WELCOME

 

The Minster has been a holy place for 1300 years. It inspires awe and wonder in everyone who approaches the magnificent twin towers of the west front; even more when they enter inside.

It is a place rich in history and with a lively story to tell.

It is more than a heritage site; today’s community continues the tradition of the first monks: of prayer and welcome, mission and service, love and care for all.

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Jonathan

8.6.24

80 Years On

I have been struck in recent years by the growing desire to mark the anniversary of D-Day. Major celebrations marked the 50th, 60th, 70th, 75th and now the 80th anniversaries. As the generation of those who landed on the Normandy beaches fades away, so the determination of the rest of us to ‘remember’ what we never actually experienced increases.

There will be all sorts of reasons why this is so, but part of it will be the awareness of losing that direct connection provided by the memories of those who were there. This can be creative; past anniversaries have seen the unveiling of memorials and the opening of museums, and events led by Heads of State with an emphasis on reconciliation and peace.

In a very different context, it was the dwindling of the first generation of Christians that led to the writing of the New Testament. Fear of losing the eyewitness testimony to Jesus was addressed by writing it down. This is why even the earliest parts of the New Testament were written at least 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Before then the eyewitness record was strong and alive and shared by word of mouth. We catch a glimpse of that in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth when he mentions 500 witnesses of the resurrection, ‘most of whom are still alive’. But they won’t all have had exactly the same memory.

When there are different witnesses, so the narrative remains rich and multi-layered, because people remember the same event differently. My sister recently visited from Australia and we did a certain amount of reminiscing over old family photographs, in which it became fascinating to realise that her memories are not exactly the same as mine. Different things stick out for her, even from the same events. Maybe this is why the New Testament gives us four Gospels and not just one, so that the memory is not restricted to a single point of view.

As memories get repeated, and especially as they get written down, so they tend to crystallize. The narrative takes on a certain shape which only partly reflects the full reality of what happened. ‘History is written by the winners’ , so the saying goes, which means in effect that the victorious narrative silences the losing or minority voices.

In recent years our understanding of history has become more nuanced, so that neglected voices and overlooked versions of the past are more often heard – so for example the role played in D-Day by troops from across the British Empire, a role which has not always been properly acknowledged. Perhaps one of the consequences of an increasingly godless society is that there is a greater need felt by people to control the narrative of the past, because without God it cannot be redeeemed. If you challenge the dominant narrative, you are challenging people’s sense of who they are.

The New Testament view of the past is helpful. At the Last Supper Jesus says ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, and Paul says ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ In other words, the sacrament is not so much an act of remembrance as a re-enactment in the present, with at least one eye on the future. Whilst remaining true to the original event, it allows fresh experiences and new memories to be made. In the same way the New Testament records the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in such a way that they remain not locked in the past but available for us to encounter the Lord afresh in each new generation.

The gospel message of God’s grace and redemption itself redefines the past; we may not be able to change the past itself, but the experience of God’s forgiveness can change how we feel about it and how we understand it. If my discovery that my sister’s memories are slightly different from my own places a question mark against those memories, how much more might that be the case when confronted with God’s eternal perspective on what has happened?

A Christian view of the past therefore sees it not as something with a fixed and unchanging meaning, and therefore determining the present. We see the past as something embraced by God’s mercy and therefore capable of redemption. The past is not the only thing shaping the future, which remains ultimately open and in God’s hands.

This can set us free from the pressure to control the narrative of what has happened in the past. Our sense of who we are no longer depends upon our ability to control the story of the past, but flows from our trust in the God of the resurrection who can be trusted with the future.

It is still good to celebrate the anniversary of D-Day and reflect upon its significance for us. But if we allow ourselves to be shaped less by our past and more by God’s future, then perhaps we can remember without feeling anxiety to insist upon a particular version of the past, and perhaps we can be more relaxed about allowing space for alternative narratives which might understand the significance of the past differently.

Jonathan Baker

25.5.24

Choose or be chosen?

So the General Election is to be on 4 July, and the Great British Public will pass judgment on its political class.

Free elections provide democracies with moments of high drama. The 2016 Referendum and the 2017 General Elections both produced results very different from what was expected by those who called them, and sealed the political fates of David Cameron and Theresa May respectively.

Perhaps because elections give ordinary people some say over who governs them, and place a limit on the power exercised by those in authority, they have come to symbolize our individual freedom as human beings. But they only work if those taking part recognize that individual freedom is secondary to some notion of the common good. If we vote for the losing side we are expected to accept the result with a good grace, and give way to the will of the majority. There has to be an acceptance that my individual preference does not have the last word.

This is an assumption that is becoming increasingly questioned. Those who lose elections in some cases now show themselves unwilling to accept the result, as we saw in the last US Presidential election, with the result that elections get mired in litigation, and the courts themselves are then attacked for being political.

