Sunday, 28 February 2010

Petition on SRE

The indefatigable Mrs Amanda Lewin has organized an online petition to the bishops in the following terms:

To: Bishops of England and Wales

We, the undersigned, call upon the Bishops of England and Wales and the Catholic Education Service to fulfil their duty as guardians of our Catholic Faith and unequivocally reject recent Government measures forcing Catholic schools to teach what is explicitly condemned by the Church, viz: presenting active homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle, and providing information on the nature - and provision - of contraception and abortion services. Compliance on the part of the Bishops and the CES in such measures would effectively render our schools no longer Catholic in any meaningful sense, and would place the faith and moral life of our children in jeopardy. As Catholic parents, teachers and pastors, we earnestly beg of you, our Shepherds in Christ, that you do not allow this to happen.

You can sign the petition here.

Heart sinks

As I dash out to Mass, I note Christina Odone is on the TV, voicing a believer's view of the sex and relationship education ...

[shakes head and raises eyes to heaven].

Qui tacit consentire

Several people have quoted the famous qui tacit consentire principle in the last few days. Who is silent gives consent. I never understood the grammar of that until it was explained to me that the expression should actually be qui tacit consentire videtur: who is silent is seen to give consent. It is of course an important nuance. One might be silent for all kinds of reasons. Being present and being silent are not together the only conditions of an illicit silence.

But it has been illustrative these last few days to see a mist of quiet descend upon us. Hardly a murmur from the quarters one would hope and expect to hear from. Are they saving their powder? Are they in fact in perfect agreement with what has occurred? Are there other factors which are simply not in the public eye? Have they calculated the capacity of their troops for resistance and realised that a counter-offensive is useless?

In a media age I'm sure we make all kinds of assumptions about the possibilties of action. We feel we are informed and can speak our minds. We are confident our education makes us fit for intervention. And we find our suspicions confirmed by every action which does not meet the standards we establish.

And yet, those we expected to speak have only led us to this point. We have been told about the age of the laity for so long. We have been invited to speak in so many other ways. And such dynamics impose necessities of their own on any community in which debate is welcomed. If leadership wishes support, it must be convincing leadership. If unity is required, we must be given a better reason than mere loyalty, especially in areas in which the laity are not only competent but prime shareholders.

But this week? Answer came there none. At least not yet. And two possibilities lie before us: either we can expect things to kick off this week when the bishops publish their pre-election statement - in which case the present lull and the previous spat will soon be forgotten. Or, we will find we were not in a lull of conflict, but in a fog of fear which imposes either a strategy of tippy-toe self-effacement, or one of inaction and confusion.

In the latter case, of course, we might feel all the more strongly that such silence is an act of complicity.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Tis folly to be wise

I cannot be the only person to scratch my head in wonder at this week's catastrophic concatenation of events. On Tuesday the Commons voted in favour of a bill which will enforce sex and relationship education in schools, impose mandatory initiation in the use of contraception, and make it obligatory to provide children with information about abortion services. The message is: 'They're doing it anyway, so let's make sure they have all the panoply of bourgeois safety nets which will allow them to treat themselves and their sexual partners like everything else in the bourgeois world: a commodity hedged about with health and safety measures.' Oh, of course, it's not just sex education; it is relationship education too. But all that means is they should ensure the commodification of their partners is reciprocal. And then it doesn't matter if their partner is a man, a woman, or - give it a couple of decades - an animal of some kind.

A couple of days later a Home Office report authored by Linda Papadopoulos has criticized the sexualisation of children, especially through the media, fashion, advertizing, and the whole gamut of our information age. I don't happen to think Papadopoulos's review is quite as benign or useful as it at first appears. It wants to put up barriers to these forces which have been unleashed, but only in accord with the best consensualist mentality. Her recommendations include:

*more gender quality
*compulsory sex and relationship education
*the teaching of media literacy (how not to be conned by the media)
*more youth workers
*positive role models for children (ugly people can be admired as well)
*support for abused children
*tackling teenage-relationship abuse
*media campaigns to promote diverse and aspiration models for the young
*a working group of high-profile women in the media to tackle degrading image of women
*labels indicating where images have been airbrushed
*information on self-esteem and body image
*no sexy music videos before the watershed
*filters on computers, games, etc.
*voluntary codes for clothes retailers and mandatory codes separating lads mags from children's material
*no adult entertainment jobs in the Job Centre
*money for various kinds of research, notably research into the impact of sexualisation on black and minority ethnic groups, gay and lesbian groups and disabled populations

Some of these are of course to be welcomed, but look at the philosophy that underpins them. Consent isn't enough of course in this form of morality. It has to be an egocentric consent which is still aware of body image, gender stereotyping, etc. In other words, she can see there is a problem. She just wants to apply the wrong remedy.


