Once Again on the Location of Worship: The Persecuted Church and Domestic Space

Kings College Chapel (photo: author)

It’s been over a month since I’ve kept my Covid diary. The long weekend has afforded me a bit more time to write and reflect. Part of my thinking has revolved once again around the whole “location” controversy in the Church of England.

In my piece on worship location as adiaphoron (where I argued that the matter is ultimately non-essential), there were a couple of points that I didn’t get to discuss that I’d like to touch on briefly now.

On the term adiaphoron itself, I realise that this argument works from my perspective. I want to worship together, and yes in a church building, but the church building does not take pre-eminence at the moment. To refer to the location of worship as non-essential clearly fits with a more Reformed perspective. While I prefer to eschew labels in favour of substantive dialogue, they are useful heuristic tools. Laying my cards on the table, I would consider myself a liturgical reformed Anglican, which is probably massively redundant as the Reformed tradition within Anglicanism was liturgical to its core…In any case, I recognise that the term adiaphoron does not really work for Anglo-Catholic friends, for whom the location of worship isn’t an optional luxury or choice since the church building is a consecrated space in which the priest acts as representative of the people. So adiaphoron isn’t perhaps the best argument for bridge-building, I admit, even if it is true to my more Reformed convictions. (I suppose this would be a good point for me to outline my own ecclesiology but, perhaps cheekily, I’ll save that for another blog).

I also would like to have discussed the role of church buildings, sacred and domestic space and the persecuted church a bit more.

In terms of church buildings, I focussed on the role of aesthetics, but really I should have acknowledged the variety of roles a church building plays. As I found in my research whilst a research associate at Theos, a church building is often the hub of the community, functioning through a cafe or food bank or classroom as a rich source of social capital. Moreover, as noted above, the church building is also, in certain traditions, seen as holy space where worshippers connect with the throng of heaven throughout space and time.

As I outlined in my piece, I worship in just a such context currently and hugely appreciate this emphasis on sacred space and the historical rootedness and capaciousness of the Christian tradition. But while we’re talking about the communion of saints and the church catholic, what of those sisters and brothers who cannot worship in church buildings for fear of humiliation, persecution or death? OpenDoors has recorded many such cases, including this one from North India.

Closer to home, Stephen Holmes has provided a timely Baptist intervention, noting that Baptists in the seventeenth (and sometimes up until the nineteenth) century in England faced horrific persecution from Anglican clergy and bishops for non-conformism. As Holmes writes, Baptists frequently employed kitchen tables as eucharists and hidden pools for baptisms. The domestic setting for worship is part of the warp and weft of the ecclesial history of these isles and we would do well to consider this fact before denigrating “retreats to the kitchen”.

But thankfully, all of this now seems to be water under the bridge, as the house of bishops decided last week to allow priests to enter churches. This will be welcomed by, among others, a good number of my Anglo-Catholic brothers and sisters. I think it is right that there is now greater licence for those who wish to enter the church and it is good that bishops can no longer penalise or pressurise priests who want to enter their churches. It’s important that the hierarchy has also allowed for individual dioceses to emphasise that those who cannot enter their churches (whether for health reasons and the like) may continue to hold services from home. 

To be honest, I’m just glad that the issue seems to have been resolved so that the peace is kept. I do worry, though, that deep fissures have appeared around this issue and may well resurface in the future. I was reminded in reading a fantastic blog by Iona Morphet, that the most important thing in all of this is to consider how we have these debates. To be clear, I think these discussions need to be had, and I do believe that a pandemic is a good time to have them. But let’s do so with gentleness and respect. On many occasions, we’ve fallen short of this standard, myself included.

Perhaps on this issue, as with others, we need to recapture the beauty of the Elizabethan Settlement which upholds the freedom of conscience for Reformed and Anglo-Catholic congregations (and others) alike. Settlement and compromise is a difficult thing to come to, but our future together depends on it.

In Praise of Unherd’s Coverage of Lockdown

According to a recent Sky/YouGov poll, trust in journalists is at an all time low. In the results of the poll, which surveyed 1652 British adults, journalists fared the worst in terms of public faith, with TV journalists receiving a net score of minus 40 and newspaper journalists, minus 55.

The issue of public trust in journalism is certainly complex. There’s clearly a massive debate to be had about the limits of this data (extent), where the data is and isn’t pointing in this direction (demographics), why people are thinking this way (cause) and why all of this matters (significance).

But in the face of this story, I want to focus on an example of journalism that I have greatly appreciated. In all of this, I have been most impressed by the coverage of the lockdown offered by the team at Unherd. Unherd’s approach is deceptively simple and effective. They seek to give voice to views that one normally wouldn’t come across while also challenging ideas that have unquestioningly become de rigueur. There isn’t a single “line” that all their writers follow, even though there is a broadly (though by no means monolithically) post-liberal flavour to their authors and their contributions.

Here have been some of the pieces I have appreciated from the Unherd team on the subject of the Covid-19 lockdown.

