Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In the news again ....

Same old, same old ...

Here is the News item in our local paper, the Evening Sentinel, about our parking problems. You can get to the original here: http://tinyurl.com/8xfm8b.

WORSHIPPERS celebrating Christmas returned to their cars to find traffic wardens had been busy issuing up to 50 parking fines.

On Christmas Eve the congregation of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, in Jasper Street, Hanley, discovered an unexpected present from council parking officials who had been busy while they were inside for a special evening mass.

Parish priest Father Peter Weatherby has vowed to fight Stoke-on-Trent City Council, saying the parking wardens' actions lacked Christmas spirit.

And he is urging his congregation to refuse to pay the fines and appeal to the authority to scrap the tickets as a gesture of festive goodwill.

He says people visiting the church had parked on nearby streets or council-run surface car parks, which become free after 6pm. The tickets were issued just moments before the parking restrictions were lifted.

Click here!

He said: "I am livid. We are calling on those issued with tickets not to pay the fines but to appeal.

"What is especially annoying is that mass began at 5.45pm, just 15 minutes before surface parking becomes free in the city centre, so most tickets must have been issued just minutes before traffic charges for surface parking in Hanley were lifted at 6pm.

"All the shops were shut. Clearly the wardens must have known the cars belonged to families worshipping in the church."

Church wardens reported that a vehicle carrying several traffic wardens arrived after a neighbouring business made a complaint about an employee's vehicle being blocked by churchgoers.

Father Weatherby said: "The church wardens tell me that the scene appeared like a raid. The fines were being issued to worshippers, just as we were singing In The Bleak Midwinter inside the church.

"It is such a shame that Christmas began for so many people like this.

"We had our largest Christmas congregation for many years, almost 400 people.

"We are the only mainstream Christian church left in the city centre, yet action like this will drive good people away. This is so sad."

Father Weatherby has written a letter of protest to the city council.

He is also calling upon all those who received a ticket to appeal the fine and contact the parish so a full list can be drawn up of those affected.

At his services over the weekend, he mentioned the tickets from the pulpit, telling all his congregation members about the campaign.

Parishioner Paul Bradley, aged 43, from Trent Vale said: "There have been parking problems here for years, but you would think a bit of commonsense would prevail at Christmas.

"Many people coming to church on Christmas Eve are not regulars and they obviously did not know about the parking restrictions."

Julie Gallagher, aged 32, of Tunstall, was given a £35 ticket on Sunday, December 21, when she parked outside the church.

Julie, a customer relations manager, said: "To be fair I was just a little bit over the lines but there was nowhere else to park.

"I had three young children with me and my gran, so I didn't want to park miles away.

"I have paid it but I sent them an email saying I was at church and I hope they have a merry Christmas."

Another parishioner, who asked not to be named, said her son-in-law received a ticket on Christmas Eve.

She said: "My daughter and her husband had come up to see us from Birmingham, and he discovered it when he came out of church.

"It's not just that it's unfair, it's immoral – they're just trying to extract money from people any way they can."

A city council spokesman said: "Penalties are issued when vehicles are parked in violation of the restrictions. On-street parking restrictions apply until 6pm. Motorists who are issued a penalty are welcome to appeal the decision and details of how to appeal are on the back of the ticket."

Traffic wardens at the city council are meant to give motorists five minutes grace before issuing a ticket to allow people who have gone to get change for a parking meter to return to their car.

I am concerned that most comments made to the story on the paper's web site either engage in an attack against religion in general or on Muslims in particular. I have even had one (former) local councillor ring up to tell me that traffic wardens are instructed not to issue tickets to those parked outside the local mosques. As I tried to explain to her, it is hard to prove a negative - that someone has not received a ticket. Anyway, the photo makes me look rather imperious - 'he surveys all he commands' - or - 'they shall not pass'. Mmm.

Friday, December 26, 2008

An Unwelcome Christmas Present

A news release emailed today:

Christmas worshippers leaving Sacred Heart Church, Jasper Street, Hanley on Christmas Eve discovered an unexpected present - not from Fr Christmas, but from traffic wardens who had visited the area around the Victorian Church and issued up to 50 tickets to worshippers at the Christmas Mass.

Parish Priest, Fr Peter Weatherby, is livid.

"We are calling on those issued with tickets not to pay the fines but to appeal, " he said. "What is especially annoying is that Mass began at 5.45pm, just 15 minutes before surface parking becomes free in the City Centre, so most tickets must have been issued just minutes before traffic charges for surface parking in Hanley are lifted at 6pm. All the shops were shut - clearly the wardens must have known that the cars belonged to families worshipping in the Church."

Church wardens reported that a vehicle carrying several traffic wardens arrived after a complaint had been made about a vehicle which was causing an obstruction. "The church wardens tell me that the scene appeared like a raid - fines were being issued to worshippers, just as we were singing 'in the bleak midwinter'! " said Fr Weatherby.

"It is such a shame that Christmas began for so many people like this," said the priest. "We had our largest Christmas congregation for many years - nearly 400 people - and it was wonderful for us to welcome the Bishop for this celebration. We are the only mainstream Christian Church left in the City Centre, yet action like this will drive good people away. This is so sad."

Fr Peter has written a letter of protest to the City Council. He is also calling upon all those who receiving a ticket to appeal the fine and to contact the parish so that a full list can be drawn up of those affected. Worshippers can use the website www.sacredhearthanley.org.uk or write to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 1 Eastwood Place, Stoke-on-Trent ST1 3DB.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Bless all the dear children ...

Fortunately, the funerals of children are few and far between. My only hospital chaplaincy work was in a Geriatric and a Rehabiliation unit, so, though I have often been called out to the dying, I have fortunately conducted very few funerals of babies and children. I don't just use that word, 'fortunate', as a matter of form. Those few funerals have been some of the hardest to conduct, for all kinds of reasons. The circumstances can be so tragic and the words one can say about the deceseased him or herself so few, that they are certainly the toughest for a priest to do.

Tomorrow (December 7th) I am taking a leading role in a memorial service for Babies and Children at our local Cemetery and Crematorium. (Next weekend I do the 'adults' service). I'm not actually leading the service, though I have had a large role in planning it. However the order of service and the choice of readings has been finally decided by the City Council staff - not by me. That in itself would probably be one step too far for some of my colleagues. There is no biblical reading, and there is a clear brief not to make it too 'religious' in order to be as inclusive as possible. (Last year's service was conducted by a humanist, though that apparently was almost too 'unreligious'). there are some tensions there, and some sensitivity, but in the main it seems to have been worked out very amicably and positively. There's obviously a few points for reflection there, but that - at the moment at least - is by the by.

However, writing my words has been extremely difficult. We will be singing a couple of carols - and Christmas is certainly a good time to offer support to the bereaved, but also a very sensitive time too.

My words cannot be too, let's say, 'sacral'; they of course must be sensitive, and offer some comfort; and they should surely extend some hope and however gently present some of the attractions of the Christian message. I've got to be compassionate, but not sentimental. No easy task.

I find the Order of Christian Funerals invaluable, and especially the short service for an unbaptised child 'Rite of Final Commendation for an Infant'. It has, I was once told by a member of (the old) ICEL, an interesting provenence. The prayers were written by a mother on ICEL at the time who herself had lost a child. And it is one section where the word 'baby' was retained in the prayers despite objections that such a word is 'sentimental'. Some priests and lay assistant chaplains in hospitals may use these prayers often, but I guess that most priests do not even realise that they are there. They are gems.

I do speak from some little experience. My wife and I lost twins just a short time after they were born, some 21 years ago. It was some time afterwards that I discovered this short rite and saw its relevance. Just twelve months ago I conducted a simple informal funeral for our stillborn grandchild. Again, these words helped.

Anyway, this is too long an introduction already. Here follow my words for the Memorial Service tomorrow. Comments are welcomed.

