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]