On The Twelfth Day of Christmas

I’m still wishing people a Merry Christmas, because it’s still Christmastide: today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and traditionalists will take their decorations down tonight. In fact, this year, most churches will have an unusual thirteenth day of Christmas. Rare indeed will be the place of worship that keeps the Feast of the Epiphany on the appointed Saturday 6 January, rather than transferring it to a Sunday.

I love these dog days of Christmastide, and not just because I’m a church nerd (although that helps).

The secular and liturgical celebrations of Christmas are now to a large degree out of phase. Not entirely, though. Both are at their height on 24 and 25 December: but in the secular world, this is the climax of long weeks of parties and shopping. In the Church, although even here the boundary is eroded by carol services and Christingles, the season should really only begin, with a bang, on the night before Christmas.

For a few days, these worlds remain locked in step, the turkey sandwiches and endless repeats of classic films on TV somehow matching the sparsely attended church services of the run of feast days in late December: Stephen, John, the Holy Innocents and Thomas Becket. These are what the Swedes call the ‘in between days’ or mellandagarna. In these relatively high latitudes they days are dark, and for many this is a time to flake out.

After the final flourishing of partying on Old Year’s Night, the secular world moves on to Dry January and credit card bill horror, making up for its usurpation of what was once Advent’s traditional role as a season of fasting and abstinence.

For the Church, however, this remains a season of celebration, and perhaps one that is all the more revealing because, for most people, Christmas is long over. The phrase ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ usually annoys me – hackneyed and pious and superior: but perhaps in these dog days of the season, something of the true meaning stands out most clearly. God has come into the world, but ‘the world knew Him not’. The shepherds have returned to their flocks. Everything continues as it did before – the schools and office workers are back to their grind and the shops, despite the discounts they flaunt, are now quiet. Beyond surface appearances, however, everything has changed, and although it will be a very long time before that becomes obvious, the first stirrings are there, if you pause to look and listen.

The winter mornings still get darker through the equinox and even Christmas, but by the Twelfth Day they are at last starting to turn and that is much more noticeable in the evenings. As we say today in the Daily Prayer of the Church for the final time (or perhaps this year the penultimate): The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining; the Word of life which was from the beginning.

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Tides Also Come In

(A response to Arnold. And to Cupitt.)

A stormy sea today.
Grey rock pools catch a leaden sky
In Lowry hues; not very far away
Bangor’s a shade; the hills of Ireland peer,
Like dragons’ silhouettes through wind-whipped spray.
Come, take the salt air, walk while the wind’s high!
Only, the waves have now fled far away,
Allowing an alien landscape to appear,
Of lobsters, driftwood, boulders carried high
By the once full tide. Now spattered by the rain,
This sad detritus provokes fear
Far less than pity. Better to stroll
When waves boom feet away and thus attain
A sense of nature’s power beyond control.

Matt Arnold, long ago,
Saw high tide on the Channel, and he thought,
“A metaphor for the end of ebb and flow
Of human history!”; we
Absorbed what we for decades long were taught,
That this was common sense for all to see.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the ebb, and earth’s new dawn
Lay in the power of reasoning man’s mind.
Yet all remained enslaved to Adam’s faults.
The flotsam of bared psyches still could spawn
Fresh storms of death.
Red China, Agent Orange, Stalin’s vaults
Moistened the sand with blood of humankind.

What is truth? Well, love is true,
Though invalid to an online spreadsheet form.
How did those vain lies become the norm,
That reason, function, to a new
And better world inevitably lead?
Such certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain
Did bring; yet massive strain
Was spent to get us sailing by this creed,
And scuttle what we didn’t know we’d need.

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God in the West: the New Atheism and Its Discontents

My Address to the Bournemouth William Temple Association, 5th December 2016     

Thank you for inviting me to speak at a meeting of the William Temple Association. Temple has long been a man I have admired. Indeed, he is a man whose prayers I often ask for, particularly when I confront some problem of presenting the Christian faith publicly. His Christianity and the Social Order, about to have its 75th anniversary, posed questions once seemingly answered by the welfare state, but has become extraordinarily fresh and relevant again over the past generation as a result of the changes in work and welfare.

That’s a reminder, at the start of my talk, that history does not move in straight lines nor proceed to any inevitable destinations.

Just ten years ago New Atheism stood at the zenith of its influence. A lot has happened since, and indeed the talk I will give tonight is considerably different than that I might have written this time last year.

