Thursday, November 01, 2007

Spiritual Care Conference - Malta October 2007

Addressing the spiritual in day-to-day care of people, whether as a nurse or other health professionally, is becoming nationally and globally something of cause de jour. Conference, books, academic papers abound, but I think one of the things that is rapidly becoming apparent is that there is no uniformity of agreement on what spirituality and spiritual care actually are.

Wilf McSherry of the University of Hull at the conference I recently attended in Malta (‘Spirituality: The Human Dimension In Care’) pointed out that while nurses and other health professionals increasingly understand that spiritual care is about helping a patient on their journey through illness - addressing the needs for meaning in the experience, finding resources to cope with change and suffering and finding some sense of the transcendent in the whole experience - most patients and their relatives think by spiritual we mean "religious" and so say it is not for them - despite then talking about these wider spiritual issues as being relevant (but not using "spiritual" language to do so). Spiritual care does not necessarily mean religious care (although that is a part of it).

It is interesting that most of the research being done in this field in Europe at least (and the USA and Canada) seems to be undertaken by Christians. There is some New Age stuff out there as well, but not much else. Now, as a Christian myself I am heartened by the work my fellow believers have put in to the topic - and in a non-partisan manner - they are addressing the concept of "spiritual care" in its widest sense (more so, I venture than some of the more wacky New Age approaches, which seem hopelessly vague and wishy-washy to me). No, I am more concerned that the humanist scholars are not out there as well, nor are there humanist chaplains. Surely we are a secular culture here in the West, and that culture should have found itself a secular spiritual expression. However, it seems that in a secular culture, the spiritual is still a taboo area, and still seen as the provenance of the religious. Maybe that should not surprise us.

And maybe that is a reflection of our culture's spiritual poverty. I noticed that the Maltese remain deeply religious (Roman Catholic), and committed to spiritual care - the Cappuchin monks provide over twenty Chaplains to the health services of Malta and Gozo. My father-in-law manages with three part time chaplains and a small number of volunteers for a major urban hospital serving a population of a quarter of million plus. In Malta, with around 400,000 people the one major hospital has sixteen full time chaplains. They have also built in their brand new hospital a chapel physically (and very symbolically) at the centre of the hospital. (see below)

In a culture so steeped in the spiritual this makes sense - the Christian faith creates the framework for addressing the core spiritual needs of the individual. I wonder what that framework now is here in the UK? The answer seems to be so atomised and individualised that it must be a nightmare to approach spiritual care outside of shared framework of one faith or another.

But I digress. The conference, while somewhat didactic to my tastes (my bum got very numb from sitting for so long), still was very engaging. Perhaps the main thing I took away from it was that you cannot teach nurses to be good at caring for the spiritual needs of their patients. They need to "get it" - they need to "catch it", but they cannot really be taught it. Yes, you can teach basic skills and awareness, but to understands the spiritual needs of a patient takes a certain imagination and empathy, and certain willingness to step outside of modern imposed professional boundaries to recognise the patient as a person (as I learnt earlier today, in Uganda they now use the term "friend" instead). At its core, it takes an awareness of the spritual side of one's own nature to be able to grasp the spiritual needs of one's own client - and in a secular culture, there is little language and shared framework for most people to be really be able to do this.

Of course, this is nothing new - caring for the spiritual is what nurses have always done. The roots of nursing, in Europe at least, are in the Christian monastic orders where spiritual care came as second nature - it was part of the warp and weft of their very existence. Other faiths have similar traditions of care, even humanism is rooted in such notions.

Sadly, here in the UK at least, this ethos seems to have been lost in our professional and wider culture in the 21st century.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Count me out of atheism’s creed | spiked

Count me out of atheism’s creed spiked

Good article - highlights the inherent problems in the promotion of the "New Atheism" as a kind of religion substitute. Why define yourself by what you do not believe and resist or oppose, rather than what you do believe and want to encourage and promote? Is it just arising from a need for identity and community - and in which case, why chose non-belief as the criteria around which to base that community?

Encouraging to come across atheists and humanists with a wider view on the world!

In that respect, this article asks (not unreasonably), why should there not be humanist chaplains in hospitals if we are providing Christian, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Wicca chaplains? Although, to be fair, few hospitals really do provide this full range of religious support.

However, I do have two questions. Firstly, many non-religious people do quite readily turn to religious chaplains as they are looking for the spiritual (though not necessarily "religious") resources to deal with their journey through illness (and indeed, for someone who can "accompany" them through their illness in a spiritual sense) - so what would a humanist chaplain offer them that would be different? Likewise, what form would a humanist chaplaincy take that was different from say a counsellor or a psychotherapist? That is not to say that the idea is without merit, but how would most patients (who still associate "spiritual" with "religious") relate to a non-religious chaplain?

It is an issue worthy of wider discussion - and relates closely to the conference in Malta - which will be the theme of my next proper entry.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Three Days in Malta

So, have been in Malta for an international conference on spirituality, spiritual care and nursing hosted and organized by the University of Malta school of care sciences. More on the conference later - firstly my time here so far in quick summary: arrived at Valletta airport on schedule (around 12.30 local time), and was met by a taxi driver who ferried me across the island to the hotel in Salima bay. Have a nice photo of the view. I basically spent the afternoon getting myself unpacked, showered, organised and catching up on lost sleep (I never sleep well on airplanes).

The evening was spent catching up with a colleague from Norway and her students from and another colleague from the Netherlands and his students. My Norwegian colleague and I worked on the Nurses Christian Fellowship International European regional conference in August last year, and my Dutch colleague is based at the university in Ede that hosted the conference. We are already hatching plans for a conference on the spiritual care theme in 2009

Yesterday I was on a guided tour of the old St. Luke's hospital and the newly built Matre Dies hospital (left) - so new that they do not start moving the patients and staff over until next week - so we had the rare privilege of seeing a pristine, unused hospital. Impressively in a 850 bed hospital they have a team of six full time chaplains (all Capuchin Friars), plus another fifteen working at the various clinics, community centres and specialist hospitals. This is the only main hospital in the country - but when the population is only about one and a half times that of Medway, and the Island itself is about half an hours drive from one end to the other, that is not as odd as it seems.

