Monthly Archives: December 2013

A New Year Resolution for the Church

child-abuse-silence

Today stands between the day on which we commemorated the Holy Innocents, and the secular festival at which we attempt to make life improving resolutions which we shall almost certainly fail to live up to within hours.

Many, appreciating their own personal character weakness where weight loss is concerned, will simply choose not to make any resolutions for the New Year at all, and that will deliver its own slew of remorse.

This is therefore a good time for Brother Ivo to offer a New Year Resolution to everyone in the Church which is practical, necessary, and which the vast majority who adopt it will feel totally unthreatening. It will never be regretted.

That resolution is for the Church to “Make Child Abuse History”

Over the past few years, the Church, along with many other institutions, such as the police, schools and BBC have grappled with the horrors of child abuse. A cultural change towards the acceptance of disclosure has resulted in a vast legacy of historic abuse being uncovered as more and more people step forward to say that “this happened to me”.

The Church has yet to receive the credit it deserves for a subsequent committed, thorough and conscientious response to its past failures. Advice has been sought, experts consulted, policies developed guidelines published and courses have been run with healthy attendances. The files of retired and deceased clergy, some painfully thin, have been examined and victims offered counselling and overdue apologises. Insurers have paid out.

Despite a genuinely creditable response, the old adage “Thou shalt not win” can scarcely be better illustrated than by the way the news has been greeted that the Church has  been seeking record numbers of police checks upon its employees and volunteers. How odd, given the history, that the latest criticism has been couched in terms of the Church being over-scrupulous in this regard.

There is more to come as long planned programmes are rolled out in the months ahead within a widespread climate of renewed responsibility accepted by the higher echelons  of the Churches, and yet there is still genuine cause for concern that all will not be well.

Churches are places of special vulnerability where abuse is concerned. We deliberately set out to attract children and to welcome the vulnerable. Nobody wants to think it can happen on their watch, in their corner of respectability. Our mission statement is to be undiscriminating about those to whom we minister. Our very desire to think well of all,  is our principle weakness where the predatory paedophile is concerned.

They do not arrive with a forked tail and cloven hooves. They look and behave much like the rest of us – only more so. They are kind, helpful, industrious, outwardly faithful , and perhaps most difficult of all, frequently indispensable. Some may lack self awareness and not appreciate where their corner cutting of procedures and protocols will lead. They may be female as well as male, married, straight, gay or ostensibly celibate: they may be under age, clerical or lay. They can also be very plausible, persuasive and possessed of easily injured feelings.

It is only in comparatively recent years that we have come to appreciate the complexity of identifying and addressing this problem on both an institutional and personal level.

Those charged with improving the Church’s response to the problem, which includes Brother Ivo in a minor way, will have long term term work to do, because both the nature of the problem, and our understanding of it mutates on a regular basis. Five years ago Jimmy Savile was an eccentric hero a “cheeky chap” beloved of all for all the good he did. Let that be your warning.

Like the thief in the night we do not know the hour or the identity of the next malefactor to threaten our churches. Faith confers no immunity.

There have been over 30 Public Inquiries into child deaths in recent decades. The one constant theme to emerge from these most extreme and distressing examples of child abuse is that “Everybody knew a little but nobody joined up the dots”. It applied in the Jimmy Savile case; it applied in the case of the Bradford Muslim taxi driver child abuse ring; it will apply in the next scandal of the church organist and the choir member. Often the victim will have been manipulated not to see their own victimhood and may protect his/her abuser.

The price of freedom from child abuse is eternal vigilance and that is both routine and frequently dull.
There is no point in devising thorough Child and Vulnarable adult policies unless there is scrupulous, painstaking, and persistent application of them on a daily basis. It is the responsibility of every Priest, Minister, Church Warden. Youth Worker. PCC member, and worshipper.

Whilst discussing this with colleagues, Brother Ivo was alarmed to hear than one of the continuing problems in the rolling out of protective measures is the misguided resistance of a significant proportion of incumbents who suffer either from  over confidence in their own insights, or excessive suspicion of encroachment upon their own autonomy from the Church hierarchy.

In the Church of England the independence of the incumbent is frequently overlooked by outsiders who over estimate the coercive power of the Bishop.  A Bishop can lead persuade and cajole, but the legal pressures he can exercise are less than many appreciate Such local independence and autonomy  is valued theologically by many. It is also is the single weakest spot in the Church’s protection of the vulnerable.

No incumbent where abuse occurred, wanted it to happen , but it very rarely arrives out of a clear blue sky. After the event, it is always possible to look back and see where simple adherence to basic protective principles would have averted or mitigated the harm. If the recent scandals in the major institutions teach the lowly parish officer anything, it is that even the most sophisticated of organisations become complacent, and fail to see the obvious.

Plainly procedures do not of themselves protect, yet well considered structures help us in every aspect of our lives, and stopping child abuse is no different.

So if you are short of a New Year resolution, Brother Ivo invites you to resolve to make it your business to take child protection seriously and to help “Make Child Abuse history”.

In practice this means asking your church about its acceptance of its Diocesan policies and guidelines, and how it plans to audit compliance on a regular basis.

It is not an easy thing to do and may not make you popular, yet Jesus plainly had strong views on the welfare of His little ones, and little will gladden His heart more than each of us taking a personal interest in keeping them safe and happy as we speak of his love.

Thomas Becket and Human Rights

Attachment-1

On this day in 1170 Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who clearly understood that they were following the wishes of the King.

It is unlikely that if/when Henry II uttered the sentiments, if not the words ” Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest”, he was knowingly following the modern spin doctor’s strategy of building into his words “plausible deniability”.

