Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Funeral Service for the Church?

Oops... Haven't been paying attention... This was supposed to go online on Tuesday, but I've been a tad busy over the past few days... However, it seems as if a lot of you had picked up on it already. It touches on some of the issues I raised in my post on Sunday, but was originally inspired by the fact that for various reasons I, and others have been looking back to significant anniversaries over recent weeks. You can find it online for the next few days at BBC's iPlayer at 26 and 86 minutes, but here is the original text.

Two weeks ago was my 20th wedding anniversary. Last week it was the 40th Anniversary of the opening of our church building in Dundonald. A few people remember the first of those 2 anniversaries… many more remember the second… But infinitely more will remember the events of this day 30 years ago…
Because today in 1979 Pope John Paul II became the first Pope to step onto Irish soil. Those who subsequently saw him at Phoenix Park, Drogheda or Knock will never forget it… even I a northern Methodist who as only in his mid teens at the time remember it vividly from the TV news footage…
Father Brian Darcy, who was involved in a lot of the preparations for the trip, recently described it as the funeral service for triumphalist Catholic Ireland… It was quite a wake but certainly it is questionable whether the current Pope would receive the same rapturous welcome. For various reasons Catholic Ireland is not quite so Catholic any more. Some more conservative Protestants may glory in that, but the statistics actually show that most denominations are heading the same direction. We are very much in that phase of history which the sociologists and historians term “post-Christendom” when the old allegiances of church and state, south and north of the border, are no longer as strong… When old certainties are shakey, and authority must be earned rather than taken as read.
But we cannot live in the past… if my wife any I were to spend our lives mooning over the wedding photos of 20 years ago rather than working together to build a secure future for our family, then our relationship might not last much longer…
If our church spent its time harking back to the good old days of 40 years ago when the building was newly opened, then it might speed up the day when the doors will finally be closed.
And if any of us spend our time looking over our shoulder to the time when the church was top dog in Ireland, or in our local communities, then we will miss the opportunities that lie before us…

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who is My Neighbour?


Here's a quick question for you that comes from my morning reading... Is James a hypocrite? As in James the writer of the New Testament letter...

I'm one of those who is fully signed up to the idea that in scripture we find a bias towards the poor (whether that significantly affects how I live my life is another question altogether, but I at least have accepted the principle). As a result I often speak about that, and in particular the implications of that for the ministry of my current church, which is in a relatively low-income public housing estate, set within a much more affluent suburb of Belfast, which in global and historic terms is part of the most prosperous societies in world history. Often when I raise this, one of my congregation challenges this analysis and reminds me that "God so loved the world" not just the poor and the marginalised. He is one of the more economically comfortable in my congregation, so it might be easy to write off his comments as defensive, but I also know that he grew up in circumstances of grinding poverty. He is also, in large part, correct. One of the times he challenged me on this was when we were studying the Letter of James together.

And today as I was reading James chapter 2, I was struck again by the fact that the writer encourages his correspondents not to show favouritism, but then goes on to write off the rich as oppressors. Read for yourself:

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbour as yourself," you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers.

James 2:1-9 (ANIV)

The question I would have for James is whether we would be convicted as law-breakers if we were to show favouritism towards the poor?

As James rails against the rich who are exploiting church members and dragging them into court, so we rail against fat-cat bankers and corrupt MPs, but are they not our neighbours too?

Or is this a question of being counter-cultural? Is James not simply saying that we should not show favouritism in the same way that the world shows favouritism... that just because the world dismisses the poor we should not... and that just because the world writes off bankers or MPs we should not...

Answers on the back of a suitably large banknote to my home address, please...

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Bridegroom and His Bride

Yesterday was our Anniversary Service, and in the morning, Des Bain was preaching from Revelation 21. So I wrote this short piece as an introduction...

I was waiting… it seemed like an eternity… I was waiting for her to arrive… I wasn’t nervous, as such… I knew she would be there… But I was excited… I just couldn’t wait… My whole life had led up to that moment… There were those who said she would let me down… some said she wasn’t good enough for me… But I knew different… I loved her and that was all that mattered… and the time had come for that love to be made known… That I was hers and she was mine forever… The waiting was over… The music struck up, and there she was… radiant with beauty… Now everyone could see her the way I always saw her…

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband...

