Saturday 31 December 2011

The New Year Firework

That really is a very large firework Young Keith is currently assembling out on the lawn.

He tells me it's designed in a number of stages, to provide a series of spiritual messages.

The first stage will shower the grounds with confetti - a reminder that at the precise moment of midnight, 2011 kisses 2012. We will tactfully ignore that the hussy 2012 will go on to kiss 2013 in just 12 short months' time, while 2011 itself has form in this area, with its previous dalliance with 2010. And look what that led to.

The next stage is full of doves' feathers, to represent peace on earth. Keith's spent hours picking up feathers under the dove cot, and has had several baths as a result.

The next stage  - iron filings. Representing the spiritual strength we all need to get through the year. We must all look for our inner strength, especially in the New Year as Liverpool once again fail to qualify for Europe.

And then some beautiful "traffic lights", in red, amber and green, to emphasise the way I plan to measure every measurable metric of Community performance. Especially the Spiritual Maturity Index, which has been loitering in the low 50s all year.

And the final, explosive Big Bang. To represent the way some religious groups  thought 2011 would end, and the way others think 2012 will. It may be loud, scary and dramatic,  but be assured the world will still be in place at the end of it.

Unless it's not.

Clearing out the Garage - the Archaeological Report

I'm pleased to release the official archaeological report from the excavation of the Beaker Garage. We had just three days to clear out the garage, prior to hoping to get a couple of cars parked in it in the New Year.

The initial excavation revealed the sort of things you expect on the top layer of a garage - empty cardboard boxes from various electrical devices, old car tyres, a couple of bikes someone was hoping to get round to fixing, and an old fridge-freezer that has been "on its way to the dump" for several years.

Just below the carrier bags that underlay this stratum, we found Burton's old Harley Davidson. He bought it during his second, "difficult", mid-life crisis, rode it once, was terrified and put it at the back of the garage to avoid temptation. He was so pleased he went off to ride it round the grounds.

As we dug down we found evidence of a tea light-using community, as evidenced by thousands of half-burnt tea lights and old matches. We suspect that they may have had a particular fondness for Mother Julian of Norwich, to judge by the number of hazelnuts they had piled up - certainly they weren't eating them. They also used a variety of sandstone, limestone and mud-stone pebbles in worship, leaving us to believe that these people may have been the origin of the traditional Beaker saga, "When Hnaef had a holiday in Dorset". A copy of "The Hymns of Sydney Carter" could be found in this layer with burn marks and a meat skewer driven into it, leading us to think it may have been ceremonially sacrificed.

Under an unexpected layer of Betamax videos - suggesting we were dealing with a community that habitually made the wrong choices - we uncovered a civilisation so incredibly old that they still thought that Filofaxes were a pretty neat idea. However the Filofax evidence was mixed up with some broken Go-Go Hamsters and a collection of Pokemon cards, leading us to think that what we were looking at was a previous, failed attempt to get the garage cleared. The evidence being so badly contaminated - we found a Spectrum 48K, a hula-hoop and a Rubik's Cube in the same layer at one point - we had to progress carefully using small trowels and brushes. The skull of Piltdown Man we found in this layer was almost certainly a fake, and there's certainly no way he would ever have used the Philips Radiogram.

So we are pleased that the evidence has been fully analysed. We have discovered that the garage has been in use continuously for anything up to 50 years, by a series of peoples who combined being incredibly profligate with the goods they used, with never wanting to thrown anything away just in case it came in handy. In deference to their sacred memory, we've loaded the lot up in a series of skips and sent it for landfill.

Meanwhile, we're very excited about the chance to use the garage for parking cars in, which we're pretty sure was their original purpose. And we're going to be parking those cars in the garage, just as soon as Hnaef has removed all the boxes, expanded polystyrene and old wrapping paper that he's parked in there "for a week or so, so I can get the front room clear after Christmas". And once Bernie has removed the old cooker that he's just cleared out to be replaced with his new exciting Beaker peat stove. And when we've worked out whether we can fix Burton's Harley, which he's just ridden into a tree. Thankfully, being Burton, he was only doing about 4mph at the time.

In fact, from where I'm standing, the garage looks just as bad as it did before we started. Maybe next year.

Friday 30 December 2011

A Year in Stats

Dear Readers, the Archdruid has noticed that other people are doing their annual stat-fests, and thought that this year we should do our own. And she indicated that there was nobody else she would entrust this sacred trust to than myself. Or, in her own words - "Burton, you're the saddest beggar round here. Do the stat-post."

There are so many interesting stats to be pulled out of here, Dear Readers. Such as the fact that Canadians spend three times more on the site per visit than the British. I suspect they are trying to work out what it's all about. However when I pointed out a few of these facts to Eileen, she hit me with a brush and told me to get a life.

And so, Dear Readers, here they are. Mined from the coal-face of Google Analytics, and sorted by my own diligent hands, the 2011 Beaker blog stats.

Nice people who sent the most traffic (either through links or side-bars):

1. Valle Adurni
2. Church Mouse (retd)
3. Guardian CiF Belief
4. Vernacular Curate (promoted to the Vernacular Vicar)
5. Revd Lesley (retd)
6. Echurch blog
7. Phil Ritchie
8. Clayboy (transferred)
9. Chairman Bill
10. The Hermeneutic of Continuity

Most-read posts (excluding "pages" in the top bar):
1. Richard Dawkins refuses to debate the Existence of God
2. De-frag your congregation
3. New Unwinese Bible
4. Riding the bow-wave of the Rapture
5. Rules of engagement for worship time
6. Quick pagan Solstice joke
7. Darwin was - more-or-less - right
8. KJV - the "Gove" preface
9. Liturgy of Voiles and Tea Lights
10. If men ran the church

Most popular search terms (excluding obvious variations on "Beaker Folk", "Husborne Crawley", "Eileen" etc)

1. beaker folk gnomes
2. Fr Egbert Twinkinson
3. summer solstice
4. unwinese
5. beaker doily press
6. gibbon moon
7. ordinariate
8. bishop of london's pastoral letter
9. stations of the cross
10. thomas hardy plot generator

Oddest / most worrying search terms
1. guinea pig cake
2. small garden ornaments
3. bertie bassett
4. tortoise pie
5. one of these is a vending machine
6. spare him not, devil
7. the legal authority shows its impotence precisely
8. when is gafcon going to start listening?
9. a brief history of jamaica's folk music
10. abba nativity play

Visitor browsers
1. Firefox (25%)
2. IE (24%)
3. Chrome (23%)
4. Safari (19%)
5. Mozilla Compatible (5%) [whatever that means]

Visitor locations
1. UK (30,200)
2. US (5,200)
3. Australia (1,100
4. Canada (760)
5. Ireland (310)

The Logic of Creation

Some of our more recent readers may not be aware of the fuss that Hnaef caused a while back, when he came "out", as I believe the expression is, as a member of the Church of England. This caused us to see him in a new light, especially when I realised that the "Daily Office" he was reading was in fact Morning Prayer, and not a newspaper for the business community.

And a verse he quoted to us this morning pulled me up short. It's from Colossians 1: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created..."
All a bit John 1, of course. But the thing that struck me was the contradiction between "the firstborn of all creation" which could be taken by some as implying Christ was created, and "in him all things in heaven and on earth were created" - which implies he certainly wasn't. 

But it seems to me that "first-born" isn't "first-made". The Egyptian and Roman gods produced new gods by - ahem - the way that rabbits produce rabbits, meerkats produce new meerkats and even, let's say it - even humans new humans. By which means the divinity wasn't lost, and the new generation were gods just as the previous ones were.

And maybe that's what Paul's trying to get at, it strikes me. Christ is "first-born" because he's got all the same god-ness as the Father. Of course, there's no Mrs God about the place (if there is, the Bible's  very quiet about it, although I know that Francesca Stavrakopoulou would say that powerful vested interests edited the text to get her to go away, and provide Dr Stavrakopoulou with the chance to make hard-hitting TV series and the Daily Mail the chance to get hot 'n' bothered about it).

But God doesn't need that Mrs God because (a) as far as we know, God doesn't do that sort of thing and (b) if anyone is Mrs God, then it's God Godself, as God has neither X nor Y chromosomes (and no mucky comments) and (c) the point Paul's trying to  make here is one of relationship rather than sex and the single deity. Paul's saying that Christ is not made - he's "born". And if he's firstborn of creation then he's there first - in the sense of really first, not merely waiting ever since a date I shall call "minus eternity"' and then just nipping in first before all the rest - but first-first.

