Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Scandal, hubris and Tolstoy: The travails of Gordon Brown

Northern Rock, Missing Child Benefit CDs, Labour party donations. The three sagas that have thrown the Brown government into turmoil and the media into a feeding frenzy. Three months ago Brown was heralded as the most skilled political operator of a generation – he had dealt with foot and mouth, set out a new agenda and had the political hacks asking ‘Tony who?’. But let’s look at the events that have caused all the hoo ha of the last month.

Firstly, Northern Rock. The government managed this pretty well, responding to events (the credit crunch) beyond their control – they had to let the markets know that the Rock had been lent money by the Bank of England or they’d have been accused of a cover up. If they’d have immediately guaranteed every penny thus negating the risk that big investors took the cries of ‘moral hazard’ would have rung out around Westminster. In the end no punter has lost a penny and the government should (eventually) get it’s money back.
Brown's Star rating: * * * *

Next, the missing Child Benefit CDs. In an immediate sense it clearly wasn’t the government’s fault that so much sensitive data had been put in unregistered post by the HMRC. What was more damaging for Brown were the stories that came out of the Revenue and Customs about the low morale and cost cutting regime that meant that taking short cuts had become normal. Brown loved the headlines when he was chancellor about slashing civil servants jobs and saving the tax payer millions, but preventing good staff doing their job properly is a false economy. In the event the government did the firefighting as well as they could, but this was a past action that came back to haunt Brown.
Brown’s Star Rating: *

Finally, the donations scandals. The major Labour donor David Abrahams had been siphoning his donations through his staff who lived on Council estates to ‘protect his privacy’. Some people in a Labour party strapped for cash decided not to look too closely at where the money was coming from and got caught. Human instinct tells us not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but we expect incredibly high standards from our politicians and expect them to rigorously fight their instincts each and every time, even when it doesn’t seem that anyone’s looking. Let him who is without sin casts the first stone…

The encouraging thing is that Brown and Hilary Benn honourably actually refused the donations with Hilary Benn telling Abrahams to donate the money directly if he was that bothered about being involved. The slow drip drip of information leaves a sour taste in the mouth and there may be more to come, but I don’t see why anyone else should fall on their swords yet. The enquiries will lead to ever more stringent rules on donations and we will remain one of the cleanest political cultures in the world. Bungled administration and wishful thinking yes, but widespread corruption – unlikely.
Brown’s Star Rating:
* * *

So Brown’s not done too badly over the last month by my reckoning, but he’s been caught at the centre of a rabid media and, as Harold Wilson said, events dear boy, Events. In War and Peace on the eve of battle, Tolstoy has Napoleon surveying his troops and
making decisions which he thinks will be decisive in steering the course of the fight. In fact his orders had very little bearing on what happened and the battle was won and lost by millions of combined actions by the soldiers on the field. On this occasion the French lost and the shine on Napoleon’s ‘genius’ was tarnished. Yet as Tolstoy said ‘his orders were not any less good’ than on the occasions he was victorious.

It is hubris on the part of politicians when they pretend that their decisions are the prime factors in events, but equally ridiculous when we the public foist that expectation and belief upon them.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The good Good Book book: a Review

Is it possible for a book dealing with religion to be feted by both ardent atheists and practising Christians? The answer to this question may lie in the reaction that Karen Armstrong receives for her text ‘The Bible: the Biography’.

Armstrong attempts to weave together modern Biblical criticism and a history of the spirituality of the people who wrote and have read the Bible. By focusing on how Jews and Christians have interpreted and more importantly experienced the Bible she manages to cast light and good sense on both the nature of the Good Book and the current mudslinging that passes as debate between the fundamentalist camps.

One of the focal ideas of Armstrong’s book is illustrated through the story of two of the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus after Jesus’s death, but before his resurrection was understood. A stranger joins the disciples and begins talking to them about the events of the last few days, before demonstrating how these events fulfil the writings of Moses and the Prophets. Later, as the stranger breaks bread, the disciples realise that they have been in the presence of Jesus and they ask “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Since the destruction of their first Temple the Jews had found they would experience the divine presence (Shekhinah) when they read and discussed the Torah. (p72) Now the disciples literally experienced the divine presence as they discussed the scriptures. This was carried forward into the Christian tradition – as people came before the Bible with a sincere heart they could experience Shekhinah in the person of Jesus. John emphasised this point by saying that Jesus is the word become flesh. – Jesus was the embodiment of the scriptures and the Shekhinah.

