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Archive for February, 2012

It’s here! The new Routemaster bus took to the streets this week.

I blogged about this two years ago, as a matter of existential concern for Londoners:

Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.

Here are some pictures:

And here is the new all-important platform at the back:

And a few thoughts from the BBC:

The mayor called the bus “stunning” and “tailored to the London passenger”.

Following the new driver-and-conductor vehicle was a “protest” bus covered in slogans attacking the rise in public transport fares in London.

Mayor Boris Johnson has been criticised by the Labour, the Lib Dems and Green Party over the cost of the buses.

Mr Johnson announced plans for the new buses, which run on a hybrid diesel-electric motor, in his 2008 election manifesto.

In total, eight buses with an open “hop-on, hop-off” platform at the rear, costing £11.37m, will run on route 38. They will be staffed with conductors and will not run at night or during the weekends.

The last of the popular, open-platform Routemasters was withdrawn from regular service in December 2005, although some still run on tourist routes.

It costs a fortune:

In an open letter to the mayor, Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy said each new bus costs £1.4m compared with the conventional double-decker bus which costs about £190,000.

The original Routemaster buses were withdrawn from regular service in 2005

“Riding this bus is surely the most expensive bus ticket in history,” he said.

“With 62 seats at a cost of £1.4m, the cost per seat is £22,580. At £22,695, you can buy a brand new 3 series BMW.”

But Mr Johnson defended the new bus, saying: “When ordered in greater numbers it will make a significant economic contribution to the manufacturing industries, while also helping deliver a cleaner, greener and more pleasant city.”

“It’s not just a pretty face,” he added.

“The green innards of this red bus mean that it is twice as fuel efficient as a diesel bus and the most environment-friendly of its kind.”

TfL’s surface transport director Leon Daniels said: “This vehicle really has set a new standard.

“It utilises the latest cutting edge engine technology to deliver phenomenal fuel economy and emission performance.”

It’s on my agenda, together with the new fourth plinth, for when I am in central London next.

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With London Fashion Week in all the papers last week, it reminded me of these photos I took a few weeks ago in Oxford Street. I passed a shop called Forever 21, and saw these two sleeveless T-shirts, with religious themes blazoned across them, but without any explanation.

What’s going on here? Is it just kitsch – like the pink glitter statues of the Sacred Heart in Paperchase? Is it some kind of irony? Is it a political statement – the meaning of which is lost on me? Is it a non-ironic outreach to Christian believers, recognising that there is a vast and largely untapped market here (probably not)? Is it a Banksy-style stunt by a radical Christian group that snuck past the CCTV and re-dressed the manequins before anyone could notice (apart from me)? Does it mean anything that the cross in the second picture is upside down?

Do comment below, especially if you know something I don’t know about this peculiar campaign. – or if you have one of the T-shirts yourself.

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After my talk at St Andrews Catholic Chaplaincy last week we all went to the pub round the corner, and inevitably the conversation turned to the topic of what people could give up for Lent. It goes without saying that Lent is about much more than just ‘giving up something'; but it was interesting to throw around some ideas about what forms of digital fasting and penance could be fruitful over the 40 days of Lent.

Here are the broad categories that came up:

(1) RADICAL DETOX: Just dump it all for the next 40 days. Computers; internet; email; mobile; texting; tweeting; blogging; Facebook; all forms of social media; iPods and mp3 players. Do you include TV in here as well, which is now digital? This is the shock and awe strategy. Total blackout. Everyone said this would be impossible, unrealistic, unwise, not living in the real world, asking for trouble!

(2) SELECTIVE SWITCH-OFF: Choose one form of digital media or communication and let go of that for the whole period of Lent. E.g. No Facebook, or no internet use at all, or no texting. Nearly everyone said this would be impossible, but one or two were open to it.

