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April 30, 2006

Iona - a place of singular peace.

About a hundred years after the death of Patrick of Ireland, a young monk named Collum Cille copied a book he was not authorised to copy. His familial connections to the High King and his stubborn belief that books belonged to everyone, resulted in a civil war and his exile from Ireland. That exile also sparked the Christianisation of the Western Isles, the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland, for Columba as he is now known was a man of considerable gifts, deep faith and spirituality. He landed in Iona from a sea going corracle - a boat made from willow frames and covered with hides - sometime around 570AD to find an island with a population of around 1200 and, with his twelve monk companions, founded a monastery on the site of the present building.

Nothing remains of Collum Cille's round huts and wattle and daub church, such organic buildings need regular replacement and only some post holes from their orginal upright timbers have been found beneath the present building which dates from the 13th Century and the coming of the Benedictines. The community here suffered badly under the Vikings who raided it several times and the beautiful beach at it's North Eastern end is the site of a massacre of the monks, rounded up by the Vikings and slaughtered on the beach.

The legacy of Columba however, remains, and his presence can still be felt.

The Abbey on Iona, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, lovingly restored by the Duke of Argyll after it had fallen into ruin by the late 19th Century.

Today the Abbey is home to the Iona Community, and ecumenical group who keep the worship and the monastic traditions alive. The Community was the brainchild of the Rev George MacLeod in the 1938, a plan very much in keeping with the Deed of Trust set up by the Duke of Argyll who deeded it to the National Trust of Scotland for use as an Ecumenical place of worship, prayer and retreat.

The stretch of water that separates Iona from Mull, seen from Fionnphort looking across at the East of the Abbey.

The island itself is separated from Mull by a narrow channel of deep water, about a half mile in width. Access is by means of the Caledonian Macbrayne ferry from Fionphort, a small vehicle and passenger ferry which runs back and forth roughly every half hour. The astonishing clarity of the water is something to enjoy - in fact our fun photo of the crab was taken while waiting for the ferry on the Iona side of the channel - through about two feet of water!

Definitely a place to be visited again.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:43 AM | TrackBack

April 29, 2006

Reaching the Isle of Mull

Our long and winding drive round the sea lochs of Western Scotland and the Highlands eventually saw us arriving in Oban for the night. The next morning we had to make an early start to get a place on the ferry to Mull. Normally one needs to book a place for a car, but we were lucky, there were spare places and we got on. The ferries between Oban and Mull are quite large ships, loading through the bow and stern depending on which end you get on. This one runs from Oban to Craignure (Pronounced, Craig-new-ree) and crosses the spectacular Firth of Lorn before entering the Sound of Mull the entrance to which is guarded by the restored Duart Castle, home of the Chief of the Clan MacLean.

The ferry "Isle of Mull" approaching the dock in Oban. The approach is interesting involving two sharp doglegs before she is able to swing round and back onto the vehicle loading ramp.

Scouting for targets? A gull soars effortlessly above the ferry on the way to Mull.

At Craignure we found the Scottish Tourist Office very helpful and friendly and within minutes we had been booked into a comfortable B&B at Lochdon. The Wild Cottage reception we got from the owner made our stay on Mull even more fabulous than it would have been - she and her husband made us feel like long lost friends and treated us as such throughout our stay! I commend them to anyone planning to visit Mull, Iona and Staffa!

Duart Castle stands on it's promontory, behind it a shallow bay provided shelter for the Lord's galleys to be drawn ashore.

Duart Castle is a fascinating place, started in the 12th Century and enlarged and rebuilt several times, the present buildings were rebuilt and restored in the 1890's and completed in the early 1900's. It is now the home of the Lord and Lady MacLean. The original Keep is open to the public and a rewarding visit. Like many other castles built in the same period it stands on a commanding position and the draw slips for the galleys kept by the Lord's of the castle can still be seen in the rocks below. The purpose of the castle was to proclaim control of the access and waterways and it certainly did that. The galleys were used to intercept shipping and exact a tax, a practice that continued well into Tudor times.

Today visitors are welcome to the Isles and the defensive purpose of the castle is no longer needed, but it gives a fascinatiing window on the past.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:07 AM | TrackBack

April 28, 2006

Getting Catty

I stumbled across this site this evening and thought I would share some of the entertainment. I think Bravo here would be The Gray Monk's favourite feline, obviously a firefighter doing the short ladder exercise: http://www.mycathatesyou.com/cats/2006/04/3.

And then there's Clara: http://http://www.mycathatesyou.com/cats/2006/03/6
or for the scientists among us, Schroedinger's cat: http://www.mycathatesyou.com/cats/2006/03/11.
For those who prefer historical reenactments: http://www.mycathatesyou.com/cats/2006/01/4.
...wildlife documentaries: http://www.mycathatesyou.com/cats/2005/12/24
...horror: http://www.mycathatesyou.com/cats/2004/12/21
...murder mysteries: http://www.mycathatesyou.com/cats/2004/02/114
...and for anyone who receives spam: http://www.mycathatesyou.com/cats/2005/10/21

Posted by The Postulant at 08:13 PM | TrackBack

Art and science

Received an interesting response to our post with the rainbow in Loch Fyne. It just goes to show how different we all are when it comes to viewing a thing of beauty, no wonder Terry Pratchett can depict his "Auditors" in the "Thief of Time" as dismantling priceless works of art and reducing them to the individual paint atoms in an effort to "appreciate" what makes it "art". Someone that we shared the original photo with - it is, at 4 megapixels far to big to be posted in that form - read the time, date and other "technical" data from the original file (they obviously have a very sophisticated programme for this) and sent us the following comment!

mit dem Regenbogen kann was nicht stimmen! Nach der Bildinformation wurde er am 18. April um 16.37 Uhr aufgenommen. Aus der Höhe des Regenbogens ergibt sich, dass die Sonne 40° hoch über dem Horizont stand. In Schottland ist dies aber nur bis 14.10 UT = 15.10 Uhr Sommerzeit möglich! Bist Du sicher, dass Ihr Euch nicht verirrt habt und irgendwo im Atlantik unterwegs ward?

Translation: With the Rainbow, there is a problem. According to the photo information, it was taken on the 18th April at 16.37 hrs. According to the physics of rainbows, this is not possible for the location since the sun must be at an elevation of 40° relative to the horizon for a rainbow of this angle and magnitude. In Scotland this could only occur at 14.10 Universal Time which is 15.10 hrs British Summer Time. Are you sure of your location, as according to calculation you would have to be South of this position or in the Atlantic to obtain this photo?

Erm, actually, there is a simpler explanation. The camera is set to European Summer Time, one hour ahead of BST!

While most people went, "Oh, what a beautiful rainbow!" this correspondent actually sat down with pen and paper - or perhaps, knowing the person concerned, ran an analysis programme - and worked out the sun angles, the latitude and longitude and correlated this to the camera data. He is a very dedicated scientist, so I suppose we should expect a scientific analysis from him! Oh and he is a nice guy really - just extremely intelligent and possessed of a sense of humour that it takes a while to understand.

