Friday, 30 November 2012


Dear Friends

Blogging has recently been distracting me from my main occupation which is trying to write a book. So I've decided to stop writing blogs until the New Year (at least) - unless of course I am desperately provoked! You see with my less than nimble fingers it is a slow business, physically, typing. I don't imagine I'll be greatly missed, but of course I'll miss the sound of my own voice. I have to say I've noticed a tendency to get rather bah-humbuggy developing, which may be seasonal, but isn't very attractive or edifying.

So I'm taking a vow of abstinence. And hopefully the world will be a merrier place. I'll just leave you as an Advent / Christmas present a new song I've recently come across - which I really like (forgiving the grammatically jarring "you and I" - Back in your box, Ebenezer Scrooge! - ), as I say "Au revoir." I hope you enjoy it.
God bless us all.


Predictably bonkers

Oh no, not again! First Dilnot. Now Leveson. Faced with a crisis, whether the cost of social care or the collapse of trust in journalism, David Cameron sets up a commission or an enquiry, under distinguished and extremely intelligent experts, who spend many months of intensive work of evidence-gathering and deliberation. They then come up with long reports with workable conclusions.

Then in Parliament the Prime Minister makes polite noises about the reports as he presents his verdict. But when it comes down to the nub of the matter he weaves and ducks. What a shame! In the case of Dilnot, the Government has been dithering about the limit of contribution towards social care that people should be expected to make. The suspicion of course is that HMG wants to set it higher than Dilnot's recommendation, to reduce its own perfectly affordable input. The effect of that would of course be to penalise those with modest savings, as they'd lose a larger proportion than those with fat-cat pensions.

And now with Leveson the plan is to present a bill to Parliament which, as the Culture Minister, Maria Miller, admitted to John Humphris on the Today programme, is designed to prove Lord Leveson's proposal unworkable. Unsurprisingly virtually all today's newspapers have been rubbishing the report. When you come to think of it, that's a pretty strong recommendation for it. They don't want to see their licence to kill reputations, privacy and even worse curtailed - and that is what they fear a more independent effective regulatory body might do. In Parliament time and again we heard the old canard that Lord Leveson was proposing state regulation of the press, the myth which that same press is very busy promulgating. It is clear that he is not. He is proposing that someone guards those who are keeping an eye on the guardians of our freedom.

Lady Helena Kennedy QC, the great champion of free speech, compared the Prime Minister's rejection of Leveson's central recommendation to a genuine Whitehall memo that followed the last enquiry into press standards by Sir David Calcutt 20 years ago. "We know we're not going to do anything. We can't say we're not going to do anything, so we have to say something that covers up the fact that we're not going to do anything." As she said, it could have been a line out of Yes, Minister. The tragic thing is that "not anything" means nothing for people like the Dowlers and the McCanns. David Cameron assured such victims that he would ensure the implementation of Lord Leveson's proposals "unless they were completely bonkers". Apparently he reckons they are. Most of us know they're not, and wonder whether our politicians have learned anything from the past few years.

Why the picture at the top of this piece? Well, you know what they say about kicking things into the long grass... One way we can try to prevent this happening to the Leveson report is signing the petition launched today by Gerry McCann and Chris Jefferies, the traduced teacher from Bristol:

Monday, 26 November 2012

Reflections in the light of day

© National Geographic
The Church of God usually deals with a rather long time-frame. Last week the Church of England met the temporality of politics in which "a week is a long time", including a number of politicians pontificating (an activity usually reserved for popes) about its affairs and issuing thinly veiled threats against it in view of its recent inexplicable entry into madness, as its failure to agree about women bishops was regarded. Even the Prime Minister upbraided it to get "with the programme" - though I wonder whether he had actually read, let alone understood, the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure [item 501] - or if 99% of the MPs had for that matter. (I'm sure he'd have approved to the reference to civil partners in it, if he had.) It must be frustrating for governments, once they have devolved powers to a body, to find them being used in an uncongenial way. But, as the saying goes, as you make your bed, so you must lie on it.

However there you go. The media, including the blogosphere, have had a field day. Even my small last piece had an extraordinary circulation, which I am at a bit of a loss to account for. It seems it may have provided first aid for some of the women, not least priests, who were reeling from the blow that Tuesday had inflicted. It was, I must say, a long week for me, and though I longed to move on I kept chewing the matter and the debate over. This post might, I think, be an attempt to find some sort of resolution in my own mind, so that tomorrow I can back to business as normal.

I was surprised to find that my disappointment over the vote was not shared by everyone. I think at least one of our local clergy thought the measure was not sufficiently clearly defined, and therefore didn't offer enough protection for conscientious objectors. Perhaps if the Code of Practice which every diocesan bishop would have been required to draw up to “respect” the sincere requests of parishes and vicars who found themselves unable to accept the ministry of a woman bishop had been clarified beforehand (or at least the minimum requirements of a code) rather than the simple obligation to have a code, some of the fears might have been allayed. My listening to the debate, however, revealed that a lot of the argument was about the principle (or doctrine) of women in church leadership, which had already been agreed upon, rather than about the practicality of safeguarding the "traditionalists". I do understand that in fact producing specific safeguards is easier proposed than achieved. A previous attempt was felt to create second-class female bishops. 

