Monday, November 30, 2009

The Saddest time of the Year?

A piece written for the Staffordshire Sentinel for publication on December 2nd 2009.

Wherever we go in the next few weeks, we will hear time and time again how ‘jolly’ we must be. We must be ‘merry Gentlemen’, ‘joyful and triumphant’, singing ‘Gloria in excelsis’, ‘Rejoice, Rejoice’ and (for some unexplained reason), ‘io, io, io’. There is so much merriness and jollity, it can all become hard work!

And let’s face it, this can mask a good deal of discontent. The pressure to buy and spend places heavy burdens on families. Excessive celebrations lead to illness, conflict and accidents. Loneliness is reinforced. This is not only the busiest time of year for the shops, but also for the Samaritans. Jollity is the obverse of a sorrowful coin.

And it is especially hard at Christmas time for those who grieve. The happiness of the Christmas celebrations and the memories of Christmas past can bring the pain of loss very sharply into focus, almost as sharply as the first day of bereavement.

As a priest I become especially aware of this. During Advent I am involved in several Memorial Celebrations. Last week was our parish memorial mass: soon I will be taking part in the memorials at Carmountside for babies and children (Dec 6th 2pm)  and for all the departed (Dec 13th at 2pm). Loss leads to mixed feelings: first there is guilt at celebrating, as if to do so disrespects those who have died; and second resent, that others celebrate while we still grieve. Never mind ‘merry Christmas’ - Christmas, for many, is the saddest time of year.

But when the world celebrates Christmas with such aggressive energy it is hearing only half a tale. This is a feast in the middle of gloomy winter, when nights are long and weather miserable. This is a feast which celebrates light emerging from darkness. This a feast which is about hope in difficulty, healing in pain, comfort in loss.

Remember the story: the child is born in poverty and hardship; The star leads the kings on a hard and long journey. The child is in danger from the moment of his birth. The gifts include myrrh, the perfume used for burial.

Remember the words of the Carols: ‘disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight’, ‘let nothing you dismay’, ‘risen with healing in his wings’, ‘Fear not ... for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind’.

Remember the Scripture readings read at Christmas services everywhere: ‘The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light’, ‘a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower’.

So Advent and Christmas are not simply about celebration, but rather about Hope, Hope in the middle of the pains and losses and struggles of life.

Without Hope, our celebrations become a empty and false. Without hope they soon melt away, like the first snows of winter. Without hope we shout and sing, but with hollow hearts.

So when we hear talk of a the coming of a ‘Saviour’ at Christmas, this is what it means, and this is why it so tremendous and so exciting and so wonderful - and so much a cause for true celebration, because a Saviour saves and rescues - he knows the darkness that surrounds us and draws us from it into his everlasting light.

‘Do not be afraid’, the angels proclaimed to the Shepherds, ‘I bring you news of great joy ... a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.’

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The despise of handwriting

In the midst of the controversy over Gordon Brown’s handwritten letter to the mother of late soldier Jamie Janes, one point seems to me to have been missed, and that is the status we now give to handwriting.

For most people nowadays handwriting is less and less frequent. We write by hand only to sign documents, or when in a rush, or for trivial notes and jottings. We handwrite postcards from holidays, birthday and Christmas cards, and notes for shopping.  We might scribble a quick note to explain an absence from school or to excuse a child from PE. But for anything important, official and serious, we word-process our thoughts or arguments. And those who don’t themselves do that, know very well that that is what they do. Formal letters are always printed, neatly set out and formatted. That is what marks them out as important, weighty and official. Anything less - a handwritten note - is of course unworthy of such important communication.

But there are others who see things differently. They are well read and educated, they went to university or work in various kinds of administration - the official sort of people. They know something that perhaps most do not realise, or at least fully appreciate: that typed and printed letters, however tidy and official they may look, may not even have been read by the person whose signature appears on them. They also know that a handwritten letter, far from being a rushed response, is a personal act of attentiveness, which has taken the writer time and consideration. For them, a handwritten letter is a clear act of kindness. It is personal and considered.

But unfortunately, for most people, the handwritten note no longer indicates care and attention, but rather the opposite: "What a scandal: he couldn’t even be bothered to type it out."

Thursday, October 01, 2009

New Arcbishop of Birmingham

Here is the official press release:

1 October 2009 – For immediate release
Pope announces new Archbishop of Birmingham
The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has announced that Bishop Bernard Longley, currently Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Westminster, will be the next Archbishop of Birmingham.
Bishop Longley was named the ninth Archbishop of Birmingham on 1 October 2009. He succeeds the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols (2000-2009).
On learning of the Papal announcement, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols said: “I welcome the news of the appointment of Bishop Bernard Longley as Archbishop of Birmingham. I am confident that he will be warmly welcomed, right across the Archdiocese: in Stoke on Trent, Stafford, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Birmingham, Worcester and Oxford. The clergy, religious and laity of the Archdiocese will appreciate the qualities he brings: his gentleness and sensitivity; his firmness and intelligence; his profound and joyful faith; his willingness to listen.
“I am sure, too, that Bishop Bernard will grow to love this fine Archdiocese, just as I did.“
The Diocesan Administrator for the Birmingham Archdiocese, Bishop William Kenney, CP, said: “I am delighted to hear that Bishop Bernard Longley is to become the new Archbishop of Birmingham. I am sure that the Auxiliary Bishops, Priests, Deacons and the Lay people of the Archdiocese will make him feel very welcome in the Midlands. We look forward to Bishop Bernard becoming a follower in the footsteps of Bishop Ullathorne, the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Birmingham and to his taking a lead in the preparations for the Beatification of Cardinal Newman.“
After receiving news of his appointment, Bishop Bernard Longley said: “I feel immensely honoured and very humbled that the Holy Father has appointed me to succeed Archbishop Vincent Nichols as Archbishop of Birmingham. I look forward to serving the Priests and Deacons, the Religious and all the People of the Archdiocese and to working alongside my brother Bishops there. I also look forward to knowing and appreciating the life of the Diocese and the many ways in which it reaches out with the love and truth of Christ, in its parish and school communities and through ecumenical and inter-religious friendships. I am grateful to Bishop William Kenney for his faithful service as Diocesan Administrator over recent months and for the welcome that he has already shown to me.
“It won’t be easy to leave the Diocese of Westminster which has been my home for the past seven years. It will be sad to say goodbye, especially to the East and Central London parishes where the Priests, Parishioners and Religious have become good friends. It has been a privilege to work with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and my fellow Auxiliary Bishops and more recently with Archbishop Vincent, and I thank them for all that I have learnt from their insights and experience.”
Bishop Longley will be Installed as Archbishop of Birmingham at the Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of Saint Chad on 8 December 2009, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and one of the patronal feasts of the Archdiocese (St Chad being the other).
More information
Video interview (+ transcript of the interview)
Link to the Archdiocese of Birmingham website
Bishop Bernard Longley is the titular Bishop of Zarna. He was born in Manchester on 5 April, 1955.
Bishop Bernard Longley was ordained Bishop and appointed as an Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Westminster, on 24th January 2003. Bishop Longley is Head of the Diocesan Pastoral Board and has pastoral responsibilities for the Deaneries of Camden, Hackney, Islington, Marylebone, Tower Hamlets, and Westminster.
He is the Bishop of the National Day for Life and responsible for supporting the National Ministry to Travellers. Within the Diocese of Westminster, he is Chairman of the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster). In 2009, he joined the Department of Dialogue and Unity and became Co-Chair of English Arc (Anglican Roman Catholic Committee); he was also appointed onto the National United Reform Church Roman Catholic Dialogue Group.
Bishop Bernard Longley studied at Xaverian College and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and New College, Oxford. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton on 12th December 1981 at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, and was Assistant Priest at St Joseph’s, Epsom, and Chaplain to Psychiatric Hospitals. From 1987 to 1996 he was on the staff at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, teaching dogmatic theology. In 1991, he was appointed Surrey Chairman of the Arundel and Brighton Diocesan Commission for Christian Unity and in 1996 became National Ecumenical Officer at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
In 1999 he was appointed Moderator of the Steering Committee of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and also Assistant General Secretary of Catholic Bishops’ Conference with responsibilities for Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs.
The Archdiocese of Birmingham
The Archdiocese of Birmingham comprises the counties of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, the West Midlands, Worcestershire and those parts of Oxfordshire which belong to the former County of Oxfordshire (north of the Thames). The Metropolitan See is the Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of Saint Chad. There are 282,592 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Birmingham and 278 diocesan priests. The Archdiocese covers an area of 3,836 square miles and is divided into three Pastoral Areas; the Central and Western Pastoral Area, until recently looked after recently by Bishop Pargeter, covering Birmingham, Kidderminster, Worcester; the Northern Pastoral Area, under the care of Bishop David McGough, covering Staffordshire and the Black Country; the Southern Pastoral Area, under the care of Bishop William Kenney, CP, which covers Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.
Bishops of Birmingham
Bishop William Bernard Ullathorne (1850 – 1888)
Bishop Edward IIsley (1888 – 1911)
Archbishops of Birmingham
Archbishop Edward Ilsley (1911 - 1921)
Archbishop John McIntyre (1921 – 1928)
Archbishop Thomas Williams (1929 – 1946)
Archbishop Joseph Masterson (1947 – 1953)
Archbishop Francis Grimshaw (1954 -1965)
Archbishop George Dwyer (1965 – 1981)
Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville (1982 – 1999)
Archbishop Vincent Nichols (2000 – 2009)
The Catholic Communications Network (CCN) on 020 7901 4800, or email
Maggie Doherty
Senior Media Officer
t. 020 7901 4802

