Godliness, or Holy Attention

(a paper given to the Clergy of Carlisle Diocese, January 2019)

I’ve been reading Richard Hooker – as one does! – the most significant thinker of the 16th Century who gave the Anglican Church our distinctive imagination, liturgy and ecclesiology.

He says, towards the beginning of book 5 of his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that

godliness [is] the cheifest top and welspringe of all true virtues, even as God is of all good thinges. (BkV, ch1, p.17 FLE)

Godliness is the chiefest top and wellspring of all true virtues.

Which got me thinking – if that’s the highest virtue: What is godliness? What is it to be a godly person today?

Perhaps it depends on what we attend to.

What grabs and holds the attention today is big business.

Cultural commentators and theologians, like Matthew Crawford, Jaron Lanier, Mark Clavier and James Williams describe today’s world as information abundant (unlike previous eras) and attention scarce. Anything that’s scarce has a value, and our attention, now, is a marketable commodity. The attention economy is upon us, where every moment, particularly our engagement on the internet, offers opportunity. Who can live without a phone these days? As soon as you turn it on, subtle and not-so-subtle advertising is there. Clever advertising, designed to make the most of any transaction you make.

Mark Clavier says this

Our emotions, imagination, and desires can’t avoid expertly designed appeals for us to pursue an ideal of happiness that we’ve already been disposed to desire. Over and over again, we’re faced with these appeals, reminded how happy we might be, and are presented with a choice: to buy or not to buy. Like it or not, we now perpetually live in the marketplace. (Mark Clavier: (2019) On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight,  London and New York, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019, p. 5)

His book – just out – describes the powerful rhetoric of the marketplace, designed to persuade. He offers a great analysis of the rhetoric of Cicero, and reads Augustine too, for insights on consumerism.

He encourages the Church to be truly counter-cultural today, because there’s a great deal at stake. We are challenged at the heart of our humanity. For the attention economy changes what we attend to, and how we attend to it. Our desires are captivated, and consequently, our intention and will is changed. The key question he pursues, from his reading of Augustine, is what really delights us.

James Williams was a former Google strategist at the top of his game. He looked around one day and wondered why he and his colleagues – the best brains of his generation – were focused entirely on strategies to develop ‘clickbait’. Clickbait refers to the sophisticated algorithms that are designed to ‘hook’ users (you and me) to buy the product, to play the game. There’s a four stage model: the trigger, the action, the variable reward – all designed to ensure the user’s ‘investment’ of time or money. The variable reward is the key – it can be a ‘surprise’, or some other device, designed to capture the attention, then create a habit or addiction. It’s the stage that makes you say, ‘one more go!’ ‘One more click!’

It’s not only your attention that’s hooked. Your intention, or will, is also compromised. Who hasn’t played just one more game, searched just one more site for what you really, really want, instead of doing the dishes, getting ready for a meeting, picking the kids up? Or preparing a sermon? Jaron Lanier, from his experience of Silicon Valley, describes graphically the subconscious manipulation at the heart of social media.

Take gambling. Matthew Crawford describes how gambling changes the will. A binary decision gives you a great sense of control.

Your action of pressing a button produces an effect that aligns perfectly with your will, because your will has been channeled into … press or don’t press. You give yourself over to the logic of the machine and are rewarded by a feeling of efficacy. That is, you lose yourself, and thereby gain control. (91)

Crawford discusses Natasha Schull’s book on gambling in Las Vegas, Addiction by Design, and how she interviewed gamblers whose addiction was deadly. One woman made sure she wore dark clothing when she went gambling so it didn’t show when she urinated. (96) The machines and every aspect of the casino environment are deliberately engineered to induce people to play “to extinction.”(111). This is the far end of a spectrum in which we are all caught.

When it comes to the Web, we think we’re spiders, but really we’re flies.

Williams gave it all up and went to Oxford to study philosophy, then wrote his 2018 book Stand Out of Our Light. He argues that the next-generation threat to human freedom is the systems of intelligent persuasion that increasingly direct our thoughts and actions. The “attention economy” makes us think we’re powerful when we can access more and more information, exercising our choice in binary clicks. But really we’re pawns in a highly sophisticated marketplace, where instead of attending to goals for our lives, ones that will give us real delight, we are distracted, and ever more distracted.

The poet Mary Oliver died a few weeks ago. I thought of one memorable line she wrote, in the poem “The Summer Day”, that pulls us up short, wondering if we’re living life to the full:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mark Clavier says Christians – the Church – is faced with a choice, a dilemma, even.

The rhetorical and religious nature of consumerism confronts the Church with a dilemma. Either it accepts consumer culture and simply tries successfully to express its own rhetoric within it or it must find a way to challenge consumerism’s hold over individuals and society. The first approach involves the Church effectively becoming a consumer tribe and employing the same means and methods that other consumer tribes use to attract clientele. … Christianity therefore becomes a lifestyle, an accessory for self-expression, and little more than a way for individuals to become religious-consumers-by-vocation. … The second approach … seeks to stand apart from consumer culture, perhaps even to understand its own mission as converting people away from consumer identities. (14/5)

The Attention Economy thrives when our attention is redirected to what we really, really want. For then we forget how to want what we really want to want – the deeper desires of our lives, which make us human. When we are distracted, and stop training ourselves to attend, our human will, both individually and collectively, is undermined. We aren’t thinking of our one wild and precious life.

Williams writes that we need to reclaim our attention:

The liberation of the human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time. Its success is prerequisite for the success of virtually all other struggles. We therefore have an obligation to rewire this system of intelligent, adversarial persuasion before it rewires us. Doing so requires … the courage necessary for advancing on it in inconvenient and unpopular ways. (p. xii)

Those inconvenient and unpopular ways should involve the Church. We’re used to inconvenience and unpopularity, after all.

James Williams isn’t the only one. In The World Beyond Your Head Matthew Crawford speaks of a cultural iceberg in which our mental lives are fractured, where we have diminished attention spans and a widespread sense of distraction, as our brains are rewired by new habits of information grazing and electronic stimulation. We lack time and space for serious, concentrated engagement. We have allowed our attention to be monetized by advertisements, by hassle, by information, such that ‘if you want your [attention] back you’re going to have to pay for it’ (p.12).

Like Williams, Crawford says we now lack ‘the sort of guidance that once would have been supplied by tradition, religion, or the kinds of communities that make deep demands on us’ (pp.4–5).

He refers to Simone Weil to argue that ‘attending to anything in a sustained way requires actively excluding all the other things that grab at our attention. It requires, if not ruthlessness toward oneself, a capacity for self-regulation’ (p.15).

Let’s remind ourselves of Simone Weil. A French mystic who was born in 1909 and died in 1942, she was brought up agnostic. She remained all her life outside the Catholic Church, though she had a deep and fierce faith and intelligence to match.

She once famously described how she first learned to pray. She wrote, in Waiting On God:

Until last September I had never once prayed in all my life, at least not in the literal sense of the word. I had never said any words to God, either out loud or mentally.

Last summer … I went through the Our Father word for word in Greek [with my tutor]. We promised each other to learn it by heart. I do not think he ever did so, but some weeks later, as I was turning over the pages of the Gospel, I said to myself that since I had promised to do this thing and it was good, I ought to do it. I did it. The infinite sweetness of this Greek text so took hold of me that for several days I could not stop myself from saying it over all the time. A week afterward I began the vine harvest I recited the Our Father in Greek every day before work, and I repeated it very often in the vineyard.

Since that time I have made a practice of saying it through once each morning with absolute attention. If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention. Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse.

The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition.  …

Sometimes … during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is present with me in person, his presence is infinitely real, moving, clear … (37/38)

This is the cultivation of a habit of prayer that becomes deeply formative of the human person. It takes self-control – that fruit of the Spirit (perhaps the most important one). Without such self-control, we become open to manipulation – or so James Williams says. And he should know.

Williams and Crawford both describe how the digital age is shaping our attention to such a degree that the self becomes fragmented, and forgets how to attend to anything with deep concentration.  We become habitually distracted away from the deeper desires for human fulfilment and wholeness in our one wild and precious life. The human self ends up all over the place, unable to sustain attention for any length of time, and ultimately unable to grow as human persons.

Williams and Crawford regret the loss of religious practice and habits that cultivate the ability to attend. Those religious practices go right back. St Paul struggled with the tension between attention and distraction. Romans chapter 7:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

St Augustine expressed how hard it was to attend, fully and wholeheartedly, when he prayed. How distracted he was by the concerns of the ‘flesh’, sarx, – the word Paul used. The flesh demands satisfaction of its wants, lusts, its greed and envy, and distracts us into sin.

God’s attention is very different, says Augustine.

Unlike us, He does not look ahead to the future, see the present before him, and look back to the past. Rather he sees events in another way, far and profoundly different from any experience that is familiar to our minds. For he does not variably turn his attention from one thing to another. Hence all events in time, events that wil be and are not yet  and those that are now, being present, and those that have passed and are no more, all of them are apprehended by him in a motionless and everlasting present moment … Nor does it make any difference whether he looks at them from present, past or future, since his knowledge, unlike ours, of the three kinds of time, present, past and future, does not change as time changes … Neither does [God’s] attention stray from one subject to another … De Civitate Dei, 11:21

All time, things and events are present to God’s all-loving, comprehensive gaze.

Clavier wants us to counter the sophisticated rhetoric of the marketplace with a deeper rhetoric that goes to the heart of our desire and delight: He writes

So according to Augustine, delight goes right to the heart of our sense of freedom and our identity. We feel most free and most ourselves when we get to do whatever most delights us. … for the most part, we don’t choose the delights that shape our sense of freedom (39).

True delight,

For Augustine, delight’s source is God himself. … a quality that arises from the shared love of the Trinity, the ‘inexpressible embrace.’ (On The Trinity, 6.12). (Clavier 69/70)

Here is real delight. The only way to overcome the power of the marketplace.

Clavier is right when he says it begins with us, what we give our attention to. Our prayer life. He commends that the faithful person attend to God, as Simone Weil did, with as pure an attention as possible. We know how difficult this is, to free ourselves of the distractions that preoccupy us. We seek – my soul in stillness waits – to gaze on God, and by grace to share, if only in some small part, in the gaze of God on the world around, on our neighbour, particularly with compassion on those who are afflicted. When we worship, we attend to God, lost in wonder, trying to forget ourselves in God’s loving attention that redeems us. We seek to be transformed by the gaze of God’s redemptive love.

Simone Weil argues that our souls would much rather do anything than attend to God in prayer. We actively seek to be distracted. It is a human propensity. Lead us not into temptation. Lead us not into distraction.

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (ch.7: 14-20)

Christians through the ages have prayed, as St Paul did, for grace to begin the prayer. He knew that prayer only happens with the necessary intervention of grace. God’s grace is required to break the human vicious circle of an attention distracted away from God.

As Paul wrote to the Romans, he begins with the need for the Holy Spirit to break into the all-too-human distractions that so easily control us.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans, Chapter 8, 26-27)

It is only by asking for the Spirit to intercede that the human person can begin to attend to God, and find freedom from the distractions of the world, the flesh and the devil. We need to do it again and again, though. For Clavier is right when he says this of the power of the ubiquitous marketplace which seeks to seduce us back in every waking moment:

And even if we choose not to shop, we must make that choice repeatedly – we’re like alcoholics trapped in a distillery choosing not to accept the constant offer to enjoy a drink. (53)

Grace is necessary to attend in prayer to the delight that God gives. Then, not only do we find freedom; there is also transformation.