But if first-born of all creation, and the one through whom it was all made, then when he was, if you will excuse the expression, born again - a second, physical birth, in a piece of rock orbiting a medium-sized star at the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy, as a sage once put it - then in a way, he was there already. He was coming back to his own. Because he was there in the beginning and all along - not as some spaceman came travelling, an alien in an alien place, but as one who knew every nook and cranny in that stable, every strand of DNA in the governor who was to condemn him, the full life-cycle of the tree that made his manger, and the tree that bore his body. That doesn't mean that Jesus the man knew all these things - as his brain was the same size as ours, give or take - but it does mean that Christ underpins the whole shooting-match in the first place.

It means the Son is the Logos, as John puts it - the Word through whom all creation was spoke, but also the logic that holds the whole universe together - the one who defines the fine-structure constant, Planck's constant, the speed of light in a vacuum and, for all I know, the numbers π and e (I'm not too sure about these last two - I can imagine a world where c is different, but I don't know if I can imagine one where π is).

All of which leaves me wondering - if that's true then has an assumed truth of the last western Christian century been upside down? We've got into a habit of thinking (which I'm not going to bother referencing as (a) I don't know where to find this and (b) I hope you'll recognise this) that people - of all faiths and none - have an appreciation of the Spirit, but not one of Christ. We beloieve that it is Christ that people are lacking, but because everybody is spirit-ual they all possess, to one degree or another, the Spirit. But if the first-born of creation is the one who defines the logic of the universe, then in fact it's the other way round. The Logos who sets our very physical parameters is the One whom we all - implicitly - understand. Of course, it's a bit of a shock when the Logos decides to reside on earth as a small Jewish boy-child, born to what we might call an unconventional family. But the shock is that one who was here all along, is here embodied and en-souled.

Maybe the spirituality we see in others - even non-Christians, even non-believers - the belief that "there must be something", the innate nagging that sees purpose - comes from the Logos, the one who innately fills the world with meaning and reason, not the Spirit. The Spirit meanwhile is the one who blows where she wills, the one who, while we've been presenting our logi-cal cases for faith, has been howling down the outside of the church building wondering when she's going to be let in.

I'm not sure what all this means, if anything. But it made me think. I think I'd better open the window. You never know what might blow in.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Nativity of Bernard Cribbins (1928)

You see, Thomas Becket (no "a", which is an a'ffectation) is all very well, but not a terribly sympathetic guy to celebrate. He was a trouble maker, inclined to excommunicating people at a moment's notice. And more associated with Northampton, rather than Bedford.

So we thought St Wilf the Doctor's companion a better secular saint for this evening's festivities. But the liturgical dress gave us the problem.

It's all very well dressing all the Beaker Folk dressing up as wombles - they were quite attractive, as it goes - but instead of staying in the Moot House they wandered off into the countryside to clear up rubbish and make useful things from it. I've no idea when they're going to be back.

Big Tent

I've been having to deal with some theological disputes since we've entered the post-Yule lull. This is typical of what happens when people have time on their hands. Which is why I prefer the busy times, like Yule itself when people are so busy attending Ceremonies, and so sleep-deprived from watch-nights and early Pouring Out of Beakers that even if they had time to think, those thoughts would be incoherent.

For starters I've got to deal with Marston Moretaine. Marston has come all Oxford Movement on me, and started to demand a certain precision in our observances. He's presented me with a list of rules dictating the correct length of hi-viz and the number of pieces of velcro that should be used to fasten it; the correct direction in which to turn a beaker during Pouring-out (anti-clockwise); and the Four Additional Bows we should introduce into the Tea Light 'n' Pebbles Service.

Meanwhile Mansfield Wodehouse has come up with with his own set of diametrically opposite demands. If we are to re-establish the Primitive Beaker Faith, according to Mansfield, we need to do away with pebbles and tea lights (reminding us as they do of Popery). He is particularly scathing about Pouring Out of Beakers, and its eventide equivalent when we fill them up. The ceremonies seem to imply, according to Mansfield, that by leaving a Beaker of water overnight it soaks up Good Earth Energy, which is then distributed in the morning by its pouring-out. He has declared this to be neo-paganism of the first water (and not the kind of water we are pouring out which, for Mansfield, has been contaminated by its use in these ceremonies).

Thinking of Mansfield at one pole and Marston at the other, I've realised that what I need, drawing from Gordon Brown's example, is a Big Tent approach.

So I've pitched a Big Tent out on the lower field and I'm making them sleep in it until I hear some sense from them. They've both just come in for breakfast, frozen but fanatical, so I guess they're gonna need a few more nights out there.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Quick Heisenberg Joke

Really odd. Werner Heisenberg has just turned up for dinner, despite having been dead for more than 30 years.

It's all my grandfather's fault, I see. Having a keen interest in physics, he invited Werner to dinner in 1957. He was a bit vague on the time dinner started, but sent a very accurate seating plan.

Remembering the Fallen Entertainers

Yes, sure we call them "luvvies" when they act like they're in as dangerous a profession as miners or Armenian priests. But actors, writers and musicians create the soundtrack and add the meanings to our lives - more so these days than probably any religious leader or politician, philosopher or classical composer. Who could tell us so much about family as John Sullivan? Who tell us about friendship and loyalty like David Croft?

I've just played through the BBC's "fallen stars of 2011" montage and was saddened by many of the faces there. Of course, there is that "sic transit" kind of sadness when you see the beauty of the young Elizabeth Taylor or Googie Withers, for example. And the wistfulness of knowing we've seen the last of Betty's hot-pots in the Rover's.

But the one that saddened me most was Trevor Bannister. Probably because I seem to have totally missed his passing at the time, and so it came as news today. I still remember him as the witty, slightly smutty Mr Lucas in Are You Being Served - the young-ish failed romantic lead, constantly rebuffed, as it always seemed, by Miss Brahms. In those days he was the junior in a department supervised by Capt Peacock, the inimitable Frank Thornton. In his last regular role, he was alongside Thornton again, as the Golf Club Captain in Last of the Summer Wine - ironically, Thornton was consigned to indoor shooting only for the last series due to his age, while Trevor Bannister was still allowed to film outside at a youthful - for Summer Wine - 75 at the time.

The BBC montage finishes with Amy Winehouse. As a moment capturing youth and beauty cut short and talent lost, it's a poignant shot. Goodbye to you all - you made our lives brighter.

How Still We See Thee Lie

Now you know how it is with church cleaners. Sometimes, like the flower arrangers, they get a bit picky about who's doing which bit of cleaning.

And you know how it is clergy, sometimes they get drawn into these affairs and end up trying to ensure that Mrs Browne-Jennings does the right hand side of the church, while Mrs Jennings-Browne does the right. And still bloodshed ensues as they work out which side of the church the side-chapel technically comes under.

But what happens if the clergy are the church cleaners?

And I like the Armenian Church, and I like the Greek Orthodox Church. But which is better?

I guess there was only one way to find out.
I hope the shepherds were quieter.

The Lull After Christmas

In the Beaker Community, we tend to have a bit of a lull after the Big Three days of Christmas.

It's a strange time, these third-through-sixth days of Christmas. We have neither Solstice festival nor Christmas carol-singing to look forward to. And we're all trying to regain our strength before New Year's Eve.  And for those of a more "traditional" (ie invented) bent, it's ages till Imbolc.

A few  among our community go back to work. When these are single and/or childless couples - or when they have to go back because they're bin collectors or nurses or those who must keep the workplace  covered - we understand. When I hear the words "it's nice and quiet and I can get some work done" from married men with small children, I normally dust off the "Ritual of Acrimonious Divorce". It's always good to be ready and know where to find it.

Marston Moretaine is whatever the opposite of a Puritan is, when it comes to Christmas. He's spending his day down at the landfill - sorry, Recycling Centre, and shouting at anyone dumping a Christmas tree that they're a week early.

In order to give everyone a rest after all the festive sleep-deprivation, I've invented the concept of "official sunrise" as the time to Pour Out Beakers. This will be 11am for the rest of this week, moving to 1pm on New Year's Day. It makes some of the liturgical words about "Dawn chorus" and "rumble of the early-morning commuters on the M1" a bit strange, but probably no more anachronistic than an evangelist trying to use the word "sin" to an unchurched teenager.

And now I really must go and supervise the annual Clearing out of the Garage. There's a lot of stuff to shift, and a rumour that, somewhere in the back, the Lost Tribes of Israel can be found.

Tuesday 27 December 2011


An enjoyable evening in the Orchard wassailing. Only three cases of temporary deafness, which is a vast improvement on the last time we did it. Young Keith fell over the cider bucket, but then he does that every year.

