Though a glass darkly – 31

Hail Mary, full of grace

I see that COVID restrictions in France have caused the cancellation of Lyon’s Fête des Lumières this year.  Normally the Festival is held each year on December 8th, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception.

Fête des Lumières, Lyon

Lyon thanks the Virgin for saving the city by lighting hundreds of candles which are placed in windows across the city. And there is a candle-lit procession from the Cathedral in the old town up the steep hill to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a huge, vaguely Byzantine, 19th century church which dominates the city.  The festival gives thanks to the Virgin for saving the city of Lyon from the bubonic plague that swept across France in 1643. And for saving the city again from a cholera epidemic in 1832. And from the Prussian invasion in 1870. Or possibly just for ensuring victory over the socialists and in expiation of the sins of modern France.

When I was clearing out my collection of biblical commentaries, a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of Marina Warner’s book, Alone of all her sex: the myth and cult of the Virgin Mary. Warner was at Oxford at the same time as me; she was Editor of Isis, and I once saw her at a party, sitting on a sofa next to Emma Rothschild. They both looked classier and better-dressed than the rest of us. [Her grandfather, for those who need to know, was Sir Pelham ‘Plum’ Warner, captain of the England cricket team before the First World War, and thereafter an august and much respected member of the MCC. Jack Fingleton is scathing about his two-faced behaviour over the Bodyline controversy.]  Dame Marina Warner is not a cricketer. But she has eleven honorary degrees and is a respected academic and a wide-ranging cultural historian.

Alone of all her sex

Warner is from a Catholic background and confesses that invocation to the Virgin Mary marked out the days of her childhood. “On February 2, the feast of the Purification, we wore starched white veils of tulle that stood out around us like a nimbus … “. On the same day her school laid lilies at the Virgin’s statue. Warner created a grotto for prayer under a rhododendron bush. The Virgin was faithful and steadfast, but she demanded purity; which was most often understood as sexual chastity.

Alone of all her sex

This book does not pursue the historical Mary; of whom we know little. But it traces the evolution of the four Catholic dogma: her divine motherhood and her virginity, both proclaimed by early Councils of the Church; the immaculate conception, proclaimed in 1854; and her assumption, body and soul, into heaven, proclaimed  by Pope Pius XII in 1950. The book explores the aspects of her person and her cult. “Whether we regard the Virgin Mary as the most sublime and beautiful image of man’s struggle towards the good and the pure, or as the most pitiable product of ignorance and superstition, she represents a central theme in the history of western attitudes to women.”

Mary in the Gospels and in the Apocrypha

Our knowledge of Mary in Scripture is largely limited to the infancy narratives in Matthew and in Luke. Which Warner assumes to be later additions, and not historic. Thus Matthew’s gospel is a reworking of Old Testament themes with Jesus as the new Moses. “Luke’s infancy Gospel is the scriptural source for all the great mysteries of the Virgin”; she is at the centre of the Lucan narrative. Of the four declared dogmas, her divine motherhood, her virginity, her immaculate conception, and her bodily assumption into heaven, only the first can be attributed to Scripture. 

The myth of the Virgin owes much to two eastern, apocryphal books, Pseudo-Matthew and The Book of James. The eastern church received The Book of James as authentic. But it was not translated into Latin until the 16th century. Since when Mary’s mother, St Anne, has become a historical woman with an official cult; as late as 1954 Pope Pius XII was recommending pilgrimage to her shrine in Brittany. The book, and the subsequent apocryphal books which it influenced, focussed attention on the miraculous virginity of Mary; and thus played a crucial part in shaping the story of the Virgin Mary as we receive it today.

The Virgin Birth

In the pre-Christian Roman Empire virgin birth was a sign of a man’s divinity. Christians are worried about the parallel between Christ’s birth and the dozens of virgin births of classical mythology. Warner notes that Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexander were all believed to have been born of a woman by the intervention of a divine spirit. Catholic orthodoxy, e.g. the Council of Trent, continued to uphold the virginity of Mary both during and after the birth of Jesus. But the Second Vatican Council of 1964 refrained from proclaiming this as an article of faith. 

The belief that sexual intercourse was linked to original sin is the reason for the belief in the virgin birth. “The son of God chose to be born from a virgin mother because this was the only way a child could enter the world without sin.” From the 3rd century Christians retreated up the Nile valley to lives of solitude and abstinence. Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome all equated chastity with holiness. 

The virgin martyr is one of Christianity’s enduring types. In Christian hagiography the sado-masochistic suffering of both male and female martyrs is startling. The female martyrs are assaulted in a variety of ingenious and often sexual ways.  Perhaps because virginity was associated with wholeness, and with power. Warner suggests that the nun’s vocation is both oppressive and liberating; founded in contempt of, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex. According to St Augustine, the marriage of Joseph and Mary, in which there was no sexual intercourse, was the model marriage; a relationship bound by a mutual vow of abstinence.

The Immaculate Conception

In December 1854 Pope Pius IX officially proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary; the only human creature free of the taint of original sin.  In doing so he proclaimed as a dogma something that had been discussed since the 12th century. This doctrine is a significant barrier to the ecumenical movement; the Reformed churches recoil from the superhuman exaltation of Mary that the doctrine implies. [Quite right too !] The Immaculate Conception was anathema to the Reformers. But the Jesuits, founded in 1534, were particularly zealous in their teaching of the doctrine. When Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine in 1854, it was the culmination of a lengthy struggle within the Catholic Church. Four years later, Warner suggests [tongue in cheek ?],  the doctrine was ratified by the appearance of the Virgin at Lourdes.

The Assumption

The Feast of the Dormition arrived from the eastern church in the 7th century, and the name changes to ‘Assumption’ in 9th century liturgical calendars. Mary’s bodily translation into heaven inspired a host of Renaissance painters, notably Titian. The Catholic dogma of the Assumption was not proclaimed until 1950, when the announcement was made on a balcony at the Vatican and was greeted by thunderous applause from a crowd estimated at nearly a million. It was the climax of centuries of tradition. The underlying theological justification depends on the Christian equivalence between sex and death, and by extension between the Virgin’s purity and her freedom from the dissolution of the grave. At least, I think that is the argument.

A bit confused

I must confess that this book leaves me a bit confused. Warner’s scholarship is impressive. And her observations are backed up by a huge array of artistic and literary references. And she occasionally comes out with some striking phrases. In the conclusion she suggests that any goddess is better than no goddess at all; that “the sombre-suited masculine world of the Protestant religion is altogether too much like a gentleman’s club to which the ladies are only admitted on special days.” But that of course was before these days of woman priests and woman bishops.

Our Lady – Intercessor

The taxonomy is a bit confusing; the section headings – Virgin, Queen, Bride, Mother, and Intercessor – do not fit tidily with the four Catholic dogma. Which makes for quite a bit of repetition.  And there is this centuries-old hang-up about sex. Warner concedes, after a chapter on Dante, Beatrice, and the Virgin Mary: “sometimes this long and durable obsession with chastity perpetuated by the Church appears to be an incomprehensible attack of mass lunacy.”

A later chapter acknowledges that the one biological function allowed to the Virgin was that of suckling. In the Old Testament milk and honey are symbols of the promised land. Milk was a crucial metaphor for the gift of life. The Romans also connected milk with the heavens; Juno’s milk, when she was nursing Hercules, sprayed across the heavens to give us The Milky Way. Mary’s milk was an emanation from heaven; and St Bernard believed he had tasted it with his own lips. But as the Renaissance advanced so the image of the nursing Virgin waned in popularity. The wine Liebfraumilch is one of the reminders of this once common image of the Virgin’s lactation. I may never be able to drink German wine in the same way again.

Role models

The Church needed role models of sinners who repented. Clearly the Virgin was not eligible, as someone who was pure and without sin. So – this role was played by Mary Magdalene. For the Catholic church Mary Magdalene is the prototype of the penitent whore; who neatly combines Christianity’s fear  of women, its identification of physical beauty with temptation, and its practice of bodily mortification.  Warner summarises: “Together the Virgin and the Magdalene form a diptych of Christian patriarchy’s ideas of woman … there is no place in the conceptual architecture of Christian society for a single woman who is neither a virgin nor a whore”.

