Friday, 7 April 2017

Luther, Brexit and the shy British

Martin Luther was a young man of thirty three, the age of Christ at the first Easter, when he nailed his 95 theses in Latin to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on 31 October, 1517. Luther was a German professor of theology, composer, priest and monk. He partly intended to reform Catholic practices, particularly 'indulgences'. Instead he triggered the Protestant Reformation which still echoes like a giant shockwave, or tear in the fabric of Western Europe. Its impact echoes down the centuries and exists in Britain, today.

The 95 theses are inscribed on All Saints' church door, Wittenberg.  By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) - Own work, FAL,

No doubt, it is a sense of a distinct culture in Britain today, as opposed to the largely culturally Catholic Continent, that has led to Brexit. The British, after The Reformation evolved into keenly literate and largely freedom-loving people. The Reformation replaced material sacramentalism (relics, statues, saints, the Eucharist, praying for the dead, magical healings) with the authority of the Bible. It was during The English Reformation that the role of the laity was raised into 'the priesthood of all believers', undermining the power of Bishops (mostly aristocrats). This change of emphasis led to an explosion of educational reform, in England and Scotland. The Reformation was a people-centred revolution and, in this sense, Brexit is not dissimilar.

Literate Britain
Within decades the clergy were university-educated. The people could read the Bible for themselves - in English. Writing and reading has been a mark of Britain ever since. It has more bookshops and more books being published per capita than any other nation. The emphasis on the laity as equal to the priesthood, actively singing Psalms in place of Catholic choirs, led, by steps, to The Civil War, which balanced the power of the people and that of the monarch. Out of this came democracy, the concept of government by the people for the people.  It is opposed to oligarchy.

We can trace all this back to The Reformation which took an iron hold in the strangely fertile soil of Britain and before that to Luther’s challenge to Catholicism. The Reformation was not just about Catholic clerical corruption, which was prevalent. Indulgences were being sold for money e.g. to build St Peter’s in Rome and enable the Pope and church to enjoy a lavish lifestyle. It was also about basic doctrine.

A different version of Christianity
Luther struck at the underlying presuppositions, or some would say misinterpretations of the whole Christian message, by the Church of Rome. He said that the New Testament, and therefore Christ, taught that we are saved not by indulgences, pilgrimages, masses but as 'a free gift' through the death of Jesus on the Cross, in a one-off act of atonement (literally 'at-one-ment'), setting aside God’s Judgement on our sin. It was an entirely new reading of the Bible, or at least a rediscovery of the original faith that the Apostles had taught. This released to the people assurance (acceptance and forgiveness) which changed and energised lives, creating a distinct version of Christianity. Protestants saw it as a return to the 'primitive' (meaning the 'original') teaching of Christ.

People of words
The British are still characterised by a huge appetite for reading, as a nation, and for writing. The English language is the largest in the world. The British are people of words, if no longer people of The Word. Their greatest writer (Shakespeare) had so huge a vocabulary that no one has ever equalled it. Their leaders are their most fluent people. To succeed is still to master more words in the English language than other people. The British still read more than any other nation.

A plain culture
They still regard emotionalism with deep distrust, notable in disapproving reactions to mass weepings and informal roadside wreath-layings. The sense of a purified or puritan British culture remains strong. It deeply irritates some people (even me at times)  that British culture is not more warm, emotional or flowery, but it is not. It is still in essence 'Protestant'. British culture is fundamentally different to that of The Continent with far less emphasis on sensuality, beauty, art, the art of food, material show and visible symbols. The English nobles had to be introduced to the senses in a disciplined way, via The Grand Tour. Britishness emphasises the unseen, the imagination, wit, the mind and rationality. This does not make the British a more spiritual people, but it does, still, set them apart, still. They generally agree on how they like things done i.e. in an orderly, plain, honest, restrained fashion, fairly, without undue showiness, rationally, with tolerance, with a quiet, ideally witty, civilised sense of humour. Anything that smacks of disorder, injustice, self-indulgence, dramatic pomp, dressing up, manipulation, blackmail, emotionalism and above all lying still turns them off.

The retiring British character 
The Reformation’s strong cultural hold on Britain is not the only cause of Brexit. It is the British character, known to be largely introspective and socially retiring, even vaguely socially inept that plays a key role. Though they make an effort, most British do not enjoy mixing with large numbers of other people: other people make them nervous. Most of them actually like being alone in their gardens, in their eccentric sheds, watching birds, listening to music, with dogs, with their thoughts - on an island.

