When was your first pizza?

What’s your favourite food? And can you remember where, and when, you first ate it?

The other day Alison and I were talking about pizza – maybe not our favourite food, but one of. For millions of younger Britons, pizza has been part of their diet for so long, they can’t remember a time when they ever had not eaten it. But when we were young, it hadn’t even been invented. Well, OK, maybe it had been invented; but it wasn’t the kind of thing that you ever came across in meat-and-two-veg-1950s-style-austerity Britain. So we were trying to recall when we first had eaten it.

Then I chanced upon a diary I kept in April 1970, recording my first visit to Italy. And there I find the record of when I first ate a pizza: on 5 April 1970, in Taranto.

Found a (not too) expensive hotel, then went to a pizzeria for my first pizza with cheese, tomato, mushroom and fish which didn’t seem to fit somehow. But on the whole the taste was all right, only the pastry [sic] was … heavy going.

Clearly I wasn’t a sophisticated food writer, and most of my diaries have always omitted the things I now find interesting and would love to know. (“What kind of fish, for heaven’s sake? Anchovies? Tuna? Battered cod?”) For much of that Italian journey diary I wrote things like “Went to a restaurant. Had a nice meal.” WHAAAT?!

Still, at least I now know when I had my first pizza…

Jesus is an Anglican

Following a cricket match on Twitter was surprisingly exciting. This was yesterday’s match in Canterbury between the Vatican St Peter’s XI, and the C of E Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI. The Vatican won the toss and opted to bat first. At the end of their 20 overs they had scored a very respectable 106 for 4. After 14 overs, the C of E were still nearly 50 runs short, but then they began piling on the runs. In an exciting conclusion, the batsman hit the first ball of the last over to the boundary, giving the C of E victory by 108 for 4, with 5 balls to spare.

The disadvantage of Twitter: with only 140 characters a tweet, there’s no way of giving the full results of who scored the runs or took the wickets.

My favourite comment came in the Guardian blog, written before the match.

“Would Christ spend his time on something as trivial as sport,” a young Church of England curate asked, “or would he play to win? I think he would take the middle ground.”

Sounds very like our curate Rob Glenny, who was the opening bowler. And if it wasn’t he who thought of it, I bet he wishes he had.

Scotland’s Wake-Up Call

What a relief to wake up on 19 September and learn that Scottish voters had voted resoundingly against independence! So the United Kingdom remains united. Sort of.

As democrats we should rejoice that this momentous outcome was possible within a peaceful democratic process. This is a moment in history when nations should seek to be growing together, rather than separating from one another. The recent history of nations that have divided, and the bitter warfare that so often follows, not only between those that were formerly united, but also within the newly formed nations as different factions or tribes vie for power, shows the dreadful dangers of nationalism and separatism. Some of the violent rhetoric of the Scottish Yes campaigners was, frankly, quite frightening.

So we have a result which preserves the Union, and which both sides have pledged to respect and to work with. But that should not mean that the UK Government breathes a collective sigh of relief and returns to business as usual. For very many people, one of the strongest appeals of the Yes campaign was the promise of creating a fairer society. And this should give us and our Government great pause. Because it means that a large number of us believe that this is very far from being a fair society.

The statistics speak for themselves. The UK is one of the most unequal societies in the Western world, third only to the USA and Portugal. During the recession of the 2000s real incomes have declined for most people, with ⅓ of workers having a pay freeze or even a pay cut. Not so the rich. In 2012 it was revealed that the richest 1000 people in the UK had increased their wealth by 4.7%. And let me tell you, 4.7% of a million pounds is a lot of money. Pay rises were also widely different depending where you stand on the already well-off scale. Average pay rises this year are:

Bankers 35%
FTSE 100 directors 14%
MPs 11%
Nurses, teachers, members of the armed forces 1%
Police 0%

Pay differentials between top CEOs and the lowest paid of their workers are typically about 300:1. Yes, the boss ‘earns’, or at least gets paid, 300 times what the lowest paid worker in the company does. Our politicians obviously don’t think this is a problem. Why would they? In 2010 23 out of 29 members of the Cabinet were millionaires, several of them with fortunes running into billions. Privately educated, from the upper classes of society – why would they even think of introducing a reformed monetary system, or a new set of taxes to seriously redistribute wealth and properly fund the NHS?