Update in 2013

Warner’s book was first published in the UK back in 1975. But there is a revised edition published a few years back by Oxford University Press. Writing in the Church Times in 2013, when the new edition appeared, Warner noted that the Virgin Mary continues to be loved and revered, invoked and depicted even well outside the sphere of the Roman Catholic church. Instead of being the figurehead of the long crusade against Communism, and the emblem of kings and Fascist dictators from Europe to Central and South America, she has evolved into a counter-cultural peace symbol. Warner sees links with the voodoo goddess Erzulie, or the candomblé (an African-originated or Afro-Brazilian religion) figure of Iemaja as distinct from the traditional Madonna. It isn’t that her myth has died – far from it; but it has changed with regard to its historic meanings, alliances, and effects.

The House of Mary in Ephesus

In 2013 Warner suggests that the miraculous virgin birth is now a less prominent issue. Instead ethical questions about the relations of Church and State, justice, equality of means, of women and children’s survival, and stewardship of nature – have crystallised around the traditional figure of Mary in her aspects as the Mother of Mercy, and advocate and protectress of the poor. And it is not only the self-professed faithful who find this Mary an inspiration. “It is a long time since I lost my faith in Mary”, she writes “…  but I find that the symbolism of mercy and love that her figure has traditionally expressed has migrated, and now shapes secular imagery and events. Roman Catholic worship and moral teaching no longer monopolise it, or control its significance.”


There was stuff here that was new to me. But I guess that I won’t be reading the book again.  The story of Mary has undoubtedly inspired artists and story-tellers down the centuries. And I think that her story, and that of Joseph too, can speak powerfully to us about collaborating with God in order that his purposes may. be fulfilled. And that the story can speak to us too about Christian parenting. But I find the whole emphasis on the virgin birth [and the immaculate conception too] distinctly unhelpful. Such dogma seems to me to totally undermine the real miracle of the incarnation, the  physicality and the earthiness of the Word made Flesh, Was it Selwyn Hughes who used to say that mud and blood were very close in the Bethlehem stable ?

December 2020

Through a glass darkly – 30

Changing Places

Just typing those words brings up odd memories and connections. Changing Places was the title of a very funny campus novel [of 1975], in which the conformist University of Rummidge [Birmingham] lecturer, Philip Swallow, does an exchange with the ebullient, cigar-chewing Euphoria University [Berkeley] academic. Morris Zapp.   But in a very different culture Changing Places is now the name of a pressure group  that campaigns for fully accessible public toilets for people with profound and multiple disabilities. And also for old people. Perhaps they are the same group ?

I’m not wanting to write about either of those things. Instead, aware that it is almost exactly a year since we went to do locum ministry in Ankara, I have been reading a book which I first saw there in the chaplaincy flat; Twice a Stranger by the journalist Bruce Clark. It is an excellent book.

The treaty of Lausanne

After the 1914-18 war the situation in Greece and Turkey was very confused. In the culturally and confessionally diverse Ottoman world, modernity led not to integration but to ethnic division. People and religions were forced to live separately because no way of co-existence could be found. 

The separation was a solution to an immediate political crisis. But population transfer was the culmination of a long historical process. The Sultans’ retreat from Europe began with the Serbian revolt of 1804 and the creation of a new, self-consciously Christian kingdom of Greece in 1829. Greece was poverty-stricken. Ambitious Ottoman Greeks found more opportunities elsewhere, in Anatolia. But conflict engulfed Anatolia in 1919 when a Greek expeditionary force [supported by European powers and by Lloyd-George] invaded the nascent Turkey and occupied Smyrna. In 1922 the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal  drove the Greeks back into the sea. New borders were drawn up. Economic assets were distributed. “Henceforth, it was determined, Greece would be an almost entirely Orthodox Christian country, while in Turkey the overwhelming majority of citizens would be Muslims.” The terms of the divorce were contained in the Treaty of Lausanne in January 1923. Which allowed for substantial population exchange: some 400,000 Muslims in Greece [speaking Greek, Albanian, and Bulgarian as well as Turkish] were deported [back to Turkey]; and some 500,000 Turkish-speaking Christians who had lived in Anatolia were shipped to Greece.

Treaty of Lausanne, 1923

The modern societies of Turkey and Greece were significantly shaped by this exchange. Anatolia lost virtually all its traders and entrepreneurs, and most professional people and skilled craftsmen. While Athens still has a significant minority of people from Asia Minor origins. A new dogma of nationalism emerged. Before 1923 ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ had little meaning. But “the treaty of Lausanne … was inspired by a new way of looking at human society; one that dealt in hard, hermetically sealed categories, and insisted that every individual and family must belong to one nation or the other and live within its borders.” Whatever they felt about being deported, the Christians of Anatolia and the Muslims of Greece were now remoulded as Greeks and Turks.

Who was responsible for this massive piece of social engineering. Clark identifies Eleftherios Venizelos, the dominant Greek politician of the time, and Fridtjof Nansen, the Polar explorer turned United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as the main players. They knew that compulsory resettlement would cause hardship and suffering, but it seemed that population exchange on a huge scale was the only solution to a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

What happened ?

Bruce Clark traces the human stories of the people who were wrenched from their homes. He draws on interviews and the oral history of the people involved. There were difficult decisions to be made. The Pontic Greeks of Trebizond, a flourishing Greek port on the Black Sea, traced their origins to Greek colonists in about 700 BC. But in January 1923 Greek Orthodox families in Trebizond were told to leave their homes within one hour. Because of its location, Trebizond had had little direct contact with mainland Greece. More than elsewhere in Anatolia there was a close sympathy between Greeks and Turks. The Pontic Greeks had retained both their language and their religion. There were also tens of thousands of ‘crypto-Christians’, who straddled the boundaries between the Muslim and Christian faiths. The division between Muslims and Christians here was not clear-cut. The Greek-speaking population of Imera, a remote village in the mountains behind Trebizond, was isolated from Muslims and Turks. Forced into exile in Greece in 1923, they retained a nostalgic longing for their villages; displaying an ethnic and cultural ambivalence.

Population exchange

Liberal opinion in the west was horrified at the notion of compulsory expulsion of all Christians from the new Turkish state. So, Lord Curzon backed Venizelos in his claim that the Greek Orthodox population of Constantinople be  exempted. On the understanding that the Patriarch’s rule was purely religious. In return for allowing 100,000 Greeks to remain in Constantinople, the Greeks allowed [roughly the same number of ] Ottoman Muslims to  remain in  western Thrace.  There was an additional problem over the Turkish-speaking Christians of Cappadocia; an area with long-standing Christian traditions, where the distinction between ‘Greeks’ and ‘Turks’ was very unclear. It was initially thought that the Cappadocian Christians would be exempted. But then it was acknowledged that their presence in the centre of Turkey would be too problematic.

The outcome

The compulsory population exchange caused a great deal of heartache and suffering. Many Anatolian Christians fleeing Smyrna and Trebizond were housed temporarily in the Selimye barracks in Constantinople; they experienced hunger, were overcrowded, and were ravaged by smallpox and by typhoid. But it ‘worked’ in that it contributed in both countries to the forging of a more-or-less homogenous nation-state. “Compared with any major country in western Europe, Greece and Turkey are fairly homogenous countries.” The vast majority of Greek citizens speak Greek and adhere, at least nominally, to Orthodox Christianity. The vast majority of Turkish citizens speak Turkish and adhere to Sunni Islam. On the Turkish side, with a population of 70 million, the only exception are the Kurds, who may number 10 million, and who have never been fully incorporated into the Turkish Republic.

Refugees on the move

 “It is a hard fact of modern Greek and Turkish history”, Clark concludes,  “that this huge and ruthless project in social engineering was more successful than otherwise …” And the project was certainly helped by on both sides by a single faith. Even though the infant Turkish Republic was determinedly secular. [The secularist founders of the Republic of Turkey would be disappointed by recent developments.] Equally the rites, sacraments and bonding influence of the Greek church have made a significant contribution to the holding together of the modern Greek state.

One issue that was not settled by the Treaty of Lausanne was Cyprus – which was then a British colony. Cyprus was a running sore from the 1950s. In the summer of 1974 a coup by Greek and Greek-Cypriot ultra-rightists triggered a Turkish invasion. Leaving a divided island.

