The Crown of London…

I have been listening to some music by Lau’s Kris Drever of late.

One song has stuck with me- writen by Kris’s brother, all about the fate of the 17th C Covenanters after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679.

It seems all the more poignant a song in the wake of the recent Independence referendum, reminding us of the mess of politics and religion that gave birth to the Union of the United Kingdom. Some people remember the Covenanters as Godly heroes who stood up for truth against oppression. At the time they were seem more in the way we would see the Taliban fighting Jihad. Disenfranchised people in the grip of religion that proclaims truth whilst entirely missing the point.

The so called ‘English’ Civil war involved many thousands of Scottish soldiers fighting on both sides, but most tellingly on the side of the Parliament. Many of these were lowland Scots who saw themselves as fighting a Holy war to free Presbytarian Scotland of all Popery and Catholicism. There was some skulduggery along the way though- the Covenanters switched sides for a while and eventually invaded the North of England but were defeated at the Battle of Preston. After the Civil war, they were eventually defeated in Scotland by a Parlimentary army under Cromwell. The trouble did not end there though, as after the Resoration of the Crown, Charles II did not remember the deal he had made with the Covenanters.

Following the restoration of Episcopacy rebel ministers began to preach at secret open-air meetings in the countryside known as ‘conventicles’ A period of sustained persecution began. Oppressive measures against these illegal field assemblies where attendance was made a capital offence[1] led to an outbreak of armed rebellion in 1666, originating in Galloway. Advancing from the west towards Edinburgh, a small force of badly armed Covenanters was defeated at theBattle of Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills, a location which caused the whole tragic episode to be misleadingly named the Pentland Rising. To quell unrest in south-west Scotland, the government brought in 6,000 Highland soldiers, described by its enemies as an “inhumane and barbarous Highland host” which was quartered on suspected Covenanters and was accused of committing many atrocities.[1]

A further rebellion broke out in 1679, after the unexpected success of a group of covenanters, armed with pitch forks and the like, against government forces led by John Graham of Claverhouse at the Battle of Drumclog. For a time the authorities looked in danger of losing control of the south west of Scotland, as more and more people joined the rebel camp at Bothwell near Glasgow; but only a few weeks after Drumclog the rebels were defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Brig. In the weeks before the battle the Covenanters spent more time arguing among themselves than preparing for the inevitable counterstroke, which did much to contribute towards their downfall. Of 1,200 captured rebels taken to Edinburgh, some 400 were imprisoned in an area of Greyfriars Kirkyard over the winter months.[2]

It was the survivors of the Greyfriar Kirkyard that found themselves shipped off as slaves in the fateful ship ‘The Crown of London’. There is more of the story here.

This from here;

So, in November 1679, these unfortunates were lead on to a ship, the Crown of London, in Leith, where they were to be transported to English plantations in America to become slaves.

Under the command of one Captain Patterson, the Crown of London set sail in December 1679.

The captain’s planned course is unknown, but the ship’s first port of call was Orkney where, on December 10, 1679, she sheltered from a storm off Scarvataing, a headland in the parish of Deerness, a mile or two from the sheltered bay of Deer Sound.

In gales typical of the season, the ship was driven on to rocks after her anchor chain snapped. The captain and crew escaped the doomed vessel by hacking down the ship’s mast and clambering across it to reach land.

The prisoners, however, were not so fortunate.

They had been confined to the hold and the hatches battened down under the captain’s orders. The reasoning behind this act was simple – the captain would be paid for the number of slaves on board the vessel and recompensed for those who died on the voyage. He would receive nothing for an escaped prisoner.

So, when the ship left port, Patterson took steps to make sure none did.

One member of crew did attempt a rescue by breaking through the deck with an axe. His valiant efforts meant that around 50 prisoners escaped and made it to the Deerness shore.

The remainder perished as the ship broke up and sank. It is said that over the following days, bodies washed up over three miles of the Deerness coastline.

Why do these things matter?