Revelation 21:1-3

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Back to the Future?

Today the Church of England and other mainline churches were celebrating "Back to Church Sunday" (Patrick Comerford has been preaching/blogging about it here). According to Des Bain, the Home Missions Secretary of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the churches here in Ireland have been considering an extension of the campaign to this island. He spoke about it at our leaders' event yesterday in church, as part of our Anniversary Celebrations. In effect today was a bit of a "Back to Church Sunday" for us, as former ministers, members and friends joined with us to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the opening of our current premises, and it was great to see them.

However, if we do adopt this campaign, I truly hope that we at least find a different name for it. I don't want to encourage anyone to come "Back" to anything... Indeed, I would want to encourage the church to stop looking back to some mythical golden age, and instead look forward with a sense of realism, hope and imagination.

The western world has turned its back on the church as we currently know it. Why would they want to come back to something that has a tendency to act a bit like a spiritual version of a railway preservation society? A trip on a steam train is OK for a bit of one-off nostalgia, but you wouldn't want to travel anywhere in a hurry on one.

Instead of encouraging people outside to come back to church (where they percieve they will be used as pew fodder and open wallets) we need to encourage those at church to go away... At least from Sunday to Sunday... Not so much "Back to Church" as "Go Be Church."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Church Anniversary

This time last week I was looking forward to my 20th wedding anniversary. This week I’m looking forward to the 40th Anniversary Celebrations of the opening of our church premises in Dundonald. We’ve all sorts of things planned and I hope that it will be both enjoyable and challenging for all who join with us.
But one of the things that will be said, and has already been said a hundred times over, is that despite us celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of the church building… the church itself is NOT a building, but the people who meet within and minister from that building…
It was Winston Churchill who once said “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” I don’t think he was talking about churches specifically when he said that, but it is a statement that was never truer than when referring to places of worship.
On the negative side, church buildings can be erected to facilitate certain actions carried out in God’s name at a particular time and place… But time moves on and so do people, and often churches are left with buildings that may be beautiful but are no longer fit for purpose, and they find that the buildings end up dictating what they have to do, which often involves an inordinate amount of fundraising to pour into building maintenance and repairs, a situation which may become more difficult for historic church buildings in future because of cut-backs in public spending. We should never forget that church buildings are primarily venues for worship, and should never be objects of worship in their own right.
But on the more positive side, buildings erected to the glory of an eternal and ever present God, rather than a temporal and temporary human agenda, can serve to inspire generation after generation to higher things (for a more developed reflection on this, see Glenn Jordan's paper presented to the Methodist Conference this year on "Sacred Space.")
Our church building is on a hill in the middle of a 60s housing estate, and while it may not stir the soul like a soaring Gothic cathedral, I pray that it, and the work that goes on within it, may continue for another 40 years and more to help lift peoples eyes from the everyday, towards the eternal... To something more solid than mere bricks and mortar…

This is the second of a series of pre-recorded "Thought for the Day"s broadcast today on Radio Ulster in a slightly abbreviated form, and available here for one week only! (At 26 mins 10 seconds and 1 hour 56 minutes).

If you are interested in joining us for our Anniversary Celebrations this weekend, the details are:
Friday 25th September
7.30pm Anniversary Concert: with Salvation Army Youth Choir
Saturday 26th September
10.00am Day of Discovery: with Rev. Des Bain, for all interested in helping to shape the future direction of Dundonald Methodist Church.
Sunday 26th September

11am Anniversary Service with Rev. Des Bain (Home Missions Secretary)
1 pm Celebration Lunch
7 pm Service of Reception into Full Membership with Rev. Donald Ker (President of the Methodist Church in Ireland)

Hope to see you there...

