Friday, 28 October 2011

Doors open at a cost

 By now St Paul's Cathedral should have opened its doors and allowed worshippers in to a service - and presumably tourists to try to recoup some of its lost revenue from a week of closure. It's been a sad episode, and sadly it isn't over yet, as I read that the church authorities are joining with the City of London Authority to seek a court injunction to evict the protest camp from its land. I heard Mr Fraser of the CLA talking about them obstructing the highway. Ludgate Hill is the only through road in the vicinity and is on the other side of a thumping great cathedral from the tents.

What is sad is that the Dean and Chapter have been in such awe of both the lawyers and the Health and Safety firm they employ. The H&S people tell them it's not safe to keep the cathedral open, and instead of talking about how safety could be preserved they lock the doors - only to find a few days later that there was quite a straightforward solution after all. Create a firebreak next to the walls! Now apparently their lawyers have advised them not to talk to the protestors before they get to court. What interesting advice! Somewhat contrary to Jesus' advocacy of negotiation: "Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison." 

There's a witty but sad cartoon in today's Guardian by Steve Bell, which will no doubt give delight to those who take every opportunity to attack faith. It does reflect the popular perception that the church tends to side with the rulers of this world. There is of course a dilemma for any church "rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's", let alone the established church of a country, against following the example of its founder who was a friend of the alienated and sinners and not of the establishment.

Eventually last night I was moved to write to the Dean and his fellow clergy:
Dear Dean and Chapter
   I'm a retired country vicar and not much interested in church politics, but I want to say how glad I am at the news that St Paul's is going to unlock its doors tomorrow. The closed doors have been a symbol that has spoken more loudly than many thousand words.  I am sure others have observed the irony of the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent words in Harare in the context of the parable of the wedding feast: "You know very well, dear brothers and sisters, what it means to have doors locked in your faces by those who claim the names of Christians and Anglicans. But... the Lord proclaims that he has set before us an open door that no-one can shut. It is the door of his promise, the door of his mercy, and the door into the feast of his kingdom."  That's the message that clergy throughout the country preach Sunday by Sunday, and so to see the great west doors of London's cathedral locked trumpeted a dreadful denial of our words.
  I am sorry that Canon Fraser has felt it necessary to resign, as it seems to presage an impending attempt to evict the protest camp through the law courts in conjunction with the civil authorities.  He undoubtedly says uncomfortable and controversial things, not all of which I agree with, but he has earned credibility with those who have no faith in the 'establishment'.  I sincerely hope that the church authorities will not lend their support to what will be viewed as an attack on peaceful protest and expression of free speech by the powers-that-be.  No doubt there are many generous benefactors to St Paul's within the City, but that should not restrain the church from prophetic detachment.  I suspect that refusing to take part in legal action will be a far more eloquent gesture than organising a debate of many words.
    I join with many in praying for your wisdom and courage in these challenging circumstances.
        Yours sincerely 

Sadly, the Bishop of London has muscled in on the "evict the protesters" coalition. However, lest you think all in the C of E Establishment support the St Paul's line, there's a pithy blog-post from one of our local bishops, Alan Wilson, worth a read: Bishop on shutting St Paul's: "... do they have the stomach to engage in the real world at the crest of a tidal race between people, money and power, or are they just overgrown public schoolboys playing indoor games in their own self-important Tourist Disneyland?"

There's an awful irony in the timing of this whole mismanaged fiasco, in that it has completely overshadowed the Reasonable Faith tour of Professor William Craig Lane which ended on Wednesday in Manchester in a debate with Professor Peter Atkins, and was remarkable for the refusal by Richard Dawkins to a debate in Oxford. Craig Lane seems to be one of the Christians with whom atheists would rather not debate; so respect to those who were ready to defend their corner. But what a shame it is that some rather unusual and important debates should have been pushed off even the religious columns by a less than glorious piece of news - which sadly promises to run and run. Someone must be rubbing his grubby little hands in glee. Happily, he won't have the last word. Hallowe'en is just the prelude to All Saints' Day!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The people's Olympics

I've not yet met anyone who's managed to land a ticket for the Olympics next year. One person I know applied for £1000 worth (a sort of spread betting - a bit risky!) but even he wasn't allocated any. I don't know how many corporate tickets have been doled out, but I bet it was a lot. So much for it being "the people's Olympics"! 

