Monday, 26 November 2007

The D word

I started to read Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion recently. There are several reasons why I haven't done it sooner, but the main ones are that people I trust have assured me that it doesn't say anything he hasn't said elsewhere, and that he doesn't need my money.

But here I am with a free copy that came my way, and I read the preface. I think the project is going to be a long one. I had to go and lie down in a dark room to recover. Others have already criticised the work in lots of ways, so I probably won't bother here, but the bit that gave me a headache was this:

"Just as feminists wince when they hear 'he' rather than 'he or she', or 'man' rather than 'human', I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'. Speak of a 'child of Catholic parents' if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a 'Catholic child', stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics."

Presumably this latter means that it is impossible to speak of a French or English child. After all, the child has not chosen which nation to be born into, knows nothing of its politics and economics and may grow to prefer speaking Greek. Come to think of it, he or she may never make a conscious decision to be French or English. Perhaps most of us should simply be described as of French or English birth; the only real French or English people are those who have become naturalised citizens.

The problem is that Professor Dawkins must know that belonging to a religion is a cultural as well as intellectual phenomenon. Why does he pretend it's otherwise? Or perhaps he really does purely equate religion with assent to a set of propositions. In which case he is abysmally ignorant.

And I'm not sure which would be worse in an academic. But then, I suppose Dawkins stopped being an academic a long time ago, when he became a science populariser (and a good one at that). Here he seems simply to be venting spleen, which is OK, I suppose, but is seriously disappointing.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Black Death Awareness Week

Well, no, not really. But I was recently chatting with Prof. Lindsey Davies, the National Director of Pandemic Flu Preparedness at the Department of Health (as one does), and a thought occurred to me. She had been saying that public awareness of the fact that a world-wide outbreak of nasty influenza is well overdue seems to swing wildly between panic and complacency. As bird flu strikes in South East Asia, the tabloids run scare headlines, and the internet sale of dodgy antiviral drugs soars. Then there isn't a huge epidemic and everyone forgets about it. Yet the danger remains, and the likelihood of a massive flu outbreak continues to hover over us.

What we ought to be doing is raising people's awareness of several things. Firstly, that eventually (perhaps quite soon) it will happen. Secondly, that if we are prepared for it, the impact will be lessened, and there is no need to panic. And thirdly (there's more, but no one wants more than three points at a time) we need to raise public awareness of basic hygiene. Why is using a handkerchief a lost art amongst younger people? Coughs and sneezes really do spread diseases, (as do unwashed hands) but lots of people seem hardly to realise it, and so on....

The key in responding to the threat, then, is neither to panic nor to ignore it, but to be prepared, to be aware of how to respond, and how to minimise the spread of illness. Many people will fall ill, and quite a few will die. There will be a strain not only on the health service, but on all areas of life. Yet it is survivable, and with preparedness it need not be as bad as it could be.

Being a preacher, I couldn't help drawing a spiritual parallel. Many people believe in God, and will resort to prayer and even churchgoing in a crisis. And often they seem disappointed that it seems to offer less comfort and strength than it promises. Part of the reason is that the necessary preparation is lacking. Of course, God does tend to come through, but he can build much better on a foundation of steady spirituality. Where there is a constant habit of prayer and worship, and a way of thinking that acknowledges God from day to day, there is a firm basis for dealing with the lows and highs of life. Otherwise we tend to swing between panic and complacency, and end up wondering why we never bothered to have any spiritual preparation in place.

Coming back to the worldly, Prof Davies asked me what preparations our diocese has for a flu pandemic. After all, there may well be a lot more funerals, pastoral needs and so on, while quite a few clergy will no doubt be out of action, and the bereaved will still be wanting the same care and consideration for themselves and their nearest and dearest. So I looked it up on the diocesan web site. The good news is that there's an entry for " flu pandemic". The bad news is that there's no actual content linked to the header. No doubt preparations are in train....

