To Vaxx or not to Vaxx

Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Health Minister Matt Hancock said of the 19 people in Royal Bolton Hospital who have Covid,

The majority have not been vaccinated and, of them, most could have been vaccinated, which is frustrating to see, but is also a message to everyone. It just reinforces the message that people should come forward and get vaccinated because that is the best way to protect everybody.’

I was quite taken aback by his directness. Openly criticising the voters is not a great look. Of course it’s frustrating that people should – for whatever reasons – decide not to have the vaccine. It’s an argument which belongs in the same area as the one about seat belt wearing.

But on some level, people surely must have the right to choose – and I guess they have that right whether their choice arises from a genuinely held fear or from contextual issues or even from conspiracy theories.

But equally surely the right to choose can’t be exercised in a way which takes no account of the consequences and particularly of the consequences for others. Those of us who have been offered and have accepted vaccination have seen that as a way of keeping ourselves and others safe. Those who refuse vaccination have the same obligation – to act in a way which is most likely to keep themselves and others safe.

Sadly the nature of Covid – and of the ever more transmissible strains such as the Indian variant – is that it is hard to see how those who refuse vaccination are going to be able to fulfil that obligation to the rest of society even as they exercise their right to choose. Society could decide that to uphold that right in this circumstances is not viable. That would mean that vaccination would become compulsory. But that is clearly both impossible and undesirable.

There is no simple answer to this issue – it’s just one more example of the way in which Covid and our response as a society to it has in effect removed significant areas of personal freedom from every one of us. And part of the journey back from this terrible period in our lives is going to be that of working out how those freedoms are going to be restored.

The world needs vaccination quickly

I have fond memories of my four visits to India – three to Kolkata where we had a diocesan companionship relationship and one to Kerala in the south. India is chaotic and crowded. And now it is an unfolding tragedy of suffering, pain and desperation where about 20000 people are dying every day.

We have now received both our vaccinations. There is a feeling of relief about that moment – but also a nagging concern that ‘none of us is safe until everyone is safe’. According to the Economist, the probable global death toll is 7.1 – 12.7 lives and the pandemic ‘has spread remorselessly from the rich, connected world to poorer, more isolated places. As it has done so, the global daily death rate has climbed steeply.’

The irony is of course that the Indian Covid variant now threatens a reverse of that rich to poor movement. The only way to stop it is to get vaccinations into arms as quickly as possible.

The reality is that rich countries have over-ordered vaccines because they did not know which vaccines would work. Britain has ordered nine doses for every adult. So what needs to be done to get an effective vaccination programme in the countries of the developing world? We have the means of protecting people all over the world – we just need to find a way of doing it.

Most obviously, rich countries could donate their surplus vaccines through COVAX – and that is happening to some extent. Then there is the need to waive intellectual property rights – this is moving slowly through the World Trade Organisation. Then there is the need to speed up manufacture and supply and that is already happening. The Economist reports that annual global vaccine capacity is moving from 3.5 bn per year to total output of 11 bn.

But back to the daily reality in India:

This is Mintu. He lives in the Aurima HIV/Aids Hospice in Kolkata which I have visited and which we have supported. My friend Ross Stirling Young, who has led fundraising to build a new wing at the Hospice, says on his Facebook today that Mintu has now tested positive for Covid. Mintu has helped with care for some of the younger children. It seems almost inevitable that Covid will now run through the Hospice – the children have all been affected by HIV and so they are immune-suppressed. Ross says further that the massive stigma associated with HIV means that access to hospitals is not always possible.

Mintu’s story is the human and individual face of a global tragedy. And it is a tragedy which is far from finished yet.

Churches and Climate Change – it matters what they do

It was good to see the Church of Scotland adding itself this week to the lengthening list of churches which have decided to disinvest from fossil fuel companies. Churches may be small investors in relative terms – but it is important that they should say clearly that investment in fossil fuels can no longer be treated as the norm or seen as ethically or morally acceptable.

