Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pilling Report: a right-veering via media through sexual polarisation

The Church of England's Pilling Report on human sexuality has (finally) been published.

Whatever it says in very bold type in a very prominent foreword, the media will spin this as bigotry over progress; the triumph of dinosaur conservatism over enlightened liberalism; or simply another slap in the face for gays. In fact, it is an intelligent, sensitive and informed pastoral document which merits rather more scrutiny and contemplation than most will give it. All the proposals and recommendations it contains are not the official position of the Church of England unless and until they are endorsed by a vote of the General Synod.

But that won't stop the hysterical cries of bigotry or further anti-Anglican pronouncements of 'caving in' from the Telegraph (which will be made irrespective of Pilling's conclusions).

The full Report may be read HERE. In summary (His Grace's emphasis):
..the Archbishops commented that the report "is a substantial document proposing a process of facilitated conversations in the Church of England over a period of perhaps two years. The document offers findings and recommendations to form part of that process of facilitated conversations. It is not a new policy statement from the Church of England."

Noting that "the issues with which the Report grapples are difficult and divisive" the Archbishops recognise Sir Joseph's Pilling's comment that 'disagreements have been explored in the warmth of a shared faith'. The Archbishops continue "Our prayer is that the process of reflection that will now be needed in the Church of England, shaped by the House of Bishops and the College, will be characterised by a similar spirit."

Commissioned by the House of Bishops of the Church of England in January 2012, the working group included the bishops of Gloucester, Birkenhead, Fulham and Warwick. The group invited three advisers to join in the work. They were: Professor Robert Song, The Ven Rachel Treweek and the Revd Dr Jessica Martin.

The report considers the rapidly changing context within which the group undertook its work. It examines the available data about the views of the public in our country over time. The report considers homophobia, evidence from science, from scripture and from theologians. During their work, members of the group not only gathered evidence from many experts, groups and individuals but also met a number of gay and lesbian people, often in their homes, to listen to their experiences and insights.

The report offers 18 recommendations. The first recommendation is intended to set the context for the report as a whole. It warmly welcomes and affirms the presence and ministry within the church of gay and lesbian people both lay and ordained.

Three recommendations look at the report's proposal for 'facilitated conversations', across the Church of England and in dialogue with the Anglican Communion and other churches, so that Christians who disagree deeply about the meaning of scripture on questions of sexuality, and on the demands of living in holiness for gay and lesbian people, should understand each other's concerns more clearly and seek to hear each other as authentic Christian disciples.

Further recommendations call on the church to combat homophobia whenever and wherever it is found, and to repent of the lack of welcome and acceptance extended to homosexual people in the past.

The recommendations do not propose any change in the church's teaching on sexual conduct. They do propose that clergy, with the agreement of their Church Council, should be able to offer appropriate services to mark a faithful same sex relationship. The group does not propose an authorised liturgy for this purpose but understands the proposed provision to be a pastoral accommodation which does not entail any change to what the church teaches. No member of the clergy, or parish, would be required to offer such services and it could not extend to solemnising same sex marriages without major changes to the law.

The report notes that the church's teaching on sexuality is in tension with contemporary social attitudes, not only for gay and lesbian Christians, but for straight Christians too. In relation to candidates for ministry, it recommends that whether someone is married, single or in a civil partnership should have no bearing on the assurances sought from them that they intend to order their lives consistently with the teaching of the Church on sexual conduct.

The report includes a 'dissenting statement' from the Bishop of Birkenhead who found himself unable to support all the recommendations made by the group as a whole. The main part of the report is supported and signed by all the other members of the group, including the advisers.

The House of Bishops will discuss the report for the first time in December 2013, and it will be further debated by the College of Bishops in January 2014.
Should the House of Bishops be minded in due course to make any changes to the Church of England's official position on human sexuality, it will need to ensure that Synod is given an opportunity to debate these matters before anything is implemented. Given the Synod’s resolution of 1987, which stated unequivocally that adultery, fornication and homosexual acts are to be met with “a call to repentance”, it is not easy to see how any shift will be made unless the General Synod is going to be socially engineered by age and/or gender quotas to become "more representative".

The Pilling Report simply offers findings and recommendations for the Church of England to consider. The group is to be commended for the theological depth of its research and the sociological sensitivity of its expression.

Importantly, the Liturgical Commission is not to be charged with the development of new same-sex marriage liturgy. No concession is being made to the possibility of providing a service for gay or lesbian couples, and this will no doubt greatly offend many.

Last week, the Prime Minister praised the Church of England for its shift on women bishops, which, he said, was necessary "to ensure its place as a modern Church in touch with our society".

Today he will be decrying that same church as being otiose and out of touch. But the Body of Christ does not exist to please the Prime Minister all of the time.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Baroness Warsi, are these people Muslims?

Last week, UKIP's Lord Pearson of Rannoch raised a question in the House of Lords: "To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the basis for the statement by the Prime Minister on 3 June that 'There is nothing in Islam that justifies acts of terror'." He explained:
“But there is a problem within Islam—from the adherents of an ideology that is a strain within Islam. And we have to put it on the table and be honest about it.

Of course there are Christian extremists and Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu ones. But I am afraid this strain is not the province of a few extremists. It has at its heart a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.

At the extreme end of the spectrum are terrorists, but the world view goes deeper and wider than it is comfortable for us to admit. So by and large we don’t admit it. This has two effects. First, those with that view think we are weak and that gives them strength.

Second, those within Islam—and the good news is there are many—who actually know this problem exists and want to do something about it, lose heart”.

Those are not my words but those of Tony Blair, after the Islamist murder last summer of Drummer Rigby—the same Tony Blair who, as Prime Minister, dismantled our borders to,
“rub the noses of the right in diversity”.
We must be grateful that his subsequent experience as our Middle East envoy has taught him something about the reality of modern Islam, and that he had the courage to say what he did. In these few minutes, I want to talk about some of that reality.

Islam does not enjoy the separation of powers that we take for granted in our liberal, western democracies. Islam’s Sharia law is a legal, political and religious system all in one, which takes its authority solely from the Koran, the Hadith and the Sunnah, as interpreted by its religious clerics, collectively known as the ulema.

Our Muslim friends tell us that the jihadists are a misguided minority who misinterpret the Koran and the holy texts. They point to verses such as Surah 2, verse 256, in which Muhammad commands that there shall be no compulsion in religion, and to other verses of peace. There are millions of Muslims who live their lives guided by those verses, and many thousands who have been murdered by their violent co-religionists.
Baroness Warsi was having none of this ignorant islamophobic racist bigotry:
...if Islam justified terror, we would not have seen the out-and-out condemnation of this brutal murder by the British Muslim community.

After that attack, we saw the Ramadhan Foundation, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Christian Muslim Forum, MINAB, the Al-Khoei Foundation, the British Muslim Forum, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association, the Karima Institute, the Islamic Forum of Europe and many, many others come out and say, “Not in our name”. They were united with the country in grief and horror at what happened on a London street. I wholeheartedly support this clear and unequivocal condemnation.
And she swatted away Lord Pearson's superficial theology with an authoritative appeal to The West Wing:
President Bartlet: “I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination”.

The TV presenter: “I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does”.

President Bartlet: “Yes it does. Leviticus 18:22. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?”. While thinking about that, can I ask you another question? My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?”.

I could not make this point more clearly. These texts from the Old Testament could so easily be manipulated to cause mischief and indeed have been manipulated in the past. But being religious means making choices and understanding the central values of your faith. It also means considering the context in which that faith was formed.
And the Noble Baroness concluded:
As many noble Lords have said in this debate Islam, like all world religions, neither supports, nor advocates, nor condones terrorism. I am saying that the values of al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorists are not only contrary to what we as a country stand for, they are a distortion of the Islamic tradition itself. Al-Qaeda’s ideology is fundamentally at odds with both classical and contemporary Islamic jurisprudence. That is why the majority of Muslims across the globe reject their ideology.
But Lord Pearson of Rannoch was irked:
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, she has not answered the two questions that I put to her. I believe that I am in order to repeat them.. Will the noble Baroness answer the two questions I put to her?
And the Noble Baroness waffled on:
Everyone in this house knows Muslims in British life—doctors, engineers, scientists, journalists, MPs, teachers, business people, local councillors and so on...
And on and on..

An exasperated Lord Pearson intervened:
With respect, that does not answer the question. The question I put to the noble Baroness was about the persecution of Christians, to which she so bravely referred in Georgetown last Friday. Is it or is it not mostly the work of the jihadists? That was the question I put to her.
And so she did:
It was mostly the work of extremists who do not follow any faith, as far as I am concerned.
So, those who burn down churches, blow people up or cut their heads off while quoting the Qur'an, declaiming "Allahu Akbar" and invoking the name of Mohammed are not Muslims at all: they are really followers of no faith: they are secularists or humanist atheists; buddies of Professor Dawkins.

This is the socio-religio-political depth of understanding of the UK’s first ever Minister for Faith and Communities. She says it is her job "to ensure that freedom of religion and belief remains at the top of the Government’s agenda both at home and internationally". But while doing that, there can be no scrutiny of the virulent salafi-wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, for, to her, that is not Islam at all. And even to mention the possibility that it might be invites allegations of bigotry. These 'extremists' are simply not true Muslims and are completely ignorant of the real Islam.

And yet.. and yet..

At a Muslim Peace Conference in Norway (yes, a peace conference in Europe), when asked if the Muslims in attendance agreed that adulterous women ought to be stoned, the speaker praises Allah that all the men's hands were raised. His Grace says "men's hands", for there appears to be no gender diversity at this gathering. Unless, of course, the women were in the basement. When asked if they believed in the strict separation of men and women, all hands again were raised (except the bloke on the front line, whom the speaker ignores). This video is not of a group of 'extremists', but ordinary believers in a run-of-the-mill expression of moderate Islam.

These ordinary, everyday moderate Muslims want sharia law in their country; not secular democracy and human rights. The moderate and enlightened speaker mocks the media portrayal of their beliefs as 'extreme'. One wonders, if they had been asked, whether all hands would have been raised to affirm the death penalty for apostasy. Surely, if stoning women for adultery is considered just, then hanging for apostasy or blasphemy is a fortiori the will of Allah. And it is a very small step indeed from that belief to burning down the odd church and beheading the occasional kafir.

But these are not Muslims. They do not follow any faith.

As far as Baroness Warsi is concerned.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Reform Clause 1 – Feel Free To Annoy Me

His Grace wrote last week about the Government's plans for a new civil injunction to replace Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos), which amount to gross state interference with people’s private lives and basic freedoms. Home Secretary Theresa May aims to introduce wide-ranging new orders known as Ipnas (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance), which will suppress anything deemed to be potentially annoying, however vague the justification. Yes, truly and incredibly, Christian preachers, harmless buskers and peaceful protesters could be driven off the streets – if not by the courts, by the over-zealous interpretation and application of this law by an imperious police force.

The House of Lords debated this Bill on Monday night, and Baroness Mallalieu QC delivered a bold and forthright speech against this proposed ‘nuisance and annoyance’ law.

The Christian Institute has announced the formation of a new campaign group, called ‘Reform Clause 1: Feel Free To Annoy Me’. It is a joint initiative of the Institute and the National Secular Society, with support from other civil liberty groups. We worked together to to get rid of 'insulting' from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. We can do so again on this.

Being able to offend or annoy is one of the foundations of liberty. Freedom of speech must be tolerated, and everyone living in the United Kingdom must accept that they may be insulted about their own beliefs, or indeed be offended or annoyed, and that is something which they must simply endure, not least because some suffer fates far worse.

The Deputy Director of The Christian Institute, Simon Calvert, says the Bill presents "a real threat to public protest and free speech – including evangelism".

His Grace will let you know in due course how you may support the new Reform Clause 1 campaign. In the meantime, please pray against this draconian, illiberal and un-conservative legislation. The Christian Institute is developing an information hub for your convenience.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Church of England "on brink of extinction"

The media love religious prophecies of doom and gloom, especially when they come from former archbishops of Canterbury and the story can be spun into a tacit criticism of their successors.

But George Carey has been predicting the imminent demise of the Church of England at least since 1996, when he first declared that the Church is always one generation away from extinction.

That was almost a generation ago, and we're still here. And if the Church is always one generation away from extinction, this Daily Mail headline tells us nothing new.

It's worth noting that naysayers and doom merchants have been prophesying the demise of the Church of England since its inception: that's five centuries of endurance against an imminent end.

This isn't a simply statistical numbers game: one cannot simply look at declining numbers of young people today and derive a reliable correlation with middle-aged congregations 25 years hence. There are too many variables at play, not least of which is the work of the Holy Spirit.

And there is a certain irony that Lord Carey chooses to rehash his bleak prediction at the very moment Synod is talking earnestly about evangelism and praying for a deep and powerful work of God in the land. Just as the Archbishop of York reminds us of the wise words of the late Canon David Watson, who preached: "Evangelise or fossilise", Lord Carey responds that the fossils are actually of greater scientific interest.

We do not convert people: God does. The Church of England is merely a participant in His mission: it is our task to reflect Jesus in our individual and corporate lives; to worship and to proclaim Christ in word and deed. The Church of England needs to find new ways of being church and fresh ways of communicating truth. Adaptation is the secret of survival.

Blogs have become pulpits, Twitter has replaced coffee mornings and Facebook has morphed into an expression of fellowship. There is no point grumbling about empty Victorian pews: the young people are contemplating God and the meaning of life somewhere more comfortable. If you want to reach them, Lord Carey, get blogging and open a Facebook account.

Jesus told parables; the Apostles preached sermons; we need to text and tweet.

The medium is the message

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Guardian: Middle East Christians are being persecuted because of Israel

It has been widely reported that former US President George W Bush has given a speech at a fundraiser for a 'Jews for Jesus' event in Texas. The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute was established “to bring Jewish people into a personal relationship of faith with Yeshua the Messiah, knowing their acceptance will eventually mean life from the dead (Romans 11:15)'. According to Andrew Brown at The Guardian, this amounts to a 'crusade', in which no former president should play no part, unless, of course, he is a 'Zionist double agent'.

But it is not only the anti-Christian pages of the Guardian which are offended, but quite a few prominent Jews. Apparently, Christians have no business trying to convert them to the cause of the Messiah: these born-again bigots should respect other faiths and accept that no one has a monopoly on salvation. Instead of raising dollars for anti-Semitic rallies they should get on with feeding the poor and housing the homeless – like Jesus did.

And so George W Bush is severally accused of theological blindness, historical naivety, religious insensitivity and political ignorance.

The thing is..

Christianity is a mission faith, and that mission is to preach the gospel in Jerusalem, Judæa, Samaria and all the world. By preaching Christ crucified for the redemption of sinners, the objective is to win souls for Christ. It is not the healthy who need a doctor: it is the sick – those who have not encountered and do not know the Lord Jesus Christ, and that includes Jews, along with "Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, deists, atheists, and others who reject the idea that Jesus was the son of god and died to save humans from sin".

Unlike Andrew Brown, His Grace has no insights into George W Bush's spiritual motives. Such things ought to be left between a man and his god. But Mr Brown likes cutting windows into men's souls, and so we learn not only that President Bush desires to save Jews from damnation, but that by participating in the mission of Christ he is purposely hastening Armageddon. It is of the same theological stable as those who equate Evangelicalism with Zionism: 
Jews are a means to an apocalyptic end wherein Jesus returns and those who have accepted him are raptured into heaven, while the Christ-rejecters will be left behind to suffer their fate. This unpleasant eschatology is the driving force behind the rabidly pro-Israel stance..
Unpleasant eschatology? Well, the entire Bible is full of it, and Jesus preached an awful lot of it. If you want to divide humanity into sheep and goats, that's pretty 'unpleasant'. In fact, the whole concept of eschatology is itself 'unpleasant', for why should humanity have a pre-ordained end? Why should the world draw inexorably toward the 'end times' and experience an apocalypse from which none may escape? Why should there be unbearable human suffering and appalling natural catastrophe before the Kingdom may come? Why should anyone be judged, found wanting, and damned?

Unsurprisingly, Andrew Brown uses his anti-Bush rant to take a pot shot at Israel:
..if there is one group that has suffered as a result of the establishment of the state of Israel and its support by Western Christian countries, it is the historic Christians of the Middle East – who are now the victims of persecution throughout the region and scapegoats of an angry nationalism.
Get that? The persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East is not the fault of the Wahhabi-Salafist strain of Islam which is infecting the region's Muslims and spreading like a plague through Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Egypt. No, Christians throughout the region are being harassed, defamed, raped, tortured, burned and beheaded because of Israel.

How stupid of us not to see this.

How clever of these Zionist Jews to conspire to cleanse the entire Middle East of Christians while giving the impression that Israel is the only country in the region where followers of the Messiah may live and worship freely.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"I Vow to Thee, Humanity" – Is patriotism displeasing to God?

