Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The second best coat… a story for Palm Sunday

We’ll call him Fred, because he wore such nice threads…

Fred lived in times when all garments had to be made individually from material woven by hand. There were no power looms or production lines in those days, so fine clothes were very expensive! Business was good so Fred was comfortably off. As a result, besides his workaday cloak, and his previous best robe he’d been married in some years ago, Fred had been able to splash out on a truly splendid robe for special occasions. He was keeping it for major family events and the holy feasts of Succoth and Passover. Better look after it Fred! It’s Passover any day now - you’ll want to look your best!

And now he’d heard that the King was coming to town! “What can I do to honour the King?” thought Fred. “I’m certainly going to put my best robe on! Maybe he’ll notice me among all the crowds.” So he fetched the robe from its moth proof chest and set off up the Mount of Olives, which seemed the likely route the King would arrive by.

Fred’s puffing a bit now. The Mount of Olives is very steep and very high – high enough to block off the morning sun with its heavy brow. As he gets higher, Fred sees a strange golden haze over the summit, almost as if heaven was leaning close, haloing the hilltop. “They do say this King has strange powers,” muses Fred. “I wonder what he’ll do? I do hope he sees me.” And his excitement grows…

Then he starts to hear strange sounds. Is it thunder rumbling? A stampede? Cheering, singing, shouting, clapping? And suddenly Fred is high enough for the sun to stare over the hill, dazzling him – but he’s just able to make out a vast horde of swirling figures, the source of course of all the noise, everyone yelling at once. And all the romping and dancing and running is stirring up a huge cloud of dust, glittering with the gold of the sun. So that was the halo.

And there in the middle of everything, a smiling point of peace among the frantic eddying of the people, perched incongruously on a donkey – surely that can only be the King himself? He’s the one they’re shouting for. And they’re not just cheering, they’re doing something too… putting branches in front of the donkey?

Not just branches! With a stab of alarm, Fred realises that they are taking off their cloaks and laying them down for the King to ride over. “Surely not! Surely the King can’t want people to ruin their robes like this? I mean the dust! The trampling! What if the donkey leaves a mess? Not that anyone here’s got a robe half as good as mine, but if the King knew about it he wouldn’t ask me to do it – would he? It would be irresponsible!”

And at that moment, Fred comes to a decision. He runs home to fetch his second best robe. “It’s still pretty decent, years of life left in it. The King’s bound to be happy with that!”

But by the time Fred gets back in his second best robe, the crowd has gone, the King has passed on. Fred has missed the moment when he weeps over Jerusalem, when the crowd surges into the Temple, when they all disperse, looking for the next excitement.

And a few days later, when Fred learns that the King has been rejected and condemned and executed, does he think, “What a sensible thing that I went back for my second best robe! Saved me from being taken in by that rabble – look at the trouble they are in now?”

Or later still, when he hears the extraordinary rumours that the King has trounced death and come back, does he stop to imagine what might have been? What if he had laid down his very best for the King?

Monday, 20 May 2019

English Values

This is the sermon I preached on Saturday 18 May 2019 at a special service for the Society of St George. The service was held at St Andrew's Wraysbury because their founder, Howard Ruff, lived in Wraysbury and is buried in our churchyard. People were kind enough to say they found my talk helpful, so here it is...

I was recently in Winchester for the first time. Winchester is the capital city of Alfred the Great. What a man! If any one individual has earned the right to be considered the founder of our nation, it's Alfred. He was
a warrior leader who turned back the Viking invasion
a lawgiver creating the bedrock of our legal system today
the founder of the British Navy
a man tested by setbacks and adversity
a devout Christian who had the Bible translated into Anglo-Saxon

Sadly though Alfred would never have made it on to the Great British Bake Off! But what a legacy - a profoundly Christian legacy which set the course for our country for the next 1,000 years. There have been many ups and downs and social upheavals along the way. The industrial revolution for example took millions off the land of their birth and enslaved them to machines, creating the underclass so graphically portrayed in the novels of Charles Dickens. For far too long we profited from the wickedness of the slave trade.

