Tuesday, 22 November 2016

'Tis most ignobly done

Very reluctantly, I return to a subject about which I have blogged a few times before. I'm provoked to do so by a Sunday morning disturbed by BBC4's Sunday programme. The final item was an interview with a senior bishop and the general secretary of GAFCON (which stands for Global Anglican Future Conference). I gathered that the latter organisation, a sort of international conservative ginger group, had produced a briefing paper for the Church of England bishops who are meeting this week to talk about the Shared Conversations which have been held over the past year and a half to talk about the Church's attitude to same-sex marriage and thus to members of the LGBT community. From the radio interview I learned that this paper had been widely publicised and it named gay clergy and non-clergy and those who were deemed to have transgressed against Lambeth resolution 10:1, a statement about teaching and practice of sexual ethics within the Church.

By now I sense my non-church readers saying, "You what? What are you going on about?" Which I understand. To put it politely it seems arcane and irrelevant. In the end, I forced myself to look at the GAFCON document, and to my mind it is arcane but also distasteful. To put it simply, it creates an easily accessible and well advertised list of gay men and women serving the Church. It is true these folk don't hide their sexuality, but it is the clear intention of the document to expose them to condemning conservative eyes. The Church of England is a surprisingly tolerant church. For example many clergy on the conservative end of the spectrum often failed to wear the prescribed clothes for taking services or to observe the rules about saying services every day in church. But they didn't get into trouble as a result. Church rules change - usually because custom has changed, or because society has changed.

I gather that by the time I read the document its numerous inaccuracies had been corrected or footnoted. Even so, in one footnote about which I knew something the original inaccuracy had merely been amended into an innuendo starting "According to some reports...". A simple look at the organisation in question's would have been enough to confirm its pastoral and supportive nature. I hesitated about whether I should say anything and in the end decided to write to some bishops, in order to make it clear that although my background and theology is, I suspect, near to the tradition of GAFCON, not all of us feel the same about this issue.

Some of what I wrote follows:
"Personally I no longer hold the view I once maintained, I’m ashamed to say, that homosexuality is a sin against nature and against God.  I believe that arose from a too simple reading of the Bible out of its context.  Having witnessed the pain and alienation of LGBT friends both within the family of the Church and on being forced to leave, I don’t believe it was right.  I’m grieved that, having led the way in the decriminalization of homosexuality in the last century, the Church of England nevertheless persists in inflicting its own form of punishment on its homosexual members, I suppose in God’s name.  The damage done to such people (including my friends) is generally severe in its effect and unloving in its intention. 

"I trust you as bishops will dismiss the GAFCON document.  It seems to me inappropriately political, not becoming of a Christian conversation.  It also seems unacceptably personal.  The excuse of it being “evidence” or already being in the public domain is disingenuous.  It appears that even the journalistic courtesy of informing people was not observed.  The speculation concerning individuals’ private lives was far from Christian.  Indeed the whole document seemed above all to lack that most excellent gift of charity.  (I’m aware by the way that lack of charity has not been a one-way street, and appreciate the Archbishops’ wisdom in resisting the impatience of pressure groups from both sides.)

"I simply want to make it clear that not all conservative evangelicals agree with the line which GAFCON represents.  I would like to celebrate, both personally and as a Church, genuine lifelong vows of commitment of heterosexual and homosexual couples.  I want to affirm Christ-like self-giving love."

Let me add my usual final caveat. I am not a theologian. Don't be persuaded on this or any other issue by me. Listen to the still small voice within. It is entirely possible that I may be mistaken, but not, I believe, in upholding the overwhelming imperative of love.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

A nightmare versus a dream

The fact that the Conservatives won't oppose Zac Goldsmith in the by-election for Richmond Park says it all. What more eloquent testimony could there be for their lack of conviction that "this is the right thing for the country", as Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport, has adopted as his mantra? If it is, then make the case so persuasively that the residents of Harmondsworth, Harlington, Sipson, Longford, and Richmond vote for you. See how those directly affected by the environmental pollution vote. They might agree.
Photo : Premier org.uk

The project will apparently generate employment for thousands and billions of pounds of national wealth. What's not apparent is why this proposal would generate more than any others - except perhaps in demolishing 950 homes and resettling their occupants, presumably in places not of their choosing, and bulldozing an ancient church and village green. As too often with current governmental decisions, the public rationale is financial and not human. Value for money is elevated above quality of life. There is the implicit accusation of selfish nimbyism. "Take a hit for the rest of us" has been the political philosophy of the past couple of administrations, addressed to the most vulnerable within society - the easiest to target.