To begin with, I have been immensely challenged by Freddie Sayers’ interviews for UnherdTV. For those who’ve missed it, Sayers has interviewed various kinds of scientists who differ on their approaches to the virus. He has written all of this up in a provocative piece that explores the different worldviews that underlie the various public health recommendations. He’s interviewed Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke who with bluntness and brevity advocates a policy of protecting the old and frail, while allowing social distancing measures for the rest of the population. He has also spoken with Neil Ferguson, one of the scientists responsible for Imperial’s Covid-19 report which has heavily influenced the strategy of the UK government thus far. Perhaps somewhere in between these two figures (at least in terms of the IFR or Infection Fatality Rate he has reached) is the German virologist Hendrik Streeck. He suggests that lockdown measures were introduced too soon and that, because the virus is endemic, we need to think about how we can live with it in the medium to long-term.

Tom Chivers offers a position that looks more favourably upon the lockdown. His piece today (Is the Lockdown doing more harm than good?) contains his usual combination of epistemological humility and careful reasoning. Chivers is broadly behind the lockdown now and in the near-future (“It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to”) but is open-eyed to the deaths and death-like existence for many suffering from unemployment and mental-health conditions. “Lockdown is coming at a cost”, he rightly asserts. It’s one of the more open-eyed pieces that backs the lockdown policy. Also in its favour is the emphasis on the uncertainty about our conclusions because of the lack of data (which, he stresses, isn’t the same as saying that we have no data). As he writes:

In short, we need to work out what the cost of the virus would be, if left unchecked; then we have to work out what the cost of our response to it would be; and then use those two factors to decide whether the lockdown is worth the cost. The trouble is, we don’t know either of those things

The one potential blindspot in Chivers’ piece is the lack of discussion around herd immunity, which I would have liked to hear more him speak more about (no doubt he has elsewhere). To be fair, it seems we don’t know enough yet to say how the virus will interact when we come out of lockdown and, in the absence of mass testing and tracing, whether or not one becomes immune having had the virus.

In addition to covering the lockdown, UnHerd has also featured articles that touch on a wider set of issues raised by the pandemic. In this vein, two pieces have provided some much needed realism surrounding our cultural attitudes towards risk and death.

With her characteristically dry humour and wry take on things, Timandra Harkness discusses the need for us to consider risk when it comes to our approach to lockdown. She questions whether the government should have spoken more of risk mitigation rather than risk elimination. She writes,

we would have done better to talk about Covid-19 more like road accidents, as a risk that can’t be eliminated altogether, but can be mitigated. Instead, the Government invoked the language of existential threat, in the face of which no measure is too great. Now, weighing the risks of resuming more normal life against the risks of continuing in suspended animation, they are struggling to coax a fearful population out of lockdown.

Instead of trying to frighten us all into staying at home, the Government should have harnessed our altruism, inviting us to join a grown-up conversation about risk. That would have left the door open to invite us all, now, to weigh the risk of Covid-19 against the lost opportunities of continuing to hide from the world.

Of course, there is a risk, to use that word again, that with all of this talk of quantification and QALYS (the measurement used to determine the value of a life) we become bean counters of souls. Giles Fraser wisely warns us about this approach. And yet, when push comes to shove, difficult decisions need to be made about whose lives are saved. If this seems cold and utilitarian, perhaps even libertarian, then we need to remind ourselves that the UK government is not, as is often asserted, simply trying to balance human lives and the economy. Chivers cautions against this comparison.

It’s really important, by the way, that we don’t get wrapped up in the idea that it is “the economy” vs “human life”. The economy consists of people’s lives, in a very direct way: if you stop people working, you make their lives worse; their businesses go under, they fall behind on rent or mortgages, they can’t afford to buy the things they want or need.

From attitudes to risk, we turn, lastly, to conceptions of death, where Mary Harrington makes a very important contribution. Harrington takes to task the implicit assumption among high-income societies that “everyone will live forever”. The title of Harrington’s piece, “Not Every Death is Tragic”, is rather unfortunate and I imagine will cause many not to read it. I’d recommend not making that mistake. It is a provocative read, but the title has little bearing to the article which is a sensitive, personal and realistic take on death. Her point about herd immunity is interesting and one wonders if this should be the way forward (“Unless a vaccine is discovered, any relaxation of lockdown will result in a new spike in infections, followed by further lockdowns, and so on until we reach — yes — herd immunity”). Perhaps less controversially, Harrington also discusses the fact that in less affluent societies where “death is already a familiar presence, the risk calculus of virus transmission looks very different”. This point has been repeated elsewhere in discussions of a “white collar quarantine” (and I discussed it in this piece over a month ago). Harrington’s comparative point is one that resonates with me, having spoken with family living in middle-income countries outside of Europe, as well as with friends working in blue collar jobs here in the UK.

Harrington delivers some hard-hitting truths on the way we as a society think about death (“our culture treats death as abnormal, even outrageous — not the inevitable fact it still is”). I suppose the only thing I would add is that while inevitable, death for the Christian does not have the last word (see my reflection on hopeful realism here). Regardless of whether it is someone dying at the peak of their powers, or after a long life, death is not how things should be, though we recognise that it is how things in reality are. It is something that we will all go through. Setting semantics aside, Harrington’s piece implicitly reminds us that we might wish to reconsider recovering a common vocabulary for speaking about death that draws on religious traditions in general, and Christianity in particular. I, for one, would welcome this re-development in our public discourse.

