Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Our war on the climate

 Last week I caught a news item on BBC radio telling us that our spanking new (relatively) aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was now in the Gulf of Oman having returned from the South China Sea where it had been carrying out exercises - presumably to frighten the People's Rebublic of China. Now our Defence Minister was saying it could also be useful in fighting terrorism.... Rather a blunt weapon, I'd have thought. However the part of the report that most caught my attention was that during its voyage there had been daily sorties by the 'elite' F-35 fighter-bombers. Whether these are UK or US planes I don't know.

But I thought, "Every day? Are you joking? When in Glasgow world leaders are talking about climate change..." I imagine each of those planes burns a load of fuel each time it takes off. Well, today I find I wasn't wrong. In fact I was thinking far too small. Will de Freitas, Environment and Energy of the admirable Conversation wrote this.

"At full speed, a fighter jet can burn through hundreds of gallons of fuel per minute. When you add up the emissions caused by all the planes, ships, tanks and missiles used by militaries across the world you get a substantial “carbon bootprint”.

But though every country in the world is represented at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, their militaries are not. That’s despite the total emissions of armed forces and their suppliers being larger than civil aviation and shipping combined. In fact, thanks to exemptions written into the Paris Agreement, militaries don’t even need to report how much carbon they are emitting or where. One group of academics has done their best to track these emissions."

So I of course looked at the article referred to: "COP26: how the world's militaries hide their huge carbon emissions". I think this is what a former would-be US president would call an inconvenient truth, but it's one governments and media would prefer us not to dwell on. Maybe the world won't be destroyed by nuclear weapons, as we used to fear in my younger days, but by our attachment to being global superpowers.


Tuesday, 19 October 2021

My bid for an Eco Oscar!

I was intrigued to hear on today's news that at the Earthshot prize ceremony tbe celebrities walked down a green not the traditional red carpet. How apt! I believe the podium used no plastic. And strikingly none of the delegates used airflights to attend. (I wonder how the COP 26 will compare...) The Earthshot prizes, AKA the Eco Oscars, seem to me an entirely worthwhile intitiative with its potential to scale up some excellent local projects and to encourage some very bright young minds on whom our planet's future might well depend. To me one of the most encouraging aspects is that the finalists came from around the world. It wasn't the global north telling the developing world what's good for it.

Photos from The Independent


I'm neither young nor especially creative, but if I entered for an Eco Oscar it would be with a very simple idea; and it's to do away with artificial turf. I know I used to play hockey before the days of astroturf. But to put a roof on God's good earth is the height of perversity. The ball may travel a bit more predictably on a surface imitating a snooker table, but very seldom is that dangerous, and plastic burns in soccer victory slides in are more likely to cause damage. However the real harm is below the plastic. Here soil is deprived of its natural nutrients, and a subterranean desert is created. As far as I can see there are no advantages - except for the multi-millon industry that makes and markets the stuff - only contributions to climate degradation. In my view it should outlawed. See the  Guardian's article here. So there's an easy starting point - and so I propose myself for one of next year's Earthshot prizes, your Highnesses - in common with the USA's excellent women's football team.

Monday, 11 October 2021

A new Pietá

Yesterday I was presented with a work of art which left me speechless. It was crafted by a relatively unknown South Devon artist. Here it is in its temporary resting place.

 © Pietá by David Milnes

David Milnes and I have been friends since schooldays. In correspondence with him in August, I wrote: "As for the 'commission', in one of my novels I wrote about someone facing the loss of someone she loved identifying with Mary at the cross. She seems to me the person who most experiences the desolation of dereliction in the Bible. And I’ve long thought that evangelicals have failed to engage our imaginations in the gospel story. What must it have been like at the moment of Jesus’ death? So I’ve been looking for something that expresses the grief, disappointment and pain as they begin to take the body down. The characters I was looking at around the cross were Mary the mother, John the friend and Mary Magdalene who’s in love with Him (parent, saint and sinner - all humankind). It seems to me that all of us in our dark moments think the God we believed in and who is love has died and abandoned us. For many a resurrection morning never dawns. Which, I guess, we all fear and which is why, I think, we need each other to hold on to as we wait."  

David immediately set to work. He'd picked up, to his relief, that I wasn't looking for an serene scene carved in marble like Michelangelo's masterpiece. He'd been impressed by Fenwick Lawson's Pietá in Durham cathedral carved from "the rough split rawness of large logs".

