A forgotten Church


This last weekend, I discovered a new piece of British Church history, almost by chance. In my blog on Julian of Norwich, I mentioned that the title page of the first modern edition of her work was illustrated by the Scottish-based artist Phoebe Traquair. While looking her up, I saw that she had painted some extraordinary murals in an Edinburgh Church, built for the Catholic Apostolic Church. Some people today refer to it as Scotland’s Sistine Chapel and it really is an amazing piece of Church art. Even though I lived just across the road when I was a student, the Church was at that time shut down and boarded up. Relatively recently it has been rediscovered as an important part of Scotland’s heritage and after restoration is now open to the public once a month (at other times it’s used as a wedding venue: it seems somehow typical of our age of simulacra to use a Church for non-Church weddings).

The Catholic Apostolic Church itself developed out of a dizzying array of Church movements in the 1830s, which involved such figures as the Presbyterian Pentecostalist Edward Irving, the writer George Macdonald (Lilithand Phantastes), and an MP and banker, Henry Drummond. Most were Presbyterian or Anglican, and most were from the minor aristocracy or upper middle classes. In the swirling currents of religious enthusiasm, there were reports of miracles, ecstatic prophetic utterances, and outpourings of the spirit. In late 1832 Drummond called another member of the circle, James Cardale (an Anglican lawyer), to apostolic office. Cardale in turn appointed Drummond as an ‘Angel’ or Bishop. Gradually a full college of apostles was summoned and these went into a collective retreat for a year while preparing their strategy for re-evangelizing Christendom. Their testimony was then delivered to all the heads of state and Church across Europe, including the Pope.

Unlike many other charismatic movements they were distinctly upper class (it’s said that when the Church was still in use rows of Bentleys were to be seen outside) and were also strongly ecumenical, wanting to see the reunification of Christendom. They eschewed hellfire and damnation and preached universal salvation. Their worship used elements of Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox practice to create elaborate and visually spectacular events (they developed a multitude of ministerial orders, each of which had their own colour vestments, so every service was a kind of rainbow event).

This spirit is expressed in Traquair’s luminous murals, which focus on the summoning of all believers to a life in heaven. Trumpeting angels abound and, following the instructions of the Church, there is no image of the crucifixion. (In a minor detail, Traquair did, however, find a place for it, perhaps reflecting her own more orthodox belief.) The colours are intentionally bright and cheerful. This is religion focussed on optimism, universality, and joy. One could say it was a kind of ecclesiastical realization of the century’s philosophical idealism. It also shared some common themes with the new age movements of the time, just as Traquair’s art owes debts to High Church pre-Raphaelitism and to the symbolism (occasionally veering towards the occult) of G. F. Watts. Everywhere in the nineteenth century religion was being reinvented for the modern world. On the one side, a Kierkegaard was narrowing down its focus to the single individual, on the other, movements such as the Catholic Apostolic Church were seeking a new universalism.

Even by the time the Church was built (in the 1890s), only one of the original apostles was still alive (he died in 1901) and the college had resolved they should not be replaced.  This also meant that no more priests could be ordained and the last died in 1971. Some worshipping groups continue, but it is perhaps Traquair’s art that remains its most expressive testament.

Talking ’bout my generation

‘My generation’ is getting talked about in ways that Pete Townshend never dreamed of. If you believe you read in the media, you’ll have learned that we’re the ones to blame for climate change, squeezing the younger generation out of the property market, and soaking up the pension fund bonanza—all on top of having had the benefit of free university education.

No doubt there’s a grain of truth in that, but it’s very distorting – and radically underestimates the long historical lead-in to our present environmental crisis. It certainly wasn’t my generation that built the ‘dark, satanic mills’ that Blake wrote about, nor set in motion the massive exploitation of coal, gas, and oil that burned its way through the twentieth century. Still less did we bring about the world wars that wasted the achievements of the industrial revolution on a colossal scale. Nor was it our generation that created the myth of a jet-set life-style as worthy of emulation (probably my great-aunt’s, who liked fast cars and flew to Japan for her honeymoon). I never did it, but those of my contemporaries who had gap-year adventures usually travelled by hitch-hiking, not by jetting to the other side of the world. And we didn’t live our young lives plugged in to electronic devices: statistics are hard to come by (now I wonder why?), but some estimates have new communications technologies accounting for 14% of the global carbon footprint by 2040. Some estimates are higher.

