Sunday, 13 November 2016

I hate walls ...

I hate walls – not the kind which hold up the roof of your house – the kind which separate people from people.  The kind that are erected to stake a claim and keep people out.  The kind which are an imposition of power or control.  The kind which Donald Trump has promised to build.

There is a wall in Dorset I particularly hate.  It runs for 3 miles along the A31 in Dorset between the road and the Drax Estate.  In a county famous for its natural hedgerows which support diverse wildlife, living and breathing with the seasons, it sticks out like a harsh impenetrable sore thumb screaming “Get orf my laaand!”.  As you drive alongside, it just goes on and on, punctuated only by large imposing gate arches towering above with huge sculptures of stags and lions – stone sentinels to deter the misguided traveller.

It was built in 1841 by John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax (nicknamed ‘The wicked squire’) as an exercise in power and economics.  It took the road from Wimborne to Dorchester away from their vast stately home in Charborough with its 28 square kilometre estate.   It was built to keep the riff-raff out, and to make money out of them in the process, forcing ordinary people pay for the privilege of making a journey which they had previously been able to travel for free.

Unfortunately for the Drax family, the wall never paid for itself.  The opening of the Wimborne to Dorchester railway bypassed the need for many to use his toll road.  Today it stands with its 2 million bricks as a monument to his greed.  It constantly needs repair as holes appear, sometimes through age and sometimes when mesmerised drivers crash their cars into it when driving carelessly around its sharp bends.  In the words of descendant and current MP for South Dorset, Richard Drax, their bricklayer’s job is assured.

Such walls are built as impositions of power.  The powerful build walls to impose their will on the powerless – usually when the masses won’t do as they are told.

The Berlin Wall is one of the most striking examples in recent history and in its cold inhumanity.   Alarmed by the 3.5 million Germans who used Berlin to escape to the West after the Second World War, the East German Government began construction of its “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall” in 1961. The haemorrhage of defectors largely stopped but at the human cost of up to 200 lives from among the 5,000 who tried to cross, killed by mines and gunfire from its 302 watchtowers.  It was this week 27 years ago that the East German Government finally admitted its failure allowing visitors across for the first time.

The West Bank Barrier in the Holy Land is a present day wall which keeps people apart, and imposes the will of the powerful at the expense of the powerless.  Palestinians along its 420 mile length have had their lands confiscated to make way for the barrier.  It has been built to protect Israel from the threat of suicide bombers and terrorist attacks, but it has also separated families from one another, impeded access to medical care, and made life more and more difficult for Palestinians who live and work on the different sides of its concrete panels and razor wire fences.

Now, the President elect of the USA, Donald Trump has promised to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the USA. At 1,900 miles this will dwarf the “Anti-Fascist” Berlin Wall and the West Bank Barrier.  It will cost up to $25 billion dollars and according to Trump, the Mexicans will pay.  Like the Drax Estate Wall in Dorset, this is yet another example of the rich and powerful making the poor and powerless pay for something their neither want nor need.  Then there is the cost of maintaining it and patrolling it– will the Mexicans have to pay for that too?  The economic costs will be astronomical and ultimately futile.  Like John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax, Donald Trump will find that the cost making good his political promise will far outweigh any economic benefit.  If he builds it, he will find that it is as useless in protecting American interests as the Great Wall of China was in protecting successive Chinese Dynasties from foreign invaders.

Ultimately it is all folly.  Great walls are built by those who think of themselves as superior to ordinary people who live with the consequences.  Donald Trump is certainly one of those people who intends to make a name for himself.  Being elected President of the United States will do nothing to assuage this desire.  He now needs a legacy which will make people remember, giving him a kind of immortality.  Sadly, his narcissistic tendencies will only get worse.

John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax thought in exactly the same way.  To cement his legacy, he had a huge mausoleum built in advance of his death to be his final resting place. It dwarfed the parish church which it was built beside. He rehearsed his funeral several times before his death with his estate workers carrying his coffin.  Perhaps most bizarre, the mausoleum door was complete with a letter box for The Times newspaper to be delivered daily.  He clearly had ideas of immortality which went beyond those of the masses.