Monday, 27 August 2007


What do you mean, "Back"? You never said you were going away!

Which is why this blog will never feature on widely viewed blogs of the world. But we've been to Belgium on holiday. At this point, of course, we are always asked (yes, we've been twice before!), "Why Belgium of all places?" On the face of it, it does seem strange. After all, who knows anything about the place? The most famous Belgian ever was a fictional detective created by an english woman.

One answer, of course, would be beer. The Belgians brew really great beer. Of course, most of them don't appreciate the stuff. The best selling beer in Belgium is a lagerish swill called Jupiler. And of course, they perpetrate Stella Artois. But they also do Westvleteren. This is one of the famous Trappist beers, brewed at an actual Trappist monastery in the eponymous village near to Popperinge in the heart of Belgium's hop growing region. It's produced in small quantities and is very rare. But if you go there, you can drink the stuff in the nearby bar and just possibly buy some to take home. (We failed.)

But there are plenty of other reasons. The people are friendly. (Not to each other; the Walloons and the Flemings hate each other cordially, but both are delighted to discover that you are British.) The art and architecture are great, the countryside is delightful and the food is great (and always comes with chips, which are a proud Belgian invention, even though we English have made them our own).

We stayed in the south, near Malmedy and the Haute Fagne, a (relatively) high altitude fenland with lots of bleak and windy peat bogs and corresponding fauna and flora. One way of seeing it is by railbike, which was fun, in a physical sort of way. Here's a video that Sarah made by accident...

So anyway, home we came, and plunged again into the hectic round of the real world, so that August almost passed without a blog entry and my fans despaired.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

A Good Role Model

We went last night to see Die Hard 4. It was quite fun, with Bruce Willis an older, balder, leaner and if possible meaner John McClane. He shot, burnt, slashed, crushed and generally pureed the opposition for a couple of hours in a suitably satisfactory manner. In addition, his character appears to have given up smoking. So he is not going to encourage any impressionable young viewers to do anything dangerous. That's encouraging.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Smoking in church

A few weeks ago the local council sent me a no smoking sign which has to be displayed at the entrance to the church, in accordance with the new law against consenting adults smoking indoors.

I'm hardly the first to notice that people don't actually smoke in church. (I once saw a teenager reach for his cigs, only to be slapped down by his friends.) I'm not sure whether smoking was ever acceptable in churches, though perhaps in the eighteenth century it may have been. I have a totally unresearched mental image of some gouty squire huddling near the brazier in his box pew and sucking on a clay churchwarden (which is a type of pipe). But I suspect the image is fanciful.

Anyway, my first instinct was to bin the offending article, but someone pointed out the huge fines that can be levied for not telling the congregation not to do what they are already not doing. So I checked the official web site and discovered that you are allowed to customise the notice. So I came up with this:

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Cafe culture on the Moor

That's Heaton Moor, the former village cum suburb next to Heaton Mersey where I live. It's in north Stockport. Over the past few years, a host of pavement cafe sort of places has opened along its main thoroughfare.

Sarah and I went to one tonight. The food was OK - sort of a reasonable starter disguised as a main course. Hardly any beer, though. Lots of fizzy stuff under pressure, and some of that so-nasty-it-has-to-be-extra-chilled stuff. We did find a bottle of Duvel, priced at £3.50. That's about twice what it is in Belgium, and a pound more than at my local.

So what is it we're paying for here? The beer is mostly bad, and very expensive; much more than pub prices. The food is only OK; my crab and haddock fish cakes may have contained some sort of gadoid fish, but I suspect that decapods were only a distant rumour to them. Nicely presented, on black square plates, though.

I suppose the answer is that we are paying for an idea. Some sort of sophisticated pseudo-european chic. Frankly, I don't think it's worth it. But I probably don't understand these things. I'm old-fashioned and like beer with flavour and food with a bit of volume to it.

