Saturday, 27 August 2011

Towards the Future in Hope: Women Remaking the Church

Last week I attended the summer school of Andante - the European Alliance of Catholic Women's Organisations. I was invited to give a paper on the theme of the future. I called it 'Towards the Future in Hope:Women Remaking the Church' - click on the link to read it.

The conference was held in a beautiful Franciscan retreat centre in Reute, Germany, and it brought together more than seventy women from all over wider Europe - defined not in terms of EU membership but in terms of a deeply rooted Catholicism which continues to melt and blur the boundaries of national identity across Europe, for better or worse. The group represented a broad spectrum of European Catholicism - from rich and poor communities, from eastern and western Europe. It included women who derive great security and reassurance from traditional Catholicism, as well as those who are frustrated and longing for change. There were young Albanian women - full of energy and conviction - who work with trafficked women and who mourn over the disintegration of their society, yet who brought an amazing vitality to our gathering. There were women from Slovakia, Latvia, Romania, Poland, Germany, France, Holland, England and Wales, holding in creative tension our many differences and our shared visions. We sometimes forget what a miracle modern Europe is. Who would have thought, thirty years ago, that such apparently impenetrable borders and divisions would have dissolved so quickly, and with far less violence than we might have anticipated with our nuclear stockpiles and cold war rhetoric?

The three official languages were German, French and English, and a group of dedicated interpreters made it possible for us to communicate across linguistic boundaries, from prepared interpretations of plenary papers, to ad hoc interpretations of the meaning of the dances we were taught by a light-footed young German nun whose habit swirled and billowed as she joyously taught us a theological language that has no need of words.

Here is something I learned from those intepreters. There's a difference between interpretation, which is about the spoken word, and translation, which is about the written word. Interpretation requires a capacity to translate gesture and intonation, to communicate the immediacy of what is being said in all its spontaneity. They were good-humoured but straightforward in complaining about my delivery of my paper. They had had the script in advance, but it was a dense paper and I hadn't realized that translating English into French and German requires more time, because the phrases and forms of expression are longer. Even although I spoke at what felt like a snail's pace in terms of my usual delivery, they complained loudly that I was much too fast! These small considerations need to be borne in mind, as we increasingly try to speak to one another across cultural, linguistic and theological differences.

We had dialogue groups of women from different countries, and every group was identified by a long velvet sash in a different colour of the rainbow. When we walked into the room every morning, the chairs had been arranged in circles, each with its sash in the middle, draped around a stone. When a woman wanted to speak in her group, she held the stone so that she couldn't be interrupted - perhaps a strategy one needs more with women's groups than men's! During the plenary sessions, the scarves were gathered up and spread in a rainbow in the centre of the room. I couldn't help comparing all this with the way men organise conferences when they are in charge. Are these aesthetic differences and preferences a mark of superficial differences between men and women, or are they simply the tip of an iceberg? Are women and men fundamentally alike in our desires, hopes, fears and ways of being in the world, or are we fundamentally different? We talked about these questions, but of course we have no answers. Only the men in the Vatican seem to have certain answers to such questions. The rest of us are more tentative and unsure.

On the last night of the conference, we had a cultural dinner to which everyone contributed something from her own country's cuisine. We had a wonderful musician to entertain us - an expert on regional musical instruments going back to the time of Christ and before, whose eclectic mix of instruments included a bicycle pump with a cork on the end, on which one of the participants accompanied him during a raucous song. He taught us a dance, and later we moved to another room where that young Franciscan sister led us in the most beautiful and serene circle dances. There was one man among us - the Franciscan priest who was celebrating Mass the next morning. I think he had a wonderful time.

One of the afternoons was set aside for activities, which included a choice of archery, dancing, pilgrimage, building a maze or preparing a liturgy. The retreat house had a maze in the grounds, and I discovered the quiet and subtle pleasure of coiling around one's thoughts, spiralling through pathways lined with fragrant shrubs and jewelled flowers, to enter into the heart of the maze with its encircling hedge, and then gradually to retrace one's path to the outer world. 

