Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


Leave a comment

Psyche, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A Cabbage White.

A Cabbage White.

I recently read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s short poem Psyche for the first time. In spite of its brevity, its address is deep and rich. Psyche was composed in 1808, and published first in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817). I do have a certain fellow-feeling for Coleridge, my fellow Devonian republican. And so, to the text

Psyche

The butterfly the ancient Grecians made
The soul’s fair emblem, and its only name –
But of the soul, escaped the slavish trade
Of mortal life! – For in this earthly frame
Ours is the reptile’s lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed,
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed.

The form of this poem is unique. It is closest in shape to the rhyme royal stanza form championed by Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde. It was also employed by Shakespeare in his Rape of Lucrece. Thus, the form suggests a passionate tragedy. A standard rhyme royal is like a half-sonnet, consisting of seven lines of iambic pentameter, rhymed ababbcc. In Psyche, Coleridge follows this form with one exception: the final line is extended into an alexandrine, by the addition of an extra beat.

The initial idea of the poem is the Greek word ψυχή (psychē), which is most usually translated ‘soul’, but can be ‘breath’ or even ‘butterfly’. Coleridge extends this metaphor as the butterfly for the free soul (in some Neoplatonic afterlife) and the caterpillar for the embodied soul in captivity on earth. Coleridge does not mention the caterpillar directly, and even uses the word ‘reptile’ to describe it. I found that word wrong-footed me at first reading, but the effect makes me think of the Serpent of the Garden of Eden. However, the word, from the Late Latin reptilis ‘creeping’, used to be used to cover any sort of creeping thing (and sometimes still does). The Latin myth of Psyche and Cupid would be obvious material for a romantic poet to use here (Keats does so in his 1819 Ode to Psyche), but Coleridge focuses more simply on the soul–butterfly image.

The phrasing of Psyche is ternary: the first two lines make the statement about the Greek idea of the butterfly as an image of the soul, the third line and the beginning of the fourth extend this by noting that this is true only for the post-mortal soul, with the rest of the poem dwelling on the situation of the earth-bound, embodied soul. The ternary phrasing of Psyche makes me think of the various philosophical, theological and psychological anthropologies: spirit, soul and body; reason, emotion and desire; superego, ego and id. It is this third movement of the poem that packs the real punch, with the preceding two thirds setting the scene. Yet still, each of these movements has a little surprise for the reader. The first movement presents us with the butterfly image. The second gives us the timely wording ‘escaped the slavish trade’. Coleridge was an avowed abolitionist, and Psyche was written a year after William Wilberforce’s 1807 Slave Trade Act. However, many radical abolitionists, like Coleridge, felt this was something of a pyrrhic victory (too little, too late), as slavery itself was not abolished. Psyche appears to reflect on the arduous, seemingly never-ending struggle as an image of the wider romantic idea of Weltschmerz (world weariness) or mal du siècle (sickness of the [early-19th] century). For the romantics, their Weltschmerz was a realisation that their fully aware minds could never be satisfied by their experience of the world. Coleridge knew guilt, failure and depression (‘much toil, much blame’), and so the ‘slavish trade of mortal life’ suits both Coleridge’s romantic reading and his own experience.

The clearest poetical device used in Psyche is the alliteration that begins at the end of the fifth line — ‘much toil, much blame’ — and flowing onto the beginning of the sixth line — ‘manifold motions making’. On the fifth line these ‘m’s fall on offbeats, but the repeated word strengthens them and slows the poem recitation down. On the sixth line, these ‘m’s fall on the beats and create an initial inversion of the metre. The letter shape — ‘M’ — is reminiscent of the motion of a caterpillar or a snake, as is the DUM-di-di-DUM rhythm of the initial inversion. In fact, the word ‘reptile’ is introduced on the fifth line with a similar inversion.

A weaker initial inversion appears in the third and last lines. These lines begin with three unstressed syllables, which can be read as regular iambic rhythm, yet the contrastive stress seems to fall on the words ‘but’ and ‘and’ respectively, giving BUT of the SOULAND to deFORM. Well, I did read the third line a few times as regular iambic rhythm, but I think the initial inversion sounds better.