The tension between attention and distraction offers a frame for sinfulness and redemption. In so far as we are distracted, we slide away from God’s love; we lose ourselves – ultimately kill ourselves – in any number of tempting sins.

David Marno argues that this tension is at the heart of John Donne’s devotional poetry. In his book Death Be Not Proud, he explores how Donne worked sonnets to take us from distraction to attention, from sinfulness to redemption.

Donne uses the structure and language of the poem to gather the attention of the reader. When we are engaged in faithful prayer, we receive God’s grace with thankfulness for the gift of redemption. Instead of the distractions of sarx – the body with its cravings and appetites – the poem enables a human, incarnate attention to grow in a grace that incorporates distraction, just as God took on the frailties and death of human flesh in Christ.  As we arrive at the end of the poem, we are able to assert ‘Death, thou shalt die!’ – and as we do so, we affirm the reality of the Resurrection. Eternal life is ours, here and now.

John Donne’s holy sonnets were a deliberate exercise in holy attention. As we attend to the sonnet, our attention becomes holy, and we grow more deeply into the knowledge of faith, transformed to become more Christlike. We grow in godliness.

Simone Weil describes the same process when she encountered George Herbert’s poem Love.

[a young English Catholic] told me of the existence of those English poets of the 17C who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem … called Love. I learnt it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me. (35)

We have all the resources we need, within our Christian tradition, to enable us to pray in a way that transforms us. Those resources are prayers or biblical passages, creeds, psalms, or hymns we know off by heart, or particular art that enables us to gaze with a holy attention, or poetry. Or music – Bach’s Cantatas, perhaps. We will each have our own icons that capture and shape our attention towards God.

The ability to gather attention becomes, as Williams and Crawford suggest, a political and moral imperative in a world that now turns on an attention economy. How can those traditional practices of our Christian heritage enable humanity to find itself in its ability to ignore distraction and attend to God, with a holy attention?

One way is to celebrate the craft of preaching. Preaching commands attention at the heart of worship. With phones switched off, and the intention to worship God, the sermon can gather those present into a greater awareness of God’s grace transforming their lives. If we preach, we have a God-given opportunity to enable listeners to encounter Jesus Christ, away from the distraction of wandering thought and restless sense. The Word, heard and preached, should, hopefully, stir a response of thanksgiving, an awareness of the deeper reality of God’s gifts, including the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Together, Word and Sacrament, the worshipper becomes a member of a Body that is caught up into God’s grace and able to withstand the forces and pressures that fragment and atomise the human self today.

This is to understand how fragments are gathered, like grain once scattered in the fields and grapes once dispersed on the hillside. It is to pray that ancient prayer that the whole Church be gathered from the corners of the earth into God’s kingdom. It is to show a way for fragmented selves to find wholeness instead of all that distracts us in life. The Church gathers the fragments  as morsels collected into twelve baskets after the feeding of the five thousand. For though we are many, we are one body, sharing the one bread. We are reminded of the profound reality that humanity finds its fulfilment in the wholeness of God. As we attend to God, we find our place within God’s desires and purposes for us to be together in Christ’s presence.

How might we – priests and ministers – enable attention to be gathered and focused on God, bringing alive the Gospel of redemption, offered for all time by Christ’s life and death?

It is to offer something different to the clickbait that commodifies our attention and seduces our intention, our very selves, in today’s market economy. It is to gaze on the living Christ, crucified and risen, and attend to the transformative power of the love of God in each of us, in the Church and the world. God claims our attention as we contemplate the promise of eternal, abundant life, instead of becoming distracted away and dissipated in a shallow morass of trivial and false gratifications.

As we contemplate God, we grow in godliness. We are transformed. The impact isn’t just individual. The whole of society is involved. James Williams writes, after he realised what the impact of the digital economy was:

I knew this wasn’t just about me – my deep distractions, my frustrated goals. But when most people in society use your product, you aren’t just designing users; you’re designing society. But if all of society were to become as distracted in this new, deep way as I was starting to feel, what would that mean? What would be the implications for our shared interests, our common purposes, our collective identities, our politics? (2018, p.10)

The broader consequences for society of a human attention that commodified to distraction, are becoming apparent. Williams warns that ‘[F]uture generations will judge us not only for our stewardship of the outer environment, but of the inner environment as well’ (2018, p.127).

There is a role here for the Church to offer a different way of being human in society. The place to start is our own holy attention. Perhaps there’s no better way than by a ministry that is noted for its godliness, its holy attention to God.


Mark Clavier: (2019) On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight,  London and New York, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019

Matthew Crawford, (2015) The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. London: Penguin Random House.

Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen (2017) The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, MIT

Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (including the Preface, Book I & VIII) Ed. Arther Stephen McGrade, Cambridge University Press, 1989

Jaron Lanier Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now Penguin 2018

David Marno (2016) Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention Chicago University Press.

Natasha Dow Schüll, (2014) Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Princeton University Press.

Simone Weil (1951)  Waiting on God [in French, 1950] trans. Emma Craufurd, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

James Williams, (2018) Stand Out Of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Burke, not Rousseau

Lord Patten of Barnes – Chris Patten – was speaking about the inevitable national obsession yesterday (Sunday) on Radio Four. He talked a lot of sense – advising the Prime Minister not to attack Tony Blair (who also talked a lot of sense on Radio Four on Friday morning), but rather to consult with all the past prime ministers, and current leaders of all the other parties about what to do to get us out of this Brexit mess. He was in favour of delaying it all, and recognised that a second referendum was gaining traction. My ears pricked up when he said that May needed to attend to Burke, not Rousseau – and of course, anyone who has read my Why Rousseau Was Wrong (Bloomsbury, 2013) will know what he meant.

Rousseau, in The Social Contract, outlined his conviction that in the pure state of nature, human individuals are free and equal. It is only because of the ties and responsibilities of society that Rousseau can write ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’. Rousseau describes, to dismiss, different sorts of societies including those that depend on force, and those where the citizens are subjects. Rousseau himself commends the society where each equal individual gives their sovereignty to the community, in an original contract which forms the body politic. This social pact means that each member of the body politic remains sovereign because each is an equal, giving equally. Rousseau describes it thus:

Since each man gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one; and since there is no  associate over whom he does not gain the same rights as others gain over him, each man recovers the equivalent of everything he loses, and in the bargain he acquires more power to preserve what he has. (Rousseau, The Social Contract, p. 61.)

In this mutual contract a republic is created, which has ‘its unity, its common ego, its life and its will’. The state exercises sovereignty, which remains the possession of each citizen, on behalf of the people by the people.

The appeal of this is attractive, and one can see how influential these words were to those who struggled under absolute monarchy, particularly in France as the 18th century drew to its close. Rousseau was particularly anxious to avoid the condition of slave, forever under the despotic rule of a tyrant, and to locate sovereign power with the people themselves, as equal and free citizens, coming together to form society as a mutual collective. The sovereign power, because it belonged to everyone, could not go against, or hurt, the people.  And each individual will not want to go against the common cause, or General Will, as Rousseau called it. If an individual did want to exercise such independence, Rousseau said – that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free . . .

Forced to be free? The cracks in this benign view of politics start to emerge.

And commentators have struggled since, as well, with how the General Will of the body politic is to be discerned. It is inalienable, and indivisible, and always rightful, but ‘it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally right’. Ibid., p. 72. Rousseau found he needed to introduce another character onto the scene: the lawgiver. He also proposed the need for an intermediary body, the government.  When the individual no longer feels attuned to the General Will, then the government has the task of ‘forcing an individual or a group to comply with a sovereign ruling’. Ibid., p. 91.

We have here, then, an understanding of society where individuals contract together and, as they do so, sovereignty is pooled willingly by each, although each still retains that sovereignty. The General Will is created from the wills of each citizen. Government comes into being, and the lawgiver is introduced to ensure the smooth running of the affairs of state. If, however, any individual dissents, they can be forced, for their own good, to comply.

It’s an idea of society that commends itself by its very simplicity. To be fair, Rousseau always thought it should be applied to small communities. But when it came to be adopted by the Jacobins who led the French Revolution, all sorts of flaws – dangerous flaws – came to light.

Burke was the first to identify them.

Burke saw through Rousseau. They probably met briefly in London in 1766, shortly after Rousseau’s arrival there in the company of David Hume (before Rousseau wrote spitefully to Hume, breaking the friendship). Burke did not take to him.

Burke had independence of mind and he championed the oppressed of his day against his own self-interest. For example, he unearthed far-reaching and terrible abuses of the Indian people by the East India Company, under the leadership of the Governor General, Warren Hastings. Burke argued that Warren Hastings should be impeached for his contempt for the lives of the Indian people, and so began one of the most prolonged legal proceedings of history, lasting from 1788 to 1794. In the end Hastings was acquitted (because there was no law upon which he could be convicted), but Burke’s campaign marked the end of the hegemony of the company that had exploited the people of India over decades. Burke set a precedent for probity in public life. He showed himself to be generous to a fault with others. He fought for those who suffered, like the Irish Catholics. He stood by the principle of doing the right thing, often to his own cost.

He lost his seat as an MP for Bristol because he insisted that he was not the  delegate of the constituents, but their representative.

That principle and that courage it would be good to see in more of our MPs today.

Burke looked over the water to France, as Revolution was underway, and penned his Reflections on the Revolution in France in1790, offering a clear defense of British constitutional government against what he saw. (What would he see today, as Macron concedes to the Gilets Jaunes?)

In defense of British political life he commends the importance of a representative democracy which ensures a system of government which, through checks and balances, prevents the arbitrary exercise of power – whether by monarch or mob.

Why is this important today? Because there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of how a representative democracy like ours works, and what its strengths are. The most salient is that once elected, Members of Parliament are trusted to use their judgement to serve the best interests of the nation, as representatives, not delegates. That means they are not to be swayed by fear – of losing their seats, or vilification on social media.

Representative democracy guards well against the exercise of arbitrary power, whether held by an absolute monarch or a dictator, or, as happened in France, the arbitrary power of  direct democracy, Lord Demos, as Burke called it.

Burke argued that the Magna Carta, which he called ‘our oldest reformation’, had started the process, when the monarch, King John, had to accept the authority of the barons. In Burke’s time this had evolved, and the strength of the British system lies then, as now, in the checks and balances that prevent arbitrary power from taking hold in a way he observed in France.

The House of Lords, for instance, is not morally competent to dissolve the House of Commons; no, nor even to dissolve itself, or to abdicate, if it would, its portion in the legislature of the kingdom. Though a king may abdicate for his own person, he cannot abdicate for the monarchy. By as strong, or by a stronger reason, the House of Commons cannot renounce its share of authority. The engagement and pact of society, which generally goes by the name of the constitution, forbids such invasion and such surrender. The constituent parts of a state are obliged to hold their public service with each other, and with all those who derive any serious interest under their engagements, as much as the whole state is bound to keep its faith with separate communities. Otherwise competence and powers would soon be confounded, and no law be left but the will of a prevailing force. (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, J. M. Dent, London, 1910 edition, p. 19.)

Direct democracy is not the only source of authority. Burke  thought that the institutions of society are fundamental to enable individuals to flourish and to protect their freedoms. He did not hold that direct democracy delivered the best kind of society. The trend in Britain today is taking us towards an idea of democracy that is closer to Rousseau’s than Burke’s, and we should be cautious, I believe, of losing confidence in the traditions of constitutional, representative governance that have offered stability and continuity as political and civil institutions have evolved over centuries.