He's still working on the Terry Pratchett explanation of the "Big Bang" - "In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded!" - insisting that we are explaining the wrong thing with this......

The really scary thing is that he was absolutely right about the time the photo was taken ..........

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:33 AM | TrackBack

April 27, 2006

Light and shadows ....

Driving up from Loch Lomond around the deep sea lochs that penetrate the Scottish Western coast, we rounded a bend and found ourselves looking down on this rainbow at the head of Loch Fyne. The light seemed to be striking upwards from below the rain and clouds above which poured over the mountains to the West of the Loch. Rain swept across the head of the glen and we watched in quiet enjoyment as the sun played with the raindrops to produce the stunning rainbow in the picture below.

Now, had this been Ireland we would have found a Leprechaun at each end clutching his pot of gold - and could have got three wishes for grabbing him and the gold! Never mind, the pure magic of the sight was enough for us.

The roads around here are narrow - mostly single track with "passing bays" - and require a good deal of patience and concentration, but for the brave, the bold or the plain ignorant, it all brings it's own rewards as each bend produces some new sight or breathtaking view. Once the rain cleared - and it soon did - we drove on down the Western side of the Loch to Inverary, then on up through more winding twisting glens and along the shores of Loch Awe and on to Oban, to find a ferry to the Isle of Mull.

But more of that tomorrow!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:23 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 26, 2006

Vital Spark

At Inverary we found this pair of small ships that make up a fascinating Maritime Museum. In the foreground is the Antarctic Penguin, once a Light Ship in the Clyde Approaches and now a preserved vessel with displays of the maritime heritage of the Clyde and the Western Isles. Tucked in behind her is one of a large number of "Puffers" which once roamed the Lochs and islands collecting and delivering goods before the trade was taken over by the juggernaut lorry and the vehicle ferries. The one captured here was originally built for the Royal Navy and served all her working life as Vic 27, carrying stores and munitions around fleet anchorages to replenish the capital ships of the once mighty Royal Navy. Now she is preserved with the dual purpose of comemorating the men and small vessels who kept that fleet at sea, and also the large number of similar ships and hardworking men who plied the Scottish coast with their little ships supplying communities with the necessities of life.

The former Light Ship "Antarctic Penguin" and the 'puffer' Vic 27 now bearing the name "Vital Spark" alongside the quay in Inverary.

Those familiar with the Tales of Para Handy will recognise the name the Vic 27 now carries, the "Vital Spark" being the roguish Para Handy's little ship. In fact this small ship and one or two like her, have stood in for various TV programmes which have brought Para Handy and his crew to life for a more recent generation who will never have encountered their like.

The Antarctic Penguin is home to a fascinating display of famous ships and their crews and owners, of the conditions aboard them and of the "emigrant ships" - some as small as fifty feet in length - that carried the displaced Highlanders and Islanders away from Scotland during the "clearances" of the 1800 - 1850 period. Conditions aboard were horrendous for these unwilling passengers. The Penguin herself was never used for oceanic voyages, buit served instead as a moored navigation beacon in the Clyde approaches. Her rig is authentic, she did indeed have three full masts, the fixed lights she displayed being carried on them. For all that she has a sound sea going shape and must have been a good sea keeper when in use. She carried a crew of eight and they would have done a "tour" of a month at a time aboard.

Both vessels are well worth the time to visit - as is the Castle, home to the Dukes of Argyll, the famous heads of the Campbell Clan.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:07 AM | TrackBack

April 25, 2006

Guess the subject ....

For those who have stayed in touch - you will have guessed that Mausi and the Monk have been adventuring in the wilds of the Western Isles, but where did we take this picture - and more important what is it?

Subject confusion? Is it a bird? Is it a continent seen from space? Is there more to visiting the Western Isles than meets the eye?

A free post to the person who sends in the correct answer!

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

April 23, 2006

Writers' block

I've been working on a book with a friend of mine for about 8 months now and it never ceases to amaze me how inspiration insists on striking at the worst possible time. My best ideas have arrived in the middle of meetings, or when a really urgent work-related deadline is looming, or while I'm wedged into someone's armpit on the train - in short, anywhere where I can't possibly sit down with a pen and paper and scribble a note or drum out a quick email. On the upside, I think my memory has improved from the necessity of hanging onto ideas until I can write things down!

I can also console myself with the idea of writing a really quick book one weekend and publishing it on http://www.lulu.com/uk - I may only earn a fiver from it, but when someone decides they want to read about what happens when a man who should have died while taking part in a time-travelling experiment... well, you'll just have to keep an eye out for it. Unfortunately the joint project book is going to have to go through conventional channels, because we actually want to earn money from it...

I'm sure anyone who wants to have their blog in book form for posterity would enjoy Lulu though - have a look and let your imagination carry you away with dreams of published success - I have!

Posted by The Postulant at 07:02 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 22, 2006

Inside the SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain is cleverly designed to bring as much comfort to its passengers and crew members as possible. Looking at the photograph of the deck below the top deck you notice chestlike structures on both sides. These are in fact "windows" designed to bring light from the top deck into this one and into the dining room below. They are covered by grilles to prevent things from falling through.

Deck below the top deck inside the ship

The First Class cabins are to the port and starboard of this photograph. These passengers had of course their own access to the top deck.

The rather big sized galley gives you an idea how many of the crew must have been busy with preparing and serving the meals for the passengers. I imagine it must have been quite a hectic place at times with pots steaming and spluttering all around you.

Part of the galley

Keeping enough supplies for all on board must have been quite another matter. The photograph below shows the larder. There is also a place on board where freshly caught fish or whatever came along could be kept.

One of the places where the provisions were kept

I wonder, though, how often they were reduced to ships biscuits and plain water during the last leg of their journey...

Posted by Mausi at 02:04 PM | TrackBack

April 21, 2006

Travelling on the SS Great Britain

Before she became a freight ship the SS Great Britain was origally intended to transport passengers from Europe to America and back. A journey on board a ship like that must have been quite interesting to say the least. No fancy shopping malls or large sized cabins as we have on some modern cruise ships nowadays. The top deck was divided by a fine white line between First Class and common passengers. Every group had to keep to itself. Space on the topdeck was furthermore taken by a stable to keep an ox or two and guarantee a certain supply of fresh meat. Whatever space was left and not taken up by the crew or their equipment was the passengers' to enjoy a breath of fresh air in.

And they most certainly needed that! Below deck passengers, even first class ones had to squeeze in wherever possible.

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Size of first class cabins

The cabin to the right might seem a bit bigger but there are two more bunks hidden behind the door on the left side. I can't imagine how people were able to get enough fresh air in such close quarters when the weather was bad and they were forced to keep the porthole shut.

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The loo (left) seems to be a rather comfortably sized room compared to another of those cabins (right)

But even the officers were not much better off - as a look into the Purser's cabin tells us. It cannot have been much fun having to work in such confined spaces especially in bad weather when the ship started rolling about.