Opening Prayer and Reflection

This service is made up of a lot of words. We will listen to a number of Readings. We will hear and join in the words of prayers. We will sing hymns, carols, about silent nights and a baby in a manger. Words, a lot of words.

And yet can there be no words which can possibly express what any of us might feel. We might use a lot of words, but in our hearts we are lost for words. In fact, although we have all gone through similar experiences, no two of us feel exactly the same. No one can honestly say ‘I know how you feel’. And when people try to express their sympathy, out of kindness, they can do one of two things: either be lost for words, and so avoid speaking to us about our loss, or, out a desire to say something, open their mouths and say words which though meant well, become awkward and even hurtful.

Yes, words fail us. Yet we will still desperately want to use them. When we have suffered loss many of us cannot speak of it - yet others of us can’t stop talking, telling the story, sharing our experience. We might say the same thing over and over again, and what we say may mean very little, but say it we must. A pain shared is a pain halved, or so they say.

But the truth of it all is that the words don’t answer our questions, or heal our pain, but they do provide us with comfort, and some consolation, and sometimes even a little hope.


Let us pray

Loving Father in heaven,
In the face of death all our human wisdom fails.
We are lost for words and struggle for answers.
We place our hope in your Love,
Who came down from heaven to be born amongst us,
And who taught us, by his three days in the tomb
That death has no hold over us any more.
In the midst of our sadness,
We place our trust in you
That one short sleep past,
Our beloved children will wake with you eternally.
We make this prayer in Jesus’ name.


Concluding Prayers

Trusting in Jesus, the loving Saviour,
Who came amongst and lay in a manger,
We ask him to bless all the dear children
In his tender care
And make us all ready to share the new life
With the Father in heaven as we say:

Our Father ...

Lord God, ever-caring and gentle,
We commit all these children to your love
Who brought joy to our lives, but for so short a time.
Enfold them in eternal life.
We pray for these parents, so saddened by their loss. 
Give them courage and help them through their pain and grief,
May they all meet one day in the peace and joy of your kingdom.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.



May the God of all consolation
bring you comfort and peace
and may almighty God bless you,
the Father, and the Son,
and the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

And who is my neighbour?

I couldn’t resist. I heard on the news that the membership list of the British National Party had been leaked onto the Internet. I had to look. I did about five minutes of googling, and then, like many others, downloaded the complete list of 12,000 names and addresses.

Well the excitement, if there was any, soon wore off. I never found the telephone directory a particularly gripping read, and this list was hardly more interesting. However, I did discover one member of the BNP who lives just across the road from our Church here in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent.

Now, I have little time for any group which believes that the multicultural nature of Britain is a bad thing.

Politics aside, this is just goes against the grain of what it means to be a Catholic Christian. We are a multi-cultural Church. Our founder was a middle Eastern Jew, who lived in an occupied land. From the very beginning, the Church numbered many nations and languages in its membership. Our leader today is a German who lives in Rome. Most of our members live in the developing world, especially Latin America and Africa. In North Staffordshire, we have priests with English, Irish, Italian, Polish, Indian, Vietnamese and African backgrounds. Masses are celebrated regularly in English and also in Polish, Shona, Malayalam, Ukrainian and – of course – Latin. Here in Hanley, on Easter Day we wished one another a happy Easter in our own languages: we found 17 (seventeen) spoken by our congregation.

So for us, whatever problems there may be (and I don’t wish to ignore them) the diversity of our society is something to celebrate and cherish, not to fear or destroy.

But even so, the list did make think. In this extraordinary society, where we can communicate instantly with friends and family and those on the other side of the world , we may hardly know our neighbours. And as Jesus was asked – who is my neighbour?

It is too easy to fear, ignore, reject or despise those who are different from us, who have different opinions from us, or who even share different tastes from us.

Who is my neighbour? My neighbours are the Czech girl who is struggling to fund a funeral for her boyfriend who died suddenly, the Eritrean woman who will not give up in trying to get a visa so that she can marry her fiance in America, the Nigerian mother who is arranging baptism for her child in London where other members of the family live, the family from Etruria (in the parish), sat around the bedside of their father in the MacMillan hospice, the Zimabwean refugees who I celebrate Mass for once a month, the many who come daily to Sacred Heart to confess their sins, sharing sorrows and joys, the Ukrainian community, now mostly elderly, who settled here after the War, the many Filippinos who work in nursing homes and hospitals and contribute wonderful food for parish parties, the good hardworking and faithful parish ladies, Potteries born and bred, who have always lived near the Church and who organise the Jumble Sales once a fortnight and many more parish activities, the numerous Italians, who have been here for decades, and the Eastern Europeans, who have arrived fairly recently, the customers of the Coachmakers, where I can be spotted far too often, and of course the people in streets around: Muslims, Australians, ... and even a member of the BNP.

What variety. What diversity. All these are my neighbours. And that, I think,  is a good thing.

(to be published in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel November 26th 2008)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rome ... a few tips

I had a message this morning from a friend of a friend who is a married Catholic priest who is travelling to Rome with wife and two teenage children in the new year. I'd been suggested as someone who might have a few ideas about accomodation, and so on.

Well answer the email caught my enthusiasm, so I thought I might put my suggestions down here. Readers may wish to suggest additions, amendments or recommendations of their own.

I started my reply by pointing out that I am hardly an expert traveller to Rome, but I have been several times now, both privately and with parish groups, so I am only claiming to impart a little of what I have learnt.

So, here goes:

If you want a well located and (reasonably) inexpensive Hotel, then I would certainly recommend the Concilliazione, which is in the Borgo Pio. It is clean, comfortable and family run. It is not luxurious, but it is in an excellent location, in a side street with a lot of character which runs parallel with the Via della Concilliazione the main road up to St Peter's. It is only a few hundred metres from St Peter's Square. They only do breakfast, but there is a cafe (same family) next door and many eating places near by. It is not the cheapest part of Rome, partly because so many tourists pass through the area, but it is possible to eat a reasonable meal (but not a banquet) for under €10.

I think you would find it difficult to find a hotel which does an evening meal. When we took a parish pilgrimage to Rome we stayed at the Concilliazione and ate each evening in a restaurant along the same road. Not at all bad.

You can get contact details for the Concilliazione here:

There are lots of Web sites with other Rome hotels and reviews. One I have used is venere.com. If you explore these Web sites you'll discover that the cheaper hotels are either well out of the centre of Rome, or in the less attractive areas, such as around Termini train station. We stayed near there once with one of our lads (aged 20 at the time). Hotels are basic and functional - but cheap. If you are out all day and just use the hotel to sleep in no problem.

A much cheaper option is to look into convents which provide accomodation. There are many, some very well placed and often very comparable with hotels.

One web site that gives a list of several is here: http://www.santasusanna.org/comingToRome/convents.html

And one I would especially recommend is:

SUORE DOROTEE, Via del Gianicolo,4A, 00165 Rome
Tel. 06.6880.3349; Fax: 06.6880.3311; E-mail: casafatima@libero.it

I stayed there with a priest friend last year. It is basic, but the sisters are very helpful, and you can eat full board here if you wish. You can order meals day by day. The meals are very generous, served with wine (though not the best!) and I think quite Italian. We came to the opinion that in fact the lunches are a little better than the evening meals. The location is excellent (you can walk through a car park set into the hillside right through to St Peter's square) and the charges are very reasonable. When we left we also discovered that they have a man who happily will take you to the airport for a few euros - very much cheaper, more convenient and more reliable than other forms of transport. I'd recommend it.

A few more tips.