And it is the wrong remedy, as we know, as is the imposition of sex and relationship education which, bewilderingly, is seen as part of the solution! Human cultures develop taboos for a reason, though we have been taught in our post-Freudian world to see taboo as an inescapably bad thing. Now, I'm not saying they are entirely benign. In certain circumstances they can be harmful. But one thing taboos are is humble. They are a self-effacing. They are a concrete confession that the control of human desire needs something more effective than a course in good body image and labels to tell me that an image has been altered. Remove those taboos and you unleash the forces of desire which together create the atmosphere of predatory commodification which now shapes so many of our economic and social relations. It is no accident that sexual liberation has altered our moral climate and steered our civilization into this tornado of self-consumming filth. Papadolpoulos's report only participates in the grand lie that all we need to do is make sure people have the right information and then they will make the right decisions. That isn't wildly optimistic; it is demonstrable folly.

In the natural order St Thomas says order comes from two places: on the outside law, and on the inside virtue. And that's it. If he had been born in the era of cultural studies, I'm sure he would have seen taboos as some sort of mid-way point between the two, emotional or cultural reservations about things reason knows to be wrong, even if the inconsistent thing that is human nature desires them. Still, you cannot replace what is on the inside by the ersatz virtues of good body image, self respect and mutual consent, no more than you can keep ordeer through dessicated taboos now unconnected to their moral roots. Or maybe an individual can keep himself out of immediate trouble on that basis, but a society, composed of myriad lines of agency, cannot.

News from Brighton

No, this isn't about the Conservatives who are gathering in Brighton this very morning for their spring conference. Rather, I was myself in Brighton yesterday, possibly for the first time, possibly not. I am certainly no regular visitor. I had planned to go for business, and wanted to call in on famous priest blogger Fr Ray Blake of St Mary Magdalen, but when my function was cancelled I decided to go anyway.

And very glad I was to have done so. Father Ray received me with great friendliness and courtesy, and we had a leisurely stroll around the town. I even got to see the sea, a rare treat for an inland dweller like me. One of the grand consolations of the internet is that it is creating networks which one could never have expected to become part of. He has since linked to my piece earlier in the week on Centripetalism, arbitration and prophecy, which was most kind of him.

Father Ray is very modest about his church, though it is in fact more attractive than most Catholic churches one sees these days. A recent renovation of the sanctuary has restored most of the proportions of the original. The polished wooden floor adds a warm touch, and in spite of the gray paint which Father Ray appears to hate and is in the process of removing, I thought the whole thing was a wonderful locus of recollection in a city too notorious for its own good. As I say, the Conservatives arrive today...

So all hail Arundel, Brighton and Fr Ray. The only blight on the day was in catching the wrong train home and ending up in Clapham!

Friday, 26 February 2010

He probably thinks this blog is about him

Well, after a frantic week - my first trying to blog almost every day - I think we need a little change of pace here on The Sunday Morning Soapbox. One story I note with interest this morning is that Carly Simon has, after thirty-eight years, revealed the name of the lover whose vanity is mocked in her classic track You're So Vain (seen here in a wonderful, live, beach-side performance).

Putting personal matters aside - when do we not have to with artistes? - Simon is not only a clever musician, she's a poet of quality. The very chorus - You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you - is chock-full of irony. And the chic poignancy and resignation of these lines -

You gave away the things you love
And one of them was me
I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee

- have always done it for me.

The name of the person she wrote the song about has always remained secret, but in a new acoustic recording of the song, Simon is heard to whisper, 'David' during a musical interlude. She has since admitted that David was indeed the name of her beau. I assume he did know the song was about him, but will we ever know? It probably doesn't matter.

The one annoying thing about this revelation is that I will now lose my bet on his name being 'Ashley' or 'Cashley'. Hey ho.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Centripetalism, arbitration and prophecy

In his very interesting article on the secular city, William T. Cavanaugh writes that the secular state began to assume one of two forms from the early-modern period. One model is the centralising State, sometimes called 'Jacobin'. In this dispensation individual freedoms have been handed to the State in a 'social contract' and the State doles them out again according to the common good. France of course approximates to this model, and the typical question Frenchmen are likely to ask is, 'Is it allowed?' Action depends always on this State concession. Assume you have no right unless it has been conferred on you. The French capacity for insurgency is but the inverted corollary of their obeissance to the State. I generalize of course, but there you have it. It is the kind of thinking which underpins the Napoleonic conquests of Europe in the early nineteeth century. It was the same mentality that kicked thousands of priests and religious out of France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The State came bringing freedom, and if the people didn't want it, they could have it shoved down their throats for them.

