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Archive for May, 2011

Many Catholics think that the main step on the road towards priesthood is the decision to go to seminary. There is some truth in this: You think, you pray, you discern; you put in your application. If you are accepted, you take the plunge, and that involves leaving a job, moving home, starting a completely new life, and the challenge of telling friends and family that this is really happening.

Allen Hall Seminary - Front Door

But sometime around the middle of your seminary formation you take the formal step of becoming a ‘candidate’ for ordination. On Saturday evening here at Allen Hall four men celebrated their own candidacy. What’s it all about? How can you become a candidate for ordination when you are already a committed seminarian three or four years down the road to priesthood?

Here are one or two passages from the Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI which set it all up.

Since entrance into the clerical state is deferred until diaconate, there no longer exists the rite of first tonsure, by which a layman used to become a cleric. But a new rite is introduced, by which one who aspires to the diaconate or priesthood publicly manifests his will to offer himself to God and the Church, so that he may exercise a sacred order. The Church, accepting this offering, selects and calls him to prepare himself to receive a sacred order, and in this way he is properly numbered among candidates for the diaconate or priesthood [...]

1. (a) A rite of admission for candidates to the diaconate and to the priesthood is introduced. In order that this admission be properly made, the free petition of the aspirant made out and signed in his own hand, is required, as well as the written acceptance of the competent ecclesiastical superior, by which the selection by the church is brought about. Professed members of clerical congregations who seek the priesthood are not bound to this rite.

(b) The competent superior for this acceptance is the ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes of perfection, the major superior). Those can be accepted who give signs of an authentic vocation and, endowed with good moral qualities and free from mental and physical defects, wish to dedicate their lives to the service of the Church for the glory of God and the good of souls. It is necessary that those who aspire to the transitional diaconate will have completed at least their twentieth year and have begun their course of theological studies.

(c) In virtue of the acceptance the candidate must care for his vocation in a special way and foster it. He also acquires the right to the necessary spiritual assistance by which he can develop his vocation and submit unconditionally to the will of God.

You can see what a special moment this is for each of the candidates, and for the Church. It’s not just a formality or an external recognition that they have ‘put the hours in’. It’s a way of offering oneself to God and to the Church, freely and publicly, and having the Church accept that offering. It’s a new commitment, not just to enter more wholeheartedly into the process of discernment, but to actively foster the priestly vocation. There is a psychological and spiritual shift. From this moment onwards, the assumption is that this man has been called by the Lord to priesthood, and in fact the ceremony itself acts as a public call by the Church.

Candidacy would have the same significance, more or less, as a couple getting engaged. They move from wondering and questioning to committing and planning. It doesn’t mean the wedding or ordination is inevitable, and it’s important that each person still feels completely free – but you’d need a major rethink to call it off.

It was a great evening for everyone involved!

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Very nearly a masterpiece – if you have any doubts about the power of cinema or whether film is the highest form of civilisation known to humankind, you need to see the re-released version of Apocalypse Now on a very large screen straight away.

I kept thinking, ‘How did he do this?’ The cinematography; the set pieces; the editing; the music. It’s breathtaking. It’s a long time since I have giggled with sheer delight at the audacity of  someone’s film-making.

What’s it about? War in general? The Vietnam war in particular? Madness? Morality? The risk of playing at God and thinking someone to be God and knowing that someone is not God? Possibly. Especially in Brando’s speech about the power that lies in the hands of those who are willing to dispense with moral scruples. Or is it about film itself?

This would have been Hitchcock’s answer: Film is not about anything – it’s not the content or meaning that matters – it’s the involvement of the viewer in the unfolding of the film itself, the momentum of desire and longing, the desperate need to know and arrive, and the delayed gratification of a story that is constantly twisting out of view.

It’s only the last half-hour that doesn’t quite work – too slow and too introspective. But then I’m not sure where else Coppola could have gone.

Do see this film on the big screen. It won’t be around for long. Here are the London listings for the next week.

PS – It was a joy to see this at Screen 1 of the Cineworld, Haymarket, just down from Piccadilly Circus, which is a huge old-fashioned screen with its proscenium arch still standing – such a change from the local multiplex.

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The Church in China

I recently went to the AGM of Cultural Exchange with China, a charity whose purpose is ‘building bridges between the Catholic Churches of Britain and China’.