It is often said that there is no period in history more difficult to understand than the very recent past. With that in mind, let us strain our imaginations to take ourselves back to the distant days of the mid-2000s, when the world was a very different place.

The God Delusion

Few books have been launched at such a perfectly apposite moment as was Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in 2006.

Two scenes dominated the public conception of God in the 2000s: the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Centre after Al-Qa’eda attacked them; and Bush and Blair praying together before launching a badly planned war against the wrong target. By 2006, that war had gone awry, and Iraq was in the midst of sectarian bloodletting that was killing tens of thousands.

Continue reading

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The Pope is Still a Catholic

Cross-posted at Slugger O’Toole…

Lefty atheists from North London to Northern California are in outrage today at the latest shock revelations that Pope Francis is, in fact, a Catholic. “The pope played us for fools, trying to have it both ways”, thundered Michaelangelo Signorile in the Huffington Post, outraged that the Pope had (briefly) met Kim Davis. Ms Davis, you’ll remember, is the rather silly Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on ‘biblical’ grounds while herself being on a rather unbiblical fourth marriage. (Giving her the martyrdom she so transparently sought by jailing her, however briefly, was both stupid and morally wrong.)

Trevor Martin in the Guardian felt his meeting with Ms Davis left “LGBT people with no illusions about the Pope’s stance on equal rights for us, despite his call for inclusiveness”. There has never been any doubt of the Pope’s stance on equal rights for LGBT communities – he doesn’t believe in them. He doesn’t agree with marriage equality; he used some pretty salty language in Argentina when it came into force there, several years before he hit the world stage. At the same time, he seems determined to avoid wasting energy fighting a battle that has already been lost psychologically everywhere in ‘the West’ and Latin America, even where the laws are yet to change.

As it turned out, this storm in a teacup involved a certain amount of shooting first before all the facts were available (it’s always fun to see the rational and evidence-based cyberlegions of New Atheism in action). The Pope seems to have been bounced into meeting Davis as one of dozens of attendees of a Washington reception, and her attorney’s version of events many not have involved a full exposition of facts. “The pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects” said a tersely worded press statement from Vatican Press Office.

Still, this non-story tells us some interesting things. The way people want to read what they want into Francis is very revealing. For example, an old schoolfriend recently shared a Facebook meme that is typical of many: “It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person” it began, “In a way, the traditional notion of God is outdated…” Now, I’m pretty sure Francis would agree with the first part of that statement, but the second but and most of the rest were more New Age than Throne of Peter. And Snopes quickly confirmed the meme was nonsense.

In an oddly similar vein, Francis’ statements that good atheists are redeemed through Christ and that evolution and the big bang are real were presented by much of the media as ground breaking radical departures, when in fact they were mere restatements of positions held officially by the Vatican for many decades. The Big Bang Theory was first posited by a priest, for goodness’ sake!

Francis is a transparently good man, yet it’s strange that in a supposedly post-religious era so much is vested in a Pope, the ultimate symbol of hierarchical and autocratic religious power. Those with long memories will recall how John Paul II in his early years also enjoyed such fulsome and almost universal adulation. But what is revealed by all those social media memes and bad newspaper stories is that few people are paying that much attention to what Francis is actually trying to say. His fans simply want their version of a good life validated by a good man in a white cape. They’re all sure the Pope really agrees with them. Western culture no longer seems capable of critical dialogue between people of ideological differences but common goodwill. We want to affirmed, we are sure we are affirmed, and if we aren’t, we shout angrily.

That’s a particularly profound the problem for what we once would have called the centre-left. Lefties are increasingly unable to deal with reality as it is, or form workable coalitions with people who don’t pass every section of detailed ideology tests; what used to be disease of the fellow travelling fringe has now gone mainstream.

As so many of us, me included, get most of our news about the world via social media, those Facebook memes misreading Francis as a crusading liberal-left humanist/universalist actually matter.

Francis is a conservative Roman Catholic prelate (surprise, surprise) and in political terms, a social conservative on the moderate right of the very broad Peronist tradition. When Argentina split down the middle in the late 1970s and there was no middle ground anymore, Francis was on the right of that faultline, if not entirely comfortably.

What’s interesting is that this figure on the moderate right is leading a few crusades: for peace, for not wrecking the planet’s climate and for an economy geared to serving human need rather than rewarding rent-seeking and speculation on asset prices (it may be another figure on the soft right, his counterpart in Canterbury, who makes the most significant contribution on the last of those issues).

