Monday, 9 January 2017

Looking beyond the stars

This is the text of a sermon preached on Epiphany at Guildford Cathedral exploring revelation and incarnation; worship and joy; our ongoing journey of faith. The texts were Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Later this month, you’ll have the opportunity to become an amateur star gazer for the evening.  The external lighting will be turned off as Cathedral becomes home to a pop up observatory. Volunteers from our local astronomical society will be on hand to help you use telescopes to explore the night sky.

For a moment, the wonder, curiosity and expertise of the magi might be ours. The depth of space, of time, of light… it is the same sky that they observed.

They watched and calculated and scrutinised not for one night, but for a lifetime. They notice some thing new. A brighter light. A comet, a supernova or a conjunction of the planets?

This cosmic sign revealed to them the birth of the one who is the morning star: the splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness; the love that said ‘let there be light’ is the love birthed in a stable; the love that is all in all, rest in a mother's arms, turning a house into hallowed ground.

The light has come - our light has come - in the midst of darkness: the darkness of the shadow of death, the darkness covering the earth, the thick darkness over the peoples.

This light dawns in the midst of political crisis and the brutal reality of human violence. Jesus’ birth takes place in time. In the time of King Herod. In the time of occupation, empire, threat and displacement; in the time when ruling by fear reveals fragility and creates instability.

It is in a world such as this that Herod finds himself acting as a catalyst. Those who’ve been guided by hope need help. In their desire to worship a new born king,  magi come to a palace, to the place we think power resides. In his desire to retain control of his own kingship, Herod consults experts and points the mysterious strangers beyond the stars to a a place. To a place where the child was.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Stefan Lochner, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440, Cathedral, Cologne

This light dawns in the midst of political crisis and the brutal reality of human violence. Jesus’ birth in time, is the still point in a transforms the world for all time. In our time, with its violence, instability and displacement of people; in our time, God continues to reveal to us his patient and loving response to our impatience and fear.

And it looks like a child with his mother. This is God with us. In the midst of us.

And we pay him homage: this child calls forth joy, yes; but as God’s very self, this child causes us to kneel and to worship.

And treasure-chests are opened.

Gold is offered a sign of Jesus’ kingship, yes; but also placing all of our resources as the disposal of a different kingdom; a setting aside of our desire to control and embracing instead love.

Frankincense is offered as a sign of Jesus’ divinity, yes; an act of putting first the call to prayer and worship; a placing at the heart of our lives the deep attentiveness to God.

Myrrh is offered as a sign of Jesus’ reconciling the world, yes; and this healing means confronting pain, sorrow and despair; here, we glimpse cross, death and resurrection.

The light has come. It shines in darkness. The darkness does not overcome it.

The wise men’s journey continues on another road:  they go, resisting fear and abuse of power; they return, witnesses to love, light and glory.

The Christ child’s journey continues on another road: he goes with Mary and Joseph, and seeks refuge in another land;  he will return, to set us free, revealing God’s love, light and glory.

King Herod’s journey continues on yet another road: his fear turns to fury, fury to violence; his violence becomes lamentation and death.

And yet, love wins.  Still the light shines. In our world.

It is not overcome. It reveals truth to us. We have to decide.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

We need to take heart from the diligence and joy of the wise; but perhaps we need to embrace their courage too.   For their quest throws up the deepest questions of identity: of who we are, who this child is and how we are to live in the world.

Day by day, we pray that the Holy Spirit might kindle in us the desire to seek and to find; to worship and to rejoice. In the light of the Christ child, not only do we see but we become radiant; our hearts over flow.  In the light of the Christ child, we experience something of God’s grace. The outworking of that grace is challenging; our imaginations our stretched, we live differently embodying God's wisdom in whatever we're doing this time tomorrow.


Such grace is, in the words of Rowan Williams, ‘the mysterious capacity to look in the face the destructive effects of human ignorance’. In saying this, he was reflecting on Shakespeare’s improvisation on the revelation which we celebrate this Epiphany; it’s a reflection on grace in Twelfth Night.

In a play which hovers between comedy and tragedy, we see the a journey of attentiveness and courage; an emotional journey of learning to make acquaintance with storms in order to love.