Introverted, they do not naturally know how to enjoy the good things of life, unlike the more sociable and exuberant Italians. Instead, they are natural readers, animal lovers and garden-lovers. It is not inaccurate to say that an English person’s home is his or her 'castle'. The British need a retreat from other people like the sick need a hospital...

Their only social outlet is joining hobby clubs and associations (including West End London clubs) which flourish. Clubs attract millions in Britain : there is nothing like these clubs, say, in France. These are governed by 'school' rules, the purpose of which is partly (presumably) to keep the more emotionally annoying members in check.  The peoples' other option is 'pubs' where the challenge of social interaction is eased by alcohol.

The real pity is that the regular reading of the Bible is no longer central to their increasingly uniform lives. These private lives, as a result of a cocktail of modern pressures, are being drained of essence, identity and possibly even a sense of meaning.
Suggested Reading:

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Don’t let politics dominate life - like Communism did

Britain is, or was, an island of associations and clubs. The French have no equivalent voluntary sector so they cannot easily pursue activities like community projects. My grandparents' generation were people who had engrossing hobbies possibly because they were not brought up with TV.  They had lived through two World Wars but they knew how to relax.
  • My grandfather was a fine carpenter, spending hours in his shed, whittling away, building fantasy toy castles. 
  • My grandmother relaxed by playing Chopin, doing daily scales in her eighties. 
What is less well known is that, at the same time, in Eastern Europe under Communism, vast numbers of people had no hobbies because politics dominated their lives. You were seen as a valid person only if you were completely focused on politics, to the exclusion of all else. The irony was that Communism promised that the State would soon ‘wither away’. Instead, it completely dominated and controlled those who lived under it, impoverishing the human spirit.

Today, liberalism seems just as dominant as Communism.  It is also focused on what is modern, on creating constant change and on ‘evolution’. People seem wired up to its latest progressive step and on reflecting it, in their speech, and opinions.

Life is not a linear development, or an evolution. It is more like a cycle - a series of swings of the pendulum. "There is nothing new under the sun" says Ecclesiastes. All life is also integrally connected to the past which cannot be wiped out, as modernity seeks to do. Nor does human nature change. One must rise above it all - or get suffocated by 'now'.

That’s why I am switching off the stressful 24 hours news and watching it once a day.  I'm focusing more on hobbies: reading books, making music, poetry, drawing, watercolours, learning about buildings and paintings, crafts, sewing, electric cycling, making curtains and cushions, cooking, gardening, decorating, bird watching, observing nature. The products of some of these activities last beyond our single life. We need to put a higher value on the things of the spirit.

Such is the pressure from lack of ‘me-time’ (for working women), saving money, heavy caring responsibilities and work, that 24 hour social media and TV is all we have time for. So one must make a conscious space (a table? a shed?) and time to pursue real hobbies and voluntary work (and read the Bible and pray).

These are the things that individuals can do to bring value and harmony to homes and communities and deliver the skills and achievements that bring us joy, not the constant conflict and social fragmentation that politics does - even for observers.

We must march to our own inner tune - not that of the media, or state. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

'Is politics stranger than fiction?' - the views of Michael Portillo

I was surprised, today, to find myself, while sitting quietly eating my packed lunch at a sustainable construction exhibition known as 'Ecobuild' suddenly surrounded by an audience attentively listening to Michael Portillo. A historian,  political commentator and train expert, this former 'future Prime Minister', addressed the subject: 'Is politics stranger than fiction?'. No longer an MP, he was standing in for a Lord who was 'whipped' to vote in the Article 50 debate (on starting the process to leave the EU).

Michael Portillo delivered nearly an hour of very personal views on Brexit, the EU and Trump. He was far more outspoken than politicians normally are, which added a certain 'frisson'. It felt like being a fly on the wall, hearing MPs swapping views, in the bar of the House of Commons.

He said that politics is 'stranger than fiction' because the Conservatives, who during the 1980s were polling upwards of 42% of the national vote had declined sharply. More recently they had been consistently polling around 36%. However,  they are now back with no coalition nor strong opposition: we are almost as a 'one party nation'.   Even in the light of this, Michael Portillo said that he had been 'surprised' that David Cameron had promised a referendum on the EU in the Conservative Party manifesto.  He felt that the UK had not been under real pressure to become part of an 'EU superstate' since it was protected by a) not being in the euro and b) being outside the borderless Schengen area. So he thought that David Cameron never intended to hold it, expecting a different national election result i.e. another coalition with the Liberals who would have refused to hold a referendum on EU membership. But Cameron won the general election, so he was forced to hold it. He lost by 4% and stepped down.