It makes me ponder. We enjoy the Olde-Englishenesse of it all. We remember that "wassail" comes from wæs hæl - "Good Health" as we would say these days, as in Hale 'n' Hearty.

To us, it's all a bit of Merry England fun. The thought of the smock-clothed yokels, out in the trees letting off shotguns in random directions while singing a toast that may go all the way back to the people of Avalon of the Apple Trees itself - makes you as warm spiritually as the mulled cider makes you physically. You imagine the community joining together in their age-old celebrations, invented when Pomona was a girl, and enjoying their community life, simple, home-spun wisdom and earthy humour.

Of course, those apple trees were taking up valuable space that would otherwise be useful for growing food crops. Cider was a thirst-quencher, sure - but presumably also a pain-killer when you were out in the fields all day. When unfortunately brought in contact with lead, it could do some awful damage. The lives of the wassailing throng would have been hard, and often tedious and dull - only church services, the odd saint's day and cider to lighten their loads, with births bringing a mixture of joy and, dread and deaths only bringing dread. For a second time in a couple of days I'm led to think that history would have been a great place to live if it weren't for practically everything that took place in history.

The Worst Xmas Song?

Just about to nip out for the Grand Wassail but unexpectedly hearing Cyndi Lauper's Early Christmas Morning on the Community Muzak makes me wonder if this the worst Christmas song ever. I reckon if it's not, at the least Spaceman Came Travelling has a close competitor. FWIW I'd put Fairytale of New York as the best (I sense you all step back in amazement) and, controversially perhaps, maybe Frankie's Power of Love a distant second.

I think Cyndi's effort has all the classic hallmarks of a Bad Christmas Record. Simplistic tune, pointless bells, mention of children dancing (not the little children of Stonehenge, sadly) and pointless and annoying whooping. Some doggerel so bad it nearly shades into gibberish - and then it ends with this little gem:

All around and far off places
Angels waken smiling faces
Wrapping us with love and graces
Early christmas morning


First Wassail tonight. A tradition of great antiquity, which our foremothers and forefathers believed would bring better apple crops - either because they thought they were appeasing the spirits of the trees, or because they were blasting hibernating caterpillars out of their snooze.

Ah, the past would've been great, wouldn't it? If it weren't for plagues, civil wars, oppressive feudal lords, religious wars, frequent deaths in childbirth, rats, ruinous overseas wars, crop failures, natural disasters, the Vikings, the Normans, internecine wars, breaking your leg and never being able to work again, malnutrition, dirty water and smallpox. And village feuds, warts, lice, The Strangles, public executions, malaria, backbreaking labour and invasions.

Now we've had some problems with this ceremony in the past. So I'm taking the liberty of publishing the following list.

Singing, Traditionalist Attitudes, Hi-viz, Goodwill to All People, Wellies, Tea Lights in horn-effect lanterns (available from the Beaker Bazaar).

Cider, Mulling, Beards, Smocks, Fake Dorset accents, Fireworks (with Beaker People at a safe distance, in accordance with Best Practice H&S), Over-romanticised views of the past.

Shotguns, Howitzers, Polar Bears, Grumping, Debunking, Accusations of Paganism, Helicopters, Chainsaws (they scare the trees), Running around with applewood-smoked cheese saying "look what we did with your mate", Releasing killer bees.

Monday 26 December 2011

Immortalised in Newspaper

Much interest round the Community over the Bishop of London's reported enthusiasm to put up some kind of a memorial to the Occupy occupation of St Paul's Churchyard.

A while back, enthused by the whole affair, Hnaef thought it would be a good idea to put up some kind of memorial of the event in  the Moot House. It turned out that one of the Occupiers was an old college-friend of Hnaef's. And Geoffrey, who could afford to be parked in a tent for a few weeks because his dad owns large parts of Dorset, was only too pleased to come down to Husborne Crawley to model.

Now Hnaef often likes to model in papier-mâché. And Geoffrey was happy. And the use of a product that is not just environmentally-friendly and natural but also recycled sounded good to me. And a beautiful model of Geoffrey soon appeared in the Moot House.

Of course, the problem came when Geoffrey asked how he was supposed to get out. I mean, he's not a balloon. We couldn't just stick a pin into the model to pop him. So sadly we had to demolish it again. Bits of soggy newspaper all over the place, and a fair amount was left stuck in Geoffrey's hair. We had to use a pair of electric shears in the end.

Still, he was awfully nice about it. Said he totally understood the mistake. But when Hnaef said maybe we could do him in bronze instead, Geoffrey panicked and went back to London.

Complaints Flood In

I've been receiving a number of complaints about Thomas Leaf's behaviour on Christmas Night. I blame myself really. After all, we'd explained to him how important it is that we celebrate tradition. Unfortunately, in direct contrast to all the other Beaker People, he chose to follow his own tradition rather than somebody else's. In 19th Century Dorset, his behaviour would have been regarded as a traditional and rather charming Christmas activity, probably entitling him to a few bob. These days it's just called wandering around  the village with a jug of cider, singing loudly outside people's windows. And at 2 in the morning, that's not allowed. The children of some of the families he woke up were convinced that Santa had arrived, so there were some bad nights all round.

Nights Drawing Out

Looking forward to the Summer Holidays, now.

Common People

Intrigued by the work of the Bible Society's work in translating the Bible into Jamaican Patois. The article describes the effect that hearing the Bible in their own language has on its hearers.

But some aren't so happy. A bishop complains that patois is too limited to describe the nuances that English is capable of carrying:

"Even those (Patois) words that we would want to use to fully explain what was in the original, are words that are vulgar."
And yes, English is a nuanced language. Our Anglo-Saxon, Norse, French and Latin heritages give us many, finely-gradated words that can describe the same thing. That's the kind of power most other languages don't possess. I don't suppose Hebrew or even Greek could manage that.

Especially not the Greek of the New Testament, called "KOINE". Which you would translate as "common", as in "shared". You could use the sort of play on words we use in English, and interpret "common" as vulgar - but that only works in English, I suspect.

Then we have the Latin Vulgate - the commonly-used Bible. That surely must be "vulgar", given it's the Vulgate.

And then we have this comment in the 39 Articles of the Church of England - not a work I would think the Portmore Holiness Church uses, but still good advice on this kind of matter. Article 24 tells us that "It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people." Which I would take loosely to mean - if you're gonna have religion, have it in your own language. So if you speak English, don't learn Latin to read the Bible (I'll let you off Greek and Hebrew here). And if your language is patois - well, 'nuff said. We don't live our lives in no fancy language. And the Bible weren't written in no fancy language. So let's not read it in one.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Christmas Morning

OK Santa, you can get back in your sleigh now. The holiday ads can start, the sales get into full swing and people will start forgetting to light the bling.

Meanwhile, the few people that "do" will continue to remember the unexpected invasion of this world by its creator. The blingfest was nice while it lasted, but it's good to have Christmas.

We kicked off the "Christmassy" theme with a bit of a sing-song round the tree last night. Unfortunately Jerbil started hyperventilating during "Angels from the Realms of Glory", so we thought it would be better not to bother with "Ding-dong merrily on high". Best not to risk it. And a couple of women were arrested for singing descants without a licence. Which was a mercy all round.

And then I had a couple of glasses of Hnaef's traditional Beaker punch. And I've just woken in my study, dressed as Queen Boudicca and with a traffic cone on the end of the spear. Next year I really must take Daphne's advice regarding Hnaef's punch.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Smelly, Hairy and Covered in Hay

It's the scene every expectant mum looks forward to. The baby - all screwed up like a raisin, sure, but definitely adorable. The husband standing by, awe-struck by the miracle that has happened so many times since a mutant duck-billed platypus or echidna unexpectedly gave up laying eggs. The mother - flushed, exhausted, knowing that the chances are she's made it through probably the most dangerous few hours of her life. From now on in, the risks are going to be on the baby's side, at least for a few years. But for now it's quiet, things are calm, everyone's safe. The surroundings are a bit unusual, sure, but that's to be expected in the circumstances. Everything's as normal as can be.

Except for the shepherds. What every scene of domestic harmony needs, is a bunch of shepherds. Men who spend their lives surrounded by some of the dimmest mammals on the planet. Men who are smelly, hairy, and covered in hay. That's a fine collection of visitors with which to surround your new-born son. And if you're also under the illusion that there's something particularly special about this child, it's even odder.

