General


It feels odd to be back in Croydon. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks with others from the church in this area, visiting the Anglican churches in Central Zimbabwe. It’s a link we’ve had for a long time, supporting each other in many different ways. While we were there we dedicated a hospital the church is building (at present the whole area has none at all), and attended an anniversary celebration. If any of you find church services a bit long, in Zimbabwe they can be into five hours on special occasions like that.

What’s really amazing to me is what the people in Zimbawe achieve in a country whose economy is at rock bottom. Unemployment is 80% (that is not a misprint). The currency collapsed years ago so everyone uses US dollars, and it seems to me, they have to pay US prices. But they haven’t given up, or just sat there waiting for someone else to sort out their problems. Despite the country being in deep trouble, local people – especially in the churches – are doing extraordinary things for themselves and one another: building their own schools and hospitals, setting up projects to grow food and develop jobs. While I was away Croydon’s Opportunity & Fairness Commission, which I’m chairing, published its interim report. I was sorry not to be in the country for that, but I’ve come back all the more convinced that despite national and other forces we in developed countries have many of the solutions for our local needs in our own hands. If the people of Zimbabwe are able to do so much with so little, why is it we feel so powerless?

I’m beginning to think that one of the most profound difficulties facing us in the developed world is that we’ve developed such a strong sense of our own impotence that we’re scared even to try. And of course there are far more rules and regulations.

I’m not suggesting we all just ignore the rules of our society. I am suggesting that maybe we have, collectively, internalised a sense that someone else will always stop us if we do anything that pushes the boundaries, that’s really new or radical. Maybe we’re living a myth of powerlessness, while all the time having power we just don’t use. I think it could be worth finding out.

I’m walking backwards for Christmas,
Across the Irish Sea,
I’m walking backwards for Christmas,
It’s the only thing for me.

Spike Milligan was a comic genius – and he didn’t just talk nonsense. He walked backwards for Christmas. Whichever way round you tried it, we’ve walked through it now – Christmas is nearly over, though some of us try to hold out till Twelfth Night. For a lot of us Christmas is a time for walking backwards, looking back in nostalgia and remembrance to the Christmases we enjoyed – or even the ones we wish we had enjoyed but never quite happened. Then comes the New Year – the time to put all that behind us and look forward.

But it’s not that simple. It’s not by mistake that January is named for the ancient Roman god Janus, the god of doorways, the god with two faces, one facing the past, one the future. As the makers of New Year’s resolutions find every year, you can’t just become someone else by an effort of will on the morning of January 1st. We all take our past with us, however resolutely we try to look to the future.

In the same way, even if we try to look back nostalgically to an imagined Christmas, we’re still walking, even if it might be backwards, into our future. Our past and our future – however old we may be, or how young – are equally important in making us who we are. Some people think of the past as just a memory to be looked at from a distance, while the future is the real place for us to live. Others regard the past as the unalterable template of our lives, for good or ill, which the future will have to conform to. Neither of those are really true.

We cannot repeat the past, whether we’d like to or not, nor can we walk away from it. We cannot create a new future which is completely unrelated to what we have been. But we can decide how we will use our past and our future to enable us to live the lives we know we are really capable of. The past need not be just nostalgia, or regret – the future need not be unrealistic optimism or fearful anticipation.

The years roll on and on. January 2014 is really not that likely to be hugely different from December 2013. The real difference comes with the breaking in – if we will let it – of the life of God into our own lives. That’s not an exercise in nostalgia, but a gift which transforms our whole lives, past, present and future, by fulfilling them with the life of God. God’s Christmas present to us is the gift of ourselves – ourselves as we wish, in our best moments, we could be. It’s the gift of reconciliation with our past, and hope for the future.

Yesterday I was changing trains. As I came down the steps, I walked past a lady who was slowly and painfully descending, bumping her child in a pushchair from one step to the other. Normally, I would of course have offered to carry the pushchair with her. But I couldn’t – I have recently undergone an operation which means “no heavy lifting”. It was embarrassing: I don’t look different, and i don’t feel that different. But there are some things I just can’t do.

It’s a new and unusual situation for me, but of course it is the norm for many – including many of you reading this blog. My brief brush with disability, which will (I hope) last only a few weeks, has given me a new respect for people who live with disability day by day. It’s not only the inability to do certain things, or even the embarrassment of needing help. What I have been very aware of is that nagging feeling that you don’t quite fit. The world is constructed around expectations of a certain level of ability, which differs according to your age, and possibly other less reasonable factors like gender.

If you can’t do the things that you “should” be capable of at first glance, you feel as if you should be apologising for yourself. Certainly when I was going down the stairs at the railway station I felt an irrational desire to apologise to the woman with the pushchair, to explain why I was unable to help her, maybe even to show her my scar!