Is it any wonder that not even ⅔ of those eligible turn out to vote even in General Elections? Why bother, when my vote seems to make no difference, and all the political parties seem to be in league to preserve the status quo? Is it any wonder that UKIP and even more far right parties are gaining in support? But the Scottish referendum engaged the electorate in such a way that 85% of them turned out to vote. There is hope that, when given the chance to really influence the course of events, the British electorate will have and express their views. And what’s clear today is: British society and politics have got to change.

So, thank you, Scotland, for voting to preserve the Union. And thank you for showing the rest of us how it’s possible to get the vast majority of the electorate to vote for a fair society. It’s time to tell the Westminster elite: the rest of us want one too!

Sources include
Pride’s Purge
The Equality Trust
The Green Party, and especially their call for a People’s Constitutional Convention

Scotland and a fairer society?

I would hate it if Scotland voted for independence on Thursday and ended the 300-year old Union. This is not a time in history for nations to be dividing rather than coming together. The bitter fruit of this nationalism and separatism is all too evident in the news.

But I can see the immense attraction of one plank of the ‘Yes’ campaign: the promise that it will lead to a ‘fairer society’. Whether or not it will isn’t the point. It reflects a deep-seated conviction which isn’t unique to Scots, that Britain is a hugely unfair society. For the last 20 years or more, inequality has been growing, and social mobility grinding to a halt.

So when it’s the banks, and big business which throw their weight behind the ‘No’ campaign – the very institutions which have done their damnedest to increase inequality, with pay differentials between CEOs and their lowest paid workers of around 300:1 – well, forgive me if I wonder whether the Scots who want independence haven’t got a point.

My question is: if the Scots abandon the rest of us into the hands of the Westminster elite… when can we ever hope for anything like a fair society for the rest of the UK?

Including Vicky Beeching

A preview of what I’m writing for the next issue of Marston Times:


Vicky Beeching is a Christian musician who for a number of years was one of the most popular singers on the multi-million dollar American Christian music scene. She also studied theology at Oxford University, and in more recent years, after returning to the UK, she has worked as a broadcaster, often offering commentary on current events on radio and TV. She has even been tipped as a future presenter of BBC’s Songs of Praise. In August this year, she “came out” in an interview with the Independent newspaper, stating publicly that she is gay.

Hers is a profoundly moving and honest testimony to what has been the experience of many people for whom faith in God is the foundation of their whole lives, and yet who also realise that a sexual orientation towards their own sex is a “given”, an integral part of who they are. She describes how, even as a 12-year old, she realised that she didn’t share her schoolfriends’ interest in boys. Instead, she found herself increasingly attracted to other girls. This caused her intense shame and guilt, because she ‘knew’ it was condemned by Scripture and church teaching – certainly by the conservative churches which she attended. She tried keeping her feelings to herself, changing the way she felt by prayer and will-power, even seeking spiritual healing by going forward at a big prayer and worship gathering. Here she was subjected – by a group of adults and Christian leaders – to what was effectively a form of exorcism as they attempted to drive out the demons of homosexuality that possessed her. It’s hard to imagine the psychological trauma and damage this inflicted on a vulnerable teenage girl, or to forgive the cruelty of the people responsible.

Fortunately, Vicky was intelligent and strong enough to survive, and she knows God well enough to have come to the point where she is able to say, “I’m gay. God made me the way I am, and God loves me just the way I am.”

Such a public statement, from such a public Christian, obviously adds to the heat of the current Church debates on sexuality. There will be some who are so entrenched in their views that they simply refuse to accept the testimony of gay Christians that they haven’t chosen their orientation, it is just their God-given identity. Others may argue that the Church should love and welcome gay people, while not accepting that same-sex relationships can be part of God’s plan. I wonder if it’s really coherent to accept that God created and loves gay people, but wills to deny them the support and blessing that marriage affords to heterosexual people?

