Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The British Summer

This is a talk given as part of the BBC Radio Stoke "In Praise of God" programme. This was recorded on 23rd May 2012 and broadcast on Sunday 15th July 2012. Its broadcast was preceded by some of the worst (wettest) weather many of us could remember. It was followed by a gloriously mini heatwave.


We British have a very ambivalent attitude to the Summer.

On the one hand we crave the summer weather. We have this idealised picture of summer days, the village green, cricket matches, warm beer. Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, barbecues in the evening. We love it so much, that at the first sign of the sun, the meerest hint of a cloudless sky, we take off jackets and shoes, don tee shirts and shorts, and rush outside to lie on the grass and soak in the sun. We love it so much that people stand under artificial sunlight or even paint themselves, just to make it look as if they have been in the sun.

And yet, like so many other things, when sun does appear, and the temperature rises, we find plenty of causes for complaint. It is too hot, or too stuffy. We suffer from hay fever, or midges and gnat bites. Milk goes off if left out of the fridge. Chocolates melt quickly and get on our clothes. We look out of the window in some frustration if we have to work - or if we are free we get stuck in traffic, and the car overheats and we complain about the number of people who have had exactly the same idea as we have had and flocked to the beaches and made it impossible to find somewhere to sit.

And of course - biggest complaint of all - it never lasts! Busy one day and unable to enjoy the sun, we are sure that will be able to enjoy the outdoors over the coming weekend or the bank holiday, when of course it rains.

And I am sure that you, like me, have plenty of memories of summer days blighted by cloud and wind and rain. As a priest I've conducted Weddings on cold and blustery August days, yet seen glorious sunshine in the autumn and spring. I have many child memories of day trips to Chester Zoo, Rhyl and Southport, sat under rain shelters eating soggy sandwiches - you know the ones where the tomatoes have soaked through the bread, the whiff of the egg overwhelms you when you unwrap it from its foil. I remember not being able to sit on the beach or the play equipment because it was wet or cold, wearing a plastic rain mac which became claustrophic and sweating, and determinedly trying to make sandcastles out of sand-mud.

There were nice days too - lots of them - but somehow its the wet and windy ones we seems to remember.

Yet none of this ever deterred me.

We have such a great love of the outdoors - such a yearning for the fresh air, the beach or the field, that people still rush outside partly dressed, even if the temperature doesn't quite justify it.

Our lives can be so built up, so hemmed in, especially in the towns and cities, that we yearn for something different. We love greenery. We adorn brick buildings with ivy and hanging baskets, and paved yards with planters.

However much our lives are regulated, heated or cooled by machinery, enclosed by shops or offices, there is nothing quite like the fresh air, nature. It is where we come from - and it is where we will leave this life - covered by grass, bordered by trees, strewn with flowers. It speaks to something deep within us. We yearn for nature. We thirst for it.

Yes, even the water which dashes and splashes through our days out is the source and sustenance of life itself. The Bible begins with a world enveloped with water, and ends with a vision of the heavenly city surrounded by water. We thirst for water as we yearn for nature.

Our love of the summer, of warmth and sunshine - and even the memory of blustry days, is something which is rooted deep within us. It is where we come from.

And for religious believers, Christians, but not just Christians, the wonder of the world is evidence for the existence of God.

The beauty of a sunset, the rhythm of the tides, the intricacy of DNA, the calm of a slow river, the soft calls of song birds, the majesty of the stars, the sweetness of newly picked fruit, all of these and so much more, move us to admiration, inspiration, awe.

There is something just so wonderful about the natural world, that we know it cannot be constrained into the dry words of chemistry, physics or biology. Science, in all its glory, leads us to reflect even more "why", and "wow".

The writers of the books of Scripture we well aware of this. In the book of Genesis, where we hear the tale of the creation of the world, we are told again and again not about processes and methods, but that it was "very good".

Jesus himself speaks of the glory of nature:
"See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these."

Nature is, as the Americans say, "awesome". When we are struck by the wonders of the world, we may seek factual explanations, but even the most detailed and most accurate, can never take away that "wow" factor.

Nature makes us stop and think.

And Jesus takes it a step further:
"If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?"

Jesus invites us to take a step. And it is not a small step. If God is so wonderful in making the world, he says, won't he care for you even more? The beauty of the world is not just a reason for wonder, marvel, glory - it is also a reason for hope. We know about all the negatives, but it the heart, he made it very Good. And if the creation is Good, then he wishes only good for us, whatever ill may befall.

It is a big step. But as we admire the glories of creation, deep down we know that there is some great power, some extraordinary person, Someone who has made us. And loves us.


Image Source


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Never mind the Olympics - what about School PE?

