British Values and Education

I do wish that Mr Gove, the Education Secretary, (and everyone else for that matter) would stop trying to wrap progressive values in a national flag.

I feel uncomfortable about it, whatever the flag – and there’s a lot of it going on in Scotland at the moment too.

According to the Prime Minister, the kinds of values that he and Mr Gove mean by British values are:

  • freedom
  • tolerance
  • respect for the rule of law
  • belief in personal and social responsibility
  • respect for British institutions

Well, with the exception of the last on (which institutions? – there’s plenty of good British people who have little respect for parliament and parliamentarians at the moment) this has nothing whatsoever to do with being British and mostly to do with being a good citizen. (I say mostly because I’ve no interested in being merely tolerated by anyone).

I think that if we want such things taught in schools then we should defend the idea of having proper civics classes and agree a strategy that doesn’t come waving flags of any kind.

There’s also one or two things missing from that list like equality, being a global citizen, human dignity in work and human rights. If the Prime Minister was talking about some of that then I might be cheering him on. As it is, we are left with sound bites that sound like they have been left over from John Major’s Back to Basics campaign.

It seems to me that very many people are weary of religion being such an issue in schools and think that schools would be better without it. Those who promote faith schools seem particularly defensive at the moment and not without good reason.

The things is, it seems to me that it is obvious that faith schools are not part of the problem insofar as they are known to promote rather than detract from community cohesion. However, it is equally obvious that faith schools are part of the problem in that some religious groups have ready access to them and some don’t. Their existence automatically makes people think that everyone should have the right to a religious education no matter what kind of religion the state is being expected to endorse. Furthermore, we know that at least some of those faith schools have strong input (including clergy governors) who walk a long way away from equality and tolerance in the rest of their lives.

My view – the state should be investing less in faith schools not more and it should be promoting the teaching of civics rather than British (or any other pseudo-nationalistic) values.

And if we want progressive values taught in schools (and I do) then we should be prepared to come out and name those values and say so.

Madama Butterfly – Review

Here’s a review of Madama Butterfly from Scottish Opera which I saw just before I was signed off sick. This also appears on the Opera Britannia blog.

Rating: ★★★★☆

For their final show in an uncertain season, Scottish Opera return to form with an achingly beautiful revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Madama Butterfly from the turn of the millennium. It looks good, sounds good and the final denouement is completely devastating.

The production is dominated by Hye-Youn Lee’s Cio-Cio San. From her first appearance accompanied by her cooing relatives, she was mesmerising. She also managed to navigate the transition from young girl to married mother perfectly, seeming to grow in stature and maturity before our eyes. A particular highlight came at the end of her “Ancora un passo”where the top notes simply shimmered into view like a mirage. This was effortless singing which showed how laboured other sopranos can seem. Her “Un bel di” was also perfectly judged. Sung simply from centre stage with no action or stage business to distract us, one could feel the golden glimmer of the sun in her voice. Even at this point, it was clear that Butterfly’s devotion to her man was complete and final.

Her man himself, Pinkerton, was played by José Ferrero. Now,I’ve only hear Ferrero once before (in Tosca in 2012) and was struck then by the fact that he seemed to need time to loosen up a bit on stage before getting into his stride. It was the same in this production, where one feared at first that he might simply have more volume on offer than emotion. There’s nothing wrong with his voice once he’s been on stage for 20 minutes but one fears initially that there is not going to be much warmth. In this production, it was unfortunate for him that at the start of proceedings he was up against Adrian Thomson’s excellent Goro, the marriage broker. Wonderfully clear diction and a sense of businesslike mischief showed us who was in charge, and it certainly wasn’t Pinkerton.

Hanna Hipp provided strong support to Ms Hye-Youn as her maid Suzuki.This was a confident Scottish Opera debut and one hopes to hear more of her. She was particularly effective in the final scene where Butterfly herself seemed often to be serenely committed to her fate whilst Suzuki’s reactions betrayed the true horror of the impending suicide.

Christopher Purves makes for an admirable Sharpless, the American consul. The consul is at the heart of the conspiracy of male power over women in Madama Butterfly. The men are all bad news for the vulnerable Butterfly and yet Purves manages to find a nobility in his voice which suggests that he really does care about her predicament, even if he is powerless to do much to help her.

