Through a glass darkly- 65

Old St Paul’s

Old St Paul’s is a church that is much admired by those who love it, and by perhaps by many who don’t. It is at the other end of some kind of church spectrum from St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, where I was once the curate. Although both began as breakaway groups. St Thomas’s began as a 19th century reaction against the prevalent Anglo-Catholicism of the then Scottish Episcopal Church; the Revd T.D.K. Drummond was apparently not allowed to hold a midweek Bible study if there was no celebration of the Eucharist ! By contrast Old St Paul’s began life a few centuries earlier, in 1689 when, as the Church of Scotland chose to abolish the rule of bishops, [Bishop] Alexander Rose led his people out of St Giles’ Cathedral in order to set up a new place of worship in an old wool shop, in Carrubber’s Close, not far away off the High Street. 

Old St Paul’s is the oldest congregation in the Scottish Episcopal Church. When the Church of Scotland supported the Hanoverian kings, the new Protestant monarchy, many Scottish Episcopalians remained Jacobites, loyal to the Stuart pretenders. Members of the St Paul’s congregation came out in the uprisings of 1715 and 1745. After which the Piskies were treated with suspicion and laws were passed to restrict their form of worship. 

Old St Paul’s

When the original buildings became too dilapidated to use the current church was built nearby in Jeffrey Street, and the church was renamed Old St Paul’s in order to distinguish it from another St Paul’s church in York Place. [Now known as St Paul’s and St George’s. A very different kind of church.] The church is perhaps best known for its faithful ministry to the slum dwellers of the eastern end of Edinburgh’s Old Town, for many years under the ministry of Canon Laurie who was Rector of OSP from 1898 until his death in 1937. Both Canon Laurie and his predecessor, Reginald Mitchell-Innes, stood firmly in the tradition of the Oxford Movement, and oversaw a shift towards a distinctly Anglo-Catholic form of worship. Subsequent rectors include Richard Holloway, who was Rector there from 1968 to 1980, and Ian Paton, now Bishop of St Andrew’s, who was there from 1997 to 2018.   The  ministry to the poor and destitute continues through the work of the soup kitchens, but the gathered congregation is now predominantly posh, with people drawn to the weekly celebrations of High Mass by the quality of the music and the richness of the liturgy.

I was there on Tuesday evening, for the first time in some thirty years. [On my previous visit, as a relatively new curate, I fell out with the man sitting next to me, who turned out to be [Bishop] Alastair Haggart, onetime Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.] On this occasion I was there for the priesting of Jaime Wright, the current curate at OSP. I met Jaime and her husband Eric a few years back, when they were both young American students doing doctorates at New College, Edinburgh, and both were exploring a call to ordained ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church. As I recall, they both came from very protestant, non-denominational churches, in Indiana and New York respectively, so they were clearly on some kind of ecclesiastical journey. They came to lunch here in 2018 and we hadn’t seen them since then.

Calvary Stair

Entrance to the church from Jeffrey Street is up a long flight of steps, the chisel-dressed and stone-vaulted Calvary Stair. There are thirty-three steps, one for each year of Christ’s life. They lead to a sculpture of the Crucifixion, Christ on the Cross flanked by his mother and by St John.  The stairs are meant to symbolise both Christ’ s journey from life to death and also the ascent to Calvary.

It was a cold evening in Edinburgh. The congregation, not enormous, were predominantly in tweed jackets and puffer coats. The front pews were reserved for robed clergy, who processed in and out. I had been invited to robe, but I don’t really do that sort of thing; I don’t think we should promote clericalism ! It was quite a long and wordy service, using what I thought was the 1928 liturgy. Hymns were from the New English Hymnal. It had lots of things of which I really don’t approve: seven lighted candles on the altar, chasubles, clouds of incense, a gospel procession, and Bishop John Armes con-celebrating with a cluster of priests. But there was an excellent sermon/homily by John McLuckie, the present Rector, on the Conversion of St Paul and the apostolic ministry in which we share. And, to my surprise, I thought the whole thing was rather splendid. 

Priesting of Jaime Wright, January 2022

John Cornwell: Seminary Boy

Since we returned from Kiev we have been dealing with an accumulated backlog of Christmas post and re-adapting to life in Edinburgh. I now have a small pile of books to read on Ukraine and on eastern Europe, most of them by Anne Applebaum, the Jewish-American academic and writer, whose grandfather came from what was then Poland and is now Belarus.

John Cornwell: Seminary Boy

Before I get started I have been turning the pages of Seminary Boy by John Cornwell. It is a beautifully written book. Cornwell [b. 1940] grew up, during the Second World War, in a tough, working class Irish family. His father had a gammy leg and worked as a groundsman; his mother, with an explosive temper, did a variety of jobs including working nights in a hospital. Cornwell escaped his home background by serving at the altar of a local Roman Catholic church, and was ‘privileged’ to be sent aged thirteen to Cotton College, a junior seminary somewhere deep in the Staffordshire countryside. At the seminary he started on Latin [he was known as Fru, short for frumentum bene, corn well in Latin] and on New Testament Greek; and sang in the choir; and was, in due course, introduced to a whole range of English literature  and classical music. But the dominant emotions are guilt and fear. The ‘Profs’ are [nearly] all muscular Christians, emotionally stunted, male priests, all heavy smokers, who go off on their motor bikes on their days off to visit their elderly mothers. The recurrent themes are learning by rote and digging drainage ditches in the clay soil and long runs through the countryside. Above all ‘special friendships’ are forbidden. With both fellow students and with staff.

Cornwell survives. Just. In spite of complicated emotional relationships with one or two of his fellow students. And an indecent approach by an abusive Prof. But his vocation does not survive the transition to a senior seminary. And he takes leave of the church for many years. And becomes a journalist and a writer. In a sad coda he re-encounters two of the former Profs decades later, both now working in the Oxford Diocese, including one who might have been an important father figure. But it didn’t work out. 

Cotton College, Staffordshire

The book reminds me how much I dislike some aspects of the Roman Catholic faith. The reluctant church-going based on fear. The joylessness of church life. The clericalism. The importance of hierarchy. But at the same time I feel for the loneliness of many Roman Catholic parish clergy. Including those priests in the Lyon diocese who periodically came to ask me if they could be received into the Church of England – along with their woman friends ! Requests to which the Archdeacon was invariably unsympathetic.

So, now I must get down to my Ukraine reading. But I thoroughly recommend Seminary Boy to anyone reading this who hasn’t read it.