Shakespeare places us in the tumult of a ship wreck - drawing us into the lives of a rescued twin and a lost brother. He confronts us with the chaos of misrule, the delusion of self love, the cruelty of mockery; intoxicating passions and suffocating grief are played out in a whirlwind of mistaken identities.

The person who knowingly puts on a disguise, is the one person who effectively navigates the complex pathways of love. Viola’s is a love that serves and attends to the other; it is a love which is vulnerable and resilient; a love which is rooted in the assurance of faith and hope; a love which is neither defensive nor manipulative, but utterly authentic. Her maturity brings life, healing; it enables other to let go of their delusions and to interact more truthfully.

The resulting epiphany is of restored relationship as Sebastian looks on his disguised sister and says: Of charity, what kin are you to me? 
What countryman? What name? What parentage?

The revelation we glimpse today answers those same questions too: the mystery of Christ which has been revealed is about our kinship. Because he is God with us - living, dying and rising for us - we are children of God. As Paul puts it, we, the Gentiles, have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

If we are to seek wisdom like the magi and to love like Viola, we do so by entering into a drama which reveals our identity as members of Christ’s body.

The drama we enact today, names the shipwrecks and storms of our human condition: in the Eucharist, our fears, frustrations and desires, our griefs, betrayals and hopes are expressed.

The drama we enact today, names the patient and generous love of God which continues to reach out to us: in the Eucharist, we touch and taste and see grace that does not look away, light that continues to shine, hope that dispels fear and love that increases our capacity to love.

When they saw that that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Our journey continues on another road: step by step, may the Spirit equip us to witness with boldness to the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Julie Gittoes © 2017


Thursday, 22 December 2016

The child is the key to it all

This post is based on the text of a sermon written for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent. The texts  were 1 Kings 18:17-39 and John 1:19-28, stories of the prophet Elijah and John the Baptist. In the event, the sermon was pulled - because of concern about the overall length of the service and a very cold building (we now have some temporary heating!). However, having seen Fantastic Beasts there were themes I wanted to ponder further - so this piece is longer than the original sermon.

It begins with a case of magical creatures: a case which was opened ‘just a smidgen’.

It begins with an interesting man, a Mr Scamander: a man kicked out of Hogwarts. 

It begins in 1920s New York: a city in the grip of political campaigning.

It begins with an opening sequence of a collapsing building: a population looks for answers.


On a wet and chilly Saturday evening a few weeks ago, stepping into J K Rowling’s wizarding world was an enchanting escape. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fizzes with energy and humour; exotic and imaginary creatures delight us; there’s a quirky romance, unlikely alliances and Eddie Redmayne excels as the quietly donnish magizoologist. 

But, in tune with the very best fairytales, there is an altogether darker subtext. This reimagined world is in the grip of fear, suspicion and destruction. We see a dark whirlwind of energy smash its way through buildings; it tears up roads, overturns vehicles and leaves chaos in its wake. 

In the realm of cinematic fantasy this is force is called an Obscurus. It’s a narrative device within an imagined universe. The quest is on to 'find the child' so that 'we will all be free'; the child is key to it all. Ultimately, order is restored when the baddies are unmasked and good triumphs. 

And yet, given J K Rowling’s interest in human identity and the use or misuse of power, this film operates at a deeper level.  

There are themes which we must take seriously; themes which our readings also reflect. And as we pay attention to that, we are drawn more deeply into the stuff of God. To be drawn more deeply into God is to understand more fully our humanity - confronting our mortality and embracing hope.

As charming as Fantastic Beasts is, as a film it is a chilling reminder of how swiftly fear can distort our relationships; it can shut out the voices we do not wish to hear; it labels as ‘other’ those who are not like us. In the film we see how that operates at a city level - fragmenting society as people respond to alternative rallying cries. But cinema is reflected the lived reality of our social lives.
Fear - and the abuse of power - also operates at an interpersonal level. In the film, Credence cannot be who he is or fulfil his potential. Instead he is subjected to manipulation, control and actual harm - both physical and spiritual. J K Rowling uses the device of the Obscurus to make visible the impact of abuse: violence is internalised and distress is expressed externally.


