I'd heard rumours of this impending story on the BBC grapevine back in March, but Jonathan Edwards confirmed it all in an interview with The Times this week. Hat tip to Alan for the link.
Archives for June 2007
I chaired a debate on homophobia in the church today at Summer Madness, Ireland's largest Christian festival. The house voted by a sizeable majority in favour of the motion "The House believes that the church promotes homophobia." The motion was proposed by the writer and broadcaster Gareth Higgins and Mark Russell, the chief executive of the Church Army; and was opposed by Earl Storey, director of the Church of Ireland's Hard Gospel project, and Brendan McCarthy, leader of Omagh Community Church. We'll have more from the Festival on tomorrow's programme, and an extended interview with Bart Campolo, one of this year's keynote speakers.
While driving through Leitrim this week, I heard a radio presenter on a local station getting extremely excited about this Garda prank onYouTube. Someone called two separate Garda stations using two mobile phones; then, when the stations answered, they put the phones next to each other. Listen out for the meteorite.
It was raining when I left Bundoran this morning. It rained all the way to Derry, where we filmed a sequence about Ireland's forestation for the Blueprint series, and it's still raining outside now that I'm back in Belfast after a three-day expedition. The Blueprint team have been to Donegal, Leitrim and London/Derry this week. While Tony Blair was leaving office on Wednesday, we were in boats on Lough Melvin trying to find traces of Arctic Char 150 feet below us. Then we headed for Bear Cave in county Leitrim to see the place where the remains of the last bears in Ireland were found a few years ago. The National Museum of Ireland reuinted a nearly-complete bear skeleton with its burial site and we all helped piece the bones together -- it was like a Blueprint team jigsaw puzzle.
I spent the day at Aughnadarragh Lough, near Crumlin. In 1986, geologists drilling for a new seam of lignite on the shores of the lough made a remarkable find. An enormous tooth was unearthed in a layer of mud above the seam of lignite. They had uncovered a tooth belonging to a wooly mammoth that roamed in the Lough Neagh area thousands of years ago. I held the actual tooth in my hands today -- courtesy of the Ulster Museum -- as we filmed a sequence on location at the site of the discovery. Did you know that Northern Ireland was home to wooly mammoths?
Now back in Belfast, it's time for a quick change, then I'm off to the Waterfront Hall to chair Youth Link NI's annual certificate distribution ceremony.
Oh place your hands, on my hope,
Run your fingers through my soul,
And the way that I feel right now,
Oh lord it may go.
The opening lines of Reef's 1996 song "Put Your Hands" -- yes, 1996 was the year before Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister. It was the song chosen as the anthem to welcome Gordon Brown to the leadership of the Labour Party at today's special conference in Manchester.
Just to be clear: Reef did not name themselves after a slang term for cannabis. Nor was the group's name chosen because it is an anagram of "Free".
I wonder how long it took Gordon Brown's leadership team to pick this track for his walk-on. And did they rule out other Reef songs in the process? They could have chosen, for example, "Come Back Brighter" (from Tony's favourite year, 1997), "I've Got Something to Say" (from 1999), "New Bird" (also 1999), "Set The Record Straight" (hmm, 2000), or "Give Me Your Love" (from 2003). I'm sure it took them only seconds to rule out the 2003 track that soared to number 56 in the UK charts: "Waster".
Take it away, boys: run your fingers through Gordon's soul:
"Tony, Gordon and I: we were all Neil's apprentices." A smiling Lord Kinnock was there to enjoy the compliment. But what else have Blair, Brown and Harman got in common? We're about to find out. Harriet Harman is the new deputy leader of the Labour Party. That doesn't mean she will become deputy Prime Minister, however. It looks like Gordon Brown has decided to make do without the position John Prescott filled in government for a decade.
In their haste to be first with the story, Sky News reported, for a good hour, that Alan Johnson had won the deputy leadership election. Oops. That brings back memories of the night before John Paul II's death, when Sky reported the pope's demise and a producer and I started running around the BBC news room wondering when to start our live coverage only to be told it was a false alarm. Better late and accurate than first with the wrong story?
What now for our erstwhile Secretary of State, Peter Hain? I predict Leader of the House of Commons; or maybe Lib Dem leader in the Lords. (Yes, that was a joke.) Your predictions are welcome below.
He looks more like Johnny Depp than the Red Tzar, doesn't he? This picture of Stalin was taken in 1902, when he was twenty-four years old. Twenty years later, he was General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and on his way to becoming one of most infamous tyrants of the twentieth century. How did a young Georgian with a taste for religion -- and a vocation to the priesthood -- become the man who masterminded the murder of between forty and sixty million people? The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore joins me on tomorrow's Sunday Sequence to talk about his fascinating new book, Young Stalin. It's a tale of brigandry, sexual excess, religious obsession, political repression and mass killing; and Simon talks as brilliantly as he writes. Miss it at your peril.
Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues is an international sensation. Since its first production in 1996, the play continues to fill theatres across the world and has given birth to the V-Day movement, which campaigns to end violence against women and girls.
The Vagina Monologues returns to Belfast next week with three performances at The Black Box, on Waring Street in the city's Cathedral Quarter, on 25, 26 and 27 June. An entirely voluntary cast and crew will stage the production, and proceeds will be donated to Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre. Tickets are be available on the door (£7/ 5 concession), which opens at 7.30 pm for an 8pm start.
The writer and artist Cary Gibson is one of the cast. I asked Cary what this production means to her. You can read her response below.
I'm back from what Davy Sims has described as my "secret mission". The Blueprint team has been filming on Valentia Island, off the coast of country Kerry. I took this picture -- which is why you can see part of my palmprint at the bottom of the image (I'm not a cameraman, ok?). We were filming the pre-title sequence of the second programme in the series, which deals with the colonisation of this island by plants and animals, and there's really no better place in Ireland to do that. Generations of Valentia Islanders have known about these strange markings on the shore. They were known locally as "the Devil's hooves"; but in the 1990s they were finally investigated scientifically and we know now that these are -- amazingly -- the oldest intact footprints in the world. They are 385 million years old and they mark the moment when primitive marine reptiles walked on the land. Signs on the island these days mark the "Tetrapod trackway", but most visitors don't seem to appreciate just how significant these tracks are. Hopefully, our Blueprint series will bring this scientific find to a much larger audience.
Matthew Parkes, a geologist at the National Museum of Ireland, who authored a guide to the tetrapod tracks, joined us on Valentia to keep me right on the science and to guard a fairly significant fossil he'd brought with him. This was a Cooksonia fossil, the oldest plant ever found on Irish soil and the forerunner of all the plants we now recognise on the island. I held this 425 million year old fossil in my hand for a piece to camera on the rocks near the tetrapod tracks and was relieved to return it to Matthew in one piece.
Which is not to say that our pieces to camera were without incident. It hardly stopped raining for the entire time we were on the island, which doesn't make for a great opening title sequence. At times, Carole O'Kane, our longsuffering programme director, must have wondered if we'd leave the island with any usable footage. But we managed to film during lulls in the weather, and the results apparently look pretty good. Jim Creagh also captured a very decent sunrise for the top of the programme, which meant getting up at 3.30 am and gathering about two hours of tape (he would wish me to point out that he sat beside the camera throughout, while Carole read Hello magazine in the car!).
I'll leave some pictures from the shoot on my Facebook page -- come by and say hello. I won't include any pictures of my rental car being pulled out of a ditch by one of the islanders in a 4x4.
Thanks to Davy for minding the shop for a couple of days.
Davy Sims again blog-sitting for William.
I was really delighted to see how quickly the bloggers at Slugger responded to the State of Minds test on our web site which was launched in the early hours of Monday. There was additional commentary about the promotion of the programme on Monday, too.
The – for want of a better phrase – play along with the TV test will be launched about an hour before the programme is transmitted tonight (9.00 pm). So I’ll use this blog to plug heavily that you can participate on the web, on a mobile phone and on “red button” interactive TV.
Looking forward to your comments tomorrow both here and Slugger. William should be back by then from his secret mission.
Although the Author is credited as William, I'm Davy Sims blog sitting for a couple of days.
As William says, I’ve joined Facebook as have just many of my “real life” work friends. This social navigation thing has interested me from the earliest days – even in the clunky AOL versions a decade ago. But in real life I don’t tend to join things and it’s much the same on the Web.
Like many others I tried Friends Reunited in its early version and deleted myself before long. Second Life’s success is a mystery to me. I’ve tried it – but between being totally geographically (if that’s the right word) lost and with the time lag (nano-seconds are important on line), I dropped it too. And making up that avatar … enough.
My Space account is still active – but I never use it. Twitter is OK but I ended up talking to myself. I was talking to one of the (many) BBC people who are not on Facebook who says he’d prefer an anti-social network.
Yet Facebook seems to work for me. It’s a bit more fun I suppose, and with “real” friends there it’s more interesting. I’ve even got into non-online (i.e. face to face) conversations with people about their lives which probably wouldn't have happened if I hadn't read those one liners people publish about going for a walk or going shopping.
