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”.


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.


[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


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.


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


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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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In the second of the Lenten series of talks Sir Trefor Morris CBE QPM, former HM Inspector of Constabularies refers to Ellison Enquiry to undercover policing  and Plebgate in his reflection.

He said, “Last autumn I agreed to speak on this topic to Brecon Rural Deanery. A friend who was to attend the dinner said he thought the title I had chosen vis. “A Christian Policeman” was a contradiction in terms.

Like all professions and vocations we all suffer from stereotyping and collective assessments–   just look at the Census form and it is not new, 2000 years ago,  the Synoptic Gospels illustrate the assessments of people according to pre-conceived notions—Pharisees, tax collectors etc.  yet Jesus chose as his immediate disciples a most unlikely bunch by looking at them as individuals.

Sir Trefor as HM Inspector of Constabularies

Sir Trefor as HM Inspector of Constabularies

In assessing police officers, psychologists and behaviourists paint a picture of macho authoritarian people who enjoy exercising power and control over their fellow human beings, have little or no sense of humour and are set apart from the rest of Society.   It is small wonder given that basic image was generally portrayed in literature and the performing arts–  television radio and films.   If you cast your mind back to the 60’s (if you can)—Z cars and ‘Softly, Softly’  underlined the image but since then on this very fertile ground, the story has been very much modified to include all the warts of life with unstable relationships – drink, drugs and rock and roll – and hardly surprisingly various forms of corruption.

Bearing in mind that I retired from my active policing role as HMCIC in Sept 1996 after 40 and a half years service, I can claim some detachment from the present acrimony being poured on the Service, particularly by journalists and M.P.s  – those pillars of integrity and honesty.     The recent                      ‘Mitchellgate Saga’, in the Autumn, which frankly has to rank as the most idiotic nonsense from beginning to end,  gathered momentum from a clash of ego’s, was added too by a lack of wisdom, hasty judgement and inexplicable behaviour by a police officer and escalated into a tide of criticism sweeping over the 130,000 police officers in the Country.

Sir Trefor explains the Jesse Tree to the Bishop of the Highveld

Sir Trefor explains the Jesse Tree to the Bishop of the Highveld

If that was not enough, we now have the re-emergence of the Stephen Lawrence case with all of the ramifications that has for the Metropolitan Police, and by implication the whole of the police service.  I do not think it appropriate to leap to judgement on what has been done or not done ahead of the Enquiry that is to take place. I fear however there has been something badly amiss, but I would observe that the harshest critics of police wrongdoing are police officers themselves. I can say that with certainty having carried out many investigations in my own and other police forces.  I must also say that this further tide of criticism of all police officers across the country dismays me greatly, is unwarranted and counterproductive.

I suppose my first reflection is that the job of policing is a very dangerous task and not just because there are inherent physical dangers in enforcing the law across the criminal community of all stripes, but also because of the diminishing support of the law abiding community who do not recognise that first defined duty of a police officer is the protection of life and property.

Let me turn to the heading of being a  policeman who happens to be a Christian.  That too is dangerous territory.  You may well remember Tony Blair being prevented by Alistair Campbell from discussing his Christian faith and Campbell in his own inimitable way saying “We don’t do God”. Blair said afterwards that “ people would think I was a nutter”.

I was baptised and confirmed into the Anglican Church and like many practising Christians have had periods of doubt, questioning and uncertainty but for many years now have grown and developed a sustaining faith.  I was being provocative in setting the headline for this speech, for in truth although I am very overtly involved in the Church in Abergavenny and am an unashamed Christian I think that I serve better keeping my faith as a personal matter.   If someone wishes to discuss the issue – then fine–  but I avoid the temptation to proselytise to the uninterested.    For here lies the danger.    Jim Anderton was Chief Constable of GMP, I was one of his assistant Chief Constables for just over 3 years. He was an influential member of the Christian Police Association, heavy with evangelism bordering on militancy.—He could get carried away.   Press, having welcomed him as an open communicator,   turned and portrayed him as “God’s Cop”.

Jim was a good man, a good Chief Constable, but found that he had created an image that had its own momentum.   It was bolstered by many letters from a section of the public. But there were drawbacks, an illustration of this later in his career, was a conference on AIDS when he said homosexuals are in a swirling pit of hell of their own creation.