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Coasters

In the light of recent rioting in Lurgan and the Short Strand/Mountpottinger interface in East Belfast, the murders of soldiers and a policeman earlier in the year and the many manifestations of impasse at Stormont, the fact that this year is the 40th Anniversary of the start of the most recent batch of "troubles" in this little piece of green real estate should give us pause to reflect... Especially those who think that we have nothing to do with all of that... Last week at a meeting someone gave me a copy of this poem by John Hewitt, written in 1969... Some of us have continued coasting from then to the present day... Indeed in many ways Hewitt's analysis is even more pertinent today...

You coasted along
To larger houses, gadgets, more machines
To golf and weekend bungalows,
Caravans when the children were small,
the Mediterranean, later, with the wife.

You did not go to Church often,
Weddings were special;
But you kept your name on the books
Against eventualities;
And the parson called, or the curate.

You showed a sense of responsibility,
With subscriptions to worthwhile causes
And service in voluntary organisations;
And, anyhow, this did the business no harm,
No harm at all.
Relations were improving. A good
useful life. You coasted along.

You even had a friend of two of the other sort,
Coasting too: your ways ran parallel.
Their children and yours seldom met, though,
Being at different schools.
You visited each other, decent folk with a sense
Of humour. Introduced, even, to
One of their clergy. And then you smiled
In the looking-glass, admiring, a
Little moved by, your broadmindedness.
Your father would never have known
One of them. Come to think of it,
When you were young, your own home was never
Visited by one of the other sort.

Relations were improving. The annual processions
began to look rather like folk-festivals.

When that noisy preacher started,
he seemed old-fashioned, a survival.
Later you remarked on his vehemence,
a bit on the rough side.
But you said, admit, you said in the club,
‘You know, there’s something in what he says’.

And you who seldom had time to read a book,
what with reports and the colour-supplements,
denounced censorship.
And you who never had an adventurous thought
were positive that the church of the other sort
vetoes thought.
And you who simply put up with marriage
for the children’s sake, deplored
the attitude of the other sort
to divorce.
You coasted along.
And all the time, though you never noticed,
The old lies festered;
the ignorant became more thoroughly infected;
there were gains, of course;
you never saw any go barefoot.

The government permanent, sustained
by the regular plebiscites of loyalty.
You always voted but never
put a sticker on your car;
a card in the window
would not have been seen from the street.
Faces changed on posters, names too, often,
but the same families, the same class of people.
A Minister once called you by your first name.
You coasted along
and the sores supperated and spread.

Now the fever is high and raging;
Who would have guessed it, coasting along?
The ignorant-sick thresh about in delirium
And tear at the scabs with dirty finger-nails.
The cloud of infection hangs over the city,
A quick change of wind and it
Might spill over the leafy suburbs.
You coasted along.

John Hewitt 1969

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Love and Marriage

In my usual morning trawl through the news I came across two quirky stories... The first involves a young Taiwanese lady called Ya Ya Ching, who is blogging on her attempts to snog 100 different people in the romantic city of Paris... I won't be starting any such endeavour soon, largely due to concerns for my health... Sally would kill me. But if you are interested in seeing how this young lady is getting on, or indeed in helping her along, you can check out her progress here (so long as you can read Chinese)...

But if you are interested in more than just a swift smooch (although it may not last much longer given the age of the person involved and her past record) the second story involved another not-so-young lady who is interested in getting married again. Having got married to a young man 70 years her junior, who also happens to be a drug addict, 107 year old Malaysian, Wook Kundor (pictured above with her beau) is thinking about divorcing him and marrying someone else before he runs off with a younger woman when he finishes his drug rehab programme.

People these days... they have no staying power...

But all of this is just a rambling intro to my "Thought for the Day" on Radio Ulster this morning which is focussed on the issue of marriage... It's relatively insubstantial, but given that they asked me to write 4 with a couple of days notice, what do you expect! Anyway, for what it's worth here it is, and you can hear the audio version here on iplayer (at 25.35 mins and in a mangled form at 1:25.38) until it does its "Mission Impossible"-like self-destruct in 7 days.

Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary… my 20th wedding anniversary and I plan to spend at least some of today looking for a gift for my wife. Most people I know think that she deserves a medal, but apparently the 20th Anniversary is marked by the gift of China… which may not be a bad idea given that a combination of our dishwasher and our children has knocked lumps out of the dinner-service that we were given when we got married.
Mind you, it’s not just our wedding china that is showing its age… Recently, one of the clocks that we were given 20 years ago terminally stopped ticking, and the chairs around our kitchen table are slowly but surely disintegrating… There’s only so many times you can glue and screw them together.
When we were first married we took special care of all our wedding gifts… but down through the years we started to take them for granted. And that can happen not only with wedding gifts but also with the marriages they were given to mark, so much so that sadly the gifts often last longer than the marriages.

When we got married our gift list was fairly rudimentary, which is why we ended up with 96 towels. But I’m amazed by what I see on some lists these days. For many of our bigger purchases we had to save up, whereas I’ve seen dinning room suites, washer-dryers and plasma screen TVs on some lists… But whatever else we hope that others will give us we cannot expect “a perfect marriage” to be another gift that we simply receive. For one I don’t know where you would go to find such a thing. I personally don’t know any perfect marriages, certainly mine isn’t. I DO, however believe that a good, healthy marriage IS a gift, a gift from God… But it is a bit like one of those flat-packed wardrobes from a certain scandanavian furniture shop… It doesn’t come ready assembled. Following the makers instructions, you have to work at it… From day 1 through to year 20, and beyond…

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blood is thicker than Water... But Oil is more valuable than Blood...

I used to be a supporter of Gordon Brown. I've been left-leaning in my political sensitivities for decades, and while I supported the "modernisation" of the Labour Party under the leadership of Blair, I was always deeply suspicious of his grinning spin. Whilst I appreciated that he claimed a Christian moral compass, I believed that it deviated because of his proximity to the bigger, brasher version used by George W. Bush.

I believed that in Brown, you still had a profound sense of Christian (Presbyterian) morality, leading to his interventions on global debt etc., but that it was more substantive and less about surface impressions... that is, that what you saw was what you got.

Sadly, over the past months I am more and more convinced that he's just the same as Blair (and Cameron), just not as good at the game.

Almost since he took over as PM he has been flailing around like a drowning man. Some of the circumstances, such as the global recession and the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan, have been beyond the power of the PM to change quickly if at all, but there is no doubt that some earlier decisions made when he was chancellor eg. "light touch" regulation of banks, budgetary restraints on military, have made it more difficult for Britain to face these challenges. Some of his recent decisions have not seemed terribly assured either... the cut in VAT which seems to have had no real effect on spending, but has, and will cause extra work for shopkeepers and has depleted the treasury, and encouraging a relatively secure bank, Lloyds, to take on the basket case that is HBOS, forcing them into a financial crisis. Other PR disasters like the right to British residence of Gurkha veterans, the home-allowance chiccanery of ministers and the recent Al-Megrahi debacle have created a picture of complete and utter incompetence.

Now, as to the latter, unpopular though the decision is, the Scottish Government were the ones who made the decision, and seemed to do so entirely in keeping with Scottish law and precedent. Compassionate release is part and parcel of the British justice system, even if it is not part of the American system, and if the FBI director or the US administration is unhappy with that, then they should never have agreed to the process for Megrahi's trial and imprisonment in the first place. For American leaders to subsequently treat Scotland like some sort of pariah nation, urging the boycott of Scotch whisky and Pringle knitwear, because they have given succour to terrorists, is rich coming from a nation which for years was the main source of funding for the IRA and is still best buddies with Saudi Arabia, the real source of most funding for international Islamic terrorism. Everyone is entitled to their opinions about it, but no-one else had the difficult decision to make that Kenny MacAskill did. And he, nor Gordon Brown, are responsible for the all-too predictable behaviour of the Libyans on Megrahi's return to home soil.

However, I fully believe that whilst he was not directly responsible for the release of Megrahi, Brown's government clearly have been trying to clear the way for "normalisation of relations" with Libya, including the negotiation of lucrative oil deals. Megrahi being in jail was clearly inconvenient in this process, and his diagnosis with cancer, whilst unfortunate for him and his family, offered a fortuitous way out of this impasse.