The wisest thing I’ve heard this week – and thank heavens there is now a much greater appreciation of the difference between direct and representative democracy – was the commentator who said the best route would be for the House of Commons to take responsibility to vote as each Member really judged to be right (and we all know most were Remainers), for the sake of the nation’s best interest. But as they are unlikely to take that responsibility seriously, we need to consult again with the Will of the people to confirm it has not changed since 2016.

Instead of a narrative of ‘betrayal’ – which is SO unhelpful – a second referendum can be understood as not turning over the first, but rather confirming it … or expressing a different ‘Will’ now everyone has had a chance to explore the consequences of Brexit.

A second referendum would be advisory, not mandatory, as the only authority lies with our duly elected members of Parliament, as Burke so clearly understood.

Do we really want, as a nation, to move further towards democracy a là Rousseau? Now is the opportunity to renew the representative democracy, that Burke was so instrumental in establishing, that protests us against arbitrary power, the tyranny of the Will of the People.

Being English?

I was born in Australia. An enduring trope as I grew up was that of the “Pommy Bastard”. There was a real antipathy to all things English – to the way the English assumed too much of their place in the world. That colonial mindset that unconsciously expressed innate superiority.

We moved to England when I was seven. I learned a valuable lesson about my new home: I saw how straightforward it was to be English. The people I met, the friends I played with – simply knew their place in the world.

Somehow, though, I could never quite assume that mantle. I was always from somewhere else.

When I went to University in Scotland the antipathy was there too. Then it was useful to have been born in Australia. I wasn’t a Sassanach; nor was I a ‘Yah’ – one of those Oxbridge failures who came to St Andrews as the next best University in the (upper) middle class pecking order. They stuck together, with their own social circles, that seemed so arrogant compared with the disparaged Wee Marys and Wee Alistairs, who, after highers, went through university working hard within their own very different culture.

In those days, ‘England’ was sure of itself; it didn’t have to agonise about national identity. Nor did it have to worry about how it was perceived in the world. You just knew, if you had a British passport, the world was your oyster. As Jeremy Paxman says

Being English used to be so easy. They were once the most easily identified peoples on earth, recognized by their language, their manners, their clothes and the fact they drank tea by the bucketload. (The English: A Portrait of a People, 1999)

The worry started, though, when the other nations of the UK began to pull away, seeking devolution. It was then that a puzzlement set in: why don’t they want to belong to us any more? What does it mean to be British? That nice, easy federation of the English, the Scots, the Welsh and yes, well, the Irish, became seriously problematic. ‘The British Isles’ began to fall apart.

The lack of clarity about what we were had worked; didn’t any more. We had been a cake of different ingredients, with the English at the heart of the United Kingdom, always been rather understated, even empty of content. Perhaps the butter that melted away. It was something you apologised for; no need to boast – because, of course, everyone just knows what it means to be English. Don’t they?

It’s gone, pretty much. To be ‘English’, now, is to be shrouded in a cloud of confusion. It’s to be uneasy in your own skin, unfamiliar and uncertain about how to behave, unsure how to expect others will react. So the behaviour can be bad; the expectation, arrogant.

What’s changed? Well, no longer is the Commonwealth a significant place to belong. When we joined the EU, the links were severed – often rather brutally – with ‘the colonies’, who had to look elsewhere to develop new markets, different independent economies.

We have an opportunity to learn to be English in a different way.

The Brexiteer imaginary thinks those Commonwealth links can be re-established; that the benefits of an Empire long gone can be recaptured. I don’t think so. Why should they want us? And the last 40 years of belonging (sort of) in Europe has shifted things. We can’t go back. Ireland, Scotland know this. They feel European; know the value of being in Union. What is it about the English that wants to pull away?

It’s interesting how Edmund Burke is so often claimed by the Brexit Camp. If you read Daniel Hannan, for instance, Burke is used to support the Brexiteer passion to live again an Englishness that is beyond dispute. Hannan tells how he was born in Peru, and one of his first memories was the threat of eviction from his family farm, with no hope of protection by the state. He has seen Englishness from the outside, and knows what he likes.

Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society. They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words. The fact that those ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin. (How We Invented Freedom, 2013: 10)

Edmund Burke was significant in the development of this polity that Hannan values so much (and so do I). Hannan argues, using Burke’s attitude to the American Revolution as evidence (Burke thought the colonies couldn’t be ruled over such distance) that Burke would now want the UK to withdraw from the EU, to regain the sovereignty so hard won, so exceptional.

I don’t agree. Burke, today, would argue with a political imagination for increased global government, not diminished. He would argue that being English, being British, takes us further into Europe, to get the governance right, because there are global issues that require global politics. Climate Change – Burke would have been a leading light at Paris in December 2015. Terrorism. Developing new economics, with moral content, now that neo-liberalism is so defunct – just as he waged legal battle against Warren Hastings for his extreme, aggressively commercial exploitation of India.

Leading Brexiteers propound aspects of ‘Englishness’ that take us in a nativist direction, appealing to populist sentiments that are easily stirred when a nation is uncertain. The latest Guardian series on Populism draws on Cas Mudde’s definition:

What is populism?

Populists tend to frame politics as a battle between the virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses and a nefarious or corrupt elite – and insist that the general will of the people must always triumph. The Guardian is adopting the classic definition of populism proposed by political scientist Cas Mudde. Populism, he says, is often combined with a “host” ideology, which can either be on the left or right.

A binary outlook will dominate within populism: defining something by what it isn’t. The conflict between elite and the will of the people is one aspect; nativism is another.

The will of the people, betrayed by the established elite. The English native, swamped by others who come in their hordes to  threaten the very idea of Englishness. Nativism identifies the stranger in our midst, and declares she or he doesn’t belong. Nativism judges who is on the inside of community; who is out. To call a nativist “racist” doesn’t really work – it simply prevents the nativist from speaking, and renders her resentful. Much better, surely, to engage, and listen. To hear that resentment into words and then show the rich heritage of kindness and trust that the confident English of the past exhibited as the expression of a deep and open hearted hospitality. Which made yesterday’s strangers today’s natives.

Contemporary populism expresses how hard it is to know how to belong anymore – and so appeals to left and right. Party politics collapse.

A new imaginary is required – a re-romanticising of Englishness that brings out the best of British. Yes, the list Hannan supplies – but more. A sense of irony and self-deprecation when there is conflict and division; a pragmatic approach to seemingly unsolvable problems; the ability to compromise. Other things too. Where Left and Right are transcended into the search for global governance to tackle global issues.

What would it be to re-romanticise Englishness? Withdrawing from Europe won’t do it; splendid isolation has been tried before, and doesn’t work. Born in Australia, I’ve come to value the following

  • The countryside, now so threatened – so in need of global solutions to pollution, decreasing biodiversity, climate change
  • The literary and artistic and musical traditions – the wit, and depth of the moral and emotional knowledge
  • Our governance, that puts the rule of a rich concept of natural law at its heart – so valuable in today’s world, where arbitrary power is increasingly exercised
  • A refusal to be tribal or engage in identity politics
  • An openness to the Other, so we are not defined by our self understanding, but always transcend it into something greater and more generous
  • Doing things for their own sake – like education, friendship – and so resisting the commodification and instrumentalisation of life
  • Kindness, fairness, the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes in all humility (loving kindness, doing justice and walking humbly with God)
  • Finding national identity as English as part of something bigger, not over against Others
  • Being European and bringing our common European culture to the world.

The Welsh, the Scottish, the Irish have a strong romantic sense of national selfhood. What might it be to find a common English culture that draws the English together into a cohesive core at the heart of a renaissance of a re-united Kingdom? One that belongs firmly with our European neighbours, looking outward from Europe to the world?

Divided and Torn Apart by the Ravages of Brexit

Saturday 17 November 2018

On Thursday Theresa May published her draft Withdrawal Agreement, kindling a day of turmoil.

Will she survive? Will this government survive?

Her best option to survive is to agree to another referendum, with three options:

  • Her ‘deal’
  • No deal, hard Brexit
  • Remain within the EU

When David Cameron declared a referendum for June 2016, he had every expectation that it would be a no-brainer, and the nation would solidly vote remain.

The danger of referendum democracy is it assumes ‘the Will of the People’ is where power lies. The notion of ‘the Will of the People’ goes back to social contract theory, and particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas that all government is exercised directly as an expression of the General Will of the people. That sort of direct democracy doesn’t work, though, for large and complex nations such as the UK. (Indeed, he didn’t write The Social Contract with large, complex nations in mind, but rather small, face-to-face communities where mutual accountability was a reality. Even then, he had to invent the figure of the ‘Governor’ to oversee processes and keep in line those who dissented.)

In large and complex nations, something more sophisticated is required: democracy that votes in a representative government.

The development of constitutional, representative democracy in this nation has long and interesting roots, which stretch back to Edmund Burke, who was its finest architect. He, in turn, owed a debt to Richard Hooker who argued in Book I of his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that the consent of the people is required for government, but this can be held indirectly by others. (The best brief introduction to this aspect of Hooker is in Paul Avis’ book Beyond the Reformation? (2008: 142ff; or read book I of his Laws.)

In Burke’s hands, this meant that the Member of Parliament, who was elected by the people of his (and now her) constitutency, held authority by consent, not as a delegate, but rather as a representative. What’s the difference? Delegates vote in parliament the way the electors require and tell them to. A representative is elected to use their judgement, and vote according to their reason and conscience. Edmund Burke lost his seat as MP for Bristol over this issue – principled person that he was. In doing so, he established the precedent that our UK MPs are representatives, rather than delegates.

Unfortunately, since the Referendum of 2016, most MPs (Ken Clarke excepted)  have acted as delegates, either through fear of losing their seats, or through a misguided understanding of their own authority. So we have a elected parliament whose members are largely ‘remain’ and yet who trot out the mantra of respect for the Will of the People, as if the referendum result were a direct and unambiguous mandate and executive decision.

Theresa May and her colleagues have done the best job possible to deliver under the terms she laid out for herself, given the constraints (Northern Ireland border, EU negotiators, etc), the potential disasters of crashing out, the pressure of ideologues, and the ineffective opposition. She has done her best to serve the Will of the People. No one could have done better. She has held her ground with commendable dignity and integrity.

She would strengthen her personal position by accepting the need for a second referendum to test her withdrawal agreement.

No one should fear or refuse a second referendum. If it goes Leave again, Brexiteers would prove they were right in their initial gut-driven vote.  If another referendum confirmed the Brexit impulse, I for one would accept it – because now, at least, the Will of the People has had two years of proper opportunity to understand what Brexit would mean and the divisive, disastrous consequences. If the nation still votes Leave, then remainers really do need to sit up and accept that Leave is where we’re going, with all the damage to our nation entailed, in a world where old orders are changing in frightening ways (climate change, Russia, China, the US). If, now it knows what it voted for, the Will of the People takes the opportunity to change its mind, then at least the nation could be confident in the result. All the polls suggest that the mood of the nation has shifted decisively towards Remain. So what exactly is the Will of the People now? Perhaps it isn’t written in stone, as so often implied …

Cameron was fool-hardy and thoughtless to call the referendum in the first place (if for understandable reasons, like fulfilling his promise). Having done so, however, the result (either way) should never have been given executive status.

It should have been taken as a wake-up call that the state of the nation is deeply divided on some crucial questions like immigration and border controls, European legislative systems, agricultural and fishing agreements (and any number of fears and anxieties that were not honoured by a liberal political class that was out of touch). It might have been the opportunity to make helpful progress, working together as a nation that took this opportunity to re-assess what it means to be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish – British in a United Kingdom in a world of change, where pressing issues, such as climate change and terrorism, require more global governance, not less.

