Ethical Christianity / welcoming synchronicity

As a European, I don’t think I can adequately apologise to people in the rest of the world for the immoral mixture of high ideals and low motives with which Europeans set out to subjugate their countries. It was a kind of good cop /bad cop routine which remains current to this day, whereby a cat’s paw (eg Bush) proclaims noble intentions while the cat itself (eg Cheney) goes right ahead & helps itself to whatever it fancies.
A cynic would say: well that’s just what happens when races clash. Dress it up in whatever language you like, but ultimately there will be winners and there will be losers. The guy with the big stick gets to call the tune.

In the light of this discussion I thought it relevant to post this piece which I wrote in response to an article Canterbury Cathedral Old Choristers Association journal by one of my closest boyhood friends (whom I've never met since), who had a successful career as a jazz drummer with some q celebrated English groups, but ultimately felt a vocation to the Anglican priesthood.

Some of my most abiding ethical roots are grounded in my childhood Psalm singing. I quote these verses from memory as they’ve always stayed with me:
Keep innocency, take heed to the thing that is right: for that shall bring a man peace at the last. –
Commit thy way unto the Lord, and put thy trust in him, and he shall bring it to pass. –
I have been young, and now am old; and yet saw I never the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread.
[Whoever wrote that never freelanced for a media corporation!]
And finally Ps49, Man being in honour hath no understanding; but may be compared unto the beasts of the field which perish. [or as William Goldman succinctly put it: ‘In Hollywood noone knows anything.’]
Winter evensongs, where the choir often outnumbered the civilians (& thus under Equity rules would not have been obliged to perform!) remain an abiding definition of the purity of true worship. To this day I detest applause. Why, in the name of…?? I recently had a dream in which I saw the interior of Canterbury Cathedral without choir stalls, screen or any ornaments as a naked building: and that expresses my sense of what a mother church needs to be: Christianity stript of the accretions of time & tradition as these mask its rebirth as an ethical force by slowly turning into objects of veneration instead of vehicles for it.
As a former pupil of [cathedral organist] Allan Wicks, I regret that my life doesn’t often have space for organ playing, and thus this year I went to discuss the question of taking up the post of organist & choirmaster in my village, which has a good instrument & a choir which can call on a lot of enthusiastic singers locally – but after going to a Eucharist I really couldn’t stomach the pre-Darwinian faith statements: tho I have no difficulty whatever with the Bible as a kind of bardic poetry which, like Early Music, forms a numinous hotline to ‘palæo-emotional’ worlds foreign to 21stC consciousness. I say this having just taken 5 years to read the Bible cover-to-cover in the light of contemporary archaeology, prehistoriography and scholarship,
My difficulty with the so-called apostolic tradition is exemplified by my recent time in California, where I took the opportunity to study the Catholic church’s relationship with the ‘first nations’. I’ll spare you the details; suffice it to say that to many peoples around the world the name of Christ is more associated with cruelty & dislocation than with love or inclusion. Slavery, forced conversions and the centuries of religious persecution shaped the current world, and it seems to me that the mainstream churches need formally to acknowledge their own participation (as German Protestants did with Nazism) before they can be renew themselves as spiritual powerhouses.
There have of course been remarkable Christians who have understood these issues: Anglicans Trevor Huddlestone & Donald Reeves, both Rectors of St James’s Piccadilly, among them: but that does not appear to be the direction in which contemporary Anglicanism is heading. My own attempts to interest Wiltshire churches in coming to hear a visiting Sufi were met with a comically antediluvian set of responses.
Apart from dear naive Hewlett Johnson’s popular Sunday evening sermons about the marvels of Communist society,* or Canon Standon’s ‘cricket commentary sermons’ where runs would be scored according to his gestures, my one abiding memory of a Canterbury sermon was that of a visiting preacher in about 1958. I've no idea of his name, but remember as he processed between the choir stalls behind a verger how diffident & uncomfortable he appeared in a borrowed cassock & surplice amid the pomp of ecclesiastical ceremony. However, once in the pulpit this youngish man spoke eloquently & authoritatively without notes about the churches’ responsibility to the developing world. Most of the content went over my 12 yearold head, but I do remember the immense stir it created, and Canon Bickersteth’s aside to Precentor Lawson after the dismissal prayers: “I shouldn’t be surprised if that young man ends up as one of the church’s martyrs.“ Therefore I understand that churches can be vehicles for such ‘enthusiasm’ just as the most stolid orchestra can be galvanised by a charismatic conductor. It's just that, for me, other vehicles do it better.

