Monday, 17 November 2014

Front line hero

It only lasted a few moments each morning but it was one of the most powerful pieces of broadcasting I have heard in a long time. The BBC Radio 4 Today programme broadcast a daily audio diary by Dr Geraldine O'Hara, working for Medecins San Frontiers in Sierra Leone, at the heart of the Ebola outbreak. The impact of the broadcasts was aided by Dr O'Hara's straightforward style of delivery as she contained her emotions while recounting some heartbreaking situations. She is just one of many clinicians who have been prepared to put themselves on the front line of the battle to confront this terrible disease. I thank God for the courage and compassion of those people like Dr O'Hara who are prepared to risk so much to bring hope and healing amidst the despair in this part of West Africa.

You can hear Dr O'Hara's audio diary here.

Sunday, 16 November 2014


Every now and again the Christian corner of social media goes into meltdown over the singing of Stuart Townend's In Christ Alone. The line causing so much consternation is 'Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied'. I now have a much bigger problem with the song thanks to a family argument this evening. Over a heated debate about how wrath should be pronounced one of the family said it should be pronounced like Wrath of Khan - the best of the original Star Trek film franchise. So that's the song now ruined for me, I'll never be able to sing it again without thinking of Ricardo Montalban with a mullet haircut shouting:
He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him. I'll chase him round the Moons of Nibia and round Antares Maelstrom and round Perdition's Flames before I give him up!... Prepare to alter course.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

On earth as in the heavens

It seems a reasonable question and of course the answer is yes, there is a chance we could do something about this. The same technology that helps power Philae is readily available here on earth. Nearly every time I go into B&Q or my local garden centre there is a stack of solar powered lights in the discount section being offered at knock down prices, you can't give them away. The issue is not can we do something about the problem but will we do something about it? Are we prepared to invest the same commitment and resources that delivered Philae to 67P to addressing some of the basic needs in our world? Needs like clean water, basic sanitation, health care and renewable energy. Let's face it, it's not rocket science (or rocket surgery as one of the muppets on The Apprentice last night blurted out). 

Here's the link to Solar Aid

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Comet Watch

This afternoon a little spacecraft called Rosetta delivered probe Philae onto the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is an extraordinary scientific endeavour and given the comet is some 300 million miles from earth the precision of the operation is astonishing. Even more astonishing is the fact that all this was accomplished without the presence of Professor Brian Cox telling us how amazing it all is.

However, news has begun to filter through that the two harpoons which were to be fired into the comet on landing in order to secure Philae to its surface haven't deployed. No doubt the boffins are hard at work trying to diagnose the problem and come up with a solution. I have a couple of suggestions.

First of all check that Big Bang Theory's Howard Wolowitz wasn't showing off to an undergraduate somewhere in the space centre. Howard has previous on this score with the Mars Exploration Rover.

Secondly, it may be that Philae detected on landing that 67P isn't really a comet but a Star Whale, hence the reluctance to fire the harpoons. In which case this is a job for Dr Who and let's face it he needs something decent to get his teeth into at the moment.

Anyway, I'm sure the geniuses at the European Space Agency will get things sorted given the brilliant job they've done so far. Now I wait for Nigel Farage to pop up on the BBC to explain how it would all have been so much better and cheaper if we'd done it without the rest of those pesky Europeans.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Watching Migration Watch

Last week a report by University College London's Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration was published that suggested the United Kingdom is a net gainer from European immigration. There is a good summary of the report offered by Robert Peston. Of course there are some questions left unanswered by the report and in a later piece Peston identifies them.

What I found both predictable and infuriating is that when the report was published BBC News yet again turned to Migration Watch to comment on the report and spin their all too predictable narrative. Migration Watch's Sir (soon to be Lord thanks to the PM) Andrew Green seems to be on speed dial for BBC producers when it comes to anything to do with immigration. Green is hardly ever challenged but simply consulted as a self-appointed expert on the subject. This was true on the Today programme when they put Green up against one of the report's authors.

So I thought it was time to remind myself of the contribution made by immigrants to this country and here are three people you would be hard pushed to condemn as foreigners sponging off the state. In fact they have made significant contributions to the country which welcomed them and in which they have made their home.

Mr Alp Mehmet MVO Arrived from Cyprus 1956 aged 8. Educated at Parmiter's Grammar School in London's East end and Bristol Polytechnic. Immigration Officer (1970-79); Entry Clearance Officer Lagos (1979-83); Diplomatic Service (1983-2008), serving in Romania, Germany and Iceland (twice). Ambassador to Iceland (2004-2008).

Dr Ahmed Ibrahim Mukhtar DL FRCP Retired consultant paediatrician and former Medical Director of an NHS trust in Northamptonshire. Member of the governing council of the University of Northampton. Associate of the General Medical Council. Member of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal. Born in the Sudan and educated Khartoum and Edinburgh Universities. Resident in the UK since 1972.

Mr Hazhir Teimourian A writer on Middle Eastern history and politics. He was born in 1940 in the Kurdish region of western Iran and came to the UK in 1959 for his higher education. He stayed on and has spent the last 35 years in journalism, mainly with the BBC World Service and The Times newspaper.

As I say, three people, all first generation immigrants, none from an EU country, who  have clearly made admirable contributions to the UK.