Immediately after the Referendum in 2016 MPs should have had more confidence in their own authority as elected by the people within a representative democracy. They should have taken courage in their judgement that staying in (and arguing for reform on key issues) was best for the nation, and worked with a clear understanding of their representative, rather than delegate, status. The Will of the People is always going to be confused and divided, and fickle – that’s why we need MPs to make informed and courageous judgements for us.

Theresa May’s most courageous act, now, would be to call for a second referendum.

And then to pass a law making ‘referenda’ illegal, or at least ever only advisory.

Solvitur Ambulando

The 16th September is the day the church celebrates St Ninian.

There’s a wall picture of him in St Michael’s Church.


St Bede writes this in Chapter 4 of his Ecclesiastical History:

In 565AD when Justin the younger, the successor of Justinian, ruled the Roman empire, there came to Britain a renowned priest and abbot, a true monk by habit and by life, whose name was Columba. He came to preach the word of God in the kingdoms of the northern Picts, who are separated from the southern parts by steep and rugged mountains. It is said that the southern Picts, who live on this side of those mountains, had long before forsaken the errors of idolatry and embraced the truth, by the preaching of Ninian, a most revered and holy man of the British nation, who had received orthodox teaching at Rome, in the faith and mysteries of the truth. His episcopal see is famous for its church dedicated to St Martin the bishop, where he and many other saints are buried; it is now held by the English. The place belongs to the kingdom of Bernicia, and is generally called the White House [Whithorn], because Ninian built a church of stone there which was not usual among the Britons.

Ninian was probably born about 360 in Galloway and as Bede says, he was educated in Rome. Tradition holds that Pope Damasus trained him, and after he died, his successor, St Siricus consecrated St Ninian as Bishop and commissioned him to return to Britain. As he travelled back through France he visited Marmoutiers, having heard of the great work being done by St Martin de Tours (316-397). Ninian stayed at the abbey and became friends with St Martin, from whom he absorbed the teaching of the desert fathers, and particularly St Antony. When he returned to Scotland at the beginning of the 5C he was accompanied by masons from France who helped him build his church. Instead of the usual wooden structure, Ninian built a stone building, which was whitewashed and named Candida Casa. Recent archaeological excavations have found remnants of a white plastered wall which could possibly be from the first church and community at what is now called Whithorn. This was just the time of the withdrawal in 410 of the three Roman legions, taken to defend the Rhine border – the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire and its cultural hegemony in Britain. It is also the time when St Augustine of Hippo was living and writing. There’s not very much about Ninian, apart from the passage from Bede above, and also a biography of him written by Aelred in the 12C, and a Life by the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, written in 1639, where he claimed that Ninian died on 16 September 432.

The remains at Whithorn give evidence that Ninian was a key figure in the first establishment of Christianity in these regions. Butler, in his Lives of the Saints tells us that ‘from it St Ninian and his monks set out not only to preach to the Britons of the neighbourhood but also to the Picts of the former Roman province of Valentia; they may even have penetrated to the northern Picts beyond the Grampians. The mission received an impetus from Ninian’s cure of the blindness and subsequent conversion of a local chieftain. The Britons and Picts were baptised in large numbers and Ninian consecrated bishops to minister to them.  Through the foundation of Whithorn, St Ninian’s effect on Celtic Christianity was considerable … he paved the way for St Columba and St Kentigern.’

Here’s a map of churches dedicated to St Ninian, all through Scotland.


It didn’t look like he came down into Cumbria, but I wonder if, subsequently, Christian folk here made their way to his shrine.

As I look across the Solway Firth to Galloway, I’m keen to make pilgrimage to Whithorn. I’ve never been. I also wonder whether there was any pilgrimage traditions around this coast, taking in the many crosses that pepper the map from Black Combe to Bootle, to Waberthwaite, to Ravenglass (an ancient Roman port), to Irton, then Shelagh’s wonderful cross at Gosforth, Egremont, St Bees, Whitehaven, Workington, and Maryport. Perhaps from the port dedicated to St Mary they crossed to Whithorn to venerate St Ninian. Who knows? Whithorn is tantalizingly close, across the Solway. Here’s the sunset over where it is, taken as we drove, one time, back from Loweswater.


There’s a story about the monks of the religious community that was originally where St Michael’s Church is today, which had been founded by Cuthbert from Lindisfarne.  One time the monks attempted to cross to Ireland, but they met with disaster as a gale blew up, and the Lindisfarne Gospels they were carrying were lost overboard. The monks were forced back to shore. Tradition says that the Gospels, which were probably inside a wooden box, were discovered water-stained but safe in the sea near Ninian’s Candida Casa at Whithorn.

Making pilgrimage. Making tracks and paths. Walking.

Walking is something to write about these days. Lots of books written about it.


I love the thought of Solvitur Ambulando – “It is solved by walking.”

Perhaps first coined when Diogenes walked out on Zeno, as the latter contemplated the philosophical problem of the reality of motion, thus proving that it is indeed solved by walking. Then St Augustine of Hippo is meant to have written about it – which has prompted me to read The Confessions again, in the hope of finding where (does anyone know?)

Soren Kierkegaard wrote somewhere (and quoted by Ian Bradley in his book Pilgrimage, p. 75)

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well being and walk away every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. If one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right. 

Walking – like narrowboating – takes you along at three miles an hour. Slow enough to absorb our environment, fast enough to get us somewhere, eventually. With attention to your horizons, and attention to your feet, it holds together the right and left hemisphere and makes us whole.

16 September also happens to be my birthday. After lunch with Tilda and Jonty, we walked from Ravenglass along the estuary – not far, as Peter and I needed to be back for evensong. We walked.


Jonty sailed.


The light was wonderful.

The path took us through the marshes and onto the pebbles and mud.

There’s a great passage from the prophecy of Isaiah that ends with the words:

And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ Isaiah 30: 8-21

This is the way, walk in it.

We are path-makers. It doesn’t take long to create a path. It’s been formed by use; by folk walking it regularly, tracing the footprints of others. I give thanks for paths, and for those who create them. For the fact that they come and go, over the terrain, appearing and disappearing over time as people need them. A gift for all of us, to guide our feet.  Using a path is a communal activity. Of course, we could all branch out and forge our own way over the ground. And sometimes we have to – the first along a path will have done this – whether around a field on the outskirts of a town, or over a hill, or a mountain, or one of the long, old paths that criss-cross our land – the Ickneild Way, the Coast to Coast, the Cumbrian Way. Robert MacFarlane’s book The Old Ways explores ancient paths over land and sea. A fascinating account of how humans interact with their natural environment, marking, and being shaped, by the land.  For once a path is there, we will naturally follow it, pleased to be spared the trouble of treading down nettles and docks, avoiding trees and brambles. Glad that we don’t need to concentrate completely on where our next footstep will be, but able to look up, and enjoy the scenery, or study the weather. This is the way. Walk in it. We have others to thank, and then we also contribute to the making of a path, its history.

It’s a powerful metaphor for life: that our individual journeys from birth to death are shaped by others; that we follow in the footsteps of others. Yes, occasionally we will branch out, we must branch out, and cross unmarked territory; but on the whole we tread well-worn paths. One of those who branched out was the founder of our faith, our Lord Jesus Christ, who showed us a new way to understand God, and God’s love for us, forgiving and reconciling us. It’s no accident that Jesus said of himself that he is the way, the truth and the life, for he was encouraging his followers to take the way, to follow the path that he himself laid out. A path, a way that leads to eternal life, by way of the cross. As we make our way along that road, we listen to the word which guides us, which helps us to see when we deviate, to the right, or to the left.

The world can seem a wilderness at times. A place of confusing cul-de-sacs and empty promises. We can struggle to find our way through life, and find it difficult to encourage others, particularly young people, to live fruitful and meaningful lives. This is the way; walk in it. The way of our lives, from birth to death. Accompanied by the Holy Spirit, we follow the way, the truth and the life, Jesus Christ. Christ who guides us from God, to God.

Peter and I did a glorious walk on Saturday morning from Rydal Hall, along the Old Coffin Road along Rydal Water until we were above Grasmere, and then up Loughrigg Fell.

Stunning views. Peter said this was one of William Wordsworth’s favourite spots.


as he walked up from Rydal Mount, where he lived from 1813 to his death in 1850.

We climbed above Grasmere


and saw Windermere from the top of Loughrigg Fell.


One of the few swallows still with us swooped below, among the meadow pipits, and wheatears.

On our way down we explored the old slate mine


We passed a tree stump that had been covered in coins – why?


More fungi


and conkers


and oak leaves

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… Autumn is here.

I’d been there to teach the evening before – indeed, I think the first time the revised and expanded Theological Reflection: Methods book has had an airing, pre-publication!

The grounds have a wonderful little chapel where Peter and I said morning prayer on Saturday, with a waterfall through the window


– captured in oils on the dining room wall.


An angel, too,


by Shawn Williamson, painted here by Josefina de Vasconcellos in 1987, with whom he collaborated as assistant in Ambleside. The stone for the angel comes from York Minster, and was made by Williamson in 2007-2009.


Rydal Hall looked after us well.


Back to this coast which stretches, in my mind, from Black Combe, near Millom, to Workington.

It’s Norman Nicholson country, caught between the mountains and the sea. More about him in another blog to follow.

One winter Peter and I did the same walk up Black Combe on two consecutive days, on 10 and 11 January 2013. We were interested in whether we would see the same things. I wrote a pair of poems to describe what we experienced.

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Here’s the first, dated 11 January 2013

We walked Black Combe from Whitbeck yesterday.
Above the road, a newish path through bramble
And bracken to Whicham where Wainwright’s path,
The carpet slipper one, begins. Long rambled,
Foot trod, it takes you to the top. Or not quite;
Bypassing the trig point in haste to be gone down
Again, or off to those distant hills; the Gable, Old Man,
Esk Hause, Scafell Pike. It pays off, this relentless route.
Or did for us. Clear above the haar that up the Valley came
The sea to west, the mountains east, a flock of golden
Plovers and silence like you never heard before.
Christmas cake at that familiar cairn
And before we got too cold we strode, Bootle
Town below, sweeping down on cracking ice
Above the loamy bog until the lovely green velvet
Road, the ancient road, corralled us down
To that distinctive field. Then left. We contoured round
Following the wall over becks and passed the old
Derelict farm that once was grand. A fell cottage.
Hollies, old thorns, stoved-in dinghy, intriguing;
With its windows and its padlocked door, it seduced
Us. We wondered to whom it belonged. Would they
Sell? But we’ve fantasied like this before.
The Combe from here allows you in now
And then as steep-cut becks sheet their white
Way down and leave one imagining what was
The top, so secret now. Whitbeck Mill, fire embers
Smoking hot. And then a micro-climate; a garden full
Of flowers: unseasonable periwinkle, lily, wallflower,
Cyclamen, all out. Puddles, potholes underfoot, and
Please don’t let your dog foul this lane.
The church, St Mary’s, full of residents who once
Lived in those farms and houses we’ve just passed.
Snowdrops. Churchyard celandine, daffodils a promise.
We walk in faith and knowledge this path today. Wondering
The difference. It traces itself in memory; does it remember
Us? What do we know that can’t be known elsewhere?
We shall walk this route, we said, every day, when we retire.  

