Saturday, 28 March 2015

Everybody needs a place to think…

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
     So how should I presume?

In my last-but-one post, as is my wont, I snuck in many links (which I suspect no-one follows): one of which was to a glowing review of Saints and Sinners: Britain’s Millennium of Monasteries. Like most series on BBC Four – Scandiwegian or otherwise – it was erudite, fascinating, and expertly produced – and the photography was stunning. (So engrossing was it, indeed, that I watched all three parts back-to-back on iPlayer.)

However, the more I became immersed in the history, and intrigued by the skilfully-narrated stories of the people involved, the more it dawned on me that there are strong parallels to be found in the life of someone in permanent pain and that of a truly devout monk – for example: one of the first Irish anchorites (from sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries), on Skellig Michael, who Dr Janina Ramirez initiated the first programme with; or the intensely thoughtful Father Erik Varden, the current Superior of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, in Leicestershire, who she then interviewed – both demonstrating the deference and self-restraint one must have at one’s core to lead such an existence (and both of which characteristics I am certainly not naturally prone to…).

Serendipitously, at around the same time, an article appeared on the Chronic Pain section of HealthCentral’s website, entitled ‘How to Do More with Less Pain’, which captured this notion perfectly – advising that…

No one likes to live with pain or disabilities, but the fact of the matter is that there are those of us that have no choice but to continue living despite it. Contemplate about how these steps of being flexible, disciplined and humble will help you do more with less pain. Implement these concepts into your life in order to improve your quality of life.

…which could almost be an extract from the Rule of Benedict: more relevant than you may imagine to modern-day – even non-religious – life. My favourite section describes how “The vow of stability… speaks to our current environmental crisis – for when we remain committed to the earth we learn how to be good stewards of that which God has given us.”

The word ‘monk’ comes from the Old English munuc, based on the Greek monakhos: meaning ‘solitary’, from monos, or ‘alone’. (Combined with the Greek arkhein ‘to rule’, it is also – as Shakespeare obviously knew – at the root of ‘monarch’, which comes via late Latin, that is monarkhēs.) And one of the tribulations of constant pain can be that feeling of isolation (on top of the loneliness that may also come with any form of disability): because it is both extremely difficult for you to convey your experience clearly to anyone else (even those who know and who love you well); or for them to truly understand what you are going through. In brief: it is impossible to communicate the ordeal accurately; and it is similarly impossible for most people to empathize with you (which – although I keep parroting on about them – is why chronic pain management programmes (PMPs) are so bloody helpful).

There are also similarities in the contemplative and ordered aspects of both ways of living (particularly the unsocial schedules). The monks of Mount Saint Bernard, for example – rising at 03:15 each morning (although they do then retire each evening at 20:00) – have their practices of lectio divina (“some time every day reflecting on the words of Scripture”) and liturgical prayer (sometimes called opus dei – the work of god, or ‘divine office’) as core parts of their rigorous daily timetable.

My day, too, is governed by regular relaxation and other exercises (as much mental – some involving self-awareness, -acceptance and (attempted) transformation – as physical); and measured out, not with summoning bells, nor TS Eliot’s “coffee spoons” (although they come a close second); but with regular, changing chirrups, at all times of day, from my iPhone (which I think would not be welcomed in a Trappist environment), reminding me to take my various medications – on top of my various meditations (including this one). I also spend as much time as I can communing (in tinnitus-infused ‘silence’) with knowledge – but mostly of a non-divine nature (apart from my recent Wall of Separation series, of course: of which this is, I suppose, some form of postscript, or Compline) – carving frequent intermissions out of such an increasingly sedentary lifestyle: following the fine fissures of chapter and advertising breaks (when I am having a rest from watching television that, for a change, doesn’t impinge on my exhausted braincells; or reading Terry Pratchett, of course).

I have to say, apart from the overtly religious aspects, that (encouraged by these parallels – and perhaps prompted by my recent investigation of Who is my neighbour?) I do find much in the monastic way of life appealing (or, at least I understand some of its attractions); and I can see why those who seek “union with God” would find it compulsive. (Although, something like “The incredibly strict diet of a Jain monk” is definitely not for me!)

I do wonder, though, what contributions such a community would expect from those who, like myself, are disabled; or simply, through age, infirm. I can well imagine that such ‘elders’ are treated with great respect and love for the sanctity and knowledge they have amassed through their long lives of devotions – and in a way (by the ‘infirmerer’) that is very different to that of the much less protective world outside. But what if you arrive as an oblate, at a young age, on crutches, or in a wheelchair…? Or, like me, frequently have isolation imposed on you by your poor health: and are constrained not by vows, nor spiritual devotion, but by the cell walls erected by the photo- and phonophobia of a severe migraine…?

There has been some research comparing levels of disability and mortality in monks and the general population: but it is difficult to draw conclusions from such a small sample – although “The authors hypothesize that [the monks’] prudent lifestyle may prolong life, but at the expense of a higher prevalence of disability.” Those with religious faith are supposed to live longer, anyway: but it really isn’t that simple – and if your life consists of (self-)imposed harshness or deprivation, is it really worth it? I accept this is very much an atheist’s question: but I have to add to my insult by asking is it then also worth it if there is no reward for your devotion – i.e. there is no eternal life with God, in heaven? And isn’t this a selfish quest, anyway: wanting to live for ever, ‘up there’? (Although, if you take Cardinal Newman’s portrayal of Gerontius, and his soul’s ineffable moment, his “approaching agony” – below – then, personally, I’d rather not, thank you: however beautiful Elgar’s music.) I am more than content – well, as much as anyone can be – with my struggles to find whatever utopian moments I can through nature, art, and companionship.

And these two pains, so counter and so keen,—
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,—
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.

There is a strong history, in early monastic tradition (certainly pre-Dissolution), though, of integrated care (albeit usually for the hoi polloi): many monasteries having started as – or with – ‘hospitals’ or ‘infirmaries’ on their sites (as well as having herbalists amongst their members, such as the legendary Brother Cadfael, of course). Locally, for instance, just across the M40, is Clattercote Priory (although the nearest ‘dissolved’ standalone monastery was probably Wroxton Abbey):

[Clattercote Priory] was founded for Gilbertine canons to run a hospital in the mid-twelfth century, possibly by Robert de Chesney. The hospital ceased before 1262. The priory was refounded 1251-62. It was dissolved in 1538 and granted to Thomas Lee around 1559. The site is now occupied by a private house.

Such a “hospital” – sometimes known as a ‘Maison Dieu’ (literally, ‘House of God’); and sometimes even separate from the main monastic buildings – is at Dunwich: and this featured in a Time Team dig in 2011:

English Heritage has for many years been involved in coastal erosion issues at Dunwich. Although little remains of the once thriving town and Medieval port a few houses remain as well as scheduled ancient monuments, the Maison Dieu – a monastic hospital of the Holy Trinity and Greyfriars – a Franciscan Friary and St James Hospital – a former leper hospital. These monastic ruins are all that remains of the religious houses of the former town, with at least 8 churches and 3 chapels having been lost between 1086 and the present day.

