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From the compass rose

Home from Canterbury and the fields are biscuit brown: every green reach of downland now a bristly, sea-less strand. Approaching from Salisbury Plain, hay bales stacked high-rise for collection, there’s a smoky plume spreading ominously over what I reckon to be our village (just past it, thankfully, but still ruinous to the barley harvest on Fyfield Down). All is dry as kindling – on land as online, where incendiary posts about the Lambeth Conference have torn about like Samson’s foxes, burning up the shocks. 

Debate was already ablaze as we arrived on campus, taking cover behind the firewall of collegiality. A peculiar congregation, to put it mildly – this beaming invasion of Roman purple, with which (I had to keep reminding myself) I was not only associated but bound in communion. Having always been more at ease in the church porch than the vestry, where to position myself here? It wasn’t just the impossible heat that held me back from wearing my collar and cross for the first few days: like many others, I suspect, I was also clinging on to an evaporating sense of self.

In honesty, I’ve always kept global Anglicanism at a distance. Such has been my calling to the English Church, and a vision of neighbour-and-nationhood that ripples out from local community, that my global sympathies have often been woefully remote. It’s the principal weakness of parochialism when it outweighs catholicity. So, to gather over a thousand of us from Equatoria to the Arctic as a kind of pop-up parish was extraordinary for a localist like me: a physical expression of what I have affirmed but never truly felt in a universal sense – that in Christ, we who are many are one body. In the best way, the conference put me in my place. I came away feeling converted to the world.

When giving talks about the church as ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’, I have often homed in on the double meaning of ‘one’ as expressing both the singular (one street, one blackbird) and the collective (one nation, of one mind) and this is what interests me now, in my late-found love for the worldwide church. My concern is the impact of liberalism on ecclesiology, such that it is all too easy for bishops to mistake internationalism for catholicity. Whereas the latter holds particular and universal in creative tension, the former likes to spread over us a counterpane of sameness: the smother church. Remarkably, almost imperceptibly, this Lambeth Conference concluded with the acknowledgement of greater difference being possible among our provinces because, not in spite, of our common confession. The test will be practise, but after Archbishop Justin’s heartfelt call for plurality-in-unity, many present heard something like the low rumble of tectonic plates.

There was much discussion about the ‘Instruments’ of Communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) and how these might be reformed, but – as a London colleague and I agreed – what really unifies us is a shared missionary narrative that washed ashore on the Kent coast just as it had done in Rome. Awkwardly mindful of colonial overtones – of the Communion being a kind of ecclesiastical Commonwealth – I apologetically tried to express this in one session, to which an Indian bishop on our table said with a grin: ‘it’s ok, we know that the Gospel didn’t come from England’. For this reason, we must both own the Englishness of Anglicanism while simultaneously releasing the Communion from it, so that others decide what to do with that legacy. Which is precisely why I believe it would be mistaken for the role of Archbishop of Canterbury (really the lead ‘instrument’) to become an increasingly global appointment, unless this is somehow untethered from its peculiar place in the English constitution. Leadership of the Communion must surely be shared among the provinces in a new way, but each church must (as Magna Carta put it) remain free, with its liberties unimpaired.

This will be vital, whatever course the Church of England takes about marriage and sexuality (which subject delegates spent less than an hour discussing directly but was nevertheless an element in every room), simply because it will – already is – different from that of other provinces. Yet here also there was surprising grace. My small group (with whom I met each day) contained, among others, two South Sudanese, a Filipino and an American Episcopalian whose husband, along with other spouses of LGBT+ bishops, was only admitted to some parts of the programme. That all eight of us could embrace in prayer on departure was both moving and profoundly hopeful. 

During these weeks I have felt renewed appreciation and admiration for lesbian and gay colleagues in the Church of England – who have ever been at its centre yet continue to suffer the grudging acceptance that straight gatekeepers like me have too often offered, as if the kingdom belonged to us. Or, worse still, have had to bear the holiness of their heart’s affections being bulleted and scrutinised like clauses in some joyless contract. As I prepare to attend this weekend my wonderful niece’s wedding to her soon-to-be wife, I’m reminded how, early in the conference, we were commended to reflect on a Zulu greeting: sawubona – which means, literally, ‘I see you; I recognise you: you are known and valuable’. If the hope of heaven is that we shall know fully, even as we are fully known, what would it mean for our dear sisters and brothers truly and gladly to be beheld: not merely in part, but in their love? That is what will remain of us, after all.

It was when we moved en masse that the episcopacy looked most enjoyably outlandish: spilling like weak Ribena from buses or boarding the small fleet of pleasure boats that carried us one day from Lambeth Bridge to Greenwich. Queuing for our vessel by the Thames and finding myself with a clutch of sunny Lutherans, present as ecumenical guests, I related my favourite of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, in which a party of Lutheran pastors boards a pontoon boat that eventually sinks in a shallow river: 

‘As the boat sank, they slipped over the edge to give their lives to Christ, but in only five feet of water. It’s been a hot dry summer. They didn’t dare walk … and they couldn’t call for help because their voices were too deep and mellow. So they stood, faces upturned, in prayerful apprehension. Twenty-four ministers standing up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.’

It’s a picture that has buoyed me up at many a clergy gathering and was a useful metaphor here, on approaching those waters we fear may be too deep. The fifteenth Lambeth Conference didn’t sink, thank goodness: it may even have learnt some new strokes to swim with.



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The village of Snap no longer exists, but is helpfully signposted, nonetheless. Lost settlements are not always so easily found as this, and a brisk five-minute stroll from the Aldbourne Road and I am at the site, marked in gothic script on my map. There are several of these invisible communities on the Marlborough Downs and lately I have become keen to pay each a pastoral visit, scanning them for signs of life. Unlike the previous one I saw (Shaw, on the periphery of the West Woods, whose medieval residents are evidenced only by an occasional lumpy ridge in the grass), Snap satisfies by having been inhabited almost within living memory. Ever a small place, by 1909 just two villagers remained, and most buildings were destroyed when the area was used for military training during the First World War.