Another of my reflections was regret that we would have been even further out of step with the most ancient churches, like the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, who of course have only male priests. One of the clearest demands Jesus made of his followers was that they should be "one", i.e. unified; and one of the scandalous results of either outcome would be to deepen divisions in what likes to be regarded as the Christian Church. Of course, it may be too that those who long for another Council to continue Vatican 2's work may in time be rewarded and the Catholic Church may change.

A friendly theologian came to lunch on Saturday and I blithely expected him to confirm my half-baked impressions. Sadly he was more cautious about my interpretations of the evidence! He pointed out that actually there's a lot about submitting in the New Testament, such as submitting to the authorities, children submitting to parents, wives to their husbands - "and each submitting to the other," I pointed out. "Indeed," he agreed urbanely! - and even the Son submitting to his Father. There was, he reckoned, a structure of authority within Creation, reflecting the Trinity. I may not have got it exactly right, as by now my carefully constructed universe was rocking! Reflecting on it later, it occurred to me that there's an essential difference between voluntary submission and institutionalised submission. There's a world of difference between saying, "Choose to submit yourselves..." and "You have to submit...". In fact, submission is of its very nature a voluntary attitude. And to be blunt, it seems to me to be a precarious business to argue from the nature of the Trinity, which to me at least it is an incomprehensible mystery. 

He also took me to task over the meaning of the word, head (kephalé), the part of the anatomy, when I argued that we overlay it with meanings of superiority, such as head honcho, head teacher, head man. The Bible, said I, places the will and the centre of motivation lower down the body than the head. "Hmm," he said sceptically. And Jane told me to smile and stop giving him indigestion!

Afterwards I reflected, "What has all that to do with leadership in the Church?" After all, doesn't the Church have a very different view of authority, although you might not think it with all the medieval paraphernalia of power, from chunky rings and princely robes to "enthronement"? How I long, by the way, for a bishop to say, "It shall not be so with me. I know it will at first be a shock to you, but I am not going to go in procession with my outriders"! Our model of authority is Christ, the slave on his knees serving, not lauding it. And don't we see women exercising the spiritual and natural gifts, including leadership, throughout the New Testament church, including apostleship and eldership? In fact, it seems to me we make these terms too technical and too restricted. After all, they are trying to describe functions in a new sort of body which has never existed before with the limited palette of the language of a patriarchal society. This is the new Temple. "This is what is happening, some hosting, some prophesying, some teaching, some leading, some healing etc etc." All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. And it may be, may it not, that he empowers a woman with oversight (episkopé)? 

It struck me that he was quite Elizabethan in his emphasis on the importance of hierarchical stability  - but then so was my revered Shakespeare. The enormity of Macbeth's crime is that he has murdered the King. 
"Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord's anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o' the building!" It is a return to chaos (confusion) or anarchy. And that is most to be feared. Yet it also occurs to me that the great conservative evangelical of the 17th century, another of my great Englishmen, who uttered one of my all-time favourite sayings, "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken", was not afraid to contemplate the unthinkable for the sake of justice. We may think history proved him mistaken, but actually parliamentary democracy owes Oliver Cromwell a great deal.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Bruges
To give him his due, I’ve painted our divergence in rather starker terms than he would recognise. I don’t think he’d be troubled by women bishops…. But I think he didn’t want me to write off those with different views from mine too dismissively. It’s possible that he (or I) may be mistaken – but, of course, I'm still sure I’m right! I return to the radical nature of Jesus' mission. In Tom Wright's words, "The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous 'progress' of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.... The promise of new creation, symbolised by the role of Mary Magdalene in the Easter stories, is the reality." 

So then I went to church on Sunday morning and, I assume, joined with tens of thousands of others in confessing, 
“Most merciful God,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.
We have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.
In your mercy, forgive what we have been,
help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be;
that we may do justly, love mercy,
and walk humbly with you, our God,”
which seemed very apt in the light of the previous week's emotions.

There was time before lunch to watch BBC's The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell - which I confess to not having watched right through before. It happened to be on... Women Bishops. (How grateful the BBC must have been to have a home news story which took the spotlight off itself!) I'm not sure how many of the participants in the debate were in a state of grace at the beginning, but it didn't take a minute for the gloves to come off in one corner at least. 

My friend Sally Hitchiner was in one of the front rows and was admirably restrained, even when invited to speak. Like me she was very disappointed by the vote, and she was hurt by some of the other participants' doubting of her priesthood. I have to say in terms of graciousness the antis (i.e. anti the measure) won the debate. I understand how hurt the pros were. But, as Sally demonstrated, you didn't need to be full of bile and insult to make your point. You didn't, Rev Pitcher, have to go red and wag your finger at those who disagreed with you. It wasn't necessary to tell the rather nice, articulate Zoe Ham that she was a misogynist. She clearly wasn't. As for the Speaker's Chaplain slagging off the other side as Biblically illiterate, that was simply rude and untrue. If I'd been a disinterested spectator, the fury of the pro-women troika on that side of the studio would have had two effects: one, to make me doubt the validity of their argument; and two, to put me off the Christian message of love. It was Marshall McLuhan who said, "The medium is the message." If you appear to hate your fellow-Christians who differ from you, what's your good news mean? It will, I thought, take a more skilled mediator than Peter Hitchens to bring this issue to a satisfactory resolution. Fortunately, in Justin Welby we have just such a man, perhaps with Sally Hitchiner to advise him!

