Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Daily Mail's nightmare

I am amazed that the Daily Mail and the rest of their chums from the Fourth Estate don't run a campaign to ban Christmas. Consider the story for a moment: An unmarried teenage mother with distinctly dodgy anti-establishment views, a family of asylum seekers, plebs gatecrashing a royal birth, foreigners crossing borders... it's their worst nightmare and the means by which God chose to reveal himself to the world!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Bishop of Stockport

Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Church of England today announced the appointment of a new Bishop of Stockton and guess what... she's a Manchester United supporter. May God richly bless the ministry of Revd Libby Lane in her new role in the Chester Diocese.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Plus ça change...

I'm ploughing my way through the Lord Green Steering Group report 'Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A New Approach'. Now there's a title to excite you about the mission of the church in C21st. I first heard of the report in a Church Times article published last Friday and the report has been put up on the Thinking Anglicans blog. The Church Times also carried a robust critique of the report from one of those it is aimed at, Martyn Percy the  Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.

I'm not sure of the status of the report; some people have seen it and others are completely in the dark. Has it been published? Bishop Pete Broadbent has suggested that if you are in the loop on these things then you will have seen it. I'm fairly well networked in the C of E and I hadn't heard of it until last week, but then I'm just a parish priest so... . Is this how we handle significant reports in the Church of England these days? If so then plus ça change. The response across social media has been mixed and largely based on selective reporting. My own initial response was one of real disappointment, not because I don't believe that leadership training is important, it is, but because of the tone and language of the reports about the report. I will read the report thoroughly and discuss it with colleagues before commenting on its content further.

I would, however, make one observation. The report argues for a much more professional approach to senior church leadership, including change management. If the publication or not of this report is anything to go by, then the first people on the new courses need to be those who are responsible for the way this process has been handled because it has been nothing short of a joke.

Friday, 12 December 2014


It's been a long time since I watched BBC Question Time as I simply can't afford to keep replacing the television. Last night's line up looked set to make my blood boil, with Russell Brand pitched alongside the ubiquitous Nigel Farage, so I avoided it. Then this morning I read this by Russell Brand on Facebook. Though I don't agree with Brand's 'don't vote' agenda this is well worth a read.
Answer time
I’ve just got home from recording bbc tv’s political debate show Question Time and if you saw it and found it anti-climactic, I know how you feel.
Nigel Farage in the flesh, gin blossomed flesh that it is, inspires sympathy more than fear, an end of the pier, end of the road, end of days politician, who like many people who drink too much has a certain sloppy sadness. Camilla Cavendish who I was sat next to, seemed kindly and the two politicians from opposing parties, that flanked Dimbleby melted into an indistinguishable potage of cautious wonk words before I could properly learn which was blue and which was red. For my part I sat politely on my hands, keen to avoid hollering obscenities after a week of hypocrisy accusations and half-arsed, front page controversy.
Only the audience inspire passion or connection. Humanity. The usual preposterous jumble that you see in any of our towns, even if groomed and prepped by Auntie, they comparatively throb with authenticity opposite us, across the shark-eyed bank of cumbersome cameras.
The panelists have been together in “the green room” chatting, like before any TV show, and that’s what QT is, a TV show, a timid and tepid debate where the topics and dynamism of the discussion are as wooden and flat as the table we gamely sit around.
There is a practice question prior to the record, so the cameras can position and mics can be checked and the audience can practice harrumphing. In my dressing room at the modern Kentish theatre, before my sticky descent, I can hear them being prepped “ask questions, quarrel, applaud, keep those hands up”.
The practice question is a soft ball rhubarb toss about clumping kids or something and even though I’m determined to concentrate like a grown up, my mind drifts back to the Canterbury Food Bank I visited before arriving, partly to learn about it, as a researcher told me there might be question on them and first hand knowledge would make me look good, and partly because, y’know, I actually care.
In a warehouse in a retail park Christians and sixth formers assemble bags of what would rightly be considered “staples” in a kinder world. Tins of food and packets of biscuits and it’s good that we’re near to the “White Cliffs of Dover” because it feels like there’s a war on and the livid coloured packaging goes sepia in my mind as Dame Vera scores the melancholy scene.
The Christians are as Christians are, kind and optimistic. The donations come from ordinary local folk “We get more from the poorer people” says Martin, a quick deputy in a cuddly jumper. “More from Asda shoppers than Waitrose.” As I contemplate cancelling my Ocado (or whatever the fuck it’s called) order Chrissy, the lady who runs the scheme says that this year people who received packages previously have now donated themselves. Previous recipients often volunteer an all. Here older folk and the students diligently box off the nosh and I determine to give them and their heartening endeavor a shout out on the show and my writhing, nervous gut begins to settle.
Chrissy explains how the Caterbury Food Bank has brought people together, not just those it feeds but those who volunteer. “It seemed like a good way to worship Christ” she says. Martin, who I am starting to gently fall in love with, observes that supermarkets profit from the enterprise as Food Bank campaigns encourage their customers to spend more there. “Do you think there’s an obligation for the state to feed people?” I ask “or room for a bit more Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the temple type stuff?”
They smile.
Many who use their facility are people that work full time and still fall short, others have suffered under “benefit sanctions”. “They’re very quick to cut off people’s benefits these days” says Martin.
“People think that Canterbury is affluent, but all around us are pockets of the hidden hungry”. The hidden hungry. “I’m gonna use that” I tell him as I scarper. He makes a very British joke about charging me as I get in the car and I tell him I nicked some jammy dodgers, and we laugh so that’s alright.
I think about the hidden hungry as I settle into my QT chair and get “mic’d up”. Farage entered to a simultaneous cheer and jeer, they cancel each other out, like bose headphones and leave an eerie silence. David Dimbleby says something about it being panto season and someone in the audience says “oh no it isn’t” and I love him for it, even though I’m pretty sure he was one of the UKip cheerers.
And a pantomime it is, well not so entertaining, no flouncing dames or doleful Buttons or rousing songs, just semi-staged tittle-tattle and bickering. The only worthwhile sentiments, be they raging or insightful come from the audience, across the camera bank. The man who brings up politicians pay rises, the man who demands I stand for parliament (so that he could not vote for me judging from his antipathy), the mad, lovely blue hair woman who swears at everyone, mostly though the woman who says “Why are we talking about immigrants? It’s a side issue, this crisis was caused by financial negligence and the subsequent bail-out”. This piece of rhetoric more valuable than anything I could’ve said, including my pound-shop Enoch Powell gag. More potent than the one thing I regret not saying because time and format did not permit it. That the people have the wisdom, not politicians, that the old paradigm is broken and will not be repaired. That the future is collectivised power. Parliamentary politics is dead, they, it’s denizens, wandering from aye to neigh from Tory to UKip know it’s dead and we know it’s dead. Farage is worse than stagnant, he is a tribute act, he is a nostalgic spasm for a Britain that never was; an infinite cricket green with no one from the colonies to raise the game, grammar schools on every corner and shamed women breastfeeding under giant parasols. The Britain of the future will be born of alliances between ordinary, self-governing people, organised locally, communicating globally. Built on principles that are found in traditions like Christianity; community, altruism, kindness, love.
In the “practice question” Farage says it’s okay to hit children “it’s good for them to be afraid” he said. There is a lot of fear about in our country at the moment and he is certainly benefitting from it. But the Britain I love is unafraid and brave. We have a laugh together, we take care of one another, we love an underdog and we unite to confront bullies. We voluntarily feed the poor when the government won’t do it. These ideas and actions that I saw in the food bank and across the camera bank are where the real power lies and this new power is the answer, no question about it.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Strident atheists

