Monday, 23 January 2017

"Call the Midwife" (season 5): a television review (SPOILER ALERTS)

Now that the fifth season of Call the Midwife will soon be shown on free-to-air television in Australia (ABC-TV, Saturday evenings), here are some reflections based on when I viewed this series on DVD early last year.  (I'm not sure why DVD versions of some overseas television series are sold by retailers here in Australia as early as a year before they're seen on free-to-air TV, but I'm glad they are.)

This season confronts a range of significant social issues with the same honesty and commitment as earlier seasons.  As this series is set in the early 1960s, such medical-related issues of the day as the relationship of thalidomide use and birth defects are strongly in evidence, as is a story line on the growing concern over the health impact of smoking.  (SPOILER ALERT:  And, yes, the doctor finally gave up the smokes.)

The developing same-gender relationship of two of the nurses is blossoming, and is treated by the two nurses involved with the sense of it being something clandestine as would have been expected in the 1960s.

Trixie is dealing with her alcoholism by (SPOILER ALERT) trading one addiction for another and becoming a 1960s precursor to a 1980s "gym junkie".  (I always found the "Trixie-is-an-alcoholic" storyline a bit unconvincing.  Yes, she enjoyed a drink or three.  But her drinking only became a problem during the time when her engagement went down the tubes in the previous season.  Cut the lady some slack.  If anything, I've always thought her constant smoking was a greater potential problem for Trixie.)

As with other series of CTM, there is a wedding and a funeral providing the emotional "heart" of the series.  (I won't provide spoilers as to whose wedding or whose funeral they are.)

As a clergy-type myself, I'm personally impressed by the way the vicar and the community of nuns are portrayed.

Jack Ashton's Tom Hereward is rapidly becoming one of my favourite TV clerics.  He's without caricature, whether the caricature is that of:
  • the impossible perfection of Mark Williams's Father Brown or the late William Christopher's Father Mulcahy,
  • the overwhelming self-confidence of Dawn French's Geraldine Grainger, or
  • the "Moe, Larry, and Curly"-ness of the inhabitants of the Craggy Island Parochial House.
Tom Hereward is utterly decent, utterly flawed, and always utterly human. 

But the real heroes of Call the Midwife (in each season and in each episode) are the members of the small community of Anglican nuns who make up the Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus.  (And, yes, there really was a St. Raymond Nonnatus.) 

Trained nurse-midwives as well as nuns, they work in the most trying conditions.  They have a great local knowledge and a deep knowledge of human nature.  In contrast to our culture's stereotype of people of faith (and particularly those whose "day job" relates to their faith), they show a great understanding of human weakness and human foibles.  They are always there for the families they serve, the young nurse-midwives they support, and for each other.

As a positive (yet rarely "preachy") portrayal of people of faith, Call the Midwife is always a pleasure.

While it's always easy for any popular series to "jump the shark" in the realms of predictability and self-parody, this season of Call the Midwife is easily as excellent as its predecessors.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Sex and ethics for the culturally progressive

The other day, I read an article in a newspaper which, in the contexts of reports of Donald Trump's peccadilloes, seemed to make the claim that those of us who were politically and culturally progressive needed (to be consistent) to have no ethical standards at all in the area of human sexuality.   The article implied we need to leave ethical judgement in the area of sex in the hands of cultural conservatives while those of us who take a wider, and more accepting, perspective on life need to treat the whole area of sex as an ethics-free zone.


I speak from the perspective of a person who (while being a married, straight, middle-aged, male, clergy type) nevertheless holds to progressive views in the area of human sexuality. 
  • I respect LGBT people and their relationships.
  • I respect the relationships of unmarried, cohabiting couples.
  • I respect single parents.
  • I respect divorced individuals.
  • I respect the many people I know who, while unmarried and unpartnered, could not be called celibate.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are some strong statements that can be made universally about ethics in the context of human sexuality.
  • I believe that sexual violence is always ethically wrong.
  • I believe that non-consensual sex is always ethically wrong.
  • I believe that is it always ethically wrong for adults to prey sexually upon minors.  I believe it is particularly wrong when the adult has a duty of care for the minor.  (This is why I have called for a voluntary moratorium on churches in Australia making public comments on sex until all faith communities around the world have got their act together on issues of child sexual abuse.)
  • I believe that it is always ethically wrong for humans to sexually abuse animals.
  • I believe it is always ethically wrong when a person (of either gender or any sexuality) in a long-term relationship (married or otherwise) has a series of meaningless sexual flings outside their relationship.
  • I believe it is always ethically wrong when the rich and powerful seek to sexually exploit others.
Ultimately, sex is too important an area of life to relegate ethical reflection upon it to the more narrow sort of cultural conservatives.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book review: "Defenders of the Unborn"

Book Review:    Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: the Pro-Life movement before Roe vs. Wade, Oxford University Press, 2016.