Nevertheless, thanks to the ambiguity of his expression of displeasure, after the killing he was able to proceed to the next step in modern day “reputation management”.

He undertook penance in a public form after Thomas had been canonised, which was the rather more arduous medieval equivalent of spending an hour on the sofa with Oprah, having accepted the advice of highly paid professionals that he had acted through medical “anger issues” for which he bore no personal responsibility. The medievals plainly  understood repentance better than we do.

Henry thus survived the Europe wide opprobrium for killing a churchman, especially one who had by then become a saint. Within a relatively short period, King and Church were reconciled.

Henry left us  an important legacy in the legal and administrative systems which he had necessarily reformed as he constructed an Angevin Empire which stretched from the Pyranees to the Scottish border. Faced with a wide variety of local customs, authorities and jurisdictions he needed to draw them together to facilitate his exercise of royal power, and his model of Administration and Court structures lasted well into the 20th century.

Thomas for his part, also had a long and continuing legacy.

He had not been especially loved in life, partly because he had been the King’s Chancellor and ally in exacting taxes to support the conquests and reforms which Henry planned. Yet he was canonised within three years of his death and his tomb soon became the premier pilgrimage site in England, drawing pilgrims from across the kingdom and beyond. As such, it became a major economic asset to the city of Canterbury and the stop over towns on the way.

So much for the history. The aspect that intrigues Brother Ivo however, is the modern resonances of the dispute itself.

Although he became The Lord Chancellor, Thomas had not had the opportunity to study to become  a lawyer from the start of his career. It was not until he entered the household of the then Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec, that he was sent to study law at the University of Bologna which may have unwittingly been responsible for setting him on his collision course with the King.

In Bologna, the not infrequent tensions between town and gown, which characterised many other later university cities, had resulted in an accommodation between the Church and the civil authorities, with the latter agreeing to hand over the disciplining of the student clerics to the ecclesiastical authorities.

It is hard not to see the study of law under such a regime of clerical immunity as significant.

Equally, an aggressively ambitious king building an empire, and necessarily integrating disparate legal jurisdictions under his unifying power, was always likely to resist any continental inspired claims for such an exception to his integrating plans.

Of course, Brother Ivo is fully aware that Henry was himself “continental” yet it is not overly fanciful to see in this tragic conflict between old friends, something of the current antipathy between UKIP and the Europhiles. This King, pre-dating a subsequent namesake, was asserting his secular independence against a transnational ecclesiastical power which saw itself as the senior partner in a partnership of authority under God.

The essence underlying that dispute was that of sovereignty and we are again passing through a time of contention over the same issues.

The former Lord Chief Justice, Sir Igor Judge, has recently spoken out on the modern incarnation of the same old problem.

In restrained respectful but unequivocal terms reported in the Daily Telegraph, he identified that once again there is a conflict of sovereignty. Yet if anything, the modern dispute is even sharper. At least in the case of Archbishop and King, each saw himself as accountable to God, to whom, ultimately  account must be given for the exercise of his talents.

In the modern secular incarnation of this rivalry, Sir Igor sees that “the European Court of Human Rights in its present form is not answerable to anyone” and raised concern that any judges however distinguished – “should have that sort of power.”

He explored this theme in the context of the controversy of prisoner voting rights, and yet anyone who has studied either the English or the American Civil Wars will know that there is a distinction between the occasion for a war, the ostensible casus belli, and the underlying issues which always lie deeper and in the realm of underlying principle. 

The problem which confronts our modern politicians is no different to that faced by Henry II or indeed St Thomas himself. Each knew, as Jesus taught beforehand, that no one cannot serve two masters ( Matthew Chapter 6 verse 24). They may finesse, compromise or prevaricate but at some point, not necessarily of their choosing, the tension will be broken and the battle for supremacy will be resolved, even if it should be followed by much subsequent regret and unexpected, unwanted, consequences. 

Yet the irony behind this constitutional crisis in waiting is identified by Sir Igor himself. The whole edifice of the European Court of Human Rights was “was largely written by British lawyers for a war-torn, concentration camp filled continent.” 

It may have been part of “victor’s justice” but it was the justice of the morally superior. It may offend many today to speak in such terms, yet it is the truth. 

It makes it all the more galling to have the judgements of a mature judicial system subjected to what one Court insider described to the Telegraph: ” Some European judges are little more than “activists” and are unqualified for the task ….. We know that around half the Strasbourg judges had no judicial experience before going to the court, which means it’s no surprise they go off on judicial frolics of their own.”

Beyond that irony lies another. The present understanding of Human Rights was never conceived within the earlier Christian philosophy of Natural Law, but rather with reference to the abstract reasoning of the “Enlightenment”. Like Henry II reforming his legal system anew, the old forms which had evolved organically were swept aside, and this time the values were conceived “rationally” with no intention to honour or acknowledge the authority of God. 

Yet why was this necessary? 

When Brother Ivo described the World War II victors as ” morally superior” he specifically had in mind that the beaten philosophy of Fascism, like the leter beaten philosophy of Marxism, was founded upon the Enlightenment ideal of remaking humanity in the absence of God. 

One does not have to be terribly religious to have observed that when Man attempts to remake himself in an image of his own devising, he does not make a very good job of it. He is no more successful when, through excessive regard for his own design capabilities, he attempts to remake laws.

The attempt to codify a man made collection of overarching principles of Justice in a pompously self-regarding ” Universal Declaration”, arose within a Europe which lay in ruins thanks to the ambitions of ” rationalists”. Europe had been rescued largely through the moral values of the God- fearing heirs of both Thomas and Henry. They never really forgave us for holding to those truths.