This may be the natural outworking of western individualism. We worship freedom of choice, but with the democratization of opinion on social media, in which uninformed voices count for as much, or more, as qualified experts, we are increasingly struggling to reconcile one person’s choice with another’s. We are in danger of losing any sense that debating opposing views may be an effective way of discovering a bigger truth. If instead we think that no one has the right to question my opinion, then the only response to dissent is to try to silence the opposition by cancelling them. Freedom of expression has been made absolute, and we are losing the ability to cope with disagreement.

There is a theological tradition going back to Augustine, and before him St Paul, which is sceptical about how free we are in the first place. The argument, put briefly, is that if God is the source of all light and truth, and if human beings are alienated from God and ignore him, then none of us has any natural ability to understand clearly. Our judgments – and choices – will inevitably be distorted because our hearts have been blinded. As St Paul says, ‘the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’.

The result of this blindness is a kind of captivity or slavery to sin. St Paul speaks of being made ‘captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members’, so that ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’.

According to this line of reasoning, freedom as we tend to understand it is an illusion. St Paul again: ‘Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?’ In other words, we either serve ourselves and our own instincts and appetites (sin), or we serve the God who is love, who paradoxically is the one ‘whose service is perfect freedom’, as the old prayer puts it.

Elections give us the illusion of choice. In fairness, the choice is not completely illusory, but Parties tend to assume that we are driven by self-interest. Our freedom to choose needs to be understood against a wider context of the God who chooses, and who reminds his followers that, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’. That’s the vote that ultimately counts, that’s the basis for any confidence in the future, and that in the end is the source of genuine freedom – the freedom to choose love and to allow ourselves in turn to be chosen by love.

Jonathan Baker

11.05.24

Running Up That Hill

I’m writing this blog on top of the motte at Pickering Castle. It’s meant to be a day off – hence the location – but there are too many deadlines gathering, hence not waiting until I’m back in my study. I came up here because of the novelty of it being warm enough to be outside without a coat, and because the castle is usually quiet and peaceful. You get a good 360° view of the Vale of Pickering, the Wolds and the North Yorkshire Moors, and it’s a beautiful place to sit and muse undisturbed.

It was only after coming up here that it struck me how suitable a spot this is to reflect upon Ascension Day. This happened on Thursday 9, but got overshadowed by our annual pilgrimage to Harpham in honour of St John of Beverley, which always takes place on the closest Thursday to his Feast Day on 7 May. This year the Saint and the Saviour share festivals only two days apart.

Mountains and high places in the Bible are often associated with dramatic moments of encounter with God. Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, Moses receives the Law on Mount Sinai, Jerusalem is built on Mount Zion, Elijah experiences the ‘still small voice’ on Mount Horeb, Jesus is transfigured on a nameless mountain – maybe Mount Tabor in Galilee.

Such associations are not limited to Christianity and Judaism; the pre-Israelite Canaanite religions worshipped their gods on ‘high places’, some of which can still be seen on the mountains of present day Israel. Even for secular minded modern people, there is something magnetic about mountains, if the numbers climbing Snowdon or Scafell are anything to judge by. For some it may just be the sense of achievement and the rewarding view; but for others there is something spiritual about being high up, closer to the heavens, and able to look down on the surrounding world. Mountaintops can be otherworldly places.

Against this background, the story of Jesus’ ascension taking place on a mountain outside Jerusalem is paradoxically both natural and surprising. Natural, because if mountaintops bring us closer to God, then a mountaintop is an appropriate point of departure from which Jesus could return to the Father. But it’s surprising, because Jesus gives his disciples no indication that they should do the same. On the contrary, he tells them to ‘stay in the city, until you have been clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24: 49).

That’s an interesting and significant phrase, ‘from on high’. In other words, the disciples do not have to go somewhere high up in order to get closer to God. Rather, God will ‘reach down’. We don’t have to go to him; he comes to us. This is a gospel pattern; we cannot ascend into heaven in our own strength; instead, the Son of God has become the son of Mary so that we might become the children of God. The movement is all from heaven to earth before, as the Collect for Ascension Day puts it, ‘we in heart and mind may also ascend and with him continually dwell’.

Unlike Kate Bush, we don’t have to go “running up that hill”. Jesus went up the mountain so that we don’t have to – an encouraging thought for those who don’t see themselves as spiritual mountaineers. This is a reminder that God is always moving towards us, even when we think he is moving away. Jesus ascends into heaven in order to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, and to ‘fill all things’. For this reason he says ‘it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do  not go away, the Advocate will not come.’

And so the disciples are told to wait for the Holy Spirit in the city, not on the mountain. No doubt all of us have special places in our lives, maybe places where we feel closer to God. But it isn’t the place that makes God draw near; it’s the readiness of the heart to receive, wherever we may be. In our hearts we can indeed be lifted into heaven; but we first have to wait to be collected by the Holy Spirit. In this Ascensiontide season, the mood is one both of exhilarating triumph as Jesus achieves the summit of his ministry and sits down at the right hand of God; and also of quiet and patient attentiveness, as we await the coming of the Spirit of Jesus to meet us where we are.