Given also the propensity of even former ministers of religion to behave rather badly (Coop Bank) and the bad publicity which surrounds other issues in our Church related to Women Bishops and storms in the Llandaff Choir teacup it seems equally perilous to be seen as an active Christian and a former policeman.    If we add to that the attacks on Christians by Richard Dawkins and the militant tendency of secularists and the gleeful promulgation of his ideas by newspapers, radio and television, I am starting to have sympathy with Victor Meldrew.

I have tried to provide a perspective on the reality of my experience in my chosen profession that often gives rise to scepticism, which is understandable and on occasion cynicism, which is harmful.  I can honestly say that I have been sustained by my Christian Faith during difficult and trying times and am convinced that listening to God in prayer gives meaning to my life. ”

NEXT SUNDAY we hear from  Nick Ramsay AM. The talks are part of the 6pm Evensong at St Mary’s Priory Church.

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We are selling knitted chicks containing a Cadbury Cream Egg’s in aid of the Velindre Cancer Centre


Coming in stock shortly are Fairtrade Real Easter Eggs

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In the first of the Lenten series of talks a leading figure in the Royal College of Physicians and Consultant at Nevill Hall Hospital, Professor John Saunders said:

Why should the sufferer see the light?

Why is life given to men who find it so bitter?

They wait for death but it does not come,

They seek it more eagerly than hidden treasure.

They are glad when they reach the tomb,

And when they come to the grave they exalt.

Why should a man be born to wander blindly,

Hedged in by God on every side? ( Job 3.11)

Job’s question is my starting point for two reasons. Firstly, it starts from faith – or rather his search for it. “My thoughts today are resentful,” he says later in the poem, “for God’s hand is heavy on me in my trouble. If only I knew how to find him…If I go forward he is not there, if backward I cannot find him, when I turn left I do not descry him, I face right, but I see him not.” Job searches for God and finds a blank. If only, I could know. Well, he can’t. He cannot know God. Nor can I. My guess is that nor can some and perhaps many of you.

But before I go further, let me make two disclaimers. The concept of faith in the Old Testament is different in many ways from the New Testament; but without expanding on this, I don’t think it affects what I want to say. Secondly, there is very little in the synoptic gospels which say much about man’s knowledge of God. The only example is where Jesus says, “No one knows the Son but the Father and no one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son may choose to reveal him.” –  a saying some have attributed to the mystery cults of Gnosticism, that were around in the second century. But again, I will pass on.


‘God has given us a book full of stories’, goes the children’s hymn that I learned in Sunday School; and within that book, separate from the history, the poetry, the creation myths, the prophets, major & minor, lies that group of writings called the Wisdom literature: Ecclesiastes, Job, Proverbs, parts of the Psalms, and some of the apocryphal writings. Its fascination is that it is not concerned with God’s special historical revelation through the prophets but the idea that the one God embedded truth within all reality. General as opposed to special revelation. It is for wisdom is to mine its seams. It permits, indeed encourages scepticism, acknowledges ambiguity, reminds us that religion – or religious practice- can easily become an instrument of cruelty unless tempered with the sceptic’s honesty, and it offers an alternative to the prophetic revelation. In short, it offers a different way in and one that I think many moderns may find attractive. It makes a virtue of living with uncertainty, with truth that may be provisional. That appeals to me both as scientifically educated and as a bedside doctor. We have a lot of uncertainty in medicine, a lot more than many patients think: and I think one of the chief abilities of good doctors is to steer a course between different opinions, both scientific and personal. The wisdom literature speaks to me, despite its antiquity.

Secondly, of course, Job is raising the familiar question of human suffering and an omnipotent omniscient God. How could God permit this? Why should a good man like Job be cast into a state of utter misery, impoverished, diseased. Surveying suffering humanity in my daily life, what has God got to do with it or say about it? Anything at all? I shall return to Job presently.


In the remote 18th city of Konigsberg, Immanuel Kant, greatest of modern philosophers, wrote his series of masterpieces. Kant insisted that we cannot know what lies beyond our experience; and in his first Critique demolished the proofs of God’s existence set out by the mediaeval thinkers: Anselm, Augustine,Thomas Aquinas. We cannot know God is there – and, by and large, Kant’s arguments have been thought to stand the test of time. And yet he believed that human freedom was conditional upon God and later described himself as “ a man who believes that in the final moment, only the purest candour concerning our most hidden inner convictions can stand the test and who, like Job, take it to be a sin to flatter God and make inner confessions, perhaps forced out by fear, that fail to agree with what we freely think…By “moral faith” I mean the unconditional trust in divine aid, in achieving all the good that, even with our most sincere efforts, lies beyond our power.”