Why the shepherds first? Why not those nice clean Magi, with their funny gifts? Why not the Bethlehem townswomen's guild, who might have turned up and presented doilies, tea-cosies and oven gloves? Assuming that's what townswomen's guilds do - for all I know they're into abseiling and extreme yo-yo. Why not the Bethlehem Mayor or the local Rabbi? Why some sweaty blokes who smell of sheep?

But then why any of it? Why the birth under an army of occupation? Why the life growing up under governors, tetrarchs, dictators, puppet kings? Why the harassment from the soldiers? Why the mess and the squalor? Why the constant journeying, the struggle, the desertions, the opposition? Why the fingers pointing and the accusation? Why the betrayal, the torture, the death?

Better make the most of the shepherds, Baby Jesus. It may seem unlikely, and you've come a long way down already, but it's all downhill from here.

After the Yule is Over

At around the same time I was commenting on Tim Minchin, the Thirsty Gargoyle had a few words to say on the matter. The Gargoyle's post mostly focusses on the way Minchin complains about being dropped from the Ross show, and effectively takes a pragmatic capitalist view to it - ITV being a commercial channel the last thing they want to do is offend all those well-educated, affluent, middle-class Christian consumers. Tim Minchin is wingin', in effect. I personally feel that the problem with the song is that, possibly as a result of being written to order, it was a bit stretched. The Woody Allen idea was quite sweet, the idea that Tim Minchin himself was Jesus (beard and long hair, you see) was mildly funny, if kind-of-heretical - after all, the point of the Incarnation is that Jesus took on the nature of all of us, not just of Tim Minchin.  While the other stuff was pointless trying-to-be-funny/shocking.

But I would also recommend you to read Thrsty Gargoyle's response to a troll who tries to claim in the comments that Christians stole Christmas by simply renaming it. It is one of the most witty responses to a troll I have read in a long time, and a neat but of debunking.

It's pretty clear that Christmas wasn't "stolen", "renamed" or "co-opted" from anything. Pretty well any time of the year that Christmas was going to be celebrated, it would coincide with some non-Christian festival or another. After all, religions have festivals all the time and there are lots of festivals.


As I have noted in this journal before, there is one culture that does seem to have celebrated the Winter Solstice, and these were the culture that built one of the phases of Stonehenge - orienting that venerable temple onto the axis of the summer sunrise and the winter sunset. They have left no writing, and we do not have their language or the name they called themselves. So we call them Beaker Folk after their pottery. And we of the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley, not having the original word for the winter solstice, have chosen to use the word "Yule", because we may as well. Can we not imagine - as Stukeley might if he had not erroneously thought Stonehenge to be Celtic - can we not imagine that when the last light of the winter sun had sunk behind the Wessex horizon, sinking away to where the ancestors lived out their shrivelled, attenuated half-life existences (Somerset), that the ancient Beaker People may well have celebrated the promises of longer days ahead by lighting tea lights and drinking a mixed drink with a strong hint of vanilla?

Well, that's what we plan to do. Freed from the constraints under which other Christians (or at least the ones with liturgical responsibilities) have to keep themselves sober for Midnight Mass, and then risk sleep deprivation by getting up for the Mass of the Dawn, we can kick off our Crocs and Uggs, relax, and drink deeply of Hnaef's traditional Beaker Punch. A happy Christmas to all our pilgrims from around the world, and may all your hi-vizes be white.

Getting Ready for the Authentic Nativity

Now this was all Hanef's idea. I don't want to pre-judge, so I'll save saying "Hnaef's fault" for later after the children have performed it.

In our Authetic Nativity you get the story of the First Christmas, as it really happened. Or, at least, as it really happened according to some smug historo-critical scholars whom everybody ignores the rest of the year while they're working out the author of the second-half of verse 27 of the fourth chapter of 1 Samuel and deducing that, on the basis of the word order, the subject matter and their own-presuppositions, he was probably called Deutoronomy of Gath. Or some church leaders who hope that, if they shatter the illusion, people will remember that they exist.

No, in our Authentic Christmas, Mary discovers that, because of the mis-translation of a word in Isaiah, she's going to have a baby. Her betrothed, Joseph, initially arranges to have her stoned but later changes his mind for no apparent reason. When the call to attend a Census arrives Joseph is confused by the lack of any coherent chronology and decides to stay where he is. Which means, confusingly, that there is some room in the cellar of a bunk-house in Bethlehem, because the shepherd who normally sleeps in a pile of hay in an appropriated feeding-trough is at work, and nobody else needs it. The shepherd himself is on the hills abiding with his mates, but has no need to rush back into town due to the total non-appearance of a group of supernatural beings imported from Babylonian mythology. So he just sits there. Watching sheep.

Two years later, some astrologers turn up in Jerusalem looking for a king. The king's advisers tell them that, due to another dating error, Herod's already dead. And they won't be joining the shepherds around the manger as a shepherd's asleep in it after a long year's abiding. Furthermore, the advisers point out, the astrologers themselves are simply invented to create a spurious fulfilment of a prophecy about the Riches of the East coming to Israel. At which point of of the astrologers - nobody knows which of the seven it was - thumps an official and says "nobody calls me a spurious fulfilment". Having caused a diplomatic incident they mount their camels, before remembering they don't have any camels and they'll have to walk home.

Mary and Joseph bring Jesus up in Nazareth. They get increasingly worried about his messianic complex, and his odd belief that he is actually from Judea. They often wish they could take him on holiday - maybe to Egypt - but can never afford it.

As I say, I'm told it's "authentic" but it's not a very good Nativity. To be honest, I'm not totally sure I believe it happened like that at all.  Happy Christmas.

Friday 23 December 2011

The season to be jolly?

I've just sat through the film Nativity! with the Hnaefs. The glum bloke from The Office gets back together with the Scottish woman from Ugly Betty while gap-toothed cherubs sing "street" Christmas songs and the posh kids are shown up. I'll be honest, I was already feeling a little queasy after two early mornings on the trot, and now I feel positively nauseous. Still, the little Hnaefs seemed to be all right about it, despite Hnaef insisting that Mary proves that women can stand alone and defiant in the face of an oppressive patriarchal society.

And I've heard three more examples of people using Fairytale of New York as a festive backing to their TV programmes and adverts. And I've had enough of it. And at some point I'm going to have to move fast before I get the self-satisfied, grinning, patronising, ain't-I-great face of Jonathan Ross all over my TV screen. And as if it's not bad enough that on Christmas Day we get The Snowman, I've heard today that they're making a sequel.

Well I've had enough. The Nativity is about a young, scared girl unexpectedly bringing the king of the universe into the mess of human existence. You can believe what you like about the Census, but it's undeniable that the birth was under the shadow of one of the most brutal, hateful empires the world ever saw.  That baby whose birth we so sweetly carol had 33 short years on this planet before he was brutally put to death by his fascist oppressors and their bloated, vicious puppets. The Fairytale of New York is about a drunk man dying, and remembering his junkie girlfriend. And 10 million turkeys have to die so we can all smother their meat in redcurrant jelly, because the meat's too dry to eat.

Christmas? Or, at least, the jolly, all-friends-together, everyone's got to be happy, New Scrooge on the Block Christmas where you all act like it's the end of the Christmas episode of Little House on the Prairie? You can keep it.

I'll just have the one glass of Hnaef's special Christmas Punch, then I think I'll be off to bed. I've had enough Christmas and it's not even Christmas yet.

Tis the season to get jolly

I know I've been quiet recently, but I've been busy - whatever the Archdruid may say.  But now that work has stopped for the Christmas period, it's time to fulfil my traditional seasonal role: the muller of the wine.  That's not "mullah", I'd point out, however often Young Keith makes the "joke".

No - I make the mulled wine for the Community.  Every year, the Archdruid asks me to make the mulled wine.  Every year, Mrs Hnaef begs her to withdraw the offer.  Every year the Archdruid responds that she can't remember there having been a problem last year.  Every year Mrs Hnaef responds asking whether the Archdruid can remember anything  about last year at all.  And so it goes.  But yet again, I'm in charge.

Every year, there's a new magic, secret ingredient.  There's the standard magic, secret ingredient, handed down from Beaker generation to Beaker generation (a tiny clue: it rhymes with troot bree-fags), but this year there's another one.  Not the mulled wine spices that Mrs Hnaef bought this year in a desperate attempt to be "more traditional".  Not the 161% proof U.S. Virgin Islands rum which I've been getting through, drop by inflammable drop, over the past 19 years.  No, it's the vanilla-flavoured rum that Mrs Hnaef-in-law made us last year and which I've also added (secretly) to the fruit salad.

It's going to be another great Christmas Eve.  I'm sure of it.