This article was written for publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel on Wednesday August 8th 2012. It is adapted for my homily of Sunday August 5th

Never mind the Olympics, Usain Bolt's 9.63 seconds and all those medals for Team GB - what do you remember about your own participation in sport - School PE lessons? 
I think for most of us, me included, it was a mixed experience. 
At primary school there was sports day, our own little olympics. I was allowed a go at the egg and spoon race or the sack race, but being rather large - even then - my most important contribution was less exciting: I had to lie flat on the wooden benches so that they would stay in place when the fitter, more athletic children crawled underneath  in the obstacle race. I loved playing football, and was proud to be chosen for the school team - only to be dropped a week before we played in the final of the Congleton Primary Schools' cup. 
Secondary School was sometimes better. Being big and heavy, such a disadvantage in football, proved a positive asset in Rugby. However, I detested swimming (I just couldn't do it - and still can't). And Cross Country? I was terrified that I'd arrive at school to discover it was Cross Country day and I'd forgotten the undated note from my mother saying I had a cold and am unable to do PE. 
The Olympics have provoked renewed debate  about schools and sport. It has been noted that many of our medal winners were educated not in state schools but in the private sector. There have been calls for more funds for school sports. It is not so simple, though - after all, its unlikely that state schools would ever be able to teach sports such as sailing or dressage. And let's not forget that many medal winners are from state schools, including Mo Farah, who arrived here as a Somalian refugee and asylum seeker. 
Political points aside, everyone seems to agree that sport has an important role to play in education. And that is very significant.
Education is not just about the intellectual. Education means “growth” and we grow not just in our minds but in our bodies too. Of course, some people are more practical, others more intellectual. Some excel at both, many are more inclined to one or the other. But no one is all mind, no one just body, both are essential - and we know only too well that if we are ill, then it affects not only our body, but our concentration, our attitudes our general well being. 
This idea - that mind and body, thought and action, physical and spiritual are one - is a Christian insight. It is rooted in the belief that Christ is Word made Flesh, the perfect unity of the spiritual and physical. It inspired the ancient monasteries and universities, great centres of academic study, where physical work accompanied prayer and study. 
Christian ritual, the pouring of water, the smearing with oil, the eating of bread and wine, makes clear that the action of the body goes hand in hand (literally) with the communication of ideas. 
If we lose this insight we make serious mistakes, perhaps supposing that high intelligence can be developed in "ivory towers", remote from everyday life and without compassion, that faith is irrational and that belief is the release from the pains or struggles of daily life.  Or at the other extreme, we may suppose that the books and reading are a waste of time, that the physical world is complete in itself, that science can answer every question and solve every problem. 
Neither view satisfies. 
Intelligence must serve humanity, prayer inspire action, sport infuse education.
And PE should be fun!

Friday, March 02, 2012

Visit of the Papal Nuncio


Today the Papal Nuncio to Great Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini paid an informal visit to North Staffordshire. After Midday Prayer in Holy Trinity, Newcastle, I was asked to say a little about our Deanery, its heritage, its social and economic circumstances and its spiritual life. Here follows the text of my talk.

Talk for the visit of the Papal Nuncio


Your Excellency, as Dean of North Staffordshire, I warmly welcome you to our Deanery and indeed to our county. It is an area rich in history and with a strong heritage in the Catholic faith, yet with the many challenges which are characteristic of the age in which we live. I speak for our Deanery, and also with his permission on behalf of the Dean of Stafford, Canon Michael Neylon, who is unable to be here today but who will be at St Chad's Cathedral later.

It is a special blessing to welcome you to this area on the feast day of St Chad, patron of our Diocese and missionary in the southern part of this county. You may know that St Chad was especially renowned for his practice of travelling throughout the area under his care, and we are delighted that you should be following his most estimable example.

Local industry

Staffordshire has been been of the industrial powerhouse of England, providing many of the raw materials of industry and some of its greatest creative products. The Coal Mining industry was an important feature throughout the county, as in this area was also the steel industry and of course the pottery industry, which combined production with high artistic and creative standards. Internationally famous names such as Wedgwood, Doulton, Spode, Minton and many others, stood alongside many smaller concerns throughout the area. These industries provided abundant work, if often dangerous and not always well paid, and gave the region a stability and a continuity that led to the consolidation of close and steady communities.

Sadly much, almost all of this industrial economic background has gone.

Outside the urban communities agriculture has remained an important industry and small employer, but not  without its challenges. But the mines have all gone, and the pottery industry is just a vestige of its former self, despite its extraordinary heritage. The largest employer in the City of Stoke-on-Trent is the local authority, the second largest the Hospital. Outside the public sector, employment is sporadic and fragile. There has been a rapid growth in large retail outlets but smaller family run businesses have found it hard to compete. There has been large investment in terms of regeneration projects, many funded from EU funds, but some areas remain among those of the highest deprivation in the country. Further south in the county there has been expansion along of the M6 corridor of container centres, occupying former agricultural land. Aspirations, and educational achievement remain low.

There has been much immigration into the area - in earlier decades into the industries - but more recently into the lower paid work, often outside the formal and regulated economy.

The Church

Against this challenging background, Your Excellency, the Catholic Church lives and operates woven into the peoples lives. 
There is an extraordinary history of Catholic faith in the county which I will try to summarise.

