Noe more to dye at all

‘Here is my hope till trump shall sound and Christ for mee doth call’. In careful capitals, naively tooled, the doorway memorial at St Mary’s, Shrewton, is sure as a stonemason’s mallet. For Robert Wansborough, who departed this life in 1675, here is our hope, for the time being, until everything changes.


According to St Paul, that hope consists of earthly, bodily change – a raising, or rousing, so that rest is not our destiny, more a temporary, peaceful pause while the world catches up. No timeless stasis, this, but continual transformation: ‘from glory to glory’, as the apostle wrote to the Corinthians. Perhaps it was a deliberate philosophical clue for the Greeks: an echo of Heraclitus, to whom Plato attributed the idea that we cannot step into the same river twice. Eternal God, thought Paul, was oddly at home in a world of flux where no one remained for long.

Here and hereafter, then, hope is never quite settled, even when knocked into limestone. Supposedly timeless landscapes alter constantly – as on the grey-green reaches of Salisbury Plain, where today I am visiting the Anglican deanery of Stonehenge. For all their antiquity, parish churches are not so much icons of the immutable as signposts of the place to come. Currently, this means anticipating the new ‘super-garrison’ at Larkhill camp and the arrival of several thousand military service personnel, relocating from Germany. Building sites rattle with preparation, scores of school places are being negotiated and Anglo-German couples wonder what it will mean to belong in the England they find after March 29th.

The first tents were pitched at Larkhill in 1899, for units training at the firing range (permanent huts replacing canvas after the First World War). Fixing their sights on the Plain has brought both settlement and dislocation, for army camps are rarely a lasting city. Recently, this has been accentuated by the requirement for many military families to reside elsewhere in the country, while their serving partners are based in Larkhill during the week: a move that stretches both personal relationships and Friday traffic backed down the Packway.

None of us visits the same place twice. Alongside the High Street in Shrewton runs a broad winterbourne, arms linked by a ladder of short bridges. Dry for now, it will soon (the parish priest assures me) be flowing and full of ducklings. Here was the hope of the late Robert Wansborough: in the mobility of things and the coming of the Lord to Salisbury Plain. The church, meanwhile, must baptise the future.

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Returning to Bethel

Sermon preached at Salisbury Cathedral 26th January 2019

‘So Jacob called the place where God had spoken with him Bethel’. Gen. 35v15

‘Best foot forward’, my mother used to say (and maybe yours did, too) when there was still some way to go. No one can step ahead, however, without another good foot behind – to bear your weight and launch you forward. Faith in the future – in what comes next – is powered by the past.

So we find that in every new journey there are constant personal returns: to what is familiar, what is settled. In new situations, we seek to recognise these signs and draw on prior experience, writing fresh material into the old, still rolling, story of our lives. I am told that cats (being introverts), familiarise themselves with spaces rather than people – and make sense of an unfamiliar environment by rubbing themselves around the physical limits of their new home – a kind of feline beating of the bounds. But for most people, this physical feeling our way is wound into the social – of coming to know, only and even as we are fully known.

To Jacob, returning to Bethel was deeply significant. This old bounder had, as you know, a somewhat snaking journey through life – he faked, fled and fought his way – and the one time he truly came to himself was, coincidentally, the time when he encountered the living God. Not like St Paul, arrested by grace in broad daylight, but asleep, in the dream of a promise. This promise was of God’s blessing, God’s purpose and presence – not in some nebulous, notional way, but grounded, literally, in the land where he happened to lie.  A promise that however inconstant and feckless Jacob had been and might yet be, God would prove to be the opposite.  A promise like an anchor for his slippery soul.

Not without reason, then, he named that place Bethel, for it was to him the house of God, the gate of heaven.  Therefore when crisis once again overran Jacob, and he saw his own folly spill over into the next generation; saw the sickness and violence of his sons threaten to return on him like a judgement, at once he is called to return – back to Bethel, back to the place of promise, back to where God was. 

And, like so many of the flawed heroes of the Bible, Jacob is exceptional in hearing the word of God and doing it. So, with his household, he goes back: sacrifices their pointless idols and heads for Bethel, to set up an altar there – somewhere to offer God the fragments of his brittle life. And what relief to find that the promise still holds good: more than that, is affirmed and amplified. Jacob – Israel – has remembered his future.

