Cults of white nationalism: In solidarity with Jarel Robinson-Brown

Theologian and Church of England priest Jarel Robinson-Brown has found himself at the centre of a storm after expressing, in a single tweet, his opposition to the national clap for Captain Tom. Robinson-Brown praised the late Tom Moore’s ‘kind and generous soul’, and stated that the ‘cult’ around Moore was a ‘cult of white British nationalism’ in which he, Robinson-Brown, would not participate. Robinson-Brown’s tweet was met with a torrent of outrage, including racist and homophobic abuse, which did not stop after he deleted it and apologised. The Diocese of London issued a statement that focused on the ‘hurt’ caused by the tweet, while also stating that Robinson-Brown’s actions did not ‘justify the racist abuse he is now receiving’. National media coverage has followed, including at least one article that described the (single, deleted) tweet as a ‘rant’.

Much could be said, and is being said by others closer to the sharp end than I am, about this story – about what it reveals of the risks of having opinions in public while being gay and Black; about the failure of a large and powerful organisation unequivocally to condemn the racist and homophobic abuse of a junior employee; about the irresponsibility of media reporting that encourages further attacks on a named individual; and about the ‘chilling effect’ on Church of England clergy, particularly those who are already minoritised and marginalised, who learn that they cannot rely on the support of the hierarchy if they express unpopular views in public.

As a theologian I’m interested in Robinson-Brown’s criticism of the ‘cult of Captain Tom’ as a ‘cult of white British nationalism’ – and also in why there’s so much resistance to that criticism, not least (as we learn) from at least some of the hierarchy of the established church. We might accept for the sake of argument that Robinson-Brown’s tweet was not well timed and was open to misinterpretation, and still recognise the problems the way “Captain Tom”‘s image and story was seized on to reinforce some of the comforting stories we (white) Britons tell ourselves. The story in which we are and were always on the right side of history. The story in which all we need to bring us through a complicated present is a stripped-down memory of a simple and noble past. The story in which we all know what is good – and it looks very much like us, or at least like us as we choose to believe we are, the plucky generous no-nonsense right-thinking Brits who always pull through. We set up our own image on a pedestal and applaud it.

A prophet won’t tell you what you want to hear; a prophet won’t join in the applause. A prophet is there to stop a nation being destroyed by self-worship. And a nation that silences its prophets, in times like these, is asking for trouble.

Today I’ve been thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the anniversary of his birth. It’s deeply disturbing to me and many other scholars of his work that there is, in the contemporary US, at least one very prominent evangelical figure using Bonhoeffer’s name in the service of… a cult of white nationalism. It should be a warning to all of us of the dangers inherent in the creation and appropriation of heroes and saints, especially when the ‘cult’ of the hero is used to demand unquestioning loyalty to a group or to suppress dissent.

Two Justices (listening to many readers on a famous verse)

Like the previous blog, this is an experimental digression from one of the pieces of work I’m doing – on what I’m provisionally calling ‘evaluative injustice’, the phenomenon of some people being subject to moral judgement when others aren’t. I’ve been trying to get into it via the biblical texts on ‘partiality’/ ‘respect for persons’/ ‘favouritism’ – which comes up in Deuteronomy 16:19 – and was distracted by an adjacent text.

Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live (Deuteronomy 16:20).

It starts with the same word twice. Why?

The translators into Greek and Latin and English all add some interpretation at the beginning of that verse; the Septuagint and the Vulgate went for ‘justly you shall pursue justice’. Which makes sense to me in my current headspace, because I’m asking questions about how the whole moral space, the space of judging and speaking of justice, can be distorted from the start, so that although we’re talking about justice we’re not doing it justly.

But the Hebrew says ‘justice justice’. The interpretations take you into how difficult justice is, when it’s not only an idea on the page, when it’s something you have to pursue in order to live….

…when you’re building the institutions for it, which is what this section of Deuteronomy is about. So, the sages of the Talmud say, on one reading the two justices are the just person and the institution; if you want to find justice, you follow the best judge to the court where they sit, because one person with the right ideas won’t get anywhere without an institution and without social recognition of the importance of justice. Conversely, if as a community you want to do justice, you find righteous people and make them judges. The people and the institutions, you need both.

If you want to know about justice, pursue it, get out there, go and see where it’s happening. It’ll be different in every age, say the teachers. Seek it wherever you are. Follow the righteous judge to the court.

Good luck with that, says Calvin, maybe thinking about his experience of setting up institutions. It says ‘justice justice’ because in practice people are really bad at doing justice, and need to be told many times more than once. Judges show favouritism; that’s how it goes. Another text (Deut 10:17) says ‘God doesn’t take bribes’ just to show you how different God is from human beings. Jerome adds : and it’s also the case that people often turn from justice because they prefer their own version of the truth (Against the Pelagians 2.3).

In an unjust world we might simply have to keep on saying it – justice, justice.