You can get to most of the main sites on foot, though the bus services are very good. You can't pay on the bus, and must buy tickets in advance from any shop showing the T Tabac sign. You get on at the back of the bus, stamp your ticket and it is valid for any number of buses for up to 70 minutes, I think. You will need to catch a bus if you go to the catacombs. You get a bus near St John Lateran. St Peter's Square is on the opposite side of the Tiber to the main tourist sites - if you wanted to be nearer to them, then a hotel near Termini would be the least costly option, but the distances are not very great, and there's lots to see on the way.

If you eat out in the evening, then there are very many good restaurants. I'm told that the area between the Colloseum and St John Lateran is particular popular with the locals. I have eaten there a couple of times and its pretty good - but then we also ate near Termini and had a great meal, so pretty good all round.

When you know when you are going, I strongly suggest that you write to the Uffizio Scavi and ask to join a tour of the Scavi - the excavations under St Peter's. They get booked up very quickly, but even so it sometimes possible just to turn up. These excavations are quite extraordinary. The entrance to the Scavi is to the left of St Peter's basilica (ask the Swiss Guards). Tickets are about €10.

If you are in Rome on a Sunday head for St Peter's just before Midday for the Angelus. I prefer this to the Audience on Wednesdays, as then you have quite a long wait - however you do stand a chance of getting a much better view of the Holy Father. Tickets are free for the audience (no need for tickets for the Angelus). You can order them in advance or go the office in St Peter's Sq - entrance on the right hand side - a couple of days before.

Information about both the Scavi and the General Audiences is on the Vatican Web site.

Scavi: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/institutions_connected/uffscavi/documents/rc_ic_uffscavi_doc_gen-information_20040112_en.html

General Audiences:
(you can download a request form from here)

Saying Mass
This is surprisingly easy to arrange. Normally you just go along to the sacristy of a particular church and ask when you could say Mass (usually it would be for the next day). At St Peter's such privately arranged Masses have to be quite early in the morning (typically, 7.30am), but in the other Churches it is somewhat more flexible. As a priest travelling abroad, yoiu should have a
celebret (usually issued by the Vicar General) which is your 'passport' to say mass while on holiday, and proof or your bona fides.

Have a great time!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Prejudice or what?

Much has been made of the amazing and historic election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. All the commentators marvel at the election of a black man to the most powerful political office in the world.

But as I saw a photo of him emerging from the gym yesterday morning it did pass through my mind whether an ugly and overweight person could ever be elected to the highest office.

I doubt it.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Story of Q

Another Question:

Thanks for your answer on the authors of the Gospels. Could you tell us about Q in the NT?

My answer:

Q is the first letter of the German word Quelle which means "Source" is the name given to a supposed source used by both Matthew and Luke in the composition of the Gospels. Again, the Jerome bible commentary, and for that matter any introduction to NT studies, will give a good overview of the 'Synoptic Problem'

The theory that there is such a thing as Q comes about in this way.

From the 19th Century, a little earlier, Biblical scholars began to trace similarities between the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk and Lk) and came to the broad conclusion that Mt was not the first Gospel, but that both Lk and Mt make extensive use of Mark. This analysis was taken from comparing both word for word matches and differences and also the general structure of the Gospels. Of course, this is by no means a closed debate, but as I said before, most scholars would hold that Mark was written first and his Gospel provided a major source for both Mt and Lk.

Now if Mt and Lk did indeed both use Mk, how can we explain other passages which Mt and Lk share, but are not in Mk? As we have virtually no evidence, other than the text itself, the field is open for wide (and wild) speculation, and we can only judge this, based on what seems plausible and what the text itself does not contradict.

It is not impossible that Lk also had Mt to hand when he wrote, or even that Mt used Lk. But for various reasons both seem unlikely. It is very likely (as Lk himself indicates) that all three writers had a number of sources, some of which would include eye witnesses.

However, there is a broad critical consensus for giving the name Q to those passages which Mt and Lk share but are not in Mk. Bear in mind there is no other evidence of the existence of Q from Christian writers, no manuscripts of Q, no hint of an author or compiler. That there was ever such a thing is speculation, based solely on criticism of the text.

Furthermore, just because a text is in Mt and Lk but not in Mk could not be proof that it was in Q even if it existed. And perhaps what we call Q may actually be several different documents, not one Q. Some of the Q texts are almost identical in Mt and Lk, others vary much more widely - compare for example the versions of the Beatitudes and of the Lord's Prayer in Mt and Lk. They are strongly similar - yet have significant differences.

What might be significant, though, is that most of the Q verses are short sayings - no parables or miracles, and no passion or resurrection. If we were to construct Q, then it would not look anything like a Gospel. Some writers claim to discover particular theological themes or trends in the Q material. These observations do perhaps give weight to the idea that Q was a real document, and not just a convenient name for shared material.

So, at the end of this little introduction to Q, you can see that it is far from certain that such a thing ever existed. The idea of Q rests first on the idea of the priority of Mk, which is critical orthodoxy, but not a closed question. And even if that is correct, there are other plausible ways of explaining the Mt-Lk verses. However, Q is an accepted term in NT studies, and can be safely referred to - with suitable caution and explanation - both in academic work and in teaching.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Back to basics

I have been mulling over writing a post about the US elections, or about the Extraordinary form of the Mass, or even about the new English mass translastion, but I'm not there yet on any of those.

So it was a delight to receive an email from one of our trainee teachers at Maryvale Institute was asked this question:

Can you give me a definitive answer to the authors of the Gospels please Fr Peter?  I think Mark and John were apostles of Jesus and Luke was a follower of Peter I think?  I am confused.  When I did RE A level John was probably the Elder and not the apostle or the Beloved. Anyway if you have a minute I would be grateful if you could give me an answer.

Here is my quick (and rather unreferenced) answer:

The authorship of the Gospels has long been discussed and debated. If you delve into a good Bible commentary, such as the Jerome, it will give you an overview of the debate. Suffice to say there are traditional answers and the current critical consensus. The latter should not be considered to be definitive.

(A recent book on some of these issues has been written by Fr John Redford, entitled "Who was John?" It is available in the Maryvale bookshop!)

To a certain extent, we should be cautious about the term 'author'. A reading of what we call the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk and Lk) shows that to a large extent they were editors, forging together material they had collected. John seems to put more creativity into the task, but continues to follow the inherited outlines of the story - especially in the passion.

Bear in mind also that only Luke's Gospel actually includes a reference to the evangelist in the text itself. Some would argue that the names of Mark, Matthew and John (esp Mt) are later ascriptions (though surely very very early).

Another point to remember is that in the ancient world (as indeed today), the name on the top of the document (or at the bottom) does not necessarily indicate that that person wrote every word. Quite beside the matter of sources, writers would also have those who wrote for them (amanuenses) who might have been like modern day copy typists, but at other times - like a modern day secretary - might have had more freedom. The end of John's Gospel certainly appears to have been 'completed' by a disciple of the 'author', and it could well be that the writing of the Gospels were collaborative activities.

So, when we use the term evangelist (better than 'author') we probably means the principal director or authority behind the Gospel project, the precise extent of whose involvement it is impossible for us to know.

The traditional identifications are that Matthew (aka Levi) and John were amongst the apostles of Jesus. Mark (aka John Mark) was a follower of St Paul, who took Peter as a major source. Luke is the only gentile evangelist, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, and was a doctor who accompanied St Paul on some of his journeys.

Much critical scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries has rejected all these identifications, mainly because there has been a desire to see the writing of the Gospels to be much later than the lives of the individuals themselves. However, this is very much an open question, and more recent writing has tended to move back to earlier dates.

For my own part, I think it is pretty safe to operate on the basis that the traditional ascriptions are broadly correct, especially if you are to qualify what you say and write by saying, for Mark for example, 'thought to be the John Mark mentioned by Paul'  - this indicates that you are aware of the debate, which is by no means final.

My one hesitancy is over Matthew. Though the matter is still hotly debated, the critical consensus remains that Mt depends on Mk for much of his text, and it is hard to see how this could be if Mt was an eyewitness.