Although it has an educational bias, rather than a medical one (“founded in 1615 in Paris by exiled English monks scattered abroad in the wake of the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries”), one of my favourite monasteries is Douai Abbey, a Benedictine house re-established in this country in 1903. You do not need to believe in God to discover that sitting peacefully in such a space as the main church – especially with the awesome filtered light that its radical design promotes – brings a healing peace and contentment all of its own. (This is why Quaker practices and ‘rules’ – encapsulated in their Advices and queries – so attract me. The silent hour of Quaker meditation – or worship – results in similar physiological and psychological relief to the relaxation and breathing programmes of pain relief: although with an emphasis on the spiritual – which, in my case, is countered by the physical torture of sitting still for such a long time.)

Of course, should a monk lose his religion, his devotion, his faith, he could return to that “world outside”: to what most of us think as ‘normality’ (although I can only imagine how intensely wrenching that must be: similar, in a way, to a combat-experienced soldier after demobilization) – and this, I think, is where the “strong parallels” between our lives would also end. There is no such living ‘escape’ from chronic pain. (Nor can you refuse your ‘calling’, in the first place.)

However, were I to wake up pain-free, tomorrow morning (were I actually to get any sleep, tonight…), I think I would feel a similar, major absence – the hurt has become, after over seventeen years, such a major part of my being (both physically, existentially; and metaphyscially, ontologically) – and I would always be concerned, of course, that it would, at some stage, come back to haunt me. It is almost as if I have developed not just a truce with my affliction, after much negotiation; but a synergistic, almost symbiotic (although not really beneficial) bond, after years of sharing the same space – perhaps, indeed, a warped reflection of the affinity the monks seek with their contemplation of, and union with, God…?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A superficial appearance of being right…

Behavioural economics has had a field day since 2008, identifying problems for the human brain when faced with complex risks: oversimplification, overconfidence and “confirmation bias”, where we ignore facts that challenge our existing beliefs.
– Paul Mason: The Guardian

Why do you vote for who you vote for? Is it a ‘tradition’ that emerged somewhere back in the smog of time: when your ancestors coughed in the workhouse they either owned or died in: those towards the right and the rich watching the inmates slaving away; or the collectivist and cash-strapped themselves slaving away their short, atrocious existences? Or are you amongst the few – of whatever position on the political and wealth continua – who think long and hard each and every time they place that important cross in the box?

Do you also consider each vote in context: rather than blanketing every ‘choice’ with the same political party – believing that what works at national level must also therefore trickle down and “work” at regional, county, district, and parish…? Or do you vote selflessly: thinking that this party’s member, this (perhaps independent) candidate, will make a great Parish Councillor (i.e. be best for the village, rather than just for your desires or any organization you belong to); but that someone with different allegiances, different policies, would be better for representing the village on Stratford-on-Avon District Council (SDC); and that someone with utterly contrasting views has actually been a really good MP, and therefore you might as well stick with the devil you know – even if you carry a membership card of a different hue in your back pocket or purse? (And that it really doesn’t matter that, like most, you haven’t got a clue who your MEPs are?)

I spend a lot of time reasoning before any election: and this one – giving us the opportunity, in Tysoe, to vote for representatives at many levels – has therefore taken up a great deal of Bardic brain uptime (as you may just have noticed). But I am pretty sure that I am in a minority. I am therefore likely to put my party membership to one side, and vote extremely selectively – although the quandaries I face would be much more streamlined by a sensible system of proportional representation (PR): as practised in, say Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden (to name just a few); and a conversion, nationwide, to a belief that the resulting coalitions, may – Borgen-style – actually be good for us (rather than following the absolutely abysmal and amateur example we have witnessed over the last five years: which achieved nothing – well, apart from destroying the economies: both national, and of those individuals at the lower end of the income scale – but demonstrate that those who now go into politics will do absolutely anything, however repulsive, to gain the smallest taste of power).

So: the likelihood (and I still have over a month of deliberation left: so have not yet come to any concrete conclusions) is that I will vote for someone standing for the Parish Council (PC) based on what they have already done for and in the village – not for any party allegiances; but based more on their character, their hard work, and (especially) the love they must obviously share with me for this wonderful place in which we live.

Considering the mess we are still in – this, I feel, may be where my political allegiances may win out: driven by a belief that fresh blood is needed; and that the Tory-promoted Stratford-upon-Avon air of entitlement that we are forced to breathe every day really needs replacing with something cleaner, more tolerable, less carcinogenic; less liable to erode the Bardic heritage that keeps our economy miraculously afloat, yet amazingly still attracts visitors despite the awful tortures they must suffer (in traffic jams, and through a lack of pedestrianization, etc.) before they even get a chance to pay homage to my predecessor(?!). My criteria for the (sorry for the sexism, here: but the UK does not have a good track record of equality in politics) “man for the job”, therefore, are very different. And, even though I have hinted before that I think the likely ‘winner’ of the title will probably do (at least) a half-decent job, because of his local knowledge, etc., his association with the (apparently – or at least how it looks from where I stand) anti-PC Rule 6 group (which ensured that people like myself were unable to speak at the recent Gladman appeal – despite repeated requests to the Planning Inspector) tarnish him quite badly in my eyes. Just because someone provides a fantastic service to the village in one function (although let us not forget that this is done to make money: it is a business – we do not have a community shop run by volunteers purely for the benefit of the village residents), does not mean – even if the motives are not that dissimilar – that he will repeat this in a political capacity. Especially, as – lying deep in the Conservative heartland of rural Middle England – any selection is not really our choice; but that of his peers. You could, indeed, make a case that he was foisted on us as councillor-elect by Conservative cronies. (But even their trumped-up loyalty lacks consistency: considering how quick and willing they were to throw Chris Saint to the – possibly well-deserved – wolves, House of Cards-style.) Our votes are just mere daubery. (But, then, the Tories are good at self-selection, aren’t they?)

I have made no secret that Nadhim, in a personal capacity, has been a very helpful and proactive Member of Parliament (MP) for me; as well as being generally supportive of the village during our fight with Gladman. This, then, leaves me with my hardest decision (which would be, if not easily remedied, at least eased by the mechanism of PR – as I said above). At the moment – as anyone who has read my Wall of Separation series may have inferred – I am tempted to contribute to the massive groundswell of belief in (and membership of) the Green Party: to demonstrate, even with my single vote (albeit hard-earned – “Unless we exercise the democratic rights that our ancestors struggled for, we will share responsibility for the failures of the political classes”), that their sudden surge in popularity, and their allied growth, politically, in Europe, are not one-offs, or will-o’-the-wisps that will be blown away by other political gusts (real or imagined); and that there is a tangible foundation that can be built on to produce not only the sole governmental chance we have of saving humanity from destroying itself (whilst it simultaneously, temporarily, ruins its home planet); but that can produce a much more equitable, less power- and cash-crazed society.

But I am reminded – almost daily, by email – that I should consider all aspects of a candidate’s policies; or even (as the Catholic bishops’ letter suggested) question them.

