August 2009

School signI had lunch today with the head teacher of a secondary school in Croydon. Among other things we were musing about how the debate about so-called ‘faith schools’ is being handled in the media. This was partly set off by an article in yesterday’s Guardian by Martin Wainwright about parental displeasure with a Portsmouth school’s decision to insist on a new school uniform for its students. The article, which seems to me to be entirely fair, begins as follows:

A comprehensive school has introduced a compulsory new uniform costing up to £97 a child, prompting fears that children from low-income households may be deterred from applying for a place.

Parents are protesting at a compulsory new uniform introduced by a comprehensive school which can cost £97 per child. The uniform for Oaklands Catholic school in Waterlooville, near Portsmouth, Hampshire, is available only from the school or one local retailer, giving parents no real opportunity to shop around. Government guidance on the issue is for schools to arrange a range of suppliers.

This is headed in the online version by:

Comprehensive defends new school uniform costing nearly £100.

The school is simply described in the article itself as a ‘comprehensive school’. However, the newspaper version had a different headline:

Parents angry over faith school’s compulsory £100 uniform.

Now, that tells a very different story. The nature of this school is actually irrelevant to the story being reported. The writer has done a good job at telling us the story, letting us hear the voices in the discussion and setting it in a wider financial, social and educational context. So, what was the agenda of the sub-editor who added that headline to the newspaper copy?

I will be writing more about so-called ‘faith schools’ in due course as this debate needs a new direction. For example, simply lumping Church of England schools in with Roman Catholic schools or Islamic academies (whatever view you take of their desirability) is just lazy, ignorant and misleading. They are different beasts and it is not good enough simply to stick them together under one convenient catch-all category as if the differences didn’t matter and the unique ethos of each was irrelevant.

In what other sphere of life would such treatment be deemed acceptable?

The Guardian might well have a ‘line’ to push on these matters, but we should at the very least be able to expect more care and accuracy with its headlines.

Stephen BatesStephen Bates of the Guardian is a man for whom I have great respect. During his time as Religious Affairs Correspondent for the paper – a post he held for seven years – he was intelligent, mostly fair, well informed and wrote as if the things he was covering actually mattered. He has spoken and written before now about the effects of his work on his own faith and it has not been comfortable reading. He also wrote several books, the most interesting (from my point of view being God’s Own Country, a seriously worrying analysis of some American Christianity.)

God's Own CountryNow he has published a brief account of his move towards agnosticism, motivated not so much by theological or philosophical conviction, but by the sheer horribleness and hypocrisy of those who claim to be Christian. He exposes the double-dealing in the Church in making provision for remarriage after divorce (Jesus said ‘no’) while vetoing homosexuality (Jesus didn’t mention it). More to the point, it is not the church’s view so much as the treatment by some in the church of those they regard as being ‘wrong’.

Jesus commanded those who bear his name to be like him, to look like him, to sound like him and to love like he did. To love like he did means loving those who nail you to a cross. The sheer lack of such love to those who are ‘wrong’ surely calls into question the ‘christian’ bit of Christianity.

It is worth reading Stephen’s piece and asking what must change if good people are to see in the Christian community some bit of a reflection of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels.

I thought this was a parody at first…

In the USA it is not only the health care system that needs some attention. If this example of ‘expert analysis is the level of serious reporting Americans have come to expect, then the education system is seriously in need of renewal, too.

Some things are simply beyond parody.

One of the things the Church often gets criticised for is being predictable in its responses to various social, moral or intellectual/philosophical challenges. Actually, we only grab the headlines when what we say or do was not predicted. For example, ‘Church opposes gambling’ is not big news, whereas ‘Church promotes pornography’ might be.

Sometimes it is good to be predictable: it allows people to know what we are about and where we stand. However, experience of the real world shows us that there are some matters of such complexity that the Church’s response (if honest) should be a hand-wringing and angst-ridden self-examination – on the grounds that if these matters are important, then we should wrestle with them and not simply give the predictable answer ‘because it keeps people happy’.

