Dementia and God

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that John Swinton’s book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God had been awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing. Chosen from a shortlist of 6 books, themselves selected from a total of over 100  nominated volumes, the award is a real tribute to the way in which John has ploughed a furrow of engaged and earthed practical theology in such a way as to gain academic credibility while remaining true to life.

I read the book recently and found it to be an admirable, thorough, courageous and unflinching addressing of questions that are at the heart of the many social, ethical and personal dilemmas that face us when we are confronted by the reality of memory loss, and the decline of many cognitive and intellectual faculties, as a result of incremental brain demise. Alzheimer’s Disease is perhaps the most famous and most feared cause of dementia, but there are several others and, as is well known due to the success of the film Still Alice, it is not something that only afflicts the elderly.

Reading John’s book has helped me to think more deeply about the implications of  dementia, and encouraged me never to settle for the thought that life is meaningless without normal cognitive activity.  At one level it is a long, slow roar of protest against the lazy (and ironically unthinking) acceptance of the Cartesian quip: ‘I think therefore I am’.

At another, it is a very carefully and calmly constructed theological argument about what is really valuable and important about human beings. ‘I am loved therefore I am’ is closer to the heart of Swinton’s vision. And this includes being loved by God or, as he poignantly puts it,  being remembered by God.

On Our Minds

One reason why Swinton’s Dementia won the prize was because of the subject matter. Dementia, excuse the pun, is on our minds big time, whether it is because what we see what is happening to others, or because of what we fear will happen to us, or because of what we, consider this, know is happening to us. But Dementia wouldn’t have won if it wasn’t good theology. And it was good theology for a number of reasons.

First, and I made this point to John when we were talking just after the announcement, one of the great things he does in the early chapters is clarify that as a theologian he is not going to allow the medical or scientific model to frame the discussion and then bring theology in to mop up the awkward bits. (What I actually said was, ‘you do the Radical Orthodoxy thing without the jargon’.) No, this is a theological approach from the outset and as a result we have a confident as well as a searching book.

Second, the book draws on, and is true to, both personal experience and relevant and related intellectual constructions from a range of disciplines. It is not just a matter of theology engaging with theology, which is the last thing theology should be.

And third because although it begins with a particular reality, dementia, the conclusions are not limited to dementia sufferers but have much more widely ranging implications.  Not least arguing that our identity is properly understood, as I read Swinton, not as a matter of the way we present ourselves, nor a matter of what we remember about ourselves, but in terms of how others think of us and relate or us, and how God remembers us.

Such theology might unsettle our ego, but surely that too is a theological task.

Swinton’s work has radical and transformative potential for us all, and for that reason I not only congratulate John for winning the prize, but also for the quality and power of his theological work.

Read it!







One of the things I look forward to every two years is participating in the Trialogue Conference, which draws together people interested in psychotherapy, literature and spirituality. Over the course of a very pleasant and stimulating weekend, participants reflect on a novel together and enjoy three keynote addresses, one from each of the disciplines of the Trialogue.

This year we are in fact looking at two novels by contemporary American authors. Philip Roth’s  The Human Stain and Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer

As Chairman of the conference I have been extensively involved in the planning for 2017 and have been surprised and delighted at how much energy has been generated by the discussion of what book to read and who to invite to speak. In the end we opted for two books by different authors, a new departure for the Trialogue which will, I am confident, enrich our conversations and our thinking in many ways.

The  Trialogue takes place from 31 March – 2nd April 2017 at Holthorpe Hall Hall  in Leicestershire, a new venue for the conference that is located very centrally in the country.

If you are interested in psychotherapy, literature or spirituality the Trialogue may well be of interest to you. I always find it extremely creative and hope very much that by holding these three disciplines together we can generate some genuine and far-reaching wisdom.

There is much more information about all this – together with an online booking form and details about the speakers – on the Trialogue website  here.

I wrote this for the King’s College website but think that it may be interesting to readers of Another Angle.  For the full report (with photos) click  here

The Choir has just returned from a hugely enjoyable and successful two-week tour in China. The tour completed a remarkable few weeks of highly prestigious and successful events which began when they appeared at the Aldeburgh Festival in June. A few weeks later in early July they gave the third of this year’s Promenade Concerts, broadcast live on BBC television and radio. No sooner had the thunderous applause that greeted their performance of the Fauré Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall died down, they were en route to a concert near Brussels.  And just a few days after that were flying to Hong Kong.