We were too slow to start applying the brakes, to be sure. Maybe we didn’t know about climate change, but we did know things were going drastically wrong. Back in 1962, I was, like many small boys, fascinated by nature and used to buy a weekly illustrated magazine called Animals. As well as photos of cute kittens, noble tigers, and scary spiders it also serialized extracts from one of the most important books of the twentieth century, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which chronicled the horrific impact we were having on other species. Talk of climate change came later (in fact, for much of the 60s and 70s people frequently speculated about whether we were going into a new ice age), but we knew that things were going wrong, badly wrong – or, at least, we were in a position to do so.

Already in the early 1970s there was a debate about ‘enough is enough’ and, especially in Germany and Scandinavia, green politics started to get into gear. Most of my Ph.d. was drafted on rough quality recycled paper. Not quite enough to save the planet, but it was a start. More importantly, it was many of my contemporaries who started doing the science and engineering that brought about our new consciousness of planetary responsibility and the technologies that will be needed to turn things round. Many – but, of course, only really ‘some’. Precisely because the crisis is as serious as it is, this is not the time to start a war of generations. We really are all in it together. Children, parents, grandparents.

I’m put in mind of two Bible stories. The first is the story of the woman taken in adultery, when Jesus says to those threatening to stone her, ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. One by one, they went away, starting, as the Bible says, with the oldest, those most aware of their faults. The other is the story of Susannah and the elders. The beautiful Susannah is spied on taking her bath by two elders of the community who try to cajole her to have sex with them and threaten her with attempting to seduce them if they don’t. She refuses, the case comes to trial, and she is threatened with death. Then ‘a devout young man’, Daniel, steps forward and employs the now classic police technique of questioning the two separately and revealing the inconsistency of their stories (this might be the first time the technique I used in literature). In the one case, wisdom is with the old, in the other, with the young. ‘My generation’? Your generation, the next generation, every generation—hopefully not the last generation!


Denmark’s Greatest Son?

I am just coming to the end of a short visit to Copenhagen (travelling, mea culpa, by plane). The main aim was to give a lecture, but I was also able to take part in the launch of an English translation of a book about the great nineteenth-century Danish priest, prophet, poet, and politician, N. F. S. Grundtvig. The name is already something of a mouthful for non-Danes, and his thought is perhaps even harder to understand. One British contemporary who had a long conversation with him concluded that ‘I could attach no clear conception to anything that he said’. But for Danes he is often referred to as ‘Denmark’s greatest son’. His big educational idea resulted in the people’s high schools, a uniquely Danish form of further education that has for nearly two hundred years provided Danes of all backgrounds with an opportunity to experience something a bit like life in an Oxbridge college. This high school movement has been one of the major forces in shaping modern Denmark’s national self-consciousness. Also, nearly a third of the hymn in the Danish hymn book are by Grundtvig, and they are clearly still much-loved (we sang one at the end of the launch).


The photograph is from 1872, six days before his death. That same year, the English writer Edmund Gosse heard him preach, and commented, ‘He looked like a troll from some cave in Norway; he might have been centuries old … He looked supernatural, but hardly Christian’. Indeed, though Grundtvig was a Christian priest, some of his most original ideas were about the deep historical and symbolic connections between the Norse myths and Christianity, and he regarded Christ and Odin as both sons of the All-Father. This is not entirely unlike how the ancient Church fathers treated the relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophy—but it’s still a bit strange. This aspect of his thought also ties up with Grundtvig’s nationalism, and his ideas about the special calling of the Nordic peoples and the Danes in particular. Here are some lines from his poem ‘”Of the people” is our watchword’: ‘Of a “people” all are members/ who regard themselves as such, / find their mother-tongue sounds sweetest/ and their fatherland love much;/ All the rest like goblins evil/turn their backs upon the people,/ bar themselves from kindred tie/ and their birthright too deny’.