I know Fr Eamonn O’Brien, the Director, who is a Columban father; and over the last few years I’ve met various Chinese Catholics in London who have been sponsored by the charity – lay catechists, for example, who have been in formation at the St Patrick’s Evangelisation School; and a diocesan priest who lived at the seminary where I work for three years while he studied at Heythrop and St Mary’s.

Take a look a their website, which includes this page of links to monthly reports about developments within the Catholic Church in China, and this article about the growth of contemplative communities in China over recent years.

It’s a charity that is well worth supporting. You can donate here, or become a member and supporter here. Of course, with my name and family background, I can’t say I am just a neutral observer when it comes to issues about the Church and China.

Here are the official goals of the charity:

Our principal goal is to build bridges between the Catholic Church of Britain and that of China. Our specific contribution is the training of personnel for the Church of China.

We see the strengthening of formation for priests, sisters and laity as the key ingredient to assist the Church of China to take up the great challenge of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and face the great challenges of modern Chinese society.

We also seek to promote understanding, co-operation and mutually beneficial friendships between the people of Britain and China, based on respect for one another, and in an ecumenical, interfaith and global context.

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The Observer had a piece earlier this month about Britain’s relationship with its intelligentsia, and asked whether we ‘do’ public intellectuals in the way that the French seem to.

Jean-Paul Sartre: the archetypal French intellectual

You can read the views of ten influential thinkers on the topic here. And here are the opening definitions of four of them.

Susie Orbach:

Being able to provoke a different point of view to the standard current ideological or political perspective as played out in conventional newspaper or radio reportage is what a public intellectual does. But it’s not merely about being oppositional, because that’s too negative. Public intellectuals attempt to widen and deepen the public discourse, by adding further analysis and coming at issues in surprising or unexpected ways.

There’s a trend towards soundbites and simplification. We all desire clarity but a way to reach it means understanding at several layers, folding in different kinds of knowledges; in other words complexity. There is a craving for that thoughtfulness which public intellectuals are able to provide.

Will Self:

What the British seem to like are television historians and naturalists, not public intellectuals. You can’t help feeling that’s because one supplies narrative and the other supplies facts, and the British are traditionally empiricists so they/we have a resistance to theory and to theoreticians playing too prominent a role in public life.

Mary Beard:

I think the British have always had this view that France is full of public intellectuals and we are hopeless. I don’t agree. To start with, it’s an awful phrase. Have you ever met anybody who avowed to be a public intellectual? We don’t go in for pontificating to the nation, but if you ask whether we have a vibrant form of political, social and cultural debate in which people who are academic, intellectual, clever – and not just media stars – engage, we have loads of it.

Lionel Shriver:

I guess I understand a public intellectual to be somebody who moves public discourse forward. Someone who either says something new or says something that everybody knows to be true but is afraid to express.

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Take a look at this new blog by a friend who works as a catechetical coordinator in a London parish: Transformed in Christ. Some of the recent topics include: Liturgical catechesis; YouCat; Vocations Sunday; Mystagogia; and ‘Are you a canal or a reservoir catechist’.

Here is the ‘mission statement‘ of the blog:

Over the past two years, I have worked in a wonderful, south London parish, organising the catechesis and sacramental programmes. I didn’t set out to work in catechesis – I was planning to go back to university to study for an MPhil, but somehow, I found myself with this job and loving every moment of it! I discovered the immense joy and privilege of handing on our Faith to others, of preparing people of all ages to receive the sacraments, and of helping people to deepen their knowledge and love for Christ. I have found that catechesis is a joyful mission of the Church, because it is a transmitting of the Faith from person to person in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the Body of the Church. It is about people becoming transformed in Christ – discovering who they truly are in God’s eyes, and living out their lives in accordance with this truth. Now I am studying part-time for an MA in Catechetics, and this study is increasing my wonder at what a beautiful and privileged mission it is to deliver and teach the Faith to others. In the words of Blessed John Paul II:

“If the work of catechesis is to be carried out rigorously and seriously, it is today more difficult and tiring than ever before, because of the obstacles and difficulties of all kinds that it meets; but it is also more consoling, because of the kind of depth of the response it receives from children and young people. This is a treasure which the Church can and should count on in the years ahead.” [Catechesi Tradendae, 40.]

In this blog, I want to share some of the experiences of catechesis in our parish in light of the insight and wisdom of the Church’s vision for catechesis.