Liberal evangelicals and other demons

There's a continuing rumbling about changes at Wycliffe Hall, the Oxford theological college whose new principle, Dr. Richard Turnbull, is accused of making it more conservative and of getting rid of staff who oppose him.

A letter from the previous three principals of Wycliffe to the Bishop of Liverpool, Wycliffe's chair of governors (or whatever the body is precisely called) recently expressed similar concerns. On the other hand, a friend who is close to events there tells me that it's all rather over-blown, and there's not too much to worry about. I hope so, but....

A video of Dr. Turnbull addressing a Reform meeting last year is rather disturbing. Not necessarily directly because of the Wycliffe question, but simply because of the attitudes he seems to espouse. (Reform, by the way, is a conservative evangelical Anglican group characterised by opposition to women's ministry and a deep homophobia. A similar group is called Anglican Mainstream. Somewhere there is an agency which comes up with these odd names. (It is also responsible for those countries called The People's Democratic Republic of....)

Dr. T says it's very important to be sure what an evangelical is. (Why? Where is the term in the Bible? Did Jesus tell us to be evangelicals?) Apparently, true evos believe in the authority of scripture (OK), a personal relationship with God (OK), the need for evangelism (OK) and substitutionary atonement (damn, I nearly made it!)

He says that being a theological college principal is a "strategic" move to counter the "capture" of colleges by liberals, and that the spearhead of liberalism is liberal evangelicalism (perhaps evos who only score 3 out of 4 on the identity scale?) and they need to be rooted out of the theological colleges they are in charge of (or perhaps have "captured"). Hence he speaks of "two plus four" evangelical theological colleges: Oak Hill in London and his own Wycliffe are the two (who presumably score 4 out of 4) and the others are presumably the liberal evangelicals at Trinity Bristol, St. John's Nottingham, Ridley Hall Cambridge and Cranmer Hall in Durham.

This is fighting talk. It's military language. Which is bad enough: he evidently sees an awful lot of his fellow Christians (some separated by only one point of disagreement, perhaps) as enemies. But perhaps it's even worse. My present colleague points out that militaristic language in conservative evangelicalism is usually about "spiritual warfare": opposing the forces of darkness. Perhaps we liberal evangelicals (I only score 3 out of 4, remember) are not just enemies, but also demonic ones. No wonder he thinks that 95% of the British population is facing hell, if half or more Christians are satanic.

There's more I could rant about, but I find all this much too depressing. Wouldn't it be grand if instead of talk of (possibly demonic) enemies we had a call to shared prayer, worship and outreach? Does it really matter what "mechanism" I believe lies behind the events of Good Friday as long as I truly believe it was Good?

However, let's finish on a positive note. I agree with him that residential theological colleges can provide better theological training than regional part-time courses (and I'm a tutor on one). But that sadly bids fair to be outweighed by the threat of their becoming ever more sectarian training grounds.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

A long time ago, and a long way away

There's not been an update for ages - the real world seems a bit busy at the moment, so just to make sure there's at least one entry for June, here's today's sermon (Bible reading included at no extra charge).

1 Kings 21.1-21a
1Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, 'Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.' 3But Naboth said to Ahab, 'The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.' 4Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, 'I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.' He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
5His wife Jezebel came to him and said, 'Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?' 6He said to her, 'Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, "Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it"; but he answered, "I will not give you my vineyard."' 7His wife Jezebel said to him, 'Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.'
8So she wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, 'Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, "You have cursed God and the king." Then take him out, and stone him to death.' 11 The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, 'Naboth cursed God and the king.' So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, 'Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.'
15As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, 'Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.' 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
17Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19You shall say to him, 'Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?' You shall say to him, 'Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.'
20Ahab said to Elijah, 'Have you found me, O my enemy?' He answered, 'I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.'

Ahab could arguably be termed a progressive king. He looked to the modern world, and matched it. He forged a favourable alliance - cementing it by marriage, as was the custom of the day. He opened new trade routes, promoted religious tolerance and modernised the government. He enjoyed his relationship with his powerful neighbour to the north, and saw himself as a serious player on the world scene.