Hopeful Realism: Night Reflection for Compline (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm (http://jyotiartashram.blogspot.com/2007/10/sign-of-jonas.html)

Night Reflection for Compline, Trinity College Chapel via Zoom (Easter Season in Coronatide). Weds 6th May 2020

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

In times like these, death seems to be omnipresent. We knew it’s name before, of course. But in these days of Corona-tide, as some have taken to calling this season, we know with greater clarity the painful reality of death. There’s no mistaking the long, dark shadow it has cast over our nation’s public life.

In the UK, during the month of April alone, 25,000 souls were lost to the coronavirus. Just last week, in a single day 600 died of Covid-19—in a one 24-hour period, what is equivalent to a medium sized Cambridge college lost to the ravages of this horrible pandemic. 

It is no surprise that in times such as these, our assumptions about that most basic reality of our existence—death—are laid bare. 

In some of us is revealed a strong and persistent fatalism; call it pessimism, cynicism, or stoicism. We resign ourselves to death. To the fatalist, death is the natural end of life, the point at which our existence runs its logical course. Nothing else is to be said or done as death has the final word.

For others of us, it isn’t fatalism but idealism that characterises our response to this pandemic. Death seems everywhere present, and yet we would rather not talk about it. As late-moderns so used to the idea of being in control of our destinies, we run a million miles from death. We prefer to laugh it off. In disparagement, we refer to those with any kind of interest in facing their own mortality as “morbid”. 

And yet into the fatalism and idealism of our own hearts, our scripture tonight counters with two assertions of its own. Death is real. Christ has been raised. 

Hear these words again from tonight’s reading:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

For the Christian, death is a topic that is very much on the table. Of all the major world religions, it is only Christianity that has God in Jesus Christ take on mortal, vulnerable, corruptible flesh and die. As our creeds state: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried. He descended to the dead”. I am reminded of my family in rural Northern Ireland who, as per custom, included in their most recent phone call “update”, the news of those who in the local town had died recently. Here, I thought to myself, is a community that is honest about the reality of death. The Christian faith does not shy away from our mortality. Death isn’t something we laugh off, or shut our ears and eyes to in reckless idealism. But nor is it something we fatalistically ascribe to the natural course of a life. In the face of death, the Christian exclaims, “how long O Lord?” This is emphatically not how it should be!

But our scripture this evening makes a second, far more remarkable counter-assertion. Yes death is real. But we also believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and we who trust in him will be raised as well. This is no lame attempt at emotional uplift, or a vague offer of bodyless, paradisal bliss. No, our text declares that God in Christ has given birth to a new world; he has literally birthed us anew. The language of giving birth in early Christianity held apocalyptic resonance—apocalyptic in the sense of a revealing, an unveiling. In raising Christ from the dead, in vindicating him, God unveils a new creation in which we are beginning to participate and which will be brought to full completion in the last time. 

But until then, we grieve and lament the loss of life. We are honest and realistic about the reality of death. But we do not grieve as those without hope. We are neither fatalistic nor idealistic, but realistic. And we are hopefully realistic. For we have the greatest hope of all—that Christ has defeated death in giving up his own life for us and in being raised victorious. Ours is a hopeful realism that neither idealistically turns a blind eye to death nor cynically scoffs at the living hope achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Yes, death will do its worst. But Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and we will be too. Do we dare entrust our lives, and our deaths to him? Perhaps the better question is, how could we do otherwise? 

Amen. 

Location, Location: Does It Matter Where Church Services Happen During the Coronavirus?

Peterborough Cathedral (photo by the author)

The Problem

On 24th March, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York penned a joint letter in which they advised clergy not to enter churches to conduct services.

For some, this decision has spelled not only a missed opportunity but a dereliction of duty. Giles Fraser has complained that in abandoning its church buildings, the Church of England has retreated from public life. Fraser echoes Bishop Selby who has similarly registered his despondency over the church hierarchy’s decision to go beyond government advice. In doing so, Selby writes, those in positions of leadership

…seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces. The conviction that the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the places of beauty set apart is an “essential work” undertaken by “key workers” will have become a wistful “BC” [Before Coronovirus] memory. 

I take a very different view.

It seems to me that there is enough leeway in the Archbishops’ guidance for particular bishops and dioceses to conduct services from their churches. Of course, this will depend on the viewpoint of the particular bishop, the greatest strength and weakness of Episcopalian ecclesiology. It seems especially strange to not permit clergy who live next to the church, or where they have access through a side door, to enter, should they want to.

And of course, that phrase “should they want to” is key. Some clergy will actually want to abstain from running a church service from their church building, perhaps out of solidarity with their congregations and communities, out of obedience to their bishop or some other reason. Some clergy I have spoken have expressed the sadness of streaming a service from an empty church in comparison to a warm study or the room of a house.

The current advice from the archbishops seems, to me at least, to be typically Anglican: it allows for those with a firm conviction (theological or otherwise) that the service should be held in the church to do so (again, depending of course on the bishop…though that might not stop some!). At the same time, it permits others who for their own reasons prefer, in this instance, to abstain, to do so. There is a merciful wideness to it.

I found Giles Fraser’s article thought-provoking and he made a number of good points. For instance, the use of the church building makes sense for those vicars whose home lives are chaotic, or the fact that vicars often check on the building for insurance purposes but not for worship-services). As an aside, I thought the title—”The CoE has retreated to the kitchen”—was poorly chosen. I don’t see any anti-feminist agenda to what Giles has written, but the language of retreating to the kitchen is open to that interpretation. The assumptions about secular and sacred spaces would be an entirely different blog post, however, and one I hope to return to!