The second model Cavanaugh identifies is that of the arbitrating State. In these conditions, the State does not act as the creator of unity, nor as the donor of liberties. Rather it is the arbitrator that acts to prevent the clash of liberties which individuals already possess. That arbitration, moreover, is not the first court of appeal but the last. Meanwhile, individuals or groups have to try to get on with each other. There is space here for communities to be auto-directional. Their own native powers and roles are not constantly being sucked up into the State's apparatus. We have, until the twentieth century, tended to associate this model with the British State. The Brit is more likely to ask not whether something is allowed, but to consider that unless it is specifically banned, then he is free to do it. We can of course question the principles of such an arrangement, but it no doubt provides the best circumstances for the Church in a minority situation. The Church's own arrangement with the State over Catholic schools' voluntary-aided status corresponds to this thinking. Moreover, as Chesterton says somewhere, there are some things a man must do for himself, and these include blowing his own nose and contributing to the governance of his own community. They also, I may add, include being his children's principal educator.

Now, there is no doubt that as we drag ourselves on through the twenty-first century, our politics - henceforth heavily shaped by European political cultures and by an ever more entrenched political class who know no other profession - is increasingly centripetal rather than arbitrating. The European model is increasingly imprinting itself on our legislature. That is not even to reckon with the native forces which have desired, celebrated and embraced the transformation of our public representatives into our cultural nannies.

And, so, one has to believe that any resistance to the appalling Children, Schools and Families Bill can place itself not only on the grounds of Christian rationality, not only on the grounds of parental rights; but also on the grounds of the importance of the diffusion of power. For what does democracy mean, what can it mean, if power is not effectively diffused? And what is the removal of parents' rights to have their children educated according to their own beliefs except a State-sponsored grab for those rights? The tragedy of course is that the services which the State has assumed in a providentialist manner - health, education, etc. - have provided the context in which a centripetal political culture can grow. If you eat from the hand that extends towards you, you can hardly be surprised when it snatches your collar and leads you where you would not go. And a choke chain - the equivalent of the fudged ammendment - is no less a dog lead than any other.

There is only one question the bishops need ask themselves about this bill. Would they back it, and any fudged ammendment, if it was a bill enforcing racism, Jewish segregation, forced repatriation of immigrants, or anything which remains instantly identifiable as a moral evil in our quasi-conscienceless society?

We could of course put it another way. Will they stand up as defenders of the truth and fulfil the prophetic function they were ordained for?

And another thing

And in any case, this rotten plank of an ammendment does nothing to restore, protect or revalorize the rights of parents which this bill violates with all the self-justification of a Jacobin State.

So who is going to speak up for the parents? After all, it isn't the bad parents who withdraw their children from SRE; it is the good parents who don't want their children to be reprogrammed by the secular State.

For crying out loud! What is up with these people?


In light of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, my old pal Ttony at The Muniment Room has resigned all his diocesan posts. He writes:

The act, not the gift.

I have resigned from every post I hold by virtue of my being a Catholic: diocesan this, parish that, school the other. I offered to remain in post to help break the law, assuming the Bill being debated today becomes law, but my generous offer has been politely declined.

Is this what Henry's time felt like?

This is a lamentable state of affairs. I agree with Ttony that the only possible response to this bill, if indeed it becomes law - and there is still a theoretical possiblity of it being blocked in the Lords - is to disobey it with regard to its relativisitic principles. The government cannot impose moral relativism on Catholic schools on any moral question, let alone on the issues of abortion, contraception or homosexuality. The ammendment allowing faith schools to teach about these things 'in the context of Catholic teaching' is a total fudge. The only two contexts Catholic teaching provides for these things is

a) compassion for the sinner

b) unequivocal condemnation of the sin

Hands up if you think the ammendment really envisages that possiblity.

I cannot believe the CES or anybody thinks they have to accept this fascistic interference during the death rattle of New Labour.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Balls and the bishops: updated

In the wake of the passing of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, a number of curious reactions have been seen. The secularists at large were genuinely scared by the possiblity of an ammendment which would mitigate the equality and diversity principle of the bill. I still suspect their anxiety was manipulated as a strawman of opposition, but their reaction was genuine ... and sinister of course. None of them have apparently reflected on what a bossy, dictatorial piece of legislation it is.

The CES has done an ostrich job, plunging its head firmly into the sand of soft reassurances, and kicking some of it up to obscure our vision. When you're looking for precision, don't count on the CES. When they say that, 'SRE in Catholic schools will be rooted in the Catholic Church’s teaching of the profound respect for the dignity of all human persons, what exactly does that mean? The framers of the bill are saying that it cannot mean teaching that the Catholic way is the only morally viable way. In other words, the framers of the bill are imposing relativism by dictat ... in a realisation of that famous dictatorship of relativism! Now, when I last looked, such a position cannot possibly be 'rooted in' the Catholic Church's teaching'. Call me picky, but there you have it.

And then there are the specially written Collect prayers circulating on the internet to pray for the hierarchy of England and Wales - so noticeable by its silence in recent days - to be replaced!! Feelings are strong, compromise is the last thing on people's minds, and there have been some able comparisons of the CES's policy of mute wiggling with the Catholic Church in Germany in the 1930s.