An interesting comment popped up on my Twitter timeline in response to an article in The Guardian originally published on Monday. The Guardian piece argued, not very convincingly, that British fears about Islamists and Saudi fears of atheists are two sides of the same coin. Now this is a fairly typical Guardian Comment is Free piece and displays the lack of rigour in argument typical of the genre. However, I was interested by a comment tweeted in response to the piece by Douglas Murray in which he asked:
Can anyone name an atheist who has carried out a suicide bombing or beheaded someone in Saudi? Anyone?
The journalist David Aaronovitch, an atheist, whose writing I usually respect, wrote:
Sure atheists don't actually behead anyone, but you have to admit they can sometimes be a bit strident. 
Now this is a line that often gets trotted out by Richard Dawkins and his chums. 'Atheists are much less harmful that religious people. We might shout a bit from time to time, be a bit strident, but we don't harm anyone'. Except of course that isn't quite true. If you happen to be a Christian living in the self declared atheist state of North Korea you aren't just treated to a few harsh words, you are more than likely to end up in labour camp or worse. The intellectual western European atheist might argue that it is unfair to link his or her views with North Korea and suggest that those pesky North Koreans aren't really atheists anyway. It's the old Jedi mind trick 'These aren't the atheists you are looking for'. Fair enough but isn't this the same argument used by many religious people who argue that the worst manifestations of those claiming to be of their faith aren't really true believers. Consider, for example, the many Muslims who would denounce and reject the expression of Islam manifested by the IS in Syria and Iraq. Or consider the many Christians who would disown the nonsense regurgitated by the Westboro Baptist Church.

Some atheists are no more than a bit strident, not unlike some religious people. However, some atheists aren't averse to a spot of murder and mayhem, as anyone with even a basic grasp of political history knows, and pretending they weren't or aren't really atheists is frankly disingenuous.

Monday, 24 November 2014

No repsect

Yesterday I put up a post about a mark of respect between two international rugby union teams. Unfortunately over the weekend I also saw several incidents which left me feeling that some sports people have no respect for themselves, for their opponents or for their sport. Watching Match of the Day on Saturday night I was saddened but not surprised to witness several blatant acts of cheating.

First up was the highly lauded Everton and England youngster Ross Barkley. In the match against West Ham, Barklay took a blatant dive and was awarded a free kick much to the astonishment of just about everyone but the referee. Barklay's manager Martinez then defended the youngster by saying he wasn't a diver and 'expected contact' when he went down. If his manager isn't prepared to challenge Barklay's behaviour there is little hope he will cut this cheating out from his approach to the game.

In the same match there was a tussle between Everton's Kevin Mirallas and West Ham's James Tomkins. It ended with Mirallas pushing Tomkins in the chest only for Tomkins to hold his face and collapse as if struck in the face, usually a sending off offence. Here's that particular pathetic incident.

Just two examples of cheating to gain advantage and attempt to get an opponent punished in one match, and there were several other incidents in other Premier League games played the same day. It's hard to have respect for a game if the players can't even respect themselves.

Sunday, 23 November 2014


Occasionally I come across a picture that reminds me of what should lie at the heart of sport and this is one of them. The picture, published in several national newspapers, shows the England and Samoa rugby union players kneeling, linked together following yesterday's hard fought match. The picture speaks of mutual respect and a sense of camaraderie. It is a refreshing change as I have long feared that rugby union has been heading down the same road as football thanks to the impact of money on the game. It was also good to celebrate Ireland's victory over Australia yesterday and the result offers hope that the Boys in Green are on course to do well in the Six Nations and World Cup next year.

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?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Dear Prudence

This week at morning prayer we began to read the book of Daniel. The first half of the book is a fascinating and challenging story about people in exile at the mercy of a capricious despotic ruler. This morning I was struck by a particular verse which has stayed in my mind. To set the scene, in chapter 2 King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and calls for his spiritual advisers, a rather motley crew of charlatans, to tell him what the dream means. To spice things up a bit the king insists that his 'wise men' not only interpret the dream but tell him what the dream is and if they can't then they will be torn limb from limb and their homes reduced to rubble. Of course the advisers can't meet the king's request and so the order goes out for all the wise men in Babylon to be put to death.

Unfortunately the king's decree includes Daniel and his mates. The chief executioner Arioch looks for Daniel and when he meets him this is Daniel's response:
Then Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king’s chief executioner, who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon; he asked Arioch, the royal official, “Why is the decree of the king so urgent?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. Dan 2:14
The words that jumped out at me were that Daniel responded 'with prudence and discretion'. Now I don't know what your response would be to being told that you are about to be torn limb from limb on the orders of a murderous tyrant but I don't think mine would be prudence and discretion. I'd have run for my life or failing that ranted and raved at the injustice of it all and probably thrown in a few accusations at God for allowing the situation to arise in the first place.

I think about some of the more irrational, unjust and, at times it seems, malicious decisions which our political leaders make, here's an example in case your wondering what I'm on about, and my gut reaction is to have a good rant about them. Thanks to social media it's quite easy to have a good rant and it's helped by the fact that our rulers don't have the power to order us to be torn limb from limb, though I suspect one or two of our MPs would quite like that option at their disposal. On reflection I find myself pondering whether prudence and discretion isn't the better response. For Daniel it opened up the way into the king's court and a place of influence for the common good.

