Category Archives: Church

Greenbelt 2012

This was my second proper, grown-up trip to Greenbelt. I went once, about thirty years ago, when I was around seventeen. I remember being inspired, excited about ideas of the holy fool, about the possibility of melding radical politics and intellectual enquiry with faith. It was, in retrospect, one of the milestones on my path away from the rather simplistic, if kind and compassionate, evangelical church into which I had just, or was about to, be baptised. But my memories, beyond that, are hazy in the extreme. The idea of going there again last year was inspired neither by faith or politics, but by my failure to get tickets for the Cambridge Folk Festival. I’d seen Show of Hands at Glastonbury, and had such a good time bouncing up and down and shouting ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed!’ that I was keen to repeat the experience. Lots of others obviously had the same idea, and by the time I got to a computer, the big days at Cambridge were all sold out. I then noticed that they were playing at Greenbelt, along with Billy Bragg and Grace Petrie, two more of my Glastonbury highlights.

Since being received into the Catholic church at university, I’d grown rather out of touch with developments in the Protestant tradition. In the past couple of years, though, through reading Gladys Ganiel’s Church Without Walls blog, I’d started to discover a little about the Emerging Church movement. The names of the speakers at Greenbelt, although most were unfamilar, included a few that I knew of from Gladys, including Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and Peter Rollins. There were also ‘secular’ speakers whose work I admired; Richard Wilkinson, the co-author of The Spirit Level, the psychologist Oliver James and Mark Thomas, talking about his walk along the Palestinian wall. So, along with my two younger sons, then fourteen and seventeen, one of their contemporaries and Fiona, who at twenty four floated comfortably between me and the boys (at least, I hope she’s comfortable there, so long as her tent stays upright) I made the trek (bus, ferry, several trains, bus etc.) to Greenbelt 2011.

Despite the speakers and music, I’d expected the festival to be a bit anodyne, well-meanng Cliff Richard, so was surprised and galvanised by the challenging visions of the contributors (the theme for the year was Palestine) and the reassuring number of eccentrics among the audiences. The combination of faith, arts and politics (together with the, compared to other festivals, frankly sybaritic loos) seemed pretty near perfect, and even the fact that alcohol was confined to the campsites and the provocatively named Jesus Arms beer tent (how reassuring it would sound to suffer a fatal heart attack there) proved to be rather more a benefit than a hindrance. Devoted as I am to the fermented grape, and on occasion the grain, the sight of teenagers at Glastonbury entirely incapable of rational thought or accurate movement is not an edifying one, while the sea of abandoned lager cans inspired a visceral depression that clouded the most joyful musical experiences.

So, as soon as tickets for Greenbelt 2012 went on sale, we booked ours, all of us but our younger friend, whose path of faith was taking him in different directions. There was no Glastonbury this year, and I’d already had more than my lifetime’s share of treats in the trip to South Africa, so this was my first and only festival of the summer. I came, metaphorically speaking, with quite a lot of baggage. (Literally, not, notably without boots of any kind, of which more anon.) In particular I had two areas of confusion and mild dilemma which were sending spirals of unproductive musing around my head and keeping me from getting on with more useful trains of thought.

As I mentioned above, I was received into the Catholic church at the age of twenty and since then have been fairly regularly, if lazily, observant. Like far more illustrious and devout fellow English converts, including Hopkins and Newman, I found the Irish church something of a shock. During the eight years that I’ve been here, two in the south and six in the north, I’ve met many wonderful Irish Catholics, lots of laypeople and a few priests, and one or two inspiring communities, notably the Franciscan friary in Ennis. Overall, though, my experience of the Catholic church in Ireland has been one of a rather conservative, defensive and self-regarding body, childishly clinging to hierarchical structures, obsessed with sport and academic achievement, generous in charitable giving but unwilling to look at the causes of injustice and poverty, welcoming to incomers but expecting them to conform to narrow cultural and religious norms. The recent furore over Sean Quinn and his family’s financial dealings, during which Fr Brian D’Arcy, whom I like, admire and otherwise generally agree with, spoke at a rally in support of the billionaire, was for me something of a final straw.

If, I asked myself, I feel more isolated than ever from my local Catholic community, increasingly unhappy at the pronouncements of the Vatican, which appears to be attempting some sort of time-travelling excursion back to the 1950s, and downright opposed to Cardinal Keith O’Brien and the like with their crusade against gay marriage, on what basis can I honestly call myself a Catholic at all? The thread that bound me, precious as it was, woven of a sacramental understanding of the relation between earth and heaven, a pretty orthodox theology, the constant, if submerged current of radical social teaching and, most of all, an identification with Christians across the earth and the centuries, was looking perilously thin. Of the specific people I looked to for inspiration within the tradition: Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, most, though available in spirit, had an unmistakable drawback in dealing with the conundrums of 2012. Except for one.

Among the speakers at Greenbelt this year was Fr John Dear, an American Jesuit and peace activist who for a long time has been one of the only living men on my dwindling list of ‘people who are keeping me Catholic’. My emotions, therefore, on seeing his name were a wobbly mixture of joyful anticipation and craven fear. What if he turned out to be less than I’d hoped: to be arrogant, or bigoted, or even self-righteous and humourless? Or, in the other direction, what if he announced that he himself were giving up on the church? I really didn’t want to leave, despite everything. For one thing, I had nowhere else to go. If I wasn’t at all sure that I could be a good Catholic in Northern Ireland, I was pretty positive that I certainly couldn’t be any sort of Protestant here. (I even vaguely fantasised about the Orthodox churches, until the Pussy Riot business showed what a comprehensive leap out of the frying pan that would be.) I have a great deal of time, affection and respect for the Quakers, but I’m not a good enough person to survive as a Friend alone. I need liturgy, sacraments, the community of saints, on earth and heaven, to keep my footsteps even roughly on the right path.

My other dilemma, coincidentally, was another in which I looked to John Dear. It was one which I’d come to the fringes of in real life, and which I was exploring in the novel, Fracking Up, which I’ve nearly finished writing. Simply put, I suppose, it was about the relation between direct action and non-violence. Fr John, whose whole ministry has been guided by principles of non-violence, has been to prison several times for acts of civil disobedience in relation to nuclear weapons. How could he be sure of what actions would be truly peaceful? Was it cowardly of me, in my own small involvement, to eschew direct action in favour of writing and speaking?

I’m not sure exactly what I mean these days about prayers being answered, but whatever it is, I was given it in glorious abundance. John Dear spoke twice over the weekend, and on both occasions I was able to talk briefly to him afterwards. It was all right. He was honest, and humble, and funny and genuine, and he answered my questions with a piercing, lateral clarity, not so much responding to them directly as illuminating for me what had become smeared by too much examination. The Catholic church, I realised, was where I was; there was no point in uprooting myself to try a transplant to some other, equally imperfect soil. ‘Look at Jesus,’ he urged, ‘Read the Gospels. Don’t worry.’

Yes, I saw, the Catholic church is all those things I identified; childish, trivial, blinkered and proud. So am I. It’s also, as the wonderful London Catholic Worker mass on Sunday afternoon demonstrated, joyful, compassionate and challenging. Fr Martin Newell, like Brian D’Arcy a Passionist priest, spoke with incredible honesty and humility about his own life – like John Dear he has been to prison for ‘beating swords into ploughshares’ – and left me in no doubt that it is the log in my own eye, the selfishness of my own life and my own complicity in the systems of war and injustice, which ought to be my first concern.

