Brother Ninnias came with him to the end of the beanrows. Aquila had half expected that the monk would say something about what had happened, but, tipping up his head to look about him with a wide, quiet, all-embracing gladness, he said only, 'The storm is over, and it is going to be a glorious day.'
And Aquila, looking about him also, saw that the moon was down; but the dark had paled to grey, and the grey was growing luminous. The eastern sky was awash with silver light, and somewhere down by the stream a willow wren was singing, and the whole world seemed poised on the edge of revelation, about to spread its wings ...
'Do you believe in blind chance?' he asked, as he had asked it once of Eugenus the Physician, long ago. 'No, I remember that you believe in a pattern of things.'
'I also believe in God, and in the Grace of God,' Brother Ninnias said.
Aquila stood quite still, his face lifted to the light above the wooded valley that was setting the east singing like the willow wren. At last he stirred. 'I must be away to my men. Give me your blessing before I go.'
Rosemary Sutcliff, The Lantern Bearers
It has often been said that in a time of spiritual and cultural disintegration (like our own) renewal will come not from the centre but the periphery. A society's institutions - government, media, churches, etc. - are so infected with the follies and miasmas of the age that they serve to stifle rather than engender creative thought and action. Wayne Sturgeon's collection of essays, Albion Awake (2013), belongs undoubtedly to the periphery, yet future historians, I feel, may come to regard it as an intellectual stepping stone towards the revitalised, spiritually-resonant centre that will soon - very soon, perhaps - replace the corrupted, crumbling centre we wrestle with today.
Albion Awake is not always an easy book to read. The essays - originally published between 1999 and 2013 in a variety of Anarchist and Third Position journals - are marred by spelling mistakes, repetition, and a patchy use of grammar throughout. This is not the author's fault. He has health conditions which leave him dependent on others to type up his work. But in actual fact these layout and presentation issues are quite striking in their own way. They give the book a certain Samizdat, 'underground printing press' feel. Whether the editor intended this or not I cannot say, but it did remind me of the anarcho-punk scene of the 1970s and '80s, which Sturgeon himself belonged to. There is the same DIY spirit and the same lack of respect for technical finesse, but also - and this is crucial - the same level of energy, commitment and artistic integrity. And this, ultimately, is what sticks in the reader's mind - not the typos or missing full stops, but the depth of the author's engagement with the political and social issues of our day, the mythical and religious dimensions this opens up, the breadth of his reading, and - most impressively of all - the joyful, heartfelt love he displays for his country - England - a love which shines out from every page like the 'countenance divine' shining forth upon 'England's clouded hills' in Blake's famous poem.
Wayne Sturgeon (b.1967) is not an 'establishment man' or a member of any political or cultural élite. He is an Outsider (in the Colin Wilson sense of the word), but he is also a humble and ordinary man with his own set of challenges in life. He lives in Brighton, has a family, supports people with learning difficulties, and lives with severe dyslexia and a chronic fatigue-type illness. Reading and writing do not come easily to him but he makes the effort because he knows he must. He is driven by an inner imperative, like the readers and writers of this blog, to do whatever he can to rouse Albion from the dreadful sleep of materialism and one-dimensional thinking he has fallen into.
Sturgeon's religious trajectory has also been far from smooth. He has, as it were, worn a lot of hats since becoming a born-again Christian in the late 1980's, veering from the extremes of liberalism (Quakerism) to the extremes of narrow literalism (the British Israelite movement) before finding his true spiritual home in the Orthodox Church. He has made mistakes along the way. This goes for his writing as well. He regrets, for instance, the essay in this volume entitled, Anarcho-Illuminism. But these are fertile mistakes, the kinds of errors and misjudgments that someone seeking seriously for truth and meaning - on both the individual and collective levels - often makes and sometimes needs to make if they are to learn, grow and develop.
