If he be a cleric, let him not be wrathful.
Let him not his voice be raised. Let him not swear falsely.
Let him not be greedy. Let him not be treasure loving.
Let him not be niggardly, lying. Let him not be fault-finding at meals.
Do not slander thy fellow.
Thy side half bare, thy bed half cold
From Christ, God’s Son, mayest thou have thy reward.
Absence from thy bodily family
Until the day of thy death.
Grassless earth over thee
At the end of thy journeying.
Knowledge, steadfastness, patience,
Silence without muteness.
Humility, purity, patience,
Take not the world,
8th century excerpt from the Martyrology of Tallaght on the life of Saint Indrath at Glastonbury
Remove justice, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? … Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”
St. Augustine, City of God
Several years ago I had the pleasure to read ‘Under The Black Flag‘ by David Cordingly detailing the life and origins of many of histories most notorious Pirates. Among several surprises in the book I also saw ‘Sir Francis Drake’ listed as one of the earliest entries. School had taught me he was a daring admiral, not a pirate, yet his actions in some cases seemed indistinguishable from some of his peers found in the subsequent pages. Piracy, as in many cases I learned, started off as an activity seen as permissible by various authorities until it was inevitably deployed against the state. This in turn reminded me of the concept of the ‘monopoly on violence’ that Weber puts forward as a core concept of the modern state. A state is defined largely by the area in which it can wield force unchallenged, or in St Augustine’s words “not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity”. In short, a government is legitimate when people no longer resist them and it can no longer be overcome.
For a long time I think there was an idea that Western, specifically US, power was considered dominant in the world. I don’t think we live in that time anymore, namely because the West (US et al) has been tried and found wanting. The Western sphere of influence has shrunk dramatically due to the fact that it can no longer operate with impunity, it never could but the illusion that suggested otherwise has been firmly shattered. We created pirates in the form of Jihadists to fight the Soviets in the 1980’s like we British employed Privateers against the Spanish and Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both inevitably turned against us. We are horrified by the advent of the Islamic State but ignore the reality that such events are poorly constructed mirrors pointing to how our own, and all, societies are built and maintained.
Despite this force alone isn’t enough to maintain societies, Augustine correctly points out that its when people cease to resist an authority is when its legitimacy becomes enshrined. With globalisation, the internet and the means that enable us to travel the world with ease these ‘Pirates’ are no longer confined to tiny pockets in the places like the Middle East or the Caribbean but can be found right amongst us. This means that resistance to a civil authority can be at work and that it isn’t enough for a government simply to have a greater navy or stronger army. A nation now needs more compelling narrative to offer its occupants.
Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality, but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.
Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake (2015)
Without a compelling narrative or vision to offer its people a society will increasingly turn in on itself. Today we don’t live so much in a world defined by nations, cultures or people but by international business and capital. You can’t outspend the Capitalists which means that a fundamental challenge to this society will inevitably only come from places and people that care nothing for GDP and the latest customer conveniences. They will be driven by other measures. Society devoid of a uniting narrative will inevitably fragment over time, social divisions become exacerbated and for a society to endure it will either have to rediscover a popular or dominant narrative, or if that doesn’t work rely increasingly on force and become more authoritarian in nature. Despite all the strengths of Capitalism, some things still cannot be bought.
At a national level we live in a period where society is one increasingly defined by adhering to particular ‘rights’ but otherwise largely devoid of context or history outside of its deconstruction of what has gone before. Its not so much liberal but rather progressive in nature, although it is important to give the appearance of liberalism. Gesture and appearance is increasingly important and public opinion is decidedly presentist in nature. Who you are is more important in many cases than the contents of what you have to say. The public perceives itself as the most enlightened, the most liberal, the most successful society to have ever existed and we are only becoming more so. The problem with all this however is that their is an increasing number of people in the UK who have been left behind and are increasingly disillusioned with the hand they have been dealt. This is shown in the increasing disconnect between the mainstream press, our political leadership and the great number of the increasingly cynical public.
Onward, Christian ‘Pirates’
What is a Christian to do then? We must do something in all of this. Generally speaking Christians find themselves not looking to form the equivalent of Caliphates, Jesus himself stated..
Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
So we are citizens of the Kingdom of God but collectively subscribe to no particular earthly Empire and practically speaking may be found amongst all kinds of Earthly kingdoms. We are told to be subject to governing authorities wherever we encounter them and yet the earliest followers of Christ were openly rebuked as ‘atheists’ and dissidents within the Roman Empire. We are clearly not called to be pirates in the sense that St. Augustine describes yet distinguished in some form from the Empires we find ourselves in.