In China the full Choir performed to packed halls in Hong Kong, Nanjing and Tianjin, with the final concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing being the most prestigious and spectacular.

The first half of the programme varied from place to place, with Christmas carols being sung in Nanjing – where the temperature outside was in the 90s. And in Beijing the Choir opened with Hubert Parry’s magnificent Blest Pair of Sirens and included Herbert Howells’ Take Him Earth for Cherishing, this being a rather poignant touch as he wrote it to mark the assassination of President J.F Kennedy, and it was now being sung just a short walk from the historic Tiananmen Square.  In the second half of each concert the Choir sang the German Requiem in Brahms’s own arrangement for piano duet accompaniment, with one of the Choral Scholars joining the Organ Scholar at the keyboard.

Comparing audiences in UK with those in China is very interesting. While at the Royal Albert Hall there was a preponderance of people old enough to claim a bus pass, in China people come in whole family groups – with many parents bringing their young children.  Many of whom were completely spell-bound.

Simply to take part in such a tour is hugely educational but visits to museums and introductions to historic sites in the rare moments of free time added to the value of the experience for the Choir members – all of whom are still engaged in full-time education. Many were impressed by the visit to the Nanjing Museum – and were charmed by their first experience of Kunqu Opera that they experienced live in the theatre there.

Always well received, the Choir produced rapturous applause and cheers when they sang – in Chinese – a setting of the 18th century Chinese folk song Jasmine Flower.  Many commented on the quality and accuracy of the Chinese pronunciation, which they found almost as remarkable as the boys’ ability to stand for so long to sing the full programme.

The tour was supported by a number of sponsors from England and China and was widely reported in the Chinese media, being seen as an important cultural exchange.  As such it builds on, and contributes to, the work to forge bridges with China that have been inspired by the memory of one of China’s most famous twentieth century poets, Xu Zhimo, who studied at Kings in the 1920s and is memorialized in a stone near the bridge over the river Cam past which the Choristers walk each day during term on their way to and from Chapel.

A sermon preached at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, on Sunday 3 July 2016 the final Sunday of the academic year.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics. One can only think that had he coined the phrase recently he would have said that a week is an extremely long time in politics.

A few days before the referendum someone remarked to me that ‘there is a lot of emotion about at the moment’.  I believe that person was right, and further believe that there has been even more emotion in public life since then.  Emotion often begins to flow when people are uncertain and when they sense that change is afoot that they either do not desire or do not understand.  We are also emotional, though in a slightly different way, when we look back and remember events in the past – whether they are delightful or dreadful. Many people have found themselves moved as the Battle of the Somme has been commemorated, and they have been drawn closer to the human side, the human cost, of history.

At their best, emotions make us wiser, drawing from us intuitions that are more profound than the workings of the rational mind.  The famously unemotional Mr Spock of Star Trek was excellent at some tasks. But he was hopeless at others. If we are to flourish then we need to learn how to feel, understand and respond both to our own emotions and to the emotions of others. Empathy, sympathy and compassion are integral and vital in all human relationships and all human communities.

I was speaking with some people about medical education recently, and one of the points that came up was that while we might want to encourage doctors to have empathy, and to train them to be sympathetic and compassionate, there are limits to these, as to all other, virtues.  Personally I want a doctor to be full of sympathy and empathy when he or she is talking with me about my problems. But when it comes to the technical side of the work I don’t want empathy, I want precision, efficiency and an excellent result.  In cases like surgery, this should be quite simple. As far as I am concerned the empathy can stop the moment the anesthetic kicks in. But what about more complex areas like physiotherapy?

The subtleties of emotional life are indeed complex.  When children are very young it’s no good if their parents try to organize things so that the child will never be upset. On the contrary, the parent must determine when the child is upset.  Part of the role of the parent is to be in charge of the boundaries that make the child’s life safe and manageable and healthy. Part of the role of the child is to test and to seek to transgress those boundaries. Fast-forward seventy or eighty years and things may well be reversed. Power of attorney is arranged and the children might now have to upset their parents by making decisions about care and wellbeing and even such basic things as whether someone can live at home any longer. These will be times of strong and difficult emotion – and rightly so.  Emotion is a proper and important part of life.