Jonathan Baker

26.4.24

23 April was St George’s Day, prompting much discussion about Englishness and English identity. Do the English suffer from a lack of identity, highlighted in the way people confuse being English with being British? If Brexit was partly inspired by a fear that our sense of being British was at risk of being swallowed up by the EU, there is an irony that British identity is now under threat from renewed Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalisms. If Britain dissolves into different nations, what will it mean to be English?

At the moment there is a real danger that pride in English identity is the preserve of the far right. The St George’s Day Parade in London was marked by violence, arrests, and speeches by known extremists. For many English people of non-white heritage, the flag of St George inspires not the warm glow of patriotic recognition, but the fear of racism.

There is another irony in this, which is that St George himself was not at all English. The historic figure of St George was a soldier in the Roman army who lived in Lydda in Syria in the early 4th century, born to a Syrian mother and a Greek father. According to Wikipedia, he is the patron saint of England, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Ukraine, Malta, Ethiopia, as well as Catalonia and Aragon in Spain, and Moscow in Russia. He is also claimed by several other regions, cities, universities, professions, and organizations, leading one to conclude that he is a truly cosmopolitan and international figure.

Yet another irony is that George was martyred under the Emperor Diocletian for his refusal to put loyalty to the Emperor – that is, the State –  before loyalty to God. His faith in Christ pushed his racial and political  identities as a Greek, Syrian and a Roman into second place.

The flag of St George is also open to more than one meaning. In medieval iconography, images of Jesus rising from the tomb often show him carrying the Resurrection Banner, which looks like the flag of St George. In fact it is an earlier symbol of Christ’s victory over death, so the flag of St George is derived from the Resurrection Banner, not the other way around. It was adopted by the Knights Templar, as a result of which it became popular across Europe and thence came to be associated with St George.

Another layer of confusion is caused by the similarity between the story of St George and the Dragon (which is a later medieval story) and the scene in the Book of Revelation where the Archangel Michael casts Satan out of heaven in the form of a serpent. In Christian iconography Michael is often shown as a soldier in armour spearing a dragon, and even carrying the flag of St George. There is just such a depiction of Michael in the window of the north transept of Beverley Minster!

All of which is a way of saying that managing symbols is a slippery business. A good symbol can have many different meanings projected onto it and can hold them in tension. Both George and his flag bear a rich range of associations and meanings which make him highly suitable to be the patron saint of a mongrel nation with a rich history and diverse beliefs such as the English.

It is very sad that much of this meaning has been stripped away, so that for many people George is now linked with a narrow minded nationalism, bent on exalting one group by excluding and rejecting others. We are seeing a resurgence of this zero-sum nationalism in the world today, where social groups try to establish their own sense of value and significance by peddling a narrative that diminishes others.

This is the final irony, that St George and his flag, with all their rich multi-dimensional resonances,  have been embraced and celebrated most noisily by people who have the flattest and most two-dimensional sense of their own identity, and the weakest grasp of their own history and culture.

Before he was remembered for anything else, George was remembered as a martyr who refused to venerate the idol of power, and who died witnessing to his faith in the God of grace – a grace which triumphs over death. We could do a lot worse than rebuild our English identity on this more generous sense of ourselves.

Jonathan Baker

13.4.24

Questions of Life

‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. So speaks the risen Christ to his disciples in the Upper Room on the first Easter Day. The fledgling church is given a clear mandate to continue and extend the work of Jesus himself.

But what does that actually mean? According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was sent to be the Word made flesh, the Light entering the darkness, the incarnate Son of God. In what sense can the followers of Jesus  be sent like that?  Surely the last thing the world needs right now is more people who think they can act and speak like God!

Perhaps the sending is to be sent like Jesus in his humanity. Jesus expressed his mission through being steeped in the Scriptures, by forming a community of people willing to learn, by teaching, responding to individuals in need, doing signs of abundant life for those beyond his immediate circle, praying, facing conflict, suffering and death. These are things we recognize and in which we can share with humility and without presumption. All we have to offer is our own humanity, graced by a reliance on the Holy Spirit.

Learning and teaching require a forum where they can take place. In our own day Lent Courses and house groups provide such an opportunity for church members, but what about everyone else? Jesus taught not just in the synagogues but on the mountain and at the lakeside. It is harder for us, living in a culture where folk are often wary of the church and indifferent to talk of God. How do we engage with the world outside the walls of the church in order to get a conversation going?

Questions such as these lie behind the decision to run the Alpha Course at Beverley Minster. Alpha used to be run regularly at the Minster many years ago, and several of our church members came to faith as a result. In recent years we have run various other discussion groups and courses, but the great strength of Alpha is that many people have heard of it, and it provides a range of materials to help with publicity and promotion. This makes it easier to invite folk to come along and join in.

The other big advantage of Alpha is its emphasis on building community. Each session begins with a meal, during which participants can get to know each other. This makes it easier to hold open and honest conversations in which different experiences and understandings can be shared. The formal teaching, whilst professionally presented in a series of videos, is probably less important than the relationships which are built over the weeks in the same small group. Just like the first disciples, this helps us to grow in faith together.

