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Archive for March, 2014

In the latest in the series of Lenten addresses Newsquest’s  Production Editor Caroline Wollard said, “the best journalists live in the patch their newspaper covers”.

READ HER ADDRESS IN FULL:

Journalists, as Fr Mark kindly reminded us last week, are the scum of the earth – they hack people’s mobile phones, they care nothing for people’s privacy and they never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

So, never mind what a Christian can bring to that workplace – why would a Christian want to be in it at all?

Well, all these statements are generalisations – and like other such generalisations they are not universally true. So, for instance, I know men who will stop to ask for directions, women who can parallel park and I can categorically say that not all men are bas….. you get the picture.

I’m not here to give an apologetic about the media – and I’m going to talk mostly about newspapers, rather than other forms of media as, although I have worked in BBC radio, my journalistic life has mostly been with the printed word. But I would say that there is a difference between national and local newspapers. And that difference is community – local newspapers are embedded into the community which they serve. I choose that word – serve – deliberately. Although, of course, newspaper companies are there to make money, there is still a sense of being part of the community, of reporting what is going go – whether that’s good or bad – even (and this may sound somewhat high-faluting) of being the community’s conscience –I’ll come back to that a bit later. I believe the best journalists live in the patch their newspaper covers – so why would they want to ‘stitch-up’ any of their neighbours (in the widest sense of the word). Being part of a church community helps me, I think, to better understand that concept.

Of course, there are journalists for whom getting the story at all costs is their paramount concern and who do step over the line to do so. That line, however, is very clearly defined – we work under a Code of Conduct which sets out what we can and cannot do, we work under the law of this land which can hold a journalist (as well as his or her newspaper) responsible for being in contempt of court, for bringing a public office in to disrepute or for (with some very tight exceptions) not telling the person you are talking to that you’re doing so in order to publish a story. And we have evidence, in the current hacking trial, of what happens when you break that law.

CW 1991 with the RAF in Belize (tough job but somebody had to do it)

CW 1991 with the RAF in Belize (tough job but somebody had to do it)

I’ve been very privileged as a journalist – meeting people I would otherwise never have met and going places I would otherwise never have been – whether that’s down a sewer (honestly) or spending a week with the RAF in Belize. And working in a newsroom, as in any other place, can be a lot of fun. Nevertheless, it’s not all sweetness and light – newspaper offices can be ‘bear-pits’ and the work stressful – I can well remember one news editor I worked for many years ago who would make Attila the Hun look like a teddy bear. The working day can be punctuated by colleagues swearing and blaspheming, by the frustration of having uncovered a wrong-doing but being unable to report it, of sitting in court listening to harrowing details of rape and murder – details which would never be reported because they are just too horrible.

So why would a Christian put themselves in the middle of that? After all, St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, says ‘Do not be deceived: bad company ruins good morals’[i]. The book of Proverbs advises that ‘whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm’[ii], and the writer of the first verse of the first Psalm says that ‘blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seats of scoffers’.[iii]

All very good advice, obviously, but for me those verses stand as a warning rather than an instruction not to work in places where there may be ‘bad company, fools or scoffers’ and how do you avoid sinners? After all, as Christians, we are, as Jesus was, very much in the world in which we live, and, unlike Jesus, we are all sinners.

St James says this: ‘My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing’[iv].

As Christians, we are bidden to be in the world, showing by the way we live, that Christ is the salvation of the world – so difficult to do at times. For me, that manifests itself in how I do my work – in my relationship with colleagues and in the way, when I was reporting or sub-editing, I sourced and wrote reports. Although I’m now away from front-line reporting or subbing, I’m still very much in that world, helping to bring new editorial computer systems to newspapers throughout the country.

