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Rev Richard Coles: Brexiteers and Remainers alike could learn from the life of Jesus

“Now is the time to come together,” said Theresa May at the despatch box on 29 March. But how? Britain is more divided than I have ever known it, if my Facebook feed, lively with debate, is anything to go by. As I look at it, I keep hearing that mysterious sound in Act II of The Cherry Orchard, of something turning and twisting and tightening to breaking point. At first, I attributed it to tinnitus, the enduring legacy of my pop career, but now I wonder if others hear it, too, in exchanges between Remainers and Leavers – especially those happening in unlikely places and testing untested loyalties.

The Church, particularly the Church of England, with its historic commitment to the via media (“middle way”), has rich experience in seeking to bridge irreconcilable differences. The first Christians were formed by the first Easter into a new community that transcended all other commitments, encompassing the tax collector Matthew, a lackey of the occupying Romans, and Simon the Zealot, an insurrectionist.

Two millennia later, the Church of England, which has a kind of ecclesiastical personality disorder, is obliged to seek breadth. It is a Church of the Reformation that retains its Catholic character, with thrash-metal-loving, wifi-enabled congregations which believe that the world is about six thousand years old next door to congregations singing Renaissance polyphony amid clouds of incense. A church of such conflicting views that can hold together for almost half a millennium should have something to offer the wider divided world.

You might think so, but we are fully occupied holding together our own irreconcilable differences. Here are two examples. After decades of wrangling and compromises extracted like wisdom teeth without anaesthetic, the Church of England voted in 2014 to allow women to be ordained not only as deacons and priests but also as bishops. Trying to explain why the Church found this so hard to a generation that has grown up finding women’s leadership not even noteworthy (let alone controversial) is increasingly difficult, if you found the change necessary. And opposing it is ever less defensible.

Philip North, widely acknowledged as a fine priest and bishop, was nominated to be the next bishop of Sheffield, a post with a special responsibility for all of the priests in the diocese – including women, whose priesthood he finds doubtful because he questions the validity of their ordination. A compromise that ensured the passage of the legislation allowing women to become bishops guaranteed the “mutual flourishing” of both sides of the argument. After intense protest against his appointment, Bishop North decided not to accept the nomination. Whatever you make of this, no one would dispute that the promise of “mutual flourishing” was premature.

A recent document pledged just as gushingly to “affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church”, while ruling out any change to the status quo regarding same-sex relationships. It came out of a process in which those of us who are working towards a change engaged with those who cannot countenance it, in the hope of finding some sort of compromise that would, we hoped, allow at least a move towards greater inclusion. What we got was language that said one thing and action that said another. The General Synod responded by declining to “take note” of the document.

I was not surprised that we failed to make a breakthrough in the Church’s position on same-sex relationships, nor was I surprised that the agreement providing for a bishop who does not ordain women to be given charge of a diocese failed. The effort to reconcile the irreconcilable is sometimes more difficult and painful than the compromises achieved in Synod allow.

The most difficult and painful experience I have had of division was at theological college – an enclosed and febrile place where disagreements about the butter knife could suddenly become gladiatorial. Our disagreements were over more fundamental issues, and they grew so intense that I once spent the night in a tent in freezing weather because I could not bear to be under the same roof as some of my brethren (I know that some of them found me no more bearable). At the darkest hour, I sat in the echoing church at evensong as a monk read the New Testament lesson from the second chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, in which the writer speaks of Jesus Christ reconciling the irreconcilable, making “one new humanity from the two” at the cost of His death on the cross. Something sparked.

Jesus comes among us, in our all division, not to instruct, comfort or inspire but to die. In doing so, He answers the sum of our self-regard, stupidity and cruelty. On the other side of the cross, self-regard, stupidity, cruelty and their associated powers are spent, and we look beyond to see a new day rising and the possibility of life transformed.

Just before dawn on Easter Sunday, we meet outside the church where a new fire is burning. From it, we light the great Easter candle, which the deacon carries into the church, bare and empty and dark, symbolising the tomb in which Jesus was laid on Good Friday. The deacon sings, “The light of Christ!” We respond, “Thanks be to God!” and, one by one, light our candles, anticipating the dawn breaking outside at the edge of night on an undiscovered country where divisions are not glossed, or dodged, or reconciled, but left behind.

Richard Coles’s “Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years As a Priest” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear