10 May 2015

Homily, Fifth Sunday of Pascha, 9th May 2015, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

This story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well comes to us from St John (John 4.5-42), the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who took the Mother of God to live in his own house, where she became a mother to him too. St John is also the disciple who outlived the other disciples, and whose gospel is the product of a life of meditation on the words of Christ offered to his ears only, and the account of incidents that few others saw, or few others saw as significant. This is why we have not one but four Gospels – five, if you piece together the comments and intuitions that St Paul received, direct to the heart and thence to his mind, from the Risen Christ after his conversion on the road to Damascus. Thus we see that the Holy Spirit does not give us one way alone, but numerous paths alongside each other in the same direction, as likewise we walk in the company of Christ together, whether it is on the road to Damascus, to Emmaus, by way of Samaria to Jerusalem, or to this Cathedral today. So it was that the Church in its very early years received all these accounts of the Kingdom of God from Christ and His first followers and it blessed them as, together, the Gospel of Salvation.

Here we have not one view of Christ as He lived the very presence of God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, but several. All of them loved, embraced and taken to heart, they are not four – or five – rival accounts to choose between, but one garment for the celestial Wedding Feast which we are constantly attending, in earthly life and in Divine Liturgy alike. We feel it fitting closer to our bodies than our skin, not as cloths sewn together like our other clothes, but woven together like the seamless robe that Christ shed before He revealed His unclothed human glory before He went forward to mount the Cross. The Gospel is the clothing around our redemption, the covering that uncovers our transfiguration into beings of Heaven’s Light; it is the adornment of our form - the Christ we put on when He gives us the Resurrection.

To tell us of our redemption, our transfiguration and our resurrection, we have, then, the story of the woman at the well, with her matter of fact conversation, and her surprise at Jesus’ answers, still not realising Who on earth is talking to her. This is the reason St John tells this story that he had from Jesus Himself. In the words and reaction of this ordinary human being, not an insider to the telling of the story, someone with no vested interest in telling one side or another, he is putting us in touch with an honest witness. You can almost hear Jesus laughing, as he says to St John, “She had no idea! It was only when her own people went back to tell her that the penny dropped”. You can almost hear the lady saying to herself, “Well, I never.” But, even though she never goes back to Jesus as far as we can tell, those she tells immediately see that this Jewish visitor is not like the others. He represents the Hebrew religion whose origin they share with the Temple religion and the Pharisees’ religion in the synagogues from which they are excluded. Here is a seer as of old, a prophet who has come – as they always hoped – not just to one group but to all the children of Abraham. He is not just a prophet, but Saviour. He is not just Saviour for the Jews, but salvation for all.

Let us look at the icon of the feast, to understand why St John alone of all the Evangelists has told us this story of a Saviour Who has come not just to one people but to the whole world. Observe that the well is in the form of a Cross. You can see wells like this to this day, also some fonts in ancient basilicas. Practically speaking, the shape is to ensure that as many people as possible can get to draw water without making the opening too large, lest people or livestock fall in and drown or pollute it. But to us, aware of the iconographer’s art, we immediately think of the words of St Paul, “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6.3) In other words, in the mind of the Church, Our Lord comes before the Samaritan Woman, showing her the Cross. He demonstrates that the water she is drawing is the life of salvation that the Cross will begin to pour, and into which she will one day come through her own baptism in Christ.

Other icons show the well as a fairly narrow upright tube, down which you might only pass one bucket. Here the reference is to the Wedding at Cana in Galilee, another story that only St John knew to tell. The well appears as a large jar, like those that we know Jesus at Mary’s behest commanded to be filled with water. When that water was drawn out, it was found to have been changed into the finest wine. In other words, St John is hinting that the Samaritan woman is drawing water, without at first realising that she is acting out the movements of drawing out the new wine of the Kingdom that Jesus said He would drink only from after His Cross and Resurrection.

Realising, then, that this story is not just about an inconsequential incident whose significance escaped the other Apostles, but a reminder of the meaning of the first of Our Lord’s miracles and a foretelling of the Cross and Resurrection, let us look at what else is going on.