However, more to the point is whether this matters at all in most circumstances. When writing about the content of the Gospel, we can comfortably say 'Matthew writes ...' (though remember to say Jesus says when Jesus says). If asked in the classroom, we can honestly say that Mt is traditionally thought to be one of the apostles, though we can't be sure. (After all, the Gospel itself doesn't tell us). Who the evangelist Matthew was - or were - does not have very much bearing on the content at all from a spiritual-theological point of view, and only limited importance for historical studies.

From a Catholic understanding, each of the Gospels is part of holy Scripture, as defined by the Church, which teaches that the writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit to give us God's word, but also wrote as human authors. Who these people actually were is relevant to understanding what they wrote, but whoever they were, their words remain part of Scripture.

Of course, when these issues would really matter is if you were writing an essay with the question "Who was Matthew?" If you ever do so, I would be delighted to read a copy!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The iPhone has built in obsolescence!

Our son, Luke, sent me this message yesterday evening. He has made an interesting discovery about the iPhone:

"I'm bored, in bed and I can't sleep. Downloaded FRING which works superbly.

But the thing that caught my eye was the iPhone calendar. I found that it will go no further than December 2068.

You'll be 110, I'll be 80 so I think at some point in the next 60 years I should think about replacing my handset!

I know, strange isn't it?"

Saturday, October 18, 2008

QT on the BBC

Our youngest son, Luke, was in the audience on Question Time on Thursday. Unfortunately he didn't get to ask any questions.

(Luke is the one on the right)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No BNP leader on Question Time in Stoke on Trent.

The list of panel members to Thursday's Question Time apparently does
not include anyone from the BNP: http://tinyurl.com/6vmuh.

As my source could be expected to have some 'inside' information, we
can only wonder at what the background to the information might have
been. Perhaps once again the BNP have refused to accept conditions for
their appearance.

Fr Peter Weatherby

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Credit Crunch

I was interviewed this morning on Radio Stoke about the effect of the Credit Crunch on Churches. I'm hardly and expert, but you can listen to the interview by clicking the title or this link (6 minutes) or listen to the full programme (3 hours) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/stoke/faith.

Freedom of Speech

Well, it seems I am getting a few readers to my blog. The trick, it seems, it to pop in one or two key words (other bloggers note). My most recent post has generated a lot of traffic, and many comments. Most of the comments purport to come from UK nationals and British patriots, whose 'time has come' and who deserve free speech in order to rid Britian of its racial impurities. I summarise, of course, and in the interests of good taste and peace of mind of family members, I have removed the comments from the site - but if you want to you can read many of them here (see, I do believe in freedom of speech ...)

However, those clever people at Google analytics can tell me an interesting story. Most of the traffic was generated from a US based site called "StormFront". The banner to the site has words Stormfront.org in a Germanic Gothic script. I am sure I am not the only one who has not missed the connection with the most famous racist organisations of the twentieth century.

Most visitors, and it seems comments, come from the forum posts which you can also read here: http://tinyurl.com/stormtroopers. You will see that in the main this is not rational pollitical debate, and includes at least one death threat: "The church is fall of nonces maybe we should withdraw them of air?". Some writers also advise those commenting on my blog how to frame their comments. It is worth reading these posts, because this is what giving an equivalent platform for groups like the BNP really means.

There is one comment received so far deserves a particular response. Gary raised the question of free speech and democracy, and asks whether to deny the BNP a voice on Question Time actually goes against these principles. This point is clearly not lost on the BBC, and the internal debate in the Corporation has occasionally surfaced in public comment. Back in 2003 the BBC apparently blocked an invitation to BNP councillors to take part in Question Time. However there are clearly some voices in the BBC who feel this approach should change - an article last year by Peter Rippon of the BBC indicates some movement in the debate, and the visit to the local radio station here in Stoke-on-Trent might well indicate what could be called a 'softening' by the BBC. Ironically, I speculate, it may be the anxiety of a challenge to the BBC's policy under European Human Rights legislation that is causing some rethinking.

Anyway, to deal with Gary's point and connected issues

1. I am not suggesting an absolute ban on the BNP. My comments relate to this particular (possible) invitation.

2. To invite the leader of the BNP to appear on QT allows the party to appear like any other party - they are not.

3. The very existence of the StormFront.org site, the comments made on it, and the other reactions to my blog make my point in (2) very clear. In addition, there is widespread evidence of illegal activity by BNP activists including convictions for Griffin himself. The StormFront site claims that earlier invitations have been extended to the BNP but conditions have been laid upon them which they have not been prepared to accept - most likely, the BBC have been trying to avoid charges of inciting racial hatred being made against the Corporation.

4. The fact that this invitation appears to be being made for a recording in Stoke-on-Trent is particularly sensitive. Indeed, if true, the apparent secrecy surrounding the invitation and the venue is proof in itself that this is seen to be a delicate matter. It also comes just a few days before a local referendum, which - although not of particular interest to the BNP (it is about the future structure of local government and whether we have an elected mayor) - it also puts the city in the publc spotlight.

5. Respectfully, I submit that it is rather naive to suppose that if the policies and opinions of a racist party were given full exposure (especially on their terms) then they would be plainly seen for what they are. That did not happen in Weimar Germany, nor indeed much more recently in the former Yugoslavia. Such groups thrive and exploit publicity and are not open about their dealings.

6. Freedom of Speech is never an absolute right. In fact, it is not a right at all in UK law, or at least it wasn't until the incorporation in Uk law of the European Covention. "Freedom is not unlimited; it must halt before 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil', for it is called to accept the moral law given by God." (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church 136). Racism is clearly against that moral law (ibid, paras 144, 431, 433, 557) and our responsibility is to promote racial harmony and understanding, not to encourage the opposite.

Now there are two other points which I ought briefly to add.

The first is this: there is a debate to be had about the extent to which Freedom of Speech may and may not be allowed in a democratic (ie. liberal secular) society. I allow that there may be a range of views on this. In the current climate of the 'War on Terror', there has been a restriction on many aspects of freedom of speech and expression, something I observe with some alarm. One of the difficulties of the democratic liberalism with which we are familiar with in the West is that at heart there is a profound contradiction - the statement attributed to Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The trouble is that it is those we are prepared to die for who are those most likely to be those who want to kill us. Fortunately for Voltaire he never actually made this statement, and he died a natural death. Some views, I would hold, are so repugnant as not to merit the privilege of free propagation. In fact, I think everyone holds this to some extent - the only debate is about where the line is drawn. We would not have this debate about the publication of paedophilic pornography, for example, and the law in the UK and elsewhere restricts support for terrorist groups - even in poetry. If racist parties take pleasure in demeaning, vilifying and threatening others in their Web sites and publications, then we have to ask to what extent this is different.

And the second point, no less important, is that racist parties thrive on real concerns which people have, and while the racists should not have the same access to freedom of speech, this should not be used as a reason for ignoring real anxieties and concerns of ordinary people. The process of education and fostering understanding of ethnically different groups is one important feature. Education and information about the contribution which migrants make to economies and cultures and challenging stereotypes and misinformation is another. But if we think that is enough we are mistaken. Many ordinary people harbour not only simple prejudice but also fear about what is unfamiliar, and have concerns over economic or social stresses in their own lives which seem to overlap with aspects of ethnic diversity. If those in authority dismiss such issues as prejudice or ignorance, then they are driving ordinary good people into the hands of the racists because they seem to provide a direct diagnosis to the problem and a simple answer. To paraphrase someone, we need to address both racism and the causes of racism.

Or, as Edmund Burke wrote, All that is required for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

I heard it in the Coachmakers ...

The Coachmakers is not only a fantastic pub serving an excellent selection of real ales. It is also a place where you can learn a great deal.

