Art in the wake of World War One
until 24 September 2018
This show aims to explore the impact of the First World War on art in Britain, France and Germany in the period 1916-32. Some of the art is war art which reflects on the battlefields of France (there is no reflection on the war at sea or the conflicts which made this a world war). Other works depict the aftermath of fighting as shown in the war memorials and the wider society of the three countries after hostilities finished. The topic is huge and the treatment is inevitably bitty.
The war was the most destructive in Europe to date. The American Civil War had already shown how industrialised warfare could kill huge numbers of people and devastate tracts of town and country. The advances in technology and communications infrastructure between the ending of that war and 1914 made World War One a new kind of war. Because of mass mobilisation, sea blockades and aerial bombing more people than ever before in an international conflict were killed or wounded. The power of artillery and the machine gun meant that for much of the war small numbers of defenders could hold off much larger attacking forces. Contrary to what the planners had expected there was relatively little direct, hand-to-hand contact with the enemy – as many soldiers died in day-to-day maintenance of the trenches or casual shell fire as in going over the top. The cramped conditions, high incidence of illness and the continual but random threat of death created unheard of levels of stress amongst soldiers. Their suffering was one reason for atrocities against civilians – the Germans, in particular, pushed beyond the boundaries of acceptable behaviour to try to force a quick and overwhelming victory.
How did art cope with a war which was so impersonally destructive and vicious, all-embracing and psychologically damaging? During the fighting artists were prohibited from showing the horrors of death. Even after the war what death looked like was usually, as it were, painted from behind or conveyed in a highly stylised way. That was inevitable. Perhaps a third of those killed on the battlefield were so blown apart or cut up as to be unrecognisable. The destructive force of modern weapons created the Unknown Soldier, not so much the hero but the soldier whose body was too shattered to be identified. The bleakness of the Cenotaph – as opposed to the Germanic (!) romanticism of its French counterpart – is at least a thoughtful take on industrial, modernised warfare.
Most artists didn’t or couldn’t get to get to grips with this and nor does this exhibition. However, the show does have two compensating strengths. The first is the turn against the pre-war celebration of modern, industrial life. Industry was to return as a leitmotif through the (modified) hope inspired by the USA in the works of Léger, Citroën and Lissitzky but in the immediate aftermath of war the English neo-pastoral, the classicism of Picasso, the celebration of the Jazz Age all suggest societies which had to look away from the present reality.
Those works are not particularly interesting. The main strength of the exhibition and the art which grabs the attention is very different. The emotional heart of this show lies in Germany, above all in the printmaking of Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and Käthe Kollwitz (rather less that of the French Georges Roualt). Dix’s rage and anger at the German Establishment – politicians, industrialists, the military, journalists – who had led Germany to war expresses itself in ferocious caricature. There is nothing at Tate Britain which could match his great ‘War’ triptych in Dresden, the twentieth century’s response to Grünewald’s Crucifixion, but his prints have a nightmare quality which more than other artists does work with the human face (or skull). Beckman likewise responds to the post-1918 situation with a febrile anger which expresses the war’s impact on the mind. His work with its disabled soldiers and ugly prostitutes is even more cartoonish than Dix’s. However, the strongest and most artistically effective of the printmakers is Kollwitz. Her main works in this show are a series about the suffering of women, above all mothers. The very black – literally – prints have the greater force because they are simple and concentrated. They are an artistic achievement which for once is able to do justice to the theme.
To get the measure of the best of the artists at Tate Britain it helps to have some knowledge of the uniqueness of the First World War. Their work is not often great but it is not sanitised. It is a genuine howl of pain and anger.
It has been more than a decade since the publication of the previous edition of Mark Hill’s volume on Ecclesiastical Law, which takes its place in the OUP series of big black books for legal practitioners. I seem to remember nagging him at something a while ago to produce a fourth edition, and I can’t have been the only person to do so, since I find it invaluable, and it needed an update. I may be a qualified barrister, but I like this book not because I have ever practised as a lawyer, but because I do practise as a parish priest.
It surprises me rather how little ecclesiastical law most of my colleagues know, and I can’t say it featured highly in my training. Yet this is the body of law under which we work, not just the Canons themselves, but Measures, Acts of Synod, Acts of Parliament, rubrics, and the rest; the complex set of relationships between different aspects of ecclesiastical law reflects the complicated authority structure of the Church of England itself, which has evolved by retaining many parts of its ancient structure, and developing in various new ways. It is a subject worthy of study by ordinands and clergy in its own right, but it also governs the way we go about much of our day-to-day activity.
