Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The China Study


Advice on diet and health is not hard to come by. The books flood the market places and the fads come and go: they come because we worry about these matters and they go because most of the advice on offer is utter bollocks. We get told to cut out carbs or sugars or fats or we get told to eat more carbs or sugars or fats. There are odd little snippets such as tomatoes preventing cancer or peanuts causing it that do the rounds, so that when everything is weighed up, especially us, it's hard to know what to do. Not that it matters, as the regimes in most of the health books are completely unsustainable in the long term and therefore, at best, will only make temporary changes in our ability to run up stairs or observe our private parts without a mirror. Below this cacophany of voices though, there is a constant quiet refrain of advice that all appears to be from people singing from the same song book: eat lots of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and lay off the animal fat. It's a tune which T Colin Campbell has turned the volume up on. Right round the dial to the part where there is a warning that you should turn on the decibel limiter. This is not a book to pick up if you want easy solutions to your health issues. It's not a book that you should read if you hope that a temporary diversion from your usual eating practices will knock off a couple of pounds in time for the bikini season. It's a book you might read if you are serious about your health. It's also a book you might read if you like horror stories, especially your own.

What is seriously scary about this book is that it is so impressively researched. Colin Campbell is one of America's most respected nutritional scientists and the book is based partly on the most comprehensive scientific study of the relationship of lifestyle and health ever conducted. Over a very long period, Cambell has belted out more scientific literature than you could shake a stick at, unless you were exceptionally proficient at stick shaking, but this is not a book for scientists. It is for the people who might read it and benefit from it: the inhabitants of Western countries who have adopted dietary habits which are slowly but surely killing them.

In the West we spend more on healthcare than ever, but our health statistics get steadily worse. Over centuries we have found ways to free ourselves from the diseases of poverty, and instead afflict ourselves with the diseases of excess: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension and stroke. Campbell carefully and convincingly spells out the links between various dietary factors and these diseases. He explains in simple terms the mechanisms by which these diseases, particularly cancer, arise, and he suggests strategies by which these diseases might be prevented or, in some cases, reversed. It's a hopeful book but also a challenging and shocking one, for it seems that some of the orthodoxies we have lived with all our lives are demonstrably false. In particular, lots of red meat, fresh milk and protein won't make you healthy wealthy and wise. Quite the opposite, in fact.

His recommendation is for a plant based diet, as free as possible from processed simple carbohydrates. That is, he is not giving advice we haven't all heard before. His new angle is the meticulous research and the massive tidal wave of evidence collected over several decades and across many different cultures.

One of the troubles with the crowded market in nutrition literature is that people will look at this book and treat it as yet another fad du jour. It deserves better than that, as it might possibly save a few lives. Campbell's advice is that change in lifestyle needs to be radical, long term and permanent if changes in health are to follow. This is one of the things that distinguishes The China Study from most other nutrition best sellers, and is what makes it likely that most people will try to avoid it.

This is a book that I hope everyone I care about reads. The ones I don't care about? Well.... have you heard about the Atkins diet.....?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

How


A little more than a year ago I planned a study leave. With a completely open and free choice about what I might want to spend the time on, I planned to address one or two of those pesky little questions that have been bothering me for a while: what and who am I and why am I here? There was also the side issue of what on earth the Anglican Church had to do with those questions. I had a plan of action: visit the Holy Land, make a tour of New Zealand Anglican churches and read some fairly heavy duty books by people like Emmanuel Levinas and Jaques Lacan. I suspected that the Medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart might be useful in providing a Christian framework in which to work out the philosophy of Being described by the French philosophers.

Of course, as those of you who have read this blog for a while know, the best laid plans of mice and men etc etc. In the week after I had taken leave of my parish to do all this thinking, my doctor told me I had dry rot and it might be rather a good idea to let him take to me with a can opener and a spoon. They say that the longest journey in the world is the two feet from the head to the heart, but in the moment of that conversation, all of that stuff in the fat French books about Being made that journey instantly. It's taken a bit of time for my head to catch up, mind you but I have now completed the Sabbatical which has let me make a start on that. It's been quite a ride and I can hardly believe it's been only one year. It has been so full and rich, and in retrospect, it has all the appearance of having been meticulously planned. But not by me. I have learned quite a bit about Being all right, but the books are still sitting on my shelf, unopened. I won't bore you by rehearsing all that I have already spoken of on this blog, but there have been a number of key sources of learning.