At the end of BBC Question Time yesterday evening (Thursday 9th) it was indicated that the next programme - to be recorded on Thursday 16th - would be in Stoke-on-Trent. But the full list of guests, and the venue for the recording, were not mentioned. Neither it seems, are they mentioned on the website. Curiouser and curiouser, local BBC staff do not seem to know where the recording will be either.

Well, this could be something, or it could be nothing. Which is where that little bit of extra information, informally imparted, makes the picture a little more complete.

The mystery guest, I learnt - though I should add that I cannot confirm this, is to be Nick Griffin, of the British National Party, the racist, neo-nazi group which has had significant success in local elections in Stoke on Trent and has several local councillors. It has been involved in agitation locally, most recently organising a national rally in the city. Its criminal activities, convictions of its activists and financial irregularities are well documented (here and here and here).

I also learnt that an unnamed BBC official visited local radio offices recently and instructed the staff that they must 'treat the BNP exactly the same as every other party'. If all or any of this is true, then Stoke-on-Trent, as a BNP 'stronghold' is a place of some interest to the BBC, but is the laudable commitment of the BBC to freedom of speech really such a good thing in this case?

Shouting 'fire' in a crowded room is not the excercise of free speech, and preaching race hatred, especially in a city which knows such relative deprivation and has remarkably harmonious and wide racial diversity, should not be protected as a right, but clearly seen for what it is, vindictive and malicious poison.

The secrecy surrounding both the name of the guests and the venue for the recording indicate the sensitivity of the invitation. To invite Griffin to the recording here is Stoke-on-Trent would allow national perceptions of the advance of the BNP and the racism of the city to be reinforced, not rejected.

Is there anything we could do?
I think that those who reject BNP hatred should ask the BBC to confirm
or deny the invitation, and if it is true to lobby them to withdraw it.
I believe that right thinking people locally should apply now to be in the audience that day then - if Griffin is indeed on the guest list - not turn up (CLICK HERE).
And if the recording does go ahead with Griffin, good thinking people should peacefully protest outside the venue.

Of course ... my source may have it all wrong ... let's find out.
COMMENTS CAN NO LONGER BE LEFT ON THIS POST as many of those received have been threatening, abusive and have caused anxiety and distress to friends and family members. I do not however, intend removing the post itself, as- notwithstanding the speculation about the invitation in question - what is published here is clearly verifiable.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Firenze

I'm in Florence at the moment and have been blogging from there a little. I've also posted some photos on the blog and also on picasa. (Linked to from the travel blog).

To read, and to feast your eyes, go to frpeter-mobile.blogspot.com .

-- Post  (and photo) from my iPhone using BlogPress

Saturday, August 30, 2008

My speech

I haven't blogged for a while.

It has been a busy time.

It is almost 4am and I have just finished preparing my speech for my daughter's wedding which is at 12 noon tomorrow - or rather today. Much harder to do than any homily ... and probably no more memorable - unless I succeed in saying something wrong ... and that is very easy to do. Especially if you haven't slept much the night before.


I hope they find it funny.

I'm not really good at funny. I am a priest after all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Holy Places

There has been much controversy lately surrounding the decision - to be enacted this weekend - to close a number of churches in the Diocese of Leeds. (See for example, this article in the Yorkshire Post). This is a painful process, but not one unique to Leeds, nor indeed to the UK. Throughout the western world the combination of fewer vocations and even fewer worshippers has hit all Christian groups. Throughout England and Wales (and I guess, Scotland too) there are innumerable former Methodist chapels converted into attractive dwellings, and 'The Old Rectory' hotels and nursing homes. The round of closures has come a little later, perhaps, to the Catholic Church, and our situation is a little different in many instances because so many of our churches are simple constructions, thrown up rapidly in the two decades after the Second World War, which like many buildings of the austerity 50s and iconoclastic 60s, lack the antiquity and the elegance of many redundant anglican places of worship.

So what is the best thing to do with an unneeded post war building? In many cases it is much easier to demolish and rebuild than to renovate and adapt. And that is what is happening.

We rarely regret the closure of a shop, or pub in anything like the same way (though there are notable exceptions). And even for some denominations, the use to which a building may be put after sale matters little. Catholics in England and Wales have not been used to seeing their former churches put to other uses - so in very many cases demolition has been the preferred option.

In the past couple of weeks, two events have given me occasion to reflect more widely on the nature of the holy place.

Firstly, there has been a rather devastating fire in one of the churches in the deanery. It seems that it was caused by intruders. Perhaps they didn’t mean to cause as much damage as they did - but nevertheless the church is now gutted, the interior effectively destroyed, all vestments and hangings gone. For the community who worship there it is particularly devastating.This is one of half dozen churches in the deanery which is ‘under review’, and a decision has to be taken within three years whether to close it or for it to remain open. The fire hardly helps the community as they try to keep their building open for worship – and how can it now survive? And if the diocese decide to close it, how tragic that this may be the end to a place which for decades has been a place of faith and worship.

And then, in rather stark contrast, I have, during this past weekend had the enormous privilege of conducting a wedding, then the next day celebrating mass, in a chapel 2000m above sea level on top of the mount Rigi in Switzerland. The setting could not be more breathtakingly beautiful, overlooking Lake Lucern with the snow topped alps in the further distance. I was amazed to find myself there. The groom was a young man who I had taught and known through my six years as a secondary teacher, and who now lives and works in Switzerland. To be invited to conduct these celebrations was a wonderful surprise and a great adventure, and such a privilege. It was a wonderful privilege to be in such a beautiful place, to share an occasion with these two families, and to celebrate the sacraments in such a lovely location.

These two places – the burnt out Church in North Stafforshire and the mountain-top chapel in Switzerland – so different – yet hold something so important in common. As places of prayer and worship, and for the celebration of the sacraments, they are places which share human memories, moments of joy and sorrow, celebrations of hope and commitment. The place dwells with the people just as Christ walks with us on our journeys. Of course we can worship anywhere. We may sometimes have to see churches close, and not every wedding will be on a mountain top, but for our incarnational faith, places and buildings do matter, not only as the backdrop for memories, but also as the bearers of the grace of a loving God.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Sing if you're glad to believe

I was walking my faithful dogs (Joseph Ratzinger and Benedict XVI) the other day, and on the railings by the park I saw a poster for the next 'Pride' event in the city. Now I'm not going to rail on at the iniquity of such events etc etc. There are plenty of other bloggers out there who can do that much more effectively that I.

What interests me more is how successful these events have become. From the view of this rather distant observer it seems that 'Pride' events have developed from outrageous and brash displays by unashamed militant homosexuals in a few large and anonymous conurbations into popular family days out like other fairs and festivals, which now take place in very many larger towns and smaller cities.

In fact, even the language has changed (not for the first time) so that they are not even 'Gay Pride' events anymore, just 'Pride'. Here's another word we won't be able to use again in it's original sense.

All right, I'd better get to my point.

What weare witnessing is, I think, another ironic shift. Just as we Catholics use the word 'triumphalist' to refer to a bad thing - the ostentatiuos show of religion - so the homosexual lobby has used 'pride' - the ostentatious celebration of licentious sexuality - very much to their benefit.

Now then, why can't we Christians do the same? Why can't we proudly, triumphantly, proclaim the faith that we believe. Why can't we have similar big celebrations that we take to the streets to celebrate believing.

Well, I know, we do. Sort of. There are processions still, here and there, of the Blessed Sacrament and of Our Lady. Yet sometimes - dare I say - these appear somewhat dour and joyless. (Remember, they chose the word 'gay' for a reason). Much better, we also have the large celebrations like World Youth Day, which I know very well do not get the press coverage which they deserve. And these great events are still exceptional.

