This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which dementia was one of the themes chosen by guest editor Carey Mulligan:

When I was a Vicar in Leicestershire I was constantly surprised by visits to elderly people who suffered from some form of dementia. Now usually silent, play a harvest hymn or sing a Christmas carol and they would join in. I well remember the agony of a wife no longer recognised by her husband, and her bemusement when he broke his silence and started singing.

With dementia it seems as if the person we love has entered a different world, and it is those who remember all too well who feel the deep sense of loss and bereavement.

Some things go very deep. And when all else has become submerged into a different sort of consciousness, a vestige of deeper identity sometimes survives. Is it just the poetry? Or the tune? Or what?
These are not insignificant questions for anyone coping consciously with the onset of their own dementia or the almost-disappearance of someone they have loved for decades. When our memory has gone, who are we? And, I might add, why do we still matter?

Memory is so important to our sense of who we are that the loss of it is always going to be grievous. So, there are two responses that I as a Christian would venture in the face of this experience.
First, the creation narratives in Genesis (which address ‘why’ questions and not ‘how’ questions) state simply that human beings are made in the image of God. All Christian ethics emerge from this. That is why every human being is ultimately valuable, worth loving and capable of redemption. So, losing my own sense of identity does not reduce my intrinsic worth. If I forget God, God does not forget me. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it to a people who feared for their future, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Secondly, the liturgical shaping of the year by festivals like Christmas is designed to instil deep within us – from cradle to grave – a sense of individual and communal identity. The people of Israel entering the land of promise were required to tell stories that would be handed down the generations, accompanied by simple rituals involving stuff and action – no disembodied spirituality here. This ensured that the memory was formed and recalled. It was also so that people inhabited the memory of who they were and where they had come from; it wasn’t just that life rolled on in some formless way without the waymarkers of identity.

Dementia raises big questions. But, maybe the carols get sung by the silent because they grew up hearing, telling and living the narrative of God who never forgets his people. In an age when so many rituals and the repetition of stories are losing their grip, this faces us with the question of what will form our generation’s children and root their sense of meaning and value.

Well, we didn't see that one coming, did we? The Archbishop of Canterbury has had to rethink who he actually is. As was revealed in the Daily Telegraph last night, his father turns out not to be his biological father after all, and his real father was another man with an 'interesting' life.

The Archbishop has demonstrated once again why he is the right man for the job. Look at his statement. Not a shred of self-pity or any attempt to use this news for some politico-emotional gain. His identity is secure in being known and loved by God (and I had no idea this was coming when I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning and quoted the same Psalm) – in being “in Christ”. No excuses rooted in genetics – no loss of perspective, given the recognition that people have to deal with such news every day (and worse). His senses of humour and irony have not gone – his security as a person remains intact. His theology is big enough to cope with challenge.

It is also worth remarking that Charles Moore's handling of both the investigation and the reporting of the result have been a model of good journalism. There was no sensationalism and no prurience – just clear, sensitive and humane observation on response to reality. It is very impressive and clearly a model of how journalism can work in the public interest with the parties being observed.

But, it is unfortunate for the Prime Minister that this revelation has coincided with a torrid week for David Cameron and his family. The truth about his benefits from offshore investments has had to be dragged out of him. Today even he admits it could have been handled better. And the political hounds are in pursuit.

It is not hard to recognise the case against David Cameron in his apparent obfuscation while in a public office that has demanded transparency from others. And he would certainly not be surprised to see people like me adding to the pain.

But, I feel sympathy for him. He is a human being and he has a family. He has always known who his father is. And this week the human being has been in tension with the public being in a world in which there is little room (or sympathy) for both. How do you cope with trying to protect your memory of your own father when it is under attack – not for its own sake, but because of who the son is and what he does for a living?

Now, I realise that people will respond that he chose to be in office and has to take what goes with it. I get that completely. Then they will argue that hypocrisy is unacceptable in public office, and, again, I will agree (even if even those who complain about the hypocrisy of others ignore their own hypocrisies). Next they will claim that this is bigger than just one prime minister or one politician, and that this is just one obvious symptom of a deeper and wider systemic corruption – one inherent to the unjust world in which we live. And I will nod to that one, too. And, just to be clear, I think the whole “offshore tax avoidance or money laundering” thing is scandalous and wrong.

But, I also see a man trying to not have his dad rubbished in public in a way that dehumanises.

OK, David Cameron deserves the scrutiny and some criticism. But, let's not forget the man behind the office (even if we insist on reminding him and his government of the human faces and vulnerabilities subject to some of the ideological policies that shape their lives and relationships and memories).

The Archbishop of Canterbury now has to consider his shaping of the memory of two men: the one he thought was his father and the man who he now knows is his father. The Prime Minister has to hold on to the memory of his father while abstracting himself from that in order to do the moral politics his office demands. I sympathise with both men.


I’ve found a cafe in Kendal that has wi-fi if you buy a drink. I’ll be buying loads. The sky is emptying its load on the old town and walking in the hills is not an option.

What I love about holidays is the sense of perspective you get from stopping, reading, sleeping and thinking… all without the pressure of the next deadline or the next appointment. It frees the mind and lifts the soul. But is also sends me back into questioning my memories – which I’ll explain in a moment.

So far I have read Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father and am nearly half way through Philip Norman’s excellent John Lennon: The Life. What both books demonstrate is the complexity of any individual life. Obama’s search for his origins and his evolving ruminations on his own identity are beautifully recorded; but it is the emotive power of his emerging questioning that impresses most. I read this wonderful book reflecting constantly on how impenetrably and (ultimately) unresolvably the identity of any human being is constructed – shaped both by nature and nurture.

This makes me even more suspicious of the drive we all seem to have to categorise people or force them into conforming to a particular anthropological ‘shape’. What often looks ‘good’ always turns out to have a dark side, and vice versa probably. The oft-lauded community and extended family character of African society is shadowed by the lack of responsibility it engenders in favour of dependence on (or exploitation of) the ‘head’ (which means ‘most successful or affluent’) of the clan. Obama confronts this and it is hard to hear his speech in Ghana a week or tow ago without reflecting on his own experience in Kenya as it is recorded in the book.

Obama reflects on the origins of humanity in the Rift Valley and comments: ‘If only we could remember that first common step, that first common word – that time before Babel’ (p.357). Wherever human division manifests itself in all its greedy and self-promoting pettiness, that question needs to be heard.

I’ll come back to that in another post. But the thing about John Lennon is that Norman’s description of Lennon’s school days involves a roll call of people and places I grew up with. I also went to get my hair cut by Harry Bioletti at Penny Lane. Mr Burrows, formerly his English teacher at Quarry Bank, also taught me at the Holt Comprehensive. I remember him showing us an exercise book of poetry and doodlings by John Lennon, but this memory has been questioned by people who think I must be making it up. Philip Norman records it and my own doubts can be put to one side.

Lennon was complex, too. Reading about him, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the complexity of his own upbringing, loves and losses. If such a mess can be made of one individual, how is it possible to generalise about anybody?

I actually think this is something Jesus rumbled in the Gospels – in the face of opposition from those who found that categorising people (in their own interests, of course) was politically or religiously more useful.

But for now, back to the valley where we don’t even have mobile phone signals…