January 2022

Through a glass darkly – 64

Three days in Lviv

The outward journey was frankly a disaster. Lviv is about six hours west of Kiev by train, not far from the Polish border and the Carpathian mountains. We had been encouraged by The [omniscient] Man in Seat Sixty One to picture a modern, high-speed train, and we envisaged travelling in comfort with our first class tickets, and the provision of an on-board restaurant car and individual wi-fi connections. When the train arrived, it was all 1950s, wagons-lit, rolling stock, with four passengers seated in a six-seat compartment; no wi-fi connection, no reading light, no leg space, and uncomfortable seats. Our two companions were bulky Ukrainian women who hung their coats on the hook that infringed on Susie’s seating space. The refreshment car turned out to be a friendly railway man who dispensed hot water in cardboard cups from the end of the carriage, and sold a selection of Bounty and Twix bars. It was a very long six hours !

Dinner at the Trapezna Idey

After which Lviv was wonderful …

We were staying in the George Hotel, again on the recommendation of The Man in Seat Sixty One. It is a splendid, spacious, turn-of-the century building that, thankfully, has not been crudely and insensitively renovated. .In fact it hasn’t been renovated at all. Our spacious room had solid wooden furniture, desk and wardrobe; the light fittings and door handles were brass.  The mirrored double staircase is magnificent. So too is the dining room, all bent-wood chairs and sensitive lighting, and a gallery clearly intended for a small orchestra. Breakfast is laid out on a series of tables across one end of the room: hot items in lidded warming dishes, breads, ham. cheese, yoghurts, jam and honey.

The George Hotel

Sadly the details are not quite right. The [very small] lift smelled as if it were inhabited by a large, wet dog. The water pressure in the shower is a bit low. The television set that offered us BBC World News had more dandruff that blustering Boris. The breakfast omelette and the breakfast sausages were both lukewarm and tasteless. And I couldn’t face the fried liver. But I will certainly make an effort to return to the George if and when we return to Lviv.

From the entrance to the hotel you come out at the bottom end of the Prospekt Svobody . This is a hub of local life, with tourists posing for photos by the prominent statues of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet,  and of Taras  Shevchenko, Ukraine’s best-known nationalist writer, this latter a gift from the Ukrainian diaspora in Argentina. At the far end of Svobody is the ornate Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Along the central strip of park there were dozens of Christmas stalls selling a variety of [mainly] food and drink; kebabs, hot dogs, different kids of sausage, nuts, inevitably chips [very good]; coffee, hot chocolate, mulled wine, and some excellent rum-based warm punch. After six hours in the train we felt much better for a rum punch and a hot chocolate.

Lviv Christmas market

Our guide the next morning was Lada, whom we had met at church in Kyiv. And who is delightful. Lada teaches in Lviv: she is part-English, part-Russian, – but also happens to speak German, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and some Polish ! She may also be the only person I know who became a Christian as the result of reading St Augustine’s Confessions. We climbed a small hill to admire the view from the citadel, now converted into what looks a comfortable hotel. Then descended for coffee and a tour of the old town. Lviv is all cobbled streets and old churches; and cafes and the smell of coffee roasting, and a host of chocolate shops. It has a totally different feel from Kiev, and feels more like a small city in Austria or Slovenia. Historically Lviv was the capital of Galicia, very much part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It only came under Soviet control in 1945 and is relatively unaffected by fifty years of Soviet rule. It draws thousands of tourists, with good reason, many of them gathering in Pl Rynok, around the 19th century Ratusha, or Town Hall. From which noon is marked each day by a bugle call from one of the upper windows.

Susie between two Ladas

Lviv is well-supplied with a host of coffee bars, cafes, and restaurants. In tourist mode we visited Lvivska Maysternya Pryanykiv, an award-winning gingerbread shop. Small children were attending a gingerbread decoration workshop in the cafe. Not the best place for a Type 2 diabetic. From there we moved on to Lvivska Maysternya Shokoladu, a chocoholic’s dream; an extraordinary variety of chocolate spread over three or four floors. Crowds of people, narrow stairs, and n chance of social distancing. We made modest purchases and beat a hasty retreat.

There are lots of restaurants in Lviv.  We had lunch one day at Green, a well-regarded vegan restaurant. My beetroot and pear and avocado salad with sun-dried tomatoes was excellent, accompanied by fresh pressed grapefruit juice and a very eco-friendly drinking straw. Beetroot featured again the next day when we ate an early dinner at the Trapezna Idey. a quirky basement restaurant below a small art gallery in what was formerly a Bernadine monastery. Susie and I shared a beetroot and horse-radish starter. The food was excellent. I had borsch, all beetroot and garlic and herbs and cream, white Susie had goulash, which was equally good. Followed by poached pear and home-made ice-cream. As well as the food and drink, the neighbouring table gave added value. It was a three generation family group: an alpha male dressed in what looked like a baking foil shirt and an ear-ring; his wife in minute, back and white, dog-tooth hot-pants; two solid, respectable grand-mothers; and the daughter, dressed either as a Christmas angel or for her first Communion. 

Monastic borsch

Now it is time to go back to Kiev for our final Sunday. And to prepare, paperwork, Passenger Locator Forms [the stuff of nightmares – the website is not fit for purpose] , and pre-departure PCR tests permitting, to return to Edinburgh. 

January 2022

Through a glass darkly – 63

Christmas and beyond

Christmas itself was predictably quiet. The Carol Service on Christmas Eve went as well as could be expected, on a very cold night with a small handful of people. On Christmas Day morning we went to mass at St Alexander’s Roman Catholic cathedral.  There were maybe 200 people, and excellent music with a small choir ad musicians in the gallery. Lunch was at a Georgian basement restaurant.

Christmas Day lunch

On Boxing Day our service included the baptism of Arthur, a rather active three-year-old. His father is in the Embassy here; a soldier and a Russian specialist. He and his family were previously in Belarus and in Georgia, and they will move on from here to Albania.  Arthur got a bit nervous as we approached the key moment when, as his mother explained the next day, he was nervous that it might be another vaccination. In the evening we went to the Opera with Christina and Vlad, and their daughter Margarita. It was a splendid occasion: a melange of music,  light operatic pieces, and ballet performed by favourite local performers in an ornate nineteenth century opera house. With crowds of people.

At the Opera: Vlad, Christina, Margarita, and Susie

I am puzzled about cars here. This is said to be a poor country. But  I haven’t yet seen a single old car. On the contrary there are a lot of Range Rovers and Discoveries and top-end, big Mercedes. As a general rule it is always the biggest car, usually with tinted windows, that jumps the lights at the numerous pedestrian crossings. Just as the pedestrian light turns green a big black car always barges through. And, on our rare taxi journeys, it is apparently compulsory to drive with one hand while using the other to access southing [the route ?] on a mobile phone 

Christmas to New Year is generally a season for finding inventive ways of recycling the turkey [I am very fond of turkey and cranberry sandwiches on wholemeal bread] and finishing off anything left over from the Christmas pudding. Neither of those options have been available to us. Instead we have continued to patronise the several branches of Pusata Hata. The food is generally fine, through rarely hot. And there is plenty of choice. I assume that the budget prices are only made possible by the very high turnover of customers.

