Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas magic

“I wish I had magic powers,” said Aggie just before Christmas. I was sad, because she has always assured me she does have magic powers. But she is nine, and growing out of childhood.

Hoping to catch the child in her before it disappeared, I said: “But you do have magic powers. You can play the violin at Grade 1, you can jump up and down on a trampoline.”

“They aren’t proper magic powers,” she said.

OK, I said; think of this: if a shrimp, whose ancestors had colonised a dark underground lake millions of years ago, heard of your amazing ability to detect things by use of reflected light, he would say (if shrimps could articulate such ideas) that this was an astounding, nay, miraculous power.

“But seeing’s not magic,” she protested. “Everyone can do it.”

“Not a sightless cave-dwelling shrimp,” I insisted. The subject moved on – to animals with bad eyesight.

What I wish I had said was this: “Well, probably one day you will be able to have a baby, and if you described that to someone who didn’t know anything about it, they would say that it was a magic power.”

Think of how we imagine magic to be: as Aggie has begun to do, we think of it as something beyond the ordinary. We ignore the familiar, just because it is familiar. So we lose sight of the thing we are looking for: we cannot see the wood for the trees, nor the baby for the bathwater.

Here’s the thing about God’s love. It is not external to our daily experience. It is our experience.

Children are the only people who can bear the unbearable sweetness of the story of the star and the baby. Children, who can believe a dozen impossible things before breakfast, are almost the only people who understand that for a king to be born in a stable makes perfect sense.

Children effortlessly absorb the beauty of the birth, which seamlessly blends the spiritual and the animal: surrounded by the warm bodies of oxen and asses, Mary felt safe and secure enough to deliver her baby - a straightforward labour, for, young as she was, untroubled by the dismal stories with which women beset each other round, she simply, humbly saw birthing as a bit of hard work that needed doing.

At last, she sank back on the straw, utterly happy; tired, but inwardly drenched in oxytocin – the hormone which promotes childbearing, breastfeeding and – most magical of all - the complete adoration of a newly delivered mother for her baby.

Was this not magic? The magic of love, God’s love, working its unexpected, unplanned wonders?

We - the adults - are pantomime dames in our finery and rouge, who always turn around too slowly to spot the mysterious figure darting away when the children shout “it’s behind you”. Clumsily, we fret about being somewhere on time, or having enough money, or whether things will go according to plan: and the moment for love and magic slips away.

Christmas is when we have a chance to look more carefully for the love and magic; a chance to be humbled by their unbearable beauty, and to realise they were there all the time, but we were too busy ordering turkeys to see them.

I always cry when I see children on stage. Six pm - school nativity play starts; 6.15pm - Mrs Johnson starts blubbing, is the usual routine.

Incidentally, Aggie’s primary school has, in the past, treated us sobbing parents to “The Grumpy Sheep”, “The Hopeless Camel”, “The Hoity Toity Angel” and “The Lost Wise Man”. This year we had an Elvis-impersonating Herod in white lame. He was booted off the stage by the entire cast singing “There’s only one King, and his name is Jesus, Oh Yeah”, and we discovered that if you laugh while you are crying, you really do need an extra Kleenex Pocket Pack.

You want to know when the White Witch of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia will come to power on this planet, for real? When it really will be “always winter, and never Christmas”?

It will be when humans finally give up their magic powers to her. It will be when they willingly and compliantly hand over their ill-disciplined tendency to have children at inconvenient times and in awkward situations to the tidy, forward-planned, government-regulated fertility business as ordained by scientists and government quangos.

People will do this because, like Aladdin’s foolish wife, they do not recognise the magic object in their own hands, but give it away to a cunning pedlar.

And it will make such good sense. The White Witch does not take over suddenly, in a coup d’etat. She creeps across the land, spreading frost and snow with her nice, common-sensical suggestions, until one day we will look up and realise she is at the castle gates, and turning all to stone.

At first the White Witch said, “It is not reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child against her will.” That sounded sensible enough. Then she said, “It is not reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child she may not be able to look after.” We bought that, too.

Then she said: “It is not reasonable to carry a child who has Down’s Syndrome.” Now she says: “It is not reasonable to carry a child who might develop a disease…who is the wrong sex for the balance of the family, for surely a balanced family must be a happier family?”

And eventually, she will hold sway among the rich and powerful, and only very poor children will be born in their own time, sent by God and nature. We won’t know it, until suddenly we will realise that Christmas comes no more.

Oh, the shops will still put up November tinsel, the magazines will still offer shopping advice: “Ideal gift for your best friend: a Prada handbag, £900” assuming that the spending habits of an overpaid fashion editor with a hedge fund executive boyfriend are a useful model for the rest of us.

The TV diet of violent films and public humiliation will continue to be watched by the sad and the lonely – an ever increasing number of them – unvisited, unremembered (for there will be no one to remember them) in old people’s homes.

And there will still be children: solitary little things tucked away out of view, protected from the cold by virtual entertainments, elbowed from the TV schedules, and so showered with gifts all year round that the arrival of Christmas morning hardly makes a blip on their radar.

It will look like Christmas and sound a bit like Christmas, so we will call it Christmas. But it will not be Christmas, because we – aiding and abetting the White Witch by our own greed and stupidity – will have forgotten that the unexpected and glorious arrival of a child in the most inauspicious circumstances is the heart of Christmas.

So while the White Witch is still not quite at the gate, my prayer this year to stop worrying about what cannot be planned or provided for; and to open my eyes to the love and magic; the love and magic which are there to be found within that imperfect but blessed institution (for what family can be “perfect”? What child, what parent?) of the family Christmas.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006


When I gave up work to have babies, I often, then as now, had to fill in forms. Very often the form demanded to know my “employment status”. In order to exist in the eyes of the official world, I had to choose between employed, self-employed, unemployed or retired.

Since I did not feel in the slightest bit “unemployed”, usually I would heave a sigh and tick “self-employed”, forcing my occasional pin money from journalism to stretch my status up to the same giddy heights as Madonna and Bill Gates.

Most people do not realise this, but a parent who stops earning in order to bring their own children up has no official status at all – she simply disappears off the public radar. She gets child benefit – but she has no clear status at all.

This loss of a place in the world has never been properly measured. And the at-home-parent slips not only off the official radar, but the social one too. It may be that slight hint of contempt from garage mechanics or estate agents…suddenly you are “just the wife”. It may be the questioning looks later on when you try to find a job: “So what exactly have you been doing all this time?” Or it may simply be the snooty disregard of career women looking past your shoulder at parties.

The near-mythical existence of a tiny number of greatly envied “yummy mummies” - women lucky enough to be married to rich men, sensible enough to know that their children will only be small once, and also young and pretty enough to make the most of the experience – has simply whipped up resentment which is sometimes also directed at much less well-off parents who are stretching one income to do the job of two, simply so that one of them can be at the school gate at 3.30pm every day.

The Conservative Party is right (gosh, that was tough to type): family breakdown IS behind most of our social problems. But their policy review on the issue, chaired by Iain Duncan-Smith (who tried to get the Tories interested in social justice while he was their leader, and got kicked out for his pains), only begins to delve into the reasons for family breakdown.

My theory is this: the job of keeping families together has been downgraded and at the same time parents have lost sight of long-term goals.

The one thing which would change the family breakdown rate instantly would be to allow a stay-at-home parent – mum or dad – to transfer their personal tax allowance to their spouse – not to a cohabitee, but to a spouse.

This would transform the status of both marriage and the job of parenting at one blow. It would acknowledge the contribution to society of parents who raise their own children AND acknowledge that marriage is a totally different kettle of fish from the drifting, twilight existence of cohabitation.

It would take a very brave political leader to introduce transferable tax allowances – there would be howls of protest. But a far-sighted political leader would just do it.
It would not cost the Exchequer a huge amount, because only families for whom it made a significant difference would take the option up.

It would benefit poorer families more dramatically than the rich, taking many right out of paying tax at a stroke.

And the dividends reaped in the long run – better literacy, happier families, fewer ASBOs – would be noticeable within twenty years – less than the lifespan of a nuclear power station. Best of all, it would – for once – allow mothers to feel that the system values them in whatever they do.


We still haven’t sent any Christmas cards, so Mr J. went to buy some yesterday. It was one of those shops which sells ONLY greetings cards, with the occasional miniature teddy bear thrown in. To reduce misunderstanding even further, it was called, I think, “Cards Galore”. Ever the optimist, Mr J imagined this would be just the place.
“Do you have any religious Christmas cards?” he began hopefully.
A worried look.
“You know,” he explained. “Christmas cards with a CHRISTIAN theme?”
A blank look.
“OK,” persisted my nearest and dearest, calling on all his academic skills, “How can I put this…cards for Christmas which have a baby on them. And a mummy.”
The shop assistant’s face brightened slightly, and she pointed silently to the display: “Best wishes for the birth of your new baby”.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What seems to be the matter

Catholic Herald 8 December 2006

I have an irrational prejudice against doctors. The trouble is, I spend a lot of time with women in labour and childbirth, and the doctor is the very last person we want to see in a birth room.

Many doctors are perfectly respectful and considerate towards the labouring woman in their care, but you still get the odd throwback who marches in unannounced with bad news and an even worse attitude, an invasive presence threatening invasive procedures.

You can rely on this type of doctor for confidence-shattering, bossy remarks like “We will give you one hour to have this baby then we will proceed to an instrumental delivery”.

If you have a phobia of a particular profession, then finding yourself in a room full of them is supposed to cure you, so it was a good thing that I spent last Saturday afternoon at an outstanding and inspiring conference of Catholic doctors organised by the Westminster Diocese and hosted by Opus Dei in an elegantly modernist conference hall in Hampstead.

