Monday, 26 December 2011

The Queen's Speech

With Jane out of action, the A team did a sterling job on Christmas lunch yesterday. We lingered over the turkey and trimmings with Château Capville  2009, and the sherry trifle and mince pies. One result was that we watched the Queen's Christmas address after 3 o'clock. However in my opinion it was worth waiting for. You can watch it here. I gather it's all her own work, without political advisers interfering. Perhaps it was an illusion fostered by the fact that Prince Philip was in Papworth Heart Hospital while the broadcast went out (obviously it had been filmed some time ago), and perhaps because Jane and I have been extra aware of the fragility of life, but to me there was a sense of the Queen wanting to record her most urgent message while she could.
It was nicely constructed, reminiscing over the royals' past year in which they'd seen extreme hardship in Australia and New Zealand and South Wales, and the response of courage. It reflected on the strength of friendship and family, mentioning the her two grandchildren's weddings. Its conclusion, somewhat flinched at by the press, was uncompromising and uncoded, simple and profound:
"For many, this Christmas will not be easy. With our armed forces deployed around the world, thousands of service families face Christmas without their loved ones at home.
"The bereaved and the lonely will find it especially hard. And, as we all know, the world is going through difficult times. All this will affect our celebration of this great Christian festival.
"Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: 'Fear not', they urged, 'we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 
"'For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.'

"Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves - from our recklessness or our greed.
"God sent into the world a unique person - neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.
"Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love.
"In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there's a prayer:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin
And enter in.
Be born in us today.

"It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord."
"Neither a philosopher nor a general... but a Saviour with the power to forgive" - that is strong stuff. It's not PC, but yet it's true. "Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith" and it is able to heal families, friendships and communities, and, as her Majesty's prayer implies, it is not something endemic to humanity, but something given through Jesus Christ. Well said, Ma'am! 

And thank you, family, for a wonderfully lovely Christmas.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christmas thoughts from my chair

While there seems to be determined effort in some quarters to remove the Christian message out of Christmas, such as items about trend towards secular carol concerts citing Raymond Gubbay's 120 Christmas concerts nationwide, not mentioning the astonishing fact that last year 41% of Londoners attended carol services, there was a welcome exception on BBC's Countryfile last night, which created a traditional village celebration with none of the sceptical airbrushing that we've become accustomed to. The Christian elements of the festival were straightforwardly explored, from the star to the God pie (three-cornered mince pie representing the Trinity) to the animals. It was thoroughly uncynical and refreshing. Thank you, BBC.

Coincidentally on Friday night David Cameron had hit a raw nerve with some in a speech in Oxford marking the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version of the Bible, in which he talked about the importance of the Christian heritage of our country. He also said it was "easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity". "Why? Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too.""Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France," he said. "And because many of the values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths and indeed by people of no faith at all."  

Sadly the speech wasn't quoted on the Radio 4 news that night, only a predictable sound-bite from humanist ex-MP, Evan Harris, saying that restating our Christian history was divisive of religious groups - and anyway such ethical principles as "Do to others what you'd like them to do to you" predate all religions by thousands of years. Of course he adduced no evidence for his view, merely that they were rational principles. (Isn't reason God-given anyway?) He's quite wrong, of course, about the divisiveness of a distinctively Christian stance. When I taught in a multi-racial school in Oxford, it happened to be a Church of England school, founded by the Cowley Fathers to bring education to the poor areas of East Oxford. (The Christian contribution to education and in social involvement, by the way, is something often ignored or airbrushed out by faith's detractors.) Significantly ours was the school of choice for local Muslims, because they preferred a school where faith in God mattered to one with no religion. We used to enjoy our 6th-form assemblies in which Christian, Muslim, atheist, black, brown and white shared and discussed their faiths. Divisive? You're joking!

For someone who has no faith in God, it's a simple mistake to make imagining that different faiths can't coexist harmoniously. (It's also a lie fraught with danger, if not inciting hatred.) For many centuries they did so in the near middle east, as William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain beautifully records. And just last week I read this fascinating news item from Jerusalem:
"This holiday season, many evangelical Christians and their families are using the Hanukah Tree Topper and Star of David Tree Topper to crown their Christmas trees. The idea was the brainchild of Morri and Marina Chowaiki who have sold many thousands of the decorative 'menorahments' after making one to put on top of their own Christmas tree because they couldn’t find one in any store. The couple say that they have received many orders from people who want a symbol of Israel and peace on their tree and have received, 'tons of positive feedback.'"
There's a trenchant (and often misquoted) comment by Ben Stein, inter al speech writer for Richard Nixon, which was broadcast on CBS on 18th December 2005.
"Here at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart:

"I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are (US reality TV "couple"). I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I'm buying my dog biscuits. I still don't know. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores who they are. They don't know who Nick and Jessica are, either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they've broken up? Why are they so darned important?