One of the most confident young performances that I’ve seen on stage came from Barnaby Jones as Sorrow, Butterfly’s son. This non-singing role is crucial to the whole opera. If we don’t feel caught up in this boy’s predicament when Pinkerton comes to take him off to America then the whole project is a failure, no matter how devastating it may be that his mother dies. Barnaby Jones was on stage for a long time and never flagged at all, providing absolute focus to the final scenes. At the end, he was left blindfolded in a single stark spotlight from above before the final blackout. It was simply a devastating ending to the whole production and would have been impossible without such a strong performance from such a young performer.

The design by Yannis Thavoris uses a cool, Japanese minimalism to great effect. The production never feels rushed or busy and leaves very strong visual scenes imprinted on the mind, particularly the gentle beauty of Suzuki and Butterfly scattering blossoms around the house in the second act. The lighting design was sensitive and thoughtful with the odd exception of a very weird moon during the long duet at the end of the first act. One suspects that even though they appeared to be deeply in love and fixated with one another, Butterfly and Pinkerton would surely have paid some attention to the lunar eclipse that was rolling horizontally along the horizon behind them. Robert B Dickson, the Revival Lighting Designer (taking over from the original designer Paule Constable) maybe needs to go for a walk on a dark moonlit night. However, this was a solitary jarring feature.

There is, or there ought to be, much that is disturbing for a modern audience to reflect on in Madama Butterfly. Any production invites us to enter uncritically into a world where young women are disposable and can be bought and sold. We are invited to witness the marriage of an older cruel man to a slip of a girl and to see her motivation and devotion as something more than simply naive. Here, McVicar managed to bring out a strong sense that all of the men involved are trouble from the word go. This is also a world where the gods, Japanese and American alike, refuse to turn up yet here there was a striking integrity in Butterfly’s devotion and inner world. Meanwhile, we get to see an outer world in which Yankee imperialism is seen as utterly triumphant. Yet in this production, the more American Butterfly tries to become, the more Japanese she turns out to be.

Down in the pit, the orchestra seemed to be enjoying having Marco Guidarini in charge. They sounded both perky and under control – something that has not always been the case in recent years with Scottish Opera.

It is wonderful to have McVicar’s production revived under Elaine Kidd. At the end of a somewhat precarious season for Scottish Opera, one must hope that this is the shape of things to come and not merely a fond glance over the shoulder to what the company was once capable of.

Alternative Queen’s Speech

Here is an Alternative Queen’s Speech – the things that I’d have liked to hear from the Queen in the House of Commons today and what I’d have asked Her Majesty to say if I were the Prime Minister.

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, my government will work in the year ahead for the wellbeing of the people of this country. It shall continue to pursue economic prosperity but shall see this within the context of what may be identified as the common good.

My government will seek to reduce both relative and absolute poverty and seek to bring an end to the culture of Food Bank Britain. It will pay appropriate benefits to those in need in a timely fashion.

My government shall work towards a new constitutional settlement in order to bring stability to the nation. To this end, it shall prepare legislation which will be presented in Westminster if the referendum on Scottish Independence is not passed in September 2014. This legislation will set out a new constitutional framework for a federal United Kingdom with a written constitution establishing this nation’s sovereignty within the European Union. This will introduce a new parliament for England based in the city of York. It will abolish the House of Lords and establish a new honour of Royal Commissioner of the United Kingdom which all current members of the House of Lords will receive. Members of the new Royal Commission shall be called upon to give evidence according to their speciality during increased pre-legislative scrutiny for four parliaments in Northern Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland. The four parliaments shall act as unicameral assemblies in all matters excepting those relating to foreign policy, the constitution, the monarchy, registration of political parties, international trade, currency and economic policy, defence, energy policy, climate change issues, declarations of war and treason. These matters shall be the preserve of the House of Commons, entirely comprised of elected members from across the United Kingdom. If the people of Scotland reject the proposals for an independent Scotland in September 2014 then these new legislative developments will be put to all the people of this country in a referendum on 24 March 2016 and my government will seek cross-party support for them.

My government will reform the national curriculum in England in the light of best practise in all parts of this kingdom in order to empower teachers and set them free from red tape. The new curriculum will establish what should be taught in schools whilst leaving teachers free to teach those subjects to the best of their ability and according to their professional judgement.