The diction of Psyche is quite contemporary for a 200-year-old poem. There are only two words that strike me as a bit dated: ‘Grecian’ and ‘fair’ (there is also the unusual sense of ‘reptile’ which I have already mentioned). I do not mind the word ‘Grecian’ so much: it fits with the schoolish opening phrase about the dual meaning of ψυχή. I find the use of ‘fair’ took more acclimatisation. As it occurs as a stressed syllable on an offbeat in the metre, it does have a tripping effect, slowing the line right down. The ‘fair emblem’ does make me think of the Cabbage Whites that flitted around my dad’s vegetable garden in the summer months of my childhood. It’s large white wings make it quite a suitable ‘fair emblem’ for the soul. It is also considered by gardeners to be a pest for what its caterpillar-children do to plants!

Speaking of the demotion of the syllable ‘fair’ in the second line, Coleridge makes use of unstressed beats (‘promotion’) to pick up the pace in a couple of places. In the second line, the slowing over ‘the soul’s fair emblem’ is then accelerated by placing the beat on the unstressed first syllable of ‘and its only name’, propelling us onward. Coleridge does this again in the second phrase of the fourth line: placing the beat on the unstressed second syllable of ‘for in this earthly frame’ to catapult us into the realisation delivered in the final three lines of the what the existence of the unfree soul means.

The most striking aspect of the scansion, though, is that final alexandrine. This metrical extension avoids the poem coming to a neat, clackity-clack conclusion. It draws out the poem, and makes us wait for the end, which is very much the point. It is difficult not to think of French poetry when the alexandrine is deployed, which makes me think it a subtle comment on Napoleon’s perceived betrayal of the bright hopes of the French Revolution. With that and the slow progress of abolition, Coleridge channels his particular Weltschmerz into this poem.

The final image of that pest the caterpillar deforming, destroying, devouring its leaf stands for humanity’s parasitical lust for earthly resources. In the 21st century, Coleridge’s poem reads with a strong environmentalist message. I was first attracted to this poem by its opening two lines: a clever bit of classics, but my interest was deepened by this possible environmentalist reading. Psyche’s melancholic hopelessness about human life does not chime with my personal feelings, although there are plenty of opportunities for us to read current affairs in this light. The Neoplatonic anthropology of the freedom of the disembodied soul is not to my Christian taste either. My biblical theology is of the human being as a psychosomatic unity: the soul (נפש nephesh, ψυχή psychē) is the God-given life of the person, not the person’s distillated self. Thus, I have plenty to argue against Psyche’s heretical hopelessness, but it also highlights for me the central importance of salvation, without which we might as well be caterpillars destroying all before us. Yet, I am drawn — moth to flame! — back to this poem, charmed by its supple simplicity and high-blown romantic melancholy.

Addition: I just came across Alexander Pope’s description of the alexandrine in his 1709 poem An Essay on Criticism: ‘That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along’ (which, of course is an alexandrine itself, with a medial inversion). This would almost certainly have been known by Coleridge.


15 Comments

Liturgy bits: a spotters guide to Evensong

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Evensong is a peculiar Anglican creature. It is the liturgy that has become the most distinctively Anglican, and has become a treasured bulwark of tradition. This article is a little, geeky exploration of what is Evensong and its sub-species.

The word ‘Evensong’ is first documented by the OED in the Old English of the Canons of Ælfric (c. 1000) as æfen-sang. Until the Reformation, this English word was used to describe the office of Vespers, the seventh of the round of eight daily offices, said just before sunset.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer produced two drafts of how the reformed Church of England should pray each day. The first, more radical plan was to consolidate the eight offices down to two. When, eventually, Henry Tudor junior died, Cranmer was free to produce the first Book of Common Prayer, published 1549. Its two daily offices were named ‘Matins’ and ‘Evensong’ (the former being the name of the first of the pre-Reformation offices, which also had the colourful Old English name uht-sang, which persisted as ‘Oughtensong’ in Middle English). With Cranmer’s revised Prayer Book of 1552, the quaint (or poetic) names of the two offices were officially replaced with the more robust (or prosaic) ‘Morning and Evening Prayer’. Yet the old names continued to live on, to the extent that it is rather daft to speak of ‘Choral Evening Prayer’.

Because of the pressures on Sunday mornings, especially with the restoration of the Parish Eucharist as the main Sunday mid-morning service, major celebrations of Matins have become rather few and far between. However, in twilight isolation Evensong has remained strong. In the nineteenth century, the ‘Fully Choral Service’ became a sign of aspirational excellence in neo-gothic, middle-class churches, aping cathedrals with their processions and besurpliced choirs. I believe that movement has skewed our understanding of  Evensong to assume that only a proper Choral Evensong will do, when we have forgotten how to do a good — liturgically and musically — Evensong that is suited to a church that cannot really cope with the demanding choral repertoire.