Another inconvenience was the fact that Libya had been a supplier of arms to the IRA and whilst the US, with greater economic and military muscle negotiated a financial settlement whereby Libya compensated the victims of alleged Libyan terrorism (as well as the victims of the American bombing of Libya), Britain had neither the same clout nor will, and did not take up the case of those affected by Libyan-sourced IRA weapons... The calculation had clearly been made that oil was more valuable than people's lives (if I was being particularly cynical, I might suggest that the majority of those lives were worth even less because they were Northern Irish and don't vote for Gordon Brown and Labour). The pathetic recent U-turn, backflip or triple somersault with a 180 degree rotation, call it what you will, with Gordon Brown offering official "support" to those seeking compensation, is nothing more than another feeble attempt to regain lost ground in the pursuit of improved public opinion.

But it has always been thus in democratic society. In the public eye politicians will promise almost anything to gain popular support... otherwise they cannot gain or retain power to do what they want to really do, for good or ill. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, cold calculation occurs, including the assessment that oil is more valuable than blood. They will never say such callous things in public, but it's true... And every government makes such assessments. It was true in the 70's at the time of the first major oil crisis, when the magazine cover above was produced, illustrating the USA's foreign policy under Ford and Kissinger... It was true in the First Gulf War and the fabricated rationale for the subsequent toppling of Saddam... It is true in the US's continued support of the heinous Saudi regime. Indeed, with the increasing depletion of world oil reserves this equation will get more and more biased in favour of oil over blood... And, if we mess with our climate any more, then we may be asserting that blood may be thicker than water, but water (like oil) is more valuable...

And that is an equation that all our political leaders are likely to make, whether in the US or UK, England Scotland or Northern Ireland, new labour or old labour, conservative or even lib dem...
Although we may never find out with the latter as they are unlikely to ever be elected...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Music Lessons Were Never Like this...

I am the musically inept member of my family. My wife and children can all play instruments, which I am incapable of doing because I seem to have retarded neurons connecting my brain to my hands, so I know what I'm supposed to do, just cannot do it fast enough. Insteas I get by with having a tolerable singing voice.
But music classes at school were never like this experiment on the ubiquity of the pentatonic scale conducted at the World Science Festival by Bobby McFerrin. It was originally posted by Tortoise of Dissent over the summer, but I was too busy enjoying myself to notice it then, and just incase you were too, here it is...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sunday on the Airwaves...

For obvious reasons (being a Methodist minister) I don't get to watch much TV or listen to a lot of radio on a Sunday, but happened to tune into a number of interesting things today, before and after church...

Before charging out to an early meeting I did manage to listen to a bit of William Crawley's Sunday Sequence, which began with an interesting piece based on a survey by Ship of Fools. I would regularly check in with this site myself, but haven't done so much recently, but under the heading of "Chapter and Worse" they've been having a poll of some of those puzzling, perplexing and downright disturbing verses and passages in scripture... Its worth a look, and might perhaps be a good point for jumping off in a series of Bible studies with a more thoughtful group.

Then, honouring the 25th Anniversary of Powerpoint, the programme went on to cover similar ground to an earlier blog, and indeed one of those I cited, Alan in Belfast, was a prominent contributer to the piece.

That's where I, unfortunately had to switch off, but it was clearly a fairly fun-packed programme as it went on to cover many items of interest (to me at least). There's the New International Version of the Bible (or should that be versions now that there are so many different varieties of NIV now), another spat between the Papacy and atheists (this time over the origin of morality and the responsibility for global warming), suicide, bloodgate (a lazy journalistic term for the fracas following the pantomime of Harlequins using theatrical blood capsules) and morality in sport, a Catholic group's recently published Prayer for Before Sex (not sure whether that is instead of or as well as contraception), and finishing with a track from local boy Brian Houston. It's quite a departure for the normally wordy Sunday Sequence to include music, but everyone I know, including Will Crawley has been raving about his recent album, Gospel Road, so I really should extract the digit and buy it, or I won't be able to face him the next time I see him. But before that, I'll listen to the whole programme, here.

