Monthly Archives: November 2011

What to do with refugees?

At the Council we were discussing a moral hazard question. A boatload of refugees from Africa had been left to starve in the Mediterranean between Tripoli and Malta. No one went to help them because they and their country would be responsible.

Clearly the right thing to do is to pick up every boatload but then there will be more and more boatloads. What is the answer?

My answer was that they should all be picked up, helped, fed, and given water, and then towed back to Tripoli. Is this a Christian response or merely a pragmatic one? Anyway, it didn’t go down very well in public at least.

Some Sense of Acceptance

I was in the church on the Place St. Cloud in Paris. I went in for a few moments to catch breath from the Council of Europe. It is a modern church, large, empty. Out of sight, a group was praying the Rosary. I suddenly felt a profound sense of depression that all this religion was an illusion. It was only by sitting still and listening to the distant, indistinct French words that some sense of acceptance returned. Have patience, dear Gabriel.


I was enjoying the Mass in Latin, beautifully pronounced in Latin by our resident Italian priest. It is extraordinary, however, that our minds are so weak that almost anything can lead us astray. Then not a word of the homily remained with me because a lady behind was tapping her feet against my seat – completely inadvertently. I am sure this is a kind of allegory on our religious lives – that any kind of material event, however inconsequential, can divert us from following a religious reading or attempt at concentration.

Evening in the Abbey

That evening I was in the Abbey alone after the last service and I lit a candle in front of the wooden crucifix. The Abbey was dark apart from the flickering candles. There was an intensity of religious feeling yet I felt it was balanced by an equal rational belief that what was represented by this mere wooden image could not be the source of these billions of stars in a vast universe – Christ could not encompass the Universe, it was just too vast. I felt as if there were two beating opposing forces yet somehow this slim, inconsequential figure was winning the battle, that mere ideas could, if not defeat, go beyond material forces however vast.


I had gone down for the launch of the Abbot’s book on the architectural history of the Abbey.

Vespers was passing me by and my mind wandered into the failures of our lives. Then a passage from Psalm 138 struck me: “The Lord is high yet He looks on the lowly. And the haughty he knows from afar.”

Our troubles or unfulfilled ambitions are brought into perspective by Him.

The view of earth from a lowly level is very different from an aeroplane. From above everything is flattened. But if God looks down all of us high and low are foreshortened, of the same height in His gaze.

Dreams and Memories

Daniel sees visions in the night:

“I gazed into the visions of the night. And I saw coming on the clouds of heaven one like the son of man…”

I was clearing out an old shed and came across a manifesto I had written when trying to become secretary of the Durham Union. It was fairly ridiculous. Full of the self-deprecatory style of a self-conscious student. I lost. And I took the long train home to be consoled. Once again, I emerged from that train forty years ago. London was the same yet different. Grimier. Routemaster buses and a double-decked No. 9 plying its way all the way from the West End to Barnes suburb. Now it is merely a West End attraction.

But I dreamt that when I went to that terraced house in Barnes, my mother was there as she always had been when I came back from school, comforting and secure.

Daniel in the Lion’s Den

But there is hope yet. The king puts Daniel into the lion’s den. He cannot sleep but in the first light of dawn he hurries there to find Daniel safe.

Daniel replied: My God sent an angel who sealed the lions’ jaws.

The Writing on the Wall

“Mene, mene, tekel upharsin.”

The writing on the wall in King Balshazzar’s court.

Mene – God has measured your sovereignty and put an end of it
Tekel – You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting
Upharsin – Your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians

As I walked away from Mass in the Crypt of the House of Commons I couldn’t help comparing this perhaps over apocalyptic vision with our weakness and that of one of two senior politicians I know with regard to Europe. Are we ‘upharsin’?

And I thought too of John Martin’s great picture of the scene at the Tate (below). Everywhere feasting but the writing is on the wall.

Daniel’s Vision

I love this vision that Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar of:

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold there was as it were a great statue: this statue, which was great and high, tall of stature, stood before thee, and the look thereof was terrible. The head of this statue was of fine gold, but the breast and the arms of silver, and the belly and the thighs of brass: And the legs of iron, the feet part of iron and part of clay. Thus thou sawest, till a stone was cut out of a mountain without hands: and it struck the statue upon the feet thereof that were of iron and of clay, and broke them in pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of a summer’s threshingfloor, and they were carried away by the wind: and there was no place found for them: but the stone that struck the statue, became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.