But for all that, Ashi says, we don’t have the luxury of pessimism. This is a text about how to live in the real world. And the two justices are strict adherence to principle, and the compromises we always have to make to get things done. If we don’t recognise both, we can’t live. (And not everyone likes this interpretation. Compromise is dangerous ground).

You could say that the double justice is about how difficult the judge’s job is, and how it’s supposed to be difficult because it matters so much, and how we can’t get away from the difficulty. If anything worries you about the trial, you need to double check – is that justice? You need to pause between judgement and sentencing. You need to call someone back for an appeal.

Humans will always need second-guesses, backups, time to change, a pause between the first and the last judgement. A space for doubt but also for hope. Justice… justice.

You’ve been assuming this text is addressing people in power, says Ibn Ezra. But it’s about all of us, and if we want justice we have to be careful what we wish for. Justice justice, two equal sides, the balanced scales – you take it whichever way it goes. Or look at it another way – it’s easy to pursue justice before you know what the outcome is; but we have to tell you again to accept it once you think it might go against you. Justice – yes, even that justice.

Nachmanides says, the gap between the two justices is the gap between the justice you execute in the courts and the justice you fear.

Everyday acts of judgement and the justice of God. Divine justice calls to everyday acts of judgement, challenges them, provokes them; justice, justice shall you pursue. We reach out across the gap.

Justice imitates God, says Jerome in his homily on Psalm 14/15 (at least we think it’s him). There’s an old proverb that ‘justice knows no father or mother, it doesn’t respect persons, it only knows the truth’ – that’s divine justice, mundane things can’t sway it. That’s why the just person is the most deserving. The text is uncompromising, says Wesley, that’s the point of the repetition; justice at all times, in all causes, to all persons equally.

You’re back to the ideals, say a chorus of interpreters. We’re trying to run a society here. We’re trying to live.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg steps forward with the plaque from her study wall. The point, she says, is to pursue justice through the institutions of justice. We can’t stop at the justice we have, but this is where we start.

Two ends of the long arc of history as it bends.

The Persistence of the ‘Undeserving Poor’

This week’s debates over the government’s refusal to extend the free school meals scheme into the half-term holiday in England has seen the resurgence of an old idea that never really went away – the idea of the ‘undeserving poor’. MPs and others, defending the government’s refusal to pay for food for children from poor families, made various claims about the behaviour and lives of some of these families. There were (unsubstantiated) accusations of school meal vouchers being exchanged for drugs or spent on alcohol. There were much more widespread accusations that impoverished parents were failing in their responsibilities or making wrong choices – including the ‘choice’ to have children at all.

Most of these accusations against recipients of free school meals were framed by disclaimers – or hastily followed up by explanations – to the effect that the speaker was not claiming that all poor families were behaving badly or foolishly; some even acknowledged that they were speaking about ‘a minority’. The fact that some poor people were behaving badly or foolishly, however, has been offered as a reason to withhold a benefit from them all (or rather, from all their children). Rationally, this makes no sense. Against the background of the long history of poverty’s moralisation, however, it proves rather effective.

Since at least the reign of Elizabeth I, the English approach to the relief of poverty has been framed by moral judgements on the lives of the poor. When the first Poor Law was framed at a time of economic upheaval and widespread poverty, distinctions were drawn between those who deserved to receive support from local parishes – because their poverty was just a matter of bad luck – and those ‘sturdy’ beggars whose poverty was their choice or their fault, because they were capable of work, and who therefore must not be helped. Successive laws until the formation of the post-war welfare state changed the rules and the criteria, and the targets of moral judgement – focusing for example on the threats to society posed by unmarried mothers, or Irish migrant workers, or large families. What did not change was the assumption that there were at least some poor people who should not be helped – and hence that the first step towards helping ‘the poor’ was to judge them, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of society. Asking for help meant, and still means, placing yourself under judgement and hence under suspicion, being forced against the odds to prove that you are not one of the ‘undeserving’.

The other side of making one group subject to judgement is, of course, appointing somebody to sit in judgement. People who controlled the material resources, it was assumed, also had the moral resources to decide who did and did not deserve help. Their Christianity, as they saw it, supplied them with the tools for judgement. They should reward temperance, hard work, careful use of resources, and proper gratitude for what was given. They should avoid rewarding the kind of ‘improvidence’ – excessive spending of money or excessive procreation – that threatened the social order established by divine Providence.

At various points in the UK’s history, it proved difficult to persuade some wealthy Christians to fall in with the latest version of the plan for judging the poor before giving them anything. This is not surprising; consider the repeated injunctions in the Bible, not only to give generously to the poor, but specifically to give to everyone who asks, or to give to those who will not repay, or to give whatever is required in times of dire emergency regardless of existing obligations; and the long tradition that regards charitable giving as itself a good action regardless of the merits of the recipient. Some public responses to the failure to fund school meals have drawn creatively on these traditions – look for example at the biblical verses on the empty plates left in protest outside the office of one MP.