My friend Richard Sutton was the Dean of Law at Otago University and had one of the biggest clearest, sharpest, minds I have ever had the privilege to encounter. He shared with me the experience of facing serious illness and we met weekly over a soy latte and a friand to compare notes. In those times he carefully explained Levinas and Lacan to me, as well as his own ideas on Transcendence and how it related to the law...and to life, the Universe and everything. He was a meditator from a long way back and an Anglican. I had the benefit of some great theological conversations, a private weekly tutorial from one of the best minds in the country, and the companionship of a dear friend to boot. Richard died while I was away. I miss him.

My two Buddhist brothers and my sister in law both gave me practical help and guidance in developing my meditation practice.

My time in the Gawler Institute in Australia was prompted by a desire to find ways to beat cancer. In that respect, the time in the Yarra Valley Living Centre was a rip roaring success, but the main learning was a serendipitous surprise. The daily meditation sessions gave me the experience of spending substantial times every day in silence; I learned that it was possible.

Travelling in Italy, France and Spain I attended many Roman Catholic services. I could not understand the readings or sermons and could only vaguely follow the liturgy, yet I encountered some warm, supportive communities and witnessed some spectacular pastoring from some of the ordinary rural parish clergy. I had an encounter with the church that was entirely non cerebral.

In England I met the Anglican Church, for better or worse.

In Scotland I met the countryside and the remote shores where the Church first took root.

There were some things which were helpful: the forming of networks and the gathering of resources connected with Christian meditation, but the learning was not so much what as how. I have a lot of books. I generally read three or four at a time and have tastes which are annoyingly and expensively broad. I read because of the insatiable drive to find out why; to answer the little questions that make up the big ones: the ones listed above. Every book offers the promise of moving me along the path but alas most books answer a question, only by asking two more. Truly, the more I learn the less I know. This sabbatical has been about different sort of learning. I have dimly begun to understand that deep learning comes not so much from reading and thinking as from doing. Of course, I am still an Amazon.com junkie but now I can put all those words into a different, perhaps truer place.

Only a year ago, I wanted to read about Being in order to understand it and wrestle it into conceptual shape so that I could conquer it. I wanted to understand the process of meditation and its relationship to consciousness. I wanted to know the ways in which the theory of meditation related to the doctrinal structure of my church. I thought I might be able to come up with models for incorporating all this into Anglican ecclesial structures. In one year I learned something better: that all that stuff is bullshit. There are other avenues for finding truth which are going to be a whole lot more fruitful: Facing death; talking to a wise man about arcane philosophy and the fear of incontinence, all in the same conversation; watching a Spanish priest love his flock; carrying home a stone from an Iona beach; walking a long long way across the Spanish countryside; and above all sitting still and doing nothing, just Being. Far, far more than in what you know, truth will come to you in what you do, but more so, in what you are.

So I try to allow the great questions to answer themselves in me by daily being more conscious - of what I do, and what I Am. I sit still and allow the thick surface stone to be chipped away - to reveal the truth that is there, and always has been.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Why


I have been reading Antony Beevor's Berlin, a book about the fall of the German capital to the Red Army in April 1945. It is a harrowing tale of atrocity by the Red Army, performed at least in part as revenge for the horrors earlier inflicted on occupied Russia by the Germans. A question that continually surfaces for me in reading such a book is Why? Why did decent law abiding fathers and sons and husbands on both sides of the conflict behave so appalingly? Why would a man be a hard working farmer in the Urals and a rapist, thief and murderer once he entered Germany? Why would reasonable, intelligent people become fanatical Nazis? We can say, of course that the people who acted in the way they did chose to act that way, and that therefore, they are responsible for their own actions, but that only begs the question: why did they choose so? More tellingly, I ask myself, if I had been a twenty year old Red Army soldier would I have acted any differently? If I had been thirteen in pre-war Germany would I have joined the Hitler Youth? Or the SS? Would I have been as willing to ignore or profit from or even participate in the extermination of my Jewish neighbours? Who can tell? But I expect the answer is yes. Who am I to think that I would be somehow exempt from the historical pressures which caused millions of people to act the way they did back in the 1940s?

