« February 2005 | Main | April 2005 »

March 31, 2005

Aren't politicians something else?

Well, I am back to the reality of the UK in the grip of an election run-up: the spectacle of different politicians all slagging each other off and a Chancellor of the Exchequer grinning like the Cheshire Cat because he is giving away yet more of my hard earned pennies to his favourite bottomless and equally cost-inefficient socialist monolithic Departments. So far I have heard what the Tories and the LibDems would like to do if they get into power; the Labour Louts have not told us anything other than that they plan to destroy even more of the fabric of our society and give away more of my hard earned money to their chums - and how bad everyone else will be if we elect them.

Now I may have this wrong, but if you want me to vote for you, telling me how bad everyone else is is not likely to get me thinking you are any better! Tell me what you want to do that will -

- give us a working fire servcice instead of the wreck that the present bunch have created,
- give us a health service that isn't overrun by bureaucrats and actually allows me to see a Doctor when I need to instead of three weeks later,
- cuts back on the bureaucrats and scraps the garbage legislation that is now piling onto our statute books at a phenomenal rate,
- that tells Chirac and the rest of his Eurocrats that they get more than they deserve from the UK Taxpayer and not one penny more until there is some real reform in Brussels,
- rebuilds our armed forces so that they can actually defend us from attack,
- stops doing deals with terrorists and sends Mr Adams and his treasonous bunch packing,
- sorts out the mess they have created in the education system, and
- puts an end to poisitive discrimination, affirmative action, targets, and any other politically correct garbage and place selection on merit only,
- cuts waste in Whitehall, cutting taxes and getting rid of the worthless and expensive "monitoring" units across the board of Whitehall departments whose sole function is to ensure that "targets" for "diversity and fairness" are met, but whose real purpose is to impose politically correct "Moral Standards" on everyone.

Labour's current tactics of running a campaign of "negative" information - telling us what everyone else is getting wrong while concealing their own cock-ups is not going to persuade me to vote for this shower of complete garbage! Mind you, if Hell suffered an Ice-age I still wouldn't vote for them!

The real trouble is that there is no hope of any change of direction even if we do throw this lot out of office. The real power lies with the entrenched Civil Service. It doesn't matter which party is in power, anymore, the Civil Service control the money supply, access to the money, access to education, to health care, to jobs, and even to markets if you want to run a business. Health and Safety and all sorts of "protective" legislation supposedly to protect the consumer now place so many restrictions on employers that it is almost impossible to run a business. Even at the Abbey, when someone trips (in spite of warning notices and clearly demarcated barriers!) we get an attack of the Health and Safety Clones. That said, they could not find anything wrong and so left disappointed, but it has reached ridiculous proportions - no one is allowed to be responsible for their own safety anymore, the Whitehall clowns have to get into the act as well - perhaps a move to justify their pointless jobs!

More alarminbg was the statement recently that it is OK to sack people from their jobs in Local Government for belonging to the Freemasons or a political party the Union (Labour supporters naturally!) and the Local Authority (Labour dominated!) do not approve of. The statement was that we are now governed not by natural justice and freedom of choice but by "Moral Standards". Whose, I ask myself, since reading Mein Kampff and a few similar political works, I find that this sort of statement generally is the precursor to a political putsch! Soon it will be all members of the Tories, all members of Monster Raving Loonies, all church goers are barred from Public Office, the Civil Service, and so on. This is a very dangerous and slippery path we are now being forced down - one which can only end in that cretinous dictator Blair's puppeteers using their advantage to curtail all the Freedoms this nation has traditionally enjoyed and which they so strongly dissapprove of.

The last refuge of the charlatan with no support or basis for his or her arguments is to take refuge in the "moral standards dictate" argument. The problem is always "what are these founded on or taken from?" They strenuously deny that they have any foundation in Christianity or "Spirituality", yet they desperately try to show themselves (at election time anyway!) of supporting those very movements' values. Moral Standards that are defined in absolutes such as those now being pushed at us by Labour's godless and bankrupt collection of parasites should be treated with the deepest suspicion and challeneged at every level. If they are not founded upon well tested and tried principles of fairness and diginity for everyone and upon the principle of everyone having the right to hoild and express an opinion contrary to mine, then this can and will end in only one way - anarchy!

It would seem to me that voting in Labour for a third term of office will bring about the completion of the cycle towards the State described in Orwell's book "1984". My biggest problem is that I am not convinced that either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats will have either the will or the ability to stop this descent into Oligarchy. We will have to wait and see what the election brings. Sadly, whoever wins, the largest collection of incompetents and parasites will remain in power - the unelected "Nomenclatura" will be there to make sure their grip on power continues to tighten.

Our society is now on the downward spiral of a decaying civilisation; it mirrors closely the decaying days of the Roman Empire, also strangled by corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats, and there is little hope that the self serving political classes will even make the effort to change it. If this nation, indeed, if Europe is to survive, then our electoral system must be changed and the civil service must be reformed and reduced. Civil Servants should not be in positions of control, they should be there to serve the populace and not the party in power. Party manifestoes should not, in this day and age, be the "carte blanche" to tear up a constitution and do as they please because "the electorate voted for us!" The vast majority of the electorate didn't even get to see the Manifesto! The days when Parliament could reign supreme and above any law are long gone, it is time that our elected representative, with their bloated salaries, were made directly answerable to their electors - and not to the party whips!

At the last election the voter turnout was just over 50% of the TOTAL electorate. It was even lower in some areas than that. Labour's louts got in on a 41% distribution of that vote - less than 28% of the total number of voters. Blair has no mandate from the people of this country; his claim to one is as false as his promises for better services and his claims that he was putting the public first in health, education, or anything else. Maybe it's time to bring in compulsory voting, perhaps even time to consider making people vote on key policies in the manifestos. That would certainly raise the legitimacy of any government. One thing is for sure, the current "first past the post" system is well past its sell-by date and it is time it was radically overhauled.

Interestingly, this was one of the first promises Blair broke - his deal with the LibDems in 1997 was that if they helped him defeat the Tories he would set up a system based on "Proportional Representation". As soon as he realised he didn't need the LibDem vote to get any of his policies through the Chamber, he dumped this pledge and them. I wonder why? Perhaps because such a fundamental change would prevent any party ever having such complete dominance again?

In the meantime, I suppose I have no choice but to watch the various talking heads spout their usual claptrap and make promises we all know they will never keep, or which will somehow become something different when the Civil Servants have finished playing their little power game with it. Roll on the election, I am just hoping that Blair will get shown the door - but I am rather afraid he'll get in again on the apathy vote.

What a shame.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:22 AM

March 30, 2005

Communing through the Mass?

Today I found another Monk on the Blog, one Fr Matthew, a Benedictine who blogs under the name of Sodakmonk. His thoughts on their Easter Mass are worth a read and sparked a train of thought in my own mind concerning the various styles of worship I have encountered at different times and in some strange and wonderful places.

The human soul craves beauty, at least I can be sure that mine does. This is one good reason why I have difficulty understanding people who scrawl graffitti and deface or destroy things. It is also one reason why I prefer the glorious riot of sight, sound, and stimulation of all the senses in the formality of a Sung High Mass. It's like the difference between eating at MacDonald's all one's life, and then discovering haute quisine! The burgers are fine, allegedly nutricious, and taste reasonable, but they do not inspire the senses in the same way that, say, a perfectly grilled steak, with chasseur sauce, sauted mushrooms, and all the trimmings does.

Worship is food for the soul; it refreshes ones soul to be able to take part in the creation of something which stimulates the senses, sight, sound, mind and body in ways that reach deep inside you and carry you into areas of thought and self expression we seldom have time for these days. This is, in essence what Sodakmonk is saying about the role of beauty in the Mass. It provides a focus and provokes the senses. Naturally, it also needs to be appropriate to the setting and the occassion.

One of the things I have found difficult in the forty odd years since I first became committed to my Faith, is that, in many of the more Evangelical churches I have visited, the communion is a sort of ritual to be got through while avoiding any suggestion that it might have a deeper or more important meaning than being simply an occassion at which we break bread and share a cup of wine. I find the little "shot" glasses at some churches really off-putting, and the lack of reverence in disposing of the remains of the bread even more so. In some I have been served blackcurrant juice instead of wine, and that is even worse.

What is the communion all about in these places? If you aren't going to do it in the Gospel sense, then why do it at all?

Most Christians agree on the fact that it was instituted at the "Last Supper" by our Lord Himself. He took the traditional breaking of bread of fellowship and the cup and made them a special memorial of His last meal with His friends. In the process it became something much more important to us all, for it became our link directly to Him. Even across all the years between that final meal and now, even with all the accretion of rituals and non-rituals, that is its function; it links us all to those at that table, those who followed, and across the span of the years linking us to the Saints and to those whom we have known, loved, and are now separated from. That is the Communion of the Saints!

If we are to celebrate it at all, then surely we should do this to the best of our ability, sharing the beauty and the joy that flows from doing it well? We can no longer do as the early church did, incorporate it into a shared meal; our congregations are too large, for one thing, a problem the early churches faced within a hundred years of institution. That is why it became an act of worship in its own right, usually celebrated preceding a meal shared by as many as possible, even if it meant going to a number of different houses and homes. Very early, the vessels used became decorated and special, dedicated to this purpose only, and equally, the whole act was treated with great reverence. This is why it is very sad to see it celebrated badly.