I believe, as I said earlier, that I have (practically a duty) to think long and hard before casting my votes. Otherwise, if I just throw them away robotically, they are wasted and valueless. For them to have even richer meaning, though, they have to nestle against others in the ballot box that are the result of similar deep soul-searching and research; and emerge from discussions, perhaps, with those close by – my companion voters – yet who ally themselves in many different ways. (If the only people you talk to already share your views, then perhaps it is time to widen your social circle – or at least read a newspaper or book that you wouldn’t normally be found dead with? Or even – and here’s an idea…! – a blog by a writer with socialist tendencies actually based where you live: “deep in the Conservative heartland of rural Middle England”…?!)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Wall of separation – true humility…
(Part 2: “Parts of it are excellent”)

The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
     Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
     Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
     To me the meanest flower that blows can give
     Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
– William Wordsworth: Ode; Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

For a short while, I lived very near to Terry Pratchett (“in the next village along,” as they say): but, never, as far as I know, passed close by him, or espied him in the cloisters or close of the cathedral we both loved (my photographs of which have illustrated some of this series of posts, as above). His writings, though – and his recent increasingly close relationship with Death: now, of course, brought to its inevitable (although far too early) conclusion (“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER”) – were always not just entertaining, but inspiring and educational, as well, for me. There was a deep, lightly-worn intelligence behind those gleaming glasses that would not be defeated by any cruelty this world could inflict on him. A man truly aware of his own strengths and weaknesses, I think: who returned Death’s gaze with a steady stare; and, thankfully, we are told, died what we are supposed to call an “easy” death (which is never such: even when it provides relief to the sufferer, those who are left behind inherit an everlasting pain…).

Recently – and which accounts for the gap in posts (and, believe me, I find it very hard, now, not to write; now that the authorial genie has escaped cheekily from its bottle of single malt…) – I too have had intimations of my own mortality (although nothing as serious as Sir Terry’s: just enough to remind me that I am human, and certainly no ‘supercrip’): and can therefore understand more readily why, for many people, such “intimations” provoke a desire for increased meaning in their short lives and the awful world they find themselves in; as well as prompting yearnings for what may lie beyond – why, in a nutshell, religions are born; how creation myths and figures in the night sky emerge… – are we really nothing more than “a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle”?

I ended my last post – over a week ago – writing that “without religion the human race would be considerably worse off and there would be little hope for the future.” This is from a book provocatively entitled Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward: who concludes, of course, that it isn’t – although, being a priest, you could say that he’s slightly biased. You will have to read the book yourself to see if you agree, though, that he does a pretty good job of being objective (more so, to my mind, than Richard Squawkins has ever been… – although see “bombastic pontifications”, below).

However, although religion is not where I find my solace (unless you include its buildings and music) – for me that lurks in good books; Wordworth’s “setting sun”; the kindness of strangers; the hesitant transformation of a mild winter into a wind-chilled spring; the serendipitous conversations that pull various parts of your life closer together in a fortunate net of hopes-made-tangible; the hesitant footsteps alongside the Avon as the swans, geese, ducks and coots prepare noisily for the next generation, despite the stinging rain, and the gormless lump of humanity that giggles at their antics standing far too close by (but offering no crumbs nor crusts of sustenance in consolation…) – I understand, and have no problem whatsoever with, those who do.

Surely, we say, glancing at the eclipse, life must have more significance than a mere blink of the universe’s eye (and a blink, at that, which may simply be to remove the discomfiting grit of which we are made). And ask: Do we have a rôle to play? Is there free will? Does anything we do actually matter? Does our vote make any real difference… – especially in an election where we keep being told that there won’t be an outright winner…?

(By the way, in their letter, the bishops warn against such despair: urging us all to vote in the General Election – “Unless we exercise the democratic rights that our ancestors struggled for, we will share responsibility for the failures of the political classes. It is the duty of every Christian adult to vote, even though it may have to be a vote for something less than a vision that inspires us.” A perfect summation, I think….)

In response to those questions, I challenge you to read, say, Rupert Brooke’s Dust and then tell me that any such life (again, too short) with the potential to create such wonderful poetry is unimportant; or listen to Vaughan Williams’, or Nielsen’s, or Beethoven’s fifth symphonies; or stand in the centre of the Rollright Stones at dawn; and tell me that any human life isn’t the most valuable creation possible…. As individuals, we can be great – even if only to our immediate family and friends (which is miracle enough) – but, together, especially, we have the ability, the power, to change the world we live in both for good and for bad. That is the value, the sacred gift, that we have been given. And we should use it wisely. (If only….) It also means, of course, that we, as individuals, should all be listened to by our “neighbours”….

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

So allow me to digress – slightly – for a moment. (Just for a change.)

A couple of days ago, I was informed that the Planning Inspector had said “no” (huzzah!) to Gladman’s proposed development on Oxhill Road, and refused their subsequent appeal. (And yet, at the time of writing, I see no emails flying around the village; nor parades marching down Main Street.) Although this, in my Lenten tribulations, obviously raised my spirits a little, and made me realize that the battles the village had fought along the way had proved my supposition, above; I also know that, in fighting those battles, we, as villagers, had sadly demonstrated both of our “good and bad” sides: with infighting (or, more correctly, insurrection) caused by the overgrown egos and immature self-beliefs characteristic, depressingly, of many political activities.

[126] The advice of St Paul in his letter to the Philippians [above] may help to defend us against the temptations of apathy, cynicism and blame, and instead seek – because we are disciples of Jesus Christ who long for a more humane society – a better politics for a better nation.

It is not my place to solve such an issue (although I can listen to the bishops, and then provide ‘encouragement’ so to do…) – despite a continuing strong urge to bang certain thick, disruptive heads together – although I will say (as I have said many times before) that, as a village, we could (and should) have simply stood on our obvious merits, heads held high, and trusted those already responsible for such fights – i.e. the Parish Council (PC) – and supported, rather than hindered, them.

We did not need to raise voices, polish swords, dust off cudgels. Instead of caring for the village (the original motivation, some eighteen or so months ago, for residents’ gatherings and efforts; and the production, back then, of – possibly – the only bulletproof defence required) – as the members of the PC obviously do – there were those who it would not be unfair to accuse of caring more for the sounds of their own bombastic pontifications. Politicians manqué, if you will. Some of them may have had good intentions; but, it appears to me, these few have been led astray (although, of course, should have known better…) by those who think a big old house gives them droit du seigneur over the rest of us mere peasants (especially those whose modern hovels were obviously not built out of ironstone by medieval vassals).

I do not want ‘my’ village ruled or overseen by such people – as the church once was and did – I want it governed collegiately: where everyone is given the opportunity to feel, and be, involved (and not just by belatedly dropping a slip of paper through the door: with no obvious means of return…); and certainly not one where the parish magazine seems to exist just to be unjustifiably spiteful, nasty and vitriolic about people who the author disagrees with, or who he or she feels to be beneath them. (They must be looking through the wrong end of the telescope.)

Is this truly what we as a parish have become? How does this make us appear to those who walk and cycle through this glorious countryside? Visitors must think we have all just emerged from the back door of Cold Comfort Farm; or have not moved on since Akenfield was first published. They must be astonished that we are not all chewing on stalks of hay.

Despite its many shortcomings, to me, the church – and, indeed, many religious organizations – have democracy better ‘sorted’: especially in their regular meetings (and not just to worship) at all levels. Take, for instance, my favourite: Quakerism (where atheists and agnostics are welcome). Nothing is done without the agreement, “at all levels”, of every member. And, although this can mean that drying emulsion looks exciting by comparison, it also means that they are the perfect model of self-government – and one, as a village, we would do well to emulate. Otherwise, we will remain unduly shaped by external forces; rather than – as the (I increasingly believe unnecessary) Neighbourhood Plan is supposed to do – designing and building our own future: and being united as we do so.

