Does it Matter What the Churches Do?

Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I thought aloud about how we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in the light of the recent withdrawal agreement and on-going Brexit debate, I have been musing on the role of the Churches. There are those who think that the Churches should be entirely excluded from political discussion (though they are often happy for the Churches to pick up the tabs, so to say, for anything the State is reluctant to fund); others expect the Churches to give some kind of moral leadership (though they tend to be selective about what is to be deemed ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t); and others again who think all religion is irrelevant and the Churches especially so (though some seem quite ready to reap the benefits of the Churches’ educational work, for example, as in the case of Professor Alice Roberts). What interests me, however, is the role of the Churches in a post-Brexit world. Some are quietly preparing for a social doomsday, having taken to heart warnings about potential food shortages, unemployment and increased poverty. I think we can take the Churches’ response to such things for granted. Although some may dislike my saying so, Christians always respond generously to appeals for help and take an active part in charitable works that provide food and shelter for the needy. What is of more interest to me is how the Churches will meet the challenge of a Britain severed from the rest of Europe and more isolated internationally than she has been for over forty years.

The brave new world posited by those who think Brexit a good thing tends to look to a golden future some years hence. There is comparatively little acknowledgement that the immediate future could be difficult, though in recent weeks even such ardent Brexiteers as Jacob Rees-Mogg have conceded that the benefits of Brexit may be a long time a-coming. In such circumstance, I suggest that what the Churches do is of critical importance. There may be comparatively few church-goers in Britain today, but the influence of the Churches is still felt; and one of the areas in which that influence is important is in the sense of international connectedness and engagement. As a Catholic, I have always had a vivid sense of belonging to an organization that transcends national boundaries. Sometimes that in itself has led to difficulty, as when directives come from Rome that reflect the situation in Africa or Asia, for example, or a single kind of vernacular is imposed that is far removed from the spoken English of these Islands,. On the whole, however, the international character of Catholicism does us a useful service. We are constantly being reminded of our cross-border connections. Every time Mass is said, the pope of the day is named in the Eucharistic Prayer; papal encyclicals are read from our pulpits and so on and so forth. But is that enough? Will the Churches — not just the Catholic Church — have to work harder to maintain that sense of engagement?

Everyone knows that the advent of the internet and Social Media has transformed how we see and interact with the rest of the world, but many who initially embraced cyberspace with enthusiasm are now becoming tired of its negative aspects. Giving up Social Media, abandoning the internet, disengaging is becoming increasingly popular. We have had our fill of online anger, trolling and bullying; we don’t want ‘news’ we can’t trust; we are suspicious of the way in which we are being manipulated by China, Russia or even our own government. I must confess that I have myself been tempted to disengage, but I am held back by one thought. If we abandon cyberspace to the demons of our culture, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the consequences. If the Churches do not think long and hard about how they can best use the opportunities offered by the internet to create and maintain a sense of connectedness with other peoples, they will have failed in part of their mission — only a part, however. I am not one of those who think the internet is the solution to everything. The bigger challenge facing the Churches in a post-Brexit world will be linked to opposition to isolationism, moral, philosophical and actual. How we shall meet that challenge, I don’t know, but I am convinced that the role of those of us committed to prayer in the monastic tradition will be as important in the twenty-first century as at any time in the past. The paradox contained in that statement, like the tension between being in but not of the world, is one that each of us must work out for ourselves, not just as individuals but as members of a greater whole.

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Does it Matter What One Thinks?

I have a hunch that the question posed in the title to this post will elicit different answers from men and women. Broadly speaking, men tend to assume that what they think and say matters. They pride themselves on being reasonable, objective, and well-informed. Many of them are, and I treasure the conversations I have had with such, especially those who have stretched my mind and understanding. I think it fair to say, however, that women are in a less fortunate position. No matter how intelligent or well-educated a woman may be, she will often find her opinion disparaged or disregarded for no other reason that that she is a woman. I have sometimes chuckled a little chuckle when taking part in conversations where some hapless man has kindly explained something to a female friend or colleague I know to be an expert in the subject under discussion. I notice that in most such cases the woman turns the conversation or lapses into silence rather than confronting her interlocutor. Is that weakness or wisdom? Does it matter what one thinks?