Puzata Hata

The best meal we have eaten in Kiev came on New Year’s Eve. It was a damp, dank, misty morning. [Think Oxford in November, or out on Otmoor.] And very cold. Susie and I went for a tour of the Lavra monastic churches with Christina and Margarita. A lavra is the senior monastery, and pecherska means dug out of the caves. The monastery was founded in 1051 by St Antony, shortly after Orthodoxy was adopted as the religion of the Kievan Rus. The monastery grew rapidly, and soon became the intellectual and artistic centre of the country, training scribes and painters of icons and builders. Most of the churches have been rebuilt and made into museums, under the authority of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchy. 

Margarita, Christina, and Susie at Lavra

After a visit to the Museum of Micro-Miniatures [the world’s smallest book, a flea with golden boots – all so small they can only be viewed through a microscope] Christina’s husband Vlad joined us for late lunch at la Coupole, a bijou restaurant within the Lavra complex. I had a large chicken breast stuffed with spinach, with a sauce made of apples and calvados; followed by a cherry pie with crème anglaise. Both excellent.

Now after a quiet few days we are heading to Lviv, in the west of Ukraine, towards the Carpathian Mountains and towards Poland. It is about six hours journey on a high-speed train, which seems to continue to Vienna. In Lviv we shall be staying in the George Hotel. I am excited about the prospect of going there …

January 2022

Through a glass darkly – 62

Snow comes to Kiev

When it came, it came very suddenly. On the Monday before Christmas we had been to the central Post Office to post a second, and final,  batch of postcards. That is the only place where they can be stamped ‘Par Avion’. Unstamped they are unlikely to arrive before next Christmas. And then we walked up the short hill to St Alexander’s Roman Catholic cathedral. Where we hope to attend church on Christmas Day. And then we went to have a late lunch at the Maidan branch of Puzata Khata; something that tasted like pork teriyaki  [it sounds better than pork stew] with mashed potatoes and apple juice. And then when we came out of the restaurant the snow was coming down thick and fast along Khreshchatyk. Which corresponds to Oxford Street or to Regent Street in London; a wide street with big stores on each side, colourful Christmas decorations, and little shacks selling coffee and mulled wine.

Susie in the first snow

There has been intermittent snow for the remainder of the week, but nothing so dramatic. Temperatures have fallen sharply. It has been down to – 15ºC at night, and hovering around  – 10ºC to – 12ºC during the day. It is said to be quite a lot colder in Moscow this week. But it is certainly substantially colder than anything we are used to in Edinburgh. The local authorities are out early with gritters and salt spreaders. And many shopkeepers are efficient at clearing the pavement in front of their stores. But there is still a potentially treacherous covering of ice and hard-packed snow on most pavements. We are immensely grateful for our Yak Tracks, the pedestrian equivalent of winter tyres, which [on Kate’s advice] Susie bought on-line before we left Edinburgh.

After our first day, I have been extremely reluctant to go back into the Metro. Mainly because of COVID and social distancing. We don’t know what COVID numbers are like here,  nor whether the Omicron variant has reached Kiev. This information doesn’t feature on France 24 bulletins nor in The Guardian on-line, which are our twin sources of information about the world. A lot of people wear masks in the street, and they are obligatory in shops and shopping malls.  Reassuringly we are also asked to show vaccination certificates in cafes and restaurants, even in the relatively downmarket Puzata Khatas. My best guess is that COVID is less rampant here than it seems to be currently in London. Where blustering Boris’s habitual indecision seems unhelpful. I gather that the saintly Nicola is imposing tougher restrictions in Scotland. Susie hopes that we will be allowed back into Scotland in two weeks time without too much difficulty.

Kreshchatyk in the snow

We have enjoyed several Carol Services in recent days. Notably Holy Trinity, Brussels, complete with orchestra and singers last weekend. Another bravura performance by David Mitchell and his team. On a lesser scale we also enjoyed the service of St Peter’s, Lutton Place, Edinburgh. This was on-line because of changing COVID concerns. And an excellent little video by the TEAR Fund international choir. It is our own Carol Service here later this evening. I am going to say a few words about the carol In the bleak mid-winter, which seems appropriate given the weather. Christina Rossetti’s carol, published posthumously as a poem in 1904, certainly encouraged generations of people, including me, to associate the nativity with winter snow. For which there is of course no Biblical warrant. But there are precedents. Milton’s poem On the morning of Christ’s nativity suggests that snow fell at Christ’s birth to cover the fallen world with pure whiteness.

Feeling confident enough with our Yak Tracks we walked back up to Lavra one day, a complex of monasteries and catacombs. It was extremely cold. We walked on to the foot of the huge and hideous Rodina Mat in search of a cafe, but were stopped by a long flight of icy steps. So we retreated towards Pecherska, and stopped for coffee and a cinnamon bun at Titka Klara. Titka means aunt, and is one of the few words that I have mastered from my Duolinguo sessions.

Susie and Rodina Mat

The following day we walked back past the central Post Office and St Michael’s monastery, and descended somewhat gingerly the steep and cobbled  Andriyivsky Uzviz. Tradition says that St Andrew walked up this hill, planted a cross, and said that a great city would be built there. Podil, the area at the foot of the hill, has a rather arty, village-like feel. Slightly spoiled by a gigantic wheel and a hutted winter village in the central square. The area is known for its bars and restaurants. We ate in a long-established Georgian basement restaurant. There are a lot of Georgian restaurants in Kiev. And a suspicion that they all serve the same [Georgian] menu. Accompanied by screens showing Georgian tourist information films. The food was good. But the service very slow.

