Saturday 25 January 2014



In our recent book by Francis Spufford, he made much of the human propensity to muck things up (code name HPtFtU) and the importance of being able to move on - as well as the very benign influence that a recognition of this propensity would have on our tolerance of others. 

A vow to believe in the possibility of change

In the context of the benefits of the vows taken by religious communities, Timothy Wright, former Abbot of Ampleforth, has written this: 
Neither stability nor obedience could make sense without the third promise, that of conversion of life. ... The call to conversion of life is in effect a vow to change, to never remain still either in self-satisfied fulfilment or in self-denying despair. There is no room for the person who thinks they have got it all sorted out, nor for the temptation in so many to believe that we will never even get started. It is a vow to believe in the possibility of change in ourselves, and also in others.[taken from The Rule of St Benedict and Business Management: A Conversation (2002)]

We have made enough Hell on earth

Our February author, Richard Holloway, writes candidly of his adolescent temptations and the very strong influence of the monastic community at Kelham which he had chosen to join at 14. It could make depressing reading if it wasn't for the adult and contemporary slant which he puts on all these matters as he recounts them in his very readable memoir. In the context of the HPtFtU and some of our discussions at Wychwood Circle of modern understandings of heaven and hell and the nature of God, it is interesting to come across this passage:
I never found it hard to reject the vulgarity of the idea of Hell and see it only as human darkness made visible. We have made enough Hell on earth to know how creative human cruelty can be, not excluding its grimmer theological metaphors. It was never fear of Hell that was to haunt me. It was the lacerating sadness of disappointing God that hurt. The idea of the heartbroken God reaching out to his children for their love and being rejected by them is emotionally powerful. [from Leaving Alexandria - A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (2012, 2013)]
Richard Holloway was later to leave that community and, much later, the church, having by then been Bishop of Edinburgh for a number of years.

We will be discussing Richard Holloway's memoir at our regular monthly discussion at Wychwood Library (OX7 6LD) on February 9th. Philip Pullman describes the book thus: "Endlessly vivid and fascinating ... A delight and inspiration to believers, non-believers and ex-believers alike."

The group is very mixed and newcomers and occasional visitors are always welcome. At time of writing the library still had a spare copy available to borrow - 01993 830281. 

Saturday 18 January 2014


     For last year's words belong to last year's language
     And next year's words await another voice. 

Any analogy has a limited value and therefore needs to be balanced by another, or by several others. There is a long theological tradition, called 'apophatic', which says that we can only talk about God in terms of what he/she/it is not. So from the image of the mountain with multiple approaches this piece switches to an inner exploration, before going on to say more about obstacles. For some of us, Francis Spufford's prose about his contemplative experiences in a quiet unnamed church still resonates and inevitably connects with other discussions about the power of silence or the physical and psychological benefits of meditation. 

Long before mindfulness became mainstream in the UK, John Main (1926-1982), an English Benedictine monk, pioneered the practice of Christian meditation. His work inspired the foundation of the World Community for Christian Meditation. Writing of the 'contemplative life' in Letters from the Heart (1988), in an attempt to dispel the sense that monastic communities are full of 'lifeless people sitting around all day with little or nothing to do', he said this:
But real prayer, coming from the silent centre of our spirit, is the source of the selflessness of love, the source of energy. In that centre, the source of our Being, we encounter God ... To find God is to find love. To find love is to find oneself in harmony with the basic energy of all creation, which is love. When a community is directed to this as its essential priority, ordinary limitations imposed on human relations by egoism become, as it were, flipped around. Where there was self-seeking there becomes service. Where there was desire for self-protection there becomes an impulse to lead others to fulfillment through love.
It is probably a little-known fact that the great Mark Williams, co-author of the now-legendary Mindfulness - a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, as well as being director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, is a priest and indeed a canon of Christ Church cathedral. The prospect of inviting him to Wychwood Circle and giving him the topic "Mindfulness, and then ...?" to address is a tempting one. 

In the meantime one could be forgiven for having further thoughts about obstacles - whether to climbing the mountain or making that inner journey, or even going to church - and what indeed it is, since Spufford and the former Bishop of Edinburgh are our current themes, to be a Christian. There is a widespread feeling that to be a Christian is to sign up to a set of propositions. It may be in practice, and for some that may even be crucial. But for others (both mountaineers and meditators) it is surely enough to say that a Christian is a follower of Christ ... whatever you conceive him to be. 

If Jesus is/was more than a first-century man in the Middle East, then he is certainly not to be delineated for all time by a Church Creed put together some time in the 4th century under political pressure, or a Book of Common Prayer put together under various English kings and queens from Henry VIII onward between 1549 and 1662, or even the New Revised Standard Version (Anglicised, Catholic Edition, etc) of the Bible in the late twentieth century!