There is just one thing that puzzles me. All three are members of Migration Watch's Advisory Council and these brief biogs come from MW's website.  Mehmet was put up by Migration Watch to rebut the UCL report on the BBC News at One which is what led me to find out a little about him. I find it somewhat baffling that people who have both received from and given so much to this country are so committed to preventing others from having the same experience.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Remembering atheists

There is a rather strange article published in The Guardian by Dan Snow in which he claims that a lack of a secular presence at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday means that the occasion could be diminished for many people and that they might stop engaging with it. It is a rather disingenuous article because what Snow is really arguing for is not a secular presence but the removal of a religious presence at the ceremony. In response to his arguments I would make the following observations.

Snow tells us that he first attended the ceremony as a child:
I remember my dad taking me when I was a boy. Pressed against the temporary railings, overwhelmed by the power of the British state’s simplest yet most moving ritual.
The author was 'overwhelmed' by the ritual he observed. So as a child Snow wasn't put off by the religious aspects of the ceremony which he argues are an intrinsic part of what takes place, rather he was captivated by it.

In the next paragraph Snow comments:
The leaders of the political parties stand side by side, their bickering stilled for an hour, the Queen in jet black, alone, bows her head with a mournful gratitude and then the veterans march past, obviously enjoying the chance to meet old friends and grieve for old comrades.
Two of those political leaders laying wreaths are self described atheists. No one steps in and says 'hang on, you ain't C of E you can't lay a wreath during this ceremony, it's religious.' Their presence and participation is a secular presence. As for the figure in jet black, the Queen, well she is Head of State and also Head of the Church of England, so unless she has developed some sort of Nestorian trick, you are going to need to find a new monarch to participate in the ceremony. And when Her Majesty bows her head I would hazard a guess that this might be more than an act of 'mournful gratitude', it might just be that she is praying because, as anyone who has seen her Christmas speeches of late will know, she is a woman of faith and prayer. Following Snow's argument there is no place for the present monarch in his new improved version of Remembrance Sunday.

Snow continues:
Yet for many of us in today’s Britain, this important ceremony is diminished by the dominance of a religion that fewer and fewer people follow. An Anglican bishop presides over a portion of the ceremony. His fellow imams, priests, patriarchs and primates stand by like also-rans and there is no sign of a secular representative.
Who is to be the secular representative, apart from the elected politicians already mentioned, that Snow would like to see at the Cenotaph? Who would command his and other atheists' approval? Richard Dawkins? Ricky Gervais? Polly Toynbee? Andrew Copson, who in case you are wondering is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Society? Someone from the National Secular Society, whose membership is roughly the same as the British Sausage Appreciation Society?

And who are the 'many of us' who find the ceremony diminished by the participation of a bishop. Can Snow point to any research to support this claim, or is it based on the chattering of a few of his mates in the pub? Has a poll been conducted to show how the present ceremony is diminished 'for many of us'? As I observed earlier, it does not seem as if Snow's own experience was diminished as a child. Snow acknowledges that the bishop only presides over a portion of the ceremony so is he really saying that he doesn't think that religious leaders should participate, be present or even acknowledged at all? What of the sensibilities of the many people of the different faith communities in our country, including many of the relatives of those who gave their lives, who would then be unrepresented?

I could go on but want to finish by picking up on this claim by Snow:
There is a great danger that by letting a bishop dominate and refusing to admit a secular presence at the ceremony it will be diminished or even ignored by modern Britons.
Again I ask who has refused a secular presence at the ceremony and what is the evidence to support this great danger that Snow fears? Last year I was chaplain to the Mayor of the City of Chelmsford and as part of my duties I participated in a Service of Remembrance at the war memorial outside the Civic Centre. I was staggered by how many people attended. The streets were packed with representatives from the armed services, veterans and the public. I asked one of the Mayoral party if it was like this each year and was informed that the numbers had been increasing year on year. Perhaps this was because our armed services have been on active duty in recent years or it may be because of the approaching centenary and the renewed focus of attention. One thing is certain, the ceremony hasn't been diminished or ignored. I wonder what would have happened if I and the Vice Dean of the Cathedral had suggested we don't participate because it might put some people off attending? I can visualise the headlines in the local and national press!

This year I will be preaching at our Remembrance Sunday Service at St. Mary's. As in previous years it will be very well attended by many who are not regular church goers and some may even describe themselves as atheists. Representatives from the British Legion will participate. We have been approached for the first time by the Parish Council and asked if they might participate in the service and I welcomed that request. Hardly signs of a diminishing or ignoring of the ceremony.

I confess that I have a certain ambivalence towards Remembrance Sunday. I feel uncomfortable with the way it can slip into an unquestioning glorification of war. I was deeply concerned with the Prime Minister's suggestion that the centenary of the outbreak of World War One be commemorated like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I see this Sunday, like Snow, as an occasion to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives. But unlike Snow, I also see this Sunday as a time of repentance for the sin in our lives and relationships that leads to conflict and destruction. And I see this Sunday as a time to focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, who offers forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and invites us into a new way of peace made possible through his sacrifice on the cross.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

John Lewis' Frankenstein

John Lewis has released this year's Christmas advert, far too early, and again it reminds me of a horror story. 2012's 'The Journey' advert reminded me of Jo Nesbo's 'The Snowman' about a serial killer who leaves snowmen outside the houses of women he's murdered. Read the book and you will never look at a snowman the same way again.

This year's advert features a boy with a penguin. The narrative is that the penguin longs for a partner to love. Now it just so happens that last week while travelling we listened to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. What many people forget is that the reason the monster destroys everything that Frankenstein holds dear is because his creator has refused to make a partner for him to love. I wonder what the John Lewis penguin would have done if he hadn't got his Christmas wish?