But it was what I saw on TV after lunch that set me typing. It's confession time here, because over my post-prandial coffee I indulged my baser nature by watching the X-Factor. There were the usual quota of really amazing voices, as well as the main reason (if we are honest) why people watch the audition stages, that is the complete eye-popping no-hopers... I and plenty of others have said before that this is the equivalent of a Victorian freak-show or a Roman circus. But it came back to me anew today.

Sally, my wife, who was watching it with me, reminded me of a statement by Clive James in one of his earlier TV reviews (before the advent of X-Factor et al) along the lines that we should not despise people's dreams even though they are cheap (if anyone knows the precise citation I would be eternally grateful... well, at least until Wednesday). These programmes sell a cheap (though difficult to attain) dream of fame/celebrity and fortune, and having sold this dream to people who live lives of "quiet desperation", when they have given their all in front of the baying crowd, the judges proceed to jump on those dreams from a great height, popping the flimsy balloons that the people in question hoped would would carry them out of their anonymous workaday world. Some enter knowing fine-rightly they haven't a hope of proceeding ("shepherds' pie til' I die" comes to mind), but many live in a self-deluded world, where friends/family (if they have anyone who could really be described as such) have never been really honest with them, and so the brutal honesty, which is based upon expertise, is unnecessarily crushing.

However, one area that the judges have no expertise in, is relationship counselling, and yet in this week's programme they had the gall to offer relationship advice to one couple live on camera. The male half of this particular couple had broken off their engagement a matter of days before the programme, yet they both still wanted to audition together. So after a number of shots of them waiting for the audition, clearly ignoring each other as best they could, they came on stage and murdered Starship's "Nothing's Going to Stop us Now." The irony was clearly lost on them. But after the performance was mercifully broad to an end, the boy was goaded into proposing to the girl again... And she took him back, prompting much weeping with the female judges, at least one of whom has had plenty of experience forgiving an errant partner in the public eye...

So that's it... Next week after lunch I'll give X-Factor a miss and listen to the re-run of Sunday Sequence instead...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fallen Crumbs

Tomorrow's Gospel reading in the lectionary, from Mark 7: 24-37 is the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, a frankly disturbing story where Jesus, at first seems to be responding in a somewhat racist manner to a woman in need. I say "at first seems" because many commentators are very careful to extricate the sinless Son of God from this accusation by various theological and sociological backflips, suggesting that he was only testing the woman (a fairly crass test in the face of need one might think), or that he was acting out the response she might have expected and would have recieved from the disciples to show them something, or that the term for dog he used was not an insulting one at all (unlike most Jewish references to dogs which are more akin to our use of the word "Bitch") but a pet term. Other, more liberal theologians suggest that this was a spiritual growth point for the human Jesus.

Me. I don't know what to think. But as on most first sunday's in the month I will be conducting a communion service in a Methodist church, and during that service we usually include a version of what is generally known as the "Prayer of Humble Access" a beautiful prayer drawn up by Cranmer for his Book of Common Prayer. I say it is beautiful, although I do know of others who find it worryingly self-deprecating, and there are certain pastoral settings where I might not want to use it. But is beautifully constructed and resonates with some of the themes and language present in this Gospel reading. So, I may not know exactly what was happening in this engagement between the Syro-Phoenician woman and Jesus, but this prayer expresses exactly what happens in the engagement between any of us and Jesus in communion. Here is the 1664 version of that prayer:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Molech is Alive and Well...

There's a famous song by Paul Brady called "The Island" which is set against the background of the Northern Ireland troubles... in it he says:
"Up here we sacrifice our children;
To feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday"

With the exception of sporadic spats of sectarian violence like this week at the Short Strand/Mountpottinger interface, in which, as ever, children often become the front-line troops, those days are behind us. But the old tensions remain and the battleground between unionist and republican has simply shifted. One of the most pronounced is the area of education, where Sinn Fein Education Minister Catrina Ruane has pursued a dogmatic approach to non-selective secondary education, which due to an equally dogmatic response by Unionists and stakeholders in the Grammar School sector, has produced a chaotic scenario for those starting the last year of primary school this week.