Daily_MailThis has come to mind simply because I picked up a brilliant website (from Twitter) yesterday which randomly generates Daily Mail headlines. It also offers the (New) Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project, the David Blunkett policy maker, Michael Howard sings the Smiths and Alastair Campbell’s Wheel of Retribution. Have a go – it is very funny.

chejesusRead the Gospels and what you find is that Jesus constantly surprised people. He surprised religious authorities with the bad news that God might not be enitrely on their side; and he surprised the ‘outsiders’ with the good news that God loved them, even if the religious authorities didn’t. He healed the ‘wrong’ people on the ‘wrong’ days (the Sabbath) and made people laugh with his surprising stories and images (camels through the eye of a needle, for example).

So, they crucified him.

It might be OK for politicians and newspapers to be predictable, but there are ways in which I hope the Church will always be unpredictable – bringing the laugh of surprise to the ‘right’ people even if that unpredictability brings scorn from the righteous.

I once set up a Facebook page in order to see what all the fuss was about. People started to want to be my ‘friend’ and I started getting emails telling me that someone had ‘written on my wall’. So, I ran in the opposite direction, not knowing what my ‘wall’ was or why anyone would want to write on it. I have not been back into Facebook since that first venture.

Twitter logo 1I got signed up to Twitter after being persuaded that it was a good way of propagating this blog -and that not to be on Twitter would leave the blog ‘hidden’. So, I signed up, had a few bitty conversations, worked out how it works and then worked out how best to use it. But, now for a quick detour…

In today’s Independent Janet Street-Porter strikes a blow against Twitter and those who use it. Well, actually it is less a blow and more a savaging with a slightly damp flannel. This is what she says:

Since the G20 riots in the City of London and the highly controversial Iranian election, there’s a determined lobby trying to convince us that Twitter represents the ultimate in news gathering. For facts, we’ve traded reactions… But all twittering really delivers is the ultimate in mini-munchie banality. Instead of real emotion, in-depth opinion, considered arguments about why the NHS works, or the many reasons for not eating veal, what we get is breathless trivia…

Twitter works for the middle class, the middle-aged and for work-weary wannabe trendies because it lets them feel they’re part of a big happening club, when in fact all they are doing is exchanging mindlessness. If I want to know whether a show is worth going to at the Edinburgh Festival, or if Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album is worth buying, I certainly don’t want a 140-character Twitter; I want an intelligent review written in real sentences, not some bastard lingo that’s the ugly love-child of texting and abbreviations.

Twitter panders to all that is shallow and narcissistic in our society, reducing lives and experiences (like childbirth and death) to missives that last even less than the average British male’s attempts at foreplay…

Twittering about the pros and cons of the NHS reduces a complex subject to less than a soundbite or a jingle. Don’t tell me Twitter is brilliantly democratic and lively. It makes me angry that we’re so keen to stop talking in sentences, and are swapping having real conversations for knee-jerk reactions. If this is the future for politics, we’re in trouble.

Surely, if Janet Street-Porter has anything to do with the future of politics, we’re in serious trouble, as she promotes dismissive ignorance in sentences that might have been better left unwritten.

The real value of Twitter is not the boring narcissists who detail their every thought and every move. And Twitter is not the only home to boring narcissists. The real value of Twitter is not even the propagation of instant news at the cost of informed comment (which clearly isn’t what JSP gives us anyway) – yet the facility of instant communication to a wider community clearly has massive advantages in exposing the lies of the ‘powerful’ (look at the Iranian election in which technology could not be used to hide or suppress the truth). The real value of Twitter doesn’t even lie in the speed with which people can bait me for Liverpool’s defeat against Spurs yesterday – anyway, two can play at that game…

The real value of Twitter is that people post links to other sites where people write in proper sentences and give considered attention to things that matter. Twitter is a vehicle for an otherwise disconnected community to pass on sources of information or observation that might otherwise have been missed. The 140 characters are a means, not an end. Is that so hard for JSP to understand?

I would not have read some of the powerful and well-written stuff on blogs about the NHS if I hadn’t been tipped off by Glinner on Twitter. And I wouldn’t have noticed JSP’s silly article had I not been pointed to it on Twitter. (Which, I realise, does suggest a downside to the use of the medium…)

Which is why (I assume) the Independent uses Twitter to propagate its own news and comment – a medium JSP ignorantly thinks is worthless.