And yes, Fr John answered my second question too, by his repeated use of the phrase ‘meticulous non-violence’. For an action to be peaceful, I saw, it is not enough for there just to be no intention of using or provoking violence. It must be prepared and prayed over, often for years, to ensure that the freedom and integrity of everyone involved are respected and cared for. ‘Love your enemies,’ said Jesus, not, ‘Don’t have any enemies’ or ‘Your enemies are wrong; therefore they have forfeited their rights’. The people called to do these things are extraordinary; their faith and commitment and discipline – real, contemplative prayer is the basis of their lives – have made them so. To try to bypass all that in search of a quick headline would be arrogant in the extreme. As Fr John pointed out, neither ‘impact’ nor ‘success’ are Gospel words.

Other things happened, too, quite a lot of them bits of weather; rain, high winds and thunderstorms. I don’t know how many appreciated that one of the sub-themes of this year’s festival (the title was Saving Paradise) was climate change. Inevitably, I suppose, after expecting a jejune happy-clappy crowd in 2011, I went to the other extreme this year, and anticipated that everyone would be a radical peace/eco activist, arriving by bike or train with a knapsack of simple necessities. Instead, of course, as the mud deepened, out of the people carriers came the Hunter wellies, the individual toilet tents, the folding chairs and the slightly relentless cheeriness. They’re good people, though, and it’s probably mathematically, as well as sociologically, unreasonable to expect everyone to diverge too far from the norm. If we didn’t want mainstream jollity, it was silly to camp in the middle of the youth groups’ field.

The greatest irritation of the weekend wasn’t the punters, anyway, (I fortunately didn’t hear the woman who, rebuking her daughter for playing in the mud, chided her ‘You don’t want to look like a gypsy, do you?’) but a couple of the supposedly progressive speakers. I came in late to a debate about campaigning held in the Christian Aid tent between Douglas Alexander the Labour MP, Suzanne Matale from the Zambian Council of Churches, and Giles Fraser, the former St Paul’s canon who resigned during the Occupy protest and thereby catapulted himself into a successful media career. The conversation had been largely concerned with the need to move from a charitable to a justice-based outlook (obviously Irish Catholics aren’t the only ones who find the transition difficult). When it came to questions from the audience, which were dealt with in clusters, mine being the second in our group, I suggested that making more specific connections between local and global issues might be a way forward in this regard. As an example, I referred to the proposals to frack for shale gas in Fermanagh and the way in which this, though on a different scale, was analogous to the exploitation of resources by multinational corporations across the majority world. As I finished, another hand immediately went up, and a man, probably ten or fifteen years older than me, asked the final question. Many people there, he pointed out, worked for multinationals, which did a great deal of good. Did the panel agree that it was a cheap jibe to attack them?
Douglas Alexander replied first, and wholeheartedly agreed with the questioner, referring to a recent corporate jobs fair in his constitiuency. Giles Fraser went next, slightly more circumspect, but the gist was that if the corporations paid tax in the right country then they’d be fine. Neither of them addressed my question, or the one that had come before. Finally Suzanne Matale spoke, pausing before she began.
‘I’ve been trying all this time,’ she said, ‘to think of one good thing that the multinationals have done for my country, and I’m finding it very difficult. There are jobs, I suppose, though …’ She went on to point out that neither the wages nor the conditions imposed were exactly generous, and then to deal with my point, with which she agreed. I was slightly distracted by then, though, by the extraordinary series of schoolboy smirks which, as she began to speak, I saw being exchanged behind her back by the two white men. Could I have been mistaken? I’d really like to think so. I don’t expect much from the Labour Party but I had hoped that Fraser’s much-publicised resignation had been underpinned by a bit more respect and humility. I went off for half an hour’s meditation, during which I kept falling asleep, but at least recovered my humour.

Other than that, and our fruitless struggles to restore Fiona’s collapsed tent on the final stormy night, the weekend was a joy, interspersed, in usual festival fashion, with moments of utter exhaustion. Owing to the complicated nature of my journey (via a family holiday on the Isle of Portland) and space constraints, I hadn’t brought any footwear more substantial than sandals and plimsolls and so had to wade in bare feet through the sea of mud which comprised large portions of the festival. As a result, my carefully concocted schedule was largely abandoned and I missed hearing Suzanne Matale’s own talk as well as Bruce Cockburn’s acoustic set (though he was fantastic on the Mainstage).

It was my first Braggless summer since 2008, which was sad, but Grace Petrie played again, more inspiring than ever,

I relived bits of my adolescence with the Proclaimers (‘Letter from America’ is sweetly nostalgic in a world of tweets and Facebook updates), discovered the marvellous Hope & Social, loved the Imagined Village (no Chris Wood, but a couple of Carthys) and danced as wildly as the mud permitted to Bellowhead. I’d seen them at Glastonbury last year in the afternoon, grumpy at having broken my sandal (I mean I was grumpy, not the band) but this late set, with atmospheric lighting and Jon Boden all nineteenth century Gothic in white shirt and black waistcoat, quite Sweeney Todd, was breathtaking.
What else? Quite a lot of Palestine; Zaytoun olive oil and the first showing of Leila Sansour’s Bethlehem film (with Jeremy Hardy looking indecently rugged for a Radio 4 chap), the gloriously silly Folk On, Peter Tatchell, very statesmanlike (in the best sense) and Robin Ince, Greenbelt’s favourite atheist. And I spent what, in retrospect, might seem an odd amount of time listening to gay men talking about Old Testament bodies, thanks to fantastic performances by Peterson Toscano and Pádraig O Tuama. Which last, really, brings me back home, to Northern Ireland, with all its frustrations, opportunities and hard-working, inspirational friends struggling to make a better future.  No, the churches aren’t perfect, none of them. How on earth do I think they’d want me if they were?


p.s.  Oh dear.  That’ll teach me to be ‘downright opposed’ to people.  (I hope.)  I’ve just, nine days after posting this, read Fr John Dear’s own blog about his tour of Scotland and England, in which he writes:

“Edinburgh’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien is probably the world’s most antinuclear church official. “Nuclear weapons are capable of destroying all life on earth, and their use or threatened use is morally reprehensible,” he says. “Policies of ‘nuclear deterrence’ are a moral failure, and the only viable policy on nuclear weapons has to be one which leads to their complete elimination.” Amazing to hear his clear voice for peace. So different from church officials in the U.S.”

Oops.  I still disagree with the Cardinal about marriage for gay people, but he’s clearly not the reactionary I’d envisaged.  Mea culpa, in the church’s own wise language.


The tent and the temple

Last night I was reading Kester Brewin’s book Other: Loving Self, God and Neighbour in a World of Fractures, when I came across this passage:

“The temporal nature of these moments runs against the culture of permanence that runs right through the Church. We speak of eternity, of an undying body of Christ, of the constancy of our witness in stone cathedrals that appear to have been there since the dawn of time. Our unending prayers end with ‘forever and ever, Amen’; our song and liturgy hang heavy, invested with hundreds of years of history. Tradition is good. It can be a healthy momentum that carries us straight when the winds of change blow hard. But central to our tradition is the story of a man whose ministry lasted but three years. He had the choice – he could have sustained a far longer time with his followers, could have delayed his necessary death for many years. Instead, he allowed himself to be cut off. What is it then about the temporary that is to be celebrated?” (p. 143)

The moments he is speaking of are cessations in violence, are feasts, festivals, miracles and what Hakim Bey called ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ such as the eighteenth century pirate utopias which flourished in the gaps between the maps and the earthly reality. To these, I think, could be added the temporary communities of radical politics, from the women’s peace camps of the 1980s through climate camps to this year’s Occupy movement. But it is only now, in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, that the two impulses of Christianity, the temporary and the permanent, have been brought into such fierce relief.