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

French cuisine

Clearly it is no easy task to cater for 1200 priests. It is a challenge even for the famous cuisine francaise. The photos which follow give you some indication of how the orgainser's oc the International Priests Retreat in Ars-sûr-Formans have risen to this challenge.

The dining tent





The international Priests' Retreat.

I am currently taking part in the International Priests' Retreat in Ars, France. This is the place where St John Vianney, was parish priest, the Curé d'Ars. I am here with Fr Jeremy Howard, also from the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

There are about 1200 priests on retreat here from all parts of the world though mostly from France ( and very few from the UK).

Two first impressions.

1. The clergy here are so young - especially - those from Africa and Southern Anerica. As we waited in the airport to be transferred to Ars, Fr Jeremy and I were clearly the most senior of those who had flown in. The age range among the participants today is a little more comfortable with us, but it is still very obvious, to paraphrase Popd Benedict XVI, that the Catholic Church is very young, especially in the developing world.

2. Language and Liturgy. There are very few English speakers here, and the principal language for the talks is, not surprisingly, French. However the Liturgy - Mass, Lauds and Vespers - is celebrated is several languages. Mass today moved from Latin to Italian almost unnoticeably. We have used traditional plainsong, alongside some Taizé and similar chants and other modern liturgical music. It is interesting how natural this has all seemed, and how comfortably this all fits together. It is a triumph, I think, of what some now call 'the ordinary form' and proof if such were needed, of its complete pre-eminence.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Indoctrination and all that ...

I've just arrived home after a Welcome Mass in a local secondary school for the children new in Year 7 and for their parents.

It was a pretty good celebration as these things go, and despite the fact that it took place in the evening, there was a good turnout from pupils and their parents (at a guess I'd say about half the pupils in the year and their parents were present).

It is amusing though, at such an event, to reflect on those secularists who portray Catholic schools (and others) as representing an illiberal manipulation of the minds of the young. They know so little about the institutions they criticise - little about the good work they do, little about the real extent of religious "indoctrination".

Here's a case in point. At the time for holy communion one of the parents came to me, having stood in line with the other adults and some of the children. She stood still before me. No extending of the hands or opening of the mouth to receive communion. No placing of the hand on the heart to indicate that she had come for a blessing.

"Do you take communion?" I said.
She looked at me puzzled.
"Have you come for holy communion?" I repeated, rephrasing the question slightly and speaking a little more loudly and slowly.
She looked at me quizzically again, paused then said:
"I'm sorry, duck, you've completely lost me."

I said a quick prayer of blessing and indicated - politely I trust - that she could walk on.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Technology good ...

I am, I freely admit, a gadget nerd. I’ve never had much interest in cars, still less in power tools (which many men seem to find enthralling). No, it is smaller computer gadgetry which  fascinates me. My first personal computer was the Sinclair ZX80, almost 30 years ago, which had 1k of RAM and whose screen went blank when you touched a key. Now I am the proud owner of a Mac, and it is also the smaller devices such as cameras, audio recorders, MP3 players and hand-held computers (especially my iPhone) which excite and interest me. I’d have to add also that while I may take an interest in all sorts of technology, what I really value is technology that is useful. I like software which claims to organise my life, and speeds up the tasks I have to perform. I have very little interest in computer games, but something which can make my life easier (at least in theory) is something I would want to acquire.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that I have a SatNav, and value it highly. It’s not just the fact that it can help me find a new and unfamiliar destination that is useful. It is also its ability to navigate me round road  blocks and traffic hold ups and the inevitable missed turns.
But recently something weird has happened.

On three recent journeys, to places I know, but where the routes are not very familiar, my SatNav has taken me by a scenic, but circuitious (and occasionally alarming) route. On a journey from Congleton to Prestbury in Cheshire, then from Stoke-on-Trent to Macclesfield, and most recently from Bangor to Penmaenmawr in North Wales, the SatNav has given me a preferred “Fastest” route, which has taken me away from dual carriageways and A Roads, up steep hills, down single track lanes, and - most recently - through a fast flowing ford (which was not indicated on the monitor). In every case I did indeed ‘reach my destination’ and the route did not seem to much longer (in time) than the A-road routes, which seem to have been preferred for the return journey. However, as two of the journeys were in the dark, down unlit country roads, I have been - to put it mildly - a little concerned.

Now I should make it quite that in all cases I did specify ‘fastest’ and not ‘shortest’ route, which might (otherwise) have explained the scenic choices. Further, I know very well that early into the journey I could have asked the machine to recalculate an alternative route when the preferred one seemed a little odd. Or I could even have trusted my own judgement rather than slavishly obeying the little voice inside the box and the pictures on screen.

But what lesson should I draw from these exciting journeys? I wonder, first, why these wonderful pieces of software, if they can include information about speed cameras, cannot also allow me to prefer routes with street lighting (or even do this for me automatically after the hours of darkness). I also wonder whether it is such a good idea buy the newly released TomTom for my iPhone, which is quite expensive and which I do not really need, but seemed an exciting addition to the computer in my pocket. I am also musing upon the homiletic possibilities of these recent journeys, along the lines of comparing life to a journey etc - mm … a more interesting illustration than the message itself, so perhaps not especially promising.