May days arrive early, beautifully prepared – and this morning’s virginal sky has been ready for some time, like the well-rehearsed birds and breakfasting cattle who glance up as I bustle in, late to the gathering. Situated within a grove of youngish trees, Snap seems at first to have completely gone, until squared lines of rubble emerge amid the greenery, and a series of homesteads soon becomes noticeable. Standing in one of these chambers of the human hearth cannot but feel intrusive, causing one to wonder whether time is porous enough to be haunted in reverse.

An abandoned settlement easily calls to our imagination, for it speaks of a belonging that is familiar and concrete but just out of reach. Whereas our dwellings are plainly fixed, moulds to which we must accommodate, these vacant bricks could house whatever we want them to. Every such place is also a parable – a prophetic sign, even – and the story of Snap is no different. Its sacrifice to the profits of sheep farming offers a final, passing shot of a countryside transformed by enclosures of land and the cloth industry that burgeoned alongside the rearing of vast flocks. At one point, the Bishop of Winchester alone owned thirty thousand sheep on Salisbury Plain.

Parish churches, engrossed and gilded beyond all possible need of their community, were a regular beneficiary of those whose made wealthy by the wool trade, although none was built here. Snap’s witness to the golden fleece was its own demise. Two large farms, which together had provided villagers’ employment, were left untenanted by the agricultural depression of the 1890s and bought up by a butcher from nearby Ramsbury, John Wilson, who converted them into a sheep run, forcing the remaining villagers’ departure. It was an episode that provoked great controversy, even leading to the local Member of Parliament being sued for describing the Wilson family as oppressive and tyrannical. An account from the 1960s, however, found this outrage already overgrown with other myths of desertion, locals supposing it had to do with their water supply. 

As landscape historian Richard Muir observed in his study of Britain’s lost villages, if such a lapse of memory can take place within fifty years, it is little surprise that the undocumented lives of earlier generations of dispossessed poor are as obscure to us as these forgotten walls under the soil. At precisely the point when Snap was in terminal decline, that hidden culture was beginning to be a focus of liberal intellectual concern, especially among those who sought to recover the lore, language and artistic expression of rural communities. The English Folk Revival – with its Maypoles, Morris men and other approximations of Merrie England – was one of the great social and educational projects of the Twentieth Century and a monumental act of historical invention. Its narrative of extinction and retrieval was necessary in order to fill a perceived void among the modern, industrialized masses – namely, the meaningful ties and traditions of a small community. The only lost things we tend to seek are those we miss in the present.

Collection and circulation of folk songs by Cecil Sharp and others became a particular totem: half-recalled snatches of a ‘national music’ grounded (according to Ralph Vaughan Williams) in a mystic parochialism. Folk song should, Williams felt, enable people to ‘feel at home’, so he set about rechristening these tunes and placing them at the heart of the parish: within the leaf-green covers of the English Hymnal, whose first edition appeared in 1906. Through ongoing presence in Anglican churches and schools (the latter via its companion volume for children, Songs of Praise), The English Hymnal ensured that Christian worship became one of the most effective carriers of the folk revival, long after its ideological binding had foxed and faded.

While its aims – national and spiritual unity, deepening of local roots – were lofty and, to a degree, laudable, they presumed upon a ‘lost’ class of peasantry, untainted by mechanised culture, who were on the verge of dying out. As Georgina Boyes explored in The Imagined Village, her interrogation of the movement, this assumption was simply not borne out by its own fieldwork. The ‘Folk’ were essentially a construct, who needed to exist and so did – allowing the gatekeepers of the Revival to decide which among their values and traditions were legitimate, to further their missionary ends.

Social and political movements are prone to doing this, of course (as is the church whenever it presumes to know the mind of Christ) but their authority ceases in the moment they instrumentalise those they represent – or become remote from them, which is the usual counterpart. When, for one group of people, it becomes ideologically necessary for another group to act or think a certain way – the ‘white working class’, say – contact with reality soon disappears.

Frustrating though it can be to our causes, communal identity (past and present) is usually far more open and harder to categorise than we might imagine or need it to be, and is under continual renegotiation. The English village – a compact of ideal and reality – is peculiarly susceptible to being conscripted in ways that limit its potential, like the assumption it ought only to grow by a process of faithful reproduction, as it were a photograph, captured by time and unable to move. Unlike the fluid and mutable urban scene, the village must advance in freeze-frame: tracked by facsimiles of what was never static to begin with. 

In 1946 Penguin Books published The Anatomy of the Village: an unusual manifesto for renewing rural life as the Post-War era began, written by the eminent planner Thomas Sharp. In this lucidly-written and (given the crimes of planning about to be committed on many provincial towns) surprisingly balanced report, Sharp notes how ‘something of a romantic fallacy has grown up round the idea of building in the country’, warning of the danger of ‘tradition gone morbid’. Respect for heritage was vital, but only if it really did offer life and growth, adding with emphasis: ‘true tradition is not a pool which has welled up at some particular moment of time and has remained stagnant ever since’. Sharp’s conclusion was that ‘simplicity’ of style and scale is the village’s defining character, which is perhaps why they lend themselves so readily to possession – and dispossession. Small communities are more stoutly defended because we who inhabit such places see them more immediately as ‘ours’: you can throw your arms around a village, and never let go.