And here is the ‘vision statement‘ about the nature of catechesis:

I’ve attempted to outline a brief summary of what the Church teaches us about catechesis. I think these points are clearer when enfleshed in experience, but as an underlying vision, here are some of the key ideas:

1. Catechesis is one of the ‘moments’ of evangelisation as a whole – therefore, it should be evangelising in its nature – a proclamation of the Good News. It should always have a missionary dynamic.

2. The goal of catechesis is to put people into intimacy, into communion with Jesus Christ (see Catechesi Tradendae, 5). That is the only goal! Christ is our only Way into the heart of God, into the life of the Trinity, so catechesis desires, above everything else, to put people into communion with Jesus.

3. How do people come into communion with Jesus? Through understanding and through conversion. When people grow in knowledge of Christ, of the Deposit of Faith he entrusted to the Apostles, and of His Body the Church, they grow in love with Him. John Paul II told us to present Christ as He really is to young people – the Truth is really beautiful, and really attracts, just as it is. As catechesis increases people’s love for Christ, they want to know him more deeply, and change their lives so that they are living more faithfully with Him.

4. Catechesis is above all a work of the Holy Spirit. Just as the angel Gabriel announced great News to Our Lady, so we announce the message that has been handed down to us through the Church. But it is the deep, interior work of the Holy Spirit that enables understanding and conversion to take place. As catechists, there is need for us to strive for excellence in what we do – we want to use all we have (human qualities, intelligence, hard work, building relationships with the people we teach) in the service of the work of catechesis. But it is the Lord who enlightens the mind and heart. Our job is to create the best conditions for this to take place.

These are just four main points, although there are many other principles to explore. The main sources of the Church’s recent teaching on catechesis can be found in Catechesi Tradendae (Catechesis in our time) written by Pope John Paul II in 1979, and the General Directory for Catechesis published in 1997. If you are involved in catechesis, I would really recommend having a look!

Notice it’s a WordPress blog-platform!

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How could someone lie about the films they have seen? How could someone pretend to have seen a film that comes up in the dinner-table conversation and expect to get away with it?

I’m not being self-righteous here; I’m not even talking about the ethics of lying. I just wouldn’t have the courage to start nodding my head as someone describes some breathtaking scene from a recent movie, in the knowledge that they might ask me what I thought, or what happened next, or what colour the wallpaper was. Basically, I’m not a good liar, and the terror of being found out overcomes the terror of facing the consequences of telling the truth.

Yet, it seems, four out of five people lie about the films they have seen in order to impress others; and one in three of us claims to have seen the Godfather when the nearest we’ve been to the film is hearing the theme tune in a lift. Ben Child reports about the lovefilm.com research.

Second on the list is the 1942 Humphrey Bogart tearjerker Casablanca, which perhaps explains why so many people seem to be confused about its most famous line. More than one in 10 said they had fabricated a viewing.

In third place was Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver, from 1976. Eleven per cent of people said they had lied about having seen the director’s drama about a mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran. Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs rounded out the poll’s top five.

Lovefilm editor Helen Cowley said: “Whether it is a small white lie about having seen a cult classic or nodding along to friends as they recount the infamous horse head scene in The Godfather, there are some films that we just do not want to admit we have not watched.”

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Some people would prefer to replace the traditional wedding vows with words they have composed themselves, thinking that this would make their promises more personal and more authentic. I’m not so sure about this.

Amish wedding ring quilt

I did an email interview last week with David Gibson for the website ‘For Your Marriage‘. He was asking me about some of the ideas I sketched in my recent Royal Wedding post. You can read the interview here, and this is the full response I gave to his questions:

In my experience most young people hope to get married one day, despite the prevalence of marriage breakdown and a general suspicion of institutions.

It’s not just the romance of a wedding day. I think they recognise that love finds its deepest fulfilment in a lifelong commitment, in giving oneself to another person without conditions, without reservation. And they know that marriage is a way of making that commitment. It frightens them, because commitment is frightening, at the same time as it attracts them.

The words of the wedding vows are so simple and so profound: ‘To love and honour each other for the rest of your lives… For better for worse, for richer for poorer… Till death do us part’. Young people are not, on the whole, cynical, selfish or hedonistic. They want to fall in love; and when they do, they want that love to last. They know, deep down, that love requires commitment and sacrifice; and they are longing to give themselves to something of lasting value.

They also sense, perhaps without understanding why, that love demands a promise, a definitive Yes; and that this promise needs to be made in public. In other words, the institution of marriage still speaks to young people with great force.