From Father Silas:

Time was when “the silly season” referred to the dog-days of August: almost everyone was on holiday, there was not much real news, and journalists had to dig up daft stories to fill the pages of their newspapers. We used almost to look forward to reading stuff falling into the “Man Bites Dog” category, adding, as they did, to the general sense of unseriousness that was a normal and healthy part of the summer break. Perhaps it is now because there is so much “news” – by which I mean space which has to be filled with news, on dedicated TV and radio channels and the internet, in addition to the press – that silly seasons occur all the time. There isn’t enough actual news, so we make do with what we can find. What is sometimes called Remembrance-tide is a rich vein of such stories, this year’s provided by a north London vicar, the Reverend Dr Gordon Giles.

Dr Giles wrote a column in last week’s Church Times headlined: “Can ‘I vow to thee’ be renovated? I was wary: my instinct was to say to myself “No, obviously it can’t”, and move on to Andrew Brown’s waspish press column. But I’m glad I stopped to read it, not least because a generally unsympathetic report on it surfaced in the next day’s Daily Mail: “Words to patriotic hymn I Vow To Thee My Country are ‘almost obscene’ and not fit for Christians, claims vicar.” 

It needs to be said that, in the Church Times article, Dr Giles did not say that the words were “obscene". He said that “…if the cause is wealth, power, influence or national pride, then the sacrifice is diminished, and its connection to the 'pride' of suffering is, for many, almost obscene”. I find this rather convoluted and not entirely convincing; but no matter. The gist of his generally reasonable article was that “I vow to thee” was very popular, particularly at this time of year; but that some people nowadays disliked its patriotic sentiment and disapproved of its being sung in church (some argue that it’s not really a hymn since it doesn’t mention God). But in recognition of its popularity, especially when sung to Holst’s soaring tune 'Thaxted', Dr Giles proposed that some amendment of Cecil Spring Rice’s words could redeem it and, so to speak, render it respectable. And he helpfully presented to us some new words, presumably of his own composition. I will spare you their reproduction here: suffice it to say that they – shall we say – lack the poetry of Spring Rice’s, while nonetheless relying heavily upon them.

Now I will confess to you a prejudice. It is that I dislike hymns whose words, learned in childhood by many of us, are summarily changed to reflect supposed modern sensibilities; so that when we sing them by and from the heart, we stumble over small alterations that have been recently introduced, usually in the interests of gender-inclusiveness or to tone down military imagery. (The modern hymn-book Hymns Old and New is an egregious example, and actually includes a hymn called “Onward Christian Pilgrims” – which I suspect nobody sings.) And that is my first point. The fact that the words of hymns may not exactly reflect a modern outlook is not of itself sufficient reason to change what people have sung for decades. Continuity, familiarity and affection are important and should be respected. The words of “I vow to thee my country” are, for many, beautiful and moving and express something of what they actually feel, both about their earthly country and about their heavenly country. If you dislike or disapprove of them, by all means don’t sing them – but please don’t presume to change them.

The second point is this. The fact that patriotic sentiment is now politically incorrect (more so in England than elsewhere, I have noticed) does not make it wrong. A love of one’s country does not displace or diminish one’s love for God or the recognition that His reign and His commandments are first in our love and loyalty. I know where my ultimate home is, and nothing can change that. But for the time being, my earthly home is here, in a land created by God and inhabited by generations of extraordinary human beings, some of whom have loved it to the extent of laying down their lives for it. Who is to say their, or my, patriotism is displeasing to God?

Father Silas is an undistinguished (he says) priest and deacon of the Church of England who loves it in spite of everything.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Church schools: The Times says... Lambeth Palace says...

Apparently, the Archbishop of Canterbury told Ruth Gledhill of The Times that he supports church schools which abandon their religious selection criteria and open their doors to all pupils. He said there is a "deeper and deeper commitment to the common good" within church schools and a steady move away from faith-based entry tests. Allowing children the chance to apply to faith schools helps the church achieve its mission of alleviating poverty, he added.

Ms Gledhill (or her sub-editor) chose to make something of this which is not only unhelpful, but a little misleading, for nothing quoted here signifies that the Church of England is intending to "move away" from school selection on the basis of faith. It is perfectly possible to support schools which impose no faith-based selection criteria as well as those that do, and for those which do select by faith to be committed to the common good and the alleviation of poverty: in other words, selection by faith and the Christian mission are not mutually exclusive.  

The wonderful Venerable Jan McFarlane, Acting Press Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, had to interrupt her Horlicks at midnight last night to issue the following statement:
In the course of a wide ranging interview for The Times on the subject of tackling poverty, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked about the role of schools. He praised the work of church schools especially in areas of highest deprivation, and stressed the importance of home, family and excellent school leadership.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued the following statement regarding selection criteria for church schools:-

“I fully support the current policy for schools to set their own admissions criteria, including the criterion of faith. Nothing in my wider comments to The Times on this subject should be seen as “revealing” any changes nor dissenting from current policy.” The Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Church of England schools are among the best state schools in the country, and are frequently oversubscribed. Of course, as Archbishop Justin says, it is not necessary to select to get a really good school: "There are unbelievably brilliant schools that are entirely open to all applicants without selection criteria apart from residence, where you live, and which produce staggeringly good results."

And he is astute enough to know the reason for this: "It's a question of - and you can point to them all over the place - it's a question of outstanding leadership."

Mission belongs to God and flows from the heart of God: it is not an exclusively human activity. There is perhaps no more vital a role for a mission-orientated church than engagement in the task of education, to help impart truth, forge peace, renew creation and tell of the redemption of humanity and the coming Kingdom. It is distinct from evangelisation - indeed, it is much bigger: it is not the task of church schools to convert children: it is, as Moltmann puts it, to embrace all activities that serve to liberate man from his slavery. Evangelism has to be the focus of mission, but expressed through love and transmitted and fostered by moral leadership.

A Christian education is values-orientated: poverty is alleviated and ignorance dispelled through pastoral care as much as classroom learning. Archbishop Justin is concerned with children's spiritual development as well as their intellectual and physical development, and that ministry is certainly not confined to the children of believers. Church schools sow seeds; some of them fall on stony ground, others on fertile soil. But make no mistake, a church school that is well led and based securely on a Christian ethos, manifesting a culture of values, inculcating character virtues, will equip children of all faiths and none for life.

One might almost say that church schools exist for the unbelieving and non-believing: there is no "move away" from faith-based admissions. In truth, in very many Church of England schools, they never really existed. Some of them are now filled with very happy Muslims, Sikh and Hindu children, and their parents are very happy indeed.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Robert Fisk and the New Contemptibles

From Brother Ivo:

It has begun. Our “liberal progressive” friends have embarked upon a scheme to shape the narrative for next year’s commemoration of the Great War.

As those who plan the year prepare their contributions, it is hoped that scholarship and perspective will be the dominant virtues, especially when it comes to the men who won the war. None bears the brunt of insult and disdain more than Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

His reputation remains controversial: all military leaders will - and should - have their actions scrutinised to learn the lessons of their successes and their failures. There is little doubt that Sandhurst will have studied such matters with care and proportionality, but Brother Ivo’s fear is that that the popular media may still be stuck in the Oh! What a Lovely War/Blackadder mode of leftwing agitprop.

Such is the shallowness of much popular culture, however, that Brother Ivo saw one young man asserting that he could not wear a poppy because it derived from John McRae’s famous poem, and had been selected as the symbol of remembrance by Douglas Haig’s wife.

That it had been hallowed and accepted by generations of heroes, and that McRae was a serving officer who gave his own life for his king and country seemed to have eclipsed all else. There was no suggestion that there was anything wrong per se with the field poppy symbolising the lost generations, or that there was a better one: the simple fact that it could be linked to the Field Marshal rendered all further intelligent consideration redundant.

Brother Ivo subsequently realised that the young man was parroting the line of Robert Fisk in a piece published in The Independent which had Yasmin Alibhai-Brown praising his “bravery” for writing it.

It is not in the slightest brave: it is weapons grade, highly self-regarding, pseudo-moralistic cant of the highest order. And doubtless it will not be the last.

If one has the stomach to read it to the end, it should be done, for it sets the bar for the level of ignorance and prejudice from the liberal establishment with which we shall have to contend in the months ahead, as we enter the time of commemoration.

When the relatively small British Expeditionary Force stopped the German Army in 1914, the Kaiser famously referred to them as the “Old Contemptibles” - a appellation they wore with pride for the rest of their lives.

In the likes of Mr Fisk and Ms Alibhai-Brown we have the ‘New Contemptibles”, who will tread on the sensitivities of the grieving, and who cannot allow remembrance and mourning to be untainted by political controversy as they impose their spiteful worldview upon an activity that most would prefer to keep open and inclusive.