As a new Europe was constructed out of the ruins, its Legal system was built under the authority of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a European Convention with which to give them expression. They could exclude considerations of faith from the edifice, but not the foundations. 

The reason we need such overarching principles is often overlooked, but Henry and Thomas knew and understood it perfectly. Thomas paid for it with his life and Henry through his public penance, for what is the reason that we need such a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”?

Isn’t that reason nothing other than a simple recognition of original sin? 

The Declaration and Convention represent nothing if not a rejection of the Enlightenment notion of the perfectability of Man, without the need for redemption. 

In the United Kingdom, we built our Constitution by embodying Church and State in the person of Her Majesty the Queen, who remains in no doubt that she holds both responsibility under the authority of the Almighty.

We should be slow to give up the best of both worlds. 

 

Briefly speaking……

Unknown-4

At Christmas, Brother Ivo was given a small book of 10 second sermons written by the comedian Milton Jones, for whose off beat humour he has a soft spot. The title of the book is in fact “Even more 10 second sermons”, so there is evidently an earlier offering to enjoy.

Many of these truly “mini-sermons” are thought provoking yet profound in their brevity.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote – “ I am writing you a long letter because I haven’t got time to write you a short one.” Distilling one’s thoughts into a few words is an art, and a very important one. Many a preacher could usefully resolve to adopt its mastery as a New Years Resolution. 

There might even be a TV reality show in there somewhere. “ How succinct is your Priest?”

Congregations could call in Milton Jones to critique and instruct loquacious Ministers, leading to the ultimate acclamation at the end of the Service, as the grateful  Congregation’s rises as one in a prolonged standing ovation.

It is one of the merits of twitter that it compels one to think clearly and concisely, and Mr Jones has a facility for practicing what he preaches.

In the briefest of books he manages to offer sermons on all the main concerns of religious folk including,  Faith, God ,Heaven, Judgement, Prayer and many other important topics. As with any sermon, even where he advances a contentious idea, he provokes a worthwhile reaction. It makes you think.

With such a mercifully short work, Brother must not plagiarise or harm sales by quoting extensively, though it is very tempting to do so.

There!

Through this slight volume, Brother Ivo has been made a more considerate fellow already, and he has not yet finished reading  the entire book!

By way of encouragement to buy (for which there is no commission received) Brother Ivo commends two observations.

“Praying seems to be like trying to undo a knot. You never quite know what’s going to work, its just important to keep going. Also, best check what you’re trying to undo isn’t holding up something else that’s important”.

“Coming from a Christian home is like receiving the antidote to a poison on your first birthday. You can’t fully appreciate its worth until you’ve seen the effects of the poison at first hand.”

Having seen the effects of such a poison within many families, that observation lands with particular impact on this reader in particular, Every sermon will be read, heard,  or considered through the prism of one’s individual experience, but the shorter the message the harder it is to misunderstand or impose one’s own gloss .

There is much other wisdom like these and one cannot help but suspect that behind the comic mask is a serious mind. He may not thank us for saying so.

It the very clarity of the thought which is its principle value. There is much else that Brother Ivo would love to quote, commend, explore and expand upon, but that would not be fair to the time that Mr Jones has put into his reflections, so do just buy it and read it for yourselves.

It will not take long, but it may have a longer lasting effect than you appreciate.

“Thought for the Day” and a question of balance

images-2

Well, it didn’t take long.

Having failed in their annual ambition to remove the birth of Christ from the Christmas season,  the atheists returned on Boxing Day with assistance from their cheerleaders at the Today programme,  who invited Sir Tim Berners Lee to guest edit the programme. We were not only offered an “alternative” Thought for the Day from an atheist “minister” but also a Thought for the Day from a Unitarian whose views could not be considered representative of Orthodox Christianity.

Like a resentful child showing off after attention has been centred upon a sibling, there had to be a cultural response from the atheist opinion formers at our State Broadcaster, and so there was.

Presenter Evan Harris noted that he could ask questions of their invented Thought for the Day presenter but not of the regular contributors: it was an implied criticism of the status quo, overlooking that there is no prohibition or inhibition upon the programme editors exploring religious matters anytime they choose 365 days of the year during the daily two hour programme.

Tim Berners Lee explained that he included the atheist spot as a “challenge” to the BBC establishment, as if the cultural ethos of the faith following majority were somehow dominating the everyday programme. Plainly this is not the case.

Brother Ivo’s much admired Thomas Sowell makes an interesting related contribution here.

“The next time some academic tells you how important diversity is is, ask how many Republicans there are in there sociology department”

Ask a similar question of the BBC Today team. How many Christians are to be found amongst their presenters and editorial team?
Actually, somebody already did.
Martin David Sewell (@martindsewell)
@BBCr4today @MishalHusainBBC @JustinOnWeb Does your programme have any believing/practising presenters or editors? If not ” diversity”?
justin webb (@JustinOnWeb)
@martindsewell @BBCr4today @MishalHusainBBC I’m a lapsed Quaker — does that count ?
Martin David Sewell (@martindsewell)
@JustinOnWeb @BBCr4today @MishalHusainBBC Plainly not- got any lapsed atheists?
The exchange appears to end here. The question hangs in the air.
The Today programme is, and is intended to be an opinion forming vehicle, and that is not Brother Ivo’s interpretation. When its latest recruit Mishal Hussain was recruited to the team of presenters her profile records her delight.
” The programme has unparalleled influence across BBC News and on our national conversation.”
She is unquestionably right. This is why the composition of the programme team is important.

We know that the BBC talks a very good game when it speaks of diversity, and its diversity strategy paperwork is better weighed than counted. In this regard it is bureaucratically beyond reproach save in one respect; in faith terms it is is utterly non-functional.