But again and again reformers dedicated to that Christian legacy rose up, for example The Earl of Shaftesbury who stopped children being sent down mines, Josephine Butler who ended child prostitution on the streets of Victorian London, or William Wilberforce who campaigned all his life, and finally succeeded, in outlawing slavery. They were motivated by their passionate Christian faith. If you don't know who these amazing people were, Google them! Find out – they are part of your heritage.

The roots of English culture are constantly to be found in our day to day language. When we describe a decent person as "the salt of the earth," when we tell a shy person not to "hide their light under a bushel," when we advise someone to "turn the other cheek" or "go the extra mile," when we refuse to "cast our pearls before swine" and watch out for "wolves in sheep's clothing" or throw doubt on an impractical scheme as "building on sand" we are quoting from one single passage from the Bible – the Sermon on the Mount, preached by Jesus. There are literally thousands more in other parts of the Bible. It's the Bible that forms the bedrock of those English values.

So many of the things that underlie our society's assumptions come from the Bible. Our espousal of tolerance – "live and let live" is the English motto! – comes from the command of Jesus not to judge others. The value we set on individuality comes from the Bible's teaching that every human being is made in the image of God. Our championing of the underdog, our love of freedom, our dislike of hypocrisy and our sense of fair play are all drawn from Biblical values… Or they were.

When the government decided that British Values should be taught in schools they produced a list: toleration and respect for others, democracy and the rule of law, all good stuff but no mention whatsoever of two thousand years of Christianity in this country. In other words they cut off English values at the base. They wanted to enjoy the fruits of English values while destroying their roots in the Bible and in the lives of the countless inspirational people who were motivated by its life-transforming power. Because without the support of a transcendent narrative, values have no staying power to sustain us. They are simply a matter of people's opinions or even of fashion. And who is to say that one person's opinion is any better than another's?

The dropping of Christianity from our educational system in my view marks the point at which government committed itself to a secularising programme. Yet this secularisation of our value system has a very high cost. That cost is largely paid by the younger generation. We have unprecedented levels of family breakdown, in spite of research that shows that every measurable outcome for the children of broken homes is worse than for those who stay together. I feel scared as a parent and grandparent by the huge and rising levels of self-harm among young people, the terrifying rate of suicide among young men in particular, by twitter storms full of rage and hate, sometimes perversely whipped up in the name of tolerance, by our obsessions with our body image, with what we eat, with how many people like or follow us.

Has the absence of a framework of values left our young people in a position where they no longer value themselves? Is secularism actually bad for you? Can you keep on telling people that we are just animals in a random universe, that there is no point looking for meaning and purpose in our lives, without destroying their soul? How can we say every child matters when we have no ultimate basis for saying anything matters?

You see our values don't come out of a vacuum, they arise from a narrative: that God the Creator of all made us in His image, to share His glory, because God loves us; that we messed up really badly and filled his world with greed and hate and hypocrisy and violence and all the other things so depressingly familiar to us from our daily news; but that God loves us so much that He was even ready to die on a cross to restore us to sanity and to Himself. The meaning of this narrative is that every human being is of infinite value to God, and from this value all other values spring. That is the story I believe our nation needs to hear all over again if it is to find any kind of moral compass, and I am pessimistic about our future if we don't. And that is the story I will tell until my dying day. Amen.

The statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester

Monday, 12 November 2018


Here is the presentation I gave about the Great War in 1917 - part of a series of talks on the individual years of the war given at Wraysbury Village Hall on 11 November 2018 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. I felt very proud to reference my grandfather Albert Taylor and the birth of the nation of Finland, my wife's home country.

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101 years ago girl power broke out on the streets of St Petersburg, the Russian Imperial capital! It was International Women's Day – 8 March*. 90,000 female workers walked out of their factories and marched through the streets, shouting "Bread!", "Down with the autocracy!" and "Stop the War!" What on earth had lit such a fire in their hearts?

Three years of all out warfare is what. The men had all left the fields to go to the front so there was famine! Vast sums of money had gone into arms and equipment, so there was poverty! And husbands and fathers were being killed or horrifically injured, so there was rage! The war to end all wars was about to claim its biggest casualty, Imperial Russia itself.