My job was sorting out written questions from the audience to a distinguished panel of experts in medical ethics led by the Cardinal himself, and including Dr Philip Howard, of St George’s Hospital, who started the day with a brilliant and illuminating commentary on Evangelium Vitae.

I was privately amazed by how many medical students and keen sixth formers had given up a precious Saturday in front of the telly to think about medical ethics, so the written questions which rained down on my desk over lunch were a wonderfully mixed bunch. There were abstruse philosophical questions from the senior medics mixed up with blatant attempts from sixth formers to get the panel to do the questioner’s weekend homework for free – and once we had weeded out the thinly disguised essay titles, the questions written in a more youthful hand turned out to be an intriguing selection.

For example: “Have you ever experienced prejudice in your medical career because you are a Catholic?”

Two of our panel members, Dr Charles O’Donnell and Dr Anne Carus, the NaPro Fertility expert, said that no, they had not experienced any overt prejudice. But I would not really expect them to: Dr O’Donnell is a totally upfront Catholic doctor who works extensively with student and junior doctors on medical ethics. And Dr Carus, being a natural fertility expert, is also in area of work in which, by its very nature, she is not likely to encounter prejudice, because the more prejudiced people in society are not likely to cross her path.

Both travel, as it were, with warning lights on and probably most anti-Catholic or anti-Christian elements simply move out of their way as they approach.

But our keynote speaker, Dr Philip Howard, told a chilling story about how an Oxford college turned him down after he gave a pro-life answer to an interview question.

Logic dictates that if there were one career in which you should expect to find Christians aplenty, then surely the medical profession must be it. Learning to heal the sick and tend to the dying has to be the simplest, most obvious way of answering Christ’s call.

So is extraordinary that the concept of prejudice against any Christian within the caring professions should be a worry for Catholic medical students. Yet it is clearly what most worries them. Another student asked, “Have you ever been tempted to do something which went against your faith and ethics but which you knew would further your career?”

The assumption was that being a Christian, in particular a Catholic, is in some way going against the grain of medical life. Either you are going to encounter prejudice at the best, or find your faith at odds with what your superiors expect you to do. And that is a terrible indictment of the way in which we regard doctors.

I realised that my own particular totally irrational bias against obstetricians is probably an offshoot of this: we no longer think of doctors as experts who trust and respect the human body, rather as interfering busybodies who want to “play God”. It seems we need more doctors who are Catholics, and more Catholic doctors such as Dr Howard, with the confidence to speak up for their convictions.

As for Dr Howard’s story: well, he was accepted by another college – and he discovered years later that his rejection “on grounds of his faith” had become common knowledge – not to his shame, but, it turned out, to the eternal shame of the college which rejected him.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Give the Secularists something constructive to do

We won. It was a peculiar feeling. We heard on the news that the Education Secretary had suddenly changed his mind about forcing faith schools to close a quarter of their school places to the children from their own faith families, and felt quite dizzy. The Catholic Church had actually won a political victory.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols was magnificent. He was serene, articulate, and kept to his points. He dealt with Jeremy Paxman’s bizarre lines of questioning in an honest, forthright manner.
My favourite moment was when Mr Paxman arched his brows so far they nearly disappeared and asked the Archbishop possibly the silliest question he had ever asked: “So are you happy that Government money should be spent on funding schools which teach that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God?”

The Archbishop could not have looked more puzzled if the great interrogator had asked when His Grace had stopped beating his wife; he voiced the thoughts of all of us when he answered, very civilly, that he wasn’t sure he had quite understood the question. Paxman blustered and backtracked onto another tack.

I imagine some wretched producer had been yelling in Paxman’s earpiece, “OK so these Catholics, they’re like, fundamentalists, yah? So if you get him to say that he wants Government funding for like, you know, schools that aren’t Christian, yah, he’ll be totally embarrassed cos all these you know, moral majority types will be watching and they’ll be like, Hey, we don’t wanna go there, yah?”

We are moving this new taste – victory – around our mouths and wondering how long it will last. It almost looks as though when enough people get together with a good case to make, and a well-led campaign, and a clear message to put across, then they can make things happen. Shortly before the Church’s victory, a petition from 4 million people succeeded in slowing down the closure of rural post offices.

The rage and hatred of the secularists is unbounded. Lord Baker called the Archbishop a liar for regarding his amendment, which laid down quotas for new faith schools, as the thin end of the wedge; which is odd, because I remember the Education Secretary being reported quite distinctly as saying that established schools would be next for the quota treatment, which sounded to me very like a wedge being tapped home.

I pick up The Times and find it brimful with anti-Christian propaganda: another huge puff for Professor Richard Dawkins’ embarrassingly bigoted book, “The God Delusion”, a news feature about the film of Philip Pullman’s atheist trilogy “His Dark Materials”, and on the paper’s main comment section – once graced by the likes of Bernard Levin – there is a spittle-flecked pub rant against Catholics by a fat man with a beard who used to write about sport. All in one issue.

This fight is not just about faith schools. It is about faith. The likes of Lord Baker, a classic Heathite Tory who is best known for making the National Curriculum into a vast prescriptive straitjacket - when all his Prime Minister had wanted him to do was make sure pupils were learning the 3Rs - do not want faith schools to exist at all and if possible would like religion to stop existing, too.Tell them that their quotas will mean that teachers will have to stop saying the Angelus at my son’s school, or displaying crucifixes at my daughter’s, then they smile, nod and say, “Good-ee.”

So where do we go next? Simple: we turn the fight round and campaign not just for Catholics but for all parents, our enemies included.

Seventy percent of schools in liberal, cool, hip, tolerant Holland are either faith schools or schools founded according to a specific philosophy, Steiner schools being among the best known. We should be lobbying politicians, the Tories in particular, to give anyone who wants to run a school on their religious or philosophical beliefs – including atheists, humanists and secularists – to do so with Government funding, as long as they can prove support from the local community.

Let the National Secular Society get the money together (Philip Pullman should be good for a bob or two) and run their own secularist voluntary aided schools. It might be tough at first (running the National Secular Society must be a bit like the National Can’t Be Bothered Society) but they ought to be allowed to have a go. It would give them something constructive to do.

We know we can win a fight for our own schools. Now we should look to fight for the voluntary aided school model - perhaps the most successful school funding pattern ever - for everyone, to bring diversity and passion back to state education.

A dangerous cult

Home Front - A Brief Introduction to Ecenics
Sarah Johnson

I hope readers will forgive me for brnging to the attention of parents a worldwide cult, under whose influence all young people are at risk of falling.

The Ecenics movement has grown to become perhaps the most extensive, most lavishly funded, massively publicized and yet the least understood religion on our earth. It is familiar to us all, thanks to its sophisticated global information network administered by a rigidly hierarchical priesthood; yet we rarely acknowledge that as a destructive force, Ecenics has an outstanding record.

Christianity’s wars against heretics and heathens, the Muslim war against infidels - these look amateurish compared with the millions of deaths which the undoubted genius of Ecenics preachers has caused.

The Ecenics church gives its priests complete freedom to wreak havoc or to produce the means of destruction under its core doctrine of NDMA - non departmentia mea, amice, (loosely translated as “not my department, mate”). The NDMA doctrine allows an Ecenics priest to work entirely without reference to the long-term consequences of his labour or the uses to which his discoveries might be put.

Freed by this dubious doctrine, Ecenics has brought massive prosperity and health to rich Western nations, but can also count among its achievements every ingenious form of mass destruction known, from mustard gas to nuclear missiles. Without Ecenicists to advise, Saddam Hussain would have had nothing to test on the Kurds; and the arms race of the 20th century would never have got off the starting blocks.

Even without the help of war, Ecenics missionaries have poisoned and transformed our planet beyond recognition. The “Global Warming” phenomenon has its roots in classic Ecenics-inspired zeal - specifically, the urge to make as much money as possible from any Ecenicist development (internal combustion engine, air travel, gas heating, electrical power etc, etc) before considering any harm it might cause. Thus, Ecenics theologians claim that global warming is everyone’s fault but theirs, even though they started the process.

Ecenics surpasses rival religions in the manipulation of public emotion (though its clergy consider “emotion” and “emotive language” to be sinful concepts). For everyday worship, the priests wear a traditional “white coat” – the colour possibly signifying the wearer‘s moral purity. For public appearances, the traditional corduroy trousers and tweed jacket indicate social superiority. The effect of this ceremonial wardrobe is to create in the mind of the laity a cringing dread of the Ecenics priest’s scantly-understood power.

Not all Ecenicist priests are male, but some of its early saints were somewhat misogynistic, and it took a long time for women to be accepted as priests. Recruitment of women priests still seems to be affected by distrust lingering from the days when early Ecenics preachers persecuted – even to death - non-Ecenics women for using un-ecenically-tested herbal remedies. Many of these remedies and practices have now been shown to be efficient, but the Ecenics hierarchy is forbidden to apologise for anything - unlike all other religious leaders, who are expected to apologise for crimes committed before they themselves were born.

Ecenics never looks back. It is a one-way religion. Only the history of Ecenics itself is allowed to be studied, the study of other histories being banned under NDMA. And by invoking the same doctrine, Ecenics priests rake in massive tithes from the laity in return for statements of the blindingly obvious, such as that “teenagers don’t function well in the morning” or “if you squirt bleach in rabbits‘ eyes, they go blind”.

Ecenics clerics are particularly famous for practicing bigotry while criticising it in older religions. In particular, because of perceived Christian snubs towards prominent Ecenics preachers which, according to Ecenics oral tradition, happened about 500 years ago, major Ecenicists spend a disproportionate amount of time attacking Christianity. Fundamentalist Ecenicists maintain that Ecenics and Christianity cannot be followed at the same time, and in America, a country which, incidentally, has probably spent more money on grand Ecenics projects - such as flying to the moon - than would be needed to save all Africa’s children from death, there are a few oddball Christians who hold the same view.