Given the faith profile of the country which the programme and its publicly funded network purports to serve and represent in all its diversity, would one not expect to see the occasional “out there” Christian on the team?

One would be a start.

Brother Ivo does not seek special treatment or quotas. Like Margaret Thatcher, he is all for success based upon merit. He simply does not believe that a complete absence of Christians from the cohort of qualified and competent contributors to such a programme, is any more statistically probable or acceptable than would be a complete absence of women.

If an influential  programme with so many listeners, deliberately and proudly sets out to form the news agenda and shape the social attitudes of the nation, with due regard to reflecting that nations nature and character, it ought to include a smattering of believers of varying faiths based purely upon hazard. That it fails to recognise that its current  failure  do so in the face of its mountain of po-faced politically correct paperwork, is odd.

Yet there is more.

The programme, like its guiding principles, can be relied upon to dissect the problems caused by religion; yet there is a complete absence of curiosity amongst its producers,  and indeed the entire atheist community, about the contribution of Atheism to society’s ills.

Because Atheism is perceived as the alternative mindset to faith, the rejection of faith appears to render Atheism completely immune from critical examination. Having become a default position, it gets a complete and utter pass from the supposed cream of intellectual journalists.

Never is the contribution of Atheism to the great evils of the last century ever considered, The totalitarian State emerged within a philosophical context, a context in which the “death of God” could and did result in the liberation of Man to do his worst. The big atheist States have plainly killed tens of millions of people. Their growing sense of entitlement to reduce our privacy rights will also have components derived from atheistic philosophy.

We will hear religion heaped with opprobrium for its involvement in historic wrongs, such a slavery, without a celebration of religions unique contribution to its ending. Atheism played no part. Worse, we do not see any interest in identifying Atheism’s contribution to forming the tragedies for which future generation will probably be giving future historic apologies on our behalf. Chief amongst these will be the abortion holocaust.

The problem with having a poorly furnished religious mind is that one has not learnt from religion’s merits in this regard.

Few appreciate that criticism of religion, its practices and institutions began with Jesus himself who invited scepticism of religious elites, over reliance on forms and practices, and warned that not everyone who invoked His name would be received into the Kingdom of Heaven which he was ushering in.

One of the prime features of religious practice is confession. Christians are constantly invited and challenged to review their lives, their Church, and their attitudes. If you want a deep and well informed critique of the Church and its influences, ask the Pope or the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

As Brother Ivo writes in the early morning, our friends at the BBC are announcing that they will be acceding to the Independent newspaper’s call for Atheists to participate in “Thought for the Day”.

Gosh, that was hard won!

Brother Ivo will listen with interest. A default philosophical position should not be an unexamined one, yet the likelihood is that the mindset of the programme will prove to be as institutionally blind and unable to ask critical questions of its underpinning attitudes, as its superior hierarchy was disinclined to take child abuse seriously.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, so the unexamined philosophical underpinnings of our National Broadcaster could render it not worth paying heed to.

The inclusion of Atheism in “Thought for the Day” may feel like a victory. There was a note of triumphalism in Evan Harris’ voice as he announced it, but if it results in exactly the same level of critical appraisal and scepticism being applied to Atheism as it is to Christianity (though interestingly not Islam) , it may prove interesting.

We might even have to end up with equality and balance.

So here is Brother Ivo’s “Thought for the Day”
Dear Atheists
Be careful what you wish for
Yours sincerely
Brother Ivo

 

Adoramus te O Christe

Unknown-3

Brother Ivo wishes all to have have visited this place a very peaceful and joyful Christmas, praying that the miracle of the Incarnation will touch your lives this Christmas time and bring blessings upon all those whom you love.

To everything there is a season, and since Brother Ivo started his own blog he has written on a variety of topics with a mixture of motivations, some serious some less so. He will write again soon, once he has knelt before the manger and given thanks,

As the business of the Christmas preparations come to an end, it is time  to close one’s eyes for two minutes and ”Let the quietness speak”

“It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse” – 2013 Revised version

images

Most of us are familiar with the opening line of the poem ” It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse” and quote it as an amusing example of Victorian melodrama. It is however worth a seasonal ”re-read”, and when read, it proves to be a searing indictment of “respectable” and “privileged” attitudes towards the poor.

With that inspiration in mind, Brother Ivo thought it might be updated for these modern times and so here is his 2013 revised  version.

It was Christmas Day at the phone-in.
and the studio lights were bright,
there was tinsel, a tree, and some holly,
and the set was a wondrous sight.
With fancy clothes and make-up,
to grace the TV screen,
the celebrities sat on their sofas
for this is the hour they preen.

The poor and humble viewer
is invited to phone in and greet,
to share for two or three minutes
the company of the elite,
who smile, and are condescending,
they banter and sweetly agree,
as they sip their glasses of champagne
all paid by the BBC fee.

The viewers are meek and they’re lowly.
They’re minding their p’s and q’s
enjoying their moment of limelight
For which they’ve all paid their dues.
Save one, who proves to be different,
who will not play the game,
“Do you know what you people cost me?
“You leeches are all the same!!”

The presenters’ smiles freeze in horror,
the producers’ face turned to white.
A viewer not playing the game here?
Are they really hearing this right?
The producer returns to his senses,
he motions to “pull out the plug,”
But some lowly unpaid intern,
refuses to pull out the rug.

” I won’t be watching your programmes,
which you offer with so much pride,
and neither will my old lady,
’cause you banged her up inside!
We never watch Panorama,
and the kids don’t like CBeebies,
so we never bought your “licence”
cause we only watch ITV.

