The Church of England and complementarity

The Church of England tries to dismiss Cameron’s latest drive for gay marriage:

However, the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation.

This argument simply doesn’t work. Because other things that embody the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women are korfball and mixed-voice choirs. Sure, you could play korfball with all-male or all-female teams, as indeed you could make up a choir with all-male or all-female voices. But it wouldn’t be the same, eh?

Incidentally, I can’t be the only person that was amused by the use of the adverb ‘explicitly’ to describe ‘the biological union of man and woman’ 😀

Three Christmas carols you may not have heard before

As a sometime treble and adult chorister, music plays a big part in the spirit of Christmas. However, it’s possible to get tired of the same repertoire being used over and over again. Yes, I know Rutter’s a genius, but – dare I say it? – a lot of his work is pretty tedious and formulaic, mass-produced for choirs of average ability to churn out with their eyes closed.

So I thought I’d present my three favourite Christmas carols for no particular reason other than I love them and you may not have heard them before.

1. O Adonai by Roderick Williams

Oh, how I love Roderick Williams. I first came across him when our choir was asked to sing with Paco Peña in a performance of his Requiem for the Earth. And Roderick sang the brief baritone solo that forms part of one of the movements. So I was pleased to learn that he’s a composer too.

His O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel was on a CD that a friend lent me and it’s the standout track of that compilation. He creates an enormous soundscape from a simple element, sung by a solo soprano, that builds to incorporate the entire choir and then fades away into nothingness. I imagine it’s fantastically hard to sing well.

You can hear it here.

2. Away in a Manger by Sir John Tavener

We all know Away in a Manger. David Willcocks wrote a wonderful arrangement with a lovely lyrical tenor line, but most often we end up singing it in unison as a congregation hymn. So it’s a bit surprising that John Tavener came across the words long before he came across the music. When he did finally hear the music, he felt that it was wrong; it didn’t fit the words properly.

Hence his version, which is uniquely Tavener. It turns its three verses into something that manages to be completely timeless and beautiful. You’ll never want to go back to the other versions again.

You can hear it here.

3. What Sweeter Music by John Rutter

Having slammed Rutter in my introduction, I’ll forgive him for What Sweeter Music. Written for King’s, it is starting to find its way into the modern repertoire. It’s far from ‘classic Rutter’. It’s a lot harder, to begin with, and it develops a more complex set of harmonies rather than sticking to one throughout.

Of the three in my list, you may have heard this one before (I’d say “stop me” except this is the end of the list in any case).

You can hear it here.


I remember, one time, the Dead Dad killed a duck.

We were on our way home from a night out, at the cinema or theatre. It had been a pleasant family evening out. A duck was in the road, and didn’t disperse as quickly as it needed to.

The Dead Dad stopped the car. We didn’t really know what was going on. But, looking out the side window, I saw a duck bleakly looking up as the Dead Dad alternately twisted its neck and punched it in the head.

I still don’t really understand why or how he did it.

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Jimmy Savile

At the time of writing, we don’t yet know whether the allegations that are being made against Jimmy Savile are true. I was always terrified of him as a child. Even as a ten year old, I didn’t like the way he had children draped over his chair while he grabbed their legs and puffed away at his cigar. I asked the Dead Dad about it. He said that he was just weird. Some people are just weird, and it’s best to avoid them.

There’s a school near where I live where the new chair of governors was… well, weird. He gave off a bad vibe. He asked whether he would be able to accompany the year 5 class to their week-long residential retreat. The headteacher said yes, and arrangements were made. Some of the teachers at the school were concerned as something simply didn’t feel right. But nobody said anything.

And then, with less than a week to go before the trip, his CRB check came in. He had failed. He resigned as chair of governors on the spot, and that was that.

I don’t think it’s healthy for us to rely upon government to tell us who are paedophiles and who aren’t. As parents, as teachers, as scout leaders, as Sunday School helpers, it’s up to us to use our intuition and not allow the children within our care to come to harm. Governments tend to be incompetent at the best of times. Why leave something so important up to them?

I’d like to think that, had my letter been accepted on Jim’ll Fix It, the Dead Dad would have insisted that we did something else that day instead.


It’s an age-old debate in which there can be no winners, only losers. Just how do you pronounce “Greenwich”?

There is debate about the first syllable. Is it “Grin” or is it “Gren”? And there is debate about the ending. Is it “-idge” or is it “-itch”? That gives you four possible pronunciations and adherents of each will tell you that theirs is the one true path. All others are too posh, too working class, only used by those originally from outside south-east London or are simply wrong. I was born in south-east London but might find it difficult to defend against a charge of poshness. However, my way is the right way. You’ll just have to guess which.

Today at church we had an honoured guest to give the sermon: The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean at St Paul’s Cathedral. His early work was in neighbouring Deptford, so he really ought to be an important source for determining the right pronunciation. Unfortunately, there was a much more extraordinary episode which blasted any recollection of how he might have pronounced “Greenwich” from my mind.