St Paul’s Cathedral, perhaps, contains some of what is best about permanence: architectural splendour, music, liturgy and art, but also what is worst. When people stopped being primarily hunter-gatherers and became farmers, a new imperative arose: to enclose, control, build and preserve. As the Church became established, in both its lower and upper-case meanings, the same kind of change took place. Buildings and structures, constructed to celebrate and facilitate the work of the Gospels, began to obstruct that very work, their own requirements for maintenance overshadowing the tasks which they were meant to serve. And so we reach the state of St Paul’s today, with a board of trustees embedded at the heart of the financial industry, and an admission charge of nearly £35 for a family of four. You can imagine how it happens: each step leading logically from the one before, all for sound reasons, until we find ourselves in a barricaded glittering temple with the Gospel going on outside.

It was brave and honest for members of the clergy at St Paul’s to resign rather than allow themselves to be complicit in the state violence that will, it seems inevitably, be used by the Etonian chaps against the occupiers. But how much more would it have said if, rather than working out their notice within the cathedral, they had furnished themselves with a cheap tent and sleeping bag and joined those in the square.

I’m not Anglican-bashing: as a Catholic convert I have chosen to belong to a church with far more cathedrals, bigger bank accounts, a more rigid structure and a far more shameful history of complicity with money and power. One of the very facets of Catholicism that drew me towards it, twenty-six years ago, was its tradition. And yet within that tradition, the two thousand year-long, ragged gaudy procession of believers, those whose light shines the fiercest are those; St Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, who are most truly pilgrims and strangers, hunter-gatherers of the faith, with no place to call their own.

It’s a difficult tension to hold, and so not surprising that Rowan Williams, with his finely-tuned sense of nuance and ambiguity, has so far remained mainly silent. Not surprising, but a little disappointing. For this is an opportunity for the Church to recalibrate itself, to reset the compass of its heart. As Kester Brewin concludes his chapter:

“The beauty of TAZ is that it injects hope into these overpowering situations. The forces at work against us are huge. The powerful own the maps and have legislated for every last inch. But in the interstitial spaces, under the radar of those who would want to configure the world for their own benefit, brief festivals of hope are taking place. They are temporary flashes of light in dark places, but long after they have gone the air hangs heavy with a generous odour, and those who thought they saw something different are, in miniscule ways, penetrated by the marvellous for a second and can never quite get rid of that feeling. ‘Hush’ says the Church, leaving its petrified walls and tiptoeing mischievously toward the public square, ‘I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?’ (p.150)

Review: God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke

I’ve got a lot of time for Marcus Brigstocke. On a CDD (comedian-donation-duration) scale, where Mark Steel merits a long weekend and Jim Davidson the minimum number of milliseconds required to activate an off switch, Marcus gets at least a leisurely Sunday lunch, probably followed by an afternoon’s croquet and winding-up with the leftovers enjoyed as a midnight feast. Not only was Giles Wemmbley-Hogg tea-down-the-nostrils funny, but on his TV show a couple of years ago he sacrificed the opportunity of flirting with some airheady celebrity in favour of interviewing Harriet Lamb of the Fairtrade Foundation. So, on the twin criteria of making me laugh and being a Thoroughly Good Egg, Marcus maintains a consistently high score.

(It’s this good-eggery which emboldens me to refer to him by his first name, despite our never having met. ‘Brigstocke’ would probably be more appropriate for a serious review, but comes across as somewhat peremptory – a cross between ‘brigadier’ and ‘lock, stock and barrel’ – while ‘MB’ sounds coy, ‘Mr. Brigstocke’ archaic and ‘the author’ as though I’ve forgotten his name and can’t be bothered to look it up. So Marcus it is, and I trust that he’ll forgive the informality.)

So, if I write that God Collar wasn’t quite so funny or quite so thoughtful as I’d hoped, you’ll understand that my initial expectations were very high indeed.

As the close relatives to whom I moan about these things will know, I’ve been slightly niggled over the past couple of years at the laziness with which several atheist comedians formulate their anti-religion routines. To do him credit, Marcus refers to this ‘low-hanging fruit’ himself and avoids its most indolent tropes. It isn’t (just to forestall any images of a Melanie Phillips-Daily Mail-What sort of society do we live in where I can’t go to work as a nursery teacher dressed as a freshly crucified corpse?) that I don’t think Christians ought to be ridiculed. Personally, I’d like to be ridiculed as satirically as possible, preferably with a bit of reviling and persecution thrown in. It seems, according to the Sermon on the Mount, to be one of the easier and less painful ways of achieving beatitude. (The others: being poor in spirit, mourning, being a peacemaker etc. involve considerably more hardship, or at least long hours sitting round a conference table punctuating treaties and eating Rich Tea biscuits. I’ve never liked Rich Tea biscuits.) Of course, the snag is that you have to be reviled etc. for actually doing what Jesus told you to, rather than for wearing polo shirts buttoned to the top or listening to Cliff Richard.

Be that as it may, we Christians (I won’t speak for believers in other faiths but I’m pretty sure that many would agree) have done, and are continuing to do, or at least condone, some pretty atrocious things; things which, on the whole, our founder and guide instructed us specifically not to do – live by the sword, lay up treasure on earth, harm little ones etc. Our failures in these areas, though rarely rib-ticklingly hilarious, are undoubtedly valid objects for no-holds-barred satire.

What annoys me isn’t the target itself but the imprecision of it and the inaccuracy of the weapons used. Blunderbusses are being employed to nudge pachyderms on their broad but insensitive bottoms where a catapulted pebble could catch that spot where it really hurts. Partly this results from an understandable ignorance. Because the most egregious horror committed by professional Christians in recent years is the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and the most howling faith-related scientific blunder anti-Darwinism, there is a tendency to characterise the typical believer as a paedophile-shielding creationist. In fact most Catholics have no problem with evolutionary or other fields of science. To borrow a device from Marcus himself, if you constructed a Venn diagram in which circle A contained Catholics and circle B creationists, the section AB would contain a fairly small number of people. A small number of people who, had they happened to be at the Glastonbury Festival (probably an unlikely scenario), would be wondering exactly what they’d done to become the specific butt of quite so many late-night jibes in the Cabaret Tent.

Marcus manages to avoid this particular combinational canard in favour of some more original reflections. Unfortunately, several of these are even more inaccurate. In his live show he speculated about the probable fate of believing audience members who were reluctant to identify themselves.

“I did take great delight in reminding them that they only had to deny it twice more before they were in a whole heap of trouble. They couldn’t be sure if I’d ask them twice more, but it’s a tough call, isn’t it? Slight awkwardness at a comedy show versus eternal damnation for thrice denying the Lord.” (p. 149)

All cartoons from The Pick of Punch, 1957

A nice line, but diametrically wrong. In fact, according to John’s gospel, the follow-up to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus in the Temple courtyard wasn’t condemnation but his threefold avowal of love after the resurrection and his being given the task ‘Feed my sheep’. So those who are tempted to leave their faith behind at the entrance to comedy clubs are far less likely to be flung onto everlasting barbecues and more likely to be forgiven and told to go on a sponsored run for Oxfam. Sweat yes, charcoal no.

Similarly, he gets the story of Sodom and Gomorrah the wrong way round, misremembering (could it really have been a prep school lesson?) that it was the visiting angels who wanted to rape Lot’s neighbours rather than vice-versa. It doesn’t take away the distasteful spectacle of Lot pimping out his virgin daughters, but does shed a slightly different light on the moral to be drawn. In fact it has been convincingly argued that the sin of Sodom wasn’t buggery at all but a failure of hospitality[1], it being less than gracious to gang-rape visitors to your neighbourhood (as members of town-twinning committees worldwide will no doubt be relieved to hear). Under this interpretation, contemporary sodomites would include tabloid editors with ‘bogus asylum seeker’ headlines, men who complain about official leaflets in Punjabi and women who tut in the post office queue at people sending parcels home to Ghana or Lithuania.