“We never go shoplifting.
When we want something – we pay-
But we never watch your damn programes
though the court didn’t see it that way.
And as for your Strictly Come Dancing
with frocks at three thousand a throw,
what do they know of “austerity”
who no “austerity” know?”

“You offered us Alex Porlizzi
whose grandfathe once owned the Ritz:
she spent hundreds of pounds wrapping presents
– it didn’t half get on me nerves.
Then Armstrong and Coren drank Bollinger,
cocktails, and Chateau Musar,
my Chardonay thought it disgusting
but that didn’t get her too far.”

“My kids don’t have nothing this Christmas,
while you’re overpaid to “present”,
they stare through the glass of the tele,
at the lives of the top one per cent”.
Nigella, I grant is an eyeful,
but she’s nothing like normal folk,
who’ll never make one of her trifles
and can’t afford gammon with coke.

“Now I understand criminal records,
and I know whose a crook,
and I know Chardoney ain’t one,
– at least – not in my book.”
Lord Patten he choked and he spluttered
from the back of a chauffeured Jag
“These paycheques and pensions don’t pay for themselves!”
( The cat had been let out the bag).

“Get me to BBC Central”
he cried with a deep purple face,
” We must stop this truth from emerging!”
but the caller continued his case.
“There’s ‘undreds of thousands of folk just like us
paying fines and sitting in jail,
while you pay out “undreds of thousands of pounds
To cheer up  your mates when they fail.”

“So enjoy your Christmas dinners.
Don’t mind us in the least.
Just think of the kids in the underclass.
as you’re eating your Christmas feast,
and whilst you’re counting  your blessings
In your smug celebrity way,
just remember who’s paying the price-
Think of us on Christmas Day!”

The celebrities faces were ashen,
They’d never considered the facts
They’d never connected the source of their wealth
To the victims of the tax
They had all lost their sense of proportion
mixing only with millionaires
who cheerfully pocket the money
regardless of poor peoples cares.

The intern in charge of the fader,
let the caller speak to the end,
The glitz all around him had faded
and he looked on the man as a friend.
He secretly knew that the caller and he
were actually in the same boat,
so he proudly walked from the studio
and smiled as he collected his coat.

We need to hear Anjem Choudary

Unknown

The controversy over the appearance of Anjem Choudary on the BBC radio 4 flagship programme Today expresses our collective rejection of his brand of Islam, but those who move from a stance of contempt for everything he stands for,  to criticising the interview and wanting such confrontations banned are profoundly mistaken. 

It is a foundational principle of our democratic life that truth is ascertained through debate, and the exploration, dissection and evaluation of argument is so essential to that process, that sometimes we have to engage with people whom we find profoundly distasteful.

It is odd that amongst those complaining of the exchange between Choudary and John Humphrys are those like the Sun editorial team which would, in other circumstances, be opposed to political correctness and all who might attempt to police what can and cannot be said in the public space.

This is not an unprecedented controversy.

A few years ago the equally unpleasant Prime Minister of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was invited to speak at Columbia University in the USA. It was a contraversial invitation and attracted the opprobrium of a variety of interest groups including patriots, gay activists, and pro-Israeli students alike.

The President of the University, Lee Bollinger is a noted liberal, one whose opinions Brother Ivo often critiques but he has also written extensively on the issue of Freedom of Speech.

During the debate, he advanced a clear and intelligently new way of thinking about these matters.

So often, we think in terms of the speaker’s right to speak, and it is that which we are comfortable curtailing. We don’t like people like Mr Choudary, and we are comfortable infringing his rights, partly because he is rejects our values comprehensively and is profoundly objectionable at many levels.

One common defence of his rights is founded upon the proposition that if he is silenced today, other unpopular opinion, including yours and mine, may be curtailed tomorrow. The silencers may be motivated by a variety of populist impulses, political, religious, cultural etc.

Mr Bollinger approached the matter afresh.

Silencing the likes of Mr Choudary does not only infringe his right to speak; it also infringes your and my right to hear.

Hearing and evaluating different opinions is a crucial part of developing new thought. We cannot develop intellectually without it.

One might liken listening to Mr Choudary  to the necessary unpleasantness of dissecting cadavers, which early anatomists undertook to advance our understanding of the human body.

Seen in that light, we feel slightly differently.

John Humphrys took Choudary’s belief system apart with patient forensic skill. He exposed what a truly unpleasant and disgusting set of beliefs this strand of Islamism espouses and represents. It is so easy for tolerant and liberal people to believe that all people are alike and basically decent: confronting such a contrary truth is both necessary and useful. Few understand how men like the Woolwich murderers became so depraved but now they have an inkling of how it happens.

What illustrates the value of this approach is the example of Brother Ivo and  Mr Bollinger.

Lee Bollinger believes and has said much with which Brother Ivo disagrees but listening to him taught the listener a valuable lesson. We now agree, as a result of Brother Ivo being exposed to his thought. It would have been equally valuable had listening and reading Mr Bollinger sharpened Brother Ivo’s rejection of his ideas. You simply do not know where you will reach if you refuse to start the listening process.

We need not assume such intelligence in Mr Choudary’s case, but his cheerful clarification that Islamists of his character reject democracy was worth hearing. Many in our society may never have realised how deeply antithetical such people are to our core British values and our way of life.

If this is the first exposure most have had to the presence of such poison within the Islamic community then the interview was justified.

It also alerts us to the need to devise ways of invigorating, supporting and encouraging the fight back within Britain’s Mosques the majority of whom have been neighbourly enough to wish us all a joyful”Christmas”

 

Free Lunch and Food Banks

Unknown-2

There was much nastiness and shallow comment to be found within the commentary on the recent Parliamentary debate about food banks.