NHS signThe debate keeps going and the blogosphere is pregnant with people telling their stories.

Would anyone in the USA have the vision to copy to every member of their legislature and every State Governor a copy of the blog by Strawberry (which has clearly gone viral) and the comments that follow it? It tells its own story.

Or would the facts simply spoil a bit of ideological propaganda that steers the selfish, individualistic dogma of Republican America?

I hope Obama has the prophetic courage to keep going.

There’s a lyric buzzing round my head these days and I can’t shake it off. It comes from a song by the brilliant Bruce Cockburn and expresses the fragile wonder that comes from living on the edge – something Cockburn returns to again and again. In this case he muses about the fragile vulnerability of human existence – life that could be snuffed out in a second because we are all mortal – and introduces a violent and striking image. In the last verse of Lovers in a dangerous time (originally on the Stealing Fire album of 1984) he sings:

stealingfireWhen you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime –
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight –
Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time

I think it’s buzzing round my head because of some of the other stuff buzzing round the ether in the last few days.

How, for instance, do we react to the sheer lies and shameless disinformation about the propagated about the NHS on the other side of the Atlantic – and revealed today to be backed by a number of Tory MPs? Should we simply let it go on the grounds that ‘truth will out’ eventually? Or should we just offer David Cameron sympathy for having been unfortunate enough to end up leading the Tories in the first place and get off his back?

In the starkly arresting image introduced by the pacifist Cockburn in this song written in the context of 1980s Central America (remember the Contras and all that?), we are exhorted not to lie back and think of our own comfort, but to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight. It’s a tough and uncomfortable image. But it is also what the Old Testament prophets did and it’s what ultimately got Jesus nailed to a cross.

So, I guess there’s no way out. Where injustice rules or mortality (and its consequences) are ignored, we have no option but to keep kicking until the daylight seeps out.

A different take on a similar theme would, of course, be Michelangelo’s famous block of stone. He looked at it and saw an angel waiting to emerge from it. Unfortunately, it took an awful lot of sweat and angst to chip away at the stone till the angel ‘emerged’.

On a more trivial matter, we might as well stop kicking at Chelsea. The new Premier League football season finished yesterday where it left off in May with Chelsea being given enough extra time to score their lucky winning goal. Do they use voodoo or something else to get these favours? (But, at least Everton’s 1-6 defeat to Arsenal was indisputable… and I am writing this before Liverpool kick off their season against Spurs, just in case…)

Anyway, here’s a live version of Lovers in a dangerous time, sung with Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies at a 9/11 benefit concert.

I realise this is an embarrassing confession, but it’s about time I made it. I have never been to the United States. I have been all over the globe, but, so far, have never been to North America at all.

Whereas most of my contemporaries as I was growing up could think of nothing more exciting than going to the USA, the Land of the Free (unless you are poor, of course), I was always more interested in going to more … er … interesting places where the cultures were markedly different, strange languages were spoken and strange complexions matched unusual customs. So, the seemingly infinite variety offered by Europe, Africa and Asia did it for me.

Don’t get me wrong: I would go to the USA if there was some point in doing so – visit friends, do some work, promote books, etc. – but other wise I don’t feel much urge. I am just being honest. There is much about American culture I admire (blind optimism, celebration of success and aspects of the work ethic as well as a creative ability to tell stories in film); but there is much that evokes suspicion and incredulity. And the current healthcare debate has brought it all to a head.

There is much that can be criticised about British society. The British do a pretty good job at needling self-criticism without needing help from outside, but we get plenty from outside anyway. I guess much is justified. Reading foreign newspapers, journals and websites (wherever possible in their own languages) can be very illuminating when it comes to being seen as we are seen. But there are certain things that command pride and self-defence. Health is one of them; integrity might be another.

Hospital signHow do those journalists and politicians in the USA sleep at night when they have perpetrated such inaccurate and false representations of the National Health Service in the UK? Are they ignorant (which can possibly be forgiven) or deliberately disregarding of truth? How can lies be perpetuated without any shred of shame?

I simply refer the reader to some of the outraged responses to this debate: from the Times, Independent and just one blog. (Here’s another intriguing late addition.)

