Pentecost Golden Jubilee of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral; Funeral of Edge Hill’s former Vicar, Alan Godson; Arab Hope Maker Award to Cairo’s Mama Maggie; General Election June 8th 2017 – Election Notebook – recalling earlier contests.Parliamentary Questions raised by David Alton.

Pentecost and a Golden Jubilee

The eve of Pentecost was the perfect time to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Liverpool’s Cathedral of Christ the King.

The Cathedral choirs began the wonderful evening of celebration – beautifully organised by the Dean, Canon Anthony O’Brien – with choral vespers.

Guests then left the sanctuary and nave in what is affectionately known in Liverpool as “Paddy’s Wigwam” –designed by  Frederick Gibberd – to join a gala dinner below, in the Pontifical Hall of the Sir Edwin Lutyens crypt.

In 1969, as a newly arrived student in Liverpool – and two years after the cathedral had been completed – I first took in the breath-taking Trinity of light, that floods the interior of the cathedral, – yellow, blue and red stained glass,– and felt I was stepping through a coruscating kaleidoscope of iridescent colours.

Over the years that have followed I have been in the cathedral countless times but, most memorably, in 1982, on another Pentecost, 35 years ago, during the visit of Pope John Paul II. He arrived there, having processed along the city’s Hope Street, which links Liverpool’s two cathedrals. That historic visit sealed the Christian ecumenism that finally replaced bitter sectarianism.

In the cathedral he said:

“The Holy Spirit, who is the source of all unity, provides the Body of Christ with a “variety of gifts” (1 Cor. 12, 3), so that it may be built up and strengthened. As the Holy Spirit granted the Apostles the gift of tongues, so that all gathered in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost might hear and understand the one Gospel of Christ, should we not expect the same Holy Spirit to grant us the gifts we need in order to continue the work of salvation, and to be reunited as one body in Christ? In this we trust and for this we pray, confident in the power which the Spirit gave to the Church at Pentecost.”

He told us that:


“There is no sin which cannot be forgiven, if we approach the throne of mercy with humble and contrite hearts. No evil is more powerful than the infinite mercy of God.”

My late mother accompanied me to that amazing Service.

As a girl in the West of Ireland her impoverished family were among countless people who gave a penny each week towards the building of a cathedral in a faraway city – built on the site of a work house where thousands of Irish people, fleeing a famine which claimed one million lives, had died of hunger, cholera and typhoid.

My son Philip, now a doctor in Liverpool and father of two little girls, came with me to last night’s celebrations.

Perhaps he and they will be present when the cathedral celebrates its centenary? As John Henry Newman once said “we are links in a chain.” 

Philip and I looked at the baptistery where one of his brothers and a sister had been baptised; at the sea-eagle lectern, designed by Sean Rice, and placed there in 2007 to mark the death of Fr.Paul Thompson, a priest of the cathedral, who had been Philip’s godfather and one of my closest friends. We looked at the Pentecost mosaic made by Georg Mayer-Marton, a Hungarian Jewish artist who escaped the Nazis, and whose work was carefully reassembled in the cathedral’s Chapel of Unity when, in 1989, Netherton’s Church of the Holy Ghost was demolished; and we passed the tomb of Liverpool’s singular Archbishop, Derek Worlock, buried in the cathedral in 1996. All links in Newman’s chain.

Georg Mayer-Marton's Pentecost mosaic Liverpool cathedral

A highlight of the evening was a poem written in 1967 for the opening of the cathedral by Liverpool’s pre-eminent poet, Roger McGough. He has rewritten it and added some extra stanzas for the Golden Jubilee:

“O Lord, so far so good. No bombs, no conversion into bingo hall or shopping mall. No demolition to make way for Metropolitan Hotel or student high-rise. Unscathed and soldiering on….What are five decades but a drop in the font, a gentle lap around the rosary? Until Iron Men swim down the Mersey and the Liver Birds take wing May your light shine out from Hope Street as we rejoice in Christ the King.”  

A lovely thought, this Pentecost.



May 20th 2017: The death was  announced of the Reverend Alan Godson, the former Vicar of St.Mary’s Edge Hill. The funeral took place on June 3rd at St.Mary’s Grassendale.

2017 Alan Godson Memorial Service

  He died peacefully, in his sleep. 

For more than three decades Alan was Vicar of St.Mary’s Edge Hill where, in 1972, after working in Manchester’s Catacombs, he took up the living of this inner city parish.  

I can be absolutely certain about the day, the time and the place where I first met Alan. 

It was May 3rd 1972.

 I was a 21-year-old student and fighting my first City Council election campaign in the inner city Low Hill Ward.

 It was the eve of poll and I was in Erskine Street, a street scheduled for demolition.

Someone – no guessing who – had the words “God Lives Here in the Slums” daubed on the gable end.

 Intrigued, and looking for a vote, I knocked on the door, and inevitably ended up being canvassed on behalf of God. 

 Half an hour later, and too late to knock on any more doors, I knew my time had been well spent and knew it wasn’t a coincidence but, rather, what Alan called a “Godincidence”.

  The following day, in May 1972, I was elected to the City Council and not long after, Alan, who had been working in Manchester’s Catacombs, took up the living at St.Mary’s, Edge Hill. At that time, Bishop Tom Williams was a curate in the local Catholic parish and the three of us became friends – and it is great to see him at the celebration of Alan’s life.

 I always thought that his renumbering of the St.Mary’s Vicarage as “JC4U” – while sometimes mystifying the postmen – was the essential clue in understanding Alan.

 It summed up what he most wanted for everyone that he encountered: JC4U.

Alan was an evangelist who never tired in his indefatigable zeal for souls – and I never saw him happier than during Mission England, in 1984, when the football stadium at Anfield was filled to capacity.

 But Alan didn’t need to wait for big events to evangelise you.

 He would pull up alongside a car in a traffic queue and ask the puzzled driver next to him what the letters JLY in his number plate stood for. As the driver scratched his head and Alan pulled away he would tell him “ JLY Jesus Loves You.”

His blue and red church posters told a similar tale. The acronyms of Liverpool’s two football clubs pointed to a much greater story: LFC – Liverpool For Christ; EFC – Everyone for Christ.  

 With one famous poster, he even made the national news. The Soviet Union’s atheistic Communist leader had made public declarations that there was no God.

 When Adropov died Alan ’s poster “Now Andropov Knows” led to complaints from the Soviet Ambassador. 

 Characteristically, Alan stood his ground, and used the opportunity to open people’s minds to the suffering of Christians at the hands of the Soviets.

 Among the many speakers Alan hosted at St.Mary’s was Richard Wurmbarnd, who had dared to say that Communism and Christianity were not compatible – and was imprisoned and tortured by the Romanian Communist regime for saying so.

 Wurmbrand said “Let us be on the side of those who sit in jails and are sentenced to death for their faith. Let us pray for them and help them”.  Alan never hesitated to do both of those things.

 Among Alan’s other great heroes was Corrie ten Boom – the Dutch watchmaker who helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust.

 Her Christian activism led to her imprisonment in a concentration camp.

 As an encouragement, Alan would often give her books to people and would ask her question: Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” and shared her belief that “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God you’ll be at rest.” 

Alan saw the suffering and faith of men like Richard Wurmbrand and women like Corrie ten Boom as a rebuke to those of us whose faith is often so tepid, or lukewarm – Gethsemane Christians too often asleep at our posts.  

Alan had no fear of death – seeing it as a homecoming. He handed over what was unknown to a trusted and known God.  

In retirement he and his wife, Lesley, had been living in Aigburth, Liverpool – their home, appropriately, overlooking Liverpool Cricket Club. Having played rugby for his Cambridge College, in the 1970s Alan was one of the founders of Christians in Sport and came to represent, in his whole person, the phrase “muscular Christianity.”   For a birthday present his boys tracked down footage of the Varsity Rugby Match 1960- 1st Half Highlights – YouTube and Alan scoring a famous try for Cambridge:

Related image

Alan Godson's famous posters at St.Mary's

Right up until the end – and with the aid of an oxygen machine and the loving ministrations of his wonderful wife, Lesley, and the support of his three boys, Andrew, Jonathan and Stephen, Alan was still asking visitors and those who telephoned him “are you reading your Bible?”.  From his new vantage point I daresay – and rather hope – he will continue to give a not so gentle nudge when he sees us falling asleep at our posts. He will be greatly missed.

May he rest in peace.

2017 St.Mary's Edge Hill flag at half mast for Alan Godson

St.Mary’s Edge Hill. Flag at half mast for the Revd.Alan Godson.


The value of a human is incomparable to any other value…”  Mama Maggie – the Mother of Cairo – On Receiving the Arab Hope Makers Award

Mama Maggie

Great news that Mama Maggie – Maggie Gobran – has been chosen as one of the five Arab Hope Makers. Happy to have been one of her nominators. I have a chapter on the extraordinary work undertaken by “the Mother of Cairo” in my book, Signs of Contradiction. It was deeply inspiring to see  first-hand the phenomenal work of this Coptic woman among the poorest of the poor, especially abandoned children, in Cairo’s Garbage City.

Yesterday’s big celebration, in Dubai, was attended by more than 25000 who gathered in Dubai Studios city with the presence of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashed Al Maktoum Vice President of United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, to choose and honour the winners of Hope Maker working in Arab countries from 65000 hope makers nominated. Sheihk Mohamed Bin Rashed surprised every one by awarding all 5 winners with the same prize of AED 1 million

Mama Maggie started her word by saying:” The value of a human is incomparable to any other value…”

This is the first initiative for recognition of its kind – for any positive action undertaken on a wide level within the Arab countries. Congratulations to Mother Mama – and to the UAE.

Maggie Gobran Signs of Contradiction 1

Maggie Gobran Signs of Contradiction 21

Maggie Gobran Signs of Contradiction 3


2017 General Election Notebook. jpg

Elected at Liverpool Edge Hill in 1979


Parliamentary Questions raised by David Alton over the last month on Overseas Aid, Targeting of Egyptian Copts, Syria, Primodos, North Korea, the Use of Chemical Weapons, IVF, Sudan, Religious Freedom, Burma, Morton Hall Inspection, Neglected Tropical Diseases, Asbestos in Schools, Scottish Devolution, Iraq and IS Genocide, Refugee Children, Assisted Dying.

Spending Aid Wisely and Effectively
April 26 2017

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the things that jeopardises sustainable development is a combination of conflict, where there is the need to bring conflict resolution, and corruption? In the light of the Government’s welcome announcement that they will sustain development programmes and funding for development overseas, will he tell us what priority a new Government are likely to give to combating conflict in situations such as South Sudan, where famine has come as a direct result of it, and dealing with corruption, where aid money can be embezzled and misused?
Lord Bates

The noble Lord is absolutely right. We have said that the 0.7% commitment stands, but we are also absolutely resolute that there needs to be reform of the international aid system to ensure that that hard-earned money, provided by British taxpayers and other taxpayers from around the world, gets to where it is most intended. That is why we are behind arguing for global goal 16 on peace and security—because, without peace and security, there can be no development or growth. That is also why we have committed the large sum of money—£100 million—to South Sudan and to the other areas which are touched by famine at present.

 To view the answers to the following Questions Click on the Heading: 

Written Answers — Home Office: Immigration: North Korea (24 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the number of North Korean nationals who have entered UK territories in the last five years, other than those accredited as diplomatic staff working for the DPRK Embassy in London.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: Developing Countries: Diseases (20 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the response by Lord Bates on 3 April (HL Deb, cols 930–1) concerning neglected tropical diseases, what study the Department for International Development has made of the use of technologies to map neglected tropical diseases using remote sensing technologies and mobile smartphone technologies.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: Africa: Snakes (20 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the response by Lord Bates on 3 April (HL Deb, cols 930–1) concerning neglected tropical diseases, how they are responding to Africa’s need for anti-venoms to treat snake bites, following the cessation of production by the major manufacturer.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: Developing Countries: Sleeping Sickness (20 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the response by Lord Bates on 3 April (HL Deb, cols 930–1) concerning neglected tropical diseases, what further progress they expect to make in the elimination of sleeping sickness.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Egypt: Christianity (19 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assistance they have offered the government of Egypt to protect Egypt’s Coptic population from ISIS, following reports of targeted attacks, killings, and forced conversions.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Human Rights (19 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of reports of human rights violations committed by the government of North Korea against its exiled citizens, and of some exiled North Koreans having become UK citizens, what is their response to the recommendation by the UNHCR group of independent experts on accountability in their report to the 34th session published on 24 February that UN…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Chongryon (19 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are aware of (1) members of Chongryon, formerly known as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, entering or doing business in the United Kingdom, and (2) whether Chongryon members have had any interactions with diplomats from the DPRK Embassy in London, in the last five years.

Written Answers — Home Office: Asylum: Balkans (18 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the joint report from the International Rescue Committee and 11 other organisations, Out of Sight, Exploited and Alone, concerning unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) in the Balkans, and its principal concerns of (1) insufficient and unreliable data or information management on UASC within the region, (2) a lack of…

Written Answers — Home Office: Immigration: North Korea (18 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, what steps they are taking to ensure that North Korean nationals who enter UK territories are not involved in any unlawful activities.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Hong Kong: Politics and Government (13 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of the People’s Republic of China concerning political developments in Hong Kong; and whether they have called for undertakings in the Basic Law to be honoured.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: British Nationals Abroad (13 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, including through the British Embassy in Pyongyang, to ensure that the government of North Korea does not breach the Vienna Convention; and what advice they are offering to British nationals in, and travelling to, North Korea regarding their safety, in the light of the temporary ban imposed on Malaysian diplomats from leaving…

Written Answers — Department of Health: In Vitro Fertilisation (6 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, with reference to paragraph 2.8 of the minutes of 9 March 2017 of the Licence Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) regarding babies born following pronuclear transfer between embryos, what procedures are in place to (1) identify whether a child born following pronuclear transfer is born with (a) a mitochondrial disease,…

Written Answers — Department of Health: Primodos (6 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord O’Shaughnessy on 28 March (HL6261), whether the Expert Working Group on Hormonal Pregnancy Tests will review the reasons why tests on Primodos, which remained on the market until 1978 despite the publication of a study in 1967 indicating a causal relationship between hormonal pregnancy tests and congenital…

Written Answers — Department of Health: In Vitro Fertilisation (6 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, with reference to paragraphs 2.8, 2.9 and 3.17 of the minutes of 9 March 2017 of the Licence Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, regarding the follow-up of children born following pronuclear transfer between embryos, who is responsible for the follow-up programme in NHS England; what health, genetic and epigenetic parameters…

Written Answers — Department of Health: Primodos (6 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord O’Shaughnessy on 28 March (HL6261), whether they will meet with Marie Lyon and representatives of the Primodos victims support group.

Written Answers — Department of Health: Primodos (6 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord O’Shaughnessy on 28 March (HL6261), whether the Expert Working Group on Hormonal Pregnancy Tests will review (1) the terms of reference of (a) the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, and (b) the Metabolic Research Unit, when determining what lessons may be learnt for further improving existing regulatory…

Syria: Chemical Weapons – Private Notice Question (5 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, in welcoming the swift response of Her Majesty’s Government and the reply that the Minister has just given to the Question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, perhaps I might press the Government further on the use of chemical weapons. We have now seen chemical weapons used twice in Syria, but they have also been used, allegedly, in Darfur by the regime of President…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Terrorism (5 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 5 November 2015 (HL 2969) which stated that “the DPRK is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since 1987”, whether they classify as the sponsoring of terrorist acts (1) the plot by a North Korean defector to kill Park Sang-hak in 2012, (2) the plot by two North Korean military…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Iraq: Islamic State (5 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the discovery of a further mass grave in Khafsa, Iraq, what progress is being made in establishing international judicial mechanisms to bring to justice supporters of ISIS who are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Electronic Warfare (5 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) North Korean cyber attacks, and (2) reports that the regime has been responsible for a $81 million bank cyber heist.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Religious Freedom (5 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what instructions have been given to FCO country desk officers to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is included in their work.