I don't want to idealise or romanticise all this. There were moments of animosity and tension. There were clearly deep cultural and theological differences which sometimes spilled over into irritated exchanges. It was hard not to be aware of the economic differences which cut deep divisions within and between European states. But none of that detracted from the sense of having joined hands with Europe's Catholic women at this time of crisis and challenge, and of having discovered so many sources of wisdom, humour and hope, rooted in a faith which unites us in spite of our differences.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Riots, Reasons and Reconciliation

Illustration: Gary Kempston
Here is a letter signed by a group of British academics and published in The Guardian today (Wednesday, 24th August):

After the recent riots and looting in London and elsewhere, it is vital that a sense of justice be restored to society. The courts have an important role to play in this and it may be that, for the worst offenders, there is no alternative but prison. However, justice must not be confused with vengeance. The threat to withdraw the benefits of looters and to evict their families from their council houses, the suspension of normal sentencing guidelines (Met plan to hold all riot suspects in custody, 23 August), and the passing of excessively harsh prison sentences to deter others go far beyond the demands of restorative justice.

When David Cameron explained his decision to employ Andy Coulson as his communications director, he expressed concern that Coulson was being punished twice for the same offence and said he was giving him a second chance. It is hard not to see this as one ethos for the rich and powerful and another for the marginalised and excluded. To sentence a lawbreaker and then evict their family is to punish people twice for the same offence, and some also deserve a second chance. Many arrested are first-time offenders who committed fairly minor offences. This does not justify what they did, but neither does it justify sending them to prison.

Cameron must resist the lure of knee-jerk populism to find a lasting and effective solution to the problems created by the social and economic policies of the past 30 years. These have been exacerbated by the present government inflicting punitive spending cuts which disproportionately affect the poorest in society, while doing little to ensure that those who created the economic crisis are also being made to pay the price.

Professor Tina Beattie University of Roehampton
Dr Sarah Jane Boss University of Roehampton
Professor John Eade University of Roehampton
George Ferzoco University of Bristol
Dr Alison Jasper Stirling University
Professor David Jasper University of Glasgow
Rev Dr Robert Kaggwa University of Roehampton
Dr Karen Kilby University of Nottingham
Professor Richard E King University of Glasgow
Professor Ursula King University of Bristol
Dr Michele Lamb University of Roehampton
Professor Gerard Loughlin Durham University
Professor Willy Maley University of Glasgow
Dr Michael Marten University of Stirling
Professor Paul D Murray Durham University
Rev Dr Vladimir Nikiforov Royal Holloway, University of London
Dr Darren O'Byrne University of Roehampton
Dr Marcus Pound Durham University
Dr Nina Power University of Roehampton
Dr Anna Rowlands Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge
Professor Yvonne Sherwood University of Glasgow
Dave Tinham University of Roehampton
Dr Anthony Towey St Mary's University College
Dr Heather Walton University of Glasgow

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Sleepwalking towards fascism

I spent most of my first thirty three years in Africa (Zambia, Kenya and Zimbabwe), so I've experienced several regime changes and I've lived through a number of colonial and postcolonial ideologies, although like many colonials I had no interest in politics when I was young. One usually has little to fear and little to protest about if one lives in complacent conformity within an affluent social milieu and enjoys the material benefits that it brings. And if occasionally the justice system seems too harsh or weighted against certain groups and individuals, best to look the other way and avoid getting into trouble.

More than 2,770 people have been arrested in connection with last week's riots
But in recent years, following African politics from a distance, and in particular seeing the tragic disintegration of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, I have come to appreciate that the independence of the judiciary is the sine qua non of a just society. That's why we should be terrified about what's happening in Britain's courts in the aftermath of the recent riots and looting.

It is the law, not the political establishment, which safeguards justice in a society. In the rat race of modern politics, most of those who succeed are career politicians. Political self-interest gets in the way of their commitment to the common good, and it limits their capacity to contribute to the sense of justice that a society needs if it is to flourish.