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The Purser's office and sleeping quarters

Probably to keep passengers amused and entertained and from falling into a depression during their long voyage across the Atlantic ocean meals must have been the highlight of the day. It shows in the design of the First Class dining room which has been magnificently restored recently.

The grand First Class Dining Room

Posted by Mausi at 01:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 20, 2006

Modelling the Great Britain

It is difficult to get a picture of the Great Britain from any point around her that shows her full lines - it is also difficult to get a feel for her size. The model in the dockside museum at least gives some idea of the beauty that Brunel sculpted in the iron he used for her building. As an idea of size, her second mast from the bow is the main mast and this is 240 feet in height, and the yard on which the lower of the two square sails is set is made of iron and weighs 7 tons.

This model of the Great Britain gives a good view of the overall hull and her rigging and shows just how innovative Brunel's design is.

Brunel's design combined the then familiar structural method of creating a "tumblehome" above the waterline, so that the beam is at it's greatest at and just above the water, then tapers inwards until it meets the upperdeck. This increases the strength of the hull considerably - a fact borne out by her survival on an exposed Irish beach for eighteen months early in her career and then for almost sixty years aground in a cove in the Falkland Islands. Few modern ships would survive such treatment.

The use of iron also allowed Brunel to create a ship twice the size of any conventional ship of the time built in wood. Even so-called composite hulls could not practically exceed a certain size dictated mainly by the length of planking and the difficulty in creating joints which would not suffer excessive stress. The combination of the screw propulsion system and the balanced rudder also made a ship which was both fast and manoeuverable and lacked the clutter of the huge paddle boxes on her sides. It also allowed him to keep the engines low down in the hull and thus give her greater stability. One feature he retained from the paddle steamers and which subsequently became a feature in all modern ships is the "Bridge", a raised platform spanning the deck and placed just aft of the funnel, allowing the Captain and his officers to see clearly all round the ship from a vantage point. Only later would it become practical to combine the steering position and the "Bridge" - something the Royal Navy has not done until quite recently, arguing that it was better to keep the helm position separate so that both Bridge and Helm could not be "knocked out" at the same time.

While this model conveys the beauty of the ship, nothing can compare to standing on the real thing and admiring her "in the iron".

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:45 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 19, 2006

Visiting UU's library ....

The slightly less than soft "Ooook!" as I snapped the picture below warned me that I had strayed much too far in L-Space and wandered into a library where the books need physical restraint! Mausi and I had gone to see the famous Mappa Mundi - photographs definitely discouraged - and found ourselves wandering among the shelves of what can only be the model for the UU library.

A small section of the "Chained Library" at Hereford Cathedral

The library at Hereford Cathedral contains books dating back to the 1300's and has a number of first editions - possibly the only editions - of works by Erasmus of Rotterdam, Martin Luther and others. This collection has had mixed fortunes down the years, having been variously stored in chests, in musty rooms and then for almost five hundred years in the Lady Chapel in public use. Many of the older books are on scrolls - not in this section of the library - and the oldest accredited is the Hereford Gospel book dating to the 1340's. This is still used during the installation of a new Dean or at the enthronement of a new Bishop.

Hereford has enjoyed mixed fortunes down the years - originally built by St Aethelbert, a Saxon Bishop, the cathedral was attacked and burned by an outlawed Saxon Earl and a Viking army. All the clergy were killed in the raid and many of the townspeople were also killed or taken as slaves. The present Cathedral was started in 1097 and is still very much a living place of worship within the heart of a very ancient city.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 17, 2006

Heading North

Well, today I am breaking the habit of a lifetime. I am about to hit the road on a Bank Holiday, to join the dubious pleasure of "motoring" North amidst the teeming hordes of returning holidaymakers - 18 million of them attempted to leave London and other major centres for other parts of the country on Thursday and Friday bringing gridlock to the roads. I am hoping to avoid the worst of this as I drive North with Mausi to explore the Western Isles and Highlands and to visit Iona.

We will be posting things, or our favourite Postulant will from time to time as we have the chance to do so. Expect a full report of our wanderings when we return, with Mausi on camera there should be lots of interesting pictures to share.

The Easter Feast reached its climax yesterday at the Abbey and we seem to have enjoyed record congregations this year - a reversal of the reported trend of shrinking attendance. Those who came to worship with us seemed to have come from far and wide, but a fair proportion were local folk who regard us as their spiritual home. Even some of those from abroad expressed that thought which suggests that the search for faith and for spiritual growth does indeed know or recognise no boundaries. We also made history this Easter when two woman priests concelebrated at the High Altar on Maundy Thursday with the Vicar and three other clergymen. This is the first time a woman has shared in the Eucharistic celebration and a concelebrant at this Altar since the ordination of women was made legal in 1988 and it represents a huge step forward in the spiritual life and growth of the Abbey congregations.

The motorway beckons, the Highlands beckon and I must away to Iona. I am praying for a lack of traffic and in particular for a safe and pleasant journey.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:31 AM | TrackBack

April 16, 2006

Modern propulsion ....

Mr Brunel's genius extended way beyond the capabilities of the materials he was working with on occassion. His design for a screw propellor for the Great Britain was so far in advance of the concepts of the day that it was truly groundbreaking and produced far more power than the materials he had available to make it from could handle. Not until the advanced metallurgy of the late twentieth century became available, could screw propellors like this one be made. First for the nuclear submarines and now, of course on almost every modern passenger and freight carrier at sea.

Brunel's innovative screw propellor and the balanced rudder he designed for his great ship, the ss "Great Britain".

Brunel's original design was fitted to the Great Britain and served on her first voyages across the Atlantic, proving to be extrremely efficient in service. However, the cast iron blades were extremely fragile and snapped under power - a much toughre and less brittle medium was required and this would not be available for some years. As a result the Great Britain spent most of her career as a steamer with a two blade and much less efficient screw fitted - still managing to prove very fast and powerful even with this handicap.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Christ is risen

The traditional greeting on Easter morning is "Christ is risen!" and the reply, "He is risen indeed! Allelulia!" should be shouted with joy. It is the resurrection of Christ from the tomb in which the broken body of Jesus was laid which sets Christianity apart from other faiths. It is in the resurrection that we are all made sons and daughters of God.

Those who see Christ as a prophet in a line of prophets make a fundamental error. A prophet comes to proclaim the Word of God, Christ was that Word. As the "God Bearer" - Theotokos, the Greek title of Mary His mother - Mary stands as the ultimate "prophet", the one who bore the Word into this world. The man who died upon the cross on Golgotha was no ordinary man, He was the Word of God made flesh in order to show us the way of God and to reveal God to us. His empty tomb is for us the place of the birth of hope and life beyond this one - in Him we are all dead and born again in the resurrection. His coming into the world was the ultimate moment in human history, the fulfillment of God's revelation and the milestone against which all subsequent actions must be measured.

As St John says; "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

May I wish you all a happy and blessed Easter Feast.

