A Fine Thing (January 2019)

Just above the little town of Fairlight, East Sussex, there is a ridge known locally as the Fire Hills. It’s rather a pretty spot and, if you ever find yourself at a loose end in Fairlight, East Sussex, I recommend it as a place for a ramble.

The Fire Hills get their name because of a bush called gorse which grows wild there. We don’t have much gorse in Westminster, although it’s fairly common across the UK, so a few words on the subject: gorse- also known as furze or, more formally, Ulex – is a group of prickly flowering shrubs within the pea family. The flowers are bright yellow and smell of coconut, and it is the former property that is celebrated by the folk of Fairlight because when the gorse is in flower the hills appear to flame. They also say, in a back country kind of a way, that when gorse is in flower, kissing’s in season – as I said, when you’re at a loose end in Fairlight, East Sussex I recommend going for a brisk walk, just to check.

This morning is the first assembly of 2019’s season of Resilience for a Better Tomorrow. This is the time of year when we reflect on the injustice, prejudice, and division that exists in this world and think about the kind of society we want to have – the kind of society we want to be. Mankind seems to have an inexhaustible talent for dividing itself up, for finding reasons to exclude others and today I want to talk about how religion tends to do this but before I get there I should explain why I started in Fairlight, East Sussex. My wife was born and grew up nearby and so Fairlight, East Sussex, and its environs are an area I’ve come to know well but even if Fairlight itself is a topic of discussion that is new to you, I’m pretty confident that you will have heard of the neighbouring town – Hastings, also East Sussex. From the Fire Hills you can see Hastings town, you can look down the coast to Pevensey where William of Normandy landed, and you can peer inland towards Senlac Hill on which he fought Harold for the kingdom. From where we are today, of course, it is just a few metres to where he was formally crowned – in the newly-built Westminster Abbey. His kingdom was, however, divided – between Norman conquerors and Saxon natives. The Normans, dark-haired and with a patrician disposition, took ownership of the land and the plum jobs whilst the blond, riff-raff Saxons were displaced and left in poverty. It took generations – maybe 200 years – before this division in the country was righted and during that time the Saxons were marginalised and discriminated against. Nowadays there is no distinction, no advantage to having Norman blood.

Discrimination and division are, however, still with us and no more obviously than with religion. It’s pretty obvious why this is a thorny issue – like the gorse. It’s an area of life where people feel they can make statements that they believe are of the utmost importance without proof; it’s an area where different groups make different statements contradicting each other and each emphasising the objective but unprovable truth of their statements; and it’s an area where people base their actions on these truths – unproven theory has practical outpouring. It is, indeed, a thorny issue. I would, therefore, be foolish to wade right in and so, as is customary, I have decided to enlist a literary genius to express more beautifully the ideas I wish to share with you.

As this is a topic of immediate practical interest I’ve naturally turned to the world of fantasy and as it’s an idea of weighty import it seemed only appropriate to look to a humourist. I therefore read to you from Terry Pratchett’s book “Pyramids” in which we see a first year dormitory on the first day at a very exclusive school. A fight has broken out during evening prayers because one boy, called Cheesewright, threw a pillow at another, called Arthur, who was merely trying to sacrifice a goat as part of his evening ritual. The hero, Teppic, steps forward: “I shouldn’t cry about it, youngster,” he said gruffly. “But all the runes have been scuffed,” said Arthur, “and that means the Great Orm will come in the night and wind out my entrails on a stick! And suck out my eyes, my mother said.” “Gosh”, said Teppic, fascinated. He was quite glad his bed was opposite Arthur’s and would offer an unrivalled view. “Don’t you have a god?” “Oh, yes,” said Teppic, hesitantly, “no doubt about that” “You don’t seem to want to talk to him – my god can hear me anywhere!” said Arthur, fervently “Well, mine has difficulty if you’re the other side of the room – it can be very embarrassing.” “You’re not an Offlian, are you?” Offler was the crocodile God and lacked ears “No” “What God do you worship?” “Not exactly worship,” said Teppic, discomforted. “I wouldn’t say worship. I mean he’s alright. He’s my father if you must know. He doesn’t have to do very much. That is, the priests do the actual running of the country. He just makes sure that the river floods every year and services the Great Cow of the Arch of the Sky.” “The Great” “My mother,” explained Teppic, “It’s all very embarrassing.” The following night in the dormitory one of the boys from further along the coast shyly tried to put the boy in the next bed inside a wickerwork cage he made in Craft and set fire to him, and the night after that Snoxall, who had the bed by the door and came from a little country out in the forests somewhere, painted himself green and asked for volunteers to have their intestines wound around a tree. On Thursday a small war broke out between those who worshipped the Mother Goddess in her aspect of the Moon and those who worshipped her in her aspect of a huge fat woman with enormous buttocks. After that the masters intervened and explained that religion, while a fine thing, could be taken too far. To which I shall just add the review from Locus printed in the front cover “Of course it’s silly – it’s meant to be”