I think there is no doubt that the bishops cannot, must not, pussy foot around any longer. This bill is deeply perverse, even from a secular point of view. What would they have done if a bill had been passed which imposed on them the need to teach racism as a morally viable option in Cathoolic schools? And the thought that the CES goes along with it during this, the sordid twilight of New Labour, screams complicity.

That said, I think we must be careful. The CES might appear to go all goggle-eyed at Ed Balls, but we must not let that fact turn us into victimisers of the hierarchy. The law of charity comes first in any case. And, we must not behave towards them as if they are democraticaly elected representatives accountable to us for their least action. They are minsters of God, and that is a different thing; it is not only functional, it is sacramental. They sit, as it were, in the seat of Moses. Still, pragmatically speaking, victimising them will only create sympathy for the position which (if the CES are anything to go by) they are about to adopt. We simply need cold, calm analysis and full reporting to Rome if, over this coming weekend, they create the impression that this ammended bill is acceptable.

One can speculate whether they have done nothing because they know the bill will not become law under this government. We can ask ourselves if they have elected silence as their strategy, though why generals in the field would do that is quite beyond me. We can wonder if some of them would not like to see New Labour kicked while it is so very, very down. But let us wait. If they or their spokesmen back the Ballsian fudge, we will know the ad limina is already a dead memory. We will also be in a fine position to make this clear in the dicasteries of Rome.

What we actually want right now of course are bishops with no Balls. But, frankly, dumping Balls is going to take some guts.

My Lords, you are in our prayers. I hope to God you will not be in our correspondence, until, that is, we are able to tell you that your courage has made us strong.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

It wasn't Brown's; it was Balls'

More news on the BBC's way of telling half a story. Just as their TV news bulletin this morning totally failed to acknowledge that the DCSF last week rebuted accusations concerning Ed Balls' ammendment to the Children, School and Families Bill, so the Today programme on Radio 4 covered the story in the same way. At least we have editorial consistency. What we also have as well is an opportunity for the pro-government view to be repeated and repeated and repeated. After all, what safer way for a policy to innoculate itself than to be injected with a bit of John Humphreys' venom (a more honest man than many think but losing his precision and rigour here).

Listen here.

And if you are a Catholic parent consider this: soon the only liberty your Catholic school will retain is the liberty to mention the Catholic teaching on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. What, if I have understood Ed Balls correctly, it will not be able to do is:

1) teach that the Catholic view is the only valid view

2) fail to teach the moral viability of the options represented by abortion, contraception and homosexuality


So, what I'm keen to know from the Catholic hierarchy is what they are going to do about this principled IMPOSITION of sub-pagan morality on the souls which have been committed into their care.

It is as impossible for Catholic schools to teach the moral viability of abortion, contraception and homosexuality as it is for them to teach the moral viability of racism.

Now, dear bishops, is your moment. Now is the moment to kick out this daft category of 'faith schools' and start pressing your arguments on the basis of Christian rationality which objects to these issues because of natural law.

Otherwise, you will be swept away with the rest.

The BBC and half a story

The BBC 8am news bulletin covered the story about PSHE which I mentioned on Saturday. The BBC note the claims of the CESEW (12 February) that their lobbying led to the tabling of an ammendment allowing faith schools to teach PHSE in their context of their own principles. The BBC then note the objections to this ammendment.

What the BBC don't do is tell the end of the story, i.e. that the spokesman for the DCSF confirmed on 18 February that faith schools will not be able simply to turn this ammendment into another Section 28 by the back door (Section 28 for Local Authorities prevented teaching about homosexuality).

So, what is going on here? Well, it's possible the BBC aren't aware that the DSCF have already briefed against the CESEW's interpretation of the tabled ammendment. It is possible. But don't they read the website of the Department for Children, Schools and Families?

In the concrete, what not telling the end of this story allows, is for the government to be cast as the bad boy for letting those nasty faith schools to get their way. And the government doesn't like looking like the bad boy, especially not at the moment ... At the same time it allows for the BBC to drag up opponents of this ammendment - which government officials have already said doesn't mean what they fear it means - so they can say, once again and again and again, that faith groups should keep their preoccupations out of school.

That's what you call a zombie of a story, the living dead coming back to haunt us. Thanks, BBC for breathing life into it though. Top class journalism. Razor-sharp and cutting edge at one and the same time. It makes sure that opponents of the ammendment get to repeat and repeat and repeat their objections to faith schools - impartially of course - and it makes the government, who have already briefed against the CESEW, look like they favour faith schools ...

which is surely the best way to make sure they bloody well don't!

