Monday, 30 June 2014

Last Week

Today was a day off. I went for a long bike ride and walked along the beach at Doctor's Point: down along the flat sand, carrying my camera and astonished at the beauty of the clear line between land and see and the patterns at the bottom of the translucent water and knowing that it was well beyond my ability as a photographer to capture it. I walked past the place where the terns nest on the rocks and through the cave with its wave weathered roof shining golden in the winter morning sunlight. This beach is one of my happy places: a small simple stretch of coast that looks different every time I go there. A place for remembering and for letting go.

Last week was our annual ministry school, which was about letting go. We had a great programme, designed by Alec Clarke and Benjamin Brock Smith. I led some Bible studies and we had input from Chris Holmes and Kevin Ward. We had speakers from the 5:30 service at St. Matts and from Urban Vision, challenging us with a couple of different ways of being church. At the end of each day Phil Clark led us in  kind of examen, looking back and drawing together common threads. We acknowledged the great changes we are facing as the Anglican Church in Southland and Otago, noting the obvious statistical and demographic facts that we have lived with for years now. But it wasn't a depressing or negative time; far from it. The mood of the school was upbeat, buoyant even. We were hopeful and excited about the changes which lie on our very near horizon.

We are in a transition in our diocese, with the decay of our old processes all around us, but also with the hints of the new beginning to appear, sometimes in surprising places. We have a superb team of clergy and lay leaders and the procedural and infrastructural changes which might help them forward the mission of the church in surprising new ways are far more complete than I had expected them to be at this stage. I talked about my own role as bishop and about how far I saw that extending and what I thought was required of me over the next two or three years. I left with energy and confidence that we will handle the changes which lie ahead of us.

I went straight from the ministry school to the national interfaith conference which was held in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. I had never been into a Mormon church before, and I was curious. It was, on the inside, much as you might expect from looking at the outside: lots of straight lines, everything clean and neat and well made. There was a built in data projector and a nifty central pulpit with an electric height adjustment device. With a huge gymnasium and a multitude of small meeting rooms the complex was perfect for the conference, and the Mormons had, in a humbling show of generosity, let the organisers use it for free and had postponed their own Sunday morning worship to accommodate us. On Sunday I had the novelty of sitting there in a service of worship where the music was led by Colin Gibson on piano and the Hare Krishna group on guitar and drums, though not at the same time. Lord Leslie Griffiths, was the keynote speaker and there was the usual round of breakout groups and workshops. It was a good conference, but I must say that after our ministry school, anything would have seemed anticlimactic.

So today, on a calm clear, warm and sunny winter's day, it was wonderful to be back on my bike and walking the Otago coast and thinking on things past and things to come.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Transitions

Yesterday I was at one of my very favourite places, St. Barnabas' Warrington. Even though there were a few people away the little church still looked and felt pleasantly full. It was Te Pouhere Sunday so I spoke about the early missions and the Treaty of Waitangi, but all the while I was thinking about something that had been preoccupying me for the past 24 hours. And that is transitions.

In the course of any given day we encounter situations where the rules of engagement change; where the ways of doing things and the things we say and even the things we think radically change. Take the service at St. Barnabas' for instance. For an hour or so I wore clothing that was more or less unexceptional in the context of the church but would have been bizarre should I have worn it while strolling down George St. in Dunedin. Inside the church we used language and concepts which would have been incomprehensible outside and we did things (communal singing, all sitting in rows facing the same way, kneeling and standing on cue, saying prayers aloud) which we would never dream of doing elsewhere. In other words, in the church context our rules of engagement change. We drop our normal everyday expectations and ways of engaging with each other and adopt a new set.

This doesn't just happen in church of course; we do it constantly. A family will have a set of rules which prevail when eating dinner and another for when visitors come and another when engaging in a spat and so forth. Schools, workplaces, clubs, all have their own various contexts and corresponding rules of engagement. We move seamlessly from one context to the next and as we enter or leave we make the appropriate shifts in behaviours and language.

