Thursday, 24 September 2009

Chief cook and dog washer

I returned home late today and, not only had Mr. M done the laundry and hoovered the living room , he had also bathed the dog. It was a bit of a saga ; Bessie had repaid her owner for a long walk by joyfully rolling in something very unsavoury. Kev had discovered that getting her clean, following this heinous act, involves a lot of water ending up on the one administering the ablutions.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Offend or please

The equality legislation currently progressing through parliament has caused some concern because of its possible implications for freedom of speech and conscience. A quick trawl of blogs and sites reveals the level of concern amongst conservative Christians. John Richardson ( the Ugley Vicar) sees the expansion in the rights of various minority groups as a nail in the coffin of religious freedom and an ushering in of an age of religious persecution ,
I have no doubt that if not for me, then for other Christians soon, the knock will come on the door, and I will need to make sure I've got my toothbrush and some sugar cubes in my pocket. (The last was a hint I remember reading about for people living behind the Iron Curtain who faced arrest.)Other Christians have welcomed the legislation, pointing out the irony of people complaining about oppression when what they arguably want is the right to oppress others (especially gay people) in the name of their faith.
However, all of us, whatever our views, should consider carefully the issue of preserving a level of freedom of speech and conscience, even when this has the potential to offend (and some would say any level of freedom of expression allows the potential to offend.) It is clear that we cannot have complete freedom of speech. People must not be free to incite hatred or violence, but to bring in laws that aim to eradicate offence seems to me a slippery slope.
One of the things I detest about our obsession with health and safety regulations is that we act as though we can eradicate risk completely. Now, not only is this impossible because life involves risk, it would also be bad for us as some level of risk helps us learn. In the same way, I do not think we can eliminate offence either and to do so would leave us the poorer. Healthy debate involves hearing opposing points of view and forming our own opinions. The privilege of being able to do this hones our intellect, shapes our ability to reason and discern and validates us as fully human and able to exercise this freedom. I, for one, do not wish to live in a thought police state where with the best intentions I am cotton- wooled from all offence and my brain, heart and soul turns to mush.
I believe that some have called for a strong clause of reasonableness to be applied to the equality legislation to prevent its misuse. I support this, and also think there should be a strong regard for context.
One of the examples given is of an atheist, working in a Catholic care home, being offended by a crucifix on the wall. Because “offence” is a subjective thing it is not implausible to imagine that someone might be offended. They might see it as a depicting a violent act of torture, one that offends their sensibilities and causes distress. As an atheist they may see it as part of an antiquated and offensive set of beliefs, it intimidates them, they’d like it removed.
Now, the person above may be genuinely offended, but is their offence reasonable? I’d guess not as the majority of sensible people would point out that they chose to take a job in the context of a Catholic care home, what did they expect?
Several street preachers have been arrested for preaching that homosexuality is sinful. With a strong clause of reasonableness the police would have to look carefully at the language used, how intrusive and intimidating the preaching had been. Some might argue that context is also important. For example, a particular Church may have a strong view on issues of divorce or sexuality but members of a congregation can leave and join a different church if they don’t like the ethos and approach, avoiding a street preacher is harder.
As always, the issue is sometimes more complex; not all members of a congregation are voluntarily present. Could a gay teenager brought up attending a church which condemned same sex relationships reasonably claim they caused him harassment and distress? I suspect so and such churches may have to rightly be mindful of their duty to act within strict ethical guidelines and prove that they have done so, especially when dealing with the young and vulnerable.
A strong focus on the importance of reasonableness and context would not eradicate all the problems caused by (and to be solved by) the equality bill -and we should not forget that it aims to solve problems by protecting people and addressing existing injustices. But in an atmosphere of anxiety (paranoia?) from some conservatives and some disquiet amongst liberals committed to freedom of speech, it might create a workable middle ground.

The Equality Bill has been left relatively intact following scrutiny by the Commons Public Bill Committee. The Committee stage ended on 7 July 2009. From the numerous amendments that were proposed, only a handful have made it into to the Bill. The Bill now progresses to Report stage before heading to the House of Lords. The Bill is still on track to receive Royal Assent in Spring 2010 and become law in October 2010.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Protecting children?

Few people will have missed the current furore over the new child protection vetting regulations. There has been a lot of inaccuracy in the coverage, for example, as far as I am aware, private arrangements such as taking a friend’s child to football will be exempt, unless the service is provided under the auspices of the club or organisation involved.
What doesn’t seem to have been pointed out is that these regulations are, and always have been, as much, if not more, about protecting organisations and institutions from liability than genuinely protecting children. If they carry out checks then organisations can show they took the proper steps if a child is abused. CRB checks only protect children from known sex offenders, not from those unknown to the authorities. Meanwhile the new regulations do nothing to help the countless children abused in the home – not that this abuse can be regulated or legislated for.
I am all for a sensible level of checking but we have to recognise that we cannot legislate away danger to children. It angers me that, in the midst of all this cost and bureaucracy, services such as Childline constantly struggle financially, relying on donations and fundraising to continue. A key way to protect children is to empower them to speak out and to put help in place when they do so. While the legislation is debated and many needless forms are filled out, thousands of children who actually are being abused phone Childline every day. One in three of those children will not get through, their cry for help will not be heard – and that really is criminal.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Wizards of Edge

On Sunday afternoons we often drive to a local beauty spot, Alderley Edge, to walk the dog. Some of you may know that the Edge is rich in legends and history and inspired Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a story about two children protecting a magical stone from the evil Morrigan and her followers. There are many unusual sites nestled amongst the ancient trees from the Druid’s Circle , the Holy well and Wishing well, the mines and the sandstone caves and rocks.
This blend of mystical, pagan and Arthurian captures many visitors’ imaginations and this afternoon we met this group of - er – elvish warriors who had dressed up for the occasion and were keen to tell us all about it while brandishing their very own Excalibur ( albeit plastic). I thought the blokes looked rather wizard like, I love the flaming red beard, and the women made charming pixies ( the ears are fake, honest...) They were on a quest but let me take this great photo all the same - I don’t know about you, but I adore eccentricity and a capacity for imagination.
The picture above is one I took of the view over the Edge this afternoon. It was a beautiful, sunny September day and the area was full of couples, families with children and dog walkers - as well as elvish questors!