What does it mean to respond in a prudent and discreet manner on Twitter I wonder?

Couldn't resist the sublime Siouxsie and the Banshees' version of The Beatles' Dear Prudence.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Filtering - a comment on #cnmac14

I visited Mary Arden's farm just outside Stratford-upon-Avon last week and while I was there listened to a falconer give a talk about owls accompanied by a cute Barn Owl and a rather intimidating Eagle Owl. One of the fascinating pieces of information she shared was that a Barn Owl can hear a mouse's heartbeat from 40 feet away and detect a mouse moving in the grass from 100 feet. Now gathered around the falconer and owl were about forty of us humans with hearts much bigger than a mouse's so the question was asked 'How can an owl detect the mouse with all the other noises around her in the wild?'.  The answer given was that an owl has to filter out all the extraneous sound to focus on her prey otherwise she would be driven crazy by all the other sounds she can detect.

On Saturday I was still on leave but followed a Twitter stream of comments from the Christian New Media Conference #CNMAC14 which I wasn't able to attend. I was also watching a football match while keeping an eye on Facebook and my Twitter timeline. Safari was open with several tabs including various news media outlets and sports feeds along with my blog with its attendant list of posts I follow from other bloggers. I avoided looking at my email in-box which had an 'out of office' message set up. The question I found myself reflecting on as I did all this is what stops us from going mad listening to, or seeing and reading, all this digital noise? The answer has to be filtering.

We filter out all the extraneous noise both consciously and unconsciously. I was following a hashtag Twitter stream which focused my attention on the conference, until the hashtag was hijacked for a while. I selected the digital media outlets I was interested in. My Facebook timeline is limited to a few people who I know personally in comparison to my Twitter timeline with the 873 profiles I follow. Within that timeline I can select lists of particular subjects related to my job and interests. As for the T.V., well for years I've made use of a digital recorder and watch more recorded programmes of interest than material broadcast in 'real' time. The football match I had on T.V. 'live' between Newcastle and Liverpool was boring, so I subconsciously filtered out most of what I was watching and nearly all of the vacuous nonsense being spouted by summariser Robbie Savage.

Filtering and focus are skills humans have always had to develop in order to survive and function in life, just like the Barn Owl, and that is no less true in a multi media digital age. The challenge is what we discipline ourselves to filter out and focus on. If we don't get that right then unlike the owl we'll miss out on the real meat.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Love's Labour's Lost.

Spent a wonderful evening last Tuesday with the family seeing Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost at
the RSC Stratford Upon Avon. The play is not one I was familiar with and is one of the Bard's earlier works with what appears to be a very simple plot. However, the production is a delight. The story focuses on the King of Navarre and three nobles who determine to turn their back on romance for three years to focus on scholarly endeavours. No sooner is the vow made than the Princess of France and three ladies arrive and the men fall in love with them with hilarious consequences.

The director, Christopher Luscombe, places the action in a stately home, based on nearby Charlecote House, at the outbreak of the First World War. The production is like a cross between Downton Abbey and Oh What A Lovely War with a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan added towards the end. The sets are beautifully constructed giving a sense of real substance and history. In the background of the outdoor scenes is a simple broken fence with a few poppies growing, hinting at the more sombre wider context in which the farce takes place. The acting is, as always with the RSC, superb and some of the 'minor' characters almost steal the show, not least Peter McGovern as Moth whose singing is excellent and overall the musical accompaniment is perfectly judged. 

The play finishes on a downbeat note when the Princess receives news of her father's death and tells the King and nobles that they cannot continue their romances for a year. In this production the final scene has the men dressed in uniform saying goodbye to their fiancées, household and locals and then marching off to war. It is not as dramatic as the final moments of Blackadder IV but is almost as powerful.

There is much speculation because of the way the play ends that Shakespeare wrote a sequel to Love's Labour's Lost titled Love's Labour's Won. Of course we all know from Doctor Who that the second play was destroyed when The Doctor vanquished the witches in The Shakespeare Code. Luscombe's answer is to present Much Ado About Nothing as Love's Labour's Won, set back at the stately home at Christmas after the end of the First World War. We didn't see the second play but I can imagine it working very well and Berowne and Rosaline can easily be imagined as Benedick and Beatrice.

The morning after seeing the show we had a tour of the theatre and an added bonus was briefly meeting Christopher Luscombe giving us the opportunity to say how much we had enjoyed his production. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

video nasties

Well it didn't take long for Mike Read's obnoxious UKIP propaganda song to bite the dust. What could possibly have gone wrong singing a song titled UKIP Calypso in a mock Jamaican accent for a party whose main claim to fame is being anti-immigration? We were then treated to the spectacle of UKIP claiming the song's withdrawal had damaged a charity. However, the charity aspect seems to have been dreamed up after the event and the charity concerned, The Red Cross, said they didn't know anything about it. Here's a taste of this particular video nasty.

Political videos like this are nothing new. Who can forget Tracey Ullman singing My Guy featuring Neil Kinnock.

Then there was the classic I Feel Liberal - Alright starring David Steel. Nearly as embarrassing as his party conference speech when he uttered those immortal lines 'Fellow Liberals, go home and prepare for government.'

Not to be left out Prime Minister David Cameron has done a turn with One Direction in a medley featuring Blondie's One Way Or Another and The Undertones Teenage Kicks. Now I might have been willing to post a video of Cameron but I draw the line at One Direction, some things are too tasteless for the Treehouse even if it was for Comic Relief.

And finally my all time favourite. Nick Clegg's I'm Sorry. Admittedly this wasn't really what Nick intended, a bit like the promise he is apologising for having made, but this is a classic.

Other suggestions welcome.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Africa's killers

Last week the Prime Minister made a speech about the Ebola crisis facing parts of Africa and I was rather taken aback when he made the following comment:
Ebola is the 'biggest health problem facing our world in a generation.'
No one can argue that the present Ebola outbreak is horrific and clearly having a terrible impact in some parts of Africa. However, two things struck me about this statement. Firstly, the Ebola outbreak has been around for some time, yet, it is only now that western governments, including our own and the USA, seem to be responding with anything approaching adequate resources. Could this be because we have one or two cases of the disease on our own shores and so now the illness is being taken seriously?