They are part of what made our nation. Upheavals that led to the death of thousands. Power ebbing and flowing, rebellious ideas flaring and then being snuffed out. Religion being employed as a cutting edge. And in the middle of it all cruel powerful forces use small people to achieve their own ends…

The peaceful democratic process of the recent referendum seems such a blessed contrast.

We would do well to honour this process- no matter whether we are saddened or relieved by the outcome. Let the killing times be at the back of our minds- after all, not so far away, just across the Irish sea, they never quite stopped…

Here is the song;

A place called England…

This was Ian Adam’s ‘Morning Bell’ today. I love June Tabor’s voice, but this chimed with me particularly as the tone of the debate around Scottish independence often seems so ungenerous, spiteful even. This song celebrates a kind of England that I still love. It rises up from the soil, from the chaotic mix of people. It is less about empire, more about those who resisted it…


I rode out on a bright May morning like a hero in a song,
Looking for a place called England, trying to find where I belong.
Couldn’t find the old flood meadow or the house that I once knew;
No trace of the little river or the garden where I grew.

I saw town and I saw country, motorway and sink estate;
Rich man in his rolling acres, poor man still outside the gate;
Retail park and burger kingdom, prairie field and factory farm,
Run by men who think that England’s only a place to park their car.

But as the train pulled from the station through the wastelands of despair
From the corner of my eye a brightness filled the filthy air.
Someone’s grown a patch of sunflowers though the soil is sooty black,
Marigolds and a few tomatoes right beside the railway track.

Down behind the terraced houses, in between the concrete towers,
Compost heaps and scarlet runners, secret gardens full of flowers.
Meeta grows her scented roses right beneath the big jets’ path.
Bid a fortune for her garden—Eileen turns away and laughs.

So rise up, George, and wake up, Arthur, time to rouse out from your sleep.
Deck the horse with sea-green ribbons, drag the old sword from the deep.
Hold the line for Dave and Daniel as they tunnel through the clay,
While the oak in all its glory soaks up sun for one more day.

Come all you at home with freedom whatever the land that gave you birth,
There’s room for you both root and branch as long as you love the English earth.
Room for vole and room for orchid, room for all to grow and thrive;
Just less room for the fat landowner on his arse in his four-wheel drive.

For England is not flag or Empire, it is not money, it is not blood.
It’s limestone gorge and granite fell, it’s Wealden clay and Severn mud,
It’s blackbird singing from the May tree, lark ascending through the scales,
Robin watching from your spade and English earth beneath your nails.

So here’s two cheers for a place called England, sore abused but not yet dead;
A Mr Harding sort of England hanging in there by a thread.
Here’s two cheers for the crazy diggers, now their hour shall come around;
We shall plant the seed they saved us, common wealth and common ground.

By the way- the reference to the Diggers, in case you missed it, is to this lot– another part of our English history that we often forget.

God’s awkward squad; dissenting and the life of the Spirit…

History is littered with awkward difficult people who refused to conform. Their lives are often surrounded by conflict, particularly when their convictions confront the people in power. Think of all those Old Testament prophets.

What fuels this kind of dissent? It is often painted (by the after-the-event supporters of the dissenters at least) as a matter of conviction colliding with circumstance. I wonder however whether dissenters also are gifted/cursed with a particular kind of personality- a skew towards a simplistic world view, an arrogance even.

We can all think of people like this- they tend to be difficult to be around. Others shrink from the force of their opinion in groups, or retreat wounded from their harsh words and deeds. People I know who fit this category have often been an almost destructive force in the workplaces and groups I have been part of. They can often be far more focused on ‘the task’ than those whose task it is.

But, these people, for good and ill, are often those who we remember. They make milestones in our personal histories, and also in the history of mankind…


I came across one such man recently when I was doing some reading about those dark times of the reformation (see this post on the Covenanters for example.) I say ‘dark’ because despite the tradition I come from celebrating this as a kind of glorious outpouring of freedom and enlightenment, it often took place in the context of much pain, bloodshed and heartbreak. The question I find myself asking over and over again is whether we can regard something as ‘good’ when so much evil is done in the name of Jesus. Can the ends ever justify the means?