What about those sub-species? Continue reading


Leave a comment

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Here is the recording of my sermon for Remembrance Sunday, given in Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, on Sunday 10 November 2013. In the context of an Oxford college, I touch on a couple of philosophical issues about war, something I most probably would not do in a church. I find this subject difficult, and am still not sure I put this in the best way I could.


Leave a comment

Campra Requiem

Hertford College, Oxford: performance of Campra's Requiem

Hertford College, Oxford: performance of Campra’s Requiem

Last night, I had the great privilege of celebrating our annual requiem mass here at Hertford College Chapel, Oxford. The Chapel Choir, Soloists and Players, conducted by Senior Organ Scholar Ed Whitehead performed André Campra‘s Messe de Requiem. Listen to the recording below.

Because of it themes of death and mortality, risen life and immortality, many composers have set the liturgical texts of the requiem to music. The requiem takes its name from the first line that is sung in the service: Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, ‘Give them eternal rest, Lord’. The second line is et lux perpetua luceat eis, ‘and let light perpetual shine upon them’, and Campra focuses on the repetition of luceat, ‘shine’, as his keyword for the entire work. These two lines begin the introit, or entrance antiphon, but are repeated at various points in the service.

André Campra (1660–1744) was variously maître de musique in Toulon, his home town of Aix, Arles, Toulouse, Montpellier, Notre Dame de Paris and the chapelle royale of Louis XV. He excelled in composing opéra-ballets, and this musical style influenced his sacred music, much to the ire of his ecclesiastical patrons.

Campra’s Requiem is scored for a baroque chamber orchestra, choir and at vocal trio consisting of haute-contre, tenor and bass. Its movements include the usual ‘ordinary of the mass’: the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Alongside these staples, he set the four proper antiphons for a requiem mass: the Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion antiphons. Strikingly, Campra omitted music for the lengthy requiem sequence Dies Iræ, with its fire-and-brimstone vision of the day of judgement, which had come to be seen as pastorally inappropriate. Neither did he set an excerpt from it, such as Lacrimosa or Pie Jesu. Instead, Campra’s glorious Offertory antiphon — the Domine Jesu Christe — takes centre stage, with surging, uplifting music as the priest goes to the altar and prepares bread and wine.


1 Comment

Ancient & Modern: history and future

‘Eternal Father, strong to save’ with the tune Melita.

As the ninth edition of the hymnal Ancient & Modern has been published — the most popular stable of hymnbooks in the Church of England — here is a little Ancient & Modern history, followed by a few thoughts on what the 21st century holds for hymnbooks.

For my review of the ninth edition of Ancient & Modern, see Ancient & Modern: a review.

A little Ancient & Modern history

The history of Hymns Ancient & Modern begins with a chance meeting on a train between two hymnal editors. In 1852, Francis Murray had published the Hymnal for Use in the English Church; William Denton had produced his Church Hymnal in the following year. Both were Tractarians, and their publications were part of a great flood of hymnals that rode in the wake of the Oxford Movement. Much of the content of these hymnals were archaeological recoveries of ancient and mediaeval hymns in Latin and Greek. John Mason Neale‘s Hymnal Noted (1852 & 1854) is the prime example of this tradition. Murray and Denton’s conversation on the train seems to have been about the problem of a profusion of hymnals targeted at the various niche congregations within the church. They gathered a group of hymnologists to form the future ‘proprietors’ of Hymns Ancient & Modern. Denton only remained with the project for a few months (possibly because the 1855 second edition of the Church Hymnal was starting to sell more copies), but the proprietors were now ably led by Henry Baker with William Henry Monk as music editor. They produced a trial selection of 138 hymns in 1859. In 1861, most of these found their way into the collection of 273 hymns the was the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern. The name of the hymnal referred to the fairly even division between the ‘ancient’ — patristic and mediaeval hymns, mostly translated from Latin — and the ‘modern’ hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The subsequent appearance of the Appendix to the hymnal in 1868 showed a desire to keep the book fresh. In 1875, Monk produced the second edition, being the first in a line of composers to steer the project, and it was this edition that cornered the hymnal market in the church. It was so popular that the 1904 New and Revised Edition, which was otherwise a perfectly decent third edition, was roundly rejected for rearranging hymns and giving them new numbers. This forced the proprietors to abandon it and return to the popular, previous Monk’s edition, bound with its supplement by Charles Steggall (1889), which became known contrastingly as the ‘Old Complete Edition’. In 1916, a second supplement was added by Sydney Nicholson, and, in 1922, he lightly edited the hymnal to produce the Standard Edition.