Emotions rise when choices are faced, and the starker the choice and the closer the deadline, the greater the emotion. A referendum is therefore bound to raise more emotions than a general election – and the aftermath is bound to be more emotional. Just as a knockout competition is more exciting than a league, and why penalty shoot-outs are knife-edge affairs, especially when they get to the stage of ‘sudden death’.

If well attuned and proportional, our emotions can make us wise, but if they are excessive, they can easily make us foolish.  Very often when emotion pushes us to make a mistake we go on, flooded with the further emotions of guilt or embarrassment, to make more and more mistakes so that the whole thing spirals out of control until something or someone, or maybe many things, or many people, get very badly hurt and we decide, far too late, to stop it.

And so it is that we look back at the wars of the twentieth century with a tear in our eye, and look at the current state of our politics and feel at least a little bit anxious about where it is all heading. For a long time the most motivating words in politics and economics have been ‘growth’ or ‘change’. Looking at things today many of us might find words like ‘stability’ and indeed ‘sustainability’ more attractive.

However there are times in our lives when change is not an option; change is the point at which we have arrived. We have recently seen graduation ceremonies here, and today we come to the end of the Chapel’s academic year, and so we are saying goodbye to our Year 8 Choristers and our recently graduated Choral Scholars.

One of the nice things about institutions is that they generate and evolve traditional rites of passage. These help us manage the inevitable emotions and make good transitions. Sometimes such traditions involve food, a dinner perhaps, with speeches. The Choral Scholars have a dinner tonight, and I gave the Choristers a dinner a few weeks’ ago.  It is worth noticing in this context that the talking and eating, the conviviality and shared emotion of such occasions, mirror that of the Eucharist with its focus on the meal of bread and wine and the sharing of the word of God through readings and sermon. If we use these occasions to be emotionally generous and intellectually truthful then they can be more than good ways to manage the emotions of transition. They can become gateways to the transcendent; windows that open us up to the guiding, supporting and sustaining love of God, who is grace and truth.

And it is to that eternal love that I would want to commend our leavers, and all those who are at this time experiencing complex and deep emotions; all those who have been taken by forces both outside and inside themselves to a place of disequilibrium and stress; and all those who have in recent days been on the receiving end of hurtful remarks or violent actions sparked by the unfortunate emotionality of our recent political process.

The love of God is more than a match for all this trouble and strife. God’s future is far more positive than the naive mix of anxiety and optimism that dominates our current politics, and bangs on about change and growth as if they were ultimate values.

Time and again Jesus and his followers have said that it is the heart that matters most.  Certainly it is our hearts that can become dangerous when inflamed with raw emotion but it is our hearts that are the seat of our deepest values and the place of our spiritual struggles.

The message of this final sermon of this year is simple: put your heart into the hands of the God of love, truth, peace, forgiveness, hope and joy. These are the things that matter most deeply, for they are the qualities of both of God and of human beings at their best. And it is when we pursue these that we find our selves, our lives and our world transfigured and transformed, and discover that we are easing our way towards a positive future in the sustaining company of the God of grace and truth.

This is an extract from an address I gave at a school in South London yesterday, while the country was engaged in the referendum on Europe. Not anticipating the result, I did not at the time connect the two things. With hindsight it seems a little prescient.

You may think this is a very strange thing for me to say, but my message to you is this – if you want to be remembered well, to have a good reputation when you are no longer here to speak for yourself, you will have to learn how to welcome disappointment.

Great lives, wonderful reputations are not often built on straightforward success. They are built on the way in which we cope with adversary, distress and disappointment.

The young child who is unfortunate enough know what physical pain is like – that is the person who may go on to be come a great doctor, specializing in the pain relief of the young.

The person who feels really lonely and isolated – that is the person who might go on to form some new society or community that accepts and supports other lonely people.

The person who isn’t brilliant at school but learns how to work diligently and creatively – that’s the person who will go on to be an inspiring speaker, teacher  or writer.

Disappointment in life is like the grain of sand in the oyster. Of course not every grain of sand becomes the seed of a pearl; most sand is just sand, and will always be sand. And most disappointment is just disappointment, a sad turning out of events that leads on to more sadness.

But some disappointment is transformed by the person to whom it happens into something that could never have otherwise occurred.

True education, I believe, is not the education that enables us to excel when life is going well, but to cope brilliantly when life goes badly.