It will too take all his leadership skills to repair the damage, not to the Church's image - because that doesn't matter -, but to its witness to both the love and the justice of God. It would be worse than sad if Parliament took it into its muddled head to tell the Church - or any other faith group - how to organise its affairs. It is equally sad that, as it stands, the Church's prophetic voice has been compromised by not having its own house in order.

I trust and pray that the issue will be visited again soon and an arrangement which accommodates all consciences is arrived at. I hope we will stop labelling each other and be one. Maybe something better will emerge from all this travail. Impossible? Well, it won't be long before we hear again the familiar story of ultimate encouragement, which starts with a faithful unassuming woman and includes the statement, "For nothing will be impossible with God," and includes Mary's great song of faith and freedom, the Magnificat, 
BBC The Nativity

"And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty."

Amen – or do I mean Ah... men :-( ? Sisters, don't lose hope.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Women bishops - apology

Last night I thought it might have been a mistake to listen to the afternoon live stream of the Church of England General Synod's debate about the ordination of women bishops, since whenever I woke - which was quite often - my mind was mulling it all over. I was glad I'd listened to it, even the peculiar analogy of vegetarians (anti-women-bishops) invited/forced to eat a full turkey (pro-women-bishops) roast, because it was clear that despite the illogicalities it was still a debate about sincerely held convictions about women and authority. I found myself surprisingly upset. So I resolved to write a letter today to my women friends who are also priests and were most immediately injured by the marginal defeat, but it also extends to all who feel that they have been discriminated against by a church they love.

19 Churchward Close
21st November 2012

Dear Sisters

I am deeply and truly sorry that you were so grievously hurt yesterday.

I have to confess that not so long ago I would have been among 45 clergy voting against the women bishops' measure yesterday and I might well have used sermons to say why. About twelve years ago, when the possibility was beginning to be mooted, I remember being asked over lunch at Lee Abbey what I thought about women being bishops and answering that I was against it and wouldn't serve under one. I have repented since.

Four things convinced me that I was wrong. The first was the succession of women in training for ordination at Wycliffe Hall who came on attachment or to preach in our parish. I'm not making comparisons! We had good male ordinands, of course, but it struck me that to be a female ordinand you had to be outstanding. I can remember them all and they were all inspiring. It's not that they set out to change my mind, but merely that they themselves set me thinking and reassessing my previous view of what the Bible said.

Secondly, I had had no time for those who explained away the "plain meaning of Scripture". For me the Bible was, and remains, true and the ultimate authority. So I didn't approve of attempts to wriggle out of its difficult teachings. However I have come to see that the original context is crucial both to our understanding and the application of the Bible. (I have a feeling this is known as hermeneutics.) I didn't find any idea of gender hierarchy at creation in Genesis; it seemed to be introduced as a consequence of the fall. I found that Jesus came to reverse the effects of the Fall and bring in the Kingdom of God:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour”. This accorded with the radical way that Jesus interacted with women, overturning the oppression to which they had been subjected - so that the first response of faith to his incarnation was by a woman, the Virgin Mary, (a contrast to Zechariah the priest); the first Gentile apostle/evangelist was the Samaritan woman; he commended Mary of Bethany for sitting as a disciple at a rabbi's feet; he entrusted the good news of his resurrection to Mary Magdalene; and one could go on. He utterly reversed the accepted subordinate role of women. (See Tom Wright's article: Women Bishops: It's about the Bible, not fake ideas of progress

This seemed to me to set the context for interpreting the few difficult passages in the epistles. One had to conclude either that they were contradicting Jesus' teaching and example, or that they were addressing particular church situations - such as the morally confused Corinthians or the Ephesian church in the shadow of the great Artemis. I found that some "plain meanings" (such as authentein - have authority over) were not plain at all. I discovered that understanding the current social conditions threw quite a different light on passages I'd regarded with 20th-century eyes. I noticed examples of women in church leadership in Paul's epistles (like Romans 16), and wondered whether my astigmatism had been merely physical.

The sort of process I went through was well described in a sermon preached in the USA by a pastor named Rich Nathan in a series, "Myths that Christians believe", entitled Women can't serve as senior pastors, can they? (He's not an Anglican, but he is what we'd call an evangelical.)

Then thirdly last summer I heard two brilliant talks given by Charlotte Gambill, Senior Associate Pastor at the Life Church, Bradford, and by Danielle Strickland, a Major in the Salvation Army. And it struck me how gifted they clearly were as teachers; in fact I found them the most challenging and illuminating speakers of the week. How perverse, I thought, to deny their gifts to the whole church! It's surely not what God intended for the gifts he provides to build up his Church. These were not, of course, the first women I'd come across in the Church who clearly had gifts of teaching and leading. I've mentioned the ordinands. There was one member of our church who had clear gifts of preaching, teaching and applying the Bible. She wasn't ordained but was given authorisation by our enlightened bishop to preach. Sadly when I left the church was denied the benefit of her gifting. 

I found in the summer a book by Danielle Strickland, The Liberating Truth - How Jesus empowers women - which Jane subsequently gave me for my birthday. She argues that we exploit or discriminate against women is a justice issue, and since the Church is in the business of standing for justice it should set its own house in order by following Jesus' radical approach.