We don’t live in a realm of wizardry; there are no magical beasts to distract us from human sorrow. We live in a realm of human agency within which we are to protect the vulnerable from abuse - in homes, workplaces and institutions. We are to be as light in darkness because this is also a realm of divine agency.

Our world is infused by God’s creative and generous love which meets us in the depths of despair.  The voices of prophets cry out against abuse of power and spiritual manipulation. And as Advent edges towards Christmas, we see in Jesus Christ God’s response to all that dehumanises. 

In him, heaven touches earth: not as a romantic idyll but in confronting the violence of which human beings are capable and defusing it.  It is in the cries of a speechless infant that power is confronted. To look on him - to face Christ - is to be disturbed and challenged; it is to be provoked to name bad ideologies. More than that, we must also set out a compelling vision for transformation. We do that not by ‘magic’ but in power of the Spirit which calls us to be reconnected at a deeper level

Let’s take one example of a response to fragmentation: The Bishop of Burnley, Philip North wrote powerfully in the Church Times about the narratives we listen to within our national life. When metropolitan elites are pitted against the voices of the disenfranchised, we all lose. How then does a church speak positively about national identity - about the values we aspire to embody - whilst also being generous in our hospitality? 

There is an urgent task ahead of us - deepening our understanding of what it is to be a citizen, building trust and strengthening community.  In the words of Archbishop Justin ‘we need a narrative that speaks to the world of bright hope and not mere optimism - let alone simple self-interest’. 

We might not have seats in the House of Lords, but we do have the opportunity to act in solidarity with others - regardless of their class, gender, ability, ethnicity or economic worth. 

This is a claim about the God-given dignity of every human being. It’s a claim that demands action in response to the increasing numbers sleeping on our streets; it’s a claim that ought to shape our daily interactions.  Elijah and John the Baptist literally and figuratively point us in the right direction. 

Elijah faced an urgent challenge in terms of the stability of national life: that is the faithfulness of a people to their God; and the well-being of individuals. King Ahab regards him as troublesome. Why? Because he points out the the King that he has abandoned the ways of God. Rather than walking in the ways of the God of Israel, he now followed the Baals. 

He had neglected the commandments of God:  commandments which spoke of love of God and love of neighbour. Such loving was not an abstract philosophy; faithfulness to God was revealed in acts of mercy and wise judgement; in compassion for the widow and foreigner.  

Why might a King forsake the Lord and sit lightly to commandments? Ahab’s wife Jezabel gets much of the blame. Their marriage secured a political alliance; but she was ruthless and manipulative. Her worship of Baal - a god of rain and fertility - might have seemed like an attractive option to a people under threat from other nations. It might have appeared a far less demanding ethical code; perhaps much more suited to the pursuit of one’s own desires. 


Elijah throws down the gauntlet: he sets out the conditions for a competitive religious drama. On the one hand there were elaborate preparations; endless cries to Baal; physical injury to participants. It reads like a corporate act of will which is met by ridicule on the part of Elijah. It’s a noisy charade which is met by silence. There is no answer; no response.

On the other hand, we see a simple declaration of dependence on God. Elijah speaks of God’s faithfulness; he hopes for the restoration of dignity and purpose; he longs for a people to turn back to God’s ways. It’s not flashy; it’s not trying to force God’s hand. It is a longing for God’s presence to be acknowledged. And as in the burning bush, flames of fire serve as a mysterious sign of the divine presence.  

It’s not a fantastical story about the supernatural; it’s actually a story about us. 

It’s about the ways in which we so often seek fulfilment in the transitory; it’s about how we affirm our identity in seeking to control others. It’s about how we want a short cut, because walking in God’s ways is hard. 

But… there’s still that whisper which catches our attention. The honest human cry which is met with the divine assurance of our dignity.

John the Baptist, like Elijah, put God first.  He didn’t keep that to himself. He cried out. He cried out to people to do the same. He poured water on the heads of those who came to him - or, as is more likely, he plunged them into gushing waters of the Jordan.  Such a sign of bubbling new life was accompanied by the demanding call to repent. 

