Thursday, 29 April, 2010, 09:16 AM - WinkettRating 3 out of 5 (Fairly platitudinous)
In the midst of Prime Ministerial gaffes, the Greek debt crisis, the continuing surge for the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls, I want to talk to you about Britain's Got Talent.
But even more important than Britain's Got Talent, was the first ad in the first ad break. I'm not allowed to tell you on the BBC that this was the new advert for John Lewis, but this really was a very, very nice advert, a work of art even. To the tune of Billy Joel singing "She's always a woman", it shows a young girl growing up, going to school and college, getting married, having children and grandchildren, all the while dressed in the sort of smart casual wear that you might purchase from a large, well known department store that I'm not allowed to mention but that you might just now have enough information to be able to google about.
If Twitter is to be believed it is moving many people to tears. Not me of course, even though I do think it's a wonderfully aesthetic and emotional short film.
In many ways it reminds me of my religion. As a Reverend Canon Precentor, let me just assure you that my religion is deeply intellectual and built on solid philosophical foundations which I don't have time to go into this morning, but it's also built on a warm, cuddly fluffy feeling of niceness. The sort of warm, cuddly, fluffy feeling of niceness that you get from a department store advert that's trying to sell you stuff.
Happy Workers' Memorial Day everyone!
Three words are guaranteed to provoke scorn: Health and Safety. But health and safety are important. There were 27,000 major injuries at work last year, including 180 deaths. One of those deaths was a young farmer, Andrew, crushed between two tractors. Before he died he etched another three words, addressed to his father, on one of the tractors, "I love you."
We live in a risky world, full of accidents and tragedy. So why did the Invisible Magic Friend make it that way? Eminent theologians have carefully investigated this problem for centuries, employing all the power and insight that theology has to offer, and have come to the conclusion that we haven't a clue. So in the absence of an answer, here are some guesses. For one, it gives me lots of moving, personal stories that I can exploit on slots like this to push religion. Second, it means we have freedom. We are all free to be killed or seriously injured at work. This just goes to prove how really loving the Invisible Magic Friend is.
But the Invisible Magic Friend did not leave us without guidance. He gave us practical rules to follow, like "Worship me every Sabbath" and "Don't worship anyone but me" and "Don't take my name in vain you 'orrible little creation" and "Don't covet your neighbour's ass." If you follow these simple rules then you are almost certain not to be crushed to death by tractors.
Some people like to ignore these rules because they want to go around being sinful and wicked and ungodly and militantly secular. They think that going to B&Q on a Sunday is more productive than a good day's worshipping, but don't worry, they'll burn in hell forever for it.
So in conclusion, the Invisible Magic Friend loves you, even the ones that he unfortunately has to burn in hell forever.
As always, I want to talk to you about a great topical issue in the news headlines. I have decided therefore to talk about a telly programme.
Stephen Hawking thinks we should avoid alien intelligences, at least until we're big enough to beat them in a straight fight. But even as I speak, this very radio signal is setting out towards the stars to give aliens a more nuanced and intelligent view of humanity than they might get from soap operas or reality TV shows. Is E.T. likely to be friendly?
This is one of those mildly amusing ethical dilemmas that science, in its brash unsophisticated way, tosses towards experts on morality such as myself. I can state with absolute certainty that we are made in the image of the Invisible Magic Friend, but is an eight legged blob, swimming the oceans of Europa?
It would not do to be dismissive of the opinions of an eminent scientist like Professor Hawking (I certainly wouldn't wish to go on national radio and not so subtly snigger at his views). But unlike Professor Hawking (a fellow academic here at Cambridge doing some obscure subject called "physics" ) I am able to do the calculations and can tell you, as the Muslim chaplain here, that alien life is extremely unlikely.
You may think that, as life appeared almost immediately on planet Earth, that this suggests a high probability of life getting started. In fact, when you examine the biochemical pathways that scientists have yet to discover, you will see that the evolution of bacteria is statistically highly unlikely.
I have also calculated the probability that life, in its battle for survival, would develop anything as absurd as an intelligent strategy for doing so and can once again announce the important scientific result that this also is highly unlikely.
