Friday, May 22, 2009


Rowan Williams is quoted in The Times as seeing the ongoing humiliation of MPs over the expenses row as being damaging to our democracy.

Is he right?

Agreed? Or just greed?

I think this is a very difficult subject, but I am inclined to go with Rowan. For what it's worth, a Parliamentary Democracy is what we have; and that means we rely on flawed people to operate it. Those who do real wrong should be made to pay back their ill-gotten gains and prevented from standing again... yes... but...

If we want paragons to populate Parliament, I'm sorry but I don't think there are 650 of them in the country. Never mind 2,600 so we can have meaningful elections & actually choose between them. And that's presuming that party machinery would actually choose those amazingly virtuous and always flawless people who would never do any wrong no matter what the circumstances, rather than people who had served their parties and impressed at selection meetings. That's right - these candidates need to be morally pure as the driven snow, able to resonate with the common voter, and communicate on TV like a seasoned actor but with the impassioned realism of Barack Obama.

I take it back. 650 of them? I don't think there are 20.

What we do want is accountability. But the drip-drip-drip of the Telegraph's revelations is not accountability. It is trial by Newsprint. It robs us of the rule of Parliament, which is how we are rightly governed and replaces it with rule by unelected media and by mob sentiment whipped up by said media.

Ultimately, David Cameron is right: an election will end this. But right now, I think he is wrong. An election today would be won on the whim of the press, not the merits of the case or the needs of the country. (I grant the press often influences elections - but this is exceptionally open to being the case right now.) A low turn out (due to voter disenchantment) favours radical parties (the BNP will always vote) and so skews results. I am not sure the BNP are the paragons for whom we seek.

So we are reminded by St Paul in 1 Timothy 2 to pray for all in authority "that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godlines and holiness". He was urging them to pray for Nero, who, I think it fair to say, was not many people's picture of an ideal ruler. We should heed St Paul & take our responsibility seriously. These are men & women at Westminster, not monsters. Men & women many of whom have done no wrong and all of whom have been tarred with the same brush. And even those who have sinned - are they so evil they are beyond forgiveness? Elections make for reckonings. Newspapers inform, but must never (because they are not, repeat NOT unbiased in themselves) take up the mantle of rule.

And I will side with Rowan. Enough of this. I prefer democracy. Not the mob. Not the bully. The ballot box, not the firing squad, no matter who pulls the trigger.

Because if we let anyone suffer that firing squad, eventually somebody will be holding a gun at us.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Going Up

JD Walt has an interesting post asking about the point of the Ascension. We get this strange story at the start of Acts where Jesus is "taken up" from their sight, hidden by a cloud, and the disciples are left looking up into the sky. Why? What does it mean?

The Reformers struggled with it. Finding it important, but not really saying why, they gave it a place of honour and confusion in some of the great statements of Protestant Faith. The Westminster Catechism says:

He ascended into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of His Father, making intercession. So why the aeronautics? Is heaven in the sky?

The Heidelberg Catechism (always a favourite of mine - I was caught out on this at my interview for Oxford a million years ago) tries harder:

Christ, before the eyes of His disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven, and that He is there for our benefit until He comes again to judge the living and the dead. I'm glad it's for our benefit; but how exactly? I mean - how exactly is all that floaty floaty stuff for our benefit? Well, it asks this question (not in those precise words, you'll understand) and answers:

First, He is our Advocate in heaven before His Father. Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, our Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself. Third, He sends us His Spirit. Now I think that something important is being said here - especially in the second item, though it sounds a bit clinical for my tastes in this version, and I'd like a bit more majesty in my theology. So I want to tease this out a little.

You see, I think the Ascension is one of those events that is a "beyond words" event. Like Pentecost. Read Acts 2 - there was no mighty wind & tongues of fire, only things like the sound of a mighty wind and something that looked like tongues of fire. It was beyond words. Luke is describing the indescribable. And so it is the same in Acts 1: Jesus is "taken up" or "ascended" - but the same word in John 17.1 means he "lifted up" his eyes, and in Acts 2.14 it means Peter "raised" his voice. As for the cloud that "hid" Jesus, the same word means "assume" or "suppose" in Acts 2.15. My point is - we have difficult, compressed, complex pictorial language describing something experience can't easily compartmentalise; and we reduce it the picture at the top of this post to our peril.