In fact, the pressure came from UKIP, who gained 4m votes. Their development and influence is in line with wider developments in the EU where a proliferation of political parties has fractured the old two-party systems. For example, there are now four political parties vying with each other in Spain. However, UKIP did not have any MPs and, therefore, any political power. Cameron was clearly (over) reacting to acute internal neurosis within his own party. (One must bear in mind that Portillo stood against Cameron as Conservative party leader and lost).

Portillo said that the referendum was lost by the Remain Camp because the UK and the EU countries have 'a different experience and frame of mind'.  He said that the difficulty is that the EU project is driven by a 'dangerous ideology', not by pragmatism.
  • It is ideology that insists on free movement of people (not just for workers, as one might expect). This is because free movement is what a single country has. 
  • It is ideology that created the euro because 'a single country has single currency' - not because it was a good idea that would benefit everybody.  
He sees the euro as a disaster for Spain, Italy and Greece, the economy of which has shrunk by 20%. In addition to the euro and mass migration, another big threat is Donald Trump because Trump is openly saying that the euro is good for Germany i.e. a weak euro is helping to keep German exports buoyant, resulting in full employment in Germany, in contrast to soaring levels of unemployment in the Med countries.  Being half Spanish, he admitted that it is 'a mystery' why the southern Med countries 'put up with it'....

Brexit, he said is likely to be 'hard' -  but much depends on the two things that are the main concerns of the EU and threaten to destroy it sooner rather than later a) what happens on the euro and b) levels of mass migration in the next two years. There are two views on Brexit within the EU: one is that it is best to get on well with Britain, post-Brexit.  The other, less rational, is a feeling that the EU needs to be as defensive as possible, to thwart other countries seeking escape (though Portillo doubts that other EU member states will follow the example of Brexit).  The other threat for the EU is 'a democratic deficit' partly due to all EU countries being unable to vote on the same day - due to totally different political systems, languages etc.

Portillo sees Brexit as an unavoidable 'divorce' between a country (Britain) with a totally different attitude to that of all the other countries and the EU ideology. This is due to the history of the 20th century, he thinks. Unlike almost all continental European countries during the 20th century,  British institutions and democracy did not 'fail'.  As a result, the UK does not feel it needs a higher transnational body helping it to hang together which EU countries feel they do need. The UK does not feel the same 'urge' to sacrifice its sovereignty to a transnational superstate.

Portillo seems to be saying that the EU has a real need to seek 'ever closer union' but the ideology guiding the EU project (in place of political pragmatism) is 'dangerously' destroying it. He is adamant that the euro will collapse under its own weakness and the heavy damage it has wrought in the Med countries.

Regarding Trump, Portillo does not feel that he is weak on defence - or 'partial' to Putin. He has jacked up the US defence budget by more than the entire Russian defence budget and he is urging Germany to step up its NATO contribution to 2%, which Germany is very unwilling to do.

The real drama, he says, is the forthcoming French election.  He is not predicting that Marine Le Pen will win, but 'the right wing is doing its best to facilitate her victory'.  If she wins, he says, it will make Brexit look like 'a storm in a teacup' because she wants to a) withdraw France from the euro and b) give the French people an in/out referendum of the EU.

In other words, he was telling the British construction sector not to hold its breath for a soft Brexit - though intervening events may radically affect the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Chalices, fine art, bones, Richard III and Jane Austen

Our winter historical excursion (January 5-8, 2017) took us to the ancestral villages of the founders of America, an area called ‘The Dukeries’ in Nottinghamshire, the tomb of Richard III, Coventry and Jane Austen’s own country and church.