I do realise, by the way, that most of the material in the book first appeared within Marcus’s live show, and that a comedian’s poetic licence is endorsed with generous allowances for hyperbole, embellishment and sheer fantasy. Far be it from me to censure anyone’s extended riff on what happened when the Angel Gabriel, Holy Roly[2] and the Dalai Lama walked into a pub. But (and this may reveal a many-layered depth of uncoolness and decrepitude) I do have the feeling that when something is written down and put into an Actual Book, it ought, so far as possible, to be checked with its sources. And when the source is the Bible, which, as Marcus points out, “has been the number one bestseller since before even Bruce Forsyth was born”, it’s not that difficult to check. Some of the other rather lurid stories, such as the holey chair through which papal testicles are verified, do, I admit, require a little more research to disprove, such as, er, looking it up in Wikipedia.

Lecture over. One of the more endearing results of the confusion over what sort of book this is – polemic, humour, autobiography? – is an awful lot of digression. Most of these meanderings I like – there’s a long one on climate change which has little to do with the subject at hand but is currently so important that every newly published book should probably include a gratuitious global warming update. There’s another on iPhones with an unsettling gerbil image that is wholly impossible to forget (I’m trying very hard), then one about pilfering postmen which I didn’t enjoy; it had the air of a right-wing meme that had somehow crept in uninvited. After that came one about Marcus’s dyxlexia, which is a really sneaky thing to put into a book. When an author explains, in tear-jerking detail, how difficult it is for him even to read a book, never mind undergo the slogging agony of writing one, it’s hard to criticise it without feeling that one is slowly and deliberately crushing a kitten’s paw. Yowl.

On the subject of digressions, this may be the time to admit my full motivations for buying the book in the first place. One was the W H Smith voucher which required me to buy more than Watchmen, another our general family affection for young Marcus but the third, most compelling, was the picture on the back cover showing him as a slightly ginger cherub.

That’s the one. And this (specs and hair model’s own) is my son Rory.

Back to the book. If the stumbling blocks to faith in God include his Old Testament persona, the Vatican, jihad and Christian Voice’s bizarre persecution of Stewart Lee, I imagine that one of the principal barriers to wholehearted atheism is, for many, Professor Richard Dawkins. Like Marcus, I was rather excited after reading the introduction to The God Delusion, looking forward to the brave new world of Brightness to which the good doctor was going to lead me. Alas, we were both disappointed.

“Richard Dawkins says at the beginning of his book, ‘I would like everyone who reads this, by the time they put this book down, to be an atheist.’ Well, I was an atheist when I started reading The God Delusion; by the time I’d finished it I was an agnostic. I was going to read it again but I worried I might turn into a fundamentalist Christian.” (p. 156)

Not, it seems, that Marcus actually disagrees with any of Dawkins’ arguments, only with the interminably superior manner in which he makes them. There isn’t much about evolution in God Collar, but it does appear as one of the arguments against belief in God. I do think this is a red herring, rather like suggesting that, because Jesus talked about God clothing the lilies of the field, Christian faith and photosynthesis are intrinsically incompatible.

The creationists’ God is something like a man in a shed, tinkering with his latest project; more self-assembly than conception. If God is God, rather than a finite member of the Olympian or Norse dynasties, he is not only the man but also the shed, the ground on which they stand, the space and time within which they exist and all conceivable and inconceivable scientific processes, ideas and imaginings. ‘Intelligent design’ isn’t much better; it still contains the same anthropomorphic fallacy, that God’s act of creation must necessarily be analogous to our own, with discrete plans and processes and outcomes. If God is God, then nothing is too complex or too simple to be his work. All we are specifically told in the Christian gospels about creation is that:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John, 1:1-3)

That Word is, Christians believe, the Son who lived in Palestine as Jesus of Nazareth. So there is no particle that has ever existed in the universe, in any universe, that is outside his specific action and love.

As Antony de Mello writes,

“We forget all too easily that one of the big lessons of the incarnation is that God is found in the ordinary. You wish to see God? Look at the face of the man next to you. You want to hear him? Listen to the cry of a baby, the loud laughter at a party, the wind rustling in the trees. You want to feel him? Stretch your hand out and hold someone. Or touch the chair you are sitting on or this book you are reading. Or just quieten yourself, become aware of the sensations in your body, sense his almighty power at work in you and feel how near he is to you. Emmanuel. God with us.”

( Sadhana: A Way to God – Christian Exercises in Eastern Form, pp 46-47)

This is the immensity of the Christian faith, not so much that Jesus died, certainly not in the reductionist doctrine that would turn his death into the crudest of passwords, but that he, the infinite God, lived on earth as we do as a finite collection of molecules and forces and all those jolly sounding quarks and bosons. All particles are God particles, and if matter matters so much, isn’t it a bit petty to be squabbling about dinosaurs?

Suffering is hard, much harder than evolution and any believer who isn’t regularly stumped and stymied by it hasn’t been doing much thinking. It looks as though Jesus was when he asked on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” There are a few things we can say. A huge part of the suffering in the world is caused by people, directly or indirectly, by war and greed and injustice and carcinogenic pollution and climate chaos. If we all lived as we should we might even survive earthquakes and tsunamis. But that only raises the question of why we don’t. Free will, yes, but why is it so easy to choose the bad paths? Couldn’t we have been created with a better default setting? We can believe that, in the life of an infinite soul, our time on earth is necessarily short and incomplete, but we still grieve, and rightly, when someone dies almost before they’ve started. We can know that the incarnate God, the God of the Sermon on the Mount, suffers with those who hunger and thirst and mourn, but we don’t know why his messengers don’t do more to feed them in the first place.

Which brings us on to what seems to lie at the heart of Marcus’s atheism (which is so hedged about with uncertainties to be, if he won’t mind my saying so and won’t have to give back his Dawkins T-shirt, scarcely more than tentatively agnostic) – the behaviour of religious institutions. As I’ve already indicated, I have a lot of sympathy for him here, but I’m not sure that the situation is quite so simple as he suggests. His basic argument is that, regardless of whether there actually is a God or not, it is wrong for us to lend our support to organisations which have carried out acts of inhumanity.

“You wouldn’t save your money at the Bank of Rape, so why pray at a church whose record on child abuse means I’d rather employ Gary Glitter as a nanny than send my kids to a Catholic school?” (p.72)

This is pretty much unanswerable (with the minor caveat that most child abuse of every sort happens in the secular context of the family) if you accept the basic consumerist assumption lying behind it, that just as a bank is a purveyor of financial services, so a church, mosque or temple is no more than a purveyor of religious ones. If this were the case then obviously we’d simply consult our Ethical Shopper and select the Buddhists or Quakers along with the Co-op Bank, Ecover and Yeo Valley organic yoghurts.

But it isn’t, not quite. Being a member of a faith tradition isn’t just a question of paying your dues and receiving certain spiritual and social benefits. The decision as to whether to join or leave involves many factors: history, theology, revelation, community and vocation. The ethical behaviour of your fellow-members may be one of these, but whom are you judging and how? How many Maximilian Kolbes count in the balance against a Brendan Smyth? After all, the point of a church is that it’s made up of sinners; if we weren’t then we wouldn’t need it.

