Wednesday 28 November 2012

Where to now, C of E?

I’m ashamed of the Church of England. As a long-time lay member (I was confirmed when I was 18), I’ve been with her through thick and thin and never felt so alienated as I do this week. It’s not the decision of our governing body in itself – one can argue quite validly either for or against women bishops from both the Bible and Church tradition, and it seems to me that this is not a matter of doctrine but of Church government, which we should simply decide on prayerfully and then get on with peacably. But the vitriol with which the debate was carried on has no place in the deliberations of any church, however deeply felt the position on either side, and will leave a scar whatever happens next. Where did we lose sight of “You will know my disciples by the love they have for each other”? or “Be united, so that the world may believe”? Washing one’s dirty linen in public is what my mother would have called this sorry debate, and it makes me sick.


The wider question, however, is where we go from here? I started training as a lay reader in the late 1990s – though I never finished the training for various reasons including a move from one diocese to another – and I remember clearly in one of my earliest essays deploring the doctrinal chasm between liberals and evangelicals, which I was sure even then would lead to a split in the Church of England, right down the middle. My tutor, a canon at Winchester Cathedral, disagreed – indeed, he seemed surprised that I had even suggested such an idea (what planet was he living on, I wonder?) But the problem is now that these two opposing points of view make it quite difficult for the rest of us to live harmoniously in the “broad church” that the Anglican Church has always managed to be, with room for everyone. In earlier days we could agree to disagree, and none the worse for it. Now it feels as though one has to choose between the two camps, whose views are actually very narrow. The whole argument about women holding leadership roles in the church is based on a very small number of biblical verses, and as I said at the beginning of this post, both points of view can perfectly well be argued without overly distorting those verses. Which surely must make it likely that this really isn’t an important issue, but one where both sides should proceed with respect and an awareness that their point of view might be mistaken, or not important enough to make an issue of. There are much much more important threads in the Bible that we should be majoring on together, things like care for the poor, love for (all) our neighbours, and generally being a light in a very dark world, which cares not an iota for our petty differences, but is crying out for hope and a better way in the face of the hatreds and despair with which many are faced. The Church of England is letting down those people who most need her help, particularly since its status as an established church has meant that its clergy and congregation have always held a special place in the community. I wonder whether they will hold that place for much longer.


So what are the options? We can divide into two, and let different parts of the worldwide Anglican communion join whichever section they wish, or be divided as well. That would be radical and simple, but to my mind a tragic outcome that we should avoid if we can – and which poor Rowan Williams spent the whole of his archepiscopate trying to prevent. Or we can opt for a looser linkage that keeps us together formally while allowing different national churches to take different routes. Our own church here would still have the difficulty of opposing camps, but at least we wouldn’t be dragging everyone else into the abyss too. The North American church is culturally very different from the sub-Saharan African churches, and I think should be allowed to take the route with which it is comfortable. Thus there might be women bishops in some Anglican communions, but not in others. Individual national or regional churches might choose their own conclusion on this issue.Would that matter so very much? If I move to Africa, I would accept that they take a more traditional stance. If I am in Canada then I recognize that for Christians there gays and women are acceptable in leadership as they are in secular government. They may be mistaken, but they would not be evil. I may be wrong about some things too – and pride of opinion has no place in a church where we worship a God who recommended (in the Old Testament) that we “do not lean on our own understanding”, and in the New (via St Paul) that we “do not indulge in petty arguments about minor doctrinal matters”. As long as people are sincerely seeking the truth and trying to follow God’s way, there is room for a little error with humility. It is the arrogance of assuming that our way and only our way is the correct one that has caused the venom of the debate last week. That is a way we should follow no further, for our church is in grave peril.


There has always been argument, much of it angry and venomous, in the history of the church, ever since St Paul began to formulate doctrine within a few decades of Jesus’s resurrection. The result has always been schism, division and often even open warfare. I guess perhaps there always will be. But it doesn’t mean that there should be, or that we are advancing the Christian cause or God’s purposes. The Crusades didn’t do so, the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t do so, nor have any other conflicts brought about in the name of religious differences. God is not in the earthquake, the wind or the fire, but in the still small voice. Let us listen to Him.