Gerald Hocken Knight and John Dykes Bower took over as editors, producing the more heavily edited Revised Edition in 1950, adding new hymns and removing those that had not stood the test of time. In 1983 the pruning continued, with almost half of the hymns in the Revised Edition being removed and all 200 of the combined contents of 100 Hymns for Today (1969) and More Hymns for Today (1980) being uncritically added without being dispersed among the remnant, producing the New Standard Edition. Both the Revised (AMR) and the New Standard (AMNS) editions remain in use in many churches. In 2000, the hymnal was rebranded Common Praise as an accompaniment to the liturgy of Common Worship. Common Praise included a fair number of hymns that were traditionally indicative of the rival stable of the New English Hymnal, which encouraged some churches and cathedrals that used the latter to make the switch, and continued the concept of it being a single hymnal of broad appeal. The supplement Sing Praise was produced in 2010 (New English Praise, a similar supplement to New English Hymnal came out in 2006). In 2013, these two were combined and edited together as Ancient & Modern, dropping the Hymns from the title.

A 21st-century hymnal?

Some might question the need for hymnals in the digital age. A minority of churches use digital projectors to ‘shew forth’ hymn and liturgical texts for their congregations. Though this emphasizes the corporate nature of worship — singing from the same hymn sheet! — it can make worship something observed, something virtual. Only once in my life have I been to an Anglican church where everyone had a single volume of the Prayer Book bound with a hymnal, and that was in rural Co. Antrim. Most other churches present the worshipper with more or fewer books, booklets and sheets. Increasingly, hymn texts for the service are printed on a pew sheet, and hymnbooks have become the preserve of the choir and organist, and a resource directory for those who select hymns for services. The trend for ever larger hymnals (the latest edition of Mission Praise has 1250 entries) suggests that compilers recognise that the hymnbook has become more of a resource than an aid in worship, placing inclusion ahead of exclusion. It would be good to have a large scale survey of churches using this hymnal, at some point in the future, to see what the usage rate of each item is.

I commented before that it would take 2½ years to sing through all 847 items without repeating one, given four hymns every Sunday morning and three in the evening. Of course, there are always going to be some hymns that are not to the taste of clergy, musicians and congregations, and others that are repeat favourites. Some of the liturgical items might be used week in, week out, or not at all. The question is how many hymns does an individual church need at any given time. A cheeky answer might be: only the few that we are singing in this service. However, my question is how big can an individual church’s repertoire of hymnody be. I am sure there is some variation here. One response would be to create print-on-demand hymnals tailored to a church’s choices and traditions, yet perhaps this might take us back to the disunity that Francis Murray and William Denton deplored when they met that day on the train.

For my review of the ninth edition of Ancient & Modern, see Ancient & Modern: a review.


8 Comments

Ancient & Modern: a review

Ancient & Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (2013).

My copy of Ancient & Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (2013) has just arrived. It is the ninth edition of what is the most enduring and popular lineage of hymnals in the Church of England. We currently use Common Praise (2000, the eighth edition of A&M), in the College Chapel. My former churches have used Sing Glory (1999), Ancient & Modern New Standard Edition (1983) and New English Hymnal (1986) as their main hymnbooks, which is progress of sorts! Unlike some churches, the Church of England has never had an official hymnbook, but the Ancient & Modern stable comes closest to a standard.

For some background and a couple of thoughts about hymnals in the 21st century, see Ancient & Modern: history and future.

Ancient & Modern has 847 items: the largest inventory in this hymnbook’s history, beating the 779 hymns of the Standard Edition (1916 & 1920). Not all of these are hymns, some are liturgical songs and ‘short chants’. It is not too much of a surprise that this is an increase on the 628 hymns of Common Praise. However, seeing that the intermediate supplement Sing Praise (2010) has 330 entries, there has been a bit of a cull. I guestimate that around 150 hymns in Common Praise have been cut (inexplicably, the cloying ‘In a world where people walk in darkness’ (CP 476, AM9 677) has survived!). I confess to some alarm that so many hymns that were thought necessary of inclusion 13 years ago have proved disposable. It makes me wonder how many of the current volume will last as long. The proprietors actually suggest that those who already have Common Praise should make the lesser investment in Sing Praise rather than switching directly to the new edition. I believe, though, that would mean that there would be around fifty or more items in the ninth edition that those with the two previous volumes would be missing.