(3) TARGETED TIME-OUTS: Take all forms of digital media, or choose just one form of digital media, and fast from using them for a pre-determined period. E.g Fridays of Lent; or every day after work, or after 6pm, or after 9pm; or Sundays of Lent. E.g. I need to use the internet at work, but I’ll try not using it in the evenings. E.g. I won’t use Facebook on Fridays, or on Sundays. E.g. one hour a day, perhaps the morning, perhaps the evening, when everything electrical and digital is switched off. E.g. I won’t listen to music on the iPod while travelling but I’ll read instead.

(4) GEOGRAPHICAL SAFE-ZONES: Deciding not to use some or all forms of digital media in certain designated geographical areas; creating ‘safe-zones’, sanctuaries of silence and stillness. E.g. I have enough internet at work, so I don’t need to use it at home. E.g. I’ll use the internet at the desk, but I don’t need to be using it on the mobile constantly. E.g. I switch the phone off for twenty minutes when I sit down to eat at table.

For most people, the third idea of having some kind of digital time-out, on a Friday or a Sunday, will probably be the most realistic – just an hour each week, or an evening or a day, when they are not at the mercy of digital information overload, when they are brave enough to experience being unconnected or just slightly underconnected.

What’s interesting is how much people protest even at the suggestion that one of these options might be possible: the arguments that people throw up, the resistance shown (much of it very rational and reasonable) – it shows how attached we are to this stuff. And just raising the question about how we use digital media, and how they use us, is part of what a prayerful reflection on fasting and penance is meant to cultivate. The important thing is not just to adopt a rule suggested by someone else for the sake of it, but to think of something that could really make a small but significant difference in one’s own life – and see what comes from it.

It’s important to put all the qualifications in here: You don’t take on any of these disciplines because you despise digital media or think they are inherently evil – any more than you fast from food or abstain from meat or chocolate or alcohol because you think these things are bad in themselves.

On the contrary, you recognise that these are good things that can be used for good purposes; but you also recognise that you can become over-attached to them, that they can become idols or addictions, that they can be occasions for sin as well as for good, that their over-use can dull or extinguish the joy they are meant to give, that letting go for a little while can deepen your appreciation for them, that having a discipline and a restriction in place can sometimes make you more free in your approach to something, that there are other good things in life that get crowded out and forgotten in the digital onslaught, that digital noise can make stillness, silence, prayer and even ordinary relationships more difficult, that you are so locked in you don’t know who you really are any more, that it’s important to share in the digital poverty that many people experience as a normal part of life, etc.

All I’m saying is: you don’t need to be anti-digital technology to recognise that there is some value in stepping back and letting go for a while each year – and this is one part of the meaning of fasting and penance for Catholics each Lent.

I like these terms: iFasting, iPenance, and iLent. Of course I thought I invented them, but so far on Google I’ve managed to find this iLent site. I’m still hoping to copyright the first two terms, but you can shatter my illusion of originality by sharing any previous examples of their use you have come across in the comments below.

Or will I get sued by Apple for even mentioning an iWord?

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Do make some time to watch the first episode of a three-part documentary called ‘Catholics’ that showed this Thursday, 23 Feb, at 9pm on BBC4. You can watch it on iPlayer here.

Richard Alwyn and Jennifer Forde spent most of the spring of last year filming the series, and the first episode focusses entirely on Allen Hall and the vocational journeys of some of the men here. It’s an honest, unaffected, sympathetic and uncensored look into the life here. I’ll put a link to the iPlayer version when it is up after the broadcast: See the link here.

This is from the production company’s blurb:

Filmed over six months and with extraordinary access, CATHOLICS – PRIESTS is an intimate behind-the-scenes portrait of Allen Hall in London, one of only three remaining Roman Catholic seminaries in Britain.

CATHOLICS – PRIESTS is the first of a remarkable new three-part series directed by award-winning documentary film-maker Richard Alwyn about being Catholic in Britain today. The three films – one about men, one about women, one about children – are each portraits of a different Catholic world, revealing Catholicism to be a rich but complex identity and observing how this identity shapes people’s lives.

