Thursday, August 28, 2014

Adventures In Time And Space

‘If we are to plan sustainable communities, then, we have to have a good nose for what depletes human capital. And I want to suggest that one major threat to human capital is the sense of living without landmarks in time or space…Human beings from their earliest days work out their identity by learning to cope with a specific set of triggers and stimuli, the geography of a room, the rhythms of feeding and sleeping, a face that becomes familiar. As their awareness expands, they still work out and define who they are in relation to patterns of activity in time and to a differentiated space; their mental world is in pat a set of routes between familiar points. We inhabit a map. It is most dramatically expressed in the Australian aboriginal idea of the ‘song lines’ that give structure to the world: the aborigine knows the landscape as a series of songs to be sung as you move from this point to that. Geography is a set of instructions for responding with this or that song to the visual triggers you encounter.

‘Now of course any landscape, any physical environment, has such triggers. But it seems fairly clear that a physical environment that is repetitive, undifferentiated, can fail to give adequate material for a person to develop. A varied environment with marked features, that perhaps have narratives and memories attached to them, offers multiple stimuli to respond to. There is a local geography that is more than just an abstract plan of the ground: it invests places with shared significance. A landscape which proclaims its sameness with countless others, in its layout, building materials, retail outlets and so on, is a seedbed for problems. If it’s true that I can’t answer the question ‘Who am I?’ without at some level being able to answer the question ‘Where am I?’, the character of built space becomes hugely important. There will always be small scale domestic answers to ‘Where am I?’ because we all imprint distinctiveness on our homes and are ‘imprinted’ by them; but when this is restricted to the domestic, we should not be surprised if there is little sense of investment in the local environment outside the home.’

‘And last, planning should, then, look seriously at how the reality of faith becomes part of the landscape – how religious buildings figure among the landmarks of a community. But this is not only a question of attending to the pragmatic needs of religious groups. Like it or not, there are unsought experiences that communities share, trauma and celebration which call out for the kind of space that carries no political or sectional agenda, that is not for anything but the expression of certain serious and complex emotions…And whether we are thinking about personal trauma or collective…it is emphatically true that a very large number of people, far larger than the statistics of regular worshippers, urgently need a place for certain things to be voiced. What is offered by a space dedicated to worship is essential – somewhere where events may occur that belong to a whole locality, where solidarities of a mysterious but very important kind can be reinforced.’

Rowan Williams, essay on ‘Sustainable communities’ in Faith in the Public Square.

Last weekend saw the second ‘Sanctuary’ event – a three-day festival showcasing local bands, ale, and street food, organised by local business-men and -women and held at Sunderland Minster - and I am struck afresh by the thoughts offered by Rowan Williams above. I’m struck by the response, over and over again, of people coming into this space for the first time, and finding somewhere to which they are drawn back. I’m struck by the requests to host conversations between different groups – the recognition that this is a safe space in which difficult but greatly-needed communication can take place. I’m struck by the gift that we have been given, by those who have gone before us and by God, for the people of Sunderland; and by the great honour it is to be here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


There has been a lot of blood shed this summer. It is hard to know how to respond to the information – unconfirmed, confirmed, falsified, justified, ignored, flaunted, demanding action or reaction – that has bombarded us.

The nature of our information age is to over-saturate our attention with the now, promoting the idea that this moment is of all-consuming importance.

I live in England, one of three countries – at this point in history; in past times there have been several more, smaller, kingdoms – on Great Britain, the largest of the British Isles, a group of islands off the coast of mainland Europe. This island has been invaded many times: by Britons, by the varied peoples of the Roman Empire, by Angles, by Saxons, by Vikings, by Normans. People-groups have swept across the land, bringing different ideas, different values, different gods, different languages. At times, different communities have co-existed in unstable peace; at times, one has put another to the sword, destroying everything in their path; and at times, they have inter-mixed.

There has been a lot of bloodshed on this island. The second-half of the fifteenth-century saw the Wars of the Roses, dynastic wars for the throne of England. The mid-seventeenth-century saw the Civil Wars. As Scotland considers independence after some 300 years of union, we are reminded of bloody battles, some won by Scottish armies and those of their allies, some by English armies and those of their allies.

Then there are the wars this country has taken part in beyond our shores, whether building an Empire or opposing empire-building on the part of others. Our history is soaked in blood. Had we lived in any of those moments, our own personal experience would have been much closer to that of men, women and children in Iraq or Gaza or many other parts of the world this summer.

And this history has made us who we are as a nation. This history has shaped us, for good and for ill. There have been a great many atrocities, and a greater still number of tragedies. And there has also been a great deal of good in the unfolding of our history, our culture, our discoveries, our inventions…

I would suggest that the great deal of good that has come out of our folly and mis-directed passion is evidence of a God who loves human beings; who gives us great freedom but also sets limits on our triumphs (so we do not utterly destroy others) and on our tragedies (so we are not utterly destroyed by others); and who is at work in all things to bring good out of even the most evil of situations. Good that is testified-to in former enemies becoming friends.

This does not mean that it does not matter that, all over the world, one tribe is putting another to the sword – literally and metaphorically. It does not mean that we should not speak out, or act.

It does mean that we should be very careful in our choice of words, and actions. There is no people on earth who occupies the moral high-ground; nor any low-point that cannot be transformed by love. The longer we hold on to our commitment to violence towards one another, the longer it will take to see enemies become friends. And yet this, and not our present troubles, is the ultimate reality, because in and through Christ, God is reconciling all things.

Monday, August 18, 2014


In honour of Elijah’s eighth birthday today, some photos of him from our recent holiday, in the last days of being seven.

Disclaimer: no owls were eaten…

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

On Holiday

From tomorrow, I will be on holiday. I’m looking forward to getting away with my family.

Knowing various people who are on holiday at the moment, or just returned from holiday, or going on holiday within the next month, has given opportunity to reflect on what holidays are for.

There is a school of thought that suggests that, given the amount of extra work that needs to take place before going on holiday, and the amount of extra work that needs to be dealt with on returning, not to mention the decompression time it takes to actually enter-into being off work, and the time spent preparing to re-enter ‘everyday life,’ there is no benefit to taking holiday at all.

Given the demands of work many of us live with, and the effort of juggling time-off-work across a team, many other people simply default into not taking all of the annual leave they are entitled to.

The purpose of holiday is not to recover from work. That necessary space needs to be built-into our daily and weekly routines (and yes, I know that is easier said than done).

Neither is the purpose of holiday to build-up some reservoir of energy to take back into the workplace. We are not batteries. Rest, and its benefits, cannot be stored for a later time (another reason why we need to build-in rest as part of our daily and weekly experience of life).

The purpose of holiday is the recognition that there is more to life than work – even if we are blessed to find work a fulfilling experience – and the ongoing practicalities of life that are part of our regular routine.

God has given us a world to be enjoyed, as well as – and, indeed, even before – cared for. A big world to be discovered, as well as a small patch to tend.

Holidays are for exploring: landscapes and cityscapes and spaces of the imagination; beaches and mountains and bookshops and art galleries…and building a treasure-house of shared memories.

Holidays are holy days, days to recognise that all of life is gift, not reward; and to be reminded that the world will not end if God rests, let alone if I do…

I am about to go on holiday. It will be very good.