Our church is named for the 11th century saint, St Alfege. Which Dr Ison insisted on pronouncing “AL-pheege” putting him, I might suggest, in a class of one, with the rest of the world pronouncing his name “AL-fedge”. Regrettably, he used Alfege’s name throughout his sermon, and it was quite amusing to watch the vicar trying to decide whether to interrupt and correct him or whether to let him plough on. He went for the latter and simply rolled his eyes, winced a bit and then tried to look elsewhere. Members of the congregation exchanged glances and shrugged.

Word to the wise: if you’re going to give a sermon at somebody else’s church, it’s a good idea to double-check their preferred pronunciation of the saint to which that church is dedicated.

St Alfege is holding a restoration appeal to fix the eastern front of this fine Nicholas Hawksmoor church. Please give generously if you can.

Science and philosophy. A Hackney SITP review

Tonight I made it, somewhat late (sorry), to see Clio Bellenis present on “Is philosophy relevant to science?” at Hackney SITP. This is a subject that has huge resonance for me. For I was once a student of science who became increasingly disenchanted with the subject and who took up philosophy in order to provide some answers to the questions I felt science was unable to answer. And, having started studying physical science at university, I ended up with a degree in philosophy, to the great disappointment of my parents.

So it was with great anticipation that I turned up to the friendly Hackney SITP to see Dr Bellenis speak. Boy, was I disappointed. After (rightly) putting the boot in to Professor Brian Cox for his idiotic attack on philosophy, she gave a very muddled presentation that touched on philosophy of mind and the free will/determinism debate but which managed to avoid any discussion at all about philosophy of science. In the questions that followed, Dr Bellenis presented some astonishingly facile arguments against the existence of God [“He is logically impossible, unless He is a sadist. If God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, how can there be suffering in the world? He must be evil. Therefore God cannot exist” This argument manages to undervalue the concept of freedom. Every parent knows that it’s better for their child to be free to make mistakes than to be constrained], railed against grammar school tests and, most irritatingly of all, stated that she knew very little about philosophy of science.

Given that this was supposed to be the subject of her presentation, I felt this to be a very major failing. I do prefer it when speakers at this sort of event manage to answer the exam question they have set for themselves.

An alternative approach might have been to identify a few reasonable but controversial propositions that scientists might make and then test them using philosophy. For example:

  1. “Science is the only way to acquire knowledge”. This could have allowed discussion of alternative methods of knowledge-acquisition and whether they are, philosophically speaking, as valid as science. What gives science its higher position, if anything? The work of Paul Feyerabend would be a good reference here. Shouldn’t we be open to mad approaches to knowledge acquisition if they produce information that is useful? Even religious approaches?
  2. “The empirical method is infallible”. This could have allowed discussion of some of the challenges to empiricism. In particular, the work of Thomas Kuhn (which Dr Bellenis sadly misused horribly in the question and answer session: paradigm shifts are fundamental changes in the building blocks of science, not a change from one theory to another. [Incidentally, Kuhn is poison for most skeptics, who do seem to prefer the idea of a linear progression towards perfect knowledge. I do wonder why he’s so popular with them]), which suggests that science can be very bad at analysing evidence fairly, especially when it contradicts the major theories of the day. Conflicting theories often don’t get a fair assessment until there are so many holes in traditional science that it becomes untenable. Doesn’t this mean that scientists should be more receptive to radical, unconventional theories today?
  3. “Only those things that can be replicated using the scientific method shall be considered true”. This could have allowed discussion of logical positivism, which seems to curry favour with some more radical skeptics today, even though the theory has fallen into disrepute in modern philosophy. But what can replace it? What are the implications for science?

Now it’s been some 20 years since I studied philosophy of science, so I’m a bit rusty, I know. But, in my view, this would have provided a much more stimulating framework for discussion of the relationship between science and philosophy than Dr Bellenis’s rather incoherent presentation. Ultimately science doesn’t need philosophy, just as it doesn’t need history or politics. But it’s much, much stronger for taking account of it.

Many thanks to the lovely Alice Sheppard for arranging tonight’s presentation and for making Hackney SITP an essential part of the monthly calendar.

Music and emotion

At university, I sang first tenor in a college choir. The college choral scene is a fairly mercenary affair and many colleges seek to bolster their ranks with choral rejects from colleges with a much better singing tradition. And so it was that I, an outsider, shared the pews with two other outsiders. One was a third year English student, distant heir to a brewing fortune and quite possibly the most intelligent and insane person I have ever met. The other was a PhD candidate whose thesis covered the relationship between music and emotion.

Now, you must understand, I have not always been the calm, measured person I am now. At some point, we got to discussing his thesis and I didn’t agree with him. I was polite enough not to come to blows; after all, I had to sit next to this chap three times a week. But I had to agree to defer to his greater knowledge. He, after all, already had his degree, whereas I was only a pretendy philosophy undergraduate.

His proposition was that music cannot instil emotion in people. While he accepted that you can hear music and feel emotions, these emotions are merely an epiphenomenon caused by some attachment you have between that piece of music and some life experience. The music, in and of itself, does not cause the emotion. He believed that it cannot do that.