I have been thinking about this in the light of what St Benedict has to say about the uses and abuses of speech and the current Brexit debate. Some of the debate has not really been debate at all but a trading of slogans and insults that has done nothing to help any of us to a deeper understanding of the complex issues involved. Likewise, some of the personal attacks on individuals have been 0beyond the pale. Indeed, some of those on Theresa May have been so ugly that I have found myself sympathizing with her — something I never thought I could. But sympathy is not the same as agreement. In a democracy one has both the right and the duty to speak out; but there is a catch. To speak from a position of knowledge is one thing; to speak from a position of ignorance is quite another. Yesterday’s acceptance by the other EU member states of the so-called Brexit deal presents every UK citizen with a challenge that has enormous implications for the future. How we deal with it matters, but do any of us know exactly how we should?

The only constructive suggestion I can make is one most readers will be expecting: to listen carefully to what others say, to weigh their words and exercise restraint in responding, especially when negative emotions are aroused. It is very easy to echo the anger of another without being aware that one is doing so. This morning I noticed quite a lot of anger on Facebook, but I am certain many of the angriest were totally unaware that their words might stir up a corresponding anger in their readers — though more directed at them than the objects they had intended. It is a perennial problem. We feel things deeply and choose words that express our feelings, letting them tumble out of us without any checks or balances. Sometimes, however,  a pause to reflect can be beneficial. Not everything has to be voiced as loudly as possible. Benedict expects his monks to be thoughtful and when they do speak, to do so in a few, well-chosen words (RB 7. 60–61). I think there is something in that for all of us, male or female, for or against Brexit or any other burning topic of the day, don’t you?

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The Very Young and Very Old (Again)

Yesterday we re-read St Benedict’s challenging chapter on the care of the sick; today he gives us just a few sentences about the very young and the very old, most of which concern food and the times of meals (RB 37). I think that demonstrates his first-hand experience of community life and his sympathy with those who might easily be overlooked as ‘too demanding’. Most of us can remember what it was like to be really, really hungry as youngsters, when we could devour huge plates of food and remain whiplash thin. Some of us may have reached the age when the appetite has to be tempted, or when a delay in regular meal-times causes all kinds of discomfort. Either way, we know that something as basic as food profoundly affects our sense of well-being.

I think RB 37 is a good reminder that we can be too focused on our own agenda to be truly mindful of the needs of others who may be less able than we are to express their views or ask for help. Benedict is ever the realist. Human nature inclines us to be sympathetic to both old and young, he says, but the Rule must still make provision for them (RB 37.1). He knows we can fail those who are weak and defenceless because we don’t really ‘see’ them. This morning I re-read an oldish (July 2018) article in the Independent about the numbers of terminally ill people who are homeless and dying on our streets. We don’t ‘see’ them, either. As our M.P.s and others debate the proposed Brexit exit deal Theresa May has announced, we need to recall that, in the end, abstractions like sovereignty must be enfleshed in the lives of real people; that, whatever decisions are ultimately made, serving the common good may require sacrifice as well as gain. Both young and old have their own special vulnerabilities. A civilized society will not ignore them

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A Terrible Irony

Yesterday we read of the death of Joachim Ronneberg, the brave Norwegian who, with five others, in a daring raid on Rjukan, Telemark, in 1943 effectively put an end to Nazi attempts to develop an atomic bomb. We also read of President Trump’s threat to start another arms race by withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing here a terrible irony. In eighty years we have swung from thinking nuclear war a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs, to relying upon a nuclear arsenal to ‘keep us safe’. I’m not an expert in what keeps people safe from war or violence, but I have a hunch that those who amass weapons are inclined to use them or, at least, become more casual about using them when they perceive a threat to something they value. The world’s leaders usually have bunkers to go to; it is the ordinary man, woman and child who must bear the brunt of the violence. We saw that in Japan at the end of World War II. Pray God we never see it again.