I’m hoping the Alpha Course is something we can run regularly, perhaps a couple of times a year, so that we can always be looking ahead and ready to invite folk to join us on the next one. By embedding it in the life of the Minster it will, over time, help us to become more mindful of our responsibility to help new people explore faith and learn about it. In a world where so many people are confused and uncertain about themselves and their place in the world, and in which most people’s understanding of Jesus Christ is thin or even misleading, this is of increasing importance.

The Alpha Course begins on Wednesday 17 April at 18.45 in the Parish Hall. Anyone interested can sign up by dropping an email to alpha@beverleyminster.org.uk . By all means come along yourself and try it out. Even better, invite a friend and come along together. From the existing expressions of interest we expect the Parish Hall to be full and humming, so you will be in good company; and the questions each person brings will be a gift to others as we explore the big issues of life together.

Jonathan Baker

30.3.24

Stranger than Fiction

I recently re-watched the film ‘Stranger than Fiction’, strictly in the line of duty you understand, as it will shortly be dissected by the Minster film discussion group. In the process it struck me that this is a good film for Easter – so beware, this blog contains spoilers!

The premise is that Harold, a dry, boring, numbers-obsessed tax auditor (played by Will Ferrell) discovers he is a character in a novel. He keeps hearing an authorly voice (Emma Thompson) narrating his life in his head. With the help of a professor of literary theory (stay with me), played by Dustin Hoffman, Harold tries to work out what kind of book he is in – is it is a comedy or a tragedy? He is even more disturbed when he discovers that Karen, the writer of the book he is inhabiting, has a reputation for killing off her main characters at the moment they discover true happiness.

Harold tracks down Karen, who is alarmed to discover that her fictional hero is a real person. She has drafted the ending of her book, in which Harold dies saving a boy from being run over by a bus, but she has not yet typed it out. Should she change the ending or not?

The film playfully raises questions about the responsibility a creator has for her creature, how far any of us are free agents, and the way fictional characters can take on a life of their own. It also invites us to ponder whether our own lives are a comedy, in which obstacles are overcome, opposites reconciled, and the continuity of life can be affirmed; or whether we live in a tragedy in which death is inevitable and we help to bring about our own demise.

Paradoxically, Harold finds freedom and a boldness to live more fully when he is advised by the professor to accept the inevitability of death. Later, when he reads the fate Karen has in mind for him, Harold accepts it, recognizing that there is something beautiful and right in the way he is destined to die.

Karen is by now burdened with the thought that she is killing someone real, and she changes her mind about the ending of her book. Although the professor thinks she is ruining her masterpiece, she argues that her book was meant to be about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die. But since Harold not only knows he’s going to die, but dies willingly, knowing he could stop it, doesn’t that make him the type of person you’d want to keep alive?

That sentiment echoes something of the theology of Easter, in which a life that is completely and fully human, a life given away for others, is a life which God the Father not only wants to keep alive, but is a life inherently stronger than death. Jesus is the one the world needs to live, even after Good Friday. Like Harold, but on a cosmic scale, Jesus knew his likely fate, and could have avoided it, but was still willing to embrace it. He did this not functionally to save the world from its sin, but because that is the person he is.

Easter itself offers a truth stranger than fiction; the promise that whether life is a comedy or a tragedy, the life of faith invites us to live as if the world is more open, more mysterious, more full of possibility and wonder than we can imagine. The resurrection of Jesus raises the question of what our own lives might look like if we were set free from our fear of death, and were able to give ourselves away instead of protecting ourselves from our inevitable fate. What would we be letting ourselves in for, if believing in Christ meant embracing a life the divine Author would want to keep alive forever?

Happy Easter!

Jonathan Baker

16.3.24

‘Am I not a man and a brother?’

In 2022 the Church Commissioners investigated how some of the endowment they manage on behalf of the Church of England was derived historically from profits made in the transatlantic slave trade.

In response to this they announced that a separate fund would be created from the Commissioners’ resources amounting to £100 million over a nine year period which would be set aside to support communities affected by historic slavery and to provide grants for projects focused on improving opportunities for such communities. An ambition was further expressed to raise funds from other sources totalling £1 billion over the long term.

Not everyone has welcomed this, leading to the subject being discussed again at the most recent meeting of the General Synod.

Critics  of the proposal raise two main objections. One is that since the original victims of the slave trade are no longer alive to benefit from any reparations, the gesture is meaningless. The second is that since many parishes are struggling to make financial ends meet, the money could be more productively used to support the current ministry of the Church of England, which is what the Church Commissioners are there for.

These are serious points, and worth debating. However, the legacy of slavery isn’t something that can be made light of. Its impact has been passed down the generations. It doesn’t only affect those who lived long ago. It was only in 2015 that the UK government finally cleared the debt incurred in paying compensation to slave owners when slavery was abolished in 1833. The slaves themselves, however, received nothing.

The legacy of slavery continues to shape the opportunities and life chances of a significant part of the UK population to this day, not least in the evils of racism which the Church should be able to oppose with confidence and conviction. It is difficult to do this with credibility when a proportion of every clergy stipend is generated from assets with such a dubious origin. Those who claim that there is no racism in the Church now, and that it was all a long time ago, and that demands for reparations are being made in bad faith, may need to listen more carefully to the voices of those communities descended from former slaves who continue to speak from the margins.