However, it's all very well to be negative. What better solution is there? The London airport commission, we are told, thoroughly examined the alternatives and ruled in favour of a third Heathrow runway. Clearly I've not read the report, but I strongly suspect that its overriding criteria were economic. Reluctant though I am to admit any merits in one of Boris Johnson's madcap dreams, I do in fact think that his Thames Estuary island scheme was the most visionary. A brand new hub airport with approaches over the sea and 21st-century infrastructure into London would of course cost more than building an extra runway, but as the Transport Secretary has been at pains to affirm it would be provided by private finance. And the human cost would be far less. Maybe it would impinge on the good burgers of Essex and Kent, were the flight paths badly delineated. Yet one could envisage an eventual reduction in the impact of Heathrow as it ceased to be the hub airport for London, the UK and the world.

I recall the days when there were soundings for a new London airport in rural Buckinghamshire (for example at Wing). Fortunately those were binned. Hopefully Heathrow's third runway will go the same way, and Boris Island will rise from the waves. Now that would be a small legacy to offset the disaster of Brexit.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

An Olympic cautionary dose

When I was at school, we all knew that the most unjust type of sanction was collective punishment – you know the sort: when the whole class is kept in detention for one person’s misdemeanour. It’s the last resort of the ineffective teacher. “I know someone’s been smoking in here, and if they don’t own up in the next minute, I shall keep the whole class back after school until I get the name.”

I remember well the first time I was on the receiving end of this sort of sanction. I have no idea what the offence was. I was still in junior school and I remember the class being lined up at the top of the basement stairs, prior to being marched down to have the cane administered by the ex-army-captain headmaster. In fact, I’m ashamed to say, I was so scared I feigned sickness and avoided my fate and so was launched into a propensity to intelligent deceit. I did later get my fair share of rapped knuckles from Fido, the length of quadrant wielded by my moustachioed Maths teacher.
Graphic showing estimated civilian casualties in WW2, Memorial Civiles

When we were away on holiday in France this summer, we visited the moving Memorial des Civils museum in Falaise which records the civilian cost of World War 2. There was an exhibit there which listed something like 20 men from a village, taken to concentration camp, after German military trains had twice been blown up nearby by the resistance. One man came back. A pattern repeated thousands of time in war, no doubt. The museum reminded us that our Soviet allies lost 36 million civilians in the defeat of Nazism, far more than the rest of Europe put together. Which is, by the way, one reason why I consider our officially sponsored populist anti-Russian narrative so misconceived.

You may surmise from this that I rate collective punishment as a very low form of life. And I was sorry when the Olympic authorities, almost, and the Paralympic totally imposed a blanket ban on athletes from the Russian federation. It seemed to me a denial of natural justice. Whatever the rights and wrong of the McLaren report on state sponsored doping in Russia, it’s clear that some innocent athletes were barred from competing by the bans, and I suspect guilty ones from elsewhere competed, perhaps making intelligently deceitful use of TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions).

Whatever the case, it seems that the whole affair was hurriedly and clumsily mismanaged – which of course worked to GB’s advantage. True, GB did wonderfully well in both Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, and their medal haul exceeded even the London Games. But then they would have won more, wouldn’t they, with their main competitor for second, third or fourth place removed from the picture? I wouldn’t want in any way to rain on their parades. They deserve our very great admiration, but let’s keep it in perspective and hope that by 2020 Russia will be back in the mix.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Saturday 30th July 1966

Fifty years ago today, I was in Istanbul. I remember it clearly because we called in at the consulate there to hear the result of the World Cup Final from Wembley, before crossing the Bosporus to camp on the eastern side.