Many "evangelical" Christians hold fast to celebrating the Communion whilestanding or kneeling at the North side of the "Table" and will not consider facing West or East - averring that this is "Catholic" or "standing between God and the people". To my eyes it has always looked extremely awkward and, in some instances deliberately ugly, and it is really a perpetuation of the rather odd anti-Catholic aversion expressed in the 1554 Prayer Book rubrics for the "Commemoration of the Last Supper of Our Lord". This directed that the "Table" was to be placed in the midst of the Quire, lengthwise, and the Priest or Minister to stand upon the North side. Mind you this is the rubric that also required the Minister to stand at the gate to the Quire and examine each person who wished to take the Communion as to the state of their soul and to refuse entry to any he deemed unfit or unprepared! No wonder the records of Parishes in the late 17th, 18th and early 19th Centuries show communicant numbers of one's and two'! Usually the Lord of the Manor and his Lady! God forbid that any of the great unwashed should sully the Communion!

The Communion Service, when celebrated well, is a thing of beauty in its own right. Even celebrated in the bush in the heat of Africa, using a camping table as an Altar and utensils appropriate to the occassion (usually plain and simple, but still special!) it is a moving and wonderful exerience. It is,in part, the focus on the table and the elements of the Communion itself, but even more so, it is the participation of everyone present! It is the congregation of friends, families, colleagues,and acquaintances that bring the soul to a state of readiness to appreciate the plays of sunlight and shade, the blur of wings as birds share the bushes,and the buzz of insects in the grass with the sigh of the breeze in the grass and the bushes.

The Communion is special - it is the food of the soul - it is right that, in our great stone churches and even in the great Abbey Church I am so privileged to minister in, we should try to bring in the beauty and the joy, and create the inspiration for the soul.

Amen, Sodakmonk! Amen.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:05 AM

March 29, 2005

Easter finale

To round off our Easter celebrations this year we had the Lord Bishop of Gloucester as our preacher for Solemn Evensong on Easter Day. The Bishop is "new" to the Diocese, and he and we are still getting to know each other. He is as different as can be to his predecesso and is already bringing to bear both his considerable abilities as a motivator and organiser and his sense of humour.

Detailed off to be his Chaplain for the evening, I found myself with a set of detailed Rubrics (The Choreography for the service, who goes where, how, and when, and does what, when, and where!) and his books to take care of. How to win fame and make yourself popular - hand the Bishop his book open to the wrong page or upside down - or even better - the wrong book! Anyway, I avoided most of those disasters, but we did have a rapid change of strategy when it was realised that we would have to move the sermon preachment from the Quire lectern to the Pulpit - something not catered for in the Rubrics! Frantic signals disguised as "normal" movements got the attention of the servers, who were better placed to get a message to a Verger. Message conveyed in "Sanctuary Semaphore" (Bet you wondered how we did these things!); the Vergers were alerted and quietly made the necessary preparations. On cue, the Verger appeared and the Bishop was conducted to the Pulpit instead of the Quire Lectern. Unfazed, he preached a stonking sermon!

The service itself was a really fitting end to the Easter feast. It was a real musical feast in both the Setting for the Versicles and Responses (Sunsion in F) and the Setting for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Aston in F) and in the inspired choice of Anthem - "Blessed be the God and Father" by Wesley. Then, to round off the evening's worship we processed around the church to the font with the entire congregation following. Then the Bishop sprinkled water over everyone from the font after calling upon us to renew our Baptismal promises. Standing close at this point means getting a good dose! This done, the procession returned to the Quire and Sanctuary where the Abbey Choir sang the Stamford setting in B Flat of the Te Deum Laudamus.

The congregation of around 200 people, many from as far away as West Wales, left feeling they had really celebrated Easter in style. It was a truly fitting end to our celebration of this great feast, and it is certainly one I will remember in the weeks ahead.

Christ is risen indeed!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:27 AM | Comments (1)

March 28, 2005

OK, so how do you get out of this one?

A friend sent me this photograph - and I acknowledge that I don't know where it came from, so I hope that the owner will take it as flattering that I have used it.

Lion umbrella.jpg
Lions doing what lions do in the heat of the day.

What do you say to a bunch of lions who have taken shelter under your aircraft? Shoo? Probably not - lions get to lie down wherever they like, generally speaking. And this lot look as if they've decided to have their midday nap and bugger anyone else's schedule. The biggest question is - where's Papa? The sagging rear end and undercart suggest that he may have gone indoors! This could be the beginning of an interesting skyjacking.

It may also put a whole new perspective on "in-flight meal".

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:19 AM

March 27, 2005


Christ is risen - He is risen indeed!

This is the greeting used at various times in services for the next forty days, it is one most Christians share at all times to remind ourselves that this is what Christianity is really all about. It is the essence of the Gospels. Christ has died and risen from the grave - in what form we can only surmise, except that he ate and walked with his disciples for forty days afterwards. The Da Vinci Code notwithstanding, this is the very evident truth of the Gospel.

To answer the charge of the Da Vinci Code that the man on the cross survived and lived to old age, I will say this. The evidence is against this theory. In fact, no court of law would reject the evidence of the story as told in the gospels. Why? Because the way a crucified person died was by drowning in their own body fluids! That is why the legs on the two men crucified with Christ were broken - so that they could no longer ease their lungs and clear them by supporting themselves and easing the muscles of the chest so that they could breathe properly for a few minutes. No man could survive the penetration of the chest cavity by the spear of the Centurion either. The discharge from the wound tells any medical person that the victim, if he wasn't already dead, was so close to death that this would have killed him.

The fluid which poured - note it does not say flowed or pulsed even in the original Aramaic or Greek - is described as blood and water mingled. This is pleural fluid from the chest cavity mixed with blood from the wound and the fact that it was so visible tells anyone with a little medical knowledge that the victim was no longer able to breathe properly and that, by the fact it was visibly present, no major supply of blood was present either! In short - he had no pulse. Try standing with your arms tied above your head for three hours sometime if you want to find out what it was like. But do have a medically trained person ready to cut you down and revive you. The Romans adopted this method of execution from the Persians - and refined it. No one survived this, and it can be and has been demonstrated medically.

The point about Easter is the empty tomb. He was taken and laid in the newly built tomb belonging to Joseph of Aramathea, probably intended as a "family" tomb as these structures usually were. The tomb was temporarily sealed and a guard placed on it because there was no time to lay out the body properly or perform the rituals required for proper burial. Two more things leap out from the rest of that story. The tomb was opened from the inside, not from without, and secondly, the clothes used to wrap the body remained in place where the body had been - as if, according to some sources, the body had simply been extracted from their embrace. Only the clothe covering the face was in a different place.

Had grave robbers come to steal the body, or even if his disciples had come to take it away, they would hardly have taken time out to unwrap it and leave the clothes so tidily! If they had come to steal it they would first have had to drive off the guards and then work fast before the guards came back with re-inforcements. They simply would not have unwrapped it there; it would have been a rush in, snatch, and run for it job.

That leaves us with the only real alternative, that He got up and walked out Himself, leaving the grave clothes where they were. This is why I say to you that we cannot be sure what form he took when He left that tomb. We only know that His disciples and His nearest and dearest friends seem inexplicably to have failed to recognise Him even though He was in human form. He seems to to have been transformed in some way, an indefinable change which leaves His disciples afraid and in awe - and these were people who had known Him very well indeed.

So we are left with the fact that Christ did rise from the tomb. He did walk among His people, and He did ascend into a new existence - one He has promised that we will enjoy as well. Only our own lack of faith, our own ignorance and lack of understanding can cut us off from following Him.

Christ is risen - He is risen indeed!

In Him we hope for a new life and a rebirth in the spirit when we can be reunited in God! That is the Easter message, that is the Christian faith.

A happy and blessed Eastertide to you all.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:27 AM

March 26, 2005

Holy Saturday

The Easter rollercoaster is now well underway; with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday behind us, we now spend today cleaning and preparing our churches to receive the risen Christ on Easter Day. Traditionally this is the day on which the Church gets its full annual "Spring Cleaning" and, particularly at places like the Abbey, those hard to reach and very high up canopies, clerestories, and galleries are cleaned, the floors sealed, and everything dusted and polished. The Flower Guild has been out buying truckloads of cut flowers, especially lilies, and will be in the Abbey from an early hour to arrange and set displays in the Sanctuary, the Choir Presbytery, at the Font, and in particular around our Garden Tomb in the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

Tonight, we will light the Easter Fire outside the West Door of the Abbey and carry a lighted taper into the church with which to light the great Paschal Candle which will burn for the next forty days. As this is carried into the church to its place beside the pulpit, other candles will be lit from it. First the two Acolytes' Torches, and the President's candles, then those of the other sacred ministers and the choristers, then all the congregation's. Finally, during the singing of the "Exultate", the great taper candles on the high altar and the candles on all our Chapel Altars and the font will be lit.