When he wanted to expand his property, he made a perfectly reasonable proposal - buy his neighbour's property at above market value, and both would be happy. Naboth would make a fat profit, and Ahab would have more room in a convenient locale. Much more acceptable than our practice of compulsory purchase by local authorities.

But he ran into an obstacle. It was an old, outmoded rule; no one was allowed to sell their ancestral property in Israel, on the rather silly grounds that it had been the gift of God and wasn't for buying and selling. And, of course, it protected the poor from being dispossessed by the wealthy. Though in this case, there could be no question of that, could there?

But here is Naboth, clinging to the old ways, and insisting on living in the last century or two.

Ahab, for all his progressive bent, isn't a terribly mature man. He goes home and sulks. In fact, not only is he childish, but he's got an old-fashioned streak as well. When the old ways are quoted to him, he caves in. He may sulk, but he doesn't quite have the stomach to set aside the old laws.

But Jezebel simply doesn't understand this. What's the point of being a king if you can't get your own way? So she fixes it. Power is there to be used, and there are plenty of forward thinking people who know which way the wind is blowing, and are not going to make too much fuss. In fact, they'll more than go along with it - they'll be a part of it.

And so Naboth is dead.

It's all so petty, of course. A misuse of power in the service of personal gain. But it's a ploy that we're familiar with.

Suppose it was something of greater importance. Suppose it was not about Ahab's garden, but something which might be of national importance; that Naboth might be standing in the way of national security, or the war on terror, or an alliance with a friendly nation in an unstable part of the world. Would it be all right then, to frame and murder him?

Could he perhaps be extraordinarily rendered somewhere to be asked pointed questions? Or could he be imprisoned without trial or legal representation, on some distant island, for years at a stretch? Could he have his civil liberties curtailed, or his right to expect, say, that businesses which offer unthinkably huge bribes to corrupt foreign princes be prosecuted?

Ahab can pretend he didn't really know what was going on - Jezebel didn't actually say what she was going to do - it's called plausible deniability. And no questions need be asked afterwards - the situation is happily resolved.

Except that Naboth is dead, and the king has taken on all the trappings of a Mafia don. Or simply a head of state - the king who was called to be the protector of Israel, and the upholder of God's laws has become a typical Oriental despot. He has fallen in with the way of the nations around, become a hanger-on of the great and powerful and a failure in every way that matters.

It's no wonder that when he encounters his old adversary, Elijah, he greets him as his enemy.

Elijah stands for the old ways, which preserved the rights and the worth of all the people of Israel. He stands for the old tribal laws which extended protection and courtesy not just to members of the twelve tribes, but to the stranger and the exile as well.

They are also, of course, God's laws. And Ahab is about to find that they are flouted at peril of his life and his dynasty. Thank goodness it's a story from long ago, and far away. It would be disturbing indeed to suppose it might have anything to say to us, here and now.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Hand on heart, he did what he knew was wrong

There's only one big item in the news in Britain - Tony Blair has announced his retirement. His speech in his constituency had a bit of the "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" about it. I particularly winced at the theme of "I truly believed it was the right thing."

Insofar as it referred to the invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent blood-bath, I don't doubt it. Blair has always done things because he thought they were right. And often I've agreed with him. More money for education, attempts to mend the NHS, the independence of the Bank of England, the Human Rights Act, the Good Friday Agreement, commitment to Europe, devolution and so on. Admirable, liberal and arguably the Right Thing. They were certainly not all his idea, and some built on foundations inherited from his predecessors (especially the Northern Ireland peace accord). None the less, he rightly supported them. Even most of his military adventures have been arguably right. Opposing Serbian genocide, for instance, is hard to criticise.

Even where I personally think he was absolutely wrong - the imposition of ID cards (the cost alone is staggering, and could wipe out the NHS debt if applied to something useful), the increasing removal of civil rights under the guise of fighting terror (why do we wage war on abstract nouns?) and the universal smoking ban - I'm sure he thinks they are right.