They also retain a tenacious national significance, even when the vast majority of us no longer live in one. At home I am reading Ayisha Malik’s novel This Green and Pleasant Land, in which Bilal, a secular Muslim living in the pregnantly-named village of Babel’s End, seeks to enact his mother’s dying request that he build there a mosque and so recover his own inheritance of faith. It proves infinitely more provocative to start a mosque in Babel’s End than in Birmingham. The very word ‘hissed in the village hall’ as Bilal makes his proposal to the parish council, and the ensuing controversy (which involves an appropriately conflicted and liberal-minded vicar) centres around contested ideas of both heritage and Englishness, for which the church building offers an intense focus. It is a perceptive and generous-hearted story, which avoids tidy platitudes and finds hope in the patient forming of neighbourly relations – the essence, after all, of the village ethic.

All of which suggests that unless we rebuild the village, we will not rebuild England – or redefine its place within the United Kingdom, within Europe, and our unsettled world. Whatever realm we seek can only be located among people sometimes intolerably different from ourselves, but with whom we share undeniable common ground. England was long ago wedded to Christianity – too long ago, indeed, for that covenant to be claimed only by Anglicans. And just as its narrative once offered resources that proved uniquely advantageous to becoming one people from many, a trace memory of that promise remains, on a Half Term holiday named Whitsuntide. Traditionally this is when Christians commemorate the gift of the Holy Spirit, uncorked like spraying Prosecco over the internationals gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Each one, apparently, could hear the Gospel in their own tongue – and from this riot of translation the early church was impelled from confinement into the furthest reaches of the ancient world. Not the reversal of Babel, then, but its baptism – a Christening, not a flattening, of local particularity. 

The Holy Ghost is a wraith from hereafter – breath of life in the face of death. Unlike others, this spirit is arrabon – foretaste of what is to come. Walking from Snap, sunlight sprinkled by shimmying leaves, I spot an overgrown stone placed by children from Toothill School, near Swindon, in honour of its departed people. Dated 1991, and that school now closed, it marks a memory of a memory, making me idly question whether there might also be signs hereabouts of lost villages as yet unconceived. After all, romances of the future have at least a fair chance of coming true.

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Whited sepulchres

The sins of England are written on our chancel walls, marbled and memorialised. At St Peter’s Dorchester – like most parish churches, a crowding gallery of monuments – I am stood beneath one large but fairly inconspicuous plaque to John Gordon, a plantation owner who died here in 1774, aged 46. Masking taped beneath this information is a temporary panel of cardboard explaining that ‘the remainder of this memorial has been covered as it commemorates actions and uses language that are totally unacceptable to us today’. When revealed, the inscription goes on to describe how Gordon ‘was signally instrumental in quelling a dangerous rebellion’ in Jamaica – among slaves who ‘finally yielded to their confidence in his humanity’. What that action indicated about Gordon’s confidence in theirs is left unwritten. 

It is an extraordinary epitaph, under which parishioners have murmured their prayers for two and a half centuries. The Parochial Church Council has periodically considered how best to address this affront, until lately the memorial has become an understandable focus for regional concern and media interest after being highlighted by Topple the Racists, the campaigning group that emerged from the actions of Bristolians in forcibly removing the statue of slaver Edward Colston. There can be a blazing grace in protest, enabling us to see what we have been blind to for too long.

St Peter’s has responded with exemplary good sense, researching the history of the Jamaican revolt thus recorded and drawing on pre-existing good relations with West Dorset Multicultural Network and the County Museum. Conveniently situated next door, the latter will in due course be receiving the Gordon plaque for permanent display, not least because of its singular value in demonstrating how enslaved people were agents of their own freedom, not simply ‘given’ liberty by enlightened campaigners. 

In the questionable way we allow cultural figures posthumously to colonise the landscape, this is Thomas Hardy Country. Indeed, a youthful Hardy was assistant architect for the refurbishment of St Peter’s (as another sign here indicates), and that conjuror of lost Edens is himself memorialised in stone at nearby Stinsford churchyard, where pamphlets from the Thomas Hardy Society mingle with pew sheets on the welcome desk. In her insightful study Dorset’s Hidden Histories, Louisa Adjoa-Parker observes that Dorset has singular potency as an icon of England and so might seem an unlikely county in which to consider black history. If, however, Englishness is to be conceived more inclusively than hitherto, then it is the very place to address this: not simply to step over the artificial demarcation of minority ethnic communities as ‘urban’, but because the countryside is where love of the land is owned, unabashed. And unless all in that land have a route into loving it, alienation is the inevitable end. 

The Church of England, being so entombed in our country’s past, has a unique custodial role to play in curating such contested heritage – as its recent and welcome advice on the theme acknowledges – and in cultivating a patriotism that, as the proximate outworking of our love for the world, acknowledges the global reach of every local affection. By virtue of what Anglicans believe about eternity (that it has a more powerful magnetism than time), and about redemption (that we are not captive to past transgressions), they have at their disposal a singularly useful set of conceptual tools. 

In particular, these imply that the rural past does not need to be quite so sacred, so unimpeachable. However unlikely it may sound, the problem of Britain’s heritage is an eschatological one, for we remain enchanted by a vanished kingdom, not the coming one. The village church is rightly perceived as hallowing each plot, but rarely because of (or in preparation for) what lies ahead. Consecration, furthermore, is no kind of indulgence – not exemption from scrutiny – but the sacrifice of torn and imperfect things to God, in whose hands those fragments may be restored. Loving the land is a pastoral cure.

The trouble is that idylls are so easily idolised. Yet the admission of ‘hidden histories’ into the national story allows for a loyalty that may be balanced (rather than cancelled out) by the record of our wrongs, to which the countryside often bears a kind of protected witness. In her recent and provocative study Green Unpleasant Land, Corinne Fowler unpicks some of that tapestry, noting how rural England has ever been ‘a terrain of inequalities’, with many of its Arcadian treasures afforded through monumental folly and injustice. This does not mean they are not also transportingly beautiful and worthy of conservation, but does suggest that our approach to national remembrance should be more akin to the kind we encourage when reviewing our personal past – a blend, in other words, of justifiable pride, aching regret and, in maturity (one trusts) understanding and acceptance of the whole. Above all, as a nation we should love others as we love ourselves.