As we make these changes there are little routines we go through to mark the shift from one reality to the next. At St. Barnabas a bell was rung, Lois, the priest in charge asked people to stand and sing a song, and hey presto!we were all in the little world of an Anglican liturgy. We stayed there until it had run its course when a set of ritualised words and my moving to the back of the church signaled that that little reality was over and people were free to chat, or do other activities not allowed in the liturgy but allowed in the world they were re-entering.

What interests me are these transitions. There are many of these little rituals that we employ almost unconsciously as the day passes. We sit at table and say grace then pile the plates and move, together, away from the table. We sit on the mat and sing a song to mark the start of the school day and take our bags off the hook to mark its ending. We don our gym clothes and then shower and change back into our street clothes. It seems to me that if they are done well these small transitional rituals seamlessly link all the little sub worlds together and integrate them one with the other. If they are not done well they cause anxiety in all present, and cause our lives to feel and appear fragmented.

I don't want to do much more than note the existence of these little transitions, but they are significant for our liturgies (obviously) but I suspect also for the way the various aspects of our lives hang together. There's a PhD in there for someone. If you're scrabbling around for your thesis, feel free.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Bloodlands

I read this chilling book at the recommendation of Mike Corkery, the warden at Selwyn College. It is a book which, because of its subject matter, was difficult to finish but which I am very glad I have read.

Published in 2010, it describes the history of that part of Europe caught between the competing totalitarian Empires of Nazi Germany and The Soviet Union between 1933 and 1945. In that 12 year period, approximately 14 million non combatants were deliberately killed by these murderous regimes each under the sway of an ideologically driven dictator.

The Bloodlands are the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, parts of Russia, and the Baltic states. It was here that Stalin deliberately starved 3 million people to death; here that the overwhelming majority of the victims of the Holocaust met their ends; here that millions were murdered or transported in vast programmes of ethnic cleansing. Adolf Hitler had his objective of a racially pure Germany with enough living space in the East to establish a utopian Aryan empire. Stalin sought to consolidate control over a vast and diverse Soviet Union and pre-empt dissension by eradicating or moving any possible locus of rebellion. In co-operation or in competition these two powerful systems unleashed cruelty on the peoples of Eastern Europe whose scale defies the imagination.

The book is meticulously researched and footnoted and there are lengthy appendices. The sheer volume of material makes Snyder's case inarguable. His style is measured and objective. He avoids the temptation of wallowing in salacious detail or emotive sensationalism and instead allows the bald facts of history make their own staggering impact. He makes the point that by far the majority of victims of  both regimes did not die in concentration camps. They were slaughtered in or near their own villages by gas, bullet, fire and starvation and were buried in vast communal graves. The secrecy surrounding the Soviet Union and its satellites, which account for all of the Bloodlands, means that little Western attention has been focused on these atrocities but Snyder corrects that oversight with clarity and quiet, relentless attention to detail.He traces the origins of the conflict back to the division of Europe in the Treaty of Versailles, and further back to the ethnic tensions and rivalries of Europe. He convincingly outlines the motives of Hitler and Stalin, which altered as the Second World War took its course. He examines some of the lasting after effects of the slaughter on the modern States which occupy the Bloodlands.

This is a great and necessary piece of historical writing. It is also a sobering call to reality. These horrific acts, unprecedented in the history of humankind, happened less than a century ago. Only two or three generations ago the ancestors of the current protagonists in the Ukraine were being butchered in their millions. Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians and others were killed or driven from their homes which were then settled by forced migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union. It's no wonder they're fighting today.

Two things struck me particularly about Snyder's analysis. Firstly that none of the atrocities performed by both sides in this conflict would have been possible without the willing and sometimes enthusiastic help of the local populations. Secondly that both Hitler and Stalin were acting from what they believed to be a strong moral imperative. I leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.

This is a book I highly recommend as an insight into the recent past of Europe and into the human condition generally. But don't imagine that you can read it and remain unmoved and unchanged by it.