Monday, 22 February 2010

The sad neglect of atheism

A friend recently told me that her mother had been accused of bigotry for suggesting in an archeology journal that knowledge of Christianity was a necessary prerequisite to the study of Latin and Greek texts in the centuries AD. I'm not quite sure of all the details; it seems like a spectacularly stupid accusation, even for an academic to make! But, as we were talking, what struck me was that without a knowledge of Christianity you cannot even understand what Christian atheists talk about.

I was lecturing last week on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the so-called 'Father of Anarchy', who claimed to be not merely a methodical atheist (i.e., let's behave as if God doesn't exist) but a contre-atheist (i.e., and let's battle against the God Squad). Now, Proudhon has a most ingenious way of formulating his pro-anarchism. For him, all European political structures are rooted in a model that comes from the Ten Commandments. Oddly enough, in this respect, Proudhon would completely agree with someone like Joseph de Maistre, who himself is often called the 'Father of the Counterrevolution'. But Proudhon's argument is that this formulation of law communicates the notion of an absolute God. Consequently, an absolute God in theology leads to an absolutist Church, an absolutist State, and the absolutist money system of capitalism. That at least is his argument. And since in the scientific age we have now understood that Christianity is wrong, then we must clear out its political and economic residue. Now, that reasoning is itself wrong in about a dozen ways, but the dangerous thing about Proudhon is that he sees the theological basis of these absolutisms (which he opposes naturally) as the result of centuries of development, from the dawn of Christianity to the nineteenth century. And that is where he makes one of his fundamental mistakes.

Of course God is absolute in his qualities, but if we understand that absoluteness as a voluntaristic thing - e.g. God's omnipotence means that if God says a circle is a square, then it's a square - then, whatever God we're thinking of, it's not the God of the Catholic tradition. That absolutist God is more like the God of Jean Calvin, damning and predestining with no regard for freewill, and collapsing for justification into circular argumentation: it must be just because God did it, who is entirely just.

As I explained these things to my students, a gleam of understanding came into their eyes. In their schools they've been given a multicultural, Lego-fied model of religion in which God just means a ragbag of distant and ineffable qualities. I'll grant you it takes a closer knowledge of history to realise that the God of Aquinas is not understood the same way as the God of Calvin. After all, Proudhon himself clearly missed the point.

But, coming to my own point, one of the silliest and saddest ironies of the national embarrassment which surrounds Christianity in this country is the ignorance that it necessarily induces about atheism in the west. John Grey has even argued that Richard Dawkins is a kind of Christian; his very atheism smacks of it, is shaped by it, because formulted in reaction to it. Do they not realise they are sawing off the very branch on which they are sitting?

To sum up, how can we understand Proudhon unless we know what God he is talking about? And how can we understand modernity, the modern State, and reaction to it unless we have the means of understanding somebody like Proudhon?

So, give me an atheist over a multiculturalist any day of the week.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

While the Family burns ...

Many other blogs across the ether, including Fr Finigan, Fr Blake and Mulier Fortis, are commenting on the embarrassing position in which the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales (CESEW) finds itself. Over a week ago, it ran a story claiming that its lobbying had helped lead to an ammendment of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. Whatever the truth of that claim, the ammendment, which states PSHE can be taught in a way which 'reflects the school's religious character', alarmed the 'Accord Coalition'. They were worried that this ammendment would allow a return of Section 28 by the back door.

On Thursday, however, their anxieties were soothed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families whose spokesman said:

Schools with a religious character will be free, as they are now, to express the views of their faith and reflect the ethos of their school, but what they cannot do is suggest that their views are the only ones.The bottom line is that all young people must by law receive accurate and balanced information so that they can make informed, positive choices

By 'the only ones' I take it our spokesperson meant 'the only valid ones', since it would be absurd to suggest other views are not already mentioned in Catholic schools. So whither now the CESEW? We have yet to see.


I wasn't even aware there was a Department for Children, Schools and Families, but as I reflect on this story and its implications, I'm not surprised the government have created one. Nothing must come between the great Leviathan of the State and the individuals who are incorporated in it. It might seem tendentious to say so, but I wonder if this department's name is revelatory


are mentioned first, for they are the individuals in whom the State invests the rights which make them free.

Then, we have

, legally-created collectivities where the children's rights can be propped up by government-approved wisdom and options guidance

And only then do we have


that old fashioned institution which is, for the time being, a biological and psychological necessity, but whose edges are frayed with pressure from same-sex unions and adoption, and the promise which biotechnology seems to show.

Fr Finigan has entitled his post: 'Catholic Schools: have we reached the end game?'

