Image: Frances Marshall
THE CHURCH OF England is not known for the ‘star quality’ of its clergy, and rarely produces intellectual figures who are prominent in both the spiritual and artistic worlds. MONK has interviewed perhaps its greatest living example, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and we have now spent some time with an emerging figure – The Reverend Jarel Robinson-Brown. However, whereas Williams perhaps embodies the past glories of the established church, Jarel is, to quote Nina Simone, ‘Young, gifted and black’ – and might just show us where the English church’s future glories lie …
Jarel has shot to prominence through a host of writings and interviews that have engaged with the issues of inclusion, sexuality and race, which have gripped the church in recent years. He survived an intense ‘Twitter storm’ – where remarks he made about Captain Sir Tom Moore were seized upon by the right-wing press – which almost cost him his career. However, the Diocese of London decided to ‘stand by their man’ and his star has continued to rise in academic and ecclesiastical circles.
We meet in the Lady Chapel of St Botolph without Aldgate in the City of London, where Jarel is the Curate, and talk about his story so far.
B: So, Jarel, is London home to you?
J: I grew up in West London, in Ealing, and went straight from there to university, to Cambridge. It was a culture shock to go from a predominantly Black and Asian area, and from Sixth Form, straight into ordination training. Ealing and Cambridge were worlds apart – I couldn’t get my hair cut in Cambridge, I couldn’t get the food I like to eat, and people kept asking me ‘where do you come from?’ and ‘where did you learn to speak English so well?’ – so there was a lot of ‘othering’ instantly. My first ever encounter with the EDL (English Defence League) was in Cambridge – I didn’t really know they existed. I’d heard of the National Front and the BNP, but they just hadn’t registered with me.
B: It’s like that recent incident at Buckingham Palace where the Lady-in-Waiting asked ‘Where are you from?’ and then persisted asking ‘No, where are you really from?’ I wish someone like Stormzy would do a spoof of that line, endlessly repeating ‘where you from, where you really from’ to finally kill that question off …
J: It’s so tiring, and there are so many times where you’re mentally preparing for that question to pop up, and then it doesn’t come and you’ve wasted all that emotional emergency preparing for that nasty moment, and then it doesn’t arise! And, of course, on occasions when it does come, you do answer it and then find the person’s not happy with the answer …
B: It’s a reflection of the unchallenged ‘white space’ that some people inhabit, based on centuries of settled privilege.
J: But yeah, I was a Methodist Ordinand in Cambridge from 2010 to 2013, straight from Sixth Form in West London.
B: That must have been quite unusual …
J: Very now – but not in the history of Methodism, at one time it was quite normal – but I was there with people who were married, had kids, were on their second or third career. There were a few young ones, but this is why I spent so much time at Wescott House over the road. The C of E (Church of England) seminary had a bar and more young ordinands, and a lot of the colleagues I have now in the C of E are the people I got to know then.
B: Were you already thinking about ‘jumping the fence’ even then?
J: Not at all! I wasn’t Anti-Anglican, but I was proudly Methodist, and if someone had said to me that this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed it.
B: But, weren’t you a bit of a ‘religious prodigy’ or a ‘young fogey’ to be going straight into ordinand life from Sixth Form?
J: Well, I started preaching quite young, at 14. In Methodism you have to have been a Lay Preacher for two years before you can offer for ordination selection, so I’d fulfilled the requirements. When I went to selection I thought that they would say ‘No – go off and live a bit and come back.’ A bit of me was hoping they would say that, but they didn’t, it was like ‘here you go – three years of training and then we’re sending you out like everyone else.’ Then, once it came to what we call ‘stationing’, I thought that they might delay and let me do a bit more study, but they didn’t, and I was sent to Wales, to two churches, and I was there until 2018.
B: So, did people look on you as being very young to be a minister?
J: Definitely – but I never experienced ‘ageism’ in Methodism – once people got to know me, they were fine. People trusted me, and helped me to develop. There are different kinds of 21-year-olds. Some think they know it all and won’t ask for help, but I wasn’t that kind. I knew I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, so I got to know a retired minister really well, and he was an unofficial mentor for me. In Methodism there’s no Curacy, and you’re ‘The Minister’ from day one. Being in an Anglican Curacy now feels so safe, because I’m not answerable for anything – my Vicar is. But Methodist ministry is very different.