And now the second:

The following day we sat in bed and decided
To walk Black Combe again. To retrace our steps
To see if the hill remembered us. Colder, and cloud.
Both in a different mood, we argued; one wanted to take
The high route; the other to follow yesterday’s path.
We did. Resistance, internal, when you know
What’s ahead; anticipating the steep places, forgetting
The joy. We walked in cloud, more slowly; comparing
our tracks, matching our prints. Displaced rocks still
displaced; orange peel freshly dropped. The dog
happier, less timid. My blackthorn stick, old, familiar,
forgotten the day before. Purple leather gloves restricted
my grip causing muscle ache, upper arm. We met two men
as we emerged from the cloud. Glorious, glorious.
White waves of cloud below, we flew above, on
Upward; that steep last pull; and then again the cairn;
The view: big hills like islands in a sea of white.
The last of the Christmas cake and an orange for lunch
And the cloud again. No Bootle; sheep bounding away
In the mist. We drank again at Holegill beck, under the
Sycamore trees, and paused again at that old Fell
Cottage. This time the fantasy stronger. What if? Should
We ask at the farm? At Monk Foss Farm? (We later gather
That no, the Wilsons don’t own it; a hermit, Rigby, once lived there.)
This time we detoured above Whitbeck Mill to discover the pond.
The black hill, tickled lightly, that we’d returned. I’ve seen
It shudder, violently, moodily; stirred by ancient memory.

Perhaps one day I’ll organise a pilgrimage from Black Combe to Whithorn. With Norman Nicholson poetry, and stopping in churches and at crosses along the way, it could be a great event. Arriving at Whithorn for St Ninian’s day. We’d need to charter a boat across from Workington. The seas would need to behave. Or we would need Jesus in the boat, stilling the storm.

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Oxford, Ely, Ponds and Fungi

Peter is in Northumbria, on a mission to the North East, with the Diocese. He was on Lindisfarne last evening, and met with folk and old friends – including Pete, now Bishop of Sheffield. He also fell into conversation with Bishop John Packer, who used to be archdeacon of West Cumberland – at the time of the fire at St Michael’s Church in 1994. Bishop John was wearing a wooden cross – and Peter was thrilled to hear it had been made from wood from the remains of the Church, made by Malcolm Stilwell, a local priest here in Workington. Bishop John says he wears it all the time.


With Peter away, some peace and quiet and the chance to blog, after a while.

He’s not the only one to be off and away. I’m now back in Workington after a jaunt to Oxford for the Maude Royden dinner.

Who was Maude Royden? A devout Anglican all her life, born in 1876, by 1913 she was campaigning for women to be ordained in the Anglican Church, having already helped establish the Church League for Women’s Suffrage in 1909.

After the First World War, campaigning resumed in all seriousness against the Anglican Church’s refusal to consider women’s participation in Church Councils above parish level. Maude argued that given their work as missionaries, women should have an equal voice – and not only that, priesthood was the only thing that would do in the long run.

At William Temple’s suggestion (he was then Rector of St James’ Piccadilly) Maude was appointed to the council of the National Mission of Repentance and Hope, formed of Missioners, men and women, who were to speak to groups to inspire and re-kindle faith. Archbishop Davidson said each bishop should decide how women Missioners should speak. Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, said he would only permit women to speak in church if there were no other suitable place, only while the Mission was taking place, and only to women and girls in the aisle in front of the chancel step.  The Bishop of Chelmsford said he would not sanction women to do even this and the Bishop of London changed his mind and followed suit. This was only a hundred years ago.

Maude continued through her life, campaigning and arguing for women in the priesthood, and today the Maude Royden Club meets on an annual basis, made up of equal members of ordained and lay women, to celebrate her achievement and honour her passion and determination. There’s more about her here and here.

We began with a Eucharist in Corpus Christi College, at which Professor Sarah Foot presided, and over dinner, Sarah told me the story of her faith, and said she’d be delighted if I included it here.

She’d chosen Newnham, Cambridge, to read history, a devout atheist then. She recounted how angry she’d been, when the chaplain accosted her in the corridor, welcoming her by name. He’d learnt all the names of the new students. She found this a real invasion of her privacy – how dare he! She had chosen Newnham because it had no chapel, after all.

Then late one night, she had come back to her room from the library, and gazing out over the garden, she had seen a door, open ajar, with a light shining through. A voice had called to her, ‘Sarah, come home!’ The experience was so profound that she began to explore what it might mean, and found herself at St Ben’et’s Church, where the Francisan monk, the vicar, Brother Tom (whom I remembered from my time at Westcott when I was on placement at St Ben’et’s) – enabled her to discover more.

She told me how much she loved the Frost Prayer that often is used as the post-communion prayer at the end of the Eucharist, with its reference to home.


Sarah now is based at Christ Church, and presided at the Eucharist the following morning, and used the prayer. I think it’s one of the best.

The Cathedral in Oxford is also the rather grand Chapel for Christ Church. Tom Quad looked particularly wonderful in the early September morning sun.


Then as one enters the Cathedral, the light comes through, down the choir and nave, from the East window.


I loved the halos of red in the Lady Chapel,


and the memorial stone to Fridsewide.


There was John Locke as I left, reminding me of the PhD ahead – a key figure, between Richard Hooker and Edmund Burke.


Being in Oxford offers the opportunity to look for books – particularly on Richard Hooker. My host Edmund showed me his library and made some suggestions (as well as kindly lending me the top book) and I headed off for Blackwells and bought the rest.


After a coffee and catch up with Dean Martyn, I admired the pond in the centre of Tom Quad. It’s about the same size as ours


in the Rectory Garden at St Michaels – one of the reasons I haven’t blogged for a while, is the effort that’s gone to creating it! Hopefully, before long, it will rival this. There’s a way to go!


I met Kate Charles, the author, at the Maude Royden club. We talked of Dorothy L Sayers, as I was reading The Nine Tailors on the train journey down.


– largely because, for the Larkrise to Skipton book of the canal journey, I want to use her description of the flooding fen, after the sluice gate gave way. Her Fenchurch St Paul is based on the church in Upwell, near Salter’s Lode, on Well Creek where Viv and passed on our way to Prickwillow at the beginning of May.

Dorothy L Sayers – hard to beat for writing style, for intelligence, for her Lord Peter. Rachel Mann reflects on his post-war experience in Fierce Imaginings.

DLS would have known Maude Royden. The Nine Tailors has Lord Peter supporting the young Hilary Thorpe in her desire to go to Oxford and be a writer – against Hilary’s prejudiced old fool of an uncle.

DLS also gives us a portrait of a parish priest, such as her father was at Bluntisham, near Earith, for a while. How hard he worked to care for the souls of the parish. When she was born, he was headmaster of the Choir School at Christ Church.

The love of campanology runs through the book as the bells chase themselves through changes.


The train from Workington to Carlisle, at the beginning of the six hour journey to Oxford, had come to a stop at Maryport. We were told that there was a broken rail ahead and that the guard would keep us informed.

Opposite me was a woman about my age, reading Five Red Herrings. ‘Where are you off to?’ she asked, as I evidently looked worried at the delay. ‘Oxford,’ I replied. ‘The connections are eight minutes in Carlisle, eleven minutes in Wolverhampton. I’m not sure I’m going to make it.’ There was little slack. The train was stationary for a good half an hour. It became clear I wasn’t going to arrive when I hoped I would. I emailed Edmund, to say I’d be an hour late, if all was well. (It was.)

So we got talking. She was off to Dumfries, to pick up a picture she’d painted, a self-portrait, that had won a competition in an exhibition. We found more and more in common – including friendship with Pete Wilcox and Catherine Fox. She’d read PPE at Oxford, and then done a PhD, and then gone to art school, and now lived near Workington, copy-editing and proof-reading to support her painting. She showed me the picture that had won. It was really good. We exchanged names, mobile numbers and addresses, and delighted in the fact we were both reading DLS. I texted her later to ask if she minded if I blogged about our encounter – ‘Not at all’, came the response.

Her name: Fliss Watts – her website shows how good she is. She’s coming for supper next week.

It’s been a while since the last post. Life has been full – particularly with the work we’ve done on Theological Reflection: Methods. David at SCM is pleased.


Full of Character is at the proof reading stage, and they wanted a photo of me for the back cover.

Frances Ward 20180830_081548

Then, I’ve been to Cambridge for a meeting of the Littlemore Group, to take forward our writing of the next book, on preaching, for Canterbury Press, which Richard Sudworth and I are editing. The publishers would like to launch it at the colloquium on preaching, planned at Christ Church next September.

I stayed in Ely, which gave me the opportunity to hear Choral Evensong in the Lady Chapel. The girls’ choir was stunning in that fantastic acoustic. There was an exhibition of sculpture  which was rather good, I thought.


But, oh, I can’t get on with the Madonna. I really can’t. I’m not sorry the photo is so dark.


The little imp is still there (of course) so I paid my respects – a familiar face from the 1970s.


The Littlemore Group said ‘good bye’ to Sarah Coakley. On her retirement as the Norris Hulse Professor, she had decided to step down from the group too. It was her inspiration, with Sam Wells, that had led to the invitation to a number of theologians to gather in 2005 to Littlemore, to reflect with Archbishop Rowan, on how best to re-capture the imagination of the nation. Pete Wilcox was a member of the group then too. We gave her a copy (4th Edition) of John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent  and an ornate silver spoon, made in the 1870s.

Visiting Ely gave me the chance to catch up with old friends – Louise and Cat from Bury St E, and Philly Jane – who is soon to visit us in Workington. Her mother was a Curwen – the oldest family from hereabouts, who owned Workington Hall.

Workington feels more and more like home. I’ve preached and presided a number of times lately, over the summer. Peter is going down really well, as he does a great baptism, and finds his stride with funerals too.

The pond has emerged – a real labour of love.



And now with a liner, and some water, beginning to fill …


A warm spot for dogs, particularly our Cleo, now formally adopted as ours …




There’s me, in the background, lugging rocks and stones around.

We’ve planted it around, so hopefully by next spring it will explode into life. There’s a water lily too, which should take off next year.


We’ve continued to walk – including old favourites, such as along the Duddon River,


from Seathwaite, to the Airman’s bridge, under Wallowbarrow Crag


where traditionally, we take pictures of our dogs …

Here’s Phoebe, from years ago


Cleo now. She wouldn’t sit and stay, so you’ve got me too …


and Cora, Tilda and Al’s springer spaniel, who is much more obedient.


Peter, Hugh, Tilda and I walked to the stepping stones, submerged in the flow


to the watersmeet, where the Seathwaite Burn joins the Duddon.


Had Jonty been with us, he would have thrown himself in. He always does, what ever the season.


The path diverged. Guess which we took.


This walk was punctuated with the most wonderful fungi. Peter knew them better than I, but as he’s in Northumbria, I can’t name them, I’m afraid …





and beauty of beauties


Today, I’m going to concentrate on the book from the Larkrise to Skipton blogs. A day of writing, with some exercise up over the slag bank at some stage. These days of September are ‘given’ days – and must be enjoyed. The wind and the rain, the wild sea and cold, dark nights will soon be upon us.

Our blackite jam will keep us going.



It’s been raining and cloudy here in Cumbria over the last week or so. As the rest of the country continues to bake.

We took off, on Friday, to Grange in Borrowdale, via Keswick. They say it always rains for the Keswick Convention – and yes, it poured.

As we walked from Grange to Seatoller, along the River Derwent, Peter started to calculate how long this water, passing us now, would take to reach Workington. He reckoned about 10 hours.