But what has recently emerged is fascinating. One person who found my profile invited me to become a friend is also friends with two utterly unrelated people. The three of them just happen to work in new media/web. But it turns out that my new friend (who I’ve never met) used to phone in to a radio programme I presented more than 20 years ago.
I think the key here is real people with real names who know each other in real life. But different people like different things. For some, anonymity is more fun and allows more scope for making connections. And connections is what it’s all about.
Where social networking sites really get it right is treating the internet for what is – a sharing, multi-way platform. Where broadcasters often get it wrong is thinking about the internet as one way outward push and distribution mechanism. And as I say to broadcasters who are just beginning to use the internet “remember it’s a conversation”.
And with that, I welcome your comments and please add me as a friend on Facebook.
This morning's Media Guardian revealed that 12,000 of the BBC's 25,000 employees are members of the social networking site Facebook. That number has grown since this morning to 13,021. I've been a member for a while now, as has Davy Sims, BBC Northern Ireland's editor of new media. Davy lists this as one of his favourite quotations:
I once did a speed reading course and finished War and Peace in a day. It's about Russia.
I love it. Davy will be blogsitting here for the next couple of days (I'll explain why on Thursday). Be nice to him. And if you're a member of Facebook, feel free to add me as a friend.
If someone commits suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Mohammad, his act is justified.
Mr ul-Haq later returned to the floor of the parliament and said his words had been misinterpreted; his remarks, he says, were not meant to be a justification of suicide attacks. The words "door", "horse" and "bolted" rather come to mind.
Chris Donnelly, over at Slugger, is unhappy about Professor Paul Connolly's proposed response to the disturbing findings of a BBC survey into sectarianism among young people in Northern Ireland. The survey results are revealed in tonight's State of Minds programme on BBC1 Northern Ireland. The key finding is that children in Northern Ireland continue to live segregated lives. Paul Connolly's proposal:
One way of doing this is to encourage children's sense of being Protestant or Catholic alongside also helping them to recognise that they are all part of a wider and shared identity as Northern Irish. Perhaps the most positive finding from our research is that many children are already beginning to think in this way.
Chris Donnelly isn't impressed. He writes: "Forgive me for being blunt, but describing identity in primarily religious terms here is an entirely bogus premise. Given that the issue of national identity runs to the core of the political problem, proposing we skirt over people’s primary source of identity-as British or Irish- and instead propagate an alternative ‘northern Irish’ identity sounds very Alliance-ish to me. Surely a better conclusion would be to assert that we must find ways of equally legitimising and respecting the primary national allegiances of British and Irish here as a prerequisite to developing inter-communal trust from which shared identities may evolve. Ignoring primary identities and instead proposing artificial allegiances is more likely to arouse suspicion and mistrust on all sides. Let’s open this one to the floor."
I imagine Chris was basing this response on a few comments in a press release rather than the programme itself, which is being broadcast as I speak. I don't have the impression that Paul Connolly is describing identity in "primarily religious" terms. Instead, he is recognising that national identity in Northern Ireland continues to be linked to religious identity. We may wish this were not so, but the survey reveals that it continues to be the case. Connolly (I think wisely) suggests that we need to raise children with a positive sense of religious identity -- which is to say, a sense of identity that is neither defined by difference nor threatened by difference. And we might also deal with sectarian perceptions in children by encouraging them to participate in a shared sense of political identity as "Northern Irish". This category does not erase "Britishness" or "Irishness"; and it is certainly no more "artificial" than any other cultural identification.
You can visit the programme's website here and take the mindset test yourself.
I hadn't anticipated that today's on-air encounter between Kate Gilmore, the deputy secretary-general of Amnesty International, and the distinguished journalist Hugh O'Shaughnessy would be quite so pugilistic. After Kate Gilmore explained AI's new policy on abortion, Hugh O'Shaughnessy, one of the founders of Amnesty and an opponent of the new policy from the beginning, argued that the abortion policy was a sign of the growing "Americanisation" of the organisation -- the importation of an alien culture war. Within seconds, Kate Gilmore launched into a forceful challenge. There was quite a bit of over-talking as I tried to persuade Kate to permit Hugh to make his point before she respond to it. In the end, I managed to move them away from the genesis of the new policy to the Vatican's reaction to it. On this they were both agreed. In the words of Hugh, a committed Catholic, Cardinal Martino "ought to be ashamed of himself." You can listen again to their pretty heated exchange here.