As the Catholic priesthood struggles to recover from the scandal of child abuse, numbers of men applying to join have fallen greatly. In 2010 just 19 men were ordained in the whole of England and Wales.

In this first film, Alwyn meets the men who still feel themselves called to the priesthood.

Rob Hunt is in his first year at Allen Hall. A cradle Catholic, he ignored his faith for years, had several relationships and worked in various jobs, spending time as a roadie for a Funk band, before deciding his life was veering off course. With little education, he thought he had as much chance of becoming a priest as an astronaut. Today, surrounded by box sets of The Sweeney and Harold Lloyd, he is adapting to seminary life.

At the other end of the seminary, Andrew Gallagher is in his final year. Now 30 years old, he worked in a City law firm before joining the seminary.  He sees this not as a career change but as a response to a life-long calling – at school, his nickname was “Priest”. Andrew Connick, is also in the last year of his ‘formation’. Intensely private, it was only at the end of his university years that he felt he too could no longer resist a calling that had been with him all his life.

CATHOLICS – PRIESTS follows Allen Hall’s seminarians as they pursue a timetable that swings from the esoteric to the practical – from Biblical Greek to lessons on how to live a celibate life. But Alwyn’s film reveals how seminary is no “Priest School”; beyond learning the tricks of the priestly trade, the seminarians believe that they are being prepared to be fundamentally altered as human beings… only then able to celebrate the Eucharist and perform the act that is central to Catholic life – the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This mystery is what Catholic priests exist for – to make Christ present in the world.

“I will give you shepherds after my own heart”, said the prophet Jeremiah, stating God’s chosen method for guiding and caring for His people. In CATHOLICS – PRIESTS, Richard Alwyn brings rare and moving insight into the lives of those who believe themselves to be God’s shepherds in the 21st Century.

CATHOLICS is a Wingspan Production in association with Jerusalem Productions.

And this is from an article by Joanna Morehead:

A few years ago he was a roadie with a band, living what he admits was a rock’n’roll lifestyle. Today, 42-year-old Rob Hunt is training for the Catholic priesthood in a seminary in central London. It’s a very different way of life from what he’s been used to. [...]

The rethink that followed brought Mr Hunt to Allen Hall in London’s Chelsea, one of the four remaining Catholic seminaries in Britain, where he is one of 51 men studying for the priesthood. His story features in Catholics, a new BBC series starting this week, which lifts the lid on how priests are trained. In the film, Mr Hunt’s room in the seminary is shown, its walls covered with pictures of St Thérèse of Lisieux and the Virgin Mary. “In the past, you would have found slightly different women on the wall,” he says.

The documentary paints a picture of a life that borders on monastic. But another of those featured in the film, 26-year-old Mark Walker, who’s in his fifth year at the seminary and who expects to be ordained in summer next year, says it’s not all it seems. “You’re living in a mostly male environment, but there’s plenty of freedom to come and go,” he says.

Mr Walker says that, though the celibacy he must embrace as a priest seems strange to many, it’s not too difficult to accept. “There’s a belief that a good sex life is essential, that it’s what you need to make you happy,” he says. “But it’s not that your sexuality is turned off once you’re ordained, but you learn to fold it into the rest of your life.”

Mr Walker says he “always had a nagging thought” that the priesthood would be the right path for him. He was raised a Catholic, and it was on the day of his first communion, at the age of seven, that a priest suggested that he might have a vocation. “It planted an idea in my mind that never quite went away,” he says.

Father Christopher Jamison, director of the Catholic Church’s National Office for Vocation in London, says that although the number of men enrolling in seminaries hit an all-time low at the start of the 21st century, it is now significantly on the rise.

“In 2001, the number of men joining seminaries in England and Wales was 26, the lowest in living memory,” he says. “But from 2006 onwards the figure started to go up, and in 2010 there were 56 new recruits.”

