Friday, 30 December 2016

Harold Macmillan 30 years on

On 5th January 1987 Horsted Keynes saw an unprecedented scene as former villager, church member and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was laid to rest by the Bishop following his death at Birch Grove 29th December 1986.

Having a serving Prime Minister in the congregation certainly impacted St Giles and the village, as when Macmillan hosted President Kennedy at Birch Grove in 1963. It’s said planes to and from Gatwick got diverted when he was in residence. They certainly showed respect for his office of Prime Minister at Horsted Keynes station, everyone waiting until he’d got off to be met by the chauffeur. The fact he’d then give folk a lift to the village shows he’d got respect for us too. His Tory rival Butler saw these two sides of him as ‘the soft heart for and the strong determination to help the underdog, and the social habit to associate happily with the overdog’.

Macmillan’s career peaked as Britain entered a more egalitarian era marked by the advent of television and satire like That Was The Week That Was. The aristocratic sound and mannerisms of Macmillan, well remembered as lesson reader here, and his chosen successor, Lord Hume, were easy prey for the new media whose lack of deference grew the more so after the Profumo scandal.

Thirty years after his death we have another church going Prime Minister of similar churchmanship holding to the Catechism definition of the Church of England as ‘the ancient church of this land, catholic and reformed’. Tempted in his youth towards Roman Catholicism Macmillan resisted, probably steered back by his mother’s Protestant heritage.  A robust spiritual life was kindled through his friendship with one time tutor, Ronnie later Monsignor Knox. He kept his Lenten fast and held to Sunday obligation sometimes attending twice.

Great men and women are usually people who have suffered. In this way their humanity appeals through the braving of fear. Macmillan’s courage was forged in the trenches of the First World War and a near death experience in the Second World War. The courage he possessed made him his own man. He stood alone in cabinet when he told the aged Churchill his days as Prime Minister needed to end. Macmillan even dared to suggest to Pope Pius XII he would serve Christian unity by recognising the orders of Anglican priests – to be received by silence!   Nearer to home when he attended St Giles Church Council he would allegedly stand at 9pm declaring the meeting was over to the Rector’s chagrin!  The late Dorothy Baxter recalled him telling her off for giggling in the choir. In Macmillan’s last years the parish priest, Fr Mark Hill Tout was called upon to minister and converse with him. He evidenced a thoughtful Christianity true to the faith of the church through the ages.

Macmillan had many trials, political and domestic. His life story is one that rises above the trials and part of his strategy was daily retreating into books and prayer.  He possessed a clear sense of divine providence working through the historical events that propelled his career. To his Christian sensibilities we owe the appointment of two of the Church of England’s most famous 20th century clerics, Michael Ramsey and Mervyn Stockwood.  Macmillan lamented the decline in Christian allegiance and near the end of his life made a call to ‘restore and strengthen the moral and spiritual as well as the material’ countering his materialist ‘you’ve never had it so good’ association.

Harold Macmillan’s pragmatism played a signal role in opening up the United Kingdom’s post-colonial especially in his 1960 prophecy of ‘winds of change’ blowing across Africa made in the face of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd in the South African Parliament. His grave in our Churchyard was made a place of pilgrimage for African nationalists. Two of his more controversial engagements were the 1945 repatriation of Cossacks to their execution in Russia and the 1956 Suez crisis. Like any successful politician Macmillan had his ups and downs seizing the ‘glittering prizes offered those who have stout hearts and sharp swords’ (F.E.Smith).

He was a great wit. Interrupted in a speech by Khruschev banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations he looks up and says quietly, ‘Well, I would like it translating if you would.’ Unveiling a bronze of Mrs Thatcher at the Carlton Club he makes an audible stage whisper, ‘Now I must remember that I am unveiling a bust of Margaret Thatcher, not Margaret Thatcher’s bust.’

The life and achievements of Harold Macmillan and his wife Dorothy are part of our heritage at St Giles along with so many who’ve impacted the world for good and for God.      

Friday, 7 October 2016

Thought of the Day on Premier Radio about Praying the Rosary

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. 

For many Premier listeners the Rosary will be a hidden treasure if it is a treasure at all! 

Why do I, as a Bible-believing Christian, pray the Rosary?

I do so because Christians I respect, who love the Lord, have taught me to pray it. It’s actually such a popular Christian prayer that it must go on all the time. 

The prayer is centred on the joys and sorrows in the life of Jesus recorded in scripture. Groups of meditations upon these are constructed out of the basic unit or Decade of: one Our Father, ten Hail Mary’s and one Glory be to the Father. 

