Saturday 5 December 2015


Praying for the climate - Advent 2015

In an interesting coincidence but a propitious juxtapostion the Paris Conference of the Parties (COP21) - or UN Conference on Climate Change - gathers at the same time as Christians begin the period of preparation and reflection known as Advent.  Though Christmas has been hijacked by our consumerist culture, with more people probably aware of 'Black Friday' (the first big day of sales) than 'Advent Sunday' (the first day of the Advent season), some of us will be doing our best to retain that attitude of quiet reflection and humility before the 'mystery' of the Incarnation.

This year we have one of the biggest issues there is to meditate on - the future of our very tangible but possibly not sustainable world resources - and to decide what action we should take, now and going forward.  Many people fast for the climate on the first day of each month: December 1st inevitably took on a special significance this time.  Others have marched to Paris, or led demonstrations, or decided that their faith led them to 'pray and fast for the climate'.  There are also climate-related Advent Calendars available, such as this one by A Rocha UK: no chocolate - just inspiration from a different voice each day. 

Blog and discussion

David Soward has elaborated on the facts, the motivation, and possible responses to damaging global warming for the Chase Benefice website

At Wychwood Circle we have a discussion planned on 'The Ethics of Climate Change' on June 5th 2016 - with an illustrious guest speaker in the shape of the recently retired White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University, John Broome.  John Broome has first-hand experience of world climate conferences and international efforts to come to some political agreement on what can and should be done about the climate.  We are lucky to have him on our list for 2016. 

Sunday 15 November 2015

2015-2016 PROGRAMME


Our good friend Monawar Hussain, who came to talk to a large audience in Wychwood Library last year about 'Islam - mainstream or extreme', has issued the following statement this weekend:  

Paris terrorist attacks utterly despicable 

The following statement has been issued by Imam Monawar Hussain, Founder, The Oxford Foundation, following the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, 13th November 2015:
“We are deeply shocked and saddened to witness the appalling acts of violence perpetrated against innocent civilians enjoying an evening out with their friends and families in Paris.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, friends and the people of France. 
“Many will be asking how do we defeat those committed to such acts of cowardly violence against unarmed civilians?  We will defeat the scourge of contemporary terrorist movements through being absolutely united in the values that underpin our societies – democracy, freedom, rule of law, human rights and compassion for the vulnerable.”

Saturday 24 October 2015



JC takes on the world (a personal view)

There has been much criticism of Jeremy Corbyn – particularly on the right of the Labour Party and centre-left commentators like Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland.  They fear, for example, that he is a great campaigner but not much of a politician.  Does he really have a will to govern?  Or the ability to be Prime Minister?  Is he leading a political party, a plausible party of government? Or is he rather leading a movement, with a huge groundswell of support amongst the young and the forgotten left-wingers of yesteryear?

Oscar Wilde said that the trouble with socialism (or any other well-meaning political work?) is that it takes up ‘too many evenings’.  Jeremy Corbyn has devoted a long political life to the cause.  Is that impressive and inspiring, or just dumb?


Corbyn has called for a kinder, gentler, more caring society.  By transforming the weekly parliamentary show of  PMQs he has also – so far – introduced a more positive, more grown-up style of politics.  As one commentator put it, he is changing politics although (by being ‘unelectable’) he may not  change the country.  He apparently has no appeal with those middle earners who do are not dependent on Tax Credits (which Osborne is slashing cruelly) and who also – telling point – never even come across those who are. 


His forebear, Labour’s founder Keir Hardie, talked of ‘trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong’, and Jonathan Freedland (The Guardian) described his early Commons appearances thus: ‘he came across as earnest, committed and charmingly diffident’, ‘he radiated a winning humility’ – even if Winston Churchill wouldn’t have been impressed!  And despite all the supercilious dismissal by delighted Tories and the insular and petty right-wing media  he comes across, as cartoonist Steve Bell commented, as ‘plausible and straightforward’: ‘he’s completely outfoxed them’, says Bell.  Or, as journalist Jenni Russell said on Newsnight, ‘he isn’t playing the game’.

Could this be the man to change hearts but not – at least not so obviously – the world?  Is Jeremy Corbyn’s heart in the right place, but not his political instincts?  Is Jeremy Corbyn the man to take forward Keir Hardie’s idealistic ambition? Or is he just leading an ineffectual movement, destined to be for ever a counter-cultural, ethical, but not political force in British society?    Some might boldly draw parallels with another JC, who preached a kinder, more caring society in first century Palestine: he too had little time for political games but devoted his life to inspiring an oppressed underclass and … well, changing hearts and thereby, maybe, the world.

George Monbiot wrote an interesting article last week reporting a study by the Common Cause Foundation that found that we are more unselfish than is often thought.  He later tweeted that  the knowledge of this was enough to make him feel more benign towards his fellow man.  So if we are not selfish but we nevertheless (pace an electoral system which may distort our true intentions) seem to favour tough but harsh governments, what is it which will motivate us to be better people and improve our world?