Written Answers — Department of Health: In Vitro Fertilisation (5 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the award by the Licence Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority of a licence to Centre 0017 to carry out pronuclear transfer between embryos to prevent transmission of serious mitochondrial disease, what safeguards Centre 0017 has put in place to ensure that early pronuclear transfer will take place during treatment at…

Written Answers — Department of Health: In Vitro Fertilisation (5 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, with reference to paragraph 2.3 of the minutes of 9 March 2017 of the Licence Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which non-CE marked reagents will be used by Centre 0017 for the purposes of treatment involving pronuclear transfer between embryos to prevent transmission of serious mitochondrial disease; which laboratories will…

Written Answers — Department for International Development: Religious Freedom (4 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government why no reference to (1) targeted and persecuted religious minorities, or (2) the fundamental human right of freedom of religion and belief, is made in the goals specified in the Department for International Development policy paper, Agenda 2030: Delivering the Global Goals.

Neglected Tropical Diseases – Question for Short Debate (3 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support my noble friend Lady Hayman and salute her dogged persistence in raising the issue of rare and neglected tropical diseases. In doing so, I should mention that I am a vice-president of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and have been associated with the school in one way or another for the best part of 40 years. I particularly pay tribute to…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Burma: Human Rights (3 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the Interim Report and recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State; and what representations they will make to the government of Burma regarding the implementation of those recommendations.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Sudan: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (3 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they supported the appointment of a representative of the government of Sudan as Vice Chairman of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons; and, in making this appointment, what account was taken of the allegations by Amnesty International that chemical weapons have been used against the civilian population of Sudan, and of the…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Sudan: Chemical Weapons (3 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have supported the call by Amnesty International to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government of Sudan against the civilian population of that country; whether the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons is conducting an investigation, or plans to do so; and if not, what action they have taken in response.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Terrorism (3 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 3 November 2015 (HL2960), what assessment they have made of the terror threat to UK nationals, including those who are North Korean refugees and human rights workers in North Korea, from the government of North Korea and its diplomatic personnel.

Written Answers — Scotland Office: Sovereignty: Scotland (3 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have held with the Scottish Government concerning the inclusion of a third option, offering further devolution of powers to Scotland, in any future Scottish independence referendum; what assessment they have made of the benefits of including such an option; and whether they have ruled out its inclusion.

Written Answers — Home Office: Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre (3 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Report on an unannounced inspection of Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, published on 21 March.

Written Answers — Home Office: Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre (3 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the findings of the Report on an unannounced inspection of Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, published on 21 March, in particular that (1) too many detainees were held for prolonged periods, (2) the average length of detention was high, (3) children were detained for long periods of time due…

Written Answers — Home Office: Immigration: EU Nationals (30 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 23 March (HL6077), whether they will prepare and publish a draft bill with a view to its introduction as soon as agreement on the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK has been reached.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Sudan: Trade Promotion (29 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government why, in a video published by the British Embassy in Khartoum on 19 February, to promote UK business and investment in Sudan, the British Ambassador to Sudan did not refer to human rights and genocide charges brought against the regime.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Sudan: Trade Promotion (29 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have imposed a requirement for unhindered humanitarian access and the cessation of hostilities prior to increasing the number of UK trade deals with the Republic of Sudan.

Written Answers — Department of Health: Primodos (29 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Sky News documentary Primodos: The Secret Drugs Scandal; and whether they will consider establishing a public inquiry into the alleged failure of the regulator at that time to protect public safety.

Written Answers — Department of Health: Primodos (29 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what funding they are providing to researchers based in (1) Cambridge, and (2) Aberdeen, who are examining the composition of the drug Primodos and its likely effects on the child in the womb.

Written Answers — Department of Health: Congenital Abnormalities (28 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord O’Shaughnessy on 20 March (HL5811), why they do not maintain a list of foetal anomalies that cannot be identified before 24 weeks gestation.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Iraq: Islamic State (5 Apr 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the discovery of a further mass grave in Khafsa, Iraq, what progress is being made in establishing international judicial mechanisms to bring to justice supporters of ISIS who are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answers by Earl Howe on 26 October 2010 (HL2589, HL2591, HL2592, and HL2593) concerning the drug Primodos, and to the remarks by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health on 23 October 2014 (HC Deb 1139) concerning oral hormone pregnancy tests, and in the light of the Sky News documentary Primodos: The Secret Drugs…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Assassination (27 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that North Korea has issued orders to assassinate a British businessman who helped to facilitate the defection of North Korea’s then deputy ambassador to London.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Human Rights (27 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to introduce human rights sanctions against North Korea, in line with those imposed by the United States.

Written Answers — Department for Education: Schools: Asbestos (23 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the responses made by local authorities to freedom of information requests made by Lucie Stephens regarding reported incidents of asbestos exposure in schools; and what guidance they have given, or plan to give, to local authorities about the publication of such reports.

Written Answers — Home Office: Immigration: EU Nationals (23 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will introduce a bill guaranteeing the right of EU nationals who were legally resident in the UK at the time of the EU referendum to remain in the UK.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Iraq: Armed Conflict (21 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the reports of fighting last week in Sinjar, between Kurdish forces, Peshmarga and PKK, and of the reported displacement of Yazidi families from Sinjar; and what is known about their whereabouts and well-being.

Written Answers — Home Office: Asylum (21 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 9 February (HL Deb cols 1860–1861) about unaccompanied child refugees, what is their response to the report by the British Red Cross Can’t Stay, Can’t Go concerning refused asylum seekers who cannot be returned.

Written Answers — Home Office: Refugees: English Language (21 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 9 February (HL Deb cols 1860–1861) about unaccompanied child refugees, what is their response to the report by Refugee Action Locked out of learning: A snapshot of ESOL provision in England concerning the waiting times to access English language classes faced by refugees.

Written Answers — Home Office: Refugees: Families (21 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 9 February (HL Deb cols 1860–1861) about unaccompanied child refugees, what is their response to the briefing note by the Refugee Council, Oxfam UK, the British Red Cross and Amnesty International UK Together again: Reuniting refugee families in safety – what the UK can do.

Written Answers — Home Office: Refugees: Families (21 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 9 February (HL Deb cols 1860–1861) about unaccompanied child refugees, what is their response to UNICEF UK’s examination of the risks facing refugee and migrant children crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy in their report A deadly journey for children: The central…

Written Answers — Home Office: Refugees: Families (21 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Baroness Williams of Trafford on 9 February (HL Deb cols 1860–1861) about unaccompanied child refugees, what is their response to the statement by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner published on 22 February, in particular with respect to his call to address the strain on the Dublin III system; and when they intend…

Digital Economy Bill – Report (2nd Day) (20 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I supports the amendment proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Janke, but also the remarks of my noble friend Lady Howe. I want to ask the Minister, when he comes to reply, about an issue that I raised in your Lordships’ House previously, and that is the issue of suicide sites on the internet. It concerns me that young people can be encouraged to visit those…

Digital Economy Bill – Report (2nd Day) (20 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I support Amendment 25YD in the name of my noble and learned friend, to which she spoke so well earlier on, and the comments of other noble Lords in the debate so far. The problem with coming to this point in legislation, which has proceeded all the way through the other place and is now on Report in your Lordships’ House, on a day when some 174 government amendments have been laid, is…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Religious Freedom (20 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 1 March (HL5421) stating that it is their policy to promote freedom of religious belief, why there was no mention of freedom of religion or belief in the UK’s opening statement at the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Egypt: Christianity (20 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports of Coptic Christian families in Egypt who have been forced to flee North Sinai province following a number of killings in recent weeks by suspected Islamist militants; and what representations they have made to the government of Egypt about those reports.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Diplomatic Relations (20 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the remarks by David Slinn, the former UK Ambassador to North Korea on 24 January, concerning the difficulties of negotiating with Kim Jong-un.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Human Rights (20 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have discussed with the European Union and individual EU member states (1) the use of North Korean labour, (2) the use of European bank accounts by North Korean nationals in the EU, and (3) a united response to the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and if so, when those…

Written Answers — Department of Health: Congenital Abnormalities (20 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what conditions for which there is a high probability that the foetus will die at, during, or shortly after delivery due to serious foetal anomaly are unable to be identified before 24 weeks gestation.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Human Rights (17 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 28 February (HL Deb, col 714), whether at the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council they will support recommendations (1) to establish an ad hoc tribunal, or (2) to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court.

Written Answers — Department of Health: In Vitro Fertilisation (17 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord O’Shaughnessy on 28 February (HL5495), whether, and if so when, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) directly requested any evidence from Dr Valery Zukin or members of his team since publishing its report on 30 November 2016; what assessment it has made of that evidence; whether it has…

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I shall be brief. I enthusiastically support the remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Young, has just made, notwithstanding the minor caveat that I entered the Chamber as he was replying to the previous order and note the unnecessary duplication and replication which can cause confusion. I encourage him, and the Government generally, to stay in touch with the local authorities that…

Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield Combined Authority (Election of Mayor) (Amendment) Order 2017 – Motion to Approve (16 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: Just before the Minister leaves that point, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, was making the point that as we go forward it will be important to keep under review how the provision actually works out in practice. I fully support the order being laid before your Lordships’ House, and the next one, which deals with Liverpool and the Merseyside area, where there is agreement…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: South Sudan: Armed Conflict (14 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), what new initiatives they are taking to (1) stop the fighting in, (2) curtail the flow of weapons to, and (3) bring about better conditions for humanitarian aid to reach the people of, South Sudan.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: South Sudan: Arms Trade (14 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), whether they intend to ask the UN Security Council to reconsider imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Burma: Rohingya (14 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the statement by the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide on 6 February, that (1) the scale of violence alleged to have been perpetrated by the Burmese security forces against the Rohingya community amounts to “dehumanization”, and (2) the existing government of Burma commission is not a credible option to undertake a…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Burma: Rohingya (14 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether the existing government of Burma commission investigations into allegations of sexual violence in Rakhine State are credible and being conducted in line with the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Written Answers — Department for Education: Refugees: Children in Care (14 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to (1) the correspondence sent by Lord Alton of Liverpool on 20 February on behalf of ECPAT UK concerning missing, trafficked and unaccompanied children, and (2) the findings of the report by ECPAT UK, Heading back to harm, published in November 2016, that (a) a number of local authorities were unable to provide figures on the…

Written Answers — Department for Education: Schools: Asbestos (13 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they intend to take to protect children and teachers from the dangers of asbestos, in the light of the findings of the Education Funding Agency in their reports published in February, and of the information released in the Freedom of Information request 201607236, of August 2016, that 319 teachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980,…

Written Answers — Home Office: Refugees: Children (9 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to respond to the statement by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, published on 22 February, concerning the protection of unaccompanied child refugees against modern slavery and other forms of exploitation.

Written Answers — Home Office: Refugees: Children (9 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to respond to the recommendations made by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner on 22 February, on (1) safe refuge for child refugees under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016; (2) safe refuge for child refugees under the Dublin III Regulation; (3) working with partners to improve protections in Europe; and (4) working to address the…

Written Answers — Department for International Development: South Sudan: Famine (8 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), what humanitarian access is available to NGOs in Unity State; and what is their estimate of the percentage of South Sudan’s population that remains inaccessible to agencies seeking to provide food to those affected by famine.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: South Sudan: Famine (8 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), what progress has been made in ending South Sudan’s civil war; and how many people they estimate (1) have been displaced, or (2) have become refugees, as a consequence of the war and conflicts in the neighbouring areas of the Republic of Sudan.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: South Sudan: Famine (8 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), what is their estimate of the number of children in South Sudan now affected by malnutrition.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: South Sudan: Famine (8 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), how much new money has been allocated to alleviate famine in South Sudan; to whom it has been (1) allocated, and (2) given; and how it is being used.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: South Sudan: Famine (8 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), and to the statement by the Secretary of State for International Development on 22 February announcing new packages of life-saving UK aid for South Sudan and Somalia, how much new money is being made available and allocated for use in South Sudan.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: South Sudan: Famine (8 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), when the new money allocated to help famine victims in South Sudan was signed off; who are the intended recipients of that funding; and whether any of that money has been allocated to (1) the government of South Sudan, (2) NGOs, or (3) UN agencies, and if so, how much.

Written Answers — Department for International Development: South Sudan: Famine (8 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answers by Lord Bates on 23 February (HL Deb, col 411), who is coordinating international efforts to help the victims of the famine in South Sudan; and what meetings the Minister and Secretary of State have convened with their international counterparts to ensure an effective response to the famine.

Assisted Dying – Question for Short Debate (6 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the noble Baroness’s Question asks whether legislation in North America on what is called “assisted dying” forms an appropriate basis for such legislation here. I will answer that question in just one word: no. Quite apart from any issues of principle, just look at what is now happening in Oregon. When Oregon’s assisted suicide law was enacted, it was to…

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Iraq: Islamic State (6 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 8 February (HL5121), how many projects are actively collecting evidence against perpetrators of violence, war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Iraq, and what are the objectives of each project.

Written Answers — Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Syria: Islamic State (6 Mar 2017)

Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 8 February (HL5121), whether they are satisfied that sufficient progress has been made in the collection of evidence by the Independent Mechanism established by UN General Assembly resolution 71/248 regarding war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by members of Daesh.

Tolkien: Faith and Fiction – Liverpool Hope University Lecture marking the fiftieth anniversary of J.R.R.Tolkien’s involvement in the translation of the Jerusalem Bible and the link between his faith and his fiction. Accompanying presentation slides and full text may be viewed here.



Tolkien: Faith and Fiction

click here to view the power point presentation which accompanies the following lecture:

faith-in-the-work-of-tolkien – view full powerpoint presentation accompanying the lecture

tolkien-faith-and-fiction-liverpool-2016 Text

 Liverpool Hope University, November 2016.

David Alton, Lord Alton of Liverpool.


This year, 2016, marks 50 years since, in 1966, the English edition of the Jerusalem Bible was published.


The translation was undertaken here at Hope, at what was Christ’s College, my old College. The work was led by the brilliant scripture scholar, Fr.Alexander Jones.

J.R.R.Tolkien was one of those who contributed to the translation and it includes his translation of the Book of Jonah and an acknowledgement of his role.

Fr.Henry Wansborough OSB said “It was the first translation of the whole Bible into modern English to appear. It was an iconic presentation of the best of Catholic biblical scholarship in the previous half century.”

When, in 1969, I came here as a student, my first purchase was a still greatly prized and now well-worn copy of the JB, the Jerusalem Bible.

Jonah is among the books of the prophets – and once given the Word they are compelled to speak it: Amos cries “The Lord Yahweh speaks, who can refuse to prophesy?”

And of Jonah and the other prophets, Alexander Jones said “At a point in each of their lives each received an irresistible divine call and was chosen as God’s envoy. The price of attempting to elude this vocation is stated in the early part of the story of Jonah.”

He says Jonah is unlike the other prophetic books because “this short work is entirely narrative. It tells the story of a disobedient prophet who first struggles to evade his divine mission and then complains to God that his mission has, against his expectations, been successful.”

I can’t help speculating that Alexander Jones may have had another reluctant hero in his mind when he asked the creator of home-loving risk-averse reluctant-hero Hobbits to collaborate in the translation of the Book of Jonah.