Because then we lose the point, as we try pointlessly to cling on to Jesus' sandals, and end up staring with the eleven into the space where he was rather than seeing with wonder the glory of the creation he now fills - but differently.

John 1. The great prologue. In the beginning was the Word. Jesus, the Son, with the Father & the Spirit from all eternity. Trinity 1-0-1. Colossians 1.15 and following - he is before all things - the creator with the Father. Hebrews 1. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. But look how Hebrews continues at that point:

After he had provided purification for sins he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. He goes back to the Father. Returns home. But the Ascension says -

He goes home different to how he left.

He left heaven as God. God the Son. The Second person. The Word.

He returns as God. God the Son. The Second person. The Word. In human flesh. Glorious, resurrected, perfected human flesh. But human. When he leaves the disciples he makes it clear - he does not change out of his final fleshly suit and with relief go, "thank God that's over". He returns home fully God and fully man.

The Ascension assures us that God's love is not temporary, not for a season, not here today and gone tomorrow. But that our humanity is wonderfully, strangely, unimaginably at the heart of our God. The difference between bacon & eggs at the heart of God. (Bacon, you understand, for the pig, being real commitment; eggs for the chicken not quite so much.) His love is totally committed to you and to me; he wasn't wearing it on his sleeve, he wasn't wearing it at all. It was for real, and for always. There is a part of Almighty eternal God, Lord of all Creation, Maker of all things that is ever and always human.

Now if that isn't worth us stopping and celebrating and dropping our jaws and giving thanks for, I'm not sure what is.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bohemian Rhapsody

Welsh National Opera's La Boheme is a fairly trad staging of a fairly indestructible opera. No gimmicks, just the drama. And tonight at the WMC in Cardiff I treated myself to a front row seat and to a little magic.

I cannot say how many times I have seen this particular opera. Too many times. And yet, when sung as beautifully as this, not enough. I could go again tomorrow. Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rebecca Evans & Jason Howard, three Welsh principals, were outstanding, with Gwyn Hughes Jones' simply one of the best Rodolfo's I have seen anywhere - and I've seen them in lots of places!

It's not just the wonderfully Italiante ping in his voice, or the strength it holds in the upper register (that high 'B' in the Act 1 aria held long enough and emotionally enough to give Pavarotti a run for his money) - I just don't think I can remember an opera singer who acts that well on stage. I saw him years ago at the Royal Opera House, when Roberto Alagna was debuting as Romeo in Gounod's R&J, and I recall thinking then that if Roberto Alagna hadn't been in the cast I'd have been really impressed with him. That must have been 15 years ago. And he has got better. Truly, a great singer - a worthy successor for a nation that in Dennis O'Neill has had a world class tenor.

Rebeccas Evans grew on me. At first I found her too creamy for Mimi. But she beautifully held back her voice, allowed the music to do its work without histrionics, and drew me in. Just lovely.

I saw Jason Howard in this production in 93. I remember enjoying him - but this is better. A more world-weary Marcello, a less youthful one (which is perhaps a loss) but better sung and a good foil for GHJ.

All three sing throughout Europe and North America. GHJ has apparently sung Puccini leads under Placido Domingo's baton in Los Angeles. I can understand why he would choose him.

Glorious. Not perfect - the Musetta was a bit underpowered, and as I read her biog, she clearly does a different repertoire, Rossini, Mozart, Donizetti, and I can see that this would suit her brittle tone. Puccini is not, I think, natural territory for her. And the conductor at times was not always communicating with the band; I'm not used to hearing fluffs at the WNO, and there were a couple of them - at significant points, and occasional slips between the timing of the singing and the playing in the big scenes. (Incidentally, if the cor anglais player really did fall asleep - you were spotted. It was the embarassment in your eyes after you woke up that gave you away.)

