Monday 10 September 2007

Sunday 9 September 2007

Faith based education - Don't write it off yet!

Sunday Night -Watching ‘Rosh Hashanah: Keeping the Faith’ on BBC1, a discussion of the persistence of faith in a secular world presented by Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. One of the most interesting parts of the program was a visit to the King David Jewish school in Birmingham where a significant proportion of the children are Muslim! Why? Because they value a school where faith and the ethical tradition that goes with it is taken seriously. Given a choice of a secular school or a Jewish school these Muslim parents are voting with their feet and sending their children to King David. I can’t help wondering whether there is a lesson for us to learn in the Irish context where faith based education is increasingly seen as sectarian rather than a possible aid to inter-faith reconciliation and understanding.

Saturday 8 September 2007

A solution to falling vocations: Build your own Priest!

This from Lark News:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Don Lawrence preaches three times a week to an appreciative congregation at Life Baptist church. His sermon tapes often sell out, and this year he is leading the people through a study of Matthew’s gospel.
But Lawrence is not a real person. He is a virtual, on-screen pastor whose sermon topics, personality, even mannerisms are chosen collectively by his congregation.
"We’ve never been happier," says head elder Louie Francesca. "We finally got the pastor we all want."
Virtual Pastor, a UK company, began pioneering the "virtual pastor model" in 2005, and has created a dozen lifelike, on-screen avatars which preach, joke and give personal anecdotes as if they were real people. All their sermons and personal stories are scavenged from the Internet.
When a church subscribes to Virtual Pastor, each person in a congregation helps "shape" their pastor by entering likes and dislikes into a response box during services. This live feedback is fed into the company’s servers and helps to change the pastor’s sermon topics, hair style and more in following weeks. The result is a pastor perfectly tailored to the will of the congregation.
"We unify churches and remove any reason for quarreling," says co-creator Gavin McReady, standing next to the servers in Scotland where all the virtual pastors reside. "It’s a monumental achievement."
It takes eighteen months for a congregation to fine tune their pastor so he becomes a perfect representation of what they want, he says. The shaping include gestures, physical appearance, personality, hobbies and sense of humor.
Different churches have produced widely differing results. A congregation in Huntington Beach, Calif., adopted the Virtual Pastor model last year. Within weeks their on-screen pastor stopped wearing suits and started wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops.
"We loosened him up quite a bit," says one congregant with a laugh.
The pastor also stopped preaching expository sermons in favor of topical sermons like "How to Make Life Matter" and "Surfing through Paul’s Greatest Hits."
Some church-goers have been surprised by the results. A woman in Bangor, Maine, was alarmed to see her virtual pastor turn progressively more "British and tweedy." He began quoting C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, speaking in a British accent and wearing wool vests.
"My church was a bunch of Anglo-philes," she says. "You learn a lot about people by how the pastor gets shaped."
McReady and his programmers also like to throw random events into the pastor’s life, such as an unexpected crisis, decision or funny occurrence. A virtual pastor might walk on-screen one day and announce he is going on a diet to lose 35 pounds by Christmas. That theme plays out for the remainder of the year as he announces his progress week after week.
"People like surprises as long as it doesn’t impinge on their basic control of the pastor and his message," McReady says.
Churches with virtual pastors say troublemakers tend to quiet down or leave because they don’t have a real person to target with complaints.
"People can’t pin their problems on the pastor anymore," says an associate pastor who handles day-to-day matters at a Virtual Pastor church in Idaho. "He’s their creation. They can only blame themselves."

Thursday 6 September 2007

"Let the children come to me!..... Oh, and bring your baptism cert!"

"The Catholic education system has been far-seeing and has provided Catholic schools for Catholic parents. We have done our job, if there are others who are left without schools they should not blame us."…Archbishop Diarmuid Martin….Irish Times 6th September 2007

The current debate on school enrolment policies sparked by the shortage of places in our national schools for non Roman Catholics and the new Irish has once again brought matters religious into the headlines. The Roman Catholic Church finds itself accused of discrimination and is not surprisingly uncomfortable and unhappy with the defensive position it has been cornered into. In the interests of fairness it should be said that the Church of Ireland could equally be accused of this discrimination and perhaps has only escaped censure because of its small size and perceived vulnerability. Its enrolment policies are largely equivalent, giving priority to Church of Ireland students and only allocating places to children from other traditions when all Church of Ireland children have been placed.

The Archbishop’s response as reported in the Irish Times clearly articulates his frustration at taking the hit for a lack of forward planning in the Department of Education. However there are other voices within the Roman Catholic Church who seem to have a very different understanding of the Church’s responsibility in the sphere of education. Most notable among these is Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe who for some years has overseen a very different enrolment policy in the schools under his patronage. Between 5 & 10% of places in the diocesan schools are reserved for the Traveller community and non Roman Catholics. It seems Bishop Walsh has a much more generous view of the responsibility of the Church.