But Iraq, which despite all the good stuff, will be his abiding memorial, is different. Why? Not because it was unpopular (though in a democracy, anything which provokes a million people to take to the streets is likely to be suspect). To do what is right is sometimes necessarily to swim against the tide. I don't think it's obviously wrong to follow the USA's lead - though the quality of that lead is transparently suspect in this case.

I'm sure our outgoing Prime Minister genuinely thought he was right. He really did think Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After all, the receipts are probably on file somewhere in Whitehall. They certainly are in Washington. What makes Iraq different is that Blair quite obviously went against his own convictions in pushing the attack through. False information was given to Parliament. The country as a whole was misled. The enterprise was touted as part of the response to terrorism when we all knew that Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism. If we wanted to invade a terrorist supporting regime, Iran was not much further away (not that I think Iran should be attacked either).

In order to do what he thought was right, he did wrong.

Of course, it may seem a small thing. Perhaps if there had been a proper plan for reconstruction, instead of an optimistically get-rich-quick scheme for American companies, if the Iraqi defence forces had been left intact, if a thousand things had been different, I wouldn't be venting my spleen to a minor blog. But I hope I would. It matters to do what is right. It matters all the more when wrong is done under the banner not of national interest, or cynical real-politik, but as a matter of moral principal.

To make matters worse, Blair has made no secret of his Christian faith, despite the fact that it has been used against him by the non-thinking chatterers. That's commendable. What isn't is the failure to think in anything like a Christian manner on the Iraq issue. If Christianity offers no alternative to the normal worldly mailed fist, it is hardly worth commending. Throughout history, Christian rulers have decided that it doesn't and therefore isn't. Blair has followed the historic pattern, without even the sorry excuse of no alternative. He could have stood with Europe, but chose to be an American neo-con instead. He could have gone with the visionary plan that church leaders from both the US and Britain put to him on the eve of the invasion, but he did not.

He did wrong. He claims the right, but in the end, delivers only the American Right, and that, sadly, is the legacy that overshadows all the good achievements of New Labour. As he leaves the ship, it may well be that he has opened the sea-cocks and left it sinking.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Oils and footwashing

An unbroken personal record has ended. Since being ordained in 1980 I have managed never to go to a blessing-of-the-oils service. It hasn't really been deliberate, it's just that I've never been in a church where anointing with episcopally blessed (and nowadays, undoubtedly fairly traded) olive oil is a normal part of ministry.

Today I went, and the event was OK. I discovered that there are three different oils: for anointing the sick, for signing with the cross, and for chrismation (blessing at baptism). Presumably they could all be mixed together to give a general purpose 3-in-one oil, if that hadn't already been trade-marked.

In days past, this service took place on Maundy Thursday, but our bishop, +Nigel, is the Royal Almoner or something, and has to go and hold the Queen's purse on that sacred day. This year, the service is in Manchester, and I know some people who are to receive the royal small change after due security vetting, and proper recommendation as to their worthiness to receive the queenly largesse.

That latter aspect worries me. I don't doubt that it's an honour, and a way of recognising a few local pensioners for their services to church and community, and so on - a sort of gongless honours event. But is Maundy Thursday the time to do that? It has echoes of the old notion of the "deserving poor". Which is a long way from what Maundy Thursday is about. This is the day when Christians remember the story of Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet. It's an acted parable of service - and above all of God's grace. God doesn't do deserving. He does grace - unmerited giving.

On Maundy Thursday, those in positions of leadership re-enact the washing. It's about saying that we are there to serve, and that the service offered isn't about giving just deserts, but about sharing God's love with sinners. Royal Maundy stuff keeps power firmly where it belongs as far as the world is concerned. It doesn't wash feet (not since James II anyway), and certainly not the feet of the undeserving. It hands out symbolic largesse to duly deferential and security vetted subjects. Grace has been properly sanitised, and God properly cut down to size.