This insight in Armstrong’s book is crucial for two reasons. Firstly this understanding of the relationship between the text and the Shekhinah helps explain why Jews and Christians have been so happy to interpret, allegorise and reinterpret the Bible down the centuries. If the divine presence/Jesus is present when the Bible is sincerely discussed and studied then God himself is intervening and is leading and guiding the interpretations. This reading resonates with most Christians today. Christians would say that they find that studying and discussing the Bible can lead to a sense of a living relationship with God, which would correlate with the earlier Jewish/Christian understanding of Shekhinah.

Secondly, Armstrong demonstrates how the Bible can be read seriously without being read literally. The authority of the Bible for Christians for most of the last 2000 years (and for Jews before that) has not stemmed from its unchangeable word for word accuracy, but in the manifestation of the Shekhinah when it is read, expounded and discussed with a sincere and contrite heart. Indeed, the manifold readings, ambiguities, interpretations and changes to the texts were crucial to the spiritual exploration and growth of God’s people.

Biblical fundamentalism, which emerged in the mid Nineteenth Century divorces the divine presence from the Bible and tries to make it stand alone by arguing that any sentence of the Bible is literally and rationally true to anyone in whatever context. This approach is a travesty because by taking it out of the context of community study and spiritual approach it emasculates the Bible from its depth of richness of truth and insight – the very opposite effect to what was intended. Although there are few in the UK that would take this approach to an extreme, its influence as a school of thought with evangelicalism is still considerable and Armstrong’s emphasis on the Shekhinah is a vital corrective.

Some secular readers may be uncomfortable with the extent to which Armstrong ‘buys into’ the spiritual approach to reading the scriptures. Christians not previously exposed to academic biblical criticism may struggle with Armstrong’s ready acceptance that many books in the Bible were not written or edited in the time or place they thought; or be irritated by Armstrong’s readiness to cast doubt on why Jesus was crucified and whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (p56). Yet none of these reservations should prevent readers from missing the central thrust of this book.

The Bible: the Biography could be a book of deepened understanding, connection and reconciliation for both Christians and secularists. Yet as Armstrong concludes: ‘We are a talkative and opinionated society and not always good at listening…we expect immediate answers to complex questions…this makes a truly spiritual reading of the Bible difficult’ (p 226). The impact of this book will depend not solely on the text published, but on the attitude people choose to adopt as they engage, discuss and interpret it.

picture: amazon.co.uk

Thursday, September 27, 2007

To poll or not to poll, that is the question

In all the feverish speculation amongst the tiny minority known as the 'political classes' about whether Gordon Brown will call a general election one thing seems to have been forgotten.

Do we, the public, really want a general election?

Unless I've missed something there has been no loud street protests demanding the chance to vote, no people queuing outside polling stations desperate for their chance to put a cross in a box. Any groundswell of popular support for a general election must be smaller than a beginner's mole hill.

We're just over two years into a five year parliamentary term and the public seem perfectly happy with the job Gordon is doing. Why would us hard working families want to bother going out on a rainy November evening just to massage Gordon's ego?

Come back and ask us in another year or two and then, sure, we'll come and join in and put a cross in a box, but don't play silly political games now just to get another couple of years in power.

And just a warning... if Gordon does go to the Queen in a week or two's time the Great British Public, not being particularly keen in being dragged into political shennanigans, might not play their part as the Labour party would wish.

picture: bbc.co.uk/news

Friday, August 17, 2007

Journey to Jon's World

In my haste over the last few weeks it seems like I've forgotten to blog (not having internet access didn't help). Don't worry! I will be back... Thankfully in the meantime another Jon has stepped in to the blogging world - so see through his love of IBM and Formula 1 (!) and go and have a look at Jon's World.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It's all about relationships; well durr!

It was refreshing to hear Iain Duncan Smith and Ed Milliband debating the value of marriage on ‘Today’ this morning. The main point of discussion was the £20 a week tax break for married couples if one parent stayed at home to look after children, but both MPs still managed to tie themselves in knots.

Duncan Smith was asked whether the £20 was a bribe to get more people to stay together and Ed Milliband was trying to say that he thought marriage was the ‘bedrock of our society’ whilst simultaneously saying that he didn’t mind whether people were married or not. Duncan Smith obviously didn’t want to call it a bribe, but at the same time didn’t want to say that the measure was pointless and would have no effect either.

The trouble was that the discussion was framed in the context of money and ‘incentives’. Do we really think that it is possible to incentivise people to have better relationships by giving them more money? It might have some effect on the margins – if a family is on a low income it might ease the pressure of debt, which is a major factor in breakdowns; it might enable a handful of married parents that wanted to stay at home to fulfil that wish, but surely this is just tinkering at the edges. Tax policy is an extremely blunt instrument when it comes to relationships – no wonder Duncan Smith and Milliband couldn’t cut themselves out of the tangled arguments they were having.

