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  • Waiting at midnight


    In Yeats' 'Second Coming (Slouching towards Bethlehem)' his concern was Ireland's struggle:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    In our village church on Christmas Eve the candles were lit, every window ledge decorated, every pew filled and there was an expectant buzz of chat just before the lights went down: the familiar, lilting solo of the first verse of 'Once in Royal David's City', then the congregation of 400 or more swelled the sound, familiar incantations that span me back to a dozen or more fortunate Christmasses before. You can find stables round here, sheltering not oxen but ponies, much-loved mounts of Cressidas or Saras. Our cattle sheds will set you back around £1m. These days they've all been converted to executive homes for the less than poor or mean or lowly.

    From the priest's welcome to the final blessing, the service runs like clockwork. The same carols, in the same order, latecomers pushing in from the pub, the brisk filing up to the communion rail, busy white gowned servers administering bread and wine, then back down the north aisle, faces respectfully downcast, expressions of assumed solemnity.

    The sermon quotes Betjeman, not the bible.

    And is it true,
    This most tremendous tale of all,
    Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
    A Baby in an ox's stall ?
    The Maker of the stars and sea
    Become a Child on earth for me ?

    And is it true ? For if it is,
    No loving fingers tying strings
    Around those tissued fripperies,
    The sweet and silly Christmas things,
    Bath salts and inexpensive scent
    And hideous tie so kindly meant,

    No love that in a family dwells,
    No carolling in frosty air,
    Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
    Can with this single Truth compare -
    That God was man in Palestine
    And lives today in Bread and Wine.

    (from Christmas by John Betjeman)

    In my own heart hope and doubt mingle equally.

    Pope Benedict was widely reported just before Christmas as saying 'that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction' (Irish Times). His actual words are far less simplistic, but what kind of Christmas message was this? When dogma collides so catastrophically with the secret God of the heart (the God that knows all and accepts that which is meant to be), where is the good in organised religion?

    Soon after Christmas on Radio 3's 'Belief' Cambridge academic Tim Winter (Abdal Hakim) was questioned with gentle persistence by Joan Bakewell about his conversion to Islam:

    I always wanted to have the person of Jesus who I was brought up with and who is an extraordinary world figure... as part of my religious vision of the world. Islam is the only non-Christian religion where He's really important, but actually comes closer to you in a strange kind of way, because in the orthodox Christian understanding, He is man but also God. And I couldn't figure out how you can actually be human if you're also God. So in a strange kind of way I felt that one of the consequences of becoming Muslim was to become much closer empathetically, humanly, to the person of Jesus than I'd ever managed as an Anglican.

    His answers are revealing when he is held to account on September 11, on women and democracy in Islam. He ends with his struggle to conform:

    ...you go through the door, and then the reality of religion is before you, which is ultimately about loving and adoring God, loving and adoring His creation, which is endlessly brilliant, beautiful, rigorous, difficult, fascinating. And trying to represent in one's own life a conformity to how God wants His servants to be. And that's difficult. Learning how to pray is easy, but actually conforming in the depths of one's being to what the divine, benign nature wants us to be - that's the real challenge. And I'm still working on that.

    The 'little town of Bethlehem' is now, like the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory. There's been less dreamless sleep for the Gazans since the Israeli invasion this Christmas. One religion-dominated community is yet again beating the hell out of another. What hope now for the bi-national solution imagined by humanist Edward Said?

    O little town of Bethlehem
    How still we see thee lie
    Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
    The silent stars go by
    Yet in thy dark streets shineth
    The everlasting Light
    The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are met in thee tonight

    O holy Child of Bethlehem
    Descend to us, we pray
    Cast out our sin and enter in
    Be born to us today
    We hear the Christmas angels
    The great glad tidings tell
    O come to us, abide with us
    Our Lord Emmanuel

  • Ladele lack of judgement?


    The unanimous decision of an employment tribunal that a Christian registrar working in Islington was unfairly discriminated against because she refused to perform partnership ceremonies for gay people has stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy. That individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion is rightly enshrined in law – but in this case the law is once again proving itself to be an ass.

    The full judgment upholds a complaint of 'direct discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief'. Miss Ladele (who was in post before same sex partnerships were introduced) affirms that 'a civil partnership is a marriage in all but name... I feel unable to directly facilitate a union that I sincerely believe is contrary to God's law' Two colleagues of Miss Ladele (one a Muslim) took demotion (with no loss of pay) to avoid performing the cermony and Miss Ladele was initially accommodated informally by the altering of rotas. But the working atmosphere (particularly with gay and lesbian colleagues) deteriorated and she was informed that she was required to stick to the terms of her contract and perform the ceremonies for people irrespective of their sexuality.