Hill writes a state-of-the-nation address by way of a preface, and he notes how busy a decade it has been in terms of ‘the prodigious output of General Synod’ and ‘the business of the courts and tribunals of the Church of England’, and how much more quasi-legislation there is now, for instance in sets of guidelines and Codes of Practice attached to the ‘black letter’ legislation. When I wrote a chapter on the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 for a textbook some years ago, I noted that the Measure itself was supplemented by two Statutory Instruments, the Clergy Discipline Rules 2005 (elucidated by an Explanatory Memorandum) and the Clergy Discipline Appeal Rules 2005, and by a Code of Practice, published in 2006, plus Guidance on Penalties and a series of Practice Directions. For many New Directions readers, the legal mechanism which allows the admission of women to the bench of bishops has been highly significant, but the Measure contains only one clause: the document we all need to know is the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests.
There is much to be said, then, for a single-volume work which draws together and analyses the most significant parts of this body of law, and which begins with a helpful section on the history of the corpus and its sources. The format, reasonably enough, remains the same as the third edition, which itself had added a detailed section on the Clergy Discipline Measure. Colleagues need to know about that legislation, and they need to know the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy.
What else will the parish priest find useful in this volume, which, it must be said, represents a significant financial outlay? Well, we all need to remind ourselves of the rules for the conduct of Parochial and PCC meetings; indeed, the chairman needs to know rules better than his most punctilious PCC member, and I never begin the APCM without Mark Hill’s book on the table in front of me. Then there are faculties – not only the how but also the why (in legal terms) – and the useful section of particular cases has been lightly updated. And are we secure in our knowledge of the law relating to marriage, particularly in the light of recent changes, and given that many clergy do no more than one wedding a year nowadays? What of other liturgical matters including the seal of the confessional? And what happens when you don’t appoint two church wardens, or you are wondering about the legal status of the demand for higher Quota? And what if you find yourself wanting to fight a proposal for a pastoral scheme or Bishop’s Mission Order?
I am inclined to think it a pity that the ‘Materials’ section has taken another heavy pruning, this time saving the publisher over 150 pages; I take the point that the Church Representation Rules are currently undergoing a significant redrafting in General Synod, and that materials are easily obtained from the Internet (if one knows where to look!), but there was some benefit in having as much stuff as possible in one place. There are the inevitable minor errors – the sub-editor might want to apologise to the Bishop of Stepney for getting his Christian name wrong – but it would be a rare volume of this kind that escaped without any mistakes. This is undoubtedly a helpful revision of an important book, which is worth the investment.
The Christian Tradition for Today
Bloomsbury Continuum 2017,
240pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781472946089
On a visit to the local monastery for spiritual direction I was struck by the number of monks reading this book and raised humorously the question ‘how are you getting on with Holy Living?’ My own reading had preceded theirs and this review provides my answer! That so many involved in religious life and spiritual direction look to Rowan Williams as an authority is a tribute to the breadth and depth of his engagement with the Christian tradition, even if the density of his thought can be overpowering.
He is challenging, full of spiritual wisdom and can make one sentence summaries of immense realms. I liked these sentences on church controversy, globalisation, Sunday trading and sex: ‘We have little incentive to be open with each other if we live in an ecclesial environment where political conflict and various kinds of grievance are the dominant currency… Structures and landscapes that proclaim the powerlessness of individuals and of small-scale societies to exercise any creative role in moulding the environment not mapped or shaped with human beings in mind… The weekend may be a lost cause in many communities, thanks to that triumph of functional and acquisitive philosophy that was the legitimising of Sunday trading… Sex is not everything, and there are imperatives more urgent where the Kingdom of God is concerned; but sex is capable of revealing God in the deliberate weakness of a love that entrusts itself to another with no pre-negotiated limits of time and availability. That, says Scripture, is what sexual intimacy can be for humans. As so often with the New Testament, the question is thrown back to us: now what are you going to do about making such a possibility real?’