© Picture Durham Cathedral

This is David's description of his own work. "For the figure of Christ I have used a section of a plum tree   in our garden. It is dead, twisted and covered in lichen. Two side branches looked like contorted arms writhing in pain and desolation. The connection between the arms is not realistically correct but suggests dislocation and extreme pain. The main branch is thinner than the body should actually be, but elongated bodies suggesting suffering were good enough for El Greco, so why not? In order to make the hands, feet and face stand out and in order to emphasise their vulnerability, I carved them separately in lime wood that enabled me to include greater detail. The marks of the nails and the spear in his side were burnt into the wood. 

"The cross is not a beautiful, smooth and varnished piece of neat carpentry. It is a rough piece of pallet wood which I have scorched. Burning has close associations with pain and destruction.

"For the figure of Mary, as she reaches out to help remove her badly mutilated son from the cross, I used a piece of holly wood which is solid and heavy with sorrow. It has twists and knots and rotted areas which are indicative of the terrible trauma and devastating blows that she has endured. It is very different wood from that used for the figure of Christ but it suggests suffering which is different but just as all consuming."

I love the rawness of this Pietá. It is certainly a discomforting addition to a sitting room. I like the fact that Mary is not portrayed as a beautiful young saint but as a middle-aged mother whose years of bringing up children in occupied territories have taken their toll on her physically. She is one of the many middle-eastern women grieving for their sons killed in a reprisal air raid. I like the proportions of the carving. To her Jesus is still the small child she held in her arms. I like David's choice of woods: Using for Mary the wood of the holly tree, which two Christmas carols associate with the suffering of Mary - "the holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall". And he has used fruit wood for the body of Christ. Humankind's fall from grace came through eating the forbidden fruit; its restoration to grace comes through "eating my body", as Christ put it. And the wood on which he hangs, a discarded pallet to crucify the rejected carpenter's son. The artist's brother pointed out that Mary is seen as left-handed - so maybe represents despised minorities and those considered weak. Theologians may recognise in the emaciated crucified body a depiction of what they call κένωσις, Christ emptying himself "taking the form of a slave and becoming obedient even to death on a cross".

As my son commented, "What a gift!" Whether he meant what a talent or what a present, I don't know. Probably both. And on both counts he's right.

© Photo Courtesy John Milnes

© Photo Courtesy John Milnes

© Photo Courtesy John Milnes


© Photo Courtesy John Milnes

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

A dinosaur dreams of Utopia

 5 News: Dippy the dinosaur
One feature of lockdown has been the proliferation of laws and guidance to the extent that even some police forces have not known which are which. At first sight it seems strange that there has been such widespread acquiescence to the extraordinary restrictions on our freedom. However a conversation last night brought home to me that this has by no means come out of a clear blue sky.

Our society has been becoming increasingly risk-averse and litigious for some decades. With a few brave exceptions, the majority of us tolerate egregious limitations on our freedom of speech and actions, which provide us with the illusion of safety. Every industry, every school, every institution is familiar with having to produce an exhaustive risk assessment to cover every possible contingency. Why? Because a dose of common sense wouldn’t do as well? No, for fear of some jobsworth inspector or some venal lawyer out to find you at fault.

A former NHS worker told me: "In the NHS the amount of policies and procedures is staggering. There are different levels that range from overarching policies down to work instructions. I can see a place for the higher up tiers of the system but I was very much against the lower tiers. I believe it is a culture of fault finding and avoiding liability that has led to telling staff what to do to such a degree. There is no way to completely avoid human error and I even believe that a system that tells people what to do to such an extent could actually be at fault. You have intelligent  people with degrees being told what to do and having their own judgement taken away from them. On the other hand they do have a tried and tested way of doing things and they don't have to re-invent the wheel for every new patient."

 Seek employment at a new firm, and you’re likely to be presented with vision statements and targets, and policy documents. Err from them at your peril. None of these is bad in itself, but they come at the cost of freedom and trust, in the same way that video devices removes responsibility and trust in sports referees.

When I began my teaching career, I taught in a school with a vastly experienced head, who outlined the school’s three rules - which after more than 45 years I still remember. They were courtesy, cooperation and consideration. Who, I wonder, will recall the words of “policies” after even 45 weeks? When I began my ministry, there were equally memorable guiding principles: love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.  