Malta is very built up, very North African sort of flat roofed adobe houses, and the local language is a mixture of Arabic and Italian and English. They also speak English fluently, and all the road signs are in English. Very friendly people.

Anyway, yesterday evening the conference started, and I realised I would need my tie as even the students were dressed in Sunday best! My talk seemed to go OK, not as high powered as the others, but it was not meant to be. However, those of us who had been on the tour earlier in the day all ducked out of the reception in the evening because we had not eaten since breakfast and nothing more substantial than canapés was on offer.

Today has been a series of papers, and then a rather huge lunch in a frankly overcrowded restaurant. We were supposed to be back strictly at 2.30, but they were still serving some people their main courses when I left to catch 40 winks. The conference has about 450 attendees, and all but twenty of us a re Maltese, mostly students.

In the evening some of us went on a "historical tour" of Berega, and the original hospital of the Knight of St John (now a Carmelite convent, and we were very privileged to be allowed in to see around the building by the sisters). After a visit to the church of St. Lawrence (the first Maltese Christian martyr –roasted alive on a barbecue by the Romans – nice people eh?) we rounded of the evening with a light meal – a sort of Maltese metze / tappas – very strong cheeses, dried vegetables, sausages, etc, etc. We were all shattered by the time we got back to the hotel gone midnight.

Today, after filing this blog I am off to do a quick souvenir hunt and then to the airport. Looking forward to being home again.

More on the actual conference at a later date.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Free Burma

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The more global pressure we put on the Burmese Junta, and the longer we keep that pressure up, the more hope there is that someday things will change - let us pray that "someday" comes soon, and pray for all those imprisoned, tortured or bereaved in the recent clamp down.

Also, an interesting article in the EA on public morality, theology, Coronation Street and Burma. Despite how this sounds, it is not trivial!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith in Potter

Having read the latest (and final) installment of the Harry Potter series, I was struck , not just by the books (which is overall a good read, by the way, despite a rather slow and drawn out middle section), but by some of the furore in the Christian press over the whole series, and this book in particular. Some are still denouncing the whole thing as demonic - others see in it a powerful Christian allegory. It seems that the only reactions for some Christians are either outright denunciation (a common, and usually self-defeating reflex), or appropriation as a Christian tract.

And (without giving too much away), the last book in this sequence does have elements that a superficial reading could easily give one over to either conclusion. There is a lot about Dark magic and special magical devices that supposedly allow one to cheat death, and a lot about self sacrifice, and the power of atoning sacrifice to defeat evil and even death. But to take a fantasy that does not deal with the real world and blame it for increasing an interest in the occult among children (for which I have seen no evidence), or that because of the themes of death and rebirth and good defeating evil, this must mean that Rowling is a "secret" believer, and is using her books to push a "secret" Christian message is taking things far too far.

Rowling is merely drawing on the wealth of the Western literary tradition, and the deep Jungian archetypes that in our culture have been shaped by nearly 2,000 years of Christianity - ideas like self-sacrifice, and moral courage overcoming evil are deeply embedded. And indeed, these are values that pre-date Christianity - they are there in the Graeco-Roman traditions as well.

Another example is the reaction among some Christians to the last episode in the current series of Doctor Who. Here the Master is defeated not by a secret anti-Time Lord weapon, but by the collective belief of the survivors of Earth that the Doctor could save them - a collective belief that regenerates the Doctor who then proceeds to forgive the Master for his crimes. The Biblical imagery is very strong for all who want to find it, but to then assume that Russell T Davies is a believer would be a serious error. Davies is the writer of "The Second Coming", a drama (also starring Christopher Ecclestone) in which a young man in Sheffield discovers that he is the final incarnation, and that God’s final testament to humanity is that He must die, but with no resurrection – leaving humanity to make it’s own way without God.

That Davies is an atheist (or at least, an agnostic) does not preclude him from understanding the power of forgiveness and belief to transform situations – these are deeply embedded values in our culture. Likewise, when Rowling quotes form the Bible in the “Deathly Hallows”, she does so without citing the origin, but uses the quotes in a highly appropriate context. But most readers would not recognise the quotes as from the New Testament.

Whether she has a faith or not is not salient to the books – they are full of values that Christian and atheist and agnostic alike would recognise – friends matter, truth is vital, and evil is always weaker than good because it is blind to the things that make the world worth living in. In that sense I can celebrate the writing in Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Phillip Pullmans’ explicitly atheistic “His Dark Materials”, CS Lewis’s explicitly Christian Narnia books, the Le Guin’s explicitly Taoist “Earthsea” books. They all take values that I celebrate as part of my faith, and I can take from them what I bring to them.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Blowing the Whistle

Today a group of eight of joined with abound 900 others at worship service at Westminster Central Hall to and then joined with about 4,000 others at Lambeth Bridge by the House of Commons to make a huge din to draw attention to the failure of global community to honour its commitments to the poor.

Do such demos make any difference? Is there any point, when our government seems to be one of the few that is doing anything constructive - surely it is the US or Italy or Russia that needs kicking in to action?
And the simple answer is, the more we do, the more we change things. Peacefully, rather than through the violent riots that kicked off in Germany around the same time as our rally and largely drowned it out. Furthermore, I think that getting churches to engage with campaigning makes a difference - it has more than a hint of the Old Testament prophets who challenged kings and rulers to do right by the poor. It also gets a group naturally inclined towards activism of one kind or another actively seeking to change the world. Wake the sleeping giant and see what happens.