We, all of us, most of the time, labour under the great delusion that we are in control of our own destinies and that we choose the path before us. In reality, our brains, all of them, are a great seething mass of activity; of perceptions , experiences, thoughts, impulses, dreams, ambitions memories and judgements, none of which are really of our own making. They come to us from our genes and history and body chemistry. They form patterns we deem to be cohesive and focus themselves into decisions which we then act out, but really, we have limited or no control over the stuff that happens between our ears. All this great swirl of synaptic activity, this collection of arbirtrarily related mental phenomena produced by our envoronment and by our brain we look at and label "me". We have the illusion that we possess and control MY thoughts and MY dreams and MY ambitions but really, they control us. We don't think our thoughts, our thoughts think us.

There is another illusion: that this self is real, whereas, in fact, the whirling cloud of impressions labelled "me"is a product of our personal and cultural and biological environment and is just as temporary. It shifts and changes as we grow and as we develop through life. It changes from moment to moment. It will not survive the extinguishing of our bodies by much time, if at all, but we treat it as though it is something lasting and valuable and go to extraordinary lengths to preserve it. We identify with it and act out its impulses, which is why, without realising the absudity of our decisions, we can become fanatical Nazis. Or collective farmers. Or vicars of suburban parishes. And in every case, whether we are acting one month as the decent Urals farmer or the next as the rampaging red Army soldier, we will see our activities as logical and consistent and perfectly under our own control. How preposterous. Anthony De Mello says that most of us, though we don't realise it are asleep, and that the task we face is to wake up.

This journey has been part of that waking; the movement through the dark parts of the early morning towards the dawn.

What I can do to get away from the tyranny of my temporary and arbitrary self is to be more conscious. That is, if I can, for even a short while, stop identifying with the jumble of impressions which I am used to calling ME, I can stop being swept around by the nonsense in my head and begin to live in the world from a base that is deep and real and lasting. It's not that I have to produce anything: the deep self is already there, waiting to be released like a burning coal from underneath a pile of ash. Spiritual growth is a bit of a misnomer, because it's not really about building something up, but rather it's about removing something. This is what De Mello meant by waking up. It's what Jesus meant when he talked about losing our life that we might live. It is what Meister Eckhart meant when he talked about finding The Ground.

HOW we do this is at once the simplest and the most difficult thing we will ever have to do, but it is important. In fact, I suspect performing this task is the ONLY reason we exist.

Friday, 17 July 2009

What


This is a post I have been putting off for some time. I want to write about the third dimension of my journey, the part which relates to the Spirit. I have balked at the line many times in the last couple of weeks because I find it so hard to gather the words; or at least the right words. I have no trouble coming up with an impressive and academical description of what I have learned, but that sort of stuff is no use to anybody, least of all me: I remember C. S. Lewis' advice that any fool can speak learned language, and that if you can't express something in the vernacular then you either don't understand it or you don't believe it. So perhaps I am writing this in an attempt to understand. I'll do it in two or three bite sized chunks, and begin by telling you how I started my day today.

I got up at about 7, a bit later than usual, showered, fed the cat and set some oatmeal to soak in apple juice. Then I went to my study, lit a candle and turned on the heater. I then put on a dark floor length woolen cloak. This is a priest's cloak, given to me by an elderly priest on his retirement. It's supposed to be for wearing on outdoors liturgical occasions such as funerals, but I have never used it for that: when wearing it I look a bit like Darth Vader or Batman and it scares the children; but it makes a very good meditation blanket and so it is now in daily use again. I removed my shoes and glasses and sat on my meditation stool. This little wooden stool allows me to kneel for long periods and is, now that my knees and ankles have got over the surprise of it, the most comfortable piece of furniture in the house. I set the meditation timer on my PDA to 45 minutes and took my seat: that is, I assumed the posture which months of experimentation had shown me was the one which I could sustain without movement for a lengthy period. I felt the thick warm cloth around me, and felt enveloped in it and in the sanctity of the old man who gave it to me and in the tradition to which we both have committed our lives. I heard the rumble of traffic outside and the creaking of the house as it emerged from night. I reminded myself why I was there, and of the fact that there were no time demands. I had no pressures, nothing else to do, nowhere to go. I stated my intention to be still, and then I began to be consciously aware of my body and of the breath as it moved into and out of me. I didn't so much think of these things as just be aware of them. Then I began to repeat my mantra: Maranatha, an Aramaic word which means something like Come Lord. Not that the meaning mattered. I repeated the word in time with my breath and tried to hear it inside my head without thinking about what it meant. And so I sat. Thoughts came and went, and occasionally took me with them, but I just let them go on their merry way. If I was distractred, the mantra brought me back to the present moment and to my still body in the warmth of the darkened room. My timer made a small pacing sound at 20 minutes and at 40. I was very aware of the input from all my senses, and particularly of an itch in my ear and a dull pain in my thigh which appeared after 30 minutes or so. With both, I noticed them, and "relaxed into them" and observed them fade away. The timer sounded at the end of my time and I rose to knees and prayed for a minute or two. In that place of awareness and concentration I always hold someone before God; usually just one and it is not necessary to labour over it. This morning it was Clemency as she prepares for her new term. I am very aware of how hard she works and how the whole basis of her teaching is the deep love she develops for each of the children fortunate enough to have been committted to her care; but I didn't say any of that. God knows about it more than me and doesn't need to be told, so my prayer was simply May Clemency be well. Then I stood, extinguished the candle and took off the cloak and moved into my day.