The best way to bring up children is in the context of committed relationships. It is not the only way, but it is the best way. I know of virtually no-one who would disagree. I watch friends in stable relationships with good support networks bring up children and I wonder how they manage. I am constantly amazed by the minor miracles that lone parents perform every single day. Ask an exhausted, overstretched lone parent whether they’d like a partner to support them in bringing up their children well and you can guess what they’ll say. To mend our ‘broken society’ as the conservatives call it we need to invest in our relationships – give our time, expertise and yes money to them.

The state of our relationships with our partner, family and friends is the biggest contributory factor to our happiness, but as a society we don’t systematically try and support people to deepen and strengthen them. However good our relationships are we all need to work at that and society needs to create spaces and places that people can do that – relationship health check ups, pre marriage classes, access to counselling and help before a crisis not when it’s already too late; retreat ‘time away’ weekends for couples…the list is endless.

Politicians believe that the only ‘levers’ of power they have are economic ones. Not true. We need people to lead the way in creating a culture where our relationships come first and politicians have a role to play. Bill Clinton in his 1992 election campaign famously posted the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” – maybe now the sign should read “it’s all about relationships; well, durr.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Silver Ring Thing

The battle over school uniform must be as old as school itself. The constant low level guerrilla warfare of teenagers seeing what they can get away with before a vigilant deputy head confiscates the three ear piercings, demands that the skirt be longer or orders the hair to be tied up. It’s not often that this attritional battle puts its head above the parapet as it did last week when a sixteen year old ended up in the high court over a ring. Lydia Playfoot claimed that her silver ring which symbolised her pledge of abstinence was a religious symbol and it was therefore discriminatory not to allow her to wear it - an ingenious tactic in the teenager-teacher contest.

It is also a disingenuous one. Lydia says that the silver ring is an expression of her bible believing Christianity which teaches abstinence before marriage. However, wearing a silver ring is not an integral part to the Christian faith – it is different to the command that Jews or Muslims should not eat Kosher or Halal foods. You can express or maintain sexual abstinence without wearing a silver ring.

One of the defining factors about the new Christianity in the early centuries was that there weren’t any fixed ways that you had to outwardly conform. Paul clearly says that non-Jews didn’t have to be circumcised to become Christians as some were claiming. Instead Christians were meant to ‘circumcise their heart’ meaning that as people’s hearts were changed on the inside by the love and forgiveness of Jesus that there would be visible outward changes in their actions. However, these outward actions wouldn’t be subject to any law or dos or donts, but that the love of God would freely shine out of them. In this context, teenagers may find it helpful and prudent to them to wear the silver ring to remind themselves and others of the pledge they have made, but it is not integral to the Christian faith.

Indeed, in an environment where the school has a responsibility to promote emotional literacy, good relationships and good sexual health it may be beneficial for the school to allow the wearing of the silver ring to encourage young people to think about the implications of having sex too early. The ABC approach to sex education encourages Abstinence outside of marriage first, if not abstinence then Being in stable relationships, if not in long term relationships then use Contraception. In this framework the silver ring thing could have a positive impact both on Linda and the wider peer group if the school chose to engage with it.

However, ultimately the school must decide their policy and if there is a fairly implemented, consistent uniform policy that forbids rings then Lydia Playfoot should abide by it.

To assert a right to wear a ‘religious’ symbol runs the risk of Christians ‘defending God’ because they feel that they are being discriminated against and are feeling squeezed out and under threat. Lydia’s father said that he saw the ban as symptomatic of the onward march of ‘secular fundamentalism’. This may or may not be the case. Aggressive secularism that seeks to expunge any mention of religion in the public sphere is one element in our society; but the way to address this trend is not to defend Christians’ own rights (did Jesus defend his ‘rights’ as the son of God when he was being taken to the cross?) but to preach through actions and words the good news that through Jesus, as a society we can ‘live life in all its fullness’.

The Silver Ring Thing is a useful and innovative idea which can help young people to build healthy sexual relationships. To try and defend its position in a school by equating it with other religious symbols may have short term gains, but skews the focus of how Christians need to be engaging in our society.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hodge on Housing

I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one, but a couple of weeks ago Labour minister Margaret Hodge, whose constituency is in East London got rounded on by her colleagues for posing the question: "In exercising that choice as an economic migrant, should they [migrants] then presume to have automatic access immediately to public social housing?" She went on to say that there was an ‘essential unfairness’ in the housing system biased against families that had grown up in the UK. The tone of Margaret Hodge’s comments make me uneasy – for a start migrants don’t have automatic or immediate access to public housing – the length of time varies on where they come from – for the EU accession countries it is 2 years; and many of immigrants I’ve spoken to don’t presume to have access to social housing at all, but expect to pay their own way for some years and are rather surprised to have access to social housing at the stage they do. Using language like this is misleading and aggravates the ‘fear of the other’ and the often defensive mindset of different communities.