And like many aspects of Tolkien’s work, Fr.Jones reminds us that the story of Jonah which he describes as a droll adventure, taking us from the “the belly of Sheol” – to the city of Nineveh, is precisely that – a story, not history; a “didactic work” that is “intended to amuse and instruct” and which “proclaims an astonishingly broadminded catholicity.”  

God is merciful to all, even to the rebellious Jonah. The lessons of mercy, humility and repentance are given to the Chosen People at the hands of their sworn enemies.

You can see why Tolkien would have been entirely at home with this Book and these themes.

The Book of Jonah concludes with God explaining, with great love mixed with some gentle irony, that He will not only be merciful to Jonah, the reluctant prophet, but also to the repentant Ninevehites and their little children “who cannot tell their right hand from their left,” and proclaiming still further, His love of all His Creation “to say nothing of all the animals.” 


The story of Jonah is also a dramatic prefiguring of the only story which really matters: Jonah’s three days in the belly of the great fish prepares us for Christ’s three days in the tomb. Fr.Jones says that at this moment in the Old Testament “We are on the threshold of the Gospel.”

Tolkien would describe such a turn of events in a story as a “eucatastrophe,”   – a word to which I will return at the conclusion of my remarks.

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth.” 


For Tolkien the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ of human history was the resurrection of Christ from the tomb. So its preconfiguration in the biblical Book of Jonah is a pretty good place to start when considering Tolkien, Faith and Fiction.


Tolkien, himself, said that The Lord of the Rings was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. What did he mean by that and what clues are there in the characters, the tales within the tale, and within the plot itself?  


Let me divide my remarks into 3 parts:

  1. How Tolkien’s experiences shaped his beliefs;
  2. What Tolkien tells us himself; and
  3.  How faith shapes the characters, and the story lines.



  • 1. How Tolkien’s experiences shaped his beliefs.


Born in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, in 1892, his father died in 1896, and his mother, Mabel Suffield, returned to England, to the Midlands. Her conversion to Catholicism, in 1900, led to her rejection by her mixed Baptist, Unitarian and Anglican relatives. She was reduced to poverty.

Struggling as a widow, and shunned by her family, Mabel sought solace and help from the Catholic community of the Birmingham Oratory.


The Birmingham Oratory – whose full title is the Congregation of the Oratory of St.Philip Neri and is located in the Edgbaston district of Birmingham, was founded in 1849 by Blessed John Henry Newman, who died in 1890, two years before Tolkien’s birth. 

It was the first house of that Congregation in England and Newman, a celebrated Catholic convert, had been given permission by Pope Pius IX to establish a community of Oratorians in England and Newman lived a secluded life there for the best part of four decades.


Newman had died only ten years before Tolkien, in his childhood, spent nine years as a parishioner of St. Philip’s and attended the parish school before winning his scholarship to the Birmingham’s King Edward’s school.

In 1904, after the death of his mother at the age of 34, a death “hastened by the persecution of her faith”, as Tolkien remarked in 1941, he was shunted between relatives until a lodging was found for him by an Oratorian priest, Father Francis Morgan, who was his legal guardian.

In 1963 Tolkien wrote about the effect that these experiences and formative years had on him: “I witnessed (half comprehending) the heroic sufferings and early death in extreme poverty of my mother who brought me into the Church.”

His great closeness and devotion to the Theotokos – Mary, the Mother of God – began with the premature death of his own mother. He said that Mary “refined so much of our gross manly natures and emotions as well as warming and colouring our hard, bitter, religion.”

Of Fr.Francis he wrote: “I first learnt charity and forgiveness from him” and he said that he taught him the story of his Faith “piercing even the ‘liberal’ darkness out of which I came, knowing more about ‘Bloody Mary’ than the Mother of Jesus – who was never mentioned except as an object of wicked worship by the Romanists.”

The backdrop to Tolkien’s childhood was rejection and sectarianism but his connection with the Oratory gave him a love of the mystery of the sacraments but it also taught him to honour Scripture and tradition along with the teaching authority of the Church, grounded in the apostolic succession. He believed that Christ was, in the words of Newman’s hymn, Praise to the Holiest in the Heights, the Second Adam who to the rescue had come – sanctifying history and saving each of us.

And can we not see in Tolkien’s fiction, and the quest and mission of the Hobbit, something of Newman’s belief that:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. ..I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons….”

Newman had been the most influential Catholic in the English speaking world during the nineteenth century and his Apologia and love of St.Augustine were the scaffold on which Tolkien’ s faith was hung.

Newman had insisted that “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”; that “We are answerable for what we choose to believe.” that “Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it”; that Growth is the only evidence of life.” That “fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning” and that “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men”.


The young Tolkien would have heard a great deal about Newman and studied him carefully – not least his famous treatise on the purpose of a university – the world in which he would spend his professional life:

“The University’s…. function is intellectual culture… It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”


   While at King Edward’s, Tolkien and three friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith and Christopher Wiseman formed a secret society which they called the “T.C.B.S.” – the acronym meaning “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”. The name had its origins in their fondness for drinking tea at the nearby Barrow’s Stores and, illicitly, in the library of their school.

   From King Edward’s, Tolkien won an exhibition to Exeter College, Oxford in 1910, and graduated with First Class Honours in 1915.

    He showed early promise as a philologist and gifted linguist with a remarkable facility to decode ancient languages. He used these gifts in scholarship and in prose and the study of legend, folklore and poetry.

   In 1914 he read a poem by the Anglo-Saxon Christian poet, Cynewulf. He wrote later about how two lines of the poem Crist (Christ) remained with him:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast

Ofer middangeard monnum sended!

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,

Above the middle-earth sent unto men!


The friends of the T.C.B.S stayed in touch after leaving school, and in that same year, 1914, met at Wiseman’s London home for a “Council.” 

In many respects the T.C.B.S foreshadowed the Kolbitar (Coalbiters) which Tolkien would form at Oxford in 1925 – and which was devoted to reading Icelandic sagas. Lewis attended their meetings and, in the 1930s, from this fellowship of friends would finally emerge the Inklings – more of which, later.


In Birmingham Tolkien had met Edith Bratt, with whom he fell in love; he also commenced his practice of daily Mass attendance, which he continued throughout his life.

Fr.Morgan counselled him not to rush into marriage but, having been commissioned into the Lancashire Fusiliers, he feared that he might be killed. He and Edith, who was received into the Catholic Church, married in 1916.

 After seeing action in the Somme, acting as Battalion Signalling Officer – and, having contracted trench fever, Tolkien spent the rest of the war as an invalid.

The news from his friends in the TCBS was bleak. On July 15, 1916, Geoffrey Smith wrote to tell Tolkien of Rob Gilson’s death: My Dear John Ronald, I saw in the paper this morning that Rob has been killed. I am safe but what does that matter? Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst news. Now one realises in despair what the T.C.B.S. really was. O my dear John Ronald whatever are we going to do?  Yours ever.    G. B. S.


 Five months later, Christopher Wiseman wrote to Tolkien to say that Smith had died in a mission. Just before seeing this final action Smith wrote these words to Tolkien: 

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight – I am off on duty in a few minutes – there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.” – Yours ever, G.B.S.


Like C.S.Lewis, and so many of his generation, Tolkien was deeply affected by World War One and the death of his friends.


As his closest intimates were cut down, it put an end to the circle of friends and, challenged by Smith’s haunting words: “may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them”, Tolkien began to write his epic mythology on a notebook entitled “The Book of Lost Tales.” The tales would come to be known as “The Silmarillion.”


The hobbits entered his imagination in 1929, while marking examination papers, when Tolkien started to jot down some words for a story to read to his children – of whom there were now four:  “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. Tolkien would later say of himself: “I am in fact a Hobbit, in all but size…I like gardens, trees…I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking…” 

 Tolkien was like his hobbits, dreaming of eggs and bacon.

 Like the Book of Jonah, Tolkien’s tales have an extraordinary catholicity – an equal appeal to the Deist, atheist, agnostic or Pagan reader, of all ages and backgrounds. Like Jonah it is not about historical truth – although Middle Earth feels like a place that once existed – it is a story which provides sign posts to the ultimate Truth as well as sign posts about how we should relate to one another, about friendship, courage, honesty, integrity and the seemingly endless battles that we are each destined to fight on our journeys; how the ring is representative of tyrannical power, pride, temptation, addiction and sin.  In this sense The Lord of the Rings is a “true” story.


   It resonates with Tolkien’s own experiences and the time in which it was written – although he always insisted it was not allegory but rather might have applicability to those times and to all times.


     In his wonderful book, “The Power of the Ring” the late Stratford Caldecott, said of Tolkien’s work “at an even deeper level it is about the reality and value of beauty…the homely beauty of firelight and good cheer, the rich natural beauty of tree and forest, the awesome majesty of mountains, the charm of babbling stream, the high and remote glimmer of the stars…recalling the mystery that lies beyond the beauties of this world, and awaken a longing in the human heart that will never be quite content in Middle-earth.”


By contrast, Edmund Wilson described The Lord of the Rings as “juvenile trash” while that angry atheist, Philip Pullman, author of “His Dark Materials” has called The Lord of the Rings “trivial”:

“Tolkien was a Catholic, for whom the basic issues of life were not in question… So nowhere in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is there a moment’s doubt about those big questions. No-one is in any doubt about what’s good or bad; everyone knows where the good is, and what to do about the bad. Enormous as it is, TLOTR is consequently trivial”

When the first volume of The Lord of the Rings was published Tolkien knew that he was leaving himself open to inevitable scorn, writing, “I have expressed my heart to be shot at”.

Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of the Return of the King – the third and final volume of Lord of The Rings.

Pullman and others might note that the trilogy has sold a phenomenal 150 million copies worldwide; in 1997 it was Voted Amazon’s Best Book of the Century emerged as the most popular work of fiction in surveys by Waterstones and Channel Four and was second only to the Bible in its readership.

The Lord of the Rings sits alongside his wonderful short stories and The Silmarillion, posthumously brought to publication by his son, Christopher.

Pullman’s assessment was wrong about the book’s deep and abiding appeal and it is far from “trivial” – quite the reverse – and he was also wrong in stating that Tolkien’s was an unquestioning faith and that he had no doubts.

Referring to his doubts during a particularly arid period in the 1920s he said it was the Blessed Sacrament that kept his then flickering faith alive. He told his son, Michael “I brought you all up ill and talked to you too little. Out of wickedness and sloth I almost ceased to practice my religion…Not for me the Hound of Heaven but the never ceasing silent appeal to the Tabernacle and the sense of starving hunger.”

To consolidate his faith, he practiced and recommended frequent Confession and the frequent reception of Holy Communion, telling his son, Michael, who taught Classics at Stonyhurst College and St Mary’s Hall in Lancashire, “I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity and the true way of all your loves upon earth.” 

In Oxford, he served Mass every day at Blackfriars. The Mass was celebrated by his fellow Inkling, Fr.Gervase Matthew OP. It is said that  Whitacres’s Roman soldier, nailing Jesus to the Cross in the Stations of the Cross at Blackfriars is modelled on Tolkien’s orc.


Tolkien taught his children to love the Created world, especially the trees, and he persuaded Michael, to plant a copse in his Stonyhurst garden, evidence of which can still be seen today.

From 1939, after Mussolini joined forces with Hitler, Tolkien became a regular visitor to Stonyhurst when his oldest son, John, returned to England from seminary in Rome to continue his training as a priest. Stonyhurst – with its connections to the Shireburn family, to the recusants and Catholic martyrs, complete with its own Shire Lane in its village, with its two rivers and ancient forest and views of Pendle Hill, with its occult history, was an inspiring setting for Tolkien – captured beautifully today in the Ribble Valley Tolkien Trail.


Tolkien passed on his love of the Catholic faith to each of his children and encouraged his son, Christopher, to memorise some of the most tried and trusted prayers but also the entire text of the Latin Mass, saying that “If you have these by heart you never need for words of joy”; and he prayed the rosary, keeping a rosary by his bed and in his hands as he looked for Nazi bombers while part of the Oxford Watch during World War Two. 

Towards the end of his life – even while the Jerusalem Bible was in the final stages of composition –Tolkien recoiled at liturgical changes and at what he regarded as a loss of beauty in both reverence for the Holy Eucharist and the sacraments and for the liturgy itself.

He was saddened but became reconciled to the use of the vernacular rather than Latin for the celebration of Mass but he deplored the use of sloppy language.  He said that the encouragement of the faithful to receive Communion regularly and to attend daily Mass would have had a more profound effect on the Church than the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The changes led him to say “the Church which once felt like a refuge now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! I think there is nothing to do but pray for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.”  His grandson, Simon, wrote that he could “vividly remember going to church with him in Bournemouth.” He said that his grandfather didn’t agree with the liturgical changes “and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.”

His belief in the sacrament of marriage and the love of family remained with him until the very end.  When Tolkien died, on September 2nd, 1973 aged 81, he underscored that inseparability and indissolubility, by being interred in the same grave as his wife, Edith, who had died two years earlier.  The names of Luthien and Beren appear on their tombstone.


In Tolkien’s Middle Earth Legendarium Luthien was the most beautiful of all the children of Iluvatar and forsook her immortality for her love of the mortal warrior Beren. The Silmarillion

The Hobbit


Fr.Robert Murray SJ


So much then for the experiences that shaped Tolkien. 

  1. What does Tolkien Tells Us Himself about his faith?

While once on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament he personally experienced in a vision the blinding presence of God: “I perceived or thought of the Light of God” and saw his own Guardian Angel as a manifestation of “God’s very attention”. 

As a Catholic he believed God is the Creator of the universe and that God had made the world out of nothing. Whether in the Bible or in Tolkien’s Silmarillion all that is has been created by the Word of God when, as we learn in the Book of Job, “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God made a joyful melody.”

But as we also learn from The Silmarillion – as in the biblical story of Creation – we see the creativity  of Iluvatar, the One, and his first creations, the Ainur, the Holy Ones, contested by Melkor, “the greatest of the Ainur” who, like Lucifer, falls as he succumbs to the sin of pride and seeks to subvert both men and elves.

As G.K.Chesterton said of such pride, and as Tolkien himself believed: “Pride does not go before a fall, pride is the fall.”

That Tolkien’s faith was based on personal encounter with God and a deep spirituality is revealed in an exchange that he had with a stranger (whom he identified with Gandalf) and who said to him “Of course, you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?” Tolkien replied “Pure Gandalf!…I think I said “No, I don’t suppose so any longer.” I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff up anyone who considers the imperfections of “chosen instruments”, and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose.”  

    All the elements, from the genesis and “the great music” of “The Silmarillion” to the awesome climax at Mount Doom, take us from the alpha of creation to the omega of judgement. This is a story that exists for itself. 


    Tolkien tells us that: 


“The Lord of The Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision”. Elsewhere he states “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic”. In 1958 he wrote that The Lord of the Rings is “a tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, but is not an allegory of them.”


In 1956 in a letter to Amy Ronald he wrote:


“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect “history” to be anything but a long defeat – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” 


Tolkien also said that his writing reflected his beliefs about death, immortality and resurrection.


In 1958, in a letter to Rhona Beare, Tolkien wrote:


“I might say that if the tale is ‘about’ anything it is not as seems widely supposed about ‘power.’ …It is mainly concerned with Death and Immortality.”


The Ring Rhyme that opens each volume of The Lord of the Rings reminds us of the order of Creation and that we cannot cheat our maker:


“Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die…”


The Silmarillion reminds us:


“Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought evil out of good and fear out of hope.”


Tolkien believed in the Catholic concept of Natural Law and in the natural order of things; that we must be good stewards of creation and guardians of the beauty that God has bestowed upon the created world.