As it says in Hebrews about our being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, I believe Mary and the Saints are alive and surround us in prayer all the time. I don’t have a problem with asking their prayer to God though I realise others do.

The way I pray the Rosary is as I go about my life. If I see someone joyful I think of the joy of Jesus and say a decade for them. If I hear of someone in trouble I will think of the crucifixion, and, looking to Jesus with Mary say the Rosary for them. 

The great thing about this traditional prayer is that you can pray for a length of time on behalf of others to God without needing to find your own words.

Lord we thank you for all our aids to prayer and especially for the Rosary. Amen.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Thought of the Day on Premier Radio: Love and truth

I wonder how much of an enthusiast you are?

Or how sympathetic you are to those who don’t share your enthusiasm?

Passion for truth, for God, brings enthusiasm and that’s a great thing. 

It’s got its dangers though, as anyone who’s been hosed down by enthusiasm knows!

A 12th century monk, William of Saint Thierry, must have known this when he wrote these wise words: Love of the truth drives us from the world to God, and the truth of love sends us back from God to the world.

Our souls are fired up with enthusiasm as we contemplate the truth of God in prayer and worship. That enthusiasm is clothed with love from above that inspires service of the world.

As we look lovingly and enthusiastically to God’s truth we’re touched by his love and sympathy for all that is.

I love it when people respond to the message of the Christian good news but I try to hold sympathy with the people who don’t as well. They have their reasons - and I may be one of them!

Enthusiasm and sympathy flow best in the life of God, Father, Son and Spirit as the Psalmist indicates when he writes love and truth walk in the presence of God (Psalm 61:7)

Love and truth flow unevenly and partially in our hearts which is why I invite you to join this prayer

May the love of truth drive us from the world to you, Lord and the truth of your love send us back from you to serve the world as you desire. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

God is no Thing Rupert Shortt

God is no Thing   Rupert Shortt
Coherent Christianity  Hurst 2016 £9.99 ISBN 978-1-84904-637-4 122pp

With all that contends against Christianity intellectually it’s greatly refreshing to read a book that’s politely ‘yes, and’ in its engagement with opponents of faith whilst affirmative of the intellectual coherence and authenticity of Christianity. We owe this to Rupert Shortt, religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement whose experience of scrutinising writings about religion comes well into play in his tackling of over hasty verdicts. 

Many believing artists and writers in the UK are advised to conceal their faith if they want a following. Such is our local scenario in which secular humanism predominates the world of ideas with a pretended neutrality. Meanwhile secularism is losing ground worldwide with three quarters of humanity professing a religious faith, said to be heading for 80% by 2050. The world over people evidently see in Christianity a vitality and coherence that is being lost or obscured in our own culture. Reading Shortt provides Christians a highly to be recommended tonic in his successful reminder of the main lines of Christianity, acceptance of humbling critique and his trenchant overturning of facile objections.

‘Christianity - at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts - forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence. It provides the strongest available underpinning for values including the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, and human responsibility for the environment. It is the only world faith apart from Judaism to have weathered the storms of modernity’. This summary on Christianity is the first brilliant prĂ©cis of three or four in the book. I liked this one on the secularist thesis: ‘When Western Christendom was at its zenith during the Middle Ages, people were overwhelmingly ignorant and superstitious. Science and other forms of learning wilted. Witches and heretics were burned at the stake. The achievements of Greece and Rome lay discarded... The Reformation ... accelerated Christianity’s eclipse. The rebirth of science was followed by political enlightenment. Western societies reached adulthood; the theocratic schemes of clerics were kept at bay by the separation of Church and State. In time, all sensible people will share the outlook of modern men and women who have ‘come of age’’.

Much of the book is an engagement with how over simple the latter thesis is, which takes us repeatedly forward and backward in time, admitting the Church’s failings and amply illustrating the shortcomings of secularism. I liked the section linked to the book’s title on how God isn’t actually seen as a thing or any part of reality in Christian tradition. ‘Herbert McCabe (Catholic Theologian) had a tart rejoinder to those who imagine that you can add God and the universe together and make two. ‘Two what?’’ Richard Dawkins is a poor theologian in this sense since his God or idol is a blown up creature. The answer though to bad theology isn’t no theology but better theology. We find a good amount of this in ‘God is no Thing’, as in this succinct answer on God by Rowan Williams to Melvyn Bragg:

‘God is first and foremost that depth around all things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me out of that depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformation I can’t imagine. Very much a mystery but also very much a presence. Very much a person’.