American currency proclaims, without a hint of irony, ‘In God we trust’. For around 50 million Americans that’s the best they can hope for. No insurance means no care. Is it not surprising as well as shocking that those Americans denouncing the NHS (on spurious  and shallow ideological grounds) in contrast with their own wonderful system are precisely those who aren’t excluded by their system?

The NHS might not be perfect, but it is based on principles that demonstrate a greater ‘trust in God’ – that is the God of the Bible whose constant and consistent appeal to the poor and marginalised is embarrassing to any culture that sees such marginalisation as just – and love of humanity than one that serves only those who are wealthy enough to afford it. Which Bible do Republicans read?

Criticise the NHS by all means, America, but don’t do it on the basis of lies, misrepresentation, wilful ignorance or ideological stupidity.

The problem with returning from a stint of incommunicado foreign service – even for just a week and a bit – is that you have to catch up with the news in one go. So, I’ve been whipping through the Church newspapers, glancing off websites and other journals and now find myself wishing I hadn’t bothered. Here’s three examples of what I found that don’t fill me with joy, but do reflect on the posts I published since my return from Zimbabwe on the freedom to think aloud and aspects of criminal justice:

1. A couple of weeks ago Stephen Kuhrt wrote in the Church of England Newspaper about the impact of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans on the Diocese of Southwark. He drew attention to a sermon by a preacher at Fairfield Church (part of Richard Coekin’s Co-Mission network, known locally as the Diocese of Dundonald) inwhihc his church, Christ Church, New Malden, was accused of having lost interest in mission because it had strayed from the Gospel (or words to that effect). In last week’s copy of the CEN the aggrieved preacher retorted with a remarkably either disingenuous or naive counter-complaint. He writes:

Richard [Coekin] is a forward-thinking leader who in the years I’ve known him has never said anything against Stephen or Christ Church, New Malden, despite previous attacks on him, and it wouldn’t occur to him to do so.

Richard certainly is a strong leader, but I am boggled at how people can be so revering of him that they cannot recognise the truth of his failings. I’m afraid Philip Cooper, the said preacher, needs to listen to people who have worked with (as I have in my capacity as Archdeacon of Lambeth from 2000-2003) or related to Richard Coekin locally. Richard criticised Christ Church, New Malden, in precisely the terms used by Mr Cooper to me on more than one occasion. He was also reported to me by a member of a mission team several years ago as having done so on more than one occasion publicly and in a way that made the identification of the church not hard to discern.

Believe it or not, I have a respect for Coekin and his leadership qualities despite my antipathy to the disingenuous way he goes about things in relation to the diocese and his representation of his own victimhood. But it is wilful hagiography of the worst kind to portray Richard as almost infallible on these matters and to not want to hear inconvenient things about him. Why can’t they just admit that he gets things like this wrong, as the rest of us do, and apologise?

Rowan Williams2. Today I read Martin Beckford’s piece in the Telegraph about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s participation in a forthcoming Channel 4 programme about belief. The Archbishop speaks of ‘hell’ as being:

… stuck with myself for ever and with no way out… Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell.

The article is fine. But go down to the comments on the online version and then it starts to get scary. Some people – who clearly think of themselves as Christian – clearly need help. Why is it that people outside fo the Church often find Rowan Williams thoughtful, insightful and painfully honest, whereas people inside the Church (who disagree with him) like to denigrate him?

I wrote the other day about the danger of ‘leading’ people (such as politicians) not being free to speak the truth, but constantly to be saying what other people want to hear and always in a very safe way. I remember him saying at a conference: ‘When people ask me to lead, what they really mean is: ‘say very loudly what I want to hear’.’ The Archbishop, albeit quoted briefly and (inevitably) out of context in the article, is at least interesting as well as being honest. Clearly, some of the commentators would prefer him to be dishonest and just tick their boxes in their language. Thank God he doesn’t.

FernandoTorres3. But, if that isn’t enough for one day, I then read on the BBC website that where I live is one of the 20 burglary hotspots in the UK. This is a pity because Croydon is a fantastic place to live – a place of real civic and social ambition. And I haven’t heard a burglar alarm go off on my road in the six years we have lived here…

Oh well. At least Fernando Torres has signed his new contract for Liverpool…

Despite appearing to be quite different, two stories in today’s media raise important and connected questions.

