March 2009

My last post on the rules of pizza was sufficiently disturbing that I have now lost all confidence in the protocols of public consumption. And it is clear from the comments people have made that I am not the only one currently having to review – with confidence well and truly shaken – the ethics and form of pizza-eating.

I went to Brighton with my younger brother on Friday to enjoy a day off in the sunshine by the beach. Tim has come down from Liverpool for a week or so and is staying with us in Croydon. So, we parked the car and went searching for lunch. Brighton is brilliant for little alleyways and narrow roads stuffed with small restaurants and cafes. We eventually got drawn into an Italian with a cheap offer. There was nobody else in there, so I felt reasonably confident about eating without any wider scrutiny.

We ordered the same pizza and then started to attack it. Judge for yourself (my brother is on the left).


Does that look weird to you?

The photo below is at the half-way mark when I was beginning to lose the will to carry on.


cimg11432Please tell me this doesn’t negate my entire life!

jade-goodyToday Jade Goody and her two boys were baptised in the chapel of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. Media comment is, inevitably, ubiquitous. So is the inevitable sneering from those who think baptism is all voodoo anyway. So, what is there to say?

Baptism is fundamentally about (a) God’s generosity to us and (b) our response to God – worked out in our response to each other. Baptism involves acknowledging the love of God – something that is simply offered and not something that can be claimed as a ‘right’. It marks us with the sign of the cross, the evidence of God’s identification with real humanity, living and suffering in the real world. Baptism is, therefore, primarily about what God does and not primarily about what we do. Only then can we respond with openness and gratitude.

But that response involves a public recognition that we are in need – and that is offensive to many people. Baptism involves saying I need to turn away from what is wrong and walk a new path – not with everything resolved, but in humility as one who has no illusions about my own fragility or need. It is that recognition that then characterises and shapes my relationships with and attitudes towards others.

fontSo, baptism is not about ‘thinking I am better than anyone else’. Nor is is about buying an insurance policy from God. Nor does it depend on my understanding the complete theology of baptism. It is a gift and it is for God to sort out with each one of us. But, the key, I think, is in this: God does it – we simply respond to what God does. The rest is detail.

So, I am glad Jade Goody has been baptised and has brought her boys to baptism. I hope the boys will grow up to explore and own what baptism has begun in and for them. And I hope that now Jade can go to her death in privacy and in the confidence that the love of God offered in baptism is a love that nothing can overcome – not even death itself.

Enough now.

michael-jackson1I know the internet is full of conspiracy theories and crazy people who think the moon is made of cheese, but here’s another one to get us going.

I was watching the news with my brother the other night when Michael Jackson appeared, announcing his forthcoming UK tour and stating it would be his ‘curtain call’. The problem is, though, that he didn’t sound like Michael Jackson and I wasn’t sure he even looked like Michael Jackson. The voice was deeper, the confidence surprising and the mouth just a bit… er… odd.

Are we the only ones to suspect it was his body double?

25 years ago today (6 March 1984) Martin Niemoeller died in Wiesbaden, Germany. He was Pastor of a wealthy church in Berlin-Dahlem when Hitler came to power and advocated voting for Hitler in 1933 on the grounds that he would clean Germany up. When his eyes were opened to the realities of what was going on (the appointment of Ludwig Mueller as Reichsbischof and the passing of the Aryan Law), he helped found the Confessing Church and joined the resistance. He spent eight years in Moabit Prison, Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps and was eventually released in 1945 from Austria.

niemoellerHe is best known for the ‘confession’ he wrote after his release:

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Kommunist.

Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,
habe ich nicht protestiert;
ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.

Als sie die Juden holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Jude.

Als sie mich holten,
gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.

martin_niemoeller-poemNiemoeller was a great man who did not need to have his memory sanitised, but stood out as a leader who demonstrated in his own life the power of changing one’s mind. A good biography can be found on the EKD website (in German).

Many English people have never heard of him, but he is worth reading and his story is worth telling.