Reading Albion Awake straight through, one can see how Sturgeon's thought has matured and become more well-rounded over the past two decades. It is a book, in my view, which works on four levels. The first of these is an analysis and understanding of where twenty-first century Britain is becoming dysfunctional. Sturgeon is extremely wary of mass movements and totalising forms of politics and religion. He values what the poet David Jones called 'that which is counter, original, spare, strange.' What he cherishes most of all is individual freedom, but this must not be confused with the two false conceptions of liberty - economic and social Liberalism - which the rulers of this age are currently foisting upon us.
Economic Liberalism sees the individual as an atomised consumer whose raison d'être lies in his or her spending power in an ever-expanding 'free' market which blindsides and bewilders us with its revolving door of constantly upgraded goods and services. This is the fake freedom the West told the peoples of Eastern Europe they had to have after the fall of Communism. It is a cause for rejoicing then that countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia are seeing through such an impoverished vision of the human person and are turning towards a more rooted, organic understanding of politics, culture and society.
Social Liberalism walks hand in hand with its economic sibling. Just as, in classical Liberal theory, the removal of tariffs and trade barriers facilitates commercial growth, so too the undercutting of traditional (i.e. Christian) morality is said to liberate the individual from repressive and arbitrary social structures. The sexual revolution may well have been a liberating experience for certain well-insulated types who enjoy playing fast and loose with family structures, but it has had a devastating effect on those who cannot afford such transgressive fun and games and rely on family for emotional and practical support. It is my belief, for instance, that the economic warfare waged on working-class communities by Margaret Thatcher's government would not have wrought such havoc had those same family structures, which kept these communities strong throughout the Great Depression and the Second World War, not been undermined a decade before she came to power by the advent of the sexual revolution.
Social and economic Liberalism are every bit as destructive of the Personalism Sturgeon champions as were Communism and Fascism. Liberalism is more subtle, but just as lethal. It severs men and women from their roots; erases their ancestral memories; mocks their attachment to family, faith and flag; strips them of identity; promotes restlessness and confusion, and brings the chaos of the free market into every sphere of life, even the most personal. It aims to conquer and crush the personage David Jones calls the 'Tutelar of the Place': 'She that loves place, time, demarcation, hearth, kin, enclosure, site, differential cult ...'
This is exactly Wayne Sturgeon's understanding of individual liberty - a physical, emotional and spiritual state where we feel connected to something larger than ourselves - family, locality, religion, etc. - but where our identity is not subsumed into that wider whole à la Fascism (race-consciousness) and Communism (class-consciousness), nor stripped down and deconstructed as is becoming the norm under liberalism today. As Sturgeon writes in his essay, The Matter of Britain:
'At root, the problem is finding a balance between the individual and the community; we need both; if capitalism as a political ideology sacrifices the community to the individual and communist ideology sacrifices the individual to the group, the time has come to envisage a society where belonging is something that is not only understood in individualist western terms but on a deeper social significance, a holistic national/psycho spiritual dimension that seeks integration with the role of kinship and national identity. A "communal-individuality." This is beautifully expressed by the British myth of 'Albion' as found in the writing of the libertarian William Blake, Albion being the personification or archetype of the hidden soul of an alternative Britain not bound by the chains of Babylon and the New World Order.'
Freedom, therefore, is a precious and a fragile thing. Sturgeon is very aware of how easily it can be corrupted by the big batallions of left and right. He cites the example of the Wandervogel movement in Weimar Germany; a youthful fellowship united by a love of Germany's forests, hills and rivers, which was hijacked by the Nazis and twisted into the Hitler Youth. An analogous fate, he reminds us, befell the UK's 'New Age Traveller' scene of the 1980s, which has been shorn of its anarchistic core by the far-left and is today little more than a mouthpiece for Cultural Marxism.
