Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A winter walk around Wandlebury and along the Roman Road

Today was a beautiful sunny, winter's day and for the first time in a while I felt energised enough to cycle out of town to Wandlebury and the Roman Road. It was a hugely restorative trip. As always I took some photos along the way and paste them below for your pleasure. All taken with an iPhone 6+, the Blackie App (black and whites) and the Hipstamatic App (colour).

Sunday, 15 January 2017

“A being (l’étant) is a human being and it is as a neighbour that a human being is accessible — as a face.”

The Good Samaritan by Annie Vallotton

Zechariah 7:8-10
The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

Deuteronomy 10:17-19
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Luke 10: 25-37The story of the Good Samaritan

The Principles and Purposes (1985): The covenant of the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, as adopted in 1985 and modified in 1995.

“A being (l’étant) is a human being and it is as a neighbour that a human being is accessible — as a face.”

Last week I gave an address arguing that an individual cannot initially get properly going as a liberal religious person without having before them an initial personal model or prototype to imitate. I argued that without this there is no image and no passion and therefore no effective way for a person to get an actual grip on what being a religious liberal is nor enough motivation to put in the very difficult work required to attain, and then maintain and further develop this particular way of being religious in the world. Historically speaking, since the Enlightenment, our corporate model has been one or other of the historical Jesus’ presented by, for example, Thomas Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy, Stephen Mitchell, Don Cupitt (our neighbour over the road at Emmanuel College) or the associated various Jesus Seminar authors such as Thomas Sheehan or John Dominic Crossan. In the local context I should point out that the Cambridge Unitarian church community was founded in 1904 following a series of lectures the previous year by J. Estlin Carpenter on the subject of "The historical Jesus and the theological Christ" (published in 1911) and our first minister, J. Cyril Flower published a book called "The Parables of Jesus applied to Modern Life" in 1920 and penned some words which still grace our church's entrance: "Our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world."

Last week in the conversation immediately following the address a few people pushed back against this suggestion in favour of adopting from the outset multiple possible models or, alternatively, a set of general purposes and principles because this they felt this was a pluralist approach better suited to liberal religion as a whole. Well, in the light of the comments made last week, I’ve had time carefully to think again about this and I find that I still think I’m right and that multiple models and principles and purposes are too broad an image which is insufficiently concrete enough to serve as a focus for attainment. Naturally, my thinking this doesn’t make me right and I acknowledge that it may well have to be the case that, on this matter, we’ll simply have to agree to differ.

Having offered this caveat I consider the question to be important enough to take another pass at the subject to see if I can persuade you of what I think is the vital and indispensable need for having, at a primordial level, a grounded, personal model or prototype to imitate and not a set of possible models or general principles and purposes such as, for example, the one adopted in 1985 (and revised in 1995) by our North American sister church, the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I bring them up because these principles and purposes have become increasingly influential here in the UK and many of our churches would prefer to centre themselves upon them rather than upon the kind of kind of statement centred in some way upon the model of Jesus our churches used to make. So, for example here’s our own church covenant based upon that written in 1880 by the Rev. Charles Gordon Ames, minister of the Spring Garden Unitarian Society in Philadelphia:

“In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus the members of this congregation unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind.”

I can see clearly why a move away from our kind of statement and towards a set of principles and purposes would be very attractive and I assure you that I’m not immune myself from such a feeling. Our covenant can feel very old fashioned when it is brought side by side with modern, liberal and progressive principles and purposes.

But what concerns me, deeply concerns me and drives me to give this address today, is the evidence on the ground — here in the UK, across Europe and in the USA — that the appeal to liberal, progressive purposes and principles (no matter how attractive and valuable they are) have not provided the required ethical motivation to persuade enough people fully to come to live a liberal religious life so as to assure the continued flourishing of both liberal religion and, it has to be said, liberal democracy. Let’s not avoid the disturbing fact that liberal religious congregations everywhere continue to be in a state of what looks like terminal decline. Remember that in the UK the current official national membership is only 3095 and, in the USA it is only 199,850.

Following the British philosopher, Simon Critchley, my reading of things is that we are allowing illiberal and reactionary people and ideologies increasingly to gain the upper hand over us because we are continuing to think that, primordially speaking, our liberal and progressive salvation lies in finding better ways to promote abstract purposes and principles to which we can rationally appeal and to which we — and we believe others — can, under the right conditions, rationally assent.