B: In the Anglican tradition of Curacies, the Curate always used to be a sort of ‘handsome prince’ figure in the parish – the free person everyone can relate to positively, who doesn’t have to make any difficult calls.
J: Yes! It’s very easy to be liked as a Curate!
B: I think that’s a very positive way to start your ministry – there’s going to be plenty of ‘shit to shovel’ later on …
J: But I’m really grateful to have started in Methodism, because it taught me what pastoral ministry is all about – I experienced a lot which I wouldn’t have got anywhere else. And it taught me how to preach. Sometimes your Sunday would be a 9.30 a.m. service, and 11 a.m. service and a 6 o’clock – and you couldn’t ‘double up’ on sermons so I’d have to write three – and then do funerals in the week, as well. It taught me the ‘coal face’ and what it’s like to have responsibility for so many people across two churches. So, an Anglican Curacy in just one church feels like a walk in the park in comparison.
Reverend Jarel Robinson-Brown
Image: Frances Marshall
B: So, what made you cross over from there to here?
J: Gosh, I guess people like a really neat conversion story or life narrative, like John Henry Newman gives us, which is not really believable, because it’s not messy. At one level I’d say ‘I don’t know’ – but at the practical level, I just didn’t want to be ‘itinerant’ anymore. There’s only one form of ministry in the Methodist Church, from the most senior person to the most junior, and that means moving around every five years. I’d done that twice in Methodism, and I just thought, ‘You know, I’m not sure I want to do this for the rest of my life.’ Often there’s no rhyme or reason to where you’re sent, it’s just about going to where the need is. I had five years in Cardiff, which on the whole was really fruitful, and then I just had to leave because it was year five – these communities where I loved them and they loved me and the work was really growing – and I was growing as a minister – and then we had to sever ties. I do think there is something to be said for more stability. And then I was sent to South London.
B: But at least you were back in London?
J: Yes, that was positive in many ways – but the downside was that while the two congregations I had served in Wales were very affirming in terms of sexuality, the ones I went to were viciously homophobic black majority churches. They were not ready for a minister like me at all. I received a lot of hate-mail, and people were resigning from their posts. People wouldn’t receive communion or share the peace, and didn’t want me to baptise their children – and the hierarchy didn’t deal with it very well. When I was three years old, the Methodist Church officially decided in the ‘Derby Resolutions’ that gay clergy were fine, so I didn’t think I’d have any problem. They declared that nobody would be debarred from Methodist Ministry on the grounds of sexuality. So, I thought that the hierarchy would come in and say, ‘This is your Minister – if you don’t like him, tough’ – but this didn’t happen at all. So, I was giving a recital at Walsingham, as part of the Ecumenical Marian Pilgrimage Trust. They wanted a recital of pure Marian organ music, so I said, ‘I’m up for that.’ And they said that, as well as paying me, they would give me a free place on the retreat. I went to one event with Bishop Jonathan Goodall (then Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet, now a Roman Catholic), who was talking about Mary as ‘the Mother of the Church’. I saw him greet the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware in the Mass. At that point the episcopate made sense to me. They could embrace one another because of what they had in common. They were bishops, albeit in different parts of the church. And I was spectating on that, I didn’t feel that I was part of that, and that’s the bit I can’t explain. I don’t know what went on in that moment, but I knew 100% that I had to leave Methodism. Of course it coincided with this very bad appointment in South East London, but it was more than just a convenient way out, it felt like a vocational thing. So, that’s the story.
B: So, you were drawing upon all those experiences when you wrote your recent book: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer: The Church and The Famine of Grace?
J: Yes, and in The Book of Queer Prophets, where I tell the story of what it was like to leave Methodism and to lose my stipend and my Manse. I had nowhere to go to. I ended up in the parish of Putney as the Parish Assistant, but that saved me. I was there for a year until the end of the pandemic, and was confirmed as an Anglican at Southwark Cathedral. So I was confirmed again and then ordained (twice) again – so Deacon and Priest in one year – but that’s what they do with ex-Methodist Ministers …
B: But has it been ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’? – the Church of England isn’t exactly a wonderful fluffy and perfect organisation …
J: No, but it’s more honest. In Methodism, because we’re such a small church, we can’t fall out as clergy. I could never ‘call out’ a colleague or say ‘this is going on in that circuit’, because next year you could be stationed there. On the surface people acted as if everything was going well, but there was very little honest conversation about the fact that some women couldn’t get stations, or that gay clergy, or disabled clergy often didn’t get appointed. Itineracy just wasn’t working ‘on the ground’.