No doubt the spectacular result of the May general election, confounding all expectations, is still being analysed: was it shy Tories or fearful English voters, a gullible electorate or just the cunning of Lynton Crosby that made half the voters say they’d vote Labour or LibDem but then change their minds? Whatever our true beliefs and however they affected our actions in May, the fact is that we are where we are for the next 5 years and the poor and the climate will just have to take the consequences.  But maybe there is still some hope and some compassion: the Pope seems to be on their side, Jeremy Corbyn cares enough to risk ridicule by quoting the needy in Parliament, and the SNP make quite a good opposition.  Even the Archbishop of Canterbury this week echoed his own words from 2014, that ‘the Church must take the risk of identifying with the poor’.  Now steady on… 

Monday 21 September 2015



Earlier this month we were entertained and stimulated by the Dean of Christ Church on the subject of Ethics in public life – with an emphasis on advertising and where to draw the line to avoid giving offence.  It so happens that the Dean’s wife, the Reverend Emma Percy, chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford, might easily have been our guest next month since she shares many of the views of our speaker in October, Dr Nicola Slee.  Both are members of WATCH (Women and the Church) and are amongst those whom the Daily Mail might typically quote when writing about sexism and political correctness in the church.

Many of us have just about managed to move on from our childish view of God as a bearded white man in the sky and have spent a lifetime trying to work out what should replace that image. In many churches and commentaries it has become quite common for God to be referred to always (even repeatedly) as ‘God’ rather than ‘he’, even in sentences where the word recurs several times.  We also avoid ‘man’, ‘mankind’, ‘all men’, etc – even if it means adapting the words of ancient and well-known hymns and indeed the liturgy. 

Behind this gradual, and perhaps little-noticed, move, lies a movement to combat sexism which former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe has described as ‘plain silly’.  To her horror (although she herself may now feel safer in the male patriarchy which is the Roman Catholic church) the pressure group which worked hard to get female bishops in the C of E is also calling for us to start referring to God as ‘she’.  Reverend Emma Percy told a Sunday paper:
When we use only male language for God we reinforce the idea that God is like a man and, in doing so, suggest that men are therefore more like God than women. This means that women can see themselves as less holy and less able to represent Christ in the world.
Nicola Slee, along with five other women and two men, is an Hon Vice President of WATCH.  The Chair is Hilary Cotton, who insisted earlier this year that this was ‘not a campaigning issue’ so much as an ‘experiment’ designed to ‘encourage people to expand their imagery of God'.  

Dr Nicola Slee is a feminist theologian and poet and has written extensively in the fields of Christian feminist theology, liturgy, spirituality and education. She is a research fellow at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham.  Her books include Faith and Feminism (2003) and Praying like a woman (2004) and more recently Seeking the risen Christa (2011). 

We look forward very much to her visit to Wychwood Circle on October 11th at 7pm, when she will give us An Introduction to Christian Feminist Theology.  As always anyone, male or female, of any persuasion, and of any faith or of none, will be welcome at Wychwood Library in the High Street of Milton under Wychwood (OX7 6LD). 

Monday 17 August 2015



We are used to politicians and other public figures getting into trouble over their behaviour and anyone in public life is vulnerable to lurid and probably over-stated reports in the media - particularly in the 'silly season'. Now a tennis player has provided a springboard for the ever-readable Will Hutton to write (preach?) about the inner voice of restraint weakening in our society along with the well-documented decline in ethics in finance and business:
The inner voice that checks any of us in our naked pursuit of what we want seems ever weaker, he wrote on Sunday.
Not everyone will subscribe to Hutton's view that the 'wider philosophy of libertarian capitalism' is where our worst instincts find a home, but they may be less likely to disagree when he says: 
Modern life does not need to be so reluctant to embrace shame, duty and purpose - or be a place where individualistic self-preoccupation and lack of respect for others ride so high.
And if we agree, then what is it that has driven or even created this sad state of affairs? If not politics and the way our society is organised, then is it technology or globalisation or what?  Or maybe the 'gaps left behind' by a steady erosion of faith in the last few decades, as Madeleine Bunting - 'no longer a practising Christian' - made us wonder in her wide-ranging and articulate series of The Essay on Radio 3 last week. She talked on separate evenings about 'glory', 'sin', 'salvation', and patience, and one of the things she seemed to deplore  is the misplaced emphasis of the churches over the centuries on a Christian critique of human nature (mainly, she suggested, with the desire to manipulate society for imperialistic institutions' own ends). There was always less attention to 'structural sin', or our 'collective responsibility for social and economic systems which exploit and oppress people'. And now?

As Will Hutton argues for 'a better public space', we at Wychwood Circle will focus in September on ethics in film, theatre and media, thanks to Professor Martyn Percy who, amongst many other attributes, is adviser to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and previously worked with the Advertising Standards Authority. As Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, he doesn't have too far to come but we are fortunate that he has made time for us at the start of the new academic year. 

Wychwood Library, Sept 6th at 7.00 pm:  'Ethics in public life - film, theatre and media' - a talk and discussion led by the Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy.  As always, anyone is welcome, whatever their views. 