The heart of La Boheme is Act Three. Mimi & Marcello, the trio that follows, Mimi & Rodolfo, and the final quartet. It wasn't perfect. The final quartet had timing issues. But everything else - well, as I say, those three singers were amazing. Amazing. I was genuinely swept up in the sheer thrill of it. Opera being what opera should be: powerful and glorious. I'd pay good money to hear singing like that, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, my lips smile with sad joy, my eyes moisten under the emotional weight of it all. Actually, I did pay good money! No I didn't - £27 for a front row seat - it was daylight giveaway.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Breast is Yet to Come

Derek read the Old Testament reading at Cafe Church tonight. Song of Solomon, chapter eight, verses six and seven. Wonderful, classic, resounding, resonant verses.

Unfortunately, and the preachers amongst you will appreciate this, for some reason, he decided to continue and also read verse eight.

Go on. Look it up. No, you can't quite draw it to mind, and I don't think you've heard a sermon on it lately. It's OK, I'll wait whilst you pull out your Bible. Or just click here for all three verses.

Glory. But you should have seen Derek's face as he realised what he was reading...

Quires & Places

Driving along a motorway as your team clinch their eighteenth championship, listening to every kick of the ball on the radio, needing a point but the score is at nil-nil and the opposition is pressing - let me tell you, this is not good for the heart. I felt in need of medical attention. But victory is its own cordial, and so three in a row titles for United at last brought the tension to an end, and I punched the air with delight.

I was driving to Oxford, to a concert for friends of the new Choral Foundation at Merton, my undergraduate college. Pretty soon now I will have lived longer here in Ponty than I lived in Oxford. It's hard to say exactly when such a turning point happens, but we'll perhaps make it on my ordination anniversary. Going back is always lovely, but it is no longer 'home' in any real sense, much as I like to visit.

Still, seeing friends anywhere is a joy. Miles came to the concert with me. And also at the concert were Steve and Jackie Gunn, who were always in Oxford. Steve is now head of history at Merton & subwarden. (That means more there than here!) And Jackie used to play flute in a little orchestra I ran way back when. My old head of history was there- but disappeared before I caught up with him.

The choir? At times excellent, at times a work in progress, I felt. Sometimes I wanted more extremes and less reserve - the louds to be genuinely spine tingling, the softs to be imperceptible; mostly, I was left wanting. A new piece, receiving its first performance on John 1 was very good, as was a Taverner item (really - that was the best). The second half faded; and the Tippett 5 Negro Spirituals are not ideal fodder for an Oxbridge choir.

All of it was far, far better than the radio on the way back. Eurovision is a TV feast. When all you have is the music, it is really dull. Though the only vaguely interesting song won. Perhaps most of Europe was also tuned into their wireless...

Glory, Glory

Nuff said.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Out of this World

The Times gives a five star review. I'm tempted to concur. Only the slightly rushed ending made me wonder...

It's great to see something iconic be iconic. Nothing can replace what is past, but what is new has no worries about looking over its shoulder - it is itself, and gloriously so. Chris Pine, my main worry - is fantastic as Kirk, and only once does any kind of Shatner reference (right at the end). Cesc Fabregas is a very emotional and conflicted Spock, but then the very early original series episodes have him far more emotional too. Leonard Nimoy looks 159, but brings a nice turning point and a real surprise on his appearance. The rest of the cast is great (Chekov - comedy accent of the year; Simon Pegg - underused but first rate) and the pacing and the adventure and the sheer fun of it all -

Yep. Not a Slumdog, you understand, and maybe a half point under, but I really am tempted to give it the full five.

And I'm going back tonight with Andy Sowerby to see it again.


You know, it was as much fun second time around. There's a nice bit of video on the Telegraph site where JJ Abrams says it should be fun & you want to get straight back in line when you've seen it. Job done. There are moments of real beauty (in the opening sequence, the USS Kelvin silently firing its guns into space) though several of the space shots are breathtaking. Pine's final rendition of the word "Bones" was gloriously (and because it was at the end, forgiveably)Shatner-esque. The joke of Kirk not getting the girl, and being a bit girlish in his fights was splendid. But then it's just the beginning...