But over the seventeen years of my ministry I have slowly come to think that this way of thinking is to see the world upside-down. But as I say this please be careful to hear what I am saying. I am not saying that principles and purposes and the use of reason are somehow useless and meaningless — far from it — but what I am saying as loudly and strongly as possible is that, ethically speaking, they are second-order things, things born out of something much more primordial. To help show you what I think this more primordial something is I want to draw today on an insight of the extremely important French philosopher of Lithuanian Jewish descent, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995).

For Levinas, as Simon Critchley observes, “the core of ethical experience is . . . the demand of a Faktum, but it is not a Kantian fact of reason so much as what we might call ‘a fact of the other.’” (Simon Critchley, "Infinitely Demanding", Verso Press, 2007, p. 56)

In other words a grounded ethics of commitment is not primordially rooted in a set of higher principles and purposes to which one must rationally assent and cooly accept (a vertical, hierarchical relationship) but in a visceral, white-hot and sometimes traumatic encounter with the fact of the other, our neighbour (a horizontal, democratic relationship). Critchley notes that:

The ethical relation begins when I experience being placed in question by the face of the other, an experience that happens both when I respond generously to what Levinas, recalling the Hebrew Bible, calls ‘the widow, the orphan, the stranger’, but also when I pass them by on the street, silently wishing they were somehow invisible and wincing internally at my callousness” (Simon Critchley, "Infinitely Demanding", Verso Press, 2007, p. 56).

Notice, too, that what is beginning to be suggested here is that ethics is situated in the face-to-face encounter and that morality only follows on later, where morality is some kind of agreed upon (or imposed) set of rules, principles and purposes. Another way of putting this is to say that everything valuable that we might find in a given set of purposes and principles only emerges from (and is rooted in) the infinite ethical demand experienced in a face to face encounter.

Here’s how Levinas himself puts it:

“A being as such (and not as incarnation as universal being) can only be in a relation where we speak to this being. A being (l’étant) is a human being and it is as a neighbour that a human being is accessible — as a face” (“Is Ontology Fundamental?” in “Basic Philosophical Writings”, Indiana University Press, 1996, p. 8).

[NB: This insight is given extra power when you combine it with another, one highly congenial to Unitarians expressed by a member of the Jesus Seminar, Thomas Sheehan. Sheehan thought that Jesus’ “doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one’s neighbour” and that “Jesus dissolved the fanciful speculations of apocalyptic eschatology into the call to justice and charity” to that neighbour. In the face of Jesus so understood we begin to see the death of traditional religion and religion’s God and the beginning of something we can call the post-religious experience which is the abdication of “God” in favour of God’s hidden presence in our neighbour.]

I think that in European and North American liberal religious circles we have become seriously disconnected from this face and, therefore from a motivating, ethical demand. As communities we can, to be sure, point people inquiring about liberal religion to a broad canvas of purposes and principles which indicate what is in theory to be done as a liberal but what we are finding it increasingly difficult to do is to present an inquirer with a personal face in which they, and we, can see what is to be done as a religious liberal actually being done.

To illustrate what I mean let’s turn to the well-known story of the good Samaritan but, to see it working at its most powerful best, we need to recall that, once upon a time, it was common for most people to have in their homes, their Bibles, their churches or on their person (as I do) a ready-to-hand representation of the face of Jesus towards which they would always be able to turn either in fact or in memory.

[In passing but, I think, importantly, it has been well pointed out that thanks to critical historical scholarship we have been able to cut away much of the later Church's metaphysics and, therefore, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries we are perhaps better able to catch a glimpse of the human face of Jesus than any of our Christian forebears.] 

Reading the parable when this remains the case a person receives the story across the millennia from the face of Jesus, a real, historical human individual whom we know gave up his life in the cause of justice and the common good and whose example makes upon us the infinite ethical demand to “go and do likewise.” This face to face encounter with the human Jesus the social, religious and poetical activist, story-teller and teacher (rabbi) then demands we look at and listen to another face and infinite demand, namely that of the brutally beaten-up man lying injured by the road. As the story unfolds we are also enabled to look at and listen to yet another face and infinite demand in the good Samaritan who does not walk on by on the other side but responds as best and as lovingly as he can.

