Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Northern Powerhouse, the Pilgrimage of Grace, Our Day Out, and Downton Abbey.

NewImageWe have been hearing a lot about the “Northern Powerhouse” recently.

Please forgive me if I am more than a little cynical about the whole thing. The North-South divide is acute and has long been so  - and it is welcome that there should be a particular focus on the woes of the North of England (because of course, this debate is in no way about Scotland, nor indeed about Ireland or Wales).

It echoes the late, great Margaret Thatcher (forgive now, the transparent irony) who spoke of a focus on the cities and, I vaguely recall, was delighted about winning “the Boltons” (as if they were “the Carolinas”). 

However, Mr Osborne, and the Tories in general (if they are to take up Osborne’s baton), will have a tall order. A report today indicates that the North-South divide runs far deeper than just a few years of economic decline. Children aged under five from poor families in the north of England perform less well than even the poorest children in London, according to a report from The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR)

But it goes even deeper than this. The North-South divide is by no means only a recent phenomenon.

Some of us are old enough (just) to recall when the North was, literally, the Powerhouse of the Nation - in the days of manufacturing, of coal, and steel - the days before (here she is again) Mrs Thatcher. 

But even in these “powerhouse” days, there was a North-South divide. Poor children in the North were being educated only as “factory fodder”, as the teacher Mrs Kay states in Willy Russell’s 1977 television play Our Day Out - and by the time the play was turned into a musical ten years later, the teacher adds “but now the factories are closed”. 

These days, the 1980s, saw the emergence of “Loadsamoney”, when the Chelsea supporters waved their bundles of notes to taunt  the fans of Newcastle United. 

But this was just a manifestation of the same, very old divide. Its goes back at least 450 years.

In the 16th Century the North of England rose against the South and was brutally tricked,  defeated and smashed. The uprising against Henry VIII is known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, and was at the time in no way framed as a social uprising nor even a geographic one, but was a revolt against the religious changes enacted under Henry VIII. The outlines of what happened at that time are well known, but perhaps only in a superficial way. 


Henry VIII declared his independence from the Pope. He refused to accept the authority of Bishop of Rome over any matters in his realm. 

But that in itself is too simple a reading of what happened. Henry’s revolution had very little to do with religious belief (he always considered himself to be a Catholic), but was much more to do with greed and egotism. It was in fact radically secular.

Henry’s reform did not mean the rejection of the power of Rome, but rather the assumption of the Church’s power into the Monarch. It was therefore the abolition of any countervailing power in the nation, and the removal of any court of appeal over the actions of the King. The relationship between society and Church was certainly ready for reform, but this was no reform, but rather a concentration of power that was formerly distributed. The Constitution was radically changed, and without even a referendum (such things were unknown, of course!) England moved suddenly out of Europe, and any checks on the authority of the state were eliminated. 

The Monasteries, certainly wealthy, but also centres of employment and learning, of health care and charity, were dissolved. Ancient treasures and manuscripts were destroyed, hospitals and almshouses closed, and centres of employment vanished. Henry took the land and property to himself and much was sold at low prices to a new class of wealthy individuals. It was massive privatisation which led to the destruction of an effective welfare  and educational system, and an extra-ordinary increase in unemployment, in poverty and in vagrancy. 

In the wake of these changes, the North rose up, not perhaps yet aware of the social consequences of what was taking place, but certainly alarmed by Henry’s egotism and greed. The rebels were offered a compromise, and a willingness to listen to their concerns, then tricked and crushed in a brutally unrestrained manner, with no one to enjoin restraint or moderation.

All sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it? 

And so the subjugation of the North of England to the south was established, and is rooted deep into the fabric of England. It took about 400 years for the state fully to embrace the responsibilities formerly undertaken by the Church and the monasteries of mediaeval England. 

Which is why, deep in the North of England, those posh people live in Downton Abbey. 


Monday, October 26, 2015

Tax Credits: Who is the more representative - the Lords or the Commons?

Tax Credits: Who is the more representative - the Lords or the Commons?