So, why do I write about this today? It is for the simple reason that, although it is our leaders who decide issues of war and peace, we, as citizens, have a huge responsibility to hold our leaders to account, to make our views known and not allow the world to blunder into another war — one in which we know there will be no winners. If we don’t, we give our leaders carte blanche to perpetrate whatever wrong they choose. No one in their right mind would choose destruction, but it has often been the unintended consequence of not being challenged or failing to foresee the consequences of certain policies or actions. Today I’m praying for wisdom and restraint in China, Russia and the U.S.A. and in all those lesser states, like North Korea, that will be taking a keen interest in how the world reacts.

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The Need for Co-Operation

This could be called a political post, but it is not a party political post. The distinction is important because there are those who argue that the Church (meaning usually clergy and religious) should never express any opinion, either as individuals or as an organization, about the way in which society functions, the laws that govern it or the values it seeks to express. I don’t subscribe to that view for the simple reason that the Church (which is more than just clergy and religious) is concerned with life on earth as much as life hereafter. Those familiar with the political thought of St Thomas Aquinas know that he called the state societas christiana. In other words, the fundamental relationship between citizens is meant to be what is implied by the word ‘society’ — friendly, companionable, mutually beneficial. Sadly, I’m not sure we can say that British society reflects that; we definitely cannot assert it of international relations.

You do not need me to list all the matters that contribute to widespread unease about where we are going either as a country or as a world. Different factors affect us in different degree, according to our personal experience or feelings of vulnerability, and there are a host of proposed solutions vying for our attention. I think, however, one need stands out above all others: the need for co-operation. At a time when many are pursuing ‘go it alone’ policies, it is increasingly clear that we cannot actually do that. We cannot solve the problem of climate change without action on a global scale. We cannot maintain the economic structures of America and Europe without reference to Asia or Africa. Perhaps most important of all, we cannot retain our own humanity without acknowledging and valuing the humanity of others.

This morning, as I glanced at the BBC headlines, I was struck by how much pain and suffering is caused by our wanting to dominate rather than co-operate. Those who live in community know how hard it can be to co-operate with others, but is there really any alternative? Do we want a world in which a few grab all there is to grab and the rest are condemned to a form of slavery? Don’t we want to live as friends to each other, despite our differences? That is not a mere rhetorical question. It is one we must ask ourselves every day because the answer we give will determine our conduct and the shape of the society — remember that word! — in which we live. For Christians, it also has an eschatalogical dimension: it should make us uncomfortable; it should make us act.

I began with Aristotle, mediated by Aquinas, but I’ll end with Plato: ‘it is no mean topic that engages us, for our subject is, how we should order our life.’ (Republic, 352.D)

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Sportsmanship and Beyond

No one could accuse me of being ‘sporty’. I can enjoy watching cricket or tennis, but the only games I have taken part in with any real pleasure are croquet, which requires low cunning and dogged persistence, and badminton, which, being fast and furious, usually ended fairly quickly in my defeat. I was, however, brought up in the tradition of being ‘sporting’. With the possible exception of croquet, therefore, (see above), it was impressed upon me at an early age that one must always play fair, accept the umpire’s decision, and applaud one’s victorious opponent as one quit the field. I wonder where some of those old courtesies and rituals have gone. I have no opinion on the Serena Williams v. Naomi Osaka match, for example, other than being horrified by the crowd’s booing of Osaka and Williams’ coldness towards her. The infighting tearing the Conservative party apart has much the same effect on me, as do the Labour party’s endless shiftings on the subject of anti-semitism. It seems our politicians are only interested in securing personal advantage — and don’t mind how they achieve it. The Church is no better and often, in fact, far worse. It all looks rather gloomy. With the decline of sportsmanship has gone a decline in general standards of behaviour. All too often it’s ‘me, me, me’.