Yet most of the world’s billions of Christians admire and respect Ecenicists; and some gentler Ecenics pastors quietly admit in private that they have no difficulty combining Ecenicist observance with Christian beliefs.

The fundamentalist Ecenics response to other religions is to call for them to be banned. History shows that whenever this policy has been put into practice, only misery has resulted; but Ecenicists don’t do history.

Fortunately, Ecenics, though disturbing, is not a hidden cult. From its intimidating initiation ceremonies led by black-robed prelates in curious headgear all the way to the glamour of its Hollywood image, Ecenics is familiar to us all – not least thanks to charismatic celebrity Ecenics leaders such as Professor Richard Dawkins – so if we are blind to its dangers, we have only ourselves to blame.


Friday, October 13, 2006

What's the problem?

Catholic Herald 13 October 2006

When the Church of England decided last week to set aside a quarter of all its school places for non-Christians, I notice some curious reactions among parents, most audibly a sigh of relief. The tenor of the press coverage and playground gossip was: thank heavens! We don’t all have to pretend we are church-goers any more!

The great British public is not known for its logical powers. In this case, the reasoning goes something like this:

1. a lot of people can’t get their children into church schools.
2. Therefore church schools are hard to get into.
3. Therefore it must be made easier to get into them.
4. Therefore the obstacles set in the way of unsuccessful families must be removed.

The obstacle in the way is, of course, church attendance and involvement in a parish – in other words, evidence that you belong to the group for whom the school was originally founded. Supplying this evidence is “difficult” for many people because, of course, they don’t really belong there at all.

Now, the Church of England is an established church.. The Catholic Church is not. I won’t go so far as to stretch this analogy, but if Catholic schools had to take the same measure, it would be a little like setting aside a quarter of the stalls at Royal Ascot for donkeys, because donkeys seem to have such a hard time meeting traditional entry requirements.

I am fascinated, as regular readers know, by the uneasy interface between church schools and parents in this country. I am fascinated by the envy and suspicion with which church schools are regarded; they are looked on as having some kind of mysterious magic power which is being wilfully withheld from everyone else.

I am fascinated by the persistent, superstitious belief that if only secular parents were allowed to plonk their children down into the middle of a church school, then their children would mysteriously soak up these magic powers, and get better exam results. I am fascinated by the assumption that the secular family has a right to rely on their Christian neighbours to provide the school’s “ethos” from which the secular family can benefit, without in any way contributing to its upkeep.

I am equally fascinated by the assumption – mostly perpetrated by the media - that the practising of Christianity can only be a tiresome burden for any family, therefore is an “obstacle” to winning a school place.

This weekend, for National Parenting Week, I am talking to parents in the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton about what it is that we mean when we say we are Catholic parents. The parents I will meet will not regard their faith as an obstacle; but if they are anything like me, they might sometimes feel discouraged that their determination to bring their children up in this faith is so little understood.

Most people, Professor Richard Dawkins included, have no idea what goes on inside a church. Those Sunday mornings in bed, it appears, are sacrosanct in their own way.

Last week we said goodbye to a young, newly-ordained priest who has been working in our parish for a couple of years. I hope he won’t mind me saying that during his time with us, he made friends with pretty well everyone and worked very hard, so we expected a full church for his farewell Mass – but I am not sure we expected it to be standing room only.

At the end of Mass I am not sure we expected to find ourselves on our feet giving him a standing ovation lasting several minutes. I am not sure we expected to find our hearts so uplifted as he unwrapped his gifts (an icon, and an iPod – what a euphonious combination). And I am not sure we expected to find the church hall so amply filled with good wine, home-cooked food and laughter afterwards.

Strange, that a farewell can be so joyous; yet it was, because although we were saying “goodbye” we were also affirming ourselves as a community. It was one of those moments when I wished I could parachute in Richard Dawkins, or Jeremy Paxman, or any of those snooty atheists, and say, “Look at what we are about! Joy, love and companionship! What’s your problem?”


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Danger, danger

The Catholic Herald, 6 October 2006

Are babies dangerous?

Professor Donald Peebles, of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at University College, London, thinks so.

Now perhaps Professor Peebles lives an exceptionally sheltered life. But you would have thought that an experienced scientist who has risen to a level of some importance in the august halls of University College, London, had probably knocked around a bit.

Indeed, he must spend at least some time walking round central London of an evening, perhaps after late night sessions in the lab. So you would expect the Prof. to have a rather different view of which categories of human beings pose a genuine threat to life and limb than that which he expresses in statements to the Press this week.

But no, Professor Peebles thinks babies are dangerous, and in particular pictures of babies. Pictures of babies are terribly, terribly dangerous, says Professor Peebles!
Why? Has Professor Peebles had his wallet stolen by a rampaging foetus?

Well, you remember those “4D” films of babies moving around in the womb? The “walking baby” pictures that presented the humanity of the child in the womb more clearly than ever before?

Well, Professor Peebles and his many powerful pro-abortion colleagues have let it be know that those scans have a “dangerous impact”.

Now when I first saw this headline I nodded in mistaken agreement. Over recent years there have been increasing concerns about the safety of repeated ultrasound scans. Some ultra-cautious mums are already declining scans – not because there is a proven danger to the baby, but because there has never been any proof that there is NO danger to the baby. Some mums really are very, very cautious indeed and who are we to object?

“The docs have a point,” I thought. “Those amazing 4D scans could have hidden health risks that won’t turn up for years and years. Past experience with any kind of prenatal testing tells us that it’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

A shame really, as there are many American parents enjoying hours of harmless entertainment showing their baby’s first home video performance to their long-suffering friends and relations.

“No, stupid” said Mr J. “You’ve missed the point as usual.” I looked at the story again. “Oh,” I said.

The doctors are not the tiniest bit worried about these powerful electronic scans being dangerous to babies. The “danger” is that parents, friends, teenagers, children, grandparents, uncles and aunts – in short, the human race – will, when confronted with a movie of an unborn child below 24 weeks of gestation, be so struck by the sheer humanity of the baby that they will rise up and revolt against the prevailing pro-abortion culture in the UK today.

The “danger”, in other words, of these 4D scans is this: that they might start people thinking. People might start asking – just who are these little creatures, 186,400 of whom our hospitals sluice away every year?

Professor Peebles seems to think that if we see a photo of a baby sucking its thumb in the womb, we poor peasants might “think it is happy” and therefore foolishly think the baby is a human being.

“It’s that feeling which I think is extraordinarily dangerous,” he says. A scientist from Imperial College backed him up: “Personification of the foetus at that age is dangerous,” she echoed.

Dangerous to whom?

How dangerous is it for a baby in the womb for his mother to be aware of his responses to her mood? Every mother knows that when she is contented, the baby is contented. Every mother knows that a loud noise will make her baby jump. Observant mums notice that a sudden adrenalin boost for her means a jumpy baby ten minutes later. Is it dangerous, too, for mothers to know these things? Is it dangerous for babies, that mothers know these things?

No, but it is extremely dangerous to Professor Peebles. Because, you see, if we were all aware of how human an unborn child is, his abortionist friends would lose a lot of business.

In fact, if everybody really understood the ghastly human significance what the Prof’s friends in the clinics and “pregnancy advice centres” do for a living, they would quickly find themselves out of a job.

Yes, those 4D scans are dangerous indeed. What else does Professor Peebles want to stop us from knowing?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Goodbye Clover

Everyone else on the Catholic Herald is thinking about the dialogue between Christianity and Islam, but my heart is too full. Clover the guinea pig died last night. She was our last guinea pig.

I recall a Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strip about the death of a guinea pig called Fred. The children ask Daddy what will happen to Fred, and he tells them about decomposition and organic decay. The children ask Mummy, and she tells them that Fred will always live in their memories.

Finally the children ask Granny what will happen to Fred, and Granny tells them that Fred will go to “guinea pig heaven”. A wonderful picture shows Fred approaching the gates of Paradise, welcomed by St Peter and a smiling host of winged guinea pigs.

In the final frame of the cartoon strip, the children agree: “We like Granny’s idea best.”

I started keeping guinea pigs to help the children learn about caring and death, and ended up being more worried about them than anyone else. I know guinea pigs are not considered to be exciting animals but you see, Clover was an unusually brave, spirited and resourceful guinea pig.

She came to us five years ago as a refugee, because her first home was overcrowded. I hate keeping animals in solitary confinement, so we bought a companion for her, a very dull little guinea pig called Porridge.

One night Clover and Porridge were left out in their run on the grass by mistake. It was past midnight when I sat up in bed, remembering them. I rushed out barefoot: as I feared, the local urban fox had got there before me. Poor dim Porridge was gone.

But Clover was still there, and unharmed. The fox must have been planning to come back for her later.

For a guinea pig to survive a fox attack is quite unusual. Guinea pigs are not brave: they are famous for dying on the spot at the slightest provocation. But Clover was undaunted. She probably fought the fox off with her bare teeth.

A week later she revealed herself to be a girl with a past, producing two dear little babies from nowhere. The babies grew up and by the time we had the elder boy “neutralised” Clover had, uncomplainingly, given birth to four children. One died, two were given away and the favourite, Harris, stayed to keep her company.

Ever since Harris died last spring I agonised about finding a new companion for Clover – at first she seemed to go into a decline, losing half her hair. Guinea pigs are martyrs to skin problems, but was she grieving as well?