And finally, it is church groups, more than any other single network, that are out there caring for the poor throughout the world, so if any group has a right to speak out, it is the church.
Lets see what difference, if any, all the whistle blowing has made.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cure for Baldness

Apparently, there is yet another putative cure for baldness out there. Yes, I know these things have been coming out every few years for as long as I can remember, and none have caused significant change to men with baldness. But bear with me.

The thing that strikes me is the term "cure". You cure an illness or a disorder. I, on the other hand, have never felt that in being as bald a coot that I was either ill, or had a disorder or abnormality. I certainly have never felt disabled by it. Baldness is just how I am, in the same way that some people are blond or auburn, curly haired or straight. I know some people with red hair would claim that this marks them out for special abuse, and everyone assumes blonds (especially female blonds) are stupid, but as far as I recall, hair colour or type has never been seen as a disorder.

So why am I in need of a cure for being bald? Or is this another symptom of a society that medicalises everything? Therapy culture tells us that we all need a bit of therapy (or so the people who make a living out of selling us therapies tell us). We even turn opinions and emotional reactions to concepts and groups in to diseases (see Frank Furedi's latest article on phobias)! Yes, I know that some men feel very self conscious about hair loss, but that is as much to do with stereotypes and expectations forced upon us by the wider culture - and these days being bald is not automatically a sign of being old or sad. It is a matter of self-worth and self-perception rather than there being anything intrinsically wrong with being bald.

I am bald and overweight and 41 years old, male and white, a father, a Christian, middle class (University educated and a professional) and English. Any one of these could be seen by one group or another as a disorder that needs a cure (or euthanasia!). To me, it's just who I am, and if you think I need therapy, then keep your opinion to yourself thank you very much . When I am genuinely ill, I will seek help from the appropriate source (one that has no vested interest in selling me some quackery or other).

Otherwise, warts and all, I am who and what I am, and need make no apologies for that. And nor should you.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Three Passings

This last week has seen the end of three eras - all of significance.

Last Thursday Tony Blair finally announced his timetable to leave office as the British Prime Minister, after one of the longest and most poorly concealed resignation processes in British political history. Earlier this week, the Revd. Jerry Falwell, doyen of the US Evangelical Right passed on to be with his Lord unexpectedly. And today, Paul Wolfowitz quit as head of the World Bank, after another long-drawn out process in which the outcome was inevitable, only the timetable was uncertain, thus fueling much media speculation.

And each does represent the end of an era, and the legacies of each will continue to be contested. Only Wolfowitz, in his World Bank role, had barely had time to establish reputation and a true legacy, and who knows what good or ill (or probably both) he would have wrought over the next decade if he had not been caught with his hand in the till. But from his White House days, we can see one part of his legacy every time we turn on the news - Iraq.

Sadly, for Blair this is the one part of his legacy that will overshadow his achievements (and failures) in other areas. I wonder how many outside of Ireland will recall the pivotal role he played in bringing about the Good Friday agreement and the final power sharing agreement at Stormont (also agreed in the last week), thus bringing to a final conclusion one long and bloody period of Irish history and offering hope of a more peaceful, less divided future?

Falwell (of whom I know comparatively little from this side of The Pond) has been a divisive figure in the Christian Community in the States for decades, and a hate figure for secular liberals. But he did drag the evangelical community out to address wider issues, making sure that faith could no longer be seen as private. How he did this, and the issues he got stuck on will always be contentious, but that he did it at all has meant that others (Rick Warren and Bill Hybles for two) have taken the mantle on and begun to focus on far wider issues - the environment, global poverty and AIDS for three.

Enoch Powell once famously said that all political careers end in failure. But Blair quit while his party still held on to power in Westminster (if nowhere else in the UK), and at a time and a manner of his choosing. Falwell was taken unexpectedly - collapsing in his office. No slow decline for him. Only Wolfowitz was driven from office for his misdemeanors. Of the three, his departure could be the only one described as failure, and of the most fundamental kind - if not actually being corrupt, then showing a degree of nepotism that robbed him and the institution for which he worked of any credibility in tackling corruption in other nations, and thus letting down the billions living in poverty that the Bank could still help.

Blair has done more than any other British leader to bring the cause of fighting global poverty to the top of the national and global political agenda. And even Falwell, for all the hurt and division he brought, did get the church in the USA thinking and acting in a way that made for the new initiatives that are likely to save many millions more lives in years to come. Wolfowitz's passing meanwhile, has almost certainly damaged attempts to fight global poverty.

Whatever legacies these men may have left in other areas, the way they affected the global poor (for good and ill) may be the most lasting.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Well, we are at it again. After a public declaration that the theology of substitutionary atonement (and particularly penal substitution) portrayed God wrongly as a sadist, Jeffrey John (a bishop with whom I have never been largely sympathetic) was on the end of an apparent torrent of abusive hate mail from so-called Bible believing Christians.

One contention that has often been made is that the belief that the death of Jesus was to placate a wrathful God (one way of framing the theology of penal substitution) tends to lead to aggressive and violent Christianity - and it seems that in this case the point was well made!

I actually tend towards the theology of penal substitution (though not in the words in which I framed it above), and actually believe that a lot of those who hold to it (without naming it as such) are peaceful, grace filled believers. But there are also a lot of nutters who seem happier to have a Jesus nailed to a cross and being raised only so He can come back and whack unbelievers over the head, rather than grappling with what He actually taught. That's not to let Jeffrey John off the hook either - I disagree with his interpretation of the Bible - but that does not mean I want to hurt him! Far from it; having heart felt disagreement, a full on argument, then a trip to the pub afterwards is always welcome. But not in public with the media looking on, stoking up the fight!

The basics of Christianity is simply this - I know I am a git, but God loves me anyway - and the cross is His way of dealing with me being a git. I am forgiven because Jesus faced the consequences of me being a git. That extends to those who have a different theological bent to me, such as Jeffrey John, and those who send hate mail in the name of Jesus. But I suspect, when He comes back, Jesus is going to have equally harsh words to say to all of us for being such stupid gits!