Fourthly, I have often reflected on the empirical fact that the best of the five secondary headteachers under whom I taught were both women. I had no problem working for them. They exercised their authority well. I respected them - but, if I had been consistent in believing that women should not have authority over men, I shouldn't have. I would however been blind and blindly prejudiced not to acknowledge they were good leaders of men and women. They had the qualities and giftings that made them the best people for the job. That was what mattered. Why should not everyone in the Church too have their gifts and calling recognised and used irrespective of gender?

Obviously those aren't the only reasons which have led to my change of mind. There are the many friends, real and virtual, whom I've made who are clearly gifted priests, teachers and leaders of churches. There's your weariness of feeling unrecognised and undervalued, which is our collective sin against you. There is the burning conviction that a church which institutionalises discrimination has no moral ground to speak against injustice elsewhere. There is St Paul's ringing charter, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

I was once proud of the label "conservative evangelical" as that's what I considered myself, as my father was before me. However having heard it yesterday cheerfully used as a justification of inequality I don't want it. I still believe in the unique truth and authority of Scripture, but I don't believe yesterday's vote was faithful to the living Word to whom the written word bears witness. 

One of you wrote, after the debate and vote: "I am gutted, and off to put my son to bed..... and then contemplate how I stay in a Church which feels that no amount of provision can protect people from the 'taint' that my ministry and authority means...". I want to say that most of us do not see the taint, and that we welcome your Christ-like ministry. Please enrich the church by your continued presence.

I hope, wounded though you have been, you find it in your hearts to say, "Father, forgive them...." And I, for my part, pledge myself to pray and work for the Kingdom to come for you - soon.

Your brother in Christ


PS For those Anglicans who are grieving and depressed by yesterday's vote, here's a quote from the admirable Marijke Hoek of the Evangelical Alliance: "Christian organisations are full of subtle dynamics that undermine and derogate women's development, but if you dive under the radar and follow God's stream, it circumvents the whole lot of them. Ultimately character is what honours God. 'The Way of Jesus … is a way of bringing the kingdom of Love to the reality of this present moment, through the Way we travel, through the Way we are, and through the Way we are with God'. (Peterson)". You're not the only ones!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

12 Steps in the Middle East

In 1966 - I remember the year because we were in Istanbul when England won the football World Cup - our family travelled overland in a black Ford Consul 375 to Jordan and Israel. Then the city of Jerusalem was divided between the two countries, and you had to cross, one way only, through the Mandelbaum Gate - which meant, incidentally, that we had to leave behind my brother, who'd just returned from Iran, in hospital to return on recovery with our mother by air. We met Arabs and Israelis, Jews, Muslims and Christians. Unhampered by official guides, we were free to go where we would.

Then less than a year later came the Six Day War, an extraordinary military success for Israel against the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, probably not best understood from Wikipedia, which resulted in a vast expansion of Israeli-held territory. I relate my '66 experiences not to qualify me as expert, but rather to explain my interest in that region and explain my lack of clarity about it. It seems to me that anyone who pretends fully to understand the rights and wrongs or to know the answer to the Israeli/Palestinian problem is deluded. Today the Archbishop Cranmer blog fired a broadside at the prevalent liberal orthodox view in Rich powerful Jews annihilate poor innocent Palestinians. And I have to agree that it apparently takes a well-directed Israeli drone attack on the top Hamas military commander, Ahmed al-Jamari (I can't remember whether we are supposed to regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation or not at present. It's certainly intent on destroying the nation state of Israel), to remind the BBC and other news organisations of the 800 missiles and mortars launched from Gaza this year into Israel. So I take Cranmer's point.

Clearly war will not prove to be the solution to the intractable problem. The Arab states' unwillingness to acknowledge Israel's right to exist and Israel's stubborn determination to exist seem to create a formula for perpetual conflict. It would take a massive amount of international repentance (including by the UK - for its [mis]handling of the 1922 Mandate for Palestine, for instance) to form any foundation for peace negotiations.

However I suspect the only hope for the parties apparently addicted to violence (including us) is the recognition of their need for a "greater Power" and something like Alcoholics Anonymous's Twelve Steps:
  • We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  • Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  • Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practise these principles in all our affairs.

    For "alcohol", read violence, and for "alcoholics" read warmongers. And the whole document makes great sense in this context. The Middle East is indeed "unmanageable" and does need a greater Power to restore "sanity".

    The beauty of this part of the world is haunting - and so is its pain. Ironic, isn't it, that in five weeks' time millions worldwide will be singing about a future "when peace shall over all the world / its ancient splendours fling" remembering events in this region over two thousand years ago? We should pray that it might be so.                                                                     
  • Thursday, 15 November 2012

    Rare generosity

    Our week began with two contrasting but hugely moving events. The first was the funeral of a fifteen-year old girl with life-limiting disabilities (which I've already written about here "Thank you, Beth"). To one way of looking, this girl had no quality of life herself and impoverished her family's lifestyle. However I would disagree - and if the family were to be believed so would they, vehemently and utterly. Their testimony was simply how much good their daughter had brought into their lives. Not that they minimised the difficulties and heartache, but one simply has to know them to recognise how much love and joy (of a depth and quality few of us ever experience) she brought to them and to others - of whom I was fortunate enough to be one.