Beyond these calls to generosity without judgement, however, the most important response from Christian texts and traditions to the latest appearance of the ‘undeserving poor’ might be to challenge the whole practice of dividing society into the judging and the judged, the ‘respectable’ and the suspect. The underlying problem is the fracturing of community that makes it impossible to recognise the neighbour as one ‘like yourself’, in a relationship of mutual responsibility and accountability. The biblical authors are aware of the temptation to skew public judgement in favour of the rich in a society already divided by disparities of wealth– and they repeatedly resist it in the name of a God who is no respecter of persons and defends the interests of the least powerful. The decisive judgement of ‘the nations’ is told as a story in which the judge is not the person who has the power to give or withhold help to those in need – but rather is one of the people who need the help.

The basic injustice of the stigma attached to poverty – and of the unequal exposure of people’s lives to moral judgement and criticism – will persist beyond the current debate, and will need to be challenged however that debate is resolved.

Track, Trace, Testify: Truth in an Age of Gaslighting

Rather than talk about a ‘post-truth’ age, I would talk about an age of gaslighting. Unchecked power is being used to promote an obviously false narrative of the present and of the recent past, to force others to act in accordance with that narrative, and to silence, dismiss or obfuscate attempts to correct or question it. Sometimes, we are presented with a false account of what has been said in the past – I never claimed that, says the minister, when confronted with his broken promises – or a straightforward refusal to acknowledge facts that do not fit the current narrative – I do not recognise those figures, says the minister, when a government report is quoted to him. Most often, however, the tactic is obfuscation; we are subject to a bafflingly quick succession of different implausible stories, without enough time to amass the evidence or the arguments against any of them. Asked to stick to one story, or confronted with the contradictions, the minister simply responds with the latest new story; he acknowledges no possible obligation to be coherent, let alone to make claims that correspond with reality.

All of this happens in a media age in which claim and counter-claim can easily be presented as two equal sides of the same story, even if the former is a manifest untruth with hardly an attempt at justification and the latter is extensively backed up by evidence. Moreover, any attempt to present a truthful account is fraught with anxieties; unlike the liar or the gaslighter, the truth-teller cannot risk one minor inaccuracy or possible misrepresentation, especially in an environment where she is being pressed from all sides to change her story. She will feel the need to hedge her words with conditionals and ‘might be’s, and that will provide enough space for the gaslighter and those who are willing to believe him; you see, you can’t be sure, but we are always completely confident in our story.

In this situation, what does it mean to tell the truth?

In her discussion of the ethics of memory and testimony after the Shoah (Holocaust), Edith Wyschogrod reflects on the difficulties posed for the historian – who cannot be confident that every detail in the history she is telling corresponds to ‘what really happened’, but feels an overwhelming moral obligation to stand up against those who want to deny or forget the history. She argues for a negative testimony that confidently contradicts the lie while recognising that the truth has yet to emerge fully:

‘It might have been X or Y – but I am sure it could not have been Z’. (Wyschogrod, Ethics of Remembering, 166)

As a first step towards telling the truth in an age of gaslighting, I propose to maintain practices and habits of negative testimony – calling out the lies – even when we are not quite sure of the whole truth. This is a useful beginning.

I am not sure how many people have been unable to obtain coronavirus tests, but I am sure it is not true that everyone can get a test.

The Prime Minister might have been telling the truth yesterday or three months ago or on neither occasion, but I am sure he cannot have been telling the truth on both occasions.

A theologian thinks about the NHS

I think perhaps more theologians should be thinking and talking about the NHS – not about ‘healthcare’ in general but about the specific possibilities, insights and challenges within this institution – an institution that is often described as (something like) a national religion, and in any case is a significant site for thinking about and living out some of our harder questions about human life. 

I’m presenting some initial reflections as a series of theses, in three groups, some with explanations. I do not think that the claims I am making here are all empirically testable; they are ways we might see the world. They are deliberately not framed in theological terms, but there is at least some theology going on in the background. I do not think that it is necessary to accept any particular theological position in order to accept or work with the theses.

The immediate trigger for the reflections is the NHS-based #LearnNotBlame campaign; nothing here has been endorsed by, or reflects the views of, anyone but me.

  1. People. 

People have limits, and they reach their limits

The NHS exists in the first place because of human limits – illness and injury and frailty, birth and death. It deals with the needs that our embodied limits create. The limits are not just something we know about theoretically, like the boundaries around a space that we might never choose to explore, or the limits to my abilities that I might never choose to test; in the case of illness, injury frailty, birth and death, we reach our limits, or are brought up against them. We rely on the NHS when we reach (some of) our limits. Much of the power of the NHS vision – of universal healthcare – is in the fact that we all have these limits and we will all at some point reach them.

We can’t predict and foresee all cases of people ‘reaching the limit’, but we can predict and foresee a great deal, both for individuals and for populations; that is how the NHS is able to work.