In a beautiful irony, however, the financial failure of the Wall meant there was no money to pay for the mausoleum’s upkeep, and over the years which followed, it fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished by his own descendants.  If only the wall had gone the same way.

All such walls go the same way eventually, as do the people who build them.  They all end in ruin.  The only ones who benefit are the contractors who build them. I wonder if Trump Enterprises will be investing more in concrete and construction over the next few years?

Surely not?

Friday, 2 September 2016

Shylvia Shishons, Shpinshter of the Parish of Shaint Shwithens

Following the recent death of my father, I would like to share this short reflection on his early life.  He was an unlikely priest, brought up in a largely unchurched working class family in the 1930's and 40's he overcame considerable odds to follow God's call, and ultimately, he inspired me to listen to God's calling in my own life.

Below is a piece I wrote some time ago.  I guess now is the time to publish it...

David didn’t have a good start to his life.  A few weeks after his birth in 1932, his mother died of complications from the delivery.  His father John was heartbroken.  He had lost most of his friends in the trenches of the First World War and was already a man of few words, but now he retreated further into himself, which left Granny to bring David up.

She was a formidable woman who ruled the household with absolute authority.  She was one of those strong working class Lancastrian women who had a matriarchal power which defied any gender stereotype.  And she was, to all intents and purposes, David’s mum.

They were a proud working class family living in a terrace house in Bolton, Lancashire together with their extended family.  David’s father was a tram driver by day and built wooden model yachts and radios in the evenings.

Things didn’t get any easier for David either.  When he was two, he developed a severe ear infection and was taken into hospital.  In the days before antibiotics, they were soon told that there was nothing that could be done and he was likely to die.  Granny however, was having none of it.  When the doctors had given up on him, she took him home against medical advice, and in a supreme act of will, nursed him back to life.

The trauma of the illness took its toll however. His hearing loss was substantial and lifelong.  He didn’t speak again until he was 4 years old.   When he did start to speak he had a speech impediment and would say ‘Sh’ instead of ‘S’ – something which continued into adult life.

Anyone else would have simply been happy that he could speak again, but Granny didn’t give up there, pushing him into school and through school, believing in him no matter what.

When he was 11, she made sure that he was given a place at the Church Institute (now Canon Slade School) and he began to attend Bolton Parish Church.  This was his first encounter with the Church, and it planted many seeds which would grow later.  He sang in the choir but also loved the snooker halls opposite his school which resulted in him having to re-sit his A-levels before being offered a place at Liverpool University to study Physics.  Coming from a working class family in Lancashire, he was the first in his family to even dream of going to University, and Granny must have been so proud.  Her hard work had paid off.

It was in Liverpool that his faith grew and developed at the Parish Church - Our Lady and St Nicholas.   He discovered the ritual and spirituality of the Anglo-Catholic tradition.  When a visiting preacher said, “The question is not ‘Should you be ordained?’ but rather ‘Why shouldn’t you?’” David knew God was calling him to be a priest.

In his final year at University, he went to a selection conference, where his vocation to the priesthood was confirmed, but he was thought to be too much of a ‘narrow minded scientist’ to go straight to theological college.  He was told to go and spend a year ‘broadening his mind’.  Working in a bookshop was suggested to him but here David’s rebellious side kicked in.  Instead of finding a nice comfortable bookshop in which to while away a year, he moved to Sheffield, joined the Industrial Mission and got a manual job on the shop floor in one of the city’s huge steelworks.  There in the noise and heat of heavy industry, he worked at living out his faith and calling at the sharp end of working life.

His mind was broadened in more ways than one.   Despite wondering if he was called to a celibate life, he met Irene there.  They had a lot in common – they were both form working class households – both their lives had been touched by a deeply rooted Anglo-Catholic vision of Christian faith which embraced everyone in a deeply incarnational pattern of life – and both felt called to the religious life.  Irene had been a novice at the Convent of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, and about to take her final vows when she had to return to Sheffield to care for her sick mother.  Her illness lasted for some years and Irene never did realise her dream of returning to the convent for life.