I have just recorded an interview with the BBC about elements of the National Secular Society‘s campaigns against religion in general and the Church of England in particular. Then I was sent a copy of the press notice issued by the NSS yesterday in response to the announcement made by Southampton University Hospitals Trust that people will be asked whether they have “any faith needs that can be supported during their stay”.

secularismThe NSS responded thus: “This sounds like the chaplains touting for business. It is a gross misuse of scarce National Health Service resources and an intrusion into the privacy of individuals who are coming to hospital for medical treatment… How on earth have we reached the stage that you can’t even go to hospital for treatment without having religion foisted on you like this?”

Oh dear. Here we go again. I would love to be able to have a rational discussion in rational language with rational people, but this sort of stuff should make any decent secularist despair.

1. The description about ‘chaplains touting for business’ is just cheap and silly as well as ignorant.

2. Who decides what counts as ‘gross misuse’ of resources: the majority of the country’s people who claim some sort of religious belief or the little huddle of the NSS who try to speak for everyone?

3. Since when has asking a question been tantamount to ‘intrusion into privacy’? No one is required to answer and the question itself does not suggest it must be answered affirmatively. It appears from this that the hospital trust is mature enought to allow adults the freedom and dignity to make their own mind up whereas the NSS thinks people are inherently stupid and vulnerable and need to be protected from a question. How liberal/rational is that?

4. Asking this question is, apparently, having ‘religion foisted on you’. Is not having the question asked tantamount to having secularist assumptions foisted on you? Do they really have such little regard for the integrity and intelligence of ordinary people?

5. There is an assumption that human beings are simply a body/mind duality – very platonic, but not how most people see themselves. Is it really the intention of the NSS to deny people the right to be treated as ‘whole’ beings – spirituality included – presumably on the grounds that the NSS knows better than the people concerned what is good for them? Isn’t that what we call ‘patronising’?

I draw attention to this simply because some of us are well up for a good rational debate about all sorts of things: the constitutional place of the C of E, the secular myth of neutrality, the role of bishops in the legislature, etc. But this will require a more rational language from the secularists of the NSS. I know they are a campaigning body, but issuing silly and patronising press notices does nothing to encourage a proper debate.

andrew-marrAndrew Marr, presenter of the BBC’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has raised some of these questions very well in relation to Darwin. His basic point is that some secularists are behaving very religiously/evangelistically in relation to their atheism – and shouldn’t they see what they look like? (See also the interview with Tony Blair on the same subject.)

During the last few days I have had several prolonged conversations in different contexts about leadership, the transformation of cultures and the tendency in any organisation to lose sight of the purpose that gives it its raison d’etre. One conversation was in the sphere of a multinational business, another with a clergyperson of vast experience in both the church and the wider world of public service. In both there was a common theme.

The story is told of how President John Kennedy once visited NASA. He came across a cleaner and asked him what his job was. The cleaner replied: ‘My job is to put a man on the moon.’

janitorThis man could have focused on the smaller world of his own particular job in a particular part of the institution. he might even have devalued it as being of less importance than, say, the astrophysicists or aeronautical engineers – to say nothing of the astronauts themselves. But, instead, he had grasped that every employee was playing a unique part in the drama that would eventually put a man on the moon. He wasn’t just cleaning an office – he was making history.

Hearing this story made me reflect on how easy it can be to get distracted by the minutiae of work or society and lose sight of the point of it all, the bigger picture. It happens in church all the time. The church doesn’t exist for the sake of the church; it exists for the sake of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom in the world. So, when the church becomes obsessed about its own internal purities (‘obsession’ not being the same as ‘appropriately concerned and kept in perspective’) and loses sight of the ‘end’ to which it is supposed to be committed, it literally loses the plot.

And there is a harder question in all this: how do we find pithy, simple (not simplistic) ways of articulating just what the vocation of this church is?