The people who work for the NHS are also people who have limits and will, at various points, reach them. A system that treats people as if they never get ill, or never suffer injury or exhaustion, or are never affected by birth and death – and that ignores the obviously predictable and foreseeable routes by which these limits can be reached – is based on a lie and will fail.

People live by depending on each other. Relationships of trust are not optional extras in human life. Nor are relationships of care.

Not only when we reach our limits – but definitely when we reach our limits – we depend on other people. We always begin, and often end, our lives by depending on other people to do more or less everything for us. Being dependent on other people – to the point of being forced to trust other people with our lives – is not an unusual, strange or problematic condition; it is a normal feature of being human.

Even when there is no one person whom I am forced to trust with my life, I trust innumerable people, most of whom I’ve never met and most of whom I won’t even know about, with things that are extremely important to my life. Giving and receiving trust is like the in-out breath of human life with others; we generally don’t think about how it works, we just do it automatically, and we don’t even notice it until it becomes particularly difficult.

People brought up against their limits are in need, not only of the practical support that keeps them going (which sometimes won’t be possible, because there are limits we can’t negotiate with), but of care; of being recognised, noticed, held and accompanied. That, again, is where we start our lives. Again, it’s part of the vision of the NHS; to care about and for each person in each particular limit-situation.

The people who work for the NHS are also people who live by depending on each other and are forced to trust each other, ordinarily and routinely, with extremely important matters. And, being brought to their limits in the course of their work, they need care; they need to be recognised, noticed, held and accompanied as the people they are.

People are bound to mess things up, sometimes catastrophically. People are bound to mess things up for each other, sometimes catastrophically.

What I’ve said so far is fairly uncontroversial and a matter of everyday observation. The claim that all people are bound to mess things up is more of a belief-statement, though I do find it a very persuasive one on the basis of everyday experience. It has most impact if we take it most seriously; people are not just limited (unable to work an indefinite number of hours without a break because they are human, not robots), people are also going to mess up even within their limits.

The world is such, and people are such, that I am going to do stupid, self-centred, lazy, power-hungry, prejudiced, ill-thought-out or mean things sometimes (as is everybody else). Moreover, because we all live by depending on each other, at least some of these actions will have consequences for others, and at least some of those consequences will be disastrously bad, and at least some of those bad consequences won’t be predictable. I’ll let people down, betray trust, fail to care, push people to the limit. Any truthful story about my life will include the very specific ways in which I mess up.

Each person’s life and story is important; and it always interacts with other people’s stories.

We’re a complicated web of dependence, and of mutual trust (and mistrust), and of reciprocal care (and failure to care); and although many of our needs and dependencies and limits and failures are predictable, each of us has a particular life and story that matters. The NHS originates with the desire to take each person’s life and story seriously, no matter what their roles or position in society – or within the NHS itself.

The most important story of anyone’s life is the story that begins and ends with care.

The NHS says: at the beginning and in the end, and at the limit-points along the way, we decide to extend care to each person: we decide, to the best of our limited and messed-up ability, to recognise, notice, hold and accompany them whoever they are. We say this is how human life is supposed to work.

We don’t know in advance what caring for each person will demand of us, although we can make some guesses. Care takes time.


  1. Systems. I’m just presenting this bit as a set of ‘theses’ about what we can and can’t expect (a system like) the NHS to do.

Systems help people to depend on each other with more predictability.

Systems are not going to make relationships between people fully predictable.

Systems are not going to overcome the limits that people have.

Systems are not going to stop people messing things up catastrophically (again), although they might be able to reduce and contain some of the consequences of people messing up.

In fact, systems have their own limits, and provide a whole new set of ways for people to mess things up catastrophically for each other.

Fortunately, systems aren’t the whole of life or the whole of anyone’s story.

Systems cannot care, but they can make space for care (by clearing the unimportant or predictable things out of the way as quickly as possible).



  1. Accountability.

Accountability is about telling the truth about how we mess things up (including, for each other).

We need accountability in order to tell, hear and learn from truthful life stories – to make each person’s life and story matter, as it interacts with other stories. And we need accountability in order to care and in order to make relationships of trust work.

The first reason to exercise accountability is to recognise, notice and hold the specific people involved – to care for and care about these people. It matters to be able to talk about what I did and what happened to you – even if there’s nothing more to be done about it – because our stories are important. The second, connected, reason to exercise accountability is to learn something about who we are and how we relate to each other; and to find ways to make these relationships work better.

Systems can help with accountability, within their own limits. Systems can’t do the relational work, the work of learning and of re-forming relationships, that makes accountability useful; the best they can do, and what they need to do, is hold open the spaces within which that work can happen.