Our children and grandchildren are in Scotland and Sweden respectively. We hope to speak to both branches of the family tomorrow. It doesn’t feel quite like Christmas yet  …

Christmas Eve 2021


We were twenty-something at the Carol Service last night. Partly thanks to David from the Embassy, whom I met ten days ago, and who turned up with six of his colleagues, “all unbelievers” according to him.  And a family from the American Embassy that I didn’t know. And a young-ish Ukrainian guy there for the first time, just back from several years in China. The tune for While shepherds watched their flocks by night was extraordinary. But otherwise it was all fine, and we enjoyed mulled wine and gingerbread afterwards.

the Lutheran Church

Today, Christmas Day, we have had sunshine and the temperature was up to – 2ºC. Susie and I went to the English language mass at St Alexander’s [Roman] Catholic cathedral at 12.00 midday. It is a handsome nineteenth century building, a bit behind St Michael’s Monastery. The church was pretty much full, the best part of two hundred people there. I would estimate that about 20% of the congregation were black African students. Emmanuel in front  of us was a 5th year medic from Nigeria, an Ibo; and his friend was a Ghanaian PhD student from Accra. Five robed acolytes were all African. The music was good, with a choir and musicians in the gallery, conducted by a young man in a Valencia [football club] hoodie. But I was upset by the preacher: after a Gospel procession and a rousing acclamation, the priest chanted the Gospel [John 1] in an almost unintelligible manner, and then preached making a noise like a dying Dalek. Mercifully it was quite short. I feel quite strongly that it is a waste of time reading [and preaching] the Word in such a way. [A Greek Orthodox bishop did something similar in a Semaine de prière pour l’unitè service in Lyon a dozen years ago. A huge wasted opportunity.]

in Volodymyr Hirka Park

Lunch was in another Georgian basement restaurant. No turkey on the menu. But we had well-spiced lamb stew, mixed vegetable stew, Georgian baked potatoes, flat bread with spinach, followed by local yoghurt with nuts and honey. A good place. Now are re-charging the batteries back in the apartment. Tomorrow afternoon back to church for Communion and a baptism.

Christmas Day 2021

Through a glass darkly – 61

Kiev calling – 2

It is going to get a lot colder here in Kiev: temperatures on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are forecast as -9ºC up to -6ºC. And it should be snowing by then. According to the BBC forecast on my MacBook. Which is good news, I think. For the last several days it has been grey and wet, with a mix of sleet and freezing rain. I don’t recall seeing the sun since we arrived.

St Michael’s Monastery

We have been in Kiev for two weeks now. Which doesn’t make me an expert on anything. But we have finally changed some US dollars into local currency, Ukrainian hrivnya if you need to know. Written UAE. Changing money was very straightforward at a little currency shop across the road, with an unsmiling red-haired woman behind a glass screen. No passport or identity document required. And we have ordered several large barrels of water, along with a tailor-made pump, which were delivered this morning by an efficient young man. It seems that no-one drinks tap water in Kiev. And Susie said that it was an unrepeatable pre-Christmas offer. And we have, amazingly, booked some rail tickets to go to Lviv after Christmas. Both the water and the rail tickets were sourced with help from Kate, who has been here at the embassy for three years. And who is a great help and encouragement. Admittedly we only secured the rail tickets [the last seats on the train] at the fourth attempt and with a second credit card. 

A few days walking around the city in the rain gave me a streaming cold; cue much sneezing and a nose running like a mountain stream.  So I stayed indoors for 36 hours, living mainly on tea and paracetamol. Happily I was well enough for the service on Sunday afternoon, but sounded more like Paul Robeson than usual. A small but faithful congregation. The church here uses an unknown [to me] American hymn book. I remember all those old jokes about Britain and America being two countries  divided by a common language. Divided more I think by a common hymnody.

St Michael’s Monastery

Susie has caught my cold this week, and has been staying warm indoors. So I went by myself to carol singing at the Embassy on Monday evening. It was a low-key event with twenty or so people singing carols in the garden, followed by mulled wine and mince pies indoors. The embassy is quite big here, and I can imagine that Ukraine is a challenging posting. It was good to have brief conversations with some of the people there. From which I gathered that the Kiev Anglican church is a well-kept secret. But I hope to be organising a baptism for one of the families that I met on the Sunday after Christmas. It seems that December 25th is not a public holiday in this country. So we will be having our Christmas Day celebration on December 26th.

Walking across town to the embassy was an opportunity to photograph a few of the sights after dark. Which may be when they look at their best ! St Michael’s gold-domed monastery is named after Kiev’s patron saint. The current building [2001] is a copy of the original [1108], which was torn down by the Soviets in 1937.

Andriyivsky Uzviz [Andrew’s Descent]

Andriyivsky Uzviz [Andrew’s descent] is the most picturesque street in Kiev. It is a steep, cobbled street reminiscent of Montmartre. According to legend the Apostle Andrew walked up this hill, erected a cross, and prophesied that a great city would occupy this site. At the top of the hill St Andrew’s church was built in 1754 by an Italian architect, interpreting the traditional Ukrainian design of a five-domed, cross-shaped church.

Andriyivsky Uzviz [Andrew’s Descent]

That’s probably enough guide-book stuff. France 24 mentioned blustering Boris yesterday; only to say that he is deeply unpopular, and that his back-benchers are revolting. Which is not exactly news. But they haven’t yet acknowledged the coming day-night test in Adelaide. I suppose that a French news station has to draw the line somewhere.


Today’s exciting news is that the Tories have lost the by-election in Owen Paterson’s old seat. With an unprecedented swing of some 30%+ to the Lib Dems. And that Boris has taken full responsibility for the result. A rare display of truthfulness ? Yet more good news to celebrate this Christmas.

December 2021

Through a glass darkly – 60


We arrived in this city after dark a week ago. After changing planes in Frankfurt. It took a long time to clear customs as we were behind a sizeable group of  orthodox Jewish rabbis, all wearing long ringlets under black hats, who attracted a great deal of attention from the suspicious officials. I think it must be Hanukah. Christina and Vlad kindly met us at the airport, and we shared a taxi into town to our apartment. We are in Kiev in the Ukraine.

Susie at Maydan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square]

The apartment is a bit 1960s Soviet style; a square living room, a square bedroom, a miniature kitchen that boasts an induction hob and a fridge, and a small bathroom where a washing machine occupies a lot of space. The lighting is harsh. But the apartment is wonderfully warm. Which is a good thing as it is cold outside; snow earlier in the week, and freezing rain today. We watched with fascination as icicles formed on branches and hand-rails. The apartment is on the seventh floor. It is 108 steps up from the entrance to the building. I know because I count them every time we walk up and down. The lift stopped working on Sunday morning, and although it is now working again Susie is very suspicious of it.

Our building is at the back of a block that overlooks a four lane road. Happily there is a set of lights and pedestrian crossing close by, which enables us to visit the ATB  [small] supermarket on a regular basis. Language is a bit of a problem. Susie is dredging her memory for bits of Russian learnt at an evening class in Oxford some fifty years ago, and she also had a couple of preliminary sessions with our Ukrainian next-door neighbour in Edinburgh. I have signed on with Duolinguo, which is wonderfully encouraging. But I haven’t got much beyond ‘Mum and Dad are over there’. Which limits any exchanges on the street. The Cyrillic script doesn’t help. I can only recognise a limited number of characters. And then I don’t know how they are pronounced.

