Archive for December, 2017

‘The Death of Stalin:’ Great truth and strange distortions. 23 December

December 23, 2017

The film ‘The Death of Stalin’ is a tour de force. Taken from a French book of the same name, financed and produced by French companies. Superbly written, acted, filmed, mostly by British filmmakers. (Why could the British financial institutions for whose benefit the whole British economy is geared, not have expressed financial confidence in this brilliant enterprise?)


‘The Death of Stalin’ conveys the grinding terror of post war Soviet Russia and the crazy chaos around and after the Communist dictator’s death. ‘Based on real events’ and on real people. Each nasty character is distinctive and believable, verging on caricature, yet never losing touch with the grimly real history. Yes Stalin did have his close colleagues play silly, degrading, games and watch American cowboy movies. Yes the whole population knew someone who had been dragged off in the night by the State Security Police and half expected, any night, to be on the ‘list’ for forcible removal, torture, exile, execution. (The composer Dmitri Shostakovich sometimes slept in the hallway so that when ‘they’ came, his family would not be disturbed.) Yes Soviet leaders were coarse and sex-obsessed. I remember an official Soviet ‘Peace Delegation’ being received by the Town Council of Belper, Derbyshire in the 1980s. During the break for refreshments three good Soviets, including an Orthodox Bishop, did not realise that I could understand the gist of their lewd conversation about the body of a female Councillor. Yes when Stalin had the stroke which finally killed him he was listening to a record of a Mozart Piano Concerto which had been made in the night after he had heard it broadcast and had ‘requested’ a record of the unrecorded broadcast. Yes the pianist was Maria Yudina who had written to Stalin critically. 

But no, Maria Yudina’s note was not as harsh as in the film. The Concerto had not been recorded the night before Stalin died but nine years previously. Neither did Yudina bargain for money, as in the film. Stalin was so pleased with the recording that he sent Yudina 20,000 roubles. She replied with a note assuring Stalin of her prayers, calling him to repent for his many sins, and explaining that she had given the money to her church. All expected Stalin to show some displeasure at the note, maybe a curling of the tip of his nose. This would have been enough for the night-time hammering on her door. Stalin’s face remained blank. See and Stalin also never forgot. Was there a true connection, not as immediate as in the film, between Yudina’s playing, her thank you note, and Stalin’s stroke?

Why does the film, and the book on which it is based, distort details? Beria the vicious head of the State Security Police did not die without a trial the day of Stalin’s death. He died three years later after a typical show trial. Was it because the writers thought a more compressed, more dramatized version of reality would be ‘truer’ in some way? Or that they wanted to leave their personal imprint, changing history to reflect their art? Better to be accurate in detail as well as in broad sweep, more respectful to the actual, named, people. 

More importantly, the film focuses entirely on the variegated human wickedness of the Soviet leaders and misses the wicked ideology which they followed. Anyone who visited Soviet Russia, as I did in 1974 and 1978, will have seen Communist Party slogans everywhere, especially on top of prominent buildings. These are absent from the film. Soviets lived a double life, the official narrative of present sacrifices for the glorious socialist future contrasting with the desperate struggle for survival, for human warmth. Life was always cloaked in pompous rhetoric; atrocities cloaked in official justification. The ideology was not a minor detail, as in the film, but a major feature of public and private life, a necessary part of the grinding terror. 

If we are to learn from history, as the makers of ‘The Death of Stalin’ would want, we must see more clearly the dangers of idolatrous ideology – whether Communist, racial-Fascist, Free Market, or Islamist. Each demands belief in a better world ahead for which bloody struggle is necessary now. People other than the ideological leaders are made to pay the price. Life becomes grim: over-controlled and diminished and fearful

Life is not to be lived in the service of the great Communist, Capitalist or Islamist dream, it is to be lived as an expression today of love of God and love of our neighbour. Maria Yudina, in her piano playing and living, expressed this counter-cultural love. This is fullness of life, tree freedom, based on full truth, with no distortions. 

Roger Harper


A woman Bishop of London? God’s not bothered. 22 December

December 22, 2017

I remember the Big Deal that the ordination of women was in the 1980s. Battle-lines, campaigning groups, bad disagreement. Predictions of disaster brought about by ‘fundamental change’ to Bible teaching and Church tradition.

An Evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, took a bold stance by disagreeing strongly with the Conservative Evangelicals. Carey called the Church to make the general principle of ‘in Christ there is no male nor female’ more important than particular instructions to particular churches on women in church. Jesus had gone as far as he could in welcoming women as forefront disciples, not least in giving women the responsibility of witnessing to his resurrection. The focus had to be first and foremost on Jesus rather than equally on Moses, Paul and Jesus: ‘Listen to him!’

George Carey, and others, also made sure that no-one would be coerced contrary to conscience. The Church would have two, apparently conflicting, practices to match the conflicting theologies. Some churches would have women in leadership, some would not. Room was made for both. The same decision was made for marriage after divorce, some clergy and parishes taking the weddings of divorcees, some not. Without this, Prince Harry’s marriage to a divorcee would have been tricky, at least.

The Church of England took the step that has now led to Sarah Mullally the next Bishop of London, a Bishop in a direct line of succession from the first Apostles. Paul wrote that an Apostle had to be a witness of the resurrection. It took the Church a long time to recognise the implications of the gender of the very first witnesses of the resurrection. The Holy Spirit leads into truths which, sometimes for a very long time, Christians cannot bear.

Predictions of disaster were not fulfilled. (The gut human belief: change = disaster is another sign of the fall and the fear that we all inherit.) The Church of England has not fared notably worse with women leading parishes and dioceses. Yes, there has been continuing decline, as would be expected in the most Christendom Church as we leave Christendom, but not because of women in leadership. Churches led by women vicars grow, generally, much the same as those led by men vicars. (I don’t think anyone has dared to do these statistics; this is my view, mostly from across the West and East Midlands.)

What about churches who refuse to have women in leadership? My experience is that these churches too grow with the same variety as Anglican churches generally. I think of one Midlands church officially unaccepting of women priests and bishops, running thriving Alpha courses with remarkable Holy Spirit Days and healthy congregations. Predictions of disaster here too have not been fulfilled.

The Gamaliel Principle is that we should allow people to go ahead as they deem best and see if God blesses their ministry (Acts 5:33-39.) The experience of the last 30 years is that God, the Holy Spirit, seems happy to bless ministry whether by those pro or anti women in church leadership. He’s not bothered. Women in leadership is not a Primary Issue for Him. If it were, the results would be obvious by now. He loves all who faithfully follow Jesus within their own limited understandings.

Can we learn from this for our current debate about Gay Marriage? Might this be something into which the Holy Spirit is leading the Church, though it could not have been borne before? Might the principle of loving faithfulness, to one person, for life, coming out of the heart, be more important than particular mention of particular physical practices? What happens when we do not listen to Moses, Paul and Jesus equally, but listen to Jesus first and foremost?

(Welcoming Gay Marriage is not welcoming all relationships of all LGBT people. The life-long commitment to one person specifically excludes anyone wanting to be a practising bisexual.)

How would the Gamaliel Principle be applied today? Could the Church of England allow, even encourage, two different, apparently conflicting practices, to match the conflicting theologies? Then we could see how the Holy Spirit blesses the different ministries.

Some people say that Gay Marriage is so definitely a Primary Biblical or Church Tradition issue that there can be no fellowship with those who adopt a new understanding and practice. How do they know? How do we know? 30 years ago people were saying the same about women in leadership. Maybe God will be proved to be not so bothered about gay marriage either.

Roger Harper