The most unlikely thing of all, since nature is exclusively red in tooth and claw and has no examples whatsoever where cooperation turns out to be a viable survival strategy, is that humanity would develop a moral conscience towards other human beings. This is totally inexplicable by science and just goes to prove that there must be an Invisible Magic Friend, who is statistically 100% likely.
If only scientists would drop all that silly dogma of theirs and approach this problem rationally and statistically, like what I do.
Monday, 26 April, 2010, 08:30 AM - FraserRating 4 out of 5 (Highly platitudinous)
Yesterday, I presided over a service of remembrance for the victims of the Gallipoli campaign. For those of you less well versed in history than I am, this was a campaign in World War I, directed against the Turks by France, Australia, New Zealand and Winston Churchill. Australia and New Zealand hadn't existed before then but became nations specially for the event.
It was a dazzling service where I got to wear a wonderful gold embroidered cope, a really nice silk stole and one of those lovely, lace embroidered albs. I'm not allowed to wear a pointy hat yet, but there's plenty of time for that so here's hoping. It was a beautiful occasion, filled with admirals and generals with lots of rope and big shiny medals and nicely pressed uniforms, all sitting and listening respectfully to me before laying their wreaths and letting me lead them in prayer.
This is where all these militant atheists, who think they're oh-so-clever, completely miss the point. Religion isn't some theory of the world, as we claimed it was for over 2,000 years until it was proved wrong. No, religion is about fancy dress and ceremony and ritual and great big buildings. It's about gainful employment for people like me. If you take away religion, who's going to put on all the nice flowing robes and lead people in national commemorations? I mean, how can you possibly take seriously something like a trip to the cenotaph not led by someone in a pointy hat?
Religions have been around a lot longer than all that useless science stuff, so don't bet on us disappearing any time soon. People need us, we fulfil a vital role in society that goes back a lot longer than your puny enlightenment. And it's not just me that says so. An American sociologist says religion's older, and he's got an 'ology so he should know. And another sociologist, a French one this time, and an atheist so there, says religion's all about ritual.
So I'm going to twirl away now and ignore all you nasty atheists with your silly theories about things, off to my nice big cathedral where my talents are properly appreciated.
Sunday, 25 April, 2010, 05:18 AM - Not TFTDUpdate
The Times is reporting that the joke memo is causing great anger in Rome. They're wondering why His Holiness is coming to such a terrible place where he might be arrested by "militant secularist" Richard Dawkins. (That's right - he's been promoted from just being a militant atheist to going around being militantly secularist.)
"The document could also do lasting damage to decades of hard work building strong relations between the British Government and the Holy See"
Drats - what a disaster this is for the United Kingdom, we might get invaded by the Holy See, but we shall fight them on the beaches. It makes me so sad.
The flowers that bloom in the spring, Tra la,
Breathe promise of merry sunshine —
As we merrily dance and we sing, Tra la,
We welcome the hope that they bring, Tra la,
Of a summer of roses and wine,
Of a summer of roses and wine.
A scurrilous and frivolous joke document, circulated among Whitehall officials has mocked the doctrines of the Catholic Church and poked fun at the Pope. However, before you rise up in anger at this outrageous behaviour, be assured that the Foreign Office has apologised, on all our behalf, to His Holiness. The official responsible has been severely reprimanded and has been transferred to
The offending document contained itinerary suggestions for an "ideal visit" by the Holy Father. These included such blatantly ridiculous suggestions as the following.
"Review of Vatican attitude on condom use."
What a bizarre suggestion!
Treat women like real human beings? Why, that's insane!
"Bless a civil partnership."
Treat homosexuals like real human beings? That's just offensive.
"Sack dodgy bishops."
We've already explained that it was all the fault of the Irish, the gays, the Jews, the media, the liberals, the international anti-Catholic conspiracy, pornography... Proportionate measures have already been put in place and it is now perfectly safe to leave your children alone with any Catholic priest. A Vatican spokesman denied that His Holiness only ever opened his mouth so that he can put his foot in it.
"Open an abortion ward."
Oh, this is getting childish now.