When we witness to a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, it is understood that for the reconciliation to be genuine there must be some attempt to put right the wrong done. In the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus the tax collector responded wholeheartedly to Jesus, and as evidence of his sincerity decided there and then to give half of his wealth to the poor and, if he had cheated anyone, to pay back four times what he had taken. No doubt he could have argued that the money would be better spent if he directed it to reform of the tax collection system; but instead he handed it over freely to his victims, and in so doing gave them back their agency.

If a relationship is to be healthy, then the underlying sources of grievance have to be acknowledged and addressed. There is no such thing as cheap grace, and some would argue that although £100 million in itself is a lot of money, it comes nowhere near what would be required to undo the economic harm done to nations impacted negatively by the slave trade.

The proposal is that this new fund should be built up out of the Commissioners’ income over nine years, so that the historic capital endowment fund is not affected. Over that period it actually requires only around 0.1% of the Commissioners’ annual income. This is not something which is jeopardising the Church’s ministry, present or future.

Unfortunately some parts of the media have spun this story as the latest episode in the culture wars, as if the Church is playing at being ‘woke’ and is guilty of empty virtue signalling. In fact we are dealing here with the Church’s core business, its ‘specialité du maison’ which is the gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. The purpose of such language is not to look back and pretend that the past can be changed, for that is impossible. Instead, we are seeking to heal social relationships, which requires truth telling and seriousness of purpose if we are to build genuine trust and unity, and if the Church is to play its part in working for a less divided society.

In our individualistic culture it is easy when talking about such matters to shrug our shoulders and exclaim, ‘Who, me?’ as if the legacy of slavery or the reality of racism has nothing to do with us. But the Christian community extends down the centuries; history ripples down into the present; all of us are part of a bigger whole, whether we like it or not; and the gospel should be visible good news for everyone, not just members of existing congregations.

Jonathan Baker

2.3.24

A Dog is for Life

An enjoyable discovery on recent car journeys has been The Rest is History podcast, with Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. The combination of banter and scholarship I find easy to listen to, and less hard work than reading books.

One recent episode focused on ‘History’s Greatest Dogs’. As my own Labradors show small likelihood of changing the course of history, I was intrigued; and was duly educated by discussion of the importance of Richard Nixon’s Spaniel ‘Checkers’ who saved the otherwise failing US Senator’s political career; Greyfriars’ Bobby (of course) whose loyalty to his master even after death became the stuff of legend and the Edinburgh tourist board; Rin Tin Tin the 1920s movie star who could perform amazing leaps before the days of special effects; and Admiral Collingwood’s dog Bounce, who accompanied his master on board ship during the Napoleonic wars but hated the sound of cannon fire. He would cower below decks and had to be comforted afterwards by the good Admiral singing a lullaby.

It is ironic that sometimes it takes a dog to humanize the owner. Nixon, Hitler and Putin all tried to present a softer image through their attachment to their dogs. On the other hand US President Joe Biden’s Alsatian ‘Commander’ got his master in the doghouse last year by biting 24 west wing staffers and Secret Service agents.

At the Minster we have cat people and dog people. It seems to be a clause in the Lease of 23 Outer Trinities that the tenant has to have at least one cat; Charlie, and previously Tim Kelly, and before him Robert Poyser all have cats, although Gareth Atha must have risked forfeiting his tenancy by owning a Dachshund. Vicars and Associate Vicars on the other hand are dog people, as Wendy Wale was wont to remind us! We now look forward to welcoming Rev. Eileen Connolly who has just been appointed as the new Mission Priest and who, according to her CV, is the proud owner of a ‘Golden Doodle’, which sounds potentially like a larger version of Jonah Wale.

Clergy need humanizing perhaps more than other people, but my dogs Maisie and Wilber don’t always help, as any caller at the Vicarage will have discovered. They mob visitors and egg each other on in displays of canine excitement. I can’t even show them off at the St Leonard’s Pet Service as they have a very traditional attitude towards cats, and I don’t want to be held responsible for the inevitable fracas.

Perhaps our relationship with dogs is just another example of the way we need to create meaning even when there isn’t any. It is so tempting to see human qualities in our pets, and our ability to imagine that our animals love us and are loyal to us makes us feel better about ourselves.

It may be only my imagination, but without doubt I do feel better when welcomed by my dogs; they seem pleased to see me however grumpy and indifferent I am, and in that way they are unwitting bearers of grace. And whatever their reasons, dogs are reliable companions. Nothing makes me feel at home more than having a Labrador flop at my feet; and many people learn to bear bereavement with the help of a dog or a cat providing an understated but continuous presence.

At the same time, our pets need us to feed and look after them, and in that way they also help to take us out of ourselves and ensure we cannot look at the world solely from our own point of view.

Lord Byron was so fond of his dog that after the animal died he was given an elaborate tomb in the grounds of the family home at Newstead Abbey, inscribed with verse:

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead November 18th 1808.