B: So, it’s a bit like the Catholic Church, where celibacy means that a lot of people just can’t ‘do the job’, because that’s just not possible for them. So similarly, itineracy is almost as high a bar – it goes against family life and human requirements for living …
J: For roots!
B: It’s just too exhausting. It was OK as John Wesley’s special personal vocation, but you don’t need to fossilise that forever.
J: Well, the idea is that it was the New Testament model, where the disciples were on the move and not getting too comfortable in a place. There are pros and cons to it, and it prevents people carving out little kingdoms where everything reflects their character, which I don’t think is healthy, but the downside is that five years is not very long.
Reverend Jarel Robinson-Brown
B: Well, we ought to quit biography for aesthetics!
J: Sure …
B: I want to ask – what speaks to you in the arts, what do you find beautiful and inspiring? – what’s fed you in the past and that are you looking to in the future?
J: Music has always spoken to me. I was lucky enough to be taught music at a really early age. I learnt the piano first, and then the organ. For me music communicates some really big theological truths and I love that. I think it can sometimes be clearer. Also for me art, especially abstract art, whether it’s a Rothko or a Mondrian, speaks to me in a very particular way.
B: This will please my editor! (flourishes printed copy of MONK)
J: Of course! I love that! I can spend a whole day in a gallery looking at abstract art. I like the way art can push boundaries, and can be deeply political. To me art, spirituality and theology are all tied up together. I often preach on pieces of art actually, or use a piece of music.
B: So, you print everyone a tiny copy that they can have in their hand, and then talk about it?
J: For example, Grunewald’s Crucifixion – or the music of Duruflé’s Requiem. I find modern iconography particularly powerful – Ivanka Demchuk, Khrystyna Kvyk, Greta Leśko – their icons bring together a kind of abstract form with a classical iconography. I think it’s really important for people to see religious stories depicted in art. We have an icon of St Botolph here, but I think in the West we mostly don’t know what to do with icons. We have lots of people who come here and will light a candle by the statue of Mary, and touch her and venerate her – they know what to do with a statue. But, they don’t do that with the icons here, because they haven’t been taught what they are. Instead they treat them as art.
B: So, what’s the definition of an icon, in the spiritual sense? And how does an icon differ from a piece of art?
J: They’re living. They’re a living image of that Saint and a window into eternity. They are like a picture of a loved one. You might kiss a picture of a loved one and put it in pride of place in your home. Icons help us to pray better. In an Orthodox Church you make the sign of the cross and kiss the icon – and that’s what they are for – they are not there to be artworks that are looked at and not touched – they are there to be engaged with.
B: How did you get so linked to Eastern Orthodox Christianity?
J: When I was in Cambridge, I was taught church history by Angela Tilby. I fell in love with Patristics though her, and made a special study of the Syrian Fathers. Living at Wesley House I had constant access to the Library for the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies, so I used to go all the time, and there were all these books on Origen and Athanasius. I fell in love with this different tradition that I knew nothing about. Then I made my first trip to Egypt, and I’ve been there many times now. I also fell in love with the Coptic Church, and it was again by chance. My GP in London was also the Private Secretary to Bishop Angelos. I went one day in my collar, and she invited me to a service for the Coptic New Year in Westminster Abbey, and that was it really.
B: He’s become ‘an icon’ in the modern sense, as someone who is famous and embodies something meaningful.
J: I love the tradition and think it has a lot to teach us.
B: And is that particularly meaningful for you because it’s a tradition that’s located in Africa? And goes back to the very beginnings of the church?
J: Yeah! I’ve been to the most ancient African church sites now – to Tunisia and Carthage, to see where Cyprian, Perpetua and Felicity were. I’ve been to the cave of St Anthony in Egypt, the oldest monastery in the world, and I’ve traced the steps of St Mark in Alexandria, and seen the earliest church in Africa there.
B: Do you think that’s something which all members of what we’re now calling the African Diaspora need, to ‘complete the circle’, and perhaps heal something of the slavery legacy?