The sixteenth of June is the day on which James Joyce set Ulysses. If you aren't able to attend any Joyce-themed events today, you can dip into the BBC radio archive and listen to Edna O'Brien talking about Joyces real and imagined women, Declan Kiberd talking about modernity and Joyce's Ireland, and David Norris talking about Joyce and Homer -- three wonderful twenty minute talks recorded for BBC Radio 3 back in 2004. You can also watch this short film by Bórd Scannán na hEireann in which Beckett and Joyce play pitch and putt while waiting for someone. The usual warnings and caveats about adult themes and language apply: if you are likely to be offended by Joyce's way with words, you might try golf instead.
Fr Jeremiah McGrath is still a priest of the Catholic Church. He was suspended by his bishop, Dr Joseph Duffy of Clogher, pending the outcome of his trial. Now that Fr McGrath has been found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment for aiding the rape of a young girl in 2005, is the church going to make a statement confirming that it plans to seek a laicisation (dismissal from the clerical state) in his case?
In the words of Lord Nolan's 2001 Independent Review of Child Protection, "Laicisation is the most serious perpetual penalty that can be imposed by the Church." It can be imposed only after a formal judicial process involving a tribunal of three judges (though this process could be avoided if Fr McGrath consented to laicisation).
The Nolan Review also emphasised that the laicisation penalty would not be appropriate in every case, but suggested that it would be appropriate to initiate the process of laicisation in respect of any priest or deacon convicted of a criminal offence against children who has been sentenced to serve a term of imprisonment of 12 months or more. The Review arrived at this 12 month period because
. . . this is the minimum period adopted by statute for the compulsory disqualification of adult offenders from working with children (The Criminal Justice and Courts Services Act 2000, section 28(4)).
Presumably Bishop Duffy, Archbishop Sean Brady, the Papal Nuncio and many others are already consulting relevant authorities and considering their options. The possibility of a legal appeal needs to be examined first; but once that matter has been resolved, many Catholics will wish to see a swift resolution of this case. If Fr McGrath's conviction and sentence stand, it is difficult to see how a judicial process of laicisation could be avoided. I wouldn't like to be the bishop who had to explain to the public why a man convicted of arranging and facilitating the rape of a young girl should be permitted to remain in the clerical state.
It would also help to maintain public confidence if church leaders were prepared to be interviewed, rather than merely issuing statements, in order to explain the options they are considering and some of the admittedly complex processes involved -- and to simply express their outrage at what has unfolded in a court in Liverpool. The public, and members of the Catholic Church, will appreciate and respect a church leader's willingness to articulate, in very personal terms, what many of us have been feeling as we've read reports of this priest's role in the appalling abuse of a 12 year old girl.
British academics are considering a " comprehensive and consistent boycott" of all Israeli academic institutions, as called for by Palestinian trade unions in response to Israel's "40-year occupation" of Palestinian land. And the Vatican is calling on Catholics everywhere to withhold donations from Amnesty International in response to AI's change of policy over abortion.
Two protests by powerful organisations, in their own spheres, and both are the subject of enormous moral debate. Wouldn't a boycott of all Israeli institutions harm pro-Palestinian voices as much as any others? And wouldn't a boycott of Amnesty International by Catholic organisations seriously imperil the work of human rights across the world (work that is central to much of the Catholic Church mission)?
In both cases, it could be argued, the protesting groups risk cutting off their noses to spite their faces. On the other hand, some Palestinians have called on British academics to impose these sanctions, and some leading figures within Amnesty have argued that the organisation had no business getting into the deeply divisive political and religious debate about abortion in the first place.
Neither protest is without complexity, but surely the likely consequence of these boycotts is the key to determining whether they make any sense. Would a boycott of Israeli institutions by British academics advance the goal of a just settlement in the middle east -- or will it merely penalise Israeli academics with little or no political influence? And would a wholesale withdrawal from Amnesty International of financial support and organisational cooperation by the Catholic Church and by individual Catholics tend help to build a fairer and safer world for children everywhere?
That seems to be the question now being asked by Richard Turnbull's three predecessors as principal of Wycliffe Hall, the evangelical Anglican theological college at Oxford University. The Guardian's Stephen Bates, a regular contributor to Sunday Sequence, has been doggedly pursuing this story since the beginning; today he reports the latest development. Alister McGrath is one of the three former principals to voice their concerns about the leadership of Richard Turnbull in a stunningly direct letter to Bishop James Jones, the head of the college's governing body. They write:
We must in all seriousness ask you to recognise before it is too late that there is a widespread lack of confidence in the present principal, both in his managerial style and his myopic vision.