I offer you this story by way of example (If you want to know more of the historical context that he lived in check out the aforementioned post);

John Lilburne aka ‘Freeborn John,’ 1614 – 29 August 1657

John was from a line of dissenters. His father was the last man in England to demand to be allowed to settle a legal dispute via trial by combat. By the 1630’s John was apprenticed to radical opponents of the religious times and already forced to flee to Holland because of his involvement in radical pamphlets.

He was a man whose bravery verged on lunacy. Whilst being whipped, pillaried and imprisoned, he continued unabated in writing, arguing and protesting what he called his ‘Freeborn rights‘. His writings about these were so powerful that he is credited by being a major influence on the fifth amendment of the American Constitution.

The English Civil War saw John become a soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel, a fiend of Oliver Cromwell. However, dissenters do not do well in terms of military discipline and he fell out with his superiors, and then, in April 1645, He resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion. In a time of religious extremism, John argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others, and would have no part of it.

Alongside such principled stands, John continued falling out with everyone around him- fighting vindictive public spats against former friends and allies.

He then redoubled his efforts to campaign for the freeborn rights of men. His views grew out of the radical movement known as ‘the Levellers‘, but John was more of a leaver than a joiner, so he refused to describe himself in this way.  He spent time in and out of prison, not just for his radical views, but also for his pursuit of former colleagues who he continued to attack in print.

And this became John’s life- fighting enemies to the left and right, raising high moral causes, in and out of jail, in and out of exile.

John began life as a Puritan, but ended it a Quaker. After all that violence, he had done with fighting, and came under the influence of a man of peace.

One epitaph written after his death was this one;

Is John departed, and is Lilburne gone!

Farewell to Lilburne, and farewell to John…

But lay John here, lay Lilburne here about,

For if they ever meet they will fall out.

Was this a great life? Certainly John did some great things but he seemed to be cast in the role of a stone-in-shoe for most of his life.

I am left pondering still the power of passion, faith and ideas, mediated through the mess that is humanity.

Thank God for dissenters.

And God save us from dissenters.

The measure of followers of Jesus, despite the context we are in, has to be the example that he set. He too was a dissenter, a table over-turner, a man who made no compromises to unjust ways of being.

But he was also a man who subordinated all things to love.

Slow down, go deeper…


I am not really one for using sport as analogy for life. It seems to me to over value sport and trivialise life. However, I am now going to do exactly that because for all things there is an exception.

I am a lover of cricket. Many of my friends do not get it. They talk about it as like watching grass grow, or paint dry. I have tried to explain the subtle interplay between intellect and skill, the constant procession of events at each curl of leather, the mind games, the simple absorption of all worries in the single moment- but to be honest I am wasting my breath. We can not be convinced of what we will not see.

But whatever your views on cricket- stick with me for the analogy…

Last night a test series finished between New Zealand and England- three test matches, each lasting 5 days, both sides batted twice. All three matches ended in a draw, and so the series was drawn. 15 days of play, some interupted by bad weather, but at the end of it all- no winners, no loosers- just a draw.

But what a glorious draw.

An unfancied, unfashionable side (NZ) takes on one of the big boys (England) and by strength of will, team spirit, luck and skill, give as good as they get in an ebbing and flowing contest. Finally, England are on the ropes, reliant on players to hang on by the skin of their teeth, fighting against their own instincts as well as everything that the NZers can throw at them. In the end, it came down to Englands last player, the hapless Monty Panessar, against the premier fast bowler giving it one last burst. After the last ball was bowled, opponents collapsed into each others arms- it was magnificent.

But it was not quick, it was not easy, it was not instant. It is hard to sum up in soundbite, or display in the form of shortened highlights.

Which kind of does work as some kind of analogy for life.

It is possible to live as if the only thing that is important is the instant, the mountain top, the victorious advance. However, real life is not lived at the exultant pinnacle. Rather it is a consequence of the long faithful movement in a shared direction.

The older we get, the more we come to understand that speed is less important than depth. This is one of the reasons I love cricket.