J: I think that’s part of it. The narrative that Christianity is ‘The White Man’s Religion’ carries a lot of weight. A lot of people buy into it, and I did for a bit. But, to discover that almost all of the ancient Christian texts that shape our lives today were written and preserved in Africa – the oldest copy of the Bible, the oldest book of the Psalms, the oldest monastic Rules, the oldest texts of the Lord’s Prayer, all come out of Africa, from the first three or four centuries of Christianity …
Reverend Jarel Robinson-Brown
B: This journal is called MONK – and that’s an invention of the Egyptian desert.
J: Africa’s contribution to Christianity is unique, and it’s biggest contribution is the monastic tradition.
B: And when we think about ‘Celtic Christianity’ here – and there’s been a whole revival movement in Britain based on rediscovering Celtic Christianity – all their thought and practice came out of Egypt.
J: If things had turned out a little differently, we wouldn’t talk about Rome today but Carthage, that would literally be the senior Bishopric in the church. It’s by chance and Constantine that Rome became what it is. Carthage and Rome used to see each other as equals, but somehow in the writing of church history that has got lost over time.
B: It is so important what you’re saying, because there is so much unresolved trauma, that’s only just beginning to be addressed. We’ve got an exhibition in Lambeth Palace Library at the moment, which has come out of a forensic process of examining the accounts of the Queen Anne’s Bounty, which sits behind the present day Church Commissioners. It was this hideous irony that in order to pay stipends to poor clergy, they were taking dividends from the South Sea Company, which was transporting people to slavery in the New World on an epic scale. Tell me a bit more about your personal spirituality and what helps you to pray – it’s helpful for people to know.
B: But, everyone struggles with that …
J: And people assume they know how priests pray! I don’t find liturgical prayer that helpful … The language in the liturgy is not the language that I use to talk to God in my personal life. I don’t use language that’s that formal. If I’m having a really shit day, I’m not going to use the language of the Book of Common Prayer to worship and talk to God! It has its place though – individual prayer does need to be linked to corporate prayer. One of my main ways of prayer is The Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I have my own version: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Son of God, make my heart like your heart.’
B: That’s from the Eastern tradition …
J: Yes, really, really old, fourth century – and that ‘prayer of the heart’ is really important – but it mustn’t become separated from corporate prayer and the sacrament, the Eucharist. Silence and stillness are what my personal spirituality looks like. The Hesychastic tradition of St Gregory of Palamas – that sense of just being still, and finding inner stillness, and not filling prayer space or time with words and actions is very important to me.
B: What you were saying made me think that the tradition of liturgical prayer in Anglicanism is deeply impregnated with power and authority, because the Prayer Book was handed down almost on ‘pain of death’ from the monarch saying ‘this is how ye shall pray’ – ‘you’re going to assent to this book, and you’re not going to use anything else for the next 300 years.’ And ‘if you try to revise it, Parliament is going to slap you on the wrist and tell the church that it can’t control its own liturgy, even in the 20th century’ – and then you’ll have to wait another 50 years to have an ‘Alternative Service Book’ – and just when you get fond of that, the church will turn round and say ‘actually – the ASB goes in the bin – now we’re going to have Common Worship’ – and that will be so complicated and convoluted that its almost unusable. So, we Anglicans just spend our whole time wrestling with authority about how we’re allowed to pray. And, because we’ve taken this approach, we seem to be rendered so inarticulate that we either go blank or use these words handed down by authority.
J: And I’m always really mindful that the BCP was put together at a time when my ancestors were not free people. In 1662 we’re into the trans-Atlantic trade big time. People talk about how beautiful the language is, and how clear the BCP is about sin, and yet this massively sinful enterprise was under way at the very same time.
B: The BCP is so focussed on sin, whereas the earlier liturgies in the Mediterranean world were much sunnier and much less confessional and filled with the fear of hell. So, do you think the growth of empire was already weighing on their conscience back then?
J: I think it must have been. People underestimate how much our liturgy says about us in terms of what’s ‘in play’ inside us. It’s a bit like how ‘the devil’ has escaped from liturgy and disappeared because of the development of psychology and how we understand ourselves, and what role guilt has to play in our lives as ‘modern people’. And we can’t ignore how theology underpinned the enslavement of people, because it’s there.
B: So, what’s a ‘healthy guilt’ for people today? Where do we place all that?
J: I don’t really do guilt. As a priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition that should be part of my thing, but it’s not.
B: What happened to self-mortification?