Physically, the full-music editions of the two hymnals, eighth and ninth editions, are about the same size. Although this is perhaps due to my old Common Praise being stretched with use, the paper used for the ninth edition is clearly thinner, yet this has not lead to a reduction in print quality. Unlike some poorly produced editions of Hymns Old & New (nothing to do with Ancient & Modern), verso print does not obviously show through on the recto, and vice versa. The same typesetter and music engraver, the laudable Andrew Parker, worked on the two editions, yet there has been progress toward a brighter, clearer printing. Music and textual credits have been moved to the bottom of the page, into space, allowing for a little more information to be given. For the three translations of Phos hilaron are given their Greek title in Greek script: a nicely revived tradition that flatters the singer. These three are John Keble’s text set to John Stainer’s Sebaste at 17, Christopher Idle’s more recent offering at 18 and Robert Bridges’s at 20, with the latter being the preferred translation of the rival English Hymnal tradition.

It would take 2½ years to sing through all 847 items without repeating one, given four hymns every Sunday morning and three in the evening. Of course, there are always going to be some hymns that are not to the taste of clergy, musicians and congregations, and others that are repeat favourites. Some of the liturgical items might be used week in, week out, or not at all.

The arrangement of the hymns follows the tried and tested pattern of the A&M stable: the diurnal of morning and evening, the seasons of the church year, saints’ days, a few service themes and the lucky dip of ‘Hymns throughout the Year’ (the odd name of the category used in Common Praise) or ‘General’ (the more sensible title in the ninth edition). The ninth edition’s categories are a joy: after the saints’ days, there are decent selections of hymns for Christian initiation, marriage, and funerals and the departed. Then there are selections of hymns chosen for use in a generalised sequence of sections of church services: gathering, penitence, the word of God, canticles and affirmations of faith, prayer and intercession, Holy Communion, and sending out. These mix hymns with liturgical texts, like the three modern Kyries (370–2) in the penitence category; the first is that from James MacMillan’s Mass of the Blessed John Henry Newman. The word category begins with the traditional sixth-mode Alleluia (374), and goes on to provide an Alleluia setting by Bernadette Farrell (376) and James Walsh’s Pilgrim’s Alleluia (377) — I am left to wonder why the Stanbrook Abbey hymn ‘Bright as fire in darkness’ intrudes at 375. There is also a Marty Haugen song that can be used as an Alleluia at 385, demonstrating the problem that items are arranged mainly in alphabetical order within categories rather then rational groupings. Thankfully the metrical Magnificats and other canticles are grouped together. The category for prayer and intercession includes a number of simple, modern chants that can be used as sung responses to supplications. It is not necessarily obvious, but four metrical settings of Gloria in excelsis Deo (413–16) are in the Holy Communion category, followed by two settings of Sanctus (417, 418) and one Agnus Dei (419). The 61 items in this category could really have done with a finer level of grouping within the category.

The later categories of themes — the church’s ministry and mission, wholeness and healing, sorrow and lament, creation and the environment, justice and peace, and national and remembrance — are welcome, if still slightly thin. Even with all of these categories, there are still 246 ‘general’ hymns (29 % of the inventory). Still, this is an improvement on the like category of 265 hymns in Common Praise (42 %). There are hymnals, like Mission Praise, Sing Glory and Hymns Old & New, that take the unimaginative approach of arranging all their entries in alphabetical order of their textual incipits (though I do remember some old copies of Mission Praise took a unique approach to the alphabet!). Given a decent index, and the ninth edition has indexes aplenty (read on if you, like me, sadly spend more time in hymn indexes than with the hymns themselves), it makes sense to organise things by sensible categories and relationally. Thus, I am sure the compilers saw the need to keep the lucky dip to a minimum, recognising it as a sign of methodological laxity. A rough grouping of these hymns by theological themes would have been a welcome change, alongside better grouping of items within the other categories. The group of 17 ‘short chants’ at the end, mostly from Taizé and Iona, alongside some in other categories, will be a welcome addition in many churches.

The indexes include the now standard and practical parade of biblical index, hymn suggestions for each Sunday and major feast, alphabetical index of tunes, metrical index of tunes, index of composers, index of authors, and the index of first lines and tunes. Alongside these there is a list of hymns ‘suitable for all-age worship’ that some might use, but also a particularly handy thematic index that lists hymn numbers appropriate to a wide range of theological and other themes. Some of these (e.g. marriage) exactly reproduces a category, adding the belt to the braces. Yet this extra index shows an appropriate response to the problem of categories: what to do with those items that fit multiple categories. It also allows for themes that are too vague to have been categories (e.g. water).

