Saturday, 27 December 2008

Mixing Politics and Religion

As a child I was taught that neither of the above were suitable conversation in polite company. Invariably any discussion, I was warned,  ended in a huge row. On the world of blogging no such taboos seems to exist. So in direct contravention of my earlier, self-denying ordinance, here's my two-pennyworth.

Those who were disappointed that the Pope's recent address failed to offer a spiritual perspective on the current economic recession will doubtless be delighted with the pronouncements of the 5 bishops reported in today's Telegraph. Hard to find much to argue with in what they say although the timing does seem a little opportunistic. But in the interests of balance:
I spent a fair amount of my working life in Government. Not as a politician but a civil servant. Politicians I found on the whole did not enter political life for the sake of their egos and certainly not for the money. But somewhere along the way most appear to lose the plot. Why is that? I'll offer two thoughts.

a. Governing the UK is not  easy. In fact I'd say it's becoming impossible. How do you balance the need for wealth creation with redistribution; or employment rights with the need to lighten regulatory burdens; with the social issues which  arise from an increasingly diverse population;   with environmental and sustainability concerns against the fact that many "Green" policies could impact adversely on those with low incomes? Lots of these dilemmas are not new but resolving them without being confronted with a whole set of new problems is a hell of a challenge.

b. As the complexity of government increases so does the burden of expectation of those in government.  This is not helped at election time when political parties appear to offer the earth at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Indeed many will offer to reduce taxes and deliver more and better public services. If we add to the tendency to over-promise and under-deliver the other election-winning ploys that are often trotted out and which are frequently drawn round a more moral agenda (back to basics campaigns, politicians pictured with their families) then the scope for disappointment is huge. No politician will be elected if they offer a less rosy picture of life when they get into power. So when (not if) they fail to live up to their own hype the all-round sense of failure is hardly a surprise. Nobody learns anything: next election the stakes are raised because the promises become ever more extravagant.   

If we are to mix politics and religion then I have two suggestions to make. Firstly politicians need to be more honest with the electorate about what they can and cannot do. The scale of ambition should be about the art of the possible with a clear warning that they cannot do it on their own. The country as a whole needs to play its part.  From these modest beginnings they may be able to re-engage a cynical electorate.

For the church I'd prefer the message to be that there is more to life than just politics and to take back  that dimension that we have entrusted  to politicians and which they are palpably incapable of delivering. A message along those lines rather than the offer of political capital to an ill-deserving opposition party would certainly have got my vote. 

Thursday, 25 December 2008

A wonderfully  uplifting midnight mass with  my family - most Sundays the prospect of early mass appears to motivate only me to get up - followed this morning by the slow straightening up of the house following the reveillon last night and getting things ready for lunch today. Our's is an Anglo-French alliance which means considerable food preparation both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  
But with Wallace and Gromit in prospect later today everything is shaping up very well.
Christmas inevitably brings back memories of childhood. I remember one Christmas attending church with my grandmother. The sermon would inevitably pass a ten year old by but I did notice my grandmother making a note at one point. Afterwards she said to me she'd written down something the preacher had said: "Christianity is your life and the way you lead it". That just about summed it up for her.     
With these words ringing round my head I think this  may be my last Blog for a while. Not for ever in all probability but for a week or two at the very least. I had always intended this  Blog to be a way of trying to make sense of the world I live in. Why strengthening Christian convictions were mixed with angst about Charlton. In fact I am not sure I need worry: it's just the way it is. And as for any insights, those of others are considerably more interesting and readable. I have decided to be of more practical use to those around me. To put my hand up a bit more when others ask for help (I do little more at church than attend). And to remember the life is about the service of others not my own opinions. 
A very happy and peaceful Christmas. 

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Must do Better

School's out soon and with it the normal rash of assessments about my childrens' progress. I recognise the heading not because it is said of mine but because it habitually appeared in the reports I handed over to my parents.

But assessments are not just limited to students. Just about everything gets assessed these days. So here's one from me rather than one about me.