I’m not sure what can be done about this; I suspect a lot of it is hardwired into us. It would seem a little extreme to inflict temporary disability on everybody in order to understand more of what it’s like, but that might be the only thing that would overcome our unconscious judgements on others.

I’m sitting in the Charles Dickens on Union St, enjoying a high quality glass of cider, while the first game of the new Premiership season is playing on the TV. And I realise my heart is sinking.

After all these years of avid interest, after all that hope and disappointment, I find myself thinking ‘oh, that circus again’. I think it was the great Bale transfer controversy which finally pushed me too far. The idea that anyone could even think about a value for one person of 100 million euros – it’s not a world I want to be part of any more. Success in football has for a long time depended on the depth of pockets rather than anything else. I’m not a fan of the way money buys power in the rest if life – so why in football?

So though I still love sport, I can’t connect any more with this financial arm-wrestling which is the sub-text of every Premiership match. So Spurs will have to manage without me from now on (I’m sure it’ll break AVB’s heart). Enjoy, those of you who do. It’s a more interesting form of capitalism than share prices, after all. But count me out.

The apparent inability of the editor of the Independent to read Lord Leveson’s letter, and his obvious inability to keep it confidential, just add a couple more arguments to the ‘indictment’.

It’s not an indictment, of course: Lord Leveson wrote informing the editors of all the criticisms that might be made. That doesn’t mean he’s going to uphold them all, and because it was a letter about possible criticisms, of course it didn’t include any balancing comments in the other direction. But if by chance it didn’t include anything on the lines of accusing the press of lazy or wilful misrepresentation, then it should now.

I suppose people wouldn’t go into journalism if they had a natural bent for keeping confidences; clearly they don’t have much of a natural bent for self-preservation either. I’d have thought that this was a really good time for a newspaper editor to note when a letter from Lord Leveson was marked confidential. Is it the long experience of riding roughshod over other people’s confidentiality that makes it impossible even to keep your own?

I suppose I should make it clear that I’m relying on a (BBC) media report of this whole thing. Maybe Mr Blackhurst has been mis-represented too …

Unless a fast-free period has been declared, Orthodox Christians are to keep a strict fast every Wednesday and Friday.
abbamoses.com

Canon 1251 Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
http://www.catholic.org/clife/lent/abfast.php

Michael Mosley’s interesting discovery of the 5:2 diet – which at first blush looks like a much more sustainable and healthy way of keeping weight down than any other I’ve heard of – isn’t all that much of a discovery. In an age when only scientific evidence counts, though, it might help us to appreciate again the wisdom of the ancient Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions of abstinence.

As the quotation above shows, Christianity has a long tradition of abstinence – two days a week originally. The Christian community probably inherited it from contemporary pious Jewish practice (though it was never a requirement of the Law), though they changed the days because it made sense for one fast day to be Friday, the day of the crucifixion. Islam continued to recommend abstinence on Mondays and Thursdays, probably the same days as Jewish practice.

And what is fasting / abstinence in this context? In the Christian tradition, not an absolute prohibition on food, certainly. catholic.org again: ‘The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity.’ And abbamoses.com agrees: ‘When fasting, we should eat simply and modestly. Monastics eat only one full meal a day on strict fast days’. That’s awfully close to the 500/600 calories suggested for the abstinence days on the 5:2 diet.

Confession time: I’ve become aware that as a bishop, you get lots of opportunities to eat very fattening food. There’s definitely more of me than there used to be. So why is it that it took an article in the Daily Telegraph (not my normal paper, you will understand) to remind me of the resources in my own tradition? I just hadn’t made the connection between what I knew as a part of church tradition, and my own life.

Of course in the faith traditions, abstinence isn’t about weight loss: that’s a phenomenon of modern times, for most of us. Much more deeply, it’s about discipline: living the best life for you, not the easiest. So, yes I am going to try to adopt the Christian pattern of abstinence. If I turn down your lovely sponge cake, please try not to be too offended. And I am (more importantly) going to try to pay more attention to the wisdom of the church’s tradition, without having to have it filtered through popular science first.

Well, we’ve had it both ways! The British joy of moaning and anticipating disaster before the Games, and then the joy of success during them. Never can the nation have been more united.

And that’s what’s best about the Games – from the opening ceremony onwards, they’ve helped us feel connected to one another. It takes quite a lot to force us individualistic Brits into relationship. But like nuclear fusion (well, this is a night for superlatives), when it happens it releases a lot of energy.

How many anti-Olympic Eeyores are there now? I’d keep your heads down for a while if I were you. This joy won’t be easily killed.

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