To take the point about sourcing and writing stories first – and anticipating a sharp intake of breath from some of you – good journalists seek the truth. What’s the point otherwise? Of course, in a great many cases, it’s difficult to know what that ‘truth’ is. If a family comes to the newspaper saying that a hospital did not care for their elderly relative well enough, but the hospital says it did, what do you report? Actually, in that case, the hospital is unlikely to say anything. Yet it is a matter of public interest – you really don’t want the care in your local hospital to be any less good than it should be – so we report the family’s worries and give the hospital a chance to reply. The horrendous shortcomings of the level of hygiene at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital were not addressed by health chiefs when they received an official report until the author of that report went to the local newspaper.

I mentioned earlier that newspapers can be the conscience of the community – the Mid Staffs scandal is a good example of that. There is an example of here – a reporter with the Free Press newspaper was the first to uncover and report sex abuse at the former Ty Mawr approved school in Gilwern. On a lesser scale, newspapers can be the conscience of big business – one of the first stories I did when I worked for the Basingstoke Gazette was about a disabled woman who had been sold a car which wasn’t fit for purpose. The company wouldn’t replace it. I went to see the lady concerned, had a look at the paperwork, and then rang the firm. The next day she had a new car delivered.

All reporters should be in search of the truth – whatever, as Pontius Pilate would say, that is. As a Christian, I think that is not just the ideal situation – it is an imperative. And if the truth means the story falls to bits, well, so be it. My faith also demands my compassion – I have sat with bereaved people while they talked about their loved ones, something which they have said afterwards was a great release as talking to strangers often is. But I’ve been aware that sometimes those in mourning say things they wouldn’t want to appear in the paper and, perhaps, as a Christian, I am more aware of that.

Of course, it’s not all about the big stories, it’s also about keeping people up to date and reporting the good stories – in the last couple of weeks or so, in the South Wales Argus, for instance, there have been updates on what’s happening with Morrisons here in Abergavenny, a gentle obituary of Hilda Messenger and a feature on Welsh folk dancers keeping the tradition alive in Gwent.

More obviously, I suppose, is the way my faith manifests itself in the workplace among my colleagues. Well, there is a very practical benefit as other reporters have a ‘go-to’ person to check how you refer to a bishop, what the chapter of the cathedral does or even what the governing body is for (I sometimes wonder myself – and I’m a member). As I’ve said, newsrooms can be rough-and-tumble places with a great deal of bad language – although I have to say they’ve certainly calmed down over the years. I’m well aware that swearing can be a release from tension yet too often these days it is used merely as an adjective. When I was in the Argus newsroom, I tried to encourage people not to swear and certainly not to blaspheme. There were times when someone would turn round and spit the words ‘we’re not in a xxxxx convent, Caroline’.

 

You can have fun in the newsroom

You can have fun in the newsroom

There have also been times when people have attacked Christianity or even the idea of God – how can, for instance, a loving God allow 9/11, natural disasters or the death of child? Sometimes, all you can do is listen. At other times, I’ve said, ‘I don’t have the answers, but surely it’s to do with our humanity and with free will. And, as to where God is in these situations, well, he’s in the hands of those who rescue, care for and comfort those who suffer.’ We’ve had discussions on the nature of evil – does it even exist? – on why churches have so many valuable artefacts when people are starving, and on why I bother to go to church at all. We’ve even had discussions about this address. I don’t preach but I do chatter about going to church and I try my best to show Christianity through how I live my life. I fail on many, many occasions – and when I do so at work I’m often pounced upon. On the very odd occasions when I swear, there is usually a sharp ‘oooh, Caroline’. The fact my colleagues expect me to behave better than that is a good thing – it acknowledges that they acknowledge that being a Christian means behaving with a strict moral code, even if they do sometimes forget that all Christians are also human beings.

I was baptized as a baby, and went to church throughout my formative years. Then, like many, I went away from the church and was still away from it when I started working as a journalist. Just over a decade ago, I came back to the church and I believe being a Christian has made me a better journalist. I have a better understanding of people, of how their actions are often the result of something which is hidden, of how even if they are putting on a ‘hard’ front, they are often suffering behind it.