And at the end of it all, I will be grateful if I achieve an honourable draw…

Right now, need more sleep.

Reflections on the census- the end of Christendom…

a church under reconstruction?

So, there have been a number of articles and opinion pieces reflecting on the recent 2011 census data, and what it tells us about the nature of religious belief in the UK. Here are some of the head liners in case you missed them;

• The number identifying themselves as Christians is down 13 percentage points. In 2001, 72% (37.3 million) called themselves Christians. In 2011 that had dropped to 59% (33.2 million).

• Interestingly, Christianity is not down everywhere. Newham, Haringey, Brent, Boston and Lambeth have all shown increases in the Christian population.

• The number identifying themselves as having no religion has increased by 10 percentage points from 15% (7.7 million) in 2001 to 25% (14.1 million) last year.

In response, Humanist Nick Cohen, writing in The Guardian, said this;

The number of people who say they have no religion jumped from 15% in the 2001 census to 25% in 2011. If the remaining 75% were believers, this leap in free-thinking would be significant but not sensational. But those who say they are religious are not faithful to their creeds, or not in any sense that the believers of the past would have recognised. Church attendance is in constant decline. Every year that passes sees congregations become smaller and greyer…

…When millions of people tell the census takers they are “Christians”, therefore, they are muttering the title of a childhood story they only half remember. What is more, their spiritual “leaders” know it. Long before the census figures were in, you could hear the screams that always accompany ideologies and institutions history is leaving behind…

…while everything is changing in British society, nothing is changing in the British establishment. England still has a “national” church – even though in 2010 its average weekly attendance was down to 1,116,100 (or 1.8% of the nation’s population). Twenty-six Church of England bishops are automatically granted seats in the House of Lords to support or oppose any legislation they please. On top of the decaying heap sits Elizabeth II: a grumpy priestess-queen, who in theory at least is the state religion’s “supreme governor”. In the education system, almost one-third of state schools are run by religious authorities (and Michael Gove will ensure that number will rise).

This humanist perspective is not without merit. Much of the institutions of religion in the country are indeed relics of a time when religious power was inseparable from the power of the State. Church and Government were connected by bonds at every level. The Church marked out comings, our joinings and our endings. The shape of the religious calendar became the shape of our working life. The very law of the land was approached through (an often flawed) Biblical interpretation.

But this link between ordinary people and institutional Church has been in decline for years. Perhaps the last vestige of this kind of Christendom in the life of the UK was that people who otherwise had no connection to Church, and no active faith journey, would still describe themselves as ‘Christian’. People did this almost by some kind of inherited instinct. The be Christian was to be decent, British, middle class, well mannered, one of ‘us’.

However,  the rigidity exhibited by some parts of the religious hierarchy is increasingly at odds with the culture that it is part of. There are the totemic issues- homosexuality, gender equality. There is the lack of a critical or analytical voice in a time of consumerist economic meltdown. There is the swing towards ultra conservatism in the Catholic Church, and all the sexual abuse scandals that diminish all organisations of faith.

The time for hand wringing and desperate attempts to preserve what Church used to be is long gone, although there are still people who have a passion for preserving the traditions of our institutions. And perhaps we should be grateful to them as they are a repository for our organisational memories. Without them, we lose our connection to tradition, and all the rich variety of previous experience. But it is not enough for faith to be in a museum cage. It is not enough for faith to be an abstract historical curiosity.

I have been chewing on what this might mean for those of us who still try to follow in the way of Jesus. Here goes;

Lies and Statistics.

It is perfectly possible to understand these figures as a reduction in nominal Christianity. A reduction in people identifying with a label that has no relevance to life. In this sense, perhaps there has been no real change in the last ten years- apart from the words we chose to describe ourselves with.

The word ‘Christian’.

It is however significant that people no longer what to wear this as a badge. It is a devalued word, a word that appears to have gathered to it lots of connotations that people have less use for. Ideas of stuffy right-wing judgementalism. A word that has no relevance in the here and now. It is a word that even I use to describe myself with some discomfort. But a decision to walk in the way of Jesus is not an easy choice- he was very clear about that. It is a decision to make an ever new daily adventure, and this is so much more than wearing a comfortable middle class badge.