On the other hand just last Friday my bank rang me about an unusual transaction: "London theatre tickets?" It turned out it was a debit for tickets for three afternoons at the Paralympics. I'd applied for three tickets on each afternoon - and it appears I've got all of them. Whey-hey!! As the events are equestrian and rowing it looks as if we'll be enjoying some rather good events next summer - and as I need someone to push my wheelchair the tickets were amazingly good value - £10 for me and my handler, for each afternoon! What I hope and trust is that other people who applied for the Paralympics will have a similar success rate. As I imagine corporate entertainment won't have hogged those tickets, I reckon the Paralympics will be the real people's Olympics - which is excellent news. As I've said previously, disabled people are no less human or worthy of dignity than the able-bodied. And certainly the achievements of disabled athletes are equal, if not greater, than those of their able-bodied counterparts.

Those who write the disabled off and who see nothing but doom and gloom in a disabling condition need their heads and consciences examined.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Hospital nonsense

Would you believe it? I've just heard on the TV news that one of our local hospitals has been fined for allowing both sexes in the same ward. Apparently there were 17 transgressions in the last month. The hospital (the Great Western in Swindon) explained that they were largely on the admission and assessment ward. Presumably that is where emergency admissions end up if there's no room for on the regular wards. What do people want a hospital to do instead? Keep a couple of beds empty on every ward in case patients come in for a particular ward? Send patients home again rather than put them in one ward for a night? (There are curtains round the beds after all.) Ship them on to another hospital? (The JR in Oxford has the same problem.) Leave them in the corridors? Get real, someone! Hospitals have acute cases to cope with, and busy ones have more than the others. I'm not saying mixed wards are desirable.

But the biggest nonsense of all is fining, FINING of all daft ideas, hospitals who find themselves on occasions forced into second-best. No hospital doctor or manager wants to mix sexes in the wards. They don't deliberately do it. I assume that just sometimes that's the least worst option. What is the point of fining hospitals, which are already strapped for cash, thousands of pounds and making their jobs even harder? I sincerely hope that at least the fining nonsense is stopped in the health reforms going through Parliament at the moment.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

On the receiving end

What a wonderful fortnight we had!

It began with a MND Association meeting about ready-made meals delivered to your door - not that I need that, having a live-in cordon bleu cook, aka Jane, and has ended last Saturday with an MNDA walk in Blenheim Palace grounds in beautiful sunshine. As usual the fun of these times was being with others sharing similar experiences and those who know what it's like. As you can tell, the walk in Blenheim couldn't have been better - warm, clear and well supported.

In between I've been benefiting hugely from the NHS, and enjoying the company of friends. Oh yes, and we had a fun weekend of celebrations at my favourite local coffee shop, Cornerstone.

My lovely dentist spent over an hour extracting yet another tooth which had cracked irreparably. She was incredibly patient and the procedure was pain-free. Amazing. And then there was a visit from my physio to check up on my back. She discussed various options for us to consider, and showed Jane a couple of extra strenuous exercises she could make me do. And I must say my back is marvellously loosened. Now I have to work on my posture, to correct my pisa-like rightward tilt.

There are obviously some busy beavers in the Local Health Trust with nothing better to do than to send out questionnaires, as I've received one about each service over the past couple of weeks. No doubt it's a good thing to check quality, but personally I resent on their behalf the implied mistrust of these excellent health professionals. Of course they came out with the highest scores on my rating. I felt tempted to write at the end: "LEAVE OUR NHS SERVICES ALONE - AND GET OFF THEIR BACKS!" Experience shows that trust generally produces better results than fear.

Anita showing Jane the new machine
Then there was the Cornerstone celebration weekend - lovely weather again. It was a triple whammy: marking their achievement of 5 stars (top) status in the food prep and hygiene inspection regime, and the purchase of a new Swiss-made coffee machine, and the launch of a new menu. It just gets better and better. There were two days of celebrating - well, it was a good excuse for a party. And the general verdict has been that the coffee's rather good. So far, I've sampled cappuccinno, latté, mocha, americano, espresso (double) and hot chocolate. Not at all bad, I must say.

Geraniums and pansies still in flower

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Locking up the church

©National Portrait Gallery
When I was ordained my late godfather passed on to me an engraving by an unknown artist of the Cambridge priest and don, Charles Simeon (1759-1836), who came to real faith through the process of examining his conscience before taking communion as a student at King's. It used to hang above my desk as a reminder, among other things, of the cost of being faithful to the Christian gospel.  