Secondly, and to my mind more importantly, is the Ebola outbreak really 'the biggest health problem facing our world in a generation'? I well remember the gradual emergence of news in the 1980s of a disease that was devastating parts of Africa and various communities in western countries. I remember the chilling government advert, accompanied by images of tombstones and John Hurt's voice, shown across the television channels. I remember meeting people my own age with AIDS who were at that time living under a death sentence. A couple of years ago in Kenya I was struck by how many public signs and warnings there were about the continued threat of HIV/AIDS. Is Ebola really a greater threat to the world than HIV/AIDS? Does this sort of hyperbole help or hinder in situations like the one we face at the moment with Ebola?

Then my attention was drawn to this graph by Paula Gooder which seems to suggest I was right in questioning the statement.

The NGO Water.org, co-founded by Matt Damon and Gary White, points out that 3.4 million people a year die as a result of a water related disease. This dwarfs the impact of Ebola and we have the means to address this problem, but of course it doesn't really impact on most of us living in the west.

I'm pleased that David Cameron and Barack Obama are finally addressing the Ebola outbreak and its impact on various countries in Africa. I support the allocation of resources to deal with the crisis and want to see other countries respond in the same way. But when the Ebola crisis is over I also hope that our governments are prepared to invest the same commitment of time, energy and resources to the other much 'bigger' health problems facing the world in our generation, even if they don't pose the same threat directly to us as they do to our brothers and sisters in other parts of our world.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Crime of the Century

The anniversaries are coming thick and fast at the moment. This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of Supertramp's Crime of the Century and there is a reissue of the album in December to celebrate. I still remember the first time I heard the opening wail of the mouthorgan on School, the child's playground scream as the full band kick in and from that moment I was hooked.
It is one of those albums I used to listen to late at night in bed with headphones on, drifting in and out of sleep. There isn't a duff track on the album and it's no surprise all but two songs made it onto the Very Best Of Supertramp compilation. I was delighted to reacquire a vinyl copy last year.

The video I'd originally put up for this is no longer available so here's a link to another version of School.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

On our doorstep #childpoverty

I received a bit of a jolt yesterday when my attention was drawn to a report by the Essex Chronicle stating that nearly 30% of children in some parts of Chelmsford are growing up in poverty. However, this was the statement that really hit home:
According to the data the highest levels of child poverty in the city can be found in the Marconi ward, with 29.12% of youngsters growing up poor, after housing costs after taken into consideration. This is closely followed by the St Andrews area, with 27.4%, Great Baddow West with 26.5% and Great Baddow East with 22.34%.  
Great Baddow West and East, that's our parish! I was aware of pockets of deprivation in the parish but not to that extent. The Church Urban Fund statistics for our parish state that overall child poverty is at 17%, however, this report highlights the seriousness of the situation.

Child poverty is defined in the following way:
The percentage of children living in families in receipt of out of work benefits or tax credits, where their reported income is less than 60% of the national median income (a commonly accepted measure of poverty).
Earlier this year at St. Mary's we set up a Foodbank distribution centre which is much used; we support the work of Chelmsford CHESS with the homeless and the church council has decided in principle to establish a credit union service point, though the limitations of our present buildings have so far prevented us implementing that decision. Our sister churches St. Paul's and Meadgate are involved in similar work.  However, we need to reflect prayerfully on what other ways we can help address this blight on the lives of many in our parish as we seek to be the Good News of Jesus Christ to our community.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Chris Evans I salute you.

I've always had a bit of a love/hate relationship when it comes to Chris Evans going back to his TFI Friday days but lately that's been changing. Evans hosts the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show and regularly features Bishop Nick Baines on Pause for Thought. Nick has the great knack of being able to incorporate references to other guests on the show as he shares his PfT and I detect genuine respect from Chris for Nick's reflections. I hope that Nick's increased episcopal responsibilities don't curtail his contributions to the show. Anyway, the clincher came yesterday morning when Kate came home having dropped my daughter off at school and said Evans had just played a Led Zeppelin track which went on and on. So I went on-line and via Listen Again just after 8am there it was, 7.08 minutes of When The Levee Breaks in all its bone crunching, ear splitting, glorious majesty. And to top it all I then discover that Evans has Jimmy Page on this morning's show. Chris Evans I salute you.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Mr Burns replies - asylum #Iraq

A few days ago I wrote to my local MP Simon Burns about the situation in Iraq and yesterday I received his response. I am grateful to Mr Burns for his reply, though it read like a stock press release from the government regarding UK humanitarian aid to Iraq. However, in my letter I specifically asked that:
'The Government should follow the example set by other European governments and make provision to provide asylum to those that are unable to return to their homes for fear of persecution and death.
As a constituent in your area, I ask you to raise these concerns with the Secretary of State for International Development and other relevant departments to ensure that additional steps are taken to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Northern Iraq and to provide refuge and sanctuary to those most in need.' 
The response to this specific request from Mr Burns is as follows:
'However, I will raise your concerns with the relevant Minister and I will let you have a copy of his response once it is received.'
I look forward to hearing what the response from the Minister will be but I am not holding my breath as the government has so far refused to move on this issue.

Here is Mr Burns' letter in full.

If you would like more information about this issue check out the Church of England advice to pray, act, give.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Sausage for breakfast

Apparently Radio 4 Today is trying to update its image and appeal to a younger audience. So last week we had the cringe-worthy spectacle of John Humphrys getting down with a rapper and this morning Humphrys was jousting with John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten. There is nothing new about pop and rock on Today. In 2003 Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were interviewed to coincide with the launch of the Led Zeppelin DVD. I still remember the sigh from Robert Plant as he exclaimed 'Radio 4, has it come to this?'. Truth be told, you need to be my age to remember who these people are, so hardly appealing to a new demographic.