I am not a statistician, but I am interested in the strength, persuasiveness and validity of arguments. In recent days it has been argued in connected with the debate on Tax Credits, that the view of the Lords lacks legitimacy - it is unrepresentative. But is this actually the case?

No doubt the most important arguments in this debate are around fairness, justice for the lowest paid, and the injustice of increasing tax relief for the rich while removing it for the poor.

But in the midst of this debate - which, given the resolve of the Tories is unlikely to have much impact on the final outcome - is a constitutional argument, about the role of the House of Lords in possibly holding up what is described as "the will of the Commons". The unelected Lords are not supposed to stop any financial measure from passing through parliament. This is a convention, not a matter of constitutional law - like so much in our British uncodified Constitution - and even though this measure was not included in the Conservative Manifesto earlier this year, and it seems was even explicitly excluded as an option during the election campaign, convention (it is argued) decrees that the Lords must not frustrate the measure, as it is a financial measure, and the unelected Lords cannot stand in the way of an elected Commons on the principle of no taxation without representation.

The argument raises many questions, and no doubt many cynical observations, but just one struck me. Having been, for so many years, aware that the Lords had sat alongside the Commons with a large inbuilt Conservative majority - which had been reined in, from time to time, by these very conventions - I had not fully grasped that the Conservatives no longer have a majority in the Lords. The rather limited changes to the Lords which had taken place under Labour, and the consequence of the practice of appointing peers, had led to something of a lag in the manner in which the Lords reflects the membership of the Commons.

In many respects of course the Lords is very unrepresentative. By age, definitely, by its very design. And also by gender. Certainly also by social class. And - given the refusal of the Scottish Nationalists to appoint to the Lords - it has also become unrepresentative of the political composition of the UK.

It would also seem that the party make up of the Lords, too, is out of sync with the nation. After all, the LibDems have a huge number of peers (112) yet only 8 MPs, and UKIP, who gained a similar percentage of the votes in the General Election has just 2 peers. Of course, the Lords is not designed to be a proportionately representative chamber - but when there are such extreme variations, one might suppose that the argument that the Lords has no right to stand in the way of the Commons has particular validity.

But is this so? I wondered. And I looked at the figures. The results are a little surprising. Making a little allowance for the incompatibilities of the various systems, it would appear that, on this particular issue at least, far from being less representative of the electorate, in fact the Lords is closer to the expressed will of the electorate.

In the 2015 General election, with a clear programme for austerity (even if its details were kept unclear) the Conservatives gained the votes of just 24% of the electorate, which translated into 39% of the vote. Of the 61% who voted otherwise, the great majority supported parties with a much less enthusiastic approach to deficit reduction. This 24% of the electorate translated into 51% of the seats. They won. They have a mandate - but hardly an overwhelming or enthusiastic one.

By contrast, the Conservatives hold 31% of the seats in the Lords - less than their popular vote but still greater than their proportion of the electorate, and much closer to their actual support in the country. Similarly, Labour have just 26% of the seats in the Lords, against 36% in the Commons, but again this is much closer to the election result. Even for the LibDems, the "huge" number in the Lords (14%) is closer to their actual percentage of the vote (8%) than their handful of MPs in the Commons (1%). Of course, for other parties there is less of a correlation, but if we just consider the issue of Tax Credits, the Lords looks more representative than the Commons.

The numbers themselves, and a simple bar chart are below.

Suffice to say that whatever the arguments may be over the rightness of this measure (that's the REAL point), and whatever parliamentary convention may properly dictate, and however the parties may decide to act on these principles, if the argument comes down to whether the Lords lacks the legitimacy to block the measure because it is unrepresentative, it should be very clear - the Lords has greater democratic legitimacy (on this matter at least) than this Tory Government.

And that is why - irony of ironies - the Tories are talking of taking legislative steps to rein in the Lord's - steps threatened in the past only against Tory dominated Lords.

Note: Voter turnout in the General Election was 66.1%. "2015 % corrected" indicates the proportions of the entire electorate, not only those who cast their votes.