So far, Dr Turnbull has refused to comment on the controversy except to challenge a comment piece by Giles Fraser. Some have suggested previously that a liberal-led attack on Dr Turnbull has been mounted in some sections of the media. This unprecedented intervention by leading evangelicals such as McGrath and his predecessor Dick France must surely silence those conspiracy theorists.
I didn't write a post yesterday because I was too busy deflooding my house. I spent the morning filming with the Blueprint team near Royal Avenue in Belfast. We were filming a segment of the second programme dealing with the fate of the Irish elk. Eventually, our computer graphics wizards will place a simulated Irish Elk in the scene with me, which meant that Jim and Carole had to frame shots with just enough space for that imagery to be added in post-production. While setting up, Carole was interrupted by a passer-by who asked why a camera crane and crew were in Castle Place. She explained that this was a BBC natural history programme and that we were telling the 600 million-year history of Ireland and Northern Ireland in three hours. The passer-by reached into his bag and handed her an evangelistic tract, explaining that we were wasting our time because the world was, in fact, only six thousand years old. He told her why carbon dating was a scientific lie and was adamant that the fossils we were examining were left by Noah's flood. This was clearly neither the time nor the place for a discussion about the age of the earth. But the weather soon changed dramatically, and I later found myself at home trying to keep a flood of near-biblical proportions out of my front hall.
I spent the day on the north coast getting burnt to a crisp with the Blueprint crew. We filmed near Ballygally, squeezing pieces to camera about Ireland's Jurassic period into the gaps between passing cars. Mike Simms, Curator of Palaeontology in the Ulster Museum, came with us to guard the fossils that will be making a cameo appearance on the second programme, and to generally keep me right. He interrupted one piece to camera, for example -- in which I was talking about the mysterious catastrophe that sealed the fate of dinosaurs -- to suggest that I say "mass extinction event" instead of my scripted "extinction level event". That's the kind of subtle distinction only a professional paleontologist will appreciate; but "mass extinction event" won the day.
After lunch, while I finished another bit of filming with Carole and Jim, Mike appeared carrying a large rock which contained some excellent ammonites. It wasn't exactly a Eureka moment; just the sort of thing a paleontologist does when at the beach. He packed the stone away with the Scelidosaurus fossil he'd brought for one of my pieces to camera. A Scelidosaurus is sometimes described as the earliest complete dinosaur -- it was an armour-plated vegetarian creature that inhabited the land that's now the north coast of Northern Ireland about 200 million years ago. How do we know that? Partly because of the rare fossil I was holding this afternoon.
If you can't wait to see our computer simulation, here's a slightly less high-tech (ahem) reconstruction of one of Northern Ireland's long-lost dinos.
If this computer game had been set in a Mosque, you can be sure there would have been more of a public outcry.
That's according to a Church of England source, ahead of today's meeting of Manchester Cathedral clergy. The gathering of church leaders will draft a letter of complaint to Sony and consider other measures in an effort to have images of the Cathedral removed from the Playstation game "Resistance: Fall of Man".
The Cathedral is outraged that Sony would use images of their sacred space in a violent game, particularly since Manchester is struggling with a gun crime problem. Sony believe they have obtained all the permissions necessary for the use of these images. It may be for the courts to determine that matter. But even if the courts decide that images of a public building -- or, m ore accurately, computer simulations of the building -- can be used without the agreement of those who own the building, an ethical question remains about the social impact of this imagery. Some may think that Manchester Cathedral is overreacting, that the bishop and dean should accept that this kind of thing happens in the real world (and the virtual world). But there are substantial matters of law and ethics at stake here -- some of which unavoidably impact the church's prophetic role in a city such as Manchester.
I doubt that the 2012 committee will abandon their new logo, even in the face of an overwhelmingly negative response from the public. Wolff Olins, the brand company responsible for the logo, leads the industry in the UK; it gave us the excellent Tate Modern logo. But did they get it wrong this time? Personally, I'm more impressed by some of the public's amateur efforts here. Would you have paid £400,000 for the logo that now brands the next Olympics?
In seventeen days, Gordon Brown will become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. On today's programme, we discussed his distinctive approach to faith, and how religious commitments are likely to shape his tenure, with the writer and broadcaster Johnston McKay and Tom Brown, one of Mr Brown's personal friends. In a recent piece in the Independent, Johann Hari examined Brown's belief system and concluded thus:
So Gordon Brown's God is cantankerous and ambiguous. At His best, He likes to help the poor and hates hereditary privilege. At His worst, He likes dividing His flock into schools where He will be worshiped fulsomely in His many different guises. This God is alternately encouraging and disturbing - but we cannot understand our next Prime Minister without Him.