Tim Minchin's "Jesus" Song

I was shocked to heard about Tim Minchin's song which was pulled by ITV from grandad-bully Jonathan Ross's show. Shocked, I tell you.

In fact I was so shocked I could not rest until I found it, so I could be even more shocked. If you're the sort of person who likes to be shocked, you may like to go and hear it so you can be outraged as well. It's here. Oh? Shocked now? Sorry about that.

Now, that song probably lists more of the story of Jesus than most of Ross's audience has ever heard. I'm pretty sure a lot of it went over their heads - including who Woody Allen is, and the meaning of the word "parthenogenesis" - although I'm sure among Minchin's more devout followers such concepts are far more common. And I'm still trying to understand the concept of Jesus "drinking blood", as I'm pretty sure that's what he commanded his followers to do - but it's only got me into a further philosophical loop as I try to work out what was going on with the wine and bread at the Last Supper. That could take me a while.

But I would still like to say I'm shocked. Shocked. Minchin refers to "Schrödinger's Feline" as being in two places at a time. I think that's a terrible  slander on the Blessed Quantum Cat. Although Minchin's right that the wave function of the cat would have been both inside and outside the box, I like to think that the Big E was actually trying to make a point about the existentialist aspect of the Quantum Theory - about the putative need for an observer to collapse a wave form. Not about the probabilistic, diffused nature of quantum wave forms. In other words,  the line should have read "Jesus could be in two wave-forms at a time (particularly if he were unobserved but with a finite chance of something dramatic happening)" which might not make Minchin's point so well, but would make Erwin S's.

I think Tim Minchin would do well not to mock Schrödinger's Cat, who even today has many followers - especially among students. After all, Schrödinger's Cat died for us. Or didn't. Or did it? Or maybe it half-did? Look, could somebody please open the box? Ah. Oops.

Thursday 22 December 2011

A Busy Solstice

It's been quite a day.

When I posted this morning's comments on the origins of Christmas Carols I was grabbing a quick coffee in between our Marking the Moment of Solstice ritual and our Greeting the New Dawn. And then some bright spark asked - had we got it right? After all, was it last night's dusk that brought with it the threat that the days may never get longer again, or tonight's?

A great dilemma. So we discussed the theology, cosmology and pathology of the whole matter. We noted that today is the shortest day (whatever those strange people who think the 21st is always Solstice may think). And therefore today is the day that the sun should set the earliest (it's not). So we got some models out, and "whiteboarded it", as modern parlance has it. We considered the Angle of the Ecliptic, the Precession of the Earth's Axis and the Law of Unintended Consequences.  And we decided that, overall, we don't know.

So we've held another Act of Darkness Fear tonight, leaving the Moon Gibbon Folk in a total state of terror - not least because the New Moon is due on Saturday. Poor souls, it's one thing after another at eclipse. On top of worrying that the Moon's not coming back, they're panicking that the Sun's not either.

So we're going to be up again tomorrow morning to stand in the drizzle, look south-westward and hope for the sun to come back. But at least this time it's going to rise a bit earlier.

Oh wait. It's not? How does that work then?

The Pagan Origins of Christmas Cards

I'm grateful to Phil Ritchie for informing me yesterday of this page discussing the dating of Christmas. The author refers to the way in which uber-Protestants, out of a desire to diss the Catholics, made up a load of religious history. This first proposed the idea that the Christians stole the date from other Roman festivals: including the feast of Sol Invictus and, as proposed with little evidence but much gravitas by Stephen Fry on QI, Mithras's birthday.

But of course this debunking only applies to the "Roman origin" myth of the Christmas date, and the author of the article does stress that there's no reason to think that Jesus's birthday actually was 25 December. As Stephen Fry might more accurately aver, "Nobody knows".

But of course that is to ignore the "elephant in the room". For in this theory, Christmas is so-dated because it is 9 months after the feast of the Annunciation. Which is so-dated to coincide with the traditional dating of the First Good Friday. Which is so-dated because it coincides with Passover. Which is so-dated because it is just after the Vernal Equinox. So we have the conclusion that Christmas has the date it has, not because of the Winter Solstice, but because of the Vernal Equinox combined with the human gestation period. Which is, when you think about it, even odder. And I have uncovered further evidence....

The picture goes all wobbly as we cut back 2,000 years. A man who, to judge by his appearance may well be Arimathean, stands atop Glastonbury Tor with the last of the Ancient Race of Beaker Druids. They are watching the sun set on the shortest day, and watching a few hapless Beaker People trying to keep their tea lights alight in the wind.

Archdruid Enya: So, Joe - this Jesus. When's his birthday?

Joseph of Arimathea: You what?

AE: His birthday? He is your God, right? So you must celebrate his birthday?

J of A: No idea. No, we celebrate his rising from death to life every Sunday...

AE: What, every week? Can't you have a special celebration once a year, and then just drag yourself to church every other Sunday because you feel you have to?

J of A: Smart thinking. OK if I take notes?

AE: No worries. Though I won't be able to proof-read them for you as we've not invented writing yet.

J of A: Personally I'm just waiting for the Greeks to invent cursive script. These majuscule uncials are giving my wrist right gyp.

AE: So now you just need to sort out his birthday. You seriously telling me you don't know when he was born?

J of A: According to my mate Luke, it was just about the time of the census decreed for the whole Roman Empire by Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria...

AE: Well, that's a whole dating problem of its own. You're never going to nail it down from that, are you? Tell you what, why don't you make it up?

J of A: So when do you suggest?

AE: How about celebrating his birthday at Christmas?

J of A: What, this feast you're celebrating because it's the shortest day?

AE: That's right. I mean, obviously enough already with the blood sacrifice and wicker people - you don't want to go associating them with the story of a baby. But let's face it, Christmas is perfect for what you want - everybody's already got the day off. And we've even got the perfect greeting for it. "Merry Christmas!"

J of A: That will work! Because we should be merry, shouldn't we! Tell you what, to remind myself I'm going to write your suggestion on this bit of papyrus I brought with me. The one where I drew a robin on the other side when I was studying your British wildlife.

AE: Good idea. So that will be "Merry Christmas".

J of A: And I'll add "from Archdruid Enya", so I remember who suggested it. Thanks, Enya.

AE: No worries. And now I've got to get off and sacrifice a couple of prisoners.  You interested? No? OK, fair enough - maybe not for everyone. Wouldn't want to impose my beliefs...

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Translating the Bible into Kouya

First - the important thing. Go and read Eddie Arthur on "Comment is Free" describing the way in which he and Sue worked with the Kouya people to get the New Testament into the Kouya language. Imagine the difficulty of taking a language such as koine Greek - supple, flexible, and capable of both narrative and prolonged philosophical meditation - and translating it into an oral language that is good for narrative but bad for theology. Imagine having to work out the alphabet for an unwritten language. Imagine the struggle that involves - and the desire to share the Good News that drives a six-year stay in a house with no running water.

Then reflect on the comments underneath. But not for too long. Not most of them. Although my favourite is not necessarily even an atheist comment (or "aethiest") - but it's this.

"Ah, so the Aramaic is translated to Greek, which is translated to Latin, which is translated to English, which is translated to Kouya... there is a significant passage in the Bible about the Tower of Babel...."

So yes, Jesus spoke Aramaic, and his words would have been translated into Greek. The people who witnessed his life, ministry, death and unexpected reappearance would have spoken Aramaic - but that doesn't mean the message wasn't passed on in Greek very fast, including by eye-witnesses. But then the majority of the New Testament books weren't translated from anything by the authors. The Epistle to the Romans, to name but one of many, was written in Greek. And of course, Eddie, Sue and co weren't working with an English version of the Bible that was translated from the Vulgate. So the commenter was "clever". Just wrong and misguided. But still, clever.

Eddie's blog is here. Very highly recommended. More so than the comments underneath. But then that's CiF for you.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes and Sucklings

A stray conversation today taketh my mind back to the days when, a young evangelist-about-town, I found my way one dark Sunday night to the environs of the New Covenant Church in Dunstable. Frustrated by the impositions of the Strict and Peculiar Baptists, I thought to find new light in a dangerous and yet seductive new experience - the Charismatic movement.

I was sitting behind a young family - for the New Covenant Church took their evening services terribly seriously. And after a mere hour of the service, after a short time of worship and when the text had been given out, the sermon began.

A strong sermon, which I remember to this day. A warning about the importance of parental discipline. The pastor stressed that the woes of the modern world can be traced to too slack an attitude to children's behaviour. Does the Good Book not command, he remarked, that we should enforce a strong moral code in our children? Should we not teach them that we live not for pleasure, but to please the Lord? Should we not teach them that while all things are possible, not all things are permitted? Should we not, in short, bring our children up to keep within the bounds of the narrow road that leadeth to salvation - eschewing the wide and easy spiritual M1 which leads only to an unfortunate breakdown in the contraflow near Husborne Crawley?