At the end of his time in Sheffield, David went to St Stephen’s House in Oxford (affectionately known as ‘Staggers’) to train for ordination but Irene was never far from his thoughts.  

David & Irene's Wedding
One Wednesday in his second year, he went to Arthur Couratin - his formidable college principal - and said “Irene is going into hospital in Sheffield for an operation and I need to marry her straight away.”  In the heavily cloistered, exclusively male environment of St Stephen’s House, he was more than a little surprised when Arthur said “Well you better go and marry her then!”  As far as we can tell, he was the first ever student to marry during training at Staggers.

David phoned her on Thursday – having already arranged a special licence for the wedding - to tell Irene that they “were going to be married on Saturday – and could she get a wedding cake?”  On Friday morning, Irene walked into Walsh’s - the big department store in Sheffield - to order the cake.  When she was asked for the date of the wedding she said “tomorrow” which caused more than a little shock, but after checking with the bakery, they accepted the order as long as she realised that the icing might still be a little wet.

After the wedding, they were apart once more as David returned to Oxford.  Women were treated with great suspicion at St Stephen’s House in those days – unless you were the principal’s sisters who acted as chaperone on the few occasions when Irene was allowed to visit.  Even though they were now married, Irene was only allowed to see David in the presence of Arthur’s sisters and was not allowed to stay at the college - having to sleep in a convent down the road instead.

David's Ordination as Priest
On 16th June 1957, David was ordained deacon in Sheffield Cathedral, and went with Irene to Arbourthorne where he was to serve his curacy.  It was a large social housing estate on the outskirts of Sheffield.  David’s ordained ministry had begun.

On his first Sunday, David was asked to read the Banns of Marriage in the service.  He picked up the book and to his horror, he found that he had to read the Banns for “Silvia Sissons, spinster of the parish of St Swithens”.   The speech impediment from his childhood had been an issue all his life.  He had received speech therapy at theological college, but this was a test that few would relish.

Amazingly he read the Banns perfectly.  The 4-year-old boy from a working class terrace house who could hardly speak – and yet had become the first in his family to go to University and had followed God’s call to ordination – found that the God who had called him would not let him down.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Re-Colouring British Politics

I seem to have upset some of my friends.

Like many others, I posted these photos from the 1980’s on Facebook as a (hopefully) witty comment on some of the differences between Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron.  In hindsight, I might as well have lit the blue touch-paper and stood well back.

The exchange which followed actually took me by surprise.  The emotions which were provoked among close friends, who I respect deeply, were pretty raw.  

For this I apologise.  It was not my intention to annoy my friends.

But the exchange shows very clearly the strong, even visceral emotions which Jeremy Corbyn evokes.  Perhaps it was those same strong emotions applied in the opposite direction which got him elected with such a clear and unequivocal victory?

Let me be clear - as a politician would say - I don’t know whether his leadership of the Labour Party will work out.  I don’t know if he will rise to the dizzy heights of success or crash and burn in a ball of fire.  But what I do know is that he offers a clear alternative to the on-message-spin-doctored-collective-obfuscation which has increasingly characterised politics in the UK for the last 20 years.  That is why labour supporters voted for him in such numbers.

The last election was a wash-out.  Instead of the major parties offering clear alterative policies and politics, it was more like ’50 shades of grey-blue’ but twice as painful to watch. As Labour tried to look credible, they merely became pale imitators of the Conservative agenda.  There was little to choose between them - except why should you vote for the imitation when you can have the real thing?

It was the natural conclusion of 20 years of Labour politics.

Back in 1997, when Tony Blair swept to power, I remember teasing a life-long Labour party member and Labour historian who lived in the parish where I was curate in Southeast London.  He was a pillar of the local Labour party and was one of those who nominated the Labour candidate at every election.  He was very definitely ‘old Labour’ but fiercely loyal to the party.