New and dear friends, do we not need this too – as people and communities, in our sundered, unholy nation? Are we not recalled this night? Not for retreat into nostalgia, but for renewing hope. At Holy Cross Church in Ramsbury, just before Christmas, there was staged a new theatre production entitled ‘The Raven’s Call’ (Ramsbury meaning ‘place of the ravens’), telling the story of a young man, stricken by grief, who finds hope and direction by recalling the history of his village and his own place within it. What a gift we inherit in Salisbury Diocese: that the ancient heart of our communities is so often a Christian church: each one a little Bethel, an altar for our brittle lives, bearing the local promise that God is in this place – and that, however wayward we might be, he will prove to be the opposite.

For, by virtue of the new covenant in Christ – the new promise – nowhere and no one is excluded: it was astounding (we heard earlier) to those who first realised this. We are all known and chosen people – it’s all promised land! The risen Christ might meet you in Marlborough or Melbury Abbas; he might meet you in Compton Basset or Winterbourne Gunner. He might meet you, washed up on the Dorset shore; he might even meet you along the A303 (you’ll have time enough…). 

So, best foot forward: as ‘with the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling’, T.S. Eliot wrote, ‘we shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploration will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ To the glory of God. Amen. 

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South by Southwest

At Christ Church, Gipsy Hill – sentinel over the finest view in South London – there is a corridor leading from the vestry, down which the clergy walk before every service. And along this is an avenue of imposing photographs, featuring the saintly former vicars of that church.

These can be diverting, if you are a member of the congregation, partly because the portraits – up until about 1960 – are uniformly stern. In the sixties, it seems, clergy began to warm up for the camera: prior to that, each looked as if they had just about had enough. When you happened to be their successor, the compound effect of this could be disconcerting. If the sermon had gone well, I would walk past with a spring in my step, noting an indulgent brightening of their expression. If not, I’d hang my head as I ran the gallery’s gauntlet, muttering ‘I know, I know…’, half-expecting to find them facing the other way.

Being appointed as a bishop only doubles the daunting effects of apostolic succession. Glancing at the roster of former Bishops of Ramsbury, I notice they include at least two official saints: St Sigeric the Serious and St Oda the Severe, the latter being commemorated in stone over the West Door of Salisbury Cathedral. Possibly for light relief, the Church took a well-advised thousand-year break from appointing any others after the Ramsbury see was transferred to Old Sarum in 1075.

The Diocese of Salisbury has a rich spiritual landscape, with deep roots in the national story. Reconnoitring recently, I also find its roads have rather more tank crossings than we’ve been used to in Surrey. My best counsel thus far has been that I stop for them, not the other way around.

On these excursions, I have wandered under Oda’s statue several times, looking for some lack, or crack in his carapace: wondering how severity could characterise someone saved solely by grace. The impression that we are not nearly as good, or holy, as others is no bad thing, of course, and its current return reminds me I have felt this way at every stage of committing myself as a believer: at sixteen, teetering on the brink of faith, or at twenty-nine, donning for the first time the ring of white plastic. And I remember also that holiness is not something achieved by us, but – we trust – by God’s patient advocacy.


The experience and encouragement of others bears witness to this, carrying us beyond our own momentum. My late father was ordained (by the fabled Mervyn Stockwood) at Southwark Cathedral in 1961, before serving his title at St George the Martyr on Borough High Street. Sorting through Dad’s papers earlier this year, I found a letter to him from Michael Mayne, then Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, written on the brink of moving to what would become his most challenging post. Michael offers his prayers, ‘in the turmoil of beginning to say goodbye and the trepidation of wondering if you can cope, and if it’s all been a great mistake; knowing at your centre that you can and it isn’t.’

That is an assurance to hold close, and take to Salisbury, along with the correspondent blessings of eighteen years in Southwark – and the avid hope of seeing St Oda smile.

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Without a city wall

A frayed hole in the shoulder of a boy’s coat: his photograph, moments before the puncturing bullet. Plum-coloured stains on that day’s clothes, pegged up, unwashed. Remembrance is forensic here.

IMG_1552The Museum of Free Derry, site of the Bloody Sunday shootings in January 1972, is a perpetual crime scene: an open wound of wailing tarmac. Every rag and relic, each faded veronica, devotedly kept on display. And what pains the aggrieved have taken, that we might stay to see what they see. Images on a window overlooking the car park mark the precise place where this man’s brother fell, or where desperate friends carried another’s slumping frame. An insistent haunting, glimpsed through this grim palimpsest.