True education is not learning how to pass rather predictable though admittedly and sometimes cruelly difficult exams, but to come up with unpredictable, unexpected but perhaps rather simple situations to apparently impossible problems in life.

It’s easy to drive a car along a motorway. Life gets difficult when you get to a junction when the road ahead is blocked and you have to decide on a new route, or maybe a new destination. But that’s also the moment of possibility, the moment of potential brilliance, the moment at which, if we are not only educated but wise and spiritual, we will open ourselves up the guiding grace of God and make a decision not to do something dull and self-interested but exciting, creative and for the benefit of others.

Great things can happen when our plans are thwarted. That’s never pleasant or pleasing, but I believe it’s the way God very often works. And I pray that when disappointment comes in your life you will respond not by being cross with reality, but dig deep to discover the vision and determination to see what better future might unfold from the wreckage of your former dreams.

Doing well is great. Dealing well with disappointment, however, is the way to true and memorable greatness.

It is too early to say how we will do this now, but our unwanted challenge now really is to make Britain Great again.


I spent much of yesterday at a school in the London borough of Lambeth.  There, like in Cambridge where I live, the view was so resolutely ‘remain’ that the only remarks I heard were speculating about the extent of the Remain majority.  I liked hearing that.  Talk of Brexit was making me increasingly worried.

On the train I read the Financial Times.  There were articles about Brexit paranoia and the mental health issues being connected with the uncertainty that the referendum had precipitated.  But the general argument of the paper, expressed, in article after article was the argument for stability, for continuity, for connection – for Remain.

I had nagging doubts, of course. When significant people left the Brexit camp because of the misleading nature of its claims, I was aware that these were individuals moving, they didn’t seem to take people with them.  I noticed the way the Brexit leaders were able, far more than, the Remain campaigners, to strike the populist note, to raise what seemed like a positive cheer out of dire negativity.  Their product – uncertainty, instability and change should have been the most difficult sell, yet they managed to package and wrap it up to make it look like what people wanted – reassurance, nostalgia and calm.

It is too early to tell how this will play out, but that there will be many who find their decision haunting them for years to come seems to me to be inevitable. And these range from the huge mistake in leadership in promising this in the Conservative manifesto to the consequences for the local economy (I mean jobs) in areas so dependent on Europe for prosperity. Many eyes should be on Sunderland; will the job-giving Nissan plant survive?

The Conservatives have got us into this mess by failing to manage their internal affairs or negotiate a better set of reforms from Europe before this sorry referendum was launched. But Labour must carry huge responsibility for losing so much ground to UKIP. As for the Liberal Democrats, their failure to be a force for the values they espouse through what we may come back to view as years of golden calm and peaceful prosperity is also deeply culpable. It’s an odd world where the strongest feeling for Remain comes in the most nationalist of parties and eras.  This doesn’t make Nicola Sturgeon right, but it does offer a relatively attractive form of nationalism.

Among the many concerns I have about what has just taken place, not least the capacity of the University of which I am a part to retain its extraordinary international standing for research, is the fact that so many wise and leading people spoke out for Remain, only to be howled down as a self-interested elite, an establishment that needed a kicking. It was the lack of a convincing retort to this that now makes our politics look so thin and shabby, not least when, as you look at the demographics of the referendum, it is the young who wanted to remain and the old who want out.

The biggest mistake of all in this is to have called a referendum.  There was a time – when I was very young – that I thought that there should be regular referenda on all the major issues.  After all, I thought, democracy is at its best the matter of taking a vote. Therefore the more votes that are taken, the better the democracy.  The word wasn’t current then but you could say that I was imagining a ‘granular ‘approach to politics to replace the party political version.

I now see that as very childish thinking. And yet as I look forward I fear that in the absence of convincing political leadership (which is essentiality the art of selling principled compromise) the desire for binary questions based on unsubstantiated promises about what the new approach will deliver, will only increase. It panders to the deep desire we all have to believe things boil down to a simple yes / no and to believe that at last someone as noble and wise as ME is making the decision that counts.  This is really foolish – but also deeply seductive.  As someone said in a tweet, the remain campaign failed to take ‘original sin’ into account.  You can say that about all forms of stripped down, uncomplicated politics. My worry is that people will get a taste for it and as life gets more uncertain and stressful over the coming months and years they will want more.  I hesitate to say it but I don’t think that it will be long before there is a call for a referendum on the death penalty.  And when it comes the people in power will know that it is the referendum mentality that got them there.