Williams’ capacity to open up a subject for his reader and then throw out the challenge to make what’s possible real is evident to those who stick with him as an exponent of Christian spirituality. This book selects his thinking on the Rule of St Benedict, the Bible, Icons, contemplation, St Teresa of Avila and self-knowledge placing them incongruously side by side with no linkage save they’re all in Christian tradition. If you’re unfamiliar with any of these this book will remedy your ignorance and give more than a taster of their spiritual meaning and power. I was particularly impressed by what was shared about self-knowledge, Teresa and the Eucharist and how contemplation makes the Church more fully the Church.
The author is a follower of Thomas Merton’s spiritual ecumenism that sees the Christian discipline of contemplation as linked to awakening humanity and bringing it into its right mind. Being faithful especially in ‘our contemplative appropriation of the gift received in the Eucharist, which is the realization in us of the active relation between Father and Son in the Trinity, …(we) become more transparent to the divine act of saving self-emptying, for the sake of the world’. Reflecting his own use of icons in prayer Bishop Rowan writes similarly: ‘the person who stands in front of the icon is not the only one doing the looking. Such a person is being seen, being acted upon, in this framework. The icon, therefore, is not a passive bit of decoration but an active presence. And the liturgical use and presence of icons is part of an entire understanding of the life of prayer, the baptized life, as being brought into a presence so as oneself to become a kind of presence’.
‘Holy Living’ is implicitly critical of quick-fix when it comes to gaining holiness, speaking of ‘a journey that entails an ‘excavation’ of the passions and a disciplining of them… nothing to do with some sort of exclusion or denial of the emotions, but about the rational inhabiting and understanding of the instinctual life in such a way that it doesn’t take over and dictate your relations with God or with one another. The holy person is the one ‘free from passion’ because he or she is the person free from having their relations totally dictated by instinct, self-defence – reactivity, as we might say these days’. Such a paragraph might take a life-time to implement!
It is impressive how this book lacks ‘agenda’. Though Rowan Williams is perceived as victim and counter to narrow streams of Anglicanism the most he says critical of such thinking is on the use of the Bible: ‘To claim that we receive revelation is not… to assert that we are in possession of answers not provided to others, but to say that we have been impelled by the act of God into (an) unfolding process of reflection and growth’. What he hands on from Teresa of Avila about right sharing of the Eucharist similarly implies ongoing readiness to empty yourself as Christ does into bread and wine as counter to ‘high church superficiality.’
‘Holy Living’ is a challenging read in its language and uneven structure but all the more for those who press on with it and into it as a resource for gaining ‘the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14b). I end with a quotation to that end which is a suitable last word on an intriguing and challenging book. ‘All contemplating of God presupposes God’s own absorbed and joyful knowing of himself and gazing upon himself in the trinitarian life’.
The Imperial Tea Party: Family, Politics and Betrayal
The Ill-Fated British and Russian Royal Alliance
Short Books 2018 288pp, £12.99
The centenary of the Bolshevik coup d’état was overshadowed by the continued fascination with the tragic fate of the Romanovs. Frances Welch, who has a good track record writing about the fall of the dynasty, here looks at three occasions when the British and Russian Royal Families met. That gross, greedy, guzzling, geriatric gorgon Queen Victoria, the central figure of the extensive cousinage (a mixture of dynastic politics and a marriage bureau), presided at Balmoral. Her much more genial and politically adept successor, Edward VII, met Tsar Nicholas and his family at sea, once off Reval (now Tallinn), the other off the Isle of Wight. Lurking in the background is the uninvited Kaiser Wilhem II.
A rich vein of sources has been mined, much from the Royal Archives. The regal diaries, especially by the Tsar, are generally bland, uninformative and insipid – but they provide amusing counterpoint to the details of the encounters. Occasionally too much is read into them. There is little point is looking for significance or emotional depth. The Tsar was dim and the Tsarina neurotic. Courtiers offer more detail and sharply etched remarks and pointed comments. It is interesting to see different perspectives on characters and incidents. The most rounded character (in several senses) is King Edward who emerged from a rackety and scandal-strewn youth to a maturity that mixed bonhomie with political and diplomatic acumen. It might be regretted that he did not ascend the throne sooner.