After this, the water of the font will be blessed and the congregation will renew their baptismal vows and newly baptised members of the congregation will be welcomed into our "family" in Christ. It was normal in the medieval period for all baptisms to take place on this night and only in extremis at any other time. Here at the Abbey we have re-introduced the tradition of baptising at least one new member on this day and welcoming as many others as may have been baptised during the preceding year while renewing our own Baptismal promises.

Yesterday I mentioned that the Council of Nicea, under the direction of Constantine, had set this time for this celebration; today it may be appropriate to look at why they chose this time. Firstly, it was a choice driven by the fact that the Spring Solstice Festival most closely reflected what Easter is really all about - renewal of life in Christ Jesus. Secondly, as people already celebrated the renewal of life in agriculture and the ending of the long dark winter, it made sense to simply convert the existing festival to this purpose - explaining that the renewal time was a deeper, and, perhaps in an age of short and brutal lives, more important reason to celebrate.

It is certain that Constantine had a number of not so popular or nice ulterior motives for adopting and promoting Christianity - not least its being, so he was told, the only religion whose God found no sin too great to forgive! Secondly, he saw it as a means to control an unruly and very disparate empire, and this is where the abuses crept in. For, when he conferred upon the Bishop's secular authority many more had to be found - and many of those he appointed (and this practice continued under Justinian II) were recently (and often politically expediently!) converted Magistrates and Magnates who retained their original positions, but brought with them much of the Pagan system. This did not do the Church any favours and the next three hundred years seem to have been spent in sortinmg out one heresy after another. Even our image of Christ came into being at this time - a copy of the great statue of Zeus at Mount Olympus! Something that shows just how much of the Hellenic philosophy had been grafted into the Christian message by this time.

The modern Church is very different from that of Constantine, Theodosia, and Justinian II, or the high Medieval period. A great deal of scholastic study in the last 200 years has done much to recover the original understanding and the original intent of the Gospel message and the Gospel story. In the process many of the accretions which came with the adoption of the "official" line have slowly been peeled away and a refreshed, revived, and renewed church is emergeing. Of course there are those who wish to cling to comfortable images and even more comfortable traditions and practices, but they, too, are having to come to terms with the fact that true faith is not vested in structures or images, but in understanding what they believe and why. This is why it is so easy for the theologically challenged media to mock and pour scorn on anything the Bishops try to debate - the press simply digs up something from fifty, sixty, or a hundred years ago and accuses the church of abandoning its principles. If they understood the origins of those principles and the reasons for the shift a little better they might be able to contribute more intelligence to the debate and a little less nonsense.

Interestingly, the re-examination of the Gospels does serve to confirm the events and the faith in ways that a hundred years ago would have been rejected as too "radical". Equally strangely it is often the little windows into the personal that confirms things, rather than the familiar broad sweep of the central story. Mark's youth running away naked, John's account of Peter arguing with Christ about having his feet washed, Matthew hiding in a tree, and Simon of Cyrene's sons being members of the congregation that Mark wrote his Gospel for. Equally, the Pauline letters, Luke's carefully researched Gospel, and Acts all give little gems of truth which confirm and re-inforce the story. Mary's central position is one of the more interesting aspects, as you will find that she appears in the Gospels and the Acts more frequently than any other disciple - and recently a closer look at the original accounts of the Annunciation story in the original language suggests that she should be regarded as the first disciple. She had a choice, and she chose to bear Him and to follow Him to the Cross and resurrection.

So, tonight, we at the Abbey, will celebrate, with a newly kndled fire, the night on which He left the tomb, and welcome and celebrate His presence among us with light, music, and the celebration of the First Mass of Easter. We will join the women at the empty tomb and wonder at the miracle, we will rejoice with Mary Magdalene that He is alive, ascended, and with us yet.

Easter is come - Christ is with us.

The rollercoaster is approaching its apogee - prepare for an exciting ride!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:16 AM

March 25, 2005

Good Friday

The epithet "Good" Friday dates back to the Council of Nicea which started in 345 AD and ran on for a number of years. It was ordered to assemble by Constantine, and it certainly changed the face of Christianity in many ways, some positive and some negative. In many ways, its greatest achievements were the Nicean Creed and the harmonisation of the scriptures. Among its many less positive results was the politicisation of the church which resulted in the Medieval notion of the Church as a Secular as well as a Spiritual power.

It was the Council that decided that the day on which Christ was crucified should be known as "Good" Friday, and it was this council that first set the date for the celebration of the Easter "festival". The logic behind this was that without the crucifixion there could be no resurrection. Ergo, the act of crucifixion is a part of the redemptive act and is therefore "good". While I have some difficulty with that sort of reasoning, I can see where they were coming from, especially as they were struggling to find ways to counter several heresies as well. The chief of these, Arianism, decreed that the Jesus of the Nativity and the Jesus of the Cross were not the same; the one, they said, was a human child, the other a "made" being who was "Godlike". Elements of Arianism and of the next big heresy, Origenism, can be found in the teachings of Islam today.

All of that aside, today is Good Friday, and I must shortly away to take part in the Solemn Liturgy for Good Friday at the Abbey.

This liturgy was written relatively recently - in the early 20th Century, in fact - and is an adaptation of one from the Orthodox Church and a similar Roman service from the Middle Ages. In the Anglican Communion, it is simpler, starker, and can be very moving indeed.

It begins with an act of repentance; the three Sacred Ministers enter and prostrate themselves facing East, towards the bare Altar and Sanctuary. After a few minutes silence, they stand and face the congregation while the Collect for mercy is said. This is followed by a reading from the Old Testament, and Psalm 22 is sung, unaccompanied. A new Testament reading follows, and another Psalm is sung unaccompanied. The Passion Gospel is then sung by three male voices. When it is finished, a period of silence is kept, during which the Deacon and two Acolytes move to the West End of the Church and take up a shrouded Crucifix from a place at the West Door and move to the back of the nave.

Here the Deacon raises the Crucifix and uncovers one "arm" intoning, "Behold the wood of the Cross!" and the Congregation respond with the words, "Thanks be to God".. He moves to a new station a third of the way into the nave and, unveiling the second arm, repeats the intonation before moving to the head of the nave and unveiling the figure and the remaining part of the Cross, again repeating the intonation. The crucifix is then placed in a stand on a Prie-Dieu, and the Sacred Ministers kneel before it and kiss the foot of the Cross, followed by the servers, the congregation, and the choir.

Some might say that this is idolatry; however, you need to pause and consider what it is the people are publically doing. First, they are making fools of themselves. We are putting aside our pride and demonstrating that we embrace this mad idea that this man, the Son of the Living God, died so that we might have the life hereafter, so that we might become like God. Second we are acknowledging our faith, not the crucifix before us, but what it represents in terms of suffering, redemption, and promise. It is not the Cross that we worship, it is the risen, ascended Saviour and His Father's love that we acknowledge in our veneration.

Once the veneration is complete, the Crucifix is taken to the High Altar and placed in a stand at its centre. The Sub Deacon and another pair of Acolytes, have, in the meantime gone to the Lady Chapel where the reserved consecrated Host from Maundy Thursday has been "resting" overnight, and once the Crucifix is in place at the High Altar, they bring the sacrament to the Sanctuary. The Priest/President then leads the congregation in a period of intercessions before inviting them to partake of the Body of Christ in the Communion of the bread. It is the only time in the Anglican Church that Communion is made in "one kind only", as there is no wine distributed with the wafer breads.

Once all the bread has been consumed and the vessel it was kept in washed, the President leads the congregation in the Lord's Prayer and a Collect - and then everyone scatters from the Sanctuary and Choir by any and every route.

For myself, it is a very moving service. The Gibson version focusses on the pain, the gore, and the injustice; this service brings some of that, but it also focusses on the Spiritual meaning. As the Sub Deacon last year (and the year before!), it was my task to carry that very large crucifix from the nave to the High Altar. I know precisely what Simon of Cyrene felt! I think I can also claim to have felt something of the devastation that the disciples felt as well.

If this act of worship helps to bring to even one person something of that sense of wonder, then it has served it's purpose. For myself it has always brought some new revelation of my faith and renewed my sense of wonder and adventure as I look forward to the fulfillment of the promise of the Gospel.

May the Lord be with you all on this Good Friday.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:03 AM

March 24, 2005

Maundy Thursday

Holy week is always a challenge to those who take their faith seriously. Not only is it a busy week, but it is also a time when one must spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on the what, why, and who of one's faith. Maundy Thursday can be a very dramatic counterpoint to this, one in which we start with a "normal" Eucharist and finish by stripping every adornment from the sanctuary and walking from a darkened and bare church. For me, as a minister, it is not only dramatic but very, very distressing - precisely because it reminds me of the reaction of the disciples to Christ's arrest, and that my own would almost certainly have been the same.

Picture, if you will, the events of the evening. First, as St John tells us, an Eve of Passover meal, shared by close friends and family in an upper room - probably the living floor of the house of John Mark's family. Mark himself was there, but not yet an adult, a teenager sent to bed around the time Jesus and his disciples set out to keep a vigil in Gethsemane. The meal followed the traditional pattern, light brought to the table and blessed by the women, the bread blessed, broken, and presented by the man they all deferred to as their leader - and this time their host - with the curious statement "this is my body which is broken for you". This would have been a major jarring in the usual blessing of the bread, and one which may well have unsettled more than one of them.

