Friday, 14 August 2015

Reflections on power and beauty: a visit to north Wales

We were on holiday in North Wales last week - staying at Afonwen Farm (much recommended) between Criccieth and Pwllheli. Lots of great visits to beaches, a walk up Snowdon, a trip on the Ffestiniog railway, a visit to Greenwood Forest Park, castles, small towns with good local food, and the brilliant Cadwaladers ice cream. A splendid holiday. But three places have really stayed with me and have made me reflect on modern and historic Welsh identity: Aberdaron, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and Conwy castle.

Aberdaron is at the very tip of the Llyn peninsula, and a stunning place. We visited because of a guidebook recommendation, but also because we recently joined the National Trust and liked the sound of its small museum, Porth y Swnt (and to meet up with old friends also staying in the area). The museum was small but excellent - great audio guide, really good children's activity pack, lots of interesting exhibits. While in Aberdaron, we visited its rather charming and very old church of St. Hywyn, where the poet RS Thomas was the priest for a decade. I believe that Thomas wrote his great poem The Bright Field (which happens to be the theme of this year's Greenbelt Festival) during the time he served in Aberdaron. Thomas wrote:
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
The landscape and the beach at Aberdaron were also very special, and the light and the cliffs stay with me from there just as much. Another lovely poem of Aberdaron, inscribed in stone outside Porth y Swnt, by the bard Cynan Evan-Jones, talks of "the cliffs of Aberdaron and the wild waves on the shore".

But enough of the beauties of Aberdaron. The next day, we travelled up on the Ffestiniog railway from Porthmadog to its destination, Blaenau Ffestiniog, a very different place. The railway was built to carry slates from the mines down to the sea. Now it carries tourists who like steam trains (including our very excited five year old) up a lovely valley - a really good ride. And then it ends in Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town that grew on slate mining and is now thoroughly post-industrial, with less than half of its peak population and hardly any slate still mined. It has all the hallmarks of a post-industrial town: properties in the estate agents are eye-wateringly cheap and a drab, depressed feeling surrounds it. The people are working hard to reinvent it as an outdoor centre, to use the mines for high-adrenaline activities, but to me it didn't feel like a happy place at all. We found an excellent second-hand bookshop and the occasional attempt to make art out of the place but otherwise I was glad to get back on the train.

Blaenau Ffestiniog seemed to me to have the tragedy of so many industrial centres, from Durham coal towns to Clydeside shipyard communities, that have lost their purpose and their energy. And it's a marker of the power of capitalism to wreck lives and places. Industry came to Blaenau (and other parts of north Wales). It despoiled the landscape - there are huge piles of slate waste all around the town. It drew people in to a life that was once difficult and dangerous but had purpose and community. And then the industry left. The capital was withdrawn, to seek new opportunities in cheaper job markets in other places. And emptiness and despair were left. Capitalism is power. It comes, it steals, it leaves ruined lives behind it.

The last place that stays with me combines the two experiences of Aberdaron and Blaenau Ffestiniog, being about beauty and power in one place. Conwy Castle was built to control. One of King Edward I's 'iron ring' of castles (along with Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris in north Ales) to put the Welsh in their place, to take away for ever their nascent drive to independence. Welsh people were forbidden from living within the walls of Conwy. It sits on the estuary of one of Wales' great rivers, where it meets the north coast, controlling the north-south and east-west routes at once. It ought to be a horrible place. And yet, time weathers power. Instead of soldiers, it was covered in tourists. Some were English, some were Welsh, some from other places. Time has given Conwy beauty. The town is charming. And it's set in the most amazing location, with the hills behind and the estuary in front. We stayed in the youth hostel high above the town and the views were stunning.

I'm not Welsh, so it would be impertinent of me to reflect too much on modern Welsh sources of
power and beauty. The country is rich in natural beauty, in resources, in a people of versatility and poetry. But the powerful (the Welsh elites themselves as well as the English) have treated it very badly. May the country learn over time to recover from the powerful, and to find its own power amidst its own beauty.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Travelling lightly through institutions

I’m travelling to Vienna today for the summit of the International Society for Information Studies. Vienna always makes me think of the impermanence of institutions – the city that was the heart of a great empire for centuries, then gradually faded and is now left with its history and architecture (plus a residual scattering of international bodies). But the glory days of the empire of Mitteleuropa are well behind it, one with Nineveh and Tyre.

No institution is permanent. All fade away. Even the famously long-lived institutions, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Chinese state, exist in a continual state of change – that is how they have lasted so long.