No. If there is any moral to the story it has to be along different lines. It should not simply draw comparisons, or propose software updates. A much better lesson for me would be this: “Technology good, Humans better”.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Email hoaxes, and the merits of BCC:

Everybody knows about computer viruses - but does anyone know about email hoaxes? It would seem not. Almost every week I seem to get one of these annoying messages, sent to me with some urgency and sometimes with alarming warnings.

The classic message is a virus warning which ‘has just been issued by Microsoft/McAfee’ or whoever. Sometimes the warning is about a virus email - recent ones I’ve received have been about emails from Hallmark and (very popular this) one purporting to show pictures of Osama bin Laden hanged. These emails - it is claimed - will, if opened, destroy my “C: drive” (Clever, that - as a mac user I haven’t got one). Sometimes they warn about a virus infection I might already have, and describe how to delete the offending file (with a teddy bear icon) from my windows system - a file which, incidentally, I would need, if I had a windows system. Sometimes the hoax email is less alarming and more alluring: for example the one about a free Nokia laptop, if I just forward this email to eight other people. (Nokia don’t make laptops, at least not yet). And then there are the ones with warnings of a more general kind, such as one from ‘the London ambulance service’ warning that if a car flashes you late at night do not flash back, as this is taken as an invitation to malevolence by the driver of the other car. Another warns about people getting into the back of your car at the petrol station. This is perhaps my favourite email hoax, simply because the message first appeared in the middle ages - mutatis mutandi - long before email. Some of these messages have to my mind a certain distastefulness to them - such as the one I received about a missing girl: what the message did not say was that the girl had gone missing many years earlier, in the United States, and that her suspected abducter and abuser had committed suicide. And, oh yes, the photos in the email were of a different girl. Sometimes however, the messages may be considered inspiring or amusing, depending on your tastes: powerpoints of cute animals, or inspirational scenery, or in a most recent case, a ‘miraculous’ picture of Pope John Paul II, taken after he was shot in 1980.

Now all these messages are clearly documented as hoaxes in one way or another, or at least greatly inaccurate in important details. Just googling some text from them reveals them as such.

These messages are actually quite easy to spot, and most have three striking characteristics:

1. They contain vague information, some of an alarming kind, especially when it comes to time scale - using words like ‘recently’, ‘yesterday’ - and the nature of the threat: ‘destroy your C: drive’.

2. They often claim an authority, but never precisely, and never refer directly to the authority, in other words they are always second hand messages. Whether it is ‘Microsoft’ or ‘the London Ambulance Service’ or even - in the case of the miraculous picture of John Paul II - a Vatican official, you will not find a link to an authoritative site or statement. Often, doing a search to the claimed source with some text from the email will reveal a statement denying the content of the message.

3.  They include a request - and this is the most important part - often very forcefully stated, to distribute the message to as many people as possible, even ‘everyone in your address book’.

There are other common features too, such as the use of very large fonts, and rather garish colours. The language used in these hoaxes is often very similar from hoax to hoax. Not unusually - as in the case of the Nokia ‘laptop’ and the petrol station intruder - there are earilier versions of the same hoax: the original Nokia ‘offer’ was for a mobile phone, and of course the mediaeval warning involved someone sneaking into the back of the owners cart.

Why do people fall for them? Partly because they exploit things they know to be true. Everyone knows - or should know - that attachments may be risky to open, and unsolicited emails sometimes hide viruses. Everyone also knows that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and we should all be aware of our personal safety. The message about the missing girl exploits the publicity surrounding Madeleine McCann. The messages prey upon people’s fears,  their good natures, and sometimes their greed, but it would be rash to suppose that it is only the unsophisticated who are taken in by them. Intelligent and educated people - even a senior priest in the Archdiocese of Birmingham - have sent these messages to me. I have received so many that I put a message at the base of my own emails to warn people about them.

But do they really matter? Yes, I think they do. For one thing they waste time and bandwidth. While the latter may not matter too much, the former does. People spend time sending them, receiving them, reading them, and acting upon them. They also stoke pre-existing fears and exploit their recipients. The messages may contain viruses themselves. Some claim that they actually cause greater costs to business than the viruses themselves. 

And there’s more - they are themselves viruses - because built into them is ability to spread. If each person who receives one sends them to just ten people, then by the time the message has been sent six times, it has been received by more than a million people.
And what is is that they do? When the senders send them out, they typically put all the email addresses into the To: and cc: fields. This means that if I receive one of these messages, my email address has already been sent to every other recipient too, and in a few days, a million people (who obviously I do not know) may have received an email address which I had hoped to retain for private correspondence only).

And perhaps, perhaps, here lies one of the purposes of these messages: if you can track them, you can collect the contents of the address books of millions of people - you can collect many thousands of email addresses, and also the addresses of their contacts. You can harvest email addresses for the purposes of spam, and then distribute the bots that infect many computers throughout the world. These are the bots that can be controlled to bring down servers and disrupt governments - and this particular part of the message is not alarmist: it has actually happened.

And this could all be stopped if people just followed two principles:

1) Never send messages to multiple recipients (who do not know another) using cc: If you must send them use bcc: (blind copy)

2) Delete any message that says ‘Send this everyone in your address book. Now.’

I think I might just write a hoax email to make people do just that.

Monday, August 17, 2009

On the first day of the week ...

I know I'm an old pedant, not the young revolutionary of 30 years ago, and rapidly becoming a Victor Meldrew ... but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

At Mass on Sunday I told the congregation that I will be on holiday 'next week' and that therefore there will be no weekday masses on those days. Now that is a very clear statement. Not 'this coming week' but 'next week'. Yet after mass several parishioners were asking how come times of mass and intentions were noted on the bulletin, when I'd said there would be no masses while I am away ... Confusion. For me as much as them. I'd obviously 'announced it wrong' as one person said to me.

But no. I'd announced it right. Sunday is the first day of the week. You don't have to be a religious believer to know that, though for Christians this is especially true. God rested from his creation on the seventh day, the sabbath, Saturday. He began his creation (old and new) on the first day of the week - Sunday. Yet the modern, secular world, whose work life is built around the weekend, consistently sees Monday as the first day of the week. Calendars and diaries very often continue this error - in fact how often do you see a printed diary which begins the week on a Sunday? Rarely, I guess. And I don't think Christians have tried very hard to counter these errors. No doubt Protestants have been not been uncomfortable with the idea that the Sabbath and Sunday both conclude the week. And we Catholics cannot really escape blame, as I guess our Saturday masses (me very guilty here) encourage the idea of Sunday as part of the Weekend. (In fact I think we routinely talk not of our Sunday Masses, but our Weekend masses - yes, I'm guilty of this too).

So I wonder how long it will be before translations of Scripture go along with these changes and are published saying "It was very early on Sunday and still dark ..." (John 20:1)?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

10 Commandments in Text ... the full story

10 4u
no1 b4 me
no omgs
no wrk on sun
m&d r cool
dnt kill
sx only w m8
dnt steal
no lies
dnt ogle ur bf's m8
nor ur bf's stuf

So, I was reading the Tablet - not the Tablets (ho ho, or as they say in txt lol), but the weekly catholic paper, which I know is not exactly universally popular with all my Catholic friends (but we'll leave that for the moment) and saw a version of the Ten Commandments in text speak.