The rise in seminarian numbers has been due in part to the setting up of “discernment groups” for Catholic men and women, Fr Jamison says. “It’s not about straightforward recruitment into the religious life. It’s about helping both men and women work out what’s right for them in their lives.”

In the wake of the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, the application process for would-be seminarians is, Fr Jamison says, extremely rigorous. “We have an in-depth psychological analysis including an explicit analysis of their sexuality. Candidates are asked to describe their sexual history; they are given tests by a psychologist and interviewed by a psychiatrist.”

Let me know what you think, and what impressions it makes, in the comments below.

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We’ve just finished our half-term break, and for various random reasons I spent the week North of the Watford Gap, an exhilarating experience for a southerner.

Due praise, before anything else, to the Victorian engineers and railway men whose vision and graft allowed me to travel from London to Elgin (near Inverness) on – in effect – an unbroken piece of track, via Lancaster, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Leuchars (for St Andrews), Dundee and Aberdeen.

OK, I didn't travel on a stream train - but this captures some of the romance...

You could tell I was in that trainspotter’s twilight zone by the wad of rail tickets stuffed into my wallet. There was a magic moment in Lancaster when I was sorting through them to find the time of the next train to Manchester, and one of my friends who would be on the ‘danger zone’ end of the geekiness scale when it comes to all things public transport couldn’t resist swanning up beside me to note how many journeys I had timetabled for one holiday trip. I impressed myself that I managed to impress him.

Anyway, it wasn’t for love of trains that I set off, but – more or less – for love of the faith. Last Saturday, as I wrote about earlier, was the ordination of John Millar, one of our seminarians, at Lancaster Cathedral; with a great crowd of friends, family, parishioners, priests and fellow seminarians.

That afternoon I got to Leeds, via Manchester, for the evening event of the ‘Love@Leeds’ Youth 2000 retreat for young adults. It was the first time a Youth 2000 retreat had been held in the city, and by all accounts it was a huge success. Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College proved to be a great venue. The school hall provided a dignified place for the worship and services (the chapel would have been far too small), and the dining room was a place not just to eat but to socialise and talk the night away.

For the Reconciliation Service (with individual confessions) and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament that evening there were over 200 young people there, mainly of university age; and I’d guess that a good 150 stayed over for the talks and Mass the following day.

After a couple of days to myself in Edinburgh (I’d never been before) I went to St Andrews as a guest of the Catholic Chaplaincy. I did all the touristy stuff, and went down on one knee to pat the 18th green (it’s all public). I’m not big into golf, but I wanted to experience the moment and have something to tell my golfing friends.

It was great to be in the chaplaincy there, and to meet the students and Fr Andrew the chaplain and parish priest. It has been a powerhouse for vocations over the years, as well as being just a friendly and solid formative environment for young Catholics; and I have known many priests who studied at St Andrews and identify it as the place where their vocation really crystallised.

My talk was entitled, ‘Is there a difference between human happiness and Christian joy?’ I’ll try to post about my reflections sometime soon.

Then, after a huge cooked breakfast in my B&B, I got the train to Aberdeen, had time for a brief look at the Catholic Cathedral, where Abbot Hugh Gilbert has recently been installed as bishop; and ended my journey at Pluscarden Abbey, where Bishop Hugh was from, to catch up with two old friends who are now ‘juniors’ in the monastery. It was my first visit, and I want to post about that later as well, to give it some proper space on the blog.

So that’s my week! Praise to the rail network, which was cheap, and mostly on time. And praise, above all, to the vitality of Catholic life in this country – which is the main reason for posting. An ordination of a man in his young twenties in Lancaster, giving his life to the Lord and to the service of God’s people. A powerful retreat for university students in the heart of Leeds, who chose to be there to deepen their faith when there are so many other pulls on their time and attention. A Catholic chaplaincy, forming its students, sustaining them, as it has done for many years. And a thriving Benedictine monastery in a place of breathtaking beauty that is simply doing what it has always done, and for that reason attracting young men to join it.