Nowhere in this story is any moral principle or purpose ever articulated, there is only this face then that and certain associated actions and infinite ethical demands which, to return to Critchley’s point, are powerfully experienced both when we respond generously to Jesus and the people he places before us and also when we choose to pass them by silently wishing they were somehow invisible and wincing internally at our callousness.

Naturally the Unitarian Universalist Association’s beautiful principles and purposes speak generally and approvingly about the kind of actions found in Jesus’ parable — how could they not! — but my point is that as principles and purposes they are abstract, second-order moral expressions — they do not present us with a human face in which, as we look into that person’s eyes, we can properly experience a truly motivating ethical demand to “go and do likewise.”

In our secular humanist context (and remember I personally have no choice but to speak as an atheist, albeit a Christian atheist) the only place where we can find what we have long called God is in the appeal directly experienced in face of the neighbour and it is this which primordially motivates us and which gives us “an image and a passion” — it is not found (I would argue) in the rational acceptance of abstract principles and purposes not matter how good, true and beautiful they may be.

Now I quite realise that you may well be able to make a good case that Jesus is not the face we in liberal religion need today. You may say his face has been too compromised by the many dreadful actions done in Jesus’ name by the Christian Church. Perhaps this is correct.

Personally speaking, all I can say is that the infinite demand found in his face is what inspired me as a child and it is the same face which still drives me to act in the world as a religious liberal in the ministry of a radical, liberal, free-thinking church community that had also answered the same infinite demand. (Here's a very brief piece of autobiography which may help make this paragraph make more sense.) I personally can't let this go - but that is not to say this church as a living tradition cannot begin to seek another face.

So, as I've just said, perhaps you are right and Jesus is no longer suitable as our corporate inspiring image and passion. But I still maintain that without an image and a passion tied to an actual human face our purposes and principles will continue to fail to be effective and persuasive and we will increasingly find ourselves in retreat before the many revanchist illiberal forces abroad in the world today.

And so I finish today’s address with the same plea I made last Sunday: “Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion” — and so no way to achieve a powerful and effective liberal religious life of your own.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Winter sunset over Cambridge from Castle Hill

On Wednesday I had to walk up Castle Hill to the Shire Hall in order to deliver the quarterly marriage returns. My wife, Susanna, came with me and we took the opportunity to climb to the top of the castle mound to enjoy the sunset. Lovely. Here are a few photos from the walk. All taken with my iPhone 6+ and the Hipstamatic app.

Susanna climbing Castle Hill
Sunset over Cambridge from the top of Castle Hill (the UL tower is on the left)
St Peter's on Castle Hill
"Helix" by Christophe Gordon-Brown in the wall of The Varsity Hotel
Evening sky over St John's Road
Leaves in the brook on Jesus Green

Monday, 9 January 2017

A four-star review of the new "Dudley" CD in The Observer last Sunday

A few weeks ago I mentioned that a CD I recorded with the Chris Ingham Quartet called simply, "Dudley" was about to be released. Well, it's officially out and I'm pleased to say it got a four-star review from Dave Gelly in The Observer last Sunday. You can read that at the link below.

Alas, ministerial duties means I'm only able to play on a couple of the live dates but the excellent bass player Geoff Gascoyne has taken over the bass chair for those gigs, something for which I'm very grateful. Anway you can get a copy of the CD at the following link should you be so minded . . .

Chris Ingham: piano
Paul Higgs: trumpet
George Double: drums
Andrew J. Brown: bass

I also wrote the liner notes for this release and paste them below for your interest.

Dudley Moore, beloved comic actor, we all know about. 

Perhaps fewer know about Dudley Moore, pianist — the virtuoso brilliantly exploiting the stylistic possibilities gifted to him by Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson in late night sessions at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club in 1960s Soho, dazzling appearances on BBC TV’s Not Only But Also and the sparkling Decca trio recordings.

And perhaps fewer still, Dudley Moore, composer — purveyor of quirky, imaginative jazz originals and the witty music for Bedazzled and 30 Is A Dangerous Age, Cynthia, nuanced movie scores far superior to the movies themselves.