The Rt Rev Malcolm McMahon, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham, was astonished and angered by the proposals. "I'm astonished and angered by the proposals," he said. He said Catholics would be concerned that their are people in Whitehall who think Catholic teachings are silly, and predicted it would cause great embarrassment for the Government.
“It’s outlandish and outrageous to assume that any of the ideas are in any way suitable for the Pope. We're not going to have the Pope going around doing legal, humane, compassionate things like blessing a gay couple. Nobody would expect the Pope to behave that way. This has to be someone having a bit of fun. Thank goodness we Catholics can laugh at ourselves, eh?”
Robert Pigott, BBC religious affairs correspondent echoed this sentiment, "...it will leave some Catholics with the impression of a culture... in which their Church's teaching is not taken seriously."
Damien Thompson, a famous Catholic blogger, is incensed.
"NOW do you finally understand what sort of snide, cheap and ignorant prejudice has flourished under this Government and its civil servants – wall-to-wall secularists for whom the Roman Catholic Church is at best an antiquated irrelevance and at worst a sick joke?"
As if! (Don't worry, the commenters on his blog are taking a fitting and dignified Christian attitude to it all.)
The document also listed suitable meetings with various famous people. Susan Boyle was considered most suitable. Richard Dawkins, homosexual rights groups and the National Secular Society were all deemed unsuitable.
According to the Daily Mail (usually a very reliable source)
"...senior figures in the Vatican privately expressed outrage last night that the Pope's visit had been discussed in such a way, and suggested it could even derail preparations for the trip."
Oh dear. What a shame.
Saturday, 24 April, 2010, 09:46 AM - Not TFTDI've just finished reading The Pyjama Parade by Steve Gilhooley. It was recommended to me, for reasons that I won't go into, by a good friend of mine from seminary. It describes, in graphic detail, the brutality and abuse Gilhooley experienced at a junior Catholic seminary in Cumbria during the 1970s. It had me in tears, time and time again. Despite this, I couldn't put the book down. I read it cover to cover in a single sitting.
The title refers to the particularly humiliating form of punishment practised at that school, often for the most trivial offences. Boys were told to queue in their pyjamas outside the rector's office. One by one, they were then marched in, forced to take their pyjama trousers down, laid on the bed and whacked on their naked buttocks with a cane.
He describes how, only a few weeks after his arrival, he was molested by a priest in a private chapel. When he found ways to get away quickly after mass was ended, the priest then resorted to molesting him during the mass itself. You have no idea how shocking that sounds to an ex-Catholic. That's right, trying to force himself on an 11 year old boy is bad, but doing it during mass? Why, that's terrible! Once again an indication that some of my Catholic indoctrination is still hiding in there.
The priest involved was eventually prosecuted and did two years in prison. But for Gilhooley this was only the beginning. Time and again he was assaulted by priests, older pupils and, saddest of all, by a priest that he really liked and trusted. It had a terrible debilitating effect on him as an adult: unable to form close relationships, he developed depression and alcohol problems.
He eventually did become a priest and became determined to expose the extent of abuse in Catholic institutions. Despite the support of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, he was leant on heavily by the Vatican, telling him to shutup, treating him as the criminal instead of the victim. Lay Catholics and priests all over the country phoned and wrote to him, calling him a traitor, a scum bag, that he was in it for the money.
In the end he resigned from the priesthood on the day Ratzinger became Pope. It was Ratzinger that had tried to silence him.
I went to junior seminaries too. One day I wanted to be a fireman. One day I wanted to be a policeman. One day I wanted to be a priest and before I knew it, at the age of 13, I was on a train to the junior seminary in Langbank near Glasgow. Everyone was so proud, I didn't have the heart to tell anyone that I didn't really want to go. I spent one year there before progressing to the next seminary - Blairs College in Aberdeen. There was no corporal punishment at these schools. The shame caused to us and our families if we were expelled was more than enough to keep us in line.
Gilhooley tells an amusing but true story, typical of the time. Two ladies on a bus see a young seminarian. One takes a fiver from her purse and presses it into his hand. "How are you doing at the college?" she asks him. "I'm not - I've left," he replies. Quick as she can she snatches the fiver back and stuffs it back in her purse. "Shame!" the ladies agree, "What a waste."