I often use a phrase to describe the church’s purpose: ‘to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God’. This doesn’t nail the breadth and height and depth of Christian theology, but it offers a start. Other phrasings might be:

  • to change the rumour about God, the church and the world
  • to bring Christ to people and people to Christ
  • to sound echoes of heaven amid the competing noises of the world
  • to shine light into the murkiness of complicated lives
  • to show wounded hands to a wounded world and show that God knows

neil_armstrong1We could go on. And each of these needs to be unpacked. In my experience they provoke the very questions that emerge from a teased imagination or a curious mind. But they also put into perspective some of the pettinesses and distractions that dog our institutions. They keep me focused on what matters when my own agenda seems to be full of matters that don’t – in the long run – really matter at all.

Anyone else got good ways of keeping us on track and communicating the bigness of the ‘project’ in simple but evocative phrases?

flat-earth-news1One of the best books to come out of 2009 so far is Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, subtitled ‘An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media’. The title comes from the assertion that for millennia everbody thought the earth was flat – until someone could be bothered to go and find out that it wasn’t. Davies says that loads of ‘stories’ in the media are perceived as true until anyone looks into them properly. One of his complaints about contemporary journalism is the culture that pressurises journalists to produce stories without the facility or time to check their veracity. he’s even set up a website to pursue these things.

His big one is the so-called Millennium Bug. In the run-up to the turn of the millennium there was a widespread fear that computers would malfunction with global catastrophic effects becasue of a suspected inability of the computers to properly read the double-digit turn from 99 to 00. Millions of pounds were spent in attending to this ‘problem’ – only for nothing to happen. So, asks davies, how did this story become so ubiquitously powerful when there was never any truth behind it? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

cctv1Well, in yesterday’s Times David Aaronovitch wrote about the ‘strange case of the surveillance cameras’. The oft-repeated ‘fact’ is that we can be caught on camera in London 300 times per day: that is how pervasive the surveillance society is now. I have often used this ‘fact’ myself. However, Aaronovitch decided to find out where this ‘fact’ has come from and eventually discovered it was, in fact, fiction. Yet we all believe it, apparently.

Three elements of this interest me:

1. Every journalist I know wants to do good, intelligent and useful journalism, but is constrained by the pressures of time, money and numbers to get stories the truth of which is not always ascertainable in the time or circumstances that pertain. This is bad for journalists, bad for journalism and very bad for society which needs to be intelligently and accurately informed.

2. We are too happy to be gullible and, as media consumers, too easily lose our critical and interpretative faculties. What is often confidently stated as fact is often baseless in reality or given a suggestive slant that affects the way a ‘fact’ is understood. A quick example was also to be found in yesterday’s Times in a tiny piece about the Pope’s nominee for Bishop of Linz. The implication of the piece is that the Pope has withdrawn his appointment from the bishop because he had said Harry Potter was ‘satanic’. Indeed, the bishop had said such things, but that was not the reason his appointment had been rescinded. It was his membership of the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X, his anti-semitism and the fact that the priests in Linz set up a petition against him that did the trick. So, why the Times piece?

brandedarms3. The Church is often preoccuppied with ‘moral’ issues that are difficult and divisive. yet, one of the biggest moral issues we face in the UK right now is the so-called ‘surveillance society’. Even if the cameras aren’t filming us 300 times each day, so many records are now being kept that the notion of privacy is being slowly eroded. The government wants to keep our phone records and emails just in case. Fear of terrorism trumps all other concerns. And we still don’t learn that in 1930s Germany (for example) while the Church was concerned with sorting out ‘moral’ issues such as sexual behaviour and other ‘corruptions’ they missed the big stuff that was coming in its wake.

Does anyone see ‘surveillance‘ as a moral issue? I think it needs more serious attention that it has hitherto been given by people who find it easier to obsess about sexier subjects like sex. But, I suggest, it goes deeper and will require more attention from serious-minded moralists. Even if we are only being filmed 100 times each day.