More substantively, I do think that his piece, and others like it, rest on certain theological convictions and historical judgments that require discussion. To his credit, Giles has raised these points for discussion. This is surely one of the benefits of Anglicanism: a measure of top-down ruling that also has the capacity to take account of voices “from below”.

What I want to focus on in this piece is the issue of location of worship specifically under the circumstances of the current lockdown. I am not discussing the location of collective worship generally but only services held during “Corona-tide”, as some have come to name it. I sense it is only right to consider our current and (as we like to call them) unprecedented circumstances.

All are in agreement that collective church services cannot be held. So the main two choices are:

  1. the vicar/priest streams the service from his/her church
  2. the vicar/priest streaming a service from his/her home

The question can be put like this: Does it matter where church services are held during Corona-tide? Is the location of worship services held under lockdown important?

My short answer is that in the current circumstances, no it does not ultimately matter. What matters is how we address the fact that we are apart from one another. Yes, we are apart from church buildings, and these buildings matter enormously. However, the vicar streaming the service from the church does not, in my view, bring us back together under the one roof of the church.

My judgment that the location of worship being non-essential in these circumstances betrays my own reading of history and theology. Allow me to explain.

The Location of Christian Worship Historically is An Adiaphoron

I hold to the view that the location of Christian worship is non-essential. The technical term for this is adiaphoron, meaning something that is neither morally bad nor good, but neutral. The location of Christian gatherings is, morally speaking, indifferent. (For more on the Stoic origins of this term and Paul’s borrowing of it, see Alex Muir’s blogpost here).

What matters is that Christians are together. And this view coheres with the biblical and theological traditions.

To risk gross over-simplification, there seems to me to be a movement in Judaism and Christianity from an informal setting for worship towards the development of more formal structures and locations for rites and ceremonies.

In Abraham and his descendants, we read of a pilgrim people searching for a land in which to dwell, settling in Egypt under Joseph only to be enslaved by a newly ascendant Pharaoh. Having been miraculously delivered by God in the Exodus, the people wander for 40 years in the desert before finally entering the Promised Land. We then read of the building of the temple under Solomon, a significantly new development. The construction of the the temple is followed, however, by a series of disastrous exiles during which the temple is destroyed, rebuilt, and then destroyed once more.

In early Christianity, there is, mutatis mutandis, a similar movement away from informal attitudes towards venues towards the desire for more formal locations of worship. A few texts demonstrate the earlier attitude of indifference towards location:

1. John 4:19-24

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

2. Revelation 21:1-4

John’s vision of the new heavens and a new earth at the end of the book of Revelation is one in which God is with his people. No temple for the new heavens and new earth, as God communes directly with his worshippers.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them’”.

Alongside such texts, there is also a strain of tradition that identifies Jesus himself as the new temple of God.

3. John 2:18–22

“The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. ”

4. Matthew 26:60–62

“Finally two came forward and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer?’”

In identifying himself, and in being identified by his followers, as the temple of God, Jesus pointed to the true purpose of the temple: to be the place where God met with his people.

***

So we’ve witnessed the strain of indifference to the particular location of worship in the earliest Christian documents. This raises the question: where, then, did early Christians worship?

Early Christians in the first two centuries, as far as we can tell, did not meet in anything resembling what we think of today as consecrated church buildings. As far as we can tell, such buildings, often referred to as basilicas, emerged later under Constantine the Great.

By contrast, the early Christian gathering (or ekklesia; Greek: ἐκκλησία) most often took the form of a house-church. A wealthy patron or benefactor allowed the use of their home for gatherings for singing, the reading of scripture, baptism, the sharing of the Eucharist and preaching.

The historian of early Christianity Eddy Adams has recently encouraged us to expand the list of early Christian meeting places. On the basis of existing textual and archaeological data, he concludes that early Christians also met in retail spaces such as workshops, leisure areas and burial places. Indeed, early Christians often employed public places like the outer temple for their worship, as several episodes from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles demonstrate (see Acts 2:46).

This indifference to location is also born out by slightly later Christian texts. The testimony of Justin Martyr (dated sometime to the mid second century but extant in later sources, including the Acta Martyrum) is remarkable for the evidence it provides of early Christian convictions about the location of worship. Justin’s defence before the Roman prefect Rusticus before his martyrdom is worth citing in full.

Rusticus the prefect said, ‘Where do you assemble?‘ Justin said, ‘Where each one chooses and can: for do you fancy that we all meet in the very same place? Not so; because the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by place; but being invisible, fills heaven and earth, and everywhere is worshipped and glorified by the faithful‘. Rusticus the prefect said, ‘Tell me where you assemble, or into what place do you collect your followers?’ Justin said, ‘I live above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian Bath; and during the whole time (and I am now living in Rome for the second time) I am unaware of any other meeting than his. And if any one wished to come to me, I communicated to him the doctrines of truth‘. Rusticus said, ‘Are you not, then, a Christian?’ Justin said, ‘Yes, I am a Christian’.

Justin roots his indifference towards the location of assembly in the nature and character of God: “for God is not circumscribed by place”. Since he is invisible and “fills heaven and earth” he is worshipped “everywhere”. This isn’t simply a ploy on Justin’s part to avoid revealing the identity of other Christians (note that he does provide the name of “one Martinus” in his response to Rusticus). Rather, Justin continues the trajectory of adiaphoron attested to in the New Testament texts listed above.