Clearly the links Grundtvig made between the pagan past, the Christian heritage, and national identity are right at the heart of contemporary debates about what it is to be Danish –although in his own time only 0.4% of the population were not members of the national Church (this figure comprising Jews, Catholics, Baptists, and other smaller Christian denominations). It says something about this continuing relevance that two of the speakers at the launch were well-known politicians, both of whom had held ministerial office. Yet Grundtvig can be taken two ways: there is a nationalist, almost racist reading, favoured by some on the far right of Danish politics today; but there is also an internationalist Grundtvig: this is the Grundtvig who has inspired educators in many different countries, including Bangladesh, Japan, Nigeria, and the USA, where, amongst the students at the Grundtvig-influenced Highlander high school, was Rosa Parks, the woman who sparked the Alabama bus protests that set off the post-War Civil Rights movement. The school itself was recently burned down, probably by White Power activists. Anders Holm, the book’s compiler, also showed us pictures of a group of Bangladeshi educationalists, who, when asked whether they had heard of Grundtvig declared proudly that of course they had heard of him: he was their master.

Like much else in what we have inherited from the past, then, it really is up to us to decide how we are to sue that heritage. Are we to use it to define ourselves over against and to the exclusion of others—or are we to take it as a stepping-off point as we go forward to encounter the others in friendship and peace?


‘Listening’ – and acting

I have to admit to a deep scepticism as to what we can really expect to come out of politicians’ sudden eagerness to be seen listening to Greta Thunberg. As I said in my last blog, I strongly disagree with her view that no one is doing anything – but it’s equally true that many people, particularly those with their hands on the levers of power, have not been doing enough. There are deep commitments in the political philosophies of both Labour and Conservative that have for many years inhibited their responsiveness. Awareness of green issue shot up in the 1980s and the highest ever Green Party share of the vote in England and Wales was 15% in the 1989 European elections. However, because of the first-past-the-post system (which changed in 1999) it failed to get a single MEP. Since then there have been flickers of environmental action, but these have more often involved talking the talk than walking the walk. This is especially true of the conservative party and the reason is simple: that contemporary conservative philosophy prioritizes reducing taxes (or, at the very least, not raising them) and keeping down consumer costs over just about all other issues. As Amber Rudd (currently seen as a relatively sane member of the cabinet) put it in 2015 about cutting subsidies for onshore windfarms: “The priority is making sure we keep bills down for consumers and families and making sure communities have more of a say over what happens in their area.” In other words, leave the advantage with the suppliers of fossil-fuel based energy supplies and amplify the voices of those who object to the sight of industrial windmills ‘spoiling’ their view of the rolling English or Welsh countryside.

At one point, it looked as if it was going to be otherwise. Back in 2006, David Cameron, still fresh and youthful, promised ‘vote blue, go green’. In power, he at first offered a raft of green initiatives but, bit by bit, targets were missed and projects curtailed. 2015 saw the end of subsidies for onshore windfarms and the dropping of the so-called ‘Green Deal’ subsidies to home owners for insulation and the installation of solar panels. The government also scrapped the Zero Carbon homes policy introduced in 2006 (by Labour) that would have required all new homes built from 2016 to be carbon neutral, introducing instead (in 2016) a 12 month review of energy efficiency in new house building – clearly a much weaker measure. The usual cost-cutting and anti=bureaucracy rhetoric was in full swing: “Our aim is to speed up house building and not add extra costs and bureaucracy”. A report published in the Architects’ Journal in February 2019 concluded that ‘Since the start of 2016, some 380,000 homes have been built, but the heating efficiency of most has fallen below what would have been required to meet the zero-carbon homes standards’. It has also meant an extra £200+ per (new) household in heating costs.