Monday, 26 March 2007


It's near the end of the month, and the chore of a parish magazine article comes round again. Little time for the blog, so here's my Easter article, for what it's worth.

You can never go home again. Or as Heraclitus put it, you cannot step into the same river twice, for new waters are always flowing over you. Whether it's pre-Socratic or pop philosophy, it's a truism. There's no going back. We change, the world around us changes, and try or wish as we might, we cannot recapture the past. More importantly, we cannot undo our actions. Whatever we do, or experience, we have to live with the consequences.

Depending on what our experiences and actions are, that fact may be either comforting or depressing. I'm sure that for nearly everyone it's a mixture of both. There are many things we are happy to live with, and many which we could desperately wish undone.

Whichever it is, we must move forward.

As we move towards Easter, it may seem that the very inability to undo what has been done gives the lie to the centre of the Christian message. If Jesus rose from the dead, was God not undoing what had been done? And if he did, in that one special case, what relevance has it for us for whom the river continues to flow?

But of course, the resurrection is not about Jesus coming back to life. The Bible does contain a few stories of people returning from death; Lazarus and the widow of Nain's son for instance. Even these, though, are not truly an undoing of what has happened, any more than resuscitations which take place in operating theatres and accident and emergency rooms. And we hold up none of these as the answer to death itself; they are merely postponements of the inevitable.

Easter is different. It is God's statement that as the river of time flows on, the consequences even of disaster and death may work out in triumph and life. Jesus' resurrection is not a revival, but a transformation. It is the unfolding of the chrysalis within which is discovered the answer to apparent defeat and destruction. Jesus is transformed, and becomes the first to experience the new life of eternity, a life based on this one, but expanded and fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams.

It brings hope even in the face of death, and it brings hope into our ever-changing lives. We cannot go back, but with God we can discover a future which builds on our present experience and action, and transforms it. If we cannot undo what we have done, or revisit what has been visited upon us, we can allow God to take us further into his future, and find there the new beginnings which foreshadow the final resurrection.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007


Being ecologically conscious is a pain. Now, instead of the immediate, I'm-not-falling-for-that-one satisfaction of throwing unwanted credit card offers straight into the bin, I have to unfasten the envelope and separate the recyclable paper bits from the plastic and other nasty bits. This means that I run the risk of reading the tantalising offer, and maybe even taking it up. Is recycling a plot by marketeers to make us open junk mail?

Monday, 12 March 2007

Beer and salsa

Looking round a few other blogs, I notice the preponderance of moans and groans, so here's a celebration. We were away for most of the weekend to help a friend celebrate her 50th birthday and 10 years with her partner. We arrived at Walcot Hall for a two night stay, and have to recommend the place - it's a "stately home" whose outbuildings have been converted into self-catering apartments. The whole place is littered with art works, antiques and a general air of amiable eccentricity.

Jill and Mike, it turned out, were also celebrating their marriage, so the festivities were now triple. They are part of a salsa band (latin american rhythm, not the sauce) so the main evening kicked off with a deafening roar.

Also recommended are Facers beers. Mike produced two barrels, one of Northern County bitter, and the other of the rather nice Landslide Ale. The basic bitter is much like Boddington's used to taste, which is no surprise considering that the brewer, Dave Facer, was Boddie's head brewer before the Ancoats brewer was taken over and eventually closed.

The beer of the weekend, though, has to be Butty Bach, from the Wye Valley Brewery , which for my money was as near perfect as you can get (though beer is, of course a matter of taste).

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Spam blog!

Apparently, blogger has automatically detected that my blog is a spam blog. That is to say that it has the characteristics of "irrelevant, repetitive or nonsensical text". So much for the high literary quality of my writing.

At least, the couple of days I will have to wait will give me time to think of something worth posting. Perhaps.

Ah - back on again. Damn - still no great ideas.

Monday, 26 February 2007

What's in a name?