In preparing a recording celebrating the music of Dudley, we were tempted to pay homage to his 1960s piano-trio style. After all, Chris, George and I had all been indelibly influenced by the very particular, tight-knit, hard-swinging playing of Dudley, bassist Pete McGurk and drummer Chris Karan. However, whilst exploring the tunes with Paul on trumpet, we began to discover the richness of his compositions and understand a more authentic, and perhaps more revealing way of entering into Dudley’s musical world. 

As part of that process we took time to read something about the man’s complex and highly conflicted life, one filled with shades of light and dark, joy and woe. Here is not the place to explore any details of this, but what is musically relevant was the way we found these same shades expressed in his compositions. Some of his pieces are, of course, quintessential expressions of the bright, optimistic, swinging ‘60s in which Dudley came to fame, but others are deeply poignant, personal expressions of a darker, more complex world, whilst elsewhere you’ll find a unique and bittersweet mix of the two.

It is this emotional range and depth that has made playing Dudley's music a rather intimate and heartfelt pleasure for all of us and, we sincerely hope, for you too.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

“Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion” — and so no powerful and effective liberal religious life of your own

16th cent. Polish Unitarian medal showing Jesus as a human exemplar
Every few years or so I give a version of this address which tries to introduce  you to, or remind you of, something that lies at the heart of my own teaching concerning how to become a genuine and effective religious liberal. I give it again today because I recounted it’s main theme for someone last week and because it dovetails closely with what I said in my Christmas Day address concerning loyalty to the event. As always, it’s my view of things and, therefore, you are at perfect liberty to disagree with me.   

READINGS: 1 Peter 2:21

“For to this [life] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps”.

At The Smithville Methodist Church by Stephen Dunn

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week, 
but when she came home 
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art 
was up, what ancient craft. 

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs 
they sang when they weren’t 
twisting and folding paper into dolls. 
What could be so bad? 

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith 
in good men was what 
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism, 
that other sadness. 

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home 
singing “Jesus loves me, 
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk. 
Could we say Jesus 

doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible 
is a great book certain people use 
to make you feel bad? We sent her back 
without a word. 

It had been so long since we believed, so long 
since we needed Jesus 
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was 
sufficiently dead, 

that our children would think of him like Lincoln 
or Thomas Jefferson. 
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief 
to a child, 

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story 
nearly as good. 
On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts 
all spread out 

like appetizers. Then we took our seats 
in the church 
and the children sang a song about the Ark, 
and Hallelujah 

and one in which they had to jump up and down 
for Jesus. 
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain 
about what’s comic, what’s serious. 

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. 
You can’t say to your child 
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks 
of extinction and nothing 

exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have 
a wonderful story for my child 
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car 
she sang the songs, 

occasionally standing up for Jesus. 
There was nothing to do 
but drive, ride it out, sing along 
in silence. 



A continuing, major problem for many modern British and North American liberals is that religion has increasingly become for them simply a general, abstract theory about life that doesn’t require any deep, personal active commitment and loyalty to some specific, situated role model. Historically and culturally considered our central role model has always been Jesus of Nazareth but, as the poem by Stephen Dunn we heard in our readings poignantly reveals, many of us have developed crippling fears about following him in any way. Despite these (often understandable) fears I remain convinced that in our own liberal religious circles it remains vitally important to embrace, explore and loyally commit in some way to the role model of the human Jesus. The best way I can show you why I think this is important is via an example drawn from my own work teaching people how to play jazz bass. 

Time Remembered double-lp (1983)
As most of you know before I entered the ministry I worked professionally as a jazz bassist and today I still occasionally find time to play, record and teach music. My key role model when I was learning to play double bass was Chuck Israels, especially his playing in the trios led by the pianist Bill Evans between 1961 and 1966. The moment, aged 18, I heard his playing on a double-LP called “Time Remembered” I was hooked — I finally knew how I wanted to play. Israels is today also a teacher and he summarises an experience many of us working in this field have had:

Over the years, as I have assumed the role of “Jazz Educator”, both within and outside of “institutions of higher learning” . . . I have learned to ask [of students] a revealing question. “Who is your favourite musician?” It is remarkable that more often than not, I get no clear answer. There is sometimes a period of uncomfortable silence broken by occasional throat clearing noises, while the prospective student searches for a name or perhaps tries to guess what name might create the most effective impression. Sometimes an embarrassed silence yields nothing and occasionally there is an equally uncommitted claim to have listened to and liked “everything” (from an unpublished essay, “An Unpopular Perspective on Jazz Education”).