He echoed Elijah in calling them back to God. Turn around. Turn away from all that is selfish, destructive and toxic. Turn around. Turn towards the God who brings mercy. 

The people of Israel were waiting for a prophet to liberate them from occupation - for someone to save them from the Romans as they’d been freed from the Egyptians and so many others. They’d endured abused and subjection. They longed for their dignity - and their identity - to be restored. 

Given John’s vision and stature, it’s no wonder the authorities trekked to the wilderness to see for themselves. Could he be the Messiah? They were expecting perhaps a warrior, one who’d bring unity and victory.  Might John be the one who’d restore them to fulfil their calling as chosen ones; blessed to be a blessing to all.


John is brusk in his denials: I am not. I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not one of the prophets.

John is enigmatic in his responses: I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; make straight the way of the Lord.

His mission is to create a sense of expectation for the coming of the Messiah.
His calling is to prepare hearts and minds to receive him.
He is faithful to God and invites others to rekindle their commitment.
He is alert to the nearness of God and invites us to respond wholeheartedly.

John tells a story which is honest about our human condition: about our capacity to seek our own glory; to manipulate others; to impose our own agendas; to the dark violence of abuse. 

John tells a story which is honest about God; about a love that breaks down barriers of fear, anger and resentment. 

In due course John will declare: ‘Behold, it is he!’  But first, he calls us to prayerful repentance. 

There is no magic; but there is mercy.
There is darkness; but it does not overcome the light.
The child is key: the Christ child sets us all free.

Today, we pray O Rex Gentium
O King of the nations and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.


© Julie Gittoes 2016

Who am I?

This is the text of a short piece entitled 'Identity and Incarnation' written for magazine called Focus which is circulated within our diocese. 

Who am I? I am Julie.

We all have a name by which we are registered; some of us change it later on. That name may differ from the name by which we are known - Ju or Jules. There’s an intimacy to our name. It roots us in relationships as a friend, sibling, spouse, colleague and citizen.

Our identity is tracked in ultrasound scans and birth certificates and medical records; electoral rolls, tax returns and driving licenses; our passport, bills and membership cards verify who we are.

This paper trail and our digital footprint acts as a web of ‘identifiers’: necessary to prevent ‘identity theft’; a means of contributing to the safety of others. In death, our identity is carefully marked out, in an electronic age, in pen and ink.

Identity is more than documents and records. Our identity is also reflected in our appearance; our ethnicity, local culture, class and religion; our tastes in food, music, dress; our personality traits and our accent.  


We express our identity in a rich variety of ways; we create a first impression and (whether we know it or not) make an impact on others. Who am I? A question answered in names, relationships, appearances; the memories we treasure and the stories we tell. We know that identity - yours, mine, ours - is composed of certain biological traits; but we are more than that.

This reality was expressed with profound assurance in a statement made by Archbishop Justin when responding to very public revelations about his paternity. He said: I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes. 

Who Jesus is has an impact on our identity: on our self-understanding and on our sense of kinship; on dignity in the face of our vulnerability and hope in the face of mortality. Why? Because in him, God is with us:  with us in birth and speechless dependency; with us in grief and celebration, in feasting and sickness. 

His teaching is challenging; his actions restorative. Possessions, biology, gender and authority aren’t the ultimate markers of identity.  Samaritans, tax collectors, foreigners, children; the unwell, the ostracised, the powerful and the curious… and we ourselves are given new dignity as children of God.  Ultimately, God is with us in betrayal, agony, isolation and death.  By being with in human weakness and the depths of alienation, Jesus reveals that nothing can separate us from the love of God. 

Through the mystery of Word made flesh, we become children of God. In baptism, we participate in his death and resurrection. We are in Christ. Our self-understanding shifts as we see ourselves as God does - ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Our sense of kinship is expanded too. No longer limited to ties of ‘our family’ we share a spiritual kinship with brothers and sisters who are not at all like us in terms of outward makers of ‘identity’.

The assurance this brings is a stability: at our most vulnerable and when we let go of life. As John Swinton writes with eloquent wisdom in his book Dementia, we are held in the memories of God. That memory is also our hope of life that really is life: full, abundant, transfigured and everlasting. 