More (International Women’s Day 2018)

The woman wants it all;

she’ll take the bread and look you

in the eye, hold the gaze as if

to ask why it’s so difficult

to keep her body and soul together

but it’s hard to understand

what more she could need when you

gave her the bread, more than enough

to keep her going


her dreaming fashions roses


Perhaps she wants it all

even in soft pink palaces

and flowery compliments

don’t ever stop her mouth

don’t ever stop her

don’t ever stop her seeking

a place to set out

bread at her own table

On “Much Ado About Nothing”: RIP Jo Cox

I spent a long time yesterday evening reading everything the internet had to say about the murder of Jo Cox, and this morning I had a line from Much Ado About Nothing stuck in my head. I’d got it slightly wrong but now I’ve looked it up:

“you have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady”.

It’s Benedick when he decides that the story isn’t funny any more, calls Claudio out, resigns his commission and walks away. It’s one of the points in Shakespeare’s comedy when we see the ugliness and violence beneath the surface of the games that powerful people play. Benedick calls them all out: there was a moment, back then, “among you”, when people’s lives started mattering less than something else, when the only thing you saw was your honour and reputation, when you wanted to be the big man, or you wanted to be one of the lads, more than you wanted to be compassionate or hear the truth, and right then, “among you”, someone was caught in the crossfire.

(Of course in the play we – and even Benedick – know Hero isn’t really dead. But, having seen the violence that exploded against her, we also know that she could have been).

And Benedick, the joker, has realised that this isn’t funny any more. If Benedick can’t make a joke, if a situation’s got too serious, you might expect him to walk away. That’s his normal style, he’s got form. But he doesn’t, not this time. He steps forward. He walks right into the heart of the trouble. It doesn’t bother him. He calls Claudio out. He takes the ridicule that comes his way, he doesn’t even seem to notice it. He doesn’t let it go. We know why, and so do the “lads”:

“DON PEDRO: He is in earnest.

CLAUDIO: In most profound earnest; and, I’ll warrant you, for the love of Beatrice”.

Beatrice. She’s the voice of passion and compassion; she’s wise and funny and angry and strong and loyal, and she’s never taken in for a minute, and she won’t give up. There’s that astonishing scene where we – with Benedick – hear all her rage against the wrong done to her kinswoman, and how clearly she sees the truth, and how powerless she is to do anything, and how little hope she has that anyone will do anything:

“What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands; and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour,-O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place”.

You get the sense that she’s not just talking about this incident, and she’s not just angry with Claudio, and it’s not just this one wrong she wants to set right. She’s calling out everything that’s wrong with the world she lives in, all the “much ado about nothing”, all the stupid power-games with real casualties, all the cruelty disguised as wit and all the small and large failures to notice what love demands.

And at that point at least one other person steps forward, instead of walking away. Which, in this play, is enough.

There’s a point when “much ado about nothing” stops being funny. In this referendum campaign we reached it a long time ago and didn’t stop. And we’re not in a light Shakespearean comedy, so death is real. But I’m hearing Beatrice’s rage and maybe it’s not too late for people to step forward.

Scattered thoughts about women, work, bodies and voices

I haven’t managed to make these add up to anything. They’ve been on my mind since a panel discussion of gender, sex and systematic theology at a conference I attend regularly.

A made-up story

Broadside Electric – lead vocals by my friend Melissa Demian – adapted a traditional song to create “When I Was a Fair Maid”. (I’ve since heard at least one other version, same basic story with a different uniform, performed by Serious Sam Barrett and entitled “The Female Drummer”).

It’s a fun song, about which I’m being far too serious here. In the version I know, it’s the story of a young woman (“about seventeen”) who gets bored at home and runs away to join the Navy.

I ‘listed in the Navy, a sailor lad to stand, For to hear the cannons rattling and the music so grand…

It turns out that our heroine not only can pass for a man without difficulty, but can also make a notable success of naval life. She fits in well with the crew of the ship – in fact you get the sense that what she relishes most of all is the cameraderie. But she’s also very good at her job; she can beat at least some of her new comrades at (what’s supposed to be) their own game. And she even enjoys, not only the work, but also being a ‘woman in a man’s world’. She doesn’t feel threatened – this is romantic comedy, after all. She doesn’t worry about being (secretly) different; it adds an extra level of excitement to what she’s doing, she likes knowing something nobody else knows. She’s entirely in her element, even though she’s not supposed to be here. She knows that this theoretically impossible life is the life for her, and the fact that it’s supposedly impossible only makes her love it more.

My waist being tall and slender, my fingers long and thin, Oh the very soon they learned me, I soon exceeded them…

And taking off my blue coat, it oft times made me smile, For to think I was a sailor and a maiden all the while…

And then, inevitably, somebody notices that she’s a woman. Not because of anything that happens on the ship. It’s about the sexual scripts she’s expected to follow. Or it’s about the way that ‘personal’ lives, love and sex and reproduction and marriage and family, only stay irrelevant to the life of the ship if they conform to a clear pattern that she, as a woman, simply can’t follow. Perhaps she realised on some level that sooner or later this was bound to happen, even while she was planning to be a sailor for the rest of her life.