That's why we need an independent judiciary - to restrain the excesses of political ambition, and to ensure that our legal system does not fall prey to the kind of mob justice which results from populist politics and political short-termism. So why have so many judges and magistrates been compliant in translating David Cameron's brutal rhetoric into hurried judgements and punitive prison sentences which can only breed an even greater sense of fury and resentment among this increasingly alienated generation of British youth?

There were undoubtedly hardened criminals and repeat offenders who took advantage of the riots to rob and vandalise with impunity, and they should be brought to justice. But there were also many young, first time offenders, carried away by the mood of the moment, some of them probably drunk or drugged, whose slender hopes of a future worth struggling for will now be dashed by a prison sentence and a criminal record. England and Wales already has the highest per capita prison population in western Europe. To send gullible young people into our overcrowded, under-resourced prison regime because they stole a bottle of water or posted a stupid message on Facebook is incomprehensible and cannot in any meaningful sense be called just.

There has been much talk in the last couple of weeks about responsible parenting, but any parent knows that the teenage years are fraught with risks, challenges and failures, and we are not in control of our teenage children - nor should we be. Allowing our children to grow up means respecting their freedom, even if they abuse that freedom (and is there anybody out there who never abused their teenage freedom in some way or another?) It means allowing them to make mistakes and suffer the consequences, and being there to help them to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who have all the benefits and privileges of the mortgaged middle classes know that there are times when things fall apart, during those teenage and early adult years, and we usually depend on the good will of a wide social network to put them back together again - friends and family, churches and communities, schools and, sometimes, social services, the police and the law. Even Prime Ministers are not immune - remember when Tony Blair's sixteen-year-old son was found drunk and incapable?

But how does one help a foolish young adult to mend his or her life after an arbitrary prison sentence and a criminal record, inflicted upon them for no other reason than to make them serve as a warning to others? What's wrong with our politicians and our judiciary that they have so little imagination about the long-term damage they're doing to our children - because these are all our children? There's an African saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child, and we've seen in the last few weeks that, when the 'village' fails in its responsibility, its children become an awesome force to be reckoned with.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face is to get over the attitude that a child is a commodity or a possession over which a parent has sole ownership and for which that parent has sole responsibility.There are few areas where individualism does so much damage as in the attitudes we have towards our own and other people's children. On the one hand there's the suffocating over-protectiveness of so many middle class parents, and on the other hand we veer between negligent neighbourly indifference and punitive state interference with regard to those who are not able to keep their problems locked out of sight behind their suburban front doors.

We are all responsible for all our young people. We have a duty of care to the children in our communities and neighbourhoods. We have a duty to pay taxes and to provide institutions of education, health care, sporting and cultural activities that make young people feel included, while ensuring that they have roles to play which allow them to contribute to society, not least through ensuring that they can find jobs which give them a sense of self-esteem. We cannot blame all the troubles of the last fortnight on cuts in social spending, but when youth clubs close down, universities suffer catastrophic funding cuts, financing for basic recreational activities and facilities is taken away, and the employment market dries up, we cannot completely ignore questions of cause and effect either. The message we've sent out to our young people over the last few years couldn't be clearer: as a society, we don't give a damn about your education, your well-being or your future. If you have wealthy parents, make them pay. If not, hard luck.

The teenage years are a volatile hormonal soup even before we add the pressures of a society in meltdown. We should not be surprised that violence has erupted on our streets. My generation had the best of the boom years, and people of David Cameron's class will always be able to buy their way out of the bust years in our class-ridden and economically divided society. But we owe our young people better than a prison sentence and a life of debt.

I fear we are sleep-walking into fascism, and if our judges don't take a stand, who will?

"If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever." (George Orwell)

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Broken Society

London’s South Bank is currently a postmodern pastiche of a British seaside resort, circa 1950s, as part of its ‘Festival of Britain’ extravaganza. An artificial beach has been created complete with beach huts, there are fake grassy banks, a holiday spirit prevails among the crowds, and on the fa├žade of the Southbank Centre there are neon lights saying ‘Power to the People’. I don’t think this week is quite what they had in mind, but what an eloquent testimony to the vacuity of postmodernism. Read this blog if you want a flavour of what it’s about.