***

Why does all of this matter for us?

The history of early Christian worship points to the general indifference of early Christians towards the location of worship.

Then as now, what matters is that Christians are together. For us living in lockdown, this means “being together” virtually, in eager anticipation of later being together in person. The practice of worshipping Almighty God should, for now, take precedence over where we do so.

Yes, aesthetics matter. I firmly believe that. Those traditions (or parts of a tradition) that enjoy the heritage of beautiful buildings adorned with artwork, sculpture and architectural wonders will rightly miss these places. I find myself just now worshipping in this part of the Anglican Church. I personally prefer this kind of aesthetic. I haven’t always worshipped in these kinds of settings. I have been part of churches that met in bowling greens, town halls and urban warehouses.

My preference for aesthetic beauty, though, is exactly that—a preference. It’s not a norm that should be enforced on others. Clearly those without the means or the desire to worship in such a space are not deficient in faith. On the contrary, they often complement those more architecturally blessed traditions with fervour in the faith, often expressed in terms of active discipleship, professionally produced modern music and an infectious enthusiasm to engage those outside their walls. In line with the location of worship being a preference, the archbishops’ decision appears to be a pragmatic one, taken in light of the current circumstances.

We clearly live in a tension between our particular places of worship and the universality of God whom, as Justin wrote so long ago, can be worshipped anywhere. There is surely an important piece to be written on how our church buildings reflect the particularity of place. I hope to return to this issue in another blog, and have touched on it here. But what the lockdown is bringing out in full colour is this universal dimension to the Christian faith. As Christians, we can worship God anywhere. He is not bound by time and space. And we are connected to a universal, “catholic” church that extends through space and time.

We long to be back together, and yes we long to be under the roof of the church. Until then, we worship apart, but together, in spirit and in truth.

A Blue Collar Shakespeare: Philosophy in the Lyrics of Rush

Photo Credit: Redferns

I’ve been a Rush fan since I was about 15 years old when my friend introduced me to “The Spirit of Radio” and then “La Villa Strangiato”. The combination of sheer musical technicality, thoughtful lyrics and free-thinking nerdiness spoke to me as a lonely and introverted teenager living in a foreign country (our family had moved from Belfast to Chicago). “Subdivisions” was particularly close to my heart with its message of non-conformity (“be cool or be cast out”) playing out in the halls of my formidable high school.

With the lockdown, and with the recent death of Rush’s drummer and lyricist, the late and great Neil Peart, I’ve set about re-listening to the Rush catalogue and thinking about the philosophy (or philosophies) behind their songs.

The early lyrics of Rush, penned by Peart, are known for their thought-provoking references to literature, science-fiction and philosophy. Peart had a great way of speaking to rather than down to the common man (or we might say, “the working man” since the fanbase of Rush is predominantly, though not exclusively, made up of blue collar men). As Billy Corgan, lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, explains in the fascinating documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage,

The thing I loved about Neil is that he took very complex metaphysical themes and was able to put them in a way that everybody could understand; whether he was ripping off Shakespeare or quoting his own heart, he was able to do it in a way that never felt snobby. It always felt like he was in the room talking to you.

Peart was a Canadian Shakespeare for the common person. Of course, he would have resisted such a grand title. He was simply Neil Peart.

In Peart’s own words,

we’ve always had the impression that people are just as smart as we are, so if we can figure this stuff out, they can too, that we’re not being (that terrible, damnable word) pretentious because we’re not pretending anything, this is really what turned us on this year. Lyrically, it’s always been a reflection of my times and the times I observed. But everyone is a reflection of me.

As any critic will tell you, the early lyrics of Rush are shot through with Libertarianism. While the prominence of the individual and individual freedom remained an important constellation in Peart’s lyrical galaxy, he moved beyond the Libertarian credo in interesting and insightful ways (though interestingly Peart, while critical of his earlier phase, maintained in his later years that he remained “a bleeding heart libertarian”).

Readers of this blog will know my own thoughts on libertarianism (suffice to say, I’m fairly dubious about the whole thing). I enjoy the fact that Rush’s lyrics reflect the importance of personal freedom (especially from totalitarian regimes) while also exploring the limits of that freedom. You only need listen to “Distant Early Warning” to see Peart’s ability to transcend categories, as he derides the “Red Book” while also recognising that “we need someone to talk to” before reprising with the chorus “I worry about you”. This is one of those places where Peart allowed a communitarian side to show in his lyrics. “Entre Nous” is another: while “we are secrets to each other”, nevertheless we are “joined in bonds of love / we’re linked to one another by such slender threads”. The words “alone and yet together” could perhaps sum up the mature Peart’s reflections on human social interactions.

It’s also important to note that where Peart’s libertarianism is overt, it was more of the social than the economic stripe. Hence songs like “Big Money” or “The Spirit of Radio” positively speak against absolute economic freedom and free-market fundamentalism.

My favourite three Rush songs also happen to speak of some of my own important ideals: conservatism, by which I mean the preservation and passing on of a common heritage (Red Barchetta), social activism and the pursuit of the common good (Closer to the Heart) and pessimism (or is it realism?) towards the notion that we will achieve infinite progress and immortal bliss through our own efforts (Xanadu, a heart-wrenching and tragic re-telling of Coleridge’s dreamy “Kubla Khan”). Of course, on the most important (and what I take to be the most true) philosophy of all, Christianity, Peart and I are worlds apart.

