Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The monster with no name

Some things are difficult to get my head around.  Film and theatre - no problem.  Live performances of plays, ballet and opera screened direct to cinemas - a bit strange having a theatre experience in a cinema space but it makes sense.  Showing a recording of a live theatre performance in a cinema many months later feels very strange.  However, it gave us to catch up with Danny Boyle's acclaimed production of Frankenstein from the National Theatre.  The superlatives of the time were justified, in spite of not getting the full effect of being present in the auditorium.

The new play from the book is powerful in bringing out several themes such as the nature of humanity, prejudice and the inter-dependence of creator and created.  But it was the issue of the name of the"monster" that has been running round my head.  I use the term "monster" as shorthand but we have to recognise that it is not a name but is a perjorative description.

Boyle has said that he wanted to give the "monster" a voice.  In the play he turns from an incoherent being at his creation into someone who aware, well read and articulate (in content, albeit with a speech defect).  But, as in the book, he has no name.  He describes himself as an Adam to Frankenstein the creator but he does not claim that name, which anyway is a descriptor.

So why, I ask myself, does Frankenstein not give him a name and why does he not give himself a name when he has the intellectual capacity and literary knowledge to do so?

Giving a name or knowing a name is often understood to give power over a person.  Traditionally, parents express their authority over a child by naming them.  Traditionally, a wife took the husband's name on marriage to indicate whose authority she was now under.  People converting to Christianity have often taken a new name, a Christian name, to indicate that they are now under Christ's authority.  I could go on about this but I hope it makes the point.

For Frankenstein to name his creation, it would imply taking responsibility for his work.  For the "monster" to name himself, it would mean taking responsibility for himself, becoming his own person.  So here we have the tragedy - neither wants to be or is capable of being fully human.  The non-humanity is not just a feature of the creation but of the creator too.

In the end, they disappear from sight, ineluctably bound together in their inhumanity, to their mutual destruction.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A Greater Manchester mayor?

Being old. I can remember things (at the same time as forgetting things). In 1974, England had a major reorganisation of local government. In Greater Manchester, a hotchpotch of smaller and larger local councils were coalesced into 10 metropolitan borough councils with a Greater Manchester council having responsibility for county wide strategic issues. The churches even responded by setting up the Greater Manchester County Ecumenical Council to coordinate their work across the county and to engage with local government.

Mrs Thatcher abolished metropolitan county councils in 1986 - they tended to be Labour and she didn't like local government anyway. Some of the Greater Manchester county council's responsibilities were given to the 10 boroughts, others had to be fulfilled by several ad hoc coordinating committees. Some of these have been reasonably successful - the development of the Metrolink tram system and support for the arts, for example. However, their success was only possible because they built on what had already been set up under the Greater Manchester Council.

Now, 40 years on, the current government has had an idea - Greater Manchester would flourish (economically, of course, what else matters) if there was proper strategic planning and direction. Their answer is an elected Mayor with those responsibilities. This does have the benefit of democratic appointment but not the checks and balances of accountability between mayoral elections. A region like Greater Manchester does need some strategic authority with resources. So far so good. Better a sinner that repents!

However, I can't help but wonder why a government facing economic problems should decide to give £1 billion to Greater Manchester. Of course, there is great merit in spending decisions being taken at as local a level as possible rather than by people in London. For a government, though, there is the happy position of being able to say, when people complain about lack of funding,that decisions were taken by your Mayor not by us. The reality is that the government's generosity is an illusion. Local government is being systematically starved of funding with ongoing cuts to their budgets with front line services on which many depend being destroyed. Is the appointment of a mayor a way of deflecting anger?

A Greater Manchester mayor as Trojan horse? Beware Greeks (or governments in this case) bearing gifts!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The victory of schooling?

It wasn’t that many decades ago when the landscape was clear. Schooling was for the majority – to equip them for their social position and economic role in society. Education was for the few - to make them the cultured and knowledgeable masters, if not of the universe at least of the empire. By their own efforts and by associating together, often in the non-conformist churches, ordinary people claimed education as their right too. Whatever the faults of the education reforms of the inter-war and immediate post-war periods, it might have been thought that things were moving in that direction. Melissa Benn’s excellent descriptive and analytic School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education exposes what a mess we find ourselves in, particularly after the efforts of the current and two previous governments.