As I say, in front of me was a young family. The Covenant Fellowship in those days encouraged its members to bring with them a notebook, for writing down the main points of sermons for future fruitful meditation. And this family had equipped its younger son - of the age, I should think, of seven or eight, with a pen and spirobound notepad.

And I watched as this young hero of the faith listened to the message from the platform, heard a particularly important point, and reproduced it in his notebook, exactly as he had understood it. He wrote "Always say no to your children".

Friends, it is a quarter of a century since this happened. The young man himself may now be a parent and patriarch himself. I pray he has kept his notepad.

Vaclav Havel - an alternative view

I've been trying to bring Thomas Leaf up to date with life and current affairs in the 21st Century.

Now Tommy grew up in 19th Century Wessex, has worked all his life as a manual labourer, can't read and actually has trouble working out which side is up. However he asked a few intelligent questions about which way people defected on the whole in the 20th century (East to West, natch), the conditions in Siberian prison camps, and the ability to speak your mind (or what there is of it) without fear of arrest. He's googled some stuff about the Prague Spring, the oppression of Hungary and the Stalinist massacres. And he's come to the conclusion that, village idiot born and bred as he is, he wouldn't write this article in the Guardian.

Sustainable Wicker Person

Please can Beaker folk note that this year's Winter Solstice will be at half past five on Thursday morning.

This means that the Act of Darkness Fear will be held at sunset on Wednesday in the orchard, followed by the Liturgy of Fear 'n' Trembling in the Moot House. Hi Viz will be Green as befits the solemnity of the season.

I know that it's the Liturgical Shortest Night on Wednesday but please don't use that as an excuse for staying up all night celebrating. The people that did that last year could barely hold their tea lights in the morning.

Thursday morning, hi viz will be Yellow, the colour of the Sun and Coldplay. If we're very lucky the bonfire will burn all night, but if it doesn't don't worry. I'm hoping the new environmentally-friendly Wicker Person will be arriving tomorrow morning. Through new technology, it's illuminated throughout by LEDs and controlled by a computer console. So the good news is that, in future, we can burn a Wicker Person whenever we like, without needing to do all that wicker-gathering and construction in advance.

Monday 19 December 2011

A Dorsetshire Labourer

We've had a bit of a surprise this evening.

A knock came at the door. We opened it to a strangely familiar, rather skeletal form in a white smock-frock - a little tatty, but still well-care-for.

Thomas Leaf.

It would appear that, way back in September 1858 when Leaf pushed our Porsche Cayenne off the cliff to achieve the right speed, he fell off the cliff after it. Actually, it wasn't just Leaf - he had his two fellow-idiots, Christian Cantle and Joseph Poorgrass, with him and they all simultaneously forgot to let go. As we reached the critical speed it wasn't just the Cayenne and we inside who were transferred back across the multiverse. It was the three smock-clad gorms who were still pushing.

When we staggered out of the wreckage we were able, with the remarkable collection of mint Victorian postage stamps we brought with us, to get some quick cash and a car to drive back home. The three yokels who had been left in the bushes on the side of the cliff, we hadn't noticed. It turns out that Thomas has spent the last fifteen months in tracking us down.

To be fair to him, he's been making himself useful. After doing a rough impression of Tess of the D'Urberville's  journey from Sandbourne to Stonehenge, he turned sharp right and washed up in Bracknell.

An odd place, is Bracknell. It is technically in Hardy's Wessex, but I'm not sure Tommy H would ever have approved. Thomas Leaf, dressed in a smock, speaking with a 19th Century Dorset accent and with old-fashioned views of value, naturally got a job in the Waitrose marketing department. After his dedication to tradition was recognised by the higher-ranking powers that be, he ended up in Victoria Street where, due to his inability to understand post-modernism and lack of insight into the human condition, he came up with the idea of the John Lewis Christmas ad.

And from where, with some advice, he made his way to Husborne Crawley. He says he doesn't want to be in Marketing any more - as a character from a 19th Century pastoral novel he's  had quite enough living in a fantasy world. He wants to be a farm labourer again, but the days of dozens of people harvesting one field are long gone.

We've given him a spade and told him to clear the ditches. He's happy as Larry. In fact, it was hard enough to stop him going out there immediately. He's not got any brighter after 18 months in Marketing. And we can get no real idea of what's happened to Christian Cantle and Joseph Poorgrass - apart from Tommy Leaf remarking that they're "something in the City now".

A Late Trio

It was that noted tweeter-about-town Londiniensis who pointed this out. That of the three famous deaths of recent days, Christopher Hitchens provoked much mourning and opining; Vaclav Havel died and nobody (on Twitter) really mentioned it, and Kim Jong Il provoked mostly jokes. Of course, Londiniensis put it more succinctly than that.

But it's an interesting world we live in, where a death that could threaten the world provokes mostly puns on the deceased's names. Given the starvation of so many of North Korea's people and the imprisonment of people fort their politics and their beliefs, I would say that the man, and the system that put him in place, are no joke at all. Hitchens was always challenging, but will be forgotten within a decade, I would guess - tell me in 10 years if I'm wrong. But Vaclav Havel was a blooming hero.

Maybe the Facebook / Twitter generation are already forgetting the horrors that the Eastern Bloc's leaders inflicted on their long-suffering people. Havel, an articulate critic of the regime in what was then Czechoslovakia, spent years in prison. As the regime crumbled in the late 80s, somehow Czechoslovakia managed to transition to a democratic state and then - amazingly - the Czechs and Slovaks managed to split their nations apart without the bloodshed other countries suffered from.

It's not down to me of course. But if the popular view is the right one, and if people end up where they deserve, Kim Jong Il is currently eternally enjoying his own form of hospitality. Vaclav Havel is in a place where he can write all the plays he likes, and the government won't get touchy. And Christopher Hitchens is probably in the bar.

Death of Emily Brontë (1848)

The Beaker Folk may gather on a Blasted Heath (Aspley Heath will do)

Archdruid: Heathcliff, it's me, Cathy, I've come home.

All: I'm so co-o-o-old.

Archdruid: Ooh it gets dark. It gets lonely.

All: I'm so co-o-o-old.

Archdruid: On the other side from you.

All: I'm so co-o-o-old.

Archdruid: Too long I roam in the night.

All: Too bloody right. It's dark. It's freezing cold. The only suffering from consumption you understand is too many mince pies. And you clearly don't know any of Emily Bronte's work, except via the medium of Kate Bush. We're off.

Archdruid: But the Brontes were so significant! By the time Hardy was barely in short trousers, they'd invented the whole concept of senselessly killing off all the interesting characters in rural surroundings!

All: OK, Eileen. Skip to the authentic ending.

Archdruid: [I] wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers.

All: In that quiet earth.

The Beaker Folk quit the blasted heath. A lone figure, romantically-dressed, floats across the heath pining for her lost love, and speaking in an inauthentic Yorkshire accent.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens and his Obedience to Scripture

Steve, in his comments about Christopher Hitchens, mentions Christian reactions to Hitchens' death. And it's fair to say they range quite widely. There are those that remark that Hitchens is on his way to the smoky place,those that hope God could find some kind of way in for anyone. I worried that those who continued to pray for Hitchens' conversion before he died were hoping for a propaganda victory - although some among us would rejoice in anyone finding God, knowing that one conversion more or less would not convince anyone else of anything.

I'd like to add one note of commendation for Christopher Hitchens - for his obedience to 1 Corinthians 15. In  it Paul is quite scathing of those Christians who would follow Jesus but don't believe in a Resurrection. He's quite clear - if Jesus isn't alive then all the persecution, all the struggle are for nothing. Paul would have no truck with a social Christianity that saw faith as above all about instilling good ethics or citizenship. What, he would have wondered, would the point be?  As Jesus would point out - even the pagans know you should look after your own, and that's ultimately what citizenship is about.

Paul's conclusion is stunning, stark and logically sound - "If the dead are not raised,'Let us eat and drink,for tomorrow we die.'" I reckon Christopher Hitchens kept that particular Biblical injunction pretty well.

Another year

Now you see me, now you don't
You say you will but I know you won't
You nearly had me in your hands but now I'm gone
But not complaining 'bout my life again
No siree, and what I've got belongs to me entirely
I look left and I look right and I cross this road alone
'cos I'm feeling my way
I may go up, I may go down but wherever I may roam
I keep feeling my way home

Kirsty MacColl 10 October 1959 - 18 December 2000

Saturday 17 December 2011

The Higgs Boson Tapes (4)

Mr Boson? David Cameron here.