Thursday 6 August 2015


Two kinds of intellect

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), physicist, philosopher and mathematician, is famous for quotations from his Pensées, such as

We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.

In the light of our recent Wychwood Circle discussions on the workings of our ‘Divided Brain’ (left hemisphere vs right hemisphere) it is interesting to read a bit about the duality of intellect and intuition as seen by Pascal, who distinguished between ‘two kinds of intellect’ or what he called the mathematical mind (meaning: logical, rational) and the intuitive mind. 
Others throughout intellectual history have also found it useful to suppose this duality.  In the Christian tradition Augustine of Hippo (354-430) talked about the higher and the lower mind:  for him the role of the higher mind was contemplation (of God, in his case) and the lower mind was for reasoning.  The fourth-century desert monk Evagrius (he of the 'Eight Thoughts') distinguished between 'ratiocination or discursive thought' and what he called ‘nous’, an intuitive spiritual intelligence. And Aquinas in the 13th century, like Augustine, talked about lower reason (ratio inferior) which thinks and calculates, and higher reason (ratio superior) which communes directly with God.  

To non-Christians and indeed many Christians, talk of contemplation and communion will set off alarm bells, though not of course to millions of people of more Eastern faiths.  So in 2015 the modern Divided Brain analysis is perhaps safer territory – even if the evidence from neuroscience is to date far from conclusive.  Yet the marked difference between the brain’s two hemispheres and how they process information, though still very much under investigation, has been known to neuroscientists for at least a hundred and fifty years, ever since Pierre Paul Broca discovered the location of language-processing skills in the left side of the brain, as Jonathan Sacks tells us.  Read a short summary of these differences in chapter two of his The Great Partnership if you don’t fancy the 500 pages of Iain McGilchrist.  Or view the June posts on this site. 

The idea of setting reason up as counterbalanced by ‘the heart’ has a long history, with an early saint called Diadochus (quoted by Martin Laird) referring to the heart as the deep centre of the person (and not the seat of the emotions, as emerges much later).  The Old Testament writings abound with references to the heart, not least in the psalms:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God” (Ps 14)
I will walk with integrity of heart  (Ps 101)
And in the early twentieth century, the French author Saint-Exupery (author of The Little Prince) seems to echo Pascal:  ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly…’. 

What can we know?

So what did Pascal mean by ‘We know truth…”?  The Bishop of Worcester asked the question in an article back in 2013:  “So what do you know?”  Those of us who discussed the McGilchrist thesis in July or have been reading up on it since then will recognise where Bishop John is coming from.  And those who know their Dickens may hear echoes of the sarcastic opening of Hard Times:  “… In this life we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”

McGilchrist is not the first to point out that in other languages there is a distinction between sorts of knowledge:  French has ‘connaître’ as opposed to ‘savoir’, German and Latin similarly.  The former is more akin to knowing someone, understanding them, but can apply to ‘encountering’ or fully understanding something as well as someone, maybe also to knowing truth.  As the Bishop, a former scientist, says:
We need both sorts of knowledge.  The problem is that, almost without its being noticed, the second kind is being increasingly privileged in our society, almost to the exclusion of the first. This is partly because it is the only sort of knowledge that science allows.
Which leaves us perhaps wondering how to acquire that additional knowledge if we too have been a bit left-brained for too long.  There is a series of BBC programmes running currently on Radio 4 entitled: ‘How can I know anything at all?’  One answer, which Martin Laird extols convincingly, is found in silence and contemplation.  There is no shortage of examples from Augustine and Evagrius onwards (and not just in the Christian tradition) of people who have sought to experience more than ‘facts’.  

One of them, less well-known than Evagrius or Augustine, was called Theoplan - again quoted by Laird.  Writing in the same spiritual tradition that saw the heart as the deep centre of the person, Theoplan said:
You must descend from your head to your heart. … Whilst you are still in your head, thoughts will not easily be subdued but will always be whirling about, like snow in winter or clouds of mosquitoes in the summer.
Another way is to study more serious fiction, poetry (On the Edge of Vision), music and art and see what our imagination can deliver up to us in terms of truth and reality.  Others will turn to philosophy (Andrew Davison).

Whatever works for each one of us, the words of T S Eliot must be worth recalling:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?   

This post owes a lot to a great little book by Martin Laird called Into the Silent Land - The Practice of Contemplation (London, 2006).  Laird is also one inspiration behind a new 'Midmonth Meditation' which takes place at Ascott under Wychwood's Trinity Church and is open to all, regardless of worldview or spiritual practice.  Forthcoming dates:  August 12th and Sept 15th from 6.15pm to 6.50pm. 

The next Wychwood Circle event is on September 6th at 7pm at Wychwood Library in Milton under Wychwood.  Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and advisor to the British Board of Film Classification, will talk about and lead a discussion on ETHICS IN PUBLIC LIFE. 

Sunday 28 June 2015


Our friend Monawar Hussein, who visited Wychwood Circle in October 2014, has sent us the email below. 

