Photo by Peter Adams

The deep wisdom of rootedness

Society has lost touch with the people and places who helped to shape it in the first place

Sounding Board

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I have become obsessed, in the way that that one can only become really fixated with the truly ghastly, with “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times Magazine.

In it, advice is doled out to perplexed Americans on topics such as: “My Kid Looks White. Does My Thai Father Make Them Asian?”, “Should I Edit Pink Hair Out Of My Daughter’s Wedding Photos?” and, perhaps my favourite, the great moral quandary of our day, “Can People Claim Spots on the Beach With Empty Chairs?” Who needs the Nicomachean Ethics, eh?

The issue about all of these faintly comic pearl-clutching incidents is not so much that they aren’t ethical conundrums — everything, after all, is ethics if you look hard enough. Nor is it necessarily an issue that many of them are posed in such a way as to imply a smug, predictable assumption of what is the right option.

No, their main problem is that they speak of ethics entirely divorced from context. From past, place or, indeed, any sense of personhood that goes beyond the concept of “I should be able to do what I want, when I want”.

They speak of a society that has lost touch with deep wisdom, that is so determined not to commune with the places and people that have shaped it, that they frame the minor inconveniences of the lives they have built for themselves as ethical quandaries.

They speak of people permanently looking to the next thing, and annoyed when something delays it and thus forces a moment of communion with the concepts of right and wrong. They speak of a desire for constant, endless progress.

They also serve as a reminder that staying, lingering, abiding are not popular concepts to our contemporary mind. The idea of “putting down roots” is met with horror in some quarters, a social equivalent of cutting off one’s head.

Indeed, the great narrative put forward in vast swathes of popular culture is that people who linger in one place are bad: or at least less capable of informed ethical choice.

Next week I will ring a bell. It isn’t a particularly remarkable achievement; I suspect I will not do it well. I am no bell-ringer — my main experience of such things was watching a friend who was given the task of ringing the college bell each evening as a creative punishment for some minor misdemeanour whilst at university.

But people will count closely how often I ring it. I am being instituted as vicar of a new parish and tradition states that the number of times the new incumbent rings the bell will be the number of years they stay in post.

Nowadays decades of ministry in one place would be taken by many as a sign of awkwardness or failure

In the unlikely event that I live to it, and in the even less likely event that it remains fixed, the compulsory C of E retirement age of 71 still potentially gives me 40 years in one place as vicar. That’s quite a lot of bell-ringing.

I don’t know if that is what God is calling me to, or if it would actually in practice be a good idea. But whereas it once would have made me quite unremarkable — a number of my predecessors wracked up 20, 30 or 40 years in the parish — nowadays such a ministry would be taken by many within the Church’s managerial circles as a sign of awkwardness or failure.

The Church of England, as in so many other areas, alas now leans much more towards the model of constant action, endless applications and reapplications. Gone is the concept of sojourning in the land which the Lord thy God hath given thee; now we exist in a sort of unending clerical LinkedIn.

Now: I have travelled extensively, I have lived in different countries and cities and continents. I have also left places before my time: sometimes of necessity, sometimes because of that foolish sense of there being better things on the horizon, but on one occasion because it was the wrong place in the first instance.

A place — London — where, in retrospect, I should never have been at all. I am not saying that leaving can never be a good thing. But as I now make a move into a new community, one where some people have lived for a very long time, and attempt to put down roots for goodness knows how long, my first aim will be to listen and hear, in particular, the stories of those who have been there all their lives.

The Christian story has a particular veneration for those who have spent time plugging away in the same place with the same message. On 2 February, the Church will celebrate the great feast of The Presentation, also known as Candlemas, marking the day Mary and Joseph brought the child Jesus to the Temple.

There they encounter Simeon and Anna: odd, old and of the absolute conviction that this unlikely little baby is the promised Messiah. They had both spent years lingering, abiding, staying put in the Temple.

It was those years of quiet, samey discernment which gave them such wisdom. Perhaps they might be better choices to answer the nagging banalities of New York Times readers than “The Ethicist”.

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