Trying to work out where we are

On our first morning I was totally confused about directions. We turned right from the apartment, and walked to the nearest metro.  [We thought we were walking towards town, but in fact we were  walking away from it !] From there we took a metro into the centre of town, to the Maidan. For ticket buying and for changing metro lines we were helped by kindly passers-by. No-one had told me that the Kiev metro is probably the deepest in the world. I am well used to the London Underground and the Paris and Brussels metro systems, but here the escalators go down [and up] for several minutes at a time. Long enough for a nervous traveller to recite the Lord’s Prayer in two languages and most of How great Thou art ! I think we are now trying to stay out of the metro, partly for COVID reasons, in order to avoid contact with a lot of unmasked people. 

Sightseeing on Day One was cut short by a phone call from Thamarai [see below] warning of an imminent snow storm. We headed down a very long, cobbled hill, failed to find either of the eating places recommended in Lonely Planet, and eventually fell into a very comfortable Italian basement restaurant. Where we ate very well, and were charged a lot of money by Kiev standards. As the snow threatened we risked a bus journey home, overshot our apartment by at least a couple of kilometres, and walked home in the sleet. Grateful for a warm, dry base.

Sunday morning at Pecherska

Sunday worship is at 15.00h in the German Lutheran Church, a handsome building on the side of a steep hill. Thamarai kindly collected us. He is an Indian, I guess from Kerala, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, one of the founder members of Christ Church, Kyiv, and currently the Treasurer. It is a small but friendly congregation, predominantly Ukrainian. Christina, who met us at the airport, is the church warden, a professional interpreter; her husband, Vlad, is a lawyer. Sylvia is an American, ordained as a Pastor in the Nazarene Church. Another member, Anastasia, is a potential Church of England ordinand. We are meeting up to talk.  We sang from an unfamiliar American hymn book, accompanied [but not greatly helped] by a professional organist.

Early impressions of Kiev are just glimpses. The streets are very clean, with little old ladies busy sweeping up on Sunday morning. There is a lot of traffic, mainly big, black cars. Big, unattractive Soviet style blocks of apartments are much in evidence. Young people in the city centre are smartly dressed. Most people in the streets and in cafes have an I-phone in their hand. In shops and cafes people pay on their phones. Gullivers is a nearby shopping mall, far superior to anything in Edinburgh, with an imposing atrium. Currently decorated with a Christmas tree and a family of penguins. Escalators take you to a 6th floor Food Hall. Where I think to set up a temporary office. The ubiquitous piped music is uniformly 1940s American, often Sinatra or imitators. Jingle Bells vies with Santa Claus is coming to town.  

With the penguins, Gullivers Mall

After our initial Italian extravagance, we are downwardly mobile at lunchtimes. Guided by Lonely Planet we have discovered Puzata Hata  a chain of Ukrainian self-service cafes which serve an astonishing variety of food without frills. In the absence of language you just point at what you want. It was a bit galling to discover that the Ukrainian name means Hut of the Pot Belly !

Our awareness of the wider world is limited to France 24, a French language tv news station that functions in English.  It is an interestingly different slant on world news, with no mention of blustering Boris and no mention of the cricket. But we are up to date on Macron’s visit to the Middle East and the Pope’s visit to Greece. And there was a fascinating discussion in English by four commentators on the background to the current Russian-Ukrainian dispute. I guess that if Putin’s troops invade, someone will tell us.  For the moment I feel that this is a safe place. I just want to hope and pray that we can be some encouragement to the people here.

December 2021.

Through a glass darkly – 59

We landed in this unfamiliar city after dark … 

Opening Up

No, we haven’t quite got that far yet. It’s just like what they say about London buses. You wait for ages and then two come along at once. This will be my second attempt at blogging this week. Not because it has been a particularly exciting week – though it has been; but in an attempt to explain the recent two month hiatus. As the world started to open up a bit in the late summer and in the autumn,  we had more opportunities to meet up with friends and family, in particular with family. And I spent a lot less time turning the pages of books and writing about [some of] them. 

Two London buses arriving together

It was great to see my two brothers and their wives, Paul and Jean, Peter and Alice, in Scotland in September. It was the first time we had seen them for about two years. And the first time since Peter’s gloomy medical diagnosis earlier this year. They were renting a cottage on a farm down at Kelso. We drove down for a relaxed pub lunch on a grey day in the Borders. And they came up to Edinburgh a couple of days later for a walk in the Botanics followed by lunch at our place. Jamie Oliver’s Baked Chicken [with sweet potatoes, red pepper, parmesan, and cream] went down well. As did Katie Stewart’s old apple pie recipe. Then we met for lunch at The Maltings in Berwick [excellent, thank you], followed by a walk round the Berwick town walls. I don’t think I realised when we lived along the road in Duns what an attractive place Berwick is. Albeit a bit run down. They say that the parish church is one of the very few churches built during Cromwell’s Protectorate.

Paul and Jean, Peter and Alice, and Susie, in Berwick

Another ‘opening up’ treat was going down to see the children at half-term. Generally people wore masks as advised on the train down, except for what was probably a wedding party who invaded the quiet coach at Newcastle. But there were fewer masks in London than in Edinburgh. It was good to see a bit more of the children and grand-children after a long gap. We stayed with Joanna and Craig in High Wycombe, and walked with all the family at Cliveden. Great views across the river. No sign of the Astors, nor of  Profumo and Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. Which all seems a long time ago. And we ate with Jem and Anna and family at Chalgrove, and walked round Watlington on the edge of the Chilterns. Which is Vicar of Dibley territory.

Some of the family at Cliveden

In the middle of November it was time to brave overseas travel for the Men’s Retreat down at Maredsous. Organised once again by Armin Kummer and his helpers from the German Protestant Church. We thought about the notion of sanctuary, and talked about the tension between security and liberty in a time of pandemic. Seeking a Christian perspective. Numbers were reduced because of the pandemic, but it was very good to be back in familiar surroundings of the Abbey surrounded by autumnal forests. In between worship and discussion we managed an 11 kilometre walk on the Saturday afternoon.

Men’s Retreat, 2021, Maredsous

But the bureaucratic paperwork was a nightmare. I am double-jabbed and have had the booster jab, but I was instructed to take an antigen test within 24 hours of arrival in Brussels. Not possible on a feriè [on November 11th]. Returning to the UK was worse. The website is not fit for purpose. And persistently refused to accept my user-name and password. The PLF [Passenger Locator Form] demanded that I book a test within 24 hours of my return. There is a perfectly good NHS Test site near us in Edinburgh. But insists on a commercial test. I booked with bad grace with a company in Northamptonshire, who charged me for a test but failed to turn up on-line on Tuesday morning. It’s probably a scam run by a Tory back-bencher’s girl-friend. Or boy-friend, I suppose. Just a reminder that the whole COVID epidemic has been a cash-cow for many Tory party supporters. [See Private Eye passim.]

All of which makes me wonder how and why we are now abroad again …

December 2021

Through a glass darkly – 58

We arrived in this city last week after dark  … but I am getting ahead of myself.

Sticky wicket in Yorkshire

It is about three months or so since I last blogged. Where has the time gone ? I started to write something about racism and Yorkshire cricket a few weeks ago when Roger Hutton resigned. In the face of accusations of institutional racism. [I assume that Roger Hutton is no relation to Sir Len Hutton, outstanding opening batsman for Yorkshire and England, and captain of the England XI that regained the Ashes in the summer of 1953. One of my childhood heroes, if less charismatic than his contemporary Denis Compton. I have both their autographs in my prized autograph album upstairs.]

Len Hutton, Yorkshire and England

Since then the story has gone viral. Michael Vaughan, has been stood down by the BBC from commenting on the about-to-begin Ashes series in Australia.  And a hitherto unknown Tory peer, who made her fortune in ladies underwear, is facing similar accusations. Attempts to hold institutions, or individuals, to account for historical racism are fraught with problems. But the press are generally happy to make a presumption of guilt.

One of the interesting [to me] by-products of the racism debate took us to Twickenham.  Where supporters of the England rugby team, who are often portrayed as middle-class‘Hooray Henries’ have been happily singing Swing low, sweet chariot for several decades. This Afro-American spiritual was thought to be first sung when the black winger Chris Oti got a hat-trick of tries against Ireland in 1988.  But it is now clear that the song was sung the previous year as a tribute to another black winger, Martin ‘Chariots’ Offiah. In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed the death of George Floyd, the Rugby Football Union has said that is working “to create awareness”.  Which sounds a suitably bland cliche.

Business as usual in the Commons

At one point I also thought of writing something about Owen Paterson. Paterson [b. 1956] was a middle-ranking Conservative Party politician; educated at Radley College [after Ted Dexter] and at Cambridge, who worked for some years in the leather industry. He entered the House of Commons in 1997, and was Secretary of Sate for the Environment 2012-2014. [He was succeeded in the post by the upwardly mobile Liz Truss.] Paterson was the first cabinet minister to oppose the Same Sex Marriage bill, has a long track record as a climate change sceptic, and was an active Brexiteer, who was co-founder of the pressure group Conservatives for Britain.

Owen Patterson, former MP

After lengthy investigations, encouraged by The Guardian, Paterson was found guilty of an egregious breach of parliamentary rules by lobbying on behalf of companies that were paying him more than £100, 000 a year. Blustering Boris’s first reaction was to whip Tory MPs in support of Peterson and to attempt to dismantle the system by which MPs’ behaviour is regulated. while a cross-party committee examined the Commons’ standards system with a view to establishing some kind of appeals process. Instead the Paterson case would be investigated by a committee chaired by John Whittingdale, a former Tory Culture Minister.  [A man who was investigated by a former parliamentary Commissioner for Standards over a trip to Amsterdam in 2013, with his then girlfriend, a dominatrix sex worker.] Keir Starmer called Boris’s behaviour deeply corrupt.  Even the Daily Mail called the PM’s behaviour shameless. When even Boris realised that this behaviour was unacceptable, Peterson was dropped quietly overboard. And there are rumours that the Lib Dems have a chance of winning the Shropshire seat at the imminent by-election.

Diaries and Diarists

I guess I’m a sucker for diaries. Other people’s, not my own. I certainly keep a diary, of a kind, and I have diaries dating back to 1987 on the shelf here as well as a couple of schoolboy diaries from the 1950s. But they have rarely been more than appointment books, meetings with people some of whom I don’t now remember. Together with as often as not the Sunday lectionary readings or outline sermon texts. And perhaps a weekly job list with the items crossed neatly through. Which is exactly what my father used to do. He invariably bought a new leather-bound pocket diary in January, and careful transcribed his list of jobs from the previous year. I’m not sure where his diaries are now, so I don’t know whether some jobs simply carried over from year to year.

Chips Channon

I read somewhere a few weeks ago that the three great [English] diarists of the twentieth century were Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Harold Nicholson, and James Lees-Milne. Channon was an Anglo-American, born in  Chicago in 1897. After the First War he spent two years at Christ Church, Oxford, where he acquired the nickname ‘Chips’ and struck up a close and lasting friendship with Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of him, “adoring London society, privilege, rank, and wealth, he became an energetic, implacable, but endearing social climber.” In 1933, Channon married the brewing heiress Lady Honor Guinness and, after becoming a British citizen in 1935, he became a Tory MP, inheriting the Southend constituency from his mother-in-law, Gwendolen Guinness, Countess of Iveagh. He and his wife were great society hosts and social climbers. In November 1936 his diary records a dinner party at which they entertained Edward VIII, Price Paul of Yugoslavia, the Regent of Greece and his wife, the Duke of Kent and his wife Princess Marina, of whom Channon was a friend and an admirer.

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon

Robert  Rhodes James, who edited an expurgated edition of the diaries in 1967, quotes Channon’s self-portrait, written in  1935:  “Sometimes I think I have an unusual character – able but trivial; I have flair, intuition, great good taste but only second rate ambition: I am far too susceptible to flattery; I hate and am uninterested in all the things most men like such as sports, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war, and the weather; but I am riveted by lust, furniture, glamour and society and jewels. I am an excellent organiser and have a will of iron; I can only be appealed to through my vanity.”  Reviewing the diaries in The Observer in 1967, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: “Grovellingly sycophantic and snobbish as only a well-heeled American nesting among the English upper classes can be, with a commonness that positively hurts at times. And yet – how sharp an eye! What neat malice! How, in their own fashion, well written and truthful and honest they are!

My edition of Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon is a Penguin paperback, published in 1970, which runs to 500-plus pages. I’ve not looked at it for twenty years. But we are now promised a three volume edition, edited by Simon Heffer, of which the first volume was published earlier this year. The unexpurgated edition reveals that Channon was a promiscuous homosexual whose lengthy affair with the garden designer Peter Coats led to the break-up of his marriage. The exact nature of his friendship with others such as Terence Rattigan and with the Duke of Kent is not clear.

I did look again at James Lees-Milne’s diaries early in the autumn. An incorrigible, self-obsessed, bi-sexual Old Etonian, and a pioneer of the early days of the National Trust, he ended his life living in the strange coterie at Badminton that clustered around the Duke of Beaufort and family. Strangely, I think I may have his autograph too. But more of that another time …

James Lees-Milne, at Badminton

December 2021

Through a glass darkly – 57

Monasteries and Retreat Houses

I spent the middle of last week in a monastery. It was only a couple of nights. We  were staying in St Mary’s, the Redemptorist monastery on the side of Kinnoull Hill, just on the edge of Perth.  My recollection of staying there some thirty years ago, most probably for post-Ordination Training, is that the monastery was cold and gloomy with dreadful food. Now thankfully the accommodation is enormously improved. The rooms ere all en-suite, properly heated and with bedside lights; and the food was uniformly excellent. I think that the community sold a field, presumably for housing, in a highly desirable area, and invested the money in a significant upgrade of the facilities.