I say 'a version' because they followed the Protestant rather than the Catholic numbering. Don't worry, the full text is the same, but for the first 1500 years of Christianity the commandments were always set out in the same way, until Luther and friends tried to change everything. The full Catholic (original) version - for those who wish to check it - can be found here.

So I thought - I bet they could be tweeted ... it took a few minutes of adapting, including getting the Catholic numbering, and squeezing them down to a little fewer than 140 characters (allowing a little space for all my admirers to RT - retweet - my plagiarism with my name at the top - oh Vanity of Vanities).

And here, above, you can see the result. Which I feel very smug about. This an offense against humility, of course, which while not explicitly included in the 10, is very much in their spirit.

So all in all a self-defeating exercise when I could have got a lot more work done.

Welcome to the Internet.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Priests and their beer ...


I came across the image on the left, and it reminded me of another photograph I had seen, which I have added above.

The difference between myself and the good Cardinal, now Pope, is obviously explained by the fullness (or not) of the glass.

St Margaret Ward's Day Mass

I've just been appointed Chaplain of St Margaret Ward Catholic High School, Tunstall, Stoke on Trent and today I celebrated the St Margaret Ward's Day Mass with the whole school community.  St Margaret Ward, who was born at Congleton, Cheshire (my birth place, as it happens) was executed at Tyburn in 1588. Her actual feast day is on August 30th, but as that is rather inconvenient for a school, so this year the day was kept at the very end of the Summer Term.

It was a wonderful Mass. We gathered together on one of the yards (the Hall was much too small), which formed an ideal location.The weather was sunny and cloudy, but the rain held off. The students respectfully kept the silences of the Mass and sang with gusto. A group of musicians formed a small orchestra for the day. The English department contributed a drama on the life of St Margaret Ward and her relevance for today (a little homily which did me out of a job!) and the performing arts deparment did a dance on 'blessed are the gentle'. Students also did the readings and bidding prayers. Four members of the staff assisted with administration of communion.

I'll post some photos below. Its not especially easy to take pictures as the celebrant of the Mass (and probably against some rubric or other), and the sunshine was so bright it was hard to frame the picture on my iphone. Despite this, the photos are a bit dull. However, I've had a go.

There is also a short snippet of the singing (with my voice rather dominant). Click here to listen to 30 seconds of 'Sing it in the Valleys!'

Below: some pictures:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Humanism needs God

A recent email from one of our recently qualified teachers from Maryvale Institute posed this question:

The Pope in Caritas in Veritate says A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism.  I wonder what I would say to children about humanists who just will not have it that there is a God.  We really cannot judge these people, that is up to God.  These people are not inhuman at all; if you have any views on this I would be very pleased to hear from you.

Here is my rather brief reply.

Ok, The argument runs in this way:

Human beings are spiritual beings, not only material. To ignore the spiritual dimension of humanity is to ignore an entire aspect of human life and is therefore incomplete. A full humanism must include consideration of spirituality.

Now, put this in a Christian context and we exchange 'spiritual dimension' for something like a yearning for God - as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it in its first section, all human beings yearn for God (even if it is not always expressed in this way).

Pope Benedict's writing is typically very accurate and also very challenging. To atheistic humanists (who often don't understand that there is any other kind of humanism) the statement may be perplexing and may infuriate them. They in any case may want to argue that they do have some idea of the spiritual dimension of the human being (like the Ofsted understanding of spirituality) but this is not the same as a belief in an objective God.

For the Christian/Catholic the point I think is this: you cannot understand humanity and exclude religion, and to exclude religion from an understanding of humanity actually de-humanises humanity as it reduces man merely to a physical being, an animal, a machine.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Fourth R

This is an article submitted for publication in the Yours Faithfully column of the Sentinel Newspaper on July 15th 2009

Did you see Torchwood last week? I’ve been a fan of Dr Who since the very beginning, and I’ve really enjoyed this darker, more adult spin-off from the adventures of the Time Lord.

And I notice lots of echoes of the Christian story. Not just the battle between good and evil, but more specific things like death and resurrection, the sacrifice of a child, the grieving mother and even events like the slaughter of the innocent by the ruling power. Powerful stuff.

Not that Torchwood has a Christian message. In fact its moral assumptions, including the way the story concludes, are deeply troubling, and you will search very hard for any spiritual meaning.

And I wonder too, whether many today will identify what I call these ‘echoes’. For those of my generation, the education in the Christian story was the ‘Fourth R’ - Religion, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic - and for one educated in the state education system, the stories of the Old and New Testaments, of Moses and Herod, of Abraham and Isaac, of the Crucifixion and Resurrection were solid fixtures. It gave us a Religious Literacy - perhaps not a belief in itself, but an understanding of the narratives at the core of Christianity, which lay behind so much of art and literature as well as prayer and worship. Yet now, despite all the good things done in Religious Education in schools, much of that cultural heritage is being lost.

There are many examples. There was the art class who visited the National Gallery to study portrayals of the Nativity. They were deeply impressed, but asked “Why is the child always a boy?” And there was the jewellry shop assistant who asked a customer “Do you want a plain cross, or one with a little man on it?”

And its not just a matter of knowledge. There is also a deep seated ignorance of what a Church building is and what is and what is not a proper way of behaving in it. As a child I was taught, again and again, that Church is a place in which we should be quiet and show respect, as this is the House of God. Yet priest and vicar and minister will tell you that occasional visitors to Church will talk loudly through the service, walk in and out and around the building, take photographs at inappropriate moments, chew gum, hold conversations on their mobile phones, and even peer bemusedly at the collection plate (!) But it is wrong to think these visitors are badly behaved: they are not breaking any rules. They have no idea what the rules are.

Of course, some say that religious belief is dying out, so why does this matter?

They are wrong.

First, religion is far from on the decline. Religious practice is down in Europe, perhaps, but elsewhere it is the powerful force it always was. Migrants to this country are mostly deeply religious people, and they are breathing new life into our churches.

Secondly, it does matter. When Christianity swept across Europe, the legends of the old Roman and Greek Gods were still taught as part of the cultural heritage of the people. If our society believes that it can be fair and inclusive by wilfully forgetting our heritage, then it will not be Christianity that will suffer - it will continue, the Church will see to that - but an entire generation will lose an understanding of centuries of art and literature, painting and poetry, and the echoes and resonances of a popular television series will be hidden, even to its educated viewers. 


(Did you know that Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who?)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Politicians or Anglican Bishops: who costs more?

Two stories reported today provide an interesting comparison.

Widely reported is the news that the 110 bishops of the Church of England cost about £22 million pounds. The CofE's General Synod are debating a proposal that this extra-ordinary cost be radically cut.

Now compare that cost with the shocking cost of our politicians. In a programme broadcast on Radio 4 this morning The Political Club, Michael Crick revealed there are now almost 30,000 paid politicians in the UK and that they cost about £500 million pounds, moats and all.

Well, it is indeed a surprise that there are so many paid politicians, but perhaps we should be grateful that MPs, MEPs, and councillors don't cost us taxpayers as much as their bishops cost the congregations of the established church. If they did, by my simple reckoning, the nation's bill for its political class would rise from £500m to £6 billion.