It was also encouraging to see my former diocese in the Scottish Episcopal Church – the Diocese of St Andrews – announcing the winners of a competition in which young people were asked to share their ideas for a Carbon Neutral Church. In my experience, young people don’t need to be persuaded of the importance of this issue.

it really does matter what churches do in this. Churches too easily live within their own world and – I speak from experience here – spend far too much time talking to themselves in their internal dialogue. The decision to disinvest is important because it happens on the interface between faith communities and the wider society.

My reading in this area also reminds me that fossil fuel companies are generally valued by the size of their reserves. But it is becoming inconceivable that all of those reserves might ever be extracted and used – it’s the ‘leave it in the ground’ plea. If that is the case, those reserves lose may their value and become ‘stranded assets’. So the decision to divest may actually become one which is prudent.

I think – with some shame – of my own carbon footprint in the years before I retired. I used trains and buses as much as I could around Scotland. But I was living in the rural community to the north of Perth and it was hard not to be car-dependent. In my work of representing the SEC in the Anglican Communion, I took too many flights. But Covid has made that kind of travel impossible. Yet the national and international relationships of churches have continued.

One more thing – reporting of response to the climate emergency tends to focus on what governments are saying and doing. People like me take note of what faith communities are doing. But I hadn’t realised – until I was casually listening in the car – how much ‘push’ for change is coming in the world of industry,

It is good to hear that investors – particularly institutional investors – are pushing companies on GHG targets. But it was also news to me, as the Guardian reported recently, that there is a list of 100 companies which are the source of 71% of fossil fuel climate change.

None of this ever moves as fast as we might hope – but it is moving!

Brexit everywhere

What does the Hartlepool by-election result tell us? Many things, no doubt. But surely that the political dynamics which gave us Brexit are still very much in play – and not much that the Labour Party can do about it.

The same dynamics have brought an end to Arlene Foster’s time as First Minister of Northern Ireland. Under her leadership, the DUP made two strategic errors – the first when the supported Brexit; the second when they believed Boris Johnson when he said that there would be no border in the Irish Sea.

Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times, put it like this:

“They were exactly the consequences that unionism should have most feared. Brexit would destabilise the UK as a political entity. And it would, by dragging them out of the EU against their will, alienate the Catholics of Northern Ireland. It was a missile precisely targeted against Ulster unionism’s own protective walls. The DUP said: “Fire ahead!”

Meanwhile, on a slightly more cerebral level, I’ve been reading Professor Anthony Reddie’s book ‘Theologising Brexit’ – having listened to him recently on the Corrymeela Podcast. Professor Reddie is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture and a leading authority on Black Liberation Theology. He describes his book as concerned with ‘providing a theological articulation of the subtextual nature of Brexit that was the collective dis-ease with immigration, ‘race’ and notions of ethnic and cultural difference in Britain, as opposed to discussing the merits or otherwise of the European Union.’

In suggesting that churches and faith communities have largely failed to make a theological or prophetic response to Brexit, he mentions that ‘Anglicans were more disposed to vote Leave than any other religiously defined group in the United Kingdom when it came to Brexit.’ And he went on to remark that it was the Anglicanism of the Vicar of Dibley – where there wasn’t a black face in sight – which would have voted leave while the Anglicanism of ‘Rev’ would have voted Remain.

It seems to me that, as Arlene Foster discovered, Brexit poses political questions which it is very hard to answer. Meanwhile stresses and strains in the United Kingdom are growing – and the previously unimaginable prospect of some kind of rapprochement between North and South in Ireland becomes something which can at least be talked about.

100 years of Northern Ireland

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the establishment of Northern Ireland. Although I was born in Dublin, I grew up in Enniskillen – a beautiful place tarnished by the smoke and mirrors world of discrimination and gerrymander so well captured by Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. And of course Enniskillen is probably best known for the Remembrance Day bombing of 1987.

We did our best to make a contribution in reconciliation until the time came to move on in 2005 Much of my heart remains in Northern Ireland. Our children grew up there. The people are wonderful – warm and kind. They have wonderful turns of phrase which stay with me. We lived through the ups and downs of the Troubles – both the hopes and the awfulness of it all.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a real moment of hope. It has largely ended the violence but Northern Ireland really isn’t a place at ease with itself. I remember that I misread the significance of the Agreement – telling my congregation that Easter Sunday that it would strengthen the centre and marginalise the extremes. In fact, it did the opposite.