In the 21st century it is no longer possible for Greece and Turkey to remain neatly divided and hermetically sealed countries. In Greece half the wage-earners have migrated to Germany to work, and many houses are being bought as holiday homes for north Europeans. Greece now has a diverse labour force, of whom 20% may be non-Greek-speakers, The Lausanne guiding principle of ‘Greece for the Greek Orthodox Christians’ may be unsustainable in the 21st century.

Similarly, if Turkey continues to pursue its ambition to join the European Community, it will no longer be able to impose a single, narrowly defined model of ‘Turkishness’ on all its citizens. For Turkey’s nationalist establishment, every concession to Brussels means surrendering some part of the Lausanne principles on which the republic is based. “It is baffling and infuriating” for them, Clark notes, “to be told by European organisations that they must dismantle the post-Lausanne republican order and go back to the older notion that more than one language, culture, and religion can exist under the same roof”. But as globalisation and liberal capitalism advance, they are bringing a different concept of citizenship to the partially modern, partially traditional societies of Turkey and Greece. But some people are nervous that President Erdogan may think that 2023 is the time to renege on some aspects of the Lausanne agreement.

The relevance in our world today

The issue at the heart of the Lausanne negotiations, that of how to deal with an ethnic and linguistic minority within one country, is a recurrent issue in the history of the past century. The existence of the Sudeten Germans was the trigger for Nazi Germany’s two-stage annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. The 1947 plan for Britain’s granting of independence to the Indian sub-continent was the occasion of widespread violence and killing between the Hindu and Muslim communities; and there is lingering distrust and tension between India and Pakistan, especially in the disputed area of the Frontier Province. Bruce Clark is himself from Northern Ireland which, as he acknowledges “is one of the last places in the western world where conflict rages in the name of religion”. In recent weeks there has been renewed fighting in the long disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the boundaries  are unclear between [predominantly Christian] Armenians and Azebaijani Turks who are predominantly Shia Muslims.


Notionally, here in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, the Lausanne principles have been superseded by the Helsinki agreement, signed by 35 European countries [plus America and Canada] in 1975. This agreement insists that countries respect the human and cultural rights of their citizens, including minorities. I am not at all clear how the BREXIT mantra of ‘taking back sovereignty’ affects this principle. When the unspeakable Priti Patel tweets: “After many years of campaigning, I am delighted the Immigration Bill which will end free movement on 31st December has today passed through Parliament”, I think we have the right to be worried. Could we be contemplating a Lausanne-type solution ? Compulsory resettlement of undesirable aliens whose faces don’t fit ?

November 2020

Through a glass darkly – 29

Commentaries on the way to Glasgow

Susie and I drove to Glasgow ten days ago, to Bishopbriggs to be precise, in a City Car Club car. Possibly in contravention of current lockdown restrictions here in Edinburgh. We went there in order to take two big cardboard trays of biblical commentaries, about a hundred books, to the nearest collection point for BookAid. Which is a charity which collects theological and other books, either for re-sale or for onward shipment to students in the Third World. It feels like the end of an era. From Wycliffe Hall days I always felt that building a library of commentaries was an important part of ordained ministry. And an essential tool in preparing sermons. But now that I’m not doing much preaching, and now that I prepare sermons rather differently, it just seemed like a waste of half a bookcase. And Susie wanted the space for all her clarinet music and paraphernalia.

Colin Bennetts

Mark Ashton, one-time Vicar of the Round Church, Cambridge, once said that he had attended a couple of thousand church services before making a personal commitment. When I became a Christian in my mid thirties, at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, Oxford, it was largely through the preaching of Colin Bennetts, the then Rector. Colin was, to use an expression that I would not have known at the time. a ‘sane evangelical’. He had recently come to St Andrew’s after a spell as Chaplain at Jesus College, Oxford; and he preached on Sunday mornings by taking the lectionary readings [it was the era of Series Three morphing into the ASB], by seeking to explain them in their  context, and then by suggesting ways in which the passages might speak to us today. There was usually a point in the sermon when he would say: “So what might this passage say to us today …”. It sounds basic. But for me it was very effective. One day Susie and I were having lunch with a school-friend, Ian Maclean, who in those days taught French literature at the Queen’s College and who had appeared unexpectedly in the congregation. “What I can’t stand about Colin”, he said to me, “is that each week his sermon is aimed directly at me.” “No, I don’t think so”, I told him; “I think it is me that Colin is getting at.”

Colin Bennetts

Colin became a good friend to Susie and to me, and it was largely at his prompting that I found myself a candidate for ordination training. After surviving the selection process with some difficulty, I trained for ordination at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. By that time we were worshipping on Sundays at the parish church in Woodstock where we lived. The Rector in Woodstock was Edward Gregory Ambrose Wilford Page-Turner. He was tall and good-looking with silver hair, and much loved by some of the women in the parish. But preaching was not one of his gifts. So it was staff at Wycliffe, like Geoffrey Shaw and Gordon Ogilvie and David Wenham, who modelled for me expository preaching, using the pulpit to preach the Word of God, and praying for the Spirit to work among those in the pews. 

It was doing my time at Wycliffe that I encountered Proclamation Trust, led by Dick Lucas and David Jackman, and Evangelical Ministry Assembly [EMA]. I signed up a couple of times for EMA, at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and sat through some classic expositions by Dick and others. One of the highlights was hearing John Stott expounding the Book of Acts. [Much of the stuff later appeared in his volume in The Bible Speaks Today: Acts. It’s a very good book, but the danger [temptation] is to skimp on sermon preparation and just to read the stuff out !] But Philip Jensen, the more strident of the two Australian brothers, [Peter had been a curate briefly at St Andrew’s] could make me very cross. And I think I dimly perceived that ‘Death by over-exposition’, a detailed and seemingly interminable examination of each word in the text,  was a sort of predecessor of ‘Death by Powerpoint’ a few years later. 

Dennis Lennon

For complicated reasons when I was ordained in 1988 we came north to Scotland.  I came to Edinburgh to be a curate at St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, out towards the airport. The Rector, Dennis Lennon, was the best preacher I ever heard. By a country mile. He was certainly a biblical preacher. But not an expositor in the EMA sense. His own model as a student had been Martyn Lloyd-Jones, ‘The Doctor’, the celebrated Welsh preacher at Westminster Chapel. But Dennis’s preaching had been influenced by years with OMF in Thailand and South East Asia, bringing the gospel to peoples of a very different language and culture. He then trained at Oak Hill and did a curacy at the Round Church in Cambridge. He read widely, and had a particular affection for the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar. Other influences included the theologians Karl Barth, Tom Torrance, and Austin Farrer, and George Herbert, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and Ted Hughes among the poets.

Dennis Lennon with Sonja, and me, 2006

Dennis had a gift for opening up new perspectives on Scripture [“How long do you have to look at a bush in the desert to see that it is burning, but not being consumed ?’] This was the beginning of a [long] evening service sermon, which later reappeared in [I think] The Eyes of the Heart. The message was on the importance of looking hard at things.  I remember his preaching three weeks running, to the consternation of the congregation, on the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, because he wasn’t sure if he was getting it right. The last time I heard him preach was in Lyon in 2001. A few weeks after the bombing of The Twin Towers in New York he preached, memorably, on the story in Matthew 7 of The Two Houses, one built on the rock and the other on the sand. From the outside, there is no discernible difference – until the storms blow and troubles come.

Colin and Dennis were the best two preachers I have heard, and certainly had the most influence on my life. After you get ordained there is of course less opportunity to hear other people preach. Richard Holloway, who was my Diocesan Bishop in Edinburgh, was always stimulating. And often controversial. He came once to Duns and told the congregation: “Here are some words I found recently on a fridge door in New York … I get most of my theology from fridge doors nowadays”.  I think as a more-or-less conservative evangelical, I was a bit disapproving ! In the same sermon he told the congregation, “I’m going to quote some well-know lines from Philip Larkin [‘They f— you up, your parents …], … and I’ll bowdlerise them in case there are any reporters from the Daily Mail here”. The congregation loved it. And loved him. [And there was a reporter there.]

Geoffrey Rowell, who was my Diocesan Bishop in Europe, was a different kind of bishop; he was a Tractarian Anglo-Catholic, most at home in an Oxford senior common room. He was also a different kind of preacher. My feeling was that his sermons, like some Orthodox theology, circled elegantly round a point that was never quite reached or articulated. More positively, on different occasions Peter Neilson, from the Church if Scotland, and David Smith, from ICC, Glasgow, came to preach for us in Lyon. And both were excellent.