He foresaw the battles over euthanasia, genetics and the immortality sought and craved through genetics and human cloning – the powerful temptation (shared by some of the men and elves of Tolkien’s realm) to artificially manipulate our allotted span of life and to upend Natural Law and to usurp the role of the Creator. 


Tolkien and C.S.Lewis had read and were inspired by the writings of the Catholic convert G.K.Chesterton, who died in 1936, the year in which The Hobbit was completed.  In 1922 Chesterton’s last book before becoming a Catholic was “Eugenics and Other Evils” in which he stood against Margaret Sanger and the other early cheer leaders for the Nazis and who literally argued for “More Children for the Fit. Less for the Unfit.” Sanger made it clear whom she considered unfit: “Hebrews, Slavs, Catholics, and Negroes.”


Chesterton argued that if people dared to challenge science without ethics, such as eugenics or cloning, attempts are made to belittle them with “the same stuffy science, the same bullying bureaucracy, and the same terrorism by tenth-rate professors.” 


Tolkien shared Chesterton’s loathing of eugenics and in 1938 condemned Nazi “race-doctrine” as “wholly pernicious and unscientific”. And, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he described the scientists who had created the atomic bomb as “these lunatic physicists” and “Babel-builders.”


Three years after Eugenics and Other Evils, Chesterton published his “The Everlasting Man” (1925) which disputed H.G.Wells’ view that civilisation was merely an extension of animal life and that Christ was no more than a charismatic figure. In contesting this, Chesterton said Christianity had “died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Neither he nor Tolkien had any doubt about the Divinity of Christ, the Son of God.


In The Everlasting Man Chesterton paints the canvas of humanity’s spiritual journey and portrays Christianity as the bedrock of western civilisation.


Later, C.S.Lewis said that the combination of Chesterton’s apologetics and George MacDonald’s stories had between them shaped his intellect and imagination.


In 1947 Lewis wrote to Rhonda Bodle that   “the [very] best popular defence of the full Christian position I know is G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.”  Having abandoned his atheism Lewis wryly remarked that a young man who is serious about his atheism cannot be too careful about what he reads.


Tolkien and Lewis were also influenced by Chesterton’s belief in Merrie England as an antidote to the pernicious dehumanisation represented by over industrialisation and the servile State.  


The culture of the Shire is the culture of Merrie England. 


Victorian Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics saw Merrie England as representing the abundance and generosity of gifts we so easily squander or spoil. There was something here of Thomas More’s Utopia and a desire to return to an idyllic pastoral way of life that had been superseded by the smoking chimneys and crushed character of 1930s Britain.


Chesterton saw Merrie England in the guise of the country inn, the Sunday roast, conversation around the fireside, through the medieval Guilds, arts and crafts. Tolkien captured these ideas in the people of the Shire.


He always made clear his intense hatred of the rapacious destruction of the English countryside and the desirability of the simple life.  For most of his life Tolkien used a bicycle rather than a car, of which he though there were too many although it is unclear whether, like his Hobbits, he looked forward to two breakfasts


Tolkien and Lewis took from Chesterton their profound belief in the human dignity of every person, each made in the likeness and image of God. The castrating unmanning of men (“men without chests”) was captured by Lewis in “The Abolition of Man” (1943) and grotesque scientific brutalism is the theme of his novel “That Hideous Strength” (1945).


In 1930 Chesterton had observed that When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.”


And in his Autobiography (1936) he wrote this:

“I did not really understand what I meant by Liberty, until I heard it called by the new name of Human Dignity. It was a new name to me; though it was part of a creed nearly two thousand years old. In short, I had blindly desired that a man should be in possession of something, if it were only his own body. In so far as materialistic concentration proceeds, a man will be in possession of nothing; not even his own body. Already there hover on the horizon sweeping scourges of sterilisation or social hygiene, applied to everybody and imposed by nobody. At least I will not argue here with what are quaintly called the scientific authorities on the other side. I have found one authority on my side.”


Like Chesterton, Tolkien also insisted on the teaching authority of the Church and the Pope.


He said of the papacy: “I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims…for me the Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honour, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. “Feed my sheep” was his last charge to St.Peter.”



Chesterton and Tolkien also had a shared love of the Virgin Mary. In his poem “The Black Virgin” Chesterton describes Mary “a morning star” – “sunlight and moonlight are thy luminous shadows, starlight and twilight thy refractions are, lights and half-lights and all lights turn about thee.”


Tolkien gives his elves an invocation to Elbereth “We still remember, we who dwell in this far land beneath the trees, The Starlight on the Western seas” words redolent of a Marian hymn which describes Mary as the “guide of the wanderer”, as “the ocean star”, “mother of Christ, star of the sea”.


In a letter to Fr. Robert Murray SJ, Tolkien said of the Virgin Mary “Our Lady, upon which all my own small perceptions of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity is founded”. Elsewhere he had said: “I attribute whatever there is of beauty and goodness in my work to the Holy Mother of God.”


Tolkien saw Mary as the closest of all beings to Christ, as literally “full of grace” describing her as “unstained” and that “she had committed no evil deeds.” He saw her as the Christ bearer who paves the way for the Incarnation: about which he says “the Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write.”


As well as is love of Mary, Tolkien had a traditional Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints – the companions of Christ throughout all the ages. He would have been delighted by the beatification in Birmingham, in 2010, by Pope Benedict of John Henry Newman. The collegiality – the fellowship – of Newman’s Oratorians appealed to Tolkien.


Newman insisted – and Tolkien believed – that there is some unique task assigned to each of us that has not been assigned to any other. The challenge is to discern it.


Newman’s prayer on “Purpose” emphasises each person’s unique gifts, their unique talents, and their unique destiny. he emphasised that we do not need to be perfect before using those talents. He said this about the use of gifts:


“What are great gifts but the correlative of great work? We are not born for ourselves, but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country: it is but selfishness, indolence, a perverse fastidiousness, an unmanliness, and no virtue or praise, to bury our talent in a napkin.”


Or, for that matter, hide them in a private hobbit hole.


Tolkien loved the feasts and seasons of the Church and the ever growing company of saints. In 1925, when Tolkien was 33, the little flower” – the Carmelite nun, Saint Therese of Lisieux, was canonised. Her “little way” contradicted the elevation of power and the mobilisation of vast armies: “I only love simplicity. I have a horror of pretence” she said. “It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new.”


It sounds like a manifesto for Hobbiton.


Central, too, to Tolkien’s faith was his love of the Blessed Sacrament. He told his son Michael that “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion….frequency is of the highest effect.” He described the Holy Eucharist as “the one great thing to love on earth” and that in “the Blessed Sacrament you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that….eternal endurance which every man’s heart desires.”




And in all these battles Tolkien seeks the Viaticum which is given through the last of the seven Sacraments and which is provided as daily sustenance through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist stating:


 “I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again”



These then are some of the “certain ‘religious’ ideas” that inspired Tolkien.



Doubtless, all of these beliefs and ideas were the subject of discussion when the Inklings met at the Eagle and Child – the Bird and Baby – between the 1930s and 1949. The group was led by Tolkien and Lewis but also included Tolkien’s son, Christopher, Roger Lancelyn Green, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and Lord David Cecil.


But it was particularly the companionship of C.S.Lewis that strengthened the faith of both men.


It is now 90 years since J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis met as Oxford academics.

It was the beginning of a friendship kindled by common experiences and which produced some of the most wonderful fiction of the twentieth century but which had its origins in the shared horrors of the Great War.

   Lewis once wrote that “There’s no sound I like better than male laughter” – and it was in the early 1930s that he began to cultivate his friendship with the new Professor of Anglo-Saxon, appointed in 1925. Throughout those highly productive years – and as he journeyed from atheism to Christian belief – Lewis became close to Tolkien.       


   In 1933 they began to hold meetings in college rooms and on Tuesday mornings at The Eagle and Child. Tolkien later wrote that “CSL had a passion for hearing things read aloud.” The Inklings met regularly during the next two decades.


   Although Tolkien would later be displaced in Lewis’ affections, and a rift opened between them, these gatherings inestimably enriched them both.


Lewis would write of the importance of such friendship in “The Four Loves”: “He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest or funniest in all the others.”


The Inklings were conceived as a circle of friends which would practice solidarity and engender camaraderie; intuitively and challengingly counter cultural.


For Lewis the Inklings also provided a familial intimacy which his own family could not. Tolkien was crucial in his own journey to faith.


He recorded the moment when, in 1931, he decided to embrace Christianity: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. …My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”


Two year earlier he had come to believe in God: 


   “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England…The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”  


Lewis and Tolkien did not believe Christians needed to be morose or detached.  In 1944 The Daily Telegraph misleadingly referred to Lewis as “an ascetic”.  Tolkien scoffed at this in a letter to his son: “Ascetic Mr. Lewis!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning and said he was ‘going short for Lent.’”


Their friendship was based on the joy to which Lewis gave so much emphasis in his writing and captured by Tolkien in this verse from Lord of the Rings

“Ho! Ho! Ho!

To the bottle I go To heal my heart and drown my woe Rain may fall, and wind may blow And many miles be still to go But under a tall tree will I lie And let the clouds go sailing by”


For two men formed in the harrowing trenches of the Great War, who had seen so many of their friends pay the ultimate price, pain and suffering did not disable or incapacitate them. Both believed that beyond the pain and the suffering of today is the certainty of eternity. Both believed that through their story telling they could encourage their readers to see beyond the catastrophic and destructive effects of war and the evil in our world to a hopeful and joyous future.



So much, then, for Tolkien’s beliefs and the experiences which shaped him.


  • 2.  How does that faith shape the characters, and the story lines?



Although Tolkien despised simple allegory he invites us to use the stories, the plots, the characters, and to examine their “applicability.” He said that his objective had been to “make a body of more or less connected legend…drawing splendour from vast backcloths…The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.”  He said that his work should be “dedicated simply to England, to my country.”


This suggests that he wants us to explore his amazing and extraordinary landscape to discover things that are important about how we live and behave towards one another.


Tolkien insisted that notwithstanding the Redemption of man “the Christian still has to work, with mind as well as body” and he said that “in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”


We are being invited to decipher his elvish runes and games of riddles, leaving us scope to draw what conclusions we may but this is an invitation to meet our Creator through legend and myth, fantasy and story-telling.


And the Lord of the Rings is riddled with wisdom and common sense about everything from the nature of friendship to the place of courage:



“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”


“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”


It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”


“Little by little, one travels far.”


“Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate”


 “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”


“It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.”


“Courage is found in unlikely places.”


But central must be an understanding of power and evil represented by the Ring itself:

“The Board is set, the pieces are moving. we come to it at last, the great battle of our time.”

 Stratford Caldecott believed that the Ring exemplifies “the dark magic of the corrupted will, the assertion of self in disobedience to God. It appears to give freedom, but its true function is to enslave the wearer to the Fallen Angel. It corrodes the human will of the wearer, rendering him increasingly “thin” and unreal; indeed, its gift of invisibility symbolizes this ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity. You could say the Ring is sin itself: tempting and seemingly harmless to begin with, increasingly hard to give up and corrupting in the long run


The Ring and the forces at work capture the endless contest between good and evil. It represents naked power and crude evil bringing with it temptation and corruption, violence and death.




As the ring bearer struggles towards his destiny many die before the evil forces of Sauron are at last subdued; and even then Saruman remains at large in the Shire – evil and sin are still at work, waiting to ensnare us.


For the Christian, the use of evil to overcome evil is a frequent temptation. Frodo, Gandalf and the Lady Galadriel all understand that if they use the ring to overcome the Dark Lord then they too will become enslaved by evil.


The general weakness of humanity (which can be taken to cover not only mankind, but all creatures in The Lord of the Rings) reminds us that humanity is fundamentally good, but that those who fall turn to evil. 


All that is evil was once good – Elrond says, “Nothing was evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”  In this commentary and in the fallen orcs – which were themselves once elves – we can surely see the story of the fall.


Temptation appears first in The Hobbit as the travellers are warned as they enter Mirkwood, don’t drink the water and don’t stray from the path. How like the descendants of Adam, who when urged not to eat at the forbidden tree choose do so anyway.


The temptation of the Serpent is reflected in Boromir’s temptation by the Ring, as well as in Gollum’s.  In Gollum we also see the idea of a conscience – he fights with himself and with his conscience while he is being tempted.  The theologian Colin Gunton was of the opinion that the way in which the Ring tempts people to use its power is analogous to Jesus’ temptation by the devil.


Other aspects of evil also recur in the book.  The destructive nature of evil is there in the Scouring of the Shire, and in the way in which Saruman’s troops destroy the trees and the timeless quality of Shire life, something especially abhorrent to Tolkien. The orcs themselves are cannibals, and are hideous – showing how evil corrupts. The dark and barren lands of Mordor are the very face of evil.


Connected with this is the self-destructive nature of evil. Inherent in evil is the desire to dominate, rule and have power over others.



After Gollum falls to the power of the Ring, he is consumed by its power, and he becomes weakened to such an extent that he can no longer resist it. Even getting close to evil has a subverting effect: take Bilbo’s reluctance to give up the Ring, and its disappearance from the mantle piece and reappearance in his pocket. Or, despite his epic and heroic journey into darkness, Frodo ultimately fails to throw the ring into the furnace. Here is the powerful mixture of the intoxicating allure of the forbidden with our human weakness and frailty.


Yet, despite his failure, in Frodo’s “little way” of self-sacrifice and willingness to take on seemingly impossible odds we see a central tenet of Christian belief.  And think of those unlikely victories over seemingly intractable and daunting odds such as at Helm’s Deep. Even when evil appears to be triumphing – such as when Sauron gloats over what he considers to be the foolhardiness of Aragorn’s troops as they march towards Mordor, he is defeated by them.



Evil also brings with it desolation, barrenness and the destruction of beauty.


Compare the destruction of Isengard, and the brutality of the orcs, with the simple homely life of the Shire. An image that Tolkien repeatedly uses is that of dark and light.  Contrast the Shire and Mordor (“where the shadows lie”) – The Shire which contains so much of the England Tolkien loved, and Mordor, the dark and sinister land where Sauron and Mount Doom are to be found, and which contains so much of the England that Tolkien hated.


Compare, too, the man-eating trolls and orcs with the elves – the disfigured (fallen) creatures and the beautiful and immortal elves – comparable to the angelic hosts. Recall the crucial role of the eagles and remember Isaiah 40:31 that “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”



Even in his use of names Tolkien’s sign posts take us to places and people that seem good or bad – Galadriel, Aragorn, Frodo and Arwen are beautiful-sounding names, whereas Wormtongue, the Balrog, Mordor and Mount Doom -all unlikely to be forces for good.


But although we encounter evil we are encouraged never to lose sight of what is good:


“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”


In the Lady Galadriel the reader can be allowed to see something of the purity and beauty of the Virgin Mary; Galadriel’s grand-daughter, Arwen, also has a Marian role, saving both Frodo’s life and soul as she utters the words – not in the original text but crafted by Peter Jackson, who in his use of the word grace makes a more explicitly religious statement than even Tolkien himself –

“What grace is given me, let it pass to him. Let him be spared.”


Galadriel bestows upon the Fellowship seven mystical gifts, which are surely analogous to the seven sacraments, and as such are real signs of grace, and not mere symbols.


In the provision of lembas, we can see the Holy Eucharist. Before the Fellowship depart from Lorien they have a final supper where the mystical elvish bread lembas is shared, and they all drink from a common cup. The immortal elves are nourished by the lembas, the mystical bread – the bread of angels – which both nourishes and heals.


