Early in my career I had cause to spend a few days in Durham, a lovely corner of northern England. Its majestic Norman cathedral was founded nearly a thousand years ago. A thousand years. Imagine that.
Over days, weeks, months, years and centuries it has played host to a remarkably consistent rhythm of religious observation. War, tempest and revolution may have reverberated around its country, continent and world. But on it stands and on its people go, wrestling with the truth, doubts, answers and questions of their faith. Following the beat of habit that praises, thanks, confesses, forgives, hopes, helps and celebrates.
I went along for Compline one evening, the final office of the day. A group of tourists had gathered to watch a congregation made up almost entirely of enrobed clergy. I remember thinking that the real world stood and watched with camera and tourist guides while this unworldly ritual took place, separate and apart from the daily realities of life. Religion had become a spectator sport.
With the benefit of two decades’ experience since, I can now see that there is absolutely no harm in this. Regardless of your belief or doubt, there is some comfort in knowing that some of our fellow souls are reflecting every day on older and deeper truths. Across a myriad of spiritual traditions enlightenment is sought on the purpose of life, why we are here and where happiness truly lies when we find a way to realise it.
With ten days to go to our latest general election choice I, like many others, have already cast my vote. Many others still have decided and won’t be moved. Others again haven’t and probably just won’t vote. So go election campaigns.
Politics as done in the UK right now is increasingly like and unlike that moment in Durham for me. Like because it seems apart from so much of the daily realities of life. Unlike, because it doesn’t appear to be seeking any deeper truth. At all. Its rituals are about the noise and the waves of the moment rather than the deeper tides of time that move our lives and our world. I understand why, of course. The daily news cycle dramas seek policy outrage where there should be a raised eyebrow. And yet we are at a moment in our history when the very foundation of the way we govern our lives has to be questioned and reshaped for a new era.
We face such monumental questions about our future course right now. Big challenges are faced by us all, huge choices to be made that could better or beggar the generation we will hand the keys to. And yet those who seek leadership behave too often like Spindoctor Foster.
We have a prime minister of undoubted capability who appears to regard elections as an annoying distraction from his getting on with the job of governing so he can retire when the job is about half done. We have a Labour leader who is critically lauded for having rediscovered his mojo but only in comparison to the distracted PM and his less impressive pre-campaign self.
The star of the campaign isn’t running. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is caricatured and lambasted in a divisive and destructive way that plays fast and loose with the glue that keeps society and economy together.
To rehearse but one question: what is our role in an achingly troubled world right now? It has barely registered in a campaign that has hollered like howler monkeys about angry pointless invented nothingness. The question of the renewal of the Trident nuclear system should be answered following a deep and adult discussion about what our role is. How we play our proper part in the world and what the competing military, diplomatic, international affairs and financial evidence suggests. Instead it is reduced and traduced to near idiocy. A senior Tory government minister accused the Labour leader of “stabbing his country in the back” because of a position he doesn’t even hold.
I won’t analyse the historically ugly root of that phrase which we will assume the minister didn’t mean because if he did it would be too painful to imagine the consequence.
There is a large opportunity ahead for the leaders with the ability and courage to reframe our whole discourse with honesty and a transparent contentment with their own, and everyone else’s, fragility.
The consensus that grips for dear life to our way of working as an economy and society has failed. This columnist doesn’t begin to pretend to have the answers we all seek.
But truth must begin by accepting that all of us have to change the way we ask the questions and listen, carefully, for what the answers just might be. «