Monday 5 November 2012

Obama and the election of 1828

Reading about the upcoming US elections, I was reminded suddenly of the choices facing Americans in a much earlier election, that of 1828 – an election that ended the one-term presidency of John Quincy Adams and resulted in the rapid unravelling under Andrew Jackson, his successor, of the American System designed to improve the US economy. The work of the Adams administration required a longer time span to achieve its aims, and didn’t get it. In retrospect, Adams’s presidency appears as a blip in American history, and has been seen by historians (and also by himself at the time) as a failure. What would have happened if that close election of 1828 had been won by Adams instead of lost?
I have the feeling that Obama’s reforms, hindered as they have been by the checks and balances built into the US constitution, by the financial crisis and recession that hit just as he began his term, and also by blinkered right-wing obturacy in some quarters, need that extra time – another presidential term – too. We have not yet seen the best of Obama, whose scholarly and lawyerly reasonableness and desire for consensus sits ill with the adversarial and visceral politics that he has had to contend with, and I hope very much that US voters will give him chance of a second term. I would prefer to see him bring the best he can offer his country to the role of Chief Executive, not to some lesser capacity as Adams was forced to do, brilliant though the latter’s post-presidential career was. To those outside the USA, to waste Obama’s talents by rejecting him and choosing Mitt Romney in his place would be a mistake whose enormity we would find hard to understand.
The election process creaks, undoubtedly, with its electoral colleges that can run counter to the popular vote, to the detriment of US democratic credentials, and the swing states have too much power. I think the system is out of date and needs changing. But we will put up with swing states and electoral colleges, if they deliver an Obama victory. Then perhaps we will see an Obama unleashed, unfettered, able to lead as perhaps only he can. A good start has been made. America, don’t throw it way.

Friday 28 September 2012

Let's hold on to our fossil fuels - we may need them yet!

Much print, digital text, and air (some of it hot) has been expended on the issue of oil, gas and other fossil fuels. We have carbon capture and carbon trading. We have protocols such as Kyoto and attempts at improving them such as the Copenhagen conference (generally considered a fiasco). We have those who toe the line and those (now subject to an almost religious intolerance) who are seen as, or identify themselves as, sceptics.

 “Global warming” may or may not be caused, or exacerbated, by human use of fossil fuels. Evidence from recent centuries (the short-term view, you might say) appears to be conclusive. Carbon dioxide and temperature levels started to rise at almost exactly the same time that the Industrial Revolution began in Europe. But paleoclimatologists (taking the long-term view) seem less certain. Of the two measures, the former appears more significant, in that carbon dioxide is now at an all-time atmospheric high, where temperature is less easy to determine from proxies. There is good evidence that the so-called Holocene Climatic Optimum of around eight thousand years ago involved temperatures higher than those we have today, and it seems very likely that temperatures about 120 kya (thousand years ago), when tropical animals roamed southern England not long before the onset of the last Ice Age, were at least 2̊C higher than today. There is also the possibility that global warming has been caused by increased solar activity, which occurred during the same 150-year time period. That activity has now largely died away, giving us an excellent opportunity to see whether temperatures now fall, or whether (with carbon dioxide levels continuing high) they continue to rise at the same rate as before. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere should, if the Gaia system of checks and balances were working properly, be lowered by the absorption of CO2 by the oceans, and the fact that the oceans are presently CO2 saturated may have something to do with the horrendous abuse of the marine environment that has occurred over much the same period as industrial pollution of the atmosphere and soil, so could be a factor too.

 Until very recently (in historical terms – I mean, less than 50 years ago), scientists were convinced that long-term solar system rhythms meant that we would soon be faced with a renewed icy period comparable to the Pleistocene. Those rhythms still exist, and presumably would reinstate themselves if we managed to lower carbon dioxe levels sufficiently –  so the question we should  be asking ourselves is whether our (very short-term, in geological time terms) use of fossil fuels is likely to raise carbon dioxide levels sufficiently to offset the solar system rhythms and continue the upward movement in temperatures.

 But that raises another question. If fossil fuel use raises carbon dioxide levels, and those levels prevent us entering another Ice Age, is this a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, burning fossil fuels might be all that is preventing the onset of another Pleistocene-type episode. In which case, perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so worried about it, because if we stop burning them, the Ice Age tendency may reassert itself. And whilst the prospect of warming, with rising sea levels and possibly more chaotic and extreme climatic conditions, is bad enough, it’s nothing to what we shall face if we are assailed by another Ice Age, in which drought as well as cold, and probably violently fluctuating weather conditions to boot, if the climatic proxy evidence from the Pleistocene is correct!
But on the other hand if it gets really cold, we shall need some fuel to warm our benighted cities and probably to provide greenhouse heating for the food plants that won’t grow nearly so well outside. Which fuel shall we use? Solar will probably be helpful, as there will be more sunshine and fewer clouds, and there may be violent storms with winds and waves we might utilize for power. But surely, surely, the best, most concentrated form of fuel that past ages has bequeathed us is our much-demonised oil, gas and coal. Let’s conserve them – not because using them is going to force the Earth into a global warming spiral, or not only because of that possibility, but because we may need them in the future. If we squander them now, at a period of warmth and optimal growing conditions, our children or their descendants will curse us. And with good reason.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