There are plenty of other songs that I enjoy and which are extremely meaningful but don’t reflect any deep philosophy as such (songs like “Marathon“, for instance which is simply an 80s banger about perseverance). The list isn’t exhaustive—I could have included “Time Stand Still“, for instance, which movingly weaves together reflections on being attentive to the present moment with references to William Blake on innocence and experience. Hopefully I’ll add to the list over time, particularly from some of Rush’s more recent albums as my knowledge of these is patchy.

Without further ado, the list:

1. Working Man (1974, Rush)- Pelagianism

“I have no time for living yeah / I’m working all the time”. 

2. Bastille Day (1975, Caress of Steel)- anti-totalitarianism

“la guillotine will claim her bloody prize”.  

3. Fly By Night (1975, Fly by Night) – neoliberalism

“leaving my homeland / fleeing a nomad / my life begins today”. 

4. *Closer to the Heart (1977, A Farewell to Kings)- social activism

“to mould a new reality / closer to heart”.

5. *Xanadu (1977, A Farewell to Kings) – pessimism

“Held within the pleasure dome / Decreed by Kubla Khan / To taste my bitter triumph / As a man, immortal man”.

6. A Farewell to Kings (A Farewell to Kings, 1977) – paternalism

“can’t we find the minds that made us strong?

7. The Trees – anti-socialism

“so the maples formed a union and demanded equal rights…and they passed a noble law / now the trees are all kept equal, through hatchet / axe and saw”.

8. Spirit of the Radio (1980, Permanent Waves) – anti-capitalism

“for the words of the profits were written on the studio walls, concert halls / and echo with the sound of salesmen“.

9. Freewill (1980, Permanent Waves)- atheism

“A planet of playthings / We dance on the strings / Of powers we cannot perceive”.

10. *Red Barchetta (1981, Moving Pictures)- conservatism

“down in his farm / my uncle preserves for me a new machine / for 50 odd years / to keep it as new has been his dearest dream / I strip away the old debris / that hides a shining car / a brilliant Red Barchetta from a better, vanished time”.

11. Limelight (1981, Moving Pictures)- isolationism

One must put up barriers / to keep one self intact”

12. Tom Sawyer (1981, Moving Pictures) – libertarianism

“No his mind is not for rent / to any god or government”.

13. Subdivisions (1982, Signals) – (suburban) nonconformism

“Conform or be cast out”.

14. New World Men (1982, Signals) – neoconservatism

“Learning to match the beat of the old-world man / Learning to catch the heat of the third-world man”.

15. The Body Electric (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)– transhumanism

“It replays each of the days / a hundred years of routine / Bows its head and prays / To the mother of all machines”. 

16. Distant Early Warning (Grace Under Pressure, 1984) – communitarianism

We need someone to talk to / And someone to sweep the floors” 

17. Mystic Rhythms (1985, Power Windows) – transcendentalism

“Nature seems to spin / a supernatural way”

18. The Big Money (1985, Power Windows) – post-liberalism

“Big Money, got no soul”.

CovidDiary Day 19 (Weds 8th April 2020)

What if this quarantine is just saving middle-class lives? That’s the question raised in this New York Times piece. The article runs with the headline: “white-collar quarantine”.

Sweden’s approach to the virus would appear to agree with this assessment. The Scandinavian country has famously taken a very different approach to the pandemic, with mitigation being preferred to a full-scale lockdown. One of the very interesting justifications given for this approach is equality—how could the government expect blue collar workers to “work from home” when their jobs required them to be out of their houses. Sweden’s chief epedemiologist, Anders Tegnell, put it this way:

Some people can work from home, but not everybody. How to maintain an equal society in that way? How can we maintain equality so that everybody has the same chance of staying well.”

Whatever we think of Sweden’s approach—and I happen to think it is certainly risky from a health stand-point—it at least acknowledges that economically vulnerable people are bound to be hit badly by a lockdown. Not everyone has the luxury of an office-based job that can be done remotely.

We are caught in a choice between saving lives now from the pandemic but storing up a range of economic and emotional problems in the future or losing a good number of lives now to help to balance this economic and emotional deficit. Sweden’s choice reminds us that difficult decisions have to be made. Some lose out, whichever decision is taken.

In light of such a bleak scenario, all this talk of “a year of jubilee” can stick in the throat.

I wrote about billionaires and footballers in my post from a few days ago. But what of me? I have a home office to work from, a job to go to, and a job that protects me from the elements and from interaction.

Of course, it isn’t quite true that this is a white-collar quarantine. Or at least, it isn’t true that those with means are left unaffected by the pandemic. We are all affected by the situation in different ways, some more hidden than others. Even the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has the virus and has recently been admitted to intensive care. As Theresa May tweeted a few nights ago, in many ways when it comes to health, this “horrific virus does not discriminate“.

Yet it’s certainly true that some are bearing the brunt more than others. I’m not a big fan of sociological theories that divide society up into various categories of difference. I often find them facile. But what I do believe to be incontrovertible is that some bear the marks of privilege—a steady home background, socio-economic security, health. All of these bring access to opportunities and, in a very real sense, open doors that for others are closed.