June 27th 

Dear Friends

Please find attached a short message for the FCO that went live earlier today. 

My heart is deeply saddened with the horrific events of yesterday.  We pray for the victims, their families and friends at this tragic time ... and we remain committed to our work of drawing people together and affirming the message of mutual love, respect, reconciliation and healling. 

With blessings and in peace, 


Saturday 13 June 2015



There are those who have read Iain McGilchrist's book from cover to cover - despite its being over 500 pages long and often both technical and scientific - and at least two of them hope to be with us at Wychwood Library on July 5th. Fortunately for the rest of us there are others who have been kind enough to produce summaries and excerpts which will at least give us a flavour. 

First of all the basics, with thanks to Jonathan Sacks:
“… since Pierre Paul Broca discovered the location of language-processing skills in the left side of the brain, neuroscientists have come to understand the marked difference between the brain’s two hemispheres and how they process information. The left hemisphere tends to be linear, analytical, atomistic and mechanical. It breaks things down into their component parts and deals with them in a linear, sequential way. The right brain tends to be integrative and holistic. …The right hemisphere is strong on empathy and emotion.  It reads situations, atmospheres and moods.  It is the locus of our social intelligence.  It understands subtlety, nuance, ambiguity, irony and metaphor.” 

Then the philosopher Mary Midgley in her review:
It is always Right's business to envisage what is going on as a whole, while Left provides precision on particular issues.  Moreover, it is Right that is responsible for surveying the whole scene and channelling incoming data, so it is more directly in touch with the world. This means that Right usually know what Left is doing, but Left may know nothing about concerns outside its own enclave and may even refuse to admit their existence. 
Thus patients with right-brain strokes - but not with left-brain ones - tend to deny flatly that there is anything wrong with them.  And even over language, which is Left's speciality, Right is not helpless.  It usually has quite adequate understanding of what is said, but Left (on its own) misses many crucial aspects of linguistic meaning.  It cannot, for instance, graps metaphors, jokes or unspoken implications, all of which are Right's business.  In fact, in today's parlance, Left is decidedly autistic.  And, since Left's characteristics are increasingly encouraged in our culture, this (he suggests) is something that really calls for our attention. 

Next, McGilchrist's own words, in 3 excerpts from his Introduction, including a paragraph ("Things change...") which begins to get to the heart of the implications for our modern world: 
My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to cooperate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture. 
Things change according to the stance we adopt towards them, the type of attention we pay to them, the disposition we hold in relation to them.  This is important because the most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world. But it’s important because of the widespread assumption in some quarters that there are two alternatives: either things exist ‘out there’ and are unaltered by the machinery we use to dig them up, or to tear them apart (naïve realism, scientific materialism); or they are subjective phenomena which we create out of our minds, and therefore we are free to treat them in any way we wish, since they are after all, our own creations (naïve idealism, post-modernism). … In fact I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it into being. …
Ultimately I believe that … there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable…
How do we understand the world, if there are different version of it to reconcile? Is it important which models and metaphors we bring to bear on our reality? And, if it is, why has one particular model come to dominate us so badly that we hardly notice its pervasiveness? What do these models tell us about the words that relate us to the world at large … that both describe and, if we are not careful, prescribe the relationship we have with it? …
[You can read the full introduction and see the chapter headings as a PDF.  The publisher also provides some selected pages here.
Finally you can listen to a condensed version of a talk by the man himself (11 mins 48 secs!) as a TED talk here - as we intend to do at our discussion in July. 

McGilchrist's thesis is not uncontroversial and some (who may or may not be present on July 5th) will be in a position to pick holes in either his evidence or his analysis.  Others may simply wish to discuss the implications for Western civilisation in the 21st century of what may be at least in part true. One such discussion in a blog by the RSA's Jonathan Rowson can be found here. It would be good to collect more critical views and reviews on this site ahead of, or following, our Wychwood Circle discussion. 

See under 'The Divided Brain' for details of the July 5th event at Wychwood Library.

Saturday 6 June 2015


On July 5th we will do our best to delve into the complex subject of our own brains, inspired by Iain McGilchrist.  There is a range of approaches to McGilchrist's thesis, ranging from his massive tome entitled The Master and His Emissary (Yale, 2009) through more accessible reviews, such as one in the Guardian by Mary Midgley, to commentaries by such people as A C Grayling and Salley Vickers.  There is also a summary in an RSA blog

At Wychwood Library we intend to spend at least 12 minutes watching a much-shortened version of a longer talk by McGilchrist which was given as a TED talk. But we know that there will be some present who have read the book or know enough to help us to understand it.  Either way there will be much to explore and indeed to debate. 

Join us on Sunday 5th July at the library in Milton under Wychwood at 7pm (until 9pm latest).  See next post for much more on The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. 

Monday 11 May 2015


An evening of contemporary poetry with Barbara Vellacott 

Sunday June 7th 2015, 7pm 

Seamus Heaney

In June we welcome Barbara Vellacott to Wychwood Library for our second evening looking together at poetry. 