Of course staff and students, clergy and congregations, often went wrong. Simply recalled principles didn’t prevent that. However neither do an infinity of policies, regulations and targets. What I have witnessed is the growth of an inspection industry fed by a parasitic industry of litigation. Before I had retired, the Church of England issued a whole handbook for clergy about how to behave, which I believe has been updated more than once. We live in a tick-box society. I have the impression that the Pharisees had a similar managerial mindset, with the idea that a multitude of rules and regulations (or policies) would keep them on the straight and narrow. However it didn’t work. Jesus didn’t have much time for it.

What a soul-destroying idea that employees should work according to a set of rules, or worse, targets! We see it in the worst industries, such as multi-national warehouses, courier firms - but it has also infected education and social care. Form-filling replaces contact and time spent with individuals. It’s more important that you can prove you’ve completed a risk assessment than you take care of a person who’s tripped over your doorstep.

A major motivator during the pandemic appears to have been the rather vain fear of dying - something we will all have to face, and something which some elderly people would in fact welcome. The possibility of long underfunded NHS being overwhelmed was in my view a more serious fear, which appears to have been avoided although at what cost to those on the ever-lengthening waiting lists remains to be seen.

Do I want to turn the clock back? Not at all. If anything I want to wind it forward. I’m reminded of the implied accusation, that Jesus had come to abolish the Law and the prophets. On the contrary, as Paul puts it, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Which I have to say is easier remembering than the whole Torah.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Unexpected journeying 2/2

Where to start? I'm the youngest of four children, all brothers, part of a staunchly conservative evangelical family. Wikipedia describes my father like this: "Wenham had the distinction of being a conservative theologian, a defender of biblical inerrancy", although as specialists would detect he propounded a few unorthodox views. My mother came from another evangelical family. So I have evangelical genes through and through. We had animated mealtime discussions, but I don't recall any mention of the decriminalization of homosexuality, which following the Wolfenden Report (1957) was eventually passed into law when I was 18. Nor am I aware of being very conscious of the issue. I noticed CS Lewis in his Surprised by Joy referring to gay activity in Malvern College when he was a boarder there, but I don't recall speculating whether there was any in the boarding houses of the public school where I was a day boy. The idea of "fancying" (in the ugly term) boys didn't enter my head. The only fancies I had were for those who were very definitely the fairer and more exciting sex. I am immensely grateful for the innocent foundation for life that my parents gave me. I had a most happy and privileged upbringing.

So then I went to Cambridge - all men's college of course - and immersed myself in the evangelical Christian Union, work and visiting Footlights where my best friend was President. I look back with chagrin at myself as blind and deaf. I now realise there were a number of gay men among my friends, but when one of them asked me what I thought of homosexuality, my answer was somewhat dismissive, like, "Well, sex is meant for procreation, so it must be between a man and a woman. Otherwise it's wrong." For him that conversation held infinitely more significance than for me. Many years later I apologised to him and he remains a friend, which says much for his graciousness. I continued to enjoy the sitting-beside company of both men and women; but face-to-face love was reserved for women, eventually one in particular who agreed to marry me.

Which is a long preamble to explain why, when I was finally ordained into the priesthood, I remained thoroughly orthodox in my religious convictions and teaching. Much as I dislike such labels, I would have called myself a conservative evangelical, Bible-believing, strict on remarriage, anti-women bishops, anti-homosexuality and sceptical about charismatics (who believe that the Holy Spirit is still miraculously active today). And now I return to my previous post, which was about the revolution - or was it evolution? - in St Peter's attitude to non-Jews, moving from believing them to be unclean to welcoming them as fellow-believers just like him, and sitting down to eat their food. Luke in Acts describes the step-by-step process which my commentator says God was taking him on to think the unthinkable and to accept the unacceptable, and of course change the history of world Christianity.

My journey was similarly gradual. I have previously recorded two milestones, but never in my blog what might be regarded as the first. As I journaled shortly after: "That night, 30th September 1994, opened my eyes to the tangible reality of encounter with God. Whereas I had been able to assert God's activity in retrospect, I now began to find him in the present." It was an event witnessed only by my wife in our home, but the results of which were noticed for better or worse by many more. In other words I had discovered that my charismatic friends were right. The Holy Spirit is more than an odd old expression. Maybe that was what prepared me for subsequent changes, such as coming to the conviction that women may hold leadership roles and even become bishops! My faith in the authority of the Bible remained, but it too was changing to understand it in its cultural context and apply it in our contemporary context. I've found it nowhere better expressed than in the late Rachel Held Evans' Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. 