My own life, which has included several profound spiritual experiences, most recently in front of an ikonostasis in Moscow, but I have found my most sustained source of transformation throu Quaker worship, which my wife & I practice every morning we're together. (She is often away for extended periods, currently 3 months, in her profession as a costume designer.) Tho if I have a regret, it is that as a result of being brought up in the Society of Friends our kids don’t know any hymns.
For 10 years I was coordinator of the Ethics/Spirituality/Philosophy Field of the Big Green Gathering (an alternative to Glastonbury’s assimilation into the mainstream) and had the privilege of hosting a number of remarkable speakers from the gamut of faiths. The thing that I observed with sadness was that, generally, representatives of the established Christian denominations were unable to get off the high horses of their traditional right to privilege, and thus utterly failed to communicate with festival-goers in the way that Buddhists, Krishna-folk and other even weirder sects did – as the growth and energy of their movements attest.
How does all of this relate to my work as a musician? Very intimately. A visionary percussionist few will have heard of named Frank Perry once said to me: “When I'm over there, I'll be able to hear the effect of everything I did here: so I'm extremely careful not to make any sounds I don’t want to spend eternity with.“ I used to get deprest that none of my ‘heart music’ seems likely to come out in my lifetime – as opposed to all the cheap & cheerful claptrap I wrote during my broadcasting career. But now actually I can cherish in its silence the beauty of those winter cathedral evensongs, an ageless mysticism exprest by the 15thC Urdu poet Kabir: ‘The unstruck drum of Eternity is sounded within me. The dance of God goes on without hands and feet. The harp of God is played without fingers, it is heard without ears: For the universal ear is hirself the hearer.’
What I have come to worship is the privilege of Life, flowing like a spring from an invisible source we can only wonder at. The bigger picture clicked into place for me when I saw that evolution and love are simply expressions of the same dynamic of re-growth which exists in all organic matter. And, yes, I see the persona of Christ as central to the unfolding manifestation of divine wisdom in human experience – but as a facilitator of the flow, not as a rock standing up in the river’s natural path.
The stained-glass sound of Anglican psalm chanting has a profoundly beautiful meditative quality, yet like all ritual it can also serve to mask the passionate urgency of the life & death issues which the psalmist faced, and which face any-and-every-one who engages personally with the Spirit in their lives.
*The ‘Red Dean’ wore a pectoral cross given him by Stalin. I can vividly remember the outraged incredulity on my grandmother’s face as he held it up to her, in the reception after my Confirmation, as proof of Stalin’s commitment to the place of faith in his new society.

What I would add as a postscript to this, is that I think the real challenge in life is to retain the freshness of one’s impulse to spiritual self-actualisation with a groundedness & flexibility that shows one where /when things (have) become unreal, so that one doesn’t become what VF calls ‘one-sided’ - for instance locked into a formulaic belief system, or politically committed to an ethical perspective resulting in the ultimate moral enantiodromia where ‘mights’ become ‘shoulds’ and ‘shoulds’ become ‘musts’ so the synchronistic phenomena become an unwanted reminder of what has been sacrificed in order to achieve the expedient outcome.
Synchronistically, while I was writing this para my dauter Sefa’s track Public Spirited came up on my iTunes. I recommend it as a listen: http://itunes.apple.com/pt/album/public-spirited-ep/id287669201


Thoughts on the early Spanish missionaries to California & their relationship with the Mexicans

Being here, with time to reflect while Clancy has been labouring industriously, Ive given a lot of thought to the psychic resonance of California, particularly relationship between the Catholic Missionaries & the indigenous peoples; trying to see how the balance-sheet stacks up.

In Alta (present day) California the 'first nation/s' were hunter-gatherer tribes living at survival level, but in Baja California & Meso-America they were elaborate civilisations which the conquistadors shattered. As far as I can see the population of the latter were so cowed by the outrageous cruelty of their belief-system, that they therefore adapted relatively easily, indeed willingly, to the brutal simplicity (or simple brutality) of the Franciscans - who were allowed by their order to administer up to 25 lashes by way of 'correction'. An idea that their founder would have found 'surprising', yet in which they found no paradox. For an actual 'punishment' military force was required.

By the missionaries emphasis on the cross, the redemptive suffering aspect of Christ, it seems that both conqueror & conquered were united by their separately-interpreted cult/s of death in a sado-masochistic pact - where violence & death were simply a given part of their 'realities'. The one mutually-enjoyed sport was bull fighting! (Indeed you could say that this legacy persists in Hollywood where any amount of violence is permitted, but two people are not allowed to be seen in bed naked.)

When Clancy & I visited Portugal 6 years ago we were struck by what I termed the cult of ecstatic death. And the existence of this was very much confirmed by what I read about the recent Zurbaràn exhibition in London, tho didnt see it. The whole theology that the Franciscans were preaching in the new world appeared to be that suffering was the way to heaven, a suffering they doubtless experienced themselves in the very harsh conditions, and were happy to enforce in the belief that they were assisting 'the natives' path to (their) God. The very opposite to liberation theology.

