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Oct 2, 2014 | News

David Alton - 2014

David Alton – 2014

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Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is set during the Second World War. It beautifully links the destiny of a blind French girl and a gifted German orphan.

Doerr uses radio waves and a diamond held in a Parisian museum, reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone, as the props around which he weaves this well- crafted story.

All The Light We Cannot See poignantly explores the affecting horror of war on all it touches through the convergent lives of the principal characters and those close to them.

As the story crosses a war torn continent, and spans the generations, it’s impossible not to continue reading, so strong is the desire to know how it will all end.


“The Myth of the Undeserving Poor”  by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, Keynote Address at the launch of the “The Myth of the Undeserving Poor” at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, 4.30pm Tuesday October 21st

Genuine poverty is an enduring problem in the UK. It has remained stubbornly persistent in the face of many proposed political solutions in recent years. The financial crisis of 2007-08 brought the issue to the forefront of the political agenda. A powerful combination of economic contraction, inflationary pressures on household living costs, entrenched indebtedness, a reduction in local authority capacity and radical welfare reforms led to major challenges for the poorest and most needy sections of the population. Real poverty came starkly to our attention. We entered the era of “foodbank Britain” with the dramatic rise of church-sponsored foodbanks as the symbolic frontline of a new battle with poverty. Not far from here, as they step from the platform to the train at Embankment tube station, passengers are frequently told to “mind the gap.” In a country where the gaps have been getting bigger, it’s advice which policy makers, campaigners, Government, charities, churches and civil society need to take to heart. The widening gap between the destitute and the very wealthy risks social cohesion. It was no surprise to me that the poorest in scotland vote to leave the United Kingdom and that a city like Glasgow, with significant poverty, voted Yes by a majority. As well as risking the cohesion of our country a failure to recognise and tackle poverty also offends basic principles of justice, fairness and decency. The injustice is compounded when we either blame those who are poor for their own condition or delude our-selves into believing that poverty is an illusion. I have often pointed out that we may live in the world’s fifth richest country but because we fail to mind the gap most people have little or no experience of the wealth which that implies. Instead, too many people’s experience of the fifth richest country in the world is of Food Bank Britain, Sharp Elbowed Britain, Rip-Off Britain and Devil Take The Hindmost Britain. In too many places we have seen the emergence of a new class of people who are outside society: workless, broken, lost to ambition and social improvement and with no stake in society – and easily exploited and manipulated by those who have extreme agendas. When you ask the question “who owns Britain?” we all know it’s not the people who have fallen through the gap – they have no ownership of our common society or our common destiny. In the face of this, the creative and energetic response of the church and other faith groups to the recent economic difficulties has been dramatic. During the last few years we have seen the birth of the “community franchising” movement in which strategic and effective methodologies for tackling specific areas of social action have been reproduced rapidly and effectively across the nation. The speedy growth of such “community franchises” as Street Pastors, Community Money Advice, Christians Against Poverty and the Trussell Trust are prominent examples – but many more – over 40, are developing quickly. This process is set to continue for some time to come. I was brought up in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, which has always been suspicious of anything which over emphasises crude individualism or unnecessary State domination. Hence, it has opposed both collectivisation and command economies whilst simultaneously criticising unbridled market forces. It has proclaimed the importance of subsidiarity; of community, (the most basic community being the family); of a lively civil society; of solidarity; and the sharing of what we have been given. Between the rocks and hard places of individualism and collectivism the Church has rooted its social teaching and it proclamation of the Common Good in the inviolate and sacred dignity of the human person (“from the womb to the tomb”) insisting that each person is made in God’s image. This transcendent relationship, between man and his Maker, requires those who have power, or who exercise it, to show infinite respect for the human person – and this expresses itself in a profound belief in the sanctity and the intrinsic worth of every human life; in a preference for the poor; in a requirement to use our talents and resources through servant leadership; in an emphasis on duties and mutual obligations rather than the flaccid language of autonomy, claimed rights and entitlements; through a cultivation of the Virtues described by both Aristotle and Aquinas; in a willingness to share what we hold in common; and to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us. The Common Good is not a slogan or a manifesto. Rather, it is the scaffold around which we can hang a Christian contribution to public life and to the building of a more just and compassionate society. It also represents a good starting point in engaging with other faith traditions and with secular society, with political parties and individual politicians and policy makers, and in opening the door to the fullness of Christianity. The ability of Catholic social teaching and Christian engagement to transform society will inevitably be influenced by the ground into which the seed falls. We can too easily see the glass half empty rather than the glass half full. When we take the trouble to look we can see a great outpouring for the common good already underway. Look carefully, and with different lens, and what you will see is a remarkable amount of social capital and social vision unleashed by the churches through the harnessing of volunteerism on a grand scale into social action projects. Jubilee+ research estimated that in 2012 there were a staggering 98 million hours of volunteering for church-based social action– a 36% increase in 2 years. This work in our communities across the UK has already had a major impact on government perceptions of the church. New avenues for working together and the sharing of resources have emerged. Localism and financial cutbacks have also led many local authorities into meaningful partnerships with churches on the ground in