I enjoy these privileges.

What to do, then? I am not sure that responses of hand-wringing, or renunciation and guilt are appropriate, unless the privileges we possess are actually used for ill.

More profitable, I think, is to ask: what am I doing with these privileges? This question immediately turns us away from focussing on ourselves and has us centre our attention on others.

There are two proper attitudes to cultivate here, which are appropriate for Holy Week, that week where Christians remember Christ’s journey to Golgotha. These attitudes, or practices even, are generosity and lament.

  1. Generosity: we can keep others safe by avoiding physical contact. It is is strange how physical and spatial distancing have become forms of neighbour-love, but such are the times we are living in. But even as we are apart, we can support those worst hit by this virus and ensure that care is available for the most vulnerable. Organisations like Partners in Health are doing great work that is worthy of our support. The YourNeighbour initiative is linking local churches to the relief effort, mobilising volunteers to offer phone calls and deliver much needed shopping and medical items.
  2. Lament: we lament the tragedy of death and disease, declaring emphatically that this is not how things should be while hoping, waiting, praying and working for things to be different. We lament the hardship that many have fallen into, or now face even more starkly, as a result of being out of work. As Good Friday approaches, Christians remember how God in Christ went to the deepest and darkest place both in our place and also for us. God is therefore not aloof from our misery, suffering and hardship. Scripture is filled with examples of saints appealing to God to remember the suffering of his people. As Christians today lament, we too appeal to God for his mercy for all, on the basis of his character and covenant.

CovidDiary Day 12 (Weds 1st April 2020)

A purse inscribed with the words, “Remember the Poore” (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Feast and Fast Exhibition; Photo: Simeon Burke)

Reading the news about football clubs who are placing non-playing staff on furlough, I can’t help but reflect on the moral state of our contemporary economy. I am left feeling pretty depressed.

I’m depressed at the absolute prioritisation of profit over people. As Julian Knight (MP) has put it, “This exposes the crazy economics in English football and the moral vacuum at its centre…It sticks in the throat”.

We have made the acquisition of capital itself a virtue. At the same time, we appear to have abandoned those true virtues of philanthropy, generosity and helping one’s fellow man.

But I’m also saddened that it took a crisis such as the current one to reveal this order of things to me. I confess to an uncaring apathy. I don’t think it’s self-flagellatory to say that I am partly implicated in this mess as I have enjoyed and followed these clubs for many years.

I want to be clear that I am not against the acquisition of wealth per se. I also think that any salary that is offered to non-playing staff should be done so voluntarily. I could partly sympathise with Corbyn’s harsh words towards the billionaires in election season last year. While I am slightly wary of actions taken by the state on this front, I do wonder if our taxation system is working as it should, particularly as many avoid taxes through off-shore accounts and the like.

Nor am I, at this point, willing to say we should scrap capitalism altogether. It’s the best system that we have, which is not to say it is a perfect one. As one commentator humorously relayed today, “Coronavirustide is ‘capitalism’s Lent'”. Indeed, capitalism needs serious re-thinking and serious chastening through virtues like generosity and philanthropy.

Tom Holland discusses Basil the Great and his brother Gregory of Nyssa in his chapter on Charity (Image Credit: The Times).

The history of Christianity has much to teach us here. I am reminded of Tom Holland’s wonderful chapter on Charity in his book Dominion. Holland argues that with Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, we find examples of individuals who embodied charity. As Holland explains, the virtue of generosity they took up was established on a realistic anthropology:

Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect…Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of the Saviour. For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.

Gregory, On the Love of the Poor 1

God’s love for the poor and outcast, created just as much in his image as you or I, demands a similar ethic of love and generosity. For Gregory and Basil, this worked itself out, as Holland demonstrates, in opposition to the slavetrade. For Martin of Tours, it led to a life of poverty and associating with the lepers and lowly. For other Christians, it involved rescuing the most defenceless of all—unwanted children (often girls) exposed to the elements and left to die.

There are countless chapters of Christian philanthropy throughout the centuries (one of my favourites is the Earl of Shaftesbury). Uniting most, or all of these chapters, though, is the conviction of the inherent dignity of every human person, whether wealthy football player or casual catering staff. As the words emblazoned on the 17th century purse in the photo above remind us (echoing Paul’s own to the Galatians), “remember the poore”.

****

Returning to the subject at hand, I understand that billionaires often make their billions through a bright and novel idea that changes society. At the same time, there is nothing “bright” about doing so when one’s workers are on zero-hour contracts.

Thankfully, there are some very generous billionaires out there. I think of Bill Gates who, with other billionaires, plans to give all of his wealth away. In the context of sport, I am also gladdened when I hear that Juventus’s team and manager have chosen to freeze their wages for four months and Barcelona players have taken a 70% pay cut so that staff receive pay.

Amidst the greed of the “normal” status quo, then, are these some of the shoots emerging in this strange Spring of Change?

CovidDiary Day 11 (Tues 31st March 2020)

For all of us, the pandemic will be an experience to get through, to survive before things return “to normal”. We should all be involved in this effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, no question.

At the same time, and I don’t wish to say this callously, I think it is also important to consider that this pandemic is “not just a disaster to get through, but a moment to seize and change the world”.

OK, that’s perhaps a grand way of putting it. In less grandiose terms, perhaps, these times offer an opportunity to allow ourselves to be changed.