Professor Duncan Morrow has been writing today on his Facebook page. What he writes is the best analysis I have read of the situation as we now find it. This is part of what he said:

The peace process and the Good Friday Agreement were by far the closest Northern Ireland came to a second chance. After years of carnage, Britain and Ireland concluded that hard borders in Ireland were incompatible with a sustainable peace. So we got the opposite: reconciliation, shared government, human rights, North-South and East-West bodies, consent and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. And open borders and self defined citizenship which allowed the water of nationality to find its own level.It has been complicated enough. The institutions and principles designed in 1998 have tottered between promise and collapse. A new generation escaped the trauma of everyday violence, although real trust has been hard to detect. But there was at least a project until Brexit. In practice, Brexit was the moment when the British interest in peace in Ireland was subordinated to a determination to leave the European Union. It was not so much that they were against the peace- on balance they were for it- but the Brexiteers saw NI- even Unionism- as a second order commitment, not in the end essential compared to escape for England from the vice of Brussels. And so the paradox. A century after partition, a British PM was willing to try anything to sort his ‘Irish problem’. Instrumentalism was back in. For Boris, get Brexit done meant removing the ‘obstacle’ of Northern Ireland, and dealing with the costs later, maybe.But the Irish problem was and is that the Good Friday Agreement – or at least the spirit of reconciliation and tolerance which was its purpose – is destroyed by the hard borders which are the purpose of Brexit. So getting Brexit done meant sidelining all of that. Unable and unwilling to enforce a border in Ireland, the UK government agreed that the problem should be resolved by controls within its own territory. And so this time we got the border in the Irish Sea.As we hit 100 years, it is hard, these days, to detect much ‘celebration’ of the Irish border. Nationalists, not surprisingly, see it as Ireland’s greatest historical injustice, something to be mourned and reversed and given no encouragement. But as the consequences of the Brexit deal sinks in, Unionism finds itself in a tail-spin, with no obvious project except the continuous negative refusal of Irish unity.

The story from here is hard to read. The DUP, having supported Brexit now finds itself in a political situation which is simply impossible The centre ground is growing and that at least is promising. One article today said that, for every vote which the DUP loses to groups to the right of it, it loses three to the Alliance Party. I heard Dennis Murray, former BBC Northern Ireland Political Correspondent in an interview today about the centenary. He suggested that Northern Ireland has some years left in it because that suits the main players in Britain and Ireland. Maybe … but the pace of change everywhere in Britain and Ireland is quickening by the day.

Dream Deferred

Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem – written in the year of my birth 1951 – says this:

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

A comment in the Church Times from Canon Mark Oakley pointed me towards these lines and I used Dream Deferred as the title for a Quiet Morning last Wednesday. The poem seems to me to say something haunting about the experience – the constraint – of lockdown. And since a Quiet Morning seems to have plenty of talk in it, I had time to explore it.

I was with the clergy of the two Church of Ireland Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry and Limerick and Killaloe – two dioceses which will soon join together. Zoom in these moments is amazing. I was at home in Edinburgh – the clergy, lay readers and others were stretched all along the western seaboard of Ireland from Westport in the North to Dingle in the far south west. There were 53 of them involved. Online meetings make sense when you consider the travel time and cost involved in moving from one end of the country to the other.

Much of what I learned from them had echoes in our experience in Scotland. We have similar challenges in sustaining a presence across huge geographical spaces and with relatively small numbers. We too have found that endless amalgamations and groupings don’t necessarily achieve what is needed – better by far to identify and put in place some indigenous ministry presence in each place. So I listened to people introducing themselves – a relatively small number of stipendiary clergy working with auxiliaries, lay readers and others. A real patchwork of committed ministry.

We talked of course about Covid, about lockdown – about how we have experienced the constraints of that personally. And we talked about how it has affected ministry. We talked about dreams deferred. The real challenge was to explore together how the pandemic will have changed our society – and there can be little doubt that it will be found to have brought fundamental changes – and how we in the church will need to respond.

EV’s – the real problem?