My government will introduce legislation to disestablish the Church of England and will consult on the best way of preserving the positive ethos which exists in many church schools when those schools are given over entirely to local authority control.

My government will introduce legislation to ensure that charitable status is removed from all charities which discriminate on the basis of the Protected Characteristics of other equality legislation. For the avoidance of doubt, religious charities which campaign against other protected characteristics in terms of age, gender, sexuality etc will automatically lose their charitable status.

My government, mindful of the number of citizens who now live in single households will begin a consultation on extending the Equality Act by introducing protections for single people particularly in relation to the provision of goods and services in the travel and hospitality industries.

My government will introduce a new law of copyright which is fit for the digital age which will include reducing the terms of copyright.

My government will ensure that no public money is spent on reparative (or gay conversion) therapy.

My government will establish mandatory sex education in all schools in England and remove the requirement for religious assemblies in schools. Legislation will be introduced to place a statutary duty on schools to review procedures to ensure the prevention of homophobic bullying. My government will clarify the law to ensure that teachers who ignore such bullying can be prosecuted under the same legislation as other forms of child neglect.

My government will continue to allocate 0.7 % of GDP to overseas development and shall engage in a consultation about how this money might be best distributed to ensure that this country does not aid discrimination, violence or corruption.

My government will continue to raise the threshold for income tax. Alongside this, my government has recognised the need for tax measures to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth. To this end, my government will in the current year cut Value Added Tax by half, raising income tax in order to pay for this. The 50% band for income tax will be reestablished for all earning in excess of £100000 per year. My government will begin preparatory work for a further major tax reform by beginning a consultation on introducing a land value tax in order to replace Council Tax within the next 5 years. Furthermore my government will revive local government by removing all caps on revenue raising that have been imposed by central government.

My government will overhaul the laws on freedom of assembly and protest to ensure that all voices may be heard.

My government will reform the data protection laws beginning from the principal that all citizens are entitled to their own privacy.

My government will introduce proportional representation for all elections.

My government will abolish all University tuition fees.

My government will invest in research and development in Universities with the aim of establishing new generic drugs which will be free from pharmaceutical patents for the good not only of this country but for the wellbeing of the citizens of the world.

My government will establish and fund a new centre of expertise for open-source software and shall prefer to commission new public computer systems using such software.

My government will publish a national energy policy and invest in nuclear and renewable energy whilst outlawing fracking.

My government will raise the minimum wage to a new living wage.

My government is proud of the fact that it has introduced consolidated fares in the airline industry, ensuring that advertised fares include all booking fees and taxes. It will now introduce legislation to do the same for all arts productions, outlawing the practice of charging a separate booking fee on ticket prices.

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons,

I pray that the blessing of the Eternal God may rest upon your counsels.

The Visitation and an Anniversary

Today is the Feast of the Visitation. It also happens to be the anniversary of me coming to St Mary’s 8 years ago.

Those who were around then will remember that my ministry started here with a hugely exciting service of induction and installation. I had to be made the Rector and I had to be put in my stall as the Provost. It was one of those services where we threw just about every liturgical trick in the book at it and it worked.

To be honest, I find most induction services rather dull. We’ve got into the habit of using miserable liturgies for induction services in which there is a central drama of people putting gifts into the new priest’s hands to symbolise all that they are getting by coming to their new job. I hate it and tried to keep it to a minimum when it was my turn here. In particular, I refused to receive the keys of the church – one of the most silly symbols the church has ever invented, in my view.

I remember saying at one point in the planning of the service, “Well, you can put the keys on a nice velvet cushion and process them up the aisle and bring them to me and bow deeply and offer them to me and I’ll still say ‘No, I am not receiving these keys’”. In the end they never appeared and I didn’t have to publicly say no to them.

The giving of gifts symbolises things that I’m not comfortable with at all. It is an enactment of a system of power that exists in congregations which is very far from being healthy. (It is also a little bit of liturgy that doesn’t have a great deal of history to it).

When someone becomes a Rector in a congregation, they find themselves given a load of power right at the beginning. And right from the beginning, their success, or otherwise, will be marked by how they chose to retain that power, give it away or share it.

The appropriate letting go of power is one of the great themes of Christian ministry but one that is very rarely discussed when clergy are being trained.