A lady fell in love with me – I told her I was a maid; And she went unto the captain and my secret she betrayed…

At that point, of course, her life becomes actually, as well as theoretically, impossible. Her continued presence on the ship will cause an intolerable failure of the system. Her body just doesn’t belong here. It’s nothing personal. The captain would like to keep her on board – though even he can’t help seeing her as a woman, now that somebody’s pointed it out.

It’s a pity we should lose you, such a sailor lad you made; It’s a pity we should lose you, such a handsome young maid….

But I always love the way that the song (as this band perform it) ends not with regret but with a dance, a mischievous carnival-style celebration of things that aren’t supposed to happen but somehow do. The sailor-woman holds confidently to what she learned about herself; this wasn’t a sham or a self-betrayal, this was real. What she promises herself – and her beloved captain and comrades – at the end of the song is almost unthinkable and certainly as things stand un-reasonable (even the words make that clear). But her own experiences and desires won’t let her concede that it’s impossible – and even though the system can’t be argued with or evaded, she’s got at least some people on her side. There’s a moment to dream about how things might be different if she could put herself back together, be the whole person she is and do the work she does. Even though that’s not about to happen.

But if ever the Navy needs a man – a sailor I’ll remain; I’ll put off my cap and feathers and I’ll run the rigging again…

A piece of a story

I remember the phone conversations I had with my paternal grandmother in the last few years of her life. Her dementia meant that she lived in different periods of her past life, and it sometimes got a bit hard to keep track. When I talked to her, she was very often in the few years she spent working in a research lab in the 1930s. She enjoyed it, you could tell that it energised her; she particularly liked having colleagues, people to solve problems with, people to share the task with. She and I swapped workplace stories, in this strange time-space in which both of us were young women. In the real timeline, she fell in love with a man who worked in the same labs, married him, and immediately lost her job. She did some more lab work during the war, but mostly from then on she looked after her family. She was a cheerful, strong, intellectually alive woman throughout her life. But when she could go anywhere, in those final years, she often dropped in to the lab.

An old story, with some theology in it

Elizabeth Bathurst died in 1685 (or thereabouts) in her early thirties. She was best known for her systematic presentation and defence of Quakerism: “Truth’s Vindication: or a gentle stroke to wipe off the foul aspersions, false accusations and misrepresentations cast upon the people of God called Quakers”. Despite a lifelong disabling illness (“she was four years of age before she could go alone”, writes her father) she also during her short life undertook a preaching tour to the south-west, spent some time imprisoned in the Marshalsea after disrupting worship at a Presbyterian meeting house, and acquired a national reputation among Quakers as a preacher and writer.

No offence to Robert Barclay, but I’d read Bathurst rather than him any day. It’s about the voice. In “Truth’s Vindication” she speaks in a voice that’s personal and confessional, and simultaneously the voice of someone who’s passionate about hard thinking and good arguments. She tells you what it felt like trying to persuade herself to believe in double predestination, and then explains carefully why it’s a problematic doctrine. She piles up a rich contradictory collection of biblical metaphors to show you how hard theological speech is, and then tells you – I have found it to be this… She holds to her experience and keeps a deep commitment to thinking things out. And as far as I can see, she never or hardly ever, despite the personal tone, draws attention to the fact that she’s a woman – nor, for that matter, to her youth or her ill health. Theologically, for her, it’s irrelevant; she’s worried about writing the book and doubts her ability to do it well because the task is so great and the subject-matter so important, but never because women can’t write. (She’d already written a long defence of women’s ministry – with a vision of the equality of men and women lost in the fall and restored through redemption).

Quakers were accustomed enough to women preaching and teaching. But people did notice that the author of “Truth’s Vindication” was a woman; some of them seem to have had trouble noticing anything else. Her book was reissued after her death with a collection of “testimonies”. One or two, though noticeably not the ones from her immediate family, draw attention to the apparent conflict between her body and her writing. George Whitehead, who admired her greatly, knows that because of the “meanness or weakness” of Elizabeth’s person,  it’s widely doubted that she wrote the book herself – but he can prove that she did, because he conducted her viva: “she showed it me in her own handwriting, and gave sufficient demonstration of her understanding in those subjects she writ upon”. He calls her a “virtuous and pious Maid”, refers repeatedly to the prophesying “Daughters” in Joel. Charles Marshall, whom I don’t like so much, makes her a “Hand-maid of the Lord” and one of the “wise virgins”, and finally one of the “king’s daughters, who are glorious within”, an example of piety for other unmarried young women to follow. His astonishment at her preaching and teaching ability comes through on every page (even though he says much more about her prayer life and her religious seriousness, and nothing at all about her studies – unlike her father, whose short and moving testimony notes that she was “much devoted” to reading from an early age).