There's an interesting article in the Guardian's G2 today. Stuart Jeffries presented a pretty well-balanced summary of the increasingly hostile divide between the religious and secular voices in public debate. (Actually there's an occasionally slight sneering tone, but this is the Guardian mentioning religion, after all; it's nothing like Polly Toynbee's foam at the mouth and bite a vicar approach).

Those voices do seem to have become pretty strident. Religious fundamentalists demonstrate against gay rights and Jerry Springer the Opera, and and seem to be working flat out to divide not only the Anglican Communion, but the CofE itself. On the other side atheist fundamentalists come out of the woodwork to condemn everything from astrology to Roman Catholicism as the same sort of destructive and irrational superstition.

On the one hand modern society is castigated for overuling the laws of God, nature and common decency in the name of tolerance, and on the other believers of all flavours are assumed to be heretic burning bigots who deny modern science in the name of faith.

And to confuse the issue further, there's a third side, of believers and unbelievers alike, who gaze with some bemusement at the fight, wondering where the old-fashioned live and let live tolerance went.

One thing in the article did strike me, though: the use of the term, "faith schools". It's become the accepted way of referring to all schools with some sort of religious foundation. It probably started because someone in Whitehall wanted to coin a term which included all religions, and may well have sprung from the purest of motives. But it has resulted in a term which is about as misleading as you can get.

Once upon a time there were church schools (Church of England, that is) and Catholic schools, with a sprinkling of other denominational schools (a friend went to a Quaker school, for instance). The different labels were important, because they allowed a recognition of the different styles of schools under consideration.

If you went to a church school, you probably (but by no means certainly) sang hymns and had Bible stories in assemblies. Otherwise, it was a pretty ordinary sort of school. Of course, there were varieties of church schools. A very small number were private, fee-paying ones. A larger number were "aided" schools, which had their own admissions policies (in most cases weighted towards church-goers) and a large input from church governors. Most were "controlled" - essentially the same as state schools, but with a small input from church governors. The emphasis of all these would be secular education in a "Christian ethos" (which seems to mean being nice to each other, just as in any school).

If you went to a Catholic school you would expect much more doctrinal teaching ("indoctrination" is the term, if you don't approve of religion). But it was what the school was for - to teach catholicism in a setting of wider education.

Of course, you might have gone to a Jewish or Islamic school, which would have its own approach to education and to teaching of faith and lifestyle.

Now, though, you don't. You simply go (or even worse, send your children) to to a faith school.

The new terminlogy has stripped away all the information that the various old style terms provided. It lumps together all schools with any connection to a religious institution. The local church school and the fee-paying fundamentalist Darwin-was-wrong outfit are now regarded under the same umbrella. And with that comes the argument that the government should not provide any funding for things that are so obviously wacky - even though it in fact does not, since normal publicly funded church schools don't teach any such nonsense.

It also removes our sense of history. Faith schools is a new term, and it's easy to present them as a new development. Of course, we know that church schools have been there for a long time. At one time, if you wanted an education and weren't rich, you relied on the church to provide it. Most of the existing church schools were set up to provide teaching (and not primarily religious teaching) to children who couldn't get it anywhere else. The long and respected tradition of church involvement in education disappears with a change in terminology.

And what replaces it is fear. Let's face it, "faith" schools don't sound so friendly as church schools. You knew where you were with the old village school, nestled in the lea of the church. But this sounds like some plot to indoctrinate, to churn out kids who will be intolerant fundamentalists. Not that faith means that in reality, but that is the flavour it can so often have these days. Which strikes me as rather a pity, since what we need nowadays is surely less simple polarisation, and more nuanced understanding.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Just starting

Well, here it is - my blog. Why on earth do I want a blog? Aren't there enough of them around already?

It was just a whim; I was surfing (the most exercise I seem to get these day) the web, looking at a blog I do occasionally read, and the fancy took me. What more can I say?

I'll figure out something to post here shortly, I hope, and join the hubristic millions.