I have travelled in a great circle around the planet and seen some wonderful things over this past few months, but it all leads to here: to this room filled with my books and the photographs of my family; to a cold Dunedin morning and an old man's cloak. In 45 minutes there is nothing. No great revelations or ideas , no overwhelming sense of God, no trances or special emotional states. Here there is a place of silence, of nothingness. It is the quieting of the self in a kind of death: the death that must always precede resurrection. It is a bridgehead of truth into the jangling tumble of my mind. It is, increasingly, the platform on which the rest of my life is built. It is the place from which, increasingly, all my other activities and all my relationships draw their perspective. Sometime around the middle of the day I will sit still again for a more liturgical and traditionally focused time which will include Bible reading and prayer. I will close the day with another period of silence, perhaps half an hour, in which I will use the resources of imagination and emotion. Why do this? Well, I'll have to think about that a bit before I can tell you.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Road Goes Ever On and On


We got into Auckland early on Friday and were back in Dunedin by 9:15. It was cold. Unbelievably cold. Cold as in the there's absolutely nowhere in this house where I can feel warm and nothing I can put on that seems to make a blind bit of difference kind of cold. Our big brick house had stood empty for three months, leaching away the stores of heat it had piled into all those solid internal walls and gradually absorbing moisture. It has taken six days of heat pump and firewood for it to begin to feel cosy again, but we're getting there. On Friday night we both slept 13 hours, and both woke, independently in the wee small hours, thinking "where do we have to get to today, and where is the toilet in this place?" On Saturday we slept 12 hours and Sunday 10. There was a large box of mail, a couple of very full inboxes and a pile of old Listeners in their plastic bags. On Monday morning my computer died. It had been on the way out for a while, but sitting idle for a long time then being restarted was the coup de grace; so I bought a new one and have wasted hours setting it up and reinstalling about a decades worth of programs and files. And finally, this morning, I think I might have arrived home.

It's Wednesday and soon I will go and celebrate the Eucharist for a group of about 30, mostly elderly women. It's a congregation where it's hard to hear over the rattling sound of all the marbles they have not lost. I will share something about the Gospel of the day and begin again to pick up the pastoral reins dropped three months ago: business as usual. Today I'll talk about Jesus preaching from the boat, and the miraculous catch of fish. A surprise for Peter and Andrew and James and John in the middle of the ordinariness of their daily lives. There they are, going about their ordinary business of catching fish and hocking it of to the Gennesereth housewives when along comes this bloke who shows them that there is a path winding right through this very spot: a path they had never before known was there, but which they were even now sitting on, and if they were to get up and follow it they would find themselves in all manner of extraordinary places.

I guess one of the great pleasures and one of the great pitfalls of travel is that itreminds you of the fact that those paths are always there. As Bilbo sings, and Gandalf before him and Frodo after,

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say


It is the knowledge that our home is not a destination but is no more, no less than a resting place on a way to somewhere else. Even though I will be staying put physically for as long as I can see down the road, I know that everything has changed. The light is different somehow. The net is full of fish and I'm darned if I know how they got there.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Last Hoorah


We flew out of London on Sunday morning and after an hour or two in Munich flew across Greenland and Canada to San Francisco. I had booked a rental car but picking it up at about 7:30pm found a most pleasant error had occured. The car company was all out of the little piddling autos that I had booked and instead gave me a bigger one. It was a Chrysler Sebring convertible, a very handsome car, although one that was quite typically American in its handling and performance: great as long as you are going in a straight line and on a level surface. After the usual jitters occasioned by sitting on the wrong side of the car and driving on the wrong side of the road, we had a very pleasant three days swanning about in the Californian sunshine.