Yes, Fr Finigan, we have, but, I would argue, not primarily because of the CESEW's bungling. We have reached the endgame for Catholic schools because Catholic schools cannot work without Catholic families. And we have reached the end of Catholic families - not in particular cases, but generally - because, in a time of monumental cultural upheaval, where the pressures of being Catholic are made all the worse by our immersion in a constant stream of unchristian belief and praxis, there seems to be no taste among the hierarchy to evangelize their people on issues which could cause a rumpus. When Portsmouth Diocese had their diocesan reorganization a couple of years ago and asked for the suggestions of the faithful, someone I know proposed that in addition to calling itself a 'Fairtrade Diocese', Portsmouth should call itself a 'Prolife Diocese', and shape its policies more consciously around the promotion of all the Catholic teachings regarding life (marriage and family life, contraception, abortion, bioethics). But why does such a thing have to be said in any case? Isn't it stark-ravingly obvious? In the event it was the waste of a good piece of paper.

But it isn't stark-ravingly obvious, because we are all of us tempted to think that if we get the 'system' right, all will be well. If the rails are straight, the train will run. This is displaced responsibility. I firmly believe that, if the CESEW is a shambles, it is in some ways our fault. If Catholic schools like St Thomas More in Bedford are dancing to the tune of the DCSF - and we have yet to see their response to the DCSF's claims - we're to blame. Of course, what we need is good leadership, but what do we find? A senior person associated with the CBCEW (that's the bishops' conference) told me recently that they thought the most serious problem faced by the bishops was the lack of fidelity among their people. Now, when the anxieties of leaders turn in on themselves, that is a sure sign of serious systemic disease; let's hope it was the apparatchik's anxiety speaking and not that of the bishops. It has left me wondering how the recent remarks of Pope Benedict about dissent will be read. The pope was talking about the doctrine of the faith, but what if his words were respun as a defence of the rules of the club?

There is good Catholic work going on everywhere in England and Wales to try to face these issues, but voices such as John Smeaton's, Eric Hester's and Fr Finigan's are apparently held more in fear than in respect. Frankly, as far as I can see, we're getting to the point where we need major surgery (and I'm thinking about a few 'caputectomies'). Otherwise in another fifty years, this whole limb of the English Church will be as lifeless as all the partes infidelium, and it will be little comfort then that, at the very least, our coffee has been ethically sourced.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Be ye as little children

One of the things about the command to be as little children is that, at least from my perspective, I think I already am. I'm just not a child in the way Christ meant!

Nothing convinces me more of this that the arrival of Lent in the late winter. All I have to do is fast for two measly days, and the rest of the time, I can choose my own penance which might involve fasting, giving things up, doing extra stuff, praying more, or all of the above.

And yet what happens? What happens is that I usually behave like a child who has suddenly gone all floppy because he doesn't want to go where his parent is leading him. Yes, the knees become weak, the head goes back and a grimace alights upon the face. A sort of whinging sound begins, firstly because I have to do something I don't want to do, and then because I'm too naff to do the thing I'm supposed to do, and then something else distracts me ... something else other than what I should actually be focused on. Just like a child ...

I like to comfort myself with the thought that such capacity for standing on the outside of the process is indicative of my being able to master it, by God's grace and if only I make the effort. Perhaps. I was told recently it might also be a sign of burn out!!! Now, that is worrying. The old saying goes Omnis comparatio claudicat: all comparisons limp. In my case, we might say all comparisons go limp and refuse to cooperate. Be ye as little children ... but not like THOSE little children!

Here we are uncovering more of the profound meaning of today's gospel which invites us to wash our faces and not show that we are doing penance. This is not just a case of humility, or of not seeking human reward for what we do; it is also deep psychology. If we want to do some penance - as indeed we must - we'll do it more easily if we put on a brave face. Put a brave face on: the ancient wisdom is the best. And oddly enough, that's exactly the way to make a whinging child cooperate as well: if reason and a slap don't work, try amusing it. There is a capacity for cooperation buried in there somewhere.

A twelvemonth! well; befall what will befall,
I'll jest a twelvemonth in an hospital.

Well, perhaps not a twelve month but at least forty days ... with a few days off for good behaviour on a Sunday.

Thus, as a man shod in plimsols joins the road of Compostela, I enter Lent.

Misere mei, Domine, secumdum misericordiam tuam.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

B*$%^& B@~:?:

I just heard on The Andrew Marr Show that among the proposals for new laws suggested by their viewers one of the most interesting was that supermarkets be forced to shelve all their goods in alphabetical order. You can see the inspiration behind this. You walk into a supermarket you don't know, and where on earth do you start to shop? You have to go through every aisle - they quite possibly WANT you to go through every aisle - before you find what you're looking for. With the alphabetical system, however, you could dash along to the initial letter of your desired good, and, bingo, the shopping is done and dusted.

'Would you need any other letter than B though?' asked one of the guests on the AM show, and when everyone looked puzzled, he added, 'Beer and bread.' I must say I liked this idea. I know Lent is almost upon us but I couldn't resist playing with the letter 'B' to see exactly what necessities (what I define as necessities), I could come up with under that letter alone. At times, I have been a little bit loose in applying the 'B' rule, but this is my blog, and frankly, what are you going to do about it anyway?