from Meriam Webster dictionary
The last bastion to fall was undermined bit by bit, and I have recorded it a number of times in this blog. I remember my children with their straightforward faith telling me that of course God unconditionally loved their gay friends, as if I was mad to doubt it. I discovered that one of my Facebook friends was a lesbian and a Christian. I met parents of gay children who had been driven away by the attitude of their churches, parents who were painfully conflicted by the church's teaching and their children's experience. And inevitably I began to reflect. The critical moment came in a quite unexpected place, that is a churches' summer festival in Somerset, called New Wine. It was a charismatic evangelical event, where the accepted tradition about homosexuality at the time was generally similar to my original one, for example I don't think an openly gay worship leader would have been allowable. Being interested in the subject I went to the first of two seminars on the subject of equal marriage, where the line was that if you were gay you should either remain celibate or marry a partner of the opposite sex. In the Q & A session at the end a woman stood up. She related her road of faith and declared that she was a lesbian with a partner, and woe betide anyone who dared to separate them. 

Not on the Damascus road nor in a Tel Aviv apartment but in a Somerset field, I was finally turned round. It wasn't a voice from the sky, but it was a clear conviction which has never left me in spite of doubts. We sought the woman out. She told us her story, which included being banned from leading the youth group in her church years earlier and made unwelcome there. Since then she had not lost her faith, simply her fellowship. When I embraced her and her partner, she commented, "You know, you're the first Christian who has hugged me since I came out." And so supporting LGBTI+ people has become important to me. I want them to know that they are just as much loved and just as unconditionally as any other of us human beings. I have been indignant at the bile and vitriol directed at gay Christians by others who also call themselves Christians. This terribly happened when Christian musician, Vicky Beeching, admitted to a newspaper journalist that she was and always had been gay. She wrote her story in her painful book, Undivided, (see my review here Undivided by Vicky Beeching) in which incidentally she picks up the parallel of the story of Peter and the Gentiles. This week I hesitate to use the word, but the reaction to her coming out has been as near to verbal crucifixion as I have witnessed.

Having met and talked to LGBT people and their parents, especially within the church, I know that it's not a lifestyle choice. It is in their hardwiring. Which is why "conversion therapy" of any sort is so cruel. It's saying either, "You are an egregious sinner, who needs to be converted," or, "You are dangerously ill and need to be healed." I am glad the Church of England has called for it to be banned, but sad that other Christians disagree (Evangelicals urge PM not to ban conversion therapy). In her very good Thought for the Day on Radio 4's Today programme, Catherine Pepinster (listen here) quoted the late Cardinal Basil Hume: "In whatever context it arises and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons whether of the same sex or a different sex is to be treasured and respected." Yes, all faithful love is to be treasured.

Who's to say whether I'm still an evangelical - not that I have much time for exclusive labels? I'd simply say I'm a sinner who tries to learn from and follow Jesus.

And so, to my dedicatees, and all your sisters and brothers, I will say, God welcomes you without reservation in His Church and you will find many churches who will also welcome you unreservedly. You're no worse a sinner than I am; and you don't need to be cured. You are loved for who you are.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The God of surprises 1/2

This and my next post are dedicated to three of my friends who have been severely wounded by their treatment at the hands of those who brand themselves as "evangelical Christians".

I don't like internecine sniping amongst so-called brothers and sisters, and so I shan't indulge in it here. I don't believe it's helpful or right. So I'm hoping that the Lord will set a watch over my fingers and my brain. My intention here is simply to tell my story. 

Jane and I customarily read the Bible together using notes entitled Life Every Day. Over the past fortnight we have been following the story of the early Church's mission to the Gentiles (non-Jews). You may remember that it began as an exclusively Jewish sect centred on Jerusalem. However in his own ministry Jesus Christ had given glimpses that his mission was not merely to men but also to women, not just to the Jewish nation but to whomever he met from despised Samaritans to Romans and others. And when he gave his followers his great mission statement, it was a mission starting "in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The notes traced how the Church, in particular Simon Peter, one of its leaders, was slow on the uptake - and it was only by a series of nudges followed by a crisis event in Caesarea that he eventually got the point. Here a few quotes from Jeff Lucas's notes. "Slowly, gradually, the Church is inching towards the idea that Gentiles could be part of the Christian family, but other events would have to unfold first. God is patient." "Gradually, Peter's heart and mind are being opened up. A cataclysmic revelation is about to come, but not before God slowly, carefully, prepares Peter for it. Wisdom is found in the journey with Jesus, if we are open to it." The crisis event for Peter was a vision of unclean food which he was told to eat and then a summons from a Roman centurion, Cornelius, arrives asking him to come to his house. That day all his inherited prejudices were shattered. He talked and ate with those he'd previously considered beyond the pale and found them already within the fold of divine love. As he reports back to his critics in Jerusalem, "If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" That rightly but not finally shut the critical party up. There continued to be eruptions of exclusive sentiment, I suppose until the mother city of Jerusalem is ransacked in AD70.

