Pope takes Vatican to task

by Richard on December 23, 2014

BBC News: Pope Francis sharply criticises Vatican bureaucracy

Pope Francis has sharply criticised the Vatican bureaucracy in a pre-Christmas address to cardinals, complaining of “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and “the terrorism of gossip”.

He said the Curia - the administrative pinnacle of the Roman Catholic Church - was suffering from 15 “ailments”, which he wanted cured in the New Year.

Pope Francis - the first Latin American pontiff - also criticised “those who look obsessively at their own image”.

He has demanded reform of the Curia.

There was silence at the end of the Pope’s speech.

Pope Francis continues to impress, but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m gloating about his straight-talking to his colleagues in the Curia. I suspect that much of his criticism should also be heard by other parts of the Church.

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Democracy in the workplace: the Rochdale Pioneers

by Richard on December 21, 2014

Before I became a minister, I worked for 6 years in the Co-operative Movement. I am a democrat. I believe that if democracy is a just system for running a country (it is, isn’t it?) then by the same token it is also a just system for running a commercial operation. I know that many reading this will immediately write me off as a horrid socialist, with no more right to live on God’s clean earth than a weasel, but let me tell you something of those who may be called the founders of the British co-operative movement, the “Rochdale Pioneers”.

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society, founded in 1844 by a group of artisans in the north of England, is regarded as the prototype of the modern co-operative society in all of its various guises. The line of descent from this society leads directly to the modern high street “co-op shop”, but this has often obscured the fact that the Pioneers are also the ancestors of contemporary industrial co-operatives. This is not to suggest that Rochdale was the first co-operative society. Several such existed around Britain before 1844. What gives Rochdale a unique place in the history of the co-operative movement is the set of principles derived by the founders to govern their affairs as a society. It is probably true that even here the Pioneers were not completely original. Several other societies operated on some of the principles used by the Pioneers. The originality of the Rochdale society lay, in part at least, in the combination of these principles:

  • democratic control (”One Member, One Vote”)
  • open membership
  • limited return on capital (”Labour Hires Capital”)
  • distribution of surplus in proportion to a member’s contribution to the society
  • cash trading only
  • selling only pure, unadulterated goods
  • providing for the education of members in co-operative principles
  • political and religious neutrality

It is these principles, with slight modification, which are accepted by the co-operative movement throughout the world as the basis of all co-operative activity.
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Local boy makes Good, by Harri Web

by Richard on December 21, 2014

When Christ was born on Dowlais Top
The ironworks were all on stop,
The money wasn’t coming in,
But there was no room at the Half Moon Inn.

The shepherds came from Twyn y Waun
And three kings by the Merthyr and Brecon line,
The star shone over the Brecon’s ridge
And the angels sang on Rhymney Bridge.

When Christ turned water into stout
A lot of people were most put out
And wrote letters to the paper
Protesting at such a wicked caper.

When Christ fed the unemployed
The authorities were most annoyed;
He hadn’t gone through the proper channels,
Said the public men on the boards and panels.

When Christ walked upon Swansea Bay
The people looked the other way
And murmured, this is not at all
The sort of thing that suits Porthcawl.

When Christ preached a sermon on Kilvey Hill
He’d have dropped dead if looks could kill
And as they listened to the Beatitudes
They sniffed with scorn and muttered platitudes!

When Christ was hanged in Cardiff jail
Good riddance, said the Western Mail
But, daro, weren’t all their faces red
When he came to judge the quick and the dead.

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That night in Bethlehem

by Richard on December 21, 2014

Altan sing the beautiful gaelic carol ‘Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil’ (That night in Bethlehem).

Tip: you can use the tune even if you don’t know gaelic. It fits very well to ‘O little town of Bethlehem’.