Traumatic memory is prone to being replayed, scarring places and people like a scratch in a record. Events as explosive, as jarring as this are a barricade to the normal processions of time and space, and none of us is equipped to move beyond them. A cycle of violence is just that: a hurt we return to. Revolutions are never progress, but mere re-enactment.

Perhaps this begins to explain why, in Londonderry – the only complete walled city in Ireland – the past remains so encompassing, and so well preserved. Bloodshed seizes our attention, naturally enough, but more compelling yet are Derry’s deep continuities and astounding powers of recall. The siege of the city in 1689, by the catholic king James II – recently deposed from the English throne and looking to Ireland to regather his powers – moulded and cast the cultural imagination here. To keep this intact, the Apprentice Boys Association, named after thirteen youths who slammed the Derry doors against Jacobite forces (and whose relentless marching pounds their rebuttal into the landscape) has its own, intensely curated, museum. Within these walls, there is no surrender to time, and history without relief.

Such a concentrated defence of territory and tradition, spiked as it is with the bayonet of religious difference, feels uneasily biblical. On hallowed ground, local actions – British Army emplacements along the walls during the Troubles, for example – are inescapably prophetic and provocative: all things become soaked in their associations. Including (it sinks in pretty swiftly) ourselves: Anglican visitors, implicated up to our collars in our nation’s anaesthetic detachment from the fallout of her history. For, pace John Lydon, there is no past in England’s dreaming: its sparks no longer ignite us. We can incinerate Guy Fawkes without a singe to our skin.

But upon these clouded hills, Derry (the ‘London’ prefix being an English branding) feels like our Jerusalem. And so it comes as no surprise that Cecil Frances Alexander, who married the Anglican Bishop of Derry, wrote her enduring Good Friday hymn, There is a Green Hill Far Away, gazing on the prospect from these battlements, where our clutch of clergy musters for its tour. How do we deal with crucifying memories, beyond amnesia or fretful repetition? This is a question our guides – two priests, one catholic and one protestant – are committed to answering together, to finding within their sufferings the secrets of agreement. Peace is, in their view, a new anamnesis.

On Bogside, a stone’s throw below, the former scrawl of the Free Derry Corner has become more pristine, more carefully typographical, with each successive repainting. Insurgency turned into heritage, a national mistrust. The bus was quiet returning to Belfast: our pilgrim’s tread now soft, like trespass.




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How the land lies

Jutting like an orthodontic problem, the rocks of Hutton’s Unconformity are reached along a shingle path from Lochranza, at the crown of Arran. The crooked strata here mark one of several Scottish sites where geologist James Hutton discerned the deep, plutonic processes involved in land formation. Along the bracing coast these are easy to overlook, though Hutton did not. His visit here, in 1787, was an enlightened moment in an era curiously ready to see the world anew – and, by so doing, as ever more ancient than had been supposed.IMG_0808

Discovering the Unconformity was one of many attractions back to this luminous place, where (with a keen eye on ferry times after last year’s crisis) we stayed again at Brae Cliff, the decomposing farmstead inherited by my sister-in-law. Too preoccupied with England after writing ‘Parish’, some cross-border perspective was long overdue. So, abandoning Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, I pulled down instead The Highland Clearances, John Prebble’s vivid (if not uncontested) account of the enforced desertion of highland communities already underway when Hutton was hammering the schist on Arran.

The most striking impression made by this book is of contrasting types of ‘landedness’: that of the clan chiefs and (often English) aristocracy – whose property the land was, yet who appear uprooted from it – and their people, in ‘mystic unity’ with a shared soil of which they owned not an inch. For Prebble, a communist, this was deeply significant. Like most historians, he found in the past what he was looking for – which is not to say that it wasn’t really there, merely to affirm that we perceive those aspects of the truth which our traditions attune us to. The land itself equivocates, and sometimes bears false witness.


The Twelve Apostles, from an original painting by Nikki Surridge

Nevertheless, even this far south there is evidence of a seismic social shift, discounted for generations until Prebble and others had the eyes to see it. Just down from Lochranza, there is a ridge of whitewashed cottages known as The Twelve Apostles, built to rehouse resistant islanders who, replaced on the hillsides by deer, now had to fish for their lives. Predictably, the parish church was complicit in this upheaval. The patronage system, whereby landowners would appoint malleable ministers, inevitably meant the muting of a more radical voice, one that would eventually be liberated as the Free Church of Scotland split with the established denomination in 1843. In the Clearances, it seems as if the main role of the parish minister was to lend moral support, seasoned with eternal threat, to the uprooting process.