So much for an oversimplified account of our past few days' reading. Why have I bothered to write about it? Well, I'd already been drawing my own parallels when last Saturday we read: "God was doing a new thing, and they struggled to understand it. Let's be open to the God of surprises. He is trustworthy, but not predictable.   To ponder: When did you last change your mind about a long-held view or opinion?"

Rodin, Le Penseur (wikipedia)

Readers who have put up with my meanderings over the years may perhaps recall occasions when I have admitted to doing so eg Women bishops - an apology and Love unknown. I think all I'll say at this point is that I have found Jeff Lucas's reflections reassuring and his questions challenging. Next time I shall turn to the issue which has stirred me to write again. (cont)

Monday, 8 March 2021

Unhappy Families

Really, what family needs twenty homes to live in? (See It is extraordinary how many houses and how much land (and seabed) is either held in our royal family's name or actually owned by them. (See I am not in least bit envious of them. Their wealth doesn't seem to bring them much joy. As a wise man once put it, "for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content." 

I do understand that, if you're born saddled with great wealth and all that goes with it, you have a problem. And if you're surrounded with vested interests who want to benefit from your wealth and status, then you have a major problem. It becomes more than a burden when your wealth attracts unremitting media attention. It becomes a deadly nightmare. And so I can understand why Prince Harry and, his wife, Meghan Markle decided enough was enough - in every way. Admittedly they lived in only one (rather large) house called, ironically, a cottage, in contrast to his brother and his aunt (two each) and his father (with five). However I don't think it was property envy that provoked them to up sticks and resettle in the environment where she had made her living. I'm writing this before watching their interview with Oprah Winfrey; so I don't know what they will say about their reason for going. But judging from the sudden PR operation and the leaking of hostile emails from "the Palace", I'd assume the couple weren't happy merely to play the Royalty game.

Photo: ITV
Monday morning Well, lots of journalists watched the CBS interview last night, and started to comment this morning. Indeed they are predictably making a meal of it. On our local radio station there was a royal "biographer" who clearly had it in for Meghan in particular, and there was no obvious reason if not because of her mixed heritage. What was the point of 'bleating' when everyone has had 'dark thoughts'? And why now, when Harry's grandfather has been so ill in hospital? If there's one thing that's clear it's that the Sussex couple don't control the broadcast networks' schedule. She hoped the royal family would make no response to the interview to "display their utter disgust and contempt for their exposing of the family (dirty) linen in public."

I suspect if the royal family was not surrounded by the multitude of courtiers, equerries, special advisers and press officers ("the firm") and if they were allowed to be free of the constraints that we, the public, put on them, they would prove to be quite a nice bunch of people. However, what has been striking about this weekend has been to pick up the sense of proprietorship that the press, and in particular the tabloids, has for the royals. It's as if the country owns the royal family. I've heard someone say this morning that the Queen is devoted to duty but not such a good mother. Who knows? And who presumes to judge? What parent is complacent about their parenting skills?

Although the departure of Harry and Meghan from the royal orbit has, in my opinion, impoverished the royal family, they could have bequeathed it a great gift. That is that breaking free from the shackles of the institution is the best way to human flourishing, and defying the demands of the media is possible.

Perhaps also they might cause the establishment to reassess the role of royalty. Is a head of state helped by having excessive wealth and property? And don’t give me that guff about how good they are for our tourism income! What an insult - the monarch compared to an art gallery or a theme park! Do they need a huge retinue of hangers-on with a vested interest to hang on? Perhaps we have something to learn from our “friends in Europe" about effective constitutional monarchies.

The big question is whether the media will have the strength of purpose to resist the temptation to take easy pickings from those who, though very privileged, are just as human as the rest of us. And will the public be prepared to forego their voyeuristic obsession with those born to wear coronets? Because we,
as a society, are succeeding in making some human beings very unhappy.