First, the (reported) imminent release ‘on compassionate grounds’ of the jailed Lockerbie bomber who is now dying of prostate cancer. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is serving life for murdering 270 people when Pan Am flight 103 exploded in 1988. I remember it well because I was watching telly while babysitting my young children in Kendal when the screen went blank and appeals to emergency services started to come across the screen. The plane had flown over Kendal just a few minutes before it exploded. yet, despite the conviction and the loss of his subsequent appeals, there are widely acknowledged doubts about the justice of his conviction – most articulately from Jim Swire, father of one of the victims and for many years leader of the group campaigning for justice for the victims and their families.

The BBC’s Daniel Sandford in Washington said “broadly” families in the UK were concerned about the conviction, whereas US relatives were convinced of his guilt.

The second related story is the report issued today by Barnardo’s in which it maintains that too many British young people are being locked up (rather than given community sentences) and that the sentencing of many of these young people (some as young as 12) does nothing other than increase the potential for further criminalisation. The BBC report says:

The law specifically states that children aged 14 and under should not be locked up unless they have committed a grave offence or have committed a serious offence and are deemed to be a persistent offender. But the Barnardo’s report found more than a third of 12 to 14-year-olds locked up did not meet the conditions. Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey: “I’ve been shocked at the number of very young children we lock up.”

Barnardo’s surveyed around half of all children who were put in young offender institutions in 2007. More than a fifth were locked up for breaching an Anti-social Behaviour Order or similar punishment, half were victims of abuse and more than a third were living with an adult criminal.

Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey said that until 1998 it would have been illegal to imprison these young people unless they had committed one of the so-called “grave offences”. “Now we do this, every year, to more than 400 children aged 12, 13 and 14. “This is a tragedy for the young people themselves, it’s a shocking waste of money and, in terms of reducing their offending and doing anything to protect victims, it is almost invariably ineffective.”

And there’s the rub – precisely where these two stories collide. What is the purpose of custodial sentences? If the penal system exists simply to punish offenders and make everybody else feel safer, then it is clearly not very effective. It might reassure those who see punishment as ‘justice done and seen to be done’. But the offenders will come out and, if criminalised by their experience, be a further or worse problem than they were before. ‘deterrence’ does not seem to work – especially when young people return to the communities and dysfunctional families/friendships that allowed or encouraged them to get into trouble in the first place.

In other words, justice is not served simply by inflicting deserved punishment; there must be some serious work at both rehabilitation and restitution if offenders are to change their ways and, therefore, come out of their criminal sentence better able to live without offending. That way society benefits and it is less expensive. The problem is that pouring resources into stuff that is hard to measure (slow/gradual attitude or behavioural change) is not attractive to the great avenging public.

So, what place does or should compassion have in a penal system? To what extent is justice served by keeping the Lockerbie bomber in prison while he dies – especially given the doubts about his conviction and the lack of prosecution of anybody else? Is justice served – or just vengeance? And isn’t the mark of a democratic, civilised society that it can go beyond justice to show compassion – rather than mimic the societies that thirst for blood-vengeance at the slightest provocation?

I guess I want to explore the value of a pragmatic approach to compassion that will not be welcomed by the Daily Mail brigade. Keeping people locked up might make some of us feel better, but it might be ineffective, expensive and self-defeating. Yes, of course, some people need to be locked up for a very long time, if not for the whole of their life. I have done prison chaplaincy and worked with offenders and am not naive. But, there must be room for an intelligent debate in this country about what we think ‘justice’ is, how it is to be achieved and how it should be mediated effectively.

I might want to see young offenders locked up and kept out of the way and suffering for their crimes. But if we do nothing to help them to change, then we are burying our heads in the sand of self-righteousness and simply sowing the seeds of further crime in the future. This is a problem for the whole of our society – not just for the criminal justice system. I can’t complain if a young offender comes out hardened and commits further crimes against me or my community if I have done nothing to understand them and help provide an alternative way of life in their future.

And I bet this will be called ‘wet liberalism’.

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