Although Margaret Hodge was cak-handed in her comments, for Alan Johnson to say as he did a few days later "There is no evidence whatsoever that immigrants are causing a problem with social housing" was akin to sweeping the issue under the carpet.

No, of course immigrants don't go to the front of the queue, but three things do happen.

1. Asylum seekers get dispersed around the country and then when they gain indefinite leave to remain return to the area where their own community is to receive support – often East London. They then live in overcrowded housing and consequently gain more points on housing registers or bidding systems and significantly add to the numbers on these lists.

2. Economic immigrants come to the country and stay in private rented accommodation for a couple of years until they pass the habitual residence test and are entitled to benefits/public support. They then join the Council housing register and add pressure to it.

3. Where there are children of refugees or economic immigrants (who have satisfied habitual residence) involved the whole family is likely to be classed as priority need and get housed straight away.

These three issues significantly exacerbate the chronic housing shortages in the London area. This means that someone who has been working all their lives and paying NI contributions and then loses their job or suffers a relationship breakdown and becomes homeless the local authority can do nothing to help apart from placing them on a housing register which will take 3-5 years to yield them a property. The first time in their lives that they need the safety net of the state it does not provide. The ‘contract’ at the heart of the welfare state has failed them

It’s true that the economy benefits from diverse economic immigration, but the social infrastructure takes years and years to catch up – the issues in public housing are repeated in health services in East London. I hate to see any attacks on people based on race and long for more dialogue and story telling at community level so different communities understand where each other are coming from, but it is true that if you are a person that has been working in the UK for decades that the significant increase in immigration levels significantly reduces the chances of you getting housed quickly. To attack anyone says that as racist is not helpful, because we can’t address this housing crisis with practical solutions until we’ve acknowledged it and what many people feel is the root cause of it. If we don’t do this then the BNP will continue to look like the only party that’s dealing with issue head on.

The bulk of this post first appeared in the comments section of this post by Paul Burgin.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Walking on the quiet side

Ask people why they go hill walking and one common answer is: ‘It's time to escape the busyness of our everyday lives, the crowded towns and cities’. People go for the peace and beauty of the hills and the freedom of walking along a ridge with a vast expanse of valleys, mountains, fields and the sea below. Even when the cloud and fog swirl in there’s still that sense of majestic otherness, of something completely beyond our whim and control that stands impassive and unchanging.

There are two ways to do hill walking. The first is to set a challenging route, bagging as many peaks as possible. Give yourself something to aim at and experience the satisfaction of completing each peak and the whole walk. The second way is to wait and to linger; to stop and to wonder; to dispense of agenda. So often I go to the hills to rest from doing – to go on holiday, but forget to stop. I replace one set of to do lists with another challenge to keep my thoughts occupied. I long to stop and be still, but am scared that I don’t know how.

Henri Nouwen, catholic priest and profound writer put it like this:

“My own restlessness, my need for companionship, my fear of rejection and abandonment made me flee solitude as soon as I had found it.

The resistance to solitude proved as strong as my desire for it.” (Our Greatest Gift, p19)

We all need to practice solitude. Only by stopping do we face ourselves and God. Even when I am alone at home the TV, radio, books, housework, computer, study all provide myriad easy excuse and worthy work which helps me avoid what I want to do. I need to “be still and know that He is God” and that He loves me without condition, whatever I think of myself and that He is “my refuge and my strength”. (David in Psalm 46) Without knowing that I am always restless, running away or avoiding myself. Surrendering to and trusting God takes me to where I need to be.

The second way of hill walking is always harder, but I want to go there more.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Time Flies: the generations since slavery

This photo is one of many showing four generations of the Royal Family taken at the beginning of the twentieth Century. Queen Victoria was born in 1819 and the little boy at her side became Edward VIII and lived until 1972. 150 years in four generations. My own grandmother has six great-grand children of her own and their cumulative life span will doubtless be even greater.

On Sunday William Wilberforce’s great-great-great granddaughter (six generations), now in her 60s gave an interview on Songs of Praise talking about her ancestor’s work in abolishing the UK slave trade two hundred years ago. Andrew Hawkins, a descendent (fifteen or sixteen generations?) of the ‘pioneering’ slave trader from the sixteenth century Sir John Hawkins also appeared on the programme.