Some – actually a large number – of conservative MPs are much more drastic in their assaults on any green deals or agendas than Rudd. Especially outspoken is Glyn Davies, a Welsh MP, who, apart from deploring the impact of windfarms on the visual environment, thinks that “it is not windy enough [in Great Britian] and we need to move the gas industry forward”. Owen Paterson, at one point minister for agriculture, thinks wind-power is ‘a failed medieval technology’. David Davies, for many months chief Brext negotiator thinks that climate targets are pointless as they will“send energy prices skywards unless the rest of the world follows suit. The result is predictable; manufacturers will leave these shores, taking jobs and investment with them. The emissions will not be eliminated, but simply relocated. That is why, for reasons both economic and environmental, we should not sacrifice Britain’s economic recovery on the altar of climate change.” William Rees-Mogg, still a potential leader of the conservative party, commented in 2017 that ‘I would like my constituents to have cheap energy more than I would like them to have windmills’, also arguing that since action we might take now on climate change would not have any impact for hundreds of years it was not worth taking.

We could go on. Glyn Davies (“not windy enough”) also has a depressing voting record on other issues dear to Guardian readers, not only having voted against various bills forwarding gay rights but also against a bill making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste. He also voted in favour of repealing the human rights act. All this and more is easily discoverable in official reports. The pity of this is that it not only confirms left-wing stereotypes of Tory attitudes but is not really a necessary consequence of basic conservative philosophy. Although this has recently contained a bias towards privileging cost-cutting and reducing bureaucracy at the expense of the environment (not to mention social justice), an older conservative attitude, found especially in rural areas, strongly privileges ideas of custodianship of the land and passing on to our children what we received from our forebears in as good a condition as possible. Cameron’s green moment did not come from nowhere but could have been a possible route forward for modern conservatism. In this regard, the conservative party could have been (and I stress, ‘could have been’) a more natural initiator of green policies than Labour, with its traditional orientation towards maximizing industrial productivity.

Whether either party can tune in to the new urgency is questionable. Both will talk the talk and more or less presuasively cite random statistics to show their commitment, but whether either is really prepared to confront voters with the kind of life-style changes they need to make is a whole other matter.



No one is doing anything – or are they?

It’s difficult being in 98% agreement with the Extinction Rebellion protests but not quite able to make it to the 100% mark. One of the aspects of the protests that worries me is the use – or overuse – of the trope that no one is doing anything about it and we (the people) are doing what we have to do to make them act.

One of the reasons this worries me is that it’s obviously not true. Thousands, maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands, of people aredoing something about it: the research scientists who have identified the issue and publicized it, the journalists who have spread the news further, and, not least, the engineers, architects, and food campaigners who have been developing ways of reducing our individual, household, and collective carbon footprint. In many cases (especially at the research end) their work has in fact been paid for from governmental sources. And, in many cases, this work has been going on not just for years but for decades. Perhaps little of all this work has the glamour or the carnival festivity of street protests, but it’s where real differences, however slow, are happening.

A second reason is that it’s disturbingly close to the kind of rhetoric that has been powering Brexit and related movements across Europe, implying that ‘we’, the common people, are being betrayed by corrupt politicians, pen-pushing bureaucrats, ‘the establishment’, etc., etc. – that is, those who are in power and who have no other interest in being in power other than to perpetuate their own individual and institutional self-interest. This may not be as obviously untrue as the claim that no one is doing anything about it, but it is at best only a half-truth. It is true that the UK government, for example, despite some promising pledges, is doing much less than it could. Let’s name and shame the ministers who supported cutting subsidies to wind energy, who decided not to pursue the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, or invest more heavily in other renewable energy sources, and who generally drag their feet at the mention of anything that might either require public investment or potentially cut into profit rates. But even that doesn’t mean that ‘they’ are doing nothing and there are significant numbers of politicians, local and national, and civil servants actively working to up the pace of change.

But the problem is, when ‘they’ and ‘we’ are defined so broadly, the cause can end up being anything at all. The anti-establishment rhetoric of Beppe Grillo can make for electoral success, but ends up with a government to the right of Berlasconi (even if less obviously sleazy), perhaps not where many of his supporters wanted to be.