I was reading about this illustration......

for how your Field works.

..... And apparently it's like when Mrs Thatcher was at a cocktail party in the 80s.....

and because people clustered around her it meant she behaved like she had mass.

So what I want to know is this....

how can I be like you? How can I "do God particle"?

Good and bad Biblical Verses for Today's Britain

I was intrigued to hear all the discussion (such as this from Eddie) about David Cameron's address on the 400th anniverary of the King James Version of the Bible. As often happens when politicians get into religious matters, Mr Cameron has extolled Christian values while not really going into the detail of the richness of the whole Biblical tradition. He's said it's important to cling to a tradition, while making it quite clear that's not really what he does himself. Which means that what he's done is basically stood up for the good, solid, liberal, middle-class socially-responsible religion, which isn't really in the Bible at all. For we post-modernists who like to look at the interweaving and often competitive small tales of the Bible, there are actually very few big stories that emerge. Although there are some - David Cameron does encourage looking after the poor, and commends faith groups for doing so - although as one would expect of the inventor of the "Big Society" there's no suggestion in his speech of the government itself doing so.

But any enthusiastic Tory, keen to impress the management, might read the Bible uncritically, take one passage as representative of the whole, and get totally the wrong idea. So to assist any budding Tories who are interested in the Bible as a basis of Conservative values, I've provided below some Biblical concepts and colour-coded them Red / Amber / Green for their appropriateness to modern Conservatism. (I thought if I used Red / Amber / Blue it might cause some confusion).

As the man says - do the Green. Don't do the Red. Whatever you do.

GREEN (Do these)AMBER (Some context needed here)RED (Don't do these ones)
Paying taxesSingle MothersTattoos
Standing up to foreign bullies (eg Europe)Traditional Family ValuesLarge public-sector infrastructure projects
The Big SocietyBeing tough on crimeLabour-style leadership selection
Investing for an export-lead recoveryDealing with anti-social behaviourTax avoidance
10pc tax rate (just not yet)Capital punishmentPoliticians interfering in religion

Betjeman - the Last Parody... One last time

Honest, I was asked to re-post this once we reached December. I'm not just slackly filling up space. The original can be found here-> Betjeman at his silly/sacred best.

The cash-tills in the Arndale ring
We’re putting up the tatty bling
Our glowing icicles of white
Have blown away the last of night
In suburbs, hamlets, village greens
And towns from Slough to Milton Keynes.

The reindeers glowing on the lawn
And round the bungalow the strings
of fairy lights in many colours
and many flashing, tasteless things
mean that the passers-by can say
“That’s rather naff” on Christmas day.

The Coca-Cola lorries blaze
and Marks and Spencers' pockets fill.
The Go-Go Hamsters safely graze
while Simon Cowell's puppets still
can dream of having festive fun
when they’re the Christmas number one.

And up the airport Christmas Eve
They’re flying from the winter rain
As bankers quick the City leave
To spend their bonuses in Spain
And Easyjets go crashing by
And blotting out the Luton sky.

And lads in flats wonder where’s dad?
And pregnant girls take after mum
And drunken office typists wretch
And dodgy blokes say to them “Come
and we will share a festive lark
in some side-alley quiet and dark."

But is it true, can it be true
This most unlikely tale of all,
Told in a garden-centre’s hue
a cabbage-patch doll in ox’s stall?
the Maker of the day and night
parodied under fluorescent light?

And is it true? For if it is
No fabricated Christmas songs
No bishop raging ‘gainst the sight
Of tinsel and Ann Summers thongs
The vomit outside heaving pubs
And midnight slammers in tatty clubs

No Wii Fit underneath the tree
No plastic game that lasts three days
No office party’s all-night spree
Can ever this great Truth erase –
Our God was born to take our pain,
And shares it, ever and again.

Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. And don't forget it's nearly Christmas!

Friday 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens

The death of a man from oesophageal cancer inevitably brings the response - "well, he drank and smoked". It's the first thought on hearing of someone with lung cancer - "smoker"?

Well the stats keep coming out. Exercise and your chance of breast cancer will be lowered. Eat meat and you increase your chances of bowel cancer. "Nearly half of all cancers are caused by lifestyle", we're told. That "nearly half" - is actually about 42%. To turn it round - 60%, that's nearly two-thirds - of cancers are just plain bad luck.

Cancer is an insidious disease. Every year scientists make small advances in its treatment, but it's still there, still taking more lives. And as we live longer and become more susceptible to those diseases of later life, it will continue to out-race the treatments for a while to come.

In interviews after his diagnosis, Hitchens came across as resigned to his fate, yet philosophical. Regretting the shortening of his life, but not fearing death itself. Some with cancer can be scared, others philosophical, others practical. Some fight like mad, others give up. Some can manage all of the above in turn. Many, many, of course, are healed - while many live with the disease for years. Some need support, some need peace and quiet.

What none of them need is some smug get deciding that it's their fault. If you hear someone is injured or killed in an accident, you don't respond "driver, I suppose?" The cause may matter, in advance. It doesn't in retrospect. It doesn't make the disease less of a tragedy, it doesn't make Hitchens' family grieve less, it didn't - on a universal scale - make his death any more likely. We all die. Let's not add blame to it.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Pre-Christmas Syndrome

Just to let concerned Beaker People know, I'm OK.

After a quick check-up it's been confirmed that I'm suffering from pre-Christmas Church Leader syndrome. Better known as an overdose of mince pies.

I mean, give me a break. Everybody I've visited for the last three weeks has offered me a mince pie. Every meeting we've had has finished with mince pies. And, quite often, sherry. I tell you, I've drunk so much sherry recently that I reckon I could join the Church of England, no questions asked.

So please, if anyone offers me another mince pie (or sherry) over the next couple of weeks, please don't be offended if I turn green and run out the building. I've really, really had enough mince pies.


Yes, well you get to a certain age, don't you, and you get the odd twinge in the back and the occasional ache down the side and you think to yourself - why don't I try some trendy exercise techniques that might make me feel better?

So I've tried Pilates, but frankly it's rubbish. Two hours of washing your hands - how's that going to help?

The Higgs Boson Tapes (3)

"Hiya, Higgsy! Brian Cox here.

Look, it was brilliant we finally made contact after all this time. And don't get me wrong - you are brilliant and everything. It's fantastic that we found you.

But let's face it, you're not very big, are you? So I can't really be filmed in dramatic profile with you setting behind me. That wouldn't be very exciting at all.

And you're not cute like a baby turtle. So it's not even worth filming me sitting with you on the beach.

So if it's OK by you, I'm going to get a couple a shots of me standing by the Large Hadron Collider, explaining how everything travels at a million, million, million miles an hour and it's all fantastic.

And then I'm going to go and get some fantastic CGI of me falling into a blackhole. It's gonna look brilliant, and I'm going to look like I'm a gazillion miles - that's a "1" with a load of noughts - long.

So is it OK if we just let you know if we need you?


The Higgs Boson Tapes (2)

Higgs? It's your mother.

Weeks we've not seen you. Weeks. Where've you been? I spoke to your wife, she's out of her mind.

You know what your trouble is? The bad company you keep.  You just associate with anyone. And don't even get me started about you and your "massive".

Your dad's worried sick. And you know the trouble we're both having with our radioactive decay. The way you're behaving you obviously wouldn't care if we were both lead.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

The Higgs Boson Tapes

"Hello? Higgs - it's me. Remember me? Your wife? The quark you married? I know we've had our ups and downs, but you still promised - "till the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics do us part".

You've not phoned home for three days. I know you're busy being "elusive" with your science friends, but all this fame's turned your head.

I'm sick to death of it. Just because you're the source of all the mass in the known cosmos, you think the  Universe revolves around you. Well it doesn't.

Actually, yes it does. But that's not the point. Just phone home. And don't go running after any strange women."

A Cold, Wet Day

And so the cold rain falls on Husborne Crawley. On the far side of the Abbey wall, a lion shudders and dreams of the savannah. These are the times that try our souls.

Sometimes it's the dry waiting times. In the valley of the shadowless death, they pray for thunderclouds and rain, as the poet sang.