See that He is sitting down by the well. Recall that when He goes later on to the Temple - in another story that only St John tells - they bring a woman caught in adultery to Him for judgement, while He is sitting down teaching. In the same way, the Samaritan woman approaches Jesus, even if she does not realise this, as Teacher first and then Non-Condemning Judge. He does not upbraid her about her multiple marriages, but simply reflects the light on her, so that all she tells is the truth in His presence. At first it is half a truth, and then acceptance of the whole truth. Finally she embraces the whole truth in the Person of Jesus, when she sees to be the Prophet Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

That phrase we know only from St John too, and here it is encapsulated in this story – the Lord resting on His way in order to cross the way that others have taken and redirect them; the Lord bringing a wandering soul to an encounter with their own truth and His; the Lord showing the waters of the Life that will flow from the Cross and then His Resurrection.

Thus He says to her, “Give me something to drink.“ This is not so abrupt as it sounds; for He is saying something to the Samaritan woman that He will need to say again in a very short time ahead in the future. Think forward to the moment of Crucifixion. Each of the Gospels tells of how Jesus is given vinegar to drink; some appear to imply that it is to take the edge off the suffering; St Luke says it is mock Him. Only St John recalls, from his vantage point at the foot of the Cross, that Jesus had said, “I thirst”, reminding him of the encounter at the well in Samaria. Jesus is telling St John from the Cross that His thirst on the Cross is for the water of life, the water of His own baptism, the water He once changed into wine at the Wedding at Cana, the water signifying the Way, the Truth and the Life to the Woman of Samaria, the water that was about to flow from His pierced Body mingled with His blood.

When in the story the disciples return, they urge Him to eat something. But, in a phrase reminiscent of His saying that he would not taste wine until he drank it new in the Kingdom, he declines and says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about. My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to complete His work”. So He points forward to the supper they will share on the night before He dies, when He will give them not just bread and wine, but His own Body about to be broken on the Cross and His Blood to be shed in death, so that salvation may be unstopped and the Resurrection begun. He points, too, to the food He will eat when He is risen: the fish by the shore that He does not need for sustenance but for fellowship with His disciples, and the bread that He will break at Emmaus to make Himself known in His Resurrection and its incessant Presence in the Eucharist.

Here in this short story of what appears a chance encounter between an impressive Jewish teacher and a second class citizen at Jacob’s Well, the direct heir of Jacob, the direct heir of Isaac and Abraham too, the heir of Jacob who is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel who escaped as refugees to Egypt when the waters in the Holy Land had dried up, Jesus shows how He will supply water that will be spring of eternal life. This Spring is He Himself, upon His Cross and in His unending, inexhaustible Resurrection. So, in this story that is really a foretelling of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, what does the Samaritan Woman do? She encounters Him without recognising Him. Then she sees Him for Who He truly is, recognises His Truth, and goes on her way to tell the world what she has seen as heard. We have seen this story before, in another incident that only St John describes. The woman at the well sees Jesus as a tired traveller; Mary Magdalen will one day think Him merely the gardener. The Samaritan realises the Truth and calls Him the Prophet; Mary will call Him Rabboni, her Teacher above all. St Mary Magdalen will run to tell the disciples, as the first Apostle and Herald of the Resurrection on account of whom the Disciples believe that He is truly risen from the dead; in the same way the Samaritan woman went to her people and spoke of a Prophet who knows the Truth, on account of which they declare that He is truly the Saviour of the World.

For us, the story is not just food for thought and meditation, as we try to understand the meaning of the Scriptures and what they meant when they were written down. For St John is telling us what he heard from the Lord: that our way through life is to live here and now in the next. He is telling us that we have been baptised into His death, as the only way for us to live life truly as – we ourselves - the living appearance of Jesus Christ in the midst of the world into this very day of ours. He is telling us that we have been shown the Truth about ourselves by a Teacher Whose judgment is that we are to face it and come to terms with being forgiven. He is telling us that the life that springs up in us is none other than water mingled with His own life-blood. He is telling us that the food that sustains us on the Way is none other than the broken Bread of Life. He is telling us that the pattern of our life is a constant entering into the mystery of the Passion and the Resurrection, taking up the Cross to follow Him, if we are simultaneously to wear the Wedding garment for the Celestial Banquet, the covering that uncovers our transfiguration into beings of Heaven’s Light, the divine adornment of our human form - the crucified and risen Christ we put on when He gives us His Resurrection.

