An earlier article in the Times claiming that more people logged on to the internet on Christmas Day than went to church has provoked a robust defence in the Letters columns today:

The correspondents make their points well and the Communications Officer from the Diocese of Bath and Wells reflects anecdotally that there might have been more people in church than in recent years. Certainly that would be reflected in my guestimate of what went on in our Cathedral.  Midnight Communion, despite a potentially disastrous shower of rain at about 11pm, produced a mammoth congregation, whilst the main service on Christmas Day morning more than held its own.  Anecdotally, even when you factor out exaggerated claims, evidence from clergy would seem to indicate larger congregations this year.

Again this year, grumpy old men (myself included!) and women have reacted strongly to those who suggest that Christmas should be downplayed for fear of offending adherents of other religions.  One wonders whether the Dawkins/Hitchins claim to be evangelists of atheism hasn’t provoked the very opposite of what they intended.  The most surprising newspaper columnists have been falling over themselves to leap to God’s defence.

All this is positive, but in the end I had to ask myself how much it would matter to me if the Times were right?  Would I care that much if more people logged on, on Christmas Day than went to church.  I have to say that such a stat would neither encourage nor discourage me.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that the Church is very important.  I buy the view that, to quote Bill Hybels, “the local church is the hope of the world.”  At least I buy it insofar as the local church is meant to point beyond itself to that bigger reality that Jesus preached about, which He called the Kingdom of God.

In a way I think the real question we need to be asking as 2007 comes to an end is whether we are beginning 2008 with a better world?  And there the evidence becomes a little more ambivalent…..

Earlier this year I heard an address by Professor Michael Porter, Professor of Strategic Management at Harvard.  He regards himself as an ‘outsider’ in relation to looking at faith groups, charitable organisations etc.  After expressing some genuine appreciation for the work of such groups in society, he offered this interesting insight.

“As someone looking in from the outside, the impression you give, is that a lot of what you do is related to your own need rather than those you serve.”  He went on to talk about some of the outcomes that this brings, notably that our efforts seemed to lack co-ordination and consequently undermined efficient delivery.

What he said made my heart skip a beat. I knew exactly what he was talking about.  I thought about:

  • how unaware we can be about our need to be needed, leading to a slightly over optimistic understanding of our perceived significance in wider society
  • the huge amount of wasteful duplication  that takes place with anyone and everyone setting up their charitable trust to enshrine their own interest (need?).  This is Porter’s point about lack of co-ordination.  Surely the best reason for a new trust or piece of work is that it is new.  ie. No-one else is doing it.
  • our pre-occupation with acting as though the world could still be understood as Christendom, which hugely undermines our strategic thinking.  Probably unfairly, I think that a lot of our “fresh thinking” seems a bit like a map publisher, publishing maps with the assumption that the world is flat.  Maybe this is as much psychological as theological.  For to allow that our culture is post-Christian might bring with it the paralysing fear that we are a pretty marginalised group in contemporary society seeking to cling on to old structures and power bases.

The more I have thought about this, the more I  see Porter’s words as tantamount to prophecy.  I wonder if anyone else can hear what he is saying.  Something about old wineskins here?

Last night the Oxford Union provoked controversy by inviting allegedly discredited historian, David Irving, and BNP leader, Nick Griffin, to address the Union.  This on the same day that a British subject, Gillian Gibbons, was arrested in the Sudan for apparently naming a teddy bear, after a poll of her classroom students, Mohammed.  Under local Sharia law she could face either a six month prison sentence or 40 lashes of a whip.

Extremism always seems to me to be a dangerous thing.  Honest passion can be exploited ruthlessly to become the kind of obsessive behaviour which ignores the rights of people and, at its worst, the sanctity of human life.  It plays on our fears and anxieties in a way that, in the end, undermines human community.  The privilege of leadership brings with it a great responsibility.