    One council diversity specialist told me he was in complete despair at the judgment. He sees it opening the door to any employee refusing duties on the grounds of religion or belief. "Imagine a BNP supporter refusing to serve immigrants on the grounds of 'belief'!"

    I'm not convinced that an employment tribunal establishes formal legal precedent in this way. But I am absolutely sure the tin marked 'registrar' now lists gay partnerships as one of its key ingredients. Anyone signing up to the job must take it - or leave it.


    A number of lawyers are conviced that the case deserves to be overturned on appeal. Headoflegal writes:

    "if as the Tribunal says, Ms. Ladele's stance is based on her belief that marriage is a life-long bond between a man and a woman, why didn't she kick up this fuss about marrying divorcees?"
  • Shining in mid-winter

    6a1a040fe7a06fb91f6e8598d5b89e26.jpgThe unfashionable Cornish poet and playwright Charles Causley died in 2003. At an Advent service in Dorchester Abbey I heard what may be one of his greatest poems, 'I am the great sun':

    From a Normandy crucifix of 1632

    I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
    I am your husband, but you turn away.
    I am the captive, but you do not free me,
    I am the captain but you will not obey.
    I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
    I am the city where you will not stay.
    I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
    I am that God to whom you will not pray.
    I am your counsel, but you will not hear me,
    I am your lover whom you will betray.
    I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
    I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
    I am your life, but if you will not name me,
    Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.

    In this wonderfully simple devotional sonnet, Christ speaks from the cross, full of compassion for human inadequacy.

    An essay by Dana Gioia analyses Causley's powerful work. You can also hear Causley himself reading 'At the British war cemetery, Bayeux'. Poets' own voices often seem inadequate, but Causley brings his rythmic and incantatory lines to life.

  • 'They shall not grow old as we grow old'

    Plaintive thoughts on Remembrance Day morning

    A cold, grey morning on a village green in Oxfordshire. A patch of marble chippings and three of us clutching our wreaths, lined out before the little war memorial.

    The names of a dozen or so from the village, fallen in two World Wars. The parish priest's surplice catches in the breeze, but his voice is that of a millitary chaplain, clear and uncompromising.

    He calls out the prayers for peace and reconciliation. A light aircraft drones overhead, an aimless buzzing. "Perhaps it's Douglas Bader!" – a quiet voice behind me jokes.

    To my left, a representative of the British Legion. She is smartly dressed, as she is every year; gloved, medals pinned to her coat: "or it could be my Tommy!" she says, so softly.

    We walk to the memorial in turn, gently place the wreath, step back and bow our heads for a few moments. The British Legion standards are dipped and then are raised again as we all declare 'we shall remember them!'.

    Afterwards a frail hand suddenly rests on my arm. At the memorial, for a moment, she stumbled and almost fell: "trouble is I'm not used to these high shoes any more". And then a smile and "goodbye then – until next year!".

  • The getting of instant wisdom and 'optimal flow experience'

    According to a recent newspaper report teachers (presumably including part-time teachers like me) 'experience higher levels of enjoyment and optimal flow experience than people working in comparable careers,'... 'Psychologists define "optimal flow experience" as a measure of enjoyment, concentration and absorption in a task, a concept recognised and reported by 44 per cent of teachers compared with 34 per cent of workers in other fields'.

    The term (apparently first coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) was a new one to me, but it describes a mental state I recognise well enough. When my absorption and focus is so all-involving that time seems to pass in a flash, this is when I 'go with the flow'. According to Csikszentmihalyi 'The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.' Yoga practitioners are apparently among those more likely to experience flow states.

    Csikszentmihalyi may have coined the term, but he certainly didn't invent it. The links are clear enough between this idea of loosing oneself in the flow of the moment and ancient eastern philosophy such as Zen, martial arts and Taoism. Perhaps the ultimate flow state is that union with the godhead called Nirvana in Buddhism and Heaven in Christianity.

    The spiritual appetites of so many of us in the west seem to be fuelled by a quest for a refuge from the buzzed up state of hyper-stimulation that passes for everyday life among the money rich and time poor. In an attempt to serve this need, a new condensed edition of the Bible which can be read (without poetry) in 100 minutes was announced this week. But how credible are the mix-and-match forays into no commitment, off-the-shelf religious experience that some of us indulge in? And does organised religion offer a path anymore, when it is so very fallible, so reliant on creaking dogma and science has boxed it into an ever smaller corner?