UK 2015 Election I - The real result? Britain is no democracy

"The Scottish Lion has roared" - Alex Salmond (SNP)
"We have a mandate" - George Osborne (Conservative)
A Dutch friend has asked me what I make of the result of the election, which has delivered a majority of seats to the Conservative Party, almost entirely composed of MPs returned to Parliament from English constituencies. For good or ill, what follows in this post is my response. The next post contains my convictions on what should be done about it.

Why the result is illegitimate
Alex Salmond says that the Scottish Lion has roared. To be precise, half of it roared. The Scottish Nationalist Party won all but three seats in Scotland (56/59), but not all of them were won outright with a 50% majority - the result required for an election or other major decision in a Trades Union, company board, trustee board in a charity, shareholders' meeting, or a membership organisation. Often this is conditional upon the numbers of those voting reaching a minimum proportion of the electorate to begin with. No such requirement applies to UK national or municipal elections. For instance, the institution of the London mayoralty followed an referendum for which the turnout was little more than 10% of the electorate. Yet on the basis of the approval of little more than 5% of the London electorate, a new political system was applied to the capital, and powers transferred from national and borough government, as well as other authorities, with no real mandate. It is not enough to say, "Qui tacet consentire videtur" (if you are silent, you are seen to agree). 50% of votes is outstanding and a deafening message; but it is not a majority, nor is it a mandate to overturn the referendum result on Scottish independence, not does it give the SNP the exclusive voice of people in Scotland. The SNP members of Parliament need to come to terms with how they represent the half of voters who did not support them to promote Scotland's interests or the United Kingdom's. Bear in mind that the SNP's 56 MPs represent 1.45 million voters, which 4.8% of the number who voted across the entire United Kingdom. By contrast, the repellent UK Independence Party 3.87 million votes, yet captured no more than a single seat. Whatever you think of UKIP or the SNP, this is not democracy.
George Osborne, seeing that the Conservative Party captured  329 seats in the House of Commons, the majority needed to govern without the support or consent of other parties, said that his party had a mandate from the British electorate. In fact, the Conservative Party received the support of no more than 36.9% of the electors - 11.29 million people, out of an electorate of approximately 45 million, of whom 66% turned out to vote (31.68 million). So the Conservative Party will govern Britain as if it has a democratic mandate from the voting people on the strength of securing a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. It will thus claim full executive powers - the powers of the British Sovereign and control over legislation, without achieving the support of a majority of those voting. Indeed most electors voted against the Conservative party. Thus the Conservative Party has not achieved the mandate it claims, even though it has more votes than the other parties.

Without expressing a view one way or the other on the politics of the different parties, I say that it is not democratic for one party to prevail and thus impose its policy without the support of the majority of those voting, not just across the country as a whole but in each constituency where an individual representative is returned to Parliament. Some members were elected outright with a majority of those voting and they are unquestionably legitimately returned. Others failed to achieve a majority and there should have been a run-off between them and their nearest rival. Without a majority of 50% of the voters behind them, they are not legitimately the representatives of the voters in their constituencies.

Critics of my view will say that, in our first-past-the-post system by which a winner is decided as in a horse race, there is general assent to the outcome and a high turnout of voters indicates positive engagement with and thus support for the present system. After all, they say, a change to the present system was rejected in a recent referendum. Whether or not that assent remains as robust as claimed, the figures demonstrate lack of support, and positive opposition from most of those who have voted. Seeing that in the last two decades under both Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers our armed forces have been deployed in the Mediterranean, Afghanistan and the Middle East to remove anti-democratic regimes in the hope of replacing them with according to various forms of democratic voting systems, Great Britain has little room to lecture the world about democracy for others, when its own system delivers sweeping and unassailable power for the next 5 years to a party that not only failed to achieve even 40% of the vote, but that won control of the House of Commons, and thus sovereign power, without

On this showing, Britain may be democratic; but it is not a democracy. It is a parliamentary monarchy in which the Prime Minister exercises all the powers that the Monarch possesses procedurally; there are elections but they currently do not reflect the will of the people by democratic majority consent. The last time there was government party achieved more than 50% of the votes to mandate its formation of a government was in 1931, when Stanley Baldwin took 55% (it can be done!), 470 of 615 seats, but as part of a National Government of six parties, addressing together the effects of the Great Depression. If Baldwin could do this, there is no need for a modern party to accept the dishonour of securing most of the seats on insufficient votes to justify them.