On the way in to work today there was an interesting Opinion piece in the Times about an alternative Christmas service, one for non-believers. Partly ironic, partly "alternative" spirituality, part pure sentimentality. Overall a bit of a dog's dinner.

So a couple of questions from me. If you are going to have a truly alternative Christmas why is it necessary to appropriate the dates reserved for a Christian festival. How about February? That way the humanist/non-believer/atheist "majority" (inferred from the article) would have something special to call their own. Taking the same dates feels a bit like sending out your cat to spray in next door's garden. Not very worthy.

Secondly what a joyless alternative gets served up. I can get truly exhilarated listening to the "Christian" Messiah. Atheists will have to make do with Do They know its Christmas, or Baby, its Cold Outside feat. Rod Stewart. Or Carl Sagan's humanist insights into the need for us to cherish the earth and each other. Or The Muppet Christmas Carol. Nothing here about hope, about God among us. Uplifting and inspiring messages that justify all the things that cause us to mark out Christmas as a very special time.

Final score: Non-believers 0, Believers 2
Assessment: Humanists have bitten off more than they can chew here. Must do better.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Very trying....

For an English cricket loving Charlton fan, not a good day. After India effortlessly knocked off nearly 400 runs in the 4th innings to take the First Test, I then watched the pain of my side denied a first victory in 13 games with a goal scored with virtually the last kick of the game. 
Still I'm trying to look at this way: for an Indian cricket supporter living in (and supporting) Derby County, today life must feel pretty good. 
I have felt for some weeks that the game is up for Charlton this year. Sometimes you feel that it doesn't matter what you do, the end result will always be the same. What the club really needs now cannot be bought for love nor money - its a bit of luck. Just enough to give the players and management a lift; to re-instill some self-belief; to give them some hope that they can start winning again.   But if not: well, we had a good run whilst it lasted and we can look back on the good times  if the lean times do come. 
If Charlton's cause looks lost, the same cannot be said of Anglo-Catholicism. In place of the Indy I read the latest "Forward in Faith" on the way in to work today. The front page was a great read - a series of quotes from the Anglo Catholic community speaking out against the proposed code of practice. Actually it was a front page worthy of the Indy itself. 
In nearly all respects I regard myself as a liberal. In matters of faith, I am unapologetically traditional.  I am not sure  the values I hold in everyday life need necessarily extend to spiritual life. So I am not convinced that because, for example,  I support  equality and diversity in the work place  that need necessarily mean I should automatically belong to a church that has signed up to women priests.  Surely religious views are a matter of moral conviction - and they are very personal. I don't dissent that others should see it differently: simply that my views are seen as valid. For me the strength of the Church of England has been its capacity to embrace diversity. Having the Anglo Catholics in the church at a time when synod has given the go ahead to the ordination of women bishops is tough all round. But the church has accommodated ambiguity in its structures before - I think all that is being asked now is that it continues to do so. Properly. The problem with a code of practice is that every breach would doubtless be met with a tut-tut and a shaking of heads - but no more. I think the church needs to find a better answer than the one on offer here. I pray that it does so. 

