence. I will be in Zimbabwe from Monday 3 – 10 August (i.e. next week) and will be interested to see how deep the apparent renewed optimism goes.

Welcome to ZimbabweWhen I was last there I got stitched up by the government-run media. I had taken a group of 20 people from the Croydon Episcopal Area of the Diocese of Southwark in 2007 and in our second week we were invited to a meeting with the since-retired Governor of the Midlands Province, Cephas Msipa. He was a nice man and was very warm and welcoming to us. I asked if he would mind if we took a few photographs and he said he had no problem with that – as we would have no problem with his people taking a few photos, too.

The ‘few photos’ turned out to be a television crew and a national newspaper journalist (among others). Taken by surprise by this, I tried to make sure that every time the camera was focused on us my arms were crossed, my eyes were down and my head was shaking – all to ensure that I couldn’t be edited in a way that showed me supporting or agreeing with the anti-British propaganda that we would undoubtedly be fed. At the end of a polite-but-frank, useful and substantial exchange of views the Governor brought proceedings to an end, apologising that we had strayed into politics and away from ‘welcome’. And that was when the fun started.

The national journalist (although I did not know at that point that this is who he was) attacked me with accusations of British neo-colonialism, etc – the usual stuff. I countered firmly, but politely. He then went on to accuse the British media of deliberately misrepresenting Zimbabwe for their own political ends and that really annoyed me. I suggested that banning the BBC and other western media organs from Zimbabwe did not help their cause, raised speculation about what they were trying to hide and betrayed great insecurity. However, I then added: “Anyone who deals with the media gets misrepresented or misquoted – even in the UK; but you can deal with it in a democracy by countering or complaining and getting it put right. Zimbabwe can’t ban the BBC and then complain when they get at second or third hand what they feel to be misrepresentation! You can’t have it both ways…” This was followed by  alonger informal conversation after the meeting finished.

The next morning the front page headline of the Herald proclaimed: ‘Clergyman condemns UK media lies’, reporting that I had led a group of 20 clergy [sic] to Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission [sic] and saw no evidence of problems – putting it all down to media lies by a politically motivated British media. I protested directly to the Governor (who had given me his mobile phone number – probably in anticipation of such an event) who got a TV report re-edited and then withdrawn and apologised to me for what he also recognised as deliberate fabrication and misrepresentation of both the meeting we had had and the comments I had made.

However, this didn’t stop the story getting repeated around the world. One amazingly brazen magazine in the UK, New African, even published what purported to be first-hand interview with me in which I reinforced what the Herald had published. I had never heard of New African, had not been approached by them and they refused to print my letter challenging the article – in fact, they never even responded.

I still get what can only be described as ‘hate mail’ on the basis of what I was reported to have said. I followed up this trip with an article in the Church Times (which I cannot now find), but it was also mentioned in an article in the Church Times while we were still out there in Zimbabwe. I understand that the journalist who wrote this later committed suicide, but I have no idea of the circumstances.

I will be back there next week and looking for signs of change. This beautiful country with its wonderful people deserves better than it has experienced during the last years. I hope to find genuine grounds for renewed optimism – but without restoration of the rule of law and a genuinely free media, such optimism will be mere wishful thinking.

En route to the Lake District last week we called in at Liverpool to see our daughter-in-law and then my parents. We nipped out into Lark Lane for a bite to eat with Emma and I couldn’t resist photographing the food place below. I used to think it was just hairdressers who came up with funny names, but this one trumps the lot.

Lark Lane sign

Lennon book coverI have just finished reading Philip Norman’s brilliant biography of John Lennon (John Lennon: The Life). I mentioned my initial reaction (when part way through) earlier and wondered at the sheer complexity of any single life.

What comes out of the book is the sadness of Lennon’s complex make up. Damaged by all sorts of relational deficiencies, he grew into an angry man who directed his anger at any convenient target. Yes, it also produced some wonderful music; but it caused such terrible pain for him and anyone near him.

But, if it is hard not to read the book without a grudging sympathy for Lennon himself, it is impossible to emerge without serious doubts about his treatment of his first wife, Cynthia, and his first son, Julian. The book ends with a reflection by Lennon’s son with Yoko Ono – Sean – but conspicuously has no similar contribution from Julian. I wonder why.

Julian Lennon coverThe sins of the fathers are visited upon the following generations, we are told. If Lennon was (mis)shaped by his own parents’ choices, then why did he so easily treat his own son so poorly? I came out of the book wondering about the damage done to Julian, but unable to find anything on the internet to fill this gap in my own understanding.

Given this complexity in one life, one family and its effects on generations, it makes it utterly remarkable that anyone anywhere manages to get through life in one piece without causing too much damage somewhere along the line.

The Lake District is the most beautiful region of England. We lived here for four years when I was a curate in Kendal. We love coming here at any time of year.

This is what it looks like in the winter:


And this is what it looks like in the summer:


I’ll still keep coming back though.

I think I’m becoming an old man. I used to think neologisms were an adventure in linguistic and cultural evolution, but now I am beginning to get fed up.

I was in a cafe in the Lake District the other day and the middle-aged people at the next table ordered their meal with the phrase: ‘Can I get…?’ Now, I’m used to teenagers and yoof using this horrible Americanism, but I thought my own generation knew better.

waiterPurists will (probably rightly) complain that the alternatives are also a bit silly, but ‘Please may I have…?’ or ‘Please can I have…? are at least accurate. Even though I am buying a product and not begging for it, the transaction still involves the customer requesting that the product be served to them; in principle, the waiter could decline (on the grounds that it no longer exists or he can’t be bothered getting it – after all, it’s his premises and he can do what he wants to).