That slogan – ‘power to the people’ – is a retro joke. We’re not meant to take it any more seriously than the beach huts and the fake grassy banks. We’re not meant to take anything seriously any more. The only real thing in the poster above is the MasterCard logo. In this virtual world we’ve created, even the bullion bars which used to be the measure of the global economy have been reduced to digits on a computer-screen manipulated by geeks who seem unable to tell the difference between a computer game and the real world. (Sorry, what an anachronistic phrase – the real world – what’s that?) And presiding over this chaos are the markets, which like the gods of ancient Greece prove to be capricious, moody, demanding and narcissistic, with an insatiable appetite for human sacrifice. 

There are three great myths of modern liberalism being exploded around us: laissez faire economics will ensure justice, the end of religion will ensure freedom, and the pursuit of science and reason will ensure progress. Wrong on all counts. Laissez faire economics has not brought justice but global economic meltdown and trauma and suffering for millions of people, probably for generations to come. The end of religion has not brought freedom but new forms of bondage. Substitute the word ‘God’ every time you hear ‘the markets’ and you’ll understand a fair bit about why Marx condemned capitalism as well as religion. And the pursuit of science and reason has nothing to do with progress because human beings are neither progressive nor consistently rational, and how much we know has very little to do with how we behave. Every human life is a complex, mysterious, interwoven and unpredictable phenomenon which bears the marks of its history, culture and experiences in ways that simply do not conform to the myth of progress.

We are by nature relational, interdependent and impressionable, and we learn by mimicry and example. Put us in a jungle to fend for ourselves under a creed of ‘each to his own’ and watch us prey on one another and everything else, when that jungle is governed by some hydra-headed ideological monster produced by the economics of Ayn Rand and the anthropology of Friedrich Nietzsche. Individualism is what we get when human individuals are cut off from one another by the combative dynamics of free market economics and unbridled competitiveness, fuelled by a liberal dogma that regards any attempt to hold one another accountable for our ethics and behaviour as an invasion of the right to privacy.

The relationship between the individual and the wider social context has been ruptured by a neo-liberal ideology which is now reaching its nadir. If there is no such thing as society, then there is no reason why one shouldn’t steal, cheat, loot, lie and bully one’s way to the top of the pile. Our shared cultural ethos becomes not ‘what should I do?’ but ‘how much can I get away with?’ Think of the MPs’ expenses scandal. Think of Tony Blair accumulating vast personal wealth on the back of his political career, despite his catastrophic legacy. Think of Enron, the Lehman Brothers, the banking crisis. Think of Rupert and James Murdoch brazening it out in front of their parliamentary interrogators. And then think of rioting adolescents rampaging through Britain’s streets and spot the difference if you can. I’ll tell you the difference: it’s the difference between power and despair, inclusion and exclusion, complacency and rage. Look at the faces, and you’ll see it’s also the difference between black and white, poverty and wealth. But let's be clear: those youths on the streets have learned by example, and they are expressing the values by which our society now operates at every level of the economic spectrum.

Broken society? Yes. Can we mend it? Maybe. Let those in the public domain set the example by which others might be expected to learn. Let the bankers give up their bonuses and start to pay for the mess they’ve created. Let Tony Blair give back some of his obscene wealth to the society he helped to destroy and say sorry to the British people for the slaughter he unleashed in our name. Get rid of those smug Etonians and career politicians in the House of Commons and give us real democracy, when those who stand for election are for and with the people and not over and above us.

But still, that’s not enough. Let each and every one of us start to see that there is such a thing as society, and there is no ‘me’ without ‘us’. Without society, individualism is anarchy. There is no private life in which my actions don’t have some social impact, and therefore there are no rights without responsibilities. Holding our leaders to account is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of this process of mending. If we agree to do it without them, we collude in masking their abdication of responsibility, but if we expect them to do it without us, we abdicate our own responsibility. The Big Society is a vacuous ideology which covers over fascist economics with the rhetoric of care. But if they stop squandering public finances on futile wars and buccaneering banks and put the resources where they should be – good schools and hospitals, socially responsible policing, funding for culture and the arts and for social and community projects – then we can begin to rebuild a real society, not in the name of progress but in the name of our lost humanity.