After graduation he was ordained and appointed as curate-in-charge of Holy Trinity Church in the centre of Cambridge. The congregation was none too pleased to have an enthusiastic preacher to challenge their comfortableness: "They showed their displeasure toward Simeon by not attending and locking the small doors of their pews (which most churches had at the time). At times, they even locked the doors of the church to prevent Simeon from holding additional services. Simeon persevered, however, and remained rector of the parish for 54 years, gradually winning over his parishioners and making a great impact that reached well beyond Cambridge" (Anglican Library).
Another of my heroes is the obscure Welsh curate, Daniel Rowlands (1713-1790), whom I first came across on a TEAR Fund study week in West Wales. He discovered the good news of a loving welcoming God while he was curate to his brother in Llangeitho, a village between Aberaeron and Aberystwyth. It completely radicalised his life and his preaching, to hear which people came flocking in their thousands from all over Wales. Oddly the church authorities did not approve, not least because he didn't care where he preached. After a few years the Bishop of St Davids revoked his licence on a Sunday as he began to preach. Rowlands took the congregation out to the churchyard and preached his sermon there. However, "the deed was done. Rowlands was shut out of the Church of England, and an immense number of his people all over Wales followed him. A breach was made in the walls of the Established Church which will probably never be healed. As long as the world stands, the Church of England in Wales will never get over the injury done to it by the preposterous and stupid revocation of Daniel Rowlands' licence" (Bishop J C Ryle, 1869).

So what are we to make of a church today locking its doors? Of course I'm thinking of St Paul's Cathedral, which has been presented with a real conundrum. As the Dean, Graeme Knowles, announces on its website:
"Welcome to St Paul's Cathedral
We welcome all those who come through our doors - as worshippers and pilgrims, or as visitors and sightseers from London, the United Kingdom and the whole world.
The Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral"
It's an important building and a huge tourist attraction. Its description on Google reads "St Paul's is a lasting monument to the glory of God and a symbol of the hope, resilience and strength of the city of London and the United Kingdom." My friends in London are divided about the rights and wrongs of locking the doors. 

The Dean and Chapter (Cathedral clergy)'s official statement seems based round this paragraph: "The Health, Safety and Fire officers have pointed out that access to and from the Cathedral is seriously limited. With so many stoves and fires and lots of different types of fuel around, there is a clear fire hazard. Then there is the public health aspect which speaks for itself. The dangers relate not just to Cathedral staff and visitors but are a potential hazard to those encamped themselves." Under John Humphrys' cross-examination, their spokesman, the Rev Rob Marshall, (Listen here: Today programme), was remarkably unconvincing. "You do seem to be dodging around"(JH). Looking at the pictures it does seem that the main steps to the west where everyone goes in and out are not in the least impeded by the encampment. 

The conundrum of course is deeper than health and safety. Does the cathedral give the appearance of approval to the protest by tolerating it, or does it express solidarity with the "city" businesses where it ministers by pressurizing for it to end? Incidentally, as Humphrys was quick to point out, St Paul's is a major business itself. It seems to have chosen the latter. I'm sad that the decision has been dressed up in the disguise of Health and Safety, which is hardly convincing. 

It's a shame that the protest has been dubbed as "anti-capitalist", and to a degree that's how the "Occupy Wall Street" movement regards itself. However, it seems to me that the St Paul's grouping includes a major strand of protest against inequality, the 99% suffering because of the decisions of the immune 1%. The notion that polite conversations between clerics and city financiers and politicians might change things is a trifle naïve. 

As for locking a church, it's certainly far from unknown round the country, on the grounds of security and the fear of theft and vandalism. I think it's a shame. Certainly in our parish we had one church open 24 hours a day and another during the hours of daylight. Yes, we had men of the road sleeping in church premises; and yes, we had occasional acts of vandalism, but the symbolism of having open doors outweighed all that. I have to admit we didn't have priceless treasures on show. As for closing the doors and abandoning services, that seems to me exceptionally sad. What was that about "a symbol of ... hope, resilience and strength"? What about the glory of God? However, a friend of mine who's spent time there has reminded me, "God probably doesn't mind doing without the evensong in St Paul's for a while. He is busy mixing and mingling in the conversations outside."