What it’s rather more like is being a citizen of a country. Like Marcus, I’m English, though I haven’t lived there for a while, and I rejoice to be so when I think of Julian of Norwich, William Cobbett, Jane Austen and Show of Hands. Then I remember Cromwell in Ireland, the Opium Wars, Dresden and the invasion of Iraq. Hmm. Occasionally people renounce their citizenship of a country on a point of principle, but it doesn’t happen very often. Most of us stick with it, vote, join political parties or pressure groups, work for the common good and campaign for an end to the injustices perpetrated in our name. It’s not so different within a faith. The view of the religious social structure presented in God’s Collar is rigidly hierarchical:

“It appears to me like a human pyramid. In Christianity, the impressive triangle of political power looks like this. On the bottom, with their feet on the ground, are the rank-and-file believers, churchgoers who occasionally arrange flowers and dabble in light charity work. … One row above them are the ones who are mildly disapproving of the somewhat occasional attendance of the bottom row. The second tier are religiously observant. They pray, sing, attend church, run weekend Bible studies and read the Daily Mail without laughing. … Above them are the ‘active’ members of the church; they ruthlessly promote their passion for the Christian way of life … are judgemental and cherry-pick from the scriptures to suit the politics they grew up with. Above them, very near the top, are the ones who say, as Stephen Green from Christian Voice did, that the floods in New Orleans were God’s just punishment for homosexuality.” (p.239)

Of course, faith organisations have hierarchies, few more so that my own, but, again, it’s not so straightforward as Marcus suggests. For one thing, the guys (and yes, I’m afraid they’re mostly still guys) at the top aren’t necessarily the baddies. Within the Anglican and Catholic churches, for example, recent archbishops have included Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero and Basil Hume as well as H.R. himself. Stephen Green, by the way, is not very near the top of anything except his own estimation. And does Marcus really think that there is a direct correlation between the involvement of the believer and his or her worsening behaviour, so that occasional churchgoers are decent enough chaps but by the time you’re on the cleaning rota you’re sunk into a ditch of depravity? And as for those reprobates who insist on ringing the bells ….

Of course, church hierarchies, like any other, afford opportunities for the abuse of power. People who want to do nasty, selfish, cruel things are always going to use the most powerful excuse they can to justify their actions. Just as, in a world where oil is running out, the unscrupulous backers of tar sands and fracking use the excuse of cheap energy and in a secular society dictators like Stalin and Mao used the good of the State, so, in a culture where people believe in God, divine sanction is invoked by those who want to consolidate their position. None of this proves the rightness or wrongness of fossil fuels, communism or theism, only that the powerful know their PR. No one ever got very far committing genocide, environmental destruction or wholesale theft on the grounds that Double Gloucester ought to be more widely available.

Over the past couple of millennia, religious structures have been the most stable and powerful and so have been the most successful at shielding crime and persecution. But in the hundred years or so that secular hierarchies have been thriving they haven’t done too badly at it either. Wherever you have hierarchical structures, you have power, power that tends to attract people who aren’t as nice as Marcus. You can say, as I do, that people who believe in a good and loving God ought to behave better, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest that not believing in God would encourage them to do so.

Incidentally, both Marcus and I clearly think that churches are hopelessly right-wing, but we probably ought to note that others think the absolute opposite. And, to do them justice, we have had Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, Martin Luther King, David Sheppard and many other anti-apartheid campaigners, liberation theology, Jim Wallis and the Sojourners, John Dear, the increasingly radical Christian Aid… The conservatives certainly haven’t had it all their own way[3].

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that some people are meant to be inside the church, nudging it in the right (all right, usually the left) direction and others outside heckling. (I realise that this mixed metaphor has turned the church into some sort of pedal-powered comedy bus, but I’m reasonably happy with the image now.) One of the most important things is for the nudgers and the hecklers to communicate with one another, and one of the silliest for them to waste energy turning that conversation into a slanging match. Some of the prime candidates for driving the bus, like Simone Weil, have been outside with Marcus and some of the best heckles have come from inside (try Googling ‘Partenia’ to see what I mean).

Marcus doesn’t like the Bible much, or the God that it portrays. Fair enough, neither do I to a large part; except that the Bible isn’t really, as he implies, a single entity telling a consistent narrative. Instead, it’s a collection of very disparate texts, some of which, like the Gospel of St John, are the bedrock of our faith while others, like large chunks of Leviticus, are frankly of no more than historical interest, and rather unpleasant interest at that. Sane Christians don’t give them equal weight any more than, if you were to come across a box of your great-granny’s bits and pieces you’d treasure her mildewed butter wrappers as much as her love letters. Not all of the Bible is ‘true’, not even as the metaphor with which Marcus accuses us of dodging the question; much of it is just stories. What matters is that, on the whole (with the odd blip) these stories show a progression from an early idea of a capricious and bloodthirsty master through the prophets’ realisation of his concern with justice and mercy to Christ’s parables of a wholly loving and forgiving Father. (The whole rounded off, I’ll admit, by a slightly random anti-imperialist hallucination in the form of the Book of Revelation.)

It’s therefore slightly disingenuous to treat the figure of God as though he’s a historical figure or a fully-drawn character like Peggotty or Horace Rumpole. The story of our understanding of God is less like the reading of a biography than a process of scientific discovery – we put a hypothesis forward, test it, refine it, put it through a pretty rigorous bout of peer-reviewing … And it’s still going on. Jesus put us right about the more egregious horrors of the Old Testament but we manage to ignore him, going on eye-for-eyeing, walking on the side of the road without the bloodstains and obsessing about the Sabbath. John Dear has estimated a hundred years of the church’s life as being equivalent to one in a human’s, which makes us somewhere near the beginning of our third year at university, old enough to know better but still not quite ready to leave the bar and start some serious revision.

To reject the idea of a God because tens of thousands of years ago the Mesopotamians told a good flood story and the Hebrews subsequently put Yahweh into it is a bit like avoiding bison because medieval bestiaries claimed that their farts could ignite a tree three acres away.[4] Yes, it’s sad and pathetic that over-literal bits of the story lurk beneath the matted fur of internet trolls, giving them ever more bizarre excuses for disbelieving in climate change. But they interpret the flood story in such a way to reinforce their political and social prejudices, not the other way around. The tale can equally (I would say with more justification) be told as the story of a family who, having learned about an impending extreme weather event (direct revelation not being that much different from the New Scientist), took mitigating steps, despite tabloid scorn, and prevented wholesale biodiverse extinction.

Marcus does, however, like Jesus.

“Jesus was a friend to the meek and downtrodden, he promoted the redistribution of wealth, he came to heal the sick and forgive the sinner. He’d make the front cover of the Daily Mail at least once a week as the evil face of ‘Political Correctness gone mad!’ … I like the peaceful, loving, long-haired, bearded socialist dude I see in Christ. I’m not totally sure but I think he may have pitched a tent next to mine at Glastonbury a few years ago.” (pp. 237, 246)

The problem, so far as he is concerned, is that, having established the Old Testament God as a bad-tempered mafioso, he can’t reconcile the Father and Son figures and has to postulate a sort of Trinitarian Oedipus complex to explain the family relationship. This leads into plenty of comic riffing about McDonalds and the Osmonds but doesn’t actually help. One of the reasons, if we can be so reductive as to talk of reasons, for the Incarnation seems to be so that we can understand a little of what God is actually like. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father”, which doesn’t make any sense if, like Marcus, you see the Father as a brutal monomaniac and the Son as a pacific hippy. In fact, in the bits of the Bible that atheists tend not to know about, prophets had been banging on for centuries about the fact that God preferred poor people, didn’t like sacrifices, wanted widows, orphans and refugees to be treated decently, was utterly fed up with the rich and powerful among his people but would forgive anyone who showed a bit of compassion. Sadly, no one wanted to hear it then any more that they do now. So God, the same God, not a dysfunctional relative, followed the old writer’s adage of ‘show, don’t tell’, clambered down to earth like a long-suffering drama teacher and bloody well acted out what he meant. And we know how that turned out.