This was in evidence on twitter with its hashtag #foodbankdebate, but the Daily Mirror did not add to the public understanding of the issues by its front page focussing upon the Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith leaving the Chamber rather than listening to the debate in real time.

He can, and for all we know, has read the full Hansard record at leisure, as can we all here

The partisan responses were a pity,  because despite some members describing others’ contributions as “disgraceful”, the debate was both informative and comprehensive. 

The Opposition critique was expressed by Maria Eagle

That this House notes that the number of people using foodbanks provided by the Trussell Trust alone has increased from 41,000 in 2010 to more than 500,000 since April this year, of whom one third were children; further notes that over the last three years prices have risen faster than wages; further notes the assessment of the Trussell Trust that the key factors in the rising resort to foodbanks are rising living costs and stagnant wages, as well as problems including delays to social security payments and the impact of the under-occupancy penalty; calls on the Government to publish the results of research into foodbanks commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which Ministers promised would be made public in the summer of 2013; and further calls on the Government to bring forward measures to reduce dependency on foodbanks, including a freeze on energy prices, a water affordability scheme, measures to end abuses of zero hours contracts, incentives to companies to pay a living wage and abolition of the under-occupancy penalty……..”

Of particular value was her clear explanation that food banks are limited, targeted, and specific in their role. She explained …

“To suggest that people can just arrive at a food bank asking for free food shows just how out of touch Ministers are with the way food banks work. The Trussell Trust is very clear: over 50% of referral agents are statutory agencies, and referrers include doctors, social workers, school liaison officers and citizens advice bureaux advisers. These professionals make sure that people turning to food banks are in genuine crisis.”

It was important to puncture any myth of uncritical open-ended largesse for the indolent. Most MP’s knew this already on both sides of the House, and for every Labour Gerald Kaufman there was a Conservative Laura Sandys. There was no lack of experience. compassion, or interest on either side of the House.

Ms Eagle sought to describe the growth of the Food Bank movement as a ” scandal” and yet members lined up to pay tribute to the good work being undertaken by 30,000 volunteers as they serve in all parts of the country delivering urgent support to people who arrive in a wide variety of circumstances. There is much that is good in the phenomena. We might even suggest it is evidence that the “Big Society” is alive and well, though for political reasons we do not talk of this any more, which might be a pity.

Some have been suspended from benefit, rightly or wrongly: others are in work but either lowly paid or have fallen into debt, again some by misfortunate others by folly. Others are immigrants with or without entitlements, indeed helping this group appears to have been the genesis of the movement.

When Ms Eagle got away from the party politics she made stronger points. She was not contradicted when she asserted that there exists a Government commissioned report dealing with the reasons behind the growth of the food bank movement. It is hard to think of a proper reason for this not being put into the public domain. If it is a good analysis we will be better informed, if it has weaknesses then let them be debated.

Plainly deficiencies in the welfare benefits administration is significant; domestic violence, immigration, substance abuse, debt and rising prices also all play their part. We need facts not mutual recrimination if we are to devise a balanced response. 

We also learn that the present administration has ceased to record when referrals arise out of bureaucratic decision or error. It makes no sense to legislate or regulate from such ignorance.

Frank Field is always worth listening to on this subject. He it was that was charged to “think the unthinkable” on welfare reform within the Blair Administration and was then sacked when he did so. He knows much whereof he speaks and always repays careful listening.

“Government Members have often cited the use of food banks on the continent, and in my short contribution I want to suggest two things. The first is that there are now movements in western economies that are disadvantaging the poor and we need to think of solutions to that. Secondly, I want to suggest to the Government where their policies have made this position much, much worse. We may not yet understand the basic forces to which we may want to apply policies, but the Government could raise questions about their own policies and ask how they are impoverishing people. I hope the reason for the absence of the whole of the DWP ministerial team is that it is thinking about what sort of reply it is going to give to this debate, with these possible concessions in mind.

Fifteen months ago the Trussell Trust said that by the general election it would be feeding half a million of our constituents. I asked the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time what he was going to do to prevent that prediction from coming true. I did not get a comprehensive answer, to put it mildly. We have learned from today’s debate that that point has already been passed a year and a quarter, or a year and a third, before that general election, and the number will continue to increase.

If we look at the data, we find that in our country the proportion of income the poor now have to spend on food, utilities and rent is rising. I think that gives us an answer to Lord Freud, who said that if we supply a free good, people will turn up and claim it. It might be that if people are worried about not being able to meet their rent or that their electricity will be cut off, and there is the possibility of people giving them food, they will take that opportunity so that they can meet other basic requirements from their budget……

These are the questions I would like to ask the Government. First, why are they so frit of having a serious inquiry into the causes of what is going on? Are food banks a passing fancy, or are they the outward visible sign of something very serious happening in our economy? We ought to get an answer to that. Secondly, if we listen to the food banks and the other bodies that are handsomely filling the ranks of those giving help in our society, they say the two things that are increasingly important in driving people to food banks are the sanctions regime and the sheer incompetence of the DWP in relaying benefits”

Not all the good points came form the opposition.

For all our natural concerns about what is happening in the UK. Robert Halfon deflated the narrative that sought to frame the debate solely in terms of this Government’s uniquely damaging policies or innate hatefulness.

He and others pointed out that it has closed a Labour loophole whereby the Job Centres were not required to signpost the needy to sources of immediate assistance. It has introduced free school meals for primary school children. There has been a significant reduction in taxation for the poorer working members of society.

He highlighted that food bank dependency is higher in France ( 1 in 88 cf 1:181 in UK) which is particularly embarrassing for an opposition that sought to hold up President Hollande’s socialist administration as a model for the UK economy.