The influence of Hymns Old & New (first Anglican Edition in 1986, with the popular New Anglican Edition a decade later, now superseded by others) can be seen in the ninth edition. Although Hymns Old & New has had major flaws in its musical arrangements and production quality, it brought together favourite hymns with choruses, praise songs and chants. Its coup was to provide what many churches wanted. Starting with Sing Praise, the Ancient & Modern tradition began to incorporate this wider repertoire, and the ninth edition includes symbols for guitar chords above the music for some items, thankfully not following Hymns Old & New in providing them for all items, even where they conflict with the musical arrangement.

For controversialists, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty‘s ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’ is included (678), with its words ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ in the second verse. Whereas some have rewritten the line, Getty has, understandably, refused to allow it to be used with an altered text. While American Presbyterians have recently decided to omit the hymn because of that line, it now makes Ancient & Modern look doctrinally brave/timid for including it.

For some background and a couple of thoughts about hymnals in the 21st century, see Ancient & Modern: history and future.


Leave a comment

The case for not attacking Syria

The news media are full of plans to attack Syria this evening. On Thursday, Parliament is to be recalled to debate such an attack. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has returned early from holiday to ‘deal’ with the situation. At the same time, the US and France are making similar initial noises about an attack.

I believe these rumours of war are wrong, and urge politicians to think again.

On a personal note, I have been a regular visitor to Syria over the years, for research, study and leisure. I love Syria and its wonderful people. Over the last year, I have had quite a few terribly sad conversations with Syrian friends about the rapidly deteriorating situation.

A line has been crossed: chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Most likely they were deployed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Yet there is still just enough doubt, even with a visit from inspectors, to shade any certainty. The use of chemical weapons is a clearly defined war crime. Yet no war crime precipitates a licence to wage war under international law: committing a war crime does not give an automatic right to bomb a country. International law strictly requires a UN Security Council resolution to wage war, and, with Russian and Chinese vetoes, that is not going to happen anytime soon. It seems to be the new ‘white man’s burden’ to police the world, rounding up its tyrants, yet any civilised police forces needs to operate within predefined laws and with public goodwill and consensus.

Apart from the legal problem, there is a serious underestimation of the seriousness of the situation. Yes, I believe the situation is too serious for a military ‘solution’. The reasons for this seriousness are

  1. Bashar al-Assad is a desperate dictator at the head of a complex power network. Forcing him back further into a diplomatic corner will almost certainly make him and his network more desperate, and capable of lashing out with untold consequences.
  2. Syria has entered a civil war. What began as peaceful protest, turned into violent protest when met with government violence, and has since become a full-scale civil war. Gradually, the opposition has shifted from the control of community groups and exiled critics of Assad into the hands of violent, opportunistic gangs, and those importing a religious fundamentalism alien to over a millennium of Syrian multiculturalism. Any military action will change the current balance of the civil war. This is not to say status quo is desirable, but neither necessarily is any shift in balance between two equally undesirable sides.
  3. Not one pot of coffee is brewed in the Middle East without international repercussions. There are Syrian refugees living precariously in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey among other places. Iran and Hezbollah have a strategic interest in supporting Assad in their neighbourhood. As ever, if there is Western military intervention in Syria, however ‘surgical’, Israel will see what regional advantage it can make of the instability, which is likely to be an excuse to bomb sites in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The West would be culpable for unleashing Israeli attacks.

There is much angst about sitting by and doing nothing. ‘Appeasement’ has a bad rap historically, but it is a logical fallacy to ‘do something’ just because it is felt that something must be done. Military action is always believed to be a last resort, and thus a sign of failure and weakness. Rather than asking if this plan of action will result in a measurable improvement of the situation, it is done for the sake of doing.

Of course, more diplomacy would be welcome, but the West has burnt so many of its diplomatic bridges already that it looks like careless arson. David Cameron should not look to his ‘success’ at bombing Libya, that had unseen consequences in Mali. Libya’s population is under 6 million, Syria’s is over 22 million.

Syria’s large Christian minority are beginning to suffer greatly, in the midst of the general suffering. It cuts me to the heart, but I deplore those Christians outside of Syria who call for military intervention. Standing by is not the weak option. It takes wisdom and courage, when provoked to lash out, to realise that it will only exacerbate the situation, and that the true course of action is to stand firm. To desperate, and weep, yes, but still to stand firm.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 930 other followers