Here on Arran, unconformity again broke the surface in 1815, with the appointment by the Duke of Hamilton of Reverend Crawford, ‘a man well stricken in years’, according to island historian Thorbjorn Campbell. His flock deserted the kirk faster than they had the hills, setting up an unofficial alternative in ‘The Preaching Cave’, just along from Blackwaterfoot, our home for Half Term. Learning of this on the last day, I scrambled down the shore to find it, an ecclesiastical Hutton (as I imagined), drawn by the out-of-place.

Such a holy moment when I did: a green, prismic hollow, in whose receding apex leant a driftwood cross, lashed with netting. I preached, naturally, though with none to hear my brief gospel but a few seals and the slick, slate sea.


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Sanctimonious drivel

First published in Strangely Warmed (Bloomsbury 2010)

By far the most enjoyable thing to issue from a more strident secularism in public life has been the enthusiastic airing of some of the most delicious and condescending put-downs the mother tongue has to offer.

Listening recently to BBC Radio 4 phone-in, which had featured some calmly non-flammable comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury, in whizzed a call bemoaning Dr Williams’ ‘moralistic hand-wringing’. Chances to employ ‘hand-wringing’ with any real vigour ideally require a senior churchman on the receiving end in order to convey the right sense of clammy-palmed paranoia about moral issues. Slip in ‘the good bishop’ before your criticism and the game is as good as over.

There is no point denying it: the church invites the best insults. These, like all the finest abuse, usually come double-barrelled and are extremely satisfying to say: ‘sanctimonious drivel’ pretty much takes the prize here, rolling round the tongue like wine before being disdainfully spat out. Its close cousin, the neatly dismissive ‘pious claptrap’ is fairly irresistible, too. If you find yourself held in church against your will, there are few more cathartic things to do than mutter ‘sanctimonious drivel’ darkly under your breath during the sermon. Only make sure your microphone’s turned down.

Happily, you see, God-botherers can also use such fiery darts to lob at our over-inflated brethren. Indeed, whilst Christians have their own armoury against the world (‘filthy heathen’ still sounds rather good, for instance), they have tended to reserve their sniffiest epithets for fellow-believers of a different ecclesial hue. My late aunt, a nun, used to relish telling how my great-great grandfather, an anglo-catholic parish priest, had once been requested to take a funeral for the local Baptist minister, who was on holiday. ‘Would you bury a Baptist?’ they enquired, politely. ‘I’d gladly bury the lot of them’, came the disparaging reply. Touché, old ancestor.

Insults generally aim to make an opponent’s position appear fatuous or eccentric, while simultaneously painting one’s own stance as the acme of objective good sense. Very often, then, they have far more to do with us than those we are criticising, shoving another into the wings in order to stand in the spotlight ourselves. The best ones, however, are not quite so calculated and spring from moral outrage on another’s behalf.

Jesus’ own terms of abuse are interesting here. He did have some belters, usually aimed in-house at the Pharisees, that ‘brood of vipers’, whom he readily labelled ‘whitewashed tombs’ and ‘blind guides’. This invective erupts most dramatically in the gospel passage known as ‘the six woes’. Jesus, we learn, has been invited back to a Pharisee’s house for a meal. Before they’ve even served the soup, the latter observes that the Lord hasn’t washed his hands properly before the meal. This clearly touches a raw nerve, and Jesus proceeds to rain down a hailstorm of sarcastic abuse on these ‘unmarked graves’ who sit round the table.

After three woes – denouncing the Pharisees’ vanity and neglect for the poor – his flabbergasted host says, limply, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us’. Get away. Jesus – who is just warming to his theme – ignores him entirely and piles on another three woes for good measure. ‘Woe to you, ‘experts in the law’’, he sneers, ‘because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them’. And then – scripture doesn’t record the ‘Pah!’ – he walks out. Salad, anyone?