When we argue over whether we should apologise for the UK’s role in the slave trade two hundred years plus can seem like an eternity ago and an apology anathema. Place four generations of people in the same photo and two hundred years passes in the flash of a camera bulb. We all know what an impact our early years have on our development and attitudes in later life. Our grandparents are often important influences and figures in our lives and they are passing down lessons and teachings that they absorbed as children themselves.

Widen the picture to society in general – the institutions, the attitudes, the vested interests and the power structures and it becomes far clearer that we live daily in worlds shaped by the actions of our ancestors, both good and ill. Walk around Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool and the grand merchant housing and buildings staring out into the Atlantic give a poignant reminder about the foundations of our wealth; the bricks and mortar symbol of intangible injustice.

Maybe we don’t need to apologise for the UK’s role in the slave trade – at least not at first. We need to understand our own history and more importantly acknowledge that we, as individuals cannot separate ourselves from it. The Israelites of the Old Testament understood this. The biblical book of Exodus says that “I the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments”. Sins and injustices perpetrated by others affect us down the generations unless we choose to break out from them.

The Greek word ‘repent’ in the Bible doesn’t just mean ‘apologise’ – it means turn around and start walking the other way. Maybe the reason we as a nation struggle to acknowledge our history is that by facing up to it we would be called to act today – to break down and speak out against unjust economic, social and political power structures where we see them, knowing that we might discover that down the generations we have benefited from those same structures more than we would like to think.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

What went wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Bernard Lewis

It’s easy to forget that the countries of Europe haven’t always been the dominant military, economic and political world powers. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was the Islamic world that defined ‘modern’ and was at the cutting edge of science and culture. Those travelling from the Maghreb, Turkey or the Levant saw little reason to travel to the backward lands of the Gauls, the Franks, or the Angle-Saxons. In ‘What went wrong?’ the eminent Professor Bernard Lewis takes the Long View. Why did the Ottoman Empire face long term relative decline vis a vis ‘the west’? Why did they fail to successfully respond to the challenge following the Western Renaissance and subsequent military and scientific progress? Why over four hundred years later do we still not see scientific discoveries emerge from the Middle East when the countries of South East Asia have come so far so fast?

Professor Lewis asks some interesting and pertinent questions, but fails to come up with any clear answers. The book is an amalgamation of three lectures and it shows. It meanders through war, music, science and art, repeatedly covering the same ground without coming up with any coherent arguments or exploring his assumptions about the benefits of modernisation. The text is as a watery soup, spiced with a lazy Orientalism, which leaves an uneasy taste in the mouth. Every page I kept expecting looking for the meat of the subject, but it was desperately lacking. There are a small number of exceptions – his discussion of the use of time and clocks and it’s take up in the Islamic world is fascinating and some of his anecdotes from Muslim diplomats residing in the west raise an interested smile.

We need incisive, self-aware scholarship in the debate about modernisation and Westernisation, preferably from Middle Eastern Scholars themselves. Bernard Lewis fails to add much beyond unhelpful generalisations and stereotypes, yet the book is still displayed prominently in major bookstores. My copy of ‘What Went Wrong?’ is waiting to go back to the charity shop from whence it came, although I hestitate, fearing that I would be subjecting someone else to the risk of picking it up to read. Cultural history and its impact on politics is a difficult, but potentially intriguing and revealing genre to investigate. Unfortunately on this evidence and despite his reputation Professor Lewis is not the man for this particular exploration.

What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Professor Bernard Lewis was first published in 2002.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The End of the Lion King - or Just the End of the Beginning?

At the end of the Lion King Simba majestically walks onto Pride Rock and is anointed King with the blessing of Rafika, the monkey priest. But the land that Simba inherits has been ravaged by the hyenas. It lies cold, barren and grey. Simba looks like he’s got a major rebuilding job on his newly adult, lion paws. But no – as Simba stands aloof on the rock the countryside below him changes colour and is restored in seconds to its former beauty and fecundity.

Films and novels frequently portray a struggle for power in which the good guys prevail, but at considerable cost in terms of lives, land and social cohesion. The hard difficult, divisive work of reconstructing is yet to come. Yet in most cases what is actually only the end of the chapter is treated as the end of the story. The victory of the ANC in 1994 in South Africa has given way to the reality of the HIV crisis and corruption at high levels. The orange revolution in the Ukraine; the symbolic destruction of the Berlin Wall, the list goes on. The euphoria and cry of ‘things can only get better’ in the early hours of May 2nd 1997 wear off to leave… well you get the picture.

