2014 Guest Columns for Southport Visiter
Recently I had the privilege of teaching in New York – working with bright and inquisitive students from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Outside class I headed for walks with my wife along the Hudson River and Central Park and we visited Greenwich Village where Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez made their mark in the turbulent yet wonderful 1960s. We also slipped into of my favourite bookstores on Broadway. A dangerous practice for someone like me facing temptation on every shelf and wondering how many books I can fit in my suitcase on the way home. I noticed something new in the store this time. On the first floor there was a designated quiet space with a desk, pens, envelopes and lovely writing paper – the kind that cries out for a fountain pen and some concentration. On the desk there was also a post box inviting browsers to sit down and write a significant letter to someone they cared about. Letters are what we used to send before the internet, texts and emails changed everything. Letters to a friend or relation, a lover or old acquaintance expressing thanks, hope, condolences, plans for the future or regrets for the past. The letters we keep meaning to write but never get round to and are sometimes too late. Quite a lot of customers had taken up the offer. The post box contained several crisp and neatly written envelopes. Best of all, the bookstore was paying for the stamps and delivering the mail to the post office next door! I was impressed by a shop where you can stay as long as you like without purchasing, get hot bagels and coffee on a Saturday morning and do a bit of correspondence that requires more than a moment’s thought. Emails and texts are fine for their purpose – and mine tend to be brief – but the world seems a kinder and more compassionate place when we receive the hand written note about something that matters. And a letter that arrives at just the right moment can help us carry on. If I think of the New Testament, I’m always aware that alongside the gospels telling the story of Jesus, there are the extraordinary letters of St Paul, often written to struggling Christian communities facing opposition or persecution. I admire this complex saint for lots of reasons – his courage and intellect, his refusal to relinquish what he held most dear, his compassion when it was required. But in keeping with my concern here, I am hugely impressed by his commitment to correspondence as he faced dangers, distractions of every kind and a daunting round of missionary journeys. Somehow he made time to write letters that enabled his readers to keep the faith, to endure hardships and maintain hope. Sometimes his letters are very personal, revealing his own doubts and fears but they too provide encouragement as we struggle with our own limitations. With the Festive Season close at hand, maybe this could be the very best time for us to take up the pen again. To drop a personal line to a person who needs to hear from us and might be helped by what we have to say and the effort we made to convey our thoughts.
Here’s an unusual brain teaser for you: describe the two most beautiful words in the world. I heard this unusual challenge on the radio a few nights ago just before I was anticipating the reassuring sounds of Big Ben on the midnight news. Instead of drifting off into sleep I started thinking about possible answers. 'Cheque enclosed' would be a favourite choice for many, especially when the wolf is at the door or Wonga is luring us with loans we can’t afford to repay. With or without a lot of noughts written on it, a cheque at just the right time can make all the difference. ‘Autumn afternoon’ might be the preference of others as the year turns with its wistful memories and intimations of change as flocks of geese fly squadron-like above us. Summer has gone with its light and warmth but there is still the morning dew, the crisp air and the Harvest moon to console us. ‘All clear’ must surely be a strong contender, particularly if we are waiting in the consulting room or surgery for the news that will shape our future or modify our dreams. To learn that we have a second chance or more time or that there was nothing to have worried about after all, leads naturally to relief and, for some, a desire to look up and give thanks.
My own choice would probably be ‘I am’. Even in this baffling and cruel chapter in history where one more bulletin about atrocities in the Middle East or the abuse of children and the downfall of people we trusted makes us want to close our eyes and ears, ‘ I am ‘ reminds us that we are still here. To be here, to be alive and therefore able to savour ordinary things is, by far, life’s most beautiful gift. It takes a hospital or a big operation to remind us that everything is more fragile than we think, that even youth is not immortal, that sometimes our plans have to be written in pencil. A busy ward reminds us not only of the dedication of the nursing profession but also our good fortune that through their care and the skill of others we may hope to breathe, to see, to walk unaided again and anticipate the pleasure of home. The words ‘I am’ are beautiful because they invite us to focus on the hours ahead of us and their opportunities. Walking the dog, preparing a meal, being enthralled by the splendour of the moon on a still night – none of these things comes by right or command. It is the possession of our bodies and faculties that makes them possible. They are possible because we exist: despite past disappointments and real or imagined fears for the future, we are in this moment and open to its possibilities. A good daily discipline as our feet touch the bedroom floor each morning might be to pause and say ‘I am’. At the very least it will remind us of the considerable fortune we possess through simply being alive. It might also lead us to say ‘thank you’ to the Maker of all things for bestowing such a lavish gift upon us.