Richard Mayabi, with Susie, Lyon, 2008

Through connections with ICC, Richard Mayabi, then the priest of St Jerome’s Anglican Church in Kibera, in Nairobi, came to preach for us. He worked at that time in one of the biggest slums in Africa, and caught our imagination in Lyon as he spoke of a church community that was thriving in very difficult circumstances.

Here in retirement in Edinburgh we worship, when we are not elsewhere, in our local presbyterian church, in the Church of Scotland. Jared Hay, the previous minister, was an excellent preacher. And a very capable exponent of PowerPoint. [He also enlivened a sermon series on Revelation by dressing up as different characters in the story on successive Sundays.] Sadly his successor, though good with people and with children, seems to have little interest in engaging with scripture. I suppose I could have offered him my old commentaries. But I don’t know if he would have had much use for them.

November 2020

Through a glass darkly – 28

The Fall of France

Do not be afraid ! I am writing about history, not current affairs. After reading Alistair Horne’s book on The Siege and the Paris Commune [see TaGD 22], I thought I’d look again at his book To lose a battle: France 1940. But this has gone. Probably a casualty of water damage in the garage. But I did find two books called Assignment to Catastrophe by General E.L. Spears.  The second volume has a Shakespeare and Co bookseller’s stamp, so I guess I bought them when we were living in Paris back in the 1970s.

Edward Louis Spears  had been born in Paris, was brought up largely by his grand-mother in France and Ireland, and spoke French fluently. There is evidence that his forbears were Jewish, something he always denied. Spears joined the British Army in 1906 aged twenty, and was commissioned in the Royal Irish Hussars. He acquired the nickname Monsieur Beaucaire in the Mess, where his unconventional childhood ensured that he remained something of an outsider. Very few military men spoke two languages. [It is said that when General Sir John French spoke French from a prepared text at manoeuvres in France, his accent was so bad that listeners assumed he was speaking in English.] So Spears was swiftly appointed to liaison duties in 1914 between the British and French armies. Although he was initially quite a junior officer, Spears’ liaison work brought him into contact with a host of influential military and political figures; among the French he came to know Generals Georges and Petain and Foch, and Clémenceau; while on the British side he worked with Lloyd George and Douglas Haig, and developed a close friendship with Winston Churchill. After the war Spears published two well received books about his liaison work, became a Conservative MP, first for Loughborough and then for Carlisle, and aligned himself to the so-called Eden group, of Conservative backbenchers who were opposed to appeasement policies.

In August 1939 Spears visited the Maginot Line in the company of Winston Churchill as the guests of General Georges. With the country was on the verge of war the following month he was on a motoring holiday in the Dordogne valley. When war was declared he explored the possibility of returning to service in liaison work but was rebuffed by the War Office. During the so-called Phoney War he and other members of the Eden group pressed for a more energetic government policy; for more robust support for Poland and more vigorous action against Germany.

In May 1940 Germany invades Belgium and France, Chamberlain promptly resigns and Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister. Ten days later Churchill sends Spears to France: “I have decided to send you as my personal representative to Paul Reynaud [the French Prime Minister]. You will have the rank of Major-General.” He looks out the missing portions of his uniform, and flies two days later to Paris in a Bristol Blenheim. The greater part of the two books are a detailed, day-by-day account of Spears’ mission.

The most striking feature of the books is that Spears seemingly knows everyone. It is a small world. Sir Ronald Campbell, the British Ambassador, is a former colleague. A sad-eyed  Reynaud greets him as an old friend; “vous êtes le bienvenu”. General Maxim Weygand, the new French Commander-in-Chief [aged 73], and Marshal Pétain, now Vice-President of the Council [aged 84], are known to him from the First War. [He notes that Pétain a son of Picardy naturally loathes Weygand who was  born in Belgium.] Spears is soon given an office in the French Ministry of War.  He attends meetings of the French War Committee. Georges Mandel, the Minister of the Interior, offers him a frank assessment of the lack of will to  fight in the French Army, and of the low morale of his cabinet colleagues. One of the phrases that recurs in conversations is“ecroulment moral”.  As a welcome break from the prevalent mood of defeatism, Spears enjoys dining with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, now a Captain in the French Air Force, and his cousin “a very charming woman and a friend of twenty years’ standing”.

Spears, a long-time admirer of the French Army, is saddened by their unwillingness to fight. Which brings out all his reactionary prejudices: “Were the weaknesses, the disorders, the lack of leadership and the dearth of fighting qualities, the  result of a dying patriotism, poisoned at its root by political corruption and pacifist-cum-communist slobber ?

The hero of the two books is of course Churchill. He flies unexpectedly into Paris at the end of May, “fresh as a daisy”, and delivers an up-beat message to the Supreme War Council; “Dunkirk has been a triumph for the British Navy and Air Force”.  [Reynaud and Paul Baudoin are moved and grateful, but not all are convinced. “Weygand, face resting on his hands, looked like a dried-up lemon.”] Spears is worried that Churchill will lose patience with the French. In early June Spears goes to see the aged Pétain, who tells him: “this time there are no reserves, vous m’entendez, no reserves at all. It is hopeless – c’est sans espoir.”And the Marshal settles into his armchair and reads him one of his old speeches on Joan of Arc.

Weygand, Reynaud, and Pétain

Spears returns to London to report. He is delighted to fly  in Churchill’s own Flamingo with comfortable armchairs, and dines with the Churchill family,  and a small black cat called Nelson. The situation worsens. The French cabinet decide to leave Paris. On June 11th Churchill, with Eden and Spears and General Dill and others, flies to France in his Flamingo accompanied by twelve Hurricanes. There is a meeting of the Supreme War Council at the inaptly named Château du Muguet, “the sort of building the nouveau riche French bourgeoisie delight in : a large monstrosity of red-coloured brick and stone the hue of unripe Camembert”. Churchill speaks passionately of his confidence in the French military. There is little response from the French, except for the chain-smoking General de Gaulle, newly appointed to the Ministry of Defence. Two days later Churchill flies back again for one final meeting at Tours. But his speeches to the War Council “conveyed no more reality than would have done a reading of El Cid on the wireless to a brawling audience in a Montmartre cafe”. Spears and his party follow the French government south to Bordeaux. On June 16th Churchill sends Reynaud a dramatic message in which he proposed an indissoluble union of France and Great Britain. In the common defence of justice and of freedom, the countries are to share one government, and one war cabinet directing all their forces on land, at sea, or in the air. But it is too late. The following day Reynaud resigns. President Lebrun asks Pétain to form a government. Spears returns to London, hoisting de Gaulle onto the plane with him. They arrive in London for a late lunch at the RAC, and then on to Downing Street for a meeting with Churchill.

It is an old-fashioned book. [It even has sub-headings in the Contents pages and a professional Index.]  And maybe a bit repetitive. It is a book of a different era. Spears had an eye for a pretty girl. He and the aged Marshal Franchet d’Esperey, still in uniform but now in a wheel-chair,  share memories of “la belle patissière d’Epernay”. He casts his eye appreciatively at dinner over Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s cousin. At the Château de Muguet he flirts discreetly with the woman telephonist in the village post office. In Paris he stays at the Ritz and dines there with guests. When they get to Bordeaux they eat in the Chapon Fin. I guess this is not the style of Lord Frost !

Churchill, blustering Boris, and BREXIT

In a week when the disastrous BREXIT saga is approaching yet another deadline, I am impressed at the great lengths to which Churchill went to stay closely linked to France, the other major western democracy. Blustering Boris is a self-proclaimed admirer  of Churchill, on whom he clearly models his public speaking. But Churchill, as this book demonstrates, and as his post-war speeches confirm, was strongly committed to European co-operation. Even at the cost of a potentially significant diminution of national sovereignty. Brexiteers please note.

Churchill’s  views are summarised in a speech made at the University of Zurich in 1946: 

There is a remedy which … would in a few years make all Europe … free and … happy.

It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.

We must build a kind of United States of Europe.