Just behind St Peter’s in Dorchester is the prison, recently closed, where Robert Wedderburn – activist, Unitarian minister and the most prolific black writer in Britain at the start of the nineteenth century – was jailed for two years on a charge of seditious blasphemy, which included among these supposed heresies a description of Jesus Christ as ‘a genuine radical reformer’. Wedderburn was visited here by William Wilberforce and upon release composed his work The Horrors of Slavery, informed by early experiences in Jamaica. 

Each generation is at liberty to interrogate those that came before (especially those with power and control), bringing them to a time of trial. The tougher existential question is what sentencing power to give the current one, which again concerns the ends of things. In the Christian schema, earth’s last judgement was passed, once and for all, in the events surrounding Jesus Christ – especially those of his Passion and Resurrection. The historic Gospel is thus also our Domesday Book, and for this reason Christians ought not capitulate to the annihilating myth of an ultimate or absolute present – rather one which is entirely contingent upon both past and future, and whose claims are responsible to both. 

Racial justice, like all other kinds, is demanded by our common destiny – that is, a new humanity, wrought (Christians believe) at the cross. This does not downplay the ‘urgency of now’ – as the Church of England’s report Lament to Action frames the case – but means that justice is never captive to the present. Instead it summons us like a voice through fog, drawing us on to see its emerging visage. That the appearance of righteousness has altered so strikingly through time – and will do so again – urges humility in all pronouncements upon our forbears, in light of our own eventual reckoning.

Dorchester’s street map forms a fallen stick man. It being a glorious afternoon, I explore further up the vertebrae of London Road to conclude my visit with a swift circuit of Poundbury, The Prince of Wales’ extravagant essay on the built environment. A screen of sunlight and serene sky enhances the impression of this suburb as a kind of simulacrum – a faux-accidental collision of Victorian terrace, Georgian parade and rustic cosiness. Impossibly pristine, Poundbury is a full-scale mock-up, flanked by site hoardings and poised JCBs, ready to confect more samples from the pattern book of English archetypes. It should be scandalous to like it, but I do – and suspect I could all too easily keep up the pretence.

There is no parish church, tellingly – the one essential component of the rural scene that could not be admitted. A pity, as this could orientate the place a little, even offer a truer perspective on our heritage. And where this has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.


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Green Turnings

‘The highway ran through the parish’, wrote R.S.Thomas, in The Echoes Return Slow. ‘The main line ran through the parish. Yet there were green turnings, unecclesiastical aisles up which he could walk to the celebration of the marriage of mind and nature’. 

Sweating up the North Downs for Ascension Day: the perfect vantage point for these parishes, and for courting Thomas’ nuptial vision. Here, beneath the ridge of the Surrey Hills, the land unrolls in an awesome sweep: the familiar, folded fields and, threading between, the grey-green turnings of the M25 motorway. Oxted has hosted major east-west routes since prehistoric times, with the Pilgrim’s Way that shadows the carriageway marking an ancient and fabled footpath running from Winchester to Canterbury. Directly below me, trains from East Croydon arrow out of the earth, ducking the M25 in a hallowing crosshatch. Arterial roads also intersect its path, pumping out of London, while the motorway circulates cautiously, a slate-coloured halo for the capital. 

Each day, close on 200,000 extra parishioners throttle, stall and swear their way through the two-mile meander cutting through my patch. Opened in 1976, this stretch was one of the first to be completed, and, by now has its own deposit of folklore, including the elderly lady found by police cycling the wrong way up the slow lane near Godstone – either battily unaware or, as I like to think, engaged in her own perilous psychogeographic experiment.

The Outer London Defence Ring also clings to these hills – not the grim name of a far-right association, but a chain of pillboxes and tank traps still awaiting the call to fend off invaders sweeping up from the south coast. The M25 would now perform the same task admirably, forming as it does an uncrossable contra-flow torrent that even St Christopher would hesitate before stepping into. Certainly the North Downs feel defensive: South London’s earthwork, moated by the motorway. To gaze at its current is oddly akin to river watching: sometimes a slim, silver charge, by eight o’clock this morning its serpentine course had already slowed to become an exhausted, horseless canal. Yet despite its preoccupation with time, the road-river has no memory: Monday’s multi-vehicle collision was rapidly cleared, its crippling ripples untraceable now. When the motorway is abandoned and brambly, what scores of traumatised ghosts will return to process all that happened at such speed?

Today, though, all is at rest, but for a hot air balloon, hung in the sky like a question mark. Ascensiontide is the right time to weigh things above and things below. Like most Christian festivals, it plays with concepts of locale, calling us to picture our life uplifted to heavenly places in Christ – with God, subsequently, settling down in the world by the Holy Spirit. Despite the critique that their preoccupation with heaven is a damaging distraction from earth, Christians have usually insisted they are citizens of both – to the extent that, in Britain, even the most flag-rattling patriotism carries a note of caution. Consider how the second verse of the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country comes in like a pricked conscience: having pledged to our land ‘all earthly things above’, and sacrificed our best to the bloody soil, we are reminded – almost in apology – of ‘another country’, dearer still to them that know. 

So, in one sense, the Christian really is of no earthly use unless they resolutely keep their head in the clouds. After all, the collect for Ascension Day prays that, as we believe Christ to have ascended, ‘so may we also in heart and mind thither ascend’. Dwelling in heaven is something dreamed or imagined, in order that this world may be seen aright: Jacob’s ladder alighting at Charing Cross, as Francis Thompson’s poem envisages. 