Monday, October 12, 2015

The Death of Song ...

For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel on October 14th 2015


When the newly elected Leader of the Labour Party did not join in the singing of the National Anthem recently, it caused a bit of a stir.

But how many people are there who know the anthem off by heart? How many people even know it has three verses? Wayne Rooney, the England football captain, has admitted he has never sung the anthem, because he never learnt the words. Gary Linker too - who played for England 80 times - says he never joined in its singing.

And this his has nothing at all to do with patriotism. Most people can’t sing the National Anthem, because most people never sing. Like Wayne Rooney, they never learnt to sing. Communal Singing is a practice which is in danger of dying out.

We still hear crowds singing of course - Delilah at the Brittannia, The Wonder of You at Vale Park, Swing Low Sweet Chariot or Cwm Rhondda at Rugby matches - but even then we hear only a few words. These are hardly “songs”, they are more like ringtones - short distinctive snatches of song.
Even Christmas Carols lack the hold they once had. Few people could give you the second verse of Away in a Manger. Carol singing, round the streets from door to door, is now a very distant memory almost of a bygone age.

As a priest I am very well aware that singing is in serious decline. Though they want to, people struggle to choose songs for weddings and funerals - they just don’t know any.

Yet many of us remember when every school day would begin with choral singing. Every music lesson was filled with melody. Often these were Christians hymns - but there were plenty of other songs too. Oh yes, mischievous children would devise disrespectful and sometimes rude lyrics - but not because they didn’t enjoy singing - but because they wanted to make it even more fun. In the churches, especially the Methodists, so much part of the history of North Staffordshire - everyone sang with great gusto. And it wasn’t just churches: everyone enjoyed a sing-song. Men would sing in the pubs and farm workers would sing in the fields. There were bawdy songs, and ballads, and songs of protest familiar to Trades Unionists too. People grew up knowing shanties, and lullabies and carols. Melody helped memorise the words of poetry and verse. Generation after generation had this great heritage of shared song.

Not any more though.

Just like the boarded up pubs, and converted chapels, the heritage of communal song is rapidly becoming a distant and even quaint memory.

There are of course still some great choirs. We are lucky in North Staffordshire to have The Ceramic City Choir, the Daleian Singers, Wetley Rocks Male Voice Choir, and many others, including the Lorna Spode Consort who will be singing at our Annual Carol Service at Sacred Heart, Hanley this Christmas. Yet for all their skill and expertise, these are enthusiasts - communal singing is not an everyday activity.

And yet, it is such a great irony, that while we live in a world which is bombarded by recorded music of all kinds, it is mostly soloists, and hardly ever choirs that ring out their songs.

It will be a very sad loss to our culture, and our future, if communal singing is to continue in this sad decline.

Singing together helps foster friendships, cement communities, and bring happiness to so many people. It celebrates both our joys and our sorrows, expresses our hopes and affirms our identities and allegiances. You don’t even have to be good at it: in the larger choirs and congregations, the odd growler can even add a little texture and variety to the sound. Song lifts the spirit, and fills us a sense of belonging. And for religious people, it is singing - singing together and with others - that raises the heart to God and provides the most basic religious experience.

“He who sings well, prays twice,” said St Augustine, seventeen centuries ago. And so here is a thought - if we live in a society where song dies, perhaps we will never learn to pray.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Greatest Day?

For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel 15 July 2015. 

Some might think that the life of a Priest is dull and boring and not a little humourless. Not at all. At least not if you are able to laugh at yourself. 