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honour; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.
The Epistle to Diognetes, c. AD 130
In a sense the Church, I believe, is to display what is known as ‘prefigurative politics’. More plainly the Church is called to be a prophetic witness to whatever society it finds itself in. Reforming it from the inside until ‘The old life is gone; a new life has begun!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet the Empire is an inherently violent thing if not to protect itself from those within it but from those without. As mentioned previously I do not think their is an easy binary, yes or no, answer to the question of violence on the part of Christians. The answer is implicitly always ‘no’ to violence but I am not sure any longer that that statement is an absolute one.
As Christians we are in a sense a gentle kind of pirate. We recognise that ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it’ (Psalm 24:1) and yet that God has installed authorities to govern justly throughout it. Despite this we recognise our first loyalty is to the Kingdom of God that is already present amongst us. This is the narrative of our ‘nation’ that binds us together in our creeds, confessions and sacraments that compels us to go out into the highways and byways and invite others to come and join us in the new creation.
If our Gospel leaves us in a world much unchanged, what is it worth?
If our Gospel lacks a public and social voice, what is it worth?
If our Gospel is divorced of appropriate context (both original and current), what is it worth?
If our Gospel fails to confront the material realities of daily life, what is it worth?
I want to believe and rediscover the faith that redeemed nations and empires. I want to recite the public confessions that billions before me have done. We live in an age of private truths and the church is a public truth that the world needs to be baptised into.
I saw this post today in the Croydon Guardian about a Priest who is attempting to reengage with the local parish by carrying out a blessing on a local pubs beer. The article reads..
Next week, the holy communion of booze and the Bible will be consecrated at one of the more unusual Thursday night drinking sessions to take place in a Croydon pub: the blessing of the beer at The Dog and Bull.
The ceremony, whose origins are thought to date back to medieval monasteries, will involve a procession from Croydon Minster to the boozer in nearby Surrey Street, following a mass at the church celebrating the pub’s licensees, Lesley and Mark Knight.
Father Lee Taylor, the minster’s associate vicar, will then bless the The Dog and Bull’s beer barrels and pumps using instructions from a 1614 manual for the benediction of everyday items.
Personally I think this is a warming step in the right direction, its also important to get to grips with the fact that medieval (and earlier) Christianity in Europe seems to be much more all-encompassing in its blessings and benedictions. The church was at a time literally the centre of the community, partly because the church embraced the community and in response the community embraced the church. There wasn’t a distinction in terms of spiritual or material, everything was baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. When we do draw that distinction both suffer and the church is marginalised from the everyday livesof the people. This isn’t the people diminishing the churches position, but perhaps the church diminishing itself in the degree to which it belongs to the common people.
I also think there’s something to be said as well for the fact that in Britain we have increasingly become detached from the passing of time and the land itself. The only seasonal celebration now is either in our personal calendar of birthdays and anniversaries or the more general deference to Christmas and subsequently New Year. The church once played a big role in celebrating seasonal occurrences like Harvest etc. or the lives of those who have passed on. Today the church, like our society, is largely ‘evergreen’ and I wonder if this is for the better. These celebrations remind us that all good things and good people are gifts from God and perhaps we would all do well to remember where these things come from (whether they be food or friendship).
One blogger I saw commenting on the article wrote rather appropriately of these measures..
The local church is, or ought to be, a physical instantiation of the reunification of heaven and earth. Therefore it makes complete sense that the local church (or churches for nothing stops these celebrations from being ecumenical affairs) should and must engage in blessing local activities and establishments. It is true that this wouldn’t be welcome everywhere and that some churches might have to find ways to bring the village into the church before the church could enter into the village in such a prominent way. Nevertheless, it must be tried. People need to see that the Church is not so divorced from the culture that it cannot recognise the importance of things like food and beer.
I think its also worth noting that both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, indeed all European churches generally, have a long history of engaging with issues like alcohol consumption (and the natural world in general) in ways which weren’t prohibitive but moderate and celebratory. 14th Century British people were even baptised in cider for a time! (although this was perhaps more due to health than love of Cider). This approach to the potentially contentious features of ordinary peoples lives is perhaps more constructive than the attitude of the more prohibition minded holiness movement and its descendants today. There’s a time for that when these things are abused, but isn’t part of Anglicanism a moderation between a position of two extremes?
Anyway, I don’t live too far from Croydon. Maybe I’ll go and celebrate the blessing of the beer.
Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
I’ll be honest, I voted to Leave but I did not expect us to win. I don’t ‘Begrexit’ I just assumed from listening to the media, my peers and even senior figures in the Church of England that Remain would win the day. Yet I am shocked and saddened both by the reported spike in racism and simultaneously the antagonism that has come about from my largely young and urbanite peers towards those who voted to leave. Theres an almost masochistic mood in the country currently that is revelling in the division, trying to explain away and wallow in our collective discontent. I’m uncomfortable stating my vote publicly, not because I regret the decision but because of the venom it would inevitably invite on myself. It is unmistakable that this vote has exposed very deep and serious fault lines in our society at a time where we are lacking the leadership to act in any decisive manner in any direction.
The thing that I think has shocked everyone is the distinction between the more rural, older generation and younger, urban generation. The vote isn’t as simple as this distinction, but it is noticeable. Yet I was surprised when in the weekend following the vote I travelled to the midlands, through Birmingham and saw an unprecedented amount of Union Jack and St Georges flags flying from homes, businesses and pubs. The atmosphere was palpably different to that of London which was despair bordering on hysteria in places. There is something in this distinction and it was the flag waving of the pubs in particular that stood out to me.
I wonder if the racist sentiment reported in the media is the cruel and violent edge of a ‘blood and soil’ nationalism rooted in the collective loss of community in a lot of the less urban, less individualistic communities of the UK. People feel lost and so cling to the idea of a country as the only thing greater than themselves that they believe in. Nationalism is all we have when our communities are broken apart by a government that at times has seemed positively antagonistic and apathetic towards the majority. This vote was in large part carried by a sense of disenfranchisement on the part of a large swathe of the population (that has rarely voted at all) that has largely been ignored by the movers and shakers in our country for a long time. This post on Brexit by Anna Rowland has some really powerful insights.
Despite collective (cosmopolitan) surprise at the prevalence of such a complex sense of loss and aspiration … there is not much new about this. These are pan-European (now global) trends that Tony Judt, left-wing public intellectual and self-described Euro-pessimist, wrote about two decades ago. He believed that European elites were failing to grasp that the narrative of “Europe” stood increasingly for the winners, the wealthy regions and sub-regions of existing states. The losers were “the European ‘south’, the poor, the linguistically, educationally or culturally disadvantaged, underprivileged, or despised Europeans who don’t live in golden triangles along vanished frontiers.” It turns out much of the post-industrial English North feels rather like the European “south.”
The issue in Britain is a cultural one as large parts of the population have been left behind by a top down, arguably neo-liberal corporatist, approach to both the media and government. One that has subsequently blown up with the ‘abdication’ of David Cameron and the ‘insurrection’ against Jeremy Corbyn, with no real alternatives on offer and both major parties in uproar. We are told what our country stands for, by various talking heads, but we do not really know what it stands for. Many people identify with particular ideas or subcultures more than nations today. So when we are asked to vote in such a way that is likely to define our nation in such a dramatic fashion, something so many think so little about generally, these ideological distinctions have erupted in ugly ways.
I do not know what the future holds, but I worry that this referendum is a watershed moment when we realise that our country doesn’t have a core anymore. Its been carved out, deconstructed and hollowed, in its place we have tried to manufacture something different along the ideological lines of those with power. Like an X-Factor winner in the hands of Simon Cowell. We’re a nation of strangers scowling at each other across any number of divides. Nationhood is an illusion, we are only individuals now who happen to share an abstract political union on a patch of earth we bear no connection to. At best we have our tribes. Maybe society was always like this? I doubt it, but it feels particularly appropriate now. I fear that Democracy is in danger as a result from both sides of this referendum.
As a Christian I can take comfort that God is sovereign irrespective of our present circumstances, that I am a participant in the ‘Kingdom of God’ more so than the ‘United Kingdom’. I pray the Church and its formal representatives doesn’t get sucked into partisanship and that we can disagree amicably within the church if we do so. More so I am grateful that many Christians I know personally have been some of the most gracious towards those who have voted differently to themselves despite the abuse they might of received at the hands of the enraged or emboldened elsewhere. I feel now more than ever that the church needs to rediscover what it means to make a public declaration of faith as a source of unity. Christianity is a public truth that was once a part of our national Character and it might one day be so again as a unity which can curb the excesses and dangers of nationalism and simultaneously bind us to an identity larger than any nation (or indeed anything else on this earth).
Its only a few days now until the referendum, the debate on the merits and failures of the EU have been at times inspiring or a cause for despair. I know what way I will vote but at the same time have felt inspired by the fact that this vote feels like the ‘most’ democratic thing I’ve ever done. The vote has cut right across party lines and shaken up a lot of the core parties. Things are actually different in this election and people are revealing a lot about themselves in how they articulate their reasons for voting.