This is a significant recent book.  Williams, a member of the history department at the University of West Georgia, has written a history of the debate in the twentieth century (particularly in the United States) over issues related to abortion.  He has written this history from the perspective of movements opposing abortion, a viewpoint with which he openly sympathises.

He details a number of significant shifts in the public debate over abortion in recent decades:

1.  The rationale for providing wider access to abortion has shifted from a population-control issue (with overtones of eugenics and - at times - racism) to an issue of women's rights.

2.  The general political milieu of the discussion had changed in recent decades.  Whereas the question of abortion is now a litmus-test of where a person is on a left-right political spectrum, there was once a time (in many of our lifetimes) when it was relatively easy in the US to find liberal Democrats who opposed abortion and conservative Republicans who were pro-choice.

3.  The arguments used by opponents of abortion were once grounded in the progressive conviction that a compassionate society had the obligation to provide good, caring public services to all its citizens, ... including the poor, ... including single mothers, ... and including the children of poor, single mothers.

4.  The arguments used by opponents of abortion (particularly those who were Catholics) were once framed in terms of what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago called "a consistent ethic of life", in which opposition to capital punishment and opposition to the arms race existed as part of a "seamless garment" with opposition to abortion.

With the embrace of the anti-abortion movement by conservative-evangelical Protestants (who, for the most part, were also allied with the extreme right wing in secular politics) in the early 1980s, this situation changed rapidly.
  • With the leadership of anti-abortion political movements passing from Catholics to evangelicals, the emphasis of anti-abortion rhetoric changed from a generally humanitarian emphasis of compassion toward the unborn to an aggressive stance of hostility  toward those who participated in abortions. (1)
  • As well, with evangelicals replacing Catholics in the leadership of these movements, more holistic, humanitarian, and pastoral viewpoints were replaced by the ideologies of the hard right.
  • An individual's position on abortion became a "litmus test" of one's general political ideology.  Individuals who were generally left-of-centre (but who opposed abortion in the majority of cases), were generally marginalised politically, as  were also individuals who were generally right-of-centre (but who held to a pro-choice position).
The tone of Williams's description of this process seems to be one of profound regret.  He appears deeply saddened by the fact that opposition to abortion is now seen as a merely right-wing political stance.

In describing these processes, Williams is scrupulously fair to all parties concerned.  In his narrative and his language, he regards all who have been involved in these debates, including those with whom he disagrees, as ethically serious individuals who acted with good will, and who deserve to be regarded with respect.

A mark of this respect is in his use of language.  He describes each movement and viewpoint, as each evolved over the decades, with the language chosen by the various movements to describe themselves at the relevant time.  He doesn't impose today's terminology on people living in the 1960s.  Neither does he impose the language of his preferred viewpoint upon people who conscientiously take a different approach.

This book is a useful resource for all who are interested in the interaction of questions of politics, religion, gender, sexuality, and bioethics.  Whatever your own viewpoint on questions relating to abortion, you should find this an enlightening work.  In my own case, when I finished reading this book, I had more questions on this issue than I had when I began, which is always a good sign.


(1)  And, in my person experience, speaking as someone who isn't RC but who has long had ecumenical involvement with Catholics, the motivation of most Catholics I know (even relatively conservative ones) in opposing abortion is based on compassion for the unborn.  Only among the most conservative of the conservatives can the hostile aggression of some evangelical opponents of abortion be found.  As well, in my observation, a strong opposition to abortion is found not only among conservative RCs, but among reasonably liberal Catholics, among the sort of Catholics who are enthusiastic for ecumenism, who would encourage the divorced and remarried to receive communion, and who would welcome married or female priests.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Book review: "Our Principle of Sex Equality"

Book Review:   Julia Pitman, 'Our Principle of Sex Equality': the ordination of women in the Congregational Church in Australia, 1927-1977, Australian Scholarly Press, 2016.

Julia Pitman has recently published an excellent study of the ordination of women in the Congregational Church in Australia during the fifty years between the ordination of the first female Congregationalist minister in Australia in 1927 (Winifred Kiek in Adelaide) to the union of the majority of the Congregational Church with the Methodists and most Presbyterians in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia.  (This book is based on her Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Adelaide.)

This is a significant study for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it details the process of the church receiving the ministry of ordained women in the context of a church in which the ordination of women was not a controversial issue.  In many denominations, the question of ordaining women was the occasion of a major (and long-running) denominational fight, frequently resulting in an institutionally-divided church.  This was not the case within Australian Congregationalism (nor within any other mainstream Congregationalist group overseas).

Secondly, the author does not limit her attention to the actual process by which the female candidates were ordained, but spends a significant amount of time describing the actual ministries in which these women were engaged.

