Monday 19 December 2022

Cultural decolonisation or cultural re-colonisation? The example of the Museum of the Home

Is the current anxiety for "decolonisation" of our culture and some of its institutions genuinely about "de-colonising"? Or is it in reality the replacement of a physical/historical colonialism by a new, ideological colonialism - an ideological "re-colonisation"?

In Bristol, this question has arisen around the figure of Edward Colston (this Wikepedia link includes a description of the renaming of a number of institutions in Bristol previously named after Edward Colston). Money that he made in trade at sea, which included a significant governance role in a company that traded in African slaves, was used in part to fund a wide range of philanthropic and civic projects in Bristol.

In Shoreditch, in East London, the question has arisen around the figure of Robert Geffrye. The museum that is now known as the Museum of the Home was formerly known as the Geffrye Museum, and is located on the site of almshouses that were originally endowed by Robert Geffrye. Like Edward Colston, some of the investments from which Robert Geffrye benefitted were related to the slave trade; and, also like Edward Colston, Robert Geffrye was responsible for charitable endowments.

Should figures such as Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye be excised from our contemporary cultural expression? Today we see the trade in African slaves as being akin to a mortal sin; at the times of Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye the prevailing culture did not see it in that way. Thinking philosophically rather than historically, we should recognise that, whatever the prevailing cultural acceptance at the time, participation in the slave trade represented a denial of the dignity and respect due to other human persons (African slaves). In other areas of their activity, however, we should also recognise that figures like Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye acted in a way which favoured the dignity and respect due to other human persons (the beneficiaries of their almshouses or educational institutions).

They are figures who represent a mixture of wheat and tares, to use a Biblical analogy. Until recently, our cultural expression was very willing to reflect the wheat and to disregard the tares; and now it is perhaps very willing to reflect the tares and disregard the wheat. I think that a just cultural expression needs to reflect a correct assessment of both the wheat and the tares; and that cultural re-assessment may not be a correct assessment if its only outcome is the removal of the names of Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye from institutions associated with them. If their presence is excised, the question is not concluded until we look at what replaces that presence; and a recent visit to the Museum of the Home, formerly known as the Geffrye Museum, raises exactly that question of what has replaced the former expression.

In 2021, the museum reopened after an extensive redevelopment, which added a series of exhibition spaces in what had originally been the basements of the almshouses. The museum has also undertaken a process of engagement with its local community in East London, which is reflected in some of the displays in the new exhibition "alcoves" in the basement and in the narratives associated with the long standing "Rooms through Time" along the main corridor above ground. [One might recognise, though, as was suggested by my fellow visitor, that those who have taken part in the resulting displays are of middle or professional class.]

Of the new displays, I found two to be of particular interest. One used recorded video, photos and objects to discuss the range of religious belief that might exist in the locality of the museum, basing it on the objects of religious significance that might be displayed in a person's home. I found the representation of Christianity disappointing in two ways. Firstly, it didn't express the practical act of charity and advocacy in its relation to specific belief about the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus; and secondly it did not refer to Christian churches. The person who spoke came over as if they might be a Christian without any specific denominational affiliation, which whilst it may be fair to the particular individual who contributed, may not be true of the local community as a whole. 

The other display that I found interesting was one that explored what it means to speak of "home". This was represented by photographs and accounts of residents from the local area. I was struck by how many of he displays described people who had lived long term in rented accommodation that they had made "home". This, I thought, was an interesting exploration for a museum whose "charism" is that of representing the physical displays of homes through time.

The "Rooms through Time" displays  show a series of full size recreations of living rooms from different times. Each display includes the decor - carpets, wall paper, windows, curtains - and furniture of the time. From visits that we made before the redevelopment of the museum, I recall these displays being tweaked to reflect the time of year. Our recent visit was in early December, so the narratives associated with the rooms and materials displayed on dining tables reflected Boxing Day or the Jewish feast of Hannukah. In one or two cases, the new narratives did not really reflect the content of the room, with a certain sense that a narrative had been imposed on a room that did not necessarily express the narrative. A room whose narrative was that of an Imperial Airways pilot contained some features of art deco style - Critall windows, an art deco style dining table, a fireplace - that I recall from an earlier visit to the museum being the real point of this particular display. Likewise, a 60s/70s open plan home with a mezannine sleeping area above a kitchen area to one side of the main living space, is now accompanied by a narrative of a lesbian friend who has been kicked out of her home staying overnight after a late night party (a mattress and bedding on the floor having been added to the previously existing display). Here in particular, the "home" being displayed - a style of open plan living - really does not justify the imposed narrative. In both of these examples, the narrative does not produce a style of home-making - furnishings, furniture, displayed objects - that one would expect in a display of a "home".

Which leads to the question raised at the beginning of this post. Has the former Geffrye Museum, in distancing itself from the person of Robert Geffrye, chosen to replace that former association with a historical colonialism with a new, ideological form of colonialisation?  And, at the same time, to make itself less a Museum of the Home?

Monday 5 December 2022

Discernment: Pope Francis' current series of General Audiences

 Each week, the Holy Father speaks to a gathering of the faithful in Rome, in the Audience Hall during the winter months when numbers are smaller, and in St Peter's Square in the summer. The audience to which he speaks is, in the first instance, those who have gathered on that particular day with the Pope. But the Pope's words are also addressed to the wider Church, via subsequent publication in the means of social communication. They also have a degree of permanence, being offered not just for the Church of today but, depending on the subject, to the Church for the future. A particular example of this are the series of General Audience addresses from Pope St John Paul II beginning in September 1979 and ending in November 1984 that are now known under the title "The Theology of the Body". Likewise is the series of audiences devoted to the psalms and canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer, begun by Pope John Paul II in March 2001 and completed by his successor, Benedict XVI, in Feburary 2006, and published in a collection by the Catholic Truth Society.