Of course a couple can express their love for each other in many different ways; and they can commit themselves to each other in their own words. They should do this often! But I don’t think this can ever substitute for the traditional words of the wedding vows. This is partly because the words themselves are already so meaningful – it’s simply hard to better them. ‘I promise to love and honour you for the rest of my life… For better for worse, for richer for poorer…’ So to substitute your own words would somehow be a diminishment.

But I also think there is something important about entering into a tradition that is larger than yourself, and freely choosing to use a set of words that you haven’t yourself chosen, because then you allow yourself to be freed from the limitations of your own vision. This ‘humility’ allows your love to be purified, stretched, and transformed into something far deeper than you could have imagined.

To use the solemn words of the wedding ritual, rather than your own composition, is to say ‘there is more to love than we have yet understood, and we choose to let this larger love possess us’. It’s not impersonal to use the formal words of the wedding ritual; it’s a way of lifting what is deeply personal into something larger and even more beautiful.

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I’m halfway through Paul Davies’s book The Eerie Silence, about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project and the wider scientific and philosophical issues involved. One of the ways of investigating the probability of extraterrestrial life is to look at the vexed question of the probability of life on earth, and chapter 2 of the book is entitled, “Life: Freak side-show or cosmic imperative?”

Was there a high probability that any life, let alone intelligent life, would develop on earth? The answer is: we haven’t a clue. And that’s because we still have almost no understanding about how life developed on this planet in the first place; and we don’t even know if it started here anyway – it may have started on Mars and migrated on materials that got dispersed into the solar system and then fell to earth.

We simply don’t know how life began. As Charles Darwin said:

We might as well speculate about the origin of matter.

This lack of knowledge isn’t reflected in the ‘cosmic imperative’ mood of the scientific and journalistic moment. Many thinking people, in other words, believe that given the vastness of the universe the emergence of life must be almost inevitable. Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington declared in 2009:

If you have a habitable world and let it evolve for a few billion years then inevitably some sort of life will form on it… It would be impossible to stop life growing on these habitable planets… There could be one hundred billion trillion Earth-like planets in space, making it inevitable that extraterrestrial life exists’ [25-26].

The flaw in this probability argument is obvious even to a non-scientist like myself. Boss uses the word ‘evolve’: if you let a habitable world ‘evolve’ then life is bound to emerge. That would be true if we had any evidence that a ‘world’ evolves. But we don’t. Life evolves, once it is started – we know that. But we can’t use an assumption about the progress of evolution within life as an argument that life itself, at its beginnings, is the result of a pre-life evolutionary process. We have no idea what such a process might involve, or any evidence that it took place, or any indication of what the probability of it taking place might be.

George Whitesides, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University, gives the alternative view, which Paul Davies himself accepts. First of all he seems sceptical:

How remarkable is life? The answer is: very. Those of us who deal in networks of chemical reactions know of nothing like it… How could a chemical sludge become a rose, even with billions of years to try? … We (or at least I) do not understand. It is not impossible, but it seems very, very improbable [31].

But it’s not so much scepticism as a humble awareness of the impossibility of speaking about a high probability of life emerging when we know so little about what would or would not make it probable in the first place.

How likely is it that a newly formed planet, with surface conditions that support liquid water, will give rise to life? We have, at this time, no clue, and no convincing way of estimating. From what we know, the answer falls somewhere between ‘impossibly unlikely’ and ‘absolutely inevitable’. We cannot calculate the odds of the spontaneous emergence of cellular life on a plausible prebiotic earth in any satisfying and convincing way’ [31].

All we know is that it has happened at least once.

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Holy Week raised more questions for me than it answered – about Jesus, about faith, about the Resurrection. So I spent much of Easter week reading Gerald O’Collins’s Jesus: A Portrait. It looks at Jesus as he is presented in the Scriptures, and connects this portrait with the tradition and teaching of the Church. It’s a beautiful way into the mystery of the person of Christ; and the first chapter, in fact, is entitled ‘The Beauty of Jesus’ – a wonderful way to start a book on Christology.

One of the passages in chapter 12 is called ‘Jesus the questioner’. O’Collins points out how Jesus, even though he gives many answers, often spends a lot of time asking questions. This connects with the pattern of God putting questions to people throughout the Old Testament. Part of the revelation of God is not just providing information but prompting us to face questions that might otherwise have gone unasked.