Lembas, we are told, “had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone, and did not mingle it with other goods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure.” This allusion reminds us of the manna that fed the people of Israel or the German mystic, Theresa Neumann, who survived by eating nothing other than the Holy Eucharist.  


We can see Christ-like qualities in Aragorn. He has a kingdom to come into, a bride to wed. One powerful image is of the “Hands of the Healer” – in the Houses of Healing: Aragorn, the King, has the ability to heal people by touching them with his hands. Another King had the touch that healed Jairus’ daughter, the centurion’s servant, the lepers, the blind man and the sick who were lowered through the roof at Capaernum. 


Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo all have Christ like marks – with Aragorn the king entering his kingdom, the return of whom everyone is expecting;


In Gandalf we are also confronted by Resurrection –a life beyond the present is evoked as  Gandalf dies after he fights the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum; but returns – and is initially unrecognised, strengthened as Gandalf the White; recalling Gethsemane and Emmaus.


Gandalf’s transformation tells us something about the Christian idea of justice, which is at the heart of the book. In the end, everyone gets what they deserve.  Saruman starts off as Saruman the White, but following his fall, ends up as Saruman of Many Colours. The order of “rank” in the wizard hierarchy holds white as the highest, followed by grey and then brown; they almost sound like orders of monks and friars with Gandalf the Grey becoming Gandalf the White.


There is even a sort of papacy in the wizard Gandalf – after all, he acts as leader to the free and faithful people, and he even crowns kings, as did popes of old. And as a spiritual father to Frodo, who tells Gandalf that he wishes he had not been born into such a time as this that “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”



There is the further thought that along with Galdalf’s papal colour of white, the name of the Pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, is translated into English as Gandolf’s Castle. Perhaps it means nothing; perhaps it is another elvish rune.



In Boromir we see a willingness to lay down his life for his friends (made all the more remarkable because of his earlier attempt to seize the ring by force and by his subsequent repentance). Boromir is rewarded for his repentance by dying a hero’s death by an orc’s arrow and being given a hero’s funeral.  All of the fallen characters are given a chance to repent, although most of them– such as Wormtongue, Gollum and Saruman – unlike Boromir, do not.



In Frodo, we see a willingness both to serve and to carry his burden. The very future of Middle Earth is at stake, and it is the Fellowship which wins salvation for Middle Earth, although not without cost, including self-sacrifice.


Elrond tells Frodo that it is his destiny to be a ring bearer; but this is no pleasurable occupation. Frodo, like Christ, takes up his cross.


Throughout the quest Frodo’s strength in increasingly sapped by the burden he carries and of which he seeks to be rid.  His stumbling approach to Mordor, under the Eye of Sauron, is like the faltering steps of Christ weighed down by his Cross as he repeatedly falls on the path to Golgotha; and, like Christ, Frodo is tempted by despair.



Indeed, Frodo does succumb. His free will, hitherto so strong in resisting the powers of the Ring, gives way to the power of the Ring, and he cannot bring himself to throw it down into the fires of Mount Doom. Despite all his inner strength Frodo gradually succumbs to a dark fascination with the ring and he loses his free spirit and free will the closer he comes in proximity to Mount Doom


Enter here the Christian foot soldier, Samwise Gamgee.


My own favourite character in The Lord of the Rings is based on the private soldiers Tolkien encountered at the Somme in 1916:


“My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 War, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”


Sam’s humility turns him into the greatest hero in the book.  Although he is only Frodo’s gardener, it is he who saves Frodo and ultimately the Shire. Mary Magdalene, in her first resurrection encounter with the Lord mistakes Jesus, thinking that he too is only a gardener.  Tolkien is reminding us that so often we miss what is important about the people we meet, what matters most, and too frequently judge them by the job they do or their social origins.


Sam is like Simon of Cyrene, sharing his Master’s burden and at the climax his devoted loyalty in following Frodo to the very end is rewarded as the burden is lightened and he is transfigured. 


Stratford Caldecott quotes Tolkien as saying that the plot is concerned with ‘the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble’ – and the meek Sam certainly inherits the earth.  


At a crucial moment in Mordor he must carry the Ringbearer, and even the Ring itself.  He moves from immature innocence to mature innocence: and finally, in his own world (that is, in Tolkien’s inner world of the Shire), this ‘gardener’ becomes a ‘king’ or at least a Mayor.  The fact is that Frodo could not have fulfilled his task without the continuing presence of Sam, and he relies utterly on him; yet Sam remains humble always and faithful to his master.


Through Sam Tolkien also reminds us of the Christian virtue of mercy and the role of Providence. Sam would have gladly disposed of Gollum whom he sees as a threat to Frodo. Gandalf commends Frodo for showing mercy and tells us that even Gollum may one day have his moment. As the ring is committed to the depths that Providence comes to pass.


As Sam, who begins the story by eavesdropping, returns to the Shire there is something of the Catholic love of order, tradition and a longing for restoration of that which has been lost.


Sam insists “there is some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for.” 


The fight culminates on a specific date: March 25th. It is the day on which the Ring is finally destroyed at Mount Doom. Gandalf tells Frodo “the New Year will always now begin on the 25th of March when Sauron fell, and you were brought out of the fire to the King.”  


Tom Shippey, in “The Road to Middle Earth”, says that in “Anglo-Saxon belief, and in European popular tradition both before and after that, March 25th is the date of the Crucifixion”, and it is also the date of the Annunciation.  Days to recall beginnings and endings.



The Lord of the Rings then is a story with many stories concealed within it. Tolkien’s subtlety is that he lays a trail of clues for his readers.


His final hidden clue – the last elvish rune – is the word Tolkien invented to describe what he saw as a good quality in a fairy-story – and that word was eucatastrophe, this being the notion that there is a “sudden joyous ‘turn’” in the story, where everything is going well, “giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy”, whilst not denying the “existence of dyscatastrophe – of sorrow and failure”.


Tolkien said:


“I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.


That is what shaped his life, what shaped his beliefs, where faith and fiction are joined as one – and why his work is a great spiritual adventure as well as high fantasy at its very best.



 David Alton, November 2016.          






Second Vatican Council – 50 Years Later What Does It Say To Us? Northern Catholic Conference, Liverpool 2013.

Northern Catholic Conference , June 8th, 2013 – Vatican Two – Reading the signs of the times: 50 Years Later What Does The Council Say To Us?

Also, for power point slides, see




The Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council

On October 11th 2012, we marked the momentous event which has defined contemporary Catholic Christianity – the official opening, by Pope John XXIII of the Second Vatican Council. The Council fathers were invited to read the signs of the times and to respond accordingly. Commentators called it a time of metanoia – meaning a transformative change of heart; a time for spiritual conversion; a time when the windows of the Vatican would be thrown open and the Holy Spirit invited in. Above all it was to be a time for renewal “a new Pentecost.”
Before turning to the main body of my remarks it is worth saying how pleased I am that your conference is taking place here in this chapel at Liverpool Hope University. It was where I worshipped while I was a student living in Newman Hall, in what was then Christ College, and it was where I was married twenty five years ago next month.
Perhaps it is also worth recording two things from recent reports: first, that an estimated 100,000 people die for their Christian faith each year and, second, that at a time when it is fashionable to attack the Church for its failings, we might just reflect for a moment on the extraordinary outpouring of good for which the Church is responsible: without any distinction of religion or race. Worldwide, the Church runs 70,544 kindergartens with 6,478,627 pupils; 92,847 primary schools with 31,151,170 pupils; 43,591 secondary schools with 17,793,559 pupils. She educates 2,304,171 high school pupils, and 3,338,455 university students. The Church’s worldwide charity and healthcare centres include: 5,305 hospitals; 18,179 dispensaries; 547 Care Homes for people with Leprosy; 17,223 Homes for the elderly, or the chronically ill or people with a disability; 9,882 orphanages; 11,379 crèches; 15,327 marriage counseling; 34,331 social rehabilitation centres and 9,391 other kinds of charitable institutions. In addition, consider its work in establishing hospices for the terminally ill and dying, it shelters for the homeless, and its work in refugee camps, among internally displaced people and with the poor. That we fail, both personally and institutionally, is self evident – and it was ever thus – but occasionally we should recall the lives that have been laid down for the religious freedoms we enjoy today and the lives which continued to be given in sacrifice or service.
If a faith is worth dying for it is worth living for – and these examples of sacrifice and self giving should inspire and animate us all. That call to give generously of ourselves – and to share our belief and love of God and the man made in his image – was at the heart of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
Many have remarked that the missing Cardinal at the Council was Blessed John Henry Newman because many of the ideas which it proclaimed were ideas which he had put forward a century before.

Cardinal John Henry Newman

Cardinal John Henry Newman

In his famous “Second Spring” – sermon preached in 1852 at St.Mary’s College Oscot, where Pope Benedict Emeritus completed his four day visit to Scotland and England. Newman began with some words from The Song of Solomon:

Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. For the winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land.”<
He gave emphasis to this metaphor by asking:
Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering,–of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms?
Newman understood better than anyone that this new birth would not be without pain. Over 160 years later, men and women are still struggling with the same questions and making the same journey.
That vast numbers of our countrymen still search for deeper spiritual meaning to their lives undoubtedly puzzles the author of “The God Delusion” and his fellow protestors. They find it even more puzzling that Christians are willing to surrender something of their freedom – “freedom to choose” – for something of greater worth. Perhaps that will speak into the hearts of those demonstrating here today for their right to choose to take the lives of the unborn children.
Newman unequivocally upheld the truth of Christianity:
“To suppose that all beliefs are equally true in the eyes of God, provided they are all sincerely held, is simply unreal and a mere dream of reason.” He argued that we would come to venerate spirituality or religion rather than Christ and that “in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ.”
He insisted that it was a heresy to state that “any creed is as good as any other. The lie teaches that all religious declarations are equally worthy because they are no more than matters of personal opinion.”
Newman’s belief in the truth of the Christian creeds, his belief in the teaching authority of the Pope, and his desire that each person should embrace their duty to share their beliefs and to act on them in a way that would benefit society as a whole, should be central to our understanding of the theology of the Second Vatican Council – Newman’s Council – and to Pope Benedict’s decision to beatify him and to come to Birmingham to do it.
Pope Benedict Emeritus designated the year of faith as a time to mark and reflect on two things – the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I wonder how many of us – either as individuals or parishes have actually done this yet?
Despite the many negatives events of the intervening 50 years it was the Council which gave us Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI – both of whom upheld the spirit and teachings of the Council – and in Pope Francis I we have the natural successor of Pope John XXIII. For every Catholic bewildered or upset by change there were many more who knew that the Church had to speak the old truths in a new way and that inertia was not an option.
Among its s many documents the Council issued four Constitutions. One of them, Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church, defined the role of Pontiff as integrating the pope’s power of primacy with the power of the college of bishops – an issue to which Pope Francis may well return, especially in the light of his decision to repeatedly use the title of Bishop of Rome rather than that of Pope when describing himself. If he decided to develop such thinking on the decentralisation of decision making away from the Roman Curia, it might, who knows, well open the way to the convening of a Third Vatican Council.

Although Pope John XXIII was a diocesan bishop – he was Patriarch of Venice – he had also been a high ranking curial diplomat and had a mischievous sense of humour about its effectiveness. Once asked how many people work in the Vatican, he replied, “about half.”

He was also asked “Is it true the Vatican is closed in the afternoons and people don’t work then?”No” he replied, “the offices are closed in the afternoons. People don’t work in the mornings.”

Fortunately, especially at a time when it is very fashionable to attack the Curia, it must be added that the officials who do work include some remarkably diligent servant s of t he Church. Pope John was famous for his good sense of humour and ability to laugh at himself and for deflating the overly self important. When greeted by a rather officious Mother Superior who announced to him that “I’m the Superior of the Holy Spirit” he replied “I’m only the Vicar of Christ.”
In addition to looking at the internal organisation of the Church and its ability to fulfil its mission in the world, another of the great themes and goals of the Second Vatican Council was the importance of developing inter denominational and inter faith relationships and promoting religious freedom for all.

Pope Francis as Archbishop of Buenos Aires - places himself at the service of a disabled child

Pope Francis as Archbishop of Buenos Aires – places himself at the service of a disabled child

This was a theme which Pope Francis emphasised during a meeting with religious leaders of other faiths in which he pledged friendship, respect and continued dialogue with other religious leaders, promising cooperation with Orthodox churches, describing the spiritual bond between Catholics and Jews as “very special” and expressing gratitude to Muslim leaders.
“The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions,” the Pope said. “I want to repeat this: The promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions.” Among those present were Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, as well as other Orthodox leaders; representatives from different Protestant denominations; Jewish and Muslim leaders and advocates; and representatives of the Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Jainist faiths.
“You have an enormous responsibility and task before God and before men,” said Bartholomew, the first patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church to attend a papal investiture since the two branches of Christianity broke apart almost a millennium ago.
“The unity of the Christian churches is the first and foremost of our concerns,” he added.
Soon after his election as pope, Francis sent a message to Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, pledging a spirit of “renewed collaboration.” Rabbi Di Segni attended the Vatican meeting and praised the new pope’s outreach.
“It’s a good start,” Rabbi Di Segni said in an interview. “Hopefully, we’ll not have any accidents.” But, pointing out that disagreements are inevitable, the rabbi added, “What is important is the good will to solve them.”

Imam Yahya Pallavicini, vice president of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, shook hands with Pope Francis and presented him with a book exploring the contemplative dimensions of Islam. He said he was touched when Francis expressed his gratitude for the presence of Muslim leaders in the room, and he predicted that the new pope would deepen the relationship between Catholics and Muslims. All of us saw the symbolism and the power of love in the Pope’s decision to wash the feet of a Muslim woman during the Easter liturgies.
As we consider what remain the implications of the Second Vatican Council for the Church today – especially in the context of the Church’s mission to the world and its relationship with other faiths and denominations, I want first to say something about the context of the Council and about the man who inspired it. Both have great relevance in the words of the Book of Esther, “for such a time as this.”

John XXIII’s convening of the Council was a time of great hope for the Church but this was not mirrored in the secular world, where it was a tense time – defined by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the stand-off between Presidents J.F.Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev. The crisis was at its height and the US was carrying out nuclear tests at Johnston Island and in Nevada. The simmering Cold War conflict was being fought out in the open in proxy wars, civil wars, and revolutions, aided and abetted by the super powers.

In other stirrings which underlined the sense of change afoot everywhere, Dr.Martin Luther King had been arrested for his campaign for civil rights and a little known anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, had been thrown in jail in South Africa.

Countries like Rwanda and Burundi had become independent and others, like Algeria, had voted to do the same. In 1945, 750 million people were governed by colonial powers but by 1962 two thirds of the countries in the United Nations were independent nations newly independent.

Religious and political change was also affecting the arts, music and culture. In its vanguard, the Beatles were taking their distinctive Liverpool beat into recording studios and their manager, Brian Epstein, was tying up recording contracts.
All these things were having a profound effect on my generation and at my new school, where I had just started as a first former, each morning we were asked to pray for a resolution of the dangerous confrontation between the USA and USSR and also to pray for the success of the Council.
As the Council fathers gathered in October 1962, for the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Church, they came with a mandate to address the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world. Good Pope John had signalled his intention to convene the Council just three months after his election as Pontiff in October 1958.