Those who intrude into our remembrances and adopt a term like “poppycock” to describe the holy moments of honouring the sacrifice of our military are indeed beneath contempt.

There is neither time nor space to assess Haig’s military merits in depth, but there are a few obvious correctives to the popular view that are worth noting.

Haig pursued objectives set by politicians: all soldiers do. Despite the losses, the British public was determined not to lose its war with Germany after expending so much blood and treasure, and Haig delivered what was required of him. He, like so many others, discharged his duty.

At the end of the War he was judged well by those in a position to know.

Luddendorf saluted him as “Master of the field”; US General George Patton had high regard for him, having served in those conditions as a young officer before learning lessons and becoming a notable Second World War leader. Winston Churchill said of him: "If there are some who would question Haig’s right to rank with Wellington in British military annals, there are none who will deny that his character and conduct as a soldier will long serve as an example to all."

What is little known by the generations educated by left-wing academics is that his funeral attracted more mourners than lined the streets of London for the funeral of Princess Diana. His men respected him and honoured his passing. That is not insignificant, and ought to give pause for thought to those whose judgements are formed by their own prejudices or popular culture.

Not all of his alleged mistakes were irrational.

We need to remember that the Great War, above all, confirmed Napoleon’s dictum that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. That was especially the case in the first war fought with 20th-century firepower directed by 19th-century communications.

If Haig instructed his 1916 citizen army to walk towards the enemy it was as much to do with his concern that they might rush into their own barrage as over-confidence that he had mastered the artillery lessons from German successes at Verdun. Even when the very real possibility for the much-hoped-for cavalry breakthrough occurred at High Wood on the 1st July 1916, there did not exist the communications to exploit the planned opportunity in the time available. The war was fought on an unprecedentedly vast scale with command structures that no one could have directed significantly better.

On the frequently referenced issue of the executed soldiers, Haig commuted 90% of the 3000 death sentences passed, and 37 of the 309 shot at dawn were executed for murder which would have seen them hanged in a civilian Court. This generation may differ in its values, but the man was no Judge Jeffreys.

Because of his leadership, the British Army held its discipline and cohesion throughout the agony of the conflict. Unlike the armies of Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Turkey or Austria, the British Army never broke, and neither did it significantly mutiny. Every military professional of the time and since counts that a remarkable achievement.

Where his reputation is largely overlooked, however, is in his role after the war.

We are so habituated to our British way of Remembrance that we do not pause to think that alternatives existed. They may have been old style Imperialists, but men like Haig and Kipling ushered in a modern and very egalitarian approach to commemorating the sacrifices made.

All Commonwealth War Grave headstones are identical. Our war memorials list alphabetically and there is no greater respect given to the Major General or the Baronet’s son than the local rat catcher. The red poppy is for each and every one of them, and recalls the sacrifice of non-combatant Quakers and VC alike. It is the intrusion of the white poppy that imports difference and division to the occasion.

In all the traditional trappings of Remembrance, the Commonwealth soldiery from all nations, cultures and religions are accorded identical respect. This is easily overlooked by those who have never seen a segregated War Memorial in the USA.

That tone of Remembrance owes no small debt to the post-war efforts of Douglas Haig and the British Legion, over which he presided from its inception to his death. Haig refused a viscountcy until proper provision had been made for demobilised soldiers. He insisted that the Army stayed in reserve rather than become engaged during the General Strike. He was actively involved in securing housing for the returned soldiers, and the British Legion relief fund bore his name for many years.

We could do a lot worse that restore the original title “The Earl Haig Fund”, which was stripped from it by a subsequent generation more concerned with imposing its own trendy views than accepting and respecting the choice of those better placed to judge.

If Haig deserves no other credit, he should be honoured for his commitment to the establishment of the British Legion as an inclusive, non-political organisation designed simply to support the military folk who had done their duty and suffered so much.

Uniquely amongst European ex-service organisations, veterans in the UK retained their association as a meeting place of old comrades. During the depression years, every European country saw its old soldiers groups morph into nationalistic, fascist or communist quasi military bands, but the Royal British Legion stayed true to its mission.

For that alone we should remain very grateful to the Royal British Legion, and honour its leadership. How many today have ever been challenged by that thought from their history teachers?

We might also usefully remind ourselves that the First World War was recognised as a holocaust before the Holocaust. One wonders if our liberal commentators would feel quite so comfortably cavalier trampling over the memory or sensitivities of the Holocaust victims in the way they now feel able to sneer and pontificate about those who came out of the trenches and sought in some inadequate way to express their sense of loss and pity?

The simple poppy had grown profusely over the fields in which the survivors had served, fought and suffered. Since they accepted that symbol of Remembrance for their families and friends, why do puffed-up commentators like Robert Fisk feel the need to bray and disrespect? They have 364 other days of the year to pursue their progressive agenda.

And therein lies the paradox. Such self-appointed spokespersons for the common man are turning their backs on the judgements of the ordinary men and women who served. From the earliest days of the cynical Bloomsbury Set to its modern incarnation, our intelligentsia are more "sophisticated" than Joe Public. This is what sets egalitarians apart - their innate sense of superiority.

One suspects that none of the Remembrance rituals will have irritated Mr Fisk more than those surrounding the Unknown Soldier, who was accorded the highest honour and respect by all who laid him to rest, including Royalty, the Church, Parliamentarians and the Military High Commands. Doubtless Mr Fisk would describe them all as having contributed to that soldier’s death.

Such was the ritual surrounding the selection of this modern-day Everyman that he could have been Canadian, Australian, Indian, or from many other nations. He was not only escorted to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey by 100 holders of the Victoria Cross, but this occurred in the presence of nearly 100 women who had lost a husband and five sons to the war. The concentration of grief on that day is almost too sad to contemplate.

Those heroes and ordinary women were not deterred from paying their respects by the presence of the highest in the land. Doubtless, in later life, those widows wore their little paper poppies, which Mr Fisk loftily disdains to wear because he has a better perspective and superior judgement. If it was good enough for them, Brother Ivo is honoured to follow their example.

Their husbands and sons were those who made up the ranks of the Grimsby Chums, the Accrington Pals, the Glasgow Tramways Battalion, the Post Office Rifles, and many more groups of patriotic loyal friends. Whenever Brother Ivo comes to remember, he brings to mind these ordinary, uncomplicated folk, and stands before the Cross of Sacrifice in awe with thanksgiving, calling to mind another who shared their path.

Robert Fisk and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown don’t want to be associated with Pals and Chums: they prefer acolytes.

Brother Ivo is Christian enough to assume that Mr Fisk would not have stood before those 100 grieving widows in Westminster Abbey to declare their observance “poppycock”. There are still many grieving today, from both old and newer conflicts, for whom these rituals are their best and most comforting expression of inexpressible loss. If Mr Fisk would not say these things to their faces, he would be best not to say them at all.

Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sir John Tavener RIP

May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Pray for the Philippines, and give generously from the heart

A mother weeps beside the dead body of her son at a chapel in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban. She cried bringing him into this world; screamed in frustration as she nurtured him; and now weeps as her hand caresses his cold, lifeless cheek. Her heart is broken; the grief overwhelming. The wooden cross on the distant wall is utterly unapproachable.

Multiply this mourning by 10,000, and add countless millions who are now homeless, jobless and without food or clean water, struggling to survive after what is believed to be the most devastating natural disaster in recorded history. The photographs pierce the heart: the catastrophe, destruction and havoc are unimaginable. Wives have lost their husbands, and husbands sob their hearts out at the loss of their soul-mates. Thousands of children have been orphaned. Lawless hordes are looting. Bodies are rotting in the streets.

Like the suffering Job, some will be pleading to God, asking "Why?"

But this is not a time for theodicy. The whole creation is groaning, as in the pains of childbirth. Life is a tragedy: it is one bitter problem followed by another; a day of trauma followed by a week of anguish followed by a month of sorrow and a year of unbearable pain. And then, at last, you die.

We can reflect and pray: the Archbishop of Canterbury leads the way:
The news of the devastating storm in the Philippines is tragic, and my heart goes out to the people there. We are all deeply shocked and saddened to hear of the loss of thousands of lives and of the suffering of millions as a result of Typhoon Haiyan.

'Our prayers are with all who have lost loved ones and all those who are traumatised by the disaster and in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical attention. We pray for those who are most vulnerable in this crisis: children separated from their parents, the sick and injured, the disabled and the elderly.

'As a Church, we will stand beside the people of the Philippines at this devastating time, offering all we can in practical and spiritual support as the scale of the disaster unfolds.