On French and British national anthems

I heard a wonderful story some years ago about two Englishmen who lived in France – rural France, in the Saintes area – in the 1990s. They were enjoying coverage of an England–France rugby match during the Five Nations series in the local tavern where they were known and on the whole accepted. Unfortunately, our Englishmen made the mistake of crowing too soon – for much of the match England was in the lead, and they were, of course, cock-a-hoop about this. But in the end the French came with a late surge and won the match. This was a mite embarrassing for our Englishmen, one can imagine, and it was made worse by the action of one of the French fans who had been drinking in the tavern at the same time. He swaggered over to their table, leaned down and thrust his face close to that of one of the Englishmen, eyeballing him at close range.

            “Hah!” he exclaimed, in basic English, with a strong French accent. “That for Agincourt.”

            Now the Englishman dined out on the story in grand style, seeing this as evidence of the pettiness of the French and their inability to understand the essential camaraderie of sport. But when you look at the words of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, dating of course from the days of the French revolution, but still sung with fervour, before rugby matches and on the occasion of French victory in the Olympics for example, it all makes a bit more sense. The Marseillaise is, not to put too fine a point on it, rather a paranoid confection. Not only do we have the warlike and rousing refrain “Aux armes, citoyens!” calling all French people to fight for their country, but this call is based on the conviction that the enemy is at the gate, threatening the people and all they care for. The interesting thing is not so much the adoption of the Marseillaise in the first place, at a time when the threat was real and most of Europe was at war or about to be at war with revolutionary France, but that they still sing it, unexpurgated, full of xenophobism and fury. Why is that, I wonder?

            Much is made of the Last Night of the Proms, and even of the mention of the Queen being ‘victorious’ in the British national anthem. These are sometimes said to exemplify the gung-ho imperialism still underpinning our national life. But when you remember that the vitriolic second verse of the national anthem has been quietly dropped (I haven’t heard it sung in years), and that in the third the Queen is reminded that she is to ‘defend our laws’ as a condition that we continue to wish her to reign over us, you have quite a different picture. Not to mention the fact that the most heartfelt community singing at the Last Night of the Proms, and the place of honour at the end of proceedings, is reserved for Jerusalem, which is essentially, for all Blake’s warlike language, a pledge for civil struggle, for social justice.

            I mention these differences as observations. I have no idea at all what significance (if any) they have. But I do just wonder whether, if the French were to decide to dump the Marseillaise in favour of a more peaceful song, Europe might be more ready to believe in their commitment to a united Europe. I haven’t studied the words of the national anthems of other European countries, and perhaps it would be an interesting piece of research. How much do the sentiments of a national anthem affect the attitudes of the people of a country towards their neighbours, and towards the wider world where there may well be enemies? Is it something that we should consider more carefully?