So I said to him, “John, I've got a problem – I can’t find a socialist party to vote for…”  Without pausing for thought, he came straight back at me and said “That’s not a problem – vote Liberal Democrat.  They’re the closest thing to a socialist party today.”  Indeed many have joked that Tony Blair was Maggie Thatcher’s most lasting legacy.

But worse than this, for main-stream politicians of all shades of grey in the last election, the need to be ‘on-message’ trumped every political interview, press release, husting and debate.  There was endless repetition of ‘Let me be clear’ echoing over the airwaves whenever party candidates and leaders wanted to avoid answering a question.  All the parties were concentrating more on not slipping up than on presenting meaningful political debate.

In the wake of the MP’s expenses scandal with trust of politicians at an all-time low, it seemed that almost everyone in politics (with the exception of the SNP) had exchanged political principle for the doctrine of political expediency.

And that is why Jeremy Corbyn captured the imagination of so many Labour supporters.

Love him or loathe him – he is a politician who acts and speaks according to his principles.  He does not simply say or do what others tell him to do or say – or change his message according to his audience – or make his decisions on the basis of the probability of success.  He has voted against his own party 533 times since 1997 and faced possible expulsion from the party more than once – hardly the actions of ambition or political opportunism.

These days, such consistent outspokenness is a rare commodity among politicians.

So in the end, I welcome the election of Jeremy Corbyn – not because I support all his views, policies and aspirations – but because we need someone who will challenge the current pattern of political sleep-walking, slavish uniformity, and the dishonesty of political ambition.

In the photos which I shared on Facebook, we see Jeremy Corbyn standing up for the rights of others, whereas David Cameron is standing in the privilege of his education at Eaton.  It is an unfair comparison, considering their respective ages at the time – but what really matters is what they have done since.  By enlarge, they have both continued to stand for the same things.

Tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor may be what the markets want to see – they may even improve the prospects for wealth generation for our economy in the long term – but they are certainly increasing wealth inequality now, widening the gap between rich and poor.

The secret of good politics is debate.  For there to be debate, there have to be two (or more) clear ideologies putting forward different solutions for the world’s challenges.  It is the difference between the two which keep both honest, and ultimately forge the compromise (or synthesis) which carry us forward.

I welcome Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party in the hope that his principled opposition will re-ignite the furnace of political debate to replace the quagmire into which our political leaders have been sleepwalking.

At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that it was a democratic vote of half a million people which appointed him by a clearer majority than any general election victory in living memory.  Democracy is sometimes problematic – sometimes uncomfortable – but we ignore it at our peril.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Sunrise by the sea

I had a beautiful experience early this morning, praying be the sea.

The sky was cloudy above but clear in the distance towards the sunrise. The effect that was spectacular. Rays of sunlight and an orange glow fell upon the distant mountains creating a magical aura of celestial beauty around the horizon while the cloud above me blotted out the brightness of the sun.

As I said my prayers,  it occurred to me that praying often feels like reaching out to that celestial scene. We see God’s awe inspiring beauty in the distance. We are at once captivated by its beauty and drawn to it. And yet we know that for now, it is beyond our reach. Our lives are lived beneath the cloud, seeing the effects of the sun all around us, and yet not fully basking in its glory.

Then something else caught my eye.

A shoal of small fish swimming near the shore, just below the surface of the water.  As they swam, some of them came up to the surface and broke the plane of the water to feed.  As I watched, some went further,  propelling themselves out of the water completely – for a moment breaking free from their watery world before plunging back into the sea.

Why do they do that,  I wondered? They gain nothing from it. They cannot live above the surface of the water for anything more that a few brief seconds. Their vision would be just as unadjusted to seeing in air as mine to seeing clearly underwater.

Then I realised that the fish and I were both engaged in the same longing.  The desire to reach out beyond our world to that which, for now, is unattainable. The world which is beyond us, of which we see but fleeting glimpses. In the words of Paul we see ‘through a glass darkly’ as we await the time when we will see God in all his glory.

In our prayers we reach out to that fullness of God which is beyond us, enthralled by the beauty we see from afar. And we long for the day when we shall see God face to face.