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The magic of Christmas

by Richard on December 21, 2014

Many Christians are apt to be just a little bit churlish when it comes to Christmas. I sometimes get a sense that Christians are resentful that “our” festival has been stolen, taken over by revellers who are happy to sing carols and watch a school nativity play but will give little or no thought to the gospel for the rest of the year. Jesus is for life, not just for Christmas. We have a particular problem with Father Christmas (or Santa Claus, if you must). Never a year goes by without some story in the news of a conflict between the church and one of her most widely celebrated saints and this year was no exception. I have spoken to many Christians over the years who have tied themselves up in knots over whether to allow their children to enjoy this particular bit of fairytale. Here’s a blogging friend from a while ago: (sadly, the link no longer works):

For good measure, we even celebrate Santa and one of the most significant Godly holidays on the same day. Is it any wonder that a child’s perception of God can often get tangled up in the mythical character of Mr. Claus? For Christians this poses an obvious problem. Children are taught to believe in both, and when the non-existence of Santa becomes a reality in adolescence, God will likewise get scrutinized. The blatant lying to children about a figure they already associate with God cannot yield beneficial results. Anecdotally, I know of a number of folks who resent their parents lying to them about Santa, and if they lied about Santa, the belief is that they lied about God, too. I am of the very un-festive opinion that lying to your children about anything is bound to have negative consequences, but particularly when it involves a figure like Santa.

We should stick to what Christmas is all about. Like Dickens’ Gradgrind, we should confine ourselves to the facts. “Bah, humbug!” (to change my Dickensian reference) to the rest. Attitudes like this are a terrible shame, or so they seem to me. Children are creatures of wonder and imagination, both qualities which can nurture faith in the Living God. They thrive on storytelling and their world is naturally full of what we adults, poverty-stricken by reason, regard as naive personifications. One morning on our walk up to school, my then 6 year old daughter asked me: “Daddy, why does Jack Frost come?” Should I have scotched this bit of her mythology fearing for the development of her scientific mind? After all, she had already decided she wants to be a doctor. Perhaps I should have explained that frost is spicules of ice which form on solid surfaces when they are chilled below the deposition point. It is never too early to start thinking about physics! But I confess, I simply said that Jack Frost comes when it is cold. That seemed to do. Likewise with Father Christmas. He has a place in our family storytelling, part of the mythology we share. To suggest that this amounts to lying to our children is as ludicrous as the notion that the ‘facts’ of the Nativity can be easily and plainly stated. I was reminded recently that ‘gospel’ was, in Old English, ‘godspel’ and, though I am sure that this is etymologically unsound, I am taken with the idea that the incarnation of Jesus is “God’s spell” — a moment so wondrous that it takes imagination, not reason, to apprehend it. Of course I’m not here arguing for abandoning the achievements of the Enlightenment, for discarding reason entirely in favour of mythology and superstition. But perhaps Christians before all others should recognize that stories, imagination and wonder are a vital part of our lives. Let’s not deprive our children of them too readily.

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Hymn of the day

by Richard on December 21, 2014

Lo! He lays his glory by,
Emptied of his majesty!
See the God who all things made,
Humbly in a manger laid.

Cast we off our needless fear,
Boldly to his crib draw near;
Jesus is our flesh and bone,
God-with-us is all our own.

Will his majesty disdain
The poor shepherd’s simple strain?
No; for Israel’s shepherd, he
Loves their artless melody.

He will not refuse the song
Of the stammering infant’s tongue,
Babes he hears humanely mild,
Once himself a little child.

Let us then our Prince proclaim,
Humbly chant Immanuel’s name,
Publish at his wondrous birth,
Praise in heaven and peace on earth.

Charles Wesley

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Mary’s manifesto — a hymn

by Kim on December 19, 2014

In Mary’s song of praise and peace
we call “Magnificat”,
a peasant maiden mocked the claims
of earth’s proud plutocrats.

An angel whispered, “You’re the one
who’ll carry heaven’s child.”
The girl, in fearful faith, said, “Yes!”
but barely forced a smile.

She went to see a kindred soul,
who praised what God would do;
yet Mary felt a deep unease
about the coming coup.

But then she paused and prayed and thought,
“Why am I full of doubt?
The Lord is good, I’ll trust his ways,
though they seem roundabout.”

Her heart welled up, it overflowed
with firm, determined joy,
because the Lord would save the world
through such a subtle ploy.

“The poor will eat, parade the streets,”
she sang, “and bands will play;
the pity is, with empty hands,
the rich will rue the day.”