Prior to the reformation there is evidence of a  Church deeply rooted in the life of society and the faithful. There is evidence of Anglo-Saxon Christian community in Stoke. In the middle ages there was a Cistercian abbey at Hulton, which was apparently a place of pilgrimage, and also at Dieulacres near Leek and Croxton Abbey, and most notably of course the Church at Lichfield, the original home of the shrine of St Chad.

The Reformation brought a dark and difficult time for the faith in this country, and Catholic life was marked with hardship and indeed martyrdown. Amongst the martyrs associated with this area were Blessed William Howard, the first Viscount Stafford, and Blessed William Southerne, a Catholic priest who served communities in the county and who was hanged drawn and quartered not far from this very spot on 30 April, 1618.

It is reported that his execution was delayed as the court had difficulty finding a hangman williing to do the job. Such is the enduring affection of the people of Newcastle-under-Lyme for visiting clerics!

During the intervening centuries it was difficult for all but the landed Catholic gentry and their servants to maintain the faith, but the history of areas indicates a stubborn of the people for the old ways. There were some places, such as Painsley and later Cresswell where mass was celebrated and priests housed.  The established Church never quite embedded itself amonst the people as elsewhere, and when religious revival came to the are in the 18th/19th Century it was Methodism which first found a ready hearing amongst ordinary people.

As elsewhere in the country, it was first Catholic emancipation and then waves of immigration into the new industries, which led to great revival of Catholic life. In our area Churches were built at great expense by sometimes very poor communities. Wealthy and generous benefactors assisted this development. Religious orders returned to the area and supported priests and parishes. Notably the Dominicans set up houses in Stoke and in Stone - it was in Stone that Blessed Dominic Barberi based his mission.

Your Excellency, you have heard I know while at the Cathedral, about the current commemoration of the 200th anniversary o the birth of Pugin, the great architect of the Gothic Revival. We are rightly proud to note that in our deanery we have the Church that is by common assent considered his greatest work, "Pugin's gem", the Church of St Giles at Cheadle.

At the opening of that Church, Blessed John Henry Newman - then still a layman - sat amongst the congregation. He stayed for a time at Cotton, a church and school where many priests began the education which led to the priesthood. It was here that Frederick Faber founded the community which became the English branch of the Oratorians. St Charles of Mount Argus also lived and exercised his priesthood from there.

From this time the Church enjoyed an unprecedented growth and sense of self-confidence unknown since the reformation. Communities were consolidated and substantial investment made into Catholic education, which became and remains a model of excellence for the wider community.

After the second world war there was again rapid growth in the Catholic community. There was a new wave of immigration from Europe, especially Ireland, Italy, Poland and elsewhere, including the Ukraine, which enriched the Church in this land. Many new churches were built amongst the new housing estates, almost always preceded by schools for the children of the faithful.

In more recent times there has again been immigration which has enriched our communities. Again from Eastern Europe, and now also from the Philippines, and Kerala in India, and parts of Africa, most notably Nigeria.

We find ourselves now which many blessings, many opportunities and many challenges. Many of these are very familiar, some have a particular impact on us here in Staffordshire.

The rich heritage of the area, means we have many churches and many schools.  The schools are popular and successful. There is great demand for baptism and first holy communion, but it is difficult for us to connect families and young people with parish life, where the communities are smaller than they were, and more elderly.

We have a good number of priests in relation to the number of those who practice their faith by coming to mass, but now many more church buildings than we really need. Yet people have great affection for these buildings which have formed their communities and their lives of faith. The kind of rationalisation which has taken place in local industry and even housing is not what one we want to copy wholesale into the Church, urgent though action is. 

As elsewhere, we find ourselves dealing with a highly secularised society where many of the values and patterns of life are highly at variance with the faith. Dysfunctional family life, the decline in marriage and alternative forms of living are situations we routinely encounter. Levels of petty crime and vandalism, drug abuse and relative poverty also have their impact, upon some more than others.

However, there are many bright lights amongst what is too easy to paint as a dark sky.

Our schools, far from being a problem, are another jewel in the crown, greatly valued and sought after, always reckoned amongst the most outstanding in our communities. We are fortunate to have a good and increasing number of deacons who support priests and people in their parishes. We have had a steady stream of vocations from our area, though we very much hope that will increase. As local vocations to the religious life have declined, we have been blessed by the African sisters who now form part of our Catholic Communities. Many parishes have supported their people in training as catechists, and we have run courses for catechists for parishes throughout the Deanery. We are especially fortunate here in North Staffordshire in that we have a lively and active Area Pastoral Council which organises events and activities of a spiritual and catechetical nature.

And as priests we have strong bonds of mutual support which we are keen to strengthen and develop. Perhaps because many of us are geographically close to one another and serve a number of relatively small communities, we often collaborate in activities and events.

So we are delighted to welcome you amongst us, and trust that your short visit may be happy and rewarding!