    I first met her and her parents three summers ago when we were at a churches' convention and they were across the gangway from us. The attentiveness of her parents to her life-sustaining needs was constant and unconditional. It was clearly their way of life - and it lasted up to and beyond her premature death. Her send-off was no ordinary funeral. It plumbed the depths of grief and soared on heights of hope, all enveloped with extraordinary love. I have absolutely no doubt that if you asked the family whether they'd rather not have had the past fifteen years they would be astonished at the very question.

    Then on Tuesday we visited an old friend who'd lived in the next village to us and in whose farmhouse I always received a warm welcome. She is now in a care home for dementia sufferers. We think she recognised us, but it wasn't easy to be certain. What was clear is that she was the same person we always knew, with the same sweet and cheerful nature, the same lady who used to sing a capella after communion in the small country church where she worshipped month by month. We were particularly glad to have spent an hour with her in that eccentric lounge, with disorientated women and men, with all their fluctuating emotions. It's hard to pin down why it wasn't depressing, but it wasn't. I dare say it might feel that way after a while. In fact it was rather the reverse. I think an important factor was the care of the staff. They were an international group, from at least three continents I'd guess. But they were all patient and quiet. It was impressive. We commented to one of them as we were leaving how patient they seemed and she said, "You have to be to work here."

    I'm glad neither our young friend nor our old friend was thrown on the scrap-heap, but both have been valued and cared for, whatever the cost. Their lives were and are infinitely precious, as are all lives, however "useless". May we never set foot on the road which denies that value.

    Simone Weil
    I was listening to Melvyn Bragg's admirable programme In Our Time this morning and learned about the remarkable Simone Weil, about whom I was woefully ignorant. Born in France, she died in England in 1943 aged 34, and is buried in Ashford. Her understanding of pain was unusually vivid. One thing she said has really struck me, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” That, it seems to me, is what both my friends received. One could use other cognate words, such as attentiveness and attending to, or being totally aware of, or focusing on. It's the sort of care that gives itself to the other at the expense of the self - that is "the rarest and purest form of generosity". And I'm grateful to have seen it in the unpromising milieu of a dementia care home and particularly in one family's devotion to their helpless dependent child. I have had a privileged couple of days.

    Wednesday, 14 November 2012

    Happy Birthday, BBC?

    Today, the blushing birthday girl keeps reminding us, she's 90 years old. That is, on 14th November 1922, the first radio broadcast was listened to simultaneously by what I heard described by Professor Jean Seaton as 11,000 radio "nerds". I don't like to be a party pooper, but....

    I have to confess that I have not only changed my default news page on my laptop from BBC to The Independent, but also my default news channel on our television from BBC to Sky News. It reflects my growing sense that, for all its much-touted objectivity, one is on shifting editorial sands with the BBC. It's rather like the sensation of being on what you believe to be and what looks like solid ground only to find it's the treacherous Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles. At least with The Independent and Sky News you know what stables they come from and can make the appropriate recalibration. The BBC has, I know, a fine history of news presentation. But I was recently provoked to look at the BBC's charter, and was impressed (or not) by what a utilitarian document it now is, as redrafted in 1996, its object defined by its purposes, which include such things as sustaining citizenship, promoting education and "creativity", bringing the UK to the world etc. Nowhere is the ideal of telling the truth upheld. I suspect that's because those drawing up the revised charter said to each other, 'What is truth?' and couldn't come up with an answer - other than, "Well, there's my truth, and there's your truth, and everyone has their own truth" - truth doesn't exist.

    However the idea of objectivity and impartiality depends on some universal concept of truth. This year has seen the myth of the BBC's objectivity finally exploded. I say "finally" because it's clear from the Savile saga that objectivity has not been defining the corporation's news coverage for some time. Whether it stretches as far back as the wartime demands for news restrictions, and, as some would regard it, propaganda, it is certainly not the case that it has broadcast unvarnished or unslanted versions of the news. Recently, for example, it is clear that it mouths the government line on such events as the Arab spring or Syria, where the "goodies" are the opposition and the "baddies" are the Assad regime. It is clearly true, as I observed before, that that regime has committed and is committing atrocious acts of repression. It hardly takes a great leap of imagination to understand how we in the UK would feel if "the world's most respected news outlet" were making that sort of moral judgement about our political parties, whoever was in power. It also had the practical effect, for better or worse, of encouraging the opposition to believe that West was on their side and would shortly arm and even assist them, and thus to plunge into a horribly costly conflict with a vastly superior government military machine.  Similarly Israeli activity against the Palestinians is reported whilst there is silence about rocket attacks the other way round. There is, whether we like it or not, an editorial stance at the BBC - which is largely that of the mouthpiece of the liberal establishment.

    I wish Lord Patten and Mr Davie every success in reforming this aged lady whose care is now their unenviable charge. I'm not sure that it's not too late to teach an old dog new tricks. I'd suggest one area they might look at is the practice of outsourcing news programmes or items. It seems fairly obvious that there is a strong incentive for private production companies to come up with as sensational news stories as possible in order to obtain a contract as it appears the "Bureau of Investigative Journalism" did in the case of the shoddy Lord McAlpine Newsnight programme.  It seems that the BBC has quite sufficient news correspondents, chief reporters and ordinary reporters of its own not to need outside help and therefore extra levels of editorial supervision. 

    Meanwhile, I'll be watching Sky News tonight. I fancy I won't be missed from the party.