In 2014 you can discover a lot about Jesus, or at least of the God of whom he spoke, by your own delving into bits of the gospels which make sense to you, by dipping into 2000 years, and more, of philosophy and theology, by being inspired by artists and poets and nature, by listening to contemporary writers and preachers, and by your own contemplation/meditation/prayer. (Note the word 'and' in that last sentence...) 

Anticipating our next book by Richard Holloway we could quote, in the context of the above reflections, a poem by Yehuda Amichai which he quotes in an earlier book of his, Doubts and Loves: 

     And a whisper will be heard in the place
     where the ruined
     house once stood.

To finish as we began with the unfathomable TS Eliot: 
     We shall not cease from exploration
     And the end of all our exploring
     Will be to arrive where we started
     And know the place for the first time.

On February 9th Wychwood Circle will meet to discuss Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. 7pm- 9pm at the library in High Street, Milton under Wychwood, OX7 6LD.

Tuesday 14 January 2014


Far more can be mended than you know

Spufford in his Unapologetic was highly articulate in talking about the value of experience, of re-thinking and re-telling the Christian story, in seeing how the story and the subsequent theology can resonate in the modern mind and make “hopeful” and “realistic sense”.  It’s interesting to find two highly respected reviewers giving the book much more than the time of day – and also that they both quote all or some of Spufford’s final paragraph.  It bears quoting here:
“If, that is, there is a God.  There may well not be.  I don’t know whether there is.  And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone.  It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item.  What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional.  And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy who says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know.”

In our discussions in Wychwood Library, we recognised the strengths of his argument and admired his bravery in laying bare his soul and describing in detail his own experience and raw thinking.  But our focus nevertheless returned to some of the objections to religious belief in general, and perhaps Spufford’s version of Christianity (eloquent though it is) in particular. Some of the routine arguments resurfaced in a way that Julian Baggini once described so mischievously:
“The most vocal atheists and the believers who take their bait appear ever more like a long-married couple who prefer the familiarity of their dysfunctional relationship to the emptiness that lies beyond amicable divorce. They trade the same old niggles and complaints with no hope or expectation of mutual understanding.”

The Chisholm Trail

Two images came up in the final stages of the discussion, neither of which is original.  When Andy Thayer from the Chase Benefice (Chadlington etc) spoke to us in September he compared the Christian, or even the religious, experience to the Chisholm Trail in North America: it’s so wide that it can be seen from space, and the countless pilgrims and searchers on the religious trail to our own Chicago (where in the 19th century cattle fetched a much higher price) can join it from many directions, pursue their own particular route along the trail, never meet more than a handful of the others, and still reach their goal.

The other image is the old one of the mountain with one peak but many slopes. God is the peak – so high as to be hidden in the clouds, so that even to begin the ascent requires some sort of faith and/or hope. And some of us are engaged on the climb on our own familiar side of the mountain, while others are trekking up another slope. Some of them we can see, some of them we can compare notes with, some of them we’ve only heard of, and no doubt some are right round the other side of the mountain and we can only guess that maybe they are pursuing much the same goal along a totally different path: we’re all facing upwards towards the top of the mountain.  

Different paths up the same mountain

The analogy is normally used to describe the equivalence of different established traditions and religions in speaking about God and portraying the religious life. But maybe it is equally apt as an image for those around our Circle in the library in West Oxfordshire on a Sunday night, and all the others not present as well. All of us who have ever given ‘spiritual things’ (or just ‘serious things’) a thought are probably somewhere on the lower slopes of that mountain, whatever we conceive it to represent. Many are out of sight, others are really quite close by, some have – alas – tried to prevent others getting up it, or just insisted that they climb a prescribed path. 

What we all share is that the slope can be steep (even if the views are rewarding) and characterised by a great number of obstacles and distractions which get in the way of an easy ascent – and in many cases put us off altogether.  The obstacles could be our religious instruction at school or church, the Bible, the church, even Jesus – or at least what we’ve been told about him. The distractions could be science, or consumerism, or shallow living.  Name your favourite and add to the list!

Yet obstacles and distractions can be either side-stepped or overcome. There is no reason why a mountaineer should climb a mountain in a straight line, let alone follow a well-beaten track. And if you are finding the going hard, or getting nowhere, or coming across the same old vertical cliff face or soggy ground which prevent further progress, why not choose a slightly different path? Or maybe a radically different one? By all means, stand still and consider the options, but don’t give up, and don’t go back down again!

Religion was made for man

To coin a phrase – one which Jesus is not reported to have said, but might well have done – religion is made for man, not man for religion.  If yours doesn’t work, try another. Don’t be brow-beaten by your parents, your religious leaders, your childhood experience, the idols which it’s much more cool to worship …  – don’t let anyone or any bad experience stand in your way.