[“Two things”, he wrote, at the conclusion of the Critique of Practical Reason, “fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and the more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled in obscurity or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon’ I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”]

The existence of God and the immortality of the soul were the postulates of pure practical reason. Kant had, in his own words, done away with knowledge of God “in order to make room for faith.”

Faith, as we know from the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, can be viewed as something that gives substance to our hopes, something we are surrounded by, in what the writer terms “witnesses to faith around us like a cloud.” “Be not faithless, but believing”, said Jesus. “Because you have seen me, you have found faith.” But that faith, that belief in a person, the faith of revealed religion, is also personal in its cultural context; a choice from a menu, always held without the certainty of knowledge. Its essence is not its confidence, but its uncertainty.

[The intensely personal conviction and inner certainty of knowing that John Wesley described in his so-called Aldersgate experience is not for me – or I suspect for many Christians.]

I hope you will forgive me one further philosophical quotation. Here is something by Schelling, one of Kant’s most distinguished successors:

“Far from it being true that man and his activity makes the world comprehensible, he is himself the most incomprehensible of all, and drives me relentlessly to the view of the accursedness of all being, a view manifested in so many painful signs in ancient and modern times. It is precisely man who drives me to the final despairing question: Why is there something? Why not nothing?”

Schelling’s tortured question is hardly a new one and has generated volumes of publications of all sorts. We know there is and can be no proven answer, no knowledge. We can choose to park the question on the shelf as “too difficult” or we can see the answer in God, whatever the cultural package we see God as wrapped up in. In my case, liberal Western protestant Christianity. That may seem a thin diet for many traditional Christian believers,

[bound up in the conviction of an individual personal relationship with God, or finding comfort in an objective view of its central rituals.]

But I find that it has to suffice for me, for it acknowledges the crucial importance of uncertainty, while retaining the conviction of its reasonableness and its tolerance. As one of my teachers wrote, “if faith , hope and love are the gifts of God, as Christians are taught, they are nevertheless a peculiarly unreliable presence in most lives. My supply of them seems to run out every two days.”  Our longing for explanations – which Job sought so desperately – our seeking of greater confidence in the numinous, our drought and thirst in life’s difficult times, our impulse to make sense and explore meaning in life, is not met in the certainties of so much Christian worship or the superficialities of church life.  Here is the German poet, Rainer Maria von Rilke, in a letter written in 1903:

[Letter Four (16 July 1903)]

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

[In summary then, I hold a faith that is tolerant, held within a tradition which I value and freely acknowledge is the result of the chances of being born where and at the time I was, liberal in more senses than one, something both important, practical  and intellectually defensible.]


How then does faith, that sort of faith, relate to work, to my work, a toiler in a therapy factory of our much derided & admired, criticized & loved, unrecognized & appreciated, undervalued & over rated, national health service?

Not all doctors see patients.

[Some look at the health of populations and sit in offices,; some work in the laboratory; some jump ship and become managers. In fact, doctors are quite a varied bunch.]

but most of us, most of the time are involved with patients: people who either suffer or risk suffering because they are sick, unwell, unhealthy in body or mind. Some know this, others don’t – especially at the start of life and at the end of life. Some never know their illness; some are almost too conscious of it. Some are troubled by trivia; others tolerate the almost unimaginable. To be a doctor, or at least a reasonably sensitive doctor, is to be aware of the spectrum of human experience and its response to disease, to pain, to anguish and to the ultimate existential threat of death.

I don’t want to claim that the doctor’s experience is necessarily unique but I suspect that it may be. The reason for that rather bold claim is that the doctor’s experience of the patient is not simply as a witness to, and an observer of, the suffering human being – family, friends, clergy, psychologists, teachers, police, social workers and a host of others have that experience. It is that the experience is filtered through a scientific education that can understand the mechanisms and causes, the implications and future, of so much of the patient’s problem. It’s easy to overstate, of course, and not all doctors are capable of the indwelling necessary to divine the interior of the human soul. Nor, of course, is this witness to a particular virtuous view of humans. People don’t become nice because they are sick. Nasty well people are often nasty sick people: having said which, let me add that most human beings aren’t nasty – at least no nastier than me.