Like Israels, every year I would find a number of such students standing before me. So what is going on here? Well, despite the obvious negative aspects of this state of affairs, Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is at least motivated by something very worthwhile, namely, the “idea of the potential pleasures of performing with and for other people, with the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity.” These are, he notes:

. . . worthwhile values and have served as a part of the motivation of many artists. But this is a broad image which is insufficiently concrete to serve as a focus for attainment. There is no clear place to begin and the mentor is reduced to helping the applicant to find something to love. Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion (ibid).

After seventeen years of ministerial experience I know intimately that people who walk through the church doors or the door of my study in order to find out about a liberal church tradition are also motivated by many worthwhile things. For example, the belief that here they might be able gain a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability and insight, a sense of belonging to a community with a long and venerable radical and progressive history and lastly, but not leastly, that they will be able to develop a personal, creative, confident religious openness to the wonderful, plural, complex and contingent nature of our world. But, as good as all these things are, together they form such a broad canvas that, alone they, too, are wholly “insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.” Consequently, as mentor – whether as a music teacher or minister of religion – I often find my primary role is simply to help people find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype.

In the case of my music students I introduce them to some recordings and then, when they find a particular bass player they actually like, we can begin to get going by imitating that model and figuring out just exactly how he or she is playing the things they are. To the disappointment of many of my students this turns out to be harder work than they imagined and so every so often I had gently to remind them that this is why they needed a role model about whose playing they were truly excited because, without that image and passion, what is already a huge task will quickly become far too difficult to see through to the end. Without this they will continue to be directionless players with no substantial grip on anything real about the music. At best they will become mediocre players and, at worst, they will simply come to experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. 

In an attempt to get out of this difficulty one solution, often unconsciously adopted by some students, is to begin believing that the really good jazz bassists have simply had something like “magic dust” sprinkled on them at birth and, in desperation, they foolishly begin to turn human examples into little less than gods and themselves into second-rate human beings. As we in liberal religious circles know only too well, many religious traditions have done likewise by turning their own founding human, all too human figures into something little less than the gods and, in the case of Jesus, even into “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God” (Nicene Creed).

Now, it seems to me that all that I have said above about jazz is also true in many Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian circles. Any person who enters into one of our communities desiring the fruits of a liberal religion and who then fails seriously to follow or imitate a religious prototype or model of that faith in action will never get a real grip on what it is to become a liberal religious person. Everything will remain for them terribly unfocused and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best they will be mediocre in the matter of living a liberal life, at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. 

You see, learning to become a liberal religious person is at least as difficult as it is to become a good jazz bass player and without an image and passion, a role model to follow, what is already a huge task quickly becomes far too difficult to see through to the end. Experience has shown me that in these cases many will give-up on liberal religion altogether as being too difficult whilst others will let themselves seduced into involvement with a religion headed-up by a super-human saviour figure whom they believe has been liberally sprinkled with “magic dust.”

It is true, of course, that in liberal religious traditions other than our own (for example the Brahmo Samaj in India) there are other models or prototypes one might follow rather than Jesus and I want to be clear that I’m not making here some covert claim for Jesus’ absolute uniqueness and value of him over all other great religious teachers. I would also point out that there available a variety of more or less congenial liberal “versions” of Jesus a person could adopt. (In passing, those of you who know me well know that I long ago adopted something close to the vision of Jesus articulated by Tolstoy.) All I am saying here is that, in one form or another, the human Jesus is, without doubt, our own particular British and North American tradition’s primary religious model, our initiating image and passion that got us going in the world as the kind of liberal religious community we are. Consequently, for many straightforward, sensible historical and cultural reasons, his example remains an excellent place for us together to begin to learn how to live a genuinely liberal religious life. Once you have actually got going in such a form of life there is, of course, absolutely nothing to stop you exploring other religious teachers in the same way that, after seriously imitating Chuck Israels for a year or so, I began to explore aspects of the playing of dozens of other bass players. 