J: It’s useless. I don’t think there are ‘good people’ or ‘bad people’. I think there’s just ‘sinners’, and the language of sin is much healthier because we can do something with that. If I’m just guilty there’s something quite static about that. I feel guilty about climate change, I feel guilty about modern slavery, about homophobia in the church, about how much money the church has, but I don’t actually do anything about that if I just feel guilty. But if I can see the way that I am complicit in all those sins, then I might do something about that.
B: So, you differentiate ‘sin’ from ‘guilt’. Sin is active, but guilt is passive and brooding and cold …
J: And completely useless. All it does is keep people guilty. I don’t think that’s what God wants. Sin – we have a mechanism for dealing with that – Confession and Repentance are real. Forgiveness and Grace then sets people free to do something and not be tied up with what they think they are. I think that is much more helpful. People talk about White Guilt – that’s not useful. White Sin – White Repentance – what does that look like? What does Grace look like? Asking those questions – that sends you on the path towards transformational change, and that’s useful. That was a long theological segue …
B: Segues are good … So, what have been the landmark moments in your life? And the segues – the steps in your spiritual journey?
J: Well, I was brought up by my grandmother, and I saw Christianity work in her, I saw it make sense in her life. I can’t pretend it doesn’t work. I saw her in life and in death, and she was able to live a Christian life – about that there is no doubt.
B: And how was that formed in her?
J: She was an orphan in Jamaica. She basically brought herself up, until she was adopted by one of her schoolteachers. Her life story was always that she shouldn’t have made it, and that the only way she could explain her survival was that God had intervened. I used to look at her, and I was really perplexed that she had gone through all this trauma and all this abandonment, and yet was the most faith-filled person I knew. It was a complete paradox which didn’t make any sense. Then she went to do for my sister and me what was done for her, and she took us in. I was five and my sister would have been eleven. Our father wasn’t around and my mother lived with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and was mostly in hospital. So, Nan, she raised us. Nan went to church every Sunday and so we went. Grandad went to a black church, because he couldn’t cope with the racism in Nan’s Methodist Church – so we went twice every Sunday, once with Nan and once with Grandad.
B: That’s really sad.
J: The ironic thing is that it all happened in the same building, but at different times. The Methodist congregation worshipped in the morning, and then they hired it out to The Church of God of Prophecy in the afternoons! So, they went to the same church, but never got to worship together. But I loved it, because I had this experience of deeply Wesleyan Sacramental Methodism in the morning, and then the very Charismatic Church of God of Prophecy in the afternoon, where Grandad was a Deacon and preached and led worship. There were people ‘slain in the Spirit’ and all the things that didn’t happen with the Methodists in the morning – again, it was two different worlds …
B: I really resonate with what you’re saying. The reason I’m doing the job I’m doing now is because once upon a time I was a Parish Assistant in Small Heath in Birmingham. It was clear to me there, nearly 30 years ago, that the Church of England had really ‘missed the bus’ by not welcoming the Windrush Generation – even though half of them had arrived with The Book of Common Prayer in one hand, The King James Bible in the other hand, and Hymns Ancient and Modernin their back pocket. When I went over to Barbados and Jamaica a bit later on, they still had ‘Church of England’ written on the board in front of the churches, not ‘Church of the West Indies’. But, this side of the Atlantic, the C of E didn’t want them. So, Small Heath had three new Black-led churches that had come into being because the welcome wasn’t there in the old church. And because the C of E had lost all these potential supporters, what we were having to do in Small Heath in 1995 was close down two out of three Anglican Churches in the area and pull the remnants of these congregations together to make one viable church. And this is all nearly 30 years ago, and we’ve only just getting a Racial Justice Unit together at C of E HQ … Anyway, is the C of E now a good place (to quote a song) to be ‘Young, Gifted and Black’?
J: Nina Simone! I’m going to say ‘No’. Because the world isn’t a good place, so the C of E can’t be. We can’t be this ‘oasis’ in the midst of a racist world. And it’s certainly not a place to be young, gifted, black and gay. And when I look at all the black bishops and senior clergy that are there now, that I really celebrate in terms of their appointments, if George Floyd hadn’t been murdered, would they be there? And that’s what I find scary.
B: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’?
J: That’s an African quote – Tertullian. It’s cost a lot for us to get where we are, and we’re not even where we need to be. There’s a long way to go. I’m negative for now, until we see more change.