There is much about court etiquette, uniforms, titles, precedence and a few too many detailed menus: among the ten tempting culinary offerings on the Royal Yacht HMS Victoria and Albert anchored outside Reval were Filets de Soles à la Joinville, Cailles froides à la Russe, Jambon au Champagne, Pains d’Ananas à la Créole, and Glace aux Pêches.
Politics, diplomatic exchanges, and treaty discussions, were conducted between the Sovereigns and their government representatives. Those between the Tsar and Lord Salisbury at Balmoral are well recorded. At Reval and the Isle of Wight the King and those present of his ministers (among them Sir Edward Grey) and Court (Sir Frederick Ponsonby) were impressed with the Russian Prime Minister, Pytor Stolypin. His assassination in 1911 was a disaster for the dynasty.
The uncanny resemblance between the Tsar and his cousin George (variously in these encounters Duke of York, then Prince of Wales) and their affectionate regard one for another makes the dénouement of their relationship all the more poignant. After his deposition from the throne, there were plans to rescue him by the Royal Navy with the support of the Lloyd George and the government and with the acquiescence of the Provisional Government in Russia and, crucially, with the firm agreement of King George V. The fall of the Provisional Government and the eventual seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and their decision to imprison and kill the Royal family made such a rescue much more problematic but not impossible. However, King George had a change of heart.
He was undoubtedly influenced by the advice of his Private Secretary Lord Stamfordham who was anxious that sheltering an autocrat would be resented by public opinion and affect the popularity of the monarchy. However, he could have declined Stamfordham’s advice as later he did when advised not to attend an Orthodox Liturgy for the Tsar after the assassination. Frances Welch dispassionately sets out the sequence of the change of heart, but it cannot excuse the moral failure.
This is a charming study, intimate but alive to the wider context and, inevitably, overshadowed with the cruel hand of fate that struck in a cellar at Ekaterinberg.
Phoebe – A Story
Hodder & Stoughton 2018, £8.99, 320pp
I remember how 101 Best Bible Stories first got me reading Scripture. When someone honours the biblical accounts by rewriting them imaginatively yet faithfully, they engage a wider readership. In Phoebe, Paula Gooder uses her New Testament scholarship to open up the world of the first Christians, bringing scripture alive through writing a life of Paul’s co-worker Phoebe.
You can engage with the book in two ways. Two thirds of it is a well written 32 Chapter story centred on Phoebe. The last third reflects back on the story providing notes on the chapters. Besides explaining or justifying the plot, the notes further open up the world of the first century and the emergence of Christianity within it. Rome, Corinth and Jerusalem are principal places of interest. Gooder builds from the verses that mention Phoebe in Romans Chapter 16: ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.’
It’s a story always on the move linked to the last movement of Paul from Jerusalem to Rome and Phoebe’s presumed carriage of his letter to the Romans from Corinth to the Christian community in Rome. The journeys, including Paul’s plan to take the Good News to Western Europe, are solidly grounded in scripture. What is particularly powerful is that alongside these core elements of the narrative, Paula Gooder imagines and presents Phoebe’s faith journey. This faith is nurtured by new Christian companions she finds in Rome who help encourage and organise her ongoing mission. The author presents a balanced critique of Paul through the way his letter is imagined to have been received by different parties in Rome.
When we read the epistles unlike the Gospels they can come at us cold because we lack an understanding of the context. Through Phoebe Paula Gooder provides an imaginative context for Paul’s letters using her knowledge of him and her own capacity to think herself into how the people Paul wrote to might have responded to the arrival his letters. His letter to the Romans that is being considered, so full of the doctrinal working out of the death-defying love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ, makes a good talking point throughout Phoebe’s story. Many of the conversations are about the practical significance of the Good News of Jesus for folk with the openness to face up to their need of grace.
Since the book aims to inform as much as to entertain the author disclaims it as a novel, apologising for the copious commentary towards the end that would not suit as footnotes to the text proper. Paula Gooder half apologises for challenging the tradition of the Church in reserving holy orders to men, showing determination to set right what she sees as a misinterpretation of Paul: ‘I have lost count of the times I have been told that Paul is ‘bad for women,’ or something similar. You will gather, as you read, that I do not agree.’
As Rowan Williams writes in his commendation: ‘Very few people are as expert as Paula Gooder in communicating biblical scholarship clearly and creatively, and this first venture into historical story-telling will bring the biblical text freshly alive for a wide and enthusiastic readership.’