For me the issues about inclusiveness in the Christian community really beg the question: who would Jesus exclude? My reading of the stories in the Gospels leads me to think the answer is: No one. Jesus wouldn’t exclude anyone, or condemn anyone as being outside the reach of God’s love. (Look at the way he fed the five thousand, no questions asked; the way he healed lepers and Gentiles; the parable of the lost son – among many other examples.) Actually, I should maybe say the answer is, Probably no one. Because there were some groups of people Jesus had very hard things to say about. These were the hypocrites – people who pretend to be religiously better than everyone else. (Perhaps, like religious people who think they are OK because they are straight, and condemn gay people?) And there were the religious people who cause a more vulnerable person to stumble (Mt. 18.6) – like the people who tried to convince a young girl struggling with her sexuality that she could not be acceptable to or loved by God unless she changed. Would Jesus exclude hypocrites, and these? I don’t think he would – but the fact is they have effectively excluded themselves or cut themselves off from being within God’s plan.

Vicky Beeching has already exposed herself to hatred and abuse from parts of the Christian community that formerly loved her. It would be better for us all to thank God for her courage, pray for her, and pray for ourselves to understand more clearly the amazing richness of the mystery of how God has created human beings, and God’s longing to welcome everyone into the commonwealth of his love.

Money Laundering?

The last section of The Testing of Hearts is the journal Donald Nicholl kept when he was dying of cancer in 1996. Among his reflections on the state of the world, he writes:

Increasingly the human family has 'fallen into the hands of gangsters' (the phrase used by von Preysing at the time the Nazis took over Germany). These global gangsters are described as 'mafias' at a certain level, but they are scarcely distinguishable from the groups who govern many of the countries on earth – 'respectable' people who attend conferences and get themselves elected. There is an interlocking of arms dealing, drug dealing, media lying and monetary fraud of which the profits are 'laundered' into Swiss banks and other 'whited sepulchres'.

Little has changed since he wrote. In fact, it has only got worse. And these are the same gangsters who not only failed to prevent the banking crash of 2008 – who indeed brought it about – but also use the threat of money laundering as a reason to make ordinary people constantly produce private documents and other forms of ID to the banks, to prove who they are. I had to do this again this week. I wonder how many Parochial Church Councils have really been engaged in money laundering, that this particular nut needs this particular (and clearly useless) sledgehammer?


The Testing of Hearts, by Donald Nicholl

One of the great things about having your study taken apart book from book and then put back together again, is the opportunity to try and cull some of the titles from the shelves.

(Oh, ye book lovers of tender heart,turn away your ears; it may seem cruel and unusual to you, to even think of getting rid of books, but I'm afraid that is what the lack of space in our home has brought us to. Not even seeing our children grow to adulthood, and set up homes of their own, has released enough space for the quantities of books we have acquired over the years and are still acquiring.)

And after all, if I haven't opened some worthy theological tome since I was at theological college – even assuming I ever opened it then – do I really need to keep it on my shelves?

But the joy among this pain, is to discover some titles I've forgotten, which I read and loved, or in some cases never quite read, and on looking at them again, can't imagine why I didn't.

One of those titles is The Testing of Hearts, by Donald Nicholl. Nicholl was the director of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute from 1981 to 1985, during which time he kept a journal and wrote numerous articles for The Tablet, which are the material for this book. And what a wonderful, humble, insightful book it is! Nicholl's great and holy wisdom was to reflect on the Institute's work of trying to foster understanding and reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and teach that creating peace is impossible unless we first create within ourselves a pure and peaceable heart. Whatever events we experience, provide occasions for this heart-testing which gradually refines and purifies the heart until it can become of use to God in making peace.

Almost every page of this book yields some nugget of pure and peaceable wisdom that you want to underline and treasure, and quote to people as if you had discovered it for yourself. (But what would that say about the purity of your heart?)

I want to blog about lots of them. And maybe I will.