Given his evident loathing for all the Pharisees stood for, Jesus’ choice ultimately to yield to them is all the more arresting. When the Temple guard came for him in the garden, the logical climax of their feud was Peter’s ear-slicing sword, not the lamb-like submission. The way Christ silently soaks up insults is focal to the ensuing story of his Passion – the gormless mockery of the soldiers, the braying crowd, and, finally, the not-very-good joke hammered over his comedy crown. With the public cheering him on, and everything to fight for, the Nazareth firebrand suddenly allows himself to be stamped out, deliberately losing the argument.

Now, as Quakers and queers have found, there is something genuinely disarming about taking a decent insult and wearing it proudly. But the cross of Christ is something far rarer, and related to how St Paul explains the wrath of God – that is, not in terms of smiting the offender but (far more chilling, this) ‘giving them over’ to what they want. Letting people see the logical end of their action, without divine prevention. As such, Christ’s triumph on the cross is a martial art, letting the enemy overreach and exhaust himself, allowing the full force of the offensive to become the means of its own downfall.

Insults, well-crafted or otherwise, have limited range. Whilst they keep the derided viewpoint at arm’s length, crucially they don’t make it disappear. And although full-throated ridicule of all that is wicked and vain is vital to any good fight, it never really wins, partly because it’s what you are for that enables victory, not simply what you oppose.

The problem for Christianity’s cultured despisers in our own time is that much of what the atheists are for – scientific method, for example – most Christians are not against, and much of what they are against – religious violence, say – most Christians are not for. Christianity – let alone religion as a whole – is such a huge target, sprawling across centuries and cultures, that you can’t help but hit it. Infuriatingly for those who have it in their sights, it is also so big that you can’t help but miss it, like an elder brother who just yells ‘didn’t hit me’ every time you finger-shoot him at point-blank range.

Dry your hands, then, peddlers of pious claptrap, for you know you can take it.






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All the vain things

fullsizeoutput_1aa9I’ve owned this nice 1968 edition of Pascal’s Pensees for over twenty years: unread, though looking great on various bookshelves. Like other items in my fantasy vanitas (cars, guitars, record sleeves) the style and idea of the thing – where it leads my imagination – is always as attractive as actual knowledge, I have to admit.

But lately I’ve been reading a little of it each day – first thing, between sips of hot tea – and beginning to see why Malcolm Muggeridge often cited Blaise Pascal as one of a handful of luminous thinkers who convinced him that Christianity, shorn of ecclesiastical pretensions, was both reasonable and beautiful. Like a desk drawer of small but potentially useful items, many of which don’t have an obvious purpose or reason for being there, Pensees is really a commonplace book of thoughtful bits and bobs – representing the mathematician’s notes towards a rational defence of Christian belief, which were recovered after his death in 1662.

Accordingly, quite a lot of it seems random and inscrutable, with odd phrases like Pensee number 107 – ‘The parrot wipes its beak although it is clean’ – being included as if requiring no further elaboration. However, just when you think you’re reading a four hundred year old philosophical shopping list, treasures like this turn up:

“Vanity is so firmly anchored in man’s heart that a soldier, a rough, a cook or a porter will boast and expect admirers, and even philosophers want them; those who write against them want the prestige of having written well, those who read them want the prestige of having read them, and perhaps I who write this want the same thing, perhaps my readers…”

For Pascal, the internal conflict faced by men and women arises from the duality of human nature: that sense of our own greatness, always threatening to over-inflate our ballooning pride, vying with alertness to our abject failures, which leads so easily to despair. The resulting crisis confounds even those who appear to have everything: a king, writes Pascal, ‘left to ponder and reflect on what he is’, will soon grow morbid without the ‘limp felicity’ of constant distraction.

FullSizeRenderSo much of what we present to the world is just a dust jacket concealing an entirely different story within. The inner discourse, veering as it does between the vain and venal, needs (and secretly longs for) a third voice, telling us we are not God, yet calling us to God. The older I become, the more I realise this is pretty much the heart of my spiritual desire: a longing to surrender my overweening ego to a higher cause, a higher personality than my own. Early morning attempts at prayer, before glancing at the fairground mirrors of social media, consist largely of this – and a huge release it is, too.

Hard on the heels of another Good Friday, with Watts’ unsurpassed line from When I survey the wondrous cross – ‘all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood’ – still ringing in my ears, I long to do the same and increasingly wish (pace Ray Davies) I could be like Isaac Watts. To be put in my proper place: with God in his. ‘I have often said’, writes Pascal, ‘that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room’. He’s right, I think – and if I can do that without gazing the while at my groaning shelves, so much the better.

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