'I note that the relief work has already commenced and my prayer is that governments, agencies, churches and individuals will respond generously to help the people of the Philippines to recover and rebuild their shattered lives.

'May the victims of this terrible storm know God’s comfort and derive strength from their faith.'
And the Church of England has published a prayer for the Philippines:
O loving Creator, bring healing and hope to those who, at this time, grieve, suffer pain, or who have been made homeless by the force of flood in Philippines.

We remember those who have died and we pray for those who mourn for them.

May we all be aware of Your compassion, O God, which calms our troubled hearts and shelters our anxious souls.

May we pray with humility with our troubled and struggling brothers and sisters on earth. May we dare to hope that through the generosity of the privileged, the destitute might glimpse hope, warmth and life again.

Through our Saviour Christ who lives with us, comforts us and soothes us. Amen.
Please don't read over that "through the generosity of the privileged" bit. Prayer demands action. Suffering on this scale needs a response. Please give a charity donation to an organisation involved in the relief efforts. The amount doesn't matter (Lk 21:1-4): the important thing is that we are helping someone in need (Mt 25: 31-40). If you don't know a trustworthy charity, feel free to donate to His Grace's Collection Plate and he will forward your contribution.

These are not foreigners: they are our brothers and sisters, and their need is great. "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Theresa May seeks to outlaw Christian street preachers

This Government is fast becoming the most authoritarian threat to our liberties of the modern era. Not content with reintroducing state regulation of the press, the Home Secretary Theresa May is intent on outlawing anything that people may find 'annoying'.

The judicious John Bingham writes in the Telegraph:
Christian preachers, buskers and peaceful protesters could effectively be driven off the streets under draconian new powers designed to clamp on anyone deemed “annoying”, according to a former Director of Public Prosecutions.

Lord Macdonald QC said Theresa May, the Home Secretary’s plans for a new civil injunctions to replace Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) amount to “gross state interference” with people’s private lives and basic freedoms.

In a formal legal opinion being circulated to peers, he savages the proposals as opening the way for the outright “suppression” of anything deemed “potentially annoying” with only “vague” justification.

The proposed safeguards to prevent abuse of the new system are “shockingly” weak, he writes.

Under proposals currently before Parliament, Asbos are to be scrapped and replaced with wide-ranging new orders known as Ipnas (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance).
How is this statutory proposal to be balanced with the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression? What of the freedom to preach the Gospel?

Christians are called to proclaim the Good News. Whether it be from a pulpit, on television or walking up and down Oxford Street with a sandwich board, such proclamation ought to be tolerated in the public sphere in a free society.

While some might preach the wonders of heaven, the Way of Salvation and the boundless love of Jesus, others choose to focus on sin and damnation. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but those who focus on the latter are certainly annoying.

In 1999 Lord Justice Sedley championed the rights of people to express such views, and quoted Socrates and two famous Quakers in doing so. There is no breach of the peace if what is uttered is merely offensive. He said: “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence.”

Theresa May is trying to outlaw His Grace. 

The world has seen too many examples of state control and censorship of unofficial utterances. Some may well find this blog offensive, irritating, contentious, eccentric, heretical, unwelcome and provocative, but it is His Grace’s judgment that society is all the better for such expressions being permitted: freedom reigns while people are at liberty to spout their views.

His Grace draws the line at prejudice, irrational discrimination or incitement to violence. Or he used to, before Labour introduced the concept of ‘hate speech’. But now, it seems, any utterance which a minority group might find offensive is to be outlawed by the spawn of ASBO. The contentious, eccentric, heretical, unwelcome and provocative must give way to a state-enforced normative orthodoxy of denatured social harmony.

No, Home Secretary.

Think again, before you irritate His Grace overmuch and things get messy.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reflection for Remembrance Day

From Brother Ivo:

Today we observe our festival of Remembrance.

Our solemn national and civic services will take place with dignity: our military will process with precision and our religious leaders will deliver their annual addresses, carefully composed so that no one may accuse them of jingoism or triviality. The annual spat over the legitimacy of the red or white poppy has surfaced, and the inevitable bout of student shallowness have been duly played out.

November 11th is the day of the 1918 Armistice, but it is also the Feast Day of St Martin of Tours, a soldier saint, and this is our starting point today. An Eastern European, he is best known for taking pity on a beggar and dividing his own cloak to give warmth. Later, in a dream, Christ appeared to him wearing the other half.

This story bequeathes to us two interesting etymologies.

St Martin was a close follower of the much underestimated Hilary of Poitiers, who was the principal advocate of Trinitarian doctrine at the Council of Nicæa. This association brought Martin to the Poitiers area and led to him becoming Bishop of the adjacent city of Tours where a large monastery was built. This was later to receive England's foremost scholar, Alcuin of York, Charlemagne's librarian.

St Martin's half-cloak became a holy relic and the subject of veneration by pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostella. The monk charged with responsibility for keeping the relic was known as the cappelani (cloak keeper). When moved, the relic was housed in a small temporary shelter, the cappela (little cloak). From these words we derive our terms 'Chaplain' and 'Chapel'.

Martin became the patron saint of infantrymen, and many in France saw significance in the fact that the Armistice was signed on his feast day at the end of the Great War.

Brother Ivo has been spending time in the French countryside of Hilary and Martin, where his evenings have been spent reading a fascinating account of what happened in the locality after the Normandy landings in 1944.

Operations Bulbasket and Houndsworth were mounted by small units of the SAS deep inside enemy territory. They were charged with liaison with the growing Maquis, but especially tasked to slow the arrival of the feared and powerful armoured division Das Reich, which had been based in Toulouse in case the allies invaded from the South. It was fanatical and of greater size and quality than the average German division. Keeping it out of Normandy until after the invasion had established was a major priority. In the event, its normal journey time of three days was delayed to 17, which was critical, but came at a cost.

Bridges and railway lines were disrupted, and hit-and-run attacks impeded their progress. In retribution for attacks by the local Maquis, the entire village of Oradour-sur-Glane was destroyed. The remains of the village are exactly as they were: some find it even more chilling to visit than Auschwitz. The doctor's car rusts in the street; lines of machine-gun bullets are discernible across the altar and confessional where the women and children were murdered. A baby's pram stands before the altar.

Oradour-sur-Glane is a place to sense the tragedy and cruelty of war.

The SAS similarly suffered when 32 of its Bulbasket soldiers were captured. Their story is told in the very readable book by Paul McCue.

Hitler had issued a decree that all captured commandos were to be summarily executed, and any officer who failed or even questioned the order was to be similarly punished. The capture of the commandos presented a real moral dilemma for the local German commanders. Several had real distaste for the order: they were regular army officers, and for days there was discussion and attempts to pass the buck. They considered whether their captives could be regarded as ordinary prisoners of war, but their area of command had no front line. They tried to avoid responsibility by treating them as airmen to be passed to the Luftwaffe, but they were refused. A hypothetical case was offered to a military judge whose opinion confirmed no legal loophole.

In 1947, the German Wehrmacht officers commanding the unit which murdered the SAS - General Curt Gallenkamp, Colonel Koestlin and Captain Schoenig - were tried by a British military court. General Gallenkamp was sentenced to death, but hanging was commuted to life imprisonment. Colonel Koestlin was sentenced to life in prisonment, and Captain Schoenig to five years. All were released in the 1950s.

For the cold-blooded execution of 32 captives, a harsher generation deemed less than 15 years to be proportionate. We might reflect on these sentences as we consider the the punishment awaiting Commando Sergeant 'A', who has been convicted of shooting a wounded Afghan insurgent.

The German officers concerned had time and took advice as they weighed their options. They knew the illegality of what they were doing. The executions were carried out secretly in a remote woodland miles from the Army HQ, and the bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves. A US airman who was captured with them and easily exempted from the order was executed so that no witness lived. The bodies of three wounded troopers killed by lethal injection in their hospital beds have never been discovered.

The officer who organised the execution had been involved in planning the capture. He was killed during the war and so his culpability was never formally considered. Strikingly, and uniquely, the military records do not show that he made representation against, or that he sought to avoid his responsibilities even though the senior officers were clearly discomfited before they sinned.

Oberleutnant Vogt probably never expected to find himself embroiled in such a tragedy when he was posted to the Bicycle Reconnaissance Corps. Nevertheless, he seems to have busied himself locating the remote execution site, organising the execution detail, announcing the sentence giving the order to fire, and burying the bodies.

Perhaps he was aided by his familiarity with funeral liturgy: in civilian life, he was a Protestant clergyman from Tübingen.

