November 2009


The sheer bizarre awfulness of the Telegraph‘s Blogs Editor, Damian Thompson, has been a constant mystery to me since I first came across him. Well, actually, I had never even heard of him until I wasted an afternoon writing a diary piece for the Daily Telegraph during the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Within minutes of it going online, Thompson had posted a nasty little piece with a deliberately misleading photograph.

Ever since then I have followed his stuff on Twitter with incredulity at the frequent nastiness and perversity of his views. Does he have any friends anywhere? Does he have contempt for everyone other than himself?

Damian ThompsonSo, I find myself in a difficult position today. He has posted a clear piece about the decision of the General Synod Revision Committee on Women Bishops and what he has written makes sense. I suspect that he and I come at the matter from different perspectives, but I guess we would agree that some opposing positions cannot be resolved by compromise and that we just have to face reality – however painful that might be. (And although I agree with his logic, I don’t agree with his silly headline: ‘The Church of England washes its hands of traditional Anglo-Catholics’.)

The issue about women bishops is tortuous. If you don’t believe a woman can be a bishop, then you cannot accept any authority delegated by a woman bishop to a male bishop: the authority still derives from the female bishop. On the other hand, however, you cannot divide up a diocesan bishop into ‘bits’ of authority, some of which can be ignored by those who don’t like the gender of the bishop concerned. If a bishop is a bishop, then he/she must be the bishop with all that means. To do otherwise is to negate any concept of catholicity anyway.

These positions have always been irreconcilable and it is only the desire to keep as many people together as possible that makes the attempt at compromise worthwhile. And that search is worthwhile. Thompson is right, however, to point out that Anglicans who want to go to Rome whilst keeping the flexibility and freedom to dissent and negotiate, etc. that they have in the Church of England might not be welcome in Rome after all. He put it more eloquently, quoting Jonathan Wynne-Jones quoting Fr David Houlding:

“This is a great piece of wickedness. The committee knew what was needed and have refused to provide something that will hold the Church together. This forces people out of the Church who otherwise would have stayed. We didn’t want to go to Rome, but now have been left with no choice.”

On the whole I’m thrilled by the prospect of Anglo-Catholics seeking comunion with the Holy See – but with that sort of stroppy attitude? Houlding is wrong on two counts. It is not “wicked” for a self-governing Church to say to its members: this is the decision of our bishops and democratically elected representatives, and if you wish to stay then you must accept it. Nor do people with Houlding’s views necessarily have the option to become Roman Catholics. The Holy See is not interested in receiving into full communion Christians who would prefer to be in another denomination. In fact, I suspect it will refuse to do so, and much as I expect the Ordinariate to flourish, I hope it does.

Rome 1 002Many of those who approve of women bishops have a great concern to keep as many traditionalist Anglicans in the Church as possible. But it might be seen in the future to have been a mercy that the issue has now been forced, that reality has to be faced and that the time for clarity – however painful for everyone in the church – has come.

It is still possible that some workable compromise might be found, but it isn’t looking likely. Which means that we need to pray for and offer support to those who now find themselves in a ‘crisis’ (in the proper sense of the word) – that is, a time to decide and then commit themsleves to the consequences of that decision.

Robert EnkeOne of the saddest stories of last week was the suicide of the Hannover and Germany goalkeeper, Robert Enke. It appears that after months of depression he threw himself under a train and put an end to his pain. The death of his two year old daughter three years ago caused him and his wife enormous grief, but people thought he had ‘got over it’. It appears that he was now afraid that his foster daughter would be taken away from him if his depression became public.

The German media reaction to Enke’s suicide has been very interesting, respectful and mature. Enke’s remarkable widow spoke about her loss and her husband’s fear of his depression becoming publicly known. His doctor, referring to the suicide note left behind, observed that Enke had resolved to end his life and had to keep his intention secret if he was to actually do the deed. Representatives of the German football association spoke about the problem of admitting ‘weakness’ in a sports world in which success and winning are everything. Oliver Bierhoff, the German national team manager, wept.

Depression is one thing; fear of talking about it is another. The depressed person has enough to cope with; it is the rest of us who create the conditions under which confession of ‘weakness’ is seen as impossible. OK, this might be particularly acute in a sports context, but anyone who has had any experience of depression or pastoral care of people suffering from depression (or their families) will know that depression is widely seen as a form of failure or weakness – especially in a society that worships strength, power, success, beauty and glamour.