On Radio 5 there was a somewhat hopeful report.  It suggested that Griffin and Irving had to be kept apart in separate rooms.  Initially this was thought to be because of the security threat posed by protesters.  It was later alleged that this was not the case, but they had been separated because in the past they had fallen out with each other.  This led to Radio Five presenter, Nicky Campbell, observing that people from extremist groups frequently fall out with each other, even when they are broadly ‘batting’ for the same side.

I have thought about this all day long and can see that there is some evidence to suggest that Campbell’s observation has some validity.   Therein lies some hope that might limit the threat of extremism.  Nearly always at the visible end of any extremist group there is a large ego.  Within the Christian Church it is a noticeable phenomenon.  In the end self-idolatory becomes self-destructive.

This is not an argument for ignoring such people.  The balance of people’s rights and the requirements of national security is an equally hot topic.  However, it is worth thinking about……

I was officiating at a great Confirmation Service on Wednesday evening as the England team limped out of the European Football competition.  I didn’t think that Croatia would be a pushover, but I did think England would do enough to qualify.  Most of what needs to be said has been said – ‘not the losing, but the manner of the defeat;’ the derogatory comments about Steve McClaren, a good man, who in the end did not come up with the goods etc. etc.  There are however some questions that need to be addressed

Firstly, ever since my time as a footballer, it has been readily acknowledged that foreign players are technically superior.  Why then is the same observation made thirty years on?  After the millions of pounds spent on academies, the training (over-training?) of young and raw talent appears to be still churning out players of lesser technical ability than our foreign counterparts.  The obvious answer is that either there is something fundamentally wrong with coaching staffs or our game still thinks that you can achieve in the modern game without possession of the football.  A novel idea I suggest.

Secondly, it seems to be in the English psyche that you pick players on the back of reputation rather than form.  Our national cricket team suffered the same problems till recently.  It is certainly true that teams need a balance of experience and youth.  It is certainly true that Scott Carson was the form keeper before the first goal on Wednesday.  But the obsession with trying to play Lampard and Gerrard in the same midfield, the reliance on a non-match fit Michael Owen are just part of a bigger package that lacks courage and imagination.  However good in theory these players are, in practise they have not even qualified for a tournament from a group of mundane teams.  The conclusion is inescapable.

Finally who next will seize (want?) the poisoned chalice called the manager’s job?  The debate about whether to have an Englishman at the helm is another piece of evidence that in little England we have not yet woken up to the fact, that like it or not, football is now a global industry.  I have no idea who will succombe to the temptation, but whoever it is deserves our prayers!

Saw this video clip on youtube and thought it was powerful.  What we teach our children implicitly will probably have more of an impact than what we think we are teaching them explicitly.  I love the shema  in Judaism with its emphasis on teaching the words of God to our children.  See Deuteronomy 6 verses 4-9.  Hope this makes you think as it did for me being a grandparent these days.

Caught a rather disturbing article in the Times last week which attracted a fair amount of comment.

This was the story that the University of Oxford was contemplating withdrawing ‘private hall’ status from certain Oxford theological colleges on the basis that what they teach is deemed ‘illiberal.’  This means basically colleges whose teaching is deemed as ‘illiberal’, will lose their hard won University status.

This seems to me to be a worrying story.  Where will they draw the line on what is considered ‘illiberal’?  Would teaching the physical resurrection of Jesus fall foul of this strange criterion?  What about the teaching of medical or social ethics?  Were the same criterion applied across other disciplines, this would create a time bomb waiting to go off! 

The same week the Times also carried  another article regarding the so-called Russell Group of universities (the group that regards themselves as the ‘top’ universities and includes Oxford).  This made the point that these institutions do not award enough places to state school applicants, where candidates from both state and independent schools are of comparable ability.

If the move to punish what is judged ‘illiberal’ is driven by the inclusion and diversity agenda, then maybe the University of Oxford should think again.  The motto of Oxford is ‘Dominus illuminatio mea’ (the Lord is my light – Psalm 27).   Funny thing that!