Click here to see what's happening in this video of a wounded boy being robbed. I think this is a very good analogy of what corporate power is doing to the most vulnerable people in our world. The corruption goes all the way from the very top to the very bottom of the social order.

As a P.S. to the above blog, I've found two sources which add an interesting commentary to what I've said above:

Camila Batmanghelidjh: 'Caring Costs - but so do riots'

And see this video interview with somebody on the street.

Friday, 5 August 2011

When is a Catholic Not a Catholic?

Triptych of the Madonna della Misericordia  (c.1415)
 Jacobello del Fiore. Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
The Madonna della Misericordia is an eloquent expression of the all-encompassing love of the maternal Church, spreading her cloak around the people of Christ but always with room to spare for more to join, and always open at the front to draw us in. In Piero's version, there's a hangman and a prostitute, for God welcomes us as lovers and sinners and not as heroes, champions or pillars of society, nor as academics, journalists, lawyers, mothers, fathers, housewives, politicians, priests, office cleaners or even theologians! "All that is left of us is love" (Philip Larkin). In the end, that's the only qualification we need in order to be there, and it's the love we give and receive that gives shape and form to our presence there. That's why, in this particular version of the painting, I love the image of Christ snuggled not in the womb but in the heart of his mother - her love encircles him in her heart, and his love radiates out through her to us. That is for me the meaning of the motherhood of the Church.

In the end, it matters very little whether we are progressives or traditionalists, conservatives or liberals, radicals or reactionaries, gay or straight. The hallmark of our faith is not the power of our intellect, the persuasiveness of our rhetoric, the depth of our conviction, the conventionality of our lives, nor even the number of people who folllow our blogs, but the love which holds us together within that encircling and open maternal canopy.

I don't regard myself as a progressive, although I see I've been described as one. My views on progressives, liberals and even on Polly Toynbee are readily available in my book, The New Atheists. (By the way, click on the image and see how much Fiore's Madonna looks like Polly Toynbee.)  But these labels - progressive, liberal, conservative, etc. - fail to accommodate the complexity of what most of us actually think when we reflect on life, justice and meaning, and I believe that, whatever our political, ecclesiological or ideological differences, most of us are motivated by a quest for the good and the just. We all have to work out what that means in reasoned and informed debate, and that means we're a diverse and messy bunch gathered within that cloak, and our blogs reflect that. The Catholic blogosphere looks more like a pillow fight in a tent than like the faithful gathered within the enfolding robe of maternal love. It would take a brave soul to want to be part of it!

Nevertheless, the Catholic tradition also teaches that there are some aspects of faith which are revealed to us by God and not accessible to reason alone, even although it's not irrational to hold them. That's why there is a difference between the Church's moral teachings, in which through the use of reason we strive together with others in our cultures and communities to discover what it means to live well (which means there will inevitably be some disagreement), and the Church's doctrines, in which we hold shared beliefs that we do not reasonably expect everybody to understand, althought we can give a reasonable account of why we believe them. So, while Catholic theologians can and must be part of informed and reasoned public debate about matters of morals, politics and society, and while we can and must use mind as well as heart, study as well as prayer, to better understand the mysteries of our faith, I don't think those mysteries are themselves open to debate. We should not be in the business of counting the persons in the godhead to see if somebody made a mistake!

That's why this comment which I discovered out there on the blogosphere concerns me: "Her documented views about. e.g. the divinity of Jesus, which I will not repeat on here, show that she has some deeply seated mis-understandings about basic Catholic beliefs, despite her clear intelligence." I would ask if anybody shares those concerns, they let me know where exactly these documented views are which show my misunderstanding, since as far as I know I have never publicly said or written anything at all which would challenge Catholic orthodoxy with regard to the divinity of Jesus. I think if I were to do that, I might come to the conclusion that, beautiful and consoling though that sheltering cloak of the Catholic faith is, I would have to step out from under its warmth and face the infinite heavens without it.