To (try and) keep the religious theme going, the connection intact: I suppose what I would hope for is a reversion to ‘first principles’: similar to the initial, pure rules of the Cistercian order of monks, rebelling against the increasingly greedy and corrupt Benedictine brotherhood from which they split in the late eleventh century; or the Dominican and Franciscan friars who followed them, repudiating all personal possessions… – that is (in an extremely roundabout fashion), returning to what the village as a whole thinks is ideal, important, worthy; not just a self-appointed few, ‘in it’ for the power.

Perhaps this is naïve? I certainly seem to have typed that word a lot, recently. But, having shown, in January, last year, just how united the village can be, under threat; I believe it can come together, in the same way, for positive purposes, again – given the opportunity. I have a dream… – and it is one where every resident of the village helps develop, and shares in, a joint vision of our future; and actively takes part in developing that vision, where and when they can. And is not stifled by either jealousness, ignorance, or arrogance.

So what does that have to do with Who is my neighbour? you may ask. Well, just about everything.

[101] But who counts as “we”? It is impossible to ignore the question “who is my neighbour?” It is a question familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a New Testament….

[102] In the gospel, the question “who is my neighbour?” led Jesus to recount the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus makes two subtle points, first calling people to follow the example of the Samaritan, the foreigner who went to the aid of the wounded traveller; and secondly, answering the question by suggesting that neighbourliness may mean receiving care from a member of a despised social group. Neighbourliness, then, is not just about what we do for others. It is also about what we are willing to receive from those we fear, ignore or despise.

Do you know your neighbour? (And I don’t just mean your literal neighbour – as the bishops also intimate.) How well? Do you know how they feel about the village’s future; the importance and relevance of the Neighbourhood Plan to them; or are they simply too busy getting on with the increasing complexity and austerity that most of us (who don’t live in “a big old house”, for whatever reason) face in our daily lives? Do they love living here; have they lived here long; and/or do they begrudge the long daily commute to their place of employment? Do they worry about their children’s ability to stay in the village; the affordability of local housing; that we are so environmentally unfriendly in our high consumption of fossil fuels to heat our homes, and feed our cars, that their grandchildren’s lives will be blighted by our inaction; the fact that it is nigh impossible to find a bus that can get you to and from work, if you can’t afford a car in the first place; or get you to the Job Centre on time?

[123] This letter is about building a vision of a better kind of world, a better society and better politics. Underlying those ideas is the concept of virtue – what it means to be a good person, a good politician, a good neighbour or a good community. Virtues are nourished, not by atomised individualism, but in strong communities which relate honestly and respectfully to other groups and communities which make up this nation.

[124] Strong communities are schools of virtue – they are the places where we learn how to be good, how to live well and how to make relationships flourish. They build on the traditions through which each generation learns its national, local and family identity. Virtues are ways of living that can be learned, but which too many trends in recent decades have eroded.

Well, the bishops’ letter discusses most of these things (as you have seen) – and in a way that doesn’t try to score points; that does its best to be inclusive and thoughtful; that shows that it cares about each and every one of us – even if we don’t share their faith. Having read through most of the major political parties’ websites, as well, the Church of England stands out as unique in having a truly moral backbone; and, despite my atheism, I would rather vote for them than any political organization. Why? Because they so obviously care – and, as I said above, that “care” appeals to me because it is for all of their ‘flock’, equally, rather than simply one “hardworking” part of it; and it is not “for the sounds of their own bombastic pontifications”. They therefore lead by example: showing just what is absent from our tawdry, hostile, debasing politics (both nationally and locally); and why those in power must (or should) feel utterly embarrassed and belittled by the Church’s much-needed intervention. (Oh, how “those in power” must sympathize with Henry VIII. “Bring me a glass of water, Cromwell – I’m going to dissolve the monasteries.”)

It is just a shame, that like most front-page news, the letter has quickly vanished from the media: to be overtaken by more important matters, such as Ed’s two kitchens.

But you don’t have to be religious to think like this. Surely, I am proof of that…? (By the way, the obverse also applies: sadly, not all religious people truly care….)

I therefore ask three things of you. Firstly, whatever your religion, sit down, over the long Easter weekend, with a cup of tea or coffee, and read what the bishops have to say, please. Secondly, think what part you play in the village – could that rôle be widened and made more effective: either by expanding what you do; or by getting others, with divergent views and backgrounds, to help? Then, whatever your conclusions, put those thoughts on endless ‘repeat’; and never assume that what you are doing is either right or enough. Finally, next time you see your neighbour, say “Hello”, and with a smile on your face…! Thank you.

Being right is not the same as being righteous…. (Righteousness is usually a quality seen in people who are a pain in the arse.)
– Deborah Orr: The Guardian

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Wall of separation – true humility…
(Part 1: “A bad egg, Mr Jones”)

Two months away from the election, I’d like to take a couple of limping steps backward, and try and gain a little long-distance, wide-angle perspective on the House of Bishops’ “pastoral letter… to the people and parishes of the Church of England”; rather than examining certain linked elements of it in exhaustive detail (as I have been doing – and fairly continually – for nearly two weeks, now), and the reactions those passages have provoked.

This slight change of tack (not really a tergiversation, as such) was prompted by reading Who is my neighbour? as a whole – rather than being steered by the bishops’ own “guide to the pastoral letter and its contents” (whose description I had taken at face value). This, in turn, was provoked by an early paragraph in the letter itself:

[4] We are suggesting the trajectory for a new kind of politics – one which works constructively with a ferment of different ideas and competing visions. Although we have numerous specific concerns about particular issues in national life today – and will no doubt be developing those ideas in other places – here we want to move beyond flagging up lists of issues to dig deeper into questions about the trajectory of our political life and visions of the kind of society we want to be and which political life should serve. If anyone claims that this letter is “really” saying “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it.

So had I “misunderstood it”? Well, actually, no: I don’t think I had. (Feel free to disagree, though: it’s what the ‘Post a comment’ box is for.) You may reason that either I, or the bishops, “doth protest too much, methinks” – but, although I would like to try and remain objective, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that I shall be making the case for the defence? For instance (he said, trying to get this stumbling block out of the way), they write in the excerpt above that “we want to move beyond flagging up lists of issues” – and yet that is exactly what their guide (which they really should have renamed – it is entitled “What it Says” within) does. Perhaps they would have been better just issuing their “pastoral letter” as a standalone document, with no surrounding contextual aids (or keeping these private, for their clergy to use) – not even the press release that accompanied its publication – as this, of course, is how most congregational readers will encounter the letter.

[Introduction and paragraph 3] …This letter from the Church of England’s House of Bishops is addressed to all members of the church... we hope that others, who may not profess church allegiance, will nevertheless join in the conversation and engage with the ideas we are sharing here…. [It] is intended to help church members and others consider the question: how can we negotiate these dangerous times to build the kind of society which many people say they want but which is not yet being expressed in the vision of any of the parties?