After contrasting the dog’s virtues with the failings of human nature for many lines, the verse ends:

To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.

It is that quality of faithful companionship which most commends our pets to us. The need not to be alone runs deep. As a Native American creation story puts it, “God went forth to create the world, and he took his dog with him.”

Jonathan Baker

17.2.24

Where is their God?

One of the readings for Ash Wednesday is from the prophet Joel, who expresses the worry that if pagan nations are allowed to humiliate his people, God himself will lose credibility: “Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

It’s a good question: Where is their God?’

For the prophet Joel, the question arose because the Israelites were suffering defeat at the hands of their enemies, suggesting that at best their God was weaker than those of the other nations, at worst that he had abandoned his people, or even that he had never been there in the first place. If your land is conquered, where then is your God?

It is so obvious as hardly to need stating, but people of faith today evidently suffer reverses and setbacks quite as much as people of no faith. Belief in God offers no protection from disease, poverty or the malice of others. Where then lies the benefit of faith? Where is their God?

It is equally true that having a faith doesn’t make someone a better person than anyone else. The church is full of sinners – that’s kind of the point. But if Christians don’t seem any different from anyone else it does raise the question: Where is their God?

The great missionary-theologian Lesslie Newbiggin once said that ‘the only hermeneutic of the gospel is a community of people who believe it and live it’. In other words, the ability of the local church to live out the gospel is the only thing that gives it credibility.

In ancient Israel, faith was made credible, amongst other ways, by worship. Psalm 22:2 says that the Lord is ‘enthroned on the praises of Israel’. In the church today we say that God is made present in Word and sacrament, so that – in Jesus’ words – ‘where two or three gather in my name, there I am in the midst of them’. In worship, something important is going on, and as we draw near to God, he promises to draw near to us. But not everyone experiences the closeness of God in worship; alongside one person in raptures may be another who is just bored.

Some might argue that God is made credible through the work of Christian organisations such as Christian Aid, CAFOD or the Salvation Army, which directly address some of the most pressing needs of the world. In our own parish we support Jacobs Well, the Beverley and East Riding Food Bank, Hope into Action and a variety of other good causes seeking to make a difference. Faith can nourish and drive our humanitarian instincts, although of course these are not limited to people of faith.

For others, the credibility of the gospel depends simply upon the church being different. Faith gives one a distinctive way of looking at the world. Christians live not as individuals making the best of it, but as creatures made in the image of God whose lives are spent working out how to respond to God; and they see the world not as a cosmological accident, but as a universe made and sustained by a loving God.

That distinctive standpoint may motivate some people to live very different lives from the mainstream. Religious communities are the most obvious example, where allegiances to money, family and self-sufficiency are challenged by a deeper calling to live a shared life of mutual dependency.

Not many of us will respond to God in such a radical way. Nevertheless, at the start of Lent there is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the implications of faith for our lives. Traditionally, Lent is a six week time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, embraced as a way of preparing for the celebration of Easter. Each of those disciplines is potentially counter-cultural: in a culture of satiation where self-indulgence is celebrated as the norm, fasting opens up self-denial as an act of freedom, a radical and life-giving alternative. In a culture where the only realities taken seriously are those accessible to our senses, prayer opens up a whole new dimension; and in a world where many are driven by a sense of scarcity and the compulsion to grasp and possess, almsgiving and the practice of generosity witness to the possibility of eternal life welling up without limit.

Where is their God? For Christians he is found ultimately on the cross, the greatest place of abandonment and absence imaginable. God is not very easily found in the places where most of us naturally look. But in the wilderness of Lent we may more easily adopt the counter-cultural standpoint of the cross and find him in those unfashionable disciplines of fasting, prayer and generosity. Such practices are grounded in the freedom, transcendence and generosity of God’s own nature, and consequently they are provocative simply because they go so much against the flow and seem so unfamiliar. At the same time they are attractive and life giving; and perhaps that distinctiveness is one way that we can point and say ‘Behold your God’.

Jonathan Baker

3.2.24

Secular Doesn’t Mean Neutral

We have three church schools in our parish: Beverley Minster Primary School, Tickton CE Primary School and Woodmansey CE Primary School. They serve their local communities well, and they include everyone. Their faith commitment is clear, and part of that faith is that God loves everyone, not just church members.

It is a frequent complaint of secularists that Church/Faith Schools are divisive. The argument is that belief in God is an irrational superstition, or is at best a private opinion which cannot be proved, and that this has no place in a modern curriculum. Such schools serve only to reinforce cultural identities and divisions. Secular schools, in contrast, enjoy an objective neutrality. They have no prior faith commitments, therefore they can treat everyone the same.

This argument is based upon an important assumption which we too often fail to notice. It comes from the 18th century Enlightenment, which divided the world of ideas into the realms of public fact and private opinion. Facts are true, objective, impersonal, scientifically provable, accessed through reason, and don’t vary from one context to another. Opinions and values, on the other hand, cannot be objectively measured or assessed, and are subjective and personal. They are often shaped by a conviction about our purpose, what we are here for, what really matters in life. These things may be important to me, but I cannot insist on the grounds of reason alone that you should share them.