As I reflect on this shift in perspective—on the pandemic as a moment of change and opportunity—I think at one level of the massive structural changes that are happening in the UK:

  1. the intervention of the state and the medical and economic guarantees it has made (which I reflect on here)
  2. the changing nature of capitalism
  3. the public recognition of those we so easily took for granted, including NHS nurses and doctors, carers, restaurant owners, delivery drivers, cleaners. The scale of this recognition is at biblical proportions (“the last shall become first”).
  4. relatedly, our prioritisation of the elderly and vulnerable in public health policy

Other developments stare us in the face just waiting for those in power to do something. There is, for instance, a desperate need for a social stimulus to support charities and non-for-profits to carry out their important work in promoting social cohesion and care (for more on this, and the need for the government to let charities register more quickly and so receive gift aid status and to lessen the time for DBS checks, listen to Will Tanner between 19:00 and 32:00 here).

But at another level, I am thinking of transformation at the personal level. I have recently noticed a shift in my own habits, thinking and attitudes, and even some rare moments of moral insight.

The hesitant but unmistakeable wave to the bus driver on my morning walk. The conversation with the Sainsbury steward. The nod to the cleaner who passes my window in the morning.

I become more aware of people around me. Shared suffering creates this kind of solidarity. It reminds me of our inter-connectedness. Deeper still, it also offers an opportunity to create habits that work against the default mode of selfishness, to embody practices that go against the grain of modern life. In the time of the pandemic, there are more readily available, more pressing opportunities to look beyond myself and so challenge the prevailing individualism of late-modern life.

This condition naturally arises from a consciousness of shared fragility—the potential to be a carrier of the virus and so infect others, regardless of whether or not they are a stranger, is strong. As Peter Franklin puts it, “There’s nothing like a contagious disease to remind us that individual actions have collective consequences”.

So I give thanks for these moments of change amidst all the difficulty of this season in our national and global life.

******

Since starting these diary entries, I have reflected on whether the pandemic is an abnormal time or whether, in fact, we are living in “the normal times” (I was convinced more towards the latter point when listening to Rowan Williams discuss the plight of those in the majority world, for whom the conditions of the plague are, at least materially, no different from their daily reality; full episode here).

But I’ve now come to a different conclusion. Or at least, a different way of looking at the matter. What if strained times such as these offer us the opportunity to re-think and re-shape the normal?

This isn’t to instrumentalise the pandemic. Rather, it is to reflect carefully and candidly on the social, economic and spiritual implications of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Of course these are abnormal times with their sad but necessary blend of spatial distancing and social isolation. And we hope for a return to “peace time” and an end to the virus and the tragic suffering and loss of life it has caused.

What if, in the midst of the survival, the mitigation, the spatial distancing and self-isolating, we also took time to re-think the “normal” order of things?

To challenge our assumptions not only about how our world might look, but about how I, how we, might be in it?

I think we have the chance to not only re-imagine the macro-structures of our society and world, but to also re-conceive of the individual habits, attitudes and desires of our own hearts (more on that in this wonderful piece).

All along, we assume that things will return to normal. And in medical terms, we certainly hope that will be soon. But what if the new normal we return to, will in some sense, be new? How, then, would we want to shape it?

By all means, let’s first and foremost survive and protect lives.

But please forgive me if I am also interested to see what new shoots might be growing up…and consider how I might tend to them in the days ahead.

Covid Diary Day 8 (Sat 28th March 2020)

A stream running through the fens near the Fen Causeway

An enjoyable day of rest. Walked to Grantchester, completed some house work, read ahead and finished Hebrews and caught up in Exodus, continued to make headway with other reading on the list (Crime and Punishment, Scruton and Lewis) and enjoyed both the finale to Stephen Fry in America and 1940s classic Whisky Galore!

CovidDiary Day 6 (Thurs March 26th 2020)

LockdownTV from Unherd (Elizabeth Oldfield b-right)

A brief post to flag up the stimulating conversations happening over at Unherd on #LockdownTV. Today’s episode focussed on the virus and the environment. The climate is a fraught enough topic in normal circumstances without needing to throw in a global pandemic. In the anxious times we’re living in at the moment, it has been sad and frustrating to sometimes see the issues of the climate be handled so badly by some environmentalists. Take for instance the recent XR posters stating that “humans are the problem and Corona is the cure”. This is deeply disturbing, anti-human and frankly eugenicist stuff.

This was why I was encouraged by Elizabeth Oldfield’s strong contribution to the debate (see the video below). Oldfield rejected the approach outlined above but wisely cautioned against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can still use this moment to think about our personal individual decisions as well as the need for governments to re-think global capital’s reliance on fossil fuels.

On the point about individuals taking responsibility, I was encouraged and challenged by Liz’s bridge-building instincts (around 8:50) as she made reference to conservative doyen Roger Scruton’s writings on the environment (Liz makes reference to working transgenerationally and in local contexts that we call home). I also greatly appreciated her refusal to decide between the local and the global by making reference to the interdependence that has arisen so clearly in recent weeks between individuals within communities and between communities across borders.

Check out the video below and have a read of Liz’s most recent post on the issue here. It rightly avoids what she calls the “triumphalist crowing” from some in environmentalist circles just now, while still remaining faithfully and positively committed to the care of creation.