Yet surely, we need to be joyfully triumphalist again - Proud of faith, believing with a true gaity, with exhuberance and abandon. In celebratilng the joy of believing it may even be that Evangelical Protestants and faithful Catholics have some important values in common. Perhaps there are even those of other faiths who might join an anti-relativist, anti-secularist alliance (but please don't call it that).

We could take to the streets in our thousands, in the cities and towns of the country and proclaim without fear of ridicule: 'Sing if you're glad to believe!'

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Relativism ... concluded

For the background to this discussion see the earlier posts, here and here.

I am a Catholic. However, I choose to make decisions about my life, such as in contraception, which may not be in accordance with the Church's teaching, but I am following my own conscience. Does this make me a relativist because someone might say that I am picking and choosing only the bits of catholicism that I want? Also, although I believe that protection of life is sacred and have and would influence those that I know, I do not think it is right to impose my views about abortion on others. Having strong views about truth is one thing but if you impose them on everyone else surely this is just as bad as totalitarianism. I'm trying to think it through. I think that there really is no black and white, it really is just many shades of grey.

My response

No. I think there is black and white. Some things are right and some things are wrong. Of course, this doesn't apply to everything! Some things are neither right or wrong and some things are only right or wrong depending on the context and intention (i.e. running for a bus is neither right or wrong in itself - but could be right or wrong depending on the reason you are rushing to get on it!). However, that is not the same as 'many shades of grey'.

Some things are certainly wrong - ending the life of the unborn - but the guilt which attaches to this bad act may vary according to the situation of the person who commits it. So, for example, a young woman who is put under great pressure to have an abortion, or who does so in shear desperation, or who simply had no idea that it could be wrong to do so, cannot be said to be to blame in the same way as some one who willfully and maliciously decided to procure an abortion. This is not making excuses for anyone, or even reducing the seriousness of the act - it is just a fairly obvious moral principle: you can't blame someone for doing something wrong if they did not know that it was wrong. This is not relativism - because we distinguish between the wrongness of the act and the culpability of the individual who does the act.

Another point to bear in mind is that the conscience is the moral sense given to us by God, and the Church has always taught that we should act according to our conscience even if it is wrong. Of course we have a duty to educate our conscience, and we must also accept the consequences of acting in accordance with our conscience, but neither of these points takes away from the importance of acting in accordance with our conscience. This does not mean just pleasing ourselves - on the contrary, it means being responsible for our own actions.

Now then, does this means that the Church is totalitarian? I don't think so - because of the importance which we give to conscience. But what about the person who believes it is right to do something which we hold to be wrong?

Now, it seems to me that the honest (by that I mean logically consistent) relativist will say that that is their choice - but in fact they do not really believe that, because most relativists while allowing a choice for abortion will not allow a choice for racism. So what is the difference - well, as I said in an earlier post, in regard to these life issues the key point is the moral status given to the foetus: there's no relativism here, there is (1) an absolute judgment about the value and dignity of human life and (2) a moral judgment that the unborn human is neither human nor alive.

The Church takes a different approach, of course. Some things are wrong, but how we deal with the sin may vary for two very good reasons.

(1) Everything which is wrong cannot be made illegal, and everything illegal is not necessarily wrong. There can hardly be laws against dishonoring one's father and mother or coveting, for example, and not every lie which is told incurs a criminal penalty. Similarly we no longer criminalise adultery, serious matter though it is.

(2) The person committing a particular sin may be in dire circumstances and morally unaware of what they have done. They may need pastoral care and perhaps careful catechesis. Being judgmental and condemnatory may be of very little help. Christ himself befriended prostitutes and other sinners (though he did tell them 'do not sin again'!)

But these points (1) and (2) above don't compromise the idea that a sin is still a sin.

And this is the problem of relativism. We know that life is difficult. We know moral choices often place us in dilemmas. We know that what the Church says teaches about what is right and what is wrong is sometimes difficult to square with our lives, if not impossible in particular circumstances. But the relativist answer - that there no such thing as right and wrong, that each must make their own choices, that what is right for me may not be right for you .... this is just a cop out, and instead of respecting conscience it does away with it entirely. Surely the thing about our conscience is that it often challenges us about what we are going to do, are doing and have already done ... But how can that be if it is all a matter of personal choice?

... comments welcome.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Relativism 2 ...

For the background to this discussion, see the earlier post.

Are you saying that although there appears to be relativism in the world, there really is not as everyone on an individual level has some views of right and wrong that they feel strongly about. So does relativism really exist? This is quite a complex area.

My response
I think I'd put the question differently.

Clearly 'relativism does exist' because there are people who hold this viewpoint. The question is philosophical rather than phenomenological. That is to say 'Is relativism logically consistent?'

I would say that relativism as a way of thinking serves two purposes. One is good, that is that it encourages tolerance and acceptance of other cultures and viewpoints. Another is not so good, in that enables the relativist to pick and choose beliefs, ideas and especially a moral code without reference to any external standard (unless it suits to do so).

This leads to a serious consequence, of this way of thinking, and that is that relativists must accept one absolute value, which is relativism itself. Therefore - according to the relativist - you can believe what ever you like so long as you do not hold that you are right and other people are wrong. For the relativist that is the only and most wicked heresy. You can find your civil rights limited if you hold this view too strongly.

Let me give an example of what I mean. I listened to an advocate of the human embryology bill being interviewed on the radio. She made an interesting comment. The interviewer asked her whether - given the proposed changes in the law - she considered the UK now to be the most liberal western country and if so why. She said that our legislation is 'not liberal, but evidential'. In other words, it is not driven by ideology, but by facts, (scientific) evidence. But of course, it is not the facts which were at issue, it was the moral implications of those facts. For someone to claim to be 'evidential' is to say that they do not consider any kind of moral code significant to the decision to be taken, but only the facts of the matter. But this is just a sleight of hand. This is not neutrality or 'evidential' because if someone believes in - for example - experimentation on embryos, this is because they have taken two moral positions: (1) that such experimentation will improve the lives of individuals in the future and (2) that the embryo does not have the moral status of a human person. Neither of these are 'evidential'. These are moral choices - rightly or wrongly which are based on some absolute values. It is a deceit to say that they are based on evidence.

And this is why the likes of Cardinal Pell, and for that matter Pope Benedict, keep going on about relativism, because relativism tries to sidestep moral argument (and other philosophical considerations) by pretending that such things are not relevant. As such it is dangerous.

If someone decides to be a relativist - that may be their conscientious choice - but they should not pretend to 'neutrality' because in fact they are being absolutist.

More to follow ...

Relativism 1 ...

I've not blogged for a few days. Several reasons. One is that the weather has been wonderful I my motivation levels for sitting in the study and typing away have receded. But there's a better reason - I realise I have been doing a quasi-blog in writing in answer to thoughts and questions from some of the trainee teachers at Maryvale Institute.

I work part-time at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, UK, mainly on the PGCE (Teacher Training) Course. This is a ground-breaking course training teachers in RE for English, Welsh and Northern Irish Secondary (11-18) schools by distance learning. For more about the course, read here.

Now, I have entered into a correspondence with the students, who are currently studying a Unit on World Religions and Nostra Aetate. In their studies, the theme of relativism has been raised. For some, this is a very familiar theme from the teaching of the Church, especially under Pope Benedict. But clearly for others, there is much implicit relativism and little awareness of it. It seemed to me to be a good idea to edit these conversations into a series of posts. (After all, one of my maxims is that if some thing is worth using at all it is worth using more than once).

I won't identify the student who wrote the questions, for two reasons. (1) I have not asked permission, so it would be impolite to use the questionner's name, and (2) I have modified the questions a little for the purposes of this blog.