There is, however, a ray of light piercing the gloom. The media may concentrate on the unsportsmanlike shenanigans of politicians and celebrities, but we all know lots of ordinary, decent people whose kindness and care for others is manifested daily. Their deeds will never make the headlines, but theirs are the cups of cold water given in Christ’s name or out of sheer human concern that transform life for so many and, goodness, don’t we need them! The Save the Children Fund has estimated that extreme hunger could kill 600,000 children in war zones this year. There have been over a thousand instances of humanitarian aid being blocked by those fighting one another in Syria, Yemen, etc. But I suspect that ordinary, decent people will go on trying to alleviate such situations. They will give aid, brave dangerous areas and refuse to give in. They are not being sporting, they are going far beyond that. If only our politicians and celebrities would take note!

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A Bad Day for Religion?

A couple of reports caught my eye as I skimmed the news headlines this morning. One suggested that societies become wealthier as they lose their religion, the other that a majority of people in this country think that religion is the main cause of wars.* Are we back to the Durkheim versus Weber debate, I wondered, as I paused to think what might have led to these conclusions. The idea that we may become materially richer once we drop the restraints of religion strikes me as being self-evident. Most of the religions I can think of, not just Judaism or Christianity, stress honesty, charity towards others and similar checks on the untrammelled pursuit of material gain. No morality works better than the Protestant Work Ethic when it comes to amassing money, surely? So, if you want to be rich, you had better aim at being fundamentally selfish and ditch your religion — but don’t be surprised if you aren’t necessarily happy. I imagine it is possible to be both rich and happy but it cannot be assumed, any more than being poor and happy can. There seems to be something in us as human beings that makes us want to be loved, and to be loved there generally has to be something that others find loveable. A selfish focus on gain for oneself isn’t usually that.

Religion as the cause of war or volence is trickier. Are we talking about religion or the public perception of religion? The rise of Islamist terrorism has tended to make us all nervous of the kind of religious fundamentalism that sees inflicting death on others as a good act. Those of a more historical bent like to remember the religious persecutions of earlier times, while those who have fallen foul of certain kinds of contemporary Christian fundamentalism are quick to point out that there is still much hatred being heaped upon those who do not subscribe to its tenets or conform to its expectations. (And, lest anyone be in any doubt, the fundamentalism I speak of can be found in the Catholic Church as well as in other denominations.) I have a  suspicion that blaming religion for wars and violence may be more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a carefully considered argument. It is socially acceptable to say so, but what is socially acceptable isn’t necessarily true.

That leads me back to my original question: is this a bad day for religion? I’d say it is a bad day for bad religion, certainly. But it would be silly to stop there. It is an opportunity for those of us who claim to be religious to examine how we actually live our religion and resolve to do better. Chesterton once observed that it wasn’t that Christianity had been tried and found wanting but that it had never been tried at all. That is an uncomfortable reminder that the way in which those of us who are Christians try to live the gospel really matters. We may never be rich in this world’s goods (see above) but to be rich towards God and his children, that is our aim. And the shocking truth is that if we who are Christians really were all that we are called to be, no one would ever think of blaming religion for the wars and violence that scar the face of the earth, for they wouldn’t exist; nor would anyone be calculating how much material wealth might flow from our dropping religion because the world would be a very different place, where the inequalities of the present order would be, quite literally, unthinkable. Utopian? Of course, but anyone who has read Utopia will know what More was criticizing and why. Couldn’t we make this into a good day for religion by our response?

*The BBC reported the first, Theos the second, but I don’t have the links to hand.

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St Henry of Bavaria and Donald Trump

Henry II, the last of the Ottonian Holy Roman emperors, is the only German king to have been canonised. His personal holiness was never in doubt, for all that he was caught up in endless military campaigns. He was actively involved in promoting Church reform and the foundation of monasteries, but some would argue that his involvement in  ecclesiastical affairs sometimes went too far. It was he, for example, who persuaded Pope Benedict VIII to include the filioque clause in the Nicene creed which led to the still-unresolved Great Schism of 1054.