Having read the Bulbasket history, Brother Ivo's mind went back many years to when he first learned French and came to love its countryside. At 14 he spent time with a family in Normandy where he was taken to a woodland where, on 24th August 1943, a local Maquis group was attacked, captured and killed. On the memorial stone a strange name jumped out at him. It was German.

For years, the mystery puzzled. Brother Ivo speculated that perhaps this unknown soldier was an Alsation conscript. How else could he have been accepted by the French partisans?

Fortified by a single malt, Brother Ivo cranked up his linguistic recollections and has spent recent days trawling the French sector of the internet to resolve this puzzle, and he has been rewarded with a name.

In 1943, at the height of Nazi power in Western Europe, Rudolph Pfandhaur deserted that army, taking his uniform and weapon with him. He was Austrian. The French do not record or celebrate him much, yet surely this deserter was remarkable for his courage, as were they who welcomed him into the ranks of those combating tyranny. It is impossible for a Christian to reflect on this without calling to mind Ananias, who was called upon to put aside his fears and reservations to welcome Saul of Tarsus.

As we consider the obedience to secular orders of Oberleutnant Vogt, we should not be despondent or overly condemning. We have not been there, any more than those lining up to condemn Sergeant A can understand how he came to compromise his own integrity and that of his comrades in arms.

A feast day is a time to celebrate, however, and so we should. We should celebrate that for every Vogt there is a Pfandhaur - even amongst our enemies. For every persecuting Saul there is a potential Paul. As we remember our military this day, we should give thanks that so many do not succumb to the temptation to abuse the power which their armaments give them. What is amazing in this fallen world is not that a few fail to live up to the best of standards, but rather most soldiers do.

On this Remembrance Day, let us mourn and repent. Just as Good Friday gives way to the hope of Easter Sunday, let us remember and celebrate the integrity and valour of our armed forces, and give thanks that with St Martin every sinner can hope for redemption thanks to that strange and inexplicable initiative of Christ that we call grace.

Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers

Friday, November 08, 2013

Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix - an agent of truth and peace

Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, spokesperson for the Catholic Media Centre of the Diocese of Homs, Hama and Yabroud in Syria, is one of the main representatives of the 'Mussalaha' Reconciliation inter-faith Initiative, which has the support of all Syria’s religious communities. She has been a fearless and indefatigable proponent for Syria’s persecuted.

His Grace wrote about her a few months ago: she is the nun who exposed the egregious stage-management of public opinion when President Obama, David Cameron and François Hollande were trying to justify punitive action against President Assad and his forces for the alleged use of chemical weapons. More recently, she personally brokered a ceasefire between 'rebels' and Syrian troops in Moadamiya, and thereby helped save the lives of over 2000 civilians.

Mother Agnès-Mariam has been and is being relentlessly criticised for these acts by those who are support war and oppose peace. She is still besieged by lies, libels and slanders which foment further conflict and hinder peace and reconciliation in Syria.

And no wonder the Father of Lies is irked.

Mother Agnès-Mariam demolished the credibility of the videos of the Ghouta chemical gas story. Her evidence on the veracity of the rebels’ videos was used by the Russian government in its successful efforts to forestall the USA’s planned missile strikes on Damascus. The questions Mother Agnès-Mariam raised in that interview have still not been satisfactorily answered.

How many nuns brave snipers and bombs to broker a ceasefire?
    "Saturday, October 12 At 11 am Mother Agnes-Mariam and Sister Carmel went to Muadamiyet-al-Cham, on the outskirts of Damascus.. Twelve snipers were ensconced above the arcades that lead into the city. Mother Agnes-Mariam swept up a white flag and headed with determination, along with Sister Carmel, toward a group of about 40 leaders of the armed rebel bands that have been kidnapping thousands of ordinary people. Now these armed bands were also threatening.. to block off all food supplies. The ensuing confusion was indescribable, with shots being fired and shouts ringing out about how no one was to leave the place alive.

   "So Mother Agnes-Mariam tells Sister Carmel to pray and they begin to invoke the name of Jesus. Suddenly there is silence, and there is an opening for negotiations over the liberation of the hostages..."
There are accompanying photographs for this diary account: the BBC also recorded the peace-brokering (and there's a longer BBC Today interview, or a much fuller video link here).

Syria is a dangerous war zone: journalists who go there run the risk of death. Mother Agnès-Mariam is not 'pro-Assad', as some of them claim, but it's a handy slur to hurl at anyone who opposes the rebels’ excesses. She does not work for Assad and neither is she in cahoots with him: she simply labours for peace and reconciliation in Syria's killing fields. Allegations that she "meets daily with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, and Jamil Hasan, the head of Air Force Intelligence" are patently absurd. It is simply part of a conspiracy to discredit her, or even provoke her assassination.

And she is mocked as “Our Lady of Useful Idiocy”. Funny, isn't it, how the sympathies of some Western journalists appear to be with those who are wantonly slaughtering Christians and committing unspeakable war crimes. But the media bias is routinely with these 'rebels': the BBC gave a very easy interview to Abu Sakkar, Syria’s notorious heart-eating cannibal (yes, you read that right). Why is taxpayers' money giving a platform to such a monster?

Vladimir Putin made this very point to David Cameron at the 2013 G8 summit meeting on the day Prince George of Cambridge was born. Channel 4 enthused about their exclusive with an AK47-toting female jihadist from London who is helping to colonise Northern Syria under the flag of al-Nusra. This woman had looted and stolen, but her crimes went unchallenged during the interview.

And The Guardian deals reverently with Ali Almanasfi, who was killed in Syria fighting for al-Qaeda. Here, from Harding’s article, is some of this dead jihadist’s previous:
As a teenager, according to his friend Tam Hussein, Almanasfi drifted into trouble. He got involved in street fights with other Acton gangs and petty crime: drugs, stealing, booze. In 2008 his father sent him to Syria to cool down. Apparently this didn't work. A year later he did something he would bitterly regret: drunk, he attacked an older man. The details are hazy. But he was caught, sentenced to four or five years in jail, and initially imprisoned in Feltham young offenders institute.
Mary Fitzgerald, a foreign affairs editor with the Irish Times, spent time with jihadists in Libya and then followed the same group of fanatics to Syria. She praises them, martyr-like, despite their own criminal backgrounds in Ireland. In between praising the foreign jihadists currently laying waste to Syria, Ms Fitzgerald has made unsubstantiated allegations against Mother Agnès-Mariam via Twitter.

In one instance, on learning that BNP leader Nick Griffin was in Syria as part of an EU delegation, she insinuated that Mother Agnès-Mariam invited him - despite the nun being in Australia at the time and having never heard of Griffin or the BNP. Apparently, the beheading of Christians is a baseless claim: the nun is just a religious nutter. Mary Fitzgerald is of the view that Irish jihadists are not extremists of the al-Qaeda mold: they are true martyrs for a just cause. Unsurprisingly, she is a vocal supporter of the Irish-based Muslim Brotherhood extremists who were arrested in Cairo when the Morsi regime was toppled.

There is a lesson here: if you're a servant of the Lord intent on working for peace and reconciliation in a war zone, you can expect the forces of hell to be unleashed to smear, defame and kill your reputation, if not your life.

God bless you, Mother Agnès-Mariam. May the Lord guide and protect you, and give you peace.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Francis Effect

When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him.
And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
(Mt 8:1-4)
We don't do this very much. Not because we fear the scorn of Richard Dawkins that the sick are not healed, but because we lack compassion and kindness.

We judge by appearances. O, we can watch John Hurt slobber about as the Elephant Man and shed a sympathetic tear, but we wouldn't invite him to dinner. Well, we might now, but only because he's become a celebrity and there's cachet in the association.  

Visiting St Peter's Square, most of us would shun this poor wretch because of his Elephant Man-like appearance. We would certainly decline to share a communion chalice with him, for fear of some unknown contagion. But, like his namesake St Francis of Assisi, this Pope abjures his royal palace, lives in a guest house with his brothers, and prays deeply – quite movingly – for a modern-day leper. Indeed, the Pope kissed the carbuncles upon this poor man's deformed forehead.

Humility and holiness in action.

It is Christ-like.

Some will say it is prophetic – a sign of profound faith in a superficial world of beautiful people and bright young things. But it is simply what we all ought to be doing – manifesting the self-emptying love of Christ and transcending the narrow confines of the world.

Love does not solve life's problems: it helps us to cope with them. It brings perspective and confers order. Faith working through love is creative and redemptive. Pope Francis acts for that poor distorted being because he has an appreciation of that being. Such love is the fruit of God's presence within us.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The statutory obligation to report suspected child abuse

From Brother Ivo:

Apologists for 'The Perfect State' have just taken a step forward with the proposal that it should be a criminal offence for care professionals not to report child abuse to the authorities.