Having been, probably, more critical than I meant to be of God Collar’s arguments for atheism, I should point out that there are lots of good things in it, lots of jolly enthusiasms for women, and sex and gay people as well as a lot more honest detail about his own history than he had to give us. In this respect the book is a bit back-to-front in literary terms; rather than beginning with the particular and extrapolating to the general, he starts with the big statements and only much later explains why it is that he makes them. It’s rather more like engaging in a conversation than reading a book; like meeting someone on a train and exchanging brisk platitudes only to discover that, owing to a points failure at Aberystwyth, you’re actually thrown into one another’s company for long enough to tell your life stories. I felt slightly embarrassed by the end that Marcus hadn’t had the opportunity to hear about my own disasters and doubts. That’s all he needs, poor man.

Before summing up, there are two small bees still niggling in my headwear which I’d like to liberate. The first is that most Christians don’t, these days, think that non-Christians go to hell. A few do, yes, but a few people think that electricity leaks out of wall sockets. It doesn’t stop the rest of us from switching on the toaster.

The second is the notion that religion is an escape from reality, comparable to alcohol, and/or a way of coping with the fear of death. Neither of these really work for me. It’s at the times that I engage most with my faith that I am most aware of the world and people around me. If I want to escape, to retreat into a comforting, self-centred, consequence-free zone, I don’t turn to God; I walk round a department store[5]. The Gospels are crammed full of reality: thousands of individuals who are poor or sick or disabled or questioning or lost or over-excited, all seeking and receiving the attention of Jesus. He didn’t live in a pastel-coloured fantasy world and neither can we if we take the slightest notice of what he told us.

And as for death, nothing seems more comforting than the idea that it’s the end of consciousness, that our bodies simply decay into the earth and, with them, the collections of synapses that we once mistook for eternal souls. If we accept with equanimity that there was a time before we were conceived when we didn’t exist, isn’t it just as easy to contemplate our future non-existence? I’d quite often choose that oblivion in preference to the terrible clarity of seeing my mistakes from the vantage point of eternity. (And that will be the real judgement, I suspect.)

When it comes down to it, I don’t really believe that the significant gulf is between those who believe in something they call God and those who don’t. The one thing we can be absolutely certain of is that if there is a God, our ideas of him/her/it are ludicrously limited. It may well be, therefore, that to stop believing in our circumscribed conceptions is to step closer to a distant inkling of what a real God could be.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that a more important and telling question would be; if there was such a thing as an infinite, sustaining and worshippable being, what would you expect that being to be like? Marcus’s book, I think, shows that the kind of God he would like to believe in would be compassionate, tolerant, patient and generous. My faith is that God is indeed so, that Jesus lived to show us that, and that all the scary stories are just shadows on the wall, remnants of cruel fairy tales that shimmer into nothingness as the morning arrives. Or, at least, that’s what I choose to believe. As C. S. Lewis wrote, in the end we can do nothing else. Good luck on your journey, Marcus. As you say, we’ll all finish up in Birmingham at the end.


This post first appeared on The Pen and Inkblog at

  1. [1]see, among many others,
  2. [2]All right, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’ve known him as Holy Roly since 1985, when he was my best friend’s dissertation supervisor and he’s done nothing to disprove it since
  3. [3]Though they do, on the whole, manage to monopolise the word ‘Christian’ which is presumably why Marcus spends some time exploring some of the more bizarre policies of the soi-disant Christian Party, including a return to corporal punishment in schools, a raising of the motorway speed limit with an amnesty for speeding offences and a limit on parking fines. It begins to sound more like the Irritated Motorists’ Party until you reach the Environment section and a surprisingly comprehensive commitment to greenhouse gas reduction.
  4. [4]See T. H. White The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the 12th Century
  5. [5]But then I don’t drink alcohol for comfort, either. Exhilaration, gluttony, friendship, obstinacy, merriment, boredom and absent-mindedness, yes, but when I’m miserable it has to be Lemsip. Maybe I’m just weird.

Bands of optimism?

Last week I had the honour of a guest post on Gladys Ganiel’s faith and politics blog.  My short piece, a response to her post about the Twelfth of July parades,  tried to look at the subject from a rural perspective and specifically mentioned the desire among musicians, and brass band players in particular, to forge cross-community links and take part in more joint and integrated events.

Within a few days I had the chance to see in practice what I had so blithely been talking about.  As anyone who rashly flings their opinions online will know, circumstances are rarely so helpful, and so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.   The little town of Tempo, some ten miles from Enniskillen, has two silver bands, the mainly Protestant Tempo Silver Band and the mainly Catholic St. Mary’s Silver Band.  St. Mary’s celebrates its centenary this year and marked it with a ‘Monster Band Parade’ last night in which Tempo Silver and other local bands were invited to participate.

The only potential drawback, from my point of view, was that I had to cycle there and back.  Twenty-odd miles is a lot more than I usually manage in my potterings around town, but my husband, who does the trip at least once a week, assured me that I could manage.  To sweeten the pill he promised a Guinness and a Chinese takeaway from any establishments of my choice within the metropolis of Tempo (pop. 533).  As usual, gluttony took a slight lead over sloth and I agreed to give it a try.  The main road from Enniskillen to Tempo is a long, long upward slope past a straggle of small industrial units so we took the gentler back roads for the first few miles, giving way to passing cows, before joining the main road here, at Garvary church.

After that it was even easier,  without even bovine congestion, and as we coasted into Tempo I scarcely felt that I’d earned the promised black stuff.  I wasn’t going to admit it though, and made straight for the Milltown Manor before the rush.

They don’t serve food in the evenings,  and so we repaired to the Yummy Inn (no doubt a traditional Chinese name) across the road for something hotter and more conventionally nutritious.

A side road led to a pleasant little park with a picnic bench and here we whiled away the final minutes before the commencement of the Monster (shades of Daniel O’Connell?) Parade.

The parade was a great success, starting not too very long after its advertised commencement (we are, after five years, well accustomed to the concept of Fermanagh Time), and including:

St. Mary’s themselves, obviously, leading the way;


St. Patrick’s Pipe Band;


Tempo Silver Band, with small bandsmen on cymbals and triangle:


Coa Pipe Band (we’d passed the turning for Coa on our way, which indicates something of the richness of the musical tradition within a tiny area);


Ballyreagh Silver Band (we’d also cycled right past the hall where they practice);


St. Eugene’s Band from Omagh, whose website shows their own practical commitment to bridge-building:

“Our busiest time of year is at Christmas when we play carols at various locations culminating on Christmas morning when we play at Omagh Sacred Heart Church followed by attendance at one of the Omagh Presbyterian churches.”


some very young traditional Irish musicians;







a couple of lovingly maintained vintage cars,  some motor and quad bikes and frolicking around them all, a troupe of muppets, superheroes, Elvis and giant animals collecting donations and handing out sweets (we met a very elderly lady on our way back joyfully sucking her lemon lollipop).

The parade ended at the parish centre with  generously heaving tables of food, overflowing teapots and a bar (which sadly we had to foresake in the interests of wobbling home safely).  Later there was to be more music and a barbecue.  The whole evening was hugely enjoyable and characterized by enormous goodwill on the part of both musicians and spectators, a tangible expression of what is shared by the people of Fermanagh, so much deeper and more important than what sometimes divides us.

It doesn’t negate the problems that Northern Ireland has experienced, and which continue to threaten us (the policeman at the edge of several of the photos above can be seen cradling his gun – not a feature of most English village pageants) but provides a genuine and practical example of cooperation and generosity.  Like the successful Shared Education project which has brought thousands of schoolchildren together across traditional divides, this kind of initiative shows that it is often the smallest and most rural communities which can lead the way into a better future.