Not that I was thinking of applying but I did notice the large recruitment sign advertising supermarket vacancies at over £7 per hour. Across the road, in the fast food outlet, the pay was lower. It struck me that in either case this would be money well-earned, especially in the sweltering heat of a glorious July. Stacking shelves or serving the public with a burger and a smile represents honourable work for a very modest return. Back home and still pondering these things, I read about Christopher Bailey, the new Chief Executive of the clothing company Burberry. In order to recruit him, Burberry’s board initially offered him almost £30 million including shares worth millions of pounds. The justification for this preposterous pay package was put down to ‘competition’ – if Burberry didn’t pay it another company would. Factually, this is nonsense. Crazy executive pay levels have nothing to do with supply and demand, rather they reflect what other companies are offering and the decision of company boards that something comparable must be offered if they are to recruit the right candidate. It’s a sort of cash contagion – one of the important conclusions drawn by Ferdinand Mount in his recent study of inequality The New Few. As for the morality of a market where excessive rewards show no sign of halting, a number of responses are possible. To begin with, Burberry shareholders deserve three cheers. They have rejected the proposed pay package for Bailey. They might still be ignored but their ethical instinct is sound. No chief executive, however brilliant, is worth hundreds of times more than their lowest-paid employees. In the past, a feasible case has been made within the world of finance that a company’s top people should not earn more than 20 times what those on the lowest rate do. This still seems a possible and desirable ceiling and infinitely preferable to what we currently have – a cosseted bunch of individuals, probably good at their job but massively overpaid when a third of UK households have net assets of less than £5000. The Church of England is doing its bit to address this issue of inequality. Under the leadership of the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, a Commission investigating low pay has now recommended that wherever possible companies should be paying a living wage that recognises the contribution of those at the bottom and, more importantly, enables them to live. The C of E can hardly do less than this. Its cathedral choirs sing the words of The Magnificat each evening, ‘He has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek’, and its most revered prophets from Isaiah to Jesus have insisted on social justice as a necessary feature of a fair and compassionate society. From a different quarter, the French economist Thomas Piketty has also surprised the publishing world with the astonishing success of his new book Capital in which he demonstrates the drift towards income inequality in recent decades. Not everyone is convinced by his statistics but he has started a moral debate that concerns us all. Few of us are going to plough through the 700 pages of his book and maybe fewer still will bother to check the Bible passages that rail against injustice. But there is something seriously wrong when inequality of income is at an all-time high as huge numbers of ordinary citizens still struggle to pay the rent. Thomas Piketty and the Burberry shareholders have given us a wake-up call. The next step is up to us.
I can’t have been much more than a wide-eyed kid of ten or so when I first went to Glastonbury as part of a choir trip from my local church. This was of course a long, long time before the music festival that has now become justly famous for attracting huge crowds and superstars to its stages. I don’t remember very much about the visit, only that it was supposed to be a very spiritual place where pilgrims came to be better people. There was an incident at breakfast I recall when the waiter took away my plate before I had finished and there was still a piece of bacon left on it. I didn’t feel a better person as a result of his unwelcome intervention, just ever so slightly miffed. It doesn’t matter now that I’m a vegetarian but there’s still a small boy inside me wondering why he didn’t politely hold on to his plate. Lesson to reader: never be intimidated by a waiter unless he is built like Goliath, has unpleasant features and knows your address or hotel room number.
I’ve never been to the festival but I enjoyed watching the excerpts last weekend after the pain and misery of our premature departure from Brazil. The waiter must have taken away the team’s bacon and they never said a word – that’s why England lost. They lacked resolve when it mattered just like me but, in my defence, I was barely eleven. Despite the £200 weekend admission and unpredictable weather, Glastonbury 2014 made everyone happy. A glorious and spectacular sunset followed the Friday rain and the headline acts seemed glad to be there sharing in something special. Quite what that something amounts to intrigues me. The music matters of course, especially when everybody joins in singing. There’s nothing like a good hymn – sacred or secular – to lift a drooping spirit. There’s the ‘cool’ factor too, being able to say you were there with thousands of others when the daylight began to fade and an unmistakeable sense of ‘something in the air’ permeated everything. Admittedly, not everyone sees it that way or even likes the festival and its more unsavoury habits. On a hill close by the north-east corner of the site you can still see an imposing floodlit cross that was erected thirty years ago by Ann Goode, a God-fearing believer who didn’t like what was going on outside her house. Her daughter carries on the good work but now she rents out the space for boutique festival camping. Cool or what?