What has been interesting to study in the various museums is the way in which Mexican* art & rituals remain fixated by death of this very day: altho most surviving art is veneered with Christianity, no doubt sincerely, the frequent presence of the skull or death-mask in 'native' art indicate not a culture of transfigured death but a starkly intractable, almost pornographic, obsession with the death, not as final but as an occult reality: where the spirits of the disembodied can be prayed to and invoked, as happens in candomblé & other chthonic South American religions. There is an amusing series of models in one museum of skeletons dressed in everyday Mexican clothing cheerily but spookily performing normal tasks such as riding a bicycle or knife grinding.

It is as if the prevailing 'folk view' of death is of people continuing to live exactly the same life as they did before but dead. There is no heaven, no transformation, just 'life(/death) as normal'. In the centuries after the missionary era the Catholic church seems to have assimilated this subtext in a way that allowed both Western-Christian & indigenous South American interpretations to coexist by carefully never articulating a received understanding of the death cult symbolism.
I saw a film a couple of years back which showed that the font of a large basilica in Mexico City is actually carved from a basalt sacrificial altar. I think it probable that the indigenous peoples here dont see any contradiction in this - anymore than Europeans do in the fact that our calendar & religious ideas are based on a Christianisation of Roman customs. In one museum I read a report that early ethnographers had the utmost difficulty in discovering what the various celebratory practices actually meant to those who performed them, because the fetish-wearers would usually reply simply “it is the custom”.
  • *All California was Mexican after the collapse of the Spanish empire until the US invasion of 1847 captured Alta California. As a matter of fact the AmerIndians, supposedly freed from their serfdom to the Franciscans where they were kept confined in what were essentially self-supporting concentration camps of up to 2500 neophytes (Christian converts), suffered worse under Mexican measures designed to liberate them & make the mission stations into pueblos (self-governing communities), because, without experience of business, the AmerIndians were easily duped out of their rights, often by corrupt Mexican Govt officials themselves. This was compounded after 1847 when unscrupulous American lawyers registered ownership of land which the Indians believed they owned by hereditary right.
My conclusion, after a great deal of study & reflection, is that the coming of Christianity to MesoAmerica was probably beneficial, as the social order that existed there was truly bestial for all its sophistication. (eg this altar stone in the form of a python's head) The replacement of that myth with a benigner one can only have been good, notwithstanding the negative aspects of its imposition.

In the case of the AmerIndians I see little evidence that enforced Christianisation was in their interests, either in intention or effect. As with Australian aborginals the tribes lived reasonably peaceably within the rhythms of the land, occasionally migrating & skirmishing with neibours as European nation-tribes had done in the prehistoric era, thus Catholic attempts to convert, settle & 'civilise' their people as individuals without regard to sensitive tribal balances led to the more-or-less unmitigated disaster all over America Norte. OTOH you could look at it that phenomenologically and say that when cultures collide it's inevitable there will be a winner & a loser.

Another interesting question is why the MesoAmericans evolved a highly elaborate social organisation & the AmerIndians didnt? Given that theyre the same Asiatic ethnic stock the only explanation seems to be a Marxist one, that environment in which the former lived was economically productive enough to allow settlement and ultimately social diversification. Thus people could be released from agriculture to socially productive tasks like building and art. Whereas the latter's environment made even the transition from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist infeasible.

At least one of the local AmerIndian tribes, whose land I visited, seems to have got its act together rather conspicuously http://www.palatribe.com/. But that may just be a function of its survival at all. It has a vast casino & resort.

Others, such as the native Diegan Kuméyaay (kumI-A), exist only as names. Interestingly, for those who have studied the distinction between tribalism & larger social groupings, the name for the Kuméyaay shamans was Kuseyaay indicating philologically how this role more than the temporal leadership was the central role of their existence.


A further clue to the relationship was given in a meeting I had with some San Diego piano teachers. One said of a pupil: because of the tears I knew she had made a real link to the music. In the context of this article, the relevance of that remark is that I at once saw that the Friars would have quickly learnt that drawing tears from their illiterate audience was the clearest form of connexion, and that the best way to touch these unsophisticated people was to preach to them about the physical pain & suffering of Christ. And that the peculiarly Spanish hyper-realistic evocation of the pain of the cross must both have touched these simple credulous people, but also served as a reminder & warning of the pain they might experience if they did not follow the church's teachings - both here & hereafter.

Given that Spain was the nation that created the grisliest game show ever, the Auto-da-Fè where the accused were invited to recant of sins without even knowing exactly what they were charged with, where the public entertainment was that if their recantation didnt match the (invisible) charge-sheet, or even if it did, they were likely to be burnt anyway, pour encourager les autres; and given the literalistic view of the Spanish that whatever torment they inflicted was justified if it 'saved' the sinner from 'a worse fate'. And how would the Friars know who had truly repented & been saved unless they wept? And how would they make them weep? I suspect there are some very dark links that bound the missionaries to their neophytes and that was where the secret of the strange occult link between persecutor/s & victim/s lay.