It’s pretty clear to me that Elizabeth didn’t think she was being an exemplary “pious virgin”. She thought she was vindicating the Truth. And the theological writing was hard but it was what she was meant to be doing.  Some of the time at least, you can tell she’s enjoying it. She loves the words of the Bible, hearing the poetry that bursts out of them, then trying to set down what it means. She has found a distinctive, careful, passionate voice without really looking for it. She’s not doing this to prove anything. She’s doing this because it’s her work, and also because it’s more than hers. She writes at the end of the exercise “I have not been mine own”. It’s a not-impossible space.

The unrecorded and entirely unexpected life of Edith

So after writing this post I continued, in odd web-connected moments, to look for scraps about Edith Moggridge, as a much more pleasant alternative to the latest thing Twitter was getting angry about.

And I also  – just for the sake of it – got hold of a copy of her book, the one that was privately printed in 1972. The copy that the web-market turned up first for me is one that was presented to Girton College library “by the author”. That’s not what shocked me when I opened the very slim package. What shocked me was the ascription.

“Selected Poems by Sister Edith Moggridge”.

It turns out that the reason Edith disappears from the web-available records between about 1915 and 1972 is that she decided to “disappear” from most of the world. From a little more fishing around, and some clues in the poetry book (like a whole section on the “Ascent of Mount Carmel”), I’m pretty sure that from her early thirties onwards she was a member of the group of enclosed Carmelite nuns who live (still) at Fulwood near Preston.

Her death record is from that district. She died in 1974, aged about 88, two years after she gave her old college – and who knows who else – this very slim book of poems.

The book contains a short section of “Early Poems” (including the butterfly orchids poem); a prose “proem” with (what I think are) some intriguing theological reflections on the overwhelming and excessive beauty in nature; a very large number of poems on devotional themes; and then a few almost childish nature poems at the end. From the prose section, I still think her degree might have been Natural Science. She writes with a mixture of precision and reverence about natural phenomena. (Actually the prose, in my not-particularly-qualified opinion, is a whole lot better than the poetry. The poetry’s not really my kind of poetry).

It’s a very odd discovery to make. It’s hard to overcome a slight sense of disappointment. Which says a lot about my prejudices, I think. Turns out that I had an idea of what success would look like, which didn’t incorporate Edith’s idea of success.

If this were a certain kind of novel, it would be easy to write an explanation for Edith’s decision to enter the convent; clearly she would have lost her only true love in the war, and decided that a vowed celibate life was now the only option for her. And I suppose it’s not impossible that some of the vocations of nuns in the early twentieth century were linked to that kind of experience. But in the story I’m writing about Edith I’d like at least to try for a reason that’s about her own development rather than about the men in her life (or the lack of them).

In the early poems she included in the collection, there’s a very striking and very sad one called “Inaction”. It’s basically about the waste of her life and her inability to find anything useful she can do with it (this must be in her mid-twenties, while she’s living in London “on private means”); that her energy and desire to do good in the world is like a stream that’s found no channel and is soaking away into marshland.

It makes a kind of sense; one can imagine that woman ending up in that situation. And it then makes a kind of sense – even if still not a sense I can fully relate to – when she takes her energy as well as her intellect and her education into the convent. The energy’s all there in the later devotional poems, and she’s found a direction for it.

And of course she’s also back to living in a highly structured community of women (many of whom besides her are probably highly educated). But without the mixed-sex political conversations.

More or less, that is. Allow me a moment of self-indulgent improvisation on history. I found a great story about a very hard-fought by-election in Preston North in 1964. The Conservative incumbent, chasing every last vote, makes a stop at the isolated and enclosed Carmelite convent in Fulwood, to try to secure the postal votes of the 14 nuns then in residence.

The incumbent eventually retained his seat by 14 votes.  The author of this TES article, understandably enough (and because it makes such a good story), assumed that all the nuns – normally forbidden television and radio and rarely remembered by local politicians – cast their postal votes for “the only candidate they definitely knew existed”.

But I’d like to think that, if she got to talk politics with him during his visit, the elderly ex-Fabian Girtonian nun gave the MP a run for his money. And it’s just possible that he had to get his 14th vote somewhere else.

The first all-women shortlist, and investigating an unrecorded life

With thanks to Mel Prideaux.

Here’s a quirky story that came to my attention recently, and is posted here simply to record the results of internet research pursued in idle moments.

The second president of the Cambridge University Fabian Society (the predecessor body to Cambridge Universities Labour Club) was Edith Moggridge, of Girton College. That was in 1906, a long time before women were allowed to vote in national elections and even longer before women were allowed to take degrees at Cambridge.

Edith was definitely part of a vanguard. The Fabian Society was the first student society at Cambridge to be founded for both men and women members; one of its co-founders was Amber Reeves of Newnham. Even in the very progressive political circles of the national Fabian society, the existence of this mixed student society and the election of a female president were judged noteworthy enough to be mentioned in the national newsletter. Unfortunately Edith’s college apparently didn’t see eye to eye with Edith and her fellow Fabians, and refused to allow her to take up the post. This was all the more unfortunate because, as the letters of one of the society’s founder members (Frederic “Ben” Keeling) make clear, Edith’s election was the result of a deliberate plan to make a statement about commitment to women’s equality. It was the result of what was probably the first ever use of an all-women shortlist.