Let nobody misunderstand. Brother Ivo hates child abuse with a passion, and if he thought for a moment that such a proposal would have a protective outcome, he would give Keir Starmer's suggestion serious consideration. But he doesn't find the advancement of state power or the 'price worth paying' argument remotely attractive. When a very great and lasting evil is to be combated, Brother Ivo would go a long way in setting aside his hesitations if it would save the little ones that Christ loves especially.

The question is, would it actually assist?

It is a little unclear as to the extent to which the obligation extends. Initially the proposal is framed in terms of 'care professionals', but as one hears talk of 'all in loco parentis' the ambit grows until it surely threatens to encompass everyone engaged in child-related activities though the holding of a 'Disclosing and Barring' (formerly CRB) certificate. It seems that all those who volunteer for Cubs or to become lay readers or teaching assistants would be acquiring serious obligations in areas of expertise where they may have neither experience nor expertise.

Extending a positive duty so that more citizens have to to report any suspicion of criminal offence takes us closer to the Stasi State than almost any other proposal that can be imagined. Why not impose a similar duty to report drug abuse (which equally harms children), or domestic abuse (which statistically frequently correlates with child mistreatment)? And why not make it mandatory to report illegal immigration (with its trafficking dimension) or, for that matter, tax evasion? After all, if we had more money we would surely put more resources into combatting such evils, wouldn't we?

Vulnerable children would, however, still be at the mercy of officials to act or not act as they exercise their discretions. Isn't this the same Keir Starmer who, when presented with the plainest evidence of law-breaking abortion doctors, decided to re-interpret the law (or does Brother Ivo mean disregard?), and sub-contract the matter to a professional trade union? There is no greater abuse of childhood innocence than the tearing of a child from her mother's womb for no better reason than being a little girl. But these slutty little females just beg for it, don't they?

It is perhaps uncharitable for Brother Ivo to consider that Mr Starmer is trying to restore his credentials following that controversy, but he still burns with indignation on the matter and is in no mood to make nice.

What is startling in this proposal is that, hearing of this revised and upgraded threshold of police intervention, inexperienced 'child protection professionals' may fear themselves at risk of criminalisation for failures to act upon suspicion, but there is no counterbalancing offence for those in authority failing to weigh the evidence or enforce the law. There have been over 30 public inquiries into child deaths since that of Maria Colwell in 1973, and they all say the same thing: everybody knew a little, but nobody joined up the dots. There really is no need for any more such inquiries, for this is always the conclusion. So how about placing criminal responsibility there?

Except that too is not very easy.

Social Services hold statutory rights, powers and duties as well. Sometimes they take early action on their own initiative; sometimes they have a suspicion but share responsibility by asking other agencies to confirm what they know at a case conference. That invitation to gather information (and 'join up the dots') is sensible, but do they yet commit a criminal offence?

How many of those sitting at the table of statutory child-protection conferences will be exposed to this reporting liability? Will they only carry responsibility for reporting or making the consequent judgement? What of the teacher's assistant, or the nursing colleague who steps in to cover for illness? If the case conference decides that, on balance, there is insufficient cause for concern, should all the individual members call the police, just in case? Is the one who doesn't potentially criminalised? They all now know, but may have varying levels of concern.

There is the problem of data overload as every slight concern is reported, and allegedly cash-strapped agencies and perhaps the Legal Aid system would have to resource the evaluation of each and every report. As 'protective reporting' grows, so will the cost and so will the fog of war.

Overall, we need better case evaluation, not more data.

To illustrate the problem, Brother Ivo recalls a sports coach who was reported by the 'concerned parent' of an opposing team when they observed, from 50 yards away, his brusqe rubbing of a cold child's arms on a biting wintery day as she waited to be substituted. The child's parent was adjacent and thought the allegation outrageous, but investigated it all was, and in extensive detail.

When this happens under the current regime, we have to ask whether we want or can afford to invite additional reports by anxious subjects whe think 'better safe than sorry'. The malicious will have a field day. How would the recipient of any such information - be it sports administrator, police officer or headteacher, etc - dare to take a proportionate view at an early stage?

There are many nursery teachers 'breaking the rules' about not touching children by giving a distressed toddler a cuddle. Brother Ivo himself responded to a child announcing her birthday to him in junior church by lightly kissing the top of her head. Honi soit qui mal y pense is no more. Brother Ivo had better do himself in, or pack a bag for when the historic case review PC police come calling.

And what is the sexual abuse of which we speak? Brother Ivo has written before of the virtual abandonment of the protection supposedly afforded by the age of consent. Shall we now see every adolescent relationship examined minutely? There is one immunity that we can predict with confidence: the case of the contraceptive advisor to the 14-year-old girl will, of course, trigger no obligation to inform parents or social services, and no aborted baby will be DNA-tested to secure solid evidence of the identity of the criminal seducer. No, that would be far too easy. Requiring it would offend the pro-abortionists, and they must be safeguarded above all others.

It is not, of course, the fact that Joe and Jo Public are not doing their jobs that is the true scandal, but rather that our public officials are never adequately called to account for their much more overt failures. Perhaps we should be reducing the public pensions of all those who have presided over child abuse within our public institutions? We could make the exist on the 'living wage', and begin with police, Social Services and employees of the BBC.

This is a serious suggestion. If there has been significant institutional failure - and their frequently is - why should there be an open-ended taxpayer liability to sustain such people in wealth beyond the average subjects' hopes and aspirations? Why should the consequences of disciplinary action fall short of curbing future reward for services inadequately performed? Legislative change that removes contractual liability to reward past failure after due process is neither unjust, nor contrary to any concept of human right that Brother Ivo cares to acknowledge.

Such failure would perhaps be more commensurate with the offence, and importantly would only have to be proved to a civil standard - on the balance of probabilities - rather than beyond reasonable doubt, as required by the criminal courts. Furthermore, civil/contractual retribution is likely to be harder in many cases than the criminal sanction. Our appeal judges reduced the sentence of Maria Colwell's killer to just four years (less remission). We shall be paying Sharon Shoesmith's pension for 30-odd years minimum.

Is this not better and more effective for society to apply pressure upon public servants to do that which they are paid to do? And while we're about it, rather than him complaining about the unreported specs in lesser folks' eyes, could we not perhaps start with Keir Starmer?

Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers

Monday, November 04, 2013

Cameron the "Common Purpose" Prime Minister

There was a lot of fuss a few months ago when the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby declined the invitation to be a patron of the RSPCA. Some saw it as a snub; others as a 'deliberate distancing'. But Lambeth Palace reasonably explained:
“Since taking office in March this year, the Archbishop has received many kind invitations to patron a large variety of charities and good causes. Each invitation has been an honour, and in an ideal world he would like to accept them all. However, in light of the sheer volume of requests the Archbishop receives, and the many pressures on his time and resources, he has reluctantly decided to restrict his patronage to a manageable number of organisations, based on where he feels his support could be most beneficial."
The "ideal world" scenario of accepting all such invitations is, of course, a gracious expression of appreciation, but an absolute nonsense: when you are new to a senior office of state, you will be very wary indeed of each and every invitation to become associated with organisations and individuals. Indeed, you will have a dedicated staff whose job it is to research backgrounds, form a view and then advise in order to protect your office and person from association with fraudsters, malcontents and unsavoury political activity.

And when that request to associate is a formal invitation to become a patron - to have your name very prominently tagged to an organisation's aims, ethical standards and objectives - you choose very carefully indeed, and limit yourself to those with whose aims, ethical standards and objectives you agree and can devote time to supporting. 

This will be the case for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen, and the Prime Minister, if not for all bishops, the whole Royal Family and all politicians - commons and peers.  

So when David Cameron plays down his patronage of the Dishaa Venture, and insists that its non-disclosure in the Register of Members' Interests was simply an "administrative oversight", you can safely bet that someone is being a little economical with the actualité.

Apparently he accepted this honorary position in 2010 - the year in which he became Prime Minister. On the Common Purpose website, we learn that "Dishaa is a Venture that expands, enriches and energises relations between India and the UK. By fostering discussion amongst diverse leaders it builds shared approaches to 21st century political, economic and social challenges and expand the existing partnerships, friendships and dialogues that are already taking place."

That's nice.

But who or what is Common Purpose?

His Grace isn't here to spoon-feed you: Google them.

And then ask yourself why a Conservative Prime Minister - or, indeed, any Conservative - would want to be associated with a group that, according to Philip Davies MP, is "trying to get their tentacles into every nook and cranny of the Establishment to pursue their Leftist, pro-European political agenda".