We found an old slate mine, and just as she was leaving, an Australian woman from Adelaide. Her accent, and the atmosphere of the quarry, took me straight to Hanging Rock. When I was in Oz in 1979 the first film was not so old. I remember driving to Hanging Rock. There was the sign for the town, and beneath it – an expression of Aussie wit – a hanging rock. The BBC version is rich and enjoyable – but like the 1975 film and the 1967 Joan Lindsay novel – frustrating in its hints at the supernatural.

A good quarry, though. It was around here that the graphite for the Derwent Cumberland pencil was first mined.


We visited the church in Grange. I love the view of the yew tree through the East window.


And picked blackberries – called ‘blackites’ up here.


As we drove home over Honister Pass, stopping in Buttermere for a pint on the way, the light was dramatic on Loweswater.


The sun shone on Mark and Kimberley as they were married on Saturday at St Michael’s. Mark is our organist and this wedding has been owned by the whole congregation over recent weeks.

The priest said not to post anything on social media until after 8 pm  so I’m safe to share these few photos, of Kim arriving in the sweetest little white mini … (which, I gather from someone who knows better than I, ‘looks like a beautifully preserved example of the rare 1275GT’!)


and looking gorgeous as she waited to process down the aisle.


And here’s St Michael’s in all its glory as the wedding began.


A lovely touch – lighting a candle for each of the families as the service began, and one for them both, once married.


Later that day, Peter and I headed off to St Bees Head. We’d heard that Fleswick beach was worth visiting, with its RSPB reserve.

We parked at Tarnflatt Hall and walked a circular route, around the cliff, with views of Workington to the north. Lots of yachts out sailing from Whitehaven.


The cliff fell away, not a yard from the path.


Cleo strayed uncomfortably near the cliff edge a couple of times. I really didn’t know if she realised quite what a drop there was. But no point worrying, really or keeping her on the lead. As Peter said ‘If not duffer, won’t fall …’.

Kittiwakes wheeled around below us, with their delicate beauty.


The views were great – to Scotland, to the Isle of Man. Up here, on St Bees Head, we worry about the lack of sand eels, the warmth of the water. Kittiwakes are now on red warning. Their numbers have plummeted.

I share with Peter my reading of the latest edition of The Economist.


The Economist is written corporately – no one writer takes the credit for any particular article. It’s a good policy. The journalist who wrote the article “In the Line of Fire” argues that the world is losing the war against climate change. Wild fires spread over St Bees Head in mid June. They are flaring up all over the world. 18 currently sweep through California, near Athens, from Seattle to Siberia. Heatwaves are killing people: 125 in Japan as temperatures soar above 40 degrees C.

Global warming causes weather patterns to go haywire. Whatever Trump believes, human use of fossil fuels has set this process in motion. Without urgent action now, it will only accelerate. As the Economist quips we are ‘living in a fuel’s paradise’.

Yes, the use of alternative energies and low-carbon technologies has increased, and public concern is much more aware than before. Many American cities and states have reaffirmed commitment to Paris, despite Trump’s withdrawal. 70 countries or regions now price carbon. Research is developing in ‘solar geoengineering’ which is designed to reflect sunlight back into space.

The Economist concludes its editorial:

Averting climate change will come at a short-term financial cost – although the shift from carbon may eventually enrich the economy, as the move to carbon-burning cars, lorries and electricity did in the 20th Century. Politicians have an essential role to play in making the case for reform and in ensuring that the most vulnerable do not bear the brunt of the change. Perhaps global warming will help them fire up the collective will. Sadly, the world looks poised to get a lot hotter first.

The Church of England is doing its bit. It will disinvest from fossil fuel companies by 2023 unless the latter can prove they are tackling climate change in line with the Paris Agreement.

The Guardian’s article here is sober reading.

It is hard to know what to do, personally. And hard to anticipate a world where biodiversity is diminished even further through warming seas and hotter lands. Where water becomes increasingly politicized as a commodity, a precious resource we take so much for granted. As I prepare The Lark Ascending for friends from Suffolk to use, we hear that the Leeds Liverpool canal has closed from Wigan to Skipton this month – a small drop in the immense worldwide ocean of a problem that humanity faces.

And so we turn off, and turn to stuff to entertain us, rather than face into the bleak scenarios that are coming fast over the horizon, like wildfires that overwhelm.

The seas off Cumbria are too warm for sand eels. The kittiwakes, guillemots, razor bills and cormorants are suffering. I wrote this poem a year or so ago, about the terns that used to be numerous on the Esk estuary.


Eskmeals dune creates the lagoon
            of highwater tide
                        where once the terns
                        and tipped
                                    sand eels
                        up and away – 
but now no more.
            No more
                        little, arctic, common
                                                swallows of the sea
                        where once
            they swerved
                        and turned
                                    in sea breeze
                                                plummeted quick
            to lift
                        silver from the sea.

Local people say the RSPB will disagree
but local people say the terns are no more
because they used to take the first clutch
two, three eggs. Local people turned out
to take the eggs, but not beyond Mayday.

The terns would lay
                                    would lay
                                                would lay again.

When the chicks had hatched, by then
                        there was food.
                                    Sand eels.
                                                Whitebait from the sea.

A London delicacy. Terns’ eggs: the harvest
stopped by law, and those first chicks hatched and died
of hunger too late for terns to lay again.

Who knows? It’s also true
there are no sand eels any more.


The RSPB at Fleswick suggests a number of birds to find  but August is not the best time, now the breeding season is over. We descended to the beach


which is a gem – indeed, there are reputedly lots of semi-precious stones to be found there.


The Isle of Man to be seen …


The water was clear and cool and Peter and I skinny dipped. And again, Cleo practised her swimming, splashing her paws up as the waves met her, and settling down to serious doggy paddle as she came out to circle us.

We walked back over Hannah Moor, and along Hannahmoor Lane. Who was Hannah? I wonder. My imagination started to write her story. The daughter of Tarnflatt Farm, perhaps, who made the fields around her own. A herd of Guernsey cows and calves graze the new grass – only six weeks after the head was ablaze with wild fire. We walked and talked with a bloke who had two springer spaniels. They were ever off into the fields, flushing up partridges. He told us of a lurcher he’d owned once, and how she was the best of dogs. ‘You’ve a grand dog there’, he said, as Cleo jogged along with us, checking us every few minutes.


I’ve been blogging for over three months now. It’s a fresh and immediate way of writing, and I’ve enjoyed taking photos. One’s mind thinks differently: events and happenings become potential material for the blog. It starts to inhabit your mind.

I’m learning too that this is not a private journal, such as Lady Anne Clifford kept. And so it’s time for me to have a privacy policy. Like so much of today’s world, it’s important to cover yourself – but also to ensure that friends and family can trust me that I’m not going to make them vulnerable or expose them in ways that leave them uncomfortable. If I’ve done that already – sincere apologies. Please do let me know.

I’d also value your comments and thoughts on the wording of this policy. Let me know – if you have more experience of this than I – if there’s a better wording I could use, or if I’ve left anything out, as I prepare to include it in Larkrise to Skipton.

I use with care and permission any personal data belonging to other people. If I have unwittingly infringed your online privacy, please inform me immediately and I will remove any image or material that makes you uncomfortable. 

I do not share personal information with third-parties nor do I store information that is collected about your visit to this blog for use other than to analyse content performance through the use of cookies, which you can turn off at anytime by modifying your Internet browser’s settings. I am not responsible for the republishing of the content found on this blog on other Web sites or media without my permission. 

This privacy policy is subject to change without notice.


I’d been to Keith Singletons, a garden centre between St Bees and Egremont, and as I drove back along country roads, there it was. The Animal Rescue Centre that I’d visited a number of times on line, wondering what dogs they had to rehome. I called in on spec, and ended up giving my details to Vicky, a member of staff there.

The next morning: ‘you said you were looking for a two year old. How definite is that?’ said the voice on my mobile. ‘It’s just that we’ve got a seven year old lurcher that’s just come in this morning. She’s lovely, and might be just what you’re looking for.’ We arranged a time for us to visit.

Hugh and Sammy were with us, and Peter came along too. Cleo was very anxious indeed, shut in the ‘meet and greet’ room at the Rescue Centre. She was salivating, and couldn’t focus at all on us. We weren’t who she wanted. ‘It’s normal behaviour’, said Lisa (another member of staff). ‘Take her up the road. See how you get on.’ Cleo walked nicely to heel. She sat when she was told to. She wee-ed and poohed. We took her into the exercise field, and she chased a ball, half-heartedly, for Hugh. We’d seen enough to arrange a home visit. Difficult to tell her real personality under such circumstances.

Lisa and Caz brought her. Caz was a trustee of the Centre, and lived across the road from Cleo, so knew her and her background. ‘The son rescued her from drowning, when she was only 6 weeks old. Then when he left home a couple of years ago, his mother was left with her. She’s out all day, and doesn’t really like dogs much. Though she’ll miss Cleo. But she can’t really look after her, what with work.

She was still anxious as she explored the house, but started to focus a little on us, once Caz went to sit in the car.  I sat on the floor, talking quietly to Cleo, fondling her silky ears that were as expressive as Dobby’s.


Lisa asked questions. ‘Do you work? Will you be away from the house for long periods? How would you discipline a dog? Is your garden fenced?’ We went out to see how Cleo responded to the chickens. She was too nervous to notice them. We arranged a trial period for the following Monday, 23 July. If it went ok, then Cleo would stay with us, permanently adopted after a month or so.

‘If we’re getting a dog, at least she’s not a puppy,’ said Peter, as we prepared for the book club weekend meeting on the Friday.

Our book club’s been going a good few years now. When we were in Bury St E, we’d meet every six weeks or so – Lillias and Adrian, Gaby and Mark, Peter and me – at each other’s homes, for a light supper and to share our impressions of the books we’d taken it in turns to choose. Memorable evenings – like the one on the eve of Brexit – when Mark was the only one to predict the way it went. Memorable – so we decided to continue with three meetings a year, residentially. In the Spring, a cottage somewhere in the country, organised by Adrian and Lillias. In July, based at the narrowboat in Skipton. Then in October, in Portugal where Gaby and Mark have a home.

So they all came to us, having booked themselves into a B&B in Cononley. We ate on board – taking it in turns to cook. So haddock on lentils, with asparagus and tomatoes was our offering on the Friday evening.


Mark cooked Mexican chicken on Saturday, as we drank GnTs moored up on the tow path near Kildwick



and Adrian produced a great salad, followed by summer pud, on the Sunday evening.

We walked the towpath and sorted the swing bridges for which this stretch of the Leeds Liverpool is renowned.

I noticed that men and women do such things differently.




We talked about much besides books (Peter’s and my choice: Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and Alice Oswald’s Dart.)


It’s a long and dense read – the McGilchrist – but we discussed his thesis, and made it our own – how Western culture today is dominated by the left hemisphere, with its attention to detail and process and ever tighter control of information, losing what the right hemisphere attends to: the Other. Adrian shared some great quotations.

We were rewarded with fireworks on the Saturday night for all our hard work, courtesy of some wedding in Skipton.


On Sunday we thought we’d chug up towards Gargrave. We’d heard news that the Leeds and Liverpool was to be closed for August, from Wigan to Skipton, as the water levels are so low. So let’s take the chance, while we can, to see that stunning countryside up the Airedale valley.

Mark and Gaby thought they’d head off for the day, to walk in the Pennines.



Adrian and Lillias joined us, and off we went from Skipton. The engine wasn’t happy though. Splutter, judder.