I find myself now, knowing less about what is going on at St Mary’s than once I did. You have to learn to trust people and let go.

As it happens, I’m off sick for this anniversary and the church is coping without me. I wish I was around this weekend as I’d have enjoyed celebrating an anniversary mass this morning and would rather be worshipping at St Mary’s on a Sunday than anywhere else in the world. (We give ourselves permission to be excited by the worship in St Mary’s – when we are on form, the worship is allowed to be as interesting, moving, funny and passionate as it should be).

However, even though I’m not there, I’ve every confidence that all will be well without me.

Once upon a time, I’m not sure that would have been so. I’d have been off sick and still worrying about the place.

Looking back, there have been wonderful high points since coming here eight years ago. I think that the church is a happier place than it was then too. And I never think happiness should be dismissed. It matters rather a lot.

I’m happy here at St Mary’s too.

Eight glorious years.

Thanks be to God.

Off sick

Have had an extraordinarily quiet time over the last couple of weeks, unable to really enjoy being on holiday as I was still trying to get over a bronchial infection which has gone on for weeks and weeks.

Back to work for half a day yesterday showed me that I’m still a long way from being fit and certainly not fit to work. The doctor has signed me off today for 2 weeks.

I can get to local shops, can drive and am not housebound and I’ll shout for anything I need. However it is the quiet life for me for a bit longer.

My thanks to colleagues for covering all bases whilst I’m under the weather. If you are waiting for responses from me about anything, my apologies, I’ll deal with them when I get back to work. In the mean time, please contact the Cathedral Office about anything that seems urgent.

I don’t know whether I will be posting much on the blog. (I’ve got one or two articles written but unposted).

This is what comes of not doing the blessing of the throats for St Blaise’s Day…

Politics Just Became More Interesting

There’s a lot of soul searching going on in the UK over the European Election results. Here’s my take on it all…

  • Those complaining most about the low turnout need to think about what they want to do in order to stop low turnout. The best thing to do is to join a political party and work to get people to the ballot box to vote for what you believe in.
  • Trouble is, I don’t find a party I want to belong to.
  • The above 2 points are the problem.  (Or at least, they are my problem with politics at the moment).
  • The media coverage from the BBC seemed particularly biased. I don’t like criticising the Beeb because I love it but it really did seem to have become the UKIP Broadcasting Corperation and I still can’t quite fathom why.
  • I don’t think I know a single person who has told me they were supporting UKIP. Now – is that because I’m in a little bubble and I genuinely don’t know anyone who votes that way or is it because voting that way is not socially acceptable?
  • Nick Clegg made a number of strategic errors in taking on Nigel Farrage in TV debates. Firstly it got Farrage even more coverage and allowed him to appear to be an equal when he wasn’t. Secondly Clegg failed to merge the UKIP and Tory brand. (People like me wonder whether he is opposed to the Tories at all – he just doesn’t come across as disliking what they stand for and someone in his position needs to be able to convey something a little stronger than dislike). Thirdly, he didn’t really do it well enough – die-hard party members were impressed by him but that’s not what the exercise is all about. Keep it Simple is still effective. (One of the posts that I had up recently which got lots of traction was about why I’m supportive of the EU because of mobile phone roaming, oh yes, and because we don’t tend to go to war in Western Europe with one another as once we did).
  • Policywise I hope that political parties concentrate on those who didn’t vote rather than those who voted UKIP.
  • I fear they won’t.
  • I was surprised that the SNP did not increase their share of the vote.
  • I wasn’t surprised that the Lib Dem vote collapsed.
  • I feel for the Greens who were struggling to get a word in edgeways. I kind of wish that I could vote Green but the trouble is, they’ve got their policies.
  • The Liberal Democrats are not going to do better until they have a change in leader and until there is obvious contrition. It is going to get worse before it gets better.
  • I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but I can’t take the leadership of the Labour Party in Scotland seriously.
  • Thank God there was no “Christian” party on the ballot paper.
  • Politics just got more interesting because people don’t know what it all means and don’t know what comes next.
  • That’s the best politics in the world.

You got your own take? Share it in the comments below.

Glasgow School of Art Fire – video of what I saw

Here’s a video of what I saw yesterday afternoon at the Glasgow School of Art.