The fall of France in June 1940 was a tragedy which, as this book recounts, the British government of the time under Churchill did its best to avert. At a time when European democratic values were under threat. By contrast BREXIT is a tragedy which the present British government seems determined to inflict upon us. A tragedy which destroys the ideal of European co-operation for the sake of a spurious [and outdated] notion of national sovereignty

November 2020

Through as glass darkly – 27

The smell of corruption

A lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war,” was [according to J.M. Keynes] Stanley Baldwin’s comment on the House of Commons after the 1918 election. We imagine that he was referring to the greedy manufacturers who found their way into grubby Honours lists, but some people dispute this. When people look back in years to come on the UK’s handling of the COVID 19 crisis, will they say something similar about the current Tory Party ? We have known for a long time that the present government is struggling to cope with the crisis; lack of a clear strategy; ministerial incompetence; divisions within the cabinet; widespread lack of trust in politicians. But to the charge of incompetence we may now need to add corruption

World Beater

The root of the problem is that, in coping with the pressures of the pandemic, the government is now awarding contracts and handing out vast sums of money without any proper [parliamentary] scrutiny. We saw a rehearsal for this earlier in the year with BREXIT. In order to mitigate the potential consequences of a no-deal BREXIT, failing Grayling  at the Department of Transport , awarded a £13.8 million contract to Seaborne Freight ferry company even though it had no ships. In total, £100 million worth of contracts were awarded to three companies – Brittany Ferries, DFDS and Seaborne – but these were ultimately scrapped at an estimated cost of £56.6 million after Brexit was delayed. The Department’s woes did not end there, for it then agreed an out-of-court settlement of £33 million with Eurotunnel, which claimed the rushed contracts had been handed out in a “secretive” way and it [Eurotunnel] should have been approached.

Now the current second spike of COVID infections and local lock-downs is largely a consequence of the abject failure of the £12 billion test-and-trace system.  Which has signally failed to drive down the all-important infection rate. As a result we have a fast-rising number of infections, hospital admissions, and deaths; and widespread economic hardship, mainly in the hospitality sector. But some people are doing well out of this chaos.

Yesterday I talked for a few minutes with one of the staff in our local NHS medical practice. What is very difficult to accept is that the government’s ideological commitment to the private sector has led to some crazy decisions. The mantra of the current Tory government is ‘Public sector, inefficient and bureaucratic; private sector, efficient and dynamic’. But it just isn’t true. There is data both here and overseas that shows that test-and-trace is best handled at a local level. But the government is wholly committed to a centralised system. Though its own figures show that their system reaches only 62% of contacts against 97% for local authority systems. But the £12 billion budget for the centralised system means fat profits for some multinational corporations.

Baroness Dido Harding and her associates

The appointment of Baroness Harding to run the test-and-trace system is indicative of the issues. She is no doubt a very nice lady; good with animals and children. Her background is in corporate management; McKinsey, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Talk-Talk, where there was a massive hack of confidential customer information on her watch. For which she acquired the label, Dido, Queen of carnage. She was made a Conservative peer in 2014 by her friend David Cameron.

Baroness Harding

One of her other roles is to sit on the board of the Jockey Club. In March this year, when leading epidemiologists were arguing for a public lock-down, the Jockey Club went ahead with the lucrative Cheltenham Festival. Some 200, 000 punters packed into the race-course and onto the terraces over three days. It is now acknowledged to have been a super-spreader event, causing a significant spike in infections.

The Jockey Club is also closely involved at Newmarket, where the local MP is Matt Hancock, the hapless Health Secretary. Media reports suggest that Hancock receives very substantial financial support from wealthy people in the horse-racing business. “I’ll always support the wonderful sport of horse racing”, gushed Hancock in his election address.

One of the Jockey Club’s big annual events is the [Randox Health] Grand National. Earlier this year the government paid Randox, a global healthcare firm,  £133 million to develop COVID testing kits. Owen Paterson, a former Conservative minister, is employed as a consultant by Randox for a fee of £100, 000 a year. Did he facilitate the deal ? No-one knows. In July the government withdrew the kits from use on the grounds that they might be unsafe. 

The names of Harding’s team  at Test-and-Trace were not initially made public. It has since emerged that they include former executives from Jaguar Land Rover and Travelex, and Waitrose, and [surprise, surprise !] from Talk-Talk and Sainsbury’s. And the team also includes one public health professional. Some people can’t obtain tests. People who need tests are directed to centres at the other end of the country. Test results have been lost. Others have been sent overseas for analysis. As of yesterday, only 15% of tests are completed within 24 hours. Blustering Boris concedes that “there is some room for improvement”. The system is clearly a shambles. And Harding has been been rewarded by being made head [concurrently] of the National Institute for Health Protection.

The way I see it, if the Government doesn’t reward failure, who will?’


Staff in the NHS which struggles for cash may well wonder why consultants are reportedly being paid £6,000 a day to advise on the test-and-trace system. And why SERCO, for example, was awarded a £410 million contract with no competitive tendering and no penalty clause. [SERCO’s chairman is the grandson of a former Conservative prime minister and brother of a former Tory MP.] Is there no scrutiny of the way in which contracts are awarded and vast sums of money spent ? Well, yes. But the United Kingdom Anti-Corruption Champion since 2017 is John Harding, former McKinsey consultant and back-bench Tory MP. And the husband of Baroness Harding.

Cronyism has been endemic in the Tory Party for a long time. When the Royal Mail was privatised George Osborne’s best man, Peter Davies, was head of a hedge fund which made £36 million from the privatisation in under six months. Now PPE Medpro, a company that was incorporated in May this year with capital of £100 and no experience in the field, was awarded a contract, without tender, for £110 million of PPE. The company’s  only qualification being that it has substantial links to Tory peer Baroness Mone and to Tory party donors.


Tragically, it looks increasingly as if the COVID 19 pandemic has become a profitable cash-cow for Tory-linked private firms.  And a great opportunity for the government to pursue its ideological obsession with outsourcing wherever possible to the private sector. Blustering Boris claims to be a One Nation Tory with a commitment to levelling up. From here it looks more like a policy of robbing the poor to pay the rich. And their families and friends. 

October 2020

Through a glass darkly – 26

Generally I don’t read a lot of theology. Perhaps not as much as I should. But I’ve been reading an excellent new book [published this year] by David Smith: Stumbling towards Zion: Recovering the Biblical Tradition of Lament in the era of World Christianity. It’s quite a long title, but the book itself is a manageable 130 pages plus two appendices and a wide-ranging bibliography. The book comes from Langham Global Library in a sombre cover, which reflects a part of the content.

Before going further, I should declare an interest: I have known and appreciated David for some three decades, since the time when he was Principal of Northumbria Bible College, in Berwick on Tweed, and we were along the road at Christ Church, Duns. During that time he has encouraged me to do some serious reading, and to think more widely and more creatively about ministry and the Christian faith. He encouraged me to sign up for the MTh course on Mission in an Urban World at ICC, Glasgow, 2006-09, on which he was the lead tutor. During that course he led the cohort study visit to Nairobi, which was an eye-opener for several of us coming from a very different church culture here in the UK. David preached for us at Duns and then again at the Lyon Anglican Church, always offering us a new and different perspective. He has written several challenging books, including Mission after Christendom, which I found immensely helpful. And he and Joyce were good friends to Susie and me; before Joyce’s untimely death in 2014.

As the title suggests, the new book is about the way in which we present ourselves and our lives to God in worship and prayer. David has a gift for bringing together biblical exegesis, a wide variety of theological writings, many from outside Europe, and his own personal experience. In the preface, David recounts how his wife Joyce’s suffering and death from a brain tumour brought him a renewed appreciation of the biblical tradition of lament. Too often the contemporary emphasis on celebration in worship  ignores the real suffering and struggles of people within the congregation, and also the crises that threaten the future of our world,. This seeming indifference to many of the serious issues that threaten our planet undermines the credibility of our faith.

Back in 1981 Robert Davidson wrote a book called The Courage to Doubt: Exploring an Old Testament Theme, which highlighted the tradition of lament in the Old Testament. The book resonated with David at a time when he was experiencing reverse culture-shock after years of teaching in Eastern Nigeria. “How could the Christian community be so relentlessly happy and untroubled in a world filled with injustice, oppression and violence ?”  In the university world of Aberdeen, David met people who were alienated from institutional Christianity but keen to ask profound questions about the meaning of human existence. Claus Westermann wrote in his work on the Psalms: “Praise can retain its authenticity and naturalness only in polarity with lamentation.”