I had thought a guinea pig’s memory was not up to the complexities of grief, but now I am not so sure. As I agonised, Clover suddenly grew her hair back, regained her appetite and seemed to enjoy a merry widowhood until time took its toll.

For a Christian, pet-owning should be suffused with guilt, but not so much as to cause suffering. Keeping pets should not be about keeping them alive; it should be about providing the best, which means the most natural, life for them in the brief spell they have on earth.

Nobody who puts clothes on a dog, except in exceptionally cold weather, deserves to be called an animal lover; nobody who prolongs an animal’s life with medication that causes more discomfort than it relieves is genuinely an animal lover. And however adorable new kittens may be, nobody who allows an un-neutered tomcat to roam around can call themselves an animal lover.

Pets are a luxury which I fear we have no right to. Every time I put fresh Thames Water Authority H2O into Clover’s personal drinking fountain daily, the 6,000 children who die every day because they do not have clean drinking water would cross my mind. As I paid the bill for the mange treatment, I remembered the children dying of AIDS.

The guilt of knowing pets are a luxury should be enough to prevent us from spending money on pets which should be spent elsewhere (dog fashions, for example) and from making the animal suffer simply because we cannot face up to their death. But it should not prevent us from letting them live and die as they would wish to.

Goodbye Clover. With your two lovers, four children, your refugee and fox survival experiences, not forgetting your lawn-mowing hobby, you lived as full, passionate and useful a life as a rodent can hope for. You taught us much, and we shall miss you. And yes, we do like Granny’s idea best.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Remembering Look and Learn

Daily Mail, Saturday 16 September 2006

Some people remember the sixties for sexual liberty and fashion. For me,the 1960s meant returning home from school on Fridays to find that my mother had parked my Look and Learn magazine neatly on my bed, ready toread with a cup of tea and a jam sandwich.

For so many of my generation, it was a thick wodge of entertainment and gorgeously colourful Knowledge with a capital K. Call me a nerd, call me sad, call me an anorak or any of the names which my children are taught today to describe someone who wants to know stuff.

I don’t care. I loved my Look and Learn.Every week there was a new, eye-grabbing cover - always a painted illustration - promising some new insight into the world: a dramatichistorical battle, perhaps, or an impressive-sounding literary figure, or some exciting scientific discovery that was surely going to change theworld, like space travel.

Yes, some of the dense blocks of text were a bit dull. But the picture-spreads were always fantastic - informative, liberally captioned and lushly coloured.One week, a double-page spread showing how the Houses of Parliament work,another week, the inside of a fire engine.

There was lots of proper history, with pictures of kings thumping theirfists on tables - the emphasis on kings, and British kings too, would have lips curling among today's liberal education elite.We learned about citizens round the world; we followed the story of WorldWar I; we were awed by the achievements of the British Empire; we picked upa sense of pride in our country; we entered weekly competitions and wrote keen letters.

There were condensed versions of Dickens, cartoons strips of Shakespeareplays, and we were introduced to writers such as Jules Verne, NinaBawden, Willard Price and Gavin Maxwell.As the first editor David Stone put it: 'Look and Learn is not a comic, ora dusty old encyclopaedia pretending to be an entertaining weekly paper.'It is really like one of those fabulous caravans that used to set off tostrange and unknown places and return laden with all sorts of wonderful things. In our pages is all the excitement, the wonder, the tragedy and the heroism of the magnificent age we live in, and of the ages which make upthe traditions which shape all our lives.'

What mattered most was exciting our children about the world around them -however unpromising the subject matter. So, newsy, in-depth series about'great disasters of the world' might jostle alongside a long-running picture feature about the history of Britain’s major roads.

I mean, who would have the nerve to serve up 'The Bath Road Story' -literally the history of the A4 down the centuries - nowadays in a children’s magazine?

And if it all got a bit too much like hard work, well, there was the long-running 'Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire', the sci-fi comic stripat the back.

Who could resist romantically-dressed guys whizzing about in spaceships,long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away? And when the first Star Wars film came out in 1978, a lot of us wondered if George Lucas, its creator, hadbeen a Look and Learn child on the sly.

What will today's children - born more than a decade after the last issue- make of what was one of the most successful publishing ventures of itsday?

'What, no celebrities?,' the kids will cry. 'No vital facts about eachmember of the Arctic Monkeys! No fashion! No quizzes about "are you ready for sex"! No commercial tie-ins with the latest Play Station 2 games! Dense paragraphs made of nothing but words! What’s going on here?

Today's magazines seem to be directed at girls while boys spend their timeplaying violent games on the intenet. Obsessed with celebrities and sex,magazines such as Mizz and Top of the Pops, offer advice to preteen girlson make up and how to appear older than they are

One issue of Mizz showed a rap artist called Usher displaying his midriff and underpants as he advised a ten year old on her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. The quizzes - like the one we show on the right fromTop of thePops magazine - are about whether a celebrity might fancy you or not.

Little wonder polls repeatedly show parental concern about the explicit nature of these magazines.It is ironic too that, in the week Look and Learn announced it was to rise again, 110 childhood experts wrote a round robin letter to a national newspaper protesting against the decline of 'real' childhood.

True, there are still some areas where the Look and Learn banner is heldaloft. Television's Blue Peter is still with us - and is if anything betterthan ever before. Blackadder veteran Tony Robinson continues to fight almost single-handedly on TV for the minds of inquisitive children, withTime Team in which he looks at history through archeological digs.

Its critics will point out that Look and Learn was not politically correct; its world view was naïve, it was biased towards boys. Perhaps itwas; but more importantly it sent out the message that finding out aboutthings was the right way to go through life.

Sarah Johnson is author of Daring to be Different: Being a Faith Family ina Secular World

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Real Experience

Catholic Herald, 15 September 2006

One hundred and ten people with an interest in the welfare of children sent a letter to the Daily Telegraph this week complaining that children were being poisoned by junk food and computer games. They included popular children’s writers such as Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson as well as psychologists, scientists and child care gurus.
Not one church or religious leader was included in the list. Perhaps Philip Pullman, who is a particularly militant atheist, would have refused to sign anything contaminated by the touch of someone who believed in God. More likely, the organisers of the letter simply never thought of asking any religious leaders.
Children need, the letter argued, “first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives”.
Someone needs to point out to the signatories of the letter that children who are taken to church regularly get all this.
In church, they get a completely different sensory experience from any provided by the market-driven entertainment industry. They meet people of all ages, including the elderly, with whom children otherwise have increasingly little contact. They meet people from different social classes and people who have travelled from a different part of town. State school kids meet private school kids and vice versa.
They also, if their parish is well-run, have access to a range of “real” activities, clubs, prayer groups, carol singing outings; not to mention links with the wonderful, wickedly under-supported Scout movement, which has a healthy cross-denominational presence.
At the same time children who are taken to church regularly get a taste of the side of human life that is not dictated by money, celebrity and sex. They become aware of how lucky they are and how much they can do to help those less fortunate. They become aware, of course, of the unseen and spiritual. They also get to sing a bit.
In other words, going to church is a “real” experience like no other. It may not quite have the bracing outdoor quality of a hike over the moors, but it is one of the most consistent, easily experienced, family-strengthening and completely free activities open to parents and children. If not, the most.
So how much encouragement is there to parents to take their children to church? Or to any other place of worship?
Well, let’s take a look at some new guidelines just out from the Department of Education on school admissions and in particular on admissions to faith schools. Ever since the War on Terror began, the word “faith school” has become a term of abuse. Labour party apparatchiks and hangers-on like to pretend when they use it that they are referring to small, privately funded fundamentalist Islamic schools.
But in fact they are using the general alarm about these alleged “schools for suicide bombers” to beat all faith schools, including state-funded, profoundly regulated C of E and Catholic schools set up under the terms of the 1944 Education Act. It’s a very convenient little trick: to use public alarm about terrorism as a cover under which you can exact your revenge on the schools which turned down your child.
The latest guidelines propose that when a school is over-subscribed (and let’s face it, most voluntary aided Catholic schools are), children who attend church regularly should not get preferential treatment. Instead, the old methods of measuring distance from the child’s home to the school should be favoured.
The most generally obnoxious aspect of the ruling is the way in which the Government is taking it upon itself to re-define the terms of what makes a person a practising Catholic. The most seriously damaging aspect, however, is that genuinely devout parents who want a strong Catholic element in their school are to be shoved aside by parents who just remembered last month that they were Catholics, and had the money to move close to the school. And moving within the area really does need money, when the school is a good one.
Like many a Labour Party educationalist before, it looks as though Tony Blair is pulling up the ladder behind him.
Meanwhile the little incentive of attending Mass regularly because of “that school application form” and that longed-for priest’s reference is greatly diluted. I know it’s a bad reason to attend Mass. But I suspect that it’s one which has saved many a soul, and brought many a once-cynical lapsed Catholic back into the church, to their own surprise and joy.
I hope this nasty, unfair little piece of bossiness is roundly ignored by all Catholic schools sufficiently over-subscribed to do so. I also hope that in the next General Election, someone on the opposition side might speak up for faith schools and how they are the bright lights of our education system…but that might be expecting a bit too much.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The story of Sarah and John

Home Front, Catholic Herald 8/9/06

Is it really wrong for Tony Blair to want to trace the children most likely to fail in society from the womb? And is it going to make any difference?

I woke up late the other morning to hear Hilary Armstrong, the latest minister responsible for “social exclusion”, on my radio, repeating the Prime Minister’s promise to target troubled kids before they are even born. Just before her studio interview we heard from the kind of people whom, it is generally agreed, the system has failed.

Sarah, 37, is a recovering alcoholic but hasn’t had a drink for three years. Her son John’s childhood was spent largely in “homes”, and now he is an articulate 20 year old who loves his mum.