We drove 90 miles last Monday in our electric Renault Zoe – along the M8 and the M74 to our weekly child-minding commitment. We came home with 53% still in the battery and we’ll run around locally on that for a day or two before charging overnight at 5p per unit.

The Zoe is smooth, silent and swift. But I’m not completely convinced that this is the future. I suspect it’s like the ‘battle of the formats’ when VHS overcame Betamax in the struggle for a single video recording format. People may talk wistfully about hydrogen power and fuel cell technology. But the investment is going into EV’s and that’s how it’s going to be – regardless of the merits of the issue.

Cost and range are the two big issues in the EV world. Cost is a bit challenging – for people like us who have always run second-hand diesels until they would run no more. But there are remarkable cost savings which offset the up-front cost, Range, as you can see, is not a daily concern. The car claims 245 miles but of course never does anything like that particularly In cold weather when temperature greatly reduces the range. The problem comes when you actually want to go somewhere beyond the immediate range of the battery – my sister in Cambridge or Donegal. That sort of trip requires significant advance planning and quite a bit of extra time. First stop is the Zap-Map which tells you where the charging points are, how fast they are, whether or not they are in service and whether they are currently occupied. Even a brief survey presents a dismal picture. Far too many charge points – particularly off the motorways – are out of service.

Which magazine took aim at this in its April edition. People see the problem as being about the range of the cars – but it is actually as much if not more about the viability of the charging network. There is no single plug format or charging speed. There is limited ability simply to arrive and make a contactless payment – you have to sign up to each charging network in advance. Tesla has installed its own charging network which excludes all other makes. And of course there is the problem that too much of the charging network is out of service anyway.

if the government is serious about a general move to EV’s by 2030, this is going to have to be dealt with – as is the challenge of providing access to home chargers for people who do not have a private driveway.

Until then, people will stay away – or will do as we have done which is to run a second car alongside an EV – open to the accusation of ‘virtue signalling’

The big questions

Huge events leave searching questions in their wake.

I’ve been working on material to share with a group of clergy next week – exploring the post-Covid world which we hope is now beginning to beckon. No problem with the obvious questions which churches face – about the continuation or not of online worship, about the challenge of rebuilding congregations and many others

But the real questions may be ones like, ‘So what do faith communities have to say and offer to the post-Covid world?’ and ‘Will we find that the way we were before Covid isn’t there any more and that we have to be made new?’

The pandemic has shaken our society to its foundations. Easy notions that life will always be as it has been – and that problems can always be fixed – have been shown to be false. Inequality abounds – the pandemic has affected different age and ethnic groups to a greater or lesser extent. Some people have been impoverished and others enriched because their income was secure and they couldn’t spend it. Employment has become yet more fragile. Personal freedoms have been hugely inhibited in the interest of the common good. Successive lockdowns have challenged our mental health. We have all been forced to look our mortality in the eye. Many have been painfully bereaved and unable to mourn properly. There has been absolute heroism in the people most affected and in the carers.

That picture – however incomplete and however inadequately expressed – is the world which we in the faith communities are going to have to address. Christians would say that these are Gospel questions – what we say of comfort and hope and faith – what pictures of meaning we can offer – to a world of suffering and insecurity which needs some hope to enable it to move forwards. I think we need to help that world to find a new spiritual and moral rootedness.

In terms of the ability of churches to meet that challenge, I hope that we may find that, even if the pandemic leaves us to some extent institutionally weaker, it will leave us spiritually more agile and better able to speak and act out of the heart of what our faith is about.

These moments of challenge come around in all sorts of different guises. In my own lifetime, I think about what it was like to emerge from the decades-long Troubles of Northern Ireland. The long years of violence drove people back into sectarian blocs which artificially made churches look stronger. The coming of peace – of a kind – has gradually been reversing that movement and churches have to find a new narrative for more secular and maybe less sectarian times.

The Celtic Tiger period in Ireland was another. Unimagined prosperity arrived and everything changed. It proved to be a great engine of secularisation – once again one which requires a new narrative. Ireland is no longer the almost universally religious country which it was

Every institution and organisation has to face these moments. Last week at the Funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh we were watching the monarchy beginning to respond to similar challenges. The lonely and bereaved monarch sitting on her own moved hearts. The lesson was of identification – others may disobey the rules because they are powerful and think they can get away with it. But she did not.