But if that’s the depth of my pessimism where is my hope?


That, I fear, is a question for another day.  Today is a day of disappointment and as living with disappointment was a theme in the sermon I delivered at the school in South London yesterday. I am going to post there salient parts of that adders as my next blog.  At the time I was naive enough not to connect it with the referendum or Europe. I am not so naive now. Neither are any of us.










No Religion?

The recent British Social Attitudes Survey shows that more people now regard themselves as having no religion than being Christian.  The Guardian today offered a leading article on the subject saying, in essence, that the church has blown it.  Meanwhile an opinion piece has appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website saying that it’s not too late, we just need more evangelism – understood as advertising the good news.

Let me offer another angle.

The Guardian is right to say that there are many good and liberal minded people who find the way in which the church has failed to move with the times in terms of gender equality and the acceptance of diversity in the area of sexuality to be deeply off-putting. It’s wrong to say that this is primarily a problem for the church’s reputation with the young. There are plenty of silver sceptics out there when it comes to religion.  Religion  – even ‘no religion’ – is not a subject to be ageist about.

The Telegraph is right to say that the church needs to wake up, but wrong to say that evangelism, based on the model of advertising, is the answer.  That could conceivably be the right answer if the church had a product. But it doesn’t. And it doesn’t have a product because God is not a thing. Theologians have been saying this for a very long time, and Rupert Shortt has summarised the argument and pointed out many of its implications admirably in his recent book, God is No Thing.

These are definitely difficult days for religion.  But the difficulty is not the one anticipated by just about everyone since the late ninetieth century. Namely that the tide of religion would flow out, and the tide of a new secular era would flood in. On the contrary, what has happened is that religion has had an extraordinary if very strange and skewed resurgence. So that today those who self-identify as religious are more or less forced to place themselves within a frame on which the horizontal boundaries are created by new atheism and the vertical ones by radical fundamentalism.

What new atheism and radical fundamentalism have in common is a good deal of historical amnesia, not to say selective memory. And the problem is that once you accept that this is the framework in which you must find yourself as a religious person, you are caught in the same, unforgiving trap. This is cruelly sad, as the real frame of reference for ‘religion’ has been created by centuries of subtle theological reflection, sacred ritual, charitable action, poetry, art and architecture –  all of which seek to help us grow wiser about our relationship with the transcendent, with each other and with ourselves.

But we have all but jettisoned any respect for this huge map of cultural treasure and replaced it by a fascinated focus on a very noisy and ill-tempered squabble.


It is this that makes the ‘no religion’ option such an attractive one, not only on a questionnaire, but also when thinking about how to describe one’s personal quest for meaning and purpose. It also lies behind the rise and rise in the number of people who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’.

I wish all the SBNR folk well, but I am sorry if they exclude themselves from the kind of connections with religious practice that seem to me to be so integral to being serious about spirituality. That crucially includes commitments that are deeper than feelings, both when it comes to the company one keeps, and the time for which one adheres to practices which may, in the short or medium term, seem unrewarding or pointless. Indeed, true religion offers its rewards slowly, silently, socially, and often uncomfortably.

This is one reason why evangelism in the form of advertising is so definitley not the answer. Certainly the author of the Telegraph article refers to the importance of significant times of revival, but I don’t believe that the church ever moved from decline into growth by focusing on telling people things.  The first priority of the Wesleys was not ‘church growth’, for instance, but holiness. Now that’s not a word that works very well today, but it’s an important part of the mix – especially if you recognise that today the word ‘holiness’ is better rendered ‘spirituality’.

But whether you call our ineffable struggle with transcendent mystery ‘holiness’ or ‘spirituality’ the word still needs to be qualified. Let me suggest ‘ethical’ or, if that is too priggish, ‘engaged’ as possible adjectives. Or maybe we could have both.

It is only when religions  are truly understood by their practitioners, and those who observe them, as focused on engaged and ethical spirituality that they will have either credibility or integrity. If that tide turns, and I suspect it is already turning, the ‘no religion’ box will begin to lose its attraction. Until then more and more people will put their cross in the ‘no religion’ box, not really knowing what they do.