(Suggested tune: University)

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Two things I find obnoxious about certain Christians at Christmas: not only, obviously, (1) the idiotic belligerence of some over the so-called “War on Christmas” (”Go ahead, punk, make my day: wish me ‘Happy Holidays’!”); but also, tiresomely, (2) the predictable sanctimonious pontifications and self-flagellations of others about in-house excess (”My fellow believers, remember the ‘reason for the season’.”). Ahem. A little more of the Revd. John Ames, please:

“The old man kept moving the [Christmas] lights around, trying to get them even. ‘My grandfather said this was paganism, bringing in greenery in the middle of winter, making fires. He said there were people in Maine when he was growing up who wouldn’t have a thing to do with it. It’s true, no one really knows anything about when Jesus was born, the time of year. But there’s just a certain amount of exuberance that people have to burn off now and then, Christians and pagans. I like the idea — Druids rejoicing just because they felt like it. We took up where they left off. That’s all the sense it has to make.’”

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (London: Virago, 2014), p. 230.

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David Cameron — Nativity angel?

by Kim on December 16, 2014

Letter published in the British daily the i on 16 December

Sir:

According to Vince Cable, “Conservative spending plans would reduce the armed forces to a ‘largely ceremonial role’” (15 December). What tidings of joy! It sounds about as probable as news of Herod inviting children to Christmas dinner, but if Mr. Cable is accurate, the diabolical David Cameron deserves the part of a peace-proclaiming angel in a school Nativity Play. If, that is, you can find one.

Revd. Kim Fabricius
Swansea

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Christ is Lord of all creation,
rules the universe in peace;
brings to judgement every nation
which would be the world’s police:
Lamb of God who lies with lions,
slain, he conquers Babel’s beast.

Weapons used for mass destruction,
tools deployed in torture cell –
horror shows of sheer revulsion
scripted, acted, shot in hell:
Where is God? Not hid in heaven,
here, in blood – Immanuel!

In this world of fear and violence,
in the teeth of hate and death;
courage, Christian, and defiance
till your faithful final breath:
in our deeds and proclamation –
“God is love” our shibboleth.

(Suggested tune: Rhuddlan)

Kim Fabricius

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Advent: on (not) thinking about hell

by Kim on December 9, 2014

“Thinking about hell doesn’t help me to live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way.”

– The Reverend John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson, Lila (London: Virago Press, 2014), p. 101.

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He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise the fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where the immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.

From Areopagitica (1644)

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Advent ambiguity

by Kim on December 5, 2014

It’s all a bit vague. Advent I mean. All this hanging around, waiting … and waiting … and waiting. We know whom we’re waiting for, but notwithstanding the asinine prognostications and genre-illiterate signs-of-the-times readings of the witless, we don’t know the when, where, or how of his coming. Or perhaps we do; it’s just that we look in the wrong places and at the wrong faces. After a performance of Waiting for Godot in a German prison in November 1953, one inmate wrote to Beckett suggesting a rather Matthew 25-like interpretation of the play: “we are all waiting for Godot and do not know he is here. Yes, here. Godot is the neighbour in the cell next to mine.”

The same uncertainty goes for the four traditional themes of Advent: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. No one knows the when, where, or how of the arrival of the Grim Reaper — though we do know that he will be infinitely more attractive than those who, in their issue-laden cosmetic attempts to delay the date, are only ensuring that they will look more gargoyle-like than he does when he comes to collect them.

And judgement? Only someone who goes “Ee ore” would presume to know whether he will be going “Baaa” or “Meh heh” when the barnyard is finally sorted. We do know the criterion of judgement, namely, whether you’ve been a decent (i.e., kind and compassionate) bipedal beast, but we know too that it will be a time of surprises. Someone whose self-image is ovine might find himself a lamb chop.

Which brings me to heaven and hell. All we know about heaven is that the Cubs will be winning the World Series there, so if you’re from the South Side of Chicago you’ll know at once that you’re actually in the Other Place. Or not. Hell, after all, is a disputed doctrine. Only the Yankees keep me from being a dogmatic universalist. Still, you never know. Or maybe you do. More’s the pity.

Yes, it’s all rather vague. Which, I suspect, is the point. The point of Advent I mean. Faith isn’t certainty. Faith doesn’t have all the answers. Faith requires what Keats called “negative capability”, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Faith can say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” Faith can even say “I was wrong” and “I’ve changed my mind.” Faith can welcome complexity and embrace pluralism. “Clear” and “distinct” ideas and epistemological closure – that’s Cartesianism, not Christianity. In fact, I submit that the apodictic is quite destructive, only the ambiguous is healing.

So here’s to Advent ambiguity! Yaki dah!

Reposted, revised, from Advent 2011.