On this view of the world, schools should stay neutral in matters of religion, because that properly belongs in the realm of private opinion, about which there is no common understanding. God should therefore be left at home.

This fault line runs so deep that most people don’t notice it, let alone question it. In the United States, it means that religion of any kind cannot be taught in publicly funded schools. In the UK it means that religion is pushed into a ghetto marked ‘Religious Education’ in which all faiths are treated the same without evaluation and where the focus is on the objective elements of religion such as buildings, festivals and scriptures rather than on God or the practice of faith itself. In that sense, RE tells only half the story.

However, the division of life into these two realms of public fact and private opinion is deeply misleading. In the first place, the assumption that human reason is objective itself relies on a prior faith commitment. Science, mathematics and reason only work if we assume that the world is ordered, rational and in some way predictable. Scientists maintain this faith even though there is much in the world that seems chaotic and unpredictable, and much at the frontiers of science that doesn’t obey the old laws of cause and effect. We therefore cannot prove that the truth available to our reason is the only, or even the most important kind of truth. If it is, that assumes a very closed kind of reality in which there are no surprises.

St Anselm argued nearly a thousand years ago that ‘I do not understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand’. That expresses a basic insight about human knowledge, that it always has to begin with an assumption, a commitment made in faith that our questions are worth asking in the first place. Facts are important, but they are not the whole truth.

In the second place, scientists themselves are not as objective as we would like to think. They have to make value judgments all the time:  whether to pursue this risky line of enquiry or that safer but less exciting avenue, whether to seek funding from this grant-making body or that commercial interest (each with their own conditions attached), whether to seek evidence from a bigger or smaller sample (each with a bigger or smaller price tag). Those judgments will usually be shaped by a sense of purpose :  am I conducting this research because it is interesting? Because my PhD supervisor wants me to? Because it has the best potential for making money?

Part of the fascination of the film ‘Oppenheimer’, about the man who led the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb,  is that it explores how science is not objectively neutral, but can be coopted for political and national purposes. Research priorities are determined not by facts, but by purpose. And purpose is supposed to belong in the world of private opinion.

Thirdly, the debate about Faith versus Secular Schools assumes that while Faith Schools have a built in bias, Secular Schools are somehow neutral. In fact, everyone has their own angle; there is no such thing as an objective, neutral point of view. Secularists like to imagine that they enjoy a dispassionate, godlike view from the gallery that allows them to rise above everyone else’s prejudices. In reality, we are all on the stage acting our different parts, and the view that religion is of little or no importance is just one point of view alongside the one that holds religion to be of paramount importance. The commitment to hold no view is still a commitment. It is a view which is given preferential treatment in our education system without anyone acknowledging that it is based on a faith commitment quite as strong as that of any denominational school.

In practice, secular schools often have a strong sense of purpose, of the value of each individual child, and a set of values which usually owe more than a little to our shared Christian heritage. This is good, but for some reason such an identity isn’t seen as just one among many alternatives. Instead, it is disguised as objective and neutral. That isn’t honest, and one consequence is to confuse the terms of the debate about Faith Schools; in reality, the choice isn’t between Faith School versus Secular School, it’s between different kinds of Faith School – in which the secular option is just another variety of faith.

We can be proud of our church schools, not least because they are open and transparent about their standpoint. They have a clear sense of the purpose of education, which is not about filling children with facts, like Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, but giving them a noble sense of purpose to live as those who bear the image of God. That isn’t some weird private opinion, but has been the shared understanding of a whole civilization for over a thousand years. Let’s not abandon it now.

Jonathan Baker

20.1.24

That’s Life!

Maybe it’s the post-Christmas blues, these wet and gloomy January days, or maybe I’m just suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I find my thoughts turning to the debate about assisted dying. Sir Terry Pratchett, Diana Rigg and now Esther Rantzen (remember ‘That’s Life!’ ?)are only some of the many celebrities who have called for the law on assisted dying to be changed, and it seems to be an issue that won’t go away.

My views about this aren’t as black and white as you might expect from a vicar, but I do find the terms of this debate depressing. Over and over, those supporting a change in the law argue that the right to die is a matter for individual choice. Every person, so the reasoning goes, should have autonomy. Each of us should have the right to determine when it is time to leave this earth. It is no one else’s business. Only the individual can say when he or she has had enough. As the poem goes, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.

The argument is bolstered by heart-rending descriptions of the suffering of some folk at the end of life, a sense of anger that nothing can be done about it, and perhaps above all a fear of what might await us all. Implicitly there is a sense that anyone with an ounce of compassion would want to minimise the distress leading up to a death. Such arguments are powerful, touching as they do upon deep emotions and fears. The words of Woody Allen come to mind: “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”.

I say that the terms of this debate are depressing because the sentiments outlined above reveal how far we have accepted a reductionist understanding of human nature. Issues around the beginning and end of life pull into sharp focus our ideas about what makes us truly human. What gives our lives value? Why do we matter? Why should anyone care what happens to us at the point of death? These questions, and our answers to them, ought to be at the front of our minds when we are considering the decisions that might be made at the end of our lives.