    In a broadcast this evening, the BBC's former India correspondent Sir Mark Tully denounced spiritual practice divorced from organised religious tradition. For him this is merely self-satisfying navel gazing. At its best, evensong in my parish church sometimes offers me a space for contemplation and a 'flow' in the power and beauty of its poetry and reassuring ritual. A repeated television series called 'Monastery' is currently chronicling 40 days spent in a Benedictine house by five men from very different backgrounds. I am finding this particular slice of reality TV very involving. It asks questions of me that I want to put some real effort into attempting to answer. When I get a minute, of course.

  • Transfigured in St Paul's?

    medium_06_trans.3.jpgTo St Paul's in London for a Saturday service on the Feast of the Transfiguration. Friends from Schola Aquae Sulis sang music by Howells and the sermon asked for prayers 'for this beautiful but broken world' on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

    Transfiguration - when Christ's clothes became dazzling white and a voice said 'this is my Son, listen to Him' was the theme, with a parallel with moments of transfiguration in our own lives.

    The sermon quoted research documenting instances of theophany: moments when the divine is suddenly made visible. In landscape, when the light changes and everything seems for an instant transformed, at peace and whole – I have experienced these feelings.

    Were there moments like these in the service, when incense mixed with incantatory chants, and light shone on a distant cross on the high altar, music wove a spell and the great cathedral became much more than a glitteringly grandiose tourist attraction?

    Music has this power to move and transform me. It was like this in a late night Prom in the Royal Albert Hall last Thursday. The Canadian counter tenor Daniel Taylor sang the Handel aria 'Cara sposa, amante cara' from Rinaldo. The piteous, plaintive threads of music seemed to shape filigree patterns in the air around us, drawing together audience and performer in a moment of great stillness and beauty.

    But are these 'feelings' real - whatever that means? They might not withstand scientific examination, but it seems to me that there is a transforming power in these humbling moments of transfiguration that can inform our whole lives.

    Tentatively I pray this hope can endure amid all our cruelty and greed and selfishness.

  • 'A beautiful life' Gwen John and a family wedding in Wales

    medium_conferences-uk.org.uk_conference_image_big_862th.jpg'A beautiful life is to be lived in the shadows, but with peace, order and tranquility' - these words by the painter Gwen John (1876-1939) were quoted at an exhibition about her work and that of her brother Augustus which I saw for a second time this weekend. The show was at the National Museum & Gallery in Cardiff. I was there after an idyllic family wedding at the St Pierre Hotel in Chepstow.

    Gwen John's words fit both her work and with my experience of a quietly happy and ordered weekend in Wales. She believed profoundly that her art was integral to her faith, and in her last years produced some remarkable understated portraits inspired by a devotional image of Mère Poussepin, the 17th century founder of an order of nuns near her home in Meudon.

    medium_gwen-john.2.jpgThese small-scale, chalky portraits have an austere beauty. John's subjects gaze serenely out of narrowly proportioned canvases in muted greys and browns. After an affair with Rodin, the painter lived out her last years in ordered isolation in a pair of little wooden houses surrounded by green. I heard four young harp students give a recital in the gallery. Mussorgsky's Great Gate of Kiev sounded wonderfully dynamic when performed by a harp quartet, overlooked by a portrait by William Parry of his father John, 'The Blind Harper of Ruabon', (d 1782) sometimes called the father of modern harpists. medium_nmwa3979.jpg

    I was delighted by the empty, bright galleries with their collection of remarkable Monets, Renoirs, Cezannes and Sisleys given by the Davies Sisters of Gregynog. Paintings gave glimpses of long dead sitters' lives: the newborn, a family group by Gainsborough, August John's ferocious children, the middle-aged in their prime and Gwen John's serene elderly nuns. I watched the same life stories being told out in Cardiff's shopping streets. In the warm spring sunshine all seemed ordered and peaceful. Even the traffic moved with stately good manners.

    Calm good organisation and quiet consideration seemed to mark the wedding, the official start of another couple's life together. It began with a service in the tiny church of St Peter, St Pierre, next to the hotel.

    medium_golstpg.gifThe manor of St Pierre was founded by the Normans and once briefly sheltered the crown jewels. In church the wedding party sat close-by two remarkable 13th century carved tombstones, one of which is believed to commemorate Benet, the church's first known priest. A staff sprouts leaves and is surrounded by wildlife celebrating renewal. Like generations of locals before me I touched the carving's hand that he might bring luck both to me and to the newly married couple.

    Gwen John at the National Museum of Wales

    Tate Gallery article about Gwen John