Our view of the world is channeled through the use of language. It is words that we need to inform us, at least mostly. And words come at a price. Some words have higher prices than others and are perceived differently. People get upset by the word ‘cancer’ when often it is of far less a threat to life and well being than, shall we say, emphysema or ischaemic heart disease. But putting that informational issue to one side, serious diagnosis of some sort brings us, you, me, lots of people to a crisis in our lives. What was once so important now becomes somehow trivial. Priorities are re-ordered.

And ultimate questions are asked. On a small scale, they ask Job’s question: why? Why is life like this? What does this mean for me? Needs and fears which the day before hardly existed now dominate the mind: distraction initially impossible, a threatening presence that cannot be put to one side.

[I remember talking to a patient in the Intensive Care Unit once, who said that he was afraid to go to sleep. I asked him why. He said that it was because if he went to sleep, he was afraid that he would never wake up. At moments like that there are, of course, things that could be said – like why or what are you afraid of. But sometimes silence and a held hand is the better response. Yet the significance of his remarks has often made me think subsequently. What was he afraid of? Isn’t dying in sleep, peacefully, painlessly what most of us desire? I think the fear was not one of dying but rather one of being dead: the extinction of my life, the descent into nothingness, the end of hope and love and experience to one, who in one sense, was actually hopeless. Looking forward through Lent, Easter certainly has something to say about that.]

The crisis point in people’s lives that I meet is not always the illness itself, but the personal dimension of life that somehow has failed: squandered time, pointless quarrels, all the detritus of unrealised ambitions and broken relationships, unnecessary hurts and betrayals, the corrosive sense of failure: things that on some scale most of us experience in greater or lesser measure. It is one of the humbling aspects of medicine that patients will often reveal this to the doctor when they wouldn’t mention it to anybody else. The priestly function has changed in modern society: the medical professional is still trusted to an extraordinary degree – and I hope mostly with justice. Doctors too tend to be the problem solver, not the moralizing judge: knowledge of physiology, of disease’s effects, of psychological patterns makes doctors often useful in sorting out different sorts of life’s mess.

The patient has a new narrative before them and it is felt in a context for which no moral or emotional framework may exist; and certainly no vocabulary. [We are all slaves of language.]

The new narrative, the new story upon which the rest of life must be built is one imposed by something outside the patient, something revealed, even imposed by the doctor: a narrative named and framed that is different from the one they hoped for or expected.

I do not want to make claims that the doctor as believer is any better at this than the unbeliever. But personally it is the ability to see suffering in its unexplained and inexplicable context that helps me to make some sort of sense of it all, even as a question – firstly, biologically of course, but also existentially – what this might mean for a biological organism who also happens to be a human being, [that, in Shakespeare’s phrase in Richard III, is the ‘most replenished sweet work of nature that from the prime creation e’er she framed.’]

In the ugliness of disease, can I still see God’s image in man, can I see the possibility of fulfillment of some sort in the illness experience? Can I respond to the intrinsic human dignity? I hope that isn’t too lyrical a way of expressing myself.

[What is the expectation? Sometimes not much. Some expect little from life and get little too; some expect too much – all resource is finite. But often what is or should be there in crisis is the quality of solidarity (brotherhood, fraternity, if you will). Some of you may be familiar with the picture of the doctor by Sir Luke Fildes, painted in the 19th century and now hanging in the Tate Gallery. Dawn is about to break in a cottage where a mother and child await the outcome of the child’s pneumonia; the doctor sits in the foreground and the drama is in the space between. He can do no more: and in a world of evidence based medicine, paid for his session the space would be empty. But he sits there in solidarity with his patient, sharing the moment, waiting to see if the crisis leads to resolution or death – as so many of us have perhaps sat at the bedside of a dying family member. He offers nothing but his presence; he exemplifies Milton’s phrase that ‘they also serve who only stand and wait.’ It is the role and I believe the duty of the doctor in many of these situations – and less dramatic ones – to support with compassion and the insight that informs it, because]

t(T)he patient is in some way greater than the disease process that is to be managed.