In the power of the Spirit we are to witness to this hope that is within us: that God was in Christ reconciling us.  That means that our ‘identity’ is an ethic or pattern of life nor an exclusive tribal marker. 

Who am I? In Christ, I am Julie.

© Julie Gittoes 2016

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Loneliness and ethics

 This is the text of a paper given at the Ethical Issues in Care Seminar hosted by the International Care Ethics (ICE) Observatory at the University of Surrey. I am grateful to Prof Ann Gallagher for the invitation to take part in this series and for the opportunity  to think about loneliness in an interdisciplinary way with some student nurses as well as staff. At Christmas, the topic of loneliness is particularly acute.

Loneliness and ethics

Our generation has been labelled “the age of loneliness”. This paper seeks to set out some of the contributing factors before exploring the ethical questions arising from what has been described as a “public health issue”.

Statue of 'Eleanor Rigby': Stanley Street, Liverpool
by Tommy Steele

It’s 1966.

Eleanor Rigby: picking up rice, where a wedding has been; waiting at the window.
Father McKenzie: writing the words of sermon no one will hear; working, darning his socks.
In the night when nobody’s there.
Eleanor Rigby: buried along with her name.
Father McKenzie: walking away from the grave.

And so 50 years ago The Beatles sang:

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Eleanor Rigby is cited as a key moment of The Beatles’ evolution from being live performance pop band to something more akin to a lieder or tragic ballad.  In singing about fate of an elderly woman they draw attention to those its too easy not to see. There was a real life Eleanor Rigby: born in Liverpool in 1895; married on Boxing Day; at 44 she died of a brain haemorrhage.

The real woman. An imagined life. A number 1 single.

All the lonely people.
Where do they come from?

It’s 2016.

Eleanor Rigby has been replaced immigrant hotel workers longing for home or a woman shopping in the hope of starting a conversation only to find that it’s only the automated till that talks. It’s the police officer on the night desk, rather than Father McKenzie, presides over the anguish of the mentally ill and the pain numbing revelry of St Patrick’s Day.  This is the album Breaking the Spell of Loneliness.

And so, today, Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot sing:

There is such a thing as society
It keeps us from losing our minds
It’s working and living and laughing together
That makes us human kind.



Fifty years ago, perhaps the lonely were ‘the other’. The people on the margins of society - waiting at windows and darning socks into the night. But now, the lonely could be you. It could be me. As Monbiot writes, ‘an epidemic is sweeping the world: an epidemic of loneliness. Never before have we, the supremely social mammal, been so isolated. The rests are devastating: a collapse of common purpose, the replacement of civic life with a fug of consumerism, insecurity and alienation, we cannot carry on like this’ (George Monbiot, Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, Fellside Recordings, 2016).

Two years ago, he wrote about the impact of loneliness in an op ed piece in The Guardian. Rather than calling our generation the digital age, defining us by our artifacts just as we describe the stone, iron or space age, he chooses to say something about society. Rather than shutting himself away in a room to study loneliness, he collaborated on a project which might address rather than merely document the problem.

In this seminar, I hope that we can do more than document the problem too. Before we explore the ethical questions, let’s look at some of the statistics and the stories underlying song lyrics. That will enable us to identify some contributing factors - and the consequences. If loneliness is described as public health issue, how might we respond?

Britain has been dubbed ‘the loneliness capital of Europe’ ('Britain is the Loneliness Capital of Europe' in The Telegraph 18 June 2014 See here).  A study by Independent Age reported that 700,000 men and 1.1 million women over the age of 50 experienced severe loneliness.  The Campaign to End Loneliness cites research which explores the relationship between social isolation and physical health. Parallels are drawn between loneliness and the influence of cigarette smoking; the risk of high blood pressure and cognitive decline are also noted. Obesity, depression, anxiety, suicide are risk factors for the young as well as the elderly.

In a poll commissioned for the BBC Faith in the World week in 2013, half of English adults said they experienced loneliness. The ComRes survey also indicated that people ‘who have a religious faith are more likely than those with no faith to say they are experiencing greater levels of loneliness than they did ten years ago’ (ComRes Religion Loneliness Survey 2013). As a priest and a theologian perhaps that was the most shocking statistic of all; yet in terms of my own experience it made sense. Perhaps one response to social isolation is that we seek out community - including within the life of the church; perhaps too, our ways of gathering (including family services or the cliques that form) can increase a sense of not belonging. To what extent do we put on more ‘activities’ targeted at a particular group - to what extent are we called both to shift a culture and equip people to live well alone.