However, just to add to my level of grumpiness today, the media are in apoplexy over a change of judge at the head of the public enquiry over the death of princess Diana. Why? Who cares? We are falling behind in the promises we made to increase our aid and debt relief t the poor, and global warming is not slowing down because the Chinese are not worried about it (yet), but all the British papers care about is flaming Diana!! Poor woman has been dead ten years, and we are still dragging her out in to the media spotlight. Let her rest and watch out for the real stories you dimwits!

Jesus harshest words were for those who distracted people from the truth with petty rules and religious rituals. The media and the church in this day and age are pretty guilty of doing that job through irrelvant tittle tattle and headline grabbing theological nonsense.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Saw a remarkable film last night - Danny Boyle's latest quality Brittywood offering, Sunshine. It is remarkable for two reasons - it is a British movie, filmed for around $40M, about a a quarter to a fifth of a comparable Hollywood movie, but of the same quality in terms of the production design and the (mesmerizingly beautiful) special effects.

However, it is more remarkable that in an era when most science fiction movies seem to rely on space battles and gimmicks to appeal to thirteen year old males, this was rare, old fashioned piece of intelligent, hard(ish) sci-fi. OK, so it plays fast a loose with some of the laws of physics (sound in space, artificial gravity, etc, etc.), and the last half hour falls apart in to a confusing and unnecessary sub-plot leading to a still relatively satisfying, if hard to follow climax. But the first hour or so it is a slow, meditative, thoughtful and above, visually stunning piece in the tradition of Solaris, 2001 and Silent Running.

Obviously, Boyle has cited these as influences, and they are all there (will not show off all the references I picked up, but they were delightfully subtle in places, from the lone seedling clutched in dying fingers, to the escape into an airlock using the pressure of atmosphere vented in to space as propulsion, and the computer voice slowing and slurring as its circuits were disconnected). Above all though, it is the image of the spaceship, alone, out of contact with Earth, years from home and facing great peril that is one of those iconic SF images that is refreshingly recycled here. I had the image of the ship behind its gigantic shield, protecting it from the heat, radiation and glare of our dying sun buzzing round my head for hours as I went to sleep.

Above all it did what all good science fiction must do, and hold a mirror up to the concerns of our own world and times (particularly environmental issues). It also looks at how a single decision, made with the best will and best logic in the world can lead to an expanding tree of unintended consequences and probabilities that cannot be seen from outset - as Cillian Murphy's character points out early on - there comes a point where the probabilities are so infinite that you just have to make a good guess. But that guess has moral, ethical and practical consequences that other people have to live with. There are no shortage of current events that this problem echoes!

Oh, and the soundtrack by Underworld is hauntingly beautiful and atmospheric - good to see those guys back doing what they do best.

If only the last third of the film had been as good as the first two thirds, it would be justifiably called a classic. Maybe, even with this flaw, it will be seen that way in the future.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


spiked Grumpiness - great article by Frank Furedi. Maybe being a "grumpy old man" is not so bad after all, even if the term is used to dismiss and diminish those who feel a sense of dissatisfaction with the world we find ourselves in. As the article says,

"There was a time when criticising the status quo was considered radical. Throughout history, refusing to accept the world as it existed has been looked upon as a form of rebellion. Those who did not ‘much care for contemporary life’ were very often inspired by the conviction that human life and culture could be – and must be – improved upon. Today, such an aspiring outlook is seen as a social faux pas"

I have always thought this capacity to question the everyday assumptions and values of the world around you was of the highest order and to be greatly valued. If those of us who feel this way are to be dismissed as "Grumpy Old Men/Women" by wider society, then let us wear our badge (however ill fitting) with pride! As "Queer", "Nigger" (and countless other terms of abuse) have been co-opted by those so labelled as a badge that inverted the stigma of the name and made it a symbol of resistance and pride, then let us challenge this sick society by letting their labels be turned against them. I am Grumpy and I am proud!!

Rant over, back to doing the bins and making the wife a cuppa.

Monday, April 09, 2007


New babies really do take over your life. Even when you have been through the experience a couple of times before, you quickly forget how rapidly they dictate how and when you get out (more slowly, less frequently). You forget because as they get older, so it gets easier to go out and do things and need somewhat less logistical planning or equipment (nappies, prams, car seats, changes of clothes, emergency food supplies for adults - emergency supplies of almost everything in fact!)

The other thing they do is put pressure on all your other relationships. We have had the odd few days since No. 3 turned up where we have all fallen apart or fallen out with one another. This Easter weekend has not been without its traumas and busts ups - and reconciliations and fun bits too.

I can begin to understand why some men just walk out on their families - well, almost. You think - "this is it, this is the rest of my life - dealing with pooh, never getting out or or doing things I want to do any more, always being tired, never sleeping enough, always having my life dictated too by our child". I think plenty of women feel the same, and I think it is a myth that they adapt better than men - they just have less in the way of socially acceptable opt out clauses - negligent fathers are frowned upon - mothers who walk out are liable to be burnt as witches. Double standards are alive and well in C21!

It is bloody hard at times being a parent - or being a spouse for that matter - parenthood changes marriages beyond recognition. Believe me if you have never experienced it, nothing is the same again. But that is not automatically bad, and because something is tough does not automatically make it impossible. We learn and grow through tough times - or we fall apart. Its our choice, and I made that choice a long time back. However hard it gets, I'm in it for the long haul. Because the good bits - when your baby recognises your voice or gives you a big smile for the first time, or when you hear them say their first words, or tell you that they love you, or write their first sentences or read their first book, or bring home their first boy/girl friend - it all makes it so worthwhile.

But it is flaming hard work! Which is why no family should ever be on their own - friends, aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents - you need them all. That may be one of the reasons why the rates of family break up are so high - we are just not looking after each other and keeping families together. If was not for having family five minutes walk around the corner, and a network of church friends and others scattered across the country, I am not sure how we would have made it through the last few years.