Wednesday 12 September 2012

The bricolage culinary arts and the bricoleur life

I recently learnt the true meaning of the word “bricolage” via an excellent book on qualitative research that I have been indexing for Wiley-Blackwell. In this volume a semi-humorous example was given of a bricoleur chef who produces great culinary masterpieces from whatever she happens to find in the family fridge (I couldn’t help wondering whether the author knew such a chef, perhaps in her own family). Now this really appealed to me, because I am that kind of cook. I rarely remember to plan meals much in advance or look up recipes – I might just decide to get some meat out of the freezer during the afternoon with the idea of cooking it that evening, but often I forget, so we do eat quite a few non-meat meals in our household, unless it’s cold meat that I can reheat from frozen, or a quick-unfreeze meat such as mince. My cooking is most often driven by the leftovers in the fridge from the properly thought-out meals I may just have managed to prepare over the weekend. Indeed, I am so allergic to using recipes that my husband, giving me a small recipe book for a birthday or Christmas in our early years together, wrote an adaptation of the Nunc Dimittis for the occasion, on the fly-leaf, beginning: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, from according with thy recipes; for mine eye has perceived an improvement ….”
            Recently my 11-year-old daughter had a barbecue for her birthday, with four of her friends invited round to share it. The barbecue had to be cooked inside, with grill, frying pan and oven, because of the appalling weather we in the UK have endured for far too much of this summer, but it tasted pretty good and everyone enjoyed it. However, owing to two of her friends having cried off within a day or two of the event, I had bought too much meat and made the mistake of cooking most of it, partly because I had already frozen it and didn’t want it to hang around raw in the fridge, and partly in the belief that 11-year-olds are always hungry. To their credit, most of the participants ate well, but even so, we had a number of beefburgers, lamb grills and a portion of chicken breast left over in the fridge, and there are only three of us in the family to eat them up. So I had a wonderful time creating curries, rice dishes and even a lasagne out of these various leftovers, ably abetted by my husband, who always cooks on a Saturday night and made a beautiful beef casserole as his contribution to the culinary bricolage.
            But it occurs to me that actually the best kind of life, or at least the sort of life that I would feel most fulfilled to be living, is also a bricoleur life. After all, along the journey of life we all have a number of different experiences, good and bad, painful and joyous, and these are like leftovers in our fridge. We can leave them there to moulder and go rotten, or we can take them out and make something of them. If you have suffered some terrible trauma, then you will be able to have true sympathy with someone else who has suffered that trauma. Sympathy can be so very superficial, and it may seem quite miraculous to discover someone who really knows, for example, what grief a stillbirth is, if you have suffered one yourself. If, on the other hand, you have had the joy of seeing a child grow up into a mature, sensitive citizen living a life completely independent of your own but nevertheless appreciative of her upbringing and her relationship with you, then you can encourage those parents who are still battling with teenage rebellion or toddler tantrums. As a writer, I continually find that my fiction writing in particular is informed by this bricolage effect, often unconsciously. Readers say to me “How did you know it feels like that?” and when I think about it I can see that even though I have not experienced that particular emotion, I have walked with friends who have, or I have learned enough through those emotions that I have experienced to imagine my way into a slightly different one for the purposes of a novel.
            Nothing needs to be wasted, neither in the fridge nor in the experiences of our lives. Even the things that hurt can be faced and brought into new and fruitful relationship with our present situation, or used to help or sympathise with someone else. And all the little skills we have picked up, life skills and people skills as well as technical and physical ones, can be brought into play creatively in making our and our near-and-dear’s life happier, better and more effective. Let’s use them.

Friday 3 August 2012

Reflections on the information superhighway - is it enough?

It is nearly twenty years since the information superhighway was mooted, and one might say without hyperbole that to all intents and purposes it is fully functional. I have, in those nearly twenty years, written a number of Social Studies textbooks for schoolchildren in Africa and the Caribbean, and the superhighway has revolutionized my ability to research suitable information and check it, without resorting to long journeys to London to read in the SOAS library or pleas for suitable secondary sources to be sent to me by the publisher who commissioned the work. If I want to check, as an academic copyeditor, the correct form of a title or author’s name for a reference, I can easily research this, in most cases, direct from the internet without troubling the author of the paper, chapter, or book that I am copyediting for the minutiae. The World Wide Web is truly a great resource.

There is a sense in which, however, the Web is not, or at least not only, a highway but a network. When the events of the Prague Spring were unfolding in 1968, we were dependent for news on secret correspondents or interpretations of the official news line coming out of the Russian hegemony. During the Arab Spring, those involved could communicate with friends and contacts in other countries directly, and send photographs of the events as they happened. Of course, one can never entirely remove bias, and the view of rebels on the ground in Libya, for example, might well be different from the view of government forces – and you believe whom you want. But the connection between people was much more immediate, and the sense of involvement and identification much greater. The question is, will this increase the likelihood of world peace or not? The evidence seems to be that war between nations may well become less, perhaps even cease altogether, bringing about the dream of the song that nations might “put an end to war”. But war within nations, war between ideologies, factions and ethnic or cultural groups seems as much of a problem as ever, and I must say I don’t see how the Web network will make much difference. Where war between nations is often brought about by the blind hatred of the foreign Other whose culture and lifeways we simply don’t understand, and whose antagonism towards us is the most obvious aspect of our relationship – a situation which certainly can be mitigated by the direct communication between people in different countries, just as it has always been mitigated by sporting and cultural connections – civil conflict is brought about as much by antagonism towards a known Other whose lifeways and culture are precisely the problem. Hatred of the unknown can be dissolved and tamed by more knowledge and experience, so that the unknown becomes known and understood or at least tolerated. Hatred of one’s neighbour because he or she is alien in some tangible way, whether racially, culturally or politically, is an altogether different ballgame. The civil conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have shown us that they are deeply rooted and not easy to resolve. The traumas of Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and central and northeast Africa, among others, teach us this grim lesson. The Web network has not noticeably helped to ease these tensions.