Thirdly, given that Congregationalism in Australia was a small denomination, the author was able to take an Australia-wide view in her study, rather than confine her focus to a single state or region.

Fourthly, given Dr. Pitman's theological expertise and depth of ecumenical involvement, she was able to present the theological dimensions to the relevant issues, rather than merely treating the question of women's ordination as an issue of social progress.

This is a well-written book, which I'd strongly recommend to anyone interested in:
  • the role of women in faith communities, particularly within the Christian churches,
  • Australian church history,
  • the history of Congregationalism.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

You're drunk, 2016. Go home before I call the cops.

OK, 2016, this has been quite enough.

Not only did you do Brexit, Trump, the return of Pauline Hanson, and Syria. 
Then there were the deaths of the Young Frankenstein guy, the guy in the fedora, the boxing guy, the astronaut guy, the guy who specialised in playing menacing roles in lots of English movies, the WHAM! guy, and the nice (if eccentric)  little old lady from The Vicar of Dibley
Now, there's Princess Leia as well.

You're drunk, 2016. Go home before I call the cops.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The children of want and the children of ignorance: Have Mr. Dickens' chickens come home to roost? (A Christmas reflection for 2016)

In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a particularly dramatic moment occurs at the end of the section when Scrooge is shown various Christmas celebrations in diverse contexts by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  These contexts included the poverty of Scrooge's clerk and his family and the comfortable middle-class circumstances of Scrooge's nephew and his wife.

After all this, the Ghost reveals two children hiding under the folds of his robe:  "... wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable ... meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish....  Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing."

Scrooge was appalled at the sight and asked (with a rather nerdish helplessness), "Spirit, are they yours?"

"They are Man's,*" replied the Ghost, "... This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, ... but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. ..."

As Dickens intended A Christmas Carol to be "an appeal on behalf of the poor man's child", one could say that this passage is, morally, the "business end" of Dickens' book.  What does it say to us at the end of 2016, particularly to those of us in countries that speak in the language of Dickens?

I believe that, in 2016, all of us in the English-speaking world have reaped the whirlwind of our long-standing neglect of Miss Want and Master Ignorance.  Perhaps we can say that, in this past year, Mr. Dickens' chickens have come home to roost.

Looking at such events as the Brexit referendum in the UK, the revival of the One Nation party in Australia, and the presidential election in the US, a common theme has emerged.  Voters who feel alienated from, and abused by, the economic, political, and cultural "system" have used the ballot box to express their rage.  And the results are frightening.

People have looked for someone to blame for their economic and cultural malaise, and they have found their scapegoats.  For many people, they've decided that the culprit is anyone whom they're not.  They've found their scapegoats.  They've found someone to blame.  They've found their Other.  Overwhelmingly, their culprit is someone who is Other:  ... someone black, ... someone Hispanic, ... someone Muslim, ... someone Jewish, ... someone feminist, ... someone gay, ... someone "foreign", ... someone "politically correct", ... someone in a suit, ... any someone you wish, provide that it's someone who is Other.

Some commentators compare the rise of Trump and the Brexiteers, and the resurgence of One Nation, to the rise of Nazism and the beginning of the Holocaust.  I actually believe that a better historical parallel is that of the French Revolution.  Following a reasonably long period that saw itself as an "Age of Reason", the unaddressed economic woes of a large underclass erupts into an episode of incoherent rage.  

Are Miss Want and Master Ignorance saying they've been neglected for far too long?  Have Mr. Dickens' chickens come home to roost?

And what happens in a few years' time when Mr. Trump and the Brexiteers have proven themselves unable to deliver on their extravagant promises?  What then?

Nevertheless, in the midst of it all, we still celebrate Christmas.  At the heart of this celebration, there is a birth.  A child is born to a teenage mother and her fiancĂ©.
  • Luke's gospel tells us this child is born in a stable because the Emperor decided a mass census was a good idea.
  • Matthew's gospel tells us this child and his parents are forced to become refugees because of the paranoia of the local ruler.
The small family is caught up in political machinations beyond their control.

John's gospel tells us that this child came into the midst of our world to be a living demonstration of the affirmation that - at the dynamic centre of our universe - we find a heart of love ... a heart of love that beats for us.

And this child lives in our midst today.
  • This child outlived the emperor who ordered the census and the local king who ordering the ethnic cleansing of babies.
  • This child outlived the governor who ordered his execution, and the various emperors who persecuted his followers.
  • This child outlived the people who organised the Reign of Terror in the 18th century, and the Final Solution in the 20th.
And, not only that, but ...
  • This child will outlive Nigel Farage.
  • This child will outlive Pauline Hanson.
  • This child will outlive Donald Trump.
  • This child will outlive Vladimir Putin.
And, in this hope, we also can live.