B: The thing that’s really impacting me is the 2021 Census, which makes it clear that about 50% of the white population in Britain say quite clearly that they have no religion. What I take away from that (and this is very crude) is that this model that the C of E has, that it is a predominantly white church serving a predominantly white country is completely out of date. So many people have said quite clearly that they just don’t want Anglican worship, fellowship or anything. But we also know that 25% of the population have some kind of diverse, global heritage – and that they are much more likely to have a faith that they want to express and belong to. So the C of E needs to be a ‘50:50’ church working equally with the white people who are still interested and all the rest. And, we’ve got to see the English church as the English bit of the world church, not the other way round. We still almost see the world church as the local branches of the Church of England – like those churches in Jamaica and Barbados. I don’t know if they’ve repainted those church signs, because I’ve not been back for 20 years …
J: It’s realising where the Spirit is moving. You need a church that’s ‘fit for purpose’ for the present day, and that has to reflect God’s people in its breadth.
B: I have a couple of questions about the life of the church, and beauty and worship and the Holy Spirit. Could you comment on beauty? I think some people would find it essential, and that they couldn’t ‘get there’ without it, but then other people would say it’s useful, but not essential? Where would you sit in that spectrum?
J: I’m not one of those people like Pope Benedict who think that beauty is all that matters – that beauty can inspire worship. I think that aesthetics can be quite dangerous really. I think that there are lots of people, especially those starting out in exploring ministry, who are in love with the aesthetics of Christianity. What really drives them is a desire to dress up, have aesthetically pleasing liturgy, and serve in a beautiful church. I don’t think that that’s what worshipping God is really all about. I think that beauty can be useful, but it’s not enough, and it’s not the focus or the centre. It has to be beauty in the service of God, not the service of humanity, and there’s a very fine line between the two. I’ve been in some really beautiful Christian spaces – I went to mass somewhere recently (I won’t say where) – beautiful liturgy, all in Latin – and almost everyone had their mobile phone out taking pictures of the sacrament as it was elevated. I thought – is this worship? Or a spectator sport? Is it a performance? Ritual has it’s place, and is very important, but ritual and beauty are not the same. I’m wary of beauty being idolised. The beautiful thing in worship should be God. Anything else is not that important!
B: Part of our work with the Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice is about these situations of ‘contested heritage’, where you have a beautiful memorial to the guy who made his money from the slave trade and endowed the church with some of the funds. I guess that’s my ‘pinch point’ with beauty – and so many of the great Country Houses were built partly with the proceeds of the Atlantic slave trade. What about ideas of inspiration and the ‘work of the Spirit’ and how that can play out in the arts?
J: I studied music before training for ordination. All my teachers who taught me music seriously were ‘French School’, which means they included improvisation as part of training and performance. Yes, you learnt repertoire, but you also learnt harmony, counterpoint and fugue. One of my most influential teachers, Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, who was the organist at Saint-Suplice in Paris, taught me improvisation, and when I saw her improvise I definitely felt the Holy Spirit was at work. She’s a Roman Catholic. And I feel that when I improvise – that sense that you’re in control, but not in control. The only other time I’ve felt that is in preaching, or preparing for preaching. There is this moment where something takes over and something just flows from me, and it’s a kind of ecstasy. I think both of those come because you’ve learned a kind of structure, you know your harmony really well, how the notes work, so you have the basics, and therefore you have a lot of freedom. It’s the same with preaching. You know your theology, you’ve got your familiarity with scripture, and therefore you’re freer. You only have one thing to say, in the same way you’ve only got so many notes to work with! And then it’s for you to be as creative as you can be with that, and the inspiration does come from the Holy Spirit. I wouldn’t make a disjunct between the arts world and the religious world.
B: So, what’s that one thing we have to say?
J: As Christians we have to proclaim each Sunday: ‘Christ has Died, Christ is Risen, Christ will Come Again.’ We say that in different ways, but fundamentally we are proclaiming that. Jesus has to be the focus. All preaching has to be Cross-centred. When it’s not it can become very dangerous.
B: So, why is the Cross so important, and what’s the danger you’re afraid of?
J: I think preaching without any notion of sacrifice, suffering and resurrection – and the Cross holds all those things in tension – can go astray. A preaching that has no Cross doesn’t ask anything of us, or if it’s ‘hope-less’, or if it doesn’t mention Christ at all. The Cross forces us to proclaim Christ as more than just a wise man, a rabbi, but as the Saviour of Humanity. I hear sermons sometimes where I think ‘anyone can say that’. I just don’t think that’s what preaching is. We have something to proclaim that transcends us, and transcends our circumstances, and that has to be said, otherwise what’s the point? I don’t like preaching that doesn’t talk about Christ as Christ.
