Summary of the last weeks

It has been a long time since I last posted, because of exams (31–4) and May week sucking up time. I realise this is my last chance for socialising with some of my friends, but I have been talking far too much this week and need to write a little. Since the last update, I had my exams. They were fairly relaxed, and the week was good. Choir was light, and I only did a few hours work each day, just brushing up on things to stay fresh. The papers themselves were decent, and I was able to enjoy some CompSci relaxation during the afternoons. An exam week is hard to describe, and more dreamy than vivid, that is, very little happens that is memorable, and all the emotions are transitory, from the causeless jitters right before a paper, the temporary calm while writing, and the sudden pangs of self-doubt as questions drag on for ten, or twenty, minutes longer than expected, and through to the dullness following. Nothing felt has a cause or object, and nothing thought or discussed is significant. This year, I was much better prepared than before to get up on time and be more faithful in confession before the exam. Why is there an edge of fear at each sitting of the Tripos? Why do I find it so hard to be constant and unperturbed? Exams test our idols hopefully to breaking point, and are a wonderful chance to re-examine all the wrong values and be more earnest than at other times in seeking the renewal of our minds. Along the lines of the debate ‘doubt is not a sin’, perhaps it could be that as we confess our sinful mind and trust to be changed from it even if the turbulence and self-reliance does not feel gone; perhaps then we are ‘doing enough’. As Sibbes writes (Bruised Reed, ch.5), Christ is tender in his healing, and knowing that he has set us on a gradual path to sanctification, has taken on himself in his compassion all our sin, whether past or for our future security in him knowing how even when in him we would fail. I wish I had realised this more during the exam week, because the most intense moments were pleading each night and morning to have no fear except that of displeasing my father. Expelling false fears is certainly a right struggle, but confusion and doubting trust should motivate us more as a goal than guilt, even as we confess our flesh. As exams tempt us away from a secure hope, what more is there to do but repent, remember mercy, and keeping on doing what is right towards God in thankfulness, mixed joy, and praise?

This is vague, as I find it hard to write and think clearly. “When words are many, sin is not lacking” (Pv. 10:19). What am I really saying? At least the following: that the week ‘went well’, that I struggled with pride and how to rate and place my work in the world, but was more preserved in prayer than in previous years and more blessed in answers by the way I was able to avoid gross confusion and much petty boasting and lies to my friends. After warring with and losing so many skirmishes against lust as well, in its isolation the exam time was also wonderfully free of many of the inter-personal sins.

The next week was also rather blank. I wasted time programming, buffing up on some web languages and investigating a stack of new technologies. I justified industrious sloth rather than spending time with friends on the grounds I needed a break. Most of the things I wanted to do that week were not really done very well at all. Even the ‘opportunities’ I was able to take seemed ineffective and un-fluent. I suppose I did see some fruit and have plenty of code to show for the week, but it was not a great time of application. How can it be that several consecutive days with almost nothing scheduled saw next to no study and devotion? My hopefulness from the last week was gone, and even scraps of discipline neglected. I had a chance to talk about this with Dave on Wednesday, which was especially challenging.

The main things happening centred around Thursday, busy because of GenComm and the main college group event, a murder mystery. GenComm was very interesting and trying, and seemingly even worse than last term. Since John Young’s time, when tensions were much better diffused, factionalism has grown up again and is now rather strong. Correspondingly, the quality of GenComm discussion has become much poorer as the common theology is less in the picture and the focus has shifted more to speaking to support a point of view rather than communicate reasoning and reach an understanding.

Having a clear chance to study this is one of the biggest blessings of being secretary, because the nature of minutes as not a transcript but record of what was communicated has forced me over the last year to precisely follow and analyse everything that was said to make sure I was on top of the argument and points of view, in order to be able to summarise each exchange without distorting or misrepresenting, and trying to preserve the spin each person was implicitly putting on the issue. So, I was ready for GenComm and watching carefully to see what would happen.