I mentioned listening before, and reporters who have to hear all sorts of horrors. I’ve stood in the Argus car park listening to youngsters who’ve been affected by what they have heard or seen; been with colleagues while they ranted at the unfairness of life, and even been asked by one or two of them to pray for them.

From another angle, being a journalist has led to me being the object of derision from people outside the profession. People might think they’re being funny when they say journalists ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’ but actually that’s a really insulting thing to say. We’ve had people ring up the newsroom and been abusive about why we’ve reported they’ve been convicted of a crime – although one of the strangest complaints was contained in a letter from a prisoner who complained not that we’d reported the case but that we’d spelt his name wrong. Incidentally, when newspapers report court cases, they stand in place of the public who cannot be in court. The public reporting of court cases is part of the convicted person’s punishment and good reporting will always put in the defendant’s mitigation.

I’ve even sat in one of these pews and heard a minister (not Fr Mark) harangue ‘the Press’ for invading someone’s privacy. Why should a government minister’s affair be made public? Well, it’s in the public interest (rather than being interesting to the public) if the said minister had been, for instance, campaigning on family values – it speaks to his honesty, truthfulness and character. Not in the public interest if you’re talking about the chap next door but very important, I would suggest, if you trusting an MP to be truthful about the way our country is run.

 

I’m starting to get on my soap box here – so here’s one final thought.

 

In 2013, 71 journalists were killed because they were journalists – in Syria, Somalia, India, the Philippines, Mexico and Brazil, among other places. While 40 per cent of those occurred in combat zones, 60 per cent did not – they died from violence linked to bombings, or organised crime, at the hands of police or other security forces or on the orders of corrupt officials. While journalists in this country have been threatened with violence and even with being charged with treason, we haven’t had a reporter killed here since Martin O’Hagan in Northern Ireland in September 2001.

So while we may not have a perfect Press, and we do get things wrong at times, we do have a media which is free to hold to account government, big business, councils – whoever has power over us – and to do so in relative safety. And for that, we should all be grateful.

NOTES

[i] 1 Corinthians 15:33

[ii] Proverbs 13:20

[iii] Psalm 1:1

[iv] The Letter of James 1:2-4

The series concludes next Sunday with Solicitor Robert Phillips speaking to us at Christchurch , North Street at Evensong, starting at 6pm.

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We are pleased to be hosting the Mayor of Abergavenny’s (Cllr Sheila Woodhouse) Charity Concert On April 4th at 7pm

Abergavenny_Town_council

Performers include:

  • Abergavenny Youth Brass Brand
  • Musicians from Our Lady & St Michael’s School
  • North Monmouthshire Senior Wind Band
  • Emilie Parry-Williams
  • King Henry VIII School musicians
  • Stagestruck Show Choir
  • Monmouthshire Your Way Choir

Tickets priced £5 (£3 concessions) are available form the Town Hall

The proceeds of the Concert will go to St David’s Hospice Care and Nevill Hall Stroke Care

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Bishop Richard speaking on BBC Radio Wales Celebration broadcast from St Mary’s Priory on Sunday said:

The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

Christian ministers will sometimes say to the congregation. It’s ok to argue with God. It’s good advice because, as we all know, a good moan often clears the air, and quite frankly God is big enough to take it.

The dispute between the people and Moses shows this clearly. They complain to Moses that they want water and Moses defends himself and takes the matter up with God. The Lord shows his great patience and instructs Moses to Strike the rock at Horeb and water gushes out. A great miracle. But an ancient teaching goes further in interpreting the story. The rock is identified with the Lord himself and so the tradition says that Moses strikes God to find water.  There is here an understanding both of the hardness of God – his strength – and yet his openness to persuasion – his compassion. They are qualities that echo throughout the Old Testament and give us a hint of what will be expected when Jesus begins his ministry of revealing God.