Barbara Vellacott has a professional background in education and world development issues.  Nowadays, she says, she expresses her lifelong love of poetry by offering poetry courses in which, through shared reading, people can discover their own responses to poems - and to life.

Gwyneth Lewis

On June 7th Barbara is offering us 'an exploration of life's mysteries through some contemporary poets, including Seamus Heaney, Gwyneth Lewis, Michael Symmons Roberts, and others'.   

Anyone is welcome.  No previous experience required!

Thursday 23 April 2015


"'Do you believe in God?' is a fatuous question"

Though some Quakers are non-theists, many speak about ‘the Spirit’, ‘the Light’, ‘the divine’, ‘the Truth’, or even ‘the Christ within’.  The emphasis is on experience rather than belief – and on deeds, not words – and there is certainly no creed, no doctrine or dogma.

Geoffrey Durham, once better known as ‘the great Soprendo’ and watched on TV by millions, told us in Wychwood Library that he was here to talk about his experience of … ‘God’ (as good a shorthand as any, he said) and how he came to adopt Quakerism as a result of getting stuck in a traffic jam in front of the same poster day after day.  After a period of attending Quaker meetings (which any of us can do, by the way) and experiencing that hour of broken silence, he eventually became a member of what is also called the Religious Society of Friends. He said that it was something he had been looking for, that it gave him meaning and purpose. And he didn’t want to convert us (‘Quakers don’t evangelise’) but he did want to tell us what Quakers are and ‘leave the rest to you’. 

Answering that of God in everyone

Born actor and raconteur that he is, Geoffrey Durham could entertain an audience for hours.  His tale of the original Quaker, George Fox, was graphic enough for us to be able to picture the event readily.  Back in 1652, Fox interrupted a church sermon by standing on a pew and, now at eye-level with the preacher in his pulpit, saying loudly: “You will say Christ saith this and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?”  Fox wanted to know what the preacher could say from his own experience, “inwardly from God”.  From there was born the Quaker belief that there should be no such thing as clergy and laity (“we abolished the laity!”) and that everyone and anyone is equal.  George Fox wanted every Quaker to ‘answer that of God in every one’.  So all can listen to the Spirit, all can have equally valid spiritual experiences (both at formal Quaker ‘meetings for worship’, and elsewhere) and all are also deserving of equal respect – which includes the social and political, indeed the geo-political, sphere.  It is then no surprise that Quakers are active politically, pursuing such concepts as the “Good Society”, and, famously, being wheeled on to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day – ‘whenever there’s a war on!’ said Geoffrey - to talk about pacifism.

When Geoffrey first picked up the little Quaker booklet Advices and Queries, it opened in the centre and he read these two words:  Live Adventurously.  He has obviously been doing so ever since.  And in his book Being a Quaker he also quotes paragraph 28 of the same booklet:  Attend to what love requires of you.  It’s what he calls ‘the starting point of an adventure in the spirit which has changed millions of lives’.  

The next Wychwood Circle event is on May 3rd in the run-up to the General Election.  Quakers and others would no doubt welcome our discussion of what guides our voting intentions - the Good Society, the Common Good, or, as implied by the Bishops' Letter to the People and Parishes of the Church of England earlier this good ("Who is my neighbour?"), simply voting for your 'neighbour' - as opposed to your own self-interest.  The irony will not be lost on those in the Chadlington and Spelsbury area who live close to the village of Dean and whose need for the Bishops' advice may be greater than anyone's...

Anyone is welcome to join us at Wychwood Library at 7pm.  Some reading suggestions can be found in the previous post on this page. 

Friday 17 April 2015


“If you care about your neighbour, you care about politics”

(headline in Christian Today, 16 ii 25)

With our long-anticipated General Election imminent (and though the date was entirely predictable, one cannot say the same for the outcome) the first quarter of this year saw an unprecedented outpouring of books, reports, letters and commentaries from faith communities such as the Church of England.  We don’t shrink from discussing any topic at Wychwood Circle and our May discussion must surely be about politics and how our beliefs/faith/worldview might affect our political views.

Given that we have an established church in the UK and that all of us inhabit a ‘parish’ of the Church of England it would seem churlish not to take up the offerings made by the Bishops and others in terms of setting out the Church’s stall.  The title above was the headline to an article in Christian Today and seems to refute any nonsense from politicians (but only if they don’t like your view) about the church staying out of politics, let alone keeping to ‘spiritual matters’.  What is it to be spiritual if it is not about people (yes, and bodies!) and their well-being, to a Christian whose very name is based on an incarnational theology? Symon Hill takes this up in his commentary, as well as anticipating typical tabloid reactions!