Christ is risen; He is risen indeed - Allelulia!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 15, 2006

Stations of the Cross

It is traditional at this season to perform an act of penitence and the Stations of the Cross provide the means to do this and to spend some time in meditation on the entire Easter message. My good and dear friend Ozguru has put up this link and website for those who have not the opportunity to go to a church where these can be found marked out for worshippers.

Try them.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Easter services

I think our Lord must have a terrific sense of humour. He made us, then He gave us religion ........

The Services over the Easter weekend are a complex set of liturgical events designed to focus our minds on the momentous events of Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the ressurection at Easter Day. Naturally, as these are all uniques services they need pages of instructions for servers and ministers alike - and hours of rehearsal when no one else is around so that we don't mess it all up and destroy everyone else's opportunity for reflection, meditation and worship. These rehearsals can descend into farce as different groups try to blend in their actions and movements into the overall service plan. In a place like the Abbey the team is quite large and the number of tasks is proportionate. It is fortunate that the servers have a number of places where they are "out of sight" of the congregation - or the congregation would be surprised by the speed with which we sometimes have to move from one place or task to another - while the Deacon or Priest is leading prayers, reading a lesson or, as in the case of tonight, singing the Exultet!

The Server team always looks to see who is doing that as they have to get around the Abbey and light numerous candles, including those of the High Altar and the Lady Chapel Chandelier while he is doing it. Get someone who rushes it and you haven't time to get to everything and back to place - so we always pray for a slow singer and sprint like fury whenever we are out of sight! I am sure the Lord enjoys this - and occassionally throws in a wobbly, as on the occassion the Deacon turned two pages and skipped a huge section of the Exultet! Panic stations for the Serving Team!

The other bit we are always interested in preparing for carefully is the lighting of the Easter Fire at the West End. On occassion it has been known for the flames to threaten the Priest as he attempts to get a light from this to the Pascal Candle and to the Thurible for the incense. It is also not unknown for the wind to blow the candle out before we can get it indoors for the Deacon to proclaim "Behold the Light of Christ!" The congregation at large remain, fortunately, in blissful ignorance of some of the things the Servers have to do in order to ensure that we do not have an auto de feu among the Ministers, that the Paschal Candle is lit and stays that way and still manange to be everywhere we have to be in time to do whatever needs doing! Images of swans and the underwater activity spring to mind. Hence all the rehearsals - and we still have top be prepared for any little joke the Lord throws at us as well.

The last several days of services have gone extremely well - the congregations have left feeling truly uplifted and full of the Spirit, which suggests that the Servers and Ministers efforts have not been wasted and that the Lord has smiled on our poor contribution. As the serving team enjoy the first sprinkling (It's the Lord Abbot so we should get off lightly for a change!) of the new water of Baptism from the font as he asperges the church, uppermost in our minds will be the sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour - and His resurrection of hope and life of the world to come.


Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 14, 2006

Good Friday Liturgy

In a little over two hours time I will be taking part in one of the Church's most moving liturgical services. The Solemn Liturgy for Good Friday in which the veiled Crucifix is carried into the Church by a Deacon who makes four "station" as he (or she) travels from the West End to the head of the nave. At each station a part of the veil is withdrawn slowly revealing the cross and the figure suspended on it. At each station the Deacon chants "Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the World."

When the crucifix reaches the head of the Nave it is placed on a Priex Dieu and the President, Deacon, Sub Deacon and Servers kneel before it, kissing the foot of the cross in penitence and thanks giving for the great sacrifice it represents. The congregation follow while the choir sings a series of penitential psalms - almost every person who takes part in this liturgical act of worship is deeply moved by it. I can certainly say that it is one service of praise and worship which always leaves me in a spiritual state of grace tinged with sorrow, yet uplifted in a way I cannot describe adequately. Two years ago it fell to me to carry the crucifix from this position into the Quire for the choral clerks veneration and then to place it on the High Altar - it has left a permanent mark on my soul. I know exactly how Simon of Cyrene must have felt.

Once the Crucifix is placed on the altar, the consecrated elements of the Body and Blood are brought from the Lady Chapel and the congregation receive communion standing before the Cross. Then everyone leaves the sanctuary and Quire - scattering and without ceremony, just as the frightened disciples did on that very first Good Friday.

Worth pondering as we mark this solemn day.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:33 AM | TrackBack

April 13, 2006

Brunel's great ship

This is the 200th anniversary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's birth. Isambard who? Probably the greatest engineer of the Age of Industrial growth, this man was playing with materials and ideas others had not even dreamed of - and he had some spectacular failures as well as some huge successes. His bridges are still in use, a tunnel under the Thames driven through clay and lined with brick was the idea of his father and finished by IK in partnership. The disasterous "Great Eastern" - the world's biggest steamer when launched and which bankrupted all but her last owners, was probably his greatest failure, but his successes where even more spectacular.

One of these, the impressive and unique "ss Great Britain" is preserved in Bristol in the Great Western Dock where she was built. The ship was so innovative and so huge that many predicted disaster from the moment she was conceived - yet she served valiantly from launch in 1845 until damaged off Cape Horn and seized by the Falkland Islands Comapny as a wool store and isolation hospital. Finally, in the 1930's she was towed round the island from Port Stanley and sunk in shallow water in a cove from which she was finally recovered in 1970 and brought hom to Bristol. Now she is being restored and visitors can see at least some of the genius that was Brunel's greates achievement.

The beautifully restored upperworks of the "Great Britain" as she lies in her dry dock.

Present work includes the reconstruction of the engines Brunel designed to drive this then leviathan of the ocean - an inverted steam compound engine that used a huge flywheel to drive a proppellor shafte via massive iron chain belts. Everything on this ship had to be designed from start - Brunel had no previous examples to work from of anything like this scale (His previous ship, the Great Western was a composite hul and much smaller - also using paddle wheel propulsion) and included having to design an efficient screw propeller, a balanced rudder which made her easier to steer than many smaller ships, and much of the engines themselves. His spacing of the frames, construction of the double bottoms and even the working of the wrought iron plates that made her hull strakes all had to be calculated and designed from scratch. Even the interiors did not escape his attention to detail and these were as lavish in parts as they were functional elsewhere.

The fine lines of the "Great Britain's" underwater hull can be admired from the floor of the dock in which she is preserved. Her gracefull hull form gave her a very efficient entry and exit at bow and stern and meant she had a fair turn of speed under both steam and sail.

She burned 30 tons of coal per day under steam and carried sufficient to steam across the Atlantic and have a small reserve. Once she was switched to the Australian emigrant run she had to rely on sail power and was converted to sail only. She proved very successful on this and on her next manifestation carrying coal to Australia and wheat home.

Watch this space for a little more on this wonderful ship - I have a whole slew of pictures of her interiors and some more on her other features!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:01 AM | TrackBack

April 12, 2006

Challenging philosophies.

The present debate about the provenance of the "Gospel of Judas" and its Gnostic origins has raised the question of "what is Gnosticism?" It has also raised the very real question of what do we all understand about the person of Jesus of Nazareth and how do we see the relationships between God, the World and our physical beings.