Thank God for these wonderful signs of faith in Britain!

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It was a very special weekend for the Diocese of Lancaster. On Saturday morning John Millar, one of our Allen Hall seminarians, was ordained deacon in the Cathedral Church of St Peter in Lancaster, on the diocesan feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. And the following day Sr Margaret Atkins made her final profession as an Augustinian sister in the community at Boarbank Hall.

There are many different reasons why the Lord calls people to diaconal/priestly ministry and to religious life, and the different forms of consecration take on different meanings for the individual, and for the Church and the world – often changing over time. But one of the meanings (not at all exclusive to Orders or to consecrated life) is to give a particular form of example to the Christian community and to the world.

This is phrased beautifully in the Prayer of Consecration at the Diaconal Ordination:

May he excel in every virtue: in love that is sincere, in concern for the sick and the poor, in unassuming authority, in self-discipline, and in holiness of life. May his conduct exemplify your commandments and lead your people to imitate his purity of life. May he remain strong and steadfast in Christ, giving to the world the witness of a pure conscience. May he in this life imitate your Son, who came not to be served but to serve, and one day reign with him in heaven.

Many congratulations to Deacon John and Sister Margaret. May their example and prayers inspire many others to serve Christ as his ordained ministers and consecrated religious.

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Following on from my previous post about how to prise a few pennies from my friends for good causes, Jonathan Ruffer writes here about the joy of giving.

[Last year Jonathan Ruffer paid £15 million to save 12 paintings by Francisco Zurbaran in Bishop Auckland castle. He plans to spend a further £18 million turning the castle into a centre re-telling the history of Christianity in the Northeast.]

Not many of us will have the problem of what to do with a great amount of wealth; but his thoughts about how to free oneself from the ‘burden’ of riches are a healthy challenge to any of us who have any savings stashed away for a rainy day.

The great calling to mankind is that we love one another, and it is in giving that we find its clearest expression. It is more blessed to give than to receive — and the reason is that ‘where your treasure is, there is your heart also’. We have the capacity to love — to have treasure — but we can’t be trusted to treasure the right thing. Personal giving releases our grasp on material things, and gives us compassion for people, and they become our treasure.

What does this mean in practice? There are only three things we can do with money — spend it, save it or give it away. For the rich, saving is more dangerous than the emptiness of spending: big money not only defines a person, it shackles him. We are not designed as creatures to store our wealth, or for that matter, our food. They are there to pass through, and if there is a blockage, the goodness turns to poison. Currency is a Miltonic word from the Latin, currere, to flow. So don’t hoard it — give it away!

And this has to be done by example. It’s no good a poor man telling a rich man to change his behaviour — he cannot match his words with actions. So it has to be the rich — the very rich — who must state this blindingly obvious truth if it is to have any force. But the words have no meaning without the action; it is the rich who have to give it away. And if their wealth is fabulous, that probably means most of it.

This sounds as much fun as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or a Methodist sermon, but, believe me, it is the most wonderfully releasing thing — life as a colour film after black and white: life in all its abundance. If this sounds strange, it is worth remembering that wealth has all the character of a bully: whack it away, and it turns out to be a very insipid adversary. I know that at first hand! There is no sacrifice in it at all. I once asked one of the great northern wealth-creators why so few people followed his example of beneficence. His answer, with cheesy grin, was that people had no idea what fun it was. Saying boo to the bully is a great freedom, and keeps the money circulating.

In today’s world, a lot of good can come from this. One rich man giving it away has all the feel of a futile act, but it’s not. The demonstration of a truth always has power; moreover, it can show others the way. It is lack of imagination, not meanness, which shackles the common-or-garden multi-millionaire. Show a better way, and a trickle, perhaps a flood of givers will emerge, blinking from the dungeon darkness.

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