Despite news reports today which are playing down the damage, the Mackintosh interiors, particularly the library, were very obviously completely gutted.

Glasgow School of Art Fire – eyewitness report and pictures

IMG_5854 blaze near roof
As I sit down to write this, my clothes and hair smell of smoke. I’ve just witnessed a profound tragedy – the fire at Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building.

There’s huge sadness in the city. I saw people openly weeping in the streets. This was more than just a building. Iconic in terms of the world’s built heritage, the Mack was also part of this city’s heart and soul.

I became aware that something was happening when I looked out of my living room window at 1 pm and saw a plume of smoke rising above Garnethill. I picked up my camera and headed out and saw the worst of the blaze and so there are some pictures of what I saw below.

Glasgow’s School of Art is more than a building. It is a complex institution in which beauty, hope and challenge are forever interwoven. The Mack was indeed a precious icon but it was a working building which produces the art of today and of tomorrow. As I stood with students mourning losses today, there was already talk of what could be saved; what could be rebuilt. None of us looking on know what to make of what we have seen yet everyone seemed to want to talk of what would yet live, even as the smoke of what was burning was billowing around us.

For firefighters, emergency planners and police we give thanks. For students, alumni, administrators and staff we pray for peace. For bystanders, witnesses and for the whole of this creative, vibrant city, Lord we pray. Amen.

There will be prayers for all involved on Sunday in St Mary’s Cathedral, and no doubt across the city.

Church of Scotland rejects biblicist position on sex and marriage

It is going to be important not to underestimate the significance of the votes in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland today. A last ditch attempt was made to get that church to commit to the idea that sex belongs only between a married heterosexual couple. That idea was comprehensively rejected.

People with widely differing opinions never thought we would see this day. Though the legislation that the Church of Scotland is now consulting on accepting is a dreadful mess, and a long way from equality for LGBT people, today was a huge and historic boost for those who reject the ideas of those who claim the Christian tradition to be by definition narrow and anti-gay in character.

It seemed to me, as I watched the debate, as though those seeking to promote an anti-gay view had made a huge strategic mistake by going for an all or nothing approach and trying to get the Assembly to affirm only their view.

Generosity won the day in Edinburgh today. Generosity that has divine fingerprints all over it.

I believe in Europe

I believe in the European Union as a great positive in our lives because it is in the process of minimising two things – roaming charges for mobile phones and war in western Europe.

And a whole lot more of course too. But that seems to encapsulate why I care about Europe. I want forms of good governance which can benefit the citizens of these countries and I also want these countries, which have historically been at war to put that behind them and live at peace.

Now, in saying that I want good governance in Europe, I’m not of a belief that we’ve got that right yet. (Nor am I of the belief that government at Holyrood or Westminster is perfect either). It seems clear that there will, for a long time, be the need for reform of the European institutions. However, that is a process that is not merely worth being a half-hearted part of but worth making commitments to, in order to be able to shape and mould things as they change.

I’ve been wrong about some things in Europe. I thought the Euro was a good idea and though I still like the notion of a single currency, I’ve also seen very clearly that independent nations cannot realistically share their money without having a common economic policy. Having seen it go spectacularly wrong in Europe, it seems obvious to me that the same mistakes can’t be allowed to come to pass within these islands. States which have economic independence need their own currency for their own good.

However, I’m suspicious of the nation state itself. It seems to me to be a positive good that the nation state (The United Kingdom) that I live in, is part of a multiple set of identities in which British nationalism is compromised from both within and without. Nationalisms frighten me. I want them to be compromised by other commitments.

So, I’ve voted in the European Election. (I had a postal vote this time). That I had some enthusiasm for voting was tempered a little by my having little enthusiasm for any of the options on the ballot paper. I did manage to cast a vote and I think that it is important to do so even if one has to hold one’s nose whilst voting, either metaphorically or physically.

I believe in Europe and Europe needs us to believe in it. It isn’t just mobile phone charges that matter, of course. Things like global warming need much stronger action than they are currently getting and a European Parliament can and should be one focus for working to make the planet work. And our continent is far from free from conflict either. However the structures of the EU are part of a political settlement, unsure and vulnerable though it is, which have prevented the horrors of all out war that directly affected my parents and grandparents.

Vive L´Europe! Long live the European Union!