See article here

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Good Things in 2016

Life is a balance of good and evil (Keats). The mature, who have been through many of life’s unpredictable fluctuations see this most clearly. There are evidently many gloomy evaluations of 2016 but, in reality, it was only a year of evil and tragedy for those adversely affected by war, terrorism, poverty, illness, old age and violence. Without being Panglossian (“all’s for the best in the best of of all possible worlds”), I am determined not to forget its blessings. Personally, I can recall these:

Living standards
  • Food prices remained steady and there were many ‘bargains’ out there
  • Energy bills do not seem to be rising further 
  • Petrol is still affordable 
  • We are not in pain 
  • We do not suffer from depression or mental illness
  • We did not spend every day worrying about huge debts
  • There are ongoing jobs -  even if many, including our own, are underpaid.
  • One could afford a few nice meals out and a few treats.
Stability, politics, freedom and peace
  • My Member of Parliament saved me from near bankruptcy
  • We do not live in chaos, political and economic
  • The internet keeps us closely connected across the country and the world in virtual relationships
  • Democracy proved to be still alive - or at least no one suggested that the various national elections were ‘rigged’
  • The UK economy did not collapse as predicted and, in fact seems to be strengthening with employment levels rising.
Protecting The World
  • The UK came second in the world, after Denmark, for tackling climate change and reducing its carbon emissions. As I have been directly working on this for nearly ten years (and I am currently helping to spend hundreds more millions on reducing our carbon emissions from heat) I was rather delighted.
  • Pollution in London finally topped the political agenda. I have been a lone voice in the wilderness about the air in London for years, even writing twice to the Government and Mayor of London without much impact. Finally in 2016 the penny dropped with Londoners.
  • Our house was made safe and renovated/expanded in terms of living space almost free of charge due to a top insurer, the work carried out by good value, hard working British builders
  • We were not involved in any accidents (though we were momentarily scared in a lay by in France, when we thought our car was going to be hijacked)
  • All our prayers for safety and many for health (our own and others) were graciously answered, as were many prayers for wider and national issues
  • I got my mobility back, having lost it entirely for three weeks in the autumn which was scary. I even have a free hospital appointment to help stop it happening again.
Socially and spiritually
  • We did not end up 'entire' of ourselves, living on an island (though we recall that many people are in this lonely state and we sought to help some locally)
  • The Bible was read, preached and is reaching every nation through new translations
  • Christianity was not outlawed though persecution levels are rising in other countries 
  • We made new contacts locally and elsewhere keeping up with many people online and in person
  • I guided over a hundred enthusiastic people on historic tours in London (admittedly for free)
  • We gave or attended various memorable parties and concerts
  • We attended many church services and heard a few good sermons.
Leisure time and hobbies
  • Spring and summer were pleasant (not rained off)
  • We managed to afford a winter holiday in beautiful southern England, a budget summer holiday abroad and a trip to East Kent. We encountered the beauty of Mont Blanc, Reims Cathedral and Reculver.
  • I applied for and was offered part-time working to enable me to start my own projects and business
  • I discovered Edvard Grieg's piano music and I am playing some on a grand piano without complaints from the neighbours.
  • Shakespeare’s death was well, if not over-celebrated.
We are thankful to God for all this.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Why the tragedies of 2016?

Many innocent people, including babies and young children, have violently died during 2016 as a result of Islamist violence.

Why were they targeted?  What ideology would make a lorry drive into a Christmas market and plough innocent people down?  Why attack Germany which has taken in one million migrants and employs 60,000 people to integrate them? Why attack a family festival in Nice or people drinking after a hard day's work in a Paris bar? Why were 25 harmless worshippers at a service in St Peter's by St Marks Cathedral, Cairo blown up, in the soft target of their own church?  What have they done to deserve this?

St Peters by St Mark's Cathedral, Cairo
By Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The Attack on the West 
First, we need to understand that Islamist activity is not aimed at individuals, or countries: it is aimed at The West which includes Australasia.  The West represents freedom, rights for women and democracy. At the root of these values are two thousand years of Christian respect for the dignity of man and social justice, combined with a recent push from secular lobbyists. We are all seen as collaborators with the West if we live at peace with it, or pursue Western values.

Second, there is a self-accusatory Western liberal notion that the failure of oppressed countries is the fault of the West.   Anyone believing this, will see these acts as 'revenge'.

Third, those at the Berlin Christmas market were 'double offending' : they were Westerners and enjoying Christmas.  As in snowbound Narnia, the Islamist would like to end Christmas forever. Islamism is trying to stamp out Christmas and Western influence, across the Middle East. To us, it seems odd that the first thing to happen in peaceful Aleppo was a party round a huge Christmas tree, but those rejoicing knew what they were doing.

Where does the violence come from?
Early Islam preserved Roman and Greek texts enabling our Renaissance, in its great libraries. It invented early medicine. It built magnificent palaces and gardens, like the Alhambra. In its early days, it overcame the eastern Roman Empire by force. Islam once held Greece, southern Spain and even got to the gates of Vienna. But the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, as the last Caliphate, gave rise to clerics who sought to reverse the long decline of the Islamic Empire. Modernising influences within Islam, as well as the West, were blamed for the loss of all these territories. Some Islamic clerics started to teach that Islam should to return to an austere 7th century 'all conquering' Islam which uses the sword and interprets certain Koranic texts so that the cruel slaughter of other Moslems and Kufirs (non-Moslems) is believed to be meritorious.