As an aside, according to the 2011 census data, 34.6 percent of participants identified as ‘single’. If we add those who’re separated, widowed or divorced, that rises to 53.2%. The percolate of those who are married dips to 46.6% compared with 50.9 in 2001. In the UK in 2013 there were 26.4 million households and of these, 29% consisted of only one person (ONS Office for National Statistics: Families and Households 2013). Unsurprisingly, there is a generational split with 54% of over 65s living alone compared with 10% of 18-24 year olds.  However, the make up of households have shifted in other ways too: 27% of parents have at least one adult child living at home. Living in close proximity can lead to higher levels of stress; as does the geographical spread of so many of our family networks.

Such statistics help us to plot the basic fabric of our social structures. However, they do not reveal the deep-seated nature of our experience of loneliness. We have to look at anecdote as well as census data to understand more about the ethical pinch points of loneliness.

Earlier this year, a film by the director Sue Bourne called Age of Loneliness explored the narratives and situations behind the statistics. Loneliness affects people of all ages: admitting it can be a hard thing to do. I might enjoy my own company, but admitting that some days no one says my name can be painful. We are perhaps seen as vulnerable, needy or odd; perhaps we give the impression of being successful and contented; perhaps others make assumptions about our support networks and emotional needs.


Age of Loneliness: Sue Bourne BBC 1

For me, the words of  psalmist says it out loud with a pathos which reminds us that this is not a contemporary phenomenon: ‘I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the house-top’ (Ps 102:7).  Loneliness is a common human experience - fleeting moments, regular intervals or sustained periods. It doesn't correlate with our relational status or our business; or discriminate between those of us who're cup half empty or cup half full people. Perhaps we’re just too darn afraid to say it out loud.

Bourne invites people to do just that: I am lonely. If the film strikes a chord it also jolts us into understanding a painful reality.  Grief, geography, illness, separation, work - all these things separate us. Several participants such as Iain and Clare talk about the mental health problems. We also meet Isobel19 year old student and Olive 100 year old church goer: what if university isn’t the time of your life? what if you’re afraid to die alone? We meet Ben the divorce and Jaye, like me, the 40 year-old singleton. We stake so much in relationships, what happens when they break down? We celebrate parenthood - but do we recognise the isolation of the new mum or father staying home to supervise homework? At 72, Richard joins an internet dating site: longevity intensifies bereavement in a particular way, a longing for companionship.

We are scared of loneliness - yet it raises some of the most ordinary day to day ethical questions: dealing with death, childlessness, mental health, parenthood, relationship breakdown; it forces us to explore human purpose and meaning - in work and without occupation; it is about intimacy and kinship, which takes us beyond sex and biology.

What does it mean for us to be social mammals in a digital age? Does our fear of missing out prevent us from embracing solitude creatively; are our social expectations distorted by Facebook? Walk down any street or get on a train - even the courteous eye contact with strangers is lost to us as we stare at our electronic devices. The very thing which connects us, separates us; yet when our network of family and friends, we rely even more on social media or Face Time.

To quote Monibot: ‘people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation’ (The Guardian 14 October 2014 The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us). Is loneliness the collateral damage of what he calls ‘heroic individualism’ - the self-made, self-starter, self-reliant?

He goes on to observe that ‘our lives are becoming nasty, brutish and long’; he identifies what he calls ‘palliatives’ for isolated older people including ‘men in sheds’ ('The Age of Loneliness').   But loneliness is not an issue  for just one group of people - Bourne’s film deconstructs that myth.  Loneliness is part of our human condition - we feel it even when we are with people.  Rowan Williams, the theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury puts it with heartrending, recognisable eloquence: ‘Loneliness has to do with the sudden clefts we experience in every human relation, the gaps that open up with such stomach-turning unexpectedness. In a brief moment, I and my brother or sister have moved away into a different worlds, and there is no language we can share... It is in the middle of intimacy that the reality of loneliness most dramatically appears’ (A Ray of Darkness, pp. 121-126).