On Monday we crossed the Golden Gate into Marin county and visited my Alma Mater. The locals call the seminary complex Camelot, and a first glance would tell you why. San Francisco Theological Seminary is all stone and wood and copper towers, set amongst trees on a hilltop overlooking the classy little town of San Anselmo. It is a place where I met some wonderful people and was taught by some truly inspiring professors. It's here that I first encountered process theology and the Myers Briggs Personality Inventory and where I began a decades long investigation into the nature of narrative. The campus was recognisable, although much had changed in the 25 years since I last saw it. Like me I guess. Like my ideas. It was strange to walk around in a place which had been so formative in my intellectual and spiritual growth and to which I felt now so little connection. I have moved on. I haven't administered a Myers Briggs test or held a story workshop or read any Narrative theology for a couple of years now. There are other, deeper waters to trawl.

On Tuesday we drove to Yosemite. We took the long way, unintentionally. I knew we had to head East on the i-80, and then turn off it at some point, which I hoped I would recognise when I saw it. I didn't. So, we stopped at a little town, bought some coffee and asked a man in the cafe. He was very helpful and gave me very detailed instructions on how to find Yosemite, and then asked if I would like a magazine: the Watchtower, which I could hardly refuse. The instructions he gave us were very clear and I was able to follow them exactly, but as the hours passed I began to think that the scenery was not quite right somehow, so did what I should have done in the first place: stopped and bought a map. I found that the nice Jehovah's Witness' instructions were excellent if you wanted to go to Lake Tahoe but not so crash hot for Yosemite, and we were a good hundred miles north of where we should have been. It wasn't so bad. The day was hot and dry and clear. The countryside was all new to us, and very beautiful. We got to Yosemite, albeit a tad later than intended, and then cruised home into the sunset with the top down and the little thermometer on the dashboard telling us it was still 83 degrees at 9 o'clock in the evening.

On the way home I thought a bit about the kindly Jehovah's Witness. It matters quite a bit that you not only have instructions but that they are the right instructions. Our church is a very democratic one, and places great store in being accepting of a variety of opinions. Pleasant though it was, a couple of hours unintended meandering through the Californian countryside was a reminder that not every firmly held opinion is necessarily true. My guide sent me off in a direction that was vaguely accurate, but approximate is not good enough when you are trying to find somewhere precisely. There was no question that my guide was a thoroughly nice bloke, and that he had a perfect right to his belief in the whereabouts of Yosemite National Park; but his sincerity and his right to believe had no bearing whatsoever on the truth of what he told me. His belief was untrue, and following it took me further from, not closer to my destination. Which is true also of his belief system. Which is true also of many of the opinions bandied around in our open and accepting church. As the Bible warns us, there is a way that seems right to folk, but the end of it is death.

On Wednesday night we flew to Auckland, and then somehow missing out on Thursday landed in chilly, damp Dunedin early on Friday. Not so much an ending as a new beginning.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

As You Like It

copyright The Observer, UK

I saw As You Like It this afternoon at The Globe. There's lots of reviews on the site linked to above. They're all true. What else can I say? It was uproariously funny. It was witty and erudite and sexy. It had the most preposterous plot, but still managed the trick of suspension of disbelief, perhaps in part because the theatre itself and the audience were part of the make believe. It was utterly, utterly brilliant.

The Globe is a modern reproduction of Shakespeare's original 16th Century theatre. People are seated in three tiers and the floor in front of the stage is filled with the groundlings: 700 people (today including Clemency and me) who have paid 5 pounds to stand there. We lean on the stage or on the surrounding woodwork. We shift out of the way when the action spills into the area around us. The actors make their exits and entrances by pushing through us or appearing suddenly in our midst. The largely voluntary staff move around, dishing our sunhats, and making sure we don't get in the way. Around us this very new building towers up and for the first time ever, after three years of studying English at university, and seeing these plays many times, I get it. Isn't it an odd thing? Stratford On Avon tries hard to be a 16th Century town and only succeeds in making itself look like a bad 21st Century filmset. The Globe makes no apologies for being a modern theatre in the style of, and it transports me back to the fifteen hundreds. I know that if I lived in London I wouldn't be missing a single play at this theatre. I might even sometimes pay a premium for a seat, but I don't think any of the flash seat sitters had as much fun as us plebs on the floor. If you're planning on visitng London, this is the best 5 pounds you could ever possibly spend.