By 17 John was a young offender and was put on a structured programme with a strict incentive system which taught him much. But he feels it’s all too late - he’s a convicted criminal with no skills, no job and a terrible sense of a lost, wasted childhood.

It’s not that these people have lacked intervention in their lives. The children’s homes kept John out of harm’s way, in their fashion. But they also took away Sarah’s responsibility for him. There was “a man from SureStart who came round a few times and then stopped coming”, said Sarah. The trouble is, intervention has been consistently inconsistent.

John himself is very clear about his problems. (1): A mum until recently permanently sozzled. (2): No dad. “I’d have liked to have had a dad, someone to slap me in line when I done wrong,” he said. The young offender programme was the first intervention which “gave him someone to look up to”.

And (3): Not enough discipline or stimulus in school. “They put the naughty boys in with the slow boys,” he explained, “and you had to sit for half an hour waiting for the slow ones to catch up, and by then we was throwing rubbers about.”

So what (the Minister was asked) would the Government do now that it should have done in the past?

In reply, Hilary Armstrong offered an unworkable solution to (1) and just ignored (2) and (3).

Here’s how she did it: From now on, she promised, a mum like Sarah would get a “more personalised intervention”. She would be identified by a midwife as at risk because she was a teenage mum. Health visitors would “keep close contact” with her, teaching her to bond with her baby and “giving her more confidence and self-esteem”.

The new “personalised” approach, it seems, will force a lot of help on a few people, instead of offering a little to a lot of people. “Personalising” sounds like a new way of saying “cutting back”, doesn’t it? And since midwife numbers have been falling, just how are they suddenly going to acquire the new, clairvoyant powers required by Ms Armstrong’s system?

What about schools? Why has the barbaric practice of shoving tough “bad lads” like John into the same classroom as the easily-bullied slow learners, been permitted? Why do the exams get easier to pass every year, while kids like John are bored out of their skulls? The minister had nothing to say on the subject, nor was she asked.

So here we have an interesting dialogue. John begs for discipline. The minister talks about midwives. John asks for demanding school work that would lead him into a job. The minister talks about his mother’s need for bonding lessons. John wants a dad. The minister talks about his mother’s need for self-esteem.

Now it could be that the minister’s proposed self-esteem lessons have some room for advice on chastity and continence …but the fact is every attempt so far to introduce sexual abstinence programmes has been mocked and dismissed.

Yet this is exactly the self-esteem advice which might have helped Sarah to get herself the reputation of being the kind of girl a bloke might like to take up the aisle, rather than round the back of the bike shed. She might then have met a decent chap and married him. Then there would have been someone there for her and John through all those years. Someone to hide the gin bottle. Someone to tell John to get in line.

John did not ask for more professionals or for more benefits. He has asked, quite clearly, for discipline, for school work that does not insult his intelligence, and for a dad who won’t put up with any nonsense.

I have a terrible feeling that he, and his like, will never be heard.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Unexpected grace

Catholic Herald, 1 September 2006

When an apparently haphazard collection of circumstances combine in one moment of grace, it is time to question the apparent haphazardness, and to open up to the grace.

This occurred to me one evening this week while sitting among an audience in a darkened Norfolk church – an audience, not a congregation, mind you, for this was Art, not worship. After a short eternity of expectant silence we heard men’s voices raised in song, harmonising richly in a Latin chant. The voices drew nearer and a line of cowled figures appeared at the church door and glided up to a platform set up in front of the choir.

We had come to see a production of one of Benjamin Britten’s “church parables”, Curlew River, by a young company, Mahogany Opera. The church which lent itself for the performance was a mere stone’s throw from a genuine “curlew river” – the flat and wistful salt marshes of North Norfolk, which I’ve loved all my life, which many fall in love with (and near to which, alas, few nowadays can afford to live).

The story of Curlew River is very simple: a company of monks acts out a tale about a woman driven mad with grief at the loss of her only child. She hears of his sorry fate at the hands of a strange and savage kidnapper. She discovers that he is revered in death; she is visited and blessed by her child’s spirit, and her wits are restored.

The music is very Britten – hard to learn, but rewarding to sing and affording more sublime moments than anyone ever quite expects. I went home and started trying to find out more about Curlew River. It is not very often performed, perhaps because it is supposed to be done as a Japanese Noh play, which means that performers are required to go in for a lot more mannered posturing and stiff flapping of hands than we feel comfortable with these days.

But it was performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year, and Opera Now said: “A Christian reworking of the Noh play Sumidagawa, it centres on emotional reactions to the ill treatment and murder of a child - acts that, in themselves, call into question the existence and nature of an omnipotent and benevolent deity. The opera posits the idea of divine grace as being necessary to make such arbitrary cruelty bearable to those who live in its aftermath, though the austere, tortured music also leaves us questioning whether grace in itself is ever adequate for such a task.”

Isn’t it odd how both the opera critic and I saw and heard what we wanted to see and hear? After the Mahogany Opera monks had filed, chanting, out into the dark summer night at the end of their performance, leaving a beautiful stillness behind them, I was forcibly struck by the complete lack of irony in the work. I have no doubt that a professional opera critic, probably an atheist and far more musically knowledgeable than I, might well be “questioning” the existence of God and the adequacy of grace in his own mind, but I could not see how he could justifiably shoe-horn his own questions into this work.

If the monks were instead a band of psychotherapists, and their sung prologue had promised something on the lines of, “this is a story about closure and acceptance” I think the Opera Now critic would have been much happier with the piece. It is perhaps painful for modern music buffs to acknowledge that their musical heroes have genuine Christian faith, or at the very least a genuine respect for the tenets of faith.

Meanwhile, I found myself falling into the same kind of trap. An obsession with corrupted youth (and small boys in particular) runs through all Britten's work and I found myself jumping at the temptation to read into this particular choice of tale the self-lacerating guilt of a would-be paedophile. I thought better of it, for it must be as wrong to pick up a known aspect of any great man’s life, such as his sexuality, and fling it like paint at every piece of work he produces, as it is for a critic of no faith to superimpose his own "questioning" onto a composer who took faith seriously.

What this evening gave me was a sense of gratitude (and not just to my parents who bought us the tickets) - and grace. Here we are in a church built by medieval people, where memorials to an English nineteenth century naval hero mingle with crosses, hearing music sung and played by healthy young people from various far flung corners of the world with aspects of Western and Eastern culture thrown together.

And all in the name of God’s grace.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The last time I saw my eight-year-old daughter, she was being searched for explosives.

I peered down a short corridor into a security check area at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 1 where “Ums” – unaccompanied minors – are corralled. I saw her walk through the metal detector, a little unsteadily, perhaps because she was afraid that the sparkly bits on her teeshirt might set it off, or perhaps because she felt vulnerable without her shoes, which were being X-rayed.

If I craned my neck, I could just glimpse my baby holding her arms stiffly and nervously out to the sides. An unseen adult was subjecting her clothing and body to a close inspection.

For who knows? I might have decided to stay at home in comfort on 10th August while sending my precious home-birth baby to a horrible death, by secreting plastic or liquid explosives into her hair bobbles or in the buttons on her little crocheted cardigan (the one with the bow on front, purchased specially for making a smart appearance at her best friend’s home in Finland).

Once again we can trust no one and nobody…or can we?

It was a miracle my daughter arrived in Finland – with her luggage. The young German girl I was also responsible for – yes, I had chosen 10 August to see off two youngsters on two different flights - got home to Hamburg but her luggage is still enjoying an extended holiday in Heathrow.

(How it feels to have the job of informing 150 German and British business men and women that their laptops, BlackBerrys, PDAs and mobile phones, not to mention all their clothes, will be in the tender care of Heathrow baggage handlers for an unspecified time, I don’t like to think.)

Media reports talked of delays and the inconvenience of hand baggage restrictions. They rarely mentioned the real issue: the baggage handling system collapsed under the pressure of a doubling in volume. Heathrow dealt with the problem by the peculiarly British strategy of putting up a marquee and serving tea and biscuits.

I am astonished at how many parents still seemed doggedly determined to take small children off on what were fated to be unbearably stressful holidays. “This is a funny old time to be up, isn’t it,” cooed one young mum to her sleepy six month old, at 5am in the Terminal 1 throng. The baby gave her a dark look.

Quite clearly, passenger profiling is part of the answer to making air travel safe. Enough moaning about the “racism” of the practice, or what the UK’s top Asian policeman huffily calls “inventing an offence of flying while Asian”.

This is about religion, not race. The national reluctance to admit the importance of religion is time-wasting and dangerous. It is deeply embedded in our secularised society: religion is something that we “just don’t talk about”.

If passenger profiling were in place, I would not mind if unlikely suspects like my daughter were also occasionally pulled out of the queue and gone over with a toothcomb. I mean, if you are planning to traffic drugs, or to bring down a planeload of people, you surely seek the least likely suspects to do the job. We should expect the next suicide bomber to be a middle-aged blonde woman carrying a briefcase and snaps of her kids. Or, a horrible thought, even with the kids in tow.

Passenger profiling should be more about spotting anomalies; about subjecting the recent convert to Islam to the kind of polite but insistent inquiry which my husband met as a student flying to Israel to work on a kibbutz. A non-Jew joining a kibbutz? Not suspicious, but sufficiently different to be interesting.

El Al has been passenger profiling for decades and should surely be the first authority to consult on the issue. Anyone flying El Al expects to be questioned and observed far more intelligently and consistently than can be done by the standard technology-dependent Heathrow body search. After 9/11 many people expected other airlines to copy El Al’s ruthless security policies: it hasn’t happened yet.