Never mind the moats and duck houses, that would pay for a few castles and palaces.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Birmingham people have souls: Why Newman should not be beatified in London

It has been announced today that John Henry Newman, Cardinal, Convert from Anglicanism, one time Oxford Don, has been approved for beatification by Pope Benedict. Once the beatification ceremony has taken place he will be known as Blessed John Henry Newman and will have a day each year in the Church's calendar. (And later, we hope, he will be canonised, named a Saint, and even be styled 'Doctor of the Church').

This is an exciting moment for the Catholic Church in England (and - I would be bold to say - for all English people). He will be the first non-martyr saint from England to be named since the Reformation. He was a philosopher and theologian writer A Grammar of Assent and The Essay on Development. Attacked in public for his conversion to Catholicism, he wrote an extensive autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua. He wrote novels and poetry too, the best remembered of which is The Dream of Gerontius, set to music by Elgar. He was a pioneer in Catholic education, and wrote The Idea of a University. Catholic student organisations throughout the world are often called the 'Newman Society'. But most importantly (and Newman would have said so himself) having left the 'dreaming spires' of Oxford in 1845 he dedicated almost all of the rest of his life amongst the industrial poor of Birmingham.

He was in many ways an original thinker and did not always please those in authority over him. When he was made a Cardinal by Leo XIII in the latter years of his life, the news was not received with great enthusiasm by the ecclesiastical authorities in London. And when he died in 1890 the streets were lined by the people - not academics and theologians, those who mainly remember him today - but by thousands of the urban poor who he had cared for through plague and poverty. (The Times has made available its Obituary from 1890).

Pope John Paul II often conducted the ceremonies of Beatification himself, but under Pope Benedict these have returned to being local events, in the place where the blessed lived and worked. It will not be easy to find a suitable location in Birmingham as the international interest is so great. The places where he lived: Oxford, Littlemore, Maryvale and the Birmingham Oratory, could not host such an event. St Chad's Cathedral is probably not large enough. The Times seems to assume that the ceremony will be in Westminster Cathedral. No doubt the Archbishop of Westminster (formerly of Birmingham) would relish such an historic national occasion. No doubt the great and good of the nation's Catholics will assume that such an occasion, unique in all our lifetimes, must take place in the capital city. But this must not happen.

Such a decision would be entirely out of keeping with Newman's legacy. For all his learning, his writing, his creative thought, and for all his friendships and correspondence with the important and the wealthy, it was amongst the poor of the City of Birmingham that Newman lived his priestly ministry. For more than 40 years, almost all his Catholic life, he lived and worked amongst the poor. In this year of the priest that must not be forgotten.

Newman wrote many many letters and kept copies of them all. My favourite is a short reply to a rather self-important English priest, Mgr Talbot, who had a grand Church in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome.  The priest invited the famous Dr Newman to preach to his grand and educated Protestant congregation.

Newman politely but pointedly declined. Here is the full text of the letter (source here):

'The Oratory, Birmingham: July 25, 1864.
'Dear Monsignore Talbot,—I have received your letter, inviting me to preach next Lent in your Church at Rome to "an audience of Protestants more educated than could ever be the case in England."

'However, Birmingham people have souls; and I have neither taste nor talent for the sort of work which you cut out for me. And I beg to decline your offer.
'I am, yours truly,

If the Beatification takes place in England, let it be Birmingham!

[Picture from the Birmingham Oratory Website]

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Weddings, Weddings, Weddings

Today I broke a personal record - or rather it was broken for me. A wedding due to start at 2pm in fact did not begin till 3.15pm - a full 75 minutes late (not quite the 90 minutes which I thought - put that down to an arithmetical error). My previous record had been only 40 minutes and that was more than a decade ago.
Fortunately I was not running against a deadline, such as another wedding, and I kept very calm if a little hot under the chasuble on a warm summer afternoon. Our organist, cool and professional as ever, was perhaps a little more put out than I. And justifiably.
The reasons, as so often, were trivial, and one of those unfortunate-series-of-events: the bride overstretched herself doing the hair or the bridesmaids herself; one of ushers, sent ahead with the orders of service get hopelessly lost just a short distance from the Church and despite being given directions on the phone got more and more lost until he found himself on a car park just a few yards from the Church. We sent the photographer to fetch him. When he returned with the lost sheep, he then decided another of group photos were required.
All in all it would probably make a not unlikely script for a situation comedy. Though we might say 'Well, funny yes, but a bit far fetched'.
I seem to have been involved in more and more weddings recently. Two of our daughters married last year. We have more weddings in the parish this year than for a few years, and already have a few booked for next year, though to be very honest, the numbers are still pretty low. And the couples who come to tie the knot, with few exceptions, have been living together for quite some time.
One reason for the decline in weddings has to be that our expectations of the wedding day are so high - in terms of ceremony, and all the trimmings, and all the expense: and of course (as no one would deny) that is the wrong focus.
I said to the gathered congregation, who had waited for so long for the ceremony to begin (so long that many had to go out of the Church to put extra time on the parking meters) that one thing we had learnt today is that things don't always run according to plan.
If that's the one thing Stefan and Georgina take from this experience, it will stand them in good stead. Our expectations for marriage should be high - not because it will always be perfect, but because it won't be, and (that little word which is used to mean so many different things) Love is not about perfection, but about perseverance, endurance, forgiveness and healing. Oh yes ... and patience.

[I took the photo above on my phone - the b&w setting was accidental, but is, I think, quite effective. As the family still chatted outside the Church they didn't notice me - I was sneaking off to the Coachmakers for a Very Important Meeting. This is true. There is nothing wrong in enjoying work. And this was (sort of) work.]

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson RIP

I've never been a particular fan of Michael Jackson.
In the 70s, when I was a teenager, the girls seemed to followed the Osmonds or the Jackson 5 and I looked down on all that music (though now I'll admit they were in rather different leagues). I was a Rock fan, and prog rock at that.
In the 80s I could see the skill of the dancer and the great showmanship of the videos, and I realised that this was popular music of some influence and quality, but it never really got to me. I never bought one of his records, never downloaded an album, and never even played one on or Spotify.
But there is one thing we had in common, and that is we were born in the same year. So, in a bizarre and incongruous sort of way his life has run alongside mine. There are very few comparisons to be drawn, but I suppose this little fact has made me just a bit more interested in the life of a celebrity than I might otherwise have been.
I've noticed not so much the music, but the bizarre way in which this life has unfolded in the media. The accusations. The operations. The increasingly bizarre facial appearance. The dysfunctional husband and father. I've not followed this avidly, but - probably like many other people - I have been unable to avoid the news, the gossip, the information.
In a society which values celebrity most highly, and in which young people yearn for fame, here is (yet another) casualty. He had some achievements, certainly, great ones, and they should be remembered and celebrated, but he was also a victim of the age (and he too, perhaps, had his victims along the way). He was talented, but wounded  - not by his talent and ability, but by the lifestyle which the fruits of this talent made possible for him.
Today, and for the next few days, there will be much said about his abilities and achievements, which are real.
But for me, much more real, is the sadness at a wounded and damaged individual, never quite at terms with himself, for whom wealth and fame certainly did not bring happiness.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Memorial Service at Carmountside Cemetery (21st June 2009)

Tomorrow (Sunday June 21st) I am speaking at the annual memorial service at Carmountside Cemetery in Stoke-on-Trent. The service is broadly Christian, in that we are having Christian hymns and a Christian minister (me) to lead it, but in other respects is non-confessional, even non-religious in the way that an area with a long and firm tradition of non-conformity thinks is 'ordinary'. There will certainly be those there (many of them) who never go to any forms of worship, and probably that last time they heard a hymn or said a prayer was at the funeral of the loved one they are coming to remember.
This year the service is being held out of doors (an act of faith in itself), so I thought some reflection on the beauty of creation would not be inappropriate. I am going to read St Francis' Canticle of the Sun (slightly adapted) and then try to draw out a message of hope and comfort.