And the final question – and the final analogy of the mountain – is one you may have seen coming.  Why climb the mountain at all? Why aim for the invisible peak? I think someone else answered that once before (and I’ve no idea whether he was religious or not): because it’s there.

February 9th: At our next meeting we discuss LEAVING ALEXANDRIA: A MEMOIR OF FAITH AND DOUBT by Richard Holloway - the former Bishop of Edinburgh who resigned from his office and left the church as his doubts increased. (Canongate, 2012)
It could be interesting to make the link from Spufford to Holloway by reading this review of Unapologetic by Richard Holloway: Guardian Sept 2012

March 9th: We are pleased to have been able to invite Dr Nicola Slee to join us for this meeting and her topic will be POETRY AND FAITH. Please come and bring friends. 

Tuesday 7 January 2014


Theologically spread out

I recently came across – and warmed to – a suggestion by Daniel Hardy (Finding the church, SCM, London 2000) that “we need to learn to think of Christian faith as by nature spread out, as something extended by its spread-out-ness.”  This contrasts with the traditional tendency to think in concentrated terms, focusing on Bible, church, beliefs, certainties, and it appeals to Alison Webster, who in her introduction to a book on the church and society warns readers of her own preference for “theological ‘spread-out-ness’”.  

Webster goes on: “Some readers will no doubt think it so spread out as not to qualify as ‘theology’ at all.” (Wellbeing, SCM, London 2002) But she also quotes theologian Stephen Pattison who characterises contemporary theology as “a kind of whispered conversation on matters esoteric conducted in a foreign language behind closed doors in a distant attic” (Political Theology journal, 2000).  It is certainly true of much traditional religious language that it is not helpful in analysing contemporary issues – either for oneself, or in communicating them to our own culture. 


Later in the same book, Webster quotes the phrase ‘the story-formed community of the church' to make the point that the Christian story does not resonate for everyone.  I like the comparison Jeanette Winterson has drawn between an artist and a translator (quoted in Webster, p 124, and see below) and the parallel Webster makes between artist and religious person:
"For the Christian, for instance, the question is: how to pass into the secular world the insights of one's Christian heritage? How to tell the Christian story in that context? But also, crucially, the question must be put the other way round: how to pass back into the corporate christocentric language of the church the insights of the other languages?"


Our current reading matter at Wychwood Circle is the “tumultuously challenging” Unapologetic by Francis Spufford (Faber, London 2012).  Someone in the group spoke for several who can’t bear his style when she said that he wrote like a ‘smart-arse’.  (Given his own free, not to say abrasive, use of language, he could hardly object to such a blunt description...) But the point was also made that this did at least make a refreshing change from pompous preachers, sentimental hymns and fervent evangelists.

Jeanette's point ("The artist is a translator... ") is surely relevant to the idea of replacing stuffy old Christian language with contemporary parlance, even if the temptation is to overdo it.  Spufford is using very modern (some said, juvenile) language to address a very modern audience.  Maybe his primary audience is indeed our teenagers who are normally so completely switched off by any religious rhetoric. In this, we should say (in a rather quainter style): all power to his elbow!

The world, the flesh (or the 'human propensity' etc) and the devil 

A four-letter word crops up persistently in Unapologetic, usually – and fortunately – within an abbreviation (the ‘HPtFtU’), itself a deliberate euphemism for another unacceptable word, ‘sin’.  His point is that, whatever we believe about religion, we know that we do as humans have a natural propensity to muck things up.  This concept turns out to be central to his argument and it has become topical this week with the current controversy over changes to the wording of the baptism in Anglican churches. 

The ‘devil’ has been cast out of the baptism service – experimentally at least.  And not before time, given that no-one has talked of him/her/it seriously for a good many years now. Inevitably there will be a backlash from more traditional worshippers who see this as abandoning the concept of sin. Yet Spufford places this concept (or his modern formulation) at the centre of his defence of modern Christianity, and as crucial to the “emotional sense” which his title promises.  His chapter heading uses the words of the singer Leonard Cohen, “The Crack in Everything”.  

Andrew Brown is worth reading on the current controversy in the Guardian this week (Article Jan 6th), where he talks about trying “to rescue the meaning of sin so that it recovers some of its primal sense of wrongness.” He goes on: “This is an almost novelistic endeavour, but Francis Spufford had a good go at it in Unapologetic.”

Sunday 12th January at Wychwood Library

On Sunday we continue our discussion of Spufford’s book, focusing on all or any of the final 5 chapters, from the unputdownable chapter on “Yeshua” to the final “Consequences”. Join us at Wychwood Library (OX7 6LD) from 7pm.