Over the past few years Czar Nicholas II had tried to reform the country to meet the growing demand for change, but it was too little, too late. He had assumed control of the Russian war effort and now was held to blame for the carnage. Under the pressure of war the country was breaking up and spinning out of his control. On 15 March* the Czar abdicated.

The new Republic decided to continue the war. But blood was in the water and already the sharks were gathering. On 16 April* Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, having been allowed freedom of travel across Germany, entered Russia and campaigned for his revolutionary ideology. On 7 November* the Bolsheviks overthrew the government. Lenin began to impose that totalitarian control that would hold Russia in its iron grip for over 70 years.

While Russia was descending into mayhem a high-ranking officer of the Czar's Imperial Guard returned from a diplomatic tour of the Far East. Although his name – Mannerheim – was German and his first language was Swedish, he was a proud Finn. He had been deeply influenced by the Finnish nationalist revival inspired by Sibelius' Finlandia and publication of the ancient Finnish epic Kalevala. When he saw anarchy on the streets of Russia Mannerheim at once grasped that if the freedom of Finland was ever to be more than a daydream he must act now! He hurried home to Finland, which under his leadership boldly declared independence on 6 December 1917. Out of the fire of war a new nation was born. And I'm glad it was, because if it hadn't happened I would never have met my lovely wife Elisa who is from Finland.

So the Russian war effort faltered. Eventually peace was sought in negotiations that began on 22 December. A great hope arose for the Germans! No longer did they need to fight on two fronts. With Russia out of the way they transferred huge volumes of troops and resources from East to West, against Britain and France. Surely victory was in their  grasp?
*all dates follow western rather than Russian calendar – hence the October Revolution takes place in November.

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Back on the Western front, stalemate in the trenches had gone on for three blood-soaked years. In 1917 many attempts were made to break out and get the war moving once again using new or improving technologies and tactics.
Tanks – first introduced by the British in 1916 but important developments were to come in 1917 as we shall see…
Aerial war: Orville and Wilbur Wright had made the first powered flight in 1903 and strategists were not slow to develop the military potential! Initially balloons and aeroplanes were used for battlefield observation. Pilots soon started carrying pistols to loose off at enemy aircraft. Then they were equipped with machine guns either for shooting down enemy flyers or for strafing troops on the ground. Bombs were dropped into trenches.
The iconic aircraft of the First World War came on stream in 1917. There was the allied Sopwith Camel, the Red Baron's Fokker Triplane, the workmanlike Allied SE5 and the elegant German Fokker Albatross… It was murder up there with squadrons of fighters roving the skies seeking to machine gun you to pieces. The average life expectancy of a Royal Flying Corps pilot in the spring of 1917 was a mere 6 weeks.
from 1915 German Zeppelins had been dropping bombs on the UK. For the first time in warfare civilians, not soldiers, were directly in the firing line. On 13 June 1917 came the first raid by gigantic Gotha bombers on London (two earlier attacks had been diverted to other targets). In a horrible foretaste of the Blitz, 162 people were killed in that single raid, including 18 children at a primary school in Poplar.

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In spite of these new technologies, 1917 brought the battle that perhaps more than any other has come to symbolise the absolute futility, the sickening waste of young lives and the heedless destruction meted out for the sake of a few yards of mud that epitomises the First World War. I refer to the Battle of Passchendaele.

The other name for the Passchendaele campaign is the third battle of Ypres. Yes we have indeed been here before. In spite of two previous massive battles in the same area in which both sides slaughtered each other to a standstill, no lessons appear to have been learned.

It all began spectacularly at the Messines Ridge. Around a million pounds of high explosive had been buried deep beneath the Ridge. At 10 past 3 on the morning of 7 June it was detonated in an explosion that was felt on this side of the English Channel. It was the largest man-made explosion before the coming of nuclear weapons. Major–General Charles Hartington commented, "Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow, but we shall certainly alter the geography." They certainly did! About 10,000 German troops were killed outright, buried or blown to scraps. There was a relatively easy victory as the Allied armies surged forward into this new moonscape.