The question remains, how do we break the cycle? Where are the pinch points of isolation and loneliness and what might we say in response? The ethical questions that are raised are both corporate and also deeply personal.


On the one hand, there is a collective and relational aspect - the initiatives that we can take, the opportunities we offer to come together. This is often less about doing things for people, but, as the ethicist Sam Wells argues in his book A Nazareth Manifesto, it is a matter of being with them. He challenges us to move beyond ‘help and service’ of those we see as vulnerable or need - which can be dehumanising, leaving them as passive recipients of our actions. Instead he explores a more sustainable and transformative approach. Perhaps we can foster an ethical approach to loneliness which flows from that vision of co-existence.

If you listen to Radio 4’s Clare in the Community, we catch a glimpse of all the potential pitfalls of maintaining  professional boundaries at the risk of doing for as well as the potential impact of being with. Clare is a social worker with all the right jargon but who struggles to find the appropriate practical solutions. Last night’s episode ‘Joan Alone’ highlights why it is important to be aware of loneliness and isolation. Clare is reluctant to go to Joan’s 30th birthday because it’s her day off; but Joan has been preparing for weeks. We are confronted with the reality of depression; anger in response to social ‘graces’ which allow us to stay for a short while ‘if that’s alright with you’; the awkwardness of trying to do what we think is right; and an unexpectedly heartfelt expression of taking the risk of being with.

On the other hand, there is a deeply personal aspect - which is about how we take forward the challenge posed by the BBC’s response to the ComRes survey. That is how do we live well alone? This has been a concern of mine as someone who happens to be single and in public ministry. As a priest and a theologian I have to be able to give an account of our need for companionship and solitude; our need for intimacy and most acutely, how we face our mortality without fear. Being alone is something that we all face - as children, the never married, those whose relationships have ended; those whose partners are sick or who travel. In ordering the practical and emotional aspects of our lives, we need to cultivate both appropriate vulnerability (and openness to others) as well as a level of resilience.

The psychiatrist Anthony Storr in his book Solitude challenges the notion that success in personal relationships is the only or primary key to happiness. He uses a series of biographical sketches to illustrate the relationship between time alone and creativity; he seeks to demonstrate that the capacity to embrace solitude (whether as a result of our temperament or because of circumstances) is a sign of maturity. It is an approach that may be contributes something to an ethical approach to loneliness by freeing us from negative connotations. Sara Maitland is an author who has chosen to live alone in a remote part of Scotland. She has the ability to take her experience and allow it to speak into the busy and lonely realities of our daily lives. In How to be Alone  she both challenges our cultural attitudes and also practical ideas and advice for how we can embrace our own company.


However, there are certain points of life where responding to loneliness - whether that’s being alone or being together - highlights very particular ethical questions. These are the ethical questions of the every day. Parenthood and childlessness; death and grief; work and a sense of purpose; social isolation and the loss of our narratives of self in the face of dementia for example. Michael Banner’s recent book The Ethics of Everyday Life, seeks to open up new areas of reflection which are of significance for the moral philosopher as for the moral theologian; for the social anthropologist as well as the ethicist. He explores the intricacies of our social life - looking at the feelings, practices and institutions we experience or inhabit, not just the controversial questions or extreme cases. You might expect a book such as this, to pay explicitly attention to the topic of our seminar; and yet, neither the word ‘lonely’ nor ‘loneliness’ appears in the index.

We might to focus one one particular area of human life as our conversation develops, but for now it might be worth highlighting one of his focal points and asking ourselves if we can go deeper in naming and responding to loneliness.

For now, I want to highlight his contribution to ‘conceiving conception’ and exploring the desire for a child of one’s own, Banner addresses childlessness. There is something intrinsically lonely about childlessness. If anyone has seen or read reviews of the Young Vic’s recent production of Yema, we cannot be unaware of the pressure to conceive; the impact of failed IVF cycles; the conversations that are avoided; the questions about personhood, legacy and grief; the resultant isolation from a partner and wider family as the imagined child does not come into being. For Banner, ‘the existence of a child of one’s own’ is not the answer to the tragedy of childlessness (The Ethics of Everyday Life, p. 81). Whilst I am critical of his approach - perhaps glossing over too quickly the tragic - I do find something creatively challenging in a wider understanding of kinship.