My own conclusion, which has been reinforced by the book, is that schooling has won and education has lost, at least in the medium term. England (the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments may prove wiser) seems to have set itself on a course where we will end up with the majority going to schools which are run by for-profit bodies but paid for by the state. At the other end of the scale a few will go to schools run by non-profit foundations (such as the current independent schools) paid for privately by high fees. There will, of course, be some schools that fall somewhere between the extremes.

The schools for the majority will concentrate on useful subjects (that is useful to employers) with measurable results and with a regime that will emphasise unquestioning compliance. If you thought it is bad now, you should look closely at what some ‘flagship’ schools are doing. Financially, they will be squeezed by the desire for providers to pay dividends to their shareholders and the state’s desire to pay as little as possible. An education will be offered by the better independent schools where it will be possible to have resources for music, drama, art and sports; to learn religion and poetry and so on. In other words, all those areas and interactions that enrich our lives and enable us to be whole persons. Already such schools charge fees above the level of most families’ total annual income and that disparity will only increase in the future.

So the future begins to look like the past, though without children suffering from rickets – except that a recent news report revealed that rickets was re-emerging as a childhood disease in England. Shame on us.

Friday, 28 October 2011

A symbol for the church – solid historic building or transient camp?

The 400th anniversary of the King James Version, as it seems we must now call it, has reminded us of several aspects of the translation. Not least of these was the production of a version that would support the Church of England against dissenting forms of church. (Also, strangely given the love of the KJV by conservative Christians in the USA, support for the divine right of kings.) Thus, the Greek ekklesia was translated as ‘church’, which people associated with the structured, hierarchical Church of England, rather than its root meaning of assembly or gathering, as often used by other Christians. The word church won out and now appears in most modern versions which makes it very difficult to think of Jesus or St Paul speaking about anything other than a particular organisational structure in a building.

The surrounding of St Paul’s by the Occupy camp makes me ask which is the better symbol for the church – the wonderful historic building or the messy transient camp? Now let’s be clear, I’m not making any claims for either to be truly representative of the Gospel so it’s not about a tick list of values and actions.

The church sometimes appears to be trapped in its buildings, historic or modern. They seem to have an infinite capacity for consuming resources. They can distort our priorities when we become more concerned about them than what we believe to be God’s mission. They can offer an illusion of protection. Yet they give a sense of seriousness and presence, and sometimes we do use the space creatively.

A protest camp is transient by its nature. It can be moved, either at the will of the participants or the force of the authorities. It can easily spring up somewhere else it is needed. It is vulnerable – not a weakness for those who believe in a God who becomes human. If there is permanency, it lies in fundamental values rather than physical structures.

Our tragedy as Christians is that we only seem able to see church in terms of buildings and organisational structures. We need to recapture the sense of ekklesia in terms of an assembly or gathering of people – more a camp than a building.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Have faith in the city?

In the course of the massive project that is tidying and rationalising the study (partly in order to make the spare ‘bedroom’ fit for purpose – ie not filled with books), I came across my copy of the 1985 Church of England report ‘Faith in the City’. The focus was on the urban priority areas where people were suffering deprivation and the churches were weak. Popular interest in the report was built up by the anger of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government. These urban areas are still the most vulnerable, especially in a time of reduction in national and local government spending. We still need to be considering the presence and role of faith in the city.

However, having faith in the city, in a different sense of the word, also raises the question posed by the occupation that has led to the temporary closure of St Paul’s. The Occupy protest is a cry against corporate greed. We are all against corporate greed. Except that it is the generosity of corporate greed that funds many of our church buildings and projects. Every employee of the churches has faith in the city (in the sense of the activities of the square mile) that the stock market will rise and large corporations will pay good dividends. Our pensions depend on it. And with all our pension funds in alarming deficit we need to have a lot of faith.