Just when we thought the debate about homosexuality would be rested for the weekend, Jeffrey Donaldson has raised the flag again. This now looks like it could turn into a running DUP theme for the year. On today's Inside Politics, Jeffrey Donaldson said the DUP would oppose plans to permit gay and unmarried couples to adopt. "The DUP will vigorously oppose any move in Northern Ireland to introduce gay adoption," he says. "We do not believe it is right that a child should be placed into a gay relationship." He also maintained that "a married relationship is the best relationship for adoption." You can listen to the interview here.
My understanding is that, at present in Northern Ireland, gay and heterosexual people are permitted to adopt as single parents. The new proposal would extend that principle to allow unmarried and single couples to share adoption responsibilities.
Incidentally, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering have an interesting site dealing with various aspects of the adoption/fostering process and experience. They feature an article by Sam (not his real name), a 10-year old, who lives with his two dads. Sam writes:
To me a dad is someone I want to grow up to be like when I’m an adult – and I’m lucky to have two. When I have my own children (if I choose to have any) I want my dads to help me teach them the stuff they’ve taught me: to be good people, to be caring, to look after the world. And how to enjoy life! Do you know why it’s cool to have two dads? Because when one is doing the work around the house the other one has some time to play. At other times they change around. Sometimes, we do jobs together, like cooking or shopping.
Sam thinks it's cool to have two gay dads. What are your thoughts? Should adoption rights be extended to unmarried heterosexual and gay couples? While you're thinking about it, check out this great cartoon.
It's a sizeable personal collection of books by any standards. I'm not long back from my meeting with the First Minister and he confirmed that he has a library of about 30,000 volumes. Most are religious histories and theological texts and the books are located in three places, including the Paisley family home in east Belfast. Dr Paisley re-reads the Bible at least once each year, marking up the text with notes and various colour-codes. He has also read The Pilgrim's Progress about a hundred times. We'd a lot of fun wondering what kind of names Bunyan would have assigned to some of our current Stormont politicians. I'm not going to tell you any more about the interview, except to say that there are a couple of revealing comments in there that will make you raise an eye-brow or two.
After the interview, we chatted over coffee for about half an hour and found ourselves discussing the relationship between theology and science -- we compared reading notes on Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins. He even -- gently -- took me to task on some of my radio interviews with leading creationists.
The First Minister, as ever in these personal interviews, was the embodiment of charm and good humour throughout, and I was very impressed by his knowledge of 18th and 19th century American theology in particular. As he was showing me out of his office at Stormont Castle, he said, "It's a long time since a conversation like that was had in this room!" Then he chuckled and told one his assistants to show me "carefully out" of the building making sure that I didn't get my hands "on any of the family silver".
I'll find out at 3 o'clock when I meet the First Minister in his Stormont office to talk about his love of books. People tell me that the FM has a collection of 15,000 books. We'll find out today. Does he read novels? How many Bibles does he own? What's his favourite book after the Bible? What's he think of the Da Vinci Code? These and other questions will be put to the big man himself later today and you can hear the answers on the Book Programme. OK, I'll give you a few hints in a late-afternoon post.
I'm still recovering from yesterday's Blueprint film shoot on a bog near Randalstown. Apparently, it was the hottest day of the year (until today) and I found myself on top of Sluggan Bog, with vaporising water steaming under me, wearing my cold-weather continuity jacket and feeling like I'd walked into a Swedish sauna fully dressed. Everytime I opened my mouth to deliver the piece to camera, the back of my dried-out throat was assaulted by a kamakaze midge or some floating bog cotton. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and left the shoot with sunbun on the back of my neck. We drove past a man in his 60s cutting peat at the bog -- he'd been quietly working there all day and put the city-dwellers amongst us to shame. It was nice to record some radio scripts today in the comfort of an air-conditioned studio.
Three out of the ten Republican candidates for US President have declared that they do not accept the scientific theory of evolution. One of them, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is also a Southern Baptist pastor, tried valiantly to calm some American fears about his views on science during last night'sGOP presidential debate in Manchester, New Hampshire. Governor Huckabee wanted to clarify his position on precisely how old the earth is. When asked if he believed the world was created in six literal days some six thousand years ago, he said, "I don't know. I wasn't there." Whether those six days refer to 24-hour periods or "eras" (the so-called day-era theory) is a matter upon which the governor now seems to have no strong opinions. Is it possible that the governor's staff have reported worrying sounds coming from a recent focus group meeting and suggested that he allow his view on creationism to evolve a little further?