The list is, I think, more than sufficient, to keep a man alive and vaguely happy.

Back gammon
Baked Alaska
Balsamic vinegar
Basmati rice
Blue cheese
Borlotti beans
Brown sauce
Brussels (Sprouts)

Errr, that'll do. Takers for other letters?

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Mirrors within mirrors of mirrors

This Sunday evening I have no doubt millions will tune in to see Piers Morgan interviewing Gordon Brown. The BBC have been playing the killer clip of Brown choking up just ever so slightly as he describes the moment in which his baby girl, aged just ten days, died in his arms. Already debate is raging about whether this is a cynical stunt played by Brown's exhausted media team, an unwise disclosure of private feeling, or a genuine ouverture on Brown's part. I rather think it is hard to tell.

There is no chance on the one hand that the interview is just some kind of sideshow. Brown doesn't have time for that in his current set of predicaments. No doubt the interview will serve all kinds of tactical purposes, not the least of which is to remind us that Brown has suffered just as much as David Cameron in his private life. We mustn't be too mean to him in other words, especially not at the ballot box.

But where does this drive come from for self disclosure? In a media-driven age the prurient British - those visitors at the ballot box - undoubtedly feel they have a right to know these things; indeed, they respond to being fed them by thrashing the waters all the more and yelping delightedly like blubbery seals. We saw as much in the recent John Terry scandal. Public appetite, let us not forget, is one of the images that emerges like a shard of broken glass from this media portrayal of Brown's domestic tragedy.

Brown himself, however, is between the rock of media exposure and the hard place of authenticity. For media exposure, demanded by the consumers of news, demands the authenticity inscribed in unselfconscious conduct; we want to know that 'they' are not hiding anything, or declining to unveil their secrets out of some form of outdated condescension. At the same time, the consumers of news cry foul if that authenticity is not to be found in the suddenly selfconscious victim.

But why? Well, we tell ourselves such authenticity is a sign of sincerity, although we then go off and admire the actor's art at the cinema without a second thought. Perhaps, on the other hand, the demand for authenticity - the demand for the victim to be unselfconscious - also arises because the victim must not be a reminder that the news consumer is in some respects a Peeping Tom. Nobody likes to be shown themselves in the mirror, especially not a mirror provided by a politician we don't like in the first place.

There is the remote possiblity that Brown has sought this opportunity like some venal, self-exploiting twerp (an activity one feels sure will soon become known as 'doing a Jordan'). But I don't think so. He and his team are merely dancing through the hall of mirrors which the media provide - the original reality-TV dance show - in an age where appearance must supply for lack of substance, where impression must stand proxy for judgment, and where we expect our mirrors to show us only what we want to see.

When Brown chokes up on Piers Morgan's show tomorrow night, he will be showing Britain to itself. My advice, therefore, is: don't be distracted in the days to come by the conservative rage over his sincerity or his cynicism. Marvel rather at the collision of appetites - our appetite for prurience, his appetite for power - which splits reflected fame into a prism that dazzles to deceive.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Denn alles fleisch

Have you heard any news about King's College London recently? KCL is one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Nay, it is one of the most distinguished universities in the world. Of all the British institutions that are known across the seas, KCL is high up there on the list.

So, you've heard no news? Me neither. Not, that is, from the mainstream media. The only thing is, last week KCL announced not only that they were making over two hundred redundancies, they compounded the matter by saying that all staff in the Arts and Humanities would have to reapply for their jobs. Everyone but everyone, from lowly teaching fellows, to world-class professors. 'Gizza job' is set to become the order of the day.

So, why haven't we heard a word about this in the mainstream media? I grant you academics are hardly cherished as national treasures. But, we're not all Curry Studies specialists teaching at Thames Valley University, nor are we all writing studies with names like, Gendering the Divide: Dividing the Gender. So why not a word?

I'm not sure I know. Perhaps it is a sign of how low these institutions have fallen in the nation's mind, which is overpowered by crucial issues such as the next Big Brother series or whether John Terry is a fit captain of the England football team. Perhaps it is a symptom of the age-old disrespect in which intellectual pursuits are held in this country, the embarrassment which dictates that English academics can sit in common rooms and be too gĂȘnĂ© to talk about anything other than the weekend's sports results. I really cannot say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that university management teams across the country will be watching KCL like hawks to see if they get away with such a slash-and-burn policy. What happens next is anyone's guess.

I have many complaints about modern academia, its vile obeissance in this country to the ridiculous pressure of research assessment exercises, its readiness to swallow tosh, its feudal system which is stricken with favours and nepotistical tendencies.

But, most of the colleagues I work with are men and women of extraordinary ability who have undertaken a profession whose nature is set against the reduction to functionalism and market forces which dominate the rest of the nation's culture. Should these be mown down like grass? I hardly think so.