What was going on in the vote?

After the Scottish independence referendum was won by the unionists, it was the moment the union as we know it was lost. So it has proved, with a sufficient number of Scots rejecting the three unionist parties and their economic and social programmes, as well as the not yet materialised promises for much fuller autonomy for Scotland within the union.

Left-leaning Liberal Democrats, who in 2000 voted against Labour and who would never have taken their protest so far as to vote for the Conservatives, have been punished with annihilation for being in government with the Conservatives (10 Scottish seats in 2010 down to 1 in 2015). At the same time Scottish socialists and social liberals rejected Labour, because (a) they were exasperated by Scottish Labour MPs using their seats to get control of England and forgetting Scotland; and (b) even all the old Scottish Labour seats would never give enough leverage in Westminster to force the new UK Parliament to deliver , without further prevarication, on the promises made before the Referendum to ensure a defeat for the independence lobby. The 2015 election result is thus a massive protest at the Conservatives and Labour and Liberal Democratic parties' failure to sort things out after the referendum.

It seems to me that in Scotland the Scottish Nationalists are a competent party of government after a recent experience of dead hand control from a Labour establishment with a sense of entitlement to rule the major cities and the new Scottish national government. But they have been supported this time not because everyone wants independence, but because Scotland (which has proportionately more MPs in relation to the size of its population than in England) wanted to send a message not about the UK in the context of a shared economic crisis and responses to it, but of its own needs and views. Nowadays these are firmly anti-Conservative. 60 years ago Scotland was majority Conservative.

What happens now?

Here is my prediction. Mr Cameron (incidentally, his name shows he is patrilineally of Scottish descent; we in the UK are really entwined - I am half Irish, half English, and I have Scottish cousinage) is a pragmatist. He will move to ensure that the massive body of SNP members are not a constant sore in the new Parliament. He will give Scotland greater if not full economic autonomy within the UK, a bit like a German Land. It will inevitably mean a similar deal for Wales, Northern Ireland too. This latter will be essential in order to balance the deal for Scotland.

Already the Conservatives are talking about a different focus on the north of England. So we may sooner rather than later get a United Kingdom that ceases to be a unitary state and moves to become a federal union. Expect this major development to be hurried and bodged out of haggling on all sides for short term partisan interests.

On the other hand, there will be steady pressure from the wider Conservative Party MPs to govern without consideration of other interests, on the strength of its unjustified majority of seats. Ruling the UK on an exclusively English power base, to advance the exclusive interests of the Conservative minority will intensify both Scottish convictions that separation is necessary and other parties in England's efforts to qualify Conservative dominance within England. Unless this is handled with extreme tact and diplomacy, it will be the Conservatives who destroy the Union and not the Scottish Nationalists.

The second thing will be a deal between the SNP and Cameron to support a "Yes" vote on the now inevitable referendum on staying in the European Union or not, assuming the Prime Minister gets the deal from the EU Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker)  and other EU nations on reforms that will halt "ever closer union" in the EU, and the reduction in the sovereignty of individual nation members, something which very few in the UK want. We are an island nation and suspicious of continental empires, from Habsburg, to Napoleon, Prussia, the papacy, Hitler, the USSR, the EU and now Putin.