Anyway back to Lydon and Humphrys this morning. Lydon was articulate as usual and in a reasonably emollient mood. And then Humphrys asked a question, about advertising butter I think, to which Lydon responded 'You silly sausage'. And with those three simple expletive free words Today's Rottweiler was well and truly neutred. Our politicians would do well to listen and learn from a master.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

I predict a riot

At morning prayer today I found myself wondering what would have happened in Acts 19:21ff had social media been around:

@Demetrius: Oi tweeps, you seen this? A bunch of Macedonians led by some nutter called Paul are saying our gods ain't real. Plz RT (64 RTs 48 Favs)

@Artemus4ever: RT @Demetrius: Oi tweeps, you seen this? A bunch of Macedonians led by some nutter called Paul are saying our gods ain't real. Plz RT (84 RTs 24 Favs)

@SilverSmiffy: @Demetrius @Artemus4ever  UNBELIEVABLE. How is this is allowed to happen in Ephesus today? (27RTs 13 Favs)

@guildofsilvers: Tweetup down at the theatre. Our jobs are under threat. (127 RTs 64 Favs)

@Ephesusnews: Riot down at the theatre, no one sure why. Please tweetpic or vine if there. (745RTs 550 Favs)

@Demetrius: @Gaius & @Aristarchus You scum, go back to where you came from. (35 RTs 14 Favs)

@NigelF: @Gaius & @Aristarchus You rotters go back to where you came from. (63 RTs 43 Favs)

@PaulTarsus: Plz pray for @Gaius & @Aristarchus who've been taken to the theatre in Ephesus by an ugly mob. (23 RTs 16 Favs)

@Artemus4ever: @PaulTarsus Who you calling ugly? Come down here and say that. (17 RTs 12 Favs)

@Demetrius: @StephenFry @RichardDawkins have you seen what these people of The Way are doing. Please RT. (34 RTs 24 Favs)

@RichardDawkins: Religion has caused all the riots in the world... ever. (6315 RTs 2319 Favs)

@StephenFry: Tonight on QI the letter E BBC2 10pm. And here's a selfie of me in Ephesus with my cab. (2312 RTs 1542 Favs)

@TownClerk: Nothing to see here tweeps.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

That's just what we need.

I'm always interested to see what happens when a business closes in Chelmsford High Street. I see it as an indication of what is going on in the economy and something of a reflection of society and our values. Woolworths  was a favourite store of my childhood in Chelmsford and I was sad to see it go. There was a certain irony in Barclays Bank moving into the premises given their contribution to the meltdown of our economy and the demise of many businesses in the subsequent recession.

Another closure in Chelmsford High Street was Jessops the camera shop. The building has been vacant for some time and today I discovered who has moved in, William Hill the bookmakers. That's really what we needed in our city's High Street, another bookies. It's not enough that I can't watch a football match on television without various loud mouthed characters shouting the odds at me for five minutes at a time, shop by shop they are taking over our town and city centres. One of the factors in Jessops' demise was the on-line market which meant they just couldn't compete. There is a preponderance of gambling sites on-line but it doesn't seem to have had too much of an impact on betting shops given the number we now have in Chelmsford. Perhaps it really is a statement about what is going on in our economy and what values we espouse as a society.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

asylum #Iraq

Last Friday the government decided that it does have a responsibility to intervene in Iraq with military force.  I have today written to my local Member of Parliament Simon Burns asking him to request that relevant government departments ensure that additional steps are taken to alleviate suffering in Northern Iraq and to provide refuge and sanctuary to those most in need. I would encourage as many people as possible to do the same. It is shameful that our country lags behind so many European and other countries in responding to this need. Put quite simply, if we have a 'moral' obligation to bomb then we have a moral obligation to offer sanctuary to those who are the innocent victims of violence in Iraq.

If you wish to join me in lobbying your local MP on this matter details can be found here.

The full text of my letter is as follows:

Dear Mr Burns

Responding to the humanitarian crisis in Northern Iraq

I am deeply concerned by the gross human rights abuses being committed in Northern Iraq that is seeing thousands of religious and ethnic minorities displaced from their ancestral homes. The forced and bloody exodus of Christians and other religious minorities underlines most graphically that freedom of religion and belief, a right set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is being denied in the most violent and systemic way possible.

I welcome the humanitarian steps the Government has taken to date, but given the distressing pictures and reports that continue to come from Northern Iraq, I fear that our collective efforts are failing those most in need.
The level of humanitarian aid must be increased significantly and its delivery must be accelerated. No effort should be spared to protect all groups forcefully displaced by this conflict. The Government should follow the example set by other European governments and make provision to provide asylum to those that are unable to return to their homes for fear of persecution and death.

As a constituent in your area, I ask you to raise these concerns with the Secretary of State for International Development and other relevant departments to ensure that additional steps are taken to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Northern Iraq and to provide refuge and sanctuary to those most in need.

Yours sincerely,

Revd Canon Philip Ritchie

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Food Bank: here's how it works

In light of yesterday's announcement about a proposed freezing of working-age benefits and the incessant negative comments about Food Banks from some of those who will be implementing the freeze, here's how they work.

Our Food Bank Distribution Point is open on Tuesday afternoon's between 1-3pm in Bell Street Hall, Bell Street, Great Baddow. CM2 7JR.

For further information about Food Banks check out The Trussell Trust site and follow on Twitter.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Gideon and the young mum

Gideon, a man of wealth and privilege, stood up in front of his friends and supporters. This was his big moment, an occasion that would define his career and more importantly convey the values on which his life was based. To loud applause he set out his priorities for the future, not just his future but the future for a society he knew he had been destined to govern.

In the rain a young mother pushed a second hand buggy with her infant child wrapped up in a baby coat bought at a charity shop. She limped as she walked, the lasting effect from the beating she had received from her alcoholic partner before she was able to find respite in the local refuge. She didn't know how long she would be able to stay there because funding for the refuge was being withdrawn. Since leaving her part-time job, fearful that her partner would find her, she had no income. In her hand she clutched the food voucher given to her by a social worker. She had heard of Food Banks but had never dreamed of being in a situation where she would depend on one. She was no scrounger, just grateful for the promise of some food to tide her and her child over until she received her next instalment of child benefit.

The speech was going well. Taking a deep breath, Gideon looked squarely into the camera lens, aware that his real audience was not around him but out in the country. He had chosen his words carefully, read his script several times to avoid the unforgivable sin of omitting a crucial paragraph and practised the look that would communicate sincerity. Now came the key moment. The words that Gideon hoped would commandeer the headlines of news reports and papers. And so Gideon declared that if elected his government would freeze working-age benefits, including child benefit, for two years, building on the one percent cap imposed from 2012. He was also pleased with the well trailed tax cut on 'drawdown' pensions. The hall echoed to the sounds of cheers from the party faithful. Political editors breathlessly reported the news on television and radio as social media timelines began to fill with accounts of the announcement and website front pages were redrafted. Now they would see how serious Gideon was about meeting the demands of the times.

George turned off the radio as The World at One ended, sighed, placed the Food Bank Distribution Centre sign outside the hall door and prepared to welcome that day's clients with his team. Fortunately yesterday had been Harvest Festival in many of the local churches and most had collected goods for the food bank. There would be enough food for the next few weeks, though the increasing demand meant that stocks were depleted more rapidly than before. The door opened and a young woman, her expression conveying her deep sense of embarrassment, pushed her child's buggy into the hall and handed over the damp voucher.