He frequently said that it was time to throw open the windows of the Church in order to let in some fresh air: a time for aggiornamento – a bringing-up-to-date. He argued that the Church must “keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world, and of modern living, for these have opened up entirely new avenues for the Catholic apostolate.” He said it was a time to address “the errors, needs and opportunities of our day” and that the key purpose of calling the Council was “that the sacred heritage of Christian truth be safeguarded and expounded with greater efficacy. “

Pope John passionately believed that Christians needed to stand together and show love and respect towards one another. He invited, and they accepted, representatives of the Protestant and Orthodox churches to attend the Council as observers.
The Council had its genesis twenty earlier during World War Two, when, as Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, he had made his annual retreat in Istanbul, where he was Nuncio. The Jesuit, Fr.Rene Follet, preached on the image of the perfect bishop and Roncalli, reflecting on the horrors being played out in the world, recorded in his diary that:
“The Bishop must be distinguished by his own understanding, and his
adequate explanation to others, of the philosophy of history, even the
history that is now, before our eyes, adding pages of blood to pages of
political and social disorders.”

He noted his intention to re-read St. Augustine’s City of God, and, having done so, he determined to bring the Church to an understanding of its contemporary prophetic role. He wanted his brother bishops and the laity to see that in every generation they must discern the signs of the times, put them into the context of the deeper patterns of history, and annunciate the still deeper principles of order (Book XIX of St. Augustine’s City of God: “peace is the tranquillity of order”) which must combat the maladies of the age.

On October 11th, in his opening address, Pope John began by reminding those gathered that “the Church must once more reaffirm that teaching authority of hers which never fails, but will endure until the end of time. For that was Our reason for calling this most authoritative assembly, and We address you now as the humble successor, the latest born, of this Prince of Apostles. “

He said that the choice for the world was “to be with Christ or against Him” and that the decision to separate ourselves from Christ results in “confusion, bitterness in their relations with one another, and the savage threat of war.”

The Council had been called, he said, “to diffuse the light of truth; to give right guidance to men both as individuals and as members of a family and a society; to evoke and strengthen their spiritual resources; and to set their minds continually on those higher values which are genuine and unfailing” and his hope was that the Church would be given “spiritual enrichment”

He expressed anxiety about those pessimists who “can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned. “

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand. “

In stating that there was “a basis for optimism” he contrasted the freedom in which the Second Vatican Council was meeting with earlier times whilst not neglecting to mention those bishops who were missing from the Council’s deliberations: “They suffer imprisonment and every kind of disability because of their faith in Christ.”  That remains the case for many bishops, priests, religious and lay people today.

His opening address reminded the church that Catholics must contribute to society; that it must not fear science but always temper it with appropriate ethics; that it must bring home the Church’s teaching to the modern world; uphold and transmit truth fearlessly: “Our duty is not just to guard this treasure, as though it were some museum-piece and we the curators, but earnestly and fearlessly to dedicate ourselves to the work that needs to be done in this modern age of ours, pursuing the path which the Church has followed for almost twenty centuries.”

He called for “a fresh approach” for the Council fathers to “blaze a trail” and to expound the truths held by the church “in a manner more consistent with a predominantly pastoral view of the Church’s teaching office.” This he says will be “a radiant dawn”For with the opening of this Council a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendour. It is yet the dawn, but the sun in its rising has already set our hearts aglow.”

Because some tend to use the Vatican Council as a pretext for attacking aspects of the Church’s teaching or liturgical practices which they may not like it is perhaps instructive to hear again the address which Pope John gave at the opening of the Council – and you can judge for yourself whether its promise has yet been fulfilled and what it continues to say to us 50 years later. I will only have time to refer to the “headlines” but you can read the rest for yourself:
Pope John XXIII – Address at the Opening of Vatican Council II – 11 October 1962

Pope John's Opening Address to the Second Vatican Council

Pope John’s Opening Address to the Second Vatican Council

Today, Venerable Brethren is a day of joy for Mother Church: through God’s most kindly providence the longed-for day has dawned for the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, here at Saint Peter’s shrine. And Mary, God’s Virgin Mother, on this feast day of her noble motherhood, gives it her gracious protection….

The Church In Council

A positive proof of the Catholic Church’s vitality is furnished by every single council held in the long course of the centuries—by the twenty ecumenical councils as well as by the many thousands of memorable regional and provincial ones emblazoned on the scroll of history.

And now the Church must once more reaffirm that teaching authority of hers which never fails, but will endure until the end of time. For that was Our reason for calling this most authoritative assembly, and We address you now as the humble successor, the latest born, of this Prince of Apostles. The present Council is a special, worldwide manifestation by the Church of her teaching office, exercised in taking account of the errors, needs and opportunities of our day.

A History Of Triumph

We address you, therefore, as Christ’s vicar, and We naturally begin this General Council by setting it in its historical context. The voice of the past is both spirited and heartening. We remember with joy those early popes and their more recent successors to whom we owe so much. Their hallowed, momentous words come down to us through the councils held in both the East and the West, from the fourth century to the Middle Ages, and right down to modern times. Their uninterrupted witness, so zealously given, proclaims the triumph of Christ’s Church, that divine and human society which derives from its divine Redeemer its title, its gifts of grace, its whole dynamic force.

And Of Adversity

Here is cause indeed for spiritual joy. And yet this history has its darker side too, a fact, which cannot be glossed over. These nineteen hundred years have reaped their harvest of sorrow and bitterness. The aged Simeon’s prophecy to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, proves true in every age: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be contradicted.” 1 Jesus, too, when grown to manhood, made it quite clear that men in times to come would oppose Him. We remember those mysterious words of His: “He who hears you, hears me.” 2 Saint Luke, who records these words, also quotes Him later as saying: “He who is not with me is against me; and he who does not gather with me scatters.” 3

To Be With Christ Or Against Him

Certain it is that the critical issues, the thorny problems that wait upon men’s solution, have remained the same for almost twenty centuries. And why? Because the whole of history and of life hinges on the person of Jesus Christ. Either men anchor themselves on Him and His Church, and thus enjoy the blessings of light and joy, right order and peace; or they live their lives apart from Him; many positively oppose Him, and deliberately exclude themselves from the Church. The result can only be confusion in their lives, bitterness in their relations with one another, and the savage threat of war.

A Pastoral Function

But the function of every ecumenical council has always been to make a solemn proclamation of the union that exists between Christ and His Church; to diffuse the light of truth; to give right guidance to men both as individuals and as members of a family and a society; to evoke and strengthen their spiritual resources; and to set their minds continually on those higher values which are genuine and unfailing.

No study of human history during these twenty centuries of Christendom can fail to take note of the evidence of this extraordinary teaching authority of the Church as voiced in her general councils. The documents are there, whole volumes of them; a sacred heritage housed in the Roman archives and in the most famous libraries of the world.

The Decision To Hold The Second Vatican Council

A Sudden Inspiration

As regards the immediate cause for this great event, which gathers you here together at Our bidding, it is sufficient for Us to put on record once more something which, though trifling in itself, made a deep impression on Us personally. The decision to hold an ecumenical council came to Us in the first instance in a sudden flash of inspiration. We communicated this decision, without elaboration, to the Sacred College of Cardinals on that memorable January 25, 1959, the feast of Saint Paul’s Conversion, in his patriarchal basilica in the Ostien Way. 4 The response was immediate. It was as though some ray of supernatural light had entered the minds of all present: it was reflected in their faces; it shone from their eyes. At once the world was swept by a wave of enthusiasm, and men everywhere began to wait eagerly for the celebration of this Council.

Arduous Preparation

For three years the arduous work of preparation continued. It consisted in making a detailed and accurate analysis of the prevailing condition of the faith, the religious practice, and the vitality of the Christian, and particularly the Catholic, body.

We are convinced that the time spent in preparing for this Ecumenical Council was in itself an initial token of grace, a gift from heaven.

Hope For Spiritual Enrichment

For We have every confidence that the Church, in the light of this Council, will gain in spiritual riches. New sources of energy will be opened to her, enabling her to face the future without fear. By introducing timely changes and a prudent system of mutual cooperation, We intend that the Church shall really succeed in bringing men, families and nations to the appreciation of supernatural values.

Thus the celebration of this Council becomes a compelling motive for whole-hearted thanksgiving to God, the giver of every good gift, and for exultantly proclaiming the glory of Christ the Lord, the triumphant and immortal King of ages and peoples.

The Timing Of This Council

And now, venerable brethren, there is another point that We would have you consider. Quite apart from the spiritual joy we all feel at this solemn moment of history, the very circumstances in which this Council is opening are supremely propitious. May We go on record as expressing this conviction openly before you now in full assembly.

Pessimistic Voices

In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judegment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.

A Basis For Optimism

Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era. We must recognize here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing men’s efforts, whether they realize it or not, towards the fulfilment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church’s good.

Civil Intervention Eliminated

As a simple example of what We mean, consider the extremely critical problems which exist today in the political and economic spheres. Men are so worried by these things that they give scant thought to those religious concerns, which are the province of the Church’s teaching authority. All this is evil, and we are right to condemn it. But this new state of affairs has at least one undeniable advantage: it has eliminated the innumerable obstacles erected by worldly men to impede the Church’s freedom of action. We have only to take a cursory glance through the annals of the Church to realize that even those ecumenical councils which are recorded there in letters of gold, were celebrated in the midst of serious difficulties and most distressing circumstances, through the unwarranted intervention of the civil authority. Such intervention was sometimes dictated by a sincere intention on the part of the secular princes to protect the Church’s interests, but more often than not their motives were purely political and selfish, and the resultant situation was fraught with spiritual disadvantage and danger.

Earnest Prayer For Absent Bishops

We must indeed confess to you Our deep sorrow over the fact that so many bishops are missing today from your midst. They suffer imprisonment and every kind of disability because of their faith in Christ. The thought of these dear brothers of Ours impels Us to pray for them with great earnestness. Yet We are not without hope; and We have the immense consolation of knowing that the Church, freed at last from the worldly fetters that trammelled her in past ages, can through you raise her majestic and solemn voice from this Vatican Basilica, as from a second Apostolic Cenacle.

The Council’s Principal Duty:

The Defence And Advancement Of Truth

The major interest of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred heritage of Christian truth be safeguarded and expounded with greater efficacy.

That doctrine embraces the whole man, body and soul. It bids us live as pilgrims here on earth, as we journey onwards towards our heavenly homeland.

Man’s Twofold Obligation

It demonstrates how we must conduct this mortal life of ours. If we are to achieve God’s purpose in our regard we have a twofold obligation: as citizens of earth, and as citizens of heaven. That is to say, all men without exception, both individually and in society, have a life-long obligation to strive after heavenly values through the right use of the things of this earth. These temporal goods must be used in such a way as not to jeopardize eternal happiness.

Seeking The Kingdom Of God

True enough, Christ our Lord said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice,” 5 and this word “first” indicates what the primary direction of all our thoughts and energies must be. Nevertheless, we must not forget the rest of Our Lord’s injunction: “and all these things shall be given you besides.” 6 Thus the traditional as well as the contemporary Christian approach to life is to strive with all zeal for evangelical perfection, and at the same time to contribute toward the material good of humanity. It is from the living example and the charitable enterprise of such Christians as these that all that is highest and noblest in human society takes its strength and growth.

Contributing To Society

If this doctrine is to make its impact on the various spheres of human activity—in private, family and social life—then it is absolutely vital that the Church shall never for an instant lose sight of that sacred patrimony of truth inherited from the Fathers. But it is equally necessary for her to keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world, and of modern living, for these have opened up entirely new avenues for the Catholic apostolate.

Beyond Science

The Church has never been stinting in her admiration for the results of man’s inventive genius and scientific progress, which have so revolutionized modern living. But neither has she been backward in assessing these new developments at their true value. While keeping a watchful eye on these things, she has constantly exhorted men to look beyond such visible phenomena—to God, the source of all wisdom and beauty. Her constant fear has been that man, who was commanded to “subject the earth and rule it,” 7 should in the process forget that other serious command: “The Lord thy God shalt thou worship, and Him only shalt thou serve.” 8 Real progress must not be impeded by a passing infatuation for transient things.

Bringing Home The Church’s Teaching To The Modern World

From what We have said, the doctrinal role of this present Council is sufficiently clear.

Transmitting The Truth Fearlessly

This twenty-first Ecumenical Council can draw upon the most effective and valued assistance of experts in every branch of sacred science, in the practical sphere of the apostolate, and in administration. Its intention is to give to the world the whole of that doctrine which, notwithstanding every difficulty and contradiction, has become the common heritage of mankind—to transmit it in all its purity, undiluted, undistorted.

It is a treasure of incalculable worth, not indeed coveted by all, but available to all men of good will.

And our duty is not just to guard this treasure, as though it were some museum-piece and we the curators, but earnestly and fearlessly to dedicate ourselves to the work that needs to be done in this modern age of ours, pursuing the path which the Church has followed for almost twenty centuries.

Nor are we here primarily to discuss certain fundamentals of Catholic doctrine, or to restate in greater detail the traditional teaching of the Fathers and of early and more recent theologians. We presume that these things are sufficiently well known and familiar to you all.

A Fresh Approach

There was no need to call a council merely to hold discussions of that nature. What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honoured teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.

This, then, is what will require our careful, and perhaps too our patient, consideration. We must work out ways and means of expounding these truths in a manner more consistent with a predominantly pastoral view of the Church’s teaching office.

The Right Way To Suppress Error

In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun.

The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations.

Contemporary Repudiation Of Godlessness

Not that the need to repudiate and guard against erroneous teaching and dangerous ideologies is less today than formerly. But all such error is so manifestly contrary to rightness and goodness, and produces such fatal results, that our contemporaries show every inclination to condemn it of their own accord—especially that way of life which repudiates God and His law, and which places excessive confidence in technical progress and an exclusively material prosperity. It is more and more widely understood that personal dignity and true self-realization are of vital importance and worth every effort to achieve. More important still, experience has at long last taught men that physical violence, armed might, and political domination are no help at all in providing a happy solution to the serious problems which affect them.

A Loving Mother

The great desire, therefore, of the Catholic Church in raising aloft at this Council the torch of truth, is to show herself to the world as the loving mother of all mankind; gentle, patient, and full of tenderness and sympathy for her separated children. To the human race oppressed by so many difficulties, she says what Peter once said to the poor man who begged an alms: “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, that I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk.” 9 In other words it is not corruptible wealth, nor the promise of earthly happiness, that the Church offers the world today, but the gifts of divine grace which, since they raise men up to the dignity of being sons of God, are powerful assistance and support for the living of a more fully human life. She unseals the fountains of her life-giving doctrine, so that men, illumined by the light of Christ, will understand their true nature and dignity and purpose. Everywhere, through her children, she extends the frontiers of Christian love, the most powerful means of eradicating the seeds of discord, the most effective means of promoting concord, peace with justice, and universal brotherhood.

Promoting Unity Of The Christian And Human Family

The Church’s anxiety to promote and defend truth springs from her conviction that without the assistance of the whole of revealed doctrine man is quite incapable of attaining to that complete and steadfast unanimity which is associated with genuine peace and eternal salvation. For such is God’s plan. He “wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 10

Unhappily, however, the entire Christian family has not as yet fully and perfectly attained to this visible unity in the truth. But the Catholic Church considers it her duty to work actively for the fulfilment of that great mystery of unity for which Christ prayed so earnestly to His heavenly Father on the eve of His great sacrifice. The knowledge that she is so intimately associated with that prayer is for her an occasion of ineffable peace and joy. And why should she not rejoice sincerely when she sees Christ’s prayer extending its salvific and ever increasing efficacy even over those who are not of her fold?

Reflection Of That Unity Sought By Christ

Indeed, if we consider well the unity for which Christ prayed on behalf of His Church, it would seem to shine, as it were, with a threefold ray of supernatural, saving light. There is first of all that unity of Catholics among themselves which must always be kept steadfast and exemplary. There is also a unity of prayer and ardent longing prompting Christians separated from this Apostolic See to aspire to union with us. And finally there is a unity, which consists in the esteem and respect shown for the Catholic Church by members of various non-Christian religions.