Third, Cameron will press ahead with reform to the boundaries and sizes of voting constituencies in England, which vary considerably and favour towns and cities, and thus Labour. In the last government, the Liberal Democrats prevented this change. If the proposed rules were used yesterday, we would now have a 20+ Conservative majority, rather than 8. This is likely to face considerable opposition from the other parties and in the House of Lords, but it will pass in the Commons and the constitutional convention that nothing specified in the manifesto of a sole party that forms the government in a new Parliament can be prevented by the Upper House. While the reform of constituency sizes to be more even appears to be more democratic, it is only half of what is needed: the other half is the establishment of the principle that no one gets elected without securing the support of 50% of those voting, either the first time round or, as in France, at a run off between the two candidates gaining the greatest support. Sadly, for short-term partisan advantage, I cannot see the Conservatives magnanimously providing this and now Labour has been shocked to discover that it has lost the power base across the UK that first-past-the-post once enabled it to overcome the built-in Conservative majority ensured in England. Had Labour supported a system change instead of assuming it too had a chance at power and a majority of seats without achieving a majority, they would not be so miserable now.

Fourth, I think there will now be gradual movement towards reform of the House of Lords, which is now getting to be as large as when it in theory populated by 1330 hereditary and appointed members. There are now 779 members: 26 bishops; 92 representatives of the hereditary peerage and the rest appointed. We can  expect quite a few more to be thus rewarded having lost their seats at the election.  Cameron wants a largely elected House of Lords, but this will give us even more politicians competing with each other and their parties, instead of embodying the thinking and intentions of the people. So I think Lords Reform will also be bodged for short term political advantage.

But, whatever the quick constitutional reforms effected to respond to the emergency of a Scottish Nationalist landslide, and the collapse of opposition to the Conservatives in England, the huge risk of  is that, even with a federal solution on offer to Scotland, it will have de facto independence. We are kidding ourselves if we think that an almost entirely Nationalist Scotland will not assume its own voice with relation to the EU and other European states. If the SNP is bold, there is nothing to stop it, with such a massive body of representatives for only one party, making a unilateral Declaration of Independence. In fact, Cameron would not resist because to do so would cause permanent English-Scottish enmity. The SNP's hand is thus very strong. With the sheer realism of the potential of such a threat, I do not think the SNP will be able to resist the temptation to press for and stage another independence referendum long ahead of the gap of a generation that everyone assumed just a matter of days ago. Hence my belief that de facto it is the end of the 300 year old union. It will be followed after the Queen has died with a vote for a republic in Scotland; and then will end the union of crowns. The end of the UK will have serious repercussions on the defence of England in more dangerous world, as one occupant of an island with two or even three nation states likely to be constituents of the EU, and its role or entitlement to a role in the UN's Security Council.

If Scotland goes independent, the SNP will have lost its purposes. It will disintegrate into its right wing liberal, socialist, centrist and progressive component parts, at the same time as the Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative (no longer Unionist) parties re-emerge and evolve, possible merge, in the new context.

This has been something of a revolution. It will go wrong badly if the "old boys" fail to realise that everything, including them, has to change.

With the imbalance of votes and representation, and thus the control of power, that we now have, my worries - apart from the dire social effects of promised economic policies - are primarily three:
  1. new powers to the police and security services to monitor, know and control social media and electronic communications
  2. the repeal of the Human Rights Act in favour of a more malleable 'British Bill of Rights'; and
  3. the further politicisation of the police and the courts - first it was the 'streamlining' and modernisation of the so-called 'justice system' by the creation of HM Courts & Tribunal Service, giving levers of logistical control and operational pressure to a party political Minister of Justice in Whitehall instead of a Lord Chancellor sworn to maintain their pure freedom and independence; then it was elected Police & Crime Commissioners (think Commissioner Gordon from Batman) whose purpose was to deliver control and supervision of police operations and leadership (think The Wire) to a party-sponsored campaigning politician; next, as in Scotland, there will be the demolition of the Peelite principle that the Police Force is none other than the community (polis) policing itself. The pressure from Whitehall will be to take policing further and further away from the community that polices itself and solves its own problems locally, towards a more 'streamlined', 'efficient', 'fit for purpose', 'modern' police managed on regional and national lines, at a scale and level at which the levers of control can more easily be handled by the Home Secretary, representing a party of government unable to command the support of the majority of the electors, but unrestricted because of the preponderant number of parliamentary seats it can secure in the exercise of full executive power. Expect this more national police 'service' to become a gendarmerie - an armed force under the direction of the government.

Next I will post my views on what should be done to recover confidence in our politics.