Are there any films or novels that deal with both the titanic struggle and the difficult rebuilding or, in terms of successful narrative are they different, mutually exclusive stories? The Lord of the Rings comes close, especially in the book. Remnants of the enemy rampage through The Shire and as Sam becomes mayor back at home and the hobbits have to clear up the mess. More poignantly Frodo has to deal with the shadows and nightmares that remain in his mind and to face up to his own frailties as ultimately he allowed the ring to control him. This kind of post-adventure trauma is rarely glimpsed in fiction, but it’s significant that it appears in one of the longest popular movies/novels of the twentieth century. Maybe there’s just not normally the time for such coverage. Maybe, it’s just not as interesting to deal with such material. As long as we remember that in reality it’s not as easy as Simba found it in the Lion King.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

It's 'the Christians' versus 'the gays'. Again. Give me the mods and rockers any day.

Another argument, another fight where the church ‘stands up for what it believes’, another media outing where Christians end up looking defensive, unloving and narrow minded. Jerry Springer, faith schools and now sexual orientation regulations. Sigh.

To briefly clear up the misunderstandings: Religious non-commercial (i.e. charities and churches) organisations are exempt from the regulations as long as they can show that it is necessary “(a) to comply with the doctrine of the organisation; or (b) so as to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religions followers.” Churches don’t have to hire out rooms to the local gay pride group if they choose not to. Ministers (who are specifically mentioned in the regulations) will still be allowed to condemn sexual orientation as a 'disease' in their preach should they be that way inclined. Churches and other organisations don’t even have to be organised enough to have it written in their statement of faith - as long as a significant number of their followers agree – that’s fine. The regulations only affect Christian businesses – and no, a Christian publisher wouldn’t be forced to print gay porn, because it would also refuse to print straight porn. However, it might have problems refusing to print a leaflet advertising a pro-gay march. Yes, it will affect a Christian bed and breakfast who didn’t want gay couples to stay in its rooms.

When the dispute over the sexual orientation equality regulations arose two questions came into my mind:

1) Is this a freedom of conscience issue even if the vast majority of the public disagree?

2) Are Christians right to fight for an exemption even if they do honestly believe that practicing homosexuality is wrong?

My immediate reaction to the first point was to think that surely a business can operate in a free country as a private entity and therefore choose to serve whoever it wants. However, businesses operate within the stability of the legal framework given to them by the government and business is regulated in hundreds and hundreds of ways. Whilst our society protects the right to own private property and forbid entrance to others at your whim or discretion once you register a business that legal entity becomes subject to regulation including discrimination legislation. In any case, as the opt outs above indicate religious groups have been granted freedom of conscience in this issue.

Should Christians fight for an exemption for Christian businesses? I don’t think so. Most Christians (some bedrudgingly) accept that people are gay and can’t do anything about it even if they wanted to, but say that the sin occurs when homosexual acts are practised. To take the bed and breakfast example – there are no guarantees that two men booking a room (even a double room) are going to have sex in the bed and who’s going to check?

The more important point though is that Christians should stop defending their own rights not to be upset for a second and welcome everyone in as created and loved by God, even when they personally find this difficult. Sacrificing what you consider to be your own rights for the sake of demonstrating Jesus to others is a hard thing to do. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” This doesn’t mean that Christians have to agree with everything someone says or does, but it will be a far more effective witness to the grace, compassion and Good News of Jesus than telling someone to go away. Based on the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, Christians should be at the forefront of social inclusion and equality not dragging their heels.

This brings me to the ‘gay adoption’ row. I help run a weekly activity for children on a local estate, most of whom are from broken homes. I constantly see the need, especially although not only from among the boys for strong, positive role models of the same sex. Hopefully the work I do plays a small part in providing that role model, but ultimately that figure needs to comes from within the home – day to day, month to month, year to year contact. Adopted children who are likely to have had a very disadvantaged start to their life are likely to need this even more. Therefore I really struggle with the idea that a boy should be placed for adoption/fostering with two women or visa-versa, however loving or stable that home might be.

Now the Catholic Adoption agencies already place children with single parents and this is not ideal for either parent and child (having seen exhausted friends *with* partners bring up a family I am constantly in awe of any single parent that manages to bring up a child). However, being adopted into any stable, loving home is better than living in care, so it may be a necessity. All children’s law puts the interest of the child right at the heart of every case, above that of the rights of the adults involved. Therefore Adoption agencies, all other factors being equal, should be able to differentiate between (not turn away anyone) a married couple, heterosexual partners, a gay couple and single parents when considering a placement for the long term good of the child. This would be a very specific very unusual exemption which would exist not to defend Christians right not to be offended or upset, but for the long term good of a child.