These photos of the sandstone caves and of castle rock _ the name of the rocky outcrop to the right - show the layers in the stone and the colours created by the mineralisation.
The Edge is full of fascinating nooks and cranies ; the boys in particular loved exploring the area when they were younger and would dare each other to go further into the cave above.

I wish I had a picture of the various wells, there is a wishing well and a holy well . There is a legend of some iron gates that remain to be found and I believe that a hermit lived somewhere in the Edge during the nineteenth century. Alderley Edge is well worth a visit if you come to Cheshire, a trip there will always yield treasure of one sort or another.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Shack

The Shack is a book which is attracting a lot of attention and is surprisingly popular among evangelical Christians. I say that this is surprising as The Shack contains some challenging and radical concepts, not least the image of God as a large, bubbly Afro Caribbean woman who, despite being named Papa, could be seen as a direct challenge to patriarchal ideas about God. Even the fact that Papa tells the protagonist, Mack, that she can take a number of different forms, could be seen as supporting the idea that humans form God in an image which suits them , an image which only approximates to what God is. The book seems to me to hint at the possibility that the “truth” of God is not immutable; we grasp truths through our faith not a definitive “truth.” One of my favourite aspects of this novel is that God is presented as a being with no desire to control our lives or to punish us for wrongdoing. When Mack, the protagonist, first arrives at the shack, he expects the experience to be structured and controlled. When he asks, “So, what am I supposed to do?” he receives the answer,
“You’re not supposed to do anything. You are free to do whatever you like.”
In the Chapter, “Da Judgement Come”, Mack expects God to do the judging, only to find to his amazement that he is the judge of his life and actions and that God, as a parent, would be incapable of sending any of his/ her children to hell. Again, the emphasis is not on a punitive God but on one who only opens up possibilities for redemption and transformation.
This is not to say that The Shack does not have its critics – and some have been less than whole hearted in their praise. For start, the fact that the story revolves around child abduction, rape and murder, has been seen by some as insensitive, sensational or even offensive. The ideas about forgiveness might be described as glib. Mack cannot forgive his daughter’s murderer and in this instance Papa does make some demands saying,
“I want you to forgive. Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you.”
Although this concept of forgiveness does have some support in scripture and is, arguably, one of the more compassionate presentations of the reasons why we should forgive, those who have struggled with forgiveness, especially in the areas of child abuse, sexual violence and murder, would recognise it as an “answer” that can seem superficial and even be damaging to those affected. The assurance Papa gives that the child, Missy, “has already forgiven him” also seemed pat and insensitive to me.
The Shack is also, at times ,toe- curlingly embarrassing in its hippy like emphasis on lurve as the answer to moral and ethical dilemmas and it certainly does not offer a systematic or rigorous theology but more skims across and dips into a range of theological ideas, some would argue , without really grappling with them.
And yet, The Shack has something...something... that kept me avidly reading until the end. If you do read it, it is sure to either profoundly move or intensely irritate you, to make you feel it is a spiritual triumph or an intellectual charade, or even to get you to a point where you just can’t decide... and that has to be worth it in itself.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Boris does Ramadan

According to Ruth Gledhill, Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has suggested that non Muslims should also fast for the month of Ramadan to enhance understanding of their Muslim neighbours. He is quoted as saying,
"I urge people, particularly during Ramadan, to find out more about Islam, increase your understanding and learning, even fast for a day with your Muslim neighbour and break your fast at the local mosque. I would be very surprised if you didn’t find that you share more in common than you thought."
Well, I have to say that Boris Johnson and I are not usually on the same wavelength, but for once I thought he was onto something. A while back, I was a tutor for a distance learning course and one of my students was a young Muslim woman. She often phoned me during Ramadam and would say that she had half an hour before she could break her fast and could I distract her from the hunger pangs by discussing literature ( you'll be glad to know I have my uses!)

My time tutoring Hajra really made me think about the commitment that Islam requires and about how many Christians show similar dedication. She was also very respectful about my faith and apologised when studying some of the books for her "ignorance" about Christianity, ironically she actually knew more than most of my non Muslim students put together.

Come to think of it, wouldn't it be nice if people also visited Churches during Easter? Perhaps they would learn more about their Christian neighbours at the local church and maybe learn that we are just ordinary people and share more in common than we think...

( If anyone is interested in a little fasting,Ramadam started on August the 21st and finishes on September the 19th. Still plenty of time to follow Boris Johnson's advice!)

Relax - it's the weekend!

Well, I have reached the end of my first week ( almost) in the new job and survived so far! I celebrated by taking Bessie for a longish walk, we managed to just avoid the rain, and then poured myself a glass of wine. Kev, the wonderful semi- house husband, is cooking me a favourite dinner - pork escalopes in an italian sauce made up of tomatoes, olives, garlic and basil. Younger son is at a sleepover and the house is peaceful. I have a feeling that weekends from now on will be doubly precious -life doesn't get much better than this.