Which is why this particular blonde middle aged woman was allowed to hang around in Terminal 1 for hours at the height of the crisis, with a capacious bag, unsearched and unchallenged by any of the many armed police: and it is why, as soon as anything does happen, our fragile air system simply seizes up.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


I have no doubt the bishops of England and Wales are always on the lookout for ways to improve their training in pastoral relations, so I offer an excellent field exercise for free.
It’s called the “No Alternative” or “Because We Do” scenario.

Take four children away for a weekend staying with friends in the country. Have a very jolly evening on Saturday night, perhaps slightly jollier than intended: “Another? Well, I’m not driving home...”

Forget completely about bedtimes, and eventually dispatch about a dozen exhausted children into various beds, sleeping bags and futons around the house, at around midnight.

Your mission, Your Grace: to get the whole lot of them to church next morning.

To add to the fun, you’re away from home and not 100% sure where the church is. We will deduct points for each minute you are late for Mass and you will lose a grade for each of “your” children whom you fail to bundle into the car…and out of it. Children posted in through the tailgate fast asleep in sleeping bags, and left outside the church, do not count as “active, conscious communicants”.

Now if all bishops in England and Wales were set this task once in their careers, they would never, never have even contemplated cutting back on Holy Days of Obligation.

Because – as Mr J and I were reminded forcefully last weekend, there is only one way in which this exercise can be accomplished.

“Why are we doing this?” wailed one groggy family member, surveying the red-eyed, tousle-haired, rag-tag-and-bobtail crew which emerged blinking into the sunlight outside a charming little Catholic chapel with one minute to spare on Sunday.

“Because we are Catholics and this is what we do,” Mr J. snapped back at me. “There is no alternative.”

The biggest difference visible to outsiders between the Catholic Church and the Church of England is not the clergy, not the liturgy, not the structure.

The biggest difference, and therefore the one most likely to be missed by people immersed in the ways of the Church, is that Catholics turn up. We go to church. We don’t just talk about it nostalgically or watch vaguely religious programmes on BBC1 as a substitute.

When I was an Anglican, I would wake up on a Sunday morning, and think “Hmm, shall I go to church today?”

As a Catholic, I wake up on a Sunday morning and think, “How are we going to make it to church today?”

From the very first minute that you are given permission to consider an act of worship optional, then from that moment onwards, dozens of other little obligations start to bob up their unsightly heads and cry out “Me too! I’m important too!”

And before you know it, the obligation to worship has been drowned in a sea of “must-do” items.

Time-management experts call it “controlling your diary” – the habit of independently establishing an absolute priority. It is very difficult to do this without an authority figure. Ask any writer who has tried to finish a book without a publisher or agent breathing over the shoulder.

People prioritise getting to work on time, because they don’t want to lose their job. Most children I know feel uncomfortable if they have not brushed their teeth, or washed their hands after going to the loo, because they have been drilled all their lives into doing it.

It is possible to raise children who feel uncomfortable, as adults, when a Sunday passes without worship. At the very least they ought to feel a twinge of guilt: “I have to make up for that somehow.” But to achieve even this level of commitment, an visible outside authority is essential. And, Your Graces, that means you.

Most Christian parents in the UK don’t go along with this. They would argue that a child raised in the “shall we go to church today?” ethos may become a fine young Christian and have more personal commitment to their faith than a child who has been “dragged along to church”. But these fine young Christians are a minority: they have held onto their faith despite, not because of, the absence of drilled-in habits.

The bishops would point out that they have no intention of doing away with the Sunday Mass obligation. What they don’t realise is that by raising the issue of HDOs at all, they have just made my life as a parent a little bit more difficult. To the keen legalistic eye of the average teenager, the principle has been established. Yesterday you said it mattered to go to Mass on Corpus Christi. Today you say it does not. Where will you stop?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Easing Labour's Pains - Catholic Herald 7 July 2006

My husband is better at explaining it: he has had more practice.

“Where’s Sarah?” someone will ask him at a party. “Well, she’s on call,” he will begin. Or, a couple of weeks ago: “She can’t do her Herald column because just as she’d written the first sentence her client rang to say she had started labour – and she knew this lady was a quick birther, so she had to run…” Baffled looks, or rather, baffled editorial noises down the phone.

What’s she on call for, exactly? “Er, she’s something called a doula…”

The name’s useless. A term invented by Californian doctors who thought, wrongly, it was Greek for midwife. “No, not a midwife…a kind of professional birth companion. She gets hired by mums to support them during their labour and birth.”

More bafflement. What, you mean she goes to hospital when the father doesn’t want to? Actually, the father’s usually there too. But surely there are midwives and doctors? Yes - but in hospital, you may be passed from midwife to midwife and may have met none of them before.

Studies have shown that women who are supported by a non-medical woman companion whom they know and trust are more likely to have a good, manageable labour and an uncomplicated birth. I became a doula because I reckoned that to communicate the joy of having children to more people when so many young couples think they are an expensive chore, this was surely the place to start.

Regrettably, midwives are not employed in the numbers needed to provide the personal touch they would love to offer. A typical doula client is seeking continuity. She usually wants as natural a birth as possible and fears that she will be bamboozled into unwelcome interventions.

She might want her back rubbed for hours, or simply to talk to a woman who’s been through it. Or she might “just want someone there to remind me I don’t want an epidural”.

Above all, she wants her baby’s birth to matter. Few people realise that getting the birth environment right is not an optional, New-Age-y bit of frippery: it is an essential. Ask any herd animal.

We are the only mammal who regards birth as a cue to drive through heavy traffic to a huge building full of strangers and machines. We are also the only mammal who does this, and is then amazed that the mum’s labour halts, or becomes more stressful. When a birthing antelope senses danger, her labour halts. We are not so different.

We are the only mammal deliberately to surround birth with fear, horror and obscure technical language. “Fear not,” the angel said to Our Lady: and so she didn’t. Why do we?

There are a few professionals who still don’t get it. The first midwife I encountered was also the worst: discouraging, noisy, smug and newly qualified, therefore she Knew Everything. She treated the birth room as if it were her hairdresser’s. She chatted for three solid hours about herself; her ski-ing holidays, her favourite music (Dido, as I recall) and her determination not to have children: “all those smelly nappies, and childcare’s so expensive”.

This staggeringly tactless monologue was delivered, mind you, to a single woman who had bravely set her face against advice to solve her accidental pregnancy with an abortion. Not surprisingly, the mum lost touch with her labour rhythm and, rendered as helpless as a beached whale by the Midwife From Hell’s enthusiastic topping-up of the epidural fluid, she could not give birth.

“But what would have happened to me a hundred years ago?” asked the bewildered mother as they wheeled her to the emergency C-section. “Ooh, lots of women used to die, all the time,” said the Midwife from Hell with glee.

Thank heaven many midwives have the great gift to be still, be watchful and to create an atmosphere of respect. Midwifery is often the art of doing as little as possible - and the first thing a doula needs to learn is to sit still and shut up.

The greatest surprise to me has been the spiritual beauty of my clients – not only the women but the men, too. It gives me great faith in human nature to see tough, wisecracking City slickers turning into tender, patient companions; to see intellectual women discovering their own physical strength, and being overwhelmed by emotions they never knew before. It is like watching people becoming whole.

The real drawbacks are the tense weeks of being “on call” for someone whose family life becomes virtually as important our own. Everything has to be planned – childcare, family menus, school runs.

What’s more, “on call” means weeks of a fairly puritanical regime – you don’t want to be breathing Sauvignon Blanc into a labouring woman’s face. You cannot nip off for a weekend. As you stuff your doula bag under your seat in the theatre, you realise you have already mentally measured the precise distance between the auditorium and the client’s home.

But despite the inconvenience, the immense privilege of being in that room - where a woman’s entire being is turned inward, her sense of time and place shrunk to the here and now, her “thinking brain” virtually at rest while her inner self brings forth new life - is something I will never be tired of. There is holiness in a room where a woman is birthing without fear. It’s a privilege I am glad to be hooked on.


Black is the old black

Home Front, Catholic Herald, 14 July 2006

“Mum, you’re dressed like a stagehand again,” said my older daughter reprovingly. She’s right: black teeshirt, black jeans…I look as though I am auditioning at the Black Theatre of Prague.

Despite the fact that modern dye techniques offer us every colour in the rainbow and many that the rainbow hasn’t thought of, such as taupe, moss and Barbie pink, it is terribly easy to end up wearing nothing but black. And there certain kinds of people who wear almost nothing but black as a point of principle.

“When you said there would be lots of unmarried men who look good in black,” a single woman friend said wryly, surveying my last book launch party, “you were being rather economical with the truth.”

For indeed, priests are only one group of people who wear black all the time: others include old Greek and Italian ladies, puppeteers, roadies, Goths and now, I discover, Emos.

I am learning about Emos from my Rock Star nephew, who is 17 and staying with us at the moment, along with three guitars and an amplifier. “Emos have hair down over their eyes and they wear black,” he said.

“Isn’t that what Goths do?”

“Yes, but Goths wear different sorts of black, and different sorts of hair. Most importantly, Emos are more open with their emotions. That’s why they are called Emos.”

I was not aware that teenagers were ever particularly hot on hiding their emotions. On the contrary, living with teenagers is like living on the set of East Enders: every half hour someone is telling someone else that the other someone has ruined the first someone’s life, and a door is slammed. Diddle-diddle-dee-dee-dee…

Now this idea of being defined by the colour you wear, especially when it is a colour so widely available as black, is one not to be undertaken lightly. Do Emos ever worry about being mistaken for elderly Greek ladies? Do Greek widows ever get mistaken for Goths? What if circumstances force you to adopt another colour, temporarily? What do Goths and Emos wear when, for example, playing tennis? Are you still a Goth if you are wearing a school regulation pleated blue skirt?