We were just outside Pennine Cruisers of Skipton, so I managed to persuade Wayne to come and look. It didn’t take long: ‘You’re out of diesel.’ ‘We can’t be! I thought we’d be good until we’d done 250 hours!’ He sold us 40 litres, and came back at the end of the day to bleed the engine of the air it had sucked in. I booked TLA in for a service, the following Wednesday, so all would be just right for Susan and Mark, Alice and Jed who were going to spend a week on her, from Sunday 6 August.

An afternoon free in Skipton and we headed for the castle. It was impressive – not least because the displays and enactments going on.


It was a feast day – St Mary Magdalene – and the food was authentic. Marzipan cakes, chicken, elaborate breads.


We listened to a lecture on mediaeval medicine, which thrilled Adrian (retired orthopaedic surgeon) and Peter (retired paediatrician). Many of the herbs are still used, still efficacious. The surgery was gruesome. The big round knife is to circle the bone, cutting off gangrenous flesh.


We heard how Henry V had an arrow head removed from behind his face after an entrepreneurial surgeon, John Bradmore, devised and made just the instrument needed, as Henry V lay in agony. This video is really worth watching.

Earlier in the week we’d had supper, along with the other curates and their spouses, at the Bishop’s House. Alison Newcombe had prepared a brilliant meal for us all, and beforehand the Bishop and I had had a chat about my ministry in the Diocese and future plans.

I told him of my current work with Elaine Graham and Heather Walton, on revising and expanding Theological Reflection: Methods, and particularly the two chapters I’m updating on how to reflect theologically through diary, letter, and now blogging, and the chapter on corporate theological reflection – as part of a faith community. It’s been fun, including Richard Rohr’s blog, and the work of Nadia Bolz Weber, the Lutheran preacher and the new work that’s emerged of theological life writing – Heather Walton’s own work, and Claire Wolfteich, on being a mother.

Full of Character – we’re at the stage of choosing a cover design. Lillias has agreed to paint me a picture for it, which the publishers love. At last we’ve decided on the subtitle, which now reads A Christian Approach to Education for a Digital Age. It’ll be launched in March next year.

As we came down from his study, there, on the wall, was a portrait of Lady Anne Clifford. ‘Formidable,’ was Bishop James’ verdict. ‘She owned five castles – Skipton, Appleby, Brough, Brougham and Pendragon – but only after a decades’ long battle for them.’ I’d been intrigued, particularly as Ruth, who’s married to Mark, another of the new curates, said she’d like to do the Lady Anne’s Way one day. I said I’d join her. We both have dogs. Mark and Peter both are less enthusiastic – about the dogs, that is.

So while at Skipton Castle, I bought the new edition of the autobiographical writing.


She was impressive. Born in 1590, she’d been thirteen, as she remembered the funeral of Queen Elizabeth I and wrote of the account in her diary.

When the corpse of Queen Elizabeth had continued at Whitehall as long as the Council had thought fit, it was carried from thence with great solemnity to Westminster, the lords and ladies going on foot to attend it, my mother and my aunt of Warwick being mourners. But I was not allowed to be one, because I was not high enough, when did much trouble me then, but yet I stood in the church at Westminster to see the solemnity performed. Queen Elizabeth’s funeral was on the 28th day of April being Thursday. (p. 17)

Lady Anne married Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset, who died in 1624, leaving her with two daughters. She then married Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, and outlasted him too. He sided with the parliamentarians during the Civil War, she remained loyal to the King, and so they were estranged. Throughout her life, and against her two husbands’ advice, she remained determined that her lands in Westmorland and Cumberland were hers, not her cousin Henry’s. When he died in 1643, without surviving male issue, her lifelong battle was won. She spent the post-civil war years restoring and expanding the castles, particularly Skipton, to grandeur. Although I suspect the long drop predated her, and she couldn’t improve on it.



The yew tree she planted in the 1650s flourishes in the Conduit Courtyard.


I’m loving her writing; reading about that most interesting of centuries. She didn’t die until 1676. Pretty good going, I reckon. A woman who achieved some formidable stuff. She heard John Donne preach, too, when she was resident at Knole, the family seat of the Sackvilles. Lucky woman.

The 27th [of July, 1617] being Sunday I went to church forenoon and afternoon Dr Donne preaching and he and the other strangers dining with me in the great chamber.

In Skipton castle, three lurchers.


The owner offered advice. ‘They need half an hour exercise, morning and night. They’ll sleep the rest of the day. They’ll chase to kill. Cats, sheep, rabbits, deer. It’s what they were bred to do, when this castle was being built. Keep her on a lead.’

Home from Skipton, and Cleo arrives. After a tortuous night in the kitchen, she won and now sleeps in her bed in our room. She follows me everywhere.


We went swimming in Crummock Water, and she followed me out, suddenly finding no ground beneath her feet. Back to land, and then back out to me – three or four times. The first time she’d swam, we reckoned. It was a pleasure to see her begin to enjoy it.

‘Not only lurcher,’ the vet said. ‘I reckon there’s collie in her too’. So we keep her on a lead around sheep. The lurcher’s impulse to tear the throat out. The collie’s, to herd. Neither option a risk worth taking.



16 July 2018


Tilds and Al came over on Saturday evening, and with Hugh and Sammy, we walked on the Workington beach at low tide with Blisco and Cora, their dogs. The tide was just on the turn, with a fresh south-westerly wind. The manmade cliffs of slag shaped the land,


with St Bees Head in the distance as we walked.

Tilda called me over. ‘Look at this!’


She pointed at an orange starfish, and picked it up. I’d never seen starfish washed up – and of course it brought that simple parable to mind:

One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”.
The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”

We too threw it back – and the others we found. One was there, regenerating one of its limbs.


Later I googled starfish, and found out that they are the species that first led to the designation ‘keystone species’. If you’ve read George Monbiot’s Feral, you’ll know that he argues convincingly that wolves also are keystone species – their presence in an environment controls other species that are likely to become dominant and diminish biodiversity – like deer. Keystone species enable diversity. The term was first used by Robert Paine in 1966 as he studied the low intertidal coasts of Washington State. Paine found that the predation by a particular starfish controlled the mussels that, when the starfish was removed, out-competed other organisms.

Starfish also clean surface films and algae, so enable regeneration of organic matter that fish, crabs and sea urchins feed on.

That evening, on Workington beach, the water was clear, the sea weed clean, with oyster catchers crying.

It’s been quite a week. Trump throwing his weight around Europe, the UK, even HM the Queen. Theresa’s Brexit blue print unravelling; and now Justine is calling for another referendum. We could do with some keystone species in our political systems to enable diversity, such is the monochrome boringness of it all. Boring, if the sort of populism Trump – and Boris, and Jacob – represent wasn’t so dangerous for Western liberal political systems. And there’s Putin, too, gnawing away at the West, undermining the foundations. I dread to imagine the Helsinki conversation between him, with all his 18 year’s experience of political Machiavellianism, and Trump’s baby naiveté.

There’s been no escaping the sport. Even I watched the England/Croatia match, and Djokovic winning, as I pulled my rag rug. At least that won’t unravel any time soon.


‘We must walk to St Bees’ Head from Workington some day’, Peter and I agreed. The coast looks intriguing, over those slag cliffs and through Whitehaven, and up onto that prominent head land. On Friday we’d been in St Bees, and seen, in the rain (so welcome), how the headland had been affected by fire.


The ground is seriously dry still. We need more rain.



Though the rose-bay willow herb, and native willow herb are in full bloom.



And the chickens enjoy a moment in the shade.


St Bees was disappointing. A great café above the beach (somewhere to go for a quiet, anonymous time to read and reflect).


But I’d been looking for a craft shop at least to satisfy my insatiable desire for retail therapy. Especially when it’s raining.

No matter, though – as we had been on our way to the Animal Rescue Centre near Egremont. There we met Cleo. She’s being rehomed because her current owners don’t have time to walk her properly. She’s an unfit lurcher, aged seven, black, with white paws, a white breast and tip to her tail – the size of a medium sized labrador. We walked along the road with her and were pleased that she didn’t pull, that she sat when asked to, and chased a ball with a lurcher’s turn of speed. She was so anxious though, at the separation from her owner, it was difficult to tell what she’s really like. Lisa, the staff member who organised the visit, has arranged to do a home visit on Tuesday, and bring Cleo with her. It’ll take her a good month or two to relax though, if she comes to us.

Peter is resigned – no, more positive than that. Mainly he’s relieved it’s not a puppy we’ll end up with. Cleo’s gentleness appealed to him.

As we walked on the beach, I imagined her running with Blisco and Cora. It would be good to give her the exercise and attention that a dog needs. Something makes me think the owner may change her mind, though, so I’m not building up my hopes.

I dreamt about Joe Hawes last night. A good, affirming dream about the good impression he makes as he meets all sorts of people. He’s been installed as the next Dean of St Edmundsbury now. He preached well, I’ve been told. I’m sure he’ll be great, with his excellent experience in Fulham and his lively, positive outlook and sense of fun. I sent a card, wishing him and Chris all the very best. He’s in my mind all day Sunday as he’ll be presiding for the first time.

It’s been a week of settling down into our new home. Peter’s been out and about, visiting people, and at various meetings in the Mission Community. He’s finding his feet. On Sunday we had the visiting priest and his wife for lunch. David and Anne had been in Cumbria all their ministry together, and have now retired to Aspatria. It was good to get to know them, to hear of their experiences.

I’m beginning to work at the blog book, which will be titled Larkrise to Skipton – (obviously) as it relates the voyage on the narrowboat through May and the first half of June.  I don’t have a publisher yet, but will write it first – not the usual way around, for me. Putting all the blogs together – there are twelve, and the word count is 33,000 words. So that’s well on the way. There are aspects I want to research more deeply, and it’s a book that I hope will be about transitions and coming to terms with what has been, a meditation on the Psalms, drawing on the wide range of human experience found there, particularly where water is the element.

Richard Sudworth and I talked on the phone about the next Littlemore group book, on Preaching. We’ve got to persuade the contributors to write their chapters by the beginning of September. My chapter is on the encounter with Christ that each sermon should enable. Each of us is engaging with a classic sermon, and I’m going to work with St Paul, as he preached to about the Unknown God at the Areopagus, in Acts 17. I also have in mind the statues to unknown soldiers that are all around us, in towns and villages across the country, as we remember the war a century ago. Ecce Homo. And then Nietzsche wrote a short book with that title. I can’t find my copy, so have ordered another from Abebooks.

I preached on Sunday evening at St Michael’s. About the daily office, and how important it is. Peter and I have been saying Morning Prayer, with his training incumbent, establishing a routine on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7.30 am. We’ve had people joining us each time, building up a core group.

I borrow a story to begin – one I heard ordinand Jill use in a sermon at Mirfield, where it went down particularly well.

A new monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He notices, however, that they are copying copies, and not the original books.
So, the new monk goes to the Abbot to ask him about this. He points out that if there was an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies. The Abbot says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.”
So, he goes down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original. Hours later, nobody has seen him. So, one of the monks goes downstairs to look for him. He hears sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and finds the Abbot leaning over one of the original books crying. He asks what’s wrong.
“The word is celebrate not celibate,” says the old monk with tears in his eyes.

The sermon I preach continues, with the reading from Deuteronomy in mind (28.1-14).