Denn alles fleisch ist die Gras of course. But while the bankers are making hay? Give me a break.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Losing my religion

I hear this morning that there is a growing campaign to include Heavy Metal Music as a religion at the next census in 2011. Believe it or not - and I suggest you should believe it - some 400,000 people at the last census of 2001 wrote down 'Jedi' as their religion. I understand the statistic gives the Jedi religion some form of official recognition, even though this sudden rush for Jedism is a postmodern joke, rather than a form of spirituality. It is in the nature of statistics not to know the difference.

Or perhaps not. It is in the nature of certain people to consider the menu at McDonald's to be perfectly edible. But is it? Nothing is religious or irreligious but thinking makes it so, as Shakespeare might have written if he had been as clever as the chattering classes. But is it a religion? What is a religion exactly?

But what is more important here is what approval of Heavy Metalism as a religion means for the definition of religion: it means simply that whatever I broadly call my religion is my religion. Some religions demand moral codes, others dress codes, and others still suicide codes; religion, thus understood, is almost about as useful a label in these matters as 'thing'. What, on the other hand, if we class religion as one's most important belief, or the guiding light of one's life? I'm not sure that helps either. That isn't why Jedi was written on the census by nearly half a million people. Going to church doesn't help either, nor any particular belief in an afterlife that separates the good and the bad, nor indeed in any particular kind of God: Sugar-Daddy versus Angry-Lord.

So, what we are facing here is not actually an understanding of religion, but something much broader: a particular understanding of the individual. Religion is whatever I say it is, says the enlightened, autonomous, self-defining particle, or the buffered individual, as Charles Taylor calls him. This thinking has now gone viral within religious organizations themselves. I define what kind of Christian I am going to be, not only within Protestant Christianity where autonomy has always been a factor, but also within Catholicism. I can be anything from a member of Catholics for a Changing Church to a member of the Latin Mass Society. I can consider regular Sunday Mass attendance as fundamentalism, if I wish to.


And this is one of the things the pope meant last week when he talked to the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales about 'mature debate' excluding dissent. What he meant was that it was about time people both inside and outside the Church stopped behaving like teenagers who want the world to revolve around them, their views, their expectations and definitions. It is about time they stopped behaving like buffered individuals or autonomous 'I's. He perhaps meant it was about time we became attentive to the life the Church initiates us into, if only we would allow it. If I'm not mistaken, he practically suggested we should grow up.

I cannot be categorical about this, but I think when we start losing 'our' religion, and embracing the Church, perhaps we will.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Salter which has lost its savour

A couple of friends sent me links for the the very silly article posted by Martin Salter, MP for Reading West, on his blog on 2 February. What a model democrat Salter is, opening his article with a joke about men in dresses. This could, one supposes, be applied equally to some Muslims, not to mention some rather butch Scotsmen, but these are constituencies I suspect Salter would not have the nerve to mock.

It would bore all three of us to list Salter's silliness in more than one or two details. I was struck though by his suggestion that the Pope's argument about the Equality Bill contravening natural law is 'code for saying “we want all the benefits of living in a society where religious freedoms are protected, just as long as we don’t have to afford those protections to others.”'. This is what happens when a world-respected, serious-minded scholar is analysed by a blundering philistine. If the pope's words were at all coded, it was in the sense of saying, 'You lot want the vocabulary of natural law but insist on using itas a platform for a Jacobin model of State-protected rights'. My gloss, my gloss.

Salter isn't really worthy of consideration but I must say I was highly amused by one of his arguments. I must quote it in full for all its delicious absurdity:

What the Bill seeks to ensure is that some 22-year-old applying for a job cleaning the windows of Our Lady of the Visitation Church will not automatically be rejected because he might be a fan of The Village People or, Heaven forefend, an out-and-out gay.

So that's what it's about! I hadn't noticed this but apparently Salter's government is moving to stop the oppression of gay window cleaners by homophobic Catholics. How did we not realise? We are all familiar with the recent case of the gay window cleaner drenched in his own water and run out of St Therese of the Little Flower, Little Bimpton. The shameful Poor Claire nuns who pushed a transvestite off those ladders in Throckmoreton just before Christmas have a lot to answer. And after that incident in January when a gay window cleaner was admitted to Nether Wallop Accident and Emergency with a soapy, wet leather stuffed down his left ear, we can understand why the government had to act.

If there is anything more depressing than the prospect of half the MPs in this country beind forced to cough up loot they had prised from the fingers of the tax payer for their Parliamentary Expenses, it is the sight of MPs, of whom Salter is but one example, totally unable to understand their own prejudices, the inner weaknesses of their justifications, and the silliness of their own emotional gut rot.

Monday, 1 February 2010


Right, folks. I'm back from my big deadline, and feeling temporarily dead, as it happens.

Still, the blog will now recommence, and probably more than on Sundays (promises, promises).

But, for tonight, I simply wish you a good evening. It was for me!