And so to all who read this, may I wish you your choice of
  • a Blessed Christ-Mass,
  • a Merry Christmas,
  • Chag Hanukkah Sameach,
  • Happy Holidays, and
  • the classically Australian "Have a good one!"
And, giving the last word to my favourite 19th century British theologian, Dickens' Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!

*   Dickens wrote over a century before Germaine Greer and co. helped raise our awareness over gender-related issues.  Please pardon Dickens' use of what we today would regard as inappropriate gender-related language.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.


Monday, 19 December 2016

Santa suits and clerical collars: ethical issues when wearing either

This year, I bought a Santa Claus suit. It was a used suit from a costume shop which was going out of business.  It's pretty good, although I think I may try to upgrade my Santa suit either for next Christmas or for the following one.

I've worn it a few times for adult groups, while I haven't tried out my Santa gig on a group of kids in this suit yet.  I did some Santa Claus-ing for groups of kids some years ago when I lived in Canberra and I enjoyed it.  (One thing I learned then was that walking down a suburban street in a Santa suit is a sure way to get every dog in the neighbourhood to freak out.) 

This year, I've concentrated my Santa Claus activities on adult groups.  I may soon put "enthusiastic amateur Santa Claus" on my biographical blurb for FaceBookLinkedIn, and my blog, possibly just after "colourful Hobart religious identity".

Wearing a Santa suit involves an awesome responsibility.  When anyone puts on a Santa suit, that person "becomes" Santa Claus for all those within sight (or sound).  Wearing a Santa suit makes you the bearer of the Santa Claus tradition in all its fullness.  You must embody such quality as universal generosity and unquenchable good cheer.  For example, the man or woman in a Santa suit cannot swear, even when given ample reason to do so.  WWSND (What would St. Nicholas do?) becomes the necessary guiding principle for anyone who puts on the itchy red suit with fake fur. 

Santa Claus is a powerful metaphor for the profound truth that generosity is good fun.  If you wear the Santa suit, you become the "icon" of this metaphor.  If (while wearing the Santa suit) you swear, or give someone the finger, or use the N-word, or do anything else unworthy of the Santa Claus tradition, you dilute the power of the Santa Claus myth.

It's a bit like wearing a clerical collar (which is something else I've been known to wear).  Now some of my colleagues wear their collars all (or almost all) of the time, while others of my colleagues make a big point of never wearing their collars (and even boasting of the fact that they don't even own a collar).  Personally, I'm in between these two positions.  I wear my collar on occasions when I believe it's appropriate depending on what I'm doing, ministry-wise, such as visiting a hospital or nursing home outside of normal visiting hours.  For me, if it's not practical to robe up to lead a worship service, I at least try to "collar up".   

As with wearing a Santa suit, people who wear clerical collars need to be careful with their activities.  (It's like wearing a Santa suit, only more so.)  Once, when I was wearing my collar, I was crossing a street against a red light.  A drunk was watching me and called out "Hey, I thought your job was to tell the rest of us to obey the rules!"  (I realise this man's comment was a gross misunderstanding of the role of the Christian church and its clergy, but it's a common one here in Australia.  This misunderstanding is one reason why many churches here have just about emptied themselves of young people, working-class people, and men.) 

When wearing a clerical collar, I am carrying the past history of others with their own experiences of the Christian church, whether that experience is positive or negative.  Some people will be inclined to be open to the man or woman in the collar; while others will be similarly inclined to be closed.  (But then again, if I chose to regularly engage in ministry dressed in a business suit with tie, I'd similarly invite comparison with some of the "evangelical" preachers who function as part-CEO, part-politician, part-motivational speaker, and part-entertainer.  And I don't really see myself as part of that particular crowd.)

One other thing about wearing a clerical collar is that strangers sometimes say "hello".  Among those who frequently greet the wearers of clerical collars with a warm smile are men in yarmulkes and women in hijabs.  Sometimes I think they're asking themselves "I wonder if he catches as much flak for wearing a collar as I catch for my yarmulke/hijab." 

In my own case, the answer is that I don't.

Nevertheless, one of the things I'm aware of when I put on my clerical collar is that I'm (at least passively) in solidarity with my neighbour who will, on occasion, catch flak for his yarmulke or her hijab.

And for your enjoyment (I think?) here's a photo of myself wearing my Santa suit and my clerical collar simultaneously.

Anyway, to all of you:  Blessed Christ-Mass, Merry Christmas, Chag Hanukkah Sameach, Happy Holidays (if you're willing to risk the wrath of the various purveyors of fake "news"), and (to use a particularly Australian expression) "Have a good one!"   (Please choose the greeting or greetings you prefer.)

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.