In St Luke’s portrayal of Christ’s Ascension, he has the angels appear like marshals after a spectacle: ‘men of Galilee’, they challenge the disciples (who are left, gaping aloft), ‘why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’ This hard-to-picture scene diverts the church’s gaze to the ground. Like Christmas in reverse, the Ascension illuminates the place where God, we believe, met humanity in Christ. As T.F.Torrance writes: ‘we cannot know God by leaping beyond the limits of our place on earth, but only by encountering God and his saving work within space and time, within our actual physical existence.’ So we look up, therefore, only to look down with greater clarity.

Taking the angels’ advice, it is time to move along, like the easing traffic below: piloted home by the balloon’s low bulb and faint rasp of flame.

(First published in Parish, SCM Press 2017)

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In Foxbury Copse

The earth has been in a cold kiln overnight. Along the path to the West Woods, the mud clots hard and gives a rough crumble topping to the fields. Furred this morning with a light snowfall, a few minute flakes still bob about like midges, or dust motes. 

These thousand acres are an exiled section of the Savernake Forest, which once extended its shade right across this corner of the county. Unlike the twisted oaks of the Savernake, however, the West Woods have leaner lines, harvested when the Forestry Commission took control in the 1930s. Mainly planted to beech and conifer, the view here in Winter is striking, striated – a bar chart of sheer vertical growth. I trudge among the adolescent trees, feeling a twinge in my joints.

In July last year, the West Woods were raised from anonymity by being declared as the original location for the sarsens of Stonehenge. The extraction of these easily-workable rocks continued here until 1939 and the advent of cheap concrete, thus ending a five-thousand-year-old industry. There are repairs to Windsor Castle and kerbstones in Swindon that employ West Woods sarsens, and they still rubble its surface. One or two are stood upright – a transfiguration that sets them apart, to pique archaeological interest. 

The Wansdyke cuts through here also, like the seams of an old wound. Exploring the eastern boundary known as Foxbury Copse I found myself standing inside it a couple of days ago. Between the lips of a leafy ditch I was, I realised, on the verge of two kingdoms whose ancient division we still don’t understand. Romano-British or Anglo-Saxon, the Wansdyke is a phantom boundary, which I can walk straight through, without resistance.

To remain serviceable, borders need constant maintenance: every untended rivalry will soften over time unless we continue to dig. Because nature has a way of rounding the ridges, performing its natural bridgework of decomposition, we must allow the land to do its job. Being fissiparous and self-obsessed, we forget that it is the essential unifying thing – not only in a universal sense, but in the real particularities of local belonging. What eventually brings peace between warring tribes is either their weariness with conflict, or – more durably – a narrative that recognises common ground. No lasting culture can grow without that footing.

‘To be rooted’, wrote the luminous French philosopher Simone Weil (after her country had been felled by the Nazis in 1940), “is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul”. And the growing of roots, she went on to explore, demands that people find a good way of loving the land: of reckoning with patriotism, in other words – not as a monolithic thing, manipulated by the state (“a cold concern, which cannot inspire love”) but the organic local affection that grows as easily as a self-seeded sapling.

Fascism mechanised this loyalty, pressing it into grim national service. Yet for all its blood-and-soil posturing, the myth that we are bound first by ethnicity is a peculiarly rootless creed. Peculiarly modern, too, for the arrogance of Modernity was to override local attachment and assume that space-time could be conquered in abstract. Britons in their imperial phase were especially prone to this conceit, whereby the remote scoring of lines on supposedly uncharted territory was still wreaking its chaotic voodoo across the globe generations after. 

Every technological advance is, in some way, a manipulation of space – the written word included. As Simone Weil observed in The Need for Roots: “one cannot cut out from the continuity of space and time an event as it were like an atom; but the inadequacy of human language obliges one to talk as though one could”. Our current identity-based divisions are so sharply fragmented in part because we cannot (yet, perhaps) cope with social media’s extreme dislocation. Any mosaic we form from the shards of digital culture must ease them – and us – back into place.

The Wansdyke peters out at the fringe of the West Woods, whose highest branches shiver and creak in leafless percussion. Through the snow-sequinned air above them circles an all-surveying buzzard, suspended like a mobile.


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The consolation of England

Candlemas, and the land awaits its consolation, Simeon-like. Unfurling woes roll out so regularly that media feeds read like Qoheleth, a psalmody of untethered lament. The temptation is to withdraw into immediacy, of course, and simply field the incoming as if sat in a gaming chair of perpetual reaction, spotting and batting away the next insurgent. 

When people cry for strategy what they really mean is prophecy – strategy being inorganic, mechanistic, hardly adequate for the times. After all, how do you map a landscape that is constantly changing? Our present panic seeks good words from the future, where no one but God has been. But in an age that sniggers away divine possibility the Lord is afforded the past tense alone. We shall, I suspect, come to regret being so confident of our own purposelessness. Behold, mourns, the weary preacher of the Book of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

What characterises his world is a kind of dogged amnesia: collapsing past and future into a monotonous present. “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after”. Like the rivers, he suggests, that run into the sea before their ascension and condensation start the cycle again. But what if repetition is not our destiny, and we inhabit instead an ecology that is radically open – with memories not only of the past, but with a future? What if our absent-minded land were a place of promise, and we had simply forgotten?

Prophecy returns to the origins of things in order to seek and sketch what is to come. So, after its overflow last week, I am drawn to revisit Swallowhead Spring, near Avebury in Wiltshire, where the River Kennet rises and begins to drain down into the Thames. Having reflected lately on the imagined separation of countryside and city, it is settling to be linked with South London by a single veining network of water. 