‘Saintly’ is probably the last epithet anyone would think of applying to Donald Trump, but here he is, on 13 July 2018, the feast of St Henry, saying things that leave his hosts quietly choking into their handkerchiefs. Breaking all the rules of diplomacy, he swaggers his way through EU and British politics; and the danger is that, because he expresses himself crudely, we won’t necessarily hear the things we ought to hear, only those that irritate or disgust us; or, like the insertion of the filioque into the creed, we may miss the significance of something we agree to because we have our gaze fixed on another goal.

I hope that Mr Trump’s visit to the UK will clarify matters between our two countries, and that those involved in talks will keep cool heads and work for the common good. Perhaps someone should tell the President, quietly and courteously, that Britain repaid every last penny of her World War II debt to the USA. The much-vaunted help we received during the War years did not come free. Repaying the debt mattered, because there are things more important in life than making deals or producing winners and losers. Honour is one of them; trust is another; and the pursuit of peace, that Benedictine obsession, the greatest of them all.

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St Benedict and Europe (Again)

Readers of this blog may think I have written more than enough about St Benedict and Europe already. I have had more than one go at expressing my thoughts about Brexit, and as I try very hard to keep iBenedictines free from party politics, it is difficult to say more without inviting the kind of one-dimensional comment that is the moderator’s nightmare. However, the events of the last few days have concentrated minds wonderfully. The spectacle of the government disintegrating before our eyes, the fact that Brexit negotiations are still stuck at a rudimentary stage, and the grave doubts many have about the wisdom of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the way in which it was presented to the public at the time of the EU referendum combine to make me think that there is still something to be said.

When Paul VI proclaimed St Benedict patron of Europe (a title he now enjoys with several others) he was acknowledging the unique role of the Benedictines in shaping the Christian culture of the West:

Messenger of peace, moulder of union, magister of civilization, and above all herald of the religion of Christ and founder of monastic life in the West: these are the proper titles of exaltation given to St Benedict, Abbot. At the fall of the crumbling Roman Empire, while some regions of Europe seemed to have fallen into darkness and others remained as yet devoid of civilization and spiritual values, he it was who, by constant and assiduous effort, brought to birth the dawn of a new era. It was principally he and his sons, who with the cross, the book and the plough, carried Christian progress to scattered peoples from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to the plains of Poland (Cf. AAS 39 (1947), p. 453). With the cross; that is, with the law of Christ, he lent consistency and growth to the ordering of public and private life. To this end, it should be remembered that he taught humanity the primacy of divine worship through the ‘opus Dei’, i.e. through liturgical and ritual prayer. Thus it was that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture felt they constituted the one people of God; a unity that, thanks to the constant efforts of those monks who followed so illustrious a teacher, became the distinctive hallmark of the Middle Ages.

He went on to draw an analogy with the formation and purpose of what we now know as the EU. Half a century later, the optimism looks a little naive. The bright dream of the future is no more — and it isn’t ‘Brussels red tape’ that has destroyed it but horrors like Srebrenica and the resurgence of a populism that preys on the weak and rejects the stranger. The antidote many have offered is a return to the past, to a time that never was save in our imagination, and the selective recreation of a Europe that has closed its eyes to what lies beyond its borders. (The Europe I speak of includes Britain.) Perhaps it is time for a reality check, using the same Rule of St Benedict that Paul VI saw as so creative.

First and foremost, the Rule of St Benedict is about seeking God and living in a manner pleasing to him. There are no half-measures, no indulgences, no small accommodations we can make to suit our whims and fancies. The Rule catches us at every turn and leads us back to the Gospel, to living with the eyes of God always upon us, our ears always alert for his voice. The human society regulated by St Benedict, the monastic community, has what we would call ‘democratic elements’, but it is not a democracy as we understand it today. It is inclusive by its very nature, but its inclusivity is far removed from what is usually meant by that term nowadays. It is uncompromising in its insistence on virtue, orthodoxy, hard work and plain living. In other words, it is a demanding Rule — not harsh, in the way that Celtic monasticism was harsh; not burdensome, in the way that many a later rule has been; but a Rule that gets to the heart of things and asks our all. It has been an important instrument for the creation of a Christian culture without which I dare to say Europe (again including Britain) has no future. Its influence goes very deep — so deep, in fact, that we are often unaware of the Christian origin of much that we take for granted.