The subject of Pope Francis' present series of audience addresses is that of discernment. One can see, both in the choice of subject and in the contents of the addresses themselves, the influence of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. The choice is pertinent given the part to be played by discernment in the Synodal process and the part that discernment plays in the teaching of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.

In his third audience in the series, Pope Francis suggests that it is an affective form of prayer that is an important element of discernment:

Discerning what is happening within us is not easy, for appearances are deceptive, but familiarity with God can melt doubts and fears in a gentle way, making our lives increasingly receptive to his “gentle light,” according to the beautiful expression of Saint John Henry Newman. The saints shine with reflected light and show in the simple gestures of their day the loving presence of God, who makes the impossible possible. It is said that two spouses who have lived together for a long time, loving each other, end up resembling each other. Something similar can be said about affective prayer. In a gradual but effective  way, it makes us more and more capable of recognizing what counts through connaturality, as something that springs from the depths of our being. To be in prayer does not mean saying words, words, no: being in prayer means opening my heart to Jesus, drawing close to Jesus, allowing Jesus to enter into my heart and making us feel his presence. And there we can discern when it is Jesus and when it is us with our thoughts, that so many times are far from what Jesus wants.

 In the sixth audience, Pope Francis speaks of how the "book of one's own life" forms one of the elements of discernment, suggesting a slightly different character to a daily examination of conscience:

Discernment is the narrative reading of the good moments and the dark moments, the consolations and desolations we experience in the course of our lives. In discernment, it is the heart that speaks to us about God, and we must learn to understand its language. Let us ask, at the end of the day, for example: what happened today in my heart? Some think that carrying out this examination of conscience is like doing the bookkeeping of the sins we have committed — and we commit many — but it is also about asking oneself, “What happened within me, did I experience joy? What brought me joy? Was I sad? What brought me sadness? And in this way, learning to discern  what happens within us.

The most recent audiences address the questions of desolation and consolation with regard to discernment, themes that are profoundly Ignatian. Perhaps these audiences will prove to be a specifically Ignatian contribution from a Jesuit Pope.

Friday 2 December 2022

Four Thoughts about an Interview

 America magazine, a journal published by the Jesuits in the United States, have recently carried an -interview with Pope Francis. A full text has been published online: Pope Francis discusses Ukraine, U.S. bishops and more.

The first thought is less a thought, but more a feeling that this particular observation by Pope Francis should give every Catholic cause to pause and reflect:

I go to confession every 15 days.

[I suspect that the reference to 15 days might properly translate from Spanish to English as every two weeks.]

The second thought is to suggest that there is some parallel between my previous post on abortion as an ideological or an existential question and Pope Francis' account of abortion as a political or as a pastoral question:

The problem arises when this reality of killing a human being is transformed into a political question, or when a pastor of the church uses political categories.Each time a problem loses the pastoral dimension (pastoralidad), that problem becomes a political problem and becomes more political than pastoral. I mean, let no one hijack this truth, which is universal. It does not belong to one party or another. It is universal. When I see a problem like this one, which is a crime, become strongly, intensely political, there is a failure of pastoral care in approaching this problem. Whether in this question of abortion, or in other problems, one cannot lose sight of the pastoral dimension: A bishop is a pastor, a diocese is the holy people of God with their pastor. We cannot deal with [abortion] as if it is only a civil matter.

In answering a question about the role of women in the Church, Pope Francis spoke of a ministerial or Petrine dimension of the Church and of a feminine or Marian dimension. The theme of the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the Church can be found in Charles Journet's Theology of the Church and, perhaps more explicitly, in Hans Urs von Balthasar's The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church. There is therefore rich hinterland lying behind Pope Francis' references here. Pope Francis then offers a context for his repeated remarks about giving women a greater role in the Church - that there is an administrative principle, which is not theological, but more about the every day running of the Church:

There is a third way: the administrative way. The ministerial way, the ecclesial way, let us say, Marian, and the administrative way, which is not a theological thing, it is something of normal administration. And, in this aspect, I believe we have to give more space to women....

And why can a woman not enter ordained ministry? It is because the Petrine principle has no place for that. Yes, one has to be in the Marian principle, which is more important. Woman is more, she looks more like the church, which is mother and spouse. I believe that we have too often failed in our catechesis when explaining these things. We have relied too much on the administrative principle to explain it, which in the long term does not work. This is an abbreviated explanation, but I wanted to highlight the two theological principles; the Petrine principle and the Marian principle that make up the church. Therefore, that the woman does not enter into the ministerial life is not a deprivation. No. Your place is that which is much more important and which we have yet to develop, the catechesis about women in the way of the Marian principle.

My last thought refers to how Pope Francis understands the relationship between a Bishop and the people of his diocese, a relationship which he characterises by the word "pastoral".  The discussion occurs in a couple of different places in the interview, at one point contrasting it with the role of episcopal conferences:

A bishops’ conference has, ordinarily, to give its opinion on faith and traditions, but above all on diocesan administration and so on. The sacramental part of the pastoral ministry is in the relationship between the pastor and the people of God, between the bishop and his people. And this cannot be delegated to the bishops’ conference.

In the interview, Pope Francis does not connect this to the idea of synodality. I do think, however, that the responsibility of a bishop towards his diocese is one key point on which the practice of synodality turns, and Pope Francis articulation of this responsibility has implications for the synodal pathway.