    PS Apologies to those who were puzzled by the rogue entry that popped up from two years ago. My mistake!

    Monday, 12 November 2012

    Choices, choices, choices!

    Brian is not only venerable but also wise. He made a perceptive comment about the two men in the home headlines at the weekend. He said he'd been "reflecting on Humility : When Justin Welby was told he had been chosen to be the next Archbishop Of Canterbury he said 'Oh, no!' and expressed 'amazement and astonishment'. When George Entwistle was appointed to head the BBC he 'thought the trustees had chosen the best person'." Brian's wry comment was, "Such self-confidence!" 

    It seems to be the season for changes and elections, some more arcane than others - though who's to say that Americans spending $3 billion to elect Barack Obama is more rational than a Chinese party caucus "choosing" Xi Jinping? Or that the Church of England choosing its new Archbishop by means of a confidential "Crown Appointments Commission" is any more sensible than a country electing completely unfamiliar officials called Police Commissioners on the basis of no information - as apparently we are expected to do on Thursday? Admirable though it is to restrict expenditure on such things, the only information we've received thus far is our polling cards - no information about what these new fangled creatures are, what their powers and responsibilities are going to be, no information about who the candidates are or what they stand for. It's true that you can find something out on the internet if you know where to look, but many voters, particular of my in-laws' generation (who are probably the most likely demographic to vote), are not internet users. Ignorance is no basis for democracy, only for prejudice.

    Saturday, 20 October 2012

    Walking to defeat MND

    A week ago, Jane and others were pushing me round the grounds of Blenheim Palace. We were taking part in the annual Oxfordshire MND Association sponsored "Walk to d'feet MND". As last year there were a good number of participants (about 90) and we were blessed with sunny if not balmy weather. The leaves were just starting to turn as you can see across the lake - like Ashburnham Place designed by Capability Brown.

    As always with these events, the best thing about them was the company. In this picture I'm being pushed by
    our friend Penny whose husband died last year of MND, while on the far right is Matt whose mother died only a few months ago. Talking to me, to the right of Jane, is Jenny Rolfe, the fab OT who works at the MND Clinic in Oxford and who sorted out for me my tilting wheelchairs. To her right is Rachael Marsden, the nurse and presiding genius of the Clinic. They are two of the assets that makes the provision for people with MND in this area so positive. It struck me that part of the centre's secret was encapsulated by the fact that one consultant, the nurse i/c and the main OT were all there on a Saturday in what might be called a work of supererogation, i.e. above and beyond the call of duty. For them it's more than a job, or a career; it's more like a vocation.

    Second in from the right here (with the balloon) is Lesley, our indefatigable and endlessly efficient branch secretary. She's one of a group who not only organise such events for us and our families and friends - and, as significantly, is one of those available to visit people with MND from the point of diagnosis onwards. As you'll have gathered from this blog, there is NO way that the professionals, spread as thinly as they are and with resources increasingly squeezed, there's no way that they can respond even to the need of such a rare condition as ALS/MND. So the potential for sensitive Association Volunteers (AVs) to support individuals and families in the frightening reality of the disease is huge. It doesn't always work; personalities may not click. But usually it does.

    I must also mention Peter, with the cap on the mini-scooter, with his two glamorous women behind him. He has moreorless completely lost his voice, but he certainly has by no means lost his sense of humour. He keeps me plied with often outrageously non-PC jokes by email. To give one repeatable example which I enjoyed recently:
    - An elderly man was stopped by the police around 2 a.m and was asked where he was going at that time of night.

    The man replied, "I'm on my way to a lecture about alcohol abuse and the effects it has on the human body, as well as smoking and staying out late." 
    The officer then asked, "Really? Who's giving that lecture at this time of night?" 
    The man replied, "That would be my wife." - Occasionally Peter drops in a googly in the form of a serious or uplifting reflection on the meaning of life. He used to be a teacher. I bet his lessons were fun!

    Oh yes, and did I mention the afternoon was fun too. At least I enjoyed it. Well, I'd have been ungrateful not to have, being pushed up hill and down dale by a succession of nice women, wouldn't I?

    Thursday, 11 October 2012

    Vulnerable AND valuable

    The headline yesterday was: 

    "Care home staff 'abused elderly': six arrests made

    A former matron and five nurses who worked for a care home have been arrested over 'serious allegations' of mistreatment and neglect of 'very vulnerable' elderly residents."

    You may remember I was writing about the importance of recognising that all, including disabled people, should be treated with respect (Do not resuscitate) and valued as persons. The Telegraph report illustrates the danger of abuse of the vulnerable, even in places where they are meant to be cared for. The nursing home in question specialises in caring for severe Alzheimer's sufferers, who are, in my view, in the front line for abuse - which, at its extreme, includes euthanasia.

    "Chief Superintendent Richard Bayly, from Lancaster Constabulary, said the 'serious allegations' involved 'very vulnerable, elderly residents' and regarded 'a significant number of cases'.
    "He said: 'These arrests are a culmination of a thorough investigation into serious allegations of mistreatment of residents at Hillcroft Slyne nursing home.
    "'The inquiry is complicated and we have a team of specialist detectives working on this case who are also offering support to those families who may have had loved ones identified as being allegedly mistreated.'
    "In May, Lancashire County Council's social care department made police aware of a complaint they had received about the level of care provided to some residents at the home."