The disappearance of lament was particularly strange at a time when historians, looking at two World Wars and the Holocaust, were labelling the twentieth century as ‘the age of catastrophe’.

When David travelled to Pakistan in 2017 to lead studies for poor pastors from the Sindh, he was guided to offer reflections on the story of Job; “the clearest expression of the counter-testimony of Israel” The book of Job first describes the external events which devastated Job’s life, and then the internal anguish which followed. Alienated from his dogmatic friends, Job reveals an awareness of other human beings whose lives have been marked by oppression and injustice [24: 1-22]. And he also recognises that much of this evil and injustice has human causes. In his response [42:7-8], God seems to reject the theology of the ‘comforters’; and hints at God’s own struggle to restrain the powers and evil and to bring about the promised healing of a broken world.

Job and His Three Friends , Artist: Tissot, Photographer: Richard Goodbody, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

Where Job reveals the depths of spiritual crisis in the life of an individual, Lamentations reflects the impact of catastrophe on an entire community. The repeated cry of the desolate survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem is that ‘there is no-one to comfort them’ [Lam 1:9, 16, 21; 2:9; 3:8, 44]. This is a very contemporary message. Kathleen O’Connor notes “for the survivors of civil wars, destroyed cities and genocides, for refugees, and for those who subsist in famine and destitute poverty, the poetry mirrors reality with frightening exactitude”. A sentiment echoed by the Filipino scholar Federico Villanueva. Ironically Lamentations is best known to many for the verses that mark the sudden appearance of hope in chapter 3 [Lam 3: 22-24]. Verses wrenched inappropriately from their context. But David acknowledges that light can break through at the darkest moments; close encounters with death or wickedness can provide the soil in which faith comes to birth.

It is sometimes assumed that lament has no further place after the coming of Jesus. Not so. Commenting on the birth narrative, Ulrich Mauser contrasts the peace of God with the Pax Romana, in the name of which Jesus was executed. Mauser insists that peace on earth is initiated by Jesus, but it has not yet conquered the world. Salvation is both now and not yet. The gospels are “not fairy stories in which a paradise restored is offered without regard to competing and hostile realities”. The public horror of the Cross left Jesus’s supporters weeping and wailing [Luke 23:27]. David argues that “there is a danger that we move too quickly from the cross to the empty tomb with the result that theology becomes associated with abstract theories of atonement  which are invariably divorced from the harsh reality of the historical death of Jesus at Calvary”.

David draws attention to Easter Saturday, to the reality of “that long, desolate Sabbath” which bisects death and resurrection; which is too often ignored as a meaningless hyphen. He sees the Grunewald altar-piece in Colmar as a visual aid for the Easter story. Contemporary, western culture is often marked  by despair and a sense of abandonment. So,  So, David concludes, “the gospel  …  must be shared, not with a triumphalistic spirit, but with humility, compassion, and a transparent honesty concerning faith’s own struggles with the tragedies that persist in an Easter Saturday culture”.

In the latter chapters, the book encourages us in our prayers to go beyond a passive acceptance of what the world gives us. And to ask questions which demands answers. When Christianity comes to be influenced by Greek philosophy, we come to Aristotle’s concept of God as “the unmoved Mover”. Jewish writers complain that this is a betrayal of the Hebrew scriptures. And their complaints are echoed by Third World theologians whose thinking owes nothing to the Graeco-Roman culture. The Japanese theologian Kitamori, writing after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is critical of a theology that emphasises God’s transcendent glory, but which is “deaf to the cries for justice in a world where power is often used in ways that are oppressive and destructive”.

Lamentations 2

Bonhoeffer, awaiting execution in his prison cell, wrote that rather than looking for the intervention of a supremely powerful deity, “the gospel directs us to the powerlessness of God”. Subsequently, Moltmann’s writings have placed the cross of Jesus at the heart and foundation of the knowledge of God.Hisemphasison the crucified God has struck a chord with many uprooted people in the Majority World. Christianity is ceasing to be a western religion. Slavery was a cause of trauma for many, deeply religious African peoples. African-American spirituals frequently return to the crucifixion; for Calvary resonates with their own lives.

In the final chapter, David sees a convergence between the Biblical tradition of lament and the emergence of a world Christianity. He suggests that Orthodoxy and Catholicism and Protestantism are all essentially local forms [inculturations] of the Christian faith. And that the emergence of new forms of faith in the global South will mean an end to the [old] Christendom model.  As Kenneth Cragg wrote [back in 1968]: “As the Christ of Galilee and Jerusalem in New Testament times become the Christ of the Mediterranean, of Athens and Rome, so the Christ of the West must become more evidently the Christ of the world …”.  The hope is that this emerging world Christianity will grow into a multicultural community in which the interaction of praise and lament sustains the hope of shalom and healing for a broken world.

Patmos Christian Fellowship, Kibera, 2007

David’s experience of church in the Majority world makes him hopeful. He cites Emmanuel Katangole, who believes that the public expression of pain and loss throughout Africa can give birth to an alternative vision for the future of that continent. But the church in the West must both share in that and learn from it;  “the refusal of lament at such a time as this would be a symbol of apostasy on the part of the comfortable and wealthy church of the Western world”; and all the more because the example of Christianity in the Majority world offers a new and deeper grasp of the gospel.

Born from Lament


Stumbling towards Zion is a challenging book. Not because it is difficult to read. It isn’t. But because it challenges some of the things we too often take for granted in our faith journey. And in our comfortable [middle class] church life. Our tacit acceptance of things as they are. And our ignorance of what God may be doing elsewhere in the world. On a personal note, I was immensely grateful to spend more than a decade in a gathered, multi-cultural, multi-confessional church in the Diocese of Europe. With a significant proportion of Africans, nearly all of whom were refugees. Many of whom had painful stories to tell. But I am embarrassed to recall that we were criticised by one of our bishops for “not being sufficiently Anglican” in our church culture ! 

October 2020

Though a glass darkly – Index 1-25

This is just for my own benefit, to allow me to see what I’ve written over the past 6 months. In case I wake up one day and get it into my head that I’ve written War and Peace.

0. Getting Started March 2020

  1. Gratitude, and Desert Places March 2020

2. Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads March 2020

2. The daily round March 2020

3. Cold Turkey April 2020

4. Dem Bones  The Easter Message Easter Saturday 2020

5. COVID 19: Bouquets and Brickbats April 2020

6. Tim Keller: Walking with God through Pain and Suffering May 2020

7. Spotlight on dark happenings May 2020

8. The Missing Centuries: E.L. Woodward’s History of England May 2020

9. Postcards from Normandy May 2020

10. Life in lock-down June 2020

11. The Scottish Episcopal Church June 2020

12. Jürgen Moltmann: Theology of Hope June 2020

13. Donna Leon’s Venice June 2020

14. Out to lunch July 2020

15. Being Seventy Five July 2020

16. Albert Camus: The Plague [La peste] July 2020

17. E.L. Woodward: History of England, part 2 July 2020

18. John le Carre August 2020

19. Blustering Boris August 2020

20. Theodore Zeldin: France 1848-1945 August 2020

21. Going North September 2020

22. Alistair Horne: The Fall of Paris: the Siege and the Commune September 2020

23. Going back up north September 2020

24. Why American Christians vote for Trump October 2020

25. Gordon Ogilvie, RIP October 2020

October 20th, 2020

Through a glass darkly – 25

Gordon Ogilvie RIP

Susie, Gordon, & Sylvia at St Andrews, 2015

Gordon Ogilvie died on September 29th, at the age of 78. Gordon and Sylvia had both been living in a care home in St Andrews since the start of this year. He died of a heart attack, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and with Lewy body dementia [LBD]. Susie and I hope to attend the funeral in St Andrews at the end of this week. Provided that we can safely do so within the parameters of the current Scottish COVID regulations.

We first met Gordon and Sylvia at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, Oxford at the beginning of the 1980s. Susie and I were [becoming] new Christians. Gordon had come from being Vicar of New Barnet to become Director of Pastoral Studies at Wycliffe Hall. Not always a very rewarding role. He was, I think, the first member of staff at Wycliffe who had not trained there as a student. If that suggests that Wycliffe was a bit in-bred in those days, then I think that is probably true. But perhaps no more so than any other Anglican training college. When I consulted Gordon a few years later about the idea of my training for ordination at Wycliffe, he was characteristically guarded. But this may have been more about me than about Wycliffe.