‘Can I get…?’ is silly on two fronts: (a) ‘can’ has to do with ability or competence and begs the response, ‘I don’t know – you tell me if you are competent to get it!’, and (b) the customer is not going to go into the kitchen and procure the dish for himself/herself anyway. So, even though we all know what is meant, it grates because it sounds ugly and is inaccurate in the context.

Jerusalem (William Blake)This reminds me of John Bell’s famous explanation for the omission of William Blake’s Jerusalem from the latest edition of a Scottish Hymnal. Asked by a rather peeved English BBC interviewer whether this was just an example of Scottish independent-minded pettiness, John asked why the Scots would want an essentially pagan English poem in its own hymn book. He then commented: ‘Anyway, the answer to verse one (‘And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?’) is ‘No!’ and the answer to verse two (‘Bring me my bow of burnished gold, bring me my chariot of fire…’) is ‘Fetch it yerself!’

Enough said.

Why should I or anyone else get worked up about an institution splitting into bits (especially when I am on holiday)? After all, it happens all the time, doesn’t it?

I have referred before now to the great gift the Christian Church offers the world in flagrant contravention of its founder’s injunction (“Love one another as I have loved you”), that injunction’s purpose (that by this love “they might know you are my disciples”) and its fundamental  ministry (“reconciliation”): constant fragmentation on grounds of (im)purity. In this, the Church shows itself to be no different from any other human institution; the problem, however, is that the Church is the body that is called not to fragment – precisely in order to challenge the ways of the world as evidence of the reconciling power of God in Christ.

So, when people question the suggestion that ‘unity’ should have priority over ‘truth’, it must surely be possible to assert that ‘unity’ is an essential part of ‘truth’ and not in opposition to it.

Yet, what is going on in the Anglican Communion is not a new phenomenon. I was among a group reflecting recently on the fragmentation of the Left in Britain in the 1970s and ‘80s – especially in relation to what became known as ‘entryism’ in the old Labour Party. I was a student of modern languages and politics at the time, but mystified by the self-destructive internal fragmentation of Marxist groups in British universities during those decades. The revolution was never going to happen while the ultimate goal was constantly made subservient to the internal purities of self-defining factions. Furthermore, the rest of the world could only laugh at the impotence, self-consumption and growing irrelevance of such groups – not only on grounds of their absurd ideologies, but the phenomenon of self-destruction in the name of the goal they were simultaneously defeating.

James Purnell, the Labour Minister who resigned from the British Government recently, wrote in the Guardian newspaper on 20 July 2009 (p.26):

Being clear that we want a more equal society may also allow that debate to be open rather than narrow. One of the most attractive things about New Labour in the 1990s was how pluralist it was – with many strands of leftwing thought coexisting, and learning from each other.

Over time, New labour became too much of a sect – we went from big-tent politics to small-gazebo politics. Perhaps in response, the left has become balkanised into smaller groups, based on small differences. If we recognise that our common goal is a more equal society, we may be able to remember that there is more that unites us than separates us. And where there are differences, we may just see that as an inevitable but manageable pluralism, rather than a reason for division.

Purnell was bemoaning the loss of focus on a common vision in favour of a concentration on factional purity or rightness – somehow reminiscent of the judgement that ‘the operation was a success, but the patient died’. However, the question that really matters both for politics and the Church is: who suffers when our focus goes awry and we so easily fragment? Yes, the Party suffers and the Church (as institution) is weakened. But the sole answer that really matters can only be that (a) the fragmentation of the Party lets down the country and the people whose interests it purported to support and (b) the fragmentation of the Church lets down the world to whom it is called to offer not only a message but also evidence of reconciliation – with God and, therefore inevitably, with others.

The glory of Anglicanism has been its almost unique vocation in holding under one roof a range of different and diverse groupings and emphases. Those who wish to split may be ‘right’ in their theological or ecclesiological focus. They might even be passionately right. They might even feel better to be rid of those who, though theologically close in many respects, have become an embarrassment to ‘the righteous’. But there is also something curiously self-indulgent about the hearty way in which the fragmentation they drive is presented as either inevitable or self-justifying. Or, as Barack Obama observes in a different context, ‘When two locusts fight, it is always the crow who feasts’.

 Who benefits and who suffers?

I’ll come clean. When I was a child in Sunday School in Liverpool in the mid-1960s, my thriving church was suddenly divided by a faction going off to found a new ‘house church’. Those who left charged the minister with not being a Christian on the grounds that he didn’t speak in tongues. All I knew is that my Sunday School teacher was there one week and gone the next. We now look back on those days with embarrassment and regret – partly at the arrogance of such division based on a single narrow theological difference. The wounds of that loss still, I think, shape me.

We had just had Billy Graham. Later we had John Wimber. Then we had Willow Creek. Now we have New Wine, Spring Harvest, Keswick and a million other ‘identities’.  Most of these enrich the wider church while holding Christians together under one roof. Yet some position themselves over against others – being more theologically pure, more ecclesiologically consistent or more biblically adherent. But it seems to me that they all bring with them the danger of seeking or offering some sort of panacaea to the church – that if we only get the formula right, God will bless us with some sort of ‘revival’ and all will be well.

This is a seductive delusion and it is time it was killed. If we so easily fracture, then today’s consistent ‘church’ will fragment tomorrow when the internal need for greater purity will create an unsustainable tension and the same old patterns will repeat themselves ad infinitum. Or should that be ad nauseam? I guess it depends on whether you see it from the perspective of the church… or that of a sick world in need of reconciliation.

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