Maybe, just maybe if the Christians who campaigned against these regulations (who don’t represent everyone in the faith) had started from the point of view of defending others’ equality and interests rather than themselves this argument might have ended in a different place than the other public disputes of the past two years. Perhaps next time?

20 Questions to a fellow blogger

Paul Burgin over at Mars Hill invited me to answer ‘Twenty Questions to a fellow blogger’ which I did in my normal concise style (!!) You can read it here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Death and taxes: the NHS has become the battleground for survival

Alice Mahon (former MP) today became the latest in a growing line of people threatening to take legal action against the NHS. Calderdale Primary Care Trust (PCT) have refused to prescribe her a series of injections of a new treatment to prevent her going blind costing several thousand pounds because it has not yet been approved for use by NICE. When Ann Marie Rogers went to court in order to try and obtain cancer drug Herceptin on the NHS she was originally refused, but won her case on appeal. NICE then ordered Herceptin to be made available across the country.

Individuals can’t be blamed for trying every available avenue open to them to secure treatment for a disease that could severely affect quality of life or cause their deaths. However, one person’s successful battle for treatment means another’s cut in funding, extended waiting list and death. In November doctors in Norwich estimated that funding Herceptin for 75 people would mean around 200 people not receiving chemotherapy. There must be hundreds of other examples across the country where one person has managed to work the system to their advantage leaving other services on which people depend without the resources they need to function to save more lives. We may not literally fight each other in the UK for our survival anymore, but the natural instinct for self preservation above all others is still alive and well.

We are all fighting for scarce resources and NICE and NHS trust managers are caught in the middle holding the purse strings having to make incredibly difficult decisions about the most effective use of funds and, to put it bluntly, who should live and who should die. It seems ludicrous that a court of appeal judge is able to make a decision about a drug’s or treatment’s availability without ever having a chance of appreciating the complexity of choices NICE and NHS managers have to make and without having to deal with the subsequent implications for funding of other treatments. If we want the fairest outcome for all people, not just those able to take their claim to court the decision must be left in the hands of the medical experts and trust managers. They won’t always make the ‘right’ decision because managing funding is not an exact science and you can’t always anticipate the consequences of funding a particular treatment, but at least the decision will be made taking into account all the factors. We need a transparent system, with a means of appeal within the NHS so that patients can understand the decisions made, but judges need to recognise that they cannot rule on something so far reaching.

In the meantime as a country it is time to start deciding what our priorities are – do we want to invest in quality of life or length of life? Is dying with dignity more important than curing all diseases? In a consumer society this is a tough conversation to have because we are used to the idea that we can have everything if only we can discover it and pay for it. We hide from our collective mortality, even when dealing with our frail ill health. But however much money gets taken from our payment packets and ploughed into the NHS we will all still get ill and die. The NHS proves once and for all that however hard you try you cannot avoid death or taxes.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The magnificent man still in his flying machine: Tony Blair vows to fly on.

Tony Blair has announced that he has no plans to stop using long haul flights, although under pressure he has announced that all his flights, both ministerial and personal will be ‘carbon neutral’.

Offsetting Carbon emissions by planting trees is fine as a short term mechanism and certainly better than nothing, but what happens in 40 years when the trees rot and decay? The carbon in them is released again. These articles and diagrams from the New Internationalist show clearly why offsetting will salve some consciences, but is not a long term solution.

It is true that not flying is the biggest single action that an individual can take to reduce their carbon emissions. One short haul flight can wipe out hundreds of saved car journeys and thousands of energy saving lightbulbs. Flying already contributes 3% of the UK’s CO2 emissions and is expected to grow significantly. Blair argued that not flying would damage the economy, but the Stern Report showed that not dealing with climate change would have a far bigger and possibly devastating impact on the world economy.

If we’re going to change our lifestyles in any way reducing our flights is the best option.

In addition to not flying we ought to choose not to fly we ought to write to an airline explaining our decision: Carbon free flying is estimated to be 35-50 years away at the moment – if airlines became worried about their profits that timescale could be dramatically reduced. (Incidentally this is also why I support airlines being bought into the Carbon emissions trading scheme with tough year on year reductions in credits to incentivise green innovation.)

However, I’ve argued before that we must seek largescale scientific and political solutions to climate change that involve China and India whose emissions of C02 are rising exponentially – we don’t have time to be messing around recycling.