It’s silly and yet it’s terribly serious. Because religion doesn’t admit to proof we can’t say that Arthur who believes in the Great Orm or Teppic who believes in but doesn’t worship his Father or Snoxall or any of those who worship the Mother Goddess are wrong and because religion speaks of objective truth if we can’t say they are wrong then saying we are right is a recipe for conflict and so how are we, who don’t share a dormitory but do share a school, a building, a community of scholars, how are we to deal with that fine thing – religion.

The first thing I have to say is the most important part of this assembly – in fact, the most important part of Resilience for a Better Tomorrow – in fact, if you were to take just two words out of all of this half term’s assemblies then it should be these, so listen up.

Be Kind.

Whenever you are dealing with other people, whatever you are doing, think about the impact you have on others and choose the kind thing, the plan that hurts them least, that helps them most. No matter how different they are from you, no matter how wrong they are or how important the issue on which they are wrong, be kind. This doesn’t stop you disagreeing – scholarly debate can, and should, continue: these ideas are of the utmost importance and their practical application means they need interrogating. But, whilst you debate, be kind. The second thing is this – that I don’t think we should split up into subgroups. The world is big and filled with people who don’t hold with scholarship: people who think might is right or stupidity is admirable; people who bully those weaker than themselves and think that their own personal benefit is the ethically right goal to pursue. There aren’t enough of us, we who believe that learning is amazing, who aim to be kind, who look to challenge wrong ideas intellectually and who value the courage to do the right thing – there aren’t enough of us to break up into smaller groups over any issue, no matter how important. If you find a kindred spirit out there, someone who doesn’t attend Harris Westminster but who agrees with our philosophy then join with them – debate, compete even, but remember that everyone who stands up for scholarship, for learning, for knowledge, and for kindness, is, ultimately, on the same side.

This is why I’ve said no to the students who want to run religious groups in school – we don’t agree and never will (unless I can persuade you of the theological importance of the Great Orm – until now thought merely to be a geological feature of North Wales). Religion is a fine thing – we have a prayer room for anyone to go for quiet meditation at lunchtime: if, like Teppic, you need to speak more loudly then this isn’t the place for you; we also have a group called intelligent believing for those who want to debate, who want to wrap their intellects around their beliefs, for those who want to understand where the logic ends and the blind faith begins. Religion is a fine thing but it can be taken too far and too far begins when it stops us being kind or when it separates us off into little groups.

The world is full of division and discrimination – throughout Resilience for a Better Tomorrow the assemblies will raise and attempt to address these issues – we should face it together and join with each other to say no to prejudice, no to abuse, no to unkindness. I shall just, apropos of nothing, and for the delight of those who have been paying attention, finish with one last property of the gorse. Gorse is, in fact, a collection of several species with staggered responses to the changing seasons and so, up on the Fire Hills above Fairlight, East Sussex, the gorse is _always_ in flower. Enjoy that thought. Thank you.