At over two hours, it felt about 90 minutes long. We've all sat through films that have seemed the other way around. And yes, I expect, though not today, I'll do it again. Unashamedly I am a Star Trek fan. But when a movie is this good, it just goes to show what the Star Wars prequels were not.

PS For a review in Klingon, click here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Fly Emirates

Glorious, glorious. The dog & I danced for joy at the sight of the crowd flying the Emirates as United's third goal (a thing of footballing beauty - Arsenal take a corner, Ronaldo intercepts, passes to Park who strokes it to Rooney who runs, and with an open goal at the far end of the park passes it back to - Ronaldo, who scores, all in 13 seconds) puts the defending Champions back in the final. Glorious.

There has to be injustice of course. And Fletcher bore it. Hopefully the amazingly awful UEFA will allow him to play; or maybe not - his team-mates will play for him, and bring home an unrivalled back-to-back victory.

And here is the defeated Arsene Wenger, consoling his captain, Sylar. Is anyone else worried that Sylar plays for Arsenal? I mean. It's some foul to open your opponent's forehead and leave them bleeding on the ground, all their skills taken from them. And even having done that - to lose.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Fast Lane

Join Life in the Fast Lane! During May 2009 all of us at St Catherine's are encouraged to take part in a Fast and to pray in order to see God provide for us as we look to our Church Hall vision become a reality. It's not just a building we want to equip - it's a work in our community that will change people's lives, providing for children and their parents, and beginning something new amongst the elderly which will make life better, and ultimately offer God's love practically and effectively. So what's it about, and how can we all be a part of it?

1. Commit to praying for the money we need to make the work on the hall a reality (around £700,000 for the building, and a further £150,000 for salaries and expenses)
2. Choose something important in your regular routine (like drinking coffee, or using the internet, or watching TV, or reading the paper or eating something unhealthy, or anything like this!) and during the month of May, once or twice a week give it up
3. On those days, whenever you think about your coffee or internet or TV or whatever – take the hint and instead pray for the Lord to bless the work we want to do on the hall, and to grant us all the finance and help we need
4. Don’t tell anyone what you are doing (look up what Jesus says in Matthew 6.16-21) unless you absolutely have to tell one person so they can remind you to do your fast! But on Pentecost, the last day of May, we will celebrate how the Lord has answered our prayers.

Let’s all join together as a church family in playing our part in praying for God to bless us, and trusting that he will answer us & provide for our every need. It's not Marcus as our vicar, or Esther doing her work as fundraiser, or even the grant bodies we are depending on: the Lord is our provider. We will trust in Him!

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Home Again

A chance to hear Ben's bands at school took up most of my final full day in Florida. I have spoken before of my admiration for the American music education system, and I say it again. Ben's teacher, Mr Leahy, does a fantastic job. These kids have a great experience, and some of them end up playing the best part of two hours a day at school. That's a great start for them.

The picture is the jazz band, and Ben is on the far left, on guitar. I think it fair to say that the Advanced Wind Band is Mr Leahy's pride & joy, but he does a great job with this band too. With the Advanced band, the 12 & 13 year olds are playing music way beyond their years, and doing an amazing job. With this band, they get to try new rhythms & even to extemporise. Wow. That's something I never got the chance to do at my school!

Then a smooth flight back to England (I slept most of the way), a brief visit with Mum after Dad picked me up at the airport, and on Friday morning Matt & I came back home.

Honestly - I had been so relaxed on holiday I wasn't sure I wanted to come back! But as I crossed the bridge into Pontypridd, I had that indefinable shiver up my spine, that sense of homecoming, that surprising delight in being where I am supposed to be. I was glad to be here. And I was glad to be glad! Returning home after a wonderful trip away is also one of life's great joys.

Even if the garden has become a forest in my absence! This is after a duel between lawnmower & field had taken place... Not to mention climbing up the church clocktower to put it right by the half hour it had gained in the last two weeks...