You can read the reading from St Francis and the Homily itself here

Sunday, June 14, 2009

First Holy Communions at Sacred Heart, Hanley

Today, the feast of Corpus Christi, nine children of our church family made their Holy Communions for the first time.
The occasion reflected something of the makeup of our diverse community. Our grandaughter, Jessica was the only child whose grandparents were born in the United Kingdom. Of the other eight, two have Ukrainian, Italian and English grandparents, one is the grandson of post-war Italian migrants, another was born in Malawi, another in Kerala (India), and the other three were from Ireland, Sri Lanka and Slovakia. This is Hanley!

The Church was packed (and noisy) and we were especially privileged to welcome Canon David Goodwin, celebrating the Silver Jubilee of his ordination, as principal celebrant of the Mass. The weather also added something very special to the celebration.

It was difficult for me to take photos myself, so I am relying on families and those present at the celebration. The photos so far feature rather largely our granddaughter, Jessica. I'm hoping to add more in the next few days. The photo gallery lives here.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

How To Choose Very Strong Passwords That Are Easy To Remember

This is entirely plagiarised from an email I received from TweetLater. I just thought it is really good and very useful and worth sharing (can't just link to an email). I'll not say whether I'm going to use it, but is certainly a good idea. It is very much better to the method I was told to use when I worked in the prison service, which was choose a six letter word, then add 01, and when required to change the password, just change it to '02' and so on. In conversation recently with someone working for a local authority I discovered they have the same procedure - now if that advice were replace with )! then )@ (mac keyboard) and so on ... well, read on below:

"What makes a password strong is the combination of different alphanumeric, special characters, and capitalization that you use, and of course the length of the password.
I don't know about you, but I don't want to remember and type an epistle when I fill out a password field. And, ideally, I don't want to use the same password on many sites, because if one is compromised then my entire life is unlocked.

I want to show you here how to choose very strong passwords for every website that you use, that are different for each website, and are each only 9 characters in length max.
A study found that an 8-character password that's constructed in the manner I'm going to show you has 7.2 quadrillion different combinations, and will take 83.5 days to crack if the hacker can try 1 billion different passwords per second.

Step 1: Pick 2 Starting Characters

To make it easy to remember, all your passwords are going to start with the same characters. But these are not just any characters. Pick 2 characters from the list of special characters that you see above the numbers on your keyboard and to the left of the Enter key.

These characters are: ~`!@#$%^&*()_-+={}[]:;"'<>?/|\

Pick any two of them as your password starting characters. To show you an example as you read through the steps, let's pick $ and % (pick your own two).

In my example, all my passwords are going to start with $%.

Step 2: Pick 2 Ending Characters

In exactly the same way as above, pick two different special characters that will be at the end of your passwords. Don't pick the same characters as your starting characters.

For the purposes of my example, let's pick * and ^. Hence, all my passwords are going to end with *^.

Step 3: Construct The Middle Part Using The Website Name

This is the fun part. Take the first 6 characters of the website domain name where you want to use the password. If the domain name is shorter than 6 characters, then use the full domain name.

In my example, let's create a password

The first 6 characters of the domain name is "micros".

Now we're going to substitute some characters and capitalize others.

Substitute the following characters: a becomes @, e becomes 3, i becomes 1, o becomes 0, and u becomes ^.

Now we have "m1cr0s".

Now, decide on a standard for yourself regarding which character(s) you're going to capitalize.

For this example, let's say we're always going to capitalize the 3rd consonant.

So now we have "m1cR0s".

The next step is to drop the last character ("s" in our case), and append the Ending Characters (*^) that you picked in Step 2.

Our password is now "m1cR0*^".

The last step is to add the Starting Characters (Step 1) to the beginning of the password.

The final password is "$%m1cR0*^".

A Few More Examples

Domain:, Password: "$%tw1Tt*^".
Domain:, Password: "$%tw33T*^".
Domain:, Password: "$%f@c3B*^".
Domain: Password: "$%3b@*^"


Pick your own 2 starting characters and your own 2 ending characters, don't just use the same ones I used in the example.

In addition, make your own capitalization rule (you can capitalize more than 1 character if you want to.

You can also use more than the first 6 characters of the domain name if you want to. It just means your passwords will be slightly longer.

Is This Password Strong?

Yes, it is very strong. With this method you're potentially using any of 30 special characters, 10 numerals, and 26 lower case and 26 uppercase characters.

Unless a hacker happens to have a water-cooled supercomputer in his briefcase, he will not be able to crack your password.
Making It Even Stronger
If you're concerned that some hackers might know about this password construction method, simply pick 3 starting characters and/or 3 ending characters, or as many as you like. Any slight variation of the method makes your passwords even more secure.
This password construction method was designed by Sammie, a person with a brilliant technical mind.
Thank You For Using TweetLater

Best Regards,
Dewald Pretorius  "

Good eh?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Archbishop, media, abuse ...

Can you make up a sentence using these three words? I can think of several.

Yesterday, as we all know, Vincent Nichols was instituted as Archbishop of Westminster. A splendid ceremony, a thoughtful homily (and carefully pointed) and an all-round great occasion.

But later, as I watched the late night news on the BBC News channel I was a little surprised that the installation rated not even a mention. Ah, well, I thought, it's done now. Not much more for the media to say. And then I began to reflect on who was there - Guthrie and Murphy representing Crown and Government - people I'm not sure I'd even heard of before. The Archbishop thanked the BBC for transmitting the ceremony live, I remembered, perhaps that in itself was remarkable ... and after all his homily itself in part at least a plea to civil society to take religion and religious belief seriously. Perhaps this very media-savvy archbishop is stating this as a kind of manifesto ... and I am quite sure we will have a much more visible and eloquent voice for the Catholic Church in this country in future.

But there is a small cloud on the horizon. Though I have heard nothing on the radio news about the Archbishop today, in the blogosphere there is an almighty row stirring. Its about a very serious matter. but it seems to have enveloped not the archbishop, but the two leading commentators on religious matters in England. When the journalists become the story it gets really interesting.

The story runs like this.
1. On ITN news last night, one of very many interviews which Archbishop Vincent gave yesterday was broadcast. The archbishop was asked to comment on the child abuse scandals in Ireland which have been in the news in the past week. He said the following words:

"It's very distressing and very disturbing and my heart goes out today first of all to those people who will find that their stories are now told in public... Secondly, I think of those in religious orders and some of the clergy in Dublin who have to face these facts from their past which instinctively and quite naturally they'd rather not look at.

"That takes courage, and also we shouldn't forget that this account today will also overshadow all of the good that they also did."