This is not the place for a full cv. [Even if I was sure of all the facts.] I believe that Gordon grew up in Glasgow, that he went to church at St Silas’s, and that his first degree was at uni in Glasgow, where he was involved with the CU.  And then he went south to train for ordination at the London College of Divinity, before it grew into St John’s, Nottingham.  Prior to New Barnet, Gordon did his curacy at Ashtead, in the Guildford Diocese. In 1989 he moved on from Wycliffe to become first Priest-in-Charge and then Team Rector at Harlow New Town, in the Chelmsford Diocese. And in 1996 Gordon moved to his final job as Archdeacon of Nottingham, in the Southwell Diocese. He retired in 2007, after which he and Sylvia returned to Scotland to live in St Andrews.

My memories are of an engaging character, always well informed, a good and thoughtful preacher, a sometimes quizzical look, and a good friend. As I discovered when I consulted him about applying to Wycliffe, his responses were often elliptical. If you asked Gordon the test score, his reply might well encompass a short history of the rules of cricket, a sketch of the architecture of the pavilion where the match was being played, and a summary of the five-day weather forecast for the area. But the score would come. Eventually. Anyway we talked more about rugby than cricket. Early in our acquaintance he came to preach at the Christmas Eve, midnight service in Woodstock, where we then lived, and where preaching was a bit perfunctory. [A polite term.] But Gordon preached a scriptural, expository sermon of some twenty five minutes, and the congregation grumbled a bit at being home later than they had anticipated. A year or two later I recall his helpful expositions of 1 Peter at the Wycliffe Wednesday afternoon Communion services.

Gordon’s extra-parochial activities included a major involvement with Grove Books, alongside Colin Buchanan, [his successor as Chair of Grove Books was Bishop Robert Innes];  patronage work with Simeon’s Trustees over many years; and support for the church in rural Uganda. Which stemmed from a continuing friendship with a former student at Wycliffe. During the Wycliffe years Susie and I went with him and Sylvia on a long day’s outing to Brussels to try and sort out a Rwandan visa for him. We had, as I recall, breakfast at La Légende in the rue de l’Etuve, and lunch in Aux Armes de Bruxelles; and, visa secured, Gordon drove home rather fast in the fog. Word was that he really liked fast cars. Did he perhaps have a day in an E-type Jag for his 60th birthday ?

Gordon came and preached for us at Christ Church, Duns, recognising an Old Hutchies’ tie in the congregation. [It was a visitor.] He preached in Lyon too, and played the piano for us there.  And he was the main speaker at an ICS Family Conference at Le Pas Opton, a rather chilly camp-site and caravan park on the west coast of France. After his retirement in 2007, we met up periodically with Gordon and Sylvia in St Andrews, sometimes for golf, and in Edinburgh, once at Murrayfield but more often for lunch in a Thai restaurant. And in latter years for a meal at South Queensferry. 

Gordon and Sylvia, and CM, St Andrews, 2015

Perhaps related to his patronage work, Gordon had a near encyclopaedic knowledge of Church of England clergy. I would mention names to him sometimes, and he would effortlessly supply dates and parishes. He liked detail and getting things right. When he came to stay in Lyon the book that interested him most was Hart’s Rules, an authoritative reference book and style guide published by the Oxford University Press.

I guess that under COVID guidelines there will only be very few people at the funeral. But there is talk of a thanksgiving service at a later day. We shall miss him. Meanwhile I reflect that Gordon would have been an excellent Bishop of Glasgow. Certainly better than all those that I can remember !

October 2020

Through a glass darkly – 24

A few months ago a friend who was reading this blog asked me to address the glaring question: Why do so many American [evangelical] Christians vote for Trump ? 

Nuns with the Little Sisters of the Poor give a thumbs up at a National Day of Prayer event with President Donald Trump and other religious leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House, in Washington, May 4, 2017. At the event Trump signed an executive order aimed at easing restrictions on political activity by tax-exempt churches and charities. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

I didn’t rush to respond; partly because I don’t know the answer, and mainly because I don’t know enough about the States.   [My direct experience of American churches amounts to one Sunday morning at Redeemer Upper West Side, New York, some five years ago. Tim Keller was preaching, and he was excellent. And one Sunday morning, a week later, at First Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. Which was rather less rewarding.] So, I don’t really feel equipped to tackle a question that puzzles many Europeans. But I did read something recently that throws some light on the question.

I was reading the new book by David Smith: Stumbling towards Zion. The central theme of the book is the disappearance from western church worship of the biblical [Hebrew] tradition of lament, and the rediscovery of this tradition by churches emerging in, for example, the global South.. It’s an excellent and challenging book, and I hope to write more about it in a week or so. If we accept David’s main thesis, it helps to explain why in the very healthy, non-denominational church my daughter and her family attend, it is always Easter morning. There are lots of people, and lots of young people; there is a good praise band, and even better coffee. And the church does valuable work in the local community through links with people like CAP [Christians against Poverty]. But the emphasis is constantly on praise and the victory of the empty cross.

David’s book notes that after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the centre of gravity of the nascent Christian world moves from Jerusalem to Rome. From the Jewish world to the Gentile world. And by extension Christianity develops within Greek thought and culture rather than in Hebrew thinking. In consequence some of the Hebrew tradition about the relationship between God and his creation, God’s dealings with men and women, is lost; and God is described by Aristotle as “the unmoved Mover”. Greek thinking acknowledges God as the supreme being, a God of power and might. But God is now seen as remote and impassible. For Tertullian, writing in the 3rd century, since God the Father was without passions he could “not suffer with the Son”; while even “the Son is unable to suffer in virtue of his divinity”. As David notes, the idea of an omnipotent deity who is unable to feel the misery of others [in, for example, the death camps and repeated civil wars and genocide of our world] is quite simply a betrayal of the God of Israel who was profoundly engaged with the struggles and suffering of his people.

As he awaited execution in his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote that “God had allowed himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross”. Bonhoeffer encouraged us to see that the gospel directs us, not to expect the dramatic intervention of an all-powerful deity but,  to reflect on the powerlessness of God as demonstrated in the suffering of Christ. This theme is developed by Jürgen Moltmann whose writings have been concerned to place the cross of Christ at the very centre of Christian thinking and belief.

What has this got to do with President Trump ? Press reports suggest that his reading skills [and his attention span] are limited, so he is unlikely to study German theologians. In fact I suspect that his Bible knowledge is equally limited. [His closest biblical model may be the golden calf of Exodus 32. Or possibly King Nebuchadnezzar who, in Daniel 3, orders all subjects to prostrate themselves before the golden statue.] Trump is by all accounts a greedy, boastful narcissist with a limited understanding of the world and a greatly inflated idea of his own abilities. But he presents himself as a Christian, more recently as a Presbyterian, and as a Pro-Life candidate, which plays well with his supporters; and he has spoken very positively about some Christian leaders. His Christian faith makes him anti-Muslim. He seems to think that his recent experience of COVID was a gift from God, although he made it clear that he himself had taken the initiative by nudging God in this direction.  A few months ago, faced with street protests in Washington running out of control,  he cleared the streets with tear gas and stage-managed a press conference in front of St John’s Episcopal Cathedral, with a bible [unread] in his hand, to demonstrate that he was God’s man and God was on his side.

What sort of God could that be ? It may well be that Trump’s understanding of God was significantly shaped by Norman Vincent Peale, whose church he attended as a young man, Peale is a controversial figure, who exercised a fifty-two-year ministry at Marble Collegiate church in New York City. He is best known for his advocacy of the Power of Positive Thinking,[the book which was published in 1952 reputedly sold 5 million copies]; he was a 33º Scottish Rifle Freemason, a personal friend of Richard Nixon and his family, and was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan for his life-long services to theology ! His writing and his preaching seem to blend a defective theology with a defective psychology:

One of the most powerful concepts, one which is a sure cure for lack of confidence, is the thought that God is with you and helping you. This is one of the simplest teachings in religion, namely, that Almighty God will be your companion, will stand by you, help you, and see you through. No other idea is so powerful in developing self-confidence as this simple belief when practiced. To practice it simply affirm “God is with me; God is helping me; God is guiding me.” Spend several minutes each day visualizing his presence. Then practice believing that affirmation.”

