Monday, 23 May 2016

Hedonic Editing Down Under

A correspondent alerts me to the more recent history of the great Anglican Diocese of Sydney, in response to my mention of SD’s encounter with a (perhaps deliberately) obtuse bishop from that part of the ecclesiastical world. Sydney Anglicanism has always, from its foundation, had its own particular character, one shaped by conservative evangelicalism. It is the only Anglican diocese in the world in which chasubles are banned, and some Australian parishioners I knew in Lamford used to attend the university chapel in Sydney in order to get a glimpse of one, as it was outside the jurisdiction of the diocese. The diocese has raised – though not followed through – the possibility of allowing laypeople to preside at the Eucharist. Tracts lie around its churches announcing that Christians must accept the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement in order to be Saved. The cathedral doesn’t have a permanent altar, but trundles in a table on wheels when the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated.

Some years ago the diocese of Sydney was unstoppable. Ever-so-slightly hysterical articles about its habits, beliefs and activities would periodically appear in the Church Times and other outlets. What I didn’t know was that from the early 2000s a daring programme of investment had begun, raising the diocese’s assets from about $200M to around $550M by September 2007, and income accordingly. The prosperity was underpinned by an equally dramatic degree of leveraged spending which, as in so many other ways, marked Sydney out from worldwide Anglicanism. This was not merely some kind of ecclesiological greed: there was a messianic quality about Sydney’s acquisitiveness. The money would fund the flow of graduates through Moore College, the diocese’s ultra-conservative theological seminary, as well as the construction of new churches, carrying its message of resistance to the modern world and its works out beyond the diocesan boundaries to the Australian Church as a whole, and to the globe, supporting other conservative Anglican structures into the bargain.

Then came the financial crash of 2008. A year after its peak, the value of the Sydney diocesan endowment had slumped to $126M. Curiously, this was a repeat of what had happened about twenty years before when the diocese had invested massively in property and then massively lost out in the then Australian recession, bailing out at just the right moment to maximise its losses. Archbishop Peter Jensen addressed the diocesan synod that October, trying to work out why God had apparently withdrawn his favour from Sydney’s masterplan. He couldn’t really. While admitting that God might be chastising evangelical Sydney, he never suggested what its sin might have been: words such as ‘hubris’, ‘vainglory’, or ‘triumphalism’ did not force their way past the Archbishop’s lips; as redundancies and cuts slashed their way through the diocesan structures, he wondered whether Sydney’s Christians were being ‘tested’, or whether God was thwarting something ‘right in itself but not in accordance with his secret will’. In the end everybody was forgiven, nobody was held accountable, answers were not really sought or found, and the Synod restated that it ‘continues in thankfulness to and dependence on our Almighty Father’, which of course it did because what on earth else was it going to do. I wonder whether the ground is prepared for the whole cycle to happen again a generation down the line.

A few months ago I mentioned reading Tim Harford’s great book Adapt, one part of which touches on the mechanisms people adopt to avoid facing the fact that something they’ve tried hasn’t worked, and the real reasons why. It’s the kind of thing we all know but need spelling out to us now and again. Harford introduced me to the phrase ‘hedonic editing’ (not his coining), describing the phenomenon of reinterpreting experiences of failure so that they become part of a larger, more emotionally-acceptable narrative, or in fact successes in disguise. We all do this as a means of coming to terms with our experiences, and in many cases we have to in order to assimilate and make peace with situations we can’t do anything about, but very often the process is delusory, and Christians are subject to peculiar sorts of delusion.

If God controls your life and the conditions in which you operate to the extent that he not only wants you to learn from particular events but has in fact brought them about so that you can learn special personally-tailored lessons from them – and you believe he will reward you for learning them – you are positively compelled to seek a theological meaning and purpose in your failures when all they actually reveal is the normal processes of the world.

Archbishop Jensen told his Synod eight years ago that “I do not feel that gearing was ethically dubious … though I had to have an argument with myself to come to that conclusion.” Funny that when people have arguments with themselves they invariably conclude that what they did was right after all. And of course once you’ve worked out what the lesson in a particular experience is, you’ve learned it, haven’t you? You can go out and do the same thing again, in the sunny expectation that God will bless your endeavours this time round. Good luck with that. 

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Oh Do Concentrate

Intercession is terribly good for you spiritually, quite apart from the good it may do the person for whom you are interceding. I know, for instance, that it's helpful to focus particularly on the people with whom you have problems and disagreements, holding them before God and asking for insight into your relationship with them and what their motivations may be. In the past I've found this has indeed achieved something, as a difficulty or disagreement, perhaps irresolvable in itself, has at least become less painful and fraught with resentment or self-justification as God has got to work on it. 