I was in my teens then. One brother was doing a gap year in Iran. Another was doing post-graduate studies in Jerusalem, and the third was mid-degree at Cambridge. At the end of the war my father, an RAF chaplain, had been posted in Palestine where he worked in the Moral Leadership School based in Jerusalem. During that time he had acquired a unique knowledge of Biblical topography. Among other things in her busy life my mother had been bringing up four boys in the post-war years. My Cambridge brother had the crazy idea for using his long vacation: how about the family in the UK driving overland to Jordan, meeting the other two in Jerusalem, and then returning via Israel and Greece?

There were a number of complications, although none as big as they'd be today. It was mainly a matter of getting all the necessary visas and not letting on that we were visiting Israel (as even then the surrounding Arab countries would not have let us through had they seen an Israeli visa on our passports). It was the year before the Six Day War. There was one big problem. We had the car, a shiny black Consul 375, a roof rack, a tent, a home-made awning which could be attached to the roof rack - but we had zero mechanical know-how between us. However we did have a good family friend, Peter, a post-graduate engineer, who knew more than we did, and although he couldn't afford holiday for the whole trip, he would accompany us on the outward journey. My brother from Iran would take his place on the return leg.

The car stood up to the journey pretty well. I think we broke down first on a German autobahn, then in northern Yugoslavia (as it was), had its exhaust replaced in Ankara (very efficiently) and lastly was driven into a ditch by a friendly local lad while we were walking through Hezekiah's Tunnel in East Jerusalem. In Yugoslavia our breakdown was enlivened by a local boy with a crewcut and big grin - perhaps barely eleven - whose conversation on finding we were English largely consisted of naming all the England football team, "Bobby Charlton (rolling the 'r'), Bobby Moore, Jacky Charlton, Gordon Banks...." He knew them better than us. We had no car radio, but we did discover England had reached the final, and so we made for the consulate on Saturday 30th July 1966, to discover that England had won.

There are many tales to be told of that eventful journey, but talking about it today with the brother who masterminded it we reflected how different, indeed how impossible it would be now. I think we drove through Holland, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia), Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to Jerusalem; and, having crossed to Israel, by boat to Greece, Yugoslavia (now Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia), Italy, Switzerland and France. Bulgaria I remember as quite militarised, along with the ox carts. My brother was chatted up by a drunk Syrian "prince" when we were camping outside Damascus, our friend had his film confiscated after taking a photo of an Italian WW2 aeroplane in Lebanon and I was ordered out of the car at the Jordanian border in order to see whether my hair was too long. I still wonder if they would have given me a number one on the spot. Apparently I passed. But that was the sum of our difficulties. Oh yes, and we got soaked in Austria, eventually resorting to a hotel in Vienna, the Roter Hahn, who were understandably dubious about these bedraggled individuals dressed for camping rather than sightseeing. In the end they gave us a room. And then on the return journey crossing the Mediterranean rough enough for seasickness my father dubbed our converted coaster ferry, the Black Hole of Calcutta, with so many crammed in cabins and on the deck.

BBC Exodus : Our Journey to Europe
Jane and I have just been watching the BBC's moving trio of programmes called Exodus: Our Journey to Europe. The description read, "In 2015, we gave cameras to some of the people who smuggled themselves into Europe, to record where no-one else can go. The result is a terrifying, intimate, epic portrait of the migration crisis." Many of the places were where we had travelled 50 years ago. Through Europe borders are closed or manned by armed border guards, which to my memory only seriously occurred in the Middle East on our trip. Now central Europe is struggling to cope with the desperate migrants and the fear of terrorism. And of course after the coup Turkey is no longer the relaxed welcoming place we knew. No way would or could we cross Syria, that poor war-shattered country. What a mess we have unleashed! How different from the order of 1966!