Ballack at Enke serviceEnke suffered in public silence. Wealth, fame, popularity and success were not enough to still the raging storms of his depression. His death is a tragedy at many levels, but it has rightly exposed an issue that demands attention – and not just in Germany.

Tomorrow there will be a huge memorial service in the Hannover Arena to celebrate Enke’s life and mourn his death. It will be a collective outpouring of grief, but it will also enable people to reflect on the nature of depression and the public perception of it. One German friend of mine (who works in media) commented yesterday that “there was nothing like it before in Germany”. It is a bit like the German ‘Diana moment’ – when the veneer of social ‘normality’ is stripped off and the raw humanity that we all hide so well gets brutally exposed.

No doubt the veneer will get coated back on as the days go by. But some vulnerabilities will have been exposed by Enke’s death, his widow’s grief and his national team manager’s tears.

Kassmann at Enke serviceDr Margot Käßmann, the recently-elected leader of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (who is also the Bishop of Hannover), spoke at a service the day after Enke’s death. She quoted the Liverpool anthem You’ll never walk alone and then tackled the questions raised head on. But she began her address by quoting from Enke’s widow:

Wir haben gedacht, wir schaffen alles, und mit Liebe geht das. Aber man schafft es doch nicht immer. (We always thought we could manage, that love would get us through. But it doesn’t always work out.)

This is the reality. And it will hit hard those who live in fantasy land – who think that if you just get the ‘formula’ right, everything will work out OK. If we are to live in the real world, then we must listen to the grief as well as the joy, the tears as well as the laughter, the failures as well as the successes. And we must, perhaps, be more rigorous about what we consider to be ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in the first place.

This death will be of ‘interest’ in the UK, but only insofar as a foreign footballer has died young. Grief is always relative. But those of us who deal with depressed people or who love Germany will pause for longer and pray for those whose lives have been so deranged by this particular death.

Robert Enke RIP.

I have seen some great theatre in my time.

  • King Lear (Shakespeare) at Stratford about fifteen years ago (although after two hours I was wishing Lear would just finish himself off and stop philosophising aloud).
  • The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (Brecht) at the Contact Theatre in Manchester in 1974 when I went with my sixth-form German group and our Assistentin – who was left in tears. The play (about the rise of Hitler) ended with the stage blacked out between two huge Nazi flags and photos of brutality and the concentration camps projected onto a small screen – followed by the actor who played Ui/Hitler telling the audience (words to the effect that) Hitler may be dead, but his bastard offspring are not. No one could speak as we left the theatre at Manchester University.
  • Mamma Mia (!) – just to be the only bloke in an audience of 20-something women laughing and singing our way through the ridiculous plot and wonderfully banal Abba songs.

But last night beat the lot. I had seen the National Theatre‘s publicity for Michael Morpurgo‘s play – set in the context of the First World War – when it was on at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, but I never had the opportunity to go. Last night, after dinner with some good friends, we put that right.

Morpurgo wrote the story for children, seeing the war through the eyes of horses who don’t choose which side they are on. The synopsis of the play tells the following story:

At the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France.  He’s soon caught up in enemy fire and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone and in no man’s land.  But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.

War Horse stillIt sounds almost silly. But it is the most engaging, emotionally powerful and arresting production I have ever seen in a lifetime of theatre-going.

The whole theatre is used – with actors standing among, coming out of and running though/into the audience – drawing us into the action rather than leaving us as spectators of someone else’s drama. The sound and light are superb and the projection of ‘scrap book’ images above the stage is powerfully evocative. The horses are operated by teams of puppeteers, but you soon see them as real. They are astonishingly life-like in their movement and behaviour – and it is hard to imagine what research, engineering and work went in to making them work so effectively. The acting was superb and when the explosion that closed the first half ripped through the auditorium, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, body tense and emotions shredded.

Anyone who has read the First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke will come to this play already sensitised to the horror and humanity-wrenching futility of war. But Morpurgo has brought to the familiar narratives a new perspective – seeing the action and cost through the experience of an animal rather than a partisan human being.