B: So, going back to music and improvisation, I just wanted to ask – do you have any ‘iconic’ musicians or composers? – in that sense that the icon reveals the mystery, or embodies it?
J: I definitely do. If we’re talking about their harmonic language, I would say Maurice Ravel or Maurice Duruflé – two French composers who really speak to me on a deep level. In terms of performers today, the Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva is one of the best. On the organ, Sophie-Véronique is a phenomenal musician. I’ve heard lots of people improvise well, but I’ve never heard anyone create what sounds like a completely new musical language. She’s someone whose career should be much more prominent, but she took time out to have kids. Those two composers and two musicians embody something very powerful for me.
B: What is the place they’re taking you to? What is the emotion they’re exploring, or the world that they’re opening up?
J: There’s a kind of nostalgia or melancholy with Ravel. Ravel of course was gay, which may be part of it, and came from a Roman Catholic background, but didn’t have a faith himself. Duruflé was obsessive, and would only publish once it was completely perfect for him, which is why we have so little of his music. His Requiem is one of the most beautiful pieces of music, I think. He takes me to a profoundly spiritual place. If I could throw a third one in, I think Beethoven. His Sonata in A-flat major, Opus 110 has every human emotion in it. I’ve played that sonata and it’s got everything from complete joy and hope to utter despair. But with Beethoven, joy always has the last word: just when you think he’s given up, there is a slight change. That piece connects with every part of my life and I find a lot of spiritual depth there. And then, there are people like Mozart that I don’t have any time for at all!
J: Too sentimental, too happy, I can’t stand it, I’ve never played any Mozart at all.
B: How about in the visual arts?
J: Chris Ofili had an exhibition at the National Gallery quite recently called ‘Weaving Magic’ which was phenomenal – I’ve also seen him at the Whitechapel Gallery. Kehinde Wiley and Theaster Gates I love. I’m interested in anything that raises questions about identity and spirituality. There was a ‘Fashioning Masculinities’ exhibition at the Barbican, which was very interesting to me in looking at the ways in which masculinity is constructed. Now there’s ‘Africa Fashion’ at the V&A, and it was really interesting to look at some African fashion styles, and also the intersection of sexuality and gender. Anything that challenges straightforward binaries, I’m interested. It comes back to what my reality is as a person – this is the messiness of my own life, and I like seeing it in art.
B: So, when you’re interacting with that kind of material, are you thinking ‘I know where I stand, I know who I am, I’ve got the answers, but it’s interesting seeing everyone else struggling with this?’ – or is it more ‘I’m gripped by this titanic struggle that’s going on in the world right now, and it’s still not landed for me personally?’ Sorry, that’s probably a rather intrusive question.
J: I think it’s both. It depends on where I am at that particular moment. There are times when I don’t find art particularly resonant with my own identity or personality – and times where it can be overwhelmingly resonant with who I am and where I am. But, it’s often both of those. I’ve been amazed at how moved I’ve been with some pieces of art and installations.
B: Obviously, I’ve asked a question there that’s quite intrusive. But, speaking from the ‘white space’, I think in the straight, white, masculine world there’s a huge amount of insecurity and self-questioning and defensive anger. Those unsettled emotions are there in those ‘white highlands’ which feel besieged by feminism, queer identities, etc. – that white ‘Enlightenment Man’ seems to be feeling quite uncomfortable right now, for equal and opposite reasons.
J: Sure. I think one of the times I felt most uncomfortable was in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum. There were some shackles in a cabinet. I was with a friend of mine who’s white, and our reactions! He found it to be an interesting artefact and piece of art, and wanted to get close to it. I just went silent. And then I realised that though we assume that our identity can be centred in something – it’s not. And when you see two different people’s reactions to some art, or what’s considered to be art, you really realise ‘Difference’, I think.
B: I watched this lovely video with theologian Paula Gooder and yourself in the St Paul’s Cathedral online space, and you’re having this quite involved discussion. She seemed to be saying that it’s OK to discuss your wounds once they’ve decently ‘scarred up’ and they’re not actually bleeding. You responded with a more ‘raw’ perspective, saying that sometimes ‘you need to talk about what’s bleeding’. So, I wanted to take that discussion into the aesthetic space and ask whether art that comes from the ‘bleeding wound’ or the ‘wise scar’ is more powerful.