I know that there is more to it than that, but even just having the role model of parents who are still together can make you believe you can do the same for your wife and kids. And that belief is vital.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Why Easter?

So, here we are, the most significant season of the year for Christians, and one of those relatively rare occasions when the Eastern and Western Easters and the Jewish Passover coincide.

It has always seemed odd to me that this most important season of Christian year, when we remember the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, should be named in English (and German) after a pre-Christian Germanic female fertility deity, Ēostre. The same route from which we get the word for the female sex hormone Oestrogen. Nothing to do with Jesus, or the Jewish Passover. Yet another of the pagan accommodations that the early Christians made (we were never commanded to observe any festivals by Jesus - the only observation was the shared meal of bred and wine to remember Jesus sacrifice of Himself). Yet this is a significant time of year - the Jewish festival celebrates God delivering His people from slavery, the Christian festival God delivering His people from spiritual bondage. Emancipation, freedom, life - this is what Easter is about. You can see how it has got diluted down to a celebration of spring for most people.

So, here's to freedom, hope and new life - literal, spiritual, political, psychological, to a remembrance of the awful price to be paid for such freedom, and thanks to One who was prepared to pay that price for me.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Martin Luther King Jnr.

Sharing a birthday with the Rev.d Luther King has always made me feel a vague connection with the man. Today is the anniversary of his murder - a murder than highlights the high cost paid by those who stand up against the status quo, who challenge entrenched powers on behalf of the downtrodden, and above all who have the temerity to stand up to satanic theories of race based on the ugly history of the transatlantic slave industry.

If my earlier posting gave the impression that I thought it was all down to us whites to sort out the problems faced by black people, then I apologise - Martin Luther King is one of many examples of how much of the emancipation from slavery and the subsequent social segregation was down to black people themselves taking hold of their lives, history and destiny and changing it for themselves - with or without the help of whites.

Of course, it then becomes easy to swing the other way, and lionise the likes of King and lo and behold we have the Hollywood "Wise Negro" archetype - you know the sort played usually by Morgan Freeman - who is noble and kind and spiritual and sorts out the white protagonist's inner demons and sets him/her on the path to enlightenment (think of Driving Miss Daisy and you get the picture - although you could also include the Morpheus in the Matrix under that rubric). It's just as much of a myth as the other stereotypes of black people that we white Europeans and Americans have.

Martin Luther King had his flaws (he was an adulterer for one), but he also had a grasp of something central - God's bias to the poor and downtrodden and the need for justice, not based on retribution and revenge, but on setting things right between people. He only partially succeeded, but that was still some success. There is a lot more to be done.

No profound insights there then, just an attempt at a corrective to what I posted earlier, and to remember not just the man on this anniversary, but the struggle for racial and social justice which is still ongoing, and those fighting in the front line.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Shopping Trolleys!

I have a deep seated belief, based on a marginal reading of the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy, that there is a whole circle of Hell devoted especially to those who leave supermarket shopping trolleys to clog up parking spaces, walkways and roadways at supermarkets.

I have, on more than occasion seen people push a trolley they have just unloaded in to an empty parking bay, rather than walk an extra thirty yards to put it in to a shopping trolley bay for collection.

This annoys me for two reasons. The first is that it is innately annoying when tying to walk or drive or park to find a shopping trolley left where it is destined to cause maximum inconvenience.

The second, more significant reason is the attitude that it exposes. "I cannot be bothered to do something as taxing as walk thirty yards and put away a trolley. Someone else will deal with it, so why worry. It's not my problem. I pay good money to shop here, so I expect to have my mess cleared up for me."

This attitude has at its heart a childishness that is shared bt that a lot of adults in modern Britain - a generation of infant-adults. Someone is always going to do it for them, they have no responsibility to other people. Mummy will take care of it (she probably always did, and never got them to to do anything for themselves as children). Never mind that they are the first to complain when another infant-adult inconveniences them through such selfishness!

It drives me mad when I hear someone say "someone should do something about it". My answer is to say "why don't you?". And there are always the excuses about time, or "I don't know how", or, most commonly "it's not my responsibility. The government should do this, it's what we pay our taxes for".

Now, I can see a hypocrisy in myself as I type this - one my wife would keenly point out! I do leave messes around our house, assuming that it will get dealt with later (usually by my wife). I am not perfect, and this is one area where I need to grow up - it's a trait that a lot of men share. But I cannot leave litter on the street or a shopping trolley not in its bay. And I cannot assume that the government will do something about war, famine, poverty or any other ill, unless I and others badger them to do something, and are prepared to get up and do something about it ourselves.

Shopping trolley crimes are in themselves petty and trivial, but this abdication of responsibility is a sign of a moral weakness and spiritual malaise that angers me deeply, but which is so prevalent in British culture today. And thus it is worthy of damnation in all of us who abdicate our responsibility for the weak, poor and marginalised. Sins of omission are sometimes even worse than those of commission.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


So, we are now past the various celebrations of the 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade, and what a jolly time we have had! Everyone slagging everyone else off for not celebrating the right things (it wasn't the end of slavery, don't y' know?), or not celebrating the right people (it wasn't all Wilberforce, don't y' know?).

The thing is, I sympathise with the guy who got up in Westminster Abbey yesterday to berate everyone present. I don't totally agree with him, but I do sympathise - after all, didn't the Church of England, the Monarchy the British Government and indeed most of British industry benefit from the slave trade and ongoing slavery for more than thirty years after the abolition of the transatlantic trade? Not much repentance for that in the service, as far as I could see. And didn't these profiteers on the back human misery all get compensation for the loss of their slaves (the slaves, of course, got nothing)?