So, here goes:

Just reading about The dictatorship of Relativism by Cardinal George Pell. It is powerful stuff but I am still inclined towards thinking the author although making some very good points, is too extreme in his views. Pell thinks that true Christians and Catholics are being truly marginalised. and attacked on all sides. Well I must be a relativist. I cannot dismiss and judge other's choices in life; I feel that that is acting superior. Truth - yes, we must make a stand for truth - but, maybe it comes back to making our stand 'with gentleness' and with dialogue and communication. There is no easy answer here.

My reply
I agree to this extent. Cardinal Pell is outspoken (well he is former Australian Rules footballer after all). It is also quite right to say that we must be tolerant of others and respect their conscientiously held views. Conscience - even an incorrect conscience - is a key feature of our human dignity and it must be respected and protected.

However, there is a very subtle shift which is often made in the modern world from tolerance and respect of different views to a belief that all views are more or less equal. This is what is meant by 'relativism', - it is the idea that what is true for me may not be true for you, and what is right for me may not be right for you. And so, we move from a belief that there is a such a thing as truth, to a belief that there are only opinions.

Now I would hold that this approach, while it has some attractions (live and let live, one man's meat is another man's poison etc) especially in a multicultural society, is actually ridiculous, and although people might say they hold this view they don't in practice. For example, those who believe there is no absolute truth, only opinions, are the same people who would oppose attitudes to women in the developing world, and propose legislative equality for homosexual partnerships and so on. Many relativists would oppose the cultural imperialism which imposed Christian views on colonial societies, but the same people would find it hard to be critical of the missionaries who suppressed the common Indian practice of sutee, in which a widow was expected to die on her husbands funeral pyre. The conflicts which are taking place between the Church and legislatures in this country and throughout the developed world on issues surrounding human life and the family ironically show that this is the case. It is just those who reject dogma who trying to enforce a dogma of their own.

It seems to me that there may be a very real and lively debate about what it is good and true, but the relativist idea that there is no such thing as an absolute truth or goodness, is a wilful self-delusion.

... to be continued

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Spiritual Alzheimers

I am loathe to comment too readily on the tribulations of the Anglican Communion emerging at the Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops (for one viewpoint, read here) however, a very direct speech to the conference by Cardinal Ivan Dias is worthy of mention.

You see, the Cardinal quite bluntly told the assembled anglican bishops that they are in danger of 'spiritual alzheimers' and 'ecclesial parkinsons' if they forget the apostolic tradition and go 'whimsically' in one direction or another with no reference to authority or unity. His hearers politely listened, but his words caused great offense elsewhere.

The Alzheimers and Parkinsons Societies jointly complained:

Seeing the challenges faced by people with Parkinson’s disease or dementia trivialised by comments from such a prominent public figure is demoralising. People with dementia and Parkinson’s face the challenge of coping with a physical condition which slowly robs them of their lives. These comments serve to reinforce negative stereotypes surrounding these devastating conditions.

It is indeed a strong image. And perhaps a little insensitive for some. However, isn't it rather remarkable that sufferers of Alzheimers and Parkinsons are more offended at being compared to the anglican communion than the other way round? Indeed - to compare such sufferers with the assembled anglican bishops may be a very 'negative stereotype'.

By the way, the Cardinal also described the anglicans as 'myopic'. However, although short-sighted myself, I shall be making no complaint.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The concept of friendship has died

There are two things in the media which are annoying me at the moment. (What, only two?).

The first, is the narrow and bigotted reporting by the BBC on the wonderful event of World Youth Day in Sydney. 20,000 young people from England and Wales went to Sydney - represented perhaps two hundred times as many from their various parishes. I wonder how many will travel to Beijing for the Olympics? Perhaps not quite so many ... yet we all know what coverage that event will get on television and radio. I'm not going to write any more, the case is well made by Fr Tim Finnigan and Abbot Christopher Jamison. It's mostly about the media's obsession with sex.

The second annoyance grieves me a little more. As is widely reported (here, and here) the Vatican has instructed the Oratory in Birmingham to arrange the exhumation of the body of Cardinal Newman from the tiny cemetery at Rednal and to the Oratory Church in Edgbaston, in preparation for his beatification and the expected stream of pilgrims.

The reasons for this are clearly explained by Fr Paul Chavasse, Provost of the Oratory

One of the centuries-old procedures surrounding the creating of new saints by the Catholic Church concerns their earthly remains. These have to be identified, preserved and, if necessary, placed in a new setting which befits the individual’s new status in the Church. This is what we have been asked to do by the Vatican with regard to Cardinal Newman’s remains, which have laid at Rednal since his death in 1890. We hope that Cardinal Newman’s new resting place in the Oratory Church in Birmingham will enable more people to come and pay their respects to him, and perhaps light a candle there.

Clear enough? Well it seems not. You see, Newman was buried at Rednal at his express wish in the same grave as his close friend, priest, and fellow convert from anglicanism, Fr Ambrose St John. The exhumation of Newman's body, does not, of course include that of his friend.

So along comes the Daily Telegraph claiming that the Vatican has 'ordered Newman to be parted from his priest friend in their shared grave', that the Vatican has 'overridden ... his dying wish', and also that the Vatican had 'slowed his path to beatification' because of 'misgivings' over his relationship with Fr St John. Hardly surprisingly, others have picked up the spin on this story, most notably the homosexual campaigning journal Pink News: Cardinal's same-sex resting place upsets Vatican saint makers.

Responding isn't so easy. If we cry 'Lies' 'A slur on his character' we will be accused of homophobia. If we say that there is no evidence of any kind that Newman was homosexual, we will similarly be accused of being foolish - a man who doesn't marry, who has a close friend whose death leads to a bereavement which he himself compares to being widowed, surely ... it must be ...

Fr Ian Ker, quoted in the Telegraph article, makes a vital point: "The concept of friendship has died". In our age, in which sexual activity is not the expression of marital love open to the creation of new life, but no more than pleasurable self-expression, people actually find it difficult to understand how a close and deep friendship between two people can exist without it being sexual. 'Come on', they say. 'Get real'.

We live in a society which thinks it understands humanity so well, and yet which has such a limited understanding of Love.

Fr Ambrose St John and Cardinal John Henry Newman

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pass the Gin, please, Father

On Sunday afternoon our oldest son, Allan, who is a builder, painter and decorator, came to do some work on the Presbytery. Of course Kerry and the children came too, and while Allan was glossing the hallway, our two year old grandson, Elliott, knocked over a whole tin of white gloss onto the carpet - which was fitted only last autumn.

But that was only the start of the trauma.

How could we get the paint out? Most was scooped up with a brush and some wallpaper, but what about that which had soaked into the carpet? Hot water and detergent? But this is gloss - the detergent won't get it all out. Pour turpentine onto the stain? No, Allan said, this will destroy the underlay.

So, Shirley, Allan and Kerry start to scrub away at the flour with washing up liquid and water while I take a few photos (obviously not distressed enough for their liking)

So Kerry decides to consult Jeeves. What does he say? Off she went into the parish office to the Internet.

Use Gin. About a litre and a half.

At this point, in some distress, I left the house to say Mass in a neighbouring parish, leaving clear instructions for the ordering of a new carpet.

... but when I came back (most of the damage actually now repaired without the need of gin) I decided to see what Jeeves actually said. Several ideas and suggestions. Most involve 'white spirit'. But no mention of gin.

Ever been had?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The pursuit of truth

The Holy Father continues to inspire. He is now in Australia for World Youth Day. For a man of his age simply to travel that distance and greet the thousands of young people is an achievement in itself. He only needs say Mass for them and encourage them and they will be satisfied and the world's press will get their photographs.

Pope Benedict does far more. As we have come to expect he has spoken words which not only encourage and inspire, but which also provide solid substance for reflection.

The headline writers are already concentrating on what he had to say about the environment, see for instance the account in the Sydney Morning Herald. But in fact what the Pope had to say was much more than sophisticated than a simple plea to save the planet. Indeed, he spoke of the "scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption".