And our discomforts were less than nothing when we watch the refugees ruthlessly exploited by the people smugglers, loaded into overcrowded inadequate boats to face the Mediterranean, trudging through all weathers for mile after mile, being refused entry to countries, struggling for survival in "The Jungle", fleeced by con men. What has happened to progress, to the optimism of evolution? When the media have not been preoccupied with Brexit and the turmoil of domestic politics, they have used the First World War to fill up spare hours and pages. "The war to end all wars". A hundred years on the world is as violent and war-torn as ever. 

So today, I'll not be madly celebrating what the BBC, in its customary hyperbolic style, this morning dubbed "the greatest day in British sporting history", but reflecting instead on the folly as well as the goodness of human nature.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Anniversary ambitions

This week we celebrated our wedding anniversary. One effect (bonus?) of having a condition like MND is that such occasions take on extra significance. If you have one, you'll know what I mean. As every new day is a gift, so every landmark occasion reached is also a gift. One of the things our local MND Association branch has done for a year or two is send a cheque at New Year to people with MND in the county to spend however they want. It's a lovely gesture, since normally one's preoccupied with the mundane matters of disability.

Emily Watkins (Kingham Plough website)
From the Kingham Plough newsletter
When I received my gift in January, I knew how I wanted to spend it. One of our sons' friend had been involved in filming The Great British Menu and so we had watched it. The chef nearest to us in 2014 was Emily Watkins from The Plough in Kingham, and she won the regional round and in the final week her fish dish was chosen for the war veterans' banquet. As far as one could tell from TV, not only did she cook beautiful food but she also seemed a nice person. One day, I thought, I'd like to take Jane for a meal at her pub.....

What better excuse than a wedding anniversary meal? The whole day exceeded our expectations. It helped that the drive took us through the Cotswolds north of Burford; it helped that the day was sunny; it helped of course that it was our anniversary and we were still in love.

We were shown a table inside near the bar, but decided to sit outside in the sun. We ordered our first course - for me, smoked sea trout "Wellington"; for Jane, home-made coppa with broad bean and radish salad and three times cooked potato wedges. The bread, while we waited, was, I imagine, artisan-baked, delicious. We were surprised and delighted when Emily brought out the smoked sea trout. I'm not a gourmet or a food critic, and I have never come face-to-face with food quite this beautiful.
I won't play the TV critic by analysing the ingredients and flavour combinations, but you can see it - and you'll have to take it from me, it tasted as good as it looked. The Wellington itself had the fish itself at the centre, minced off-cuts (I think), then seared chard leaves and finally the thinnest pastry I've ever come across. It added to my enjoyment when Emily emerged from the kitchen to ask how I'd enjoyed it. She told us it was a new dish. She had had 20 goes at perfecting it - and this was the first time she'd been satisfied enough to serve it to a customer. Wow! I thought. I assured her it was brilliant. Sadly I wasn't with it enough to get a picture of us with her...!
Our puddings - sorry, desserts - were lemon posset with granola (Jane) and strawberry soufflé with clotted cream custard (me). And of course they too were lovely. So we drove home with a warm glow inside and out. 

To cap our day we spent the evening with old friends and new friends at our local coffee shop, Cornerstone, for the occasional meeting dubbed Face2Face. We shared food (again!) and music or poetry which meant something to each of us. My choice was Liszt's Les Préludes, which I first heard with Jane at an open-air concert at Kenwood House 44 years ago, intensely romantic and spiritual. Jane chose a song which resonates more with our present situation, Laura Story's Blessings, which asks questions about the mystery of unanswered prayer. She doesn't give definite answers, but keeps asking, "What if...?" To end with, Mary read a version of the Hungarian writer, Útmutató a Léleknek's often quoted/plagiarised parable, Do you believe in mother? And Pete prayed.

A rather, a very, good day - we slept gratefully and well.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

We should be angry

I was at a meeting on Thursday, discussing social media. I happened to say to someone there how hard it was to express our negative thoughts together to God. And then came along a third major atrocity in France within 18 months. 
Back at home, I heard that 84 people, including 10 children, had been killed by a man repeatedly driving a lorry into a crowd watching a Bastille Day fire​work display in Nice. At the time of writing, 54 children lie in hospital fighting for their lives. And so-called ISIS gloat over one of their "soldiers" committing an act of such deluded barbarity. How can we tell God how awful it is? How dreadful and demonic? How much we hate it? Are we allowed to? Can we find words that match the moment? Well, I think we may, we should and we can.