    After my "Do not resuscitate" post, a severely disabled friend wrote to me about her own experience
    "I've been ill for most of the time for the last 3 years, and have spent all too much time in hospital.  The last time was in July 2012, and I came across a nurse with a sickly sweet voice, but who bullied me mercilessly.  She knew that if I swallowed tablets by mouth I would retch and/or be sick, but refused to use the canula, which had been put in (with much difficulty) on doctors' orders only the previous day.  She shouted at me, and refused to use the canula.  I became quite afraid of her.  I phoned my carer and he came immediately.  He managed to put her in her place while remaining entirely polite and calm, but it was a very unpleasant experience.  It made me think of the terrible predicament of those who have no one to stand up for them, or who cannot communicate, or are very elderly, perhaps with dementia. It is such a scary situation for all of us."

    My friend is a lovely person who struggles with multiple disabling conditions with amazingly good grace. Yet even for her the sense of helplessness faced with insensitive caring was enough to scare her, and clearly not everyone is fortunate enough to have a competent advocate to call on in time of crisis. As a country, we really must heed the warning signs of a trend, despite Paralympic euphoria, of diminishing our regard for the disabled. Just over a month ago, there was great optimism that an irreversible change of attitude had taken place. If we are not vigilant, it will be more than reversed: disabled new borns and vulnerable elderly will be regarded as legitimately disposable. Then we will have entered a morally bankrupt "brave new world".

    Tuesday, 9 October 2012


    As I announced on Facebook we've just spent a couple of nights at Ashburnham Place, near the site of the Battle of Hastings - well, the nearest town is Battle in East Sussex. Neither of us has been there before, so we didn't know what to expect, though we had seen the brief comments on its website:

    "For nearly eight hundred years Ashburnham Place was the home of the Ashburnham family. In 1953 the last member of this family, Lady Catherine, died and the inheritance passed to a young clergyman, John Bickersteth. Seven years later he gave the house and the surrounding parkland to the Ashburnham Christian Trust. The purpose of the new Trust was to promote the study of the Bible and the training of people in the principles of the Christian faith. Much of the original house had to be pulled down and new facilities have been added. The Trust continues, under new leadership, to work towards the same goal - encouraging people to come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ and to live their lives in the service of God....
    Turner's sketch from the Tate Collection
    "The centre is located in 220 acres of beautiful grounds landscaped by 'Capability' Brown, with three large lakes and much interesting wildlife; the area has been designated a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) by the Nature Conservancy Council. Four campsites are used in the summer months by church, family and youth groups. The grounds are not open to the public,  but we do consider requests for visits from local interest groups. Visitors are always welcome to the Ashburnham Parish Church, which is located in the grounds."
    The artist, J M W Turner, sketched and then painted a watercolour of the Vale of Ashburnham in 1816, where you can see the three-storey Italianate stuccoed mansion in the centre distance. Later it was clad with fashionable brickwork. Sadly during it was damaged following a crash of a fully laden bomber nearby which to the start of dry rot, and the eventual removal of floors. 
    Turner's watercolour from the British Museum

    Well, Gill said she was looking forward to my reflections - so here goes. The first thing to admit is that we were not staying in the big house, but in Carpenter's Lodge where our son and his family have just settled. He's just started as one of two new directors there. 

    We travelled down on Sunday afternoon and arrived in the sun. As you turn in at the imposing gates, you drive through old deciduous woods, past a lodge and then you round a corner and catch a view of the house across the lakes, which no doubt was the first vista Capability Brown wanted to greet you. The trees have now encroached on the panorama, which is a shame, though perhaps in these motorised times we might not linger to admire the view as we should.

    That evening we joined the community for their Sunday evening celebration. There is something uplifting about joining an international group united in worshipping a God whom they clearly love. The community is international because it includes a good number of young volunteers from all round the world who come to improve their English and to serve God, which they do primarily in looking after the needs of the guests who come on retreat, for conferences or simply for rest and refreshment. From my point of view the worship led by four of the volunteers was refreshing and personal including as it did one of my favourite modern worship songs, "This is my prayer in the desert"
    On Monday I was loaned the house's mobility scooter (rather nice all-singing vehicle) and we toured the house and grounds. I must say it's all remarkably wheelchair friendly. The grounds and house are more accessible than any National Trust property I've visited - which is nice since the gardens and grounds are good places to find tranquillity as well as creation's beauty, both God- and man-made. I'm told that there are disabled-friendly rooms with wet-rooms to stay in, which is unusual. I'm hoping to find out more about these facilities since it seems to me that really disabled-friendly places to stay are few and far between. 

    Andy and Paul, new directors,
    with the old church behind
    It is a remarkable estate, quite near the coast, with 200 acres of parkland and woodland, but it's more than that. I suspect it's one of those "thin" places, sites where the division between heaven and earth seems thinner than normal. Whether that's because of the house's recent history as a praying community, or because of a tradition of faith in the Ashburnham family, or whether because in the centre of the estate, cheek by jowl with house, stands the ancient village church, I don't know. My guess would be it was the last that broke the barrier - rather as T S Eliot describes Little Gidding in The Four Quartets: the "place where prayer has been valid", "the intersection of the timeless moment". I'm not much of a one for "sensing atmosphere". But Ashburnham was for me one place where hope seemed close and the spiritual seemed to matter -

    "You are not here to verify,
    Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
    Or carry report. You are here to kneel

    Where prayer has been valid."