Gideon was applauded by his team of advisers as he entered the hotel reception room and the maid prepared to serve the drinks. He loved the sound of popping champagne corks in the afternoon, it sounded like... victory.

Any similarity to real events or persons is entirely intentional.

Friday, 26 September 2014

simply Marvellous

Every now and again I come across a film  that lifts the spirit. Once is such a film and Marvellous is another. Last night Kate and I were looking for something to watch on T.V. and I had seen a trailer for Marvellous, thought it looked interesting, so persuaded Kate to watch it. The film is a biopic of the life of Neil Baldwin and it is glorious. Neil is someone who many have dismissed as having 'special needs' and yet his life affirming attitude to situations and people demonstrates that time and again he is the one ministering to the needs of others.

Marvellous follows Neil's exploits as a circus clown, his work at Keele University and his time as kit man with Stoke City during the tenure of manager Lou Macari. Neil's relationships with his mother, clergy, friends and footballers are explored with humour and humanity. The subtitle of this blog is 'reflections on faith, family, film and football' and in a sense that is what Marvellous is all about. Neil is a Christian and his faith is portrayed with a sympathetic touch, rarely seen on television or in film, as is the vicar with whom Neil develops a lasting friendship. There is some gentle ribbing about the Anglican Church but it is portrayed in a positive, even affectionate, light.

Neil's mother is the rock who sustains him through life and the portrayal of the relationship is beautifully judged, particularly his mother's fears for Neil as she approaches the end of her life. Some of the moments between the two are heart-rending, not least when Neil is visiting his mum in a care home.

The film experiments with format in a way reminiscent of Dennis Potter. In several scenes the masterful actor Toby Jones, who plays Neil, is in character in dialogue with the real Neil Baldwin. There are also scenes with Lou Macari, then manager of Stoke City, commenting on some of the incidents portrayed in the film. These never interrupt the narrative flow and enhance our understanding of Neil's character and relationships. There are several moments reminiscent of Woody Allen's Zelig.

Football is central to the film as it is to Neil's life. A committed Stoke City supporter, Neil strikes up an extraordinary relationship with Macari leading to his appointment as kit man. At one stage Macari even plays Neil in a testimonial game against Aston Villa and later comments that Neil is the best signing he ever made at Stoke City. There is plenty of cruel banter from some of the footballers and at one stage a player calls Neil a 'Mong', however, Neil gives as good as he gets and there is an hilarious incident when Neil takes his revenge with the players' underpants. A favourite moment is a scene recounting an incident when Macari is interviewed about a new signing he has made. The genuine video on which the scene is based is embedded at the end of this post and I defy you not to laugh.

A recurring theme is the way that Neil mentions famous people who he knows. Others dismiss his fantasising only to discover that he really has met these people, can count some as genuine friends and has the pictures and signatures to prove it. In the end you feel that these people felt privileged to have known Neil rather than the other way round.

Marvellous is a wonderful account of a life well lived and enriching the lives of others. Kate summed the film up when she commented at the end that it was everything Ricky Gervais's Derek tries but fails to be.

And here's that video as promised:

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Behind the Sofa

My first memories of watching Doctor Who are from the mid 1960s, sitting in my pyjamas having had my evening bath, in front of a coal fire at my Gran's house in Belfast. I can also remember the series that gave me my first nightmare: The Underwater Menace. Broadcast in early 1967, the plot
revolves around plans to raise the lost city of Atlantis. One of the early episodes ends with Polly, one of the Doctor's assistants, held down on an operating table and about to undergo surgery to convert her into an amphibian. These days the series isn't highly rated by Whovians, and some episodes are missing, but it had me waking up in a cold sweat that night because I was strapped on the table next to Polly and about to be converted into one of the Fish People.

Over the last couple of weeks another debate has been taking place about whether Doctor Who has become too scary for children. These debates come around every couple of years and it's bizarre really because I always thought the main point of the programme was to scare children. My problem with the more recent incarnations of Doctor Who is that often the series are so wrapped up in a plethora of subtexts and cleverness that there isn't time for the scream inducing moments. When my now teenage children first started watching a few years ago, I found myself watching them to see how often they jumped, closed their eyes or, yes, wanted to hide behind us or the sofa. I have to say the answer is they didn't do it often enough. That's not to say we don't enjoy watching Doctor Who, and there have been some fantastic episodes, it's just that it isn't very scary and it should be.

Now back to my nightmare. Perhaps it wasn't a nightmare after all but a premonition, for as a Christian you could say I have become one of the Fish People.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 24 September 2014


In amongst so much negativity surrounding the Scottish Independence Referendum there was one significant point of light and hope for the political processes of the United Kingdom. The referendum gave 16 and 17 year olds the vote and this has galvanised discussion about enfranchising this age group for future elections. I have always thought it strange that a 16 year old could be expected to pay taxes and yet not have a vote in elections which may determine how those taxes will be spent. One of my earliest political recollections is the phrase 'no taxation without representation' and it has stuck with me through the years since I began studying political history. I remember casting my first vote in a national election in 1979 at the age of 19 and it was a momentous time both personally and nationally. Needless to say the party I voted for didn't get elected.

Some people have questioned whether a 16 year old is ready for the weight of responsibility that comes with voting. Yesterday I heard two young people discussing the right to vote on BBC Radio 5 Live. One had voted in the Scottish referendum and the other, from England, wanted to know what it was like. It was one of the most insightful pieces of political discourse that I have heard in a long time and the presenter stopped asking questions and sat back to let them engage in debate. I was driving my daughter, also 16, during the broadcast and as it came to an end she simply nodded and gave a thumbs up. We then continued to discuss the issue on the journey. Both the contributors on radio and my daughter demonstrated more political maturity in those few minutes than you will hear across the party political conferences over the next few weeks. If you don't believe me just look at this morning's headlines about Ed Miliband's speech, which have focused on whether he has blown his chances of electoral victory, not because of the merits of policy, but based on his ability to memorise a speech! Is that what we have come to? Sadly, I fear the answer is yes, when the chief quality determining our political leaders seems to be how much like Hugh Grant they can look in a television debate.

So I'm in favour of giving votes to teenagers like my daughter. Let's face it, they can't make more of a mess of this politics business than we have managed over the years.