This afternoon I was listening to random bits of music on my mp3 player. I came across a song I hadn’t heard before by the Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee and my spirits were lifted. I simply don’t accept that there is some hidden connection with Tim Kerr’s guitar or Mike Carroll’s rough-as-shit vocals that caused my emotional change.

I’m going back in time to retract my deference. The theory’s bollocks.

Today in church: women and frogs

Today’s Gospel reading, for those of you who care about these things, was the tale of the Syrophoenecian woman, from Mark 7:24-end. The sermon drew out some interesting aspects of this story.

Firstly, having just come back from a spiritual retreat on the nature of women in Christianity, the curate emphasised that it’s sometimes necessary to read the New Testament with a suspicious eye. The Gospels were written by men in a time when the genders were most certainly not equal. So this makes the story of the Syrophoenecian woman even more incredible. That a woman from a very lowly part of society could draw up the courage to speak to Jesus, and even to answer him back when she doesn’t get the answer she wants.

Secondly, this is a story about persistence. A sort of “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” if you like. She finds strength and courage in her faith. And good things happen to her.

Thirdly, we must accept that Jesus is really pretty mean to her. He basically compares her people to dogs, and initially won’t help her. But, thanks to her persistence, he changes his mind. This is intriguing when compared to the concept of an all-seeing and all-knowing God. For us lesser mortals, it’s heartening to see that even Jesus sometimes has to go through a thought process. It’s sometimes okay that we don’t get the right answer first time, so long as we continue to be responsive to the situation.

As for the frogs, we were fortunate enough to have Messiaen’s wonderful O Sacrum Convivium as the communion anthem. I remember singing this for the first time and, as we sight-read through it, finding myself drowning in its overlapping dissonances and resolutions. And, at the end of the service, the organist played Cesar Franck’s Chorale No. 3 in A. Youtube links for both are below.

The God Complex: a cracking short story about a machine that thinks it is God

Pseudopod is a weekly horror podcast. And, I’m afraid to say, it’s often fairly hit and miss, with rather more misses than hits.

But this one story, The God Complex, by English author Neil John Buchanan, more than makes up for it. If it’s eligible for a Hugo award next year and doesn’t win, it’ll be a scandal. I won’t give too much away, but this excerpt reveals our heroine’s first encounter with a small robot that claims to be God:

“She recognized an Echo drone when she saw one. Probably a scout sent to investigate the crash.

‘Pheromone discharge detected,’ the suit chimed, and the helmet slammed shut. A moment later, a tube expanded from the drone’s underbelly, and a thin spray of liquid splashed across Nadia’s visor.

‘I am God,’ it pronounced. ‘Do you come in love?’”

And just thinking about the little God-robot has my flesh crawling all over again. It really is a tremendous story. Go listen to it!


This weekend, I went to the cinema for the second time in as many weeks. I took my two daughters, aged 10 and 7, to see Brave in 3D.

Now, I must confess I did this somewhat under duress. I don’t really like the Scottish. Note: I actually do quite like Scottish people, who are generally lovely. But aggregate them into a nation and, Mcglashan-like, they seem to acquire a sense of entitlement and anti-English hatred that would be completely unacceptable if practised in reverse. I really didn’t like the trailer to Brave, which seemed to pander to the Scottishness of the characters. Surely this would be merely a prequel to an hour and a half of English-bashing. Braveheart, just without the heart, if you like.

In fact I only took them at all because it was vital that we did something together as they had been on holiday abroad, without me, for the previous ten days. Even though you’re completely in the dark and can’t talk to each other, there’s something nice about going to the cinema. The sense of anticipation on the way there and the way you roar at the cheesy adverts prior to the film itself are all great bonding rituals.

So, dear reader, I am delighted to admit that I was totally wrong about Brave. The film is a gem, and fully deserves to be join the ranks of classic children’s animated films.

I won’t spoil the film by unnecessarily revealing too much of the plot, but the core of the film is the relationship between a princess and her mother, the queen. Early in the film, they fall out and must spend the rest of the film doing whatever it takes to get back together. Because they realise that their relationship is worth saving. They grow to appreciate that they were so wrapped up in what they wanted that they weren’t listening properly to what the other was saying. And there’s a wonderful happy ending.

What really makes the film special is that the female characters are so strong. In one part of the film, the male characters are brawling. The queen tells her husband to sort it out. He does, but peace lasts only for a few moments before they start fighting again. The rabble only falls silent when the queen walks – speechlessly and imperiously – through the middle of the room. Later, the princess gives a rousing and deeply moving speech that has the entire, male, audience enthralled. This is a brilliant film for girls, as it demonstrates that the traditional female stereotypes in films are simply unnecessary. You can make a good film without having to have violent, dominant male characters and meek, submissive female ones. You just need a director with a bit of bravery.

As of the time of writing, the film is on general release. Go see it – at an independent cinema near you, if you can.