I still believe, though (as, obviously do the Conservatives), that, with their overall view, the Church of England (now) leans leftwards; and it is relatively easy to gather enough evidence to make the case that the Bible does, too. (I remember spending an ‘interesting’ evening at university, over thirty years ago, debating whether or not Jesus was a socialist – some students going so far as to argue that he was a communist, or even a Marxist… – so this is not a stunningly original thought.) But in allying the bishops with the Green Party, perhaps I am being subjective (“as a result of my own biases”); and perceiving a correlation that isn’t there? It is certainly one Who is my neighbour? (and the accompanying release – quoted from, below) tries hard to stop me from seeing or making:

The letter specifically avoids advocacy for one any [sic] political party but instead encourages those in the Church to seek from political candidates a commitment to building a society of common bonds over individual consumerism. The bishops say Britain is hungry for a new approach to political life which reaffirms our ties at a national, regional, community and neighbourhood level. There is a need for a strong corrective to halt the move towards increasing social isolation, they say, through strengthening the idea that that Britain is still a “community of communities.” This, they say, is a theme which has roots in the historic traditions of different parties: “We are seeking, not a string of policy offers, but a way of conceiving and ordering our political and economic life which can be pursued in a conservative idiom, a socialist idiom, a liberal idiom – and by others not aligned to party.”

But I really do not believe, or agree with, (paragraph 92) the bishops’ claim that they “are emphasising an approach to politics which can trace its roots on both left and right and which could be embraced by any of the mainstream parties without being untrue to their own histories.” This would be a new kind of politics: with its roots deeply entrenched in humanity and community – “a new politics that engages at both a deeper more local level within a wider, broader vision for the country as a whole”.

One thing I do concur with, support and understand, though, is “The right and duty of the Church to speak into [sic] political debate”:

[21] “…the church has an obligation to engage constructively with the political process, and Christians share responsibility with all citizens to participate in the democratic structures of our nation. We offer these reflections because we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is enormously relevant to the questions which the coming Election will throw into sharp relief.

This is, after all, a democratic country: where anyone can freely make their views known without major repercussions. And, as Will Hutton wrote: “The majority of the country may no longer have faith, but those who lead the church do – and they remind the rest of us of our forgotten Christian roots.” So, if your adherents, your constituents, form a major part of the electorate; and you have strong feelings – that originate from your “faith”, your beliefs; and which you do your best to practice every day (what the Catholic bishops, in their homologue, describe as witnessing “to the mercy of Christ through the faithfulness of our lives and the world we wish to build”) – about the way the country is run (especially if it is diverging from your convictions at a rate of knots); how that affects those who you care for… then I can understand why you feel so obligated. (Especially as I write for many of the same reasons – and not just because I am an egocentric wordsmith: who bescribbles to try and distract himself.) This is not a country where expressing a critical opinion about church or state routinely leads to imprisonment; public torture; execution; or lynching. Thank God.

Although, whilst I was writing this, I received an email from Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) – of which I am sad to say I was once a member. I left because, in my judgment, the organization, and the “new atheism” it proselytizes, have become – ironically – too “evangelical” themselves; and it appears to regard its own views and opinions as the only ones that are correct and worth holding. Its egoistic unwillingness to listen (especially contrasted with the recent emergence of a growing number of interfaith groups); its militancy; and its rejection (and apparent desire for eradication) of all religion(s) (whilst appearing to have become a quasi one itself); appear to me to be as harmful as the pig-headedness of radical Islamism.

You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Here is an extract from the email:

…the Church of England has been lobbying particularly aggressively lately, and we now know from a source in Whitehall that they have been systematically working against us on issues like assisted dying, humanist marriage, and making space for non-religious worldviews such as Humanism in Religious Studies….
     I will [therefore] be discussing some of the approaches we would like to take in 2015 and asking for your help to stand up for humanist causes in the face of targeted lobbying of Government from our opponents.

That use of the word “opponents”, I think, shows just how paranoiac and radicalized they have become (maybe without realizing it). To me, this sounds like a call to arms – to fight a battle in a war that they manufactured. But this is not a war. And are we really meant to believe naïvely – if they themselves admit to having “a source in Whitehall” – that they aren’t also “lobbying”…? (“I’m not saying the Church of England is perfect, by any means….”) If you believe in something, stand up for it: but please don’t make your utterances so bellicose. Negotiate: and make inclusiveness part of your portfolio; not ignorance a weapon in your arsenal.

Atheism isn’t necessarily equated with humanism (in fact, there are both religious and secular versions); nor does it mean – as I tried to explain in my last post – that your lack of a belief in any deity means that those who do believe are in any way diminished, or need to be ‘converted’ from their ‘unscientific’ faith. Having different belief systems – as long as they get along together; rather than seeking to destroy each other – is surely a good thing? We don’t have to belong to any sort of group; never mind all being in the same one. Soon we’ll all be wearing Zhongshan suits; and going on long marches. How would religion fare in such an officially atheistic state…?

Okay: this has a tinge of reductio ad absurdum, I’ll admit – but the “new” (or active) atheistic intolerance (verging on hatred) of religion isn’t much different to intolerance (verging on hatred) of race or disability. And we all know where that leads…. Personally, as I have made clear previously: although I do not believe in any god (i.e. I am a passive atheist), I do believe that “without religion the human race would be considerably worse off and there would be little hope for the future.”

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Wall of separation – inclusiveness…

So far, in my four Paschal ‘meditations’ on Who is my neighbour?, not only have I written on four different subjects, I have also viewed those subjects from four different perspectives, and structured my thoughts around them in four different ways. What I think has united them – apart from the source document, of course – is my non-cynical, inclusive attitude to religion, despite being an atheist. (I am not what John Gray would describe as “evangelical”: and therefore do not share “the conviction that human values must be based in science”; or “claim that liberal values can be scientifically validated and are therefore humanly universal.”)

I grew up surrounded by the complex beauty of Anglican churches and cathedrals; performing the spirit-soaring music inspired, over five-hundred years, by various forms of Christianity, nearly every day: and I am pretty sure that these determinative experiences inform such a disposition. I do not believe in any god (and haven’t done for a very long time): but this does not mean that I don’t believe in the good that such an entity can galvanize in others (although I also appreciate that any god’s name can be taken badly in vain – as can science… – leading to acts of awful violence that are intolerable to those who profess and practise their religions’ peaceful views and laws; as well as to those, like me, who are not devout or godly in any way…). I also have an inbuilt respect for those who worship: promulgated, I think, by my saturation in Protestant ideology from an early age – my maternal grandad was a Methodist lay preacher; my paternal grandad walked to his parish church every Sunday, whatever the weather; one of the first books I remember reading was David Kossoff’s retelling of the Bible Stories (simply wonderful; and wonderfully simple!); and I was part of a cathedral choir from the age of four (until my mid-twenties: when I became a rural Church of England choirmaster…). Saint Ignatius may have said “Give me a child until he is seven years old, and he is mine for life” (or something to that effect) – but, with me, he was wrong (well, sort of – as this paragraph demonstrates…)!

I also grew up in an area where other religions were prominent (my primary school is now a mosque); and was intrigued – as I am by most things (a curiosity which fuels my writing) – by the similarities and differences in belief, practices, rituals, even wardrobe. These were merely outward signs, though: and it takes a lot more than spending a silent hour in the company of Quakers (which can be a non-belief-based practice: and which therefore appeals to me greatly); or having fun at a Jewish wedding (again: a religion which can be more a way of life); or singing carols at an ardent Baptist Christmas celebration; or spending an afternoon on a bench in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens discussing the various forms of Buddhism; to get to the heart of what particularities conglomerate to produce a specific flavour of ideology.