Certainly there were unfortunate and probably implicit spin tactics. After a refreshing agenda, which looked at a slightly different set of issues to the usual ones, and from a different angle I thought, the discussion fell right back into old mould, especially sad a model to show to the new reps. Almost everyone spoke with little novelty, repeating a predictable argument that we all knew was coming from the moment the hand went up. What was sad was seeing a lesser attempt to achieve understanding, and some of the points were ladling on subtle twists to the point under discussion. This was especially obvious around Centrals, which have been contentious for a long time, but we have very rarely been able, even on the exec, to look at where the divergences in opinion come from, and this was especially lacking in the rushed comments at GenComm. To be fair, given the speed things were taken in, it would have been very hard not to front-load a large set of assumptions around how the Church works to maximise and prioritise evangelism, but the tone was unnecessarily polemical. At the moment, the GenComm the composition is of three camps: the Edenites plus around a third of StAG, most of the rest of the StAGerers, and the confused. (I would hesitate to place myself in a camp because I take pains not to act as a party player, but my friends know where my views align me.) To take the example of Centrals as an illustration of how these play out, in the last term, one of the new changes was to split off ten minutes of the sermon into an excursus of evangelism training on a topic motivated by the passage (1 Pet.). The portions of the sermon were clearly differentiated, so the preaching was not diluted or confused with something else, and both sides had a win in terms of keeping good teaching and getting something that is potentially useful practically. If a compromise is going to be the route taken, this is really a very good way of doing it, but there was a real lack of understanding of the politics behind this it seemed, as most of the comments were essentially ignoring the divide and demanding a fuller move in the other direction without managing to identify much in the way of underlying cause or motivation. It is sad that there were few comments recognising the value of compromise to work together, when we could have all been glad together that there is a way to do Central we can all be happy enough with and not endlessly quibble over.

Looking forwards, we will have to be very careful about the way we discuss and progress with this over the next year to make sure for a start that none of the disagreement leaks into college group. I have experienced myself some differences of view in the Peterhouse group, and it is a constant struggle to be gracious and always evaluating freshly rather than by pre-determined stance, and neglecting brotherhood is a temptation. One thing GenComm shows us is that although there is not much more I can do besides pray without letting advice stray into meddling, the current exec at least will find it hard to work out how to bring together the groups, though perhaps I hope for too much.

Over the past year, I wrote several long scribbles trying to work out what exactly the root disagreements were in the CICCU, often looking at the way Christians relate to the church and bring a corporate and ecclesial character to everything they do. Last week, I thought that perhaps the most pertinent way of thinking about the GenComm discussion was simpler, with the only thing urgently needing to be sorted out being some more clarity on the trade-off between short- and long-termism. Do we train for tomorrow, or for maturity? I think it would be helpful to be able to at least be more aware as a body how we stand on this, even though it would take some time actually training the committee, because we really should try to avoid meeting just to make more requests for the sermon timing to be fixed. In terms of concrete suggestions, that would mean using the president’s presentation to explain how this is playing out in the CICCU’s thought at the moment and how we should be discussing it, and spending more time in the meeting too so that we can talk without feeling rushed (last week crossed the line in terms of promptness). A larger change in this direction would be considering working out the key areas for discussion and bring them up only once or twice a year rather than having to waste time re-hashing every contention each term.

To move on from GenComm, in the evening of Thursday, we had the murder mystery event. There were many last minute drop-outs, but it was worthwhile and we are all very grateful to Rebekah for all the work she has put in on both years. There are limits on what I can jot about others in public, but some of the people there have had a big change in attitude over the last few terms and Robin Whaley’s talk was clear and direct, as right for a last talk before graduation.

This last week has been very music-heavy. My Dichterliebe never happened, and will take a lot more work, but I marked my return to Lieder with Widmung in the college concert on Tuesday. I felt very underprepared for it, and was trembling as always in the opening moments at forgetting the words or cracking, having not looked at it much for years (in fact, having not sung a Lied in a concert for three!), and then in a lower key, but it flooded back, or so I am told. I lost consciousness entirely during the piece and could not say what I had done right or wrong, singing as if Clara (let’s call her) was in front of me and nothing technical or musical existed. From what I gather, a few things of the things I was hoping to get right would have had to have been ingrained deeper to come out in the moment, but it was very refreshing. I also engaged the audience thoroughly with Flanders & Swan’s Honeysuckle and Bindweed, unfortunately the much preferred of the two songs. Hugh’s Men sang some renaissance trios as well, and the choir fudged its way through two eight-voice pieces a little more scrappily than usual. Anna seemed to play in almost everything and did very well, and Matthew enjoyed his last concert as organ scholar. The next day, I joined the Peterhouse Singers, a very informal madrigal group, in a garden party. The standard musically was not crisp, but no-one minded and we all enjoyed some fun music.

Also this week I went over-night punting with some Edenites, have been involved in a series of bible studies, and found out my results at the reading ceremony. I will split these off into separate scribbles, especially as the last needs a clear statement to avoid deception or distortion.