Perhaps we should remember that networking at a distance, using virtual and digital means, even with webcams, digital photographs and long-distance satellite links, doesn’t bring people together in quite the same way as actual physical presence. Sport (I write as the London Olympics are in full swing) and music are two very important ways in which people from different countries or different groups within the same country or region can meet face to face and participate whether as rivals or in cooperation in the same event. Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra, linking Arab and Israeli and more widely Western culture, is a good example of a project that takes the long view: young people who play together in an orchestra are brought into a working relationship that forms a much deeper network than the virtual one. Over time, these young people will mature and will influence others, and the ripples from that network will have an effect on the societies of which they are a part. Such at least was Barenboim and Said’s hope when they formed the orchestra at the end of the twentieth century. Time will tell whether the hope is fulfilled.

Sport too opens our eyes to the reality of the Other, and helps us to escape from stereotypes. In ancient Greece a truce for a hundred days was declared, before, during and immediately after the Games, enough time for athletes to travel to the venue, whether Olympia or one of the other three Panhellenic sites where games where held, to take part, and to return home. There was a lot of fighting in Hellas in those days. A truce meant something, was a real event that gave breathing space.

And the Games themselves had a religious element, a consecration and celebration of the gods all Greeks had in common. Today’s secular West no longer finds much in common with the devout Islamic world, which denies us a level of communication. But there is a growing sense that secularism does not have to mean atheism. Recent moves by the more aggressive wing of the atheist movement have resulted in the alienation and revulsion of many ordinary folk, even those without much in the way of religious belief. Neither secularism not religious extremism can bring us together, the first because it has no spiritual wealth to offer, the latter because it demands that we all sing from the same hymn sheet, metaphorically speaking. We have to find ways to participate together in events that transcend belief systems, which is why sport and music are so important both internationally and intranationally. Just as Olympic athletes from every competing country live together in the Olympic Village – North Koreans rubbing shoulders with Westerners as well as Chinese (perhaps even a South Korean or two), British athletes eating with Argentinians, Russians with Americans – so members of the local sports club meet on a regular basis, whichever housing estate or district they come from. And we hope that in the end the truth will be recognized, that we are all the same under the skin, human in our hopes, fears, aspirations, and in our physical needs, too. Only then can there be peace and reconciliation, whether between countries or between groups and individuals. Only in embracing our common humanity is there hope for a peaceful future.

Tuesday 17 April 2012


First, an apology! I have not written a blog since January 1st! Happy New Year, I said, and was promptly laid low by two almost contiguous bouts of facial cellulitis, from the effects of which I am only now recovering. It's a true excuse, but I could have done better, I expect, if I had really tried....

I had an apology from a colleague this morning, to say that he had forgotten to send off a copyediting invoice I sent him two weeks ago for work done on a project - and the payment would therefore be a fortnight late. How should one deal with this, I wondered? Shout and scream and metaphorically thump the table, with frowning 'smiley's and hard words. It was inconvenient to have to wait, and will require some shifting about of money and waiting for things I had planned to buy, but not the end of the world as there is money in the savings account (for once). But more importantly, I also work as a project manager, and (I hate to admit this, but as no one reads this blog, I'm convinced, I'm only admitting it to the ether) I have inadvertently done the same to other copyeditors on at least two occasions in the past. How can I be angry with my project manager colleague for an offence which I hoped to be forgiven by others? I hadn't even been big enough to admit I'd forgotten, when I made the same mistake - and I admired him for that. So I told him that I had forgotten to send of someone's invoice in the past by mistake, and not to worry about it. And I felt good about that, because forgiveness is good for the soul.

Apologies are also good - and just as difficult. I think it's important to admit our mistakes and ask others to forgive us, and I know I am not very good at doing this - I hate to feel I've made a mistake and hate to admit to it even more. But the older I get, and the more of life I see and experience, the more conscious I am that we are all flawed, and we all need to accept this and be gentle with each other. Judgemental attitudes don't achieve anything, because they set a barrier between people - I am righteous on this side, you are bad and wicked on the other. You hear a lot of this, and it is intended to make the judger feel better, by seeing the judged as inferior. But in the long run it's worth remembering we are judged by the measure we use ourselves for others - in this world as well as the next. When we apologise and admit our fault, leaving room for the other person to forgive us and/or make allowance for us, we make a bridge between us, recognising our common frailty.