The unsightly media scrum descending on Tony Blair’s personal choices is therefore not only slightly distasteful and puerile, but more importantly misses the point. Unlike most of the rest of us, there are dozens of political decisions that Blair could prioritise that would have a massive impact on the environment. I would happily swap Tony Blair commuting from Sydney every morning by private Concorde if he prioritised:

a) pushing a tough EU wide carbons emissions trading scheme,

b) investing the same amount of money into clean energy technology as into Trident

c) facilitating fast, effective and cheap technology transfer to China and India

d) a tidal barrage on the Severn (5% UK electricity), a new generation of Nuclear power stations and a solar panel and wind turbine on every new home.

If he did all this he could even take John Prescott, his long-lost great-aunt-Doris and the entire England Cricket team with him if he wanted.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Twenty-Eight years later and there's plenty of Life in Brian

Monty Python are great. I love sitting down and watching their eccentric, off the wall, irreverent humour. As I’m also partial to mediocre time-filling talking heads programmes I was pleased to flick over to the ‘Secret life of Monty Python’ on Channel 4 the other day which focused on the making of and controversy surrounding the Life of Brian. I’ve seen Life of Brian many times and it’s one of my favourite films. However, as people who have watched it with me will testify, apart from the first time I saw it I always leave the room with about ten minutes to go. This coincides with the crucifixion of Brian to the song of ‘Always look on the Bright side of Life’.

When Life of Brian first came out in the UK in 1979 many Christians, led by Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light movement (which was later renamed CARE) tried to get the film banned because of it’s ‘blasphemous’ nature, particularly the last few minutes. Although it was classified as an AA (14 years plus) certificate a significant minority of local authorities did refuse to show the picture as they were legally entitled to do. Watching the Channel 4 programme made me wonder whether a 26 year old Jonathan Chilvers would have been amongst those campaigning for the film to be banned in 1979 or not. Britain twenty-eight years ago was a very different place and the group of churches to which I belong has some roots in the Festival of Light movement and many Christians at the time felt that the vestiges of Christian Britain needed to be defended and boundaries drawn.

Although it has its downsides, generally I feel fortunate that I have been born into a post-Christian culture and a non-Christian upbringing which means that I’ve never felt that I’ve had anything boundaries or traditions to defend. I don’t feel that I have to make a last ditch effort to man the barricades to stop the tide of secularism and apathy flooding our religious shore. Instead I can focus my energies on proclaiming the central message of Christianity through what I say and do. My central confidence means that if God is true then he is big enough to take whatever people choose to throw at him. As Joel Edwards, head of the Evangelical Alliance (an umbrella group of churches) put it:

“Earlier this year[2006] the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sermon about terrorism being a form of blasphemy, because it suggests that God is too weak to look after His own honour. The terrorist feels they have to step in with violence to do His work for Him.

I think that sometimes we have engaged in a form of verbal terror that has the same roots. Evangelicals must recognise that we can be secure in our faith in God, and this security then frees us to be risky and curious at the same time...[we need to] resist the knee-jerk tendency to protest everything(sic)… our role is not to monitor mischief but to proclaim this good news that brings spiritual and social transformation to society.”

I am relieved that twenty five years on I am able to sit down and watch ‘Life of Brian’ as often as I want and that the Pythons were allowed to poke fun at religion. Like all of human life religion throws up comical situations and humour can be a great way to cut through pomp, posturing and arrogance. How did acting as a holier-than-thou defensive pressure group help more people see and hear the central message of Christianity? It didn’t. Christianity is not about forcing people to conform to moral standards they don’t agree with in order that Christians feel safe and happy in the world.

Paul says in the Bible that ‘everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial’. I don’t watch the last ten minutes of Life of Brian because visual and aural memories can be very powerful and long lasting. I don’t have many visual images of crucifixion in my mind and I don’t think it’s beneficial to my daily walk with God to have that sequence of film and song in my head when I’m praying or thinking about the death of Jesus. I’m not offended, I just don’t think it’s helpful for my subconscious concept of God and my relationship with Him. It’s probably not beneficial to other people’s view of God either and part of me wishes that people didn’t see ten minutes of film that may contribute to them dismissing a part of Christianity which could have a huge impact on their lives. However, individual free will and responsibility is a vital component of the Christian message and one that fed into the enlightenment idea of liberalism and a free press. It’s a concept that I would never want to obscure and Christians must find ways to challenge people’s attitudes towards Jesus within this context through what they say and do.

On the Channel 4 programme Terry Gillam wondered aloud whether in the current climate of religious groups loudly taking offence, a film such as Life of Brian would still be commissioned. I don’t know what I would have said in 1979, but if the remaining Pythons ever want to make anything even half as good as the Life of Brian I’ll be watching.