This would have been followed by a meal of freshly slaughtered and prepared lamb in accordance with the instructions in the Torah and Jewish custom. At some point before the end of the meal, came the first break with tradition - Jesus himself got up and washed the feet of those present. Despite their protests he did this to demonstrate the underlying principle of leadership in the Gospel sense. The leader is also the servant to those he leads. It served, too, to underscore the link with Isaiah Chapter 53, the "Suffering Servant" prophesy.

Then he completed the meal in the traditional fashion, but with a new emphasis. Instead of offering the Cup of Fellowship in the Mosaic manner, he blessed it, and added the words with which we are now familiar - "this is my blood, which is given for you, do this in rembrance of me." Again, this would have jarred and unsettled some - for all we know this may have been the point at which Judas Iscariot chose to denounce him. Then, after Judas had excused himself and left, Jesus took the remaining disciples to Gethsemane.

Now we have a small window onto another aspect of the arrest. St Mark's gospel tells us that the boy John Mark (although he doesn't name himself!), followed, wrapped only in his bedclothes. This suggests that the boy followed someone else - after being disturbed in his sleep and being in such a hurry he hadn't time to dress. What could have disturbed him? Perhaps Judas brought the guards to the house, expecting to find Jesus still there, perhaps another visitor came to the house to warn the household. We do not know and are not told. We are told that he was in Gethsemane when Judas betrayed Jesus and the guards arrested him. This is where Mark's story is mentioned, as the guards tried to seize him, too - and he slipped from his wrap and "ran away naked." For a Jew, this naked dash would have caused him much embarrassment and perhaps even got him a beating from his father.

When, in the context of the service for Maundy Thursday, the Priest wraps a towel around his waist and takes a bowl and pitcher and washes the feet of twelve members of his congregation, we are reminded of this first action of Christ. In the Eucharist itself, we are reminded of that last meal as friends, pupils, family, and disciples. After the sharing of the communion, we take the remaining wafer breads, the "Host", the Body of Christ, and lay it in a prepared Chapel where a vigil is kept by members of the congregation overnight.

Once the Host is laid in the Garden Chapel (in the case of the Abbey, our Lady Chapel dressed with flowers and greenery), the Priest and Servers return to the Sanctuary and strip it in silence while the gospel story of the events that led to the crucifixion are read. When the last item is gone, and the Gospel is finished and closed, the reader departs, and all the chior, minsters, servers, and the Priest leave - all by different exits and routes.

Just so was Our Lord left by His followers, and just so do we often leave Him today.

Easter, and the days preceding it, serve as a powerful reminder of our own fickleness and frailty, and of how far we have yet to go to fully understand the Gospel and the promises that Easter brings. Once again, we will play out the commemorations and ponder the story, but we must also find the courage, the faith, and the strength to carry it out into our daily lives - or it remains just a story.

Walk with us all to Gethsemane and through the Good Friday trauma to the joy of Easter. Let us all, then, carry it out into our lives, our work, and our world in the months to come so that, at the next Easter, we can look back without feeling we have missed the purpose and the point.

Peace be with you all this Eastertide.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:26 AM

March 22, 2005

Another bit of history consigned to the rubbish heap ....

Monday of this week marked the anniversary of the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. It was a key battle in history, one of those strange "skirmishes" on the broad pallette of history that changes the course of history and which, if it had gone another way, may have changed the course of the world we live in. It followed the more famous and probably better known "Battle of the Nile" (which was actually fought in Aboukir Bay!) in which Nelson destroyed the superior French Fleet and saw the turning point in a campaign launched by Napoleon and the French to cut Britian off from the Empire in India. Had the Battle of Alexandria been lost, the way would have been open for the French to continue their advance through North Africa and into the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. A move which would have threatened British trade interests in the Near and Far East seriously.

The Battle of Alexandria was won by a remarkable action fought by one of Britian's oldest and proudest Regiments, the Glosters. Based in Gloucestershire, the Regiment has a long and proud history, and a unique distinction. They are the only Regiment in the world to wear a badge on the front of their caps and on the back. This "Back Badge" is worn in recognition of the fact that the Regiment saved the expeditionary force from the French Cavalry at the Battle of Alexandria when, drawn up in a two rank formation, the rear rank was reversed and fired volley after volley at a French Cavalry formation which had succeeded in getting behind the British forces.

At the time, it was thought by most commanders that it was impossible to reverse a rank in this way on a battlefield and maintain discipline. The Glosters proved that the impossible was possible - and that the rate of fire they could maintain like this in both directions could be deadly! Their action broke the cavalry charge and saved the expeditionary force which went on to drive the French out of Egypt.

Now the Regiment, already merged, in an earlier "Defence Review" carried out by the Whitehall Parasites, in a "cut the military and create more useless penpusher posts" exercise, into the Berkshire, Wiltshire, and Gloucestershire Regiment (Usually referred to as the M4M5 Regiment!) with the Back Badge retained, is facing its worst enemy yet. The new enemy is this shower of complete garbage we call a government and the usual Whitehall Warriors who never go to sea, to war, or defend this nation from anything.

It is to be broken up and merged again into another "Regiment of the South West"! Another exercise in creating more posts for worthless papershufflers, while binning all of the glorious history of this nation. Anything that we can or should be proud of is immediately denigrated or trashed by this shower of cretins who value nothing except their own enrichment and entrenched power.

Definitely time for a major cull of Whitehall jobs and of the politicians who are so lacking in understanding or values of any sort!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:10 AM

March 21, 2005

War service for a trawler ...

Digging through my father's effects, I came across this photograph of the ship he served his first sea-going time on as an Ordinary Seaman. She was one of a pair of steam trawlers converted to magnetic minesweeping, having served most of her already long life in the North Sea and the cod waters off Iceland. The Red Sea, Mediterranean, and the Northern Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf must have been a real challenge for those living in her converted fish holds!

HMS Sunburst on patrol Indian Ocean.JPG
HM Minesweeping Trawler Sunburst at sea in the Indian Ocean.

The pair, incongruously named "Sunburst" and "Moonburst" were coal burners and spent a lot of their time between sweeps and patrols filling their bunkers with coal. They visited Aden, Port Said, Suez, Alexandria, Kilindini, and Adu Atoll. Steering a straight compass course was a bit tricky with the sweeps streamed, as the circuit breaker which "pulsed" the magnetic field to detonate any mine was located behind the helmsman, and everytime it "pulsed" the compass card did a violent swing through 360 degrees, alternately clockwise and anti-clockwise. As the pulses were a minute apart, this meant the card was constantly swinging!

My father spent six months in this ship before being posted for officer training and always remembered her crew - mostly original crewmembers from Hull - fondly, asserting that he had learned everything he knew about seamanship from them.

Ironically these old ships were lost sweeping off Sri Lanka in the closing days of the war.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:30 AM

March 20, 2005

Jerusalem in Bruge

One of the wealthy founding families in Bruge was also involved in the Crusades, so what would be more natural than to recreate Jerusalem in far-off Flanders? This church is located next door to the Lace Museum and contains a number of unusual features including a Calvary, a sanctuary on an upper floor, and a full scale replica of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem - all the more remarkable for having been created in the 14th Century!

The Nave Altar of the Jerusalem Church

The Upper Sanctuary and Altar are completely hidden from the Nave, and one of the more interesting features is the "Reformation" Pulpit located half way up the wall on the right and accessed from the stairs in the picture. These pulpits were inserted into many Catholic Churches during the Reformation years in a desperate attempt to counter the preaching skills of the "Protestant" factions.

Access to the "Sepulchre" is through the door arch visible under the left hand staircase.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:01 AM

March 19, 2005

An iron bound coast

Even in this day and age ships are still regularly lost on the Southern and Eastern Cape coast. It is not an easy or a forgiving coast - as this recent wreck shows. No lives were lost, but the ship broke within hours of her running aground and the remains are slowly being destroyed by the sea.

The remains of a coastal cargo vessel which went ashore West of East London around four years ago. She broke in half within hours.

This coast has many wrecks stretching back to the time the first Portugese navigators managed to claw their way round the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. They named it originally "The Cape of Storms" but their King decreed a more auspicious name. As a boy I can remember four ships wrecked along this stretch of coast, all of them written off completely within hours of stranding. There is also the mystery surrounding the loss of the SAA Viscount airliner which vanished in this area and has never been found.

Other famous wrecks to the East of East London include the Mail Steamer "Waratah", lost with all hands in a storm, and the Honourable East India Company Ship "Grosvenor" in the 18th Century. Both ships have been the subject of many searchs and, in the case of the Grosvenor, of numerous treasure searches. The survivors from the Grosvenor had the misfortune to survive the wreck and the perils of a forced march which almost brought them to safety in Algoa Bay. Sadly, they died in the dune fields on the Eastern side of that bay of thirst, unaware that digging at the foot of the inland range of dunes would have given them a supply of fresh water.

An artist's representation based on similar ships, of the HEIC GROSVENOR. Note the HEIC's "barred" ensign, which was the flag of the Bombay Marine, the company's private navy, and which could not, by law, be worn by company ships West of the Cape of Good Hope.