Establishing a 'third way' in British politics and society consequently becomes a very difficult thing to do. The second level of Sturgeon's book - how to make it happen - focuses chiefly on a number of economic measures, such as Mutualism, Social Credit and Distributism, which unfortunately fall outside my range of expertise. I do know, however, that these and similar concepts were highly influential during the inter-war period and remain key components of Catholic Social Teaching. They have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years thanks to Phillip Blond's book, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain (2010), and the work of his think tank, ResPublica. The Blue Labour movement, which leans heavily on the thought of the poet and theologian, John Milbank, has also been at the forefront of efforts to steer Britain in a less quantitative, more person-centred and tradition-friendly direction. Milbank's most recent collection of poems is called The Dances of Albion (2015) and Blue Labour would do well, perhaps, to focus more on this mythical aspect as it is here - at his book's third level - that Sturgeon's writing really starts to bounce and fizz. Behind the surface bustle of current affairs and culture wars stands Britain's spiritual dimension, which alone is real, though currently hidden. As Sturgeon says in The Matter of Britain:
'It is only when an individual has found his or her place in a society that has achieved and fulfilled its destiny in manifesting its national spirit that we can then begin to live in creative harmony with the green earth ... Such a concept of mythology (the poetic expression of the folk soul and collective national psyche) can be a valuable tool in helping to restore and heal communities torn apart by ethnical hatred, bigotry and cruelty. For indeed it is not just individuals who need healing or wholeness but sometimes a collective race or nation needs a restoration whether in culture or race memory.'
This is a 'concept of mythology' which looks forward as well as back. In Wyrd Albion (an essay written in 2017, so not included in Albion Awake) Sturgeon hails Charles Williams' poetic suite, Taliessin Through Logres as:
' ... a highly imaginative psycho-geographic mind mapping for the revival and renewal of a prophetic vision of a Christian earth spirit, where lines of pilgrimage and correspondence activate spiritual centres throughout a feminised union of both pagan and Hebraic sites of historic importance. With the coming collapse of industrial civilization, will not the ancient practice of pilgrimage to sacred shrines, holy wells and points of healing power once again rekindle their mystical charm?'
Britain's spiritual dimension goes by different names. Some, like Williams, call it Logres. Others, like Blake, know it as Albion. David Jones personifies the land and christens it 'The Sleeping Lord.' 'Does the land wait the sleeping lord?' he asks. 'Or is the wasted land that very lord who sleeps?' This brings Arthurian themes to mind, of course, and ties in nicely with what for me is the strongest essay in the book, Anarcho-Monarchism. Sturgeon portrays the monarch here not as some 'lord and master' type ruling over all, but rather as the servant of his subjects and the symbol and guarantor of their freedom:
'Monarchy can be reinvented as a concept to serve a distinctly libertarian ethos, if one can see in the monarch a symbol of sovereignty that is reflected in the absolute sovereignty of the free individual. The word "king" is derived from the word "kin" - so kingship denotes kinship, the king or queen being a symbolic guardian of the people's freedom and self-determination. Thus handed down generation to generation, the monarch carries the genetic inheritance of the people in a bond of mutual co-inherence. This is beautifully and poetically proclaimed in the tradition of British mythology that refers to King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail, in that the concept of kingship that is envisaged in the Arthurian mythos is interpreted as one of service and humility towards the people whom one 'rules'. A similar theme is found in the Christian Gospels where Jesus says to his disciples, "Whosoever shall be considered the greatest, let him first become the least and the servant of all." (And in this mythological context, Christ is the fulfilment of all archetypes such as Arthur, as well as the indgenous British and Norse mystery traditions such as Druidism and Odinism in particular.)
Sturgeon's reference to Christ leads us to the fourth and most profound level of Albion Awake - the specifically Christian resolution it proposes to the societal challenges outlined above. In 1989-90, shortly after becoming a Christian, he spent a year at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Crawley Down, West Sussex. The monastery belongs to the Community of the Servants of the Will of God, an Anglican contemplative order for men and women. The community recites the Jesus Prayer several evenings a week and celebrates a sung Liturgy of the Hours every day.