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“Drum Major for a Dream”

by Kim on November 26, 2014

Above the shouts and the shots,
The roaring flame and the siren’s blare,
Listen for the stilled voice of the man
Who is no longer there.

Above the tramping of the endless line
Of marchers along the street,
Listen for the silent step
Of the dead man’s invisible feet.

Lock doors, put troops at the gate,
Guard the legislative halls,
But tremble when the dead man comes,
Whose spirit walks through walls.

– Edith Lovejoy Pierce (1904-1983)

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According to the latest research, “Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ has been replaced by Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ as the most popular song played at funerals [in the UK]” (MSN Entertainment News, 22 November).

This is terrific news for the Church — and Shakespeare too (vide infra). It demonstrates that, contrary to the never-ending torrent of diatribes from grouchy and resentful Christian pundits of culture, contemporary society remains robustly Christian. The Life of Brian classic is, in fact, a profoundly Bible-based ditty, and far more suitable for concluding a funeral — and immensely theologically richer — than, say, Chuck Wesley’s poxy “Love Divine”, Isaac Watts’ lugubrious blood-and-wounds “When I Survey”, or the loutish Welsh rugby anthem “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer”, let alone Ol’ Blue Eyes’ blasphemous “My Way” (see John 14:6). It is, indeed, a worship song to raise the dead — or at least to guarantee that the ghost of the deceased will return to haunt the mourners [sic]. In fact, I propose that “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” should be the go-to hymn for concluding not only funerals, but indeed all church meetings, councils, synods, and solemn assemblies, as lay and clergy, from charladies to bishops, join hands with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven to praise the King (Elvis or Yahweh depending on your mood).

Here, then, is “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, biblically annotated:

Some things in life are bad,
They can really make you mad;
Other things just make you swear and curse.
– Job 3:1
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble, give a whistle,
And this’ll help things turn out for the best …
– Romans 8:28

And always look on the bright side of life …
– Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing:
– I Thessalonians 5:16

And always look on the bright side of life …
– Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

For life is quite absurd,
And death’s the final word
– Psalm 115:17
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
– II Timothy 4:6-7
Forget about your sin,
– Isaiah 43:25
Give the audience a grin,
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow:

So always look on the bright side of death …
A-just before you draw your terminal breath …

Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it;
– Ecclesiastes 1:2
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.
You’ll see it’s all a show, keep ‘em laughin’ as you go,
Just remember that the last laugh is on you:
– Ecclesiastes 9:2

And always look on the bright side of life …
– Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

C’mon Brian, cheer up.
Worse things happen at sea you know.
– Jonah 1
I mean , what have you got to lose?
– Mark 8:36
You know, you come from nothing –
you’re going back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!
– I Timothy 6:7

Nothing will come from nothing, ya know what they say?
– King Lear (Act 1, Scene 1)

Cheer up, ya old bugga. C’mon give us a grin!
There ya go, see!

I rest my case.

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The parable of the two — good guys?

by Kim on November 18, 2014

On one occasion, a young man who knew his Bible went to Jesus to see if he was “sound”. “Jesus,” he asked, “what must I do to go to heaven?”

“That looks like a Bible you’ve got there,” Jesus replied. “What does it say?”

Waving the black book to which Jesus had pointed, the youngster answered, “It’s the inerrant Word of God, inspired, faultless, perfect in every way and containing all things necessary for salvation.”

“Sorry?” Jesus said.

“It’s the inerrant Word of God,” the youngster repeated, “– at least the original autographic texts are.”

“‘The original autographic texts’?” Jesus said, quizzically.

“Yes,” the youngster said.

“Let me see,” said Jesus, motioning toward the black book.

“Oh, this doesn’t contain the original autographic texts,” the youngster said, “but it’s the next best thing. It’s the Scofield Reference Bible. Here, look.”

Jesus took the black book, opened it, shook it, listened to it, smelled it, then returned it to the youngster. “Who says it’s inerrant?” he asked.

“God says,” the youngster replied.

“Where does God say that?” asked Jesus.

“In the Bible,” the youngster replied.

“I see,” said Jesus.

“And the Chicago Statement says so too,” the youngster added.