Not a coast line to take risks with then, and still claiming ships and lives today.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:06 AM

March 18, 2005

Grandmother's garden

Another little "blast from the past". In October last year I revisited South Africa and my childhood home at Great Brak. Thie photo in this post was probably taken around 1947 and shows the gardens as they were when I was a child.

Granny Heron garden at Great Brak River.JPG
Grandmother Heron in her beloved garden at Great Brak.

It was very interesting to see that the formality has largely gone, but the basic shape and the principle features are still there. The part of the garden in this photograph, with Grandmother in the foreground, has now all been replaced by lawns and the river has changed it's course slightly bringing it a bit closer to the hedge - another casualty of the ravages of time.

The picture was taken from the upstairs verandahs which encircled the house, but which are also now long gone.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:44 AM

March 17, 2005

St Patrick for Ireland

A happy St Patrick's day to all those who visit me today! It's quite amazing what this very modest but determined man achieved when you peel away the legends and the hype.

He left us two documents which have survived his mission, one his "Confessio", begins, "I Patrick, a sinner ..." and goes on to give an autobiographic account of his life. It makes very interesting reading. The other is a letter to the Welsh "King" Caractacus (often thought to be the model for the evil King who preceded Uther in the Arthurian legends) and deals with an appeal to the King to be merciful and return Christians his men had seized in Ireland and enslaved. It is even more interesting because its tone is not that of an inferior to the King but that of an equal.

Patrick is buried in Downpatrick in a simple grave covered by a slab of granite. It was his dying wish that his body be placed in a bullock cart and buried when the bullocks stopped and lay down. Legend has it that they wandered for several days before stopping at the place where he now lies. Even Cromwell's evil troopers and their commanders left his resting place alone, although they did attack the adjacent church.

His legacy? The great Celtic tradition of Christian music, worship and thought - and of course, the great faith of the people he converted.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:04 PM

Snow scenes

Every now and then you get the chance to take a picture that really moves you, and this is one. We haven't had much snow this year - we seldom do; despite the eco-warriors wailing, Tewkesbury is in rain and snow shadow and very mild! So when it does snow, it's usually quite picturesque.

Abbey Winter snow East end.JPG
The Abbey from the East end after a snowfall.

I took this a couple of years ago and keep planing to make my own Christmas cards out of it - but never do. Anyway, it is a pretty scene, one I always keep in mind when I am far from home, and one that will, one day be used for my long awaited Christmas card!

For the botanically inclined, the tree on the left is a Cedar of Lebanon and the one to the right is a giant Copper Beech which is over 200 years old. The Cedar is a mere sapling at just on 80!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:03 AM

March 16, 2005

Observations from within

This visit to the US has been very useful, not least because I have had the pleasure of making new friends and gaining new knowledge, sharpening some old knowledge, and generally getting a better knowledge of the US and her people. One thing they have which we in Europe have lost, and which lies, I suspect, at the core of the liberal left hatred of America and her institutions and values, is their sense of pride in being who they are. That is very apparent as you drive around and see the national flag displayed on almost every house, on public buildings alongside municipal or State flags, and even where corporate flags are flown.

They certainly aren't all Christian fundamentalists, they certainly aren't all George W Bush supporters, but they are American, and they are proud of it. And they have reason to be, as well; despite having their own difficulties, they are warm hearted, generous to a fault, and extremely hard working. It is often said that the UK works longer and harder than anyone else in Europe, something open to challenge perhaps, but even we do not work the sort of hours that the average American is prepared to throw into his or her job. They believe in earning everything they have from respect through to property. It has been my privilege to meet people from all ends of the spectrum on this visit, and they are all super people.

Naturally I am biased in one sense; their fire fighters are among the most welcoming I have ever encountered and take real pride in what they do. I may not agree with everything they do, but I can say that I like the enthusiasm and the energy they bring to it. No wonder that they are regarded by their communities with such respect.

It has been a great privilege to be here, to share in this experience. I hope I shall have further opportunities to do this again. Face it, the Americans take a lot of flak for many things, but if the average UK citizen were as proud of his country as these folk are of theirs, a lot of the left-wing garbage would not be tolerated at all. Perhaps we should stop carping and find out how to recapture this spirit ourselves!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:58 AM | Comments (5)

March 15, 2005

Greening America

In an interesting riposte to those in Europe who whinge about the US refusing to sign up to the nonsense in the Kyoto Treaty, there is a series of measures currently before the House and the Senate to reduce Carbon Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide, and several other "greenhouse" gas emmissions in the electrical industry, here. The reductions targeted actually exceed what would be required under Kyoto and are actually sustainable, where those of Kyoto are not. From where I am sitting this seems to me a much more sensible approach than to simply pluck nonsense numbers from the air and then demand everyone (except the world's really big polluters, China, India, and the "Tiger" Economies) sign up to them.

Kyoto would do the US economy serious damage. It would also do serious damage to the American people's prosperity, but then, perhaps that is what the liberal left and the closet communists of the Socialist Champagne set really want. It sometimes seems that they would do anything to bring the US down - even if it means destroying western democracy by destroying the powerhouse of its economy. Already the critics of the US government are whinging that "it is not enough" and too slow; well, perhaps they ought to take a closer look at their charges against the US and Australia as "the world's biggest polluters".

What exactly is that charge based upon?

The charge is based on a crude calculation of "emmissions per head" - so by simply dividing the output of pollutant gas by the heads of population for a country we have a convenient number which allows someone to attach a label. Because the US citizenry and the Australian citizenry own more cars with larger capacity engines than anyone else - they are labelled the world's biggest polluters. In this same stupid measure, we find that the US's output of Carbon Dioxide, when divided by the total population, gives a number higher than that achieved by the population of China, which is the worlds biggest producer of Carbon Dioxide and several other even nastier gases such as Methyl Bromide - banned in all Western Countries! But, we find that the Socialist cretins who wrote Kyoto also gave their communist Chinese chums a let-out - China need not meet its Kyoto commitments for another two decades, but the US must destroy its economy immediately.

Sorry, folks, but that is not going to happen, and the good folks of the US, who have more than proved themselves by their generosity even to those who have sworn to destroy them, are way ahead of the Kyoto crazies. At this moment the US automobile industry is exploring a range of fuel-saving and pollution-reducing options, including hydrogen fuel cells, "dual-fuel", and LPG powered vehicles. Some of these are already in service, and more efficient and cleaner engines already in service here mean that the pollutant figures on which Kyoto is based are already out of date. Once again the US is responding in its own way and showing the handout fanatics of the left that the real way forward is investiment in real development, not in trying to create some sort of socialist nirvana run by idiots and bureaucrats.

Europe would do well to look carefully at the US legislation; it may well prove to be far more effective than the Kyoto mishmash.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:23 AM

March 14, 2005

Sailing dhows

A question from the Scarlet Manuka regarding the sailing dhows now replaced by motorised versions made me think a little about the rig. The great lateen rig carried on a single or double mast by the dhows of old is not designed for beating to windward, although they can lie fairly close to it - up to about 40* off the wind. The problem is that they cannot "tack" in order to work their way into the "eye" of the wind.

The rig was developed over centuries to take advantage of the monsoon winds that blow across the Arabian Sea and the North-western portion of the Indian Ocean. These blow steadily either from the Northeast or the Southwest, and the dhows could ride them either to Africa, trading as far South as Zanzibar and Pemba and bringing spices and slaves back to Arabia, or across the Arabian Sea to Pakistan and India. They voyaged in one direction with the monsoon and returned with the anti-monsoon. This allowed sailing on a broad reach - the fastest point of sailing for a rig of this type - with the need to work their way to windward in either direction.

European rigs, on the other hand, had to cope with the need to make headway against winds which were far from predictable or constant even when they were favourable. This is one reason why the lateen rig, popular among traders along the North African and Levantine coast, was soon dropped by this group working from Northern Europe. The square-rigged system allowed a ship to work to windward, a laborious and sometimes dangerous task, but an essential one if we were to leave purely "local" waters and trade further afield.

The lateen rig, with its huge spar boom, is very difficult to tack. It must be struck completely and then reset on the new tack in order to ensure the most efficient flow of air along it. This is not a practical situation, and so the dhow and its rather attractive rig has never really become the great oceanic voyager outside of its original habitat. Fast on the reach, seaworthy, and sturdy they may be, but they ultimately became the victims of their own success, giving way to the hardy and slower ships from the West.

I am told that there are still dhows trading under sail, but have not seen any. Should I ever do so - a photo will be posted!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:33 AM | Comments (2)

March 13, 2005

Thoughts on the Anglican Divide

Last Sunday I attended the communion service held in the Episcopalian Church of Our Saviour in Richmond, Kentucky. It was a bittersweet experience. Firstly, it was good to be able to share the worship of this community and to share it in particular with my friends and hosts. However, it was sad to see so small a congegation and to hear that they will soon be unable to pay the stipend of their newly appointed parish priest.