The history of how this and other Western nations treated the people of Africa so appallingly lives with us to this day. Where is the greatest poverty and social deprivation to be found in the UK and the USA? - largely among the descendants of salves. Which groups are still excluded, treated as less than human and subject regular individual and institutional abuse? - yeah, you got it again. And yes, where is the slave industry still flourishing? - well actually not just in Africa this time - how about Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc, etc. It's spreading! But where is poverty getting worse? - umm, there you are again, Africa. And who is still getting rich off the poverty of Africans and slaves? - ah yes, that'd be us again.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la mem cholse.

So maybe I did not totally agree with the protester yesterday - but he had a point. Poverty and slavery and racism and injustice are still with us - Wilberforce did not abolish them. He may have won one small battle two centuries back, but the war is far from over. No wonder so many of those of African descent feel uncomfortable and alienated from the celebrations this year. Maybe we need to ask the question that Wilberforce and the abolitionists asked - are we happy to grow in wealth and power at the expense of others living in poverty and misery? And if not, what are we going to do to change that?

If the controversy over these celebrations should teach us anything, it is that we cannot afford to stop asking these two questions of ourselves - and seeing them spur us into action.

(Am I getting a bit pious here? Quick! - get me back to baby pooh!)

Monday, March 05, 2007

We Didn't Start the Fire.....

One of Billy Joel's better songs, but a sentiment I cannot wholly agree with! Over the last year or so there has been a distinct fire raging at the heart of British cultural life - a fire that at times seems all consuming, and at others barely relevant or noticeable. It is a fire that our cousins across The Pond have called the "Culture Wars", but here have manifested in a different form. However, they all seem to come from the same starting point - the clash between a secular modernity that feels it should have long ago won the argument about the validity of all forms of religious expression in the public (and increasingly the private) sphere, against religious convictions of various kinds that not only do not agree that the argument is over, but question the validity of the argument in the first place.

This has lead to a war of words in the public square between the hostile atheistic fundamentalism of Dawkins and Hitchens, up against the various forms of religion, fundamentalist, literalist, traditional and liberal. Increasingly hostile and being fought out in spheres of equal opportunities, and human rights legislation, this conflict at times sheds more heat than light.

At the heart of it seems to be a fundamental mismatch of world views. Not only are they incompatible with one another, they actually do not intersect most of the time.

Rationalistic atheism and secularism assume that all truth is capable of reductionist analysis. Religious world views tend to believe that truth is apprehended experientially, whether through scripture, ritual or mystical experience. The one assumes that anything that cannot be measured and observed is not true, or cannot be subjected to enough scrutiny to verify its truth one way or the other. The other assumes that experiential truth leads one to a greater understanding of oneself, one's place in the Universe and how one should live.

Evangelical Christianity has accommodated the modernist, rationalist mindset the most, and has framed the Christian faith in terms of analogical and propositional truths and doctrines, and so most often clashes with secularism. Catholic and pentecostal Christianity are less in love with modernity, and feel less need to engage with these debates except where they force a clash of values in the public sphere.

Which is where the other difference arises - secularism holds that faith, if it must exist, has to be kept to the private sphere, and not affect any other part of life. Meanwhile faith has always seen itself involved with all of life. Secularism is largely confined to a Cartesian dualism, faith (possibly apart from Evangelicalism in its most academic forms) is concerned with the whole of life as lived in embodied, phenomenolgical experience. Needless to say that the latter is older, more widely practised human thought pattern.

Sadly, I fear the likes of Dawkins, who are nice, middle class white European male children of the Enlightenment have little real engagement with the rest of the human race, and thus no real understanding of religion, or indeed post-modernity which is largely suspicious of the overarching truth claims of any religion - including scientific atheism.

But it is the ferocity of these clashes that bemuses me. The fear, on both sides, that the other is a real danger to the future of the human race. I find this sad - I have many good friends who hold themselves as committed atheists and agnostics (the latter in the sense of subjecting all truth claims, including those of scientific atheism to serious and sceptical scrutiny). I respect their positions, and they respect mine.

Dawkins (or Hitchens) I fear is a man who I might like in person and find I could talk to about most subjects, but once we come on to religion, his bigotry and fanatical hatred of all things religious would make any attempt at dialogue pointless.

There is no point in trying to debate with the wild eyed, fanatical convert who is convinced his truth is the only one. Faith, in the very real sense, is about a journey of discovery - doctrine may not be irrelevant, but is only a starting point - if one cannot learn, and have one's beliefs subject to regular scrutiny, then what you have is not faith, but a blind clinging to certainty out of a fear that one might be wrong. Dawkins is, I fear, as much guilty of that kind of red-eyed fanaticism as any religious fundamentalist that he rails against. Less nice, middle class people than he who hold similar views could use them to some very unpleasant ends, and indeed the likes of Enver Hoxha and Joseph Dzhugashvili have shown us that this is not a false fear.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Together for the Gospel?

I sometimes despair about my church. Not my local congregation - which, for all its faults is a great group of people who are trying to live faithfully to the teaching and example of Jesus and make a positive difference in their communities and workplaces.

No, I mean the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. At a time when churches the world over are beginning to work together more constructively than ever to bring the reality of God's kingdom of peace, justice and grace to a world torn asunder by war, injustice and ungraciousness, the Anglican Communion is tearing itself apart over the issue of whether or not ordain gay priests.

Not that the issue does not matter, but how did we get so easily diverted by such a side issue? What about poverty, war, AIDS, the injustices in world trade and the negative aspects of globalisation, the erosion of family life, and the increasing spiritual poverty in the West that we are so rapidly exporting around the world? What about the Good News that Jesus brought? Why is that not our number one priority?

The answer seems to be not in the Anglican Communion, but rather among the Catholics, Pentecostals and other protestant groups, who all seem to be less readily diverted. I give God thanks that there are plenty of people (including Anglicans at the grass roots) who are not getting bogged down in political disputes that divert us from the Great Commission. Those are the people I want to be working with.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I'm a Dad .... again

Here she is, pickle number three. Safely delivered, and at home by some good friends (who also happen to be professional midwives). There is something really special having the baby at home, and having friends and family involved. The baby was born in the living room, with the children in their bedroom right next door (they claim not to have heard a thing!), surrounded by people who we knew, loved and trusted.