The case for climate change limitation will be made – and is being made – on the basis of overwhelming evidence. Human beings are capable of all manner of self-delusion, but there is a point at which a brick wall is a brick wall and, at that point, most of us decide not to run into it. It was disappointing in this regard that David Attenborough’s long-awaited programme perhaps pulled its punches. Nor should we forget that even if the worst case global warming scenarios are avoided there are many, many other behaviours we are indulging that are degrading our common environment. Care of the earth isn’t just about saving our own skins but caring for bio-diversity (all sentient beings, as the Buddhists say) and acting, as, Heidegger put it, as ‘shepherds of being’ or, in theological terms, as ‘priests of creation’. A century ago, Albert Schweitzer spoke of the ethics we needed as ‘reverence for life’, a phrase that merits revival.

My Notre Dame Moments

Many people have their Notre Dame memories. Here are a couple of mine. The first time I visited it was in spring 1968 when I was on a language course in Paris. I went off on my own and walked around it. Most of the other students didn’t seem interested in going into old churches and I was myself fairly disconnected from Christianity at that time. All the same I was hugely impressed by the fact that despite the large number of tourists milling round (probably relatively empty by recent standards), there was still a sense of something ‘more’; a funeral was going on in one side chapel and, as I recall, a wedding in another. This seemed very different, and in a good way, from the Anglican outlook that those attending these occasional offices are the only ones with a right to be there. Somehow this offered a vision of religion as big enough to give room to all aspects of human life – ‘catholic’ in the sense of all-encompassing. Later, I went back for Easter Day, and persuaded myself that I had an ecstatic experience. Maybe I did.

Since then, I’ve visited it two or three more times, most memorably at the end of 1971, when we spent our first Christmas in Paris, staying in a small hotel overlooking the Îsle de la Cité, and attending midnight mass—as well as climbing one of the West towers. On the last occasion, more recently, the queues waiting to get in were just too long, but we were able to admire the almost expressionistic carvings of the dead rising from their graves on the West front.

On the radio this morning a bishop and a sculptor were discussing whether there was any building in Britain that had a comparable imaginative and emotional power and the conclusion was not. As a building, Durham Cathedral might have the best claim, but I suspect many living in the south have never seen it and it’s not really present to their consciousness. St Paul’s was discussed as a possible candidate, and, of course, the image of St Paul’s Dome rising above the flames of the Blitz has, as they say, an iconic status (for once, perhaps, the word is not misused). Yet St Paul’s is 500 years short of Notre Dame in terms of history and, in any case, its values are very much those of the Protestant Enlightenment and its role as a stage for civic, royal, and military functions. It’s awe-inspiring but cold. On the one occasion I preached there, the crowd of tourists to whom I was speaking seemed very distant and it was one of those (few) occasions when I really did feel like an actor speaking into a void.

It also says a lot about the British attitude to our cultural heritage that whereas Notre Dame has remained a defining element of the sky-line of central Paris, St Paul’s is dwarfed by the ensemble of City of London commercial buildings, which is itself one of the ugliest group of contemporary high rise buildings in any major city centre. (I say this not because of a Prince-Charles-like aversion to contemporary architecture, some of which I think is great: just this particular jumble of gherkins and mobile phones.) This isn’t accidental, and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition helps explain why not.

Arendt distinguished between labour and work in such a way that labour provides our basic physical necessities, such as food and shelter, while work creates a world of things that provides us with cultural and historical orientation, giving trans-generational continuity to our communities. The products of labour are those that serve the oikonomia or economy, the household management of our societies, which, in capitalism, has effectively swamped genuine politics. What we produce through labour is used and used up, but ‘works’ last, if not forever (as Romantic aesthetics liked to say), then for many lifetimes. It is entirely in keeping with the nature of contemporary British capitalism that the architecture of its defining institutions should blot out the effective memory of the city as a place of sacred and abiding community values. France, is in some deep and hard-to-define way different.