However, I am aware that some religious liberals will seek to resist the basic message of this address because of a feeling that such a concentrated process of imitation only ties a person down and dangerously limits their freedom. But a model only ties and represses when it is made into a thing absolutely fixed and formalised, as something merely slavishly to be repeated without any variation or play. But, in truth all repetition always produces difference and so copying a role model, properly understood, is always capable of freeing us because it is precisely in the process of modelling ourselves on something tangible that we are enabled to push further out into the world and, with increasing confidence, eventually to take the risk to go beyond the model to test and experience reality ourselves at first-hand and so discovering new possibilities of being and acting as we go. In short, the conception of following Jesus I have in mind, and which I encourage here, is much more like the exciting, fruitful, inspiring and open relationship I had, and continue to have, with my musical role models than it is like the rigid, fixed dogmatic relationship to Jesus encouraged by most Christian orthodoxies.

Recording "Time Remembered"
To my music students I try to make it clear that it was only by, in the first instance, imitating Chuck Israels that I was able to learn how to move from a vague idea or theory about how to play jazz to actually playing jazz. By extension, when I then go on to play for my students I can also show that, despite all my copying, I really don’t sound exactly like any of my role models but, for good or ill, only like me, Andrew Brown.

[A fact which, should you be interested, you can hear by comparing the two links below:  

What is true in the world of jazz is also true in the world of liberal religion but the tragedy of Christianity in its global, institutional, and more conservative and orthodox forms is that it turned, and still obsessively turns Jesus from being a startling and inspiring human role model into a dead, dogmatically held metaphysical theory about the world. Standing up (like the child in Dunn’s poem) for this latter kind of “magic dust” sprinkled, divine God-man Jesus (with an associated slavish support of the institutions that support these theories) is something I remain profoundly uncomfortable about and against which I will continue to protest. But, unlike the parents in Dunn’s poem we, in our own Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian traditions, are not forced merely to “drive on, ride it out and sing in silence” – No! — we can, instead, choose to show our children, ourselves and others another way to stand up for a Jesus by singing a very different kind of liberating, inspiring, improvisational liberal religious humanist song.

I strongly feel that the genius of our tradition is found in that over nearly four-and-a-half centuries it has been able consistently to help people to see that when Jesus is followed, as a true human exemplar, this enables a person to begin to experience, not a pale imitation of Jesus’ life, nor some dogmatic set of religious beliefs but, instead, the creative flowering of their own beautiful, complex, contingent life in all its local fullness, abundance an openness to the future.

So in this local religious setting my final call today is please, please heed Chuck Israels’ words to his students and “Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion” — and so no way to achieve a powerful and effective liberal religious life of your own.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Mezzotint by M. R. James read by Michael Horden with an accompanying hauntological Hipstamatic photo

I'm a lifelong fan of M. R. James' ghost stories and of what might be called the "hauntological" literature, art and music of Britain in general. Indeed. as I write this brief post I'm being accompanied by the  music of The Focus Group who record for the Ghost Box label whose music has been described as hauntological.

Anyway, a couple of days I walked over to Fen Ditton and, as always, took a few photos along the way — you can, should you wish, see them here. One of the photos, of the house lying hard by the church, struck me as being reminiscent of the house described in M. R. James' story The Mezzotint found in his 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Last night I loaded the photo back up into the Hipstamatic app to see if I could edit it better to reveal this connection. I think I succeeded and post it here for your pleasure (just click on the picture to enlarge it). If you read the story at the link above you should quickly see the relationship. Should you be minded, perhaps an even better thing to do would be to turn off the lights, pour yourself a good single malt whisky and listen to the great Michael Horden read you the story at the YouTube link below. What greater pleasure is there in life than indulging now and then in this kind of "pleasing terror" . . .

Thursday, 5 January 2017

An article of great relevance to radical, liberal religious communities by John Harris in "The Guardian"

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Emmanuel Road, Cambridge
In a piece in today's Guardian called The UK's left-liberal fightback must start with communities, John Harris says a few things that are clearly relevant to us as a liberal religious community. You can read it at this link. Take this paragraph for instance:

This much we know: since the start of the neoliberal era in the early 1980s, the great economic changes that have ripped through western economies have led to an erosion of traditional communities. The factory towns and secure mass employment of yesteryear are long gone; institutions such as trade unions and the church – even the local pub – are locked into long-term decline. In the place of the collective spirit they underpinned has come a quicksilver individualism that just about benefits those who manage to keep up, but renders millions of lives unpredictable at best, untenable at worst.