This is a congregation which has really seen hard times and decline. There are a number of reasons for this, beginning with a split in the congregation some ten years back. Their then rather handsome church and its associated position in the heart of the town was sold and replaced by a house on the outskirts which was to have been a temporary home until a new church could be built or acquired. It was argued at the time that the church was in need of repairs and would cost too much to renovate. The buyers of the old church, meanwhile, renovated and brought it back into use as an Arts Centre.

Further disagreements, not only locally, but with the Diocese and with the National bodies, led to more loss of membership, and the final blow was the loss of the Vicar three years ago when he moved on to another parish. For two years the congregation has struggled without a priest and finally acquired their present Vicar six months ago - now they face losing him as they simply are too few in number to pay his wages.

This all brought into sharp relief for me the dichotomy that faces the Episcopal Church in the US. It is not and never has been an "Established" Church, yet it has, until relatively recently, been fairly strong and well supported financially. Not so anymore.

One important reason for this is the leadership - as in the Provincial Synod - having suffered from an excess of what is best described as "liberal" thinking in recent years. This is the body which, despite the reservations of the rest of the Anglican Communion, went ahead and appointed women priests and even a bishop. It caused enough problems elsewhere, but it also split this church from top to bottom. Many left as a direct result and have joined either Roman Catholic congregations or gone to "free" Protestant congregations - all of which have enjoyed a huge upsurge in membership. Even this would not have been so critical for the congregation of Our Saviour, had there not been the ongoing dispute over the site of a new church and the provenance of the sale of the old one.

The latest dispute, and the one which seems likely to destroy this, and perhaps other Episcopalian congregations, has been the insistence of the church heirarchy on consecrating a practicing homosexual as Bishop in the face of opposition from the congregations who pay his and other clergy salaries. This has had a devastating effect on congregations like Our Saviour, with many simply withdrawing their finacial support, refusing to fund diocesan contributions or clergy they do not find acceptable. That is, after all, the American way. They simply will not pay for anything the do not think right or are prepared to accept.

It was put to me that they are very sad that this is so, but that the heirarchy of the church will not listen to the people in the pews, that the Eastern Liberals regard the majority of the Church who reside outside of the New England/New York conurbation and who do not share their "liberal' views except with contempt. They feel they have no option but to withdraw their support and find a spiritual home wherever they can. For many this is extremely painful, but they feel it is the only way they can make themselves heard in this debate.

I felt very sad as I left the tiny congregation and their young priest and his family. I hope to be able to worship with them again this Sunday before I return to England. I hope, too, that I can encourage as many as possible to pray for the American Anglican Church as it faces this crisis brought on by no doubt well intentioned but very unwise leaders who have failed utterly to grasp the depth of feeling of their congregations.

As Jonathon Swift wrote in 1740 "It is the error of many to mistake the echo of the London coffee house for the voice of the nation", so I think it could be said that the Episcopal Church of the US has mistaken the echoes of the Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and New York coffee shops for the voice of the Church.

I hoipe you will all join me in praying for the congregations now suffering as a result. Let us pray that our Lord will come to their aid and show them how to remedy this problem.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:12 AM

March 12, 2005

Conference time

The Monk is currently in Kentucky where he has been attending a conference and training programme as part of an exchange of tutorial staff on fire and explosion investigation. It has proved very interesting indeed, in a mixed role of student and teacher plus the prospect of returning home with some additional qualifications to show for it.

The hospitality has been terrific and the welcome as warm as anyone could wish for. The host and hostess have been wonderful and the colleagues and students terrific. One thing that the Monk has relearned is that Ten-pin Bowling is not to be undertaken without some limbering up - and perhaps some new joints to fingers and shoulder! Still, it has been fun and will be even more so for another week.

Kentucky has been cold, with alternate snow, rain, wind, and sunshine in this Eastern part nudging up to the back of the Appalachian mountains. Fortuinately, having been warned of this, the Monk was prepared and had his warm woolies with him. It has been something of a contrast to the Qatar warmth and culture, but it is almost like being at home - apart from the accent and the occassional twists in language use. Even so, the fire fighter community is a warm-hearted and welcoming one, and the opportunity to work alongside colleagues at Eastern Kentucky University has been a rewarding one!

I look forward to having the pleasure of hosting my present hosts on the return exchange later this year.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:35 AM

March 11, 2005

In the desert you can't remember your name ....

Qatar is a desert. Admittedly one broken here and there by clumps of bushes and a few trees, but it is largely sand and more sand. The South of the country has an extensive dune "sea" and the very name of the country is from an Arabic word for the people who lived here which meant "water seekers".

A Camel breeding programme is sponsored by the Amir, and camels can be seen grazing wherever there is sufficient grazing for them.

This is a country where the camel comes into its own. It does rain here periodically, usually in February and March, short bursts that do not soak in and simply run off the parched ground. The high silica content of the ground is a contributory factor in this, and the fast run-off gives rise to flash flooding.

Almost all potable drinking water today comes from the generation of electricity, with a mix of distillation and hydro-pore membrane systems in use. Pumps provide the pressure to circulate the water from plant to point of use, but do not run continuously so every building has a large reserve tank which fills up at night and other off-peak times for the power station when they can shunt the generators' output to the pumps.

A bleak and baked landscape, fit probably only for those creatures and plants which can survive in it! In a way, it does bear out the legendary view of the people of this area that when God saw that He had given them such poor land, He felt they should also have the means for great wealth - so he gave them oil and gas as well!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:23 AM

March 10, 2005

Old design, modern propulsion

Working dhows moored in the Dhow Harbour at Port Doha.

The basic design of the dhow is unchanged after possibly ten centuries; the propulsion definitely has changed. Sails have been replaced by big CAT or Cummins engines, and these handy craft, with their very shallow draft ply their trade in the Gulf in most weathers without problem. The dhows of Qatar are mostly used for fishing or passenger transfer, but in neighbouring Dubai, you can still see the big cargo carrying vessels that cross the Arabian Sea and trade to Africa, India, and Pakistan.

The Amir of Qatar is very keen to encourage the preservatiuon of his people's sea-going culture, and the dhows are very much part of that. The traditional material used in their construction is wood, but trees are scarce in this region, so many modern dhows are now built from fibreglass - but carefully detailed to look as if they are wooden.

The harbour is quite shallow and the water clean and clear. In some of my pictures it is possible to see just how shallow-drafted these craft are!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:41 AM

March 09, 2005

Ferry to the island

A large dhow serving as a ferry to Palm Island from West Beach

The quality of the water and the attraction of water for small boys everywhere is evident in this picture of the West Beach to Palm Island ferry. The large dhow is quite stable even with both decks fully laden, and she is also quite quick with her large marine engines and the shallow hull designed for fast sail driven passage. Palm Island can be seen under the bows of the ferry and is a sand bar that has been built up and developed as a feature in the now semi-circular bay that is such a feature of Doha.

The quaint hull design with its almost outdated appearance is deceptive. These are extremely sea-friendly and sea-weatherly small ships. Sixty years ago these vessels would not have had engines but would have had a single mast mounted just forward of the centre on which they carried a long spar, secured near the prow by a block and tackle and from which hung the huge lateen sail. This is not a rig designed for "tacking", that is, working a ship to windward against the wind; instead it is extremely efficient on long voyages employing the monsoons which blow East or West across the Northern Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea. Since the rig is designed for the fastest point of sailing for any sailing ship - the broad reach, that is; across the wind - the dhows hull is designed to take advantage of that and, even under load, it tends to lift at speed and "plane" across the water, achieving very good speeds. The very different sailing conditions encountered in the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Baltic have meant that this rig never really worked effectively in European waters, but found some favour in the Mediterranean. Of such "mishaps" of meteorology and geography sometimes comes the impetus for divergence of development.

Lateral and directional stability is achieved by having a long keel which increases in depth as it travels aft. Take a good look at her lines - many modern yachts have the same broad "cheeks" aft and the fine "entry" forward, for very much the same reasons as those for which the dhow was designed - speed and stability.

The modern dhows seem to have managed to blend the best of their hull form with the modern propulsion systems to very good effect. Obviously the hallmark of a sound hull design to begin with.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:07 AM | Comments (2)

March 08, 2005

Decorative or functional?

It is said that decoration is nothing without function, I would disagree, especially when the decoration is pleasing to the eye and focuses the mind on some aspect of the function of the building. Mosques are prime examples of the art of decoration which enhances, yet serves no apparent functional purpose - other than to decorate.

The decorative frieze below the parapet on the external wall of a mosque.

Different decorative patterns adorn many of the buildings in Doha, and this particular frieze caught my eye. Typical of the style of "tracery" used in screens and window arches, this pattern is probably produced by means of stencil and forms; it is nonetheless beautifully even and exquisitely executed.

On the way to Umm Said, this mosque caught my eye for its proportions and its decorative finishing to the minaret and the parapet.

Much plainer in its decoration than the first example, the very simplicity of the design is what draws the eye. For those who wonder, dark circular objects in the top balconey of the minaret are loudspeakers of the "big" kind. The sound from these can be heard up to a mile away when the muessin calls the faithful to prayer. I leave to your own imagination what it sounds like when you have a mosque in every couple of blocks all calling their people to prayer with each muezzin singing his own distinct version of the music and in his own pitch!