Join our discussion on May 3rd as we take as our starting point any one or more of the following recent publications, listed in decreasing numbers of pages :
  • The book of essays by experts in their field (258 pages) ON ROCK OR SAND? Ed John Sentamu (SPCK 2015) – under the headings of hope, the common good, the UK economy, poverty, education, work, health and well-being, and ageing.
  • The Letter ‘to the People and Parishes of the Church of England’ (58 pages) Who is my neighbour?  which is downloadable  from the C of E website 
  • The ‘guide to the pastoral letter’ (11 pages) – a useful set of quotations under 23 different headings (our political culture, the role of the state, poverty and inequality, immigration, defence and war, etc). This can be found as a Word document on the same website
  • The Guardian editorial welcoming it the day after the Letter was published. 
  • A blog on the Letter and reactions to it, by Symon Hill at the thinktank Ekklesia: 

Sunday, May 3rd at 7.00pm (ending not later than 8.30) at Wychwood Library in Milton under Wychwood High Street 

Monday 30 March 2015

GEOFFREY DURHAM: Everybody can have an experience of the divine

Two quotations from Geoffrey Durham’s book The Spirit of the Quakers:
 “The active life takes many forms, among them work, creativity and caring. …
Work is action driven by external necessity or demand. …
Creativity, in contrast, is driven more by inner choice than by outer demand. An act cannot be creative if it is not born of freedom.  In creative action, our desire is not to solve, or succeed, or survive, but to give birth to something new. 
 … In caring we aim not in giving birth to something new; we aim at nurturing, protecting, guiding, healing or empowering something that already has life. “
(Parker J Palmer, 1990, from the section Faith in Action)
And from the section, God, the Spirit and the Light Within:
'Quakers in the twenty-first century are often reluctant to talk about the Divine.  Many use the word ‘God’, but others prefer ‘the Light’, ‘ the Truth’, ‘the Seed’ or ‘the Spirit’. 
The early Quakers discovered that everybody can have an experience of the divine.  
Some Quakers today reject traditional notions of God and use the word ‘nontheist’. … Their view should not be confused with an atheist one.'


An evening with Richard Coles at Milton under Wychwood Village Hall 

Lucid, well-grounded, comfortable and confident in his faith, an articulate and entertaining raconteur, fascinating, happy to respond to challenging questions, liked him more than I expected: these are just a few of the comments which followed Richard Coles’ visit to Milton Village Hall on March 8th.  Invited by Wychwood Circle to address the topic “Christianity for grown-ups”, Richard spoke of his own rejection of his father’s and grandfather’s Anglicanism and of conversations with people who did not appear to have developed their ideas of God beyond what they picked up in childhood. 

He touched on his wild (and godless) career in pop music and the glory and celebrity which he enjoyed as a young man: life in the Communards, he said, was bound to ‘feed the bonfire of your ego’.  And he was frank about the emptiness and the need he found in himself subsequently. In Edinburgh for the Festival one year he felt drawn to St Mary’s Cathedral and experienced what he called a hunger which he later identified as being met only by the church’s sacraments (such as the bread and wine within the eucharisitic liturgy).  He went from psychologist to counsellor to the colour and drama of  St Alban’s in Holborn where he was greatly inspired by the priest there and by participation in the worship and rituals of high-church Anglicanism.

Though not naturally inclined to do so, he felt he should enrol at King’s College, London, to study theology and later went to theological college and spent time in an Eastern monastery.  For such an urbane and public person, broadcaster and inveterate user of social media, it was intriguing to find him talking about the prayer discipline he learned at Mirfield, about the wonder and mystery which he experiences in the traditional liturgy, devised in previous generations to try and clarify or express that mystery.

Whatever his past and present celebrity, he comes across as  natural and down-to-earth, open and humble, quietly confident and comfortable in himself and with others.  Speaking to him individually before or afterwards, you felt that he was looking straight at you and giving you his full attention.  You find yourself envying his parishioners. “He exemplifies religion as something one does, more than a set of propositions one believes”, commented one member of the audience, “with his emphasis on living a life of prayer and service to the community”. 

The community he serves is a vast one.  Vicar of an ordinary parish in Northamptonshire which he shares with his partner and 4 dachshunds, he says he likes to go out and enjoy day-to-day contact with the people of his parish. But he also has 70,000 followers on Twitter and posts daily on Facebook: he sees himself as a ‘mission priest’ and his virtual parish must extend all over the world.  The only moment in his talk when he seemed to be trying to convert anyone was in his enthusiasm for social media and its potential to communicate and explore ideas widely.

As someone who is a church-goer said afterwards, ‘Perhaps he needs to come again so we can consider further just how we might grow into grown-up Christians!’ Others, whatever their worldview and however sceptical, will nevertheless remember his sincerity and his professed  ‘hunger’ for the sacraments.  Richard quoted Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going, which includes these lines:
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself  to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in


Monday 9 March 2015


On April 12th Wychwood Circle will host former professional magician and entertainer GEOFFREY DURHAM.  To people of a certain generation he evokes the word 'Suprendo'.  He is now better known for writing and speaking about Quakerism. He was on Radio 4's Thought for the Day at the time of the commemorations for the start of World War One.

As usual we welcome everyone and anyone to Wychwood Library at 7pm, whether they just want to listen or whether they want to enter into the lively discussion which normally follows the talk.  