There has been much talk this week of the endgame of the Euro. I am reminded of Daniel’s statue.

Daniel at Nebuchadnezzar’s Court

This is a week of last things: the last week of the Church’s year, when we read of Daniel at Nebuchadnezzar’s court.

Daniel’s small rebellions give us hope of the small things that triumph against the seemingly mighty and inevitable.

God as Act

I was thinking more on my conversation with my friend on the train. I asked him what he thought of as God and how we can accept His existence because like you, dear Gabriel, I have my doubts.

He views God as an Act, from the Latin actus. That He is unchanging and has no potential. In this sense, a glass has potential to be also be a glass of water. It can change. God never changes.


Dear Gabriel,

I was thinking of you when I expressed my doubts about religion to a friend on a long train journey.

He was telling me that the Bible was only codified at the Council of Carthage in 397. So the ‘Bible’ is a human creation. Great chunks of unorthodox apocryphal gospels were left out. So when people say we should only consult the Bible literally and nothing else they should acknowledge that the original Catholic Church, a few bishops sitting in Council, decided what it should be.

The Mass in Latin

I went to Mass at the Cathedral and it was in Latin with the priest facing the altar. Such a service is so beautiful. Why did we ever give up the Latin Mass for a kind of dog English that fails to inspire? The Novus Ordo is so simple. A short translation can easily be provided and most of it never changes.

This week also we were celebrating the King James Bible. I was thinking as I went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral before a debate at the Durham Union: just as the Catholic Church was mad to give up the Latin Mass, so the Church of England was mad to give up the glorious and mighty English of the King James Bible for modern translations that are even more lacking in poetry and inspiration than the English of the Mass. Going to church should be a poetic and beautiful experience.

Sea Legs

When you’ve been on a boat for a bit, the ground seems to sway a little. It’s a strange sensation. This time I did not feel it until that evening. I went to Mass and knelt and immediately the earth felt very strange.

Sailing into Yarmouth Harbour

Sailing into Yarmouth Harbour on a November night. From afar a few lights came on. We berthed, throwing the ropes out and the darkness slowly gathered. Around us a few sailing boats still moored and even fewer hardy sailing crews. The air crisp. The roofs of the old town picked out against a bleak grey and black sky with specks of pink and white of the church tower rising framed by the light.

Eliminating Discrimination

Dear Gabriel,

So the moment had actually arrived. I had my question to the Deputy Prime Minister. For years we have been campaigning, ten-minute rule bills, motions, the Government has announced that it is to remove one of the last remaining bits of discrimination against Roman Catholics dating from the Act of Settlement.

I got my question in without incident. This is the way when we actually arrive somewhere it’s all very easy and obvious. The point I was making that in ‘modern’ Britain who can’t actually stop anyone even a head of state doing any job whatever their religion or indeed lack of it.

But doesn’t this run against our view in the book we published, ‘The Nation That Forgot God’, that the decline of organised religion is harmful. But no one noticed or perhaps they just didn’t care.

The Ruined Chamber

I had a dream that I was trying to make some point or ask a question that I had prepared for a long time. The campaign was over and I was looking forward to a good response, but as often happens things got delayed. I was running out of time.

Then, to my intense irritation, the Commons chamber started dissolving slowly and enlarging into a ruinous garden. I seemed to be further and further away from the Speaker and now a bush had grown up between him and me. Where the benches were ruinous pieces of ancient stone, cracked and weathered. Where the carpets had been was grass. It started to look like the remains of the Forum in Rome. But the whole impression was rather attractive and peaceful.

I rushed around by a door, being a dream there was a wooden door just as it had always been. I now stood up to catch the Speaker’s eye. He could see me now. My moment had come. Then the clock struck and we had to move on to other business.

So, Tatiana, I call you that because that was the first name like Gabriel we really gave to one of our children but never quite did. So I can refer to you without embarrassment. Don’t get too worked up by your big moment. It may never come, but beauty can come out of ruin.

‘The Name of the Rose’

Dear Tatiana,

I watched Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” again. There is a scene where there is a philosophical dispute between priests and friars as to whether Christ offered the clothes he wore, in other words whether the Church should be poor. It struck me that when men argue, the argument is often an excuse for a kind of power play to promote themselves, but not openly.

In recent weeks we have been arguing about the Euro but how genuine is the argument and how much is positioning for position?

On Remembrance Sunday we remember men killed but also the victims in war of men’s arguments: of women and children. In the Second World War 62,000 British civilians, 187,000 French civilians, 800,000 German civilians, 3,000,000 Polish civilians, and 2,500,000 Russian civilians died.