Taking one part at a time, Gnosticism arose in the 1st Century, indeed there is evidence that St John himself was involved in the original arguments and wrote his Gospel specifically to refute the arguments advanaced by a very persuasive advocate of this philosophy. Essentially the Gnostic case is that Jesus was not a man, but a God, and as such could not have suffered pain on the Cross or died. The nativity too was an illusion and the purpose of his coming was to impart "secret knowledge" to those "chosen" for "enlightenment". This is completely contrary to everything we know about the historical figure - and there is historical evidence which supports the story we have from the New Testament. Gnosticism is, in essence, a superimposition of the concepts of Plato regarding the nature of existence upon the Christian message, Plato's argument being that the world we see is but a shadow of another "real world" we see reflected around us. The Gnostic position is therefore "Dualist" in nature and separates creation into two parts - that of the physical existence we see around us, and another "realm" of purely spiritual existence bound by a different set of rules and "discorporate".

Of recent years it has made a serious comeback, particularly among those who have adapted to a "New Age" philosphy some of the teachings of the Gospels. It has seen a particular resurgence among some Christian Sects since the start of the Age of Enlightenment, in part due to the adoption, by the Protestant Reformers of a "literalistic" interpretation of Scripture. In many ways, the "Age of Enlightenment" (roughly the period from 1700 - 1900) was a counter blast to the fundamentalism that had pervaded the Protestant (and Catholic!) pulpits of that period. Martin Luther would have been appalled to see how the very things he argued against - the closed thinking and the narrow interpretations - had become the "norm" in the "reformed" churches which held sway in most of the British Isles and Northern Europe. The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, points this out very clearly and very much more lucidly in his book "The Challenge of Jesus". He points too, at the fact that the response to the secularism and atheism of the "Enlightenment" has led to the revival of the Gnostic ideas - people need to have a belief system and will invent or re-invent one if the latest gods and goddesses lose appeal. The Bishop's argument is one I have put before on this blog - science and religion are not in conflict, they are both a part of God's gift to us of understanding.

The second part of the debate is occassioned by the 20th Century attempts to take the historical Jesus out of the gospel and replace Him with a contemporary "visionary" and "New Age" Guru with feminist, sociological and political ideologies to impart. Through the 20th Century we have been encouraged to see Jesus as a "man born out of time", some sort of Socialist pioneer born twenty centuries too early. Nonsense! Complete and utter nonsense! To do this is to attempt to say that the universal God whom we worship is some sort of "Karl Marx in the Sky" and that the Gospel has been shaped by "Das Kapital" rather than the other way round. The historic Jesus is as important to our understanding of the Gospel as is the imperitive that we do develop our understanding of the manner in which He stands at the apogee of history. He is the centre point of all human history, everything before Him points to Him and everything after Him flows from Him. We are who and what we are in the Christian founded nations because of that historic figure and the Gospels we have proclaimed. He is not, and never was, some sort of 1st Century Che Guevarra, Lenin, Marx or any other of the many figures of human history who have tried to impose secular quasi-religious political philosophies upon humanity.

Wright argues that this is the natural result of disillusionment with the two extremes of fundamentalist Christianity (ably promoted by an atheistic media as being both the "mainstream" and "silly") and the realisation that science cannot explain everything - particularly cannot explain anything "other worldly". Even the fact that there have been a number of serious studies of "Near death experiences" by serious medical researchers suggests to me at least, that there is a desperate search for "proof" of a life beyond the grave. That is a result of the disconnection between the teachings of the historical figure of Jesus in the Gospels and the resurrection, and the introduction of the demand for "proof" required before any "scientific" theory can be accepted as gospel truth. Re-enter Gnostic dualism and the "secret knowledge" in the many guises it now assumes - New Age ritual, Wikka and even a number of "Fundamentalist Christian Sects.

One of the things I do find ironic is the rise of Masonic Orders since the Protestant Reformation with almost all their rituals being either Gnostic or their later manifestation, the Cathar practices. I also find it ironic that the most likely place to find a dualistic understanding of the creation and of the Bible is in the two extremes of Christian thinking - the Fundamentalist/Evangelical and the ultra-conservative Catholic. Equally ironic is the fact that both wings are the most vitriolically opposed to the Masonic ideas - yet gave rise to their formation.

Dualism, whether Gnostic or from some other source, is a serious problem for both science and the Church at large. Science does not accept a dualistic universe - it cannot since it breaks all the "rules" - and Christianity takes refuge in it at its peril since it is not sustained by the gospels. That was the major reason for the rejection of the Gnostic argument in the 2nd to 5th Centuries and the exclusion of much Gnostic writing from the Canon of the New Testament. Yes, it makes persuasive and interesting reading, but it remains a "mystic" dead end if studied carefully since it leads not to Christ, but away from Him.

The Bishop is right, we need to reconcile our understanding of the historical Jesus and we need to re-unite science and faith in order to restore a real understanding of the Gospels and of our faith.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:29 AM | TrackBack

April 11, 2006

Ancient stones

Mausi and I are enjoying a little break together in England. Last year she showed me the Rhine-Pfalz, this year it's my turn to show her parts of the UK she hasn't seen. Yesterday we visited a site older than Stonehenge - the Avebury Henge which was almost destroyed in the 17th and 18th Centuries, but fortunately saved and restored as far as possible by several enthusiastic and wealthy archeologists in the 20th. Avebury has been a site of human occuppation and activity for 6,000 years and the Henge was built slightly more than 5,000 years ago. Stonehenge is a comparative newcomer having been started around 3,000 years ago.

Avebury is also the site of a manmade hill - Silbury Hill which is the largest manmade mound in Europe and stands just over 43 metres in height. No one now knows why the ancients Britons erected it, or what purpose it served in their lives. Itr is not a burial mound and it seems to have no practical function to speak of.

The Avebury parish church dates to Saxon times and is a little over 900 years old. Some of the Saxon windows and stonewrok are still visible within.

Avebury had ceased to be an important site by the time the Romans came to Briton, the centre of worship and apparently government having moved to Stonehenge and Amesbury about 30 miles to the East. It would not be re-occupied until the Anglo-Saxon settlements in the 7th and 8th Centuries and it has been in continuous settlement since then.

Worth a visit if you are interested in ancient sites - and certainly well worth more thought.

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April 10, 2006

The Gospel of Judas?

The latest brouhaha in the anti-religious press is about the so-called "Gospel of Judas" which paints Iscariot as Christ's favourite disciple and puts him in a position of "betrayer by request". An interesting proposition to say the very least, and perhaps the best example yet of an "assisted suicide". No doubt, in the absence of any political story to bump it off the front pages, it will run and run as the atheistic press try to use it to discredit the mainstream version of Christianity and it's founding fathers. Interestingly it was considered very seriously for inclusion in the canon of writings we now call the "New Testament" during the Councils of Nicea and others, but was rejected then because its provenance was suspect and it was also clearly Gnostic.