Saturday 21 February 2015



On March 8th we welcome a national figure, well-known to some Radio 4 listeners, a hero for others who have watched him go from pop star to pulpit, and - if one national paper is to be believed - 'the atheist's favourite vicar'. Some will have read Richard Coles' recent memoir which tells his very human story of surviving sex, drugs and rock'n'roll before going on to a 'classic Protestant conversion' (as he calls it) in the unlikely setting of a solemn high mass (so anything but Protestant) at St Alban's, Holborn. 

One reviewer compares his 'astonishingly honest' autobiography to Francis Spufford's Unapologetic - another startling but moving book about an adult and very contemporary engagement with faith and one which Wychwood Circle discussed just over a year ago.  You should, the reviewer suggested, hesitate to give either book to your elderly church-going aunt even if she is a fan of Saturday Live

The Reverend Richard Coles was on a panel at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival of Science alongside Robin Ince, the Bishop of Swindon and Timandra Harkness. When asked to explain their faith, the Bishop based his - rather dull - answer on the key elements of the Christian creed while Richard talked intriguingly about the 'topsy-turvy gospel', where 
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. If you want to have anything worth having, you've got to give it all away. And you've got to die to live. 
He also complained that most people haven't given much thought to any sort of faith since they were eight years old and so no wonder they have rejected their childish view of religion - an experience which may be common to many of us. 

It is hard to gauge how many of his 70,000 Twitter followers will beat a path to Milton Village Hall on March 8th; maybe most of them are more interested in the activities of his four dachshunds or his updates on life at Finedon Vicarage. Those of us who are there may well find that, scandalous past or gentle banter aside, Richard Coles gives us something to think about in terms of how we live our lives and what on earth we base them on. 

Saturday 7 February 2015



Marcus Borg died last month and will be missed, not least by those who had only recently begun to discover just how much he did for a modern understanding of what it is to be a Christian.  We recently read some quite dense theological chapters in his measured debate with his fellow biblical scholar N T Wright:  this was not a book for the casual reader!  But Borg can be very accessible.  Only a few years ago he wrote Speaking Christian (2011) which is almost a phrase-book, if not a dictionary, for those of us in 2015 who don’t live and think within church structures or traditions but might still want to know what Christians are on about.  

The words we use are vital, and none so much as the word God! Giles Fraser, priest and Guardian columnist, tweeted memorably this week:  I do not believe in the God that Stephen Fry does not believe in.  Marcus Borg, in Speaking Christian, takes aim at two phenomena which can do untold damage to an intelligent teenager’s understanding of ‘what Christians believe’. One is the relatively recent literalisation of language, ‘affecting Christians and non-Christians alike’. The second is what he calls ‘the heaven-and-hell framework’. 

Doing away with unhelpful language

Language is of course crucial in any philosophical debate and few of us would sensibly try to understand the thought of another culture or tradition, let alone another era, without first making sure we knew what language they were speaking and how they used it and understood key words in the context of their own community.  In order to communicate that community’s thoughts to a modern audience with a very different cultural background, we might feel the need to use very different language.  

What Borg calls the ‘heaven-and-hell framework’ has been and continues to be seen, he says, as
the core of Christianity for millions, within and outside the church.  It is the framework within which many understand Christian language.
The heaven and hell framework has four central elements: the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus’s dying for our sins, and believing. They are all there in my childhood memory and present in the minds of many Christians. What is already in our minds shapes what we experience, including how we hear words.
Of course, as he emphasizes in his first chapter, this framework, while ‘narrowing and distorting the meaning of much of Christian language’, has also ‘worked and still works for millions’.  

Which is fine, but Borg’s concern, shared by some of us at Wychwood Circle, is that Christian language used in this way has also become a problem for many.  It may obscure the truth, the richness, the contemporary relevance of Christianity, it may indeed be ‘an obstacle, an intellectual stumbling-block’.  Borg therefore proceeds to take, chapter by chapter, a whole range of typically Christian words, from ‘salvation’ to ‘heaven’ and the language of Bible and creeds, and to teach us to read and to hear such language ‘without preconceived understandings getting in the way’. 

Communicating an adult faith

Richard Coles told an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival that, if they last thought about religion or faith when they were about 8 years old (as is so often the case), the chances are that, when they think about it now, they are thinking in childish terms because that is all they remember or ever knew. No wonder so many reject faith if what they are rejecting is a version of Christianity formulated for children. And how good a job do the churches do now, or the priests and theologians in the public sphere, in communicating the depth and relevance of a modern faith?

The next Wychwood Circle live event will be at the Village Hall on the main road through Milton under Wychwood on March 8th at 7pm.  The Reverend Richard Coles, broadcaster and former pop singer, will speak about "CHRISTIANITY FOR GROWN-UPS". 

Saturday 31 January 2015



We hear a lot about spirituality these days, whether with faith or without, whether ‘modern spirituality’ or traditional religious spirituality.  Even Sam Harris, arch-atheist as he is supposed to be, is searching for spirituality without religion. And the RSA, with its strapline ‘21st Century Enlightenment’, has just published a report entitled ‘Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges’.  It quotes a 2013 survey by the think-tank Theos suggesting that 59% of people believe in 'some kind of spiritual being or essence'.  