The Irish Presbyterian General Assembly today voted to adopt new guidelines which encourage the church to be more "understanding" of gay and lesbian people. The report containing those guidelines has been the subject of quite some controversy -- not least because its authors deliberately refuse to speak of "gay people" and the report endorses the kind of ex-gay counselling that many mental health professionals regard as unethical. Nevertheless, the report encouraged the church to create safe spaces for conversations about sexuality and called on church members and ministers to reject homophobic language and attitudes. All of which was too much for some of the more conservative members of the House, who lined up to deliver speeches condemning homosexuality and rejecting the need for any pastoral care guidelines other than those they already found in the Bible.
It was a tense debate. Dr Ken Newell spoke of the need to make the church a place of welcome and grace for gay people (update: I include his speech below); and the Reverend Richard Hill provoked some murmuring when he suggested that a gay person's sexual orientation may be as natural to him or her as their left- or right-handedness (see below for this speech). Others, including the Reverend Richard Murray, rose to challenge some of the tesitmonies from gay church members contained in the report, with some speakers rejecting the claim -- by definition -- that those gay people are Christians.
In the end, the House voted to receive the report and publish its guidelines, even though some of the report's defenders acknowledged that it was flawed and only the start of a new conversation for the Presbyterian Church. And make no mistake about it: this was a very new conversation. Whereas other churches across the world have been debating homosexuality for decades, Northern Ireland's largest Protestant church has avoided what is for them a troubling subject for a very long time. Today, they began a conversation, with voices on both sides of this debate being raised in a public session. Many of those on the losing side of the motion today lined up to register their dissent from the Assembly's decision to publish its new pastoral care guidelines -- and some of them had the sense that they had been defeated on a matter of serious moral principle. The divisions within the Presbyterian Church on sexuality were apparent, and, now that the conversation has finally been broached in a public debate, I suspect we will be reporting further rhetorical skirmishes in the near future.
Who won today? That kind of question does no justice to the complexity of the debate or the issues at stake within Irish Presbyterianism. The church's theological stance on homosexuality remains as it was yesterday; that wasn't the issue before the Assembly. But the church's supreme court today hosted the kind of conversation about sexuality that would have been inconceivable five or ten years ago in a church as traditionalist in its ways as the Irish Presbyterian Church, with contributions that were by turns moving, insightful, courageous and downright infuriating.
Then in the evening, the church hosted a Presbyterians Talk Education event, with guests including the new Education Minister Caitríona Ruane. This was another history-making moment for the Assembly: a Sinn Fein politician was warmly welcomed by the Moderator, to spontaneous applause, then invited to address the event and take questions from the floor. They even had schoolchildren on the stage wearing Irish dancing dresses doing jigs, with a Catholic bishop, Dr Donal McKeown, seated the audience on the floor of the Assembly Hall.
At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if the First Minister himself turned up at this Assembly's closing session to pronounce the Benediction. OK, I would be surprised. But after today, I wouldn't rule anything out.
They flipped a coin and Jim Rodgers ended up Lord Mayor of Belfast.
I was able to break some news on air tonight while joining my colleague Bert Tosh in the commentary box after the broadcast of the opening night of the Presbyterian General Assembly. The Sinn Fein MLA and Stormont Assembly member Caitríona Ruane has now confirmed that she will attend and address the Presbyterian General Assembly's townhall-style education event tomorrow night. This event is not technically a session of the General Assembly; but it will be held within the Assembly Building, and it will be the first time a Sinn Fein politician has ever made a speech at the headquarters of Northern Ireland's largest Protestant church. The hand of history yet again?
The Ulster Humanist Group is hosting two public meetings examining this complex question: 4 June and 18 June at the Community Arts Forum in Belfast. Details are below.
On today's Sunday Sequence, the author of the Presbyterian Church's controversial new report on homophobia described recent comments by the DUP's Ian Paisley Jr as "homophobic". The Rev Bobbly Liddle also appeared to distance himself from suggestions that his report endorses ex-gay counselling -- even though the wording of the report has given that impression to others. While many would like the Presbyterian Church to move further and faster on the debate about homophobia, the Reverend Richard Murray, a Presbyterian minister in Connor, told us this morning that he believed the report went too far: he would like to see a clearer statement of moral condemnation of homosexuality from the Presbyterian Church. Richard Murray also conceded that he had never himself knowingly pastored a gay person.