The book os Gnostic in its portrayal of Christ and in it's "Dualistic" understanding of creation - in other words it does not belong to either the Jewish or the Christian mainstream of thought on the nature of creation, the universe or of God Himself. It belongs to a collection of books known as the "Pseudepigraphica", books written at various times and attributed by their authors to people such as Nicodemus, Pontius Pilate (There is an "Acts of Pilate", which paints Pilate in a very good light!) and others both Jewish and Christian and all of them have very little provinence when studied closely. As one scholar who has studied the "Gospel of Judas" closely has said, it is a bit like finding something post Hiroshima purportedly written several centuries before the event which gives an eyewitness account of Hiroshima. The "Gospel of Judas" has several such passages which date it to much later than the first century and the early church. It may well draw upon several more authentic sources for some of its content, but the rest must be suspect, if for no other reason than that it stems from the Gnostic heresy.

The present document dates from 4th Century Egypt, and is Coptic in its origin. All it really shows is that the struggle between the mainstream understanding, founded on the Jewish and certainly adopted by the Islamic world, and Gnosticism, Docetism, Arianism and a number of other equally interesting "-isms" carried on from the early church into the late middle ages. Does this make these documents any more valid than the Biblical Canon we currently use? Certainly not, they have been rejected by scholars even in their own period - not least because the position they propose is untenable in any theology and owes more to pagan understandings than it does to the teaching of Christ Himself - or, if we want to get really controversial - Mohammed!

This new "discovery" may well shake the faith of a few waverers, but for the majority, I think it will be seen as "interesting but irrelevant". In the first place it isn't "new", scholars have been working on it for over twenty years, and in the second place the only reason it is now in the press is that the press is keen to attack Christianity and attempt to "disprove" religious belief. As I said at the beginning, nothing for the truly faithful to even get alarmed about, but, sadly, it will undoubtedly be used for malicious purposes by the many who wish to attack Christianity for whatever reason. The fact is that without Pilate, the Sanhedrin and Iscariot, there could be no cricifixion and with no crucifixion, there would have been no resurrection. The rest is immaterial.

I suspect that the only reason we even know of the existence of this "new" Gospel is that the academics need to persuade a legislature to part with some money for conservation and or further research on this or a related topic. That, and the fact that with all the policticans once more on an extended all expenses paid break, there was nothing else to make a fuss about. Pity, it could otherwise have been studied with much more objectivity than will now be possible.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:44 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 09, 2006

Finding faith ....

Thanks to the Anchoress, in her post entitled "Conversion is to turn 2 stories"I found this incredible piece of writing by someone searching for a faith they are comfortable with. Writing under the title of Molten Thought, the author is someone who has been born and raised in a Protestant tradition, but who, like many before and no doubt in the future, has found the spiritual fare in that tradition a little lacking in many respects. I am impressed by the amount of thought that has gone into this persons spiritual journey - not least by the careful consideration and obvious sadness with which it has been done.

There must be many others who listen to sermons such as those the writer of Molten Thought has described and wonder if this is really the message of the Gospel. As a child I too heard sermons condemning Catholics as "idolators" and, as I grew I began to question both the validity of that statement and the depth of understanding of the Gospel and its message in many such congregations. Happily I found my way to an Anglo-catholic congregation as a teenager and have happily served the Lord in like congregations ever since. It is never more true to acknowledge the saying that "every journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step" than in the context of anyone's journey in faith. The essential first step in this case is always the awakening realisation that there is a much deeper sense of faith outside of the pretty and comfortable Sunday School stories and platitudes one commonly gets in a fundamentalist understanding of the Gospel, the Bible and faith.

It is telling that a couple who regularly appear at the Abbey for Evensong and who live remote from this community, tell me that they are "Pentecostalists", but that they have not found in their own congregation, a reverence for the Word of God or its meaning to equal that shown in the Abbey.

I am of the belief that the Lord rejoices in all his children, including those who stand outside of the fold of any denomination or church, but I also believe that he rejoices even more in the efforts of those who seek to know him better and who actively seek to find understanding of his purpose. Like the Anchoress I do not necessarily seek to convert someone to my faith or my denomination, but if someone wishes to explore that path, I will certainly stand ready to assist in any way I can. It is, after all, a part of my own journey through and in faith.

The late Pope John Paul II was a great Christian and a very humble one, and, if there is one thing I hope I may share with him at journey's end it is his final words.

"All my life I have sought you, and now you come to me!"


Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:38 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 08, 2006

Taxing death

The latest Budget contains some rather sneaky tax changes. Our Chancellor is so convinced that only he and his collection of Class Warriors, thieves and muggers of anyone they consider "rich" or "advantaged" can "redistribute wealth" fairly - that is, into their and their cronies pockets - that they have further tightened the screws on those who hope to leave even a small legacy to their children. As someone whose grandparents were stripped of a farm and home that had been in the family for slightly over 400 years, you could say that I hold a prejudiced view. You'd probably be right, especially since it has meant that the three generations since then have always fallen in the gap between those who qualify for handouts for everything and those who want for nothing and can afford the fancy tax accountants and tax dodges while sending their children to public schools and the very best fee paying universities - with extra tuition also possible should little Johnnie or Spohie need it.

Don't get me wrong, I do not envy those that are able to do this - I resent bitterly the likes of Blair, Brown, Clarke, Straw and the rest - all from those privileged backgrounds - stripping me of the hard earned income I have, and then imposing a totally immoral tax on whatever insurance and or property I will be able to leave to my children. The mere fact that I own, rather than rent from their poodle councils, the flat I live in means that everyone else in my neighbourhood qualifies for all sorts of extra cash from Whitehall to "assist them in old age", while I do not! So, I will have to make do with my pension which will be one fifth of what I currently earn without any other benefits - until I dispose of my property and have spent all the "profit". In short I am not allowed to pass anything on to my children! So much for "fairness" and dignity, so much for the taxpayer who has funded all the layabouts who vote for this shower of immoral charlatans.

The ancient home my family had to surrender when we could not raise the cash to pay a death duty demand of slightly more than the property was actually worth at the time, had been taken over by the Ministry of War and used as a headquarters during the period 1940 - 1946. When handed back, the house was in dire straights and needed major structural repairs thanks to "alterations" made during the war. The Labour Government's poodles in the civil service refused to make good the damage - war austerity you know! - and then presented my grandfather with a tax demand as his father had died and the property now passed to him. Family possessions such as furniture and portraits had been simply piled in a barn during the war and were, by now, ruined, so there was little he could do to raise money anyway. His own business had also been ruined by the war and the austerity that imnposed so he declared himself bankrupt - and the tax office grabbed the entire property and sold it to defer the tax payment. He fought their "outstanding claim" for something like fifteen years afterward as they sold it at way below their own valuation!

Yes, I am prejudiced on this score, and yes, I am bitter and do harbour a deep grudge. That is perhaps why I shall do all in my power to ensure that anything I have does pass to my children - even if it means my sleeping under a hedgerow somewhere until I am called from this life. Brown and his thieves will get nothing more from me once I retire - and for my part I will take everything I legally can from them and their cronies. I have paid my way all through this life and my children will do so too - unlike Blair and Brown's favourite "class" of wasters and benefit dependents.