Yet focusing on anyone is hard enough. As well as praying my personal intercessions in the morning - which can sometimes rather be clattered through - I try to set aside a few minutes in the middle of the day, when the diary finds me at home between mid-day and 1pm, to pray for folk in the parish, as well as more generally trying to reconnect with God from whom my thoughts may have wandered over the course of the morning. But more often than not I find individuals drift in and out of my mind with great rapidity, and when I try and grab one of them as they waft past, no sooner have I done so than my imagination has already leapt on to someone else. Actually turning over the particular problems or experiences of this or that person requires much effort, and even while I try to do so a fog of alternative thoughts and demands clouds the attention.

The answer is probably to pray consistently through my parish lists, which in the past I've tried to do - the problem being that it's dull, unspontaneous and adds yet another challenge of discipline to the one of merely managing to pray at all. 

I take comfort from a story about the sainted former Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who, while staying with friends in his retirement, once came in from the garden and announced 'Well, I've spent half an hour praying and actually spoke to God for about five minutes of it'. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

PJH's 'Shaker Aamer' Revisited

Image result for shaker aamerHope Six has prompted me to reassess some of PJ Harvey’s earlier work and more particularly those parts of it I’ve ignored up till now, including her 2013 song ‘Shaker Aamer’, dedicated to the last British detainee in Guantánamo Bay, who finally came home last year. When its release was first announced my heart sank a little bit: what would this song be like, deliberately and self-consciously (and, you might well argue, pretentiously) commenting on a particular and very real situation rather than the imagined emotions and personae which form the accustomed landscape of Ms Harvey’s musical endeavours. It reminded me uncomfortably of that painfully right-on band of the ‘80s, The The, whose lead singer would periodically issue portentous declarations to the press about the state of the nation as though anyone cared what he thought. Ms Harvey, in contrast, gave out no statement about ‘Shaker Aamer’ apart from a very taciturn press release whose traces you can detect in the identical wording used to describe the song on various websites dating from the time. Back then, I listened to about ten seconds of it, and heard a bald account of the horrors of Shaker Aamer’s detention, set to unremarkable music: I was disappointed but unsurprised, and mentally put it aside after that.

Coming back to the song, and giving it a bit more time to settle in the ear, I hear something completely different. It isn’t a masterwork by any means, yet, nevertheless, its insistent, repetitive rhythms fit the purpose rather well. But what raises it to the level of something remarkable is the phrase, occurring several times and emphasised by periods in the music, ‘Shaker Aamer – your friend’. This is a very strange, and bold, description to slip into a protest song. It attempts to generate not a sense of outrage, or pity, but actually to claim a personal relationship between the wretchedly incarcerated man and the listener. He is our friend. He isn’t a threat (as the US government claimed), a fundamentalist, a terrorist: he is a friend, someone who means us no harm. Nobody else, surely, would dare to be so humanistic, so personal.

But my thoughts went further. This line – ‘your friend, Shaker Aamer’ – is what you would put at the end of a letter. This song is intended as a letter written on behalf of someone who can’t write one. It’s not only that, of course, because if it was, the sign-off line would be precisely that, rather than appearing three times through the lyric; but it makes it clear that the song’s function is not just to comment on the prisoner but to give him a voice.

But we aren’t finished yet: there is another, final layer. As a result of re-listening to ‘Shaker Aamer’, I looked up the details of his case (as far as Dr Wikipedia reports them), and noticed that his lawyer, during the time of his incarceration, was one Clive Stafford-Smith of campaign group Reprieve. I know that name, I thought. And Mr Stafford-Smith was the man who, the year before Shaker Aamer was eventually released, Ms Harvey got to do a report on Dorchester County Hospital as part of her act of assault and battery on the Today Programme in early 2014. So, therefore, she had an ongoing relationship with one of the few people in a position to know what Shaker Aamer himself thought of his own situation. Knowing that, it becomes impossible to see anything other than the detainee’s own words in what Ms Harvey sings. This isn’t only her imagination at work: it’s someone else’s actual speech, presaging what she’d do on Hope Six. If Shaker Aamer is our friend, it’s because he wants to be, because he’s used those words.

How wrong I’d been. This isn’t just a socially-conscious musician sitting in her studio taking it upon herself to call our attention to a dreadful injustice and commenting on it from a position of safety. This isn’t even a socially-conscious musician sitting in her studio and imagining what it might be like to be the victim of that injustice. It’s a musician giving that victim a voice in the most direct way imaginable. And then not even telling anyone that that’s what she’s done.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A New Arrival

I never cease to be surprised by the wildflowers that pop up in the garden, especially when my attempts actually to grow plants deliberately so often come to grief (the latest casualties are some indoor herbs and the hawthorn hedge I hoped to grow at the top of the plot). These flowers have never appeared before. They are Bugle, a nice little plant which once had the reputation of being a wound-heal, good for ulcers and external application. However in parts of Germany it was thought that if you brought the flowers into the house it would soon burn down. It used to be called Thunder-and-Lightning in Gloucestershire and in Somerset, delightfully, Babies' Shoes. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

Nostalgia for an Age That Never Existed

Many years ago I sat in our lounge watching Alan Plater’s Beiderbecke Trilogy with my Dad (or rather, I watched bits of it in between doing other things). In my mid-teens I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but then I couldn’t make head nor tail of most Dr Who stories until watching the repeat just before the new season was broadcast, and I seem to recall Mum objected to it on the same grounds of incomprehensibility and absented herself from family TV viewing while it was on.