So it’s not just an issue for St Paul’s whether they put the financial support of their building and their mission above that of the wider challenges of the gospel. An issue that has caused the resignation of Giles Fraser as canon chancellor. It is one for all of us involved in the church. Are we so hopelessly compromised by our buying into a particular economic system that we have no grounds for singing the song that heralded the birth of Jesus – bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich empty away?

Or are we about challenging the city with such values? We can’t expect them to pay for us to undermine them. (That’s an issue we are exploring in the MA module I’m tutoring – whether chaplains who are employed by secular bodies are expected to offer individual sticking plasters or a questioning of employment practices.) Are we prepared to take the hit ourselves in our pensions and savings, for past economic success has been clearly related to the effects of corporate greed?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

For the people

I hadn’t visited the People’s History Museum in Manchester for almost 20 years. Whilst I’ve been away it has expanded from its original home in an old pump house that used to supply the city with drinking water to include a modern building alongside.

Its displays trace the struggle for democracy so that all men and women had a vote. It puts to shame a society in which only a minority bother to exercise their right to determine who represents them in national and local government. It also charts the struggle for workers rights from the formation of illegal groups of workers to the establishment of trade unions. These struggles cost people their livelihoods and sometimes their lives. So much that is taken for granted was only obtained at great cost.

The large, colourful banners of the unions, carried in processions and rallies, proclaim their pride in their work and a commitment to unity. They believed that their battles against injustice could only be won by standing together. Their view of the world was communal not individualistic. Not my rights, but our rights.

Among the cartoons displayed from several generations are those which challenge the rich and powerful for not paying their fair share (or any) tax whilst the poor pay the cost – nothing changes.

A kind of motto of the People’s Museum is ‘there have always been ideas worth fighting for’ and its displays illustrate that. Going round them is an exciting and moving experience. It’s also disturbing as I wonder if in this age in England many are so materially comfortable and the rest are so dispirited that the struggle for justice fails to engage us.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

No excuse for not owning up

Shame on the UK that we cannot even take moral responsibility for the horrific behaviour of those who acted in our name in Kenya in the 1950’s. At a time when we are prepared to exercise our military muscle to ‘protect’ people in Lybia from abuse by their government, we wash our hands of horrific behaviour by our colonial administration not that many decades ago.

I had come to know a little of this British behaviour in Kenya from visits there and conversations with Kenyans with whom I worked. However, to say that the reality revealed by recently released documents has shocked me is the understatement of the year. Not just the scale of beatings and killings but the documented torture and castration through to roasting alive. The detail is too disgusting to describe. No one should pretend that the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule did not produce its own atrocities. That may be the context of the colonial administration’s response but it is not an excuse.

The papers reveal the endemic nature of abuse and that it was condoned and, even, encouraged. The existence of abuse was officially denied and officials who raised concerns were publicly denounced. The paper trail leads out of the colonial administration in Kenya to the government in London.

In the mid-50’s Colonel Arthur Young, an experience police officer and a Christian socialist, was appointed as commissioner of police for Kenya. In a letter to the Governor, forwarded to the Secret Registry of the Ministry for African Affairs, he observed that the Screening Camps (ostensibly for sorting out the active dissidents from innocent bystanders but in fact a dumping ground for anyone who came to official notice) presented a ‘state of affairs so deplorable’ that they should be investigated. Police were diverted from law and order issues to being agents of repression. Africans who suffered from ‘the brutalities that are clearly evident’ had no one to whom they could appeal for justice because the whole colonial structure was complicit. He called for the ‘elementary principles of justice and humanity’ to be observed. In his measured tones it is a damning letter. Young resigned in disgust after eight month’s service. (

Very often people make excuses for not dealing with such things. I’m told that we shouldn’t judge actions in the past by the standards we apply now. This is why Arthur Young is an important witness. His appeal in situ for justice and humanity is the one we would make today. If we fail to name the behaviour of the colonial regime and its agents for what it was, we become complicit. The challenge of Arthur Young and those like him who were prepared to risk opprobrium and loss of job will have fallen on ears equally as deaf as those of the civil servants and politicians in the 1950’s.

I have no idea whether the legal responsibility now lies with the UK government or with the Kenyan government as successor to the colonial administration. I am certain where the moral responsibility lies.