The Church is not the place where God resides in these islands- rather he lives in us. The Hebrew Temple was replaced by the human heart. He took on flesh and dwelt amongst us. In and over and through. Along with us and despite us. In the cracks of everything we are. This is not a numbers game- who cares how big your corporation has become?  This is now to be tested in new ways, in a new context.


At some point, probably around the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the Church became an instrument of the state. The mission of the Church was the mission of the State. God was co-opted by the people in power. We then spent Millenia trying to disentangle the mess of this- movements would rise, then they would fall, or become assimilated. But perhaps we are now in new territory- the mission of God can be set free again in the minds of we his followers. It is not to the strong that the Kingdom belongs, but to the week, the poor, the broken.

Finally however, I find myself taking a more sociological perspective. If nominal religion anchored in the State is in decline this may be no bad thing for faith- but I still wonder if it may be a bad thing for the State.

The Church contains us, or used to. Old Emile Durkheim captured this well- he suggested that people need to be part of something bigger- to be integrated and linked and that when this begins to break down the end result is anomie (a lack of social norms) leading to a time when the anchors and moorings that hold us together are gone.  He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life- which to my mind describes British society in 2012 pretty well. (There is a great article discussing some of these ideas here.)

Durkheim thought that religion was one of the key social mechanisms that created these bonding social norms. However, he also thought that these old bastions of society where in decline- that the institutions of faith were dying. However at the same time he also thought that they were being replaced by new forms of sacred passions.

The question is- where are these to be found in our society? It is easy for cynics like me to rail against consumerism, ephemeral celebrity entertainment and post modern fluidity of connection and belief, but the story is more complicated.

There is a groundswell of goodness in British society. Some of is might well have roots in Christian traditions and ideas, but we see a turning towards simple living, small community life, and a rising up against the power of the big banks through the Occupy Movement.

We the followers of Jesus always have to find our own mission, our own Peregrinatio.  Here is my prayer for the journey;

Lord stain me with salt

Brine me with the badge of the deep sea sailor

I have spent too long

On concrete ground.

If hope raises up these tattered sails

Will you send for me

A fair and steady wind?

Rained off…

Should have been playing cricket today at the historic West of Scotland ground- but it was cancelled as this morning there was some rain in Glasgow. Of course, as soon as it was cancelled the sun came out!

The finer details of cricket, and the significant effect that climactic conditions has on the ball, will understandably be lost on most, so instead I thought that it might be entertaining to hear a more basic (and unfortunately hilarious) cricket story.

The following is a clip of the wonderfully eccentric David Lloyd, former England player, coach and now commentator- known the world over as ‘bumble’. Lloyd played in a famous series against England crickets oldest enemies, Australia, in 1974-75, were he faced one of the most feared fast bowlers in history, Jeff Thompson.

It did not go well;

In the English subsoil…

I have just watched this film on BBC 4.

English folk dancing- it’s a joke up here in Scotland. The Celts celebrate their folk traditions- their cultural heritage, their dancing and their music- but the English have tended to wrap theirs up in a veneer of slightly embarrassed politeness.

But it is still there- folk traditions that go back through the industrial revolution, down into the apple growing and corn harvesting middle ages.

Some of it is decidedly weird (check out the Britannia Coconut dancers of Bacup, Lancashire) and to most of us, Morris dancing will always raise a few eyebrows along with the smile…

But I am very glad that in the streets and hills of England, these traditions are still alive, because these islands would be a poorer place without them.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

St Georges day, England and protesting…

It is St George’s day today.

Patron saint of old England.

(It has an interesting perspective from Scotland of course.)

Despite the apparent rise in popularity of the day as a significant celebration in England, a survey quoted on Radio 4 this morning  claimed that only one third of people in England were aware of the day, 40% did not know why St George is our patron saint and only 10% would happily fly the flag of St George.

The same commentator suggested that much of what we associate with St George is in reality a Victorian invention- killed by the Howitzers of the first world war. An idea of martial muscular Christianity, allied to the service of empire.