“Oookay,” said Jesus. “Look, let me tell you a story. A man was walking into town one night when he was attacked by some thugs. They stripped him, beat him up pretty bad, took his wallet and iPhone, then ran off, leaving him half-dead. A bishop happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So, too, a priest, when he came to the place and saw the man, passed by on the other side. But then another two guys came to where the man lay, and when they saw him their hearts went out to him. They cradled him in their arms, disinfected his wounds, and gave him some Ibuprofen. Then they called a cab, took the man to a pub, and nursed him through the night. The next morning, they gave the landlord $100. ‘Look after him.’ they said. ‘We’ll be back soon and reimburse you for any extra expense.’

“Now,” concluded Jesus, “who were the good guys?”

The youngster replied, “What’s that got to do with heaven?”

Jesus said, “I’ll get to that. Just answer the question.”

“Well, not the bishop or the priest – Catholics, right?” the youngster said. “So maybe the other two guys.”

“What do you mean ‘maybe’?” asked Jesus.

“Well, were they Bible-believing Christians?” asked the youngster.

“I don’t know,” Jesus said.

“And are you sure they weren’t gay?”

“Does it matter?” asked Jesus?

“And why did they take him to a pub rather than a hospital? Had they been drinking?” the youngster continued his interrogation.

“Who cares?” asked Jesus.

“And the man who was mugged – where was he going? And was he a proper Christian? And if not, did the two guys – who, to be honest, seem pretty suspicious to me – did they witness to him?”

“I …,” began Jesus.

“Well,” interrupted the youngster, “I’m obviously asking the wrong person about heaven – you’re unsound. In fact, you remind me of Peter.”

“Peter?” asked Jesus, turning to his disciples.

“Peter Enns, silly,” said the youngster. And feeling very sorry for Jesus, he walked away, but not before pausing to look back and adding, “I’ll pray for you.”

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Letter published in the Church Times, 7 November

Sir:

Summing up a YouGov survey, Professor Linda Woodhead observes that “whereas the clergy [in the C of E] are to the right of the population on ethics, they are to the left in politics.”.

But since when is the the political (Professor Woodhead mentions welfare provision and immigration) not also the ethical, and the ethical (Professor Woodhead mentions abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage) not also the political? The distinction is at best barren, at worst ideological. More word-care, please.

Kim Fabricius
Swansea

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Poppies red and white

by Kim on November 4, 2014

Letter published in the British daily the i on 4 November.

Stefano Hatfield is right that honouring the dead is not an endorsement of war. But the suggestion that “innocent” commemoration is all there is to the symbolism of the red poppy is staggeringly disingenuous.

Otherwise why be so contemptuous of “those ridiculous white poppies”, which not only honour the war-dead of all nations, but also both lament the jingoism of some acts of remembrance and commend the vocation of the pacifist to a world that valorises the warrior?

Still, Mr. Hatfield is in good company: Margaret Thatcher belligerently expressed “deep distaste” for the white poppy.

Revd. Kim Fabricius
SWANSEA

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Hoot of the day (on the Rome Synod)

by Kim on October 24, 2014

“The conservative commentator Edward Pentin published an outraged piece in the National Catholic Register: ‘More and more there is talk in Rome that this synod is being engineered by groups intent on steering the Church in a heterodox direction, and increasingly evidence is coming to light that points to it.’ ….

“The thought that a synod of Roman Catholic bishops in Rome might be fixed in advance is, indeed, one to distress the sensitive soul. In fact, there hasn’t been anything shocking in quite that way since Captain Renard made the dreadful discovery, in Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, that gambling had taken place on the premises.”

– Andrew Brown, in the Church Times, 24th Octber 2014

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Post-mortem baptism: a hypothetical question

by Richard on October 22, 2014

“One night, you’re in the sleep room; it’s 2am, and you get an urgent page to the intensive care nursery. Not knowing what to expect, you hurry to get up to the unit on the 12th floor. When you step out of the elevator, a nurse quickly points you to the last room at the end of the hall, where a distraught couple stands at the bedside of their just deceased, 2 week old infant daughter. You pray with the couple, who comes from a particular sort of Christian background that will remain unnamed for the sake of this little theological exercise. As you try to comfort them in their grief, the couple asks you, through a stream of tears, to baptize their little girl as their final wish for this life cut short. Regardless of your own theological view on this issue, they tell you that it’s something that would be deeply meaningful and comforting for them to know that their daughter has been baptized, even in her current state.”

What would you do?

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