"I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is either, and I don't care at all about Tom Cruise's baby.

"Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I'm a subversive? Maybe. But I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are. Is this what it means to be no longer young? Hm, not so bad.

"Next confession: I am a Jew and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish, and it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautifully lit-up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees.

"I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are — Christmas trees. It doesn't bother me a bit when people say 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they're slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we're all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year.

"It doesn't bother me one bit that there's a manger scene on display at a key intersection at my beach house in Malibu.

"If people want a creche, fine. The menorah a few hundred yards away is fine, too. I do not like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat. Or maybe I can put it another way. Where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and aren't allowed to worship God as we understand him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we used to know went to." 
Rather wonderful crib in Sorrento Cathedral
So to my friends, of whatever colour and creed, I wish you a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year (I guess there's more hope of the former than the latter!). Hopefully you'll reciprocate in the way that suits you best.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

No, non, niet - no idea!

"Who was responsible for ethical compliance?" I've just been watching the evidence of the News of the World's lawyer, Tom Crone, to the Leveson Inquiry. When asked that question, he seemed totally stumped, and in the end came up lamely with, "The Chief Executive, I suppose," (i.e. James Murdoch). When it was pointed out that the CEO had notional responsibility for everything, he responded that his own role he considered to be litigation compliance for articles. It seemed to me disturbing that it emerged that neither the legal department nor anyone else in a newspaper was responsible for the morality of what it publishes - disturbing and symptomatic. I'm hoping that the Inquiry will have the effect of shifting the press from unethical towards ethical journalism.

I gather that a new expression has entered the language. It's "doing a Clegg" and means something like going AWOL. It of course arises from the deputy prime minister's conspicuous absence from his boss's side when he triumphantly reported his "NO" to the cheering/jeering House of Commons. Strictly speaking David Cameron did not veto the Merkozy plan; he didn't forbid or block it. He just opted the UK out. Still it made good press, echoing nicely President de Gaulle's "NON" to Britain's entry into the EEC in 1967. Now that was a veto. We had to wait until his fall before applying again and becoming a member in 1973. One can only hope that our PM doesn't follow that other theatrical "NO", or rather "NIET"-sayer, Nikita Khrushchev's habit of banging his shoe on the table to emphasize his immovability. So unEnglish!

I've recently read an essay by the distinguished Nobel Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen, entitled Violence and Civil Society (in CAM 64) in which he argues that conflict is not best solved by state-sanctioned force. He carefully examines the commonly perceived factors giving rise to violence, such as class, poverty and religion. But they aren't the whole story.

There were two passages which struck me: "For example, appeals to country and nationality played a rousing role in the immensely bloody war in Europe between 1914 and 1918, and a shared religious background did nothing to stop the Germans, the British and the French from tearing each other apart. Yet, today, the Germans, the French and the British mix with each other in peace and tranquillity and sit together to decide what to do in their continent without reaching for their guns." Well, that was the vision behind the EU! Quite important we don't forget it.

Then there was this: "Democracy is more than a collection of specific institutions, such as balloting and elections - it is also dialogue, freedom of information and unrestricted discussion. These are also the central features of civil paths to peace." For some reason this put me in mind of the Occupy camp in the heart of that least transparent of places, the City of London, outside St Paul's Cathedral.

I've been asked why the Falconer "Commission" has taken longer to come out than expected. The answer is, I have no idea. I don't think it's because they got wind of something I'd written in anticipation  - I'm not that important or that vain, I hope. I imagine it's a matter of waiting until the serious news clears out of the way to leave it room for maximum publicity.

In this context, I found Amartya Sen's comment on what he calls "the solitarist approach to human identity" (which sees human beings as members of just one group, defined solely by their native civilisation, or religion etc) illuminating: "The solitarist approach is an excellent way of misunderstanding (my italics) nearly everyone in the world. The same person can be, without contradiction, of Asian origin, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a jazz musician, a doctor, and one who believes that the most important problem in the world today is how to make South Africa the cricket champion of the world." I doubt whether the professor knows such a person, but it's a point well made. To assume that one factor in somebody controls all they think and do is dumb. We are not machines; we're complex individuals trying to live together.