And why not?  When we discussed this at Wychwood Circle someone suggested that to be ‘spiritual’ is just to be serious about life, the world and humanity.  And that means thinking about how we live and what values we live by.  Madeleine Bunting, panellist at the Beyond Belief: Taking Spirituality Seriously events at the RSA, said that the conversation was about 'what is our human nature, what are we as human beings?'

At Wychwood Circle we have been clear from the beginning that we wanted to discuss not just 'what we believe' but 'what we believe in' and for our first few months in 2012 we took Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life apart chapter by chapter.  We encountered religion and philosophy, politics and psychology, ethics and justice – but one thing which united our contrasting approaches was that we all agreed that we believed in Compassion. 


Borg, good liberal scholar that he is*, seems to endorse in the final chapter of our current book a view which we also came across with John Caputo (On Religion, 2001), namely that it’s not so much what you believe as how you live that matters.  Borg is big on metaphors (his own, and the many biblical ones he writes about) and he says here, referring particularly to some of his students’ more conservative views:  
Thinking of the Christian life as being primarily about believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus is thus a modern mistake, with profound consequences. …  What matters is hearing the voice that speaks to us through the tradition, not believing in the tradition.  
His favourite metaphor in this book is the more visual one of seeing ‘the Bible, Jesus, and central postbiblical traditions’ as ‘a lens through which we see God and our relationship with God. What matters it not the lens but seeing through the lens.’ 


So, if you’re not a Christian, or ‘religious’ – but maybe ‘spiritual’, who knows? – is there anything for you in this ‘vision of the Christian life’?  The Church of England, with its classic habit of speaking only to itself, has called a crucial and very relevant recent report Developing Discipleship.   In modern English that off-putting word ‘discipleship’ means (as Borg uses it) 'following after Jesus', in other words, taking seriously what Jesus took seriously.

NT Wright in his parallel chapter on Christian living developed the theme in terms of four areas of ‘Christian experience’: Spirituality, Theology, Politics and Healing.  Borg answers the question of what about Jesus we should follow in terms of 5 inter-connected characteristics which he thinks are ‘most central’:
a life centred in the Spirit, lived by an alternative wisdom, marked by compassion, concerned about justice, and lived within the alternative community of Jesus


The key words ‘alternative’, ‘compassion’, ‘justice’ and ‘community’ demand – particularly in an election year in the UK – an essay to themselves.  The Archbishop of York has just published a book which apparently criticises governments for creating ‘a tale of two cities’ and contemporary society for being dominated by consumerism and selfishness.  The Archbishop of Canterbury meanwhile preached this week in New York about ‘a society in which the weak are excluded’ and where religion is reduced to morality.  The life of Jesus, he said, 'challenges every assumption'.  More on this in a later post. 


What cannot be ducked is this insistence on things spiritual.  This is what Borg has in mind:
Spirituality is one of the major focal points of the Christian life. … It typically involves regular prayer, whether verbal or non-verbal, and perhaps other traditional spiritual practices.  It also happens through worship that manifestly mediates the Spirit, whether the charismatic worship of Pentecostals, the silent gathering of Quakers, or the sacramental worship of more liturgical traditions.
This in turn allows us 'to see everybody and everything' differently; it leads us to see common categorisations of people and behaviour (eg as good or bad) as 'very often simply based on deeply ingrained cultural convention'; it 'awakens not only compassion but also a passion for justice'.

William Bloom, author of The Power of Modern Spirituality (2011), began his career with a doctorate in political psychology at the LSE before going on to work with people with special needs and deliver training in the NHS and elsewhere.  The word ‘God’ doesn’t feature in his book but he is clear that spirituality is all about Connection, Reflection and Service.  He begins his penultimate chapter thus:
It is empowering to be clear about our values and to live our lives in accordance with them and to be of service to those around us through acts of sharing, generosity, care, courage and compassion.  Yet in spirituality there is also another dimension to service that is more subtle, invisible and metaphysical.


Co-author Tom Wright’s approach to the Christian life starts from a more conservative view and he is keen to integrate ‘the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith’ as well as the different facets of Christian experience. With a lifetime of experience as academic, churchman and communicator, Wright's conclusion is to ‘focus both history and faith on Jesus of Nazareth’ as he has described him, which may lead us to
find that creation, sacraments, human life, politics, history, and faith come rushing together in new integrations for which as yet we have no language but worship.

For upcoming Wychwood Circle events, starting with the discussion anticipated above which takes place on Sunday February 1st, see the previous post.  

*Sadly, Marcus J. Borg died earlier this month and so references here in the present tense are to his words of 1999.  His most recent book (2014) was his own memoir, Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most, which could well form the basis of a future Wychwood Circle event.

COMING SOON ON THIS PAGE:  Reflections on Archbishop Sentamu’s new book On Rock or Sand (maybe also a future book for discussion in election year), which brings together contributions by Andrew Sentance, Julia Unwin and Ruth Fox (and others) on topics in which they are experts, such as economics, poverty and democracy.