Like many such sites round here, the signage indicates conflicting claims on this landscape. A ‘Pagan Britain’ sticker has been slapped upon an anti-littering notice and the trees are frilly with ribbons and dangling dream catchers, symbolising what, I’m not quite sure. What is clear, however, is the enduring need to mark territories where meaning or identity has been found: our arrow-hearted initials notched into the bark. Lovers and villagers would apparently come to Swallowhead Spring for Good Friday picnics, before shinning up the then-accessible Silbury Hill. When I last visited in October, it was just a dry basin with a slightly sludgy brook, but now I can hardly approach for the cataract.

Back home, a bubble-wrapped book has arrived, being the proceedings of the 1941 Malvern Conference: a source I am exploring for clues to the current and future condition of the beleaguered English Church. Under the shroud of total war, Archbishop William Temple gathered an eclectic range of prelates, poets and politicians to devise a route by which the church might offer a lead to society in the new world that would, at some point, emerge. It is immediately striking in its erudition and reach, addressing the fundamental concern that ‘the true end of man’ had lately been obscured by the pursuit of wealth.

The purpose of work, and education, therefore, needed recovering – but with personality, not product, at its heart. Progress was, however, almost derailed by a Christian Socialist attack on private property, which T.S. Eliot, among other conservative delegates, rebuffed. Hard, perhaps, to imagine the same debate stirring such feeling today, although any consideration of social justice surely must. As H.G. Wells once observed, from the earliest times society was a mitigation of ownership – the mutual recognition that co-operation needed to override competitive possession if humanity was to flourish. The matter was finessed at Malvern in fine Anglican style, with the following resolution:

“It is a traditional doctrine of Christendom that property is necessary to fulness of personal life; all citizens should be enabled to hold such property as contributes to moral independence and spiritual freedom without impairing that of others; but where the rights of property conflict with the establishment of social justice or the general social welfare, those right should be overridden, modified, or, if need be, abolished.”

This was synthesis, not fudge, I choose to think – and helpful in reaching a similar conclusion lately, while trying to locate my true north, politically speaking. The conservative in me tends towards continuity, local institutions and the Parable of the Talents, in its acknowledgement of unequal gift and yield; the radical abhors squandered privilege and exploitation of the poor for personal gain. Naboth’s vineyard may be the place, therefore, given that I am firmly in favour of covenantal ownership, in which promise precedes profit and either points to the common good or is weighed in the balance and found wanting.

The conservative fallacy is to recycle the sins and sinecures of our forbears and call it tradition; the equivalent on the Left is to be perpetually uprooting and call it liberty. Amid their own peculiar failings, the Christian has – somehow – both to belong and not belong, to possess all and yet nothing, in search of a home that is forever ahead.

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Far from the halogen gleam

Nature doesn’t dwell on the past. Last Sunday’s snowfall – a joyous overnight arrival, pulling a wintry balaclava over the village – had given ground by evening: each white-mittened branch brittle and brown again. Along the Kennet, its thaw has saturated the water meadows behind our garden. Attempting to walk across this morning I find a new river has appeared, eeling through the field like it had always been there.

The emergence of a stream is a holy thing, welling unbidden from hidden altars. And it strikes me that the axis of the spirit generally tends towards y not x: de profundis is the soul’s cry and, for some this becomes the borehole of eternal life. “In the obscure recesses of our being (the mystic will assert), we near the gates of the divine” wrote E.M. Forster, sounding the creative impulse. “As it came from the depths, so it soars to the heights, out of local questionings.” This intersection – where the psyche breaks the surface – can be a place of crisis and also renewal, having an artesian effect that spills into our environment.

I was first drawn by underground water when living in South-East London twenty years ago. As Vicar of Gipsy Hill (a small parish near Crystal Palace Park, with an unparalleled vista of the capital), I found that the Effra – one of the tributaries of the River Thames and a Celtic word, meaning ‘torrent’ – rose just yards from my church. Though culverted into the sewer system by practical Victorians, it reappeared periodically: neighbours would show where the grass grew greener and their flowers bloomed more vividly in back gardens where it passed beneath. I even met an elderly man who had been fished out of the Effra as an infant: when in spate it swamped the West Norwood streets soon after the First World War. He owed his life to the local butcher who had plunged in after him.

I became quite consumed with pursuing my local lost river, hearing in the course of parish life all manner of stories that dowsed this fascination. Being concealed under a concrete coat only added to the mystique, increased the longing to go deeper. Road names – Brixton Water Lane, Effra Road – offered clues to its invisible path, which I would pace and plot, straining eccentrically with my ear to drainage covers at which you could listen to it surge; dodging security cameras by the MI6 building in Vauxhall where it emerges into the Thames. I formed a band that borrowed its name, wrote songs about the river’s route and performed them at the closest pubs we could find, in a meandering kind of pilgrimage. One of our haunts, the Half Moon in Herne Hill, was closed for four years after floods overwhelmed the vicinity in 2013. 

Stood by the Kennet, it is consoling for me to be linked with South London by a single veining network of water, draining into the Thames. This is worth recalling because the well-beaten boundary between country and city is often presented as a battlefield of urban encroachment. Variegated campaigns in the last century show how easy it is for those defending the countryside to set the built environment in antithesis: an imagined separation that idealises or mummifies the rural and downplays the proximity of nature to urban landscapes. Ignoring this interdependence has also left ruralists prone to illegitimate myths of Englishness that are likewise presented as ‘under threat’. 

Yet if we seek depth, whatever our situation, the sense of personal space expands, even – and perhaps especially – in confinement. Place-making is, in this sense, cruciform, and requires looking down before we look out. It concerns the relation between portrait and landscape: also, if we hear it, the call to leave our earthly Edens for a visionary city, through which (it is written) runs the crystalline river of life.