Which reminds me - the best advice I’ve come across on living with tribalised teens is to make sure they hang onto one part of their life which is ordinary and bourgeois. Don’t ditch the cello lessons. Hang onto that sensible white tennis skirt. Always write thank you letters, even if these days you only write in your own blood.

G. K. Chesterton would have understood what Goths and Emos are saying about clothing. He felt that the meaningless formality of late 19th century clothing was a symptom of society’s alienation and loss of spiritual and national rootedness, and compared his contemporaries unfavourably with a less ironic, medieval attitude.

In The Napoleon of Notting Hill he envisaged London’s boroughs becoming a cluster of warring city states, led by latter-day knights dressed in brilliant liveries. Though absurd, Chesterton’s intention was to show how even this way of carrying on was less absurd than the fashions of his day. Surveying the real London full of men dressed in indistinguishable black frock coats, he reasoned: “What is inherently more absurd – the tailored trousers or the gracefully falling medieval robe?”

The answer, were Chesterton alive today to provide it, would be that something even more absurd than either the tailored trousers or the robe has to be that universal male garment, the three-quarter-length shorts, adorned with guy-ropes and pockets that were originally intended for use by mountain climbers or soldiers on exercise.

The eight year old came home from a “learning about Islam” school trip, clutching that hoary old standby of religious education – a colouring book.

What is it with RE and colouring-in? Colouring-in is the most tedious task of childhood, yet it seems impossible to advance through religious education without it. Why do the catechists of all religions firmly believe that spirituality is inextricably linked with a youth spent in the wrist-aching job of crayoning acres of blue sky? Are religious education teachers all sponsored by Crayola?

How many six to eight year olds, in any religion, experience their first taste of heresy when it occurs to them that if they got their paints out they could have the whole job done in a couple of minutes, and with a more striking result? Given the choice, any child would always prefer to draw the picture from their own imaginations and add colours as they see fit.

Possibly, colouring-in is seen as a way of forcing a child to remain looking at a particular image for a relatively long time, burning it onto the subconscious. It might equally result in a child becoming so heartily sick of working on a flat, bland image that he or she resolves never to have anything to do with it again.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Home Front 7 July 2006

I never thought a daughter of mine would turn to me after a TV programme and ask, “So Mum, which is your favourite nun?”

As we unwillingly bid goodbye to Big Sister (aka The Convent, BBC 2), the Poor Clares, whose Arundel convent is the star of the show, have a great deal to be proud of. They have destroyed every unpleasant fantasy misconception about nuns and convents. They have, with their wisdom and perceptive guidance of the four “ordinary” (i.e. only mildly bonkers) women granted the opportunity to live their lives for six weeks, shown that you do not have to be a woman “of the world” to understand the world.

It is impossible to choose, but if we had been asked to send text message votes, Sister Aelred might score as one of our “favourite nuns”. It was she who, in answer to the question “What do you wear under your habits?” gracefully hitched hers up to reveal a bright flowery petticoat.

The programme has been a great hit among my teenage daughter’s friends and now the sisters are sensibly making the most of the experience with information leaflets and an enhanced web presence.

Meanwhile, of the four guests, none are untouched by their experience: even Angela, the competitive businesswoman who couldn’t get into prayer, has been inspired to set up a new company called Clothes4Dogs. Yes, you read that right.

Angela is single and childless, and while in the convent decided to “make the commitment to get a dog, which was something she had always wanted to do but couldn't due to the demands of her job.” She obtained a rescue dog called Daisy and gave up her high-pressure job.

She dotes on Daisy and decided to create a fashion label specially for her. She is much happier now: and I’m certainly not going to be the one who tells her that clothes are simply the last thing dogs want.

So far we’ve had The Monastery…The Convent… someone somewhere must be planning a series doubtless to be called The Seminary. Hey, we could vote for the seminarian we think most likely to get through the seven years and be ordained…

Priest Idol, anyone?

Now that my family is allowing me to think about something other than football, I can relax and give a little sympathy to the poor England team It’s so easy to laugh at all those people with their brave little red and white flags sticking up from their car roofs. As for the footballers…there seems to have been a general belief that the World Cup was theirs for the taking for the sole reason that the year ends in a 6… And they say we Christians are superstitious. It is so easy to laugh at footballers - so let us not.

Let us imagine, instead, what we would do if a pair of Posh’n’Becks lookalikes, in age, tastes, income and lifestyle, were to move into our parish and begin attending our church. How would you greet them? Is there not – be honest – a sizeable majority of the congregation who would derive huge pleasure from sniggering at them behind their backs?

For P’n’B’s weddings, parties and the names and toys they give their children, including a playhouse that would safely accommodate several families of Sudanese refugees, are all ridiculous. Interestingly, people do not laugh at them simply because they are rich. Ever since the word “chav” entered our language, it has become socially acceptable to laugh at people because they are poor, ignorant and have bad taste.

Yet where he was once silly, vain and petulant, Becks is now a dignified, statesmanlike chap with a normal haircut. Watching him pacing nobly onto the pitch last Saturday it occurred to me that possibly Posh has got wind of the fact that, were David to acquire a knighthood, she would become Lady Beckham, and has communicated this desire to him in no uncertain terms.

But perhaps that’s unkind: the bottom line is that they are a solid young couple who have grown and matured. They married first and had children afterwards, in that order. They have shown genuine determination not to let their marital troubles split them up. Posh may boast proudly that she has never read a book, but she shows genuine pleasure in her children, and both work hard for their livings in their way. Yet admit it: if they moved into your village or town, you’d have a good snigger, would you not?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

dawn chorus

Catholic Herald, 23 June 2006

The dawn chorus began at 3.30 this morning when an insanely driven car with a faulty silencer drove over my duvet at 70mph. OK, the car didn’t actually enter the room, but on these balmy nights, a particular style of driving gives a person sleeping in the upper floor of a corner house on a normally peaceful street the powerful sensation of being in the middle of the M25.

A couple of seconds later a motorbike passed, equally furiously, in the same direction, probably ridden by a determined policeman. Two squad cars began calling from opposite sides of the borough. An aerial “chugga-chugga” noise heralded our friendly neighbourhood police helicopter, equipped with its familiar searchlight, which circled us for an hour like a guest who won’t quite go home: every now and again he raises your hopes, making a little sally as though looking round for his coat – then he thinks of another important point he wanted to make, and turns back.

I closed my eyes and imagined the person who had orchestrated this symphony: probably under 25, undoubtedly male, and driving a stolen car. Was this his first time? Probably not, if the daredevilry of his driving is anything to go by. Did he have passengers? Was someone’s daughter clinging to the passenger seat beside him, wondering where her night out went wrong?

We all need to feel that special frisson down our spines a few times in our lives – the sense that we have taken on a great task and might succeed, but also might fail. Life for children today is notoriously lacking in danger. So where does my dawn joyrider go for excitement? Where has he felt goose bumps on the back of his neck? Most likely, when defying the law: squaring up for a fight with a playground rival, running from a shop before being caught with his loot, seeing the bright flick of a knife in the hand of a boy from another gang – these are, I thought sadly, the only experiences which have made him feel alive.

A teenage boy nowadays stands between two impossibles: the bland world of school and authority, where every risk is assessed, every playground stripped of anything that a child could fall off; or the genuinely dangerous and thrilling world of the street.

With this thought in mind, I – and my family – have become somewhat hooked on a TV series about a choir. “The Singing Estate” (Five, 8pm, Sunday) began with conductor Ivor Setterfield holding open auditions in the Blackbird Leys Estate in Oxford – in order to train a choir of supposedly complete beginners to sing Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Royal Albert Hall.

The gimmick of the programme is that in episode 1, most of the auditionees started out with no idea how to sing at all. Many could not read music. Few knew anything of classical music. Most had no idea how to follow a conductor. Yet hidden beneath the strangled howls and would-be Kylie noises were real voices, even one really fine tenor.

In episode 2 Setterfield took his embryonic choir on an inspirational visit to Italy, where they experienced “goosebump moments” and excitement such as my poor joyrider could never imagine. On their first evening, a top Italian tenor walked into the restaurant where they were eating, and sang “Nessun Dorma” at full stretch; several choristers simply burst into tears.

There were more tears on a visit to La Scala in Milan: the splendour, the size and the cultural distance of it from the 1960s tower blocks that make up the Blackbird Leys estate was emotionally overwhelming. Crying when you walk into La Scala is a sure sign that a love affair with “difficult” music is in the air.

But then the choristers blew it, by going out on the town, and thus wrecking their voices for the next day’s scheduled al fresco performance…which was consequently a disaster.

All very contrived for TV, of course, and the programme rather exaggerates the non-musical backgrounds of the choristers: in truth, nearly all of them have sung before, notably with church choirs. But it is deeply moving to see young people who have never before met a seriously uncompromising teacher, and older people who had forgotten how to try hard at something, deal with such a challenge. And – more importantly – deal with failing, feeling humiliated, then rallying and coming back to the challenge again.

I wonder if my dawn joyrider can sing.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Exam Hell

Catholic Herald, 9 June 2006

We prayed for young people having exams last Sunday: I very much hope you did too. Unlike women in childbirth, who are woefully under-represented, students have a whole team of patron saints on their side – and now, more than ever, they need them and they need your prayers. Exams are not fun any more.

I used to enjoy exams. They were the nearest thing, I reasoned, to going into battle which I was ever likely to experience. In the old days, you spent the evening before the exam re-reading and re-reading the notes you’d written during lessons over the previous years. In the morning you got up early and dressed with care like a knight putting on his armour.