Myself? I’m fairly sure now I will be voting to leave the EU. I don’t think the EU is democratic, we did well out of dodging the Euro and I think the EU’s handling of both Greece’s debt, their relationship with Ukraine and the handling of the migrant crisis have given serious cause for concern. I also think their are massive swathes of the UK that have been left neglected after the collapse of our national industries (fishing, farming, mining and manufacturing) and see a chance of that changing outside the EU which currently undercuts or legislates against it (although this is perhaps rather naive). I also see the EU as an increasingly neoliberal institution that is particularly susceptible to lobbying by multinational corporates (TTIP alone is enough to vote out for me). It is also increasingly infringing on the basic freedoms afforded to its citizens in policing ‘hate speech'(and getting technology companies to do the same). I also think its not even really done that good of a job at upholding workers rights as the existence of zero-hour contracts highlights. I also think we could better off interacting more fully with the world at large without a EU lens changing our view of trade and diplomacy.
I am a European, thats a fact not a matter of perspective. I love Europe and would gladly sign what we did in the 1970’s again but for me the issue is precisely that we didn’t sign up to anything like what we have today. Despite all of that I feel like this vote could possibly be one of the most important things I vote on in my lifetime. In some ways right now is a unnerving time of great change but it is also one of great opportunity, for society and also the church. The recent murder of MP Jo Cox highlights the deep divisions appearing our society partly as a result of this rapid change and the Church has a big job in simultaneously staying faithful to God, his word and those who laboured for the sake of the Kingdom of God before us in this country and adapting to speak into these situations. Massive debt (public and private), decreasing social liberty, broken communities, individualism, materialism, state surveillance, idolatry and heresy are abundant. We need to be conversant with these things and generally speaking I feel the church has done a good job at dealing with Brexit in a way that doesn’t give way to ‘Project Fear’ and gives me hope for these other areas.
The other thing I am grateful of is that unlike other ideologies out there, Christianity is transcultural. What started off as a minority sect of Judaism is now the worlds largest religion, and that is in no small part due to its ability to praise and emphasise the best of the cultures its encountered whilst denouncing and standing against that which would gives ground to sin and idolatry. Whatever way the vote goes, theres going to be pain and upset but the church will find a way in the UK wherever it is. Whether a state of an increasingly federal EU system of government or a independent European island nation looking to the world. The Church has evangelised Europe several times in its history, each time Europe looked fundamentally different and the approach to evangelising it changed in kind. God willing we will do so again and irrespective of the vote British christians will have a part to play in that.
For a good debate on the subject I recommend the recent Unbelievable? broadcasted debate on Brexit from a Christian perspective. Should we stay or should we go?
Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. And their grandchildren are once more slaves.
As a preface, I am no expert at writing and I ask for some grace if you find deficiency in it. In some capacity I would rather not write but at the same time feel convicted and challenged to not let me thoughts slip away and by making them public might make them more well rounded in their thinking than I otherwise might have done. I also sincerely hope that over time others might find my writings here useful. Yet in any event I can’t put these thoughts away so have decided to put them here, hopefully in a way that isn’t too pretentious.
My principal reason for writing is primarily trying to collate my thoughts on a number of subjects I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Namely the Church, its history, its presence and form in the UK, the Gospel and this culture we find ourselves in.
The naming of this blog is after the work by St Gildas. It isn’t meant to be contentious but reflect the overwhelming conviction that something is wrong in Britain. Like Gildas I think it has both a secular and religious note to it. It is idolatry that is both inside you and me and external in the society at large. It touches on the fact that I am also British (English) and with an interest in the history of the Church in this land. I am a Protestant currently attending my local Anglican (CoE) parish church in Central London.
About myself I will say I am in my late 20’s earning my living as a User Experience Architect designing apps and other digital products products for various companies in the center of London, and it is the only thing I do professionally. In all other things I am an enthusiastic amateur eager to learn. I am a generalist, a layman and completely fine with that. That is the perspective I am writing from.
I won’t say much more about who I am right now as these thoughts are still formative and exploratory. I’m not sure where I will end up and would also wish to avoid any potential that this would be held against me by my employers should they see my name attached to a subject. A subject that in my experience seems out of favour with the broader public currently and a potential cause for bias against me. I’ve struggled to find people willing to talk about the things I will write about and have no idea whether this will be read or not so it seems to be prudent, at least for now to retain some privacy.
I feel like I need to do something with my thoughts and that by doing this I might be lead to align my lifestyle with this thinking. Some posts may be longer than others, and some quite short, I hope they’re useful to someone out there.