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That circuit of ground

Little to glean from the last fortnight, it feels. The fields have been unphotographable: drably damp, footpaths lathered with mud. Nature is still in retreat and, with my advance, pheasants snap fatly into flight and a myopic smudge of hare heads, as ever, in the opposite direction. But this morning, at last, a frost – and the scene is renewed, sending me gleefully out. There is a mania to photography, which I find troubling in a low-key way – for you become greedy for views, snatching at the sunrise and swishing at the air like a naturalist with a net. All collectors should regularly let things go: unhooking one perfect catch in seven, so as to control their desire for capturing life’s treasures and instead offer them back in acknowledgement, or praise. 

Today’s route along the Kennet is so assiduously fenced and demarcated, we are left in no doubt as to whom this land belongs. Knee-height signs have been tapped in every hundred yards to keep potential trespassers on the true way, which is all the provocation I need to wander ever so slightly off, one transgressive foot on private soil. Even the unbounded river has been draped with wire and warnings, while the waters flow chuckling beneath. I’m with them. 

Human territoriality, wrote Robert Sack (in his classic study of the theme), is a strategy for shaping behaviour by determining access – in other words, it’s about the control of people rather than the land itself. And while not all delimited places are territorial, they become so when their boundaries are employed to indicate access to rights or resources – a school catchment area, for example, or parochial boundary for the reading of marriage banns. Sack contends that the Christian Church adopted territorial organisation at quite an early stage: by around 300AD it had, he suggests, ceased to operate as a human community simply residing in a place, but one whose authority structures and organisation were explicitly linked to territory – bishops, for example, being increasingly referred to as bishop ‘of’ a particular locale. His thesis is that territoriality is a means of reifying power (which otherwise can be fairly intangible) and of displacing attention from the human relationship to the territory itself – as in ‘the law of the land’.

Territory is, by this token, a social construct that instrumentalises the land in the service of political or religious authority. It makes for a compelling – if incomplete – case and one that is recognisable in the English Church from its inception. The parish system that washed ashore on the Kent coast with St Augustine gave an undeniably territorial basis for church organisation that remains largely intact in the present day. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England describes a parish as “that circuit of ground in which the souls under the care of one parson or vicar do inhabit”. All of the rights (or ‘rectory’) associated with this – the payment of tithes, in particular – reinforced the identification of local churches with the soil itself. 

The positive effects of Anglican territoriality should not be ignored – foremost among them the assumption that all who reside in a particular place (of whatever faith or persuasion) are parishioners, deserving of the church’s care and service. Local welfare simply could not have operated for most of this country’s history without such a foundation. Yet it also established the clergy as effective landlords, whose rights of income from their patch (and that of landowners to appoint clergy as patrons to each living) remain evident still, snagging unsuspecting house buyers on the vestigial barbs of chancel repairs.

Being so closely allied to property and the legal appurtenances that followed, Anglican territoriality urgently needs understanding and redefining, or else faces being dismantled with the paradox that is our declining secular authority and increasingly secular management. We might start by affirming that it is not merely a social or legislative construct, but a theological one, grounded in the gift and promise of land and (given that we are muddy as the dust to which we shall return) our utter dependence on it. The threefold relationship between God, place and people is what makes the church local and so new financial models must focus not only on congregational giving, but a refreshed appreciation of ‘benefice’ – the gift of this particular plot. Parish boundaries, likewise, should not be patrolled defensively but viewed as a frame through which to better see and share that treasure. The art is always in the cropping, but the scene is never ours alone.

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On Liddington Hill

Our love of the land is unrequited. Though responding when we tend, delve or hack, it is indifferent as to who does this and careless if they do not. Eve and Adam may fondly have named the species – each foxglove, fern and butterfly – but those species did not name us back, so while imagining a barley field bowed under the wind to be praising its maker, it is only we who see the suggestion, who decorate the earth with personality.

First light, on Liddington Hill, having learned it was the site of Richard Jefferies’ boyhood epiphany – when, in 1866, gazing out on oceanic downland, that son of Swindon was overwhelmed by the sunlit summit and felt ‘an emotion of the soul beyond all definition’, as if addressed, caressed by creation. Even through winter mist, with the M4 roaring invisibly below, it remains majestic: close to the Ridgeway and crowned by one of the country’s oldest hill forts. Slithering my Volvo onto a verge (and trusting it won’t slump back while I’m gone) I puff up the track like a tank engine before reaching a beech clump that marks the hill for miles along the motorway. This viewpoint has grown into an unofficial shrine for the departed, with wilting stems and votive tokens scattered about – even small plaques tacked onto the trees. Every leaf bristles with loss, and the cost of living. 

Liddington Camp became sacred ground for Richard Jefferies, whose favoured place in the current renaissance of nature writing is, I suspect, partly due to this transparent desire to know the earth by heart. His prose style is measured and modern – never florid or self-important, but almost clerical in recording each scene. Edward Thomas rightly observed that his words ‘call no attention to themselves’, for the land is what Jefferies wanted us to see: to feel as he did its pulsing presence and count its alluring ways.

Following a permissive path past blue-daubed sheep leads to the castle – or at least its cratered imprint. A good – if gusty – spot to reflect upon Jefferies’ life and the leitmotifs that lift him above the ordinary. His varied body of work was a romance with nature in which the author could not help returning to the question of whether he was beheld as well as beholding – his locus, as it were, in the world’s affections. In the children’s tale Wood Magic, whose protagonist evokes Jefferies’ own wandering boyhood, the youth finds himself able to speak with the elements and animals and be addressed by them. Asked to explain its song, a brook responds with a soliloquy on existence, relating how an eternal current runs through nature. “There is no such thing as time”, it tells him. “That which has gone by, whether it happened a second since, or a thousand years since, is just the same; there is no real division betwixt you and the past”. Here is a true slice of Wessex philosophy – the ancient made ever new, dismissing as too light a thing the inconvenient centuries.