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Let me explain …
Just a week ago, the second week in July, I celebrated a wedding in our lovely Church of the Sacred Heart, Jasper Street in Hanley.
The Bride is a regular at Mass, and over the time of preparation for their big day, I have come to know the couple well. Just a few days before the ceremony, we had the rehearsal and all was set for this wonderful day. Guests had travelled from as far afield as Zambia, and there was an excited, expectant air in the Church.
The Bride entered (almost on time) to the traditional Bridal March, and there were, during the service, the usual couple of hymns. Bride and Groom also asked for some recorded music, two pieces. The first,a song by Elbow, during the signing of the registers, and the second by Take That, as they processed out of the Church. I try to accommodate wishes if the music doesn’t detract from the prayers and worship itself, which these choices certainly didn’t.
So, fancying myself as something of an expert with technology, and possessing some of the latest devices, I downloaded the music requested, and set up both pieces to play on my smart phone, which I duly connected - by cable - to the Church’s sound system.
Now, my most recently acquired device, which I wear about my wrist, does several amazing things. One of these is telling the time (I know, astonishing isn’t it?). Another is that it acts as a remote control for my phone.
Great, I thought. Rather than walk to and from the sound system, I can control the music for the wedding from my wrist.
So, after the exchange of the vows, we moved to a table, in Our Lady’s Chapel inside the Church, to sign the registers. As rehearsed, I tapped the watch, and the music came in on cue. I could adjust the volume from my Wrist, pause and repeat the track if necessary. It worked perfectly.
After the registers, we returned to the main body of the Church to sing “Shine Jesus Shine”. The weather outside was a bit blustery, but in the Church there were plenty of smiles shining on the faces of family and friends.
The singing completed, I wished everyone well, congratulated the couple, encouraged a generous donation to the work of our Church - all the usual stuff - then gave God’s blessing to all those assembled.
The couple now linked arms, and waited for the Music - ‘The Greatest Day” by Take That - which would accompany their procession out of the Church.
Smiling, I tapped the face of the device on my wrist.
I looked at the watch, grinning a little less, and tapped it again.
Still silence.
The couple smiled, indulgently. I shrugged my shoulders, apologised, and began to walk the short distance to the sound system, where the phone was connected.
There was a low muttering in the Church
And then - the music started to play. Relieved, I turned to the couple. The bride smiled with relief and then together, arm in arm, bride and groom turned to face the congregation and begin their procession.
It was at that point that a voice sang out through the sound system, loud and clear, not Take That, but Band Aid: “It’s Christmas Time …”
My embarrassment was complete, my face flushed, though thankfully the Church rang with laughter.
I rushed to the equipment, corrected the error and soon Take That were restored to their rightful place.

And the moral of tale (not that there need be one)? The Greatest Day? It's Christmas Time!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Do Dogs go to heaven?

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For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel 15 April 2015. 

On Good Friday, our dog, Ben, died. A sad irony, you may think, that a Catholic priest should suffer a loss on the day of the death of Christ himself.

Ben and his surviving brother, Joe, Cavalier King Charles, have been part of our household since they came to us as tiny, cute, charming puppies almost 10 years ago.
We will miss Ben very much. If you have lost a dear pet you will understand this. From a youngster with boundless energy, and appetite to match, he grew and grew and became comfortable in his easy routine of meat, treats and snoozing. Cavaliers snore very loudly, so we always knew where he was. When the Archbishop came to visit I didn’t think it would matter that the two were asleep in the room where we met - until we tried to make ourselves heard over snores more characteristic of hippopotamuses than small dogs. Whenever we called Ben’s name his tail would be heard banging loudly on the floor - no need for him to run and meet us (far too much effort). He would lie still on the floor, raising only his eyelids to spy the scene with cautious curiosity. No point in putting himself out …
Unless of course, it involved food, not just the meals which were set before him, nor the far too many snacks and treats, but also food left for his brother, scraps which had tumbled to the floor, cooked meats deep in bags of shopping and even - when young and lively enough to manage it - the leftovers in the kitchen bin.
He wasn’t the brightest dog ever. If his water bowl ran low he would turn it over and scratch at the floor to search for more. Not much a problem-solver, our Ben.
Yet of course, we loved him - especially my wife, whose dog he really was - and we remember him now with great affection, and of course sorrow.
For those who have never shared their lives with companion animals it may be hard to understand. Yet if you have had a pet, you know very well the pain of loss, which is not so very different from a human bereavement.

So what can I, as a priest, say about this?