Some of the simplest questions are the most profound.

In the Book of Genesis God soon confronts Adam with a question: ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). Right through the Old Testament, God continues to challenge people with utterly basic questions: ‘What have you been doing?’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ In the face of Job’s complaints about his unmerited sufferings, the divine Questioner does not offer explanations, but speaks out of a whirlwind: ‘I will question you’ (Job 38:3).

It comes then as no surprise that in John’s Gospel, with its clear statement of the divinity of Jesus, his very first words are a question: ‘What are you looking for?’ (John 1:38). The divine Questioner has become flesh to dwell among us. His opening words take the shape of a terribly simple but profound question: ‘What are you looking for?’ The God who says to Adam, ‘Where are you?’, and to Job, ‘I will question you’, has come among us and slips at once into the divine habit of asking questions.

John’s Gospel invites its readers to let themselves be drawn into the beloved disciple’s experience by noting and mulling over such questions of Jesus as: ‘What are you looking for?’ (1:38), ‘Will you also go away?’ (6:67), ‘Do you believe this?’ (11:26), ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’ (13:12), ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?’ (14:9), ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ (20:15), and through to the awesomely direct question ‘Do you love me?’ (21:15-17) [pp. 202-203].

What a powerful set of questions!

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I promise this will be my last Royal Wedding reflection. But here’s the question: Is it ethically acceptable to lipread when two people are having a private conversation? Of course lipreading, in itself, is not wrong – any more than reading a text or listening to someone’s voice. But for the Royal Wedding last weekend, every newspaper and TV station seemed to employ a professional lipreader to ‘listen in’ to the private conversations of the protagonists; but no-one seemed to question the ethics of this.

If someone has a private conversation, even in a public place, do they still have a right to privacy? What’s the difference between lipreading a private conversation and listening in on a phone call? Why, in other words, are we outraged when a national newspaper admits that it has been tapping the phones of famous people, but not when the world’s media decides to ‘listen in’ on these intimate private conversations?

Is it because they take place on the public stage, so the rules of privacy don’t apply? Is it because these people know about the possibility of being ‘heard’, so they are implicitly recognising that their actions are available for public consumption? Is it because the distinction between public and private does not exist anymore? Is it because ordinary life has become a Big Brother studio, and we all accept as part of the ‘social contract’ that every word we speak might be picked up by a hidden microphone?

Don’t worry – I’m not pretending to be outraged myself. I’m just curious about where the ethical line is: What’s public? What’s private? And why is it that we are quite happy for some private truths to be exposed to public scrutiny but not others?

Holly Watt reports on some of the great lines (and here I am, happy to repeat them…):

“You look beautiful,” he told Kate Middleton, as she walked towards him in her Alexander McQueen dress.

“Yes, it looks fantastic, it’s beautiful,” he added, according to Ruth Press, who has been deaf since birth and works as a forensic lipreader.

Prince William also cracked a joke to his father-in-law at the altar before the royal wedding ceremony, saying: “We’re supposed to have just a small family affair”.

The joke by William to Michael Middleton in Westminster Abbey was spotted by Tina Lannin, lipreader for O’Malley Communications.

She also spotted Prince Harry nervously comment ”Right, she is here now”, as Miss Middleton arrived at the abbey.

And Charlie Swinbourne writes about his experience as a lip-reader, and the fallibility of the process:

Reading lip patterns is vital in helping deaf people fill in the words they can’t hear. I’m partially deaf, and I’ve been lipreading ever since I learned to speak. As well as being a vital part of communication, it’s also fun. I’ve lipread couples bickering in restaurants, footballers telling referees exactly what they think of them, and on Friday, the royal wedding.

During a national event at which the protagonists were visible but crucially not audible, hundreds of deaf people, including my partner and I, added our translations to Twitter in real time. We soon found out that several deaf friends of ours had thought ahead and were actually getting paid for it; working for national news outlets, one working for a series of tabloids and another, for a 24-hour news channel and a magazine.

What was funny was just how often the translations differed from each other. For instance, did William tell Kate at the altar “You look – er, you are beautiful“, or did he say: “You look lovely?”Or, as we thought, did he say: “You look stunning, by the way. Very beautiful.” Then there was the Telegraph, which initially reported William as saying: “You look stunning babe!’