Jefferies’s own beliefs evaded the usual religious definitions. While able to write luminously about his childhood parish church at Chiseldon (in which he sits “until the mind is magnetized by the spirit of the past”), at core Jefferies worshipped life itself – the mystery of being – which, ultimately, seemed unable to respond. This lends an acute and peculiar poignancy to his final writings. In a last testament of faith (The Story of My Heart) the ailing author, not yet forty, firmly refuses to afford personality to the material world. “There is nothing human in nature”, he asserts: “the earth, though loved so dearly, would let me perish on the ground and neither bring forth food nor water”. Indeed, he calls the universe “distinctly anti-human”, concluding that “no deity has anything to do with nature”, which is “a force without a mind”. His own mortality in view, Jefferies declines to scan the horizon for signs of God. But what if the kingdom of heaven was within? What if, as that earlier poet of Wiltshire, George Herbert, put it:  

Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Only to man thou hast made known thy ways,
And put the pen alone into his hand,
And made him secretary of thy praise.

Man is the world’s high priest: he doth present
The sacrifice for all; while they below
Unto thee service mutter an assent
Such as springs use that fall, and winds that blow  

I leave Liddington Hill wondering whether Jefferies’ selfless devotion to these fields diverted his gaze away from the very role he fulfilled so eloquently. In clear-eyed insistence that the earth must not be confused or conflated with God, he stands in refreshing contrast to the Gaia-shaped spirituality of contemporary environmentalism, which either ascribes divinity to everything or nothing at all. The Biblical record, so formative of the Western attitude to nature, viewed matter differently. Creation was distinct from God, yet adored by him: its stewardship being entrusted to humanity. Addressing an exiled and desolate nation, Isaiah prophecies that the land will no longer be termed “Forsaken” but renamed “Beulah” – married to the Lord. For a race estranged from Eden, Christ comes as the New Adam, to restore that bond as both lover and beloved. On Easter morning, bleary with grief, Mary mistakes him for a gardener.

Far from his precious home county, barely able to lift a pen through infirmity, ‘Hours of Spring” is probably the last essay Richard Jefferies composed with his own hand, and expresses his despair at nature’s thoughtless continuity beyond his brief span: “A thousand thousand buds and leaves and flowers and blades of grass, things to note day by day, increasing so rapidly that no pen can put them down … All these without me – how can they manage without me?” His fountain of words has meant they do not, entirely.

Nearly nine o’clock, and I must be back. At the edge of Liddington copse is a large concrete pillbox – used as a control room during the Second World War for the ‘Starfish’ decoy operations held on this hilltop. Designed to deflect enemy bombers from the railway junctions at nearby Swindon, these involved sparking a complex array of incendiary devices that produced a spectacular mock inferno. It worked, apparently: allowing at least a partial passover. What life must have been like up here in those nights – behind the blast doors of this artificial hell – is something I’ve dwelt on all week. That, and the secluded shrine skirted on my way down, where yelling need can be flung at the unfeeling sky.

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Their country, by another road

Silver morning, sliding lane. Brittle panes of ice glaze every puddle – larger ones wheezing with my foot’s irresistible step. Cracks snap out like lightning, in little branches. Our land is frost-smitten, and all things formerly unstuck now have a new bond, stiffly cemented as one.

Epiphany has arrived, whose purpose is to admit the unexpected – charlatan guests, alternate routes, tyranny thwarted by the year’s pulsing infant light. I’m up on Chute Causeway, taking my daily allotment of liberty. Past the collapsed long barrow at Tidcombe, plundered for its treasures in the eighteenth century, and away to the county border with Hampshire. This is deep, gamekeeper countryside, but the road is an old and important one, part of the Roman way from Winchester to Cunetio, a major settlement now buried under a bland field near Marlborough. Roman roads are a vital component in Christian history, the means by which apostles (and their epistles) could move safely and swiftly around the ancient world. Ours was principally a metropolitan religion, striding from city to city, such that, when the Empire adopted Christianity (ushering churches, erstwhile poachers, onto their estate) those who maintained the old practices came to be known as ‘pagani’ – rustic villagers, off-roaders.

This stretch of their old straight track has some striking signs of an origin around that time. Burnt ash or powder was found in quantities beneath the upper layers, indicating (it is thought) the residue of fires lit on the flint foundation to make beacons that would smoke-sign the path when laying out the road ahead. Visible beside the blacktop this morning are deep green trenches, which are possible quarry pits dug for its construction when the legions were still stationed here, in Britannia Superior. But Chute Causeway is a bit different: one of the only lengths of Roman road that veers off course – for four miles, in a great sweeping bend. It does so to avoid a deep coombe that, presumably, proved too great an obstacle to navigate.

The view this morning is murkily beautiful, and bitingly cold – the right kind of mood for a tale told about this section of the Causeway, concerning the former Rector of Vernham Dean, a small parish not far ahead. During the reign of Charles II, at the height of the plague, the priest persuaded villagers to isolate themselves, away from their homes in an encampment at the top of the hill: assuring them he would regularly supply provisions and bring them himself. Fearing contagion, though, the story goes that he refused to deliver the gifts, leaving his people to perish. Dying of the disease himself soon after (assumed to be a grim kind of justice, in that odd way we attribute partiality to infection, which was ever even-handed), he is thought to haunt the road yet, determinedly trying to bring the relief he failed to in life: walking toward his terrors.

Whatever happened – and something of the kind probably did – we mutter a prayer for the poor fellow, and hope he hears. Fearful slips are easily made in such uncanny months, calling on every camelled reserve as we swerve uncertainly home.


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