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Staying Awake

One of my weaknesses is Sci-Fi movies. Not the ridiculously bloated space operas of Star Trek or George Lucas but those great low budget pieces that get shown at odd times of the day (more likely night). More often than not they're in black and white and invariably comprise a heady mix of acting unknowns, creaky sets and infeasible plots. But there are some pearls all the same. I see the 1950's cold-war classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" has just had a high budget makeover and been remade with Keanu Reeves. I'll bet the original is far better. One original that may never be remade is a late 1980's low budget feature called "They Live" and directed by John Carpenter. The central conceit is that the earth has been invaded but that we earthlings have been hypnotised/brain-washed so that we now only recognise as "reality"  the fiction that the aliens have created for us.  But all is not lost. A resistance movement has started up and they have developed a way of helping see the "true" reality - via the use of special sunglasses. 
The clarion calls  of the rebels is: "They Live:We Sleep". When  the sunglasses donned we see the subliminal reality that the aliens have created beneath the veneer of "normality" - slogans like "Consume", "Obey" shout out from  otherwise  normal advertising hoardings; innocuous banknotes bear the wording "This is Your God". Like all the best science fiction the purpose isn't to thrill us with hi-tec action but to hold up a mirror to some aspect of our lives -in this case the suggestion that we are so in thrall to material wealth and the untrammelled capitalism of western society that we are incapable of seeing anything else. 
At the start of Advent we are told to remain watchful. Like the freedom-fighters in "They Live", we Christians maybe have to don some dark glasses to navigate our way through the commercial temptations and the pressures to consume ever more  that so characterises the modern Christmas. I occasionally have left mine home this week and the result has been the rise in stress levels that accompany the fear I have forgotten to buy something. I resolve to do better in the next week.    
But then maybe the frail nature of capitalism is being exposed without the need for special eyewear. In town today the shops are full of Xmas goodies and offering plenty of discounts to entice us inside. Some of the discounts make the recent VAT reduction   look a bit mean spritied . Among those discounting most keenly is Woolworth's although in their case it is for  little more purpose than clearing stocks before they close down for good. When they do that will be yet another piece of the High Street landscape and an abiding memory from my childhood gone. Another victim to the changing times and the very deep economic recession. 
Perhaps it need not be all bad though. Dare one hope that without lots of money to spend people may turn their attention to the real meaning of Christmas.


Monday, 8 December 2008

A Long Weekend

After a couple of mis-starts here's the weekend update. 
First of all a miserable defeat at Blackpool which leaves us bottom of the table. There comes a point when the optimism that precedes each game does a 180 degree turn. You then expect the worst. Even a draw or playing well and losing leaves you clutching at straws - or green shoots anyway. But at least resignation and despair makes defeat easier to swallow. 
I feel desperately sorry for the Board at Charlton. Two and a bit years ago they handed over a couple of seasons of transfer money to a new manager in the expectation that we could push on: from mid-table into Europe.    What I don't think they realised is that it was our talismanic manager, Alan Curbishley, that had kept the team punching well above its weight: almost certainly in a false position. Once he went the spell was broken and the team's fortunes sank. Even a good replacement like Alan Pardew found himself unable to stop the rot.
What next? I really don't know. Curbs back at the Valley seems the obvious answer, yet the man is unlikely to want a job outside the Premiership. Anyway they say you should never go back.  Phil Parkinson has a credible claim to the job but as Pardew's former No.2 he will inevitably be seen as part of the regime that got us in this mess in the first place. He will not be given time to turn things round.  All in all I don't have an answer and for that reason I feel desperately sorry for the people who have to lead the club forward in all this - the Board. 
In spite of my unforgivable absence from Mass the weekend was a reminder of some of the things that are important to me. A visit to  family in Devon on Saturday was then followed by a chance to catch up with a greatly missed  old friend in Dorset. It was a reminder that whatever else preoccupies us we need to find time for those dearest to us. I drove back in the glorious winter's morning  sunshine on Sunday in very high spirits.
Back to the here and now. In my mind there is a very confused set of thoughts going round about great leadership,  our lives as Christians and the example set by those in power be they politicians or football managers. It is not going away. But it will have to wait.   


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Healthy Body, healthy mind

After a day spent in trains and offices what could be better than a good game of tennis.
In December.
At night.
Under floodlights.
Minus 2 degrees.
Are we mad? Well the good news was that we didn't have to queue. 
Actually, few things leave you feeling better than a bit of outdoor exercise on a crisp winter's day. Spirits definitely raised and maybe a tot of Irish Whiskey (medicinal) to  keep the mood up.  
As the gentle thwack of a tennis ball punctuated the bracing night air an idea struck me. 
This is when we should hold Wimbledon. How can we expect any Brit to triumph when we play in conditions that favour players accustomed to Californian or Mediterranean summers: to the weather routinely found on Bondi beach or the Copacabana. No, hold Wimbledon in November in fog and at night. That would sort the men from the boys and give us a fighting chance of delivering a champion.