And he adds: "Common Purpose don’t want a free press because a free press exposes what they are up to."

So David Cameron freely associates his name and office with an organisation that seeks to diminish our liberties and negate our sovereignty.


Sunday, November 03, 2013

Consider the elephant and be wise

From Brother Ivo:

Brother Ivo likes to offer an occasional piece which arrives from an odd perspective, and today he would invite readers to explore a little elephant psychology. It is not a field in which he claims any personal expertise, but life is infinitely fascinating and instructive.

His invitation to explore unfamiliar territory, however, will take us to issues not as far removed from the major preoccupations of this blog as may at first appear. There has been a lengthy study by Sussex University of African elephant herds, with a particular focus upon two groups. The first was the Kenyan population, which offered a stable control sample of normal and successful elephant behaviour. This was studied to ascertain its responses to a variety of challenges and stimuli. The second group was a South African herd which had been the subject of significant culling of the older animals during the 1970s and 80s.

The report on the BBC website is short and readable: the only thing that Brother Ivo notices is that our friends at the BBC have not begun integrating this study into a wider narrative about the support it offers to social conservatism amongst humans.

The herd which had lost the influence of elders and had its social patterns disrupted left juveniles to find their own ways of coping with uncertainty and stress. It was not a pretty picture. "African elephants' decision-making abilities are left impaired by culling operations that ended decades ago," University of Sussex research suggests. A study found that elephant herds that lost adults to culls during the 1970s and 1980s were less able to respond appropriately to other elephant calls.

Lead researcher Prof Karen McComb said the animals' "social understanding" had been impaired by the loss of adults. The scientists from the University of Sussex say this is the first "systematic evidence that fundamental social skills may be significantly impaired by man-made disruption.

There is already evidence that the loss of these adult elephants had dramatic social consequences on South Africa's elephants: the researchers describe these effects as akin to post traumatic stress disorder. In two protected areas in South Africa, Prof McComb told BBC News that "young, orphaned male elephants became hyper-aggressive and attacked and killed rhinoceroses... This really suggests that the breakdown in their social fabric, even though it occurred decades ago, has had a real effect on their decision-making processes."

Doubtless lessons are being drawn about the impact upon nature of the culling activity determined by human agency, yet to limit the conclusions of the study to elephants alone surely misses the bigger picture.

Brother Ivo thanks the Sussex scientists for proving that not all obscure inquiry is self-indulgent and wasteful, for does their work not insist upon parallels being draw with the equally devastating culling of UK family life during those same years?

Social Conservatives have always believed that happy children and integrated communities at peace with themselves arise out of traditions handed down through the experience, wisdom and recollections of past generations. This is not to deny periodic evolutions and adjustments, but always there is a core of cultural stability and close inter-generational bonds. What works for elephants applies in equal, if not greater measure with humans.

What proves disruptive is equally instructive. It is surely no wonder to us that the impact of the rapid social changes of the latter 20th century have left many of our young in a similar condition of isolation, confusion, aggression and unhappiness. Many are separated from a parent and the deeper support and control exercised by grandparents and the wider family. As the US politician Rick Santorum wisely wrote: "It takes a family to raise a child." He wrote that partly as a ripost to Hillary Clinton's book It takes a Village, though even that idea - initially taken from an African proverb about child reading - is not wholly irrelevant; it simply misses the first priority that values are initially taught and best enforced within a family - as Brother Ivo would say - as God intended.

Happy children tend to live within concentric circles of bonds, with close family, extended family and friends and neighbours contributing, though usually in diminishing degree the further they stand from the central bonds. The state, with its varying attitudes and "here today gone tomorrow" teachers, social workers and counsellors, often tends to add to the vulnerable person's sense of inconstancy and unreliability.

The support of the state is rarely enduring on a lifelong personal basis, and therein lies the difference. What it certainly does not take to raise a confident, socialised child is a commercially exploited, self-invented, self-regarding gang culture developed in an atmosphere of self-preservation. Too many of those lacking supportive families and not encultured on the streets are often to be found inventing their own culture in the isolation of their gaming consoles or the unboundaried social media. Many of these, detached from traditional family life - frequently but not exclusively within "the underclass" - are as damaged and disadvantaged as those elephant orphans whose parental culling through state policy, for doubtless well meaning purpose, has had long-term effects well beyond the expectation of those who planned the policy.

Just as animals have been disoriented by a disruption of the natural order, so the radical attack on traditional family life and social structures has left us with too many long-term victims of these social changes. They have low educational attainment and an increased incidence of substance abuse and self-harm. The trajectory of these problems began with the social revolutions of 40 years ago.

Amongst too many of our disengaged young, we see a misplaced self-reliance, a lack of empathy and a suspicion of those outside the narrow bounds of "yoof culture". Much of this is excused, explained away, or even championed by opinion formers in many sectors of politics, the media and academia. They will not willingly join up the dots to connect the causal link between misconceived change of former years, and current ongoing problems.

What the elephant study teaches us is that the social disruption of families has long-term consequences, and these consequences were unforeseen by those who promoted them with short-term thinking. They never dreamed that their quick fixes might lead directly to learning disability, dysfunctional social interactions, fear responses, and aggression, the like of which we see all to often in our schools and courts. It may take such oblique but striking evidence from the natural world to give the "progressives" within our culture pause for thought about their continued promotion of "alternative" lifestyles. We can see the consequences of such policies from our past, and they are not attractive.

The contemplation of the implications of this study led Brother Ivo to another field.

Psychology, like economics, is far from an exact science, and frequently there are multiple factors at work which produce or mitigate the effects of the problem under consideration. Sometimes similar circumstances create varying responses because other more benign factors or influences intervene. Some victims of adverse circumstances, even within the same family or grouping, have compensating resilience. Some are blessed by the strength offered by faith, others are held back by a predisposition to depression or despair. Trends can usefully be identified, but in such areas of study prediction is a less than exact science and more akin to an art.

That said, insightful artists can also contribute to our understanding of the human - and animal - condition. The study of the elephants may remind readers of William Golding's prescient study in adolescent tyranny, Lord of the Flies, which predicted similar effects upon young people traumatised and left to their own devices.

There is, however, an unanswered question from this study. The subjects were initially traumatised by the culling of the older generation. They suffered the secondary impact of loss of social bonds and controls. Which of these was the dominant event? Brother Ivo suspects it was the latter. As we enter the season of Remembrance, it is worth noting that the considerable impact of the loss of a generation of fathers, uncles and brothers from both World Wars was deep and heartfelt, yet not as societally disruptive as one might have predicted from modern psychological theory and methodology.

One suspects that the ties of extended family and the fortifying strength of faith and social institutions made the difference in keeping those earlier generations on the straight and narrow path. Those exposed to the horrors if war often did not speak of it, but returned to a context which supported, if not entirely healed. There may not have been modern-day counselling for the traumas suffered: social disruption and the acting out of internal pain was less prevalent than we see today. That may merit a little more reflection. Brother Ivo hopes to return to such themes as we remember our war dead.

One ought, however, to consider an alternative explanation for the observation of such studies, whether animal or human. If we discount the loss of social structures (which Brother Ivo certainly does not), one is left with considering the impact of psychological trauma in isolation of the loss of loved ones and the events causing it. This is a wider question.

Many children will suffer such loss within our own society. Additionally, we are accepting vulnerable people into our society, some from very different cultures which most of us (not least our politicians) do not understand. It may be a moral and noble policy, but it is not consequence free. What may flow from the importation of displaced, traumatised asylum seekers from war zones is a most troublesome area of concern for Brother Ivo. He does not wish to seem to lack compassion, but feels compelled to flag up a potential problem to which he does not currently know the answer. He suspects few others do either.

As Christians, we need to be our brother's keeper: we should not pass by on the other side. Yet as Margaret Thatcher correctly observed, the Good Samaritan gave real support to the victim he helped, offering ongoing concern and applying resources to address the continuing needs until health returned. He did not foist the hapless victim on the nearest social services and walk away.

There may be unforeseen risks and problematic consequences with a policy of sentimental liberality followed by benign neglect and isolation. Admitting people damaged by trauma would appear to have greater potential sequelae than we may think. If we are to continue an open-door policy towards genuine asylum seekers, the implication is that we need to be more sophisticated and comprehensive in identifying their needs and how we mitigate the longer term challenges they will face as they try to adapt to an unfamiliar life amongst us.

As an old friend used to say, "Being human isn't easy."

Being Christian certainly isn't.

Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers
Newer›  ‹Older