The argument that assisted dying is all about individual choice reflects a very 21st century understanding of what constitutes human value. It is assumed that we are essentially independent agents whose value lies in making choices. Take away our ability to control our own lives, to make conscious decisions, to exercise choice and to be independent, and life seems no longer worth living.

To be sure, freedom of individual conscience and the ability to make informed decisions is an important part of our humanity. But where does that leave those who have no capacity to make decisions? If my humanity depends upon my freedom of choice, how human is the newborn infant? How human is the person with dementia who no longer has agency? Does my worth really depend upon being able to sustain my independence? Surely one of the marks of a civilized society is the way it values and provides for those who cannot care for themselves.

A Christian view of human nature will have something to say about being made in the image of a Trinitarian God of love. Far from being totally independent, our unique personhood derives from the giving and receiving of love. In loving God and our neighbour, we discover who we truly are: not isolated individuals struggling in our own strength to achieve dignity in the face of death, but persons in relationship, for whom receiving care is as important as giving it.

Fear of a loss of dignity is often more accurately the fear of a loss of independence, and reflects our culture’s ideology of self-reliance, for which there can be nothing more undignified than dependence upon others. But for the Christian, that is precisely where our human worth is to be found. God considers us, amazingly, to be worthy of love, even though our sins render us morally and spiritually helpless.

The Rule of St Benedict states that “Before all things, and above all things care must be taken of the sick, so that they may be served in very deed as Christ himself.” That doesn’t depend on the sick getting better. We have an opportunity to affirm the worth of infants and those who are dying by caring for them; and allowing us to love them is a gift which can still be bestowed by those who have no other agency. In the process they not only become more human, but they give an opportunity for those who care for them to become more human also. Conversely, what does it do to my neighbour’s humanity if I ask him or her not to care for me, but to kill me?

This doesn’t touch on the many other arguments for and against assisted dying; and in my view there may be situations in which some kind of assisted dying might be the lesser evil. But unless we acknowledge what we think gives our lives value in the first place, our opinions will rest upon assumptions that at best are unexamined, and may at worst be quite misleading if we want true dignity in the face of death.

Jonathan Baker

6.1.24

Conversion Course?

The New Year is, obviously, a season of new beginnings; ring out the old, ring in the new, make resolutions, turn over a new leaf, make a fresh start. It is the language of secular conversion, in which we seek to be transformed and to try again.

The difficulty is that it is hard to convert oneself, which is perhaps the reason why resolutions, if made at all, tend to be modest affairs along the lines of ‘I must tidy the cupboard under the stairs’ rather than more root and branch attempts at becoming a better person.

The three vows taken by a novice Benedictine monk are not, contrary to popular mythology, vows of chastity, poverty and obedience; but vows of obedience, stability (ie being willing to stay in the same community for life) and conversion of life. This third one includes poverty and chastity but is more wide-ranging; and recognizes that the work of Christian conversion is a lifelong task which has to be renewed daily.

We are sometimes shy of talking about conversion. Few people have experiences as dramatic as St Paul (whose Conversion is kept as a Feast Day on 25th January) on the Damascus Road, and this may mislead us into thinking that it belongs in the territory only of very spiritual people (such as monks and nuns) and is not relevant to most of us. But the monastic vow reminds us that conversion shouldn’t be understood simply as a one-off, once and for all moment; rather it is a normal part of everyday Christian discipline.

To use an analogy, in order to win a race the athlete not only has to run very fast; he or she must also be facing in the right direction. Conversion can apply to both aspects; making sure we are initially facing towards God, and then keeping on track.

The human heart being what it is, we often resist this simple orientation. It can seem easier to run towards a substitute for God: the Minster building, or to some church activity such as volunteering, singing, welcoming, (even vicaring!) than to God himself. God can be too big, too mysterious and frankly too much of a threat to my independence to be kept in focus. God is love, and love is always too free, too unconditional and too surprising for comfort.

Love is also the key to conversion. As mentioned before, resolutions fail because it is hard to convert ourselves. Our orientation changes, and we start to turn away from ourselves, when we pay attention to others. The first of the monastic vows is that of obedience, which at its heart is about listening; the Latin verb from which we get the word ‘obey’ means both ‘to serve’ and also ‘to listen’.

Listening is also the beginning of love. Noticing the other person in all his or her particularity is what allows people to be drawn to one another. Listening to our own preoccupations, hurts and desires is also the first step towards loving ourselves, which is ultimately about being set free from those preoccupations, hurts and desires, so that we can be available for God and our neighbour.

God converts us when we learn to listen. When we pay attention to what is going on around us and inside us, the love of God can reach us and draw us in new directions. It is no accident that one of the most frequently repeated phrases in the Old Testament is ‘Hear, O Israel…’ At the heart of the Bible is the act of listening.

May 2024 be for you a year of conversion and of genuinely new beginnings as you listen, love and launch into the future God has for you.

Jonathan Baker