I can’t resist the bizarre story of the demise of the new European Superleague. At first I neither cared nor understood. But the narrative from fans and players gradually became clear. Football in which it isn’t possible for a team to lose and be relegated isn’t worth anything – no matter how many millions it generates for already rich owners. There is spirituality of a kind in that understanding.

These are moments of seismic change. We can probably only work it out gradually and as we live it. By the time I meet the clergy next week – on Zoom of course – I hope to be maybe half a step further on!

Big Government

I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with the US. Many visits and many friends – much time spent working on the historic relationship between the Scottish and the American Episcopal Churches. So I thought it was a bit ironic that my final working visit to the US began when I preached at the Diocesan Convention in Cleveland, Ohio four days after the 2016 Presidential Election – in the heart of Trump country. I remember a sense of real foreboding as I watched the building of the dais where Donald Trump was soon to be sworn in and would make his notorious ‘America First’ speech.

The commentators are working hard on their assessment of the Trump years – excellent material like John Sopel’s ‘Unpresidented’

But it’s a real surprise that they are now having to come to terms with the speed and determination of President Joe Biden’s move to the progressive left. Many appear dumbstruck by Biden’s sheer audacity. Over a long career, he was many things but never a radical. Reversing normal practice, he ran from the centre, yet now he governs from the progressive left. Perhaps, at 78, he feels he has little to lose and the nation much to gain. Biden is a man in a hurry and spurring him is not only an older man’s zeal but a crude calculation. The Democrats’ majority in Congress is wafer-thin and the 2022 midterms loom.

In part this is about the return of ‘big government’. Some compare him to President Franklin D Roosevelt whose New Deal saw America through the Great Depression and World War II. Irish President Michael D Higgins put it like this:

“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”

The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”   

People write with appreciation of the competence of the new administration and its readiness to listen and to take ideas on board.

But some things look very familiar to anyone who has tried to offer radical leadership in a conservative/traditional context. I used to say in the parish that ‘I would always approach from the right’ if I wanted people to go with me. Biden is really interesting in his approach. After Donald Trump’s non-stop Twitter assault on the psyche of the American people, Biden is quiet and invisible for much of the time. They say he has the gift of making his most daring and radical proposals seem utterly boring.

And the polls seem to suggest that it is working. Public support is high. And one more thing …. Biden is a natural ‘crosser of the aisle’ – always wanting to see if he can make a cross-party approach work. At this moment, he has made the pragmatic assessment that that isn’t going to work for him with today’s Republican Party and he is forging ahead anyway. Even the most dedicated healers and reconcilers sometimes need to recognise when that just isn’t going to work.

To Zoom or not to Zoom

We were back in church at Easter. On many levels it’s good to be back in the church community. But ….. the small numbers, the absence of singing, the masks … I guess that, as we move back to some kind of normality, the ‘in church’ experience will improve. And then we’ll have to talk about whether Zoom was just something we did when we had no alternative – is it going to be an enduring part of what we offer.

This is actually a number of quite separate questions. There is the Lord Braid view that online worship is an alternative rather than worship itself. I guess that questions about the authenticity of sacraments are in the same area. I have to confess that there are things about worship on Zoom which I like. I like being able to see the congregation all on the screen at the same time. I like being able to visit a number of churches – some would say that I am fickle. But Zoom really helps to challenge the congregationalism which is so characteristic of church life. And it makes it possible to include housebound people in the community – and to give people who may be considering joining a congregation an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’

I know that I am privileged in my ability to have a ‘view from the pew’ or more often a ‘view from the laptop on the kitchen table.’ To lead worship on Zoom must be very demanding – particularly if you want to do more than just ‘point a camera’ at what you would have been doing anyway. One of my clergy friends described it to me as ‘like running a small theatre which also broadcasts its offerings.’

I suspect that we are going to be talking about this for a long time. I’m about to run a clergy ‘Quiet Day’ on Zoom. I wonder how that will go!