    I was sorry to have to leave.

    (PS I apologise for the photos. I'd left the camera on the wrong setting. So my pictures were overexposed and don't give a true indication of the rich colours.)

    Saturday, 6 October 2012

    New year laughter and tears

    For young people September marked the start of a new academic year, even career. Some universities even begin their "Michaelmas Term" on 9th October, on the presumption, I assume, that their students work much harder or are so much brighter than others that they need far less time to study. Anyway, best wishes to all students and their teachers launched into the most depressing of terms being the longest (16 weeks) term and the increasingly dark days of the year. However for the rest of us also the regular round grinds back into gear, including local MND Association events.

    For us, it began a week ago with a meeting at the Holiday Inn with my physiotherapist, Lesley, talking about her work. I know I'm biased, but she was excellent. Clear, comprehensible, and not condescending. One thing she flagged up in response to a question was the possible dire consequence of commissioning. At the moment we have a small expert, if very hard-pressed, team of neuro physios. With competitive tendering there's a danger of going for the cheapest option, which won't be the experienced or the specialist one. If we lost Lesley and her team, it would be a tragedy for everyone with neuro conditions (like MS, Parkinsons, MND) in our area.

    Then last night we drove to the Roses' Theatre in Tewkesbury - a long way, but it was for a reason. We were going to hear Pam Ayres giving a performance in aid of the MNDA. We'd had contact because of our shared connection with Stanford in the Vale. She was brought up there and many of her family still live there. As vicar there, I had met her on one or two family occasions. She's genuinely as nice as she seems. She's written a rather good memoir of her early life in the village and then in the WRAF and local firms until her career as a poet and comic raconteur took off after appearing on Opportunity Knocks, in which she was the people's choice. It's called The Necessary Aptitude - which she was repeatedly informed she lacked, up to the point that she uncovered her metier.

    Photo ©Nicky Sadler
    I don't think she would reckon herself one of Britain's great poets, but I think you could rate her as the ordinary people's poet. She is a winsome stand-up comic, interspersing her apparent stream-of-consciousness performance with poems and self-aware skill. She has great rapport with her audience. Her performance of Shakespeare was hilarious, and her account of her moment of shame in Singapore (you'll have to read the book!) was very moving. If I had to choose the comic highlights for me they'd probably be her new poetic form, poetry tweets, and her attempts at wearing contact lenses.

    At the end, Pam gave a short clear explanation of MND and the purpose of the association, and encouraged everyone to sign the MND Charter *. She's given her fee all to the MNDA, which is a considerable donation. I'm not alone in being very grateful. Moreover I need to acknowledge that although the Oxfordshire branch made the initial contact, all the hard work for the evening was done by the Gloucestershire branch, some of whom you can see below.

    So we're back in full swing - Next Saturday Jane will be pushing me round Blenheim Palace grounds on our annual sponsored walk "to dfeet MND" (You can find out about coming or sponsoring here.) We hope for the same beautiful weather we had last year. 

    * The MND Charter is basically a plea to have even care of MND patients nationwide. Here in Oxfordshire the care and support is brilliant, partly thanks to the dedicated MND Centre at the John Radcliffe, but that's certainly not the case all over the country. 

    For example, Pauline, a friend of mine with MND, has just put this on her Facebook page:
    You couldn't make it up ......
    Struggling with my mobility with regards to getting to the toilet and in and out of bed I contacted the OTs yet again for some assistance. Almost 2 years ago my then OT put forward to 'the panel' the possibility of me having a standing hoist. This was denied with no proper explanation or assessment despite my continued protestations. Now I am more in need of it than ever though still capable of standing using a 4 wheel walker for 1-2 minutes (performed for toileting, getting in and out of bed and on and off shower chair. The OT came and we discussed hoists, again! It was decided that due to my husband's age and frailty he shouldn't use a full hoist on his own but neither could I (still) have a standing hoist because (this is a new argument because it certainly wasn't the case 2 years ago) I can't sit myself up in bed! (WTF?). That's okay if I'm being put to bed by carers (this only happens 3x a week (at 8.30pm and I hate it)) but what about going to the toilet I asked. THIS IS WHAT YOU COULDN'T MAKE UP....A carer could come at a set time each day, she said and put you on the toilet! OMG, not only am I being 'put to bed' like a naughty girl, now, they're expecting me to 'poo to order'! When I started to cry both OT and physiotherapist just sat there whilst my aged mother tottered over to comfort me. When they qualify these people must enter a vacuum wherein they have compassion and empathy (oh yes and common sense) extracted. I await the outcome with bated breath....

    I'm not greatly into the "rights'" culture, but I basically agree with the five aims of the Charter, which says:
    1.People with MND have the right to an early diagnosis and information
    2.People with MND have the right to access quality care and treatments
    3.People with MND have the right to be treated as individuals and with dignity and respect
    4.People with MND have the right to maximise their quality of life
    5.Carers of people with MND have the right to be valued, respected, listened to and well-supported.

    Obviously the more people who sign the charter the more weight it will carry with policy makers and purse-string holders. You can access it here. At the moment it's not that straightforward. Hopefully the MNDA will soon make it more accessible. (MND Charter on-line)