The differences in translation proved that lipreading, far from being some kind of super-power deaf people have (and a great gimmick in movies featuring deaf characters), depends heavily – it’s said 70%-90% – on guesswork. I recently visited a lipreading class to test out my skills, and found that even with a lifetime’s worth of experience, there were still words I struggled to make out.

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Just a follow-up from yesterday’s post about community: Robin Dunbar also writes about the kinds of friendships we form and the number of friends we typically have.

Don’t start over-analysing this and getting depressed about how many friends you don’t have – it’s not a competition or a test of psychological well-being!

On average, we have five intimate friends, 15 good friends (including the five intimate ones), 50 friends and 150 acquaintances. While it is not altogether clear why our relationships are constrained in this way, one possibility is time. A relationship’s quality seems to depend on how much time we devote to it, and since time is limited, we necessarily have to distribute what time we do have for social engagement unevenly. We focus most of it on our inner core of five intimates. Alternatively, it might just be a memory problem: we have a job keeping track of who’s doing what, and can only really keep serious tabs on the inner core of five.

The point about how difficult (and probably unwise) it is to have a large number of ‘intimate friends’ is not different from what Aristotle says about ‘perfect friendship’ in Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such people are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, people cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

Dunbar then connects the question of friendship with yesterday’s question about the ideal size for a community.

But there is one more serious problem lurking behind all this. In traditional small-scale societies, everyone shares the same 150 friends. This was true even in Europe until well into the 20th century, and probably still is true today of isolated rural communities. You might well fall out with them from time to time, but, like the Hutterites, you are bound together by mutual obligation and densely interwoven relationships. And of these, shared kinship was perhaps the most pervasive and important: offend Jim down the road, and you bring granny down on your back because Jim is her second-cousin-once-removed, and she’s got her own sister, Jim’s grandmother, on to her about it.

In the modern world of economic mobility, this simple balance has upset: we grow up here, go to university there, and move on to several elsewheres in a succession of job moves. The consequence is that our social networks become fragmented and distributed: we end up with small pockets of friends scattered around the country, most of whom don’t know each other and, perhaps more importantly, don’t know the family part of our networks. You can offend Jim, and almost no one will care. And if they do, you can afford to move on and leave that whole subset of friends behind. Networks are no longer self-policing.

Because modern geographical communities no longer have the social coherence they had up until the 1950s, it is perhaps inevitable that people become less willing to remonstrate with miscreants because others are unlikely to back them up. Bearing these factors in mind, is it any wonder that some inner-city communities fall victim to gang violence? Our real problem for the future is how to overcome this social fragmentation by recreating a sense of community in our increasingly urbanised and mobile world.

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The perfect size for a community (whether a village, a religious congregation, or a military unit) is… 150. How do we know?

An Amish school

Primates live in groups, which allows them to solve problems together and reduce the risks of being caught by predators. You stick together; you stand united against a common enemy. But all the time an implicit calculation is being made to work out whether the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs.

Robin Dunbar explains:

The psychological demands of living in large groups mean that, in primates, species-typical group size correlates rather closely with the species’ brain size. On the primate model, our oversized brain would predict a group size of around 150, the number now known as Dunbar’s Number. We find it in the typical community size of hunter-gatherer societies, in the average village size in county after county in the Domesday book, as well as in 18th-century England; it is the average parish size among the Hutterites and the Amish (fundamentalist Christians who live a communal life in the Dakotas and Pennsylvania, respectively). It is also the average personal network size – the number of people with whom you have a personalised relationship, one that is reciprocal (I’d be willing to help you out, and I know that you’d help me) as well as having a history (we both know how we came to know each other).

The Hutterites illustrate rather clearly just what’s involved. They deliberately split their communities once they exceed 150 individuals because, they maintain, you cannot run a community of more than 150 people by peer pressure alone: instead, you need a police force.

The same thinking also applies to business, management, and the military:

We see the same principle at work in the management philosophy of the Gore-Tex company, known for its breathable, waterproof fabrics. Instead of expanding factory size as its business grew, the late “Bill” Gore kept this factory size to 150 and simply built a new, completely self-contained factory next door. The result is a work community where everyone knows everyone else, and there is no need for formal line-management systems or name badges; everyone is committed to each other and to the communal vision. Has this been the secret to its unusual success as a business?