In another passage, more geared to encourage mind than heart, Shortt reflects on the biblically based Magna Carta (1216). That basis has been little noted in the recent commemoration yet it can be argued that commitment to human rights ‘may not automatically survive once commitment to the infinite value of every human life has faded away’. Faith systems, however much they earn criticism, help preserve such insight. Archbishop John Habgood once warned of society’s being liable to lose its bearings without ‘a public frame, a shared faith, which can sharpen vague feelings into prayer and commitment and action’. This book catalogues impressively commitment from Christians with these watchwords: ‘the common good, trust, non- discrimination, the priority of the poor and disadvantaged, and stewardship’.

Rupert Shortt says ‘yes’ to Darwin in his quasi-religious reverence for creation, whilst admitting the status of human beings in Christian faith is challenged by Darwinian theory. The misuse of power by Christians made Darwin a victim, and has caused harm through the centuries offsetting much good. Christian shame over the holocaust shows a coming of age that may one day be replicated in an Islam ashamed over the behaviour of its extremists. The problem for religion and for secularism is the tendency to bully rather than reason with one another. God is to be seen as loving intelligence so that ‘love of the truth drives us from the world to God, and the truth of love sends us back from God to the world’ (William of Saint Thierry).

Believing in Christian truth isn’t something cerebral, contrary to those thinking you build belief or disbelief by argument. For the author it’s not a matter of thinking your way into a new way of living but living your way into a new way of thinking. This reminded me of Austin Farrer’s saying that ‘Faith is the act of the whole man, doubt of a part’. To believe in the resurrection, for example, is living out the death of the old self so that the Holy Spirit can bring new life through the agency of faith. To believe in the cross of Christ - and the book returns to this again and again - is about making sense of suffering by the assurance ‘not all that happens is determined by God's plan but that all that happens is encompassed by his love’ (Vanstone). 

As quoted above from the author of this powerful defence of the Church’s faith: ‘Christianity - at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts - forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence’. As former atheist A.N.Wilson writes on the book cover: ‘This is a case for Faith which will trouble the doubting with reason’s light’.

Canon John Twisleton   Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes  23rd August 2016

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Seven brief lessons on physics Carlo Rovelli (reviewed)

Carlo Rovelli   Seven brief lessons on physics 
Translated Simon Carnell and Erica Segre  
Penguin 2016  £6.99 ISBN 978-0141981727 96pp

This Italian bestseller is spreading the world as word gets round of a scientist who can put a century’s achievement into less than 100 readable pages. I appreciated the simple, clear text despite translation and some of his intriguing lines that beg philosophical and theological engagement. ‘It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn’. 

Over the last century the frontiers of science have advanced through relativity theory’s insight into the cosmos, quantum theory’s insight into the subatomic and the acknowledgment that the working of our own thought processes make for a fuzziness between observer and observed. Rovelli is excited by the way we stand ‘on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the Unknown’ and senses breathtaking mystery and beauty.

The seven lessons he gives are on relativity, quantum mechanics, the architecture of the universe, elementary particles, quantum gravity, probability and ourselves. They were initially given in an Italian Sunday newspaper and were so well received that they were published further afield across the world. It is a mark of great intellect to both grasp deep truth and be able to communicate it simply and clearly, itself evidence of your firm grasp. Here particularly is a lesson for theologians reminding of the need to distil thinking again and again into the vernacular, as Lewis used to say. Truth isn’t esoteric.

The wisdom Rovelli distils seems to have been acquired indirectly, even through wasting time! We’re told the young Albert Einstein ‘spent a year loafing aimlessly’. This is a typical counter-cultural aspect of this fascinating and lucid treatise. I liked the way it goes head on at the paradox of space being all curves in relativity theory and granular in quantum mechanics. Both theories work well independently but can’t both be right. A current scientific endeavour called ‘quantum gravity’ is an attempt at resolving this schizophrenia.

When the universe gets compressed, according to quantum gravitational theory, there’s a counter force so what we know as the ‘Big Bang’ might conceivably be a ‘Big Bounce’ with our world being born from a preceding universe’s contraction with an intermediate phase where there’s neither space nor time. This is fascinating reading, as is the perception that the distinction between past and future is inseparable from the inevitable flow of heat from hot to cold. ‘Time sits at the centre of the tangle of problems raised by the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. A tangle of problems where we are still in the dark’.

It’s an achievement of the author to take unschooled readers out of the dark so far as the main achievements of science in the last century whilst making us more aware of current frontiers of knowledge awaiting illumination by thought and experiment. Ongoing eagerness for discovery and honesty in facing challenges to age old thinking aren’t just the preserve of the scientist.

Canon John Twisleton   Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes                          18th March 2016