Bishop of Monmouth

Bishop of Monmouth

So in the gospel reading at the well we have another request for water and another discussion. But this time the tables are turned. For it is Jesus who requests water and the Samaritan women who tests him. Why would a Jew want water from a Samaritan? (for the two communities don’t get on). The patience of God is once again shown by Jesus who explains that he offers the water of eternal life, the gift of God himself.

Asking and arguing are part of a healthy relationship with God and it does us no good to believe that we should sit stoically and accept our lot.  A saint may reach a point of accepting God’s will but you can be assured that there has been some hard conversations on the way. For many of us exploring our journey of Faith it is much easier to be indifferent, or to be diverted from a deeper dialogue with God.

I sometimes wonder how many churchgoers believe in the reality of God.  We conduct our lives as if we are the only ones who matter and our destiny is wrapped up in our plans alone.

Lent is the season when we renew that conversation with God and take stock of the journey so far. It can happen that we have spent a great deal of time worrying about the material issues of life – as symbolised by the water from the rock – without receiving  the water of eternal life, the life of the spirit. As is often said we look for answers to questions that need not be raised.

Hard conversations and then resting in God’s compassion is a better way.  In the Diocese of Monmouth we are encouraging people to have a listening Lent.  To pray to God openly and then to wait and listen for his response.     It is unlikely to come in audible words but it may be found in scripture or a growing awareness of God’s presence and a rightness in all things. This is especially true in oneself where an awareness of our nature and our state with God and others can be more focused and reliable.

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This attitude of listening prayer is far from navel gazing or thinking beautiful thoughts. It requires a determination and courage to face the truth. As Jesus said.

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The constant struggle to understand the relationship between what we do and who we are can be rewarding if we stick at it. The temptation ( if you excuse the pun) during Lent is to enter into a pious mode. “I’ll do my best to be better”. It is so easy to become churchy.

Why not this Lent hear the struggles of those who look from the outside at organised religion and be challenged by their perspective? If you are inclined to science read the works of an agnostic or atheist. If you are into literature look at a poet or novelist. Don’t be frightened by the prospect for if you seek the truth then you will find God. This year I am going to spend time studying Dylan Thomas whose centenary we celebrate.  Dylan had no time for organised religion but he was by nature a spiritual person. He was shaped by his upbringing.  As one writer said he was ’bible blest but chapel haunted’. Personally he could not reconcile the struggle inside him and his early death has all the marks of a tragic celebrity. But in his poetry he sings of the wonder of life and death.  In his introduction to his collected poems he wrote:

’These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.’

Well that’s not a bad place to start.

In his poem ’There was a saviour’ Dylan presents a challenge of seeking the freedom of Christ away from organised religion:

Indeed here is a hard conversation with God and his church. The keyless smile of Christ, the one who brings the liberty of the spirit and truth,can be sought and found.  The women at the well in her questioning found it and I believe we can find it too.  It is also the duty and the joy of the church to make him accessible and true.

Listen to it in full here

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We will mark our Patron Saint’s Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th.

8am Holy Eucharist

6pm Holy Eucharist

Holy Trinity Church, Baker Street will be open  9am -8pm for a special Spiritual Journey for Lent

St Luke tells us ( 1.26-38) :

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

On the Eve of the Feast there  will be a celebration Lunch to thank a number of the clergy who have helped with services in recent months.

Depiction of the Annunciation on the Tomb of William ap Thomas & Gwladys

Depiction of the Annunciation on the Tomb of William ap Thomas & Gwladys

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In the latest of the Lenten series of talks Nick Ramsay AM, our local National Assembly Member addresses the question ‘Devolution the solution?’, after joking that he has given up the Tory Frontbench for Lent.

When Father Mark asked me at the end of last year if I would be willing to give a special sermon for lent I must admit I didn’t anticipate I would be giving up the Conservative front bench in the Assembly for lent. It was Harold Wilson who once said “a week is a long time in politics” and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an even long time in Welsh politics!