Should the abusers be brought to justice? 

"Yes they should, no matter how long ago it happened.

"In this country now we have a very steady and reliable system of co-operation with police and social services who actually now hold us in good regard. They know that we are reliable and trustworthy partners. Those that abused the trust that was placed in them should be brought to public account."

Now I understand the archbishop's statement to say that the perpetrators should be brought to justice and that religious orders and dioceses should be given some credit for confronting the dark deeds of the past which tend to overshadow the good work which most of their members did. However, not everyone - willfully or not - took his comments in this way.

2. The Guardian then ran a piece on their mobile website (but oddly not the main one) outlining negative reactions to the archbishop's comments. These comments clearly take the courage and the good work comment to be referring not to the orders in general, but specifically to the individual abusers. Now, although that may be a possible interpretation of the words on paper, as one who knows Archbishop Vincent well, I am very confident that is not what he meant. I think the context makes that very clear, but if you want to spin his words, well you can always find a way to, I suppose.

3. Now that might have been the end of it, but the baton is then taken up by the Times, and a more interesting twist develops. Firstly an article appears saying that the archbishop is 'engulfed in Catholic abuse row', and then later the story is updated to add an 'attack' on the newly installed Archbishop of Westminster by the Archbishop of Dublin.

4. And now my metaphorical baton becomes a baseball bat (sorry if the image is annoying) as Damian Thompson of the Telegraph slams the Times by saying it 'disgraces itself' by twisting the Archbishop's words.

5. The story then takes a further twist, as Thompson claims (rightly, it transpires) that an earlier, more sympathetic (i.e. accurate) story by the Times religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill has been altered and twisted by her editors: "this shabby juxtaposition of Irish scandal and Westminster installation was forced on her by what a source inside the Times (not Ruth) tells me is a very anti-Catholic newsdesk". Gledhill then posts a comment on Thompson's blog, admitting that the story was rewritten (though she agreed to the changes) and alleging bullying. Thompson then adds a further comment to his blog, saying "Gimme a break".
And so, while the Archbishop's spokesman issues a brief clarification and the rest of the newsmedia happily return to a cosy world in which religion is a minor and infrequent distraction, two top religious commentators (who usually praise one another's work) have a rather public spat.

6. But that is not the end. It gets worse, for the comments to Damian Thompson's blogpost - in which, remember, he suggested the Times has a very anti-catholic agenda - become infected by anti-semitic posts of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion kind, basically alleging that the entire newsmedia is infected by Jews, which is why it is anti-Christian. I find this very unpleasant, and Thompson refutes the claims, but the offensive comments remain on his blog.

And the moral of the story is ...?

Well, I don't think there is a moral, but there are some possible observations. Firstly, the whole incident shows that even careful comments can be manipulated and twisted, and that otherwise well-meaning, good people can provide meaty quotations on the basis of reported comments.
Secondly, it shows how careful those in public life must be when commenting upon such sensitive issues, especially when these are outside their own sphere: the horror of historic child abuse affects us all, but perhaps, just perhaps the otherwise very wise Archbishop Nichols would have been wise not to comment on another archbishop's problem - particularly in the middle of a media storm, and especially as the record of the orders is in trying to conceal information (rather than reveal it) much to the distress of the victims. And thirdly, while I agree with Thompson's interpretation of this particular incident, I am rather appalled that long and detailed unpleasant comments are not removed from his blog. It may well be this is not Thompson's fault but it is rather newspaper policy. It is still nasty.

And finally, for all the hoo-ha, will the profile of religion in a generally apathetic and sometimes hostile media actually rise?

Let's wait and see.

A prophetic image?

This is, of course, Archbishop Vincent Nicholas of Westminster (not - despite what you may read, the 'leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales') walking to Westminster Cathedral for his enthronement yesterday. I'm willing to bet some photographer (not sure where this picture appeared first), deliberately staked out the location for just this image.

Is it likely to be prophetic? Only time will tell.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Care, or just repair?

There is an alarming article in this week's Catholic Herald by Simon Caldwell headed Death by Starvation about the increase in death's in hospitals due to malnutrition. It reminds me of a comment made by Alan Bennett in his diaries Untold Stories when he recounts the descent of his mother into dementia. She was sustained by a strong and healthy appetite (and someone to feed her) which certainly kept her alive for much longer than others in the same nursing home. Caldwell draws the clear conclusion that nutritional care of the elderly is not given the attention it should be, and that while food may be brought to patients, there is no one to ensure that they eat, nor indeed is there anyone to sit with them and feed them.

Caldwell suggests that this is a kind of creeping euthanasia, devaluing the elderly and effectively encouraging them to starve to death. It may be so. After all if the patient were a young victim of a motor accident, and immobilised, someone would certainly ensure that he or she were fed.

However, as one who frequently visits hospitals and nursing homes, as well as seeing people in their own homes, I tend to think that this is less conscious policy than a simple distortion of priorities. Let me explain.

We all know that the technological advances of health care are extra-ordinary, and that treatments are possible now that were inconceivable previously. Surgery can be performed more easily and more effectively. Drug treatments can address conditions that may have been untreatable in the past. Major operations, such as heart bypasses and joint replacements are now routine. Hi-tech equipment is a feature of the modern hospital and other places of treatment.

From our own lives we know the consequences. Hospital stays are very much shorter than they used to be. When I was born in the late 1950s, my mother spent a fortnight in hospital after the birth, and most of that in bed. When I had a hernia operation in 1990 I stayed in for 10 days. But when my father has a heart bypass much more recently, he stayed in hospital just four days. My daughter had a baby a few weeks ago and was discharged only a few hours later.

Much of this is good. If we can be at home, most of us would prefer to be. But there is another side to this. The human body is being treated like another piece of technology in need of repair, and nursing has become focussed on the technical process.

So there is very little actual nursing taking place. Treatment is usually an intensive process to ensure the technical aspects of care are all undertaken. The human contact, the time spent talking to the parient, the befriending and empathising - no it hasn't gone, because the nurses are caring human beings - but it is no longer seen as what is really important. We could blame the 'managers', I suppose, but that is too simple. I think it is a general drift in what is and what is not health care.

And this doesn't just affect the care of the elderly. There have been concerns at the lack of support new mothers are now given after birth, frequently - like my daughter - being sent home within 6 hours of the birth. In Stoke-on-Trent there have been stories of a baby lost after a first-time mother in labour was sent home and the horrendous situation at Stafford hospital.

Of course there are outstanding exceptions. The care shown in hospices is a shining example of what nursing, caring for the whole person is really all about. Chaplaincy teams (when they are not sidelined or devalued by hospital management) also provide care well beyond those of their own religious groups. And those who do the nursing are often, usually, highly motivated and compassionate people. Yet until all involved in managing, planning and carrying out health care realise that the body is far more than just a machine, but is the manifestation of a person, then stories like this will continue to come.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Pay peanuts - get monkeys

If you pay peanuts, as they say, you get monkeys.

It is a cynical view, but one with a lot of truth in it. If you are employed by someone else, then you expect a proper reward. When the situation is not so good, then commitment falls considerably. When you work for someone else, you may take pride in your work, but fundamentally, at the end of the day you can walk away.

On the other hand, if it is your own business, your own idea, your own vision, you are highly motivated. You want it to succeed. You work long hours. You will even work for peanuts. Your commitment is entirely different.