My own hunch concerning what brings the music pilgrims back each year is the search for a rare commodity that has strong religious overtones. The posh term for this is transcendence, the sublime experience that takes us out of ourselves and unites us with others who are singing as though their lives depended on it. Glastonbury is about soul food, the elusive nourishment we all need if we are to flourish. For a weekend, a music festival put hatred, violence and cruelty on hold. It reminded an expectant crowd that there is a better way for human beings and kept them believing. Music holds a key to a secret place that speaks of awe and mystery and the tantalising possibilities of love and peace. And like the best religion it teaches us that we belong to one another as children of God. Glastonbury confirmed this. A smile and a swagger from Dolly Parton and all differences seemed to melt away.
Since my last column there’s been a lively debate about whether Britain is still a Christian country. The Prime Minister kicked things off with some comments in the press which led in turn to a response from prominent atheists disputing his claims. Who’s right? The surface evidence supports Mr. Cameron: there is an established Church with Bishops in the House of Lords. The Queen remains defender of the faith. Fifty-nine per cent of us define ourselves as ‘Christian’ when canvassed, and churches and chapels can be seen everywhere. Dig a little deeper however and a more complex picture emerges. Many large church buildings have few worshippers in them; tourists rather than the faithful parade through our cathedrals; close on twelve million people work on a Sunday; the young have difficulty reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the old (and not so old) increasingly depart this life to the sound of Robbie Williams or Frank Sinatra in preference to Abide with me or The Lord’s my Shepherd. There has always been indifference or ignorance concerning basic Christian teaching. In one of Mark Twain’s delightful stories, Tom Sawyer tells his Sunday School teacher that David and Goliath were the first disciples of Jesus. Not even close Tom! We can live with ignorance to a degree but contempt is a different matter. Put simply, there are now critics who despise religion in general and Christianity in particular. There are good and bad reasons for this hostility and the churches must accept some of the blame that the Christian faith is so off-putting. But not all the fault lies in their court.
My own view is that we are a post-Christian country and have been for some considerable time. The Bible has become a closed book and fewer people than ever are regular churchgoers. Even fewer appear to grasp that Christianity far from being just another form of emotional uplift or ‘feel good’ therapy is at heart a deeply committed way of life involving sacrifice, struggle and costly service. These are not fashionable virtues in an age that worships celebrity and self: but then Jesus didn’t die a cruel death just to teach us to be kind to our pets or do the occasional good deed. If I’m even half-right on this issue should I be worried? Yes, but funnily enough not for the faith itself. Christianity began its life in a pagan culture and in the early centuries suffered repeated persecutions. It survived and flourished. As long as people keep asking basic questions about the meaning of life or discover a need to be more serious about their own, Christianity will persist and will continue to offer answers to anyone seeking something better than consumerism or shed loads of cash.
My concern is for the country and its fragmented communities. Currently, many of these are served and, in some cases held together by the faith and practical witness of clergy and local congregations. The Church of England alone has coughed up almost £80 million in the past fifteen years to serve some of our most deprived areas. Thousands of lives have been materially and spiritually improved by the quiet and unsung practice of love in action. Should all or much of this cease in a generation from now because the worshippers are no longer there on the ground in significant numbers, who will fill the gap they leave behind or provide the round the clock help that is currently available to everyone?
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8.30am Holy Communion
10.15am Parish Communion (First Sundays in month are usually a Family Communion with children taking part)
10.15am Sunday Club
(For 3 year olds upwards - on all except first Sundays and school holidays)
6.30pm Evening Worship
(e.g for Saints Days): as announced
Practising members of other Christian denominations are invited to receive Holy Communion.
If you are not confirmed but would like to receive a blessing please come forward with other communicants and place your hands below the altar rail.
We hope you will join us for refreshments in the Parish Centre after the Service