Update: You can hear the debate on 5 Live referred to in this post at 1:51:25 here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A prayer for Clive

I've been a fan of Clive James both as a broadcaster and writer for many years. James has a brilliant mind and is a truly gifted communicator. People will be familiar with his biting satire on television, his novels, memoires and his witty, sometimes devastating, reviews in print. Not so many will be familiar with James' work as a lyricist, or translator of Dante's The Divine Comedy, or his poetry. As James approaches death he has published 'Japanese Maple' which may prove to be the last in a series of farewell poems. It is a stunning piece of work and yet I found it tinged with sadness as James contemplates this autumn heralding the end of his life.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, chose to tweet a link to James' poem with the hashtag #humanist, and I'm not really sure why. Perhaps it is because Copson believes that the poem supports his world view but I think there is more to James' world view than Copson allows. Consider this article Lest we forget, Jesus the man for the BBC's A Point Of View. During Christmas 2008 James' invited us to remember Jesus and at one point comments:
I know that my redeemer liveth? Well I doubt if he can redeem me. I wish he could. But I do have faith that he lives on, as an ideal. All the Christian religions are lucky to have him, and those of us who have ceased to be Christians in the old way are lucky to have him too.
The piece concludes with the following:
The bird of morning will never sing all night long, but nor, if we are wise, will the memory of that man (Jesus) ever die.
So I pray that even in these last days Clive James will remember Jesus and come to know the wonder and joy of being remembered by Jesus when he looks on the Japanese Maple for the last time.

Friday, 19 September 2014

F.A. Watch

It turns out the main qualification needed to become an international football association executive is a long arm to wear all the watches you get given. This week F.A. Chairman Greg Dyke agreed to give back a watch worth £16,000 that he was given as a 'freebie' before the Brazil World Cup this summer. Apparently this is a common practice and Dyke has said he has been given several such watches among other items in various 'goodie bags' during his tenure. I shudder to think how many watches Sepp Blatter has accumulated over the years in his role as FIFA president. I wonder if he has one inscribed 'love Qatar'?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 18 September 2014

born of frustration

I have to confess to being more than a little frustrated by the Scottish Independence Referendum. It seems to me that whatever happens decisions will be made which directly affect my family and community and yet I will have no say in them.

If Scotland votes 'yes' to independence then that will have an impact not just on Scotland but on the whole of the United Kingdom in all sorts of ways. If you don't believe me take a look at what happened in the financial markets when the first positive 'yes' opinion poll was published.

If Scotland says 'no' then the political leaders of the mainstream parties have already made vows
(they can't use the word pledge after Nick Clegg so spectacularly broke one over tuition fees) which again will have a huge impact on all of us. They have done this without any consultation with the electorate. I would suggest that their complacency and then horror at the prospect of the break up of the U.K. led them into panic promises which they had no right to make and have no mandate to deliver. If you doubt this then ask yourself why they left it until the last minute to publish their prospectus for Scotland, and for the whole of the U.K., so late in the campaign.

I am not saying whether the Scots should vote yeah or ney, though I find it ironic that a 17 year old French schoolboy studying in Edinburgh gets a vote and Sir Alex Ferguson along with many other Scots doesn't, but let no one suggest this doesn't affect the rest of us in the U.K..

Then this morning I read the opening canticle from Morning Prayer and it put things into a wider perspective. The canticle is Psalm 67 and it is a healthy reminder that ultimately politicians and the electorate including Salmond, Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, you and me are accountable to a higher authority.

God be gracious to us and bless us • and make his face to shine upon us,
That your way may be known upon earth, • your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; • let all the peoples praise you.
O let the nations rejoice and be glad, • for you will judge the peoples righteously and govern the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; • let all the peoples praise you.
Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, • and God, our own God, will bless us.
God will bless us, • and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

demotivating twitter

Each morning I take a look at my Twitter timeline over a cup of tea. It's a quick way of catching up with the news, picking up links to stories and blogs I might want to read later and seeing who is up and about. There are a few people who I look out for because they usually have something interesting or funny to say. Check my timeline and see who I frequently RT if you want to know to whom I'm referring. And then there are the celebrities.

I started following some of the celebs when I was new to Twitter and thought it might be interesting to see how they engaged with this fresh social media environment. Experience tells me that they fall into two categories; those who use Twitter as a tool of self-promotion and those who use Twitter to engage with others. I won't bother to name the former as anyone who has been on Twitter for a while will know who fits into this category and from time to time I cull the more tedious ones. In the latter category I would place several well know authors who are prepared to interact and answer questions including Ian Rankin (I'm a big Rebus fan), Susan Hill (scary writer & MUFC fan) and Archdruid Eileen (no further comment necessary).

Then there is another group of tweeters who I have come to regard as Christian celebrities. These are well known Christian personalities who it turns out engage with Twitter in much the same way as their secular contemporaries. There are those whose timelines seem to be full of little more than self-promotion: 'you can watch me on this', 'here's me with X, Y or Z'. Then there are those who fire epithets into the twittersphere with monotonous regularity but hardly ever engage in dialogue with others. More recently some of this group have taken to sharing with us what are little more than inane motivational clichés often on the theme of leadership or self improvement.
Usually this stuff is so fatuous it would make David Brent cringe or a Sun sub-editor blush. It's interesting to see how many of these tweeters have given up referencing the Bible for their world redefining insights, probably because you aren't going to find gobbets like 'fail to prepare, prepare to fail' in the scriptures. If I seem to be harsh about this it is because I genuinely find some of this stuff damaging and offensive and I despair when I hear this rubbish repeated as if it is holy writ. It is revealing to read these pearls of wisdom before going across to morning prayer and encountering a meaty chunk of the Psalms.

Of course there are those who are able to summarise in 140 characters a profound and often challenging insight. Others have the skill of being able to get to the heart of an issue and shed a new light on it from a Christian perspective with a telling phrase. Some are gifted at communicating in a sentence or two reflections of deep spiritual import or distilling a passage of scripture into a nugget of wisdom to live by. Others simply brighten the day with a joke or link to a funny cartoon. Again I guess anyone who has been on Twitter for a while knows who these people are but if you want one example of a person who communicates with spiritual maturity and humanity check out @Digitalnun.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to be the best that I can be by pushing the boat out from the shore and searching for the hero inside of me.

Friday, 12 September 2014

optional ethics

Over the summer various ethical issues hit the headlines and became matters of public debate. One subject that particularly caught my attention was surrogacy following the case of baby Gammy, the child with Down's Syndrome born to a Thai surrogate mother and apparently rejected by his commissioning parents. I've been interested in surrogacy since I first researched it for a dissertation while studying in Oxford. My work was actually about The Warnock Report on Human Fertilization and Embryology and I used the topic of surrogacy to explore the underlying ethical assumptions behind the report.