War Horse posterUntil last night I had no idea that (according to the programme notes) in the 10% of France invaded and devastated by 1918 (from pre-War figures) the number of cattle and draft oxen had reduced from 892,000 to just 58,000; horses and mules from 407,000 to 32,000; sheep and goats from 949,000 to 25,000; and pigs from 356,000 to 25,000. In the same area 293,039 houses were destroyed, 435,961 houses seriously damaged, 436 million cubic yards of trenches and shell holes had to be filled, 448 million yards of barbed wire removed, and so on.

One million horses were taken to France from Britain. Only 62,000 returned.

If the opportunity arises to see this production (currently at the New London Theatre in Drury Lane), don’t miss it. It is stunning at every level.

liverpool_one_logoI was in Liverpool for a few days this week to visit my family. On Monday evening I took my parents and my younger brother for dinner in the town centre and saw for the first time Liverpool One.

I remember this area as derelict and dangerous. I once had a holiday job (when I was about 15) in a warehouse just round the corner from the new shopping cathedral and well remember discovering the decaying rat under the denim jacket (later sold…) – as well as being wrapped up in cardboard boxes and sent down the chute into the basement to await rescue by the boss an hour later.

This is the area opposite the rejuvenated Albert Dock and it now connects the docks with the main shopping and entertainment area of the city centre. It is brilliant to see the confident redevelopment of this place that has been a derelict mess since the Second World War.

Everton Two logoBut the best bit was wandering through the deserted shopping centre after hours and coming across the Liverpool FC Shop. two doors further along was the Everton FC Shop. The Evertonians had the wit to call their shop ‘Everton Two’ – so that their address now reads: Everton Two, Liverpool One.

It shouldn’t be funny, but…

Further to the furore over the Sun‘s handling of the Jamie Janes hand-written (by the Prime Minister) letter saga, I can’t quite believe I have just heard what I think I have just heard.

I was driving down the M40 on my way back from Liverpool to Croydon this evening and listening to BBC Radio 4’s PM news programme. Tom Newton Dunn, the new Political Editor of the Sun, was being interviewed by Eddie Mair. In response to the statement that the Sun was trying to deter voters from voting for Gordon Brown in the next General Election, he said this:

I’m not sure we’ve ever said we don’t want people to vote for Gordon Brown. All we do is offer our readers an opinion. We don’t make or break governments. We simply report what happens and give them the benefit of our opinion, if they want to read it.

I propose a minute’s silence for (a) the death of journalistic integrity (at the Sun) and (b) the scornful mockery in this statement of the readers’/electorate’s intelligence.

I got into a lively debate over the Telegraph‘s handling of the MPs’ expenses business – a debate that ended up quite informative and helpful. One of the sticking points, however, was the difference in perception between the ‘reporter’ and the ‘reported on’. I then responded to James Murdoch’s outrageous speech to the Edinburgh Television Festival – especially his assumption that the ‘Market’ is the only god (especially if dominated by him and run in his interests). This latest stuff leads me to ask the following questions and I invite journalists (many of whom have my deep respect) to respond:

  1. Does anyone really still think that newspapers simply “report what happens” dispassionately?
  2. Is it even remotely credible that the Sun would waste a penny of its money publishing a word on anything if its owners and journalists thought they were doing nothing to shape the world, influence debate and change people’s thinking to the extent that they might vote differently?
  3. Would the Sun retain any journalists if all they did was to offer a casual opinion on the events of the day and not seek to change people’s behaviour?
  4. If the Political Editor is right, then why did the Sun go to such lengths to advertise its power of persuasion in previous elections and publicise its change of allegiance for the next election?

And an extra question – riding on the back of the Press Complaints Commission’s latest failure in respect of phone-tapping allegations against the News of the World: when will the profession take the lead from the reluctant MPs and propose outside regulation of the media? (In the ‘expenses’ debate on this blog one of the arguments against MPs was – rightly – that they set their own rules and regulate themselves and that this is intolerable. I asked why the same didn’t apply to journalists. I’m still waiting to hear a cry for justice here.)

Go anywhere outside Britain and ‘our’ red-top tabloids are a source of incredulity and embarrassment in media, political and other circles. Why do we tolerate this rubbish?