St Mary’s, Kinnoull

Down the years I’ve stayed in a variety of monasteries and retreat houses. My first monastery was Mount St Bernard, a Cistercian house in Leicestershire., designed by Augustus Pugin. A group of us went from school, History Grecians who were doing 12th century English monasticism as a special subject for A-level. I remember little about the place; only that we travelled there and back in a master’s elderly van, certainly without seat-belts in the days before Health and Safety. And that the monastic life did not seem very different from the routines of Christ’s Hospital, my boys’ boarding school; a fixed daily routine punctuated by the ringing of a bell.

Mount St Bernard, Leicestershire

When I was an Oxford Diocese ordinand, in the mid 1980s, we were invited to a two night stay in St George’s, Windsor. Even at the time I realised that staying in Windsor Castle, protected by a detachment of Scots Guards, might not be the most appropriate preparation for parish ministry. The main speaker was the newly appointed Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries. When I asked him about the disastrous appointment that had recently been made in our Oxfordshire parish, he made it clear that he regarded such questions as insubordination. The nature of the exchange made me pleased to leave the Oxford Diocese and to come north of the Border for my curacy.

Here in Scotland none of my POT [Post-Ordination Training] sessions were housed in anything like Windsor Castle. My first such event was on Cumbrae, at the cathedral of the Isles. Getting there from St Thomas’, Glasgow Road, involved getting a bus into town to Haymarket, a train to Glasgow Queen Street, walk to Glasgow Central for a train to Largs, a boat to Cumbrae, and then another bus. The building was pretty run-down at the time, the lighting was all 30-watt bulbs, and the teaching input [from a Scottish Bishop] equally dim. Subsequent POT sessions took place at St Drostan’s, Tarfside,  ten miles up Glen Esk in rural Angus, and at Stirling Youth Hostel. St Thomas’s, where I spent two years, relocated its church weekends from Kilcreggan, a shabby Christian retreat centre in the west, to the more palatial surrounds of Crieff Hydro. During our decade in Duns I did an Edinburgh Diocese silent retreat on Holy Island. Walking around the island was wonderful. The input was less wonderful. I met Bishop Richard one afternoon, and was unsure of the protocol for greeting one’s bishop on a silent retreat. He hailed me from several metres away. “Hello, Chris. What do you make of the speaker ? Isn’t he awful !”.

ICS annual Family Conferences alternated between the UK and continental Europe. Fashions change, but most of our home conferences were held at Ashburnham Place, in East Sussex, not far from Battle.  Good grounds, and good cake. Two of our ‘overseas’ conferences were held at the Bible College at Beatenberg, halfway up a mountain in Switzerland. Because I am a complete wimp about heights and mountain roads, I had to wear a face-covering on the short bus journey up from Interlaken West station. But there are superb views from Beatenberg looking south across to the breathtaking mountain panorama of the Three Peaks [Eiger, Mönch and the Jungfrau]. And it is unreconstructed rural Switzerland with cows coming past the college twice a day for milking.

Beatenberg, 2013

For several years the annual France Archdeaconry meeting was held in the Maison Diocesaine at Arras, usually in January with snow on the ground. It was a very big, cold, stone building with footsteps echoing along the long corridors. One year we went on an afternoon coach outing to look at bits of First World War trenches. And then the Archdeaconry meetings moved to the Abbaye St Jacut sur Mer, on the Brittany coast in the Côtes d’Armor, and were held later in the year. St Jacut is delightful: the site of a historic abbey which was purchased and rebuilt in 1875 by the Community of Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of St Méen-le-Grand. The rooms are nothing special, but you can walk straight out of the grounds onto the coastal path, which links a number of small beaches that face west towards the afternoon sun.

Abbaye, St Jacut, Côtes d’Armor

My post-retirement time in Brussels introduced me to a variety of Belgian abbeys; to Kortenberg Abbey and la Foresta and Drongen. There was always beer on offer, and I learned that each of the Belgian beers is meant to be drunk out of the appropriately shaped glass. From 2014 I got involved with the annual Men’s Retreat, very ably organised in recent years by my friend Armin, which brings together men from Holy Trinity, Brussels, and the German Lutheran Church. The usual programme is a mix of teaching input and break-out groups, group worship, a Saturday afternoon walk, and a Saturday evening film. Themes have included Journeying, Male Spirituality, [Male] Friendship, and, last year, Elijah’s encounter with God at the mouth of the cave in 1 Kings 19. Films have included Clint Eastwood’s amazingEl Torino, the little-known On a Clear Day, set in Glasgow with Peter Mullan and Brenda Blethyn, and Brassed Off and Pride. Our preferred venue is Maredsous, a 19th century Benedictine foundation set in a thickly wooded valley in the Ardennes.

Men’s Retreat, Maredsous, 2017

SARAC Retreat

I was unsure about the SARAC retreat. SARAC was the creation of the late Ken Gordon, who felt strongly that retired clergy should have some recognition in the Scottish Episcopal Church. He died earlier this year, and it is not clear whether SARAC will survive him. And I was a bit anxious that it would be a very parochial [i.e.provincial] gathering; with a small huddle of retired Scottish Episcopalians swopping memories of ministry in Glencarse and Pittenweem and Blairgowrie.

As it turned out, apart from the speaker, none of the participants were Scottish. We came from Somerset and Yorkshire and Canada; from South Carolina and South London. Gerald had been a priest in a group of parishes in rural Canada, ministering to Inuit peoples and flying himself from one community to another in a single engined plane.  Geoffrey had been an Army chaplain, a Lieutenant Colonel, serving in postings around the world. Iain, our only Scot, had been Archdeacon in the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf for two decades. The teaching input, an arbitrary series of readings from Luke’s Gospel, was a bit random. And we probably overdosed on services, all taken from the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book. But it was good to be in a different setting. And it was very good to have time to walk on Kinnoull Hill with amazing views across the Carse.

The view from Kinnoull Hill


If travel regulations allow overseas travel, I shall be back to Maredsous for this year’s Men’s Retreat in about 6 weeks time. The likely theme will be Sanctuary, in a time of global pandemic. Numbers at the abbey will be strictly limited compared with past years. Two years ago we had to limit numbers to 30 men, and draw up a waiting list. This year it may be only half that number. I am excited at the prospect of meeting up again. But I don’t know what this year’s film will be.