Even in as prosperous a place as Cambridge (quite unlike the situation in Lincolnshire about which Harris specifically speaks in his article) neoliberalism is succeeding in ripping out the heart of our local community. I've been the minister here for seventeen years I see this happening in two major ways.

The first is in the morally outrageous current price of the many small houses that form the majority of dwellings in the "Kite" area of the town where the church is located and my wife and I live. This means that there are fewer and fewer people living here who are committed to the long-term well-being of the locality. Property is being bought up for investment purposes and the people to whom they are then rented are often only here for short periods with little time, or interest, in committing themselves to the building up of a sustainable, meaningful local community.

The second is the "quicksilver individualism" mentioned by Harris. What counts here is not commitment to some social body/group which is able to articulate, sustain and build upon mutual, shared interests but, instead only temporary flirtations to those things/bodies which will feed a person's instant, short-term desires. So, in my role as a minister I find myself dealing more and more with people who come to me just wanting immediate, personal crisis-driven help, right there, right now, whether it is centred on issues connected with mental illness and generalised depression (rampant in Cambridge) or the death of a friend or a loved one. I'm happy to do this — I may be an atheist minister but I'm a Christian atheist and that brings with it the call to serve those who come seeking help in times of need — but it is clear that I, and this church community, are for the most part now being treated like most people treat any impersonal, profit driven "service industry". Immediate thanks are often effusively given (for which I'm grateful) but there comes with the encounter no loyalty to the community, nor even any real if only temporary generosity (in either physical or financial help). When the "job" is done, that's often it, they move on without a by your leave leaving you more knackered than before and still facing the brutal truth of being, again as Harris puts it, "locked into long-term decline." It's clear to me that if things don't change a few more years hence and we simply won't be there to offer this kind of open-hearted help.

Let me tell you a single tale that illustrates the kind of thing that this can result in.

A couple of years ago the English Defence League held a series of marches to protest at plans to build a mosque in nearby Mill Road. The third of these marches crossed the beautiful green space opposite the church called Christ's Pieces which lies at the heart of the Kite area. On the day of the march I thought it would be a good thing to open our church doors so people could come in and quietly light a candle to demonstrate their commitment to keeping Cambridge the liberal open and inclusive place it (likes to think it) is. I didn't expect hoards of people (I'm not a total fantasist) but because the local radio reported positively on the initiative and half a dozen local politicians got on board I had hopes for a couple of dozen visitors. Despite letting the local community know about it directly as well only nine people came in during the whole day. However, the following week, at a meeting in the church organised so that people could meet with the council to discuss the difficulties of local parking, one-hundred-and-fifty people came.

Protesting about a neo-Nazi march through your neighbourhood — 9 
Getting angry about your personal parking — 150

Don't get me wrong, parking is an issue to be concerned about but so, too, are neo-Nazis trampling through your neighbourhood, yes? Well, apparently no. Why? Well, it looks to me that this is because this isn't any longer a local community for most of the people who now live here, it's simply the temporary place where quicksilver individuals live for a brief moment of their lives. Again and again I'm forced to ask myself how on earth is one to build strong resilient communities against such a background? I'll keep trying (what else is there to do?) but, I admit, it feels like one of the labours of Sisyphus and my heart goes out to all those whose situation is infinitely more difficult than mine.

This story, I know, can be recounted in many similar ways, often involving situations unimaginably worse than what is going on here. But my point here isn't to get your sympathy, instead it's about alerting you to the fact that what has happened to the poorest regions of our country, such as Lincolnshire, is also happening more and more even in one of the wealthiest and most privileged cities in the UK. I'm sure you all know Martin Niemöller's (1892–1984) famous and chilling words:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It seems to me that Niemöller's words hold true today in our own context because, as I hope my words above reveal, neoliberal ideology and its utterly destructive consequences is successfully working is way through every level of our society, even unto the heart of Cambridge. It's time to speak out because, unless we do, I guarantee that it's going to get you soon and then there may be no one left to speak for you.