It isn’t fashionable to assert that Europe is Christian or it is nothing. We would much rather talk about multicultural richness and diversity. As I understand it, multiculturalism means that every culture must be accorded equal value. To suggest otherwise is to be narrow-minded, bigoted or worse. Increasingly, I think the multicultural experiment in Europe has failed, not because we do not value the gifts that other cultures bring but because it has led to lazy thinking and acting. Government attempts to define ‘British values’ have been doomed to failure because they have no real centre, nothing to hold them together. It would be more profitable, perhaps, to think about Benedict’s teaching on hospitality. RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, is welcoming, but it is the welcome of people who have confidence both in what they offer and what they receive. Do we have such confidence, or are we desperately trying to find it? Are we simply reluctant to welcome others, afraid of them, or do we we lack a sense of ‘home’? It is worth thinking about that for a moment.

To welcome others to one’s home, one must first have a home, which means a sense of identity, a uniqueness we can share but not forego. Our home doesn’t need to be a fortress, but it does need to be somewhere we can relax, feel at ease, know our place. For me as an Englishwoman, a Catholic and a Benedictine, that sense of home is undoubtedly linked to my country, my Church and my sense of Europe as the natural expression of my cultural identity. I hope that doesn’t make me unappreciative or fearful of what lies outside or beyond. Without roots, the tree cannot flourish. I know I cannot, and what is true of the individual is also true of Europe. There are indeed many things of which Christian Europe should repent; many things that, even today, we do not see clearly enough to know whether they are as they should be or not; but if we give up on the ‘Christian’, what is left? Only a soulless concentration on wealth, which forces the weakest under, and a growing inequality untempered by conscience or ideas of altruism. Surely we can do better than that?

St Benedict has many quotable sentences in his Rule, and to those of us who know the text by heart, they tend to come unbidden at various moments of the day. One that often comes to mind is RB 4.74, Et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare, Never to despair of God’s mercy. Whatever the difficulties we face, however great the chaos that threatens us, there is not merely the hope but the fact of God’s mercy. It may not come to us in the way we are expecting, but come it most certainly will. We must be ready to receive it.

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Left, Right, and Centre

Have you noticed how the world is divided into left, right and centre? Those who are on the right of the political spectrum spit the word ‘leftist’ whenever they wish to disapprove of something (I’ve even heard it used of cooking!); those on the political left tend to prefer ‘fascist’ or, in this country, ‘Tory’, to express deep, inner loathing of something or someone. Most of the time what provokes their ire has nothing to do with politics as such, which leaves old-fashioned centrists bemused, because they are apparently disliked by everyone as lily-livered wimps. Applied to the Church, the preferred terms are ‘traditionalist’ and ‘liberal’, which leaves those of us who prefer just to call ourselves Catholics in an awkward position, because we clearly have no real identity — save for the one that matters, in Christo. I say that, not to be ‘smart’ or score a point, but because I believe it to be true. So much of daily life has become a battleground, but not a battleground of ideas and arguments, but of slogans and sound-bites. That is dangerous because we can end up failing to examine what lies behind the words and may even find ourselves advocating views we do not genuinely hold.

Today, in Britain, we face a crisis of government with the resignation of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, and all that flows from his decision. The pundits are already busy and Social Media will soon be awash with accusations and counter-accusations. I shall be taking a day offline, as I do from time to time, but today with a particular purpose in mind. I believe we need to pray for wisdom and right judgement, and I know I can’t do that if I am tapping into other people’s anger and abuse all the time (it comes up unbidden on my Twitter stream, for example). Perhaps you will join me: not in a total fast, perhaps, but in setting aside a definite time when you will pray for the Holy Spirit to inform our politicians’ decisions, and for them to be free of the left, right and centre stranglehold on thinking that has become characteristic of our age.

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