But the impetus slowed down. The worst rains in 40 years, combined with the constant churning of shell fire, turned the soil to the consistency of soup. Both armies floundered hopelessly through attacks and counter attacks, losing casualties as much to drowning in mud as to the relentless pounding of shot and shell. Advances bogged down, supplies could not be delivered, morale plummeted. It was the same endless inconclusive wrestling for a few yards of swamp that had been going on since 1914.

British casualties were thought to be between quarter of a million and four hundred thousand, German about the same. True, the British broke through one of the German defensive lines – but two more remained beyond it. They never got to the strategic rail junction that was one of their prime objectives, nor did they break through to the Belgian coast, which was the other.

The German armies now began to be reinforced by troops withdrawn from the Russian front, while the Allies had to send troops away to Italy. The Italians (who were on our side at the time) had been decisively defeated at the battle of Caparetto on 24 October. In the Spring of 2018 German armies were to surge forward and the meagre Allied gains of Passchendaele were swept away like straws in a gale. In his memoirs Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote: "Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war ... No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign…"

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Now for some glamour among the gloom of the Western Front: Lawrence of Arabia! By 1917 the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire (which had sided with Germany) was in full swing. In a dashing campaign involving much sudden appearing out of the desert and rapid melting away again, Lawrence blew up bridges, roads and trains and conquered Aqaba. His daring campaign led ultimately to a complete re-drawing of the map of the Middle East, incidentally creating many of the tensions that still plague the area today… But there just isn't time. Watch the film! Back to Flanders and the Battle of Cambrai.

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Cambrai displayed one of the first uses of tanks in a mass attack. On 20 November at 6.30am 437 tanks from the Tank Corps lumbered forward from the British lines. It must have been a terrifying sight! Yet maximum speed was 4mph and conditions were truly awful. Shells hitting their armour were deafening, field of view was extremely limited and there was no outlet for exhaust fumes, so the crews got groggier and groggier from carbon monoxide poisoning. On the first day 65 tanks were destroyed by artillery fire, 71 broke down and 43 were ditched. Nonetheless the attack broke through towards their objective, the Hindenberg line. Church bells were rung in England in celebration!

But there followed a massive German counter-attack in which virtually all British gains were lost. And now we come to the reason why I especially want to cover this battle. My grandfather Albert Taylor took part. He joined up at 16, lying as so many did about his age – but nobody cared enough to check. As German counter attacks broke through small bodies of British troops were hurled forward, sacrifice parties aimed at slowing down the enemy so others could escape. My grandad Albert, 16 years old, was in one of those sacrifice parties. Of the one hundred plus who were thrown forward in his group, only he and one other survived. He was taken prisoner and transported to Germany where he was given the number 181, or "ein hundred ein and ockshish" as he recalled it.

Conditions were terrible. The German population was starving owing to the British blockade. There wasn't much left over to feed PoWs. Fortunately for grandad Albert, they were desperate for farm workers, so he was sent out to the fields. Here his upbringing in rural Norfolk came to the rescue. His family were desperately poor farm labourers and he had learned how to scrounge and scavenge his way to survival – the odd turnip here and cabbage leaf there… Eventually he escaped. Hiding by day, moving by night, he made his way towards Holland, where he was interned for the rest of the war. Holland being neutral refused to repatriate combatants. His parents did not even know he was alive until 100 years ago today when the war ended.

On 1 March 1917 an extraordinary telegram was published in the American press. The telegram had been intercepted by the British and decoded in the greatest triumph of espionage in the entire war. It had been sent by a German Diplomat called Zimmerman. It addressed to their embassy in Mexico. It treacherously incited the Mexicans to join in with Germany and promised them the US states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico if they did!

The American public went livid! On 6 April 1917 America declared war on Germany. By 26 June the first US troops landed on mainland Europe to take part in the war. From that day more and more soldiers, weapons and resources flowed in a steady tide across the Atlantic. German gains from the Eastern front and in Italy proved too little to counter this massive reinforcement. It was undoubtedly the vast industrial, financial and human resources of the USA that would bring ultimate victory on 11 November 1918. In an industrial-age war the side that had the most factories would win.

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