It contrasts to our first two who were born in hospital with significant medical intervention. Not that the care was bad; far from it, and not that the interventions were not necessary (neither of my other two kids nor my wife would be probably be with us now if there had not been those interventions). However, the experience of a normal, everyday but hugely significant life event in your own home is something special.

One of my favourite books of all time (Marrying & Burying: Rites of Passage in a Man's Life) explores how the rituals with which we surround ourselves help give meaning to life events like birth, marriage, coming of age, death, and dinner. Around all of these life events (major and mundane), however much we may not realise it in our post-industrial world, we are steeped in a huge variety of big and little rituals. The one we went through yesterday evening was the ritual of modern birth - attended by professionals with their notes and equipment, the ritual checks of the baby and mother, etc. Today I participated in the modern ritual of announcing the birth to friends and family - in the past done my letter or word of mouth, now done by email and blog spots. The instant nature of the modern ritual means this post-industrial father got one of the new baby's names wrong, and had to apologise on line!!

We have lost some of the deeper meanings of all of these events. My father-in-law brought us back in to focus today by simply praying over the child and making the sign of the cross on her forehead as she slept. One of her names is Grace, a reminder that she is a gift to us out of God's grace - the abundant, selfless, unearned blessings He pours out on all Creation.

Little rituals connect us back with deep truths.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


No sign of the baby yet, but boy did it snow (and still is snowing - see left taken five minutes back). About three inches.

Now in Scotland, Siberia and Saskatchewan that may sound like a light dusting, but down here it brings the whole country to a halt. But I don't care today, because it's SNOWING!! and I got to take two very excited children to school and pre-school in it. Darling wife wanted to get out in it too, but grumpily conceded that she did not want to fall over on her bum in the snow, as her centre of gravity currently sits about three inches in front of her actual body, and so balancing on ice is hard, hard work. Bless. But it also might bring on labour!

Now, less of the silly displacement activity and childish excitedness at snow, and back to some real work.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Tum Te Tum Te Tum

Tiddley pom, nobody knows how cold my toes are growing, tiddley pom. It is real brass monkey weather, bright, sunny, frosty, and with 2 - 7 inches of snow forecast for tonight, looks like it is only going to get colder. Even with thermal socks, my feet are like ice blocks on the cold kitchen floor and this study is like a freezer, even with the heating on!

Meanwhile, my darling wife is in the protracted early stages of labour, I am off work to help, and we are cooling our heals waiting for junior No 3 to show his/her face as soon as possible (in the midst of one of the most fraught times at work, as well!) - our kids are always late. The first two were induced and born at 12 and 13 days overdue respectively, so we are really hoping this one bucks the trend. But you never can tell.

At lest I won't have to fight my way into the office tomorrow when the train system inevitably grinds to a halt tonight!

Meanwhile, more media madness - Celebrity Big Brother and the racist bullying row, Tony Blair and No 10 staff still being questioned over an alleged cover up of cash for peerages corruption, the video of US pilots shooting up a British convoy and killing one serviceman, and all the other bits and pieces of the last month. All of this is serious stuff, despite initial appearances, but as ever distracts from the bigger picture.

But lets not go there again!

I anticipate I will be blogging more for the next few days, before once again a madly busy work schedule and increasingly busy family life take over. Meanwhile lets get some food down me to keep my blood warm!

Monday, January 15, 2007


At forty one, a birthday should (according to conventional wisdom) be a day for feeling down and grumpy. You're another year older (and therefore, closer to death, or at least being old and infirm), you inevitably feel disappointed with the presents you get and life seems to be one huge let down, etc, etc.

Well, that's how I am told I should feel. I have never been very good at bending to convention, unless I like the convention. The "forty something and grumpy" convention does not suite my temperament, so I ignore it. Yes, I do get grumpy at times, and yes I do shout at the TV regularly (most car ads are greeted with "it's just a car!" - and indeed most adverts get short-shrift because they are trying to tell me how inadequate I am without their product, and how much more fulfilled I would be with it - neither of which statements long experience has taught me are in the slightest bit true - ever!). But at the end of the day, life is too short and full of woe to be sad and grumpy all the time - you have to live and celebrate living every day, otherwise why live at all?!

So birthdays are for me a great excuse to catch up with friends, have a knees up eat party food, have a drink or two more than usual, and have some pressies (with which I very, very seldom am disappointed - this year a water proof wind up radio/torch and beautiful plain gold cross).

In short, I am still a big kid, and feel no shame in that whatsoever!

Now, back to work (but first a cup of tea and some of my wife's brownies - yum!)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Looking at the news yesterday evening and this morning, you might be forgiven for thinking that the only thing happening in the world at the moment is a raging controversy over whether a (moderately unpopular) government minister is right or wrong to send her dyslexic child to a private special needs to school rather than a state school.

Meanwhile our oil supplies are being cut off by Russia, the genocide in Darfur continues with very little signs of the West intervening to stop the killing, a major new front on the War against Terror (or Terrorism) is opening in Somalia, and Afghanistan and Iraq descend in to further chaos. And that is leaving to one side global warming and the mounting crisis of the AIDS pandemic.

The British press can be be brain bogglingly myopic and petty at times.

Meanwhile many of my fellow believers (some of whom I count as personal friends) are protesting against the new sexual orientation regulations soon to go through Parliament. While I suspect that many of their anxieties about this legislation are exaggerated (but not totally), I find myself uncomfortable to see fellow believers marching against legislation that is widely perceived (however inaccurately) to be promoting justice and equality of opportunity to people. Whether or not I agree with someone's lifestyle or choices has nothing to do with what rights and dignity I extend to them as a human being. Jesus certainly seemed to reserve most of his harshest words for the religious establishment and its promotion of its own agenda to the exclusion of the needs of ordinary people (e.g. the seven woes in Matthew 23).