I never really thought of my time at seminary as being anything but happy. I remember being cold and hungry a lot (something that I've more than made up for in adulthood) but I don't remember ever feeling threatened or deprived. As soon as I was old enough to know my own mind, I simply decided I didn't want to be a priest and left. I looked back on those days fondly, as part of a largely happy community.
It's only in the last few weeks that I've found out that priests that I knew and respected, people that I looked up to and trusted, were accused of abuse against some of the boys - boys that I knew during my time there. One of the priests did time, the other is dead. I can't tell you what a shocking effect this has had on me. The illusion of the innocence of my school days has finally been shattered. What was an abstract evil against largely anonymous victims, that happened somewhere else, is suddenly very real and very close. There were no stories circulating among the boys, no rumours, no knowing sniggers as one of the boys went off to a priest's room (we frequently spent time alone with priests in their room, chatting or listening to music together). The victims suffered in silence while everyone else went happily about their daily work.
It makes me wonder. If this was going on and so many of us were completely unaware of it, how many other victims might there be who never had the courage or the wish to speak up? How many other perpetrators have gone unpunished?
I read a book once where two people dreamed of peace in the Middle East. It was really very good, so I read it again.
Meanwhile, the chances of peace in the Middle East are not improving as relationships between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu drop to new lows. The Israeli government thinks it should be able to build as much as it likes in East Jerusalem, because it's theirs - the Invisible Magic Friend gave it to them 3,000 years ago and anyone else who just happens to live there at the moment are trespassers and should go away. President Obama, who doesn't think stories about the Invisible Magic Friend should influence government policy, thinks otherwise.
For some peculiar reason, in our own leadership debate the other night, no one seemed very keen to express an opinion on the subject. Strange, since British policy has always been so helpful in the past.
The Holy Land is held sacred by Jews, Muslims and of course we Christians. Like our fellow believers, we always hold its sanctity in the greatest respect. History shows that little disputes like this, involving simultaneous disagreements of religion, land and culture, are easily resolved if only leaders will just get around the table and have a nice cup of tea.
So our own leaders' reluctance to get involved is all the more mysterious.
Titanically Reverend Lord Professor Bishop Baron Reverend Lord Richard Harries, Baron Pentregarth, Gresham Professor of Divinity, Baron, Bishop, Professor, Lord...
Friday, 23 April, 2010, 08:15 AM - HarriesRating 3 out of 5 (Fairly platitudinous)
Happy Saint George's day old boy! Saint George is the patron saint of England on account of him being a Palestinian dragon murderer. For the same reason he is also patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia.
But what does it mean to be English? Well, cricket, warm beer and war with France, naturally. It may come as a surprise to many, but being English does not occur naturally. We're not "born" English - well, we are, or at least some of us are. The point is we can change what it means to be English. That's why warm beer is optional now, whereas cricket and war with France still remain fairly popular.
I think the First Letter of Saint John puts it rather well, "I don't know what it means to be English, or what it will be to be English, but Jesus will be back any day now and he'll be able to tell us."
Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 07:56 AM - TilbyRating Unrated
As today was effectively a eulogy for a friend, there will be no POTD today.
It hasn't been easy being a gay rabbi for the last 40 years - 25 of those years spent happily with my partner. There's much talk about whether gays should be allowed to adopt straight children, but at least it is talked about. I had the opposite problem as the gay son of straight parents. I grew up in a world overwhelmingly straight, constantly having to hide who I was, forever afraid of scandal or blackmail. Many were driven to breakdowns or even suicide, which I tried myself.
Religion still has much to learn about sex and gender issues, but it also provides a spiritual escape, giving courage, reminding us that there is more to life than our sexuality.
As we grow older we face other problems. What care home will accept us as a couple? We need to ensure we are civil partners so that we won't be excluded from our partner's funeral, as so often happens.
Humour helps. Two ancients hold hands looking into the distance. "We should get ourselves civil partnered," one say. "Yes, but at our age, who will have us?" comes the reply.