Part of the reason why Francis has real influence is because he isn’t an identikit politically correct lefty; when he speaks on climate change, many conservative people listen who aren’t convinced by, let’s say, a demo by the Brighton branch of Anarchist Green Action. When he says he’s opposed to the death penalty for the same reasons he opposes abortion, he challenges people to rethink their views who wouldn’t be convinced by a Guardian editorial or an Amnesty Twitter campaign.

One of the dangers of social media is that it makes it too easy for us to surround ourselves with an echo chamber of people who basically agree with us. Every time you unfriend people for voting Tory (like, seriously?) or even sharing a Britain First post you are ensuring that how you perceive the world is less reflective of how the world actually is. Lots of people do this now – I’ve been unfriended by a number of right-wingers I know from church or ham radio circles, for example. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why politics is getting more fractured and extreme across the West; that’s a debate for another time.

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To A Young Fisherman

Fairer still than a rose, your cheeks aglowing,
Your feet more graceful than a tulip’s stem
And in your eyes there sparkled like a gem,
For friendship, such an infinite deep longing.

Behind us was the endlessness of the sea,
Above us greyly gazed the endless light,
We two stood on the strand, so solit’ry,
With just the sea’s smell. No-one was in sight.

Last day together, townwards I remove.
Contentedly he fishes, while I brood
And find no peace in fields nor city streets.

I am exhausted, so many loves I’ve had.
Forgive me much, ask not what I withstood
And pray your beauty ne’er my will defeats.

By Jacob Israël de Haan, 1917, translated from the Dutch by Gerry Lynch.

Jacob_Israel_de_HaanThis poem is famous as the last line of the first stanza adorns Amsterdam’s Homomonument. Jacob Israël de Haan (1881-1924), its author, was a human rights activist avant la lettre and a very out gay man indeed by the standards of his time. He was also a devoutly religious Jew who emigrated to Israel after the end of World War One, ended up the political spokesman of the Haredi community in Jerusalem and was assassinated by a member of the Haganah. His Wikipedia entry is worth a read! As well as his famous gay poems, he travelled extensively by train in England in the early 1910s, and wrote some charming poems in Dutch on his English experiences.

I have started and failed to finish translating this poem for close to a decade. Rupert Moreton is translating many Russian and Finnish poems at the moment and inspired me to finally get it done. Continue reading

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“A Battle A Day” Is Creating A Political Wasteland

This blog was originally posted on Slugger O’Toole

“It will always be a battle a day between those who want maximum change and those who want to maintain the status quo”. Recognise the quote? It came from Gerry Adams’ speech calling for the IRA to permanently abandon violence in 2005.

Just a few days before the 2007 Assembly Elections that restored devolved government, Peter Robinson concurred with Adams’ assessment in a BBC Radio Ulster interview. Asked whether a government jointly led by his party and Gerry Adams’ could work in practice, Robinson continued ominously, “This cannot be a lasting and enduring form of government.”

Eight years into a power-sharing experiment that has never worked well and is now at risk of collapse, it’s worth remembering that the leaders of its two main parties were sceptical before it even began. Continue reading

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On Charlie Kennedy

Charles Kennedy in Glasgow in 2009. Photograph (C)

Charles Kennedy in Glasgow in 2009. Photograph (C) “Moniker42” on Wikimedia Commons under CC 3.0.

Originally posted at Slugger O’Toole

There’s lots of talk about Charlie Kennedy’s talents and his ‘flaws’, often a euphemistic way of talking about his alcoholism. Alistair Campbell has blogged movingly and directly about their shared illness. It was never exactly a secret.

I remember canvassing a man in the 2004 European election campaign, a rather grand chap in a very wealthy street just north of Kensington Gardens. “Oh, the Liberals”, he sneered, “Couldn’t possibly vote for a party led by an alcoholic.” “I take it then, Sir”, I replied, “You wouldn’t have voted for Churchill?” “Not the same thing at all”, he shouted, slamming the door.

Every time I re-tell the anecdote, someone points out that he had a point: Charles Kennedy wasn’t exactly Winston Churchill. Undoubtedly, but he was a first-class politician and, until recently, his flaws would have been less relevant and his gifts more valued. In the 1970s, The Times famously opined that George Brown drunk was a better man than Harold Wilson sober. That was a questionable statement, but when it came to leading his party and giving it direction, Charles Kennedy was unquestionably a better man than either of his decidedly sober successors. Continue reading

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