Ironically, in his recent visit to Harare where he met and challenged the powers that be in the person of Robert Mugabe, before 15,000 Africans packed into a stadium, Archbishop Rowan Williams said, "You know very well, dear brothers and sisters, what it means to have doors locked in your faces by those who claim the names of Christians and Anglicans. But... the Lord proclaims that he has set before us an open door that no-one can shut. It is the door of his promise, the door of his mercy, and the door into the feast of his kingdom." (Archbishop's sermon in Zimbabwe) Yes! That is the most important statement we can make with a church door.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Master Innovator

The lovely Lisa
Well, here we are, Rebecca! I don't like to duck a challenge, and, as you were looking for a comment about Steve Jobs, here it comes. As most people and you know, I'm an Apple fan. Ever since Sheila got me an Apple Lisa back in the early '90s, I've loved them. (Shame I let the local Apple dealer have it when I replaced it. A Mark 1 recently sold for $15,000 on eBay!) I can't remember what number this MacBook is but I've been faithful since then.

My lovely family gave me an iPod Touch for my 60th. I don't go around with my earphones plugged in, but I do love its versatility and portability. (By the by, I don't get why that's cited as a symptom of our being an impolite society. For crying out loud, it wasn't so long that youngsters went around with blaring ghetto-blasters cradled on their shoulders - remember? There were texts on Radio 3 this morning from people on their commute into London listening to classical music on MP3s. I suspect it's just a case of grumpy old men seeking a pretext to grouse about teenagers.)

Steve Jobs who died of pancreatic cancer last week was the CEO of Apple and took delight in personally unveiling the succession of unmistakably elegant products, which really set the pace for other firms. I believe that Apple became one of the world's biggest corporations. He ascribed its success to a synergy of multiple talents, "because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians who also happened to be excellent computer scientists". 

In the year after his diagnosis and treatment for cancer, 2005, he spoke to the students at Stanford University (not Stanford in the Vale UK, but California USA) at "commencement". It's a moving speech, including this portion:

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

You can read the whole speech here and see a video of 15 minutes of it: Steve Jobs in June 2005. Jobs himself didn't have a personal faith in God, as far as I know, but clearly he shared some of the insights of Jesus: such as living in the light of death (Jobs) or eternity (Jesus); follow your heart and intuition (Jobs), the Spirit will guide you into all truth (Jesus). 

I came across an amusing, if clichéd, cartoon last week. When I posted it on Facebook, Dave made this comment: "Too late, Steve, Jesus did the upgrade 2k years ago!" Good point, Dave! Jesus is the innovator sans pareil. He's responsible for no end of beautiful and ingenious inventions. Even Steve Jobs got his brains and flair from him - as he's no doubt discovering. The Twitter trend piously and probably cynically went, "Steve Jobs RIP". It could stand for "Readjusts 'Is Perspective" - which might not be all that fluffy-cloudy comfortable.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Information - the hope of democracy

Yesterday I received an email from a friend who has a daughter in Thailand. Its subject was simply Thailand. It said: "... you may not be aware that Thailand is suffering the most appalling floods, totally ignored of course by our media who consider the peccadilloes and scrapes of our politicians and sportsmen far more important! 
"Much of Thailand, including Bangkok, is very low lying and when the canals overflow, it gets pretty disgusting. As Jane says, if it reaches that stage as predicted they will have to wade through sewage to get out of their apartment!!
"The latest news is that 100 crocodiles have escaped in one of the provinces – such fun!!
"All such a contrast to our ‘Harvest celebrations’." You can read the Reuters report here.

John's email did reinforce to me how much we are in the hands of our media for our view of the world. In the UK it would appear that innuendoes about ministers and rugby players jumping off a ferry are world news. There's a thought-provoking interview with Noam Chomsky in today's Huffington Post, the foremost internet newspaper, Noam Chomsky exclusive. For any of my readers too young to know, he's generally regarded as the father of modern linguistics. The Huffington Post calls him a geopolitical guru...! He's certainly a canny observer of the international scene. Towards the end of the interview he's asked about the media and comments, "It's almost a tautology to say that democracy can function to the extent that the public has information and analysis available that puts them in a position where they can make sensible decisions... I don't like to talk about the UK media... but the impression I get when I'm here in London, if I want to find out what's going on in the world, I have to pick up the New York Times, and the internet. I can read half a dozen newspapers every day and get a ton of information of gossip about this society star and what this person's doing, and so on; and if you get to page 20 you may find a little international news." He fairly mentions the exceptions such as the FT and some outstanding correspondents, but he says, "This is a serious problem for a society that hopes to become democratic; it undermines functioning democracy in very obvious ways".