It’s a story about handing on traditions, isn’t it? How we shouldn’t just do things blindly, because that’s the way it’s always been done. We should ask ourselves, why do we do it this way? We should think it through, and check back, as the Abbot did, into the past. Ask questions about now – as the new monk did. And wonder what’s going to be the best thing for the future.
In a world – and church – where there’s much change, and much talk of change, it isn’t always easy to work out what changes are right and good, and which changes are just for the sake of it.
Take this service of Choral Evensong, for instance. There will be those who argue that it should be allowed to die. That it’s old-fashioned and doesn’t speak to today’s generations. And in many ways, such people are obviously right. Gone are the days of the photo on the choir vestry wall from the 1920s when there’s a choir that most Cathedrals would be give their eyeteeth for. Culture around us has changed; surely we should change too?
I’m not so sure. When it comes to change, the pattern of our prayer and worship isn’t just about what culture around us is doing. The prayer life of the church is altogether more important.
Choral evensong belongs within the daily round of prayer that has traditionally been called the offices – morning and evening prayer. The daily office has for centuries been the bedrock of the church. Priests and deacons take a vow to say the office – and hopefully they are joined by others too, and that’s a good tradition – because it means that the church, on a daily basis, is filled with prayer.
Choral evensong is the service where we offer that much more, because it’s Sunday. We sing hymns, listen to two readings from the bible, sing the responses, we have a sermon. It’s special, because it’s Sunday, and it’s special because it belongs within the observance of the office through the week.
If we look back, as the Abbot did, to the original texts, we find good reason to pray the office on a daily and weekly basis.
You can’t go much further back than Deuteronomy. There obedience to the commandments of God means blessing on our lives.

If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God.

If we pray – daily, and weekly – God will bless us. We will grow and flourish.
I wonder, sometimes, if all the talk of change and all the new initiatives in the Church of England today are really about a loss of heart in God. A fear that we’re going into decline because the old traditions don’t work anymore. Some old traditions don’t work anymore, but prayer will always work. It’s always worthwhile to pray. To come together, as the Church of England has done through the ages, to pray, to say or sing canticles, to listen to the bible, to share thoughts.
Because when we do, we recognise God’s blessing amongst us.
You’ll know that Peter, Julia and I and others are saying morning prayer at 7.30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in the Lady Chapel. On the other mornings, Peter is out at Harrington Church. We’re continuing that tradition of prayer that goes back as far as Deuteronomy. Hopefully, before long, even more will join us, so it becomes a habit in our lives. The ancient texts support regular corporate prayer – so we’re in no danger of being caught out in our celibacy. Indeed, it’s a reason to celebrate – the gift of prayer.
For prayer takes us to the heart of the God of grace and love.
It’s very hard to continue to pray off our own bat. Unless we realise that we depend on God’s support and love, we soon dry up. If it’s just down to us, it’s really hard work – particularly when it’s cold and dark on a winter’s morning, or the World Cup  is on. When we know, though, that our prayer life is a gift, that God gives us the structure, handed down to us through the ages, then our prayer life becomes something we celebrate.
So I celebrate that we gather here, every Sunday evening, to worship God. Let us continue to give thanks for the living tradition of prayer in this church. Because it does bear fruit, as Deuteronomy says. It bears fruit as people come to know that that’s what we’re about. Prayer and worship of God, first and foremost. Fellowship and togetherness, and service of the world around us. Deuteronomy had it right, all those centuries ago.

Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading-bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. All the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord.

Last week, Peter told us the story of Paul’s travels, when he had got as far as Malta. Now, Paul has got to Rome. He meets with the Jewish leaders of that great city. He tells them that their hearts are hardened. He quotes Isaiah back at them: “Go to this people and say,

You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

When we pray together on a weekly, on a daily basis, we open our ears and eyes to God. We continue to seek God’s guidance and presence in our lives. We are open to what God brings to each of us, to this church, to this town and to our nation. The daily office, which includes evensong, is our offering to God, that keeps us fresh and attentive to the God of grace, in whom we celebrate all our days.


I liked throwing the star fish back into the sea. It felt like giving back something to the immensity of the ocean. That hymn came to mind, the one about hands that flung stars into space.

Perhaps our prayers are like that.

Offering into the immensity of God’s love our own selves – our confession, petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise.



An Abbey, Cathedral and Minster … and Little Gidding

Monday 9 July 2018

It might be turning into a routine, swimming in Loweswater after evensong, on Sunday evenings. Well, obvs, a summer routine …

Yesterday evening was just as glorious as the previous Sunday – the water inviting, the mountains surrounding. In the pub afterwards we had a pint of Loweswater and a bowl of plum crumble. ‘You’ve been swimming too. There’s been quite a few this evening.’ Said the bar attender as she took our order. ‘Not sure.’ She said in response to Peter’s encouragement that she should go after work. ‘It’s not so romantic when it’s just you.’ The water was dark, less playful, this time. I took the odd mouthful as I swam, to taste its depths.

Between swims in Loweswater, much had happened in the week. I’ve travelled all over the country, and worshipped in three of the most prestigious churches – an Abbey, a Cathedral, a Minster. I’ve also been to Little Gidding, which has its own contribution to make to the spiritual wealth of this nation. All a good distance from Workington.

Last Monday saw me heading south to stay at Westminster Abbey with Jane, to be there for Viv’s consecration as Bishop of Bristol on Tuesday at St Paul’s.

Jane is Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret’s Church, which means she is often in and around the Houses of Parliament, at the heart of government. She chairs the Westminster Institute, which fosters engagement between the Church and public life. I’ve asked if Full of Character can be launched there when it’s out.

On Tuesday morning we went to Morning Prayer in the exquisite St Faith’s Chapel. ‘It used to be a store room’, she said. Built as part of the development from 1245 by Henry III, your eye is captured by a large feminine form above the altar, carrying what looks like a chart or table. ‘Who was St Faith?’ I ask Jane. ‘No one really knows. It seems she was martyred on a girdle’. Now the painting is lit beautifully and the walls resonate with prayer.

We look around Poets’ Corner, and bemoan the lack of women there. Where’s Dorothy L. Sayers? Rose Macaulay? Iris Murdoch? Jane told me of a series of lectures, Excellent Women, they’d held here, in Poets’ Corner, to celebrate Anglican Women Novelists from Charlotte Bronte onwards. There’s a book of this title, edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell, that’s coming out shortly, to be published by Bloomsbury.

We wandered over to see the memorial stone to Stephen Hawking – “Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking, 1942 – 2018” – between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Then off to St Paul’s in a taxi, with cassock, surplice and red stole. Before the service, the Dean and I caught up with family news under the shadow of John Donne. This memorial belongs here, the only stone to survive the Great Fire of 1666, that destroyed the 17C St Paul’s. I love it – just as I love John Donne. His fascination with death and dying, and life and love.


Paula Gooder was there to preach. She invited me to Birmingham to talk of being a freelance theologian.


Then the service began in the cool of Christopher Wren’s great St Paul’s. It’s not a building I get on with, somehow. It performs itself too ostentatiously.

Paula preached on Doubting Thomas, and how he didn’t really deserve his nick name. The acoustic in St Paul’s is notoriously hard; and it was not always easy singing the hymns.

We sat as we were reminded of the role of the Bishop.


Then hands were laid, rings blessed and given, and crooks received. Viv explained later that hers was made of the last oak to remain from the 1984 fire at York Minster.

Some clergy can’t switch off. Someone in earshot provided a running commentary on the service to his neighbour all the way through.

I was left reflecting on the Church as the means of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament – the real presence of Christ in bread and wine – and how lacking in reverence we are, so often, in our worship; how little we prepare in silence to receive. Anglicans are so good at chatting, at making light, at being messy. I’m sure we would have more impact if we took it all more seriously, more formally. The Church as the means of God’s grace, through Word and Sacrament. A Church that bears the weight of holiness, in its worship and practice. At Mirfield we were in silence before the service – a deep well of communion, as hearts and minds become still before the Lord. I miss that.

The weight of holiness lightened with joy, of course.

Here’s Viv, on the steps of St Paul’s.


Here you see her crook and ring.


And then to Lambeth for lunch.


The chance to catch up with old friends over excellent food in the marquee.

Rachel was there. I haven’t seen her since she was a priest in Manchester. She’s now married to Mike – who was also a priest at that time in Manchester.  It was a delight to see them both again and hear their news.

John and I fell into an animated conversation about the Lakes and his familiarity with the fells at the head of Borrowdale. He spoke of his wife’s death of MS, some years ago now, while he was with his small children in Borrowdale. How there was nothing to be done, but walk and spend time with them.

The Dean of Bristol is absolutely delighted that Viv has been appointed.

I walked to the Tube with Bishops Frank and Alison and we talked all the way. Euston, and the train journey home.

Wednesday morning, and great Cathedral number three, as I travel the train to York.


Twice a year the cell group I belong to meets – in December for the day at Westminster Abbey, and overnight in York, at the time of General Synod.

Cell groups often establish at Theological College, and many continue with the same membership for decades, each with their own pattern of meeting. I’m not sure how long this one has been going, but it evolved to include me about four years ago. The members take about 40 minutes or so each to talk through the priorities, concerns, hopes and fears of their life at the present, and listen with emotional intelligence to each other. A meal out at a restaurant in York that evening, and we talk of the bishop’s ring, made of amethyst – traditionally, to signify no drunkenness – following the injunction in 1 Timothy, chapter 3, verse 2, that bishops be sober. We enjoy that. We talked of mitres, and how they should be worn; how ridiculous they look when worn on the back of the head. Of moves and transitions, and the state of the world and the Church.

Morning Prayer on Thursday is in the Zouche Chapel, and to my delight I’m accompanied by stained glass birds.





The scaffolding beyond is a nice reality.

We see the East Window, revealed in May after 12 years of scaffolding to enable repairs.


The website says ‘All 311 stained glass panels were removed from the 15th-century window, which is the size of a tennis court, in 2008, so York Glaziers Trust could begin the mammoth task of restoring the fragile masterpiece.’

The space below is waiting for new furniture, to pull it all together as a glorious place to be and to worship. We examined the marble altar that used to stand against the great East wall. What to do with it? It belongs there, but perhaps not as an altar any more.


The Cell Group talked of our future pattern to meet. I’m now the only Northern member. Previously we’ve tied it into General Synod, meeting in York. They all said they’d be happy to come to Workington. I’ll have to hold them to that.

Home on the train – through Durham, to Newcastle, and then across the north, through Hexham to Carlisle, and onwards around the coast, through Dalston, Wigton, Aspatria, Maryport and Flimby, in time to spend time with Theo and Hsuan, and to listen carefully to their views on the football. There’s a big match coming up on Saturday against Sweden, I gather. We watch it, when the time comes. Or at least, they head off to a pub in town, as we don’t have a TV, and Peter and I see the highlights, drifting in and out as I work at way at the garage, and Peter chops up an old chest of drawers for firewood.

Our new chickens are now settled enough to be allowed out to free range the back garden.


They are Wyandottes – so will look rather glorious when they are mature. One of them is a cockerel. That could be fun.

And in the Lady Chapel at St Michael’s Workington, the cock crowing in the St Peter window.


A bit late in the day when I return from York on Thursday, I prepare my report for the Little Gidding Trust AGM, which I chair.

It’s a long drive across the A66 and down the A1, on Friday, to get there – but a good meeting. We’re making progress as we oversee the properties and improve their quality as homes. That’s been the main priority of the last year. Soon, we need to turn our attention to developing the place further as the spiritual resource it needs to be. The T S Eliot festival happened there this Sunday.

It’s a great place to visit. After all those wonderful Cathedrals, a delicious taste of tranquillity and peace that leaves its enchantment long after you’ve left.