In other words, God is an all powerful deity ‘out there’, and he will help those who help themselves.  This is not so different from the prosperity gospel; give your lives to the Lord and he will bless you richly, in this world. It is a seductive message, but one which has nothing to say to those living with sorrow or a sense of failure. I am reminded that when Margaret Thatcher spoke to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988, in what became known as The Sermon on the Mound, she insisted that Christianity was about [personal] spiritual redemption, and not about social reform; and she seemed to quote approvingly from St Paul, ”If a man will not work, he shall not eat”.

We always appreciated newly-arriving Americans in the church in Lyon; they were generous with their time and money and energies. Many shared an individualistic, self-starter, can-do, get stuck-in philosophy. So I suppose that many such Christians may vote for Trump as a strong man; someone who will defend them against leftist revolutionaries and Islamic terrorists. They believe that St Paul taught us that God ordained leaders to preserve civil order,  and they approve of Trump’s stance on abortion, and school vouchers, and religious liberty. And no doubt on gun control. Or rather the lack of it.

The downside is that there is no indication that Trump’s beliefs allow for a suffering Christ or an in-dwelling Holy Spirit. I suspect that he thinks the crucified Christ is ‘just a loser’. Like people that pay their taxes. Or lose their jobs because of corporate restructuring. Or the 200,000 Americans who have died so far of COVID 19. I very much hope that he loses the forthcoming presidential election. I don’t have a lot of faith in Joe Biden, who sounds a bit sleepy and a bit slow. But I think that [almost] anyone would be better than Trump.

October 2020


If any American reads this and thinks that I am wrong, please feel free to say so.

Through a glass darkly – 23

May or September are [said to be]  the best months for visiting Scotland. After a couple of distinctly autumnal weeks we went north in mid-September more in hope than in expectation. Or to be more precise we went north in a dark red Kia Ceed [they dropped the bizarre apostrophe in 2018]., rented from a friendly garage in Dalkeith. As any septuagenarians reading this will know, hiring a car gets more difficult when you reach seventy-five. Either the answer is a straight ‘No’, or you get landed with a substantially hiked insurance cost.

There were tedious queues on the A9 north of Perth, where they are working on dualling the section towards Dunkeld. But fortified by coffee from the excellent Birnam Arts Centre

Susie, Birnham Arts Centre cafe

cafe, we were in Inverness by the middle of the afternoon. We had booked B&Bs in Inverness and two subsequent stops, but I hadn’t realised that in these COVID times you need to book ahead for meals too. We walked along the river into town, and eventually got a table at the fifth place we tried. It was an Indian restaurant  which was refurbishing, but was serving meals in the adjacent cafe.


Confession. We gave church a miss on Sunday morning. [The last time I was in Inverness on a Sunday, I tried with difficulty to find an evening service. Eventually I was directed to the Episcopal cathedral, where I was part of a congregation of four and the service was in the Gaelic !] Instead we had booked a visit to the Culloden Visitors’ centre- advance booking now essential at National Trust properties. The centre didn’t exist when we were last at Culloden. Now the panels tell the story of the background to the 1745 rising, the Hanoverian story on one side, the Jacobite story on the other. The Jacobite army, exhausted after a fruitless night march and hungry because of inadequate provisioning, was destroyed on Culloden Moor in April 1746 by the Hanoverian army under the Duke of Cumberland.


[John Prebble tells me that Cumberland was younger than I had realised. And he seems in some ways to have  been a model for the current Prince Andrew.] After a rather slow tour of the exhibition it was good to walk on the battle-field; the lines of the opposing armies marked with flags, and memorial stones showing where the clan chiefs fell. 

In the afternoon we visited Fort George, also booked on line. It is an impressive, stone-built eighteenth century barracks, one of a series of Hanoverian military bases [Fort George, Fort Augustus, Fort William] which were built after the 1745 uprising. The Fort sits on a neck of land at the narrowest point of the Moray Firth, looking across to Rosemarkie and Chanonry Point. It contains the Highlanders’ Regimental Museum; dress uniforms, sepia photos, and medals from assorted highland regiments. All fascinating if you like that sort of thing. Which I quite do.

Fort George

Then on north to Sutherland, named Suôrland [Southern Land] by the Norse in relation to their settlements in Orkney and Shetland. Our base was Armadale House, a Victorian B&B close to the sea, run by Detta, originally from Groningen but who has lived here for the past two decades.

Armadale House

This is rugged, thinly populated country, with a sprinkling of chambered cairns, standing stones, hill forts, and deserted  settlements. It sprinkled with rain on Strathy Point, where we failed to spot the whales. But the sun shone on the sea at Torrisdale Bay at Bettyhill. A plaque on the disused ice house overlooking the mouth of the river Naver told us that as late as the 1960s almost a thousand salmon were netted here on a single day. 

Sutherland is strongly associated with the Highland Clearances of the early nineteenth century, when villagers were driven off their crofts by landowners who wanted the land for sheep farming. The villains of the story are traditionally the English, epitomised by George Granville Leveson-Gower[1758-1833], an Old Etonian, English aristocrat, landowner and politician, said to the the richest man in England. In addition to his extensive land-holdings in Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Yorkshire, he acquired vast estates in Scotland by his marriage to Elizabeth, 19th Countess of Sutherland. As part of the ‘improvements’ to the Sutherland estate hundred of villagers were forcibly evicted in Strathnaver by Patrick Sellar, one of the Duke’s factors. Bad things certainly happened in Strathnaver, where people were treated cruelly. But it is now generally recognised that the clearances were at least in part the work of the clan chiefs and of incoming Lowland Scots. [Interestingly, in the light of recent controversy about public statues, there is a 100 foot high monument to the Duke of Sutherland on top of Ben Bhraggie, a prominent hill overlooking the village of Golspie in eastern Sutherland. And for a decade or more there have been campaigns to demolish the statue and replace it with a monument to the victims of the Clearances.]


We spent a day meandering down Strathnaver, starting with the deserted clearance village at Aberlochy. Then a roadside monument commemorating the first gathering of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise’s), known after  Baklava in the Crimean War as ‘The Thin Red Line’.  Then a stone marking the grave of the ‘Red Priest’, an eighth century priest killed by Viking raiders, sometimes identified [wrongly] with Saint Maelrubha. the Irish monk who founded the monastery at Applecross.. Nearby, in a clearing in woodland, what is said to be the Red Priest’s dwelling is in reality a Neolithic chambered cairn. Lunch was a picnic in Naver Forest, and we walked up to Rosal, one of the larger clearance villages set on a hillside above the river.

Rosal Clearance Village

We came home to Armadale via The Flow Country, a rolling expanse of peatland and wetland, the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe. It is both a significant wildlife habitat and a major carbon store.

Later in the week we drove west, through Bettyhill and across the causeway at Tongue. A combination of staycations [an ugly neologism] and promotion in recent years of the North Coast 500 has led to a significant increase in visitor numbers. We drove round the bottom end of Loch Eriboll in a procession that included five camper-vans and two Aston-Martins with the hoods down. And we failed to spot where we rough camped forty-plus years ago  [see TaGD – 21].

Pete’s Beach

In Durness both Smoo Cave and the John Lennon Memorial Garden  [he came here regularly for holidays as a child; and there is an ongoing debate as to whether Durness inspired the song In my life] had both attracted a bunch of camper-vans. We went straight on to Balnakeil where I played golf [very badly] on the nine-hole course overlooking the sea, the most northerly course in the UK; and afterwards  we had a hot chocolate from the reputed Cocoa Mountain in the Balnakeil Craft Village.. All melted chocolate and cream and calories.

Balnakeil Beach

Our final two nights were at Laide on the edge of Gruinard Bay. We visited the North Sea Convoy Museum at Aultbea. Susie’s father, George Malloch, was a very young medical doctor on the North Sea Convoys, but rarely spoke about the experience. And we re-visited the excellent Inverewe Gardens, a two thousand acre botanical garden created in the 1860s by Osgood Mackenzie and his daughter Mhairi.

Inverewe Gardens

And I played golf again at Gairloch in the sunshine, rather better this time, or at least not quite so badly as before, on the charming nine-hole course tucked in behind the beach. And Susie finally swam in the sea at Mellon Udrigle.

And now we are back in Edinburgh again, grateful for a trip away. And wondering when we might get a chance to go away again. Probably not in the near future in view of the rampant second wave.

September 2020