That is quite an analysis - and by the way criticism of our society. We can only claim to be a society that hopes to become democratic.

So here's some more international news. First from Andrew White in Baghdad: "Today has been such a day. We woke to the wonderful news of the imminent release of Gilad Shalit. We shared the great news that we wanted the conference for youth and adults. Then the darkness began. Bomb after bomb. Shuddered but not hurt. We do not know how many have been killed but we know the light of the Lord is still here."

And then some more from Bangkok: "Thailand is really in the midst of a major disaster but getting very little coverage.  M has gone out towards Ayutthaya today with a group from the CCT with 1000 boxes of food which we made and packaged from 4am today. We plan to do the same over the next 3 days. Not sure how close they will get before it has to be put in boats. He and his team will be talking with the authorities about how they can help with the evacuated children.  Some are in centres although many are still trapped upstairs in houses or even still on roofs.

"Bangkok is under threat but the government wants to protect it at all costs – so are diverting water to other places in huge amounts, meaning massive damage.  It might have been better to have slowly let some water into Bangkok. The suburbs are now waist deep in some places.

"As it is they are still expecting the centre to flood at the weekend when the water from up river comes down coinciding with predicted high tides.  We are in one of the high risk areas, as is the kids' school and the church. When we were looking at the church yesterday P reckoned that if the water goes over the walls around the compound then it will be waist deep in the church.  Even if it doesn’t, if the general area is flooded it will come up through the floor. Please pray this doesn’t happen.

"We have done what we can to prepare personally – stocking up on food and water. Today I will get out more cash and buy candles.  We are on the 2nd floor which is good as far as our stuff is concerned and we may be able to offer refuge to others although our place is quite small. The worrying thing is that if our area floods it will be from the canal (which they are planning to use to divert flood water into) and most of the canal is sewage, so it will be even dirtier than flood water normally is."

The writer's father's comment was, "When I compare this to trivial trash we get on the BBC news, I despair!"

Monday, 10 October 2011

Change the story

There was, I thought, an interesting comment from Mariéme Jamme from Senegal on "Start the Week" this morning about our view of Africa today. Speaking about our view of its being full of corruption and failure - whereas in reality there's a lot of good news from the continent - she partly blamed the BBC for giving "negative narratives" (fed by the NGOs). Shuyun Sun agreed in relation to the Western media's cover of China. There is, it seems, a narrative, a world view, which we are adopting, fed largely by an intellectual/political elite who dominate the news outlets. 

We need to be on the look-out for the way our perspective on current affairs and indeed life itself gets skewed by the mass entertainment/information machine. It should be a warning sign that entertainment and news are twinned at the hip. Really hard news, which disturbs our comfort, is not likely to have much of a look-in. The way the entertainment industry works is to soften us up with a series of warm-up acts until at last we'll no longer be shocked at the comedian's blue jokes or obscenity. In other words we have our normal perspective changed. It's the way, of course, that propaganda works - to pump out enough half-truths (the most diabolical sort of lie) until our grip on truth and reality is sufficiently loosened so that we believe the opposite to where we started. 

Mariéme Jamme describes herself as "a proud African woman". Her comments struck me in the context of the BBC's coverage of two events in her continent: one was the brutal suppression of a demonstration by Coptic Christians in Cairo, protesting about the partial demolition of one of their churches with no intervention from the police, with 25 or more fatalities and over 200 hospital admissions. Should one be bothered one can read the shocking facts. Meanwhile more extensive coverage was given to the Development Minister's announcement that Malawi was having its aid grant cut by £19 million because of persecution of homosexuals. Why, I wondered, did the government choose to cut aid to Malawi and not Egypt, or Pakistan, or China? Was the announcement simply a calculated step in establishing the coalition's liberal credentials?

I came across this trenchant post on Archbishop Cranmer's blog: Cairo: 23 homosexuals slaughtered by Egyptian Army, in which he simply points out the inconsistency of using our standards of behaviour for judging recipients of compassion.