Photo: Huffington Post twitter
In the days when psalms were a regular part of daily Anglican worship, I've never once heard the most difficult one sung or said in its entirety. It's Psalm 137. It's one of several laments which come in the book of ​Psalms - the Jewish hymn book. It expresses the most raw pain and anger of any worship song I know.
Here it is:
By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 
How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill! 
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
    down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
    blessed shall he be who repays you
    with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!

It seems so unChristian, doesn't it? Especially those last lines. And yet... and yet, to be candid, that is the way that we feel in our inner, secret depths. "Give them exactly what they dealt out to us and our loved ones." That's natural justice. ​​​​It's a cry of utmost pain. It's how much it hurts - or it should be. It's appropriate.​ For a time anyway. And if it is​ what we feel, then pretending to God that we don't is pretty pointless. ​​Perhaps it would be good at times like this to share this psalm, even say it together, and then listen to familiar words of Jesus in Matthew 5:
 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…" 
And then be quiet for a very long time.

Monday, 27 June 2016

After the referendum diagnosis

I've been trying to explain my feelings this weekend. "Depressed" is what I said to one person on  Sunday morning. But that's not quite the right word. I think the best I can do is an analogy.

When I was diagnosed with a motor neurone disorder (MND), I was shocked. Thereafter I was living in a new world, a world I hadn't and would never have chosen, a world I really did not like. I knew some things about it, such as it would be life-limiting. The chances were that I would die quite soon, though I might just possibly be lucky and live a long time like Stephen Hawking, a life of ever increasing dependence and frustration. Whatever happened, my world was completely changed, and would affect not only me, but also my family, my friends and my colleagues. My job would be affected; my future would be different. It wasn't a pleasant prospect; it didn't promise better things. And I lived under that cloud for some time.

It's true that for me not all my worst fears have been realised. I'm still alive fourteen years later, for a start. But I've had to give up my job; my life is very prescribed. I'm very much a spectator and not a participant in what's going on. It's not that I feel sorry for myself (much). But I do know a melancholy disappointment at the increase in my isolation. And sometimes that initial cloud returns. I wouldn't say life is better now than before my MND, though it is still life and I'm still grateful to be able to enjoy it. As a family, we've just had one of those events which give me joy.

Among the good things some have arisen from ending up in a wheelchair. Not that I'd not far rather be able-bodied. It hurts like mad not being able to go with Jane on walks on the hills, along the coast, exploring cities.... It hurts a lot that Jane's life has to revolve around my needs and demands. I hate that she has to dress, drive, clean, push, cook, virtually do everything for me. But at least now I know what it feels like. So, I think, I have more empathy with the many disabled and discriminated against people in the world. And of course more understanding of facing an incurable illness. Those are good, if hard, things. Of course I don't know what lies ahead. Physically things won't get better for me. And I'm under no illusions that the NHS which has cared for me so extraordinarily well will suddenly receive a life-giving injection of cash as a result of departing the EU - the opposite, I fear.

Photo: Escapeartist.com
So, after Thursday, I'm living in a new world, not one I chose, not one I like, but I shall have to come to terms with it. It's revealed a diagnosis of a fractured, disunited kingdom, with propensities to greed and hatred, and a national body whose parts are severely, if not terminally, out of sync with each other. I'm afraid I'm unable to share some people's jubilation about it. I don't share acquaintances' delight and conviction that "we have been saved by praying women". However, I've no doubt we shall survive and find some good redeemed from the sad mess of the past month (indeed years). I trust so, although I fear for too many it will bring only pain and grief. That's how I feel.

So it doesn't really help to tell me to pull myself together or to tell me that it will all be for the best. Nor that it's God's will - or his judgment. Just possibly you might be right, but it's not awfully helpful.