Rector's Letter for July

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Every so often, I see or hear people talk about their summer reading. It sounds lovely. It sounds as if they have rearranged their commitments and given space and time to sit down to read and think, to enter into a different world and, for a period, zone out. Perhaps you recognise this? Perhaps you put a book/tablet/kindle-type thing in your holiday bag, so you can sit and soak up the sun and read? As I say, it sounds lovely. It is not something, I admit, that I have ever been very good at.

What I like about it is the idea of absorbing other people’s stories, other people’s ideas, insights and vision. For myself, I garner these from books (though not enough) but more often and, personally, more effectively and efficiently, by listening. If you see me with earphones on, it’s because I am absorbed in an audio-world. I recently discovered that Bury Library Service offer spoken books for its members. What joy.

And I like listening to speakers. In late summer, we are off to a Christian Festival centred around the themes of Art, Justice and Faith. For some people, the highlights are to be found in music or dance or worship or theatre or the arts. For me, it’s people talking; activists wrestling with the environment/poverty/justice/migration, authors talking about their novels, theologians exploring the faith, journalists investigating the boundaries of truth.

I go occasionally to hear a speaker. Recently I heard Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, talk about “What does National Identity mean?” Because we live in such fractious times, I thought I would share his ideas with you. You might want to talk with someone else about what he said. You might want to start a conversation.

We are not born with a National Identity. It is something we learn. And we have learned it in different ways over history. Look at Genesis after the flood. We find images of all the nations moving out to cover the earth, all flowing from one family. Different nations but all equal. As history moved on, so the “group” or tribe to which someone belonged began to sense it was special. Think about the Israelites. Or, if you read the oldest history book written about Britain, by Bede, you find the Saxons thought they were pretty amazing.

If those Saxons identified themselves as belonging to a nation (essentially the word means “where I was born”) it was not the most important form of identity. It mattered more who your Lord was, who you paid rent to and (in Britain) that you were a member of the Church. Obligations and connections to people you knew mattered way more than any sense of belonging to a “Nation”.

When Nation States began to appear (Henry VII for us in England), then the need for centralised control of money, ideas and commitment also appeared. The Church of England is a complex thing and one of its drivers is controlling people’s morals (to God) and loyalty (to the crown). This idea lasted until about 1975. Quite recently, in other words. Then things happened. Mainly economic things.

Globalisation. A nation can’t control how money or goods or people move – except through extreme force. Boundaries have dissolved. And we know this because, even if we could erect barriers, global changes, like the environmental changes, technology, health, human aspiration, don’t obey maps. Global changes bewilder those of us brought up with maps on our school walls and those committed to the idea that we can choose things just for our own nation.

One reaction to all this has been to try and define “our nation”. Nations with many different ethnic groups (think Spain and the Basque Region or Turkey and Armenia) try and suppress the differences, suppress minority language and culture and faith and traditions. Much violence has flowed from this. Attempts to require nation and state to be the same is a doomed project.

Williams, after diagnosing the problems we face and how we have arrived at them, sketched out possible ways forward. He noted the way China and the USA want to turn the clock back and protect their borders. He noted that global efforts at cooperation (like the United Nations) are not efficient. He warmed to regional patterns of cooperation (like the EU!). And he really warmed to bottom-up movements, citizen assemblies, giving voice to those who feel they are unheard. In this, he noted that we often blame “them”. There needs to be, for each of us, a personal involvement. To do that, to be personally involved, we need to articulate what we think our vision for society should be. And this is where our faith tradition has something to offer the wider society.

We need, he said, to recognise and not be embarrassed by a sense of kinship, of brother/sisterhood. To pretend we belong to the ‘human race’ without also noting that we belong to a sub-set of that, would be nonsense. For me, it is a gift to be a white, northern, British male, for instance.

However, we do belong to the human race; and that means we belong to a wider community where people are different, have different traditions, languages, faith, etc. We need to be confident of our own traditions so that we can contribute to a wider community. To draw on St Paul’s body language (1 Corinthians 12), it is great to be an eye but we need feet and arms too. I am a better person, more whole, more likely to thrive and flourish, when I welcome, work with and appreciate my neighbours who are different to me.

Which brings us back to the “Table of the Nations” in Genesis. We might inhabit different parts of the world but we all can trace our roots back to one source. We forget that at our peril.

With love and prayers,