Food bank usage is also has a much higher usage in Germany and Canada which are richer countries with reputations for sound social provision. Such comparisons highlight the international nature of what is happening and ought to lift any appraisal of the causes out of the narrowly partisan.

It ought also to give pause for thought about the responsibility which all Governments bear for the increasing need amongst their populations.

We are encouraged to talk of a wide variety of poverty; food poverty, housing poverty. fuel poverty, energy poverty. These phenomena are named within a deliberately constructed political narrative which seeks to suggest that government intervention is the solution.

Those in the faith community who adopt such language need to be very careful and clear about whether they are signing up to that agenda. Too easily, by adopting the language of the opposition, they end up sounding like political apologists for it and they need to be clear whether that is in fact what they intend. The prophet should not be confused with the politician.

If it is suggested that advancing the increased State agenda is the only moral one, it is encumbent upon those who do so, to equally embrace the responsibility which the State  bears for contributing to such pressures upon poorer families in the first place.

Almost every food bank supplicant will have paid their dues to the Government in some form or  other and for some this explains their need in the first place.

In the pursuit of climate change policy, the green agenda deliberately raises the price of gas and electricity. To encourage fuel efficiency of cars and dissuade motor transport, the fuel escalator was allowed to accelerate the cost of petrol beyond that of inflation. The deliberate policy of encouraging significant immigration placed an upward pressure on the cost of accommodation and a downward  pressure on all wages depressable by unskilled or semi-skilled competition.

These may or may not be good policies in themselves. They do  however, bear responsibility for some of these consequences upon the poor and there must be an honesty in accepting the moral downside as well as the plaudits for espousing such causes.

Although we have yet to hear of “connectivity poverty” it is worth recalling that the costs of phone and mobile internet availability, which many in our society prioritise, were also inflated because Government set a revenue raising price for the franchises. Perhaps it needed to. Many poor however do have and perhaps need these services and the Government takes its pound of flesh from them within the charges.

Were we to bring back to life a Georgian pauper, he would doubtless see improvement all round, though he would doubtless bemoan “Gin poverty” which is similarly caused by a deliberate revenue raising choice. If the poor seek solace by drinking cut price supermarket beer on park benches it is partly because the social public space of the public house has become too dear and the supermarkets will offer a worse anti-social alternative; – it has the merit of being “affordable”. All public taxation policy has a similar degree of social cost.

The raising of VAT has also added to the pressure on all household incomes across the board. Government needs all such additional revenue because it has chosen to spend and borrow both now and in the past. it continues to increase the debt for the future.

Brother Ivo detects a paradox.

Food banks have become increasingly necessary because we have too easily ignored the economic truth that for Government policy there is always a tension between what we find desirable and what we can afford.

We have too easily forgotten that, for Government and the people it taxes, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

The Advent Reboot

images-2

Brother Ivo enjoys occasional listening to Melvyn Bragg’s radio programme ” In our time” as he explores a variety of eclectic issues with the help of specialists in a variety of disciplines.

In the latest edition, the panel were discussing “Complexity” and although Brother Ivo missed much of the programme he enjoyed the use of a striking phrase during the explorations.

Complexity can apparently lead one towards -and doubtless over – the “edge of chaos”.

They might have been reviewing some of Brother Ivo’s sermons!

That is, perhaps a little harsh, but if Advent is a time for reflection and self examination,  it is no bad thing  to develop self-awareness.

One of the great things about Mr Bragg is that he and his researchers have well furnished minds and a wide range of intellectual curiosities. Doubtless it makes him good company and a stimulating questioner, for the more one knows, the wider the perspective from which questions may be asked.

In Brother Ivo’s teaching and preaching, he has used a variety of both starting points  and reference points when exploring biblical passages. Sometimes he suspects that he is like the military officer whose men would follow him anywhere, largely out of curiosity.

We should not, however, apologise for refreshing well known stories by approaching them from unlikely angles. When Jesus taught in parables, which some have described as “visual aids”,  he approached the nature of the divine through a disparate variety of images. Faith could be likened to new wine, God could be pictured as a housewife sweeping the house in search of a lost coin, and as soon as we hear of a sower, we are with him in the field broadcasting the seeds into the wind.

They are images which still engage us, so Brother Ivo does not feel too bad when he invites folk to think about God and His nature from a new starting point; some of those starting points have included a country and western song, an Eschler drawing or more recently a doughnut!

Perhaps there are two types of preacher. There are those who see a theological boundary and enforce it, and those who see it and wonder if it can be pushed.

Jesus pushed boundaries all the time, but he of course had the authority to do so.

There is a time to follow in his footsteps, and to seek new ways of engaging modern people with old ideas.

There was much boundary pushing in the early centuries of Christianity as many documents emerged of varying weight and authenticity, each claiming to have captured elements of Jesus’ teaching. Some texts and ideas came to be recognised as very reliable, others as less so and some as frankly deviant. The lengthy process of discernment led us eventually to an orthodox theology and a largely agreed biblical Canon.

Yet the boundaries are still surveyed, evaluated and expressed in modern forms and liturgies which delight some and trouble others. It is a constant source of tension and relaxation within the Church.

Even those of us who feel called to be open to innovation however, need to recognise that as every generation reflects upon the Gospel, and adds another layer of scholarship, interpretation or expression, we do risk approaching that “edge of chaos”.

For those bold souls, Advent comes as a sound reminder to draw us back to simplicity.

That simplicity need not be ancient.

Brother Ivo is constantly attracted to that simplest article of faith offered by Bishop Michael Jenkins who offered the 14 word creed.