Dear Gabriel,

We went today to the enthronement of the new Bishop of Lincoln. What a magnificent celebration. Two and a half hours long, with echoes of the great medieval ceremonies that ushered in the present incumbent’s seventy-one predecessors. The previous evening I went to the 100th anniversary of the Grimsby Fish Merchants and gave a talk. We think a lot, rightly, of soldiers killed this weekend but I thought today of the 300 trawlers based at Grimsby 100 years ago and of the generations of men who had gone away for weeks at a time to the freezing waters off Iceland. They worked hard and when they came home they worked hard but some never did come home from the mountainous seas.

That night I dreamt I was in a strange town. For some reason, unexplained, there were some dead birds on the ground. It worried me. Then I looked up and saw what I had never noticed before, which can only happen in a dream. Beyond the town was a great circle of precipitous cliffs like the Cirque de Gavarnie in the Pyranees but much higher and more impressive even than that: cleft after cleft, waterfalls, pinnacles rising up to unimagined heights.

11:00, 11/11/11

Dear Tatiana,

What an extraordinary combination. The eleventh hour of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of our century, not I am afraid the eleventh century. I might have looked out for Edward the Confessor walking Westminster.

But we were on the A1 travelling north. We put on the radio but rightly it was observing silence. The tracking device of the radio was sent mad by this sacrilege. Silence. It kept racing back and forth between the bands. I suppose an allegory of modern life. Later, talking to some people with some problems I realise how miserable we can make ourselves because we cannot let go. Learn, Tatiana, to let go and live in the silence of the present.

Passing Time

Dear Gabriel,

Try not to be distracted by passing time. I went to the Requiem Mass for old boys of the Oratory School, Reading who had died that year. It was depressing to see the name of an exact contemporary of mine. There were the dates he was at school, 1965-1967.

But during Faure’s Pie Jesu and its haunting melody. I can’t say that suddenly I had faith in Resurrection. That would be too corny but I marvelled at its beauty. In other words, for a moment I was in the cusp of the present, balanced in an exact moment of time.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Dear Gabriel,

Try to find some response whenever you can find it.

I was dreaming that I was in a room in the House of Commons. It was surrounded on both sides by stairs but the stairs leading in different directions were not connected at the top of the building. The division bell went off and I tried to make my way to vote but the locked doors barred me and it took a devil of a time. Far below me after some minutes I saw someone running in. I got down the stairs and then had to cross a bridge. It was quite beautiful like that near Magdalen College in Oxford but all this took time. Then before I could make the final. I kept up. I had to descend again into a rocky port by the river. I wasn’t going to make it. I woke.

That evening I watched a programme about Simon and Garfunkel. It brought back happy memories of listening to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and drinking coffee in a mug, great excitement with Coffeemate, listening to a young tutor I had lunch with today. He seemed a lot older than us but was only 29 then. Now he is nearer 70. But when I listened again to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ the intensity of religious feeling and awe and joy was as great as in most religious services.

Remembering Sacrifice

Sometimes we just have to put things into their relative context.

I was very cross walking back from the bank. Someone had paid £200 into the wrong bank account without telling me and as a result the one they should have paid into went into overdraft and I was faced with a £200 bank charge.

Then I walked back alongside Westminster Abbey in the dark. Seeing those hundreds of little wooden crosses together made me realise how petty are our little problems compared to the greater sacrifice and sacrifices.

A hundred thousand years away

I was reading that the nearest star is four light years away but if somebody in a spaceship travelled there at 25,000 miles per hour faster than any human has travelled before, it would take him 100,000 years. Yet this distance is dwarfed by the fact that our own galaxy could be 100,000 light years across. Somehow I felt this knowledge depressing for my religious hopes. How could God, the creator of this vastness, have been the same Jesus Christ Who was an itinerant preacher and faith healer two-thousand years ago?

Then I realised that faith and religious conviction have nothing to do with material distance or time. Justice, faith, love are entirely the same 100,00 light years away at the other end of the Milky Way as they are here.

As I lay awake I found this truth comforting. I feel my faith coming into port with the same relief as I take my small boat from choppy seas into Portsmouth Harbour and I could pray in peace.

The Abbey at Night

A proud day: I saw my son singing at Mass and that night.

I sat alone in the Abbey Church. It was dark and shadows reared up into the extraordinary high gothic arches; everything completely silent.