What struck me about the recent discussions on surrogacy in the media, both mainstream and social, was the lack of ethical considerations in so much of the argument. For several days I heard and read interviews with those involved in surrogacy including: surrogates, clients, facilitators, doctors and lawyers. The practical, financial, legal and physiological aspects of surrogacy were explored in some depth. What I didn't hear was anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of the ethical questions raised by these matters. In the case of baby Gammy the issues were sharpened by the apparent rejection of the child by his potential parents because of his condition, though the full facts of that case are still to be clarified.

I listened in vain to BBC Radio 4 Today over several days while on holiday for one person to address the question of whether surrogacy was right or wrong; whether surrogacy was something we should be engaged in at all. I heard powerful emotional and unchallenged testimonies from surrogate parents and those who had become parents through surrogacy but the obvious questions were never addressed. Does surrogacy treat children as a commodity? What happens when the child acquired through surrogacy doesn't turn out the way the client parents hoped? What is the psychological impact on a surrogate child? Do we as a society view children as a gift or a right?...

My daughter took her GCSEs this summer and had to consider her A Level options. Her stronger subjects were in science along with philosophy and ethics and she had hoped to study philosophy as well as the sciences in the sixth form. However, due to timetabling issues it was impossible for her to study philosophy and physics together, much to her and our dismay. It seems crazy to me that a school would not consider philosophy an appropriate subject to study in combination with the sciences. If you want to know what happens when you separate scientific endeavour from considered philosophical and ethical reflection then you need look no further than Richard Dawkins twitter timeline.

Have we as a society lost the ability to reflect ethically on the issues confronting us today or are we simply reluctant to do so? Do we take seriously the challenge of educating our children not only to develop their knowledge and understanding of the world, but also to develop a moral framework within which that knowledge and understanding might be considered and used?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

and faith?

I'd been waiting for news about the latest U2 album for a while and the only information coming out was about delays to a release date. Then on Tuesday evening I discovered that not only had it been released but that I'd already got it! Free!!
Coinciding with the Apple launch of their new products it turned out that Songs of Innocence had been delivered to everyone in the world with an iTunes account. So I went to check and yes, there it was marked as purchased in my account and after a bit of faffing about I had it downloaded onto my PC, iPod and iPad and all at no charge. Nice on.

My rule of thumb with U2 albums is that the ones that take longer to get into usually end up as favourites, with a couple of exceptions like The Joshua Tree which was stunning on first listening and still sends a shiver up my spine. I'll post a review once I've had a few listens to Songs of Innocence.

The reviews I've read so far have been positive and informative about the background to the tracks, however, one thing struck me as odd. In the New York Times review John Pareles lists what inspired U2 as musicians and songwriters in the first place:
During its five years between albums, U2, which released its first recording in 1979, publicly pondered how to stay relevant. Its solution, on “Songs of Innocence,” is to reimagine its young, retrospectively innocent selves and recall what fired them up: family, neighbors, lovers, street action and of course, music. Liner notes by Bono, the band’s lead singer and main lyricist, fill in many of the back stories, describing the songs as “first journeys.”
All well and good but something was missing from the list of what fires U2 up and that something is Faith. Faith has always been there in U2's music either obliquely or explicitly and I don't think this album is any exception. Pareles draws attention to Bono's cover notes for the album but I wonder whether he read them carefully enough, or was there a particular reason he didn't want to reference this aspect of U2's influences? Bono is quite open in explaining the place of faith in his background. He writes about Cedarwood Road the subject of one of the tracks:
The Rowans at No.5 had a cherry blossom tree that was the most luxurious thing in the world to me. That family were like an old testament tribe. I learnt a lot from them. The depth and deep disclosures of the scriptures. In their company I saw some great preachers who opened up those scary black bibles and made the word of God dance for them, and us. Sometimes I would think it should be the other way round. One minute you're reading it, next minute you're in it. Lou Reed, God rest his soul, said you need a busload of faith to get by. That bus was full of Rowans and I was on it.
And the lyrics are a bit of a give away. The Troubles:
God knows it's not easy, taking on the shape of someone else's pain. God now you can see me, I'm naked and I'm not afraid. My body's sacred and I'm not afraid.
Or Song for Someone:
And I'm a long way from your Hill of Calvary. And I'm a long way from where I was and where I need to be...
One of the strengths of Bono's writing is that faith doesn't get an easy ride in U2 songs, recognising the tensions and all too apparent failings confronting the individual and the church. Sleep Like A Baby Tonight takes on the appalling reality of child abuse in the church. And Bono slips in an uncomfortable line in Every Breaking Wave directed at himself but a challenge for those of us who preach:
I thought I heard the captain's voice, It's hard to listen while you preach...
So a simple plea to reviewers. If you are going to explore U2's influences, don't leave out something which is clearly at the heart of their music, even if it does make you feel uncomfortable.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Carry On Knitting

Yes folks the Carry On team have come out of retirement to bring you another classic, Carry On Knitting. Unfortunately some of the old cast are no longer with us but do not fear for Her Majesty's Government have provided some up and coming 'characters' to keep you rolling in the aisles. The new feature stars Brooks Newmark the charities minister who takes a novel line on the work of the Third Sector. Here's the minister's statement during a recent conference:
We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics.
When they stray into the realm of politics that is not what they are about and that is not why people give them money.
The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.
I laughed so much I nearly dropped a stitch! Oh, wait a minute, it seems Mr Newmark was serious about this. Does the minister have the first idea about what work goes on in the charitable sector of our nation? Is this what the government is thinking of when it talks about the Big Society? Don't get me wrong, knitting plays its part, and many have benefited from this particular charitable good work, but this comment ranks alongside other gems, including the PM's favourite 'calm down dear', in its patronising ineptitude.

As for the suggestion that charities should keep out of politics, it seems the minister believes it is O.K. for charities to help clear up the mess in our society but not ask any awkward questions about what has helped create the mess in the first place. In other words, leave the politics to the professionals because they know what they are doing and the rest of us should be grateful for their whit, wisdom and expertise. If you doubt their brilliance, just have a look at PMQs any Wednesday lunchtime, now that really is a Carry On.  

Anyway, I'm off to dig out my knitting needles and I know just what to do with them, however, it won't involve the use of any wool.