But inclusiveness isn’t just about religion, or religious tolerance, or – in my case – a partiality for most kinds of religion: is it? Any sort of ‘differentness’ can provoke reactions of hate or ridicule: including colour and race; being (yuck) “differently abled” (this, therefore, pointing to a small, but definite, link, with the first post in this series); supporting the wrong football team; not liking football, in the first place, or not being sporty; being in, or from, the wrong ‘class’; or even something as mindless as not wearing the ‘right’ clothes. To be eccentric, or unconventional, or singular, in any way, makes you, to some, a victim to be despised; a target to be humiliated; a threat to be eradicated.

But aren’t we all “singular”; unique? Don’t we all have different abilities? The Church of England bishops, in their letter (paragraph 2) “believe that every human being is created in the image of God” – but I’m sure they’re only being metaphorical, really: especially as, in its short ‘Equality – us and them’ section, they mention “the individual’s ignorance of those who are different”. Perhaps you are more tolerant, the less ignorant you are? Of people’s values, I mean. Perhaps you are more tolerant, the more you understand or know…? Anyway, here is that quote in context:

[76] …Stirring up resentment against some identifiable “other” always dehumanises some social group or people. Ethnic minorities, immigrants, welfare claimants, bankers and oligarchs – all have been called up as threats to some fictitious “us”. They become the hated “other” without whose presence among us all would be well. It is a deep irony that the whole political class is often regarded as an alien “other” by many sectors of the population.

[77] At first sight, the rhetoric of “us” and “the other” may sound as if it is talking about communities and significant social groupings – the opposite of individualistic politics. In reality, it represents no actual class or community but appeals to the individual’s ignorance of those who are different….

And that touches on an important point: a strong (conceivably instinctual) need, or want, amongst some people – maybe the majority – to be part of – and to be seen as part of – a community or “significant social grouping”. It is an aspiration, I am afraid, that I simply do not understand: as much as I desire, always, to see through other people’s eyes; to be empathic; to walk in their shoes. And it seems – but for other reasons – that those “alien” others who rule us have the same problem with their electorate. (It wasn’t always thus: once upon a time, MPs were dug out of the ground along with the coal of the north of England, by tough, muscled miners, grafted from the same rock they excavated. These politicians not only therefore empathized with their constituents – having shared their lives, and often employment, with the coalfaced pitmen – but took the conditions they lived and worked in as the starting point for the instinctive causes and deeply-held convictions that drove them towards Parliament. They had wrongs to right: and nothing would stop them. But they never really left their homes behind; or forgot them – not for a moment. Some of them – like Jack Ashley – were also disabled.)

The example set by “the whole political class” – from district to national – is not a good one, though, currently. It is certainly not an example I want to be led by. For instance, discussing the barracking that takes place, frequently – and usually of the very few female MPs – in the House of Commons, Zoe Williams writes, in The Guardian, that:

If debate is about the interrogation of ideas until the better one emerges through a process of illumination, this yelling and braying has the opposite intention: to throw the matter into darkness, to make the opponent slink off in shame. What they are supposed to be ashamed of is never clear: some unnamed combination of gender, class, intellect and belief means that they occupy a certain station, and that they got ideas above it.
     People who conceive of belonging as something exclusive (“I belong, so if you deviate from my beliefs it follows that you don’t”) are always more vocal than people who think of it rather as a collaborative concept (in which belonging is built by the nurturance of everyone who wants to belong). They are territorial in nature.
     This was manifested in another context in Newcastle at the weekend, when Pegida – the far-right group protesting against the “Islamisation” of Europe – had a 400-strong rally to press its strange case. A counter-protest, Newcastle Unites, mustered far more people: police estimated 2,000; its organisers said 3,000. Inclusivity is the more popular position by many multiples, and yet would never have mobilised except in answer to Pegida. Solidarity tends to comprehend the need for self-assertion only in answer to some external threat. This leaves it unable to prosecute its own agenda, only able to react to someone else’s. Often, therefore, the underlying truth is lost: that being racist, blaming Islam for Europe’s ills – and, for that matter, finding female MPs inherently ridiculous – are all minority positions. It is a trait of their proponents to be as loud as they possibly can, but that doesn’t make them any less niche.

For an organization whose every sitting commences with a prayer – “laying aside all private interests and prejudices” – this, to me, appears extremely irreligious; and must look so, also, to those with other faiths, and concepts of faith:

Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed. Amen.

It seems that the modern politician, therefore, has no concept of what the House of Bishops call “a Christian understanding of human social relationships”. They would do well to read Who is my neighbour? thoroughly, therefore; rather than excoriating it before even opening its pages.

And, while we’re discussing the letter’s contents, this seems the perfect place to list the relevant passages – all highlighted by the authors themselves. This is itemized under ‘Immigration’ in their guide; and comes from the introduction…

[1] We live in challenging but hopeful times. All political parties struggle to communicate a convincing vision. People feel detached from politics. Alongside a healthy openness to new ideas, worrying and unfamiliar trends are appearing in our national life. There is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations. The issues around the election call for a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be.

…and this from the ‘Power, identities and minorities’ section of the letter:

[102] In the gospel, the question “who is my neighbour?” led Jesus to recount the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus makes two subtle points, first calling people to follow the example of the Samaritan, the foreigner who went to the aid of the wounded traveller; and secondly, answering the question by suggesting that neighbourliness may mean receiving care from a member of a despised social group. Neighbourliness, then, is not just about what we do for others. It is also about what we are willing to receive from those we fear, ignore or despise.

These paragraphs (listed under the ‘Integration’ part of the guide) complete that section:

[103] The politics of migration has, too often, been framed in crude terms of “us” and “them” with scant regard for the Christian traditions of neighbourliness and hospitality. The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as “the problem” has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration. Crude stereotyping is incompatible with a Christian understanding of human social relationships.

[104] But we also challenge the assumption that to question immigration at all must always be racist. Major trends in migration have brought about immense social changes in many parts of the country. Rapid change has often impacted most acutely on communities which are least equipped to handle it – partly because their experience has often been that change is to their detriment.

[105] It is unsurprising that communities which have faced deindustrialisation, the destruction of familiar streets and housing, whose pride in work and craftsmanship has been destroyed by the shift from manufacturing to services and for whom poverty has never been more than one step away should find the rapid shift to a multicultural society difficult to assimilate. Suspicion of people with other national and ethnic origins needs to be understood without being endorsed or excused. We need a dialogue about migration which ceases to use people as political cyphers and looks instead at who is being asked to bear the cost of rapid social change and what resources of community and neighbourliness they need to emerge stronger from change.