Well, it's soon going to be my turn to take some of that back - and believe me I will!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 07, 2006

Spring is springing out all over ...

My garden, a tiny patch of rather poor clay dominated soil surrounded by a thirsty hedge, is reawakening. The various bulbs have put out their leaves and sent forth flowers, but the primulas have made the best comeback so far. The daffodils have refused to show so I shall consign these symbols of Wales to the ditch on the other side of Offa's Dyke as a true resident of Gloucestershire!

A patch of colour among the bare soil of winter's debris, the primula's put on a bold display - despite recent bouts of subzero temperatures overnight!

One sure sign of spring is the fact that Madam Paddy Cat is shedding her winter coat, so once again everything she touches is given a fur lining. She approves of spring - but still prefers to keep close to a radiator overnight or in the mornings. The door now has to be propped open when I am at home or I get told off because she likes to check the temperature and thee weather in person.

DSCF0007 (2).JPG
Madam Paddy Cat giving instructions to the gardener.

Well, I see the hedge is once more sending out its new buds and shoots so any day now the trimming will have to start! Hey ho, at least its nice to be outdoors without having to dress like the Michelin Man!

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April 06, 2006

Rural tranquility

Between Northleach and Cheltenham lies a tiny hamlet called Yanworth. It is on the road to the site of a Roman Villa excavated and open to visitors so many barely pause as they pass through it. Many probably do not even see the little church hidden in the farmyard as one approaches the hamlet. Yanworth church has a "mass" grave tucked into the angle between the Chancel and the North transept or "aisle" as it is more properly designated. It holds the remains of six Cromwellian soldiers found dead and stripped of their arms nearby. No one has ever identified them and one almost gets the feeling no one had any desire to. They were simply buried here and their grave is surrounded by an iron fence installed in Victorian times.

The interior of the church at Yanworth.

The War Memorial in Yanworth itself and the lists of the hamlets menfolk who went to war in 1914 - 18 and again in 1939 - 45 tells a story of tragedy for this community. It lists so many names from so very few families that one can only guess at the impact it must have had on this part of the world as fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and cousins marched away never to return. Small wonder that the appeasement of the dictators who arose between the wars was so desperately pursued. Today Yanworth is a tiny cluster of houses strung on either side of the suingle track raod - and the little church sits among the farm buildings at its Eastern edge.

The little church dates from the 11th Century and is lovingly cared for by its congregation. It may be small and it may even be remote, but it is a little gem of rural religious architecture - and even more importantly is one of those places where the distance between heaven and earth is not great and one can find real tranquility and peace.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 05, 2006

Spring has sprung, the grass is ...

Don't worry, it isn't snowing here at the moment, but the weather is, as is usual for Spring, changeable. The weatherforecasters do their best, but sometimes they fail miserably to keep up with it. The old saw goes, "Spring has sprung; the grass is riz - I wonder where the mower is ..." Well, I know where mine is, it's in my shed and I have already used it this Spring - it was that or let the grass get out of control. So why have I posted a photograph of the snow?

Well two reasons really, the first being that I felt I needed something pretty for a change after several days of not having anything, and the second was because there is a sneaky, cold wind blowing at the moment which cuts right through you. The temperature in my office is also pretty low - I suspect because our heating system is trying to warm up offices at the other end of the building where it had been turned off prematurely.

The staff car park at my 'Day Job' with a dusting of snow in late January this year.

One of the really strange things this year is that our Winter has been particularly dry up until now. In the last few weeks we have had a lot of rain and for this we must be thankful. We also had a fair old bit of snow, but at intermittent intervals and it has helped, certainly in the Western parts of the country, to keep our ground reasonably moist. That said, I notice that the Flowering Cherry trees in Tewkesbury are in full bloom, but the ones at work - some 28 miles East and 400 feet higher, have not. The daffodils up here are in full bloom, but my own bulbs at home are struggling and my daffodils have failed utterly to put in an appearance this year. Perhaps they have decamped and gone to live in Wales or somewhere a bit wetter. And perhaps, it just isn't the right kind of year for them - or I'm not the right gardener!

In reality, we don't get that much snow and it seldom lies around for long, except where there is a long shadow which protects it from the sun. This year we seem to have had a low pressure system to the South which has drawn really cold air off the continent and kept it over us until recently. Still, as long as one can warm up occassionally, even the snow is nice!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:16 PM | TrackBack

April 04, 2006

The march of progress ....

Visiting some of my old stamping grounds in South Africa a little over a year ago, I managed to get a couple or three of pictures of appliances from my past. Although I never actually used either of these "in anger" I did have a hand in the preservation and restoration of the older one of the pair, a 1932 Leyland Metz 85 foot turntable ladder unit. The one closer to camera is a Dennis F12 chassis carrying a 100 foot Metz Turntable ladder and belonged to the Johannesburg Fire Department at the time I was serving in Bloemfontein.

A DENNIS F12 chassis and Metz 100 foot turntable ladder stands proudly next to a LEYLAND chassis carrying a wooden trussed 85 foot Metz ladder. The Leyland dates from 1932 and the Dennis from 1961. Both are now the property of the Bloemfonetin Fire Museum.

The Dennis is powered by a Rolls Royce RB 80 8 cylinder, 8 litre petrol engine which, under load, achieves around 4 miles per gallon, the Leyland has a straight eight cylinder 9 litre capacity long stroke engine with horizontal carburation. This can be interesting if she backfires during start-up!

The museum in Bloemfontein is managed by the Bloemfontein Fire and Emergency Service and is based on the Station at Ehrlich Park on the Southern side of the city. It is home to a number of unique and unusual appliances and pieces of equipment including the 1932 Pump version of the Leyland TTL and a Morris Stanley pump built on a small Morris Commercial chassis and dating from 1930. The little Morris is still operational, although she is now treated with the respect due to an old lady of over 90 summers! It is well worth the time and effort to visit if you are passing through Bloemfontein!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 03, 2006

Reforming the Lords - again?

I find myself in a quandry over the latest threat to the Lord's from our would be "Lord Protector Cromwell" clinging to power despite the sleaze slowly engulfing him. The Lord's have refused, despite his attemtps to emasculate them and to stuff the Upper Chamber with cronies - most of whom don't seem to attend any debate at all - to kowtow to the illconceived and frequently ill considered dictats of the Labour Party and their agenda to entrench themselves in power. With i ncreasing frequency the Lords have rejected or modified Bills the government is desperate to pass - because it hands ever more power to them or gives them some entrenched advantage over who will rule in future in this country.

Blair and his totalitarianistas cannot stand opposition. So, their solution; reform the Lords again!

Into this mix we must now throw the anxiety of the denizens of the "Class War" warriors who riddle Labour's ranks and who see themselves as being the only legitimate arbiters of how the country should be governed and run. They are demanding a House of Lords so restricted in its authority that it will be littel more than an advisory body to the Civil Service and can be completely ignored by the frequently incompetent and frankly unworthy ideologues and apparatchiks that occupy of the Commons. The demand is that that the Commons must have "Primacy" in all matters of Government, yet, it is the Lords who have consistently shown that they are far better judges of the real needs of the country and, indeed, of the disasterous consequences of some of the legislation this collection of clowns who disgrace the name o government, and their equally incompetent civil servants, have drafted.