The conversation this morning was curious, to say the least. Bobby Liddle impressed me as someone sincerely struggling to do justice to an issue that has rarely been discussed in public within his church and he is clearly anxious to challenge some aspects of homophobia that are, to some extent, institutionalised within Irish Presbyterianism. Nevertheless, he quibbled over something as basic as the term "gay person" (an expression his report copiously avoids) and seemed to want to create safe spaces for gay people within the church while at the same time remaining open to the possible usefulness of "corrective" counselling in some cases. Richard Murray, on the other hand, confidently denied that same-sex orientation existed as a "sexuality"; he contended that there is only one God-given sexuality (namely, heterosexuality) and all other supposed sexualities are merely perversions of heterosexuality. The other guests, Andi Clarke from Belfast Pride and the legal academic Dermot Feenan. tried to engage both of these positions while at times, to my ears, sounding like they didn't quite know where to begin. Two very different worlds appeared to be struggling to make sense of each other in conversation.
You can listen to the full programme here.
Welcome to the next episode in the unfolding drama (perhaps "tragedy" is a better term) of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. So far, more than a third of the staff of this evangelical college have resigned, apparently unable to continue working there under the leadership of their new principal, Dr Richard Turnbull.
It seems that Dr Turnbull's conservative brand of evangelicalism is proving more than a little claustrophobic for the "liberal evangelicals" on faculty. Evangelicalism represents a wide spectrum of views -- from fundamentalism at one end to "open theology" (an adventurous rethink of the metaphysics of God) at the other end. Somewhere between those two poles, "liberal evangelicals" are to be found defending the ordination of women, challenging literalistic readings of the Bible, extolling the divine genius of biological evolution, and sometimes making a case for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian believers in the church. These kinds of views are an abomination to those who find themselves at the more conservative end of the evangelical spectrum.
And "abomination" is, we learn in today's Guardian, precisely the right biblical term to explain the visceral response of some conservatives at Wycliffe Hall, and other places, to the presence in their midst of a growing number of liberal evangelicals.
Alister McGrath, the former Principal of Wycliffe Hall and one of the leading evangelical theologians in the world, is no longer associated with the college (he's now a fellow of Harris-Manchester College, Oxford, and spends his days writing books). He has carefully avoided making any public comment about his successor and the chaos that has overtaken his former academic home. But in the Gaurdian's "Face to faith" section today, his wife -- the Anglican priest and psychologist Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath (pictured) -- gives her response to what's going on.
To the 95%-plus of the population not initiated into the finer points of evangelical Anglicanism, the now infamous video of the conference address by Dr Richard Turnbull, the principal of Wycliffe Hall, reported in the Guardian (Theologian damns most Britons to hell, May 24), must make for incomprehensible as much as compelling viewing. His dire warnings about "Catholic understandings of the church" and the danger of "liberal evangelicals" may also seem trivial and plain irrelevant in a world threatened by climate change, poverty, war and disease.
The piece goes on to interpret Richard Turnbull's difficulties with the idea of "liberal evangelicalism" using a hermeneutical tool provided by the anthropologist Mary Douglas:
Douglas drew our attention to the human need to impose order on a chaotic and dangerous universe. The cosmos is more manageable if it can be categorised, with everything in its place; but if things are in the wrong place, huge anxiety is generated. Douglas used this insight to give a systematic account of the dietary laws of the book of Leviticus, pointing out that anomalous creatures such as shellfish (fish shouldn't have legs) are presented here as a dangerous abomination.
The notion of "liberal evangelicalism" is as bizarre and unacceptable to Turnbull, it seems, as shellfish was to the authors of the book of Leviticus, who condemned as an "abomination" anything that departed from the order they imposed on the universe. Those same biblical writers also applied the term "abomination" to consuming pork, lobster, or any meet that was three days old, and trimming beards (if you are male).
We wait to see what response, if any, the clean-shaven Dr Turnbull is likely to make to this razor-sharp analysis.
I've just finished interviewing Thomas Kinsella for the Bloomsday edition of The Book Programme (16 June). Kinsella, now 79, has just been granted the freedom of the city of Dublin; a very rare honour indeed -- in fact, he's the first artist to be given the award in sixty years. In his early thirties, Kinsella wrote this haunting, disturbing and utterly beautiful reflection on the experience of growing older and on the dawning realisation that perfection evades us all. As poems go, on the other hand, Kinsella's work comes very close to perfection.
Mirror in February
by Thomas Kinsella
The day dawns, with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed - my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy -
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.
It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.
Below my window the wakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities;
And how should the flesh not quail, that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young, and not renewable, but man.
We want Britain to free our prisoners and we specify Sheikh Abu Qatada al-Filistini, and at this position we won't forget our prisoners in the other infidel states and we say to them, free our prisoners or we will deal with you the same. We don't specify a state without the others. And we say if you want the ransom to free them we will give you to the last piece of gold as the Prophet, peace be upon him, told us to do.