“We were all keen Feminists… After the presidency of V. H. Mottram we decided to elect a woman as president, to assert the principles of female equality as aggressively as possible. Two Newnhamites were nominated in order that we might have the fun of an election. When they were ordered to stand down by their college authorities, Edith Moggridge, of Girton, was surreptitiously communicated with, put up, and elected. But she was never allowed by her college authorities to take the chair at a meeting. The position was therefore left vacant for a term by way of protest, and ever since the Society has had a woman treasurer, Mrs. Bianco-White being the first. (Some of them have kept accounts, which was more than one of the two male treasurers did.) No doubt it was all very childish. But Cambridge and life generally have been very different experiences for me owing to the fact that women were admitted to the C.U.F.S. I only hope that others feel that it was a small shove worth making…”

(Frederic Keeling, The Keeling Letters, edited by E.T. (London 1918), pp. 10-11)

Nothing new under the sun.

So you can’t help wondering, or at least I can’t – who was Edith Moggridge, how did she get involved with the Fabians, and what happened to her next? I’ve been having some fun pursuing this human-interest story. Here’s what I think we know.

Edith was born in about 1886 in Monmouthshire, which had been her family’s home (intermittently, as we’ll see) for some generations. She was the youngest of seven children – four elder brothers and two elder sisters (of whom I think all survived into adulthood).

Her family had a very long history of social reform and intellectual enquiry. Her great-grandfather, John Hodder Moggridge, was something of a radical among industrialists, using the considerable wealth he acquired as a clothier in Somerset to set up “model” communities (on similar lines to Robert Owen’s New Lanark) in Wales. Edith’s great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle were also keen botanists and natural historians. The uncle, John Traherne Moggridge, was a correspondent of Charles Darwin; he’s listed in the edited volume of Darwin correspondence as an “orchid specialist”.

John Hodder Moggridge was a leading Unitarian, but at some point at least some of the family went “Establishment”, because Edith’s father Matthew Weston Moggridge graduated from University College Oxford and was ordained in the Church of England. There are some puzzles about his career; he moved around a lot (at the time of his brother’s correspondence with Darwin Matthew was a curate in Leicestershire; but the seven children were born in various different places – Surrey, Bradford, Hampstead and back in Monmouthshire) and he doesn’t appear always to have been a parish priest. In the 1881 census he gave his occupation as “Journalist and Editor of “Social Notes” [a journal devoted to debating “social questions”]”. He was a prolific writer on social issues; titles like “Method in Almsgiving”  and “Public-Houses for the People: A Plea for Better Taverns” don’t exactly inspire confidence in his commitment to far-reaching social reform, but he clearly inherited his grandfather’s concern for the responsible use of wealth and for structural as well as individual responses to societal problems.

Unfortunately it doesn’t look as if Edith, the baby of the family, would have had the chance to get to know her father at all, let alone debate social questions with him. Her mother (also Edith) died in the year she was born; I would like to know more about the first Edith but haven’t found it yet. Five years later Matthew Weston Moggridge (having taken up a post as priest in charge of a mission church in Dufftown, Fife) was drowned in the sea off Lossiemouth, while trying to rescue two boys from his Sunday-school trip who had swum out too far. The boys both survived. The 1891 census, a few months later, finds Edith and all her siblings (except the eldest brother, who was an undergraduate at Cambridge) back in Wales – presumably where their family’s property was. The 1901 census finds most of them in London. And – five years later Edith was at Girton, being surreptitiously elected president of a political society.

I’d rather hoped to find that she went on to a glittering political career (like her Girton near-contemporary Dorothy Jewson, one of the many interesting people I found out more about along the way to this story), but she nearly disappears from the internet-accessible records. The 1911 census finds her aged 25 living in London on “private means” – which in her family must have been considerable (though she seems to be living with her elder, also unmarried, sister, who is recorded as a “pianist and teacher of music”).  At least some of her time was spent writing poetry; and at least some of her poems were published in Modernist journals – some of which some kind people have archived or indexed online. One of the poems is entitled “Butterfly Orchids”, which makes me wonder whether she was influenced by her uncle and grandfather and whether her Tripos would have been natural science. She either didn’t marry, or wrote under her maiden name.

A privately-printed book of “selected poems” by Edith Moggridge was issued in Cambridge in 1972; if that wasn’t a posthumous publication, it puts her in her late eighties. I’d like to think that she was still alive in 1972 to see the first admissions of women to formerly all-male colleges. And as the second-hand copy of her book says it has an inscription “by the author”, I’ll allow myself to think that.

And I love the fact that all of this and more is available from a sequence of internet searches, many of them leading to primary documents.