September 2021

Through a glass darkly – 56

Unlike Jonathan Goodall, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet [and a wholly invisible contemporary at Wycliffe Hall in the late-mid 1980s], who has just left the Church of England to join the Church of Rome,  I’ve never had any desire to be a Roman Catholic. Much as I like several Catholic priests, mainly French,  there are aspects of the institutional church that I am very uneasy with;  an underlying misogyny, an over-attachment to clerical garb, usually in funereal black with a Masonic tinge;  and a wholly inappropriate possessiveness towards [and a presumed ownership of] the sacraments.

But, as someone pointed out to me the other day, most of the Christian writers whose works I have appreciated in the past couple of years are Catholics; Hans Küng, Jürgen Moltmann, and now Herbert McCabe. I guess that my reading has always been pretty random. And/or maybe I’ve been reading the wrong kind of Protestants ?

Herbert McCabe

McCabe, who died in 2001 at the age of 74, was a Dominican priest, theologian, and philosopher. After time as a pastor in Newcastle, three years as Chaplain at De La Salle College, and a spell in Cambridge, he spent many years teaching at Blackfriars in Oxford. His lifelong work concerned the study of Thomas Aquinas, and he combined a radical, left-wing approach to political questions [he was a powerful critic of the Vietnam War] with an otherwise orthodox faith. When he died the obituaries said that he was a better speaker than a writer, who produced sparkling sermons but no major books. Thanks to the omniscient Abe Books, I’ve been looking at an old copy of Love, Law, and Language, based on his 1967 lectures at the University of Kent. 

Law, Love, and Language

I didn’t know when I bought the book that it is an exploration of Ethics, based on lectures given in 1967. We did a certain amount of ethics when I was at Wycliffe, taught by David Atkinson who subsequently became Bishop of Thetford. The course, as I recall, consisted of a series of lectures, and the writing of essays on some familiar topics; divorce and re-marriage [only men and women in those days]; the rights and wrongs of abortion; work and unemployment. And the first port of call for most of these topics was John Stott’s 1984 book Issues facing Christian Today, a careful look at questions that face Christians and non-Christians alike.

McCabe starts somewhere else. He starts by identifying three ways of thinking about ethics: as a matter of loving;  as a matter of obeying the law;  as a matter of talking to people.

Situation ethics

He acknowledges that the proposition ‘all you need is love’ is increasingly popular [in 1967] among Christian theologians. Partly because Jesus makes a strong contrast between the gospel and the legalism of the Pharisees.  But, McCabe insists [following Aquinas], Jesus does not set aside the moral law in favour of love. He only sets aside the customs and ritual practices of Israel.

The moral good act is not the act prescribed by some moral law, it is whatever love demands in a particular situation’ is the mantra of situation ethics. But there are major problems with this approach: first, the situationist may be setting aside major moral issues; and, second, he may be allowing concern for people he knows to take precedence over others. “Every moral problem is a problem about who is to get hurt” [McCabe]

Ethics as Law

To be subject to law implies membership of a community. Mankind is thus constituted by biological exchanges and by linguistic exchanges. In a biological community, members seek their own survival and refrain [largely] from killing each other.  Though McCabe, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War comments: “man seems to be the only animal that goes in for infra-specific violence on a really large and destructive scale.”

In a linguistic community, things are not so clear-cut. Road signs may give information [Beware of the sheep] or commands [30 mph]. Laws exist both for my welfare and for the welfare of the group as a whole. Why should the community make decisions for me ? Is it that they are more intelligent ? Or is it the need for predictability. Hence driving on the left, speed limits etc. 

If a linguistic community needs laws, does mankind need laws ? Aquinas sees ‘natural law’ as coming from God; the Ten Commandments are both a definition of man and a revelation of God. McCabe says that natural laws help us to be the people we really want to be. He quotes approvingly [if surprisingly] DH Lawrence: man has a double set of desires, and it is the business of Chief Thinkers to tell us how we ought to want to behave.

Ethics as Language

McCabe insists that language is what distinguishes man from other animals. Communication is in essence about sharing a common life. All shared vital activity is some form of communication. In man communication reaches a new intensity, it becomes language. Learning to live with strangers is a matter of adopting the rhythms of their life. [Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”] Language is a product of the community, not of the individual. Meanings are ways of being with each other. [Wittgenstein: “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”.]

Ethics is almost universally supposed to be concerned with the difference between right and wrong; but McCabe insists that “this however is a mistake”. The purpose of ethics is about “enabling us to enjoy life more by responding to it more sensitively”. Bad cheap behaviour devalues the structures of human meaning.  [Was he anticipating the present UK government ?] Morality is rather the attempt to live our lives in meaningful, deep communication with others.

The word as love

The centre of the gospel is that in Jesus Yahweh communicates himself wholly to us. “The coming of Jesus is not just the coming of a virtuous man; … it is the coming of a new humanity.” Jesus offers himself not just as a blueprint for a new kind of society; but as the centre of this new society.

Resurrection means that, because of his link with the Father in Christ, a man can [re-] discover his identity on the far side of death. In Paul’s writings, resurrection is always about sharing in Christ’s resurrection.

In a striking phrase, McCabe insists, the business of the church is ‘to remember the future’.  The sacraments are there as symbols of the presence of Christ in a future world. Thus baptism is not about church membership; it is the sacrament of  the membership of mankind [cf Romans 6:3]. Sacraments are the intersection of the present world with the world to come. “Those who share the sacraments form a community, or better a movement, in the world.”

The Christian reaches out beyond this world, to a world of freedom  and of real communication between men. The Gospel is not about the soul, not about a private and interior world. Morality is not primarily about sex; not about whether and when people should go to bed together. For McCabe, Christianity is not about proposing a set of moral principles [although such principles are a part of our Christian faith]. “Christianity is essentially about our communicating with each other in Christ, about our participation in the world of the future.” 


I guess I’m still trying to come to terms with some parts of this quite short book.[And I am totally unschooled in both Aquinas and Wittgenstein, who are McCabe’s principal points of reference.] We are given a bigger vision here than those books which rehearse the for and against arguments of key moral issues.  Language is for McCabe clearly the distinguishing feature of humanity. We are all intrinsically in conversation with others, and ethics is what guides our actions and interactions. 

Obituarists say that McCabe was a better speaker and preacher than writer, and that his written output was quite modest. It would be good to hear more [know mpre] of his thinking on the role and nature of the church.  I am both challenged and inspired by the notion that our central business is to “remember the future”. Especially when some churches seem determined to reinvent the golden age of the past. And I suspect that his radical understanding of the sacraments would not have endeared him to the church which he served.

September 2021