Today all P7 pupils will receive a very helpful leaflet outlining their options for transfer. I hope it is more helpful than previous missives from Ms. Ruane which have done nothing to quell the confusion and fear among parents, not to mention the tension and uncertainty in the hearts of children.

Let me put my cards on the table. The 11+ (supposedly the last ever one back in 1977) served me well, as it has served many academically able working class young people down through the years. But the post selection experience of many of my young friends who failed the "qualie" was not so favourable. In Northern Ireland we have a history of producing high performers in tertiary education, who have come through the Grammar School system, but we also have the worst record regarding children who come through the secondary system with no qualifications whatsoever. Is this the product of being labelled a failure at 11, or a feature of seeing secondary education as second best (leading to the recruitment of "second rate" teachers), or a function of a lack of parental and peer support/valuing of education among certain communities? I haven't done the detailed research so I cannot begin to assess where the reasoning for this lies. It certainly seems to be a more pronounced problem in certain loyalist communities that used to rely on jobs in heavy industry that didn't require qualifiations, leading to a low value placed on educational achievement in such communities.

So how can we address educational under-achievement, particularly in working class, loyalist areas? By dismantling the Grammar Sector? Abolishing selection? By raising standards in the secondary sector? By addressing the support for schools and education in working class areas? By moving everyone to selection at an older age, when selection of subjects for GCSE and further careers is already taking place (as with the Craigaveon area "Dixon Plan")?

Certainly the answer is not the bog standard comprehensive system of most of England and Scotland, which apparently has done little to improve social mobility among lower socio-economic groups. Even if it were, we need a coherent plan to get from here to there, rather than the ramshackle disaster that has occurred because of the ideological confrontation between Ms. Ruane and her opponents. The fact that parents will now have to pay for multiple unregulated entrance exams to different grammar schools will also reinforce the perception of those schools as bastions of the middle classes, and further deter those who come from poorer backgrounds. Those on free school meals may well get help with these fees, but there are many from working class areas who don't avail of the free meals they might be entitled to for many complex reasons and others who are borderline cases. Many of these will undoubtedly be deterred by this financial hurdle, especially where they come from a community where education is not valued as highly as it might be.

There are no votes for children in our political system. And so long as the mess in our educational system only affects the year or two that are facing the transition, that won't lose our politicians too many votes either. Anyway, those who do vote tend to do so on constitutional lines rather than on any other issues, so the needs of this year's P7 children will be sacrificed once more...

Yet the whole thing is a national disgrace.

Platform for Change have already organised one consultation on the subject, and you can check out some of their thinking on the subject here. But this whole issue needs to become a key one for us as a society, and not just the preserve of politicians, educational interest groups and talking shops. We've all got to make it a priority before another generation of children are sacrificed to the Molech of political and educational intransigence.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The First of the Many

This morning in a brief reflection on Downtown Radio, my thoughts focused on a gentleman I had never heard of until last week. I wonder if you have heard of him?

The life, and more specifically the death of Franciszek Honiok, radically affected the lives of millions of others including our own. According to the testimony of Alfred Naujocks at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trial, on the night of August 31, 1939, Honiok was taken from a German concentration camp, where he, a German Silesian and supporter of Polish independence had been interned. He was given a lethal injection, dressed in a Polish uniform and shot. His body was transported to the town of Gleiwitz on the border of Poland and Germany, where, after a staged attack on a German radio station (pictured), his body was left outside. This was then used as proof that it was Poles who had attacked that installation, which, in turn, was cited as the final straw which forced Germany to invade Poland on this day 70 years ago.
This man, whose name I am sure was unknown to most, was the first of millions of casualties of that war. Many gave their lives voluntarily, if reluctantly in the service of their countries, but most, like this first victim, had no choice. And what was true in that conflict is true in every conflict, and our prayers should be with those who mourn the victims of that and every war, whether they gave their lives willingly or not, whether they were on “our side” or not, whether we know their names or not.
And whether or not we might be willing to give our lives for our country in time of war, may we all be prepared to give of ourselves wholeheartedly to prevent the need for war and conflict.
Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, for they shall be called the sons of God.