Suffice it to say that some can sing, and some shouldn't - especially not with a public broadcast system in their hands!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:21 AM

March 07, 2005

Modern use of old designs

The love of geometric design, and the desire to preserve the best of the cultural heritage in design, is evident in many of the ultra-modern buildings being erected in Doha, which is being thoroughly renewed everywhere you turn. Old buildings are being swept away to make way for the new, but, they have managed to preserve some gems in the process.

The building in my picture is striking, using the classic design of the domed mosque or diwan (Place where the ruler meets the leaders and elders of the family tribes), and projecting it onto the face of the building, with the smaller domed atrium in the foreground creating the effect of a large shadow on the face of the building. Elsewhere, examples abound of modern structures whose lower floors create or reproduce the outline of a traditional style of building, with the upper part of the building encased in mirror glass which both reduces the heat gain internally and creates an almost ethereal "sky" which fools the eye into seeing the "old" skyline quite nicely.

DSCF0092 (2).JPG
Blending the traditional and the modern - a new building in Doha which shows off the geometric designs for which this region is famous.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:56 AM | Comments (1)

March 06, 2005

A divided communion?

Many will no doubt find something to be pleased about the news this week that the Anglican Communion is busy tearing itself in two over the issue of the church's response to the US and Canadian Church allowing openly "Gay" clergy and the blessing of "Gay marriages".

To be truthful, I find the response a little disturbing because it is re-inforcing some of the stereotypes and essentially excluding a large group on grounds of their sexual orientation.

Now I will acknowledge that St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians Chapter 5 rails against sexual activity and several other "abuses" such as coveting wealth. I will also acknowledge that Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain a number of strictures against "men lying with men", but these scriptures also contain a large number of other admonitions which we find almost impossible to adhere to in our lives today! The problem really lies in confusing the act with the person. It is the act which separates someone from God, not the person themselves. Despite what several psychiatrists and doctors have tried to put forward in the past, the more we learn of genetics and the way our minds and bodies function, the more it becomes apparent that being "Gay" is not something one can catch from someone else, nor is it a matter of "life choice". You either are, or you are not. It is becoming ever more apparent that it is nature and not nurture or any other "imprinting" which drives this particular aspect of the human psyche.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself why these issues are even in Leviticus. Could it be because there was a "problem" of homosexual activity among the Tribes? If so, what could have caused it? We know from the ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek records that homosexual unions, activities, and intercourse were acceptable and even commonplace, so there must have been a reason for it to be frowned upon in the Exodus literature and for it to flow over into later writings. If you consider this carefully the answer becomes immdeiately apparent - the sexual act is both a procreative activity and a source of mutual pleasure.

Ergo, if it is pursued purely for pleasure it excludes the procreation, and, by its pursuit, it excludes God. Thus the spirit is deprived of contact with God. Exactly the same problem occurs when we embark on the exclusive pursuit of wealth, career, or any other all-consuming activity - we exclude God from our lives by replacing Him with our obsessive pursuit of whatever gives us satisfaction.

The Gospel, by its very definition, impels all who follow it to forgo the obsessive pursuit of pleasure, wealth, or any other thing which can exclude God and to follow a path which enables us to keep in contact with God. If we become self-obsessed and self-focused, we break that connection. But, the more important aspect of the Gospel is that it is an "inclusive" message - it is there for all God's children, and the Church has to find ways to include even those who are different from what many in the pews see as "the norm".

Sadly, the US and Canadian Church have chosen to act in this matter unilaterally and in so doing have created a real problem for all those working in the developing nations or among peoples whose moral codes and understanding of humanity or theology is different to our own. In Africa there is a problem with promoscuity, particularly among males. The Church can not condone this, particularly as it often results in the rape of women and young boys. AIDS is another major problem in that continent where more than half the population is now carrying it or infected by it. For the Church there to respond to Western pressure to acknowledge Gay Marriages would send the signal that promiscuity is OK. Patently they cannot do that! And herein lies yet another problem for the Church, since in the minds of many adherents to Christianity (and to Islam as well!), homosexual is equated to peadophilia, to predation of all males, particularly young males and to uncontrolled and frankly frightening behaviour. Anyone who knows a "gay" man will know that this is most often very far from the truth, but the few high profile cases - such as the present debacle in the US Roman Catholic communities - have helped to create this impression.

We must not forget either that in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, and several other fundamentalist Muslim nations, to be homosexual is to incur the death penalty. How does the Christian Church in Ethiopia, in Sudan, or in Northern Nigeria address this ready-made point of attack from their Islamic fundamentalist detractors? How wwould a "gay" priest be received in such an area? I can tell you that he would soon find himself being accused by the many enemies of Christ of every calumny they could invent - and any ministry the Church exercised would be tainted from there on.

In the course of a long association with and a ministry role in the Anglican Church, both in the UK and abroad, I have worked alongside a number of "Gay" priests - and even the odd Bishop! Among them I have never encountered anything but a deep faith and a desire to serve God, something I have found lacking among some of the supposedly heterosexual priests I have known. What made these particular men different and special was that they had managed to forgo their sexual desires and lived celibate lives, providing a wonderful and caring ministry to their flocks. And that is the difference between the majority of the gay priests of the past and those now pushing for recognition in the Church, particularly in the US and Canada. It is one thing to be acknowledged as being "different" to the supposed "norm", it is another entirely to be participating in the action.

It is the act which excludes God, not the person, so if a person is truly bent on serving God, he (or she!) should look carefully at the words of Augustine of Hippo. Asked by a new, and very wealthy convert "What should I do to ensure my reception into the Kingdom of Heaven", the good Bishop (himself a reformed adulterer!) replied "Love God with all your heart and all your mind, and do as you please!"

The simple fact is that if you do truly do the first part of that, you can do nothing wrong in following the second part!

It is sad that this situation of potential schism has arisen; we need to consider carefully why it has arisen. The impatience of the developed nations' churches with the problems of the undeveloped parts, the desire to "include" publically those already included tacitly has created a division which will not now be healed by simply excluding or even discharging those appointed in the US who are openly gay, or by stopping the blessing of "marriages", a misnomer if ever there was one. Since a "marriage" is now, in most countries, a matter of civil legal contract, it has lost its original meaning of a union between a man and a woman for the purposes of mutual sharing and procreation. It still has that meaning, and that meaning alone, in many of the countries who have led the protest against the US and Canadian Church.

I can only hope that, over the next two years, cool heads, the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel message prevail in the discussions which must resolve this issue. If they do not, the only winner will be the many forces of materialism, atheism, and despair that are ranged against the church on all sides. This is something we must all pray can be prevented - it is the Gospel we are defending, and that means we must find a way to include all the concerns, all the hurts, and all the hopes of our Creator God.

We must all pray for the healing of hearts and minds and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in this difficult and dangerous time.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:58 AM

March 05, 2005

A benevolent autocracy?

Qatar is a small country, but a very wealthy one. It is ruled by the Amir and a Council of elected Ministers and Tribal Elders, although, in reality, the majority of these are either family or allies of the Amiri Family. The present Amir (Emir in the UAE and in Kuwait, Amir in Qatar and Oman!) replaced the eldest son of the previous Amir who had ousted his father in a bloodless "family" coup, because the old Amir was holding back modernisation. The Heir then abdicated in favour of his younger brother, the present Amir, who is a Sandhurst trained and well educated moderniser. All the key cabinet posts are held by his brothers or nephews and the balance of power is nicely exercised by the need to keep the Tribal Family leaders onboard in all decision making.

The Amiri Diwan, or Palace, in Doha. In the foreground is the principle chamber where the Council meets, behind is the Amiri Palace.

We tend to forget that democracy is a Western invention and does not come naturally to any nation which does not have the same development and historical legacy as the West. The Amiri family were the Ruling Clan under the Ottoman Empire and remained so under the British Protectorate. Their brand of "democratic" government works in this environment. There are elections, they dictate the make-up of the Council and of the Local Authorities, but there are no "parties" as we would recognise them.

The population of Qatar is a bare 730,000 people, hardly the population of a small city in Europe, but it is also further complicated by the fact that only around 125,000 of those are Qatari! The rest are ex-patriate "guests" including Westerners, Philippinos, Indians, Pakistanis, and other nationals from all over the world. The Qataris, though, are a cheerful and tolerant people, and very pragmatic on a number of issues. They are also very, very wealthy!

The simple reason for that is that they hold the world's third largest (possible the world's largest) reserves of Natural Gas - 700 years worth! This comes ashore from their offshore fields at Ras Laffan where it is "scrubbed" of Helium, Ammonia, hydro-carbon distillates, and Hydrogen Disulphide and Sulphur, then liquified by chilling to minus 162*C and shipped abroad. The UK is one of the client states, with a recent deal to take gas in 200,000 metric tonne shiploads for the next 25 years. This will come ashore in the UK at Milford Haven, where it will then find its way into our homes as heating and cooking fuel.