J: I’d want to bring in literature here. And speak from a place of priesthood. What I think is most important here is that people speak, whether it’s from a scar or from a wound. We’ve been running a James Baldwin reading group here in this parish. One thing people don’t talk about with James Baldwin is that he had all this beautiful output, and wrote all these essays and novels, and was a great public speaker and public intellectual – but, in his life, he had five suicide attempts (all unsuccessful, thank God). In some of his essays he is definitely writing from a deep wound, and not a scar. I think he rarely wrote from his scars, and I think that some of his best writing, the things people connect with the most, comes when he is writing from the place of being wounded. I think the place of the scar, whether it’s in art, music or literature, is almost too polished, no longer really human. A lot of artists and writers work out of a sense of wrestling with pain. I think if people only produced stuff out of their scars, not their wounds, there wouldn’t be any art. And I think the art that doesn’t really connect with people is the art that’s afraid of the wounded self. And I think it’s true for musicians. So much of Bach’s work was written after he lost another child – and you hear it – you hear the agony in some of his music – the agony in the Mass in B minor, or the Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor.
B: So, you love music, you appreciate art, but is writing really your art form?
J: I think so, now. Music is something in my past now – I don’t make music publicly any more. But I do write a lot.
B: I wanted to ask a question about your vocation. Is it consciously a calling to be an intellectual, someone like Baldwin? Is he a role model for you?
J: One hundred percent. He is probably the most influential person in my life, whose work has influenced me most. And after him, I would probably say Toni Morrison, in terms of her honesty. It’s the same thing I find attractive about them both, their complete honesty. One thing that Morrison says is that our single biggest responsibility is not to lie. She gave the eulogy at James Baldwin’s funeral, so they do have a connection. I think I’ve always understood my vocation to be that of a thinking priest. I think about what Michael Ramsey says in The Christian Priest Today, that we don’t have to be ‘widely read’, but we should be ‘deeply read’. The priest hasn’t got to be a master of everything, but they do need to go deep somewhere, in order to offer something. Often, when I listen to people, I realise that what they are wrestling with is a deep theological problem. And it’s only when I’ve wrestled with it myself that I can offer anything.
B: I know we need to wind up now, because you’ve got a Spiritual Direction meeting. So, do you find in your Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Study groups that actually people are asking really theological questions and exploring them in a positive way? That this is still a key task in a parish?
J: Definitely. People are wrestling with questions of theodicy, soteriology, ecclesiology they want to know the answers to. They don’t use this language, but that’s what’s underneath. Actually, ‘What is the Holy Spirit?’ and ‘How can I connect with the Holy Spirit?’ or ‘Why do I have to use the words of the Lord’s Prayer?’ and ‘How does prayer work’? Or ‘What does it mean to be baptised?’ and ‘What does baptised life look like?’ – or ‘What is the life of the world to come?’ I often find that it’s the faithful themselves who come up with the best answers. It’s really important, even in Spiritual Direction, to have an openness to the messiness of the spiritual journey.
B: I think a lot more people should access Spiritual Direction.
J: I do too.
B: I think that’s still one of the strengths of the Church of England tradition. So, do you find that your knowledge of Patristics helps you in your day-to-day work?
J: Hugely, I can’t believe how much. And I’m so sad that for years I treated it as a kind of intellectual exercise. I’ve completely turned my back on that now. It’s not for the academy at all. All of them are writing for ‘the people in the pews’. It’s all sermons. At times it works at different levels, but they’re not writing for the academy. And even the polemic texts are written to defend something that’s a grass-roots belief or practice. And we’ve lost that.
B: I think a lot has changed. Going back 30 or 40 years, someone would be made the Bishop of Birmingham or something just because they were known as a Patristics scholar, and that was really valued and understood, but over my lifetime Patristics has just sunk further and further out of sight. I think most people on theological formation courses now, to be ordained, there wouldn’t be a specific focus on Patristics. Even the name of it is just a bit too male! Everyone is focussing on resurrecting Mothers of the Church who’ve been neglected instead!
J: My favourite Church Father is Origen. I think he’s much better than Augustine, but that’s ‘fighting talk’ in Patristics. He’s not a heretic, he’s just an honest thinker – more honest than Augustine …
B: I’d better let you go now, but thank you.
J: Thank you.
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