What has happened to the West?
As this was happening, the West became a money-making machine, pursuing globalisation, rather than duty and 'community' with vibrant Christianity at its heart. It strongly interpreted freedom as sexual freedom and the Church was too weak to reverse it. Families and marriages broke down. The West is now widely seen as very irreligious and decadent, as least as reflected in the media. Politicians have mistakenly run the West entirely on economics. The West is, in some senses, sick at heart with self-indulgence and secularism while at the same time being open to mass migration to people from very different cultures and views. There is now acute alienation in the West - which we all feel - but which minorities feel more. There is also a shocking contrast between the materially rich West and the poverty levels in Islamic countries such as Tunisia, to which alienated migrants send back survival money.

The outcome
A tiny number are willing to carry out gross acts of mass murder. They may already have criminal backgrounds, which further alienates them. Overcrowded Western prisons become recruiting grounds. The internet and mobiles are cheap and technically useful.

How can we respond?
There are a range of approaches:
  • we practically need to help stop attacks (a job for the intelligence service and police)
  • we need to manage mechanisms used for radicalising people e.g. Western prisons (a job for the government)
  • we need to support democracy and education without causing wars (a job for politicians with true vision)
  • we need to make our own country less about 'cold economics' causing mass alienation, and more about people and renewed values bringing people with hope into community. 
  • we need to demonstrate more spiritual life across the West  (a job for the Church and third sector)
  • we need to value and support our own freedom and democracy, the result of  internal civil war led by Christian radicals like Oliver Cromwell (a job for the people and Parliament)
True Reform
The Reformation was a return to a purer form of Christianity but it led to education and political freedom. Some equate the growth of Islamism to the Reformation but, we should not be deceived: they have nothing in common.

As Gamaliel said of the early church - if a spiritual movement is truly of God, nothing will stop it. Even today, nothing stops the Gospel.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

"We don't get religion"

The editor of The New York Times has said: “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives” as it becomes clear that the US election result was probably due to a small percent of Christians who had previously voted for Obama, voting for Trump. This may have been on the basis that Hillary Clinton was going to outlaw and marginalise traditional Christianity by requiring it to change.

Serious papers need to employ more literate journalists. They need fewer writers who:
  • admire status, ego and 'supermen'; 
  • see all religions as the same; 
  • do not grasp that it is scripture and doctrine that steers true believers, not bigotry.
Liberals talk about ‘religious bigots’. The religious are not ‘bigoted’ : they are obedient to church doctrine and/or Scriptures. Such myopia not only affects left wing journalists. Most politicians, diplomats and policymakers cannot see the invisible influence of religion in politics, nations, cultures and people’s lives. They also have no understanding of the drivers behind religious extremism which is influenced by the interpretation of certain religious texts.

Worse still, religious illiteracy affects liberal Christian leaders. You only have to hear some liberal church leaders ventilating their doubts to realise that they have no idea of what faith is. Their tea lady probably understands faith and true doctrine ten times better than they do, and knows how to practice it. They seem like blind guides.

In the view of some traditional Catholics, Pope Francis has been overturning or ignoring Catholic doctrine. Being postmodern, he may not realise that he is up against, not flesh and blood, but the collective historic views of the visible and invisible Catholic church developed over centuries (whether it was right or wrong).

Christian doctrine (literally 'teaching')  is a vast body of knowledge: it is not 'bigotry'. It is the labour of centuries, the result of much discussion over Scriptural texts (or traditions) subjected to learned scholarship (whether its results are still under development, or definitively God’s Truth).

We urgently need to develop and promote religiously literate editors, leaders, politicians, diplomats, policymakers, and even church leaders, who understand the concept of 'a body of doctrine'. They also need to grasp that man and woman are spiritual beings, not just economic and political units just motivated by selfishness and greed.

Christianity is not 'a comforting message' but a vast and comprehensive worldview with its own inner harmony, balance and divine rationality. It cannot be changed or deconstructed by modernity or politics - or by one person's political views. Jesus also said that that that 'the gates of hell' cannot overcome it. It may dwindle in the West, for a season, but it is rampaging through the rest of the world.