Cycling to church…

A few weeks ago a programme on BBC television called ‘How to Live a Simple Life’, followed the attempts of vicar Peter Owen Jones to do so, specifically by trying to live without using money for a certain period of time.  I didn’t see the beginning, but watched the second episode, in which our old college friend the Franciscan Philippe Yates explained that Christian poverty is not about self-sufficiency but about vulnerability.  (How this vulnerability is demonstrated by religious orders who have, if not legal ownership, control of very substantial resources is of course another question…)  Owen Jones then made a ‘Franciscan’ pilgrimage (walk-cum-hitchhike) across Southern England, begging for food and accommodation with the assistance of his camera crew and, occasionally, the Anglican clergy network.  However, during the third episode, during which he was back home, receiving generously filled casserole dishes from his lady parishioners,  the whole doing-without-money thing collapsed suddenly and ignominously.  The cause of the crisis was sadly and predictably banal; nothing more than the due date of his car’s insurance and MOT.

As vicar of a rural parish, it was of course understandable that Owen Jones would need to visit members of his flock living in far-flung locations at times incompatible with rural bus timetables and inconvenient to walk to.  But there was no discussion whatsoever about the feasibility of his doing without his own car for a period; it was simply stated as being essential and the experiment was immediately over.  Would it have been impossible for the wealthy neighbours who had been so lavish with the well-hung game and elaborate puddings to have offered their services in an emergency driving rota?  And for a man who had walked at least part of the way to Devon, could a bicycle not conceivably have satisfied his more local transport needs?

After commuting to work, doing the school run and big supermarket shop, driving to church must be one of the most regular journeys made by drivers in Britain and Ireland.  What is more, my husband (hereafter MJ), who goes out running on Sunday mornings, or used to, until he decided that he’d really prefer not to spend the rest of the day in A&E or on the mortuary slab, finds that they are often  the most inconsiderate and dangerous motorists he ever encounters.  Whether this is because their heads are filled with spiritual musings, they are still jubilant from Saturday evening celebrations, they are confident of going to heaven and don’t mind who they take with them, or because the roads are relatively empty and so they’re not taking much care to look, we don’t know, but it’s certainly not an ideal witness.

The question ‘What would Jesus drive?’ has, since it was first asked ten years or so ago, spread out to encompass the entire irony spectrum, from an indie rock band to the website of the UK Christian Car Club (‘cars provide an ideal means from which to share our faith’ – bumper stickers, presumably?).  The answers range from 4x4s through hybrids of questionable efficiency to ‘Nothing, he’d walk’ via some really quite execrable puns (easy to Google if you feel like a cringe) but oddly, bikes don’t seem to get a mention anywhere.

To make up a little of the deficiency, I thought I’d describe for you my own journey to church and back this morning.  Of course not everyone can do it, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus will manifest his second coming in Lycra and cleated shoes, but it’s easier than you might think.  For a few weeks now I’ve been going to Mass more regularly at The Graan, a Passionist monastery a few miles outside Enniskillen.  The most well-known member of the community there is Brian D’Arcy, presenter of the Radio 2 Sunday Half Hour, who is a persistent thorn in the flesh of the Catholic hierarchy and regularly demonstrates the kind of honest and courageous vulnerability that characterizes the true spirit of Saint Francis.

I’d visited The Graan occasionally over the four years that we’ve lived in Enniskillen, especially when we lived on the west side of the town, when it was a fairly feasible, if dodgy walk.  Unfortunately, being in the countryside,  and attracting a largely rural congregation, it has almost no other non-motoring worshippers (I’ve never seen another), and walking up the busy access road with people carriers and 4x4s constantly swooshing past, induces rather too much vulnerability and too little tranquillity of spirit.  Once in the grounds, the cars are corralled into a series of one-way parking lanes to ensure a speedy and efficient exodus at the end of Mass.  All very sensible, I’m sure, but it does give the place,  externally, at least, something of the feel of a theme park or drive-in burger bar. A couple of months ago, though, I discovered a back way which gave, in all senses, an alternative perspective…

This morning when I woke up the sky looked fairly optimistic, so I put on a long summer dress and sandals, planning to add a cardigan if the few clouds decided to consolidate.  It was the sort of dress that used to be impossible to wear while riding a bike, as the skirt would inevitably get bunched up between the wheel and brake blocks, bringing me to an ignominous stop and leaving the dress oil-stained and holey in a way that wasn’t even good on a Sunday.  A couple of years ago, however, MJ constructed a brilliant skirt guard, of the Continental variety, out of garden trellis, and since then I can be as flowing as I like.  It has the added advantage of making the bike, which is actually quite a good one, appear even less attractive to potential thieves.   Anyway, the point turned to be moot, as the clouds formed a substantial majority, and a dark grey one at that, and I changed into tights and a shortish skirt (quicker to dry).  I very rarely cycle in trousers, except for waterproof ones when it’s really pouring and I don’t wear special shoes, either, unless I’m going for a long ride on my little red Moulton which has cleated pedals.  These are the shoes I wore today

which are perfect for either cycling or walking, and a bit girlie all the same.

Here’s the rest of the stuff I took with me (clockwise, from the left):

1. Waterproof poncho that folds into its own pocket (from Millets, doesn’t have to be so garish, but I bought it for Glastonbury, and anyway it has its advantages as you’ll see later)

2. Spare linen bag for shopping on the way home (as Tim Minchin says, ‘Take your canvas bags…’)  Actually I ended up getting a carrier bag too (see below)

3. Camera case with velcro strap that attaches very conveniently to the handebars (and I put the camera strap over the handebar too, for extra security).  I don’t usually take a camera to church with me, obviously, even if we do have a celebrity priest…

4. Spare earphones (I’ve been caught that way too often).

5. Guardian linen backpack from Glastonbury last year – extremely convenient for carrying just a few things plus a reminder that this year’s is only ten days or so away…

6.iPod.  I usually take my other one, with classical music on it (nothing like a bit of baroque for the long slope) but as mentioned above, I’m in pre-Glastonbury mode now, and listening to stuff by this year’s line-up.

7. Phone.  If I was a more serious or less pampered cyclist this would be a puncture repair kit – instead I could use this to call MJ in an emergency.

8. Purse containing small change for collection mite (as in widow’s, not dust) and Sunday paper.

9. Tissues. I’ve been caught that way as well. One thing you can be sure of if you cycle anywhere, regardless of the weather and your state of health; your nose will be starting to run when you arrive.  And blowing it on your skirt isn’t nice, especially when you’ve jettisoned the long flowing one.

10. Deodorant.  Not generally necessary but on this particular trip, as you’ll see, I do tend to glow slightly by the end and it makes me feel a bit more nice to know, especially when the pews are crowded.

It takes around half a hour to cycle from here to The Graan but I like to allow an extra fifteen minutes or so to get my breath back and avoid the last-minute cars, so as the  service starts at 10.30, and I will be stopping to take photos, I plan to leave by 9.45 at the latest.  Putting animals inside and outside, and doling out their milk, takes a few extra minutes, but I am out by ten to ten.  Freewheeling down to the bottom of the road I meet our next-door-but-one  neighbour who, having failed by four votes on the third recount to become our M.P. is instead embracing his retirement with good-natured gusto and a brand new bicycle.

The road is fairly empty but I take my usual route towards town along the grandly-named Great Northern Way, an old railway path parallel with the road and mainly used by teenagers walking to and from school.  It’s a reasonable surface for cycling, without too much broken glass in comparison with the rest of the town, and fringed with trees and banks of wildflowers.

The song on my iPod is Jackson Browne’s Thunder and I wonder whether it is a bad omen – the sky is getting very dark. Half way along, the path crosses a road (with a couple of dog-legs to slow us cyclists down – very thoughtful, but wouldn’t it be safer for everyone to slow the cars?) and here a plump man with fluffy yellow hair and a pink T-shirt stares in amazement at me out of his BMW V5 window,  a giant toddler in a giant toy car.At the end of the GNW I cross the main road, and take a little dog-legged back road around the back of a terraced row (motorists use it as a short-cut too, so it’s a bit hazardous at school run time) onto Factory Road, past its long-derelict namesake

and the G.A.A. (Gaelic Athletic Association) ground, home to Fermanagh Gaelic football team (which won an unxpected victory against neighbouring Cavan yesterday, to local jubilation – far more important than that soccer thing in South Africa.)