My Inner Child is a Hero

In my Twitter profile I describe myself as an ‘intrepid explorer of [my] Inner Child’. If your Inner Child bears any relation to your historic child – or your memories of it – (Sun may be able to help me out on this one), then my Inner Child is an often unhappy one. Which is kind of ridiculous, given that it (I) has nothing to be unhappy about. Yet many of my memories are of the hurting times, when I was pushed about or humiliated or laughed at because of my general nerdiness, physical weakness and sporting ineptitude. (Anything involving a ball was totally outside my competence; the only sport I even aspired to mediocrity in was cross-country running, when out of a year group, instead of coming last I sometimes managed to come in about 2/3 of the way down the field.)

I blame my mother. Of course. But for all the best of reasons. She had a hell of a childhood: orphaned at 4, and growing up in a succession of children’s homes during the week while her single mother had to work to provide. Consequently when she married and had a family of her own, she was determined to protect her son (and later, daughters) from the hardships she had suffered. So we were protected, wrapped in cotton wool, never allowed to take risks, and generally taught to be rather fearful of life and everything outside the safe haven of home.

My historic Inner Child is a poor, unhappy, shrinking, timid thing.

Yet he is also an idealist, an aspiring hero.

Which is why one of my favourite hymns from the days of school assemblies, is Jan Struther’s now rather unfashionable ‘When a knight won his spurs‘.

When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old,
he was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold;
with a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand,
for God and for valour he rode through the land.

No charger have I, and no sword by my side,
yet still to adventure and battle I ride,
though back into storyland giants have fled,
and the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
and let me set free, with the sword of my youth,
from the castle of darkness the power of the truth.

Jan Struther (1901-1953)

And yes, it still brings the tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, and dreams to my mind of strength and heroism and derring-do. Can I still sing this, now that the sword of my youth – even if it was a wooden one – has long been consigned to the old chest in the attic of memory? Well, yes, I can. I’m taking that sword down again from the attic. It’s not wooden at all, but finest tempered steel that only needs polishing up a bit. I’m not hanging it above the fireplace, like some ancestral trophy in a baronial hall. I’m fastening it on my belt again. I’m just as determined to fight for the truth, and release it from its captivity to the powers of darkness, as ever I was. That’s not a childish fantasy, but a determination thoroughly worthy of any adult, of any age.

So who’s with me, then?

In those stirring cries my Inner Child loves:
Up, guards, and at ’em!
The game’s afoot!
Vamos, muchachos!
Aux armes, citoyens!
Forth, Eorlingas!
And so on.

Well, alleluia!

The Church Times prints this letter from Canon Anthony Phillips

Sir, – Am I alone in feeling utterly depressed by the comment in the Revd Dr Andrew Davison's article “What's the latest on the resurrection?” when, speaking of his work with the Cambridge Theological Federation, he notes: “I would have difficulty in finding a single ordinand who would not subscribe to the physical resurrection of Christ”? Another reason for lamenting the passing of the 1960s.

Well, for some of us, the passing of the old-fashioned and out-dated theological heresies of the 1960s is nothing but cause for rejoicing,


Easter Peace – Alleluia!

On the one hand, there are the people who would like me to preach a sermon at e.g. the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, because there are so many people there who only come to church once a year (or thereabouts), and how else are they going to hear the Gospel?

On the other hand, there are those like the husband of a colleague I met last week. He's an academic, a university chaplain, who says, “I never preach at major festivals. I just let the liturgy and the scriptures do their stuff.”

This year, as I tweeted the other day, I have dealt with Holy Week by deciding I wouldn't think of it as having to deliver or lead loads and loads of services, but as having the opportunity to meet with Christians to pray and hear the scriptures every day. And most days I have shared a few thoughts I've had about the readings, but never for more than a couple of minutes. It hasn't been profound theological reflection, or prophetic social commentary. But then, I'm not a pope or archbishop. No one reports or probably remembers what I say. Is it enough? I hope so.

The main thing is: for me it has worked. I haven't suffered the extreme exhaustion that some Holy Weeks have brought. Nor can I say there have been great emotional convulsions or fireworks. But there has been something like a deep contentment, a sense of the rightness of it all, a kind of quiet joy. Which I rather like.