Universality And Unity

It is therefore an overwhelming source of grief to us to know that, although Christ’s blood has redeemed every man that is born into this world, there is still a great part of the human race that does not share in those sources of supernatural grace, which exist in the Catholic Church. And yet the Church sheds her light everywhere. The power that is hers by reason of her supernatural unity redounds to the advantage of the whole family of men. She amply justifies those magnificent words of Saint Cyprian: “The Church, radiant with the light of her Lord, sheds her rays over the entire world, and that light of hers remains one, though everywhere diffused; her corporate unity is not divided. She spreads her luxuriant branches over all the earth; she sends out her fair-flowing streams ever farther afield. But the head is one; the source is one. She is the one mother of countless generations. And we are her children, born of her, fed with her milk, animated with her breath.” 11

Blazing A Trail

Such, venerable brethren, is the aim of the Second Vatican Council. It musters the Church’s best energies and studies with all earnestness how to have the message of salvation more readily welcomed by men. By that very fact it blazes a trail that leads toward that unity of the human race, which is so necessary if this earthly realm of ours is to conform to the realm of heaven, “whose king is truth, whose law is love, whose duration is eternity.” 12


Thus, venerable brethren in the episcopate, “our heart is wide open to you.” 13 Here we are assembled in this Vatican Basilica at a turning-point in the history of the Church; here at this meeting-place of earth and heaven, by Saint Peter’s tomb and the tomb of so many of Our predecessors, whose ashes in this solemn hour seem to thrill in mystic exultation.

A Radiant Dawn

For with the opening of this Council a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendour. It is yet the dawn, but the sun in its rising has already set our hearts aglow. All around is the fragrance of holiness and joy. Yet there are stars to be seen in this temple, enhancing its magnificence with their brightness. You are those stars, as witness the Apostle John; 14 the churches you represent are golden candlesticks shining round the tomb of the Prince of Apostles. 15 With you We see other dignitaries come to Rome from the five continents to represent their various nations. Their attitude is one of respect and warm-hearted expectation.

Saints, Faithful, And Council Fathers

Hence, it is true to say that the citizens of earth and heaven are united in the celebration of this Council. The role of the saints in heaven is to supervise our labours; the role of the faithful on earth, to offer concerted prayer to God; your role, to show prompt obedience to the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit and to do your utmost to answer the needs and expectations of every nation on earth. To do this you will need serenity of mind, a spirit of brotherly concord, moderation in your proposals, dignity in discussion, and wisdom in deliberation.

God grant that your zeal and your labours may abundantly fulfil these aspirations. The eyes of the world are upon you; and all its hopes.

Prayer For Divine Assistance

Almighty God, we have no confidence in our own strength; all our trust is in you. Graciously look down on these Pastors of your Church. Aid their counsels and their legislation with the light of your divine grace. Be pleased to hear the prayers we offer you, united in faith, in voice, in mind.

Mary, help of Christians, help of bishops; recently in your church at Loreto, where We venerated the mystery of the Incarnation, 16 you gave us a special token of your love. Prosper now this work of ours, and by your kindly aid bring it to a happy, successful conclusion. And do you, with Saint Joseph your spouse, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, intercede for us before the throne of God.

To Jesus Christ, our most loving Redeemer, the immortal King of all peoples and all ages, be love, power and glory for ever and ever. Amen

Of course, Pope John XXIII would be dead the following year, 1963, and it would be left to Paul VI to see though the work of the Council which would end on December 8th 1965. The Council which was attended by over 2,000 bishops and advisors and observers from over 17 different Christian denominations.

The Council promulgated Four Constitutions:
Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation)
• Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church)
Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World)
Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy)

Nine Decrees:

Ad Gentes (Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity)
Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity)
Christus Dominus (Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church)
Inter Mirifica (Decree on the Means of Social Communication)
Optatam Totius (Decree on the Training of Priests)
Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on the Catholic Oriental Churches)
Perfectae Caritatis (Decree on the Up-to-date Renewal of Religious Life)
Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests)
• Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism)
Three declarations:
• Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty)
Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education)
Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Church’s Relations with Non-Christian

I can’t speak about all or many of these but let me refer to Lumen Gentium which not only states that lay people have a right to speak out when they believe that it would assist the Church in its apostolic work but they have a duty to do so and let me also single out another document which I think set the tone for the work of the Council along with the declaration on religious liberty.

On April 11th, 2013, we will celebrate the official publication of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris: On Establishing Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty.

It is sometimes described as Good Pope John’s last will and testament to the Church; sometimes as the Pope’s letter to the entire world. This anniversary has particular significance for me because as a boy, in 1963, I came to Rome with my school – a brand new Jesuit Grammar School named for the English martyr, Edmund Campion – and, in St.Peter’s, in front of Pope John, we sang “Faith of Our Fathers.”

Campion and Tyburn

It’s a refrain we need again in these days:  a recollection of what went before, the price that was paid, a reminder of how importance it is to cherish our story, to know who we are,  not to lose our identity, and in every generation to understand  and not to fear the need for renewal and sacrifice.
Pacem in Terris is a riposte to all those who question the role of religion in the quest for peace. A widely held opinion among intellectuals and opinion leaders insists that religion is a major source of strife and intolerance in the world. Pope Benedict not only disputed the notion that religion is necessarily “a source of discord or conflict”; he maintains that religious freedom is an important “path to peace.”
In stating this he builds upon John XXIII emphasis of the Catholic concepts of subsidiarity, solidarity, human dignity, and utter respect for God’s creation – where the man made in the image of God – imago Dei – always takes precedence over ideologies and systems.

Imago Dei - each of us - from the womb to the tomb - is precious to God because we are made in His image

Imago Dei – each of us – from the womb to the tomb – is precious to God because we are made in His image

Imago Dei

Imago Dei

Subsidiarity is enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity in European democracies, especially in the UK, where the government has incorporated something that seems very much like subsidiarity in to its flagship policy, but has named it localism.

Subsidiarity as we all understand it was developed by Oswald von Nell-Breuning, a German Jesuit theologian, whose thinking was pivotal in the publication of Quadragesimo Anno (1931) by Pope Pius XI, and whose writing was banned by the Nazis. Subsidiarity affirms that however complex a task may be, or however far reaching, it should be undertaken at the most local level possible.

In an increasingly globalised world where vast corporations have more wealth and power than many nation states, how much do we need our economies tempered by this principle, which hard-wires institutions against compulsive centralisation? The contrast with totalitarian and authoritarian societies – which subjugate the individual and these mediating structures to the State – could not be greater.

John XXIII was always at great pains to reject the Crushing of the Human Spirit and to oppose authoritarianism and narrow minded xenophobia.

To be Catholic is to be global. The word means “according to the whole”, and in every generation the Church’s adherents have sacrificed their lives to live out the Great Commission from Jesus to go out to all the nations of the world and to baptise all people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew: 28, 16-20). Worldwide there are two billion Christians; 1.2 billion Catholics. The onus is universal – it applies to all those who accept Him – and it expected to be lived out universally: “all nations”.

In his encyclical John XXIII, like Pope Francis, whose origins and characteristics are very similar, was appealing for peace and for harmonious co-existence.

His successor, in the Council’s most contentious Declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, set out the terms on which religious believers and non believers could co-exist and enrich one another. It explains our obligation to share though never to impose. Who could say that this is not a message which the world needs to hear in our own times?

Just before Easter I stood in the charred remains of an Islamic madrassa which had been burnt out in an attack by Buddhist extremists in Burma. The mosque had been desecrated and all but a handful of the 200 Muslims living in that village had fled – from a village where they had co-existed peacefully for 200 years.The same scene could be replicated in situation all over the world where believers turn on believers ,non believers on non believers,  believers on non-believers and non-believers on believers. It leads to terrible suffering and painand done in the name of God or god or man made ideologies of non belief.

Last year in the top 16 countries responsible for the most egregious and systematic violations of religious freedom, listed by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, persecution of Christians occurs in every one of those nations. This signals how malign and hostile the global environment may be and also, despite our “interconnectedness”, how indifferent we frequently are to those who reside with us in the household of faith.

Bhatti and Taseer - Christian and Muslim - were both murdered for speaking up for mutual tolerance and respect.

Bhatti and Taseer – Christian and Muslim – were both murdered for speaking up for mutual tolerance and respect.

Carnage and Destruction Left by Boko Haram in Nigeria

Carnage and Destruction Left by Boko Haram in Nigeria

Egypt's Copts are under daily attack

Egypt’s Copts are under daily attack


Border Crossings Can Often Result In Death As North Koreans -m some of them Christians -are Shot By Border Guards

Border Crossings Can Often Result In Death As North Koreans -m some of them Christians -are Shot By Border Guards

Shanghai's Bishop Ma under house arrest and stripped of his post as China's Communist authorities continue to persecute the country's Christians

Shanghai’s Bishop Ma under house arrest and stripped of his post as China’s Communist authorities continue to persecute the country’s Christians

The Holy See says that 100,000 Christians died for their faith last year. These are a selection of headlines from new items during just the past few weeks:

In Africa and the Middle East:
* The Silent Exodus of Syria’s Christians
* Islamic Law Comes to Rebel-Held Syria and the establishment of Sharia courts
• Christians slaughtered – the world yawns.
• Sudanese Officials Bulldoze Christian Church
• Nigerian Priest: Boko Haram Destroyed 50 Churches
• Tanzania : Christians Threatened with Islamist Violence on Easter

Egypt’s Coptic Christians Must Be Protected From Sectarian Violence
• We Abandon Christians in the East At Our Peril
• Torture Likely Led to Death of Egyptian Christian in Libya, Sources Say
• Iraq’s Endangered Christians
• McMecca: The Strange Alliance of Clerics and Businessmen in Saudi Arabia
• Only 57 Churches Left in Iraq
• UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Discusses New Report on Violence Against Baha’is in Iran
• Iranian Pastor in Prison Needs Help of White House, Panel Told; Pastor’s Wife: “I am disappointed that the west has not fully engaged in this case. … I expect more from our government.”
• St. Mark’s Coptic Church in Benghazi Torched
• Outrage Spreads As Islam’s Most Holy Relics Are Being Demolished in Mecca
• Copts Protest Church Attack in Egypt — Church Attacked Again
• Egyptian Court Sentences Christian Family to 15 Years for Converting from Islam
• Egypt’s Constitution Threatens Religious Freedom
• In Libya, Two Religious Communities Forced Out

• In Art and Education, Saudi Arabia Teaches Muslims Should “Triumph” Over Jews and Christians
• Yemen’s Persecuted Christians
• Sufi Mystics Warn of More Islamist Violence
• Iran’s Religious Crackdown

In East Asia and the Pacific
• Chinese Activist, Now in U.S., Says His Relatives Remain Under Surveillance, Tells His Story of Abuse and Brutal Torture
• Beijing Cautions New Pope on Meddling in China
• Indonesian Officials Destroy Church in Front of Worshippers as Muslims Egg Them On
• Three International NGOs Protest Legal Harassment of Buddhist Youth leader Le Cong Cau
• Ober 100 Buddhist monks burn them selves to death in self immolations.
• Muslim Group Condemns Violence in Burma
• House Church in Xinjiang Raided and Leaders Interrogated
• Persecution Rises in China as Plan Begins to End House Churches
• China Rights group lists 2012’s Top 10 Cases of Anti-Christian Persecution
• MALAYSIA: Ibrahim Ali, The Head of Perkasa, Issues Appeal to Burn Bibles
• Two North Korean Christians Killed for Their Faith
• Vietnam’s New Religion Decree Restrictive as Vietnamese Authorities Tear Down Carmelite Monastery
• Rohingya Mulsims Face Crimes Against Humanity
• Indonesia Man Receives 5 Year Sentence for Insulting Islam
In South and Central Asia

•• Azerbaijan Mosque Loses Eight-Year Struggle for Religious Freedom
• Pakistani Minorities See New Threats
• Report: Kazakhstan Court Orders Burning of Religious Books, Possibly a First for Their Government
• Appeal Sent by Catholic Congregations in Pakistan for Revision of Blasphemy Law
• Almost 90 Killed in Attack Targeting Pakistan’s Shi’a Muslims
• BANGLADESH: 20,000-strong mob attacks, Ahmadi festival
• Violence Against Christians Spreading in India
• Shiites Demand Protection
• BRUTAL MURDER IN BALUCHISTAN: Christian Refuses to Convert to Islam
• Kazakhstan’s authorities raid at least eight separate worship meetings

It is against this backdrop that we should return to Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom, on the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in matters religious), promulgated by Paul VI, December, 1965. The Council fathers set out the terms on which Christians may remain true to the central belief and calling of universality – eschewing violent proselytism and theocracy and insisting on respect and tolerance while firmly asserting the right of Christians to worship freely and to proclaim their beliefs. It’s a message which the world desperately needs to hear in time such as these.

The Second Vatican Council speaks audibly to a generation which even in a country like our own is witnessing heavy handed intolerance involving attempts to ban the saying of prayers on public occasions to the banning of the wearing of a cross; let alone the imprisonment and “re-education” of Chinese Catholic bishops, like Shanghai’s Bishop Ma, and the execution of converts to Christianity in Iran. We think of the horrors of North Korea, of Nigeria, of Egypt, of Pakistan, of Syria, of Sudan and Iraq – and many other places. Wherever it occurs, this is the crushing of the human spirit. It also diminishes those who do it and robs society of something which can be virtuous and inspirational.

Speaking, appropriately enough, in Cuba’s Revolution Square (Homily, March 2012) Pope Benedict Emeritus reminded us of two things:

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI


First, that religious freedom solidifies society:

Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, and creates favourable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.

And secondly, that we must beware of intolerance and prejudice in our own lives:

There are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in ‘their truth,’ and try to impose it on others. These are like the blind scribes who, upon seeing Jesus beaten and bloody, cry out furiously, Crucify him! ( Jn 19:6). Anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus. Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth. God created man with an innate vocation to the truth and he gave him reason for this purpose. Certainly, it is not irrationality but rather the yearning for truth which the Christian faith promotes.

This yearning for truth is the antithesis of homogenisation that implies a one size fits all vacuous western modernity to be imposed throughout the world. In Catholic thought, subsidiarity and universality sit happily alongside one another; so do reason and faith – the domains of secular rationality and religious conviction. These domains are interdependent and to be civilised we need them both.

At the heart of all our concerns must remain the inalienable and inviolate dignity of the human person – which was a central theme of the document, Huamane Dignitatis and the encyclical Pacem In Terris – and which today we have experienced something close to aphasia.

Let me close with some random thoughts of John XXIII but which tells us more of the wonderful insights of this good and holy man. Doubtless it will have been thoughts such as these which will have inspired our new Pope but they should inspire us too:

A peaceful man does more good than a learned one.
Pope John XXIII

Anybody can be Pope; the proof of this is that I have become one.
Pope John XXIII

Born poor, but of honoured and humble people, I am particularly proud to die poor.
Pope John XXIII

Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.
Pope John XXIII

Every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity.
Pope John XXIII

I am able to follow my own death step by step. Now I move softly towards the end.
Pope John XXIII

I have looked into your eyes with my eyes. I have put my heart near your heart.
Pope John XXIII

It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father.
Pope John XXIII

It is now for the Catholic Church to bend herself to her work with calmness and generosity. It is for you to observe her with renewed and friendly attention.
Pope John XXIII

It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.
Pope John XXIII

See everything, overlook a great deal, and correct a little.
Pope John XXIII

The family is the first essential cell of human society.
Pope John XXIII

The feelings of my smallness and my nothingness always kept me good company.
Pope John XXIII

The true and solid peace of nations consists not in equality of arms, but in mutual trust alone.
Pope John XXIII

So John XIII was right when he proclaimed that “The council now beginning rises in the Church like the daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.”