PS. It's our last day in England tomorrow. Then we pack and lug our preposterously large suitcases to Hethrow at 6:30 on Sunday morning for a flight to San Francisco. I'll be back in The Greenstone Waters late on Friday, New Zealand time. I won't have a computer, and don't think I will bother with internet cafes so it'll be radio silence in the coming week, I'm afraid, folks.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On


Yesterday we rented a car and drove north to attend a family function for Clemency. I had my brain disengaged when booking a car online. I chose one from a depot at Victoria St. Station because it is easy to get to on the tube, completely overlooking the fact that I had to get the car from Central London to the comparative ease of the M1 during rush hour. It happened with not as much difficulty as I'd anticipated and now there's one more thing I can put on my CV. Getting it back again at 1 a.m. with no map was harder, London at 1 a.m. being about as busy as, say, Wellington at 11 a.m., only darker. There were some things about the trip I won't boast of, such as getting pinged by a speed camera in the Oxfordshire countryside, and getting hopelessly lost in Derby on the way home. Derby! Oh the humiliation! And there was Stratford.

I mean the famous one, not the one in London where they are building an enormous white elephant to host the next Olympics, or Old , or Stony but Upon Avon. The home of the bard is a pretty enough place but it is a bit of a warning about the gilded trap of tourism. The town has some interesting old buildings, but the straight edges on all the large timber and the double glazing tells a story. Almost everything has been restored, reshaped, prettified and ye olde Englishified so that it is not so much an Elizabeth 1 town as an Elizabeth II one. Once it was fitted for blokes with pointy beards and pantaloons to dart about having swordfights and putting on plays. Now it is fitted for people - many, many, many people and their buses, to shuffle about taking photos and buying postcards. I am told that the theatres in Stratford showing Shakespearian plays are always booked out but often finish the play half empty as bored people leave after the first act. 'nuff said.

In Holy Trinity church there is the grave of the man himself. The little parish church has the expected gift shop in what was once the baptistry, and there is a string of people paying a pound and a half to do as I did: go to the altar rail and take a digital photo. For a church it all has a quite secular feel. It seems not so much a place of worship as a national monument, which, indeed it is. In England the puritans had a peculiar way of making a public display of their piety. Railing against ostentation, they ostentatiously took up sledgehammers and whitewash and destroyed all the beauty of their churches: paintings, stained glass, statuary all went west in an orgy of self righteousness. The scars are still there in the churches, but something deeper happened in the English national psyche as the result of this mutiny against God and his gift of visual beauty. Without the patronage of the churches, the visual arts languished for a few centuries. Consequently, while England produced Turner and Burne Jones and Rosetti, it never produced a Rembrandt or a Leonardo or a Michaelangelo or a Picasso. Through all the centuries leading up to this one, in painting and sculpture, it was the French and Dutch and Flemish and Spanish and Italians who made all the play, while England for her part, made all the plays. After the Reformation and the Civil War England's artistic genius became focused in things literary. Milton and Jane Austen and Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats and Dickens and, above everybody else, everywhere else, William Shakespeare. Look in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's and you will see the graves not of holy men but of literate ones. It is words which make England: the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and the collected works of William Shakespeare have shaped the way this nation explains itself to itself, and thus made them, for better or worse, what they are. So we all come and look and collect our digital trophy. Very few say a prayer but most, I think, try out their dimly remembered classroom quotations. A homage to the world's greatest poet and to the language he helped invent and to the people who are, above all, of the word.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Anglican

The parish church of St. Gregory and St. Martin, Wye, Kent.

About 5 years ago our diocese had an electoral synod in which I was a candidate. The events leading up to the synod and the synod itself were particularly grueling for me, and it took me fully two years to recover from them. One of the very unfortunate side effects, for me, of the events surrounding the synod was a sense of alientation from much of my own diocese and a sense of deep disillusionment with the national Anglican church. I remember one of the members of the synod using a metaphor which has stuck with me since that day. She said our diocese was on a roundabout, going round and round looking for the right street to exit into. I had a sense, on that day, and one which has grown every day since, that I got off on one street and the Diocese of Dunedin got off on another. Following the synod, I remained as Vicar General of the diocese, a position I deeply did not want to hold but which I could not quite find a way to relinquish, at least until my illness gave me the excuse I had been looking for. I found myself in a leadership position in a diocese whose decisions often (usually?)baffled me, but also in the odd position of being uniquely unable to comment on or critique those decisions. Further, the Anglican Church at national and international levels was making decisions and doing things which I found more than baffling. My reaction to much of what was said and done was Toto we're not in Kansas anymore. As the months drew on I could find fewer and fewer points at which I could comfortably identify with much of what my church did. I found myself, at times, wondering if I wanted to remain with the church I had given most of my adult life to; but there were two things above all others which kept me loyal: the support of a few friends within the church (particularly my Archdeacon, Graham Langley) and the wonderful community of St. John's Roslyn.