After all, when we lose a loved one, faith provides a reassurance that there is a hope of life beyond this life, that love is greater even than death. Isn’t this message of Good Friday? And Easter Day? That however great the loss, even greater is the power of Love, the power of God?

So do dogs go to heaven? Do animals have souls?

Here is a theological controversy in which my wife and I take different sides.

With St Thomas Aquinas I say No. Only human beings have rational souls. Only human beings sin, only human beings need to be redeemed.

My wife, on the other hand says Yes. Dogs do have souls. They do go to heaven. (Of course).

Though our views aren’t so far apart.

Many people find it hard to believe in the Resurrection, which Christians celebrated on Easter Day, because they see it in much too narrow a way. A person dying and coming back to life? These things just don’t happen - or if they do there is some kind of rational explanation. How can this be the basis for a whole religion?

But the Resurrection is much more than the anniversary of an historical event. Resurrection is not just about one human being, or even every human being, but about the whole of creation. The Resurrection is Jesus “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The power of Love is so strong, that death and sickness and pain and suffering and wickedness and loss are all overcome.

So yes, for once my wife is right: you will find dogs in heaven.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Can't they take a joke?

Published in the Staffordshire Sentinel on 14 January 2015. You can find it on their website here: http://bit.ly/1yfulvj

The shocking events in Paris last week, particularly the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, have caused great outrage. We are sadly familiar with terrorist attacks, but this assault on a publication which makes jokes, pokes fun at public, political and religious figures alike, is especially abhorrent.

And while the terrorists in no way represent any religious tradition, they have claimed to be doing so in the name of their god. But why attack a satirical magazine? Do religious people in general lack a sense of humour? Do they look down on fun and frivolity, and feel threatened by comedy, especially satire which pokes fun at their beliefs and their practices? 

To be sure, humour can be cruel and offensive, though even the most outrageous ridicule could never justify such heinous violence.

Yet it is true that religious people often seem solemn and sombre. Some Muslim scholars see jokes as fine for children, but not for more serious adults. And there are many examples of Christian disapproval of fun and levity: the Puritan ban on Christmas, in the 17th Century, for example; the Victorian crusade against leisure activities on Sundays; the Temperance movement, against alcohol, of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and the condemnation of particular films, television and popular music since the 1950s: all these left their mark. All too often religious people just seem opposed to anything that looks like fun.  

Yet this is far from the truth. 

In Christianity in particular there is a long tradition of unsettling the powerful and poking fun at those who think they are important. 
"God scatters the proud-hearted and casts the mighty from their thrones," says the Mother of Jesus, in words which are sung every evening in Cathedrals, and convents throughout the world. 

And God scatters the proud in word and jest far more often than by gun or sword. 

Jesus gave His disciples nicknames to pull them down a peg or two: Peter was 'the Rock' - big on words, but a coward when it mattered; James and John, hotheads, were ‘Sons of Thunder’. 

And many of Jesus' stories look remarkably like satire. He spoke about judges who gave justice only after being pestered repeatedly, businessmen who amassed riches only to die the next day, and about priests too precious to help a man who had been beaten up. He talked about people who gave stones in the place of bread, and saw the speck in the eye of another but ignored the log in their own eye. He talked about the blind leading the blind. He called the holy men of his day "whitewashed walls". He even ridiculed the idea of the Messiah itself, entering the Holy City, riding not on a charger, in armour with his standards and his battalions, but on the back of a donkey, cheered along by a crowd waving only branches from the trees. This is satire. This is Charlie Hebdo. 

And when he was arrested, and his followers wanted to take up swords protect him, he told them to lay them down. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says "The word of God is alive and active; it cuts more finely than any double-edged sword." 
This is precisely the point. The Word is mightier than the sword. And a good deal more powerful, for while swords may break bodies only words can form minds. 

So humour is essential - to the religious and non-religious alike. To be able to joke is to be  free. 
The Islamic scholar Al ibn Ahmad Al Faraheedi expressed it perfectly when he said: “People would feel imprisoned if they did not joke.”