” God is, He is as He is in Jesus Christ, so there is hope”

Some folk exploring faith for the first time, can find its narrow focus helpful in keeping to the big issues.

In similar form the return to the Jesus prayer at this time has much to commend it.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner.”

The minimalism of such approaches, the austerity, is appropriate for the penitential season which is Advent.

We shall soon come to Christmas Eve and our Crib Services where richness of imagery and the complexity of the story of redemption will return and we shall again begin to explore what it all means in 2014. Complexity will always return to our theological systems, with each new contribution.

The approach to the Nativity at Christmas  is however best done with simplicity.

Brother Ivo has a fond memory of holding the hand a a two year old and walking with her through a darkened Church towards the light in which the crib came into focus. That sense of wonder, simplicity, and trust during the approach remains with him as a source of inspiration and delight.

Complexity and sophistication can come later, but to begin with the simplest approach is the best

We need to distance ourselves from the edge of chaos and use our Advents productively if we are to do so.

If Brother Ivo may revert to his eclectic style, Advent needs to be  is like rebooting one’s computer in the face of a glitch caused by over complexity in the operating system. One decides to close it down with a degree of trepidation, there may be an anxious pause, but suddenly all the familiar icons begin appearing in their proper place and confidence is restored.

So we shall find our faith after our Advent reboot.

The poor will arrive first having been the first to receive their invitationst; the wise will kneel; the ox and the ass will be content to just be, whilst the heavens shall mark the occasion by being extraordinary.

It all starts however by looking over the edge of chaos, realising that a clean up is required and deciding that, despite the risks, it really is time to start again

Boris Island – or Sullenberger Central?

usair

Every so often a news story comes along which is simple good news. There is no room for controversy or “talking points”, everyone who reads it simply relaxes into happiness and congratulation, whilst quietly reflecting that humanity can be responsible for remarkable things.

One such story was that of the aircraft that suffered catastrophic engine failure over New York City, endangering all those on board and many who were unaware of the peril overhead as they went about their everyday business on the ground.

Cometh the hour however, cometh the man, and the aircraft’s pilot Chesley Sullenberger III cooly announced to the control tower that he would not attempt to return to the airport but would put the plane down in the Hudson river.

He was as good as his word.

He grounded the aircraft, oversaw the evacuation procedures, calmly walked the plane interior to check that nobody had been inadvertently been left behind, before joining the passengers and crew on the wing to await rescue by boat.

By the time the news media caught up with him he was sitting without crease in his uniform sipping a cup of coffee onshore. It should have been a Martini, “shaken not stirred”, for this kind of cool grace under pressure, and sophisticated professional savoir faire is normally only encountered in James Bond novels.

He was indisputably the right man in the right place at the right time. Not only was he an exceptionally experienced civil pilot but had previously been a high performance pilot in the armed forces. He was an experienced glider pilot, an academic in the field of air safety, an air accident investigator and he ran training courses on surviving  the kind of catastrophic challenge that he faced that day when all four engines were suddenly  incapacitated

He is precisely the kind of pilot that one would choose to be in control if the Thames Estuary airport ever comes to be built.

As the debate rages over the best place to build additional airport capacity for London, Mayor Boris Jonhson’s  favoured solution appears to overlook the presence in the estuary of some of Europe’s largest wildfowl migration sites all around his preferred location. There are not just flocks of birds, there are millions of them. All of them are habituated by generations of instinct and example to return, and their offspring have evolved to do exactly the same thing.

For a country that prides itself on its awareness of conservation issues and awareness of the interplay between man and his environment, we appear to be approaching this aspect of the debate with a distinctly cavalier disregard for the facts which the natural world presents us.

Chesley Sullenberger’s aircraft was brought down by Canada geese hitting the engines.

Brother Ivo has experienced an aircraft, bouncing and shuddering as the pilot aborted a take-off to avoid a small flock of starlings which rose before him on the runway as he was about to lift off.  A four hour wait ensued, for the merest suspicion that one of those small birds might have been sucked into the engine, damaging  the turbine blades, was enough to trigger a thorough evaluation of the potential damage. The sudden halt caused a separate set of problems: a fresh set iof tyres needed to be flown in, in case the sudden breaking had compromised the tyre safety.

This was at a small European regional airport with low traffic volume. The disruption to schedules from such an event at a major airport would be significant and potentially frequent if the airport is located in the midst of major bird migratory routes.

At present,  such problems are included within the standard administrative statement “We need an environmental impact statement”. The problem is not only the impact of the aircraft on the environment, but the impact of the environment upon the aircraft.

A reputation for persistent incident would not be the best PR for a project that will cost significantly more to place in the Estuary than inland.

There is, however, a moral dimension.

This country has played a leading role in developing conservation awareness throughout the world. Poor livestock herders are told that they should not endanger predator species which take their animals at great cost to their families.  Worried family men are criticised when they extend their fields into the forests in Africa Asia and South America. Remote fishing communities in this country are destroyed by fishing quotas.

These choices, often imposed upon others, may be right and necessary, but it has a corollary when we come to examine threats to the convenience of richer metropolitan populations.

We do not have to do without improved air communication, though we may have to accept a marginally extended onward journey. Much of the traffic is freight which could be re-located to regional airports to free passenger slots which are wanted by the airlines closer to London. Improved rail links could enhance our infrastructure in an extended form.

There is still much talk of “Boris Island”. It is a PR man’s invention as many of these things are. It is designed to bring to mind positive associations like the innovating smiley mop-head who “thinks big”. There are overtones of Thunderbirds and that hi-tech vision of the future.

Brother Ivo suggests we reject the name and replace it with a rather more challenging one in honour of a fine man.

The project should be named “Sullenberger Central”