A recent article in The Guardian – ‘The rise in net migration shows up the hollowness of government policy’ (quoted from, below) – bemoaned what one subsequent letter-writer described as “the lack of a coherent, long-term policy on immigration”:

More generally, one can analyse immigration from three perspectives. There is the social conservative view, which would regard all of it with suspicion. This is most clearly articulated at the moment by the Ukip core vote. Then there is the perspective of market efficiency. As employers and even consumers, we want access to an eager pool of low-wage labour. The cost of an NHS which had to rely on home-grown labour would terrify any politician. Those two considerations tend to pull in opposite directions. In any case, both need be tempered by generosity, humanity and imagination. The reasons that immigration has made Britain a better place, and continues to do so, are not just economic but political, cultural and social. Institutionally, the role of generosity, humanity and imagination has been represented by the development of human rights legislation. This has not been entirely satisfactory, in part because these are qualities that cannot be codified…. No society can avoid an immigration policy and we need one that is honest, coherent, workable and informed by something more than short-term calculations of electoral advantage based on fear.

But, until we learn to discuss immigration – politically (and certainly not in UKIP’s twisted-make-it-up-as-we-go-along-but-we’re-not-really-racist fashion) – in the mature, perceptive and quiet ways that the bishops demonstrate above – with a “generosity, humanity and imagination” very rarely shown by those in power – it will remain contentious. This single section, to me, encapsulates why Who is my neighbour? is so important, and contributes so much to the forthcoming election. Not only does the Church of England stand outside (albeit with its toes on the touchline of) the rough-and-tumble game that is modern politics, dominated by loutish rugger-buggers; but it brings with it a view that has depth and subtlety, derived from centuries of discussion and development; and, increasingly, a willingness to change: to be more contemporary itself, more relevant. The bishops’ views are long-term; sensible; and, as I said in my original post, provide “a coherent, sincere vision that no political party, to my mind, has come within a country mile of”.

I’m not saying the Church of England is perfect, by any means, though. The fact that the first woman bishop has only just been placed on her cathedra in the last few weeks – despite protestations during her consecration that such an act was “not in the Bible” – is absolutely appalling: especially when couched in terms of inclusiveness. What inspires me, though, is the Church’s professed willingness to change; and to think things through, openly. Compared to the bragging, combative – “my manifesto’s bigger than yours…!” – preschool-type ‘messy play’ that Prime Minister’s Questions has become, the House of Bishops (although similarly lacking in female representatives) come across as a paragon of calm intellect – presenting their authority in a manner that is extremely refreshing.

As they themselves write – discussing the ‘Threat from extremism and religiously-inspired conflict’ –

[9] …It is a mistake to imagine that all manifestations of religion are essentially similar or always benign. But the challenge to politicians is to understand how faith can shape communities, nations and individuals for the good. The answer to “furious religion” (that is, the religious impulse turned in on itself or used to justify oppression and conflict) is not to marginalise religion in general or see religious faith as some kind of problem. It is to acknowledge that religious commitment is extraordinarily widespread and that people of faith within all the historic traditions have much to offer to a vision of a good society and a peaceful world.

– demonstrating the inherent value of their own words. All we need, now, is someone to pay attention to them.

I probably couldn’t write such things in some other countries. If you support freedom of speech – especially the ability to criticize the state, please sign this petition to help negotiate Raif Badawi’s freedom. Thank you.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Wall of separation – housing…

For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.

Having ‘reasoned’ in the previous post in this series that the Green Party were the Almighty’s “chosen” – or, at least, to my atheistic way of thinking, more in tune with God’s earthly, Anglican representatives than the other major political parties – I wanted to return to my original objective: of trying “to delve deeper into [the House of Bishops’] letter… examining… some of its statements and manifold themes; and the way these contribute… to my feelings about, perspectives on, and connections to, current politics” – but, this time, attempting to ascertain how some of the Green’s published policies specifically relate to the statements made by the Church of England: hopefully proving my supposition correct (or at least “reasonable”)!

So, having already discussed environmental issues, I thought it logical to move on to housing – with an emphasis on its social dimensions (which are also the bishops’ principal concerns) – especially as the sustainability aspects – having initiated this blog just over fifteen months ago; and informed many of its earlier posts (because of its centrality in the fight against Gladman Developments) – have already been dealt with in great depth (and at great length).

By the way, the main reason I will only be discussing, politically, the Green Party’s policies (apart from my blatant bias; and the views I believe they share with the House of Bishops) is that the Conservative Party doesn’t appear to be very good at sticking to its promises; nor understanding the true definition of ‘localism’; and the Labour Party seems overly keen on fabrication, fabrication, fabrication – just for the sake of it. (And I can’t remember who the LibDems are.)

The Tories have had five years in Government to come up with something less divisive and disastrous than encouraging unaffordable, unsightly, sun-blocking tumescences rising like bubos across London’s incurable, infected skyline: gleefully descending into planning hell via the rickety helter-skelter that they constructed on the foundations of the short-sighted sweetener of the 1980 Housing Act (when Margaret Thatcher – aided and abetted by Michael Heseltine – introduced what Owen Hatherley has described as “The sinister right-to-buy housing policy”). But, as Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP recently stated: instead, they “have overseen some of the most brutal cuts, to the most vulnerable people, meted out in modern history.” I shall therefore be giving them no shrift whatsoever.

In Who is my neighbour? – a title which feels immediately germane, if not essential, to this post’s topic – the bishops, in their accompanying guide, first focus on paragraphs 50 and 51, from the section ‘A Community of Communities’ (the phrases and sentences they cite are again highlighted in bold, below). But I’m also including the preceding paragraph because of the importance I too (repeatedly) place on its companion theme: the significance of a genius loci, and our attachment to it:

[49] It would be easier for people to forge strong social bonds if we could recognise that a sense of “place” helps to form people’s identity in community. Information technology may mean that physical presence is no longer necessary for many purposes. This has often been positive, and has made many kinds of human interaction easier. But people cannot so easily be uncoupled from the geographical spaces they inhabit.

[50] People are not so much divorced from place as seeking a place where they can be most at home. Following the great rehousing boom of the 1950s and ’60s, numerous studies explored the effect of dislocation on people and communities. Strong social bonds, forged in the adversity of poor housing, frequently did not translate to the new estates, despite their better conditions. And today, attempts to address the shortage of suitable housing will create new problems if they neglect people’s attachment to particular places and the social networks they create there.

[51] The Church of England has always had a strong commitment to place through the parish system. We are present in every community of England. We therefore see day by day how important “place” is to all kinds of people. Social policies which assume that everyone is happily mobile and footloose miss the crucial point that “place” is not just about territory but about informal networks which people build to make life sociable, neighbourly and worth living. Policies which are careless of this attachment to place do not serve people well.

Additionally, in the section ‘Strengthening institutions’, they write:

[83] …Housing Associations work best when there is “buy in” from a broad social spectrum. They are institutions with a strong unifying potential.

[84] We are living through both a banking crisis and a housing crisis….

Perhaps because it is more of a concrete (hmm) subject, limited to certain undertakings – unlike disability, and the environment – the bishops do not stray beyond these two sections: and there is no specific mention, elsewhere in their letter, of “homelessness”, for instance.