Now comes the interesting bit. Under Islamic law tax is an evil, so the government takes the oil and gas revenues and uses these for the national development, for health care and education, and for the "forgiving" of loans and debts by the populace. As it is not lawful under Islam to "borrow" capital (actually, it is the charging of interest which is forbidden), the systems operates on a scheme whereby a would-be borrower agrees with a bank that they will buy a certain property or whatever, and he will "rent" it from them while saving at a fixed rate to repay the capital in an outright purchase. Twice since he took the throne, the present Amir has shared a bumper profit among his subjects by simply paying off all loans! No wonder he can take a stroll along the Corniche - the Doha waterfront - unescorted and unmolested!

Would it not be nice if some of our European and UK Chancellors did the same! Better check the temperature in hell; they are unlikely to follow this lead unless Hell has an ice age!

Crime does happen in Qatar, but it is rare - and there are few repeat offenders. Justice is swift, it is simple, it is effective - and it is seen to be done. There is occassional evidence of that Western scourge - graffitti - but it is rare, and anyone convicted of doing it is likely to suffer a public birching, or a short jail sentence and, in both instances, a hefty fine to pay for the damage. And the fine is collected in one hit, none of this nonsense of paying 50 pence a week for forty years.

Would I live there? With the right incentive, yes. It is not my culture, and I do not expect it to be, nor should I. If Christians in Europe and the rest of the developed world were as attentive to the tennets of their faith as the Arabs, we might have a very different society. Perhaps there is something we can learn from that, and perhaps there is something they can learn from us.

For the moment, though, it would seem that they have found a method of government which works for them. It will be interesting to see how it evolves from here. I found them friendly, funny, and eager to improve; I wish them every success in their quest.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:24 AM

March 04, 2005

Some thoughts and views

The city of Doha and the whole country of Qatar are an interesting mix of contrasts, not least the architecture and the influence of the culture. Mosques, rather like Christian Churches, have a basic layout, but they, like churches, also reflect the wealth and status of the congregation in many ways. They range from the truly tiny, and frequently very basic, to the truly magnificent.

DSCF0114 (2).JPG
The mosque around the corner from the office, relatively new and beautifully decorated with geometric patterns.

The one I have chosen to show here is relatively new and beautifully decorated. The Arabic passion for geometric designs runs to an exquisite freize around the parapet of the principle part and to the detailing of the minaret itself. Another feature of all mosques, no matter how small, is the large and powerful speakers mounted on the minaret. When the Muezzins begin their calls to prayer, the din is something else; some are musically inventive and pleasant and some shouldn't attempt to sing anything!

The first call of the day is at sunrise - around 0515 at this time, and it's impossible to sleep beyond that! No wonder so many Qataris start workl at 0600 and stop at 1300 - then come back for a couple of hours in the evening!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:43 AM | Comments (1)

March 03, 2005

Urbi et Orbi - a Papal crisis?

The present Pope is a very tired and very sick man. Pope John Paul II has been a remarkable Pope, one who will stand out in the pages of History alongside Gregory the Great and several others who have led, managed, and guided the Church in dangerous and difficult times. It is very sad to see this man, once possessed of a fine mind and a keen sense of humour reduced to a twitching, hunched, and frail old man who seems almost bewildered by his office and his duties. Like many, I will be praying for his release from this life in peace to the
tranquility of the life hereafter and the reward he will undoubtedly receive from our Father in heaven.

Pope John Paul II has led the Roman Catholic Church, still the largest single group of Christians, through the turbulence of a very difficult period in its history. He has been, like Peter, a rock, a firm foundation for the faithful, and it has taken its toll. He stood against the evil of the Communist philosophy in Eastern Europe and saw it crumble, he stood for Christian dialogue and has seen it grow, he initiated dialogue with other faiths and has seen these take the first sensitive and tentative steps toward establishing at least some understanding of each others' faith. For many Christians, even those not of his Church, he has been an inspiration, a truly remarkable man.

Of course, he has not met with everyone's approval; the "Reverend" Ian Paisley still regards him as the Anti-Christ ( as many others regard Mr Paisley!), and many in his own Church think he has not gone far enough or done enough to address some of the issues they wish to see changed. Married Priests, women priests, and other sociological "issues" wait to be addressed, and John Paul has not been open to discussing some of them, but against that must be seen the fact that this Pope inherited the Triple Crown of a Church under attack by politicians everywhere, a Church which needed to open up debates on a very wide range of doctrines, policies, and issues of faith while confronting one of the most evil political regimes and philosophies. He has done a great deal of that; he had to prioritise the tasks and deploy his shrinking resources to meet the most pressing. He had the courage to confront the issues, and he has led the Church by personal example. His successor will face a double challenge - to follow this toering man of God and to address the remaining issues.

I have no doubt at all that when John Paul is finally called to his rest, the Church he leaves will be a much sounder and better church than the one he was elected to lead. I have equally no doubt at all that his legacy will enable his successor to continue to bring the Church into the full flowering of the Gospel in partnership with all other Christian Churches.

Pray for Pope John Paul that he may have fulfilment and peace and that his successor may be able to follow boldly where this giant of a man has led in the service of Christ.


Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:03 AM | Comments (2)

March 02, 2005

In the desert with the horse with no name??

The beginning of the Southern Dune Sea is South of Umm Saaid (or Messaaed as pronounced by the Qataris). This picture was taken just outside a place called Sealine - a resort on the seaside outside Doha (bathing is frowned on along the Corniche!).

Dune bashing with Quad Bikes seems to be the national sport of the local youff!

The dune sea is blinding white sand, very fine and very soft. This gives rise to a peculiar condition in the deserts here where there is a hard but very thin crust over a deep pocket of this fine sand. Vehicles breaking through this crust sink very rapindly into the sand. The quad bikes, being much lighter, don't have quite the same problem, but watching some of the riders and their complete disregard for safety one wonders about the "inch Allah!" culture. Poor Allah gets the blame for one heck of a lot of pure stupidity!

Having watched a squadron of these bikers whizz through a carpark between pedestrians and cars, across a busy road, and then up and over a dune, then reappear across the face of another set, where one of them managed to loop the bike down the dune, fortunately without apparent injury - considering that none of them wear sensible things like helmets or anything other than their head dress or the long white robe, it's a miracle they survive their youff!

Environmental considerations? Why? It's the desert!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:32 AM | Comments (1)

March 01, 2005

A meditation on the illness of a friend

Recently a very dear friend has been diagnosed with cancer. Initially it seemed that radical surgery and aggressive therapy would be sufficient to cut off the cancer, and she could look forward to a long and trouble free (relatively - after all we are human beings!) life. Then came the detailed reports of the tumour and more investigations, and suddenly nothing was quite so clearcut anymore!

At times like this it is tempting to fall back on the "why does God allow this?" or "Why should this good person suffer - where is God?" or even "Why doesn't God answer my prayers? Why no miracle cure?" But this is the temptor at work, a read of Job tells us that suffering is not about whether the person is "good" or "bad" but about fulfilling the role or the purpose for which we are set upon this earth. It is part of our spiritual development, part of the growing up of the spirit, and the preparation for the life hereafter. Suffering comes in many forms, for some it is physical, for others mental, and for still others a combination of both. There are things that can and do make it worse; one such is when that person turns in on themselves with such intensity that they succeed in isolating themselves and their suffering by compounding the pain with further pain in separating themselves from friends and loved ones. Sometimes their concern for others is so intense that they intensify their own suffering by worrying about someone they have cared for or love deeply who is close to them or dependent on them.

We all need to remember, in a time of suffering, the words of John Donne, "No man is an island, entire of itself. We are all part of the whole." As the man strolling with God along a beach observed when he noticed that in places in his life there were only one set of footprints which coincided with particular lowpoints and hard times in his life, it seemed that those were the times when God had abandoned him. "Far from it," replies God, "those were the times when I was carrying you!"

Sometimes we get so engrossed in our own pain that we forget that God is there beside us, sometimes carrying us, but always suffering with us. Christ came among us so that we could become like God, therefore, that part of us which is from God and suffers as we suffer means that God is Himself suffering as we suffer. He does answer our prayers, but sometimes what we pray for is not what we need, and then we get angry when we get something that we do need instead.This is where having too fundamentalist a vision of God can often hinder our understanding of Him. He is not like us, bound by flesh and time, and we are only in part like Him, in the spirit. Sometimes we only remember that when we are deeply distressed or in danger of losing everything, even life itself, so it may be that we are put here to help one another to discover our purpose, our faith, and even who our friends really are.

My friend has helped, and - in St Paul's words - "been a succourer of many, and of myself also" - now that she is in need, it is our turn to be the succourers, even though most of us can only offer prayer, support, and a shoulder to lean on as she fights her battle with cancer. The important thing is to be true friiends, true helpers, and to avoid at all costs the sort of self-satisfied pronouncements made by Job's so-called comforters!

Pray, my friends, for your friend and mine that she may find healing and peace, whether of the body or the mind - the good Lord alone will know. We are all part of the whole, as Donne wrote, "send not to ask for whom the Bell tolls, it tolls for thee." As any one of us suffers so it affects us all; it is something we must remember, and pray for each other over. None of us knows the hour or indeed the day of our departure from this life. Even as I type, it could well be that this may be the last thing I type. Naturally I hope it isn't, but life is never certain, and it is full of risks. All we can hope for is that the Lord our God will be there to catch us as we fall - and we have His Word on that!

"That was when I was carrying you!"

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:09 AM | Comments (1)