their areas. And yet there is now another factor which has emerged suddenly into the public discussion of poverty – a new, or perhaps renewed, stigmatization of sections of the poor. The “myth of the undeserving poor” has been reborn. The media has been the primary source of this untimely and unwelcome narrative. It seems that chavs, scroungers and benefits cheats have become central players in the media narrative on poverty in the UK. Politicians have sometimes also jumped on the bandwagon. The Jubilee+ team works as a capacity building network for church based social action. They see the challenges of enduring poverty at the sharp end. They are working alongside churches and community franchisors. They have been active in researching the scale and impact of church-based social action. They have also been examining the bigger media narratives which have been emerging. The authors of the “The Myth of the Undeserving Poor” book, Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, have written boldly and passionately about this. They have analysed the emerging media narratives. They have looked again at the history of tackling poverty in the UK. They have analysed both the theology and the practice of the current upsurge of church-based social action. Most searchingly of all, they have challenged the “myth of the undeserving poor”. They argue, rather, that both church and society respond best to poverty when we do not allow ourselves to be imprisoned by dubious and highly subjective moral judgements concerning the poorest in our society. I commend this publication to help challenge the thinking of not only people of faith but also the media and policy makers. David Alton – Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool – October 2014. “C.S.Lewis At The BBC – Messages Of Hope In The Darkness Of War”, Justin Phillips. Published by Harper Collins. After Justin Phillips died, on Boxing Day 2000, it fell to his widow, Gillian, his daughter Laura, and to his publisher, James Catford, to bring this book to completion. The result, C.S.Lewis At The BBC – Messages of Hope In The Darkness of War is a magnificent achievement. Phillips was brilliantly placed to produce this book – having spent most of his life as a broadcaster with the BBC. A former producer of Radio Four’s Today programme, I wonder what this deeply committed Christian would have made of the appointment of the non-believing Alan Bookbinder as head of religion and ethics at the BBC; or the manner in which his old programme now deals with the church. Phillips would probably have counselled us not to shoot the messenger because we don’t like the message. He would have reminded us, as he does in this book, how the media may be used as a powerful force for good, and with love he would have unfolded the story of the Christian roots of Britain’s public radio broadcasters – and encouraged us to reclaim that tradition. Every day, Phillips, Like James Welch and Eric Fenn, the principal players who brought C.S.Lewis to the BBC to broadcast to a nation at war, walked past Eric Gill’s sculpture of The Sower in the entrance of Broadcasting House, which bore the Latin inscription for “God gives the increase.” They would have passed the Latin dedication on the building proclaiming that “This temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and righteousness.” The dedication – like the BBC motto, Quaecumque (“whatsoever”) are inspired by St.Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:8). As Britain braced itself during 1940 for the aerial bombardment of its cities it needed all the steely resolve and idealism that these high sounding phrases implied. Dr.James Welch, then the BBC’s Director of Religion, knew that bewildered people, dreading the arrival of telegrams heralding the loss of loved ones or the drone of German bombers, needed explanations about where God was in all of this. In 1941, an Oxford academic, C.S.Lewis, published The Problem of Pain . Welch had never met Lewis (and perhaps, just as important, he had never heard him speak either). Yet, he asked him to consider making a series of broadcasts, grappling with the tragedy of war, the inexplicable loss of loved ones, and to speak as a layman about how the Christian faith inspired him. The talks which followed – and which were organised by the BBC’s Eric Fenn – would ultimately form the basis of Lewis’s Mere Christianity . According to Phillips at the heart of Lewis’ approach is the belief that “we can’t shake off the idea we know how to behave but in practice don’t do so. We break the Law of Nature. Realising this is in fact the basis for all clear thinking.” In turn Lewis provokes, encourages, enlightens, and inspires us to turn to God. In advance of his broadcasts Leiws shared his scripts with four people. One was Dom.Bede Griffiths, the Catholic priest who, as Richard Griffiths, an Oxford undergraduate, had challenged his English tutor’s atheism. This deep desire to stay close to orthodox Christianity is why the broadcasts and books which followed have captivated Catholics and evangelicals alike. Phillips draws out Lewis’ friendship with Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun, and his belief in regular personal confession. He records Dorothy L.Sayers’ battles with the BBC over the broadcast of The Man Born To Be King – and Lewis’ words of encouragement. He touches on Lewis’ close relationship with J.R.R.Tolkien and the other Inkings. And there are countless vignettes which shed light on Lewis’ kindness and generosity. I was especially touched by Jill Freud’s recollections of Lewis’ wartime hospitality; by his decision to get the BBC to send his fees to clergy widows; by the recollection of Kenneth Tynan’s (a onetime student of Lewis) who said Lewis was “Johnsonian without the bullying and Chestertonian without the facetiousness“; and by Walter Hooper ( literary advisor to the Lewis Estate), who recalls his conversation with Pope John Paul II. The Pope said Lewis knew what his apostolate, his divine calling, was – “and he did it”. The BBC has only a few recordings of Lewis’ original broadcasts but what there are, along with the broadcasts of his Cosmic Trilogy (ital), The Screwtape Letters (ital) and the Narnian Chronicles (ital) should be re-broadcast as a tribute to one of the great figures of the twentieth century. Perhaps it says something about how the BBC has changed since the days of Welch and Fenn, and even Phillips, that instead of celebrating Lewis this Christmas we were being served up extra helpings of Philip Pullman. This avowed atheist has described Lewis’ writings as the most “ugly and poisonous” things he has ever read: “it’s propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology.” He said that his own writings are an attempt to destroy the legacy and influence of Lewis. Heaven preserve us and our children from this. Phillips’ posthumous book is a reminder of how much we owe C.S.Lewis and that as his legacy is now attacked we need to cherish and uphold.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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