The patient may unburden themselves of the moral, imaginative, intellectual and cultural gaps, the personal lacks and inadequacies, the traumas and broken relationships that face them. The story, their story is told back to them either to make sense of it, to order it, to simply understand it or to provide some sort of solution to it. In so doing, the doctor becomes part of the story. The experience sometimes produces a pearl without price, a quality of living that helps to throw light on future despair, their own and that of others. Some discover that there can be joy in the most profound and difficult situations. ‘The full soul loatheth the honeycomb but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.’ Others cannot endure the thought that anyone should comfort them.

RS Thomas found his faith informed more by the parish than any of his own studies . I think that is true for all wise people. They get past ego. Egos are sometimes a problem for doctors. For some of us, they are, I’m afraid, too big. We need to learn that our story is not as important than the other person’s. Bonheoffer said the same, Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own…we depend on others for faith, the cloud of witnesses.

Doctors have the opportunity to be part of something eternal if they choose to see it that way. Their work is about  using  their high level intellectual skills and knowledge, analysing different perspectives, interpreting, inferring, sequencing, comparing, contrasting and evaluating,  detecting and diagnosing, set alongside a daily experience of the great moral and metaphysical problems of human existence, and the marvel that is this  life,  and finding in it what there is of significance for themselves and others.  The fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence and uncertainty .

But of course you can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his mother or his daughter, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty of a sort, and mutual incomprehension.  How do doctors learn this? How can we practice if all we understand about people is built on knowledge from text books , and that a well turned cliché can stand in for wisdom? Do I feel that any human face is a claim on me, because I can’t help but recognise the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it… and know it is my own? How do I pass on to someone that they will remember grief  but never without comfort, or loneliness but never without peace, if I have never understood those things profoundly for myself or learned them from the lives of others? And learned them from a world viewed through the spectacles of the believer in the majesty and love of God. Or do I look at their practice with indifference and say, I followed the protocols so it is of no matter to me what the outcomes are,  and it is of no matter to me that no good has come and no evil has ended?

We know more than we can tell; some of our knowledge is not propositional but ineffable – knowledge how we do things, and above all knowledge of persons that we know but cannot specify. We see, as through a glass, darkly.

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that preceded grace itself and makes us ready to accept it. Perhaps there is also a prevenient courage that allows us to acknowledge that there is more beauty in life than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honour them is to do great harm. To see things through God’s eyes is to see through a different lens: that is where God and the tradition take me. Where does it come from if not from the God I often find I don’t have time to listen to?

The most basic religious belief is a vote for coherence, purpose, benevolence and direction and acknowledging that wisdom is living with doubt and uncertainty about it all. It takes a lot of knowing to know I may know absolutely nothing that is of importance to a soul in distress, but much is expected of our doctors.

Humans are creators of meaning, and there is nowhere that it matters more than in medicine. Man lives in the meanings that he creates. We, I, may not often succeed in this for in the messy muddle that we call our lives, we cannot fully solve Job’s problem or our own.

Job bemoans his fate in a series of chilling suicidal laments. Job’s friends try to explain his fate with lies of his evil before God’s goodness, but Job is having none of it. Enter God, who confronts Job in three chapters of terrifying poetic power. God makes no apologies, and no excuses for himself. Instead, he describes creation in all its beauty, its cruelty, and its utter unfathomability: “Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high? Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.” We are no longer in the world of infantile religion, or naive therapy for the survivors of trauma. “The grand vista of nature opens before Job and it reveals the working of God in a realm other than man’s moral order.” God’s power emphasises the transcendent.

Faced with tragedy on the worst scale, authenticity is to offer no explanations, no pretence of understanding, no defence of faith. The God of the book of Job is not the reasonable, bland God of wishful liberals, nor the vengeful and punishing God of fundamentalists. He is as he is. That is what makes this book the most enduring handbook for me in dealing professionally with tragedy, loss, and despair.

NEXT SUNDAY we hear from Sir Trefor Morris CBE QPM, former HM Inspector of Constabularies. The talks are part of the 6pm Evensong at St mary’s Priory Church.


Words in [ ] may not be delivered but enhance the text.

Translations are from the New English Bible, 1970

Sources include:

Neville Ward. The Following Plough, Epworth 1978

JL Crenshaw. Old Testament Wisdom: an Introduction, SCM 1981

A Richardson. An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament,SCM1958



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