This government have all but destroyed the United Kingdom, creating the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament only in order to priovide yet more feather beds for their growing gravy train. England was to have been broken up and destroyed as a "nation" under this plan, but we rejected the "Regional Assemblies" and Blair refuses to allow us to have a "national" parliament precisely because he knows that his Welsh and Scottish power-base would no longer control the English. What really needs reform is the Commons, but, as a friend frequently remarks, "Turkeys don't vote for Christmas!" Thus, we will see the incompetents in the Commons doing yet more damage to our democracy when what is really needed is an elected Upper House with full autonomy and able to block legislation passed by the Commons and vice versa. In short we need both Houses to agree before anything can become law, and we need the expertise in the Upper House to be fully integrated into the Cabinet as well - not appointees, but fully elected Peers.

Naturally, this will create a balance between the two Houses, and will restore the function of Parliament to concensus between the two Chambers. In this it will be a restoration of the balance enjoyed in the US between Congress and the Senate, themselves modelled on the 18th Century English model of King and Council, advised by the Lords and the Commons who actually ran the country since the "Council" was, in reality, the Cabinet of the day.

While I would probably draw the line at returning to a position in which the Sovereign was directly involved in the everyday government of the nation, I am in favour of a fully elected Parliament of two chambers and an elected Cabinet. While we are at it, we also need to revisit the way the Civil Service "manages" the delivery of government policy, but perhaps that is a topic for another day.

For the moment, we need to engage carefully in this latest attempt to destroy what is left of our democracy, and it is supremely ironic that the only guardians are, at present, the unelected Lords!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:58 AM | TrackBack

April 02, 2006

Recapturing faith

One thing the Christian faith needs to recapture, and recapture quickly, is the concept of a family centric faith and the inseparability of faith, work and worship. When we look about at Judaism and Islam we see faiths at work that are not centerd on worship or buildings or even necessarily on a book, but on the practice of that faith in everyday life and in every aspect of life.

Many years ago my mother worked for a Jewish owned company. The proprietors, Jewish emigre's from Eastern Europe and Germany, treated her, and the rest of our family as if we were a part of their family. We shared their celebrations and their tragedies, we went to the Synagogue at their invitation and we celebrated their Barmitzvahs. It has left me with a taste for Jewish food I will admit, and a knowledge of the laws of "Kosher" food, but most of all, it has left me with an impression of what faith in action can and should be! There does not have to be a Synagogue for a Jew to worship, he or she does so at home, with their family and in every aspect of their daily living. If there is no synagogue, it is a pity, but it is not a tragedy, it is an incovenience and it does not mean that worship ceases!

Christianity needs to rediscover this aspect, we need to re-establish the concept of worship as a family everytime we meet as a family. Look at the Jewish Shabat meal. It begins with the family gathered at the table, then the light is brought by the women of the house, prayers are said and the candles are lit. Once this is done the food is brought to the table, again by the women and the head of the household asks a blessing on the food and breaks the bread which is then shared among the participants. Once the main meal has been consumed, a cup of wine is poured and this is blessed by the boy nearest his Barmitzvah, and then shared among the table. The meal ends with another cup shared and the whole meal is an act of worship in itself. How many Christian households do this? I would suspect that, beyond saying "grace" to begin the meal, very few do more. Very few know that the whole is an act of worship once you add the prayers.

It is in the home too, and not just in the Church or the school that children in Jewish and Muslim households learn about their faith and about their holy books. Dare I suggest that, in many Christian households the Bible is something kept on a bookshelf unless one needs to look up a quotation or answer a question in a quiz, we simply do not teach it to our children - and we certainly don't discuss our faith in front of the children! Heaven forbid that we should influence them - or "brainwash" them as some of our "Educationists" term it - into believing that there might be a God or that Christianity might not be the cause of all the world's problems.

For Christianity, the problem really arose from the third century onwards as the faith came to be more and more a "ritual centric religion based on buildings and places" and so, for the vast majority of people became something divorced from the everyday. Yes, even the non-conformist churches fall into this trap, worship is too often based on a Sunday ritual of Church services followed by "Sunday" activities. And even the style and pattern of worship is a form of ritual - even where there is no "ritual", the mere fact of it's being set along certain lines makes it a ritual.

Recently I read an article by a Muslim scholar who described Christianity as being under the control of a "Priestly Caste". In a sense he is correct, yet, in the fullest meaning of the term "caste", he has it badly wrong. Our Priests are not selected by virtue of their having been born into a family of priests, far from it they are "called out of the congregation" to lead the faithful, yet, in many churches, this is the greatest stumbling block to the ministry of all the people. Its the priests job to pray, the rest of us only do it on a Sunday. In fact the vast majority of Christian Priest, Ministers or Presbyters are men and women who have heard a call from God, and undergone a rigorous selection process in order to be selected for training. They are certainly not "born to the job" and they come from all walks of life. But they are there to guide, to lead and to help us grow in faith, not to do it all for us!

Well, if we are serious about our faith, its time we changed the way we do it. The medieval concept of Church as something separate from the world of the mundane is no longer viable. Its time we brought our worship into our homes and centred faith, growth of the spirit and study of our beliefs on our homes and for every day, not just for Sunday. Church services and public worship have an important place, but it is in support of and not instead of, worship in our homes. Try it, you never know, you may find that it makes a huge difference to home and family!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:33 PM | TrackBack

April 01, 2006

Physics of a spaghetti

I never cease to marvel at the things physicists get fascinated by. Take a dry spaghetti, for example. If you hold it at both ends and bend it, it breaks, of course, but not into two pieces as one might expect but into quite a number of small pieces.

The reason for this was now found by two French scientists from the University of Paris: elastic waves. The waves increase the tension in the bent spaghetti causing it to break up into many little pieces. They proved this experimentally, filming the breaking up of the spaghetti with a high speed camera. As expected the first breakage occurs when the curvature of the spaghetti has reached a maximum. This, however, does not relieve the tension in the rest of the spaghetti but sends forward elastic waves. Interference of the waves causes futher breakage along the spaghetti because the spaghetti is bent strongly in those places. The experimantal results were collaborated by computer simulations.

However, theoretically each new breakage should send out new elastic wave packages so that the spaghetti should actually be reduced to smithereens. Why this doesn't happen, the scientist don't know yet but I am sure they'll find out before long. But first of all they'd like to have a look at different materials like fibre glass or metals.

If you think I've made this all up because it's April Fools Day today you are quite wrong. The spaghetti problem actually goes back to Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century. He became widely known during the investigation of the Challenger disaster when he showed how a rubber o-shaped seal had failed due to low temperatures during the night before the start by simply dropping it into a glass of water and ice cubes in front of him. After that no more excuses were heard.

Posted by Mausi at 07:45 AM | TrackBack