After this the route comes off the road again, along a wooded path which skirts the edge of the hospital and health centre grounds, along the edge of Lough Erne.

The Erne Hospital is a pleasant little place, smelling of toast and mild disinfectant, beautifully situated next to the lake and in easy walking distance from the town centre and many of the larger housing estates.  So of course it is being replaced by a giant private finance initiative monstrosity several miles out, where everyone will no doubt have to drive (at great car parking profit to the developers) and toast smells are most unlikely.  The shell of the new hospital is virtually complete, after months of thick mud across the roads and local residents’ houses, and the workers (mostly Spanish, as the consortium is Spanish-owned) are preparing for the next two years of interior construction.  Presumably the site of the present hospital will then be flogged off for yet more luxury waterside apartments or chain-store shopping centres.  I don’t hold out much hope for this mellow old stone wall or the mature trees once that happens…

At the end of this path, under the road bridge, is a small island.  When we first moved here, four years ago, it was full of ducklings and cygnets.  Now there are none.  It’s the same story across the lough, at least in the Enniskillen area; fewer and fewer wildfowl every year.  We’ve only seen two cygnets this year, both on the small lough opposite our house.  No one official seems to be very concerned or even to have noticed the change.  We suppose it is due to a combination of factors; the massive amount of building during the so-called property boom when huge speculative blocks of flats were built which now stand empty, many unfinished, the enormous new premises of Waterways Ireland, ironically built on the marshlands it might have been expected to protect, the motorized cruisers with their powerful wakes, washing away delicate habitats and nests, the quantities of salt poured on the roads during the cold winter, now washed into the lough and increasingly chemical agricultural methods such as the intensive pig-farming which the WWF says is causing the eutrophication of Lough Erne.

Then I’m back on the road again, past the library and fortified police station and over the old bridge.  The rowers from Portora Royal School are out practising, which is great; a pity they’re usually accompanied by coaches in fast motor boats –  the wake from these often looks worse than the big cruisers.

The people round here are, on the whole, well-meaning and generous; they’ve gone through immensely difficult times with courage and compassion and are working to create a better society for the future.  But the lakes are so big and the population so small that they just don’t realize the fragility of the natural environment around them.

A few yards further on is the Round ‘O’, a park and jetty, and another example of destruction for the best of motives.  We used to stop here every morning on the way to school and feed the ducks and swans; often thirty or forty at a time.  But then, two years ago, the jetties were upgraded, the grassy banks replaced with tarmac and the muddy edge where the wildfowl wandered replaced with an access road so that boat-owners could drive right up to the lough.  Maybe it improved the amenity of the site for them, but the birds, and the tiny children who used  to toddle along the quiet paths have almost all gone.

After the Round O I pass the gates of Portora, where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett were educated, and the other week Simon Callow gave a brilliant pre-premiere of his new Shakespeare one-man show.  From time to time we get these odd little treats here, and this, combined with the stunning countryside and genuine friendships, more than make up for the political oddities and the weather.

After Portora I’m on the Donegal Road, coming out of Enniskillen and soon turn onto the Derrygonnelly road, and the hard bit of the ride.  It’s not very hard, really, just a long shallow rise past the recycling centre, the oil depot (most houses are heated with oil around here) and the quarry.  I use my usual technique of looking into the verge, at the masses of wild flowers, which takes my mind off my calf muscles.

The song on my iPod is Turin Brakes’ Long Distance, though, and it’s starting to feel like it. But The Graan comes visible quite soon and just when I’m feeling that I’ve really been riding for long enough (it’s been raining for some time now, but not hard enough to make it worth unpacking my poncho and is windier than usual), I reach the little side turning and the final road up to the monastery.

I usually stop halfway up the hill here to lock my bike  and make myself respectable, but the farmer (presumably) who owns the cows has parked his Landrover there and is leaning thoughtfully over the fence.

“A good way to be travelling.” he says, by way of greeting, nodding at my bike, and I grin and pant past.  This bit is steep, that’s why I’m usually walking it, and I’m down to first gear now and feeling distinctly rosy.  I stop around the next corner, lock my bike to the fence, comb my hair, blow my nose and bung on a bit more deodorant.   Then I walk up the rest of the hill, past the main part of the monastery, which is now a nursing home

and into the church.  At first when I did this I felt a bit awkward about being damp and red-faced amongst the soignée attendees strolling in from their cars, but I don’t think there was really any need.  I’m still glowing a bit  through the first readings, but by the time we stand for the Gospel I’m back into equilibrium.  No one is moving away from me, anyway, and at the sign of the peace my neighbours are all happy to shake my hand.  Anyway, not everyone here is a middle-aged motorist; there are quite a few residents of the nursing home sitting in their wheechairs teaching us more acutely than a mere cyclist about vulnerability and patience.

During the sermon I can hear the rain pattering hard on the roof, but during the Creed the stained glass windows light up optimistically.  I’m hoping for a bit of sunshine when we go out, but it is still raining, and harder, so I put my poncho on before unlocking the bike.  It should have the extra advantage of making me extremely visible, but I switch on my dynamo lights as well, just in case. The view from here is still marvellous,  anyway, despite the raindrops on the lens.

The obverse of the tedious ride up to The Graan is the easy sail down again; I can do almost the whole of the stretch to the Donegal Road without turning the pedals.  I note the state of decay of the fox that was run over a few weeks ago, but decide that you’d probably prefer not to have a picture.  The visibility of the poncho certainly works; a Mercedes driver signals and pulls out a good ten feet despite the fact that I’m tucked well into a layby, taking pictures of the view.  Talking of which…

At the junction I stop at the petrol station shop for the Observer. They’re good for local produce too, so I get some potatoes and blackcurrant jam.  I now realise the deficiencies in Tim Minchin’s lyric writing.  What he should have written was, ‘Take your canvas bags to the supermarket, but if it looks like rain and you’re planning to get a Sunday paper, don’t forget to bring along a reused plastic one as well, so that you don’t end up with a soggy wedge of dirty sludge.’  But since he didn’t, and I didn’t, I had to take a new one. When I come out, the rain has stopped, or almost (making my carrier bag even more reprehensible) , so I take off my poncho and enjoy a refreshing and uneventful ride back home.   Unfortunately there are more cars on the road now, and I’m overtaken with inches to spare by three black 4x4s in a row, followed by a courteous Daimler who gives me plenty of room.   The drivers of vintage cars are generally the most thoughtful, and the giant new monstrosities the least, forgetting that a cyclist is both alive and moving, and therefore appreciates a little more leeway than you would give a traffic cone.   On the Great Northern Way a group of birds fly across the path in front of me; at least one a big rosy-breasted bullfinch.  They flew into this tree, if you’d like to look for them.

The whole trip, including the service itself, shopping and stopping to take photographs, has taken about two hours and twenty minutes; maybe an hour more than it would have taken by car (if I’d had one.) But I’d have had to go on the main roads, and would have missed all the most enjoyable bits of the journey, as well as the scents of the flowers, the close-up birds, the smell of the cleansed air after the rain, the feel of the air on my face  (and, to be quite honest,  the sight of the dead fox).  I’d also still have my recommended mild exercise to do, for which I might even have driven to the gym, at the cost of yet more time, money and oil.  I’d have missed the friendly farmer, and might have had a more definitive encounter with the pink T-shirted toddler-man, and I wouldn’t have that pleasant almost-ache in my knees that tells me that I’ve done the right thing with them, and can enjoy a substantial dinner without any nagging twinges of nutritional conscience.  Talking of which…