Sturgeon's year at Crawley Down proved a pivotal and formative experience. Holy Trinity's openness to Orthodox spirituality, particularly the Jesus Prayer, gave him an anchor and a bedrock - through good times and bad - which set him on the path to his eventual reception into the Orthodox Church in 2015. It is significant for the times we live in, I feel, that it should be a monastery rather than a parish church or a cathedral which played such a central part in his religious formation. This is exactly the kind of guidance and encouragement that monks and nuns gave to many 'sheep without a shepherd' in the chaos which engulfed Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The monasteries and hermitages of that time looked both forward and back - back to the classical civilisation of Greece and Rome, the remnants of which they single-handedly preserved; and forward to the great age of Christendom to come, setting minds and hearts on fire with their holiness, integrity and radiant love for God's creation. Brother Ninnias, in Rosemary Sutcliff's novel, The Lantern Bearers (1959), steers the hero, Aquila, away from a futile quest for vengeance for his slaughtered family and towards a more constructive way of fighting the Saxons - a life of dedicated service under the future High King, Ambrosius Aurelianus. Aquila's rage is channelled in a manner which brings him emotional healing and allows his talents and abilities to flourish. Brother Ninnias, like Julian of Norwich and many other contemplatives, has the gift of reading souls, and he uses this grace to point people in the direction that suits their nature and gives their God-given gifts the best chance to blossom.
Our own time, in many respects, is not dissimilar to this post-Roman milieu. I believe that a revival of monasticism, as in that era, could restore to Christianity the contemplative depth required to engage effectively with the spiritual needs of people today, which are not the same as they were in the High Middle Ages, the nineteenth century, or other periods of relative cultural stability. I also have the sense that Orthodoxy has a role to play here as well. Wayne Sturgeon definitely thinks so, and it could well be that the future of Christianity in Britain belongs neither to the heirs of the Protestant Reformation nor the advocates of a Catholic restoration. A turn towards Orthodoxy would, I feel, reconnect the country in a very profound way with the monks and nuns of the Dark Aged and with that host of British saints who gave such outstanding witness in the thousand years prior to the Great Schism of 1054. In this respect, Orthodoxy could potentially become the religious version of the third way Sturgeon has found so elusive in the political sphere. Certainly, it is hard to find fault with the sanity and balance of his personal Credo, presented to us in his introduction to Albion Awake:
'My personal Christian faith which informs and inspires all of this for me, is that of the traditionalist and ancient Orthodox and Catholic Christianity which existed before the Great Schism of 1054. I would, therefore, as regards my faith, describe my position as being Orthodox but not Eastern, Catholic but not Papal and Anglican but not Protestant, although I have always been open and sympathetic to the speculative and esoteric forms Christianity has taken, particularly in mystics like Jacob Boehme and Jane Leade and more recently Valentin Tomberg, etc.'
Sturgeon hopes to set up a skete in the Sussex countryside - a small centre devoted to prayer, work, study and contemplation - informed equally by Orthodox spirituality and the Matter of Britain. The skete will take inspiration from Joseph of Arimathea and the earliest days of the Faith in this land, and look forward to the reanimaton of those sacred lines of force - pagan and Christian - which Charles Williams hailed in his Taliessin poems and which lie like a string of jewels across this holy earth. That is a terrific vision to have, I think, and one which offers hope and encouragement to all of us who feel overwhelmed and paralyzed at times by the downward drift of the world.
It would be fitting at this point to let Wayne Sturgeon have the last word, except to say that 'first word' might be more appropriate. Having read Albion Awake and the author's more recent essays (plus this interview in The National Liberal) and spoken to him in person, I am sure that everything which has gone before on his spiritual journey can be considered a prologue and that, as the Italians say, Il più grande è avanti - the greatest lies ahead:
'Lastly, I do not see the future as closed. I am not a fatalist, I am not waiting for the "rapture"; my understanding of eschatology is that of a "conditional futurism" that is open both the verb and dynamic of grace and of human free will and agency. The choice is clear though - either we make and fight for a future or it will be made for us. The English punk band, The Sex Pistols, once sang that "there is no future in England's dreaming," but there is a future if we can dream it and so in my mind England is still dreaming, only this dream is the dream of Albion and one day this Albion will awake.'