But he went on to say something even more important. While praising the modern search for freedom and the importance of tolerance, he describes as sinister "the fact that freedom and
tolerance are so often separated from truth
". Life, he says, in the pursuit not of experiences, but of truth.

It is one of those insights which is at once simple, and yet so profound. As human beings we long for truth. We ask questions about existence, about suffering, about truth, about our origins, about our purposes. We consider our hopes and our aspirations, our anxieties and our yearnings. Human beings hunger and thirst for what is right and are prepared to suffer and die for it - and yet we live in a world which so often values experience - a variety of experiences, a right to enjoy experiences, to choose whatever we wish - separated from a moral context, quite distinct from any idea of truth. For Freedom and Tolerance - great values in themselves - when separated from the pursuit of truth become no more than the pursuit of experience, the right to pleasure. It is the search for truth that makes us truly human.

These are uplifting and inspiring words:

My dear friends, God’s creation is one and it is good. The concerns for non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity. They cannot, however, be understood apart from a profound reflection upon the innate dignity of every human life from conception to natural death: a dignity conferred by God himself and thus inviolable. Our world has grown weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and piecemeal responses, and the pain of false promises. Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion. This is the work of the Holy Spirit! This is the hope held out by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to bear witness to this reality that you were created anew at Baptism and strengthened through the gifts of the Spirit at Confirmation. Let this be the message that you bring from Sydney to the world!

History repeats itself ...

As the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops from around the world begins, one UK newspaper reports that Holy Father is quite anxious that the Church of England should not fall apart.

The Pope is leading an unprecedented drive by the Roman Catholic Church to prevent the fragmentation of the worldwide Anglican Communion
writes the Independent, under the headline Pope rides to Rowan's Rescue.
The article argues, with some claim for authority, that the Vatican is by no means keen on another immigration of Anglicans - especially Anglican bishops - into the Catholic fold.

Of course, this is only one interpretation. The commentator Phil Lawler argues on the contrary, that the Pope is by no means discouraging converts, and indeed it is the timid English and Welsh hierarchy who are cautious about the influx of anglican refugees.

This is all so reminiscent of 1992, when after the vote in favour of the ordination of women (for ever known afterward to some of us as 'The Vote') many anglicans, myself included, 'crossed the Tiber' and became members of the Catholic Church, and some, joyfully in due course, were ordained to the priesthood.

Then too, we were told of an enthusiastic Pope/Vatican and an apprehensive local hierarchy. Then too we read (and encouraged the idea) that thousands were ready to cross, that many would come if they could remain together in a group. And many argued that the credentials of the Anglican supplicants should be accepted without question. I also remember reading about the wonderful liturgy of the Anglicans, and the poor liturgy and indeed ugly churches of the English catholics. Many anglicans told us that we would be unhappy in the Catholic Church, and that we would soon return. Many Catholics worried that a hoarde of narrow conservatives and misogynists were about to invade the Church arrogantly asserting their prejudices. Look back in the archives and you will be able to read it all.

However, while there was substance in some of this, most of it was untrue, or at least much too simple. The welcome I encountered from my Bishop was warm and generous, and many priests were reconciled happily with the Church. The desire for converts to remain as a group soon dissipated, and in any case the number of lay people who wanted to become catholics was far too small - ironically perhaps it was those who lost their livelihood who found it psychologically easier or more compelling to enter the Cathoic Church. The welcome we received highly respected our background and experience, but the Church was right to put all candidates for the priesthood through some kind of selection procedure, and I would be very ready to concede that not every former anglican clergyman who became a catholic was suitable for ordination to the priesthood. The liturgical question was more complex too. Remember that the immaculately precious anglo-catholic liturgy may be found in one or two places in each large town or city with small congregations - catholic practice does not compare unfavourably with that, and much more impressive - even nowadays - is the individual devotion and commitment of very many lay catholics, something not encountered on anything like the same scale amongst lay anglicans. We settled happily and well in the Catholic Church, overcoming some trials and struggles along the way, because we came for the right reasons - not because we could not bear the idea of working with women, nor even because we were particularly 'conservative' - but because we came to understand that the fulness of Christian truth is found in the Catholic Church. That conviction, and that only, can lead someone to be received into the Church.

In fact, I would assert that it was the most conservative, most beligerent, most narrow and misogynistic who could not countenance becoming part of a Church with variety and colour and a true universalism. In the early 1990s those who stayed with the Church of England developed a deeply rooted congregationalism, and though they claimed to be 'catholic', this was selective, focussed on a particular idea of liturgy and the sacraments, but less on moral theology and hardly at all on ecclesiology. I've no reason to think things are much different now.

I sincerely wish the Anglican communion well, though fear times are likely to be hard and bitter. And I encourage those who feel uncomfortable with the current Church of England to consider again the claims of the Catholic Church.

But do not come to us in order to escape your past, but rather to embrace your future.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Christmas is coming ...

I remember September 1st 1980. That was the first day I began work as assistant manager at Martin the Newsagent, Congleton, Cheshire. And my first job? to arrange the display of Christmas toys, cards and decorations. I wasn't very good at display then, and I hadn't improved much when I started teaching on 1st September 1995.

I was reminded of that day 28 years ago today when Hamley's, the toy shop in Regent Street, London, gave their Christmas preview.

Well - it is July.

Apparently the top toy of the year is going to be a dancing telly tubby. 'Retro' toys are also likely to be popular (queue up now for your Rubik's cube and Monopoly) and of course a smattering of electronic games and toys.

And the Dalek. Oh yes, save a dalek for me.

Back in 1980, I seem to remember, there was a small hand-held car game which involved racing cars on a simple screen. Now we would think of it as very basic, then it was like gold-dust. We kept one in the back of the shop (for break times, and visiting reps) and two others were in the shop itself. We never sold the two in the shop. But after a couple of days they were nowhere to be seen.

Well all this could be a good opportunity for a very pious complaint about greed, distortion of the true meaning of Christmas, greed breeding greed and so on and so on. Such a homily is so obvious it can write itself. And I think of it mainly as a sort of self-righteous scroogery. At least Ebenezer was genuinely misanthropic.

No, let's have fun. But can we enjoy the summer first?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Desmond Tutu and Gordon Banks

This evening I met both anglican archishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Gordon Banks, former Stoke City goalkeeper, World Cup Winner and local resident. I'd like to say that this was a private audience, but of course there were about 500 other people there, though I did get to speak to both
Gordon Banks and Desmond Tutu personally.

It was an inspiring evening, a civic reception here in Stoke on Trent before a charity match tomorrow and unveiling of a statue of Gordon Banks at the Brittania Stadium. The archbishop and the goalkeeper will be joined tomorrow also by Pele, the greatest footballer the world has ever seen.

So many superlatives. And all deserved.

The event has come together thanks to the work of Don Mullan. Don was also present this evening. He was born Derry and became a peace campaigner after Bloody Sunday. Through his work he met Desmond Tutu, and he later wrote a book about Gordon Banks - 'Gordon Banks - the man who could fly' - describing how Gordon Banks inspired him as a child to make something of his own life.

And this was the theme of the evening and especially of Tutu's inspirational words. In a way he didn't say much - but he said it so well. Small things and ordinary people can achieve so much. Everyone, in their own way, can change the world.

I live in a city in which people generally lack aspirations. So many young people do not think that there is anything very much for them to achieve in life, little to aim for. So the message of this evening was a particularly appropriate one.

At the end of the speeches, one of our parishioners, Jaye Cohen, a ten year old who made her first communion just a few weeks ago, presented a peace plate which she had designed which won a city wide competition. Until I got there I had no idea that she won this honour: this was a wonderful surprise.

Of all our aspirations, the greatest of all must be for peace.

Gordon Banks - Best Save Ever