In the Gospel this weekend, Jesus hits on this very point. The hired man runs away when confronted with danger - the good shepherd cares for his sheep. You could say it is the parable of self-employment, or the small business. But it is also the parable of vocation.

Because there are times when in a job our commitment is not like that of the hired man. When we are doing something which gives us a sense of vision and purpose, When we are caring for others, When we are sharing our skills or our knowledge: in all these situations we may work outside hours, for little or no pay, because we are committed to what we do. It is no longer a job given by someone else, but a job owned by us. And it is owned by us because it is an answer to the call of God within in. It fulfils us not so much because we have chosen it, but because it has chosen us.

And this is what Vocation is all about.

A job may be given to us by another human being, but a vocation is given us by God. And the trouble is we follow the devices and desires of our own hearts (some readers may recognise the phrase), rather than listening to God.

This Sunday, Easter Four, what we call Good Shepherd Sunday, is the day when we pray for Vocations to the Priesthood and the Religious Life. We pray that our hearts may be open to the voice of God, and that men and women may respond to God’s call to service. Pray for vocations. Pray for priests. Pray that men and women may hear the voice of God, and respond to it.

This is adapted from my Sunday Homily: more homilies here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Diocese's finest

This photograph was taken at the Chrism Mass in St Chad's Cathedral on the Wednesday of Holy Week 2009. My thining pate can be just seen, as indicated on the picture.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More open spaces ...

So, following yesterday's walk with my trusty dogs (Benedict XVI and Joseph Ratzinger) to the East of the parish, along the towpath, I decided today to travel West to explore more of the cleared sites of ST1.

I've uploaded them to the same flickr site, and you can see them added to the map.

I should emphasise again that while there are some areas of new building, and new landscaping, the sheer extent of demolition is impossible to ignore. Indeed, it is overwhelming. 

Open spaces.

I'm not the only one to notice that Stoke-on-Trent is through a massive process of demolition with little evidence of building taking place.

My own parish - Hanley - which broadly covers the ST1 postal area - is being progressively cleared with very little building taking place. Admittedly there have been some new houses built (though that seems to have stopped) and the towpath to the canal was closed almost for a year while that was restored - rather well, I admit. But look across the Stoke-on-Trent skyline. How many cranes are visible? I mean the construction type - not the birds - though the answer is the same: 0.

Just to give a flavour, when I walked the dogs around just part of the parish yesterday, following the newly restored towpath, I took photos of the scenery. I should emphasise that I did not deliberately seek out demolition or clearance sites - the parish is not especially large. Neither did I visit the largest area of clearance which is well to the West of where I walked. I used my iPhone because it geotags the images, so it should be possible to pinpoint more or less exactly where they were taken.

You can see the images (and map) here. The images of 'Botteslow Park' are particularly striking.

It is clear that many of these are not temporary sites. Some have grass and daisies growing. Others have been banked in order to prevent vehicles driving onto them. Some are more recently cleared. Others are buildings waiting to be demolished.

This is the state of the City Centre of Stoke-on-Trent.

There is little evidence of construction taking place. And they plan to knock down more.


Update (21 April): more images have been added to the flickr set and the accompanying map showing the areas to the west of the parish.

Sentinel Dream Wedding promotion turns to Nightmare

A wedding competition being run by the Sentinel, the North Stafforshire newspaper, is running into considerable difficulties with competitors, thanks to 'print errors' and other editorial bungling.

The competition relies on those entered getting friends, relatives, and work colleagues submitting votes by buying copies of the paper and submitting the forms including within them. About 180 couples have entered, and yesterday was the last day that coupons were printed in the paper. The ten couples who get the most votes at this stage will enter the next round. The prize is a wedding package of almost £16,000. Multiple votes are allowed, providing they are on unique handwritteen forms from the newspaper. The publicity announced that coupons purchased on 20th April to will count as double.

I know a little about this as I know two couples who have entered - one of whom is our eldest son and his fiance. Personally I dislike this kind of competition. Clearly it is a promotion which will sell very many more copies of the newspaper than usual, and though I wish my own son well, the chances of winning (although rather better than the National Lottery) are rather slim.

Be that as it may, the family and friends have been working hard buying copies of the Sentinel and filling in the coupons up to yesterday - the final day in which coupons appear in the paper. Yesterday, between them, they bought several hundred copies of the paper - probably like many others.

And it is yesterday's paper which has caused the trouble.

First, the paper included an article about the efforts of one couple to promote themselves - on the last day coupons were printed. My son was one of many to protest - according to the Sentinel switchboard and the journalist who he spoke to. An interesting story - yes. But why not run the story after the last coupon had been printed, rather than promote one couple on the day of the last and indeed double coupon? The answer: there will be articles about other couples in the next few days. I'm afraid this is not much of an answer.

And secondly, the paper indeed printed the coupons - which are intended to count double - but thanks to 'a printing error' forgot to indicate on the coupon that it is indeed from the 20th April and so a double coupon. If cut out and submitted, then it could only count once - there is no way of distinguishing it from the other coupons. A query to the newspaper admitted the error (with some exasperation - again not the only call) and suggested that the coupons be submitted with the surrounding article so that it is clear which paper they are from. Of course - you would only know this if you had (1) noticed the mistake (2) asked the Sentinel what to do.

I am sure my son and his fiance is not the only couple who have bought - or encouraged others to buy - large numbers of the newspaper yesterday (and also of course in the past few weeks). My son says he is so sick of the mess that he is going round to the Sentinel offices with 500 copies of the paper to ask for his money back. I don't suppose he will do this quietly - or that he will be the only one to complain.

It is a bad mess up for the Sentinel - who are not a bad paper and whose journalists I respect. It's not so much bad journalism as bad management, which the paper can ill afford. Local papers are struggling everywhere, and promotions like this will be more and more important to maintain a reader base. The paper has recently moved to morning, rather than evening publication and is now making a big effort to embrace some of the new media technologies. Of course, in new media a mistake can be quickly corrected. What is set in print is set in print. Oh dear.

Open spaces.

I'm not the only one to notice that Stoke-on-Trent is through a massive process of demolition with little evidence of building taking place.

My own parish - Hanley - which broadly covers the ST1 postal area - is being progressively cleared with very little building taking place. Admittedly there have been some new houses built (though that seems to have stopped) and the towpath to the canal was closed almost for a year while that was restored - rather well, I admit. But look across the Stoke-on-Trent skyline. How many cranes are visible? I mean the construction type - not the birds - though the answer is the same: 0.

Just to give a flavour, when I walked the dogs around just part of the parish yesterday, following the newly restored towpath, I took photos of the scenery. I should emphasise that I did not deliberately seek out demolition or clearance sites - the parish is not especially large. Neither did I visit the largest area of clearance which is well to the West of where I walked. I used my iPhone because it geotags the images, so it should be possible to pinpoint more or less exactly where they were taken.

You can see the images (and map) here. The images of 'Botteslow Park' are particularly striking.

It is clear that many of these are not temporary sites. Some have grass and daisies growing. Others have been banked in order to prevent vehicles driving onto them. Some are more recently cleared. Others are buildings waiting to be demolished.

This is the state of the City Centre of Stoke-on-Trent.

There is little evidence of construction taking place. And they plan to knock down more.