Meanwhile, in addition to all of the above global problems, the church in Africa lives in poverty, its congregations depleted by AIDS, malnutrition and people leaving to find work in the cities or other nations, while in other parts of the world (including Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Central and South East Asia and northern Africa) Christians are regularly imprisoned, tortured or put to death for their faith.

Are we so introverted in the British church that all we care about is threats to our own rights and status? Surely that should be the last thing on our mind - especially considering how privileged we are in this wealthy, peaceful nation of ours.

Paul got it right; we lay our rights down before God and the needs of the poor and the vulnerable (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6: 3-10). I like the bit a bout not putting stumbling blocks in people's way. I fear sometimes we come over as harsh and shrill and bigoted rather than full of grace and peace. But then again, some of that is also the way the media spins what we say.

And that, at the end of the day, is the problem - what we see of the world and how we respond to it is so shaped by the myopic lens of the media that we miss what is really going on.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Sunday is notionally meant to be the “day of rest” in Christian countries of the Northern Hemisphere and other parts of the anglophone world (and it seems in South Korea too, from my all to brief experience of the country, although with more than 33% of the population claiming membership of one or other Christian church, maybe that is not so surprising as it initially seems). But for our family at the moment it means once again a day of sorting out things for the incoming baby – such as cots (reassembling thereof) travel systems (laundering the covers thereof after a long sojourn in the garage since our son was outgrew the travel system a couple of years ago). Now I have twenty minutes before another series of "Waking the Dead" starts (I hope it is a better season than the last dismal outing of what used to be a very enjoyable, if occasionally daft crime series).

However, it is not the return of Trevor Eve and Co. that has got me excited, for on Tuesday we see the return of Battlestar Galactica. Now, at this point the nerd in me easily takes over, but let's pause a moment before dismissing this "re-imagining" of a classic (if distinctly kitsch, nay even naff) seventies space opera. Let us put this in to a bit of a context first.

A lot of genre TV (crime and science fiction in particular) suffers from being formulaic, repetitive and derivative. When a show breaks free of those constraints, it is pure joy. Recently the US has output some of the best genre and non-genre TV drams in decades - all of which have bee mould breakers of one kind or another. The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, CSI, Murder One, 24, etc, etc. On the science fiction side we are now in the tenth and terminal series of Stargate, about to see the return in the spring of the new (improved) Dr Who for a third series (well done Russell), the recent end of Torchwood (jury's still out on that, but maybe not all Russell touches turns to gold after all), the wrapping up of Farscape and finally, the return of Battlestar Galactica. Recent years have also seen such truly inventive gems as Frefly come (and mysteriously go) to reinvigorate TV sceince fiction, which has always been the poor relation to the wirtten end of the gnere.

BSG followed hard on the heels of Firefly, but set a new tone - it has all a good sci-fi show should have to satisfy the inner-thirteen year old of most science fiction fans - good special effects,, dramatic storylines, strong characterisations, good writing. There are also the obligatory sexy women (and men) to appeal to their respective demographics. No surprises there.

What sets it above the average though is that along with all of this there is an air of stark realism. This show's main storyline is about survival - characters die, the human race is clinging by a thread to existence, and asking itself the question " do we deserve to survive in the first place". The "baddies" have just the same questions and existential doubts (further complicated by the religious differences between the notionally polytheistic (by practically secular) humans and the apparently monotheistic Cylons).

The "Good Guys" are always teetering on (and not infrequently falling over) the edge into immoral actions, while the "Bad Guys" are capable of making moral choices for the good, are able to recognise the moral consequences of their actions and are capable of feeling remorse.

All this is dressed without acres of technobabble, aliens who are just actors in rubber suits (or with Cornish pasties on their heads) and spouting silly invented languages. If anything there are times when it resembles an episode of The West Wing or 24 more than a traditional science fiction series.

Above all though, it is a powerful echo of the angst in American culture over the War Against Terrorism. As such, it not only resonates with British culture (which is equally immersed in this latest ideological war), but it also gives me hope that there are real moral questions being grappled with in America and (I hope) in the UK.

In that sense it may be not just one of the best TV dramas (genre and non-genre) around at the moment, but in terms of history, one of the defining TV series of this decade.

Meanwhile, I shall rot my brain with Waking the Dead, which has little to say, but is a pleasant enough way of passing a Sunday evening (if watching autopsies on bodies in various states of decay can be described as "fun" that is!).

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Kirk Douglas, Eat Your Heart Out!

One of the features of the last week off work has been my son's imagination. For days on end now we have had to play "Lazy Town". I will not bore you with what Lazy Town is - just follow the link if you are interested, but my son always has to be the hero - Sportacus. If I deign to call him anything else, he shouts "no, I'm Sportacus", which inevitably leads my wife or myself to retort "No, I'm Sportacus, and so's my wife/husband". This rather confused cinematic family in-joke has become one of those amusing but tiresome anecdotes that one will save up to embarrass one's children in future years (especially in front of prospective girlfriends).

So, here we are in 2007, back at work (with the epic daily commute), and spending every second or third evening up in the very confined space that we laughingly call our loft trying to arrange plastic sheeting and ice cream tubs to catch the leaks in (what several roofers have now informed is called) our central gully gutter. And my lunchtimes at work chasing up said roofers to come and give us a quote to fix the leaks. Ah, the joys of home ownership.

In between whiles I am running around after my son who still insists on being addressed as the hero of the earlier mentioned Icelandic pre-school TV phenomenon, and who insists that I am "Robby Rotten" - the arch nemesis of Sportacus (funny how in our version, Robby Rotten is the one who cuddles Sportacus downstairs after a bath, reads the bed time story and gets the night time cup of milk - rather than trying to turn Sportacus into a gibbering slob as happens in the TV version!).

Ah, the joys of family life - leaky roofs and Sportacus! Welcome 2007.


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