More recently, the flag of St George seems to have been associated strongly with football and the National Front. Laddish yobbishness and fascism… not something thing that I can feel any kinship or identity with whatsoever.

St George killed no dragons. Neither was he English. Rather he was a thought to be a third Century roman soldier who refused to participate in the killing of Christians, resulting in his own death. He was a man who lived in the shadow of Empire, whilst following a different way of being, taught to him by Jesus.

So those words of Blake written on the flag of St George above- about the building of Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land- or at least amidst it’s dark satanic mills- I always find them slightly ridiculous because of their association with England as Empire.

But it might be possible to read the words in a different way of course. Perhaps truer to Blake’s original meanings.

Because there is another England.. something deeper that is still precious to me, and so today, on the day of St George, patron saint of old Albion- I want to celebrate something English- particularly as we approach another election.

An England of protest and struggles against power by the working man. An England of the Peterloo Massacre where people died so that you and I can participate in free and fair elections (although to be fair it was a while longer before women had the same rights.)

An England where tolerance, fairness,  respect and gentility are valued. And where there are infringement and disagreements, then there are folk songs…

I have been listening to Chris Wood’s album Handmade Life recently. I really like it, but Michaela does not like his voice. For me, he stands in a long tradition of English folk protest singers.

As a further celebration of Englishness of a kind that I can celebrate, here is one of his songs called ‘Let the Grand correction commence’.

Canterbury Cathedral

It is a long way down country from Scotland to the channel ferries in Dover, so we made a couple of stop over visits- one to stay with some old friends in Leyland, Simon and Ruth, the next was a hotel in Simon’s place of Birth, Canterbury.

We drove through rolling green ancient England- the way Americans always imagine it to be- old stone churches, and villages with narrow streets hemmed in with Tudor wooden framed houses. England is a beautiful, blessed place, for all it’s tortured twisted history.

Much of the breadth of this beauty and history is contained within this Jewel of a city, and it’s wonderful Cathedral.

Canterbury Cathedral is the first church of the Anglican communion of churches- the seat of Archbishop Rowan Williams. As we visited the Lambeth Conference was just beginning, along with the break away conference in Jerusalem of those opposed to what is seen as the ‘liberalisation’ of the Church. We still await the possibility that the Anglican Church will break itself apart- pulled in different directions by doctrinal emphasis and, of course, by that totemic issue of homosexuality- your stance towards this issue still seems to be the one that most accurately depicts which side of the split you are likely to place yourself.

As for us, we are tourists, on the outside of this debate, following the thousand year tradition of pilgrimage to this ancient place of worship.

Canterbury Cathederal has seen it all before, and much worse- it is a place all too familiar with political intrigue and power mongering. But it is also a place of incredible, breath taking beauty- from the ancient crumbling carvings, to the high fluted ceilings that hold every whispered word like a breath. There is something ethereal about the very light that filters in through the ancient glass- it seems to take on the weight and the colour of the stones it falls upon. It was almost impossible, even for our Kids Emily and William, not to speak with bated breath…

Michaela told me recently that despite the decline in church attendance, number visiting and attending services in Cathedrals are on the increase. This, I suppose, is no surprise. It fits in with a post modern return to more ancient spiritual practices- an embrace of mystery and mysticism- and (perhaps) a romanticisation of ritual and ceremony.

We had time to attend the early Sunday morning communion service before rushing off to Dover. It was a simple service, with perhaps 50 folk sat in the choir stalls, no hymns, using the book of common prayer. Lots of the words used still remained in me in some deep memory cupboards- even beyond my rejection of these things. And the beauty of the language impacted me again, as spoken by a priest who inhabited them, and embraced their poetry, their sensibility…

We left reluctantly, and sat in the car stilled and at peace. It was time for some music of worship. Skip forward a millenia, and American worship music filled the car, on loud. I am comfortable with contradiction…

I sang along for a while, before tears made me stop.

Looking across as Michaela, I was not alone.

Here are some pics;

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