The way in which the two Bishops have responded to this aspect of the increasing cultural and religious diversity in Irish society represents both sides of a fundamental debate that is going on in all Christian denominations. How does the Church perceive its relationship to the world in which it finds itself?

It is clear that Archbishop Martin sees the extent of the Church’s responsibility as largely defined by membership of the Church. While he has provided temporary patronage to schools catering for the new Irish he does not see this as part of his responsibility. He is right not to let the State off the hook for the provision of universal education but his vision of “Catholic schools for Catholic parents” is very telling. It is very much in harmony with the recent State of the Nation sermon delivered by Archbishop Brady at Knock. Underlying that wide ranging and much commented upon sermon was a very insular model of Church. The theme seemed to be that the Church will flourish despite the world and that the Church is a safe refuge from the shallowness of the increasingly secular society. There was an unspoken assumption in the sermon that the Roman Catholic Church and the domain of God were interchangeable and overall a very pessimistic notion of the world beyond the Church, quite out of sync with an incarnational faith! The assertion that the Church “holds the answer” is the final nail in the coffin for any notion of the Church engaging with the world, let alone serving the world. If we have the answer why bother looking beyond ourselves? It may be of course that there is another reason for this retreat from the world and that is the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church in recent years and contributed to a rising tide of anti-religious sentiment. If so it is understandable but not necessarily a positive or appropriate response

But not all Bishops see it this way and Bishop Walsh’s vision seems to reflect a view of Church that exists for others and not simply for itself and its own membership. It is not as tidy a vision of the Church as the ‘traditional’ one. The boundaries are not so clear and the sphere of responsibility of the Church seems to be more open ended, but underlying this vision is a much more positive attitude towards the world and a greater optimism for the world beyond the boundaries that the Church might wish to build around itself. It is a more humble Church more comfortable in operating in spheres where it does not have control or even desire control. It is a Church which is not about boundaries but bridges; not about division but reconciling.

But what about other churches? The Anglican Communion to which I belong finds itself in an almost identical tension. In the current debate on human sexuality it is dangerous to generalize about the motivations driving the conservative and liberal elements within the Communion. However one of the major fault lines is between those who see the Church as a refuge of purity and perfection and those who see it as a hospital for the broken and damaged people that make up the richness and diversity of humanity. The former is a place for those who wish to avoid the contamination of the world and use sanitizer spray to wash their hands when they have to engage with the world outside the Church; the latter is a place where hands get dirty and stay dirty; where the Church brings hope into the world rather than projecting hope beyond the world. It is messy but it is Incarnation!

In the current climate of militant secularism and anti-religious sentiment it may be tempting to follow Archbishops Brady and Martin in retreat to base camp but the only choice for a Church that wants to be true to its calling is to follow Bishop Walsh’s example and rediscover the edginess of the Gospel in pilgrimage through and conversation with the world. To do otherwise is to become a church that exists for itself alone and so loose that very thing that makes it ‘Church’! As Jesus Christ is so often described “The man for others” so the Church is called to exist for others and not for itself! The only way that the Church can overcome the cynicism and negativity it is experiencing today is to demonstrate that it is not about self-preservation and control but rather about selfless Love and liberation.

Carbon Treadmills - Indian Gym machines!

Huge relief! I am not a cynic! I am not environmentally ignorant! I am not a selfish carbon emitting eco-destroyer! I am a quite sensible individual (well most of the time :-) ) that happens to think that the carbon offsetting industry that has developed on the back of global warming is at best cynical and opportunistic and at worst dangerous and damaging to those who are most vulnerable!

I know i'm right because even the Guardian agrees! But the best expose of this deceitful business is to be found in a recent article in the London Times with the following headline:
"To cancel out the CO2 of a return flight to India, it will take one poor villager three years of pumping water by foot. So is carbon offsetting the best way to ease your conscience?"
The opening paragraphs are worth a read if nothing else:

When David Cameron flew to India to open a JCB factory for a party donor, green-thinking supporters could rest assured that his visit would be carbon neutral. “We are offsetting all our emissions through Climate Care,” the Tory leader wrote on his blog. “As well as planting trees, they also invest in renewable energy projects in the developing world.”
Somewhere in the Indian countryside, a farmer is about to repay Mr Cameron’s debt to the planet. Climate Care’s latest enterprise is to provide “treadle pumps” to poor rural families so they can get water on to their land without using diesel power. The pumps are worked by stepping on pedals. If a peasant treads for two hours a day, it will take at least three years to offset the CO2 from Mr Cameron’s return flight to India.

As Spikedonline observe: Cameron can fly around the world with a guilt-free conscience on the basis that, thousands of miles away, Indian villagers, bent over double, are working by hand rather than using machines that emit carbon. Welcome to the era of eco-enslavement.
All of this confirms my continuing scepticism about the whole climate change hysteria which has almost taken over the media. Perhaps sea levels are getting higher, perhaps the ice-caps are melting and just perhaps we have overestimated our ability to change the current trajectory?