The title of today’s sermon is “Devolution, the Solution?” and I want to speak to you a little about what I believe devolution means for Wales and the United Kingdom and what I think the future may hold in store. Don’t worry, I will endeavour to do this without being party political which I suppose is a bit like asking a tennis player to play without hitting the tennis ball but bear with me, I’m doing my best!

I’ll be frank with you, I’m not an academic nor do I aspire to be. Not for me the grand designs for revolutionary devolution espoused by some people. I don’t have any great interest in so-called nation-building and would probably identify Monmouthshire as much as my home as I would Wales. That said can I point out that devolution is not simply the opposite of evolution whatever my father may say on the subject! No, for me devolution is about the small things, getting things done, improving people’s lives and making the most of the powers at our disposal to make that happen.

How did we get to where we are today? To refresh the memory, the Assembly was created in 1999 following the referendum in 1997. I think it’s well documented that Monmouthshire was not emphatically pro-devolution in that referendum, far from it, in fact for every 1 person who voted yes, 2 voted no. The ground had shifted markedly by the time of the last referendum in March 2011 where the vote in Monmouthshire was slightly against but only by a few percentage points. Many younger people have grown up with the Assembly and see it as an established part of the Welsh political landscape.

Nick Ramsay AM

Nick Ramsay AM

How do I fit personally into this landscape? Well believe it or not I’m of an age that I didn’t grow up during the brave new world of the Assembly era. My first involvement with devolved politics was when a former MP knocked on my front door asking for my vote and I heard myself saying, to my horror , not only will I vote for you, I will come and help you canvass. I did of course regret this immediately but the Lord does as they say move in mysterious ways and I was soon bitten by the politics bug. The rest as they say is history, I was elected firstly to Monmouthshire County Council representing the Mardy ward of Abergavenny and was subsequently elected to the National Assembly in May 2007, doesn’t time fly.

Over that time I’ve seen the institution change and grow, as former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies once said “Devolution is a process not an event”. The 2011 referendum saw the legislative remit within the devolved areas – what are known as the 20 fields of devolution ranging from agriculture to the National Health Service – increased and the recent Silk Commission has proposed a plethora of financial devolution including stamp duty, landfill tax and most controversially (well at least as far as I’m concerned) income tax powers, my concerns about which led to my rather sudden relinquishing of the role of Shadow Minister for Business. And let me reiterate today, I do not believe that granting full income tax varying powers to the Welsh Government without any restriction or “lockstep” is the solution to Wales’ problems. Any change should be progressive and staged. In any case as a poorer part of the United Kingdom, Wales is heavily reliant on the redistribution of funding from the South East of England and I would be very uneasy with any suggestion that a greater tax burden should somehow be transferred here, I don’t think that would be morally right.

So what has devolution achieved to date? The Assembly has certainly provided a focus for people in Wales. It’s local to South Wales, maybe less so for the North I admit and by and large perceived as open and accessible. Every year sees thousands of schoolchildren visit the modern steel and glass of the Senedd to learn about how politics works. I often wonder which young people looking down from the public gallery will one day end up in that debating chamber, more than one I’m sure.

The Senedd

The Senedd

Whatever politicians may tell you that the Assembly is about, the public will tell you we are best known for free prescriptions and the plastic bag tax. Actually the prescriptions aren’t free, they are paid for with money from other areas of the NHS budget, whilst plastic bags aren’t actually taxed because unlike a local authority the Assembly isn’t currently allowed to levy a tax only to insist that a charge is applied to the bag which will hopefully be passed on to a charity. Things are not always as they seem!

NEXT SUNDAY we hear from  Caroline Wollard, Production Editor of  Newquest, publishers of the South Wales Argus. The talks are part of the 6pm Evensong at St Mary’s Priory Church.

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BBC Radio Wales religious service Celebration to be broadcast at 7.30am and 5.30pm on Sunday will come from St Mary’s Priory Church.Listen in or catch up on iPlayer

Unknown-2

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This Sunday we hear from our AM Nick Ramsay at 6pm at St mary’s Priory Church, Abergavenny

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