Three things in fact. The first was a re-reading of a book by Cole Moreton, entitled “Is God still an Englishman?” and subtitled “How we lost our faith (but found new soul)”. The second was watching (again for the second time) the film “The Golden Compass” based on Philip Pullman’s novel of the same name. The third was hearing on Radio 3 this morning, as part of a celebration of the seminal Kinder Trespass, Ewan McColl singing his song about that event, the chorus of which ends with the lines: “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday”.
Moreton’s book first of all, from which I will make three quotations. (Incidentally, it was first published in 2010, and much has changed in that last almost decade, perhaps most conspicuously the tragic farce that Brexit has become, creating the now widely held contempt for our political process and indeed our politicians. I think though that on re-reading it, those changes have simply moved us further towards the thick ends of the wedges that he describes, so I’m very willing to continue to respond very positively towards his ideas.
Page 10. The first person singular is his and refers to him – I find myself very easily identifying with his basic thrust.
“My need for answers is personal. I want some solid ground on which to place my feet. I have moved during the course of my life from extreme certainty of faith into doubt and on into wondering whether it is still possible to believe in anything at all”
Page 250. Describing the situation following the public response to the death of (erstwhile princess) Diana in 1997, he writes of …..
“… the first public manifestations of a new, looser, wider way of relating to God that would soon replace Establishment Christianity as the dominant form of faith in this country. It was growing beyond the control of those who saw themselves as keepers of the truth, beyond the boundaries set by archbishops or cardinals, pastors or imams; beyond the formal creeds over which so much blood had been shed; beyond such inconveniences as actually going to church. The English God began to evolve …. To become a more generous, more feminine, more compassionate deity with His – and Her – arms flung wide open to everyone.”
Page 355 – his final paragraph:
“After all this thinking and writing, fretting and fiddling, that’s what it comes down to: silence on a beach. Not wordless wonder, that’s too romantic, but something more ordinary and, because of that, more profound. Standing there, in the early morning, looking at the horizon, scenting the sea, feeling the salt spray on my face, breathing deeply. Saying nothing.”
I find that sequence deeply challenging and enormously helpful both at the same time. The book says much more and puts, rightly, much more detail in the gaps between the three points and I think that my next move may well be to read it for a third time! There’s something there though about beginning with a notion that while it was convincing and attractive at the time, turned out to be largely of human construction, watching the traumatic process of its breakdown, and coming finally to a sense of something genuinely spiritual – of the Spirit – which is all embracing in its simplicity and needs nothing more.
Then the film. Philip Pullman in his “Dust” trilogy (read the books!) is being deliberately provocative and polemical. He writes as an atheist, but when I as a Christian first read them some years ago, I found that much of his polemic (with which I found myself in surprising agreement) was targeted against the Denominational Church rather than at the notion of the Christian faith. I confess that I haven’t researched his thoughts (if indeed he’s ever expressed them) about the person or teachings of Jesus.
The “villain” in the Golden Compass is the dark and sinister “Magisterium”, which seeks to control the thoughts and lives of the people, in a sense to free them from the dangers of thinking for themselves. One might add to that a control aimed at preserving their own position both materially (they are plainly portrayed as a very powerful and wealthy entity) and politically. Lyra (the book’s young heroine) becomes the principal character in a breaking free and breaking down, a liberation from the over-arching power of the establishment which has really only just begun at the end of the film. I recommend the books as strongly as I do that of Cole Moreton.
Then the song. “ I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday”. I’m tempted to add “not if the Magisterium has anything to do with it you’re not!”. Where we should be on Sundays is in church, declaring our orthodoxy in the ancient words of the Nicene Creed and supporting the ongoing life of the establishment. The notion that we should instead be climbing a hill, walking across a fell, strolling by a river, or standing silently on a beach is a real problem for the Magisterium. The possibility that we might be thinking and pondering, that we might be discovering a spirituality of our own, finding God/god in our own way is dangerously heretical and indeed threatens to free us from either the need or the obligation to maintain and support the creaking human structures of the Magisterium.
Jesus’ words (John 8:32) “ you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” were addressed to Jews who had begun to believe in him, but were worried about leaving behind that which was familiar as well as controlling. To quote him again, this from John 10;10 “I am come that they (you) may have life, and have it abundantly”. I’m finding the the combination of Cole Moreton, Philip Pullman and Ewan McColl encourages me to be set free by the truth and discover life in its fulness, which goal I more than suspect is better achieved by standing on a beach in silence, or walking up a hill listening to the wind and the birds than almost anywhere else.
I need to add a footnote about my own possible hypocrisy. For more than 40 years I’ve been an ordained minister in the Church of England. I’ve drawn my stipend each month, and continue to draw my pension. I’m not willing to draw any simple and direct line between the CofE as I’ve known it and Pulman’s Magisterium, nor do I think it is quite (yet) the decrepit outfit that Moreton points towards. His assessment is about the church as a whole, and much real good is done at the very local and individual level. Indeed much of that which I’ve seen and participated in has in fact been about trying to help people discover answers for themselves, and I’m prepared to stand by that and even defend it. I do however see ever more clearly the disconnect between the huge and greedily demanding establishment and the carpenter’s son from Nazareth and think that at that scale, rather than at the individual level the CofE (and I guess the other mainstream denomination) have rather lost the plot. Maybe disestablishment would help, maybe creative bankruptcy; but maybe just a continued slide into irrelevance is where it will all go. There are however beaches all around our little island and hills a-plenty in the middle of it – so there is hope.