But human interactions with institutions also fade away. Coming out of Euston station in London, I went briefly into Friends House, the headquarters of Quakers in Britain, to visit the bookshop. I was a Quaker for more than fifteen years, and attended many meetings at Friends House, from small committees to the large annual gatherings over several days.

Britain Yearly Meeting, with its structures, history, norms and values played a big part in my life. My experiences as a Quaker continue to reverberate through my life in many important ways, spiritually, emotionally (I met my wife, Becky Calcraft, through Quaker committee service) and in terms of values and ideas. But as an institution, it’s not part of my present life.

I’m involved in other institutions today which I value and am proud to be part of – The Open University, the Iona Community, the United Reformed Church. Perhaps I will be connected with some or all of these for a long time to come, perhaps for a short time. I don’t know. But I do know that my involvement with these institutions will come to an end one day – and that the institutions themselves will come to an end one day. And of course we’ll all come to an end ourselves one day (I’m writing this on the day we learn of the death of Charles Kennedy, a politician of great principle and humanity who died too young).

As so often when thinking about matters of impermanence, the words of St Teresa of Avila, as set by Margaret Rizza, come to my mind:
Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you;
while all things fade away, God is unchanging.
Be patient, for with God in your heart,
nothing is lacking, God is enough.

We must learn to travel lightly through our institutions. Nothing is permanent. God is enough.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Resurrection people: a challenge to injustice and homophobia

Christians are Easter people. We are resurrection people. Our whole faith is predicated on the idea that a man died, and in some way came back to life again. Without the resurrection, Jesus was another anti-imperial prophet, teacher and healer - great at all these things, but one of many. With the resurrection, Jesus is the symbol and bearer of new life, transformed by God into the new Adam. Resurrection really matters.

It matters in a different way. Through his life and through his teachings, Jesus proclaimed an alternative way of being, a challenge to the imperial authorities of Rome and the corrupt leaders of the Jewish people. He was born in poverty, and his family had to flee for their lives as refugees in a foreign land. In his sermons and parables, he taught love of enemies and the unimportance of material possessions. He ate and drank and talked with everyone, including those who decent society treated as outcasts - those who were morally dubious (through money or sex), women in a deeply sexist society, people of minority faiths and races, the poor, the sick.

And in his last days, the theme of challenge continued. He entered Jerusalem in an anti-imperial parade, at the time when the Romans were staging their own parade. He challenged the corrupt temple authorities and their money-lenders and their "domination system" (in the words of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book The Last Week). And even after his betrayal, he refused to let his followers act violently on his behalf. Instead, he was mocked, tortured, and killed in the worst sort of execution given by the Romans to traitors and revolutionaries.

And yet he came back to life. Because God chose for death not to be the last word about Jesus. To quote Borg and Crossan again, "God has said 'yes' to Jesus and 'no' to the powers who executed him. ... Easter is God's 'yes' to Jesus against the powers who killed him." And that was the message taken forward about Jesus by his first followers. In a faith which later became keen on statements of belief, the first creed had only three words: Jesus is Lord. But that was a deeply radical statement, one which stood against the power of the world - because if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not Lord, which was the empire's core belief and organising principle.

But there's more to resurrection. Rob Bell, in a recent podcast, talks of many of the issues I've written about here, but also makes the link between resurrection and incarnation. By taking on human flesh, by becoming God-made-man, Jesus affirms and celebrates creation and the human body. And by rising from the dead, Jesus and God affirm creation. As Bell says, "Resurrection isn't just affirmation that it's good to be human. Resurrection is affirmation of all creation."

So resurrection is the culmination of Jesus' radical challenge to the powers of the world, and it's an affirmation of creation. This affirmation and challenge is at the heart of the Christian faith, of the good news, the gospel, that Jesus brought.

And yet the church, the would-be carrier of that faith, has so often warped that challenge and affirmation. The church has colluded with the current powers of the world, in support of slavery, in defence of war, in the continuation of economic injustice.

Not all the church, and not always - there have always been those who have followed Jesus' path of challenge and affirmation. In our own time and place, the church has begun to challenge economic injustice - for example through the witness of the Joint Public Issues Team, or the campaigning and writing of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Too often, it is still responsible for moral injustice, however, in particular in the continuing campaign against gay rights by too many within the church.

For a faith founded on resurrection, on challenge and affirmation, to stand against the love of two adults simply because they are of the same gender is not just illogical. It is a denial of the resurrection, of the foundation of Christianity. Homophobia has no place in the gospel. Campaigns against same-sex marriage are a denial of the truth of our Christian faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

We are an Easter people, we followers of Jesus. May we live it, and show the challenge and affirmation of the resurrection to those we meet and in all areas of our lives.