But in the cold, wet waiting times? We can have a kind of romance about April showers, or even a monsoon - though we wouldn't want to stand in one, perhaps. But on a cold gray day, (when a cold gray man may) a day which can't be bothered to snow because that would be effort, you get this foul, saturating rain that you can't dance in, can't sing in - you just want so sit indoors and eat crumpets, drink coffee and shudder. Somewhere out there below the southern horizon, the hordes are teeming out of London Bridge station and looking upwards in horror. Fitzrovia's bright clothing will be dimmed by the drizzle. And the floors of Westminster - disobeying all superstition and Health and Safety - will be covered in opened umbrellas.

Still, the children heading schoolwards will have warmed hearts, as they look towards their holiday. And their joy at a week off before Christmas may warm up the doom in some mothers' hearts.  And cold, miserable rain doesn't just bounce off the ground and dry. It soaks deep, as the Greensand blots it up and stores up the promise of life ahead when the land needs it - not now in the dying time, the darkling time, the hoping time - but in the growing time, the awakening time, the rising .time to come.

Think I'll have another coffee. It's absolutely foul out there.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Higgs Boson "Had Phone Hacked"

In the sort of collision of realities that can only happen at the quantum level, James Murdoch today told the Leveson Enquiry how he missed the discovery of the Higgs Boson by one of his own newspapers.

Mr Murdoch explained how he missed the explosive information that not only had the Higgs Boson been found, but that News of the World reporters had hacked its phone. The news was buried at the bottom of a very long chain of emails, which he had not read all the way through as he had only read the bit about paying a "Mr Boson" £700,000.

"Naturally, if I had read the whole email," said Mr Murdoch, "I could have saved the countries behind the Large Hadron Collider a lot of money. After all, what's the good of a load of physicists looking for the God Particle when your private detective can give you its phone number in the morning?"

However this explains how the News of the World came up with a series of unexpected scientific scoops over the last couple of years, especially the story about the Higg's Boson's "high-energy romps" with a number of quarks. The quarks, who were unidentified, were described as having "a certain charm".

Small Drayton Collider

Inspired  by today's possible success of the Large Hadron Collider we've been doing our own experiments with high-energy particles this afternoon.

Drayton Parslow always likes to to leave his cottage windows wide open. At this time of the year he reckons that the chilliness is next to godliness, and the discomfort reminds him that he should wear two vests, thermal T-shirt, shirt, cardie, jacket and rain coat at all times. He says this keeps him warm and also - through the sheer number of layers involved - keeps temptation at bay. Although I don't reckon anyone's gonna be lining up to tear his thermal T-shirt off no matter how warm it is, frankly.

But the open windows gave us the chance to try our experiment. We all lined up outside his front window, and threw tennis balls into his living room as fast as we could.

We had a mixed bag of results. Some traces we got at high frequencies suggested we'd hit several vases, and possibly also Marjorie. But four or five of the balls came back out through the side window - and one came straight back out at the front.

Our belief is that the large deviations of these tennis balls are proof that Drayton was standing in the living room at the time, and they ricocheted off him. However at the moment we're giving it no more than a three sigma level of confidence. We're going to go back tomorrow, in the best scientific tradition, to see if we can repeat the result.

Global Warming Fraud Exposed

I'm sure there's nothing in it.

The claim that there exists the following footage  of Sir David Attenborough's new series:

"And we can see how global warming results in this kind of tragedy. This polar bear has been swimming across open water for three days, looking for food."

The camera pans out to show Sir David, on a boat, hanging a fish on a string six inches above the nose of a polar bear. The boat is slowing circling round in a large pool in a zoo. Some baffled penguins keep well out of the way, aware that their presence in-shot would be anatopistic.

As I say, I'm sure there's nothing in it. But I'm keeping my eye on YouTube, just in case.

Monday 12 December 2011

Nativity of Edvard Munch

Archdruid: Born in the gathering bleakness of midwinter, as you might expect, we gather here tonight to celebrate the nativity of Edvard Munch. It's gonna be a Scream.

All: Edvard? You sure you mean Edvard?

Archdruid: Yes. I reckon so. It's Norwegian, innit? You mean you're gonna let me get away with that lousy "Scream" joke and pick me up on authentic Norwegian spelling?

All: Right you are, Eileen. Edvard it is.


Hnaef:  "I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. And I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature."

All: That's a bit bleak, innit?

Archdruid: It's Munch. The "Scream" bloke. What did you expect?

All: Some nice water lilies?

Archdruid: Nope. That was Monet.

All: Then show us the Monet. We're fed up with Munch. He's just too.... 

Archdruid: Too Munch?

The Beaker Folk may throw pebbles at the Archdruid.


So the results are in and you - the Great British Public (minus we, who didn't) have spoken.
"Girls Who Can Sing a Bit" beat "Boy Who Can Sing a Bit". Which is the historic first time that a girl-group has won X-Factor. Which is good, because that's historic. "Girl Who Shouldn't Be in It" went home yesterday, while "Brittle Girl" got knocked out a couple of weeks back and "Over-sexed Jack the Lad" was thrown out for living up to his name.
We've come on a journey here. We'd previously met "Nice Camp Bloke" and "Black Soul Diva". And if we think back, there some others - do you remember "Chubby Deluded Chav" and "Person Whose Appearance was an Abdication" of the Duty to Care? And "Old Sweet Bloke with Grand-daughter"? Or was that a different programme?
No matter. Next year they'll all be back, no doubt. Their faces will have changed slightly but they'll still be recognizable. The ones who get through to Round 2 will still be the ones whose back-stories you heard before they sung. And the ones who don't go through will still have been parachuted through with no context from Planet People-We-Laugh-At.
The panel of judges will have been pruned, culled reshuffled or swept away as the case may be, with sinister Machiavellian rumours of "what really happened between Gary and Louis" carefully leaked to newspapers desperate for news stories people can understand.
And we, the Great British Public, can go on passing judgements - often quite vicious - on innocent, sometimes deluded, sometimes ambitious and talented though sometimes just plain lazy people.  Sure, if these people were animals we'd be prosecuted for cruelty. Still, it keeps us going through to Panto season. But I'm not sure it makes us better people. We've not really been on a journey - we've been sat on the couch with a pizza, a phone and a judgemental attitude. And our stereotypes have been fed to us with our pizza.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Tie-Dye Ceremony

It was indeed a wondrous Festival of Tie-Dye today. I like to think we were getting back to our roots.

I'd been feeling that with so many Christmassy themes we were starting to lose the essential heart of the Beaker ethos - that we don't particularly own any doctrines or theology at all. So we needed to do something touchy-feely and completely devoid of doctrine. In which case what could be better than tie-dye?

The Worship Focus Table was a delight - covered in nine metres of purple cloth with a beautiful yellow sunburst in the middle - the cloth was long enough to stretch to the South Door, so we could dance towards the Worship Focus along it in bare feet. It's been a bit muddy today so we left our shoes in the Great Hall, and laid out some Astroturf to get that authentic "barefoot on the wet grass" experience.

The walls were decorated with beautiful tie-dyed hangings, each resolutely abstract to avoid any doctrinal resonances. We just wanted to allow people to worship, without cluttering things up with any doctrine or presuppositions about the divine. We let the Beaker Quire have the afternoon off in case they did anything with a  dangerously high theological content, like play a hymn. Instead we programmed a PC to play notes of random lengths, in random voices, at random pitches and random intervals. It left many people with the space to develop their own thoughts and devotions. Although I did get slightly unnerved by the number of times it seemed to be playing Am6, which as we all know is the "slightly edgy chord" and also leaves me a little off-balance.

The "Ministry of the Word" part of the ceremony likewise was stripped from anything explicitly theological - like a reading from the Bible, for example. Instead Morgwn was instructed to shout random spiritual-sounding words out of a thesaurus, together with their alternative meanings. Faced with liturgical expostulations like "Dream! Vision, Imagine, Aspire, Idle" we were able to stretch into our inner beings, freed from an external framework and able to let our minds connect. Young Keith's right and left hemispheres became so connected that he was unable to remain standing and toppled over onto the carpet, but I suspect this was down to his Sunday lunchtime trip to the White Horse.

Finally, the Tibetan gong was struck, to signal the end of our Dream-time. After a reading from a Ted Hughes poem, we danced out again to the accompaniment of the nose flutes and kazoos playing "The Lazy Song." I was glad we closed with something contemporary, but now I feel spiritual yet vaguely unfulfilled. I think I may have to go and find some chocolate.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Christmas Service Stats - Unveiled

Dear Readers, every year the mainstream churches announce their Christmas service attendance. Now as you know I am no cynic. Buy my suspicion is that they are hiding a lot of the detail that people want to know.

So after much crunching of numbers from various groups over many years, I am glad to let you have this first glimpse of my research.