The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable
In the corner of a community centre in one of my parishes is a miners’ banner showing the Good Samaritan lifting the injured man onto his donkey, and Jesus’ words: ‘Go and do thou likewise.’ Although it is paraded once a year at the Durham Miners’ Gala, I had naively assumed it was a relic of a bygone age when politicians (in this case trade-unionists) ‘did God’. Nick Spencer’s book suggests forcibly that I am wrong: ‘God talk’ is alive and well in contemporary politics, and not just in the USA. Although Spencer contends, like many others, that public discourse is in crisis- ‘the nadir of post-truth politics’, characterised by the mistrust of anyone who exercises power and cripplingly short attention spans, he also argues that political discourse still needs a ‘divine register’ to give it a ‘horizon-expanding impact,’ this being provided by reference to authoritative texts, normally, though not exclusively, the Bible.
The heart of the book is its second chapter, in which Spencer charts the rise of what he calls ‘the political Samaritan:’ references made to the parable of the Good Samaritan beginning with British abolitionists at the end of the eighteenth century, through key figures such as Martin Luther King, to the present day. His key interest is in British parliamentarians, especially Prime Ministers and party leaders, from Thatcher onwards, noting differences between left and right. For Thatcher, who perhaps made the most extended political use of the Samaritan in modern times, the parable was about the exercise of personal virtue and (bizarrely) the need for individuals to have personal wealth in order to offer charity; for the often-forgotten John Smith, the story was about the essentially relational nature of human beings, a theme taken up by Tony Blair in a rare allusion to scripture in his 1995 party conference speech: ‘I am my brother’s keeper; I will not walk by on the other side.’ Not ‘walking by on the other side’ is the phrase most often quoted in parliamentary debate right up to the present, used to justify intervention in situations as diverse as the 2008 credit crunch (Gordon Brown), the war in Syria (Hilary Benn) and, perhaps understandably, the refugee crisis (Nicola Sturgeon and many others).
Nonetheless, to me, this phrase poses a question about Spencer’s argument: can the repeated use of one Biblical phrase really be considered as demonstrating a reverence for scripture and Christian values in contemporary debate? After all, Spencer himself concedes that the Good Samaritan is something of an exception in our national consciousness: with which other of Jesus’ parables would 70% of British adults today claim to be familiar? He also questions in his last chapter as to whether the Good Samaritan might be classified in George Orwell’s linguistic category of the ‘dying metaphor,’ although Spencer happily concludes not: ‘for those politicians who dare to cross the road and pick it up, the parable shows surprising signs of life, more spirited, edgier and sharper than we might have expected.’ And, ultimately my question appears not to matter: the very fact that such phrases and allusions are used, consciously or unconsciously, is enough for Spencer. Echoing Rowan Williams’ assessment that our society remains ‘haunted by Christianity,’ Spencer argues in his last chapter that Christianity has shaped our culture, values and language ‘in much the same way that our landscape has been shaped by the Ice-Age. The majority of the ice has now gone, ‘but we are the way we are because of its long, formative presence.’ Commentators such as the atheist Matthew Parris have (grudgingly) accepted that this landscape will not change; and Spencer proposes this fact as challenge to those ‘liberal’ political philosophers and commentators who argue that political language must be ‘neutral’ to ‘comprehensive doctrines’ such as religion.
This is a hugely enjoyable book, and for its 166 widely typed pages, impressively wide-ranging: elsewhere we are offered a lively commentary on the text of the parable in Luke 10 and the exegetical issues surrounding its interpretation; we also gain a useful overview of the ways in which the parable has been interpreted in the church, particularly of allegorical readings from Irenaeus onwards. (Incidentally, footnotes rather than endnotes would be especially helpful in these sections). From all this, Spencer wisely concludes that no one reading of the parable will suffice although he does offer a tentative hierarchy of the contemporary political interpretations. He stresses the parable’s role in shifting the idea of ‘neighbour’ from something or someone I define to someone I am, and its powerful call to exclude no one from neighbourliness or even person-hood.
Overall, the book certainly confirms The Economist’s assessment of Spencer as ‘like a prophet crying in the post-modern wilderness.’ Its arguments should form part of the armoury of those who argue and campaign for the ongoing and rightful place of Christian ‘neighbourliness’ and compassion in British politics today.