How do we fashion kinship amongst strangers?  Although the church has what we call sacramental means of embodying and enacting such kinship - in baptism, in the gift of god-parenthood, in the Eucharist -  we often fall back on segmenting our communities. For example, if we have a group for mothers and toddlers, do we then need an activity for those who aren’t parents, for the single, the widowed? Or can we recover a sense of inter-generational support and friendship?

Eleanor Rigby and the nameless hotel workers, the childless woman and the widower with dementia are in their own particular ways lonely. But they aren’t ‘alone’ nor are they ‘other’, somehow removed from us.

To think ethically about loneliness will place demands on us as a society - whether we invest in co-operative housing schemes or how we embed an ethical approach to care. To think ethically about loneliness means we have to engage across generations; how we use social media without being consumed by it; how we value friendship and non-biological kinship when our tax and social system is so grounded in supporting or passing on to ‘our own’ the resources that we have.

In ‘Reclaim the Streets’, we hear of seven billion lonely lives alone together. The next verse seems to hark back to a bygone era:

But once there was a time of feasts and holy days
Carnivals and fairs lit the town
However grim life got, folk came together
to turn the old world upside down.

Perhaps the closest we get to this are street parties for royal occasions. Can we once again fill our streets with life - sharing the nurture of children and ensuring that no one died unknown? The clarion call for Monibot is that we feast and share together:

So roll out the beer, lay out the tables
Hang the flags and come on out to eat
Open wide your doors and stand together
Today we’re reclaiming the street.

The day to day reality poses sustained ethical engagement: creating a culture of care and attention in the small things; acknowledging the humanity of others and restoring their dignity. Perhaps we might be acutely aware of loneliness in this pre-Christmas season. The social expectations - reinforced by advertising campaigns - is of a time full of joy and being together.  But it can also be an empty time. It is at Christmas, those "sudden clefts" feel more acute.

Christmas adverts promise the perfect celebration - the idyll of togetherness. It was last year that John Lewis spent millions of pounds acknowledging that often we feel "half the world away" and  inviting us to "show someone they're loved".


Christmas is so often viewed as a full time - but for those without work or home, those without someone to love them it can be  an empty time.   Our responses to others - and the way others reach out to us - go someway to cultivating community and expressing support in tangible ways.  When we are lonely, deciding to "do something" can take us out of ourselves, creating a sense of purpose by giving us something else to focus on; but the depth of kindness expressed in that something is even more powerful if we are prepared to be with others, learning something of their story.

Part of my narrative response is to draw on the resources of my tradition. The resources of scriptural texts which say within its opening chapters that it is not good to be alone; that we are called to shared endeavour and companionship.  To texts which also speak positively about being alone as a place of challenge, reflection, transformation and empowerment. And, in this season, I turn to the opening chapter of John's Gospel for a poetic and majestic expression of this love; it's sublime in its intimacy and scale. In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God.

This Word is full of light and light, truth and glory; grace and peace. This Word becomes flesh, coming to us and dwelling with us - even in the depths of our loneliness. Humanity is reconciled in this: the Word who abides close to the Father's heart, abides with us.

Whatever forms our ethical framework, there is a deep wisdom in that abiding with that we can imitate. The Gospels tell us the stories of Jesus as a nursing infant and a toddler in exile. He learnt a trade in the stability of a home in Nazareth, yet he was without honour there. He was tested in the wilderness and sought refreshing solitude on the hilltop. He was betrayed in a garden by one friend and denied in a courtyard by another.   He cried out in dereliction on the cross, yet in alienation spoke words of forgiveness and acceptance. He was buried in a stranger's tomb and drew alongside disciples on a road; he shared his risen life with them in broken bread.



Perhaps an ethical response to loneliness to find ways of telling our stories; of being with others and hearing theirs. Of breaking bread together. Of reclaiming our streets.



© Julie Gittoes 2016