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

Sadly, God’s will isn’t yet “done in earth, As it is in heaven” – and there appear not to be enough “mansions” here to satisfy demand. This “housing crisis” – at least under the current rules of the richer rich versus the poorer poor that fuel its existence – therefore shows no signs of abating; and, unfortunately, in their letter – understandably – the House of Bishops proffer no solution. I have written before, however, about the primary school mathematics that would make this an ostensibly simple problem to crack (thereby removing that “understandably” from the prior sentence):

…there is actually more than enough housing to go round – at least for the moment. Not only in the UK (which has more than 700,000 empty homes); but in the rest of Europe, too (with more than 11 million empty, in total – “enough to house all of the continent’s [4.1 million] homeless twice over”).
     …the reported lack of available homes [is a terrible problem] that is – I am told – at the root of the carpet-bombing of proposals to cover our green fields with swathes of unsuitable, unsustainable, identikit boxes: with a legislated proportion being ‘affordable’ to almost no-one that would qualify for their residence, or actually needs them to live in….

But, of course, it isn’t really as straightforward as simply parachuting families or individuals in need of accommodation into those empty properties. Even if they are rendered habitable, they are unlikely to satisfy most “people’s attachment to particular places”; or complement readily-available employment opportunities. Then, of course, there is the contentious matter of affordability (either to purchase or to rent – the latter fragilely combined with security of tenancy) – which the Greens describe as “a basic human need” [policy HO101] – and the fact that 80% of an extortionate rent (often calculated behind closed doors) is still “an extortionate rent” – however generous such a legal definition may appear to its wealthy proponents. (The perspective from on high is always skewed.)

In rural locations such as Tysoe, this problem is aggravated by a “change to planning rules slipped through by communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles at the end of last year, [meaning] that affordable housing no longer has to be part of the mix on small-scale developments… at a time when [Hastoe, the biggest single provider of affordable rural homes in England] is receiving calls from parish councils every week asking for affordable homes to be built in their villages.”

What is lacking here, I believe, is a set of meaningful connections between all of these requirements (needs and wants) – which I believe can be supplied by understanding and appreciating the original intentions behind the development of social housing (we do not all need to be homeowners): whether that be almshouses; council houses; or, perhaps most appositely, workers’ villages – such as the stunning Port Sunlight; or, more locally, beautiful Bournville. This latter example, of course, was informed by the Quaker beliefs of the Cadbury brothers: and therefore followed on, in essence, from the provision of almshouses – which were usually provided by religious orders (and usually Christian) with a real, pragmatic desire to support those less fortunate (in the same way that Sikhs now feed the homeless – of all faiths). It is also proof that caring for your workers (as governments should care for their constituents…) is beneficial to both employer and employee – as any fule kno. And yet this appears to be a fact that we are incapable (through reason and/or greed) of grasping in our zero-hours world.

Returning to the Green Party – the ‘Background’ section of their Housing policy similarly states…

[HO104] Commonly owned and social housing includes: housing owned and/or managed by local authorities, housing provided by or managed by housing associations primarily funded by the Housing Corporations, and co-operative and CoHousing projects. The emphasis must be on local provision for local needs, more decentralised forms of housing management, and the empowerment of tenants.

…which, to me, begins to pull together those “meaningful connections”. However, they are not as non-judgmental as the bishops when it comes to their views of housing associations – even though their concerns and posited ‘solutions’ are, I think, extremely similar (the Greens are considerably more detailed, as you would expect; and, of course, look to future solutions – whereas the House of Bishops limit themselves, mostly, to outlining the zeitgeist):

[HO105] Housing associations are potentially effective providers of housing to rent. However, in their present forms they are deeply flawed. In particular in financial decisions which affect rent increases they are answerable to private investors. They must be democratised, with a fundamental shift of power in favour of tenants and increased accountability to the local community, aided by reduction in size.

[HO106] Housing Co-ops should be encouraged as effective providers of low cost housing with good participation by tenants. Some housing co-op principles would be well taken on board by local authorities and housing associations. However a true housing co-operative is co-operatively owned not just co-operatively managed and is in a position to use any assets to support the development of more co-operatives.

You could argue (as do housebuilders, of course; and, almost unbelievably, the Labour Party, still Tory-lite in their approach…) – despite the availability of sufficient existing, empty properties – that we simply aren’t building enough (and failing to do so by a huge margin – probably calculated using the same greed-propelled “mathematics” that the Core Strategy housing supply is based on…). I would only go so far as to agree with that argument by tagging the emotive words “council houses” on at the end (and then only in the right locations – i.e. where there is employment; where there is family; where there is a deep connection to the land, to “place”). But, as we have seen, there can be problems with rented social housing when handed over to the private sector, or made available for sale.

Realistically, though, a mixture of publically- and privately-funded accommodation is probably the only way forward. And, despite the incontrovertible fact that a small, fluffy bunny dies every time a noddy-house is built; and my non-Nimby heart breaks at every single tiny despoilment of the English countryside; I accept – as the residents of Tysoe did in their briefing paper against Gladman, Sustainable Tysoe? – that we – as a village; as a district; as a county; as a country – “must evolve and grow”.

The Green Party’s desire to provide housing in large numbers therefore is described in terms much more nuanced than Ed Miliband’s eager “non-stop drive to build” – propelled, as it is, by the “real, pragmatic desire to support those less fortunate” and the “social dimensions” discussed above:

We want to build half a million more homes, available at social rent levels, funded both by a change in tax-relief for landlords and by fully lifting the artificial restrictions on councils borrowing against their assets.
     We estimate it will cost an extra £4.5bn a year. This would be a major investment in a national asset, which would create jobs and stabilise the economy. The policy is radical, it is different, but it is fully costed….
– Natalie Bennett: The Guardian

Although this discussion was at the centre of Natalie Bennett’s much-vaunted “brain fade”, it doesn’t make the Green Party’s approach – demonstrated most clearly by their policy section entitled ‘Local Authorities’ – any less valid:

[HO403] The Green Party believes in public ownership under the control of elected representatives as part of mixed provision for social housing. Council housing and the secure tenure it affords is an essential form of social housing provision. National Government must ensure adequate and good quality council housing stock is retained and provided by every local authority. It should also ensure that sufficient funding is available to councils for the provision of effective repairs and maintenance services.

However, I think that a large portion of this funding could also originate from “modifications to Council Tax” (Green Party policy HO607) – for example: “creation of new Council Tax bands above H to ensure that as property values get progressively higher so does the tax paid on them; [and] reform of the multiplier rates applied to the bands, to make the tax paid more proportionate to the value of the house” – which would result in increased local government funding; rather than Labour’s proposed Mansion Tax: the revenue from which would go straight into central government’s coffers. Now, that can’t be right….

But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality…
Because it affects us all (either in its provision or lack), there is so much more that could be said – both politically and theologically – about housing, planning, architecture: but I am writing a blog, not a book (although I have made my view on these subjects quite clear many a time – just click on those links…). Personally, though, if you want to dig deeper – especially into the social and economic aspects – I would recommend Danny Dorling’s devastating All That Is Solid – which investigates that outwardly commonplace (certainly calm, to all appearances) statement from Who is my neighbour? that “We are living through both a banking crisis and a housing crisis”:

Housing was at the heart of the financial collapse, and our economy is now precariously reliant on the housing market [and] is the defining issue of our times. Tracing how we got to our current crisis and how housing has come to reflect class and wealth in Britain, All That Is Solid radically shows that the solution to our problems – rising homelessness, a generation priced out of home ownership – is not, as is widely assumed, building more homes. Inequality… is what we really need to overcome.

I would be very suprised if both the Green Party and the House of Bishops hadn’t studied this book intensely.