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the British tabloid newspaper, the Sun. Actually, that is an understatement. I have nothing but contempt for the way people are treated by the British tabloids: dehumanised fodder in ratings wars.

The SunThe big news yesterday was about the ‘scandal’ of the Prime Minister having written an inadequate letter to the mother of a young soldier who died in Afghanistan. Apparently, the Prime Minister wrote by hand a letter of condolence in poor handwriting – a letter that was then found to contain spelling errors. The outrage of the bereaved mother was then caught in newspaper print and in the broadcast media. Gordon Brown was put onto the defensive, having to explain to a watching world what should have been a private matter.

And this is where the Sun comes in. It appears that this ‘newspaper’ has generated a story in order to put political pressure on the Prime Minister and the Labour Government. In other words, this is a political maneouvre aimed at causing embarrassment to the party the paper has decided to oppose in the next election.

So, what happened next? Well, the Prime Minister phoned the bereaved mother – beyond the call of duty? The Sun had provided her with the means to record the private conversation – and now the recording has been made public, is being picked over in the media and yet might invoke sympathy for Brown.

Why do people buy a newspaper that so blatantly abuses a bereaved woman such as Mrs Janes? She is being cynically exploited for the Sun‘s gain. As another bereaved mother put it on the BBC news earlier: this is a private matter and bereaved people should be directing their anger where it is due – not by making political capital for a newspaper by allowing her privacy to be compromised by people you can’t trust.

Whatever you think of Gordon Brown or his Government or his policies in respect of Afghanistan, this behaviour cannot be condoned. The Prime Minister didn’t simply send out a standard letter of condolence with a brief hand-written sentence at the end to ‘personalise’ it; he writes an individual letter to each bereaved family. That should be recognised and applauded … and then left to the confidentiality it deserved.

No one will fail to sympathise with those bereaved through the horror and violence of this conflict. But the Sun is behaving exploitatively and with a dehumanising contempt for the people involved as well as for any notion of privacy or confidentiality.

Can’t the great British public see what is going on here – and how they/we are being manipulated by this stuff?

There is a place where the Sun don’t shine…

It has been fascinating listening (in the car on the drive from London to Liverpool) to all the stuff on Germany 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I did a 30 minute slot on a radio station this morning and was interested to listen to the memories of Germans from the east and west of that surprising and momentous day two decades ago.

GorbachevBut, amid all the memories, it has brought to my mind a different event.

Last year I was in Astana, Kazakhstan, for a conference and was seated at dinner one evening with the Chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev is a very fluent English speaker and a politician of broad experience. I think there were seven or eight of us around the table and the conversation ranged widely over all sorts of political matters. Being a little opportunistic, I thought I’d grab the chance to ask questions I could never ask anyone else: Tokayev knew Gorbachev and Yeltsin and worked closely with both of them.

YeltsinI asked him why it was that Gorbachev is seen in the West as a great hero – the one who liberated the East and ended the Cold War – and Yeltsin is seen as an egotistic drunk who was an embarrassment to everyone who saw him. His response surprised me. He said that Gorbachev was a loser (my word) who sanctioned a massacre in Kazakhstan only several years before Glasnost kicked in and then oversaw the collapse of an empire; Yeltsin, on the other hand, was admired for his strength, political ability and his drinking. Apparently, in Russia a man who can hold huge quantities of alcohol is revered rather than resented.

This made me realise again that it is too easy to assume that everybody sees the world through the same lens. The way we judge ‘strength’ in the West might be totally different from how it is viewed in the East. It was fascinating listening to Tokayev telling stories of people who are legendary in my world, but for very different reasons and from very different perspectives.

It is a similar story in Germany today. Ostalgia (as it is being called) refers to the sort of romantic memories of the old German Democratic Republic. The world of the Berlin Wall was easier to understand: east and west, capitalist and communist, etc. But there were things of value in the east: universal health care, full employment (even though much of the work was not great), cheap travel, good education, etc. One German commentator I heard this morning noted that ‘you cannot put a price on freedom’, but that freedom comes at a price: freedom to fail, to be unemployed, to lose, to be poor, and so on.

The events of this night 20 years ago remind me that freedom must never be romanticised – but it must be highly valued. The fall of the Wall brought losses as well as gains. But life is like that. Isn’t it?

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