There have been some spectacular apologies, where the government of one country has specifically apologised, or at least expressed regret, for the transgressions of its counterpart long ago. Murderers have expressed contrition to the relatives of their victims, terrorists have changed their ways and become political leaders, trying to build bridges across the gulf created by their own previous actions. And in some cases the victims have done their part and forgiven the transgressors. We have seen some examples of this in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Troubles. In Rwanda and in South Africa there have been government initiatives to encourage such actions. No one can be left unmoved where this contrition and forgiveness occurs sincerely and openly, and it always leaves fresh hope for peace and reconciliation. More than that, both transgressor and forgiver are better for it psychologically. There is clear evidence that an unforgiving attitude can make someone ill - and you have only to compare the faces of those who implacably pursued the murderer of a loved one, or the attacker who left the victim maimed, and who would not rest until that person was brought to justice, with someone who forgave the wrongdoer right at the start, to know that forgiveness brings peace and psychological health to the forgiver as well as benefiting the person forgiven.

Cultural differences may also affect this scenario, of course. In some cultures apologies are not expected or valued, and if you make them you are considered weak or inadequate. There is a stigma attached to apologising. That is sometimes true in Western culture, too - particularly in a work situation. But I still believe that apologies are of value, if only to break the mould. In a cultural context where the outright apology is not understood, there are still ways to indicate a need to put things right, to build the bridges rather than setting up further barriers. The more bridges there are, and the fewer barriers, the better. Bridges bring peace, but barriers bring war and revolution.

That isn't to say that either apologies or forgiveness are easy. Where wrong has been done, it is all too easy to let the anger and guilt continue. There are valid arguments for saying that people who are forgiven too easily do not learn lessons, and will probably continue to be careless of whom they injure. In that sense there is a risk to forgiveness, and it makes the forgiver vulnerable in some ways, too - vulnerable to hurt, the refusal of the transgressor to recognise the wrong, or to accept the forgiveness offered. Apologies are risky too - you lay yourself open to the anger - quite possibly justified anger - of the person you have wronged. But in apologising, and in forgiving, there is often a sense of laying down a burden that we have been carrying without realising it. I recommend it to you.

Monday 2 January 2012

Happy New Year!

It's important to be happy. Not just for our own wellbeing, but for others'. A line from an Advent Bible reading comes to mind: "Keep your light shining brightly as the darkness covers the earth." For many, the global economy brings gloom, as economists predict further recession, and even those drivers of global economic boom, the Chinese, find their own economy faltering. It seems likely that the euro will fail, and that the leaders of the EU, with their focus on closer integration, in defiance of their people, who value the sovereignty and cultural difference of their own countries, have no idea how to prevent this from happening, or how to deal with it if (or when) it happens. There seems to be a long shadow cast by the credit crunch, and the financial folly that led to it, and that shadow is creeping gradually across the world, blotting out the sun of prosperity. And in other places, the shadow of tyranny brings another and perhaps worse kind of gloom, to places like North Korea, Iran and Syria, where opposition is crushed and freedom repressed. The Arab Spring may yet bring more tyranny not less, if elections such as those in Egypt throw up Islamist rule on the Iranian model. Indeed, there is much gloom, and if we focus on the gloom, much to fear.

But the reading I started with goes on: "For the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." At Christmas we get a chance to remember who the great light is, and why the light we draw from Him, reflecting His light, can shine brightly in the darkness. A friend wrote to me about her trip to Burma/Myanmar, where she saw Christian faith burning brightly in adverse circumstances. And in spite of the most dreadful persecution, it is still alive in North Korea and in China. This light comes from within, and poverty cannot touch it. Indeed, the church seems to grow more strongly in conditions of material poverty. For spiritual health, Bust seems better than Boom. So let us in the West not worry too much about the economic outlook, grim though it is for many. For the Light of the World also said: "Don't worry what you are going to eat, or what you will wear; your Father knows you need these things." I think we can trust Him. And as Amnesty International's emblem reminds us, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. And the great Christmas gospel from John 1 tells us that "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out."

I wish you all a truly Happy New Year.