Out of nostalgia I’ve just watched the whole thing again and can see what she may have been getting at. It is not true that there is no plot; in fact the plots of all three constituent series are rather involved, it’s just that they are shockingly unsequential and meandering and, rather like life, incorporate a spreading panoply of events connected only because they happen to occur to the same set of people.

It is not just this that makes the Beiderbecke Trilogy a delightful work of genius, though daring to write, produce and broadcast something that revels quite so much in unhurried and unworried pointlessness bespeaks a boldness that can only be imagined nowadays. The first episode of all is wondrous, playing with angles and camera tracking with a relaxation, again, that nobody today would dare; but it’s not that, even though of course the production can’t keep it up for that long. The endless puncturing of authority is fun, but it’s not that. At the conclusion of the final series, Trevor and Jill drive off into the sunset in his lovely, rickety yellow van after he has scorned the idea of them walking off into it on the grounds that ‘the sunsets round here’ ‘are miles away’; but it’s not the evident wit, either. 

No: the magic of Beiderbecke is its defiant championing of the inconsequential and the idling. This is a world in which a school is a place where everybody (apart from the headmaster) pretends to work; a police station a place whose denizens similarly occupy their time avoiding work (and even Inspector Hobson, who wants to be terribly modern and efficient, actually achieves nothing at all for all his scientific methods apart from getting his corrupt boss sacked in the first series); and society itself is seen as a vast network of getting-by, keeping-yourself-occupied, and time-wasting in the name of mild enjoyment, like bowls or listening to jazz, all done in the absolutely secure knowledge that none of it really matters. The key comes in the final episode, when Chief Superintendent Blake reveals to Hobson the true extent of Trevor and Jill’s ‘refugee’ lodger Ivan’s villainy – his real crime is not to be a financial fraudster to the tune of £3M (‘in banking terms a pocketful of loose change’), but to be an anarchist who isn’t actually interested in the money but who regards the whole international financial system as a joke. Compare this with Trevor’s insistence that only Bix Beiderbecke really counts (and, at a pinch, Bird and Duke) and that the world is divided into ‘those who hear the music and those who don’t’. He’s teaching woodwork to pass the time between records, and quite right too.

When I first thought about this blog post, months ago, I was going to write about how the series’ depiction of run-down San Quentin High, the Leeds school where Trevor and Jill both teach, revealed a gentler and less demanding world which, in the mid-1980s, Mrs Thatcher had only just begun to bite into, with her risible ideology that everyone compete and work hard. Oh, how all those people who believe that life is a serious enterprise about work and efficiency really ought to be isolated from everyone else for society’s protection. But there is a rub. And that rub is that this fair, fallen world contains real problems that need to be solved, real criminals, real sicknesses and disasters. It’s not all bowls and jazz. So I abandoned thinking about the world of Beiderbecke in historical terms. Instead I came to see it mythologically: this is a depiction not of Leeds in the mid-1980s – even a Leeds filtered through Alan Plater’s imagination – but of heaven. A peculiar sort of heaven, grant you, in which there are tower blocks and ill-tempered dogs and quite a bit of rain and where even silly jobsworths get to pretend that what they do really counts for something, but in which no harm comes to anyone as a result. ‘It’s all a game’, says Jill at the end. And so, in a rightly ordered universe, it would be. 

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Exclusive Brethren

'I've just done a lecture tour in Greece', S.D. told me yesterday. 'The group included some Southern Baptists, Pennsylvania Methodists, a set of Roman Catholic nuns from Australia, and some Canadian Anglicans. Then there was a group from the Anglican Archdiocese of Sydney who brought their own bishop. We all met for Morning Prayer at the start of each day, but they had Fellowship on their own. I thought this was a shame so I suggested the Sydney bishop might like to preside at communion on Ascension Day. "What's Ascension Day?", he said. Well, it commemorates Our Lord ascending to heaven. It's very Bible-based ... "When is it?" he asked. It's Thursday. It's always a Thursday. "No thank you", he said, "We'll keep our own fellowship". So I suggested he might like to preside on Sunday for our closing worship. "No, we prefer to keep our own fellowship." That is, of course, because they are Right and the rest of us are all, in our various ways and fashions, Wrong.'

Wednesday, 11 May 2016


The church's office manager is helping her former employer clear and refurbish a house in the road that adjoins the Rectory, and our bookkeeper is helping her. On Monday I got into a conversation with said bookkeeper about the former and current Rectories and how awkward it is to manage the stretching garden.

"How big is your garden?"
"It goes up the hill quite a long way."
"You know, someone's put this hideous thing in their garden, you can see it from the house ..."
"What kind of hideous thing?"
"It has pillars and a sort of roof ..."
"Ah, that'll be the hideous thing in my garden."
"Oh no! Well, I say, 'hideous', I meant 'unexpected' "