This week is not a good week for being positive. The Stock Market fell dramatically again yesterday, exacerbating the confidence/trust crisis in the global economy, and Liverpool lost to Middlesbrough. To make it worse, Manchester United had a jammy win in the Carling Cup final and look set to win everything again this season – the most depressing thing for a Scouser. So, it isn’t a great week so far. But, then, I am still musing on what I read on the train to Gloucester in yesterday’s Evening Standard.

standardlebedev300The Evening Standard has recently been bought by the Russians Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev and yesterday was the first edition under their ownership. They have promised not to interfere in the editorial direction of the paper and they have a track record (with Novaya Gazeta, the pro-democracy newspaper in Russia that has had journalists targetted and, in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, murdered) that indicates that they will stick to this commitment.

But what was interesting about yesterday was the statement on page 2 that proclaimed: New chapter for the Evening Standard, the voice of London. It went on: ‘We shall be a life-affirming, aspirational newspaper that aims to be different and bold, our style embodied in punch, zest and humour. From today this newspaper takes a fundamentally optimistic optimistic view of life, of London and Londoners… We believe that the greatest city in the world needs a cheerleader. As recession bites, we also think it needs cheering up. London’s oldest and most-loved paper will celebrate metropolitan life as the capital’s champion. We shall be a newspaper built on idealism and intelligence…’

Well, that sounds OK, doesn’t it? Shame, of course, about the sheer negativity and manipulative cynicism that has characterised this newspaper in recent years under its previous ownership. Its behaviour against Ken Livingstone (whatever you think of him) during the last mayoral election in London was appalling and misleading. So, a new chapter would indeed be welcome.

But this goes further. Newspapers often focus on what is unusual or abnormal in life – understandably. But it also means that the good in life and society does not get covered. This can lead to a ‘wallpaper’ impression that society is entirely dangerous, life totally problematic and hopes for the future mere fantasies in a cynical world.

I take encouragement from the words ‘intelligent’ and ‘idealistic’. Let’s see what now happens with the newspaper. I might even start buying it again for a couple of months, just to see if there is a real change and a real engagement with the good things of life as well as the bad stuff.

Looking on the bright side should not be a form of escapist propaganda and no newspaper should abandon its campaigns to expose corruption, holding the powerful and influential to account. But it will offer a balanced representation of the real world to those whose mental wallpaper is coloured by the headlines they glimpse and the pictures they see.

Watch this space.

I saw this ages ago and forgot about it. It has now made a comeback into my consciousness. I know it is a caricature (isn’t it?), but it is very funny.

According to research published recently, it might eventually be possible to produce stem cell treatments without using human embryos. This would remove a source of serious ethical objection to such research by many religious people and allow the benefits of such treatments to be available without offending consciences. So far, so good.

stem-cellAccording to the report by the BBC: ‘A UK and Canadian team have manipulated human skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells without using viruses – making them safer for use in humans. The cells are reprogrammed by the insertion of four genes which are then removed once the process is complete…’

But, before we get carried away, the report also urges caution: ‘Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, said the research was an exciting step in the right direction but there was still a long road ahead. “For the time being I think it rather premature to suggest that their work will completely remove the need to derive human stem cells from embryos.” He added there was still a lot to learn from human embryonic stem cells in order to know whether stem cells reprogrammed from adult cells are truly useful or not.’

So, this is a step towards a more ethically acceptable way of researching potentially helpful therapies for all sorts of diseases and conditions. But the question it raises for me is one that bothers me in lots of areas of life: given that the progress in research could not have happened without the current research methods, is the later development also by definition unethical? Some critics will undoubtedly claim that it would be unethical to use therapeutic methodologies derived from earlier methodologies that were deemed to be in themsleves unethical.

The problem here is that so much of what we now take for granted would become untouchable if we took that view seriously. For example, given that almost every advance in internet technology has been driven by either the military or the pornography industries, should I even be typing this? And should you be reading it?

Or we could look at the development of nuclear power or many other scientific processes which derive from experimentation (or implementation) in ways we would now find to be unacceptable.

stem-cells-cartoonI guess this story will disappear quickly as slow scientific research is not very exciting and not a lot happens for a very long time. But the ethical questions it throws up are tough and I would be interested to know what the response from ethicists will be in due course.

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