This pilgrimage has been a pilgrimage to the heart of the Anglican Church, and it is one that I completed yesterday when I stood on the spot where, in 1170, Thomas Becket was martyred, and, later, on the spot in St. Martin's churchyard where, in 597 St.Augustine baptised King Aethelbert and thousands of his subjects. These two events were defining moments in the history of Christianity in England, and both were incidents in the long and tortuous relationship of Church and State which have shaped the pragmatism which is Anglicanism's defining characteristic.

The pilgimage began with a journey into Catholicism. Across Spain, Italy and France, week by week I worshipped in Catholic churches and associated with Catholic people. It wasn't an intellectual journey -I couldn't understand a word of the liturgies, readings or sermons - so much as an emotional and spiritual one. I tried to choose ordinary parish churches in which to worship and felt held by the warmth of the congregations. I witnessed many examples of fine pastoring by holy priests. In this way, I experienced something of the seedbed out of which my own church had grown.

Journeying to England has been an experience of the things which set this European country apart from the rest of Europe. A different currency, system of measurement and language and a deeper rigour about immigration matters are only part of it. In the rest of Europe you see the European flag flying as often as the national flag. Not in England. Here it's Union Jacks all the way, proclaiming a sense of difference and independence which is mirrored in the relationship of the Church of England to European Catholicism. This is a different church. Quirkily different. Proudly different. Sometimes different just for the sake of being different.

The Church of England is like that most English of jokes, a curates egg. Parts of it are excellent. The new life bursting out of Holy Trinity Brompton and the deep spirituality of Walsingham could not be more different but they are held in the same organisation and both are inspiring. I have been in dozens of small churches, though, where a tiny congregation struggles with the upkeep of their much beloved ecclesiastical museum (aka the parish church) with diminishing resources of money and personnel. I have seen both the church's impotence in the face of the increasing social and economic malaise which seems to be engulfing Britain, and her small courageous, and often ingenious attempts to make a difference. But it's the history which has helped me to understand the current Anglican church.

The church here is old. I met a vicar who spoke of the damage done to his parish church by "the invasion". He meant the one which took place in 1066 but he spoke of it as if it was last week. In every place the plundering of the dissolution, the ravages of Viking longboats and Luftwaffe bombers and the vandalism of the puritans have left their mark, and the current parishioners are dealing with them still. This is a church which has been part of the fabric of the society around it, and where the demands of being a social institution and of being the body of Christ have caused constant tension. Sometimes the church has become more a part of the social fabric than the spotless Bride of Christ, and it has failed. Sometimes though, it has been a witness to the Gospel in the face of hardship and oppression and sometimes the Spirit has caused rebirth, even centuries after a seeming full stop.

Unsurprisingly, it is where there is a continuing practice of spirituality that the church has flourished. Where there has been prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, meditation, social responsibility and almsgiving the Church of England has thrived. It has also thrived where there has been disciplined, holy, fearless leadership. To see the marks of the Church's history and to hear the stories has been to encounter this deep vein of spirituality and to feel again the influence of her sainted leaders. Where this rich seam is refound, as on Iona and in Mother Julian's cell, the 21st Century church has risen, seemingly invincible, from the ashes. It is this, the great treasure of our church, that I have glimpsed, and which I know to be the only hope of my own diocese and of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

I was raised a Methodist and chose to be an Anglican. After this month in England, I choose still to be an Anglican, but I know that much of what occupies our church and seems so important in our councils is froth and bubble: the detritus rising to the surface from the ongoing struggle with our wider culture. I choose to be an Anglican, but know that the only way for my own faith and my own parish to be viable is if I try to dive deeper and find the cool streams beneath. This seeking the depths must be what forms my ministry in this, the last decade of my life as a stipended Anglican priest. Which brings me to reflect on the third thread of my own journey: that inward one of my own soul.