Perhaps the best example, however, remains the military. All modern armies have a similar organisational structure, mostly developed over the last 300 years by trial and error on the battlefield. The core to this is the company – typically around 120-180 in size – almost exactly Dunbar’s Number. As anyone who has been in the army will tell you, company is family, far more so than battalion or regiment.

Although wild claims have been made about the number of friends people have on Facebook, the vast majority of us have only 120-130. Yes, you can have 500 or 1,000 friends if you want to sign people up, but this seems to have more to do with competition than with real friendship.

It makes you think about the communities you are involved in.

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My other highlight from the Royal Wedding was the trees that were brought into the nave of Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t just that they beautified the interior of the Abbey, like an oversized bunch of carefully arranged flowers; it was the magical sense they created that by entering into this building you were actually going out into another completely different world.

I’ve always loved this kind of illusion. It demonstrates how going inside can sometimes take you outside; how fixing your glance on something small can sometimes make your vision much broader. It’s like a metaphor for the power of the imagination itself, which uses something ordinary to transport you somewhere extraordinary. The very act of reading, for example – so still, so stationary, so solitary – is to float up into another world, or fall down into a rabbit-hole of adventure.

The trees in Westminster Abbey made me think of one of my favourite childhood books, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, where the inner walls of Max’s bedroom are transformed into the treescape of a terrifying jungle. And the wallpaper in David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth that turned his sitting room into an autumnal forest. And Lucy clambering through the wardrobe as the coats turned into leaves and branches and the darkness opened out into the forest snow of Narnia. And Dr Who stepping into the Tardis.

My favourite example of this kind of imaginative inversion is St Francis of Assisi’s Portiuncula. This is the little medieval chapel that once sat in the forest in the plain below Assisi. But they cut down the trees and built an enormous basilica over the entire chapel. So now you leave the streets, walk into the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and instead of being ‘inside’ you are transported ‘outside’ to the forest glade surrounding the chapel. Every time I have been there I have been struck with child-like wonder.

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One of the highlights of the royal wedding was the marriage. I’m not just being clever with words here: we all know how easy it is for the paraphernalia of a wedding day extravaganza to dwarf the marriage ceremony itself.

The simple and solemn words of the wedding vows had such a weight about them; they seemed to ‘hold their own’ – to carry a significance richer than the beauty of the service, more enduring than the dazzle of celebrity and media, deeper even than the monarchy itself. Two people standing before God, promising to love each other and remain faithful to each other for the rest of their lives, whatever happens, and praying for the gift of children.

Much of this is because of the way the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (Revised 1928 version, I think) holds together, in its beautiful language, the heart of the Christian understanding of marriage.

Thank goodness William and Kate chose not to invent their own wedding service. There is so much suspicion today of ‘institutions’, but on Friday you saw what it meant for a couple to enter ‘the institution of marriage’. It means they are taking on something far bigger and more beautiful than they could ever have invented for themselves – no matter how many books of poetry they might have plundered, or how many hours they could have put into phrasing their own heartfelt sentiments for each other and hopes for their future.

The words of marriage, and the meaning they embody, add a seriousness that young people are actually looking for, and remind them that they are not just creating a landscape from their own imagination, but going on a journey into a vast, beautiful, awe-inspiring but unknown, uncharted and slightly risky territory.

The marriage service was still deeply personal – you can’t get more personal than to say, in the first person, before two billion people, ‘I will’. But by celebrating the sacrament of marriage and not just their own transitory affection for each other, by entering into a tradition larger than themselves, they allowed their love to be transformed. The words of ‘the institution of marriage’ challenged them to love in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through their own resources. That’s the point of institutions – or at least it’s meant to be.

And hats off to William for resisting the pressure from his lawyers to insist on a pre-nuptial agreement.

In case you missed it, this is the ‘Introduction’ to the marriage service that took place right at the beginning:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee, and is commended in Holy Writ to be honourable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly lightly or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the increase of mankind according to the will of God, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy name.

Secondly, It was ordained in order that the natural instincts and affections, implanted by God, should be hallowed and directed aright; that those who are called of God to this holy estate, should continue therein in pureness of living.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.

Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.

You can see the whole Official Programme here.

[Interesting that the word paraphernalia is originally connected with marriage; and - as it were - with the original form of a pre-nuptial agreement. I didn't know this before going to the dictionary this morning. Chambers dictionary says: 'Formerly, property other than dower than remained under a married woman's own control, esp. articles of jewellery, dress, personal belongings. From para, beside, beyond, pherne, a dowry]

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