Breakfast was equally ritualistic, a French vocabulary book open by the plate and your stomach churning with adrenalin. Bright-eyed teenagers gathered at the school gate, chattering excitedly, our clear plastic pencil bags, the special insignia of the warrior, clutched in our hands. The sun always shone, the birds sang and there was a bright, fierce scent of battle in the air as we wished each other good luck, as though we would never set eyes on each other again.

It got even better at Oxford, where we really did have to put on a sort of medieval armour – dark suits and incongruous white ties for the lads, and for the girls black skirts and ties or bows adorning an amazing range of garments all loosely conforming to the rubric “a white blouse”.

Whatever the weather, the ensemble was topped off with an academic gown - for some of us (cough, cough), a calf-length scholar’s number billowing and fluttering through the Examination Schools corridors with glorious intellectual snobbishness; and of course everybody had to wear an absurd hat. Most difficult public occasions are made bearable by the wearing of an absurd hat, as High Court Judges, Fr Kit Cunningham and ladies at Royal Ascot can all agree.

From the moment you woke up, therefore, you were playing the part of the person sitting an exam, and best of all everybody in town knew what your role was just by looking at you. I liked to believe (probably erroneously) that kind motorists would note the wobbly girl cyclist in the black and white get-up and give her an extra wide berth. I hope they did.

But in those days exams came not more than every two or three years. Now they are with us constantly. They never go away. Even notwithstanding the plethora of lesser tests such as SATs, as soon as a teenager has done GCSEs they are plunged into AS levels, then A-levels. There is no longer a pleasant lower-sixth year when a young person can throw himself or herself into the school play, or the cricket team, without fear of losing marks in some trumped up subject that will be completely outdated in ten years’ time, like ICT or Travel and Tourism. The more exams we have, the less proper knowledge our children seem to be allowed to acquire.

In addition we are subjected to a year-round drip-drip of coursework deadlines which, as we move through the year, by turns threaten, then glower, then loom and finally pass (sometimes in deadly silence) in an almost weekly cycle. The tyranny of coursework is one of the worst aspects of the current system. From my very small sample of the teenage population, it seems that girls easily become obsessive about coursework, staying up late into the night perfecting their offering despite pleas from parents; while boys are constantly astonished to discover that deadlines which were written into the calendar over a year ago really do, eventually, arrive. I accept that my sample may not be reliable - but I resent the way that exams have crept, by means of coursework, from their traditional summer domain to squat toad-like on family life across the whole year.

All my exam-passing techniques of old seem to be useless: Examiners are paid a pittance for each script and have no time for cleverness, so any attempt by one’s child to be original or to discuss, say, the Second World War beyond “what Sir said we have to learn” is quashed. French vocab books have been replaced by brightly coloured revision guides with titles like “GCSE French In A Week”. “No good for us,” commented the mother of one of my son’s friends. “It’s ‘GCSE in Three Days’ we need now.”

So please pray for our young people; please call with me on Saints Benedict, Catherine of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, Jerome, John Bosco, Thomas Aquinas, Brigid of Ireland – and (in our case at least) not forgetting St Jude Thaddeus - to give them courage and a brave, cheerful heart as they go into battle on these cruelly sunny June mornings.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Opus Domi

Catholic Herald, 12/5/06

Today I am waiting in for the dishwasher man. Six weeks of living without a functioning dishwasher have been salutary. Apart from the fact that our electricity usage took a nice little dive, it was interesting to discover that our children, despite annual no-frills holidays, still do not know how to wash up. Nor do they see any reason why they should wash up as long as their parents seem able and willing to do it for them.

“We teach our children almost nothing beyond cleaning their teeth,” fulminated the kitchen guru Prue Leith in the Financial Times at the weekend. “We cherish the freedom to live in a mannerless tip…yet schoolchildren are so overprotected out of the home that they many not go on a swing unless it has a cushioned floor beneath it.”

Ouch. It was with a chastened heart that I went along to the first Excellence in the Home conference at a grand Kensington hotel, where Mrs Leith was booked to expand the theme of her wonderful Financial Times article.

This is the kind of thing I normally dread. It should have made me feel inadequate and scruffy. A sea of well-groomed catering and education and corporate professionals in suits and pearls (though fewer pearls on the men) greeted the inspirational speakers: Ms Leith herself; a brilliant keynote speech on the balance between body and soul, from Tom Hibbs, a Texan professor of ethics; even a “chefs forum” on what professional chefs get up to at home.

And here’s the funny thing – I didn’t feel inadequate and scruffy at all. Well, I felt a little scruffy – maybe my favourite birdwatching anorak isn’t quite Royal Garden Hotel style. But otherwise I felt energised and inspired. On the bus home, I found myself devising a five-day crash course in self-maintenance and home skills with which to keep the sixteen-year-old busy when he’s finished his GCSEs. I now feel utterly determined to get my children learning to cook, to shop wisely, to keep their home and selves clean and comfortable because I’d been made to realise that home skills matter. Yes! The skills I’ve wasted so many years trying to cram into as little time as possible before doing “real” work really, really matter.

Excellence in the Home, which looks like becoming an ongoing series of events, is taking the Jamie Oliver phenomenon a step further; it is the sort of event which the Women’s Institute ought to be organising, but doesn’t. Also it has a genuine international dimension – there were delegates from all continents, even New Zealand.

So who organised it? None other than the Dawliffe Hall Educational Foundation, which has an excellent background in organising inspirational speaker meetings and conferences of a smaller scale, but has never done anything quite as big as this before. DHEF organises the kind of events which you drag yourself to thinking, “Why on earth do I want to spend a day listening to speakers talking about parenting?” and afterwards skip home crying “Hallelujah! There are other parents having the same problems as me – and we can solve them!” Which of course, you knew all along but didn’t quite believe.

Now, as some readers will know, the DHEF is – how do we express this? – inspired by Opus Dei. It would be inaccurate to say it is “run by” Opus Dei. But I do not think DHEF will quibble if I say that it is part of the Opus Dei family. Its energetic leading lights are all Opus Dei stalwarts.

This fact was not mentioned in any of the Excellence in the Home literature. Even the guest speakers, I discovered in conversation with one of them, had not been informed of it.

Meanwhile the film of the world’s worst-written and most obnoxious thriller, The Da Vinci Code, is opening all over the country. A whole generation of gullible people will believe from this month forwards that (a) Jesus married Mary Magdalene and (b) Opus Dei is staffed by murderous monks.

Well, I looked very hard round the Excellence in the Home conference and I swear I did not see one murderous monk, albino or no; yet at a time when their reputation needs all the help it can get, Opus Dei seem strangely, pointlessly even, reluctant to allow their connection with an entirely laudable initiative such as Excellence in the Home to be known.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Why get married?

When the Commission for Social Justice, the highly praiseworthy organisation set up by the Catholic MP Iain Duncan Smith as soon as he had been released from the shackles of being the leader of the Conservative Party, announced last week that according to its researches, “family breakdown” was a big problem, it was quite hard not to think, “Mmm, yes, we had noticed, actually.”

But to do the CSJ’s Family Breakdown Group justice, they made a much more forceful point than most politicians have been prepared to do for many years.

Thanks to the twin political monsters of fear of discrimination (on the Left) and a fervent belief in libertarianism (on the Right) politicians of all colours have had a habit of regarding the break-up of relationships as a personal matter in which the Government has no business making judgements.

The worst thing you can do is to “stigmatise” someone (interesting religious analogy, that) – especially a poor single mother. Following on from that it has been standard practice, in issues of public policy, to lump together all single parents as being equally vulnerable and deserving of special pity: from the vulnerable teenage mum whose baby gives her the total love she has never known from anyone else, all the way to the face-lifted trophy wife suing her husband for £5 million after kicking him out to make room for her personal trainer.

And following on from that, the problem of couples not sticking together tends to be regarded as just one of those things in society that we have to get used to.

No, says the CSJ. We do NOT have to get used to it. Even more, we have to stop it happening. “Public policy goals, such as the elimination of child poverty and improvement in educational standards, are being undermined by what has happened to the two-parent family.”

So instead of treating the fact of family breakdown as an unfortunate side-show and child poverty as the main event, a Government should regard family breakdown as the main problem to be tackled. This is a refreshing departure from the sticking-plaster attitude of most public policy on social issues; let’s hope that the Tories and other parties take notice of it.

The CSJ makes the important observation, that divorce is no longer what splits families – because there are fewer people getting married in the first place.

Couples who never marry are five times more likely to split up than married couples, and couples rarely stay unmarried and together for over ten years – they generally either split up, or decide that after ten years they finally know each other to take the great leap of marriage.

I have the impression that a great deal of Church energy has been directed over the years at the issue of divorce and remarriage as regards the gravity of the sacrament. But I wonder if this long debate has been at the expense of getting another, more urgent message across: the reasons why couples should get married in the first place.

Once upon a time it was too obvious to mention. But time has worn away the obvious reasons so that they are not immediately apparent to children, or even to people in their twenties and thirties.

There is an entire industry besieging young people with advice on marriage; books, magazines, websites, entire consultation services of every possible type. But nobody ever seems to bother to spell out to them why they should get married. Nearly all “relationships advice” has to tiptoe round the fact that marriage is better for everyone – men, women and – especially - children.

Much damage has been done by our accursed addiction to embarrassment: The term “partner” has more or less replaced “spouse” not for reasons of accuracy, but because we are afraid to assume a couple are married when they are not.

It is a mystery to me why we don’t work a little harder to explain to the wider public why marriage works. Standing up in public announcing an intention to stick together is still the best method ever devised of cementing a couple. The Church’s answer to the glib “why should we get married?” should always be – “But why not?”