The question for us is whether we take its message into our own times.

David Alton, 2013.

Why Britain Needs The Sharp Compassion of the Healer’s Art Maranatha Lecture October 3rd 2012. Manchester.  

Click on this link for the power pont presentation which accompanies this lecture and which is in the Media section of the web site.

Click on the linkbelow for a link to the video recording of the lecture:

Why Britain Needs The Sharp Compassion of the Healer’s Art

Maranatha Lecture October 3rd 2012. Manchester.

David Alton


I am very pleased to have been asked to deliver this Maranatha Lecture tonight, especially as it gives me the opportunity to thank Dennis and Sheila Wrigley for their friendship and encouragement over these past 40 years.

Let me also thank Kevin McKenna for his work in organising tonight’s event.

Maranatha’s call for unity, renewal and healing has always been close to my heart and although all three of those words are each worth an entire lecture I have chosen tonight to concentrate on the damaged and wounded world in which we live and the need for healing in our own lives; in our families; in our communities and in our nation.


Explaining the title of the Lecture


For the lecture’s title I have used a phrase which appears in T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets – the second of which is called East Coker.

East Coker is a village in Somerset, mentioned in the Doomsday Book and with evidence of Roman habitation.   Eliot’s ancestors came from the village and his ashes were brought there after his death in 1965.

Eliot, an American who took British citizenship and went on to win the Nobel Prize for poetry,  visited the village in 1940, as war raged throughout Europe; and it was against this fiery and chaotic background, and in this context of a nation facing catastrophe, that Eliot composed  East Coker:

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art”

The Four Quartets  (“Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding”) are the clearest and richest exposition of Eliot’s Christianity and move us beyond the spiritual desiccation and sense of defeat represented in  his 1922 poem, “The Waste Land” and deftly take the reader from chaos to renewal, from damage to healing, from despair to hope.

The wounded, bleeding, surgeon capable of treating the distempers and afflictions visited upon us is Christ, the true physician: the wounded healer who applies the hard steel of the scalpel to cut away the infected and gangrenous decaying tissue.

Bloody and risky though it can be, exposing ourselves to this sharp compassion is the only way to new life and new hope.   East Coker is a call to put ourselves trustingly into God’s hands.

Anyone who has undergone surgery will concur – and I had surgery on my spine last year – the decision to place yourself in the healer’s hands requires careful deliberation and total trust. This is easier said than done in a world which encourages us to be autonomous and to believe that your destiny is in your own hands alone.

A twelfth century Welshman, Walter Map, understood that the hard sharpness of the surgeon’s implements is a prerequisite in the accomplishment of healing: “Dura est manus cirurgi, sed sanans:  The hand of the surgeon is hard, but healing.”

That Eliot had the healing of the nation in mind, as well as each of us as individuals, is clear from the war time context in which the poem was written. It contains profound insights into the human condition and the suffering from which none of us is immune.

East Coker is a poem about agonised redemption.

The Problem of Pain


It was written in the same year that his contemporary, C.S.Lewis, composed “The Problem of Pain”.   Like Eliot, Lewis, too, was trying to make sense of the troubling and unsettling perennial question of how belief in a loving and omnipotent God may be reconciled with the existence of suffering.

It was a problem which particularly disturbed my father, who fought at El Alemain and Monte Casino, and whose brother, an airman, was killed in 1942. How could God allow such terrible suffering? The temptation is always to blame God.

Why do some people die in car accidents and others do not? Why does a child get abducted or abused, and others do not?  Why do some families face starvation, civil war, life as refugees or become homeless, and others do not? Why were some of us among the tube passengers killed on July 7th 2005 by terrorists but others not?  Why Hitler, why Stalin, why Syria, or Congo?  Last week I stood at the River Tumen, in North East China. It’s the border with North Korea, where escapees are shot dead by border guards if they try to cross the river. Why them and not us? Why are Christians persecuted in Nigeria, Sudan, and 60 other countries, but not us?  Why do terrible things happen to good people but not others?

Straightforwardly, none of us know the answer to this “why” question. Our faith is simply incapable of giving us all the answers to these and other vexed questions.

In St.Matthew’s Gospel we are told He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt: 5, 45) and no explanation is given as to why this is so. Our faith simply gives us the strength to live with the unanswered and unmediated questions which besiege us.

Even if we did know the answers, our loved ones would still be sick or dead, others would be hungry or living in fear, and evil would still be stalking the world.

It could be that we have been looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong questions.

Asking the Right Questions

Discovering the healer and His art enables us to find peace about the questions which cannot be resolved while questions like “what”, “how” and “who” – as in “what can I do to help?; “how should I put my private faith into public action?” and “who is my brother and my sister?” will deliver answers worth having.

It is against a questioning and doubting backdrop that Eliot writes the memorable stanzas of The Four Quartets – his last poem.

East Coker encourages us to spend less time wrestling with the question “why?” and to place ourselves instead in the hands of a “wounded surgeon” who is bloodied and wounded so that we might experience healing. The powerful metaphor of Christ as the wounded surgeon is accompanied by the metaphor of “the dying nurse” to   describe a Church which helps us pass through birth, life and death into Christ’s promise of eternal life.

Eliot understands that “time is no healer: the patient is no longer here” and that some questions are beyond answer.

Against the loss and pain experienced by so many, Eliot tells us that “in my beginning is my end” and that “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again”.

None of this may seem propitious but the poet reflects that “perhaps neither gain nor loss, For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Eliot concludes East Coker with words drawn from the fourteenth century English mystic and anchoress, Julian of Norwich, who at the age of 31, while suffering from a severe illness and believing she was on her deathbed, had a series of intense visions of Jesus. Eliot writes that despite the unanswered questions:

“And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one”


East Coker was written at a time of utter uncertainty for this nation.It was composed as Winston Churchill was telling the House of Commons, on June 18th 1940, that “the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

It was written as the German High Command announced that ‘The British army is encircled and our troops are proceeding to its annihilation’.

It was written as King George VI, on May 26th called the nation to prayer and repentance – following which Hitler ended his general advance; a storm of great fury grounded the Luftwaffe; and, as calm settled on the Channel, some 335,000 men of the British army were evacuated from Dunkirk.

It was written as the German Air Force, that summer,  would send 800 aircraft to begin their systematic and lethal bombardment of our cities.

The survival of Christian civilisation.


In preparing the nation for the battle which lay ahead, Churchill cast up what he called “this dread balance sheet” which pulled no punches in carefully assessing the scale and the nature of the threat which faced our country at the hands of the Nazis:

“Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.  Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

“But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.”

In every generation new battles have to fought; new enemies to be faced.  Eliot wrote that “Houses live and die: there is a time for building And a time for living and for generation.”  Healing and renewal will go together.

Facing Today’s Challenges

The challenge today may not be aerial bombardment  but what Churchill called the survival of Christian civilisation, our British way of life, the freedoms and liberties which we cherish, must be defended in our own and in every time.

In the debris of wrecked and ruined homes, of prematurely ended lives, of embattled and frightened communities, must come the same desire to move towards the sunlit uplands and to do this we will need more than ever “the sharp compassion of the healer’s art.” Only then shall in Mother Julian’s phrase shall“all manner of things be well.”

So much, then, for the ispiration behind the title of this lecture. What if, like Churchill, we were to examine the dread balance sheet of Britain today?


Christianity and Social Order


In 1942, while we remained at war, Archbishop William Temple published his “Christianity and Social Order”.  He insisted that “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens…the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles.”

That is the challenge, too, for this generation.

The Dread Balance Sheet in 2012


To utilise Churchill’s phrase, if we carried out an evaluation of Britain today how would our Dread Balance Sheet appear?

A faithless society has become an atomised, lonely, and selfish society; a faithless society has become a culturally diminished society; a faithless society has become a fatherless society and a broken family society. What has been done in the name of freedom has created a world of CCTV cameras; to high streets which have become no go areas after dark; and to binge drinking and shelves full of anti depressants. How has this made us freer or happier? In 2006 a report by University College, London stated that “The UK has the worst problem with anti-social behaviour in Europe.”   It has increasingly felt like a world rapidly going to hell in a basket.


The Children Test

A good place to begin in examining the Dread Balance Sheet would be to ask how British children fare in Britain 2012.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children”
The Dread Balance Sheet would reveal that three-quarters of a million British children have no contact with their fathers following the breakdown of their relationships.

A quarter of our children live with one parent, not two, and a third of these live below the poverty line. Many single parents struggle valiantly – and some very successfully – to bring up their children. But I doubt that many believe their situation is better than having two parents to shoulder the responsibility.

Men particularly need to understand that you may be able to walk away from your girlfriend or to divorce your wife but you can’t divorce your children and to them you have an unending responsibility.

In 2002 the think tank, Civitas, in a report entitled “Experiments in living: the fatherless family”, found that children being brought up without a father are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation; to have emotional or mental problems; to have trouble at school; to have trouble getting along with others; to have a higher risk of health problems; that they are more likely to run away from home and are likely to be at greater risk of suffering physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals that, according to the Children’s Society, 100,000 children run away from home every year.

Save the Children says that 3.9 million children are living in poverty and that a staggering 1.7 million children are living in severe, persistent poverty in the UK-which is, after all, one of the richest countries in the world. Every day 4,000 children call Childline. Since it was founded in 1986, it has counselled more than a million children.

The Child In The Womb

Before they are born, each day we abort 600 of our children, some up to birth if they have a disability or defect such as a cleft palate or Down’s Syndrome. Blessed John Paul II once observed that “a nation that kills its own children is a nation without hope” and that “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying,”

The latest abortion statistics reveal that taxpayers spent £118m on abortions in 2010, of which £75m went to private clinics; that of 6.3 million abortions, just 143 were where a woman’s life was in danger; and that 48,000 people have had more than one abortion– some as many as eight. In the north west of England 24,933 people had between 2 and 10 abortions.

And consider three recent reports.

The first concerns a group of ethicists linked to Oxford University who argue that newborn babies are not “actual persons”, don’t have “a moral right to life” and can legitimately be killed after they are born. It’s called infanticide although they prefer the euphemism “after birth abortion.” A child is then represented as a threat rather than as a blessing:  


   The second, the result of investigative journalism at its best, revealed how nine British abortion clinics were willing to abort babies on the grounds of their gender. The Health Secretary branded it immoral and illegal but The British Medical Journal blog carried an article stating that sex-selection abortions were justified on the grounds of “choice”.

   The blog asserts that “health professionals, and everyone who is pro-choice on abortion, should support pro-choice doctors and women seeking abortions, whatever their reasons, even when sex selection may be involved.”

 “Our Kingdom” – a group which includes doctors, writes supporting this view: “… sex selective abortion is not gender discrimination. Gender discrimination applies only to living people.”


   Once more there’s a chilling logic. It just a question of “my right to choose” – the slogan against which all our values are now shaped. The mantra puts “me” centre stage, not the needs of another; it promotes “rights” not duties; and it admires “choice” without a thought for the consequences. 


  Personal choice has eclipsed the sacredness, or otherness, of life itself. It is profoundly disturbing, indeed shocking, to see the way in which opinion formers within the medical profession have ditched the traditional belief of the healer to care for two patients, the child and its mother, and to unfailingly uphold the sanctity of human life.  Gender abortions are justified by this choice-driven, impoverished, and inhumane defence of child destruction.  

  The third story concerns a Court ruling that Catholic midwives may not object, on grounds of conscience, to being required to supervise or assist staff involved in abortions.

For me, forcing unwilling people to be complicit in the taking of innocent life smacks of neo-fascism, not intelligent or tolerant liberalism.

All we need to comprehend about abortion can be found in the words of the Fifth Commandment.

Apply those words to the eugenics used to kill 90% of babies with Down’s Syndrome in the womb – 90% of whom are now hunted down and aborted before their births. Now we’re now seeing attempts to eliminate them and to let them die rather than treat them in our NHS Hospitals.

Is this the same NHS that we were celebrating in the Olympic Stadium? What a contrast, too, with the inspirational achievements of disabled athletes, during the Paralympics celebrated in the same stadium, and who have taught us so much about courage and the overcoming of seemingly impossible odds.

As we rush pell-mell into Nietzschean-style eugenics and ethics, we should recall those inspirational moments, remembering that people with Down’s Syndrome are human beings – not “a drain on public finances”; that disabled people would not be “better off dead” and that by allowing the elimination of the weak it is we who expose ourselves as the truly weak

Remember the sharp compassion of the healer’s art not the surgeon’s knife, or hypodermic syringe, used to hunt you down and kill you. Doctors should always be defenders of life not its destroyers.

Victor Frankl in The Doctor and the Soul said “sometimes the unfinished are among the most beautiful of symphonies.”  One in five of our children remain“unfinished”, not making it to birth and many of those who do, never experience the beauty of innocence or hope.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals that if you abuse and kill the child in the womb you are unlikely to have much respect for the child after birth.

Life After Birth


Consider that five million images of child abuse are in circulation on the internet, featuring some 400,000 children. In Edinburgh, figures published in 2010 showed a 75 per cent increase in the number of babies addicted to drugs because of their mothers’ addiction.

Last year, Samaritans answered 4.6 million calls from people in despair, which is one call every seven seconds.  Samaritans say that ‘A conservative estimate is that there are 24,000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents (10-19 years) each year in England and Wales, which is one attempt every 20 minutes” As they grow up suicide accounts for 20 per cent of all deaths among young people aged 15 to 24.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet would reveal that more than 140,000 people attempt to commit suicide every year; that 29.4 million anti-depressants were dispensed in one recent year – a 334 % increase since 1985 at a cost to the National Health Service of £338 million; that 7 million are now living alone in Great Britain – entirely unprecedented in our history.

26% of British households comprise just one person and on present trends, by 2016, 36% of all homes will be inhabited by a single person – a trend accelerated by family breakdown and phenomenal divorce rates – the highest in Europe.

This has led to huge pressures for additional accommodation and to toxic loneliness.


How we treat the elderly: better off dead


Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet also reveals that our treatment of elderly people is fast becoming a national scandal, with an estimated 1 million elderly people who do not see a friend or neighbour during an average week.

I was in China last week a country which still shows respect for the elderly. Here we talk endlessly about making it easier to kill the elderly by legalising euthanasia.

Instead of the sharp compassion of the healer’s art many legislators now believe that a lethal injection would be preferable.

A new Bill to legalise assisted dying is to come before Parliament and last week the Liberal Democrats said that we should introduce Dutch and Belgian style euthanasia laws.

Consider what this will mean.

In Belgium there are calls for euthanasia for prisoners and it is reported that they have been harvesting organs from people who have been euthanized.

In Holland statistics indicate that the number of euthanasia deaths in 2011 in the Netherlands increased by 18% to 3,695. This follows increases of 13% in 2009 and 19% in 2010. Euthanasia now accounts for 2.8% of all Dutch deaths. A House of Lords Inquiry in 2005 predicted  that Dutch-style Liberal Democrat laws would lead to 13,000 euthanasia deaths annually in Britain.

The proposed new British law would use the framework and provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act as a template – paving the way for the same outcomes. Instead of approaching seven million unborn children, it will be legions of disabled, sick and elderly people whose lives will be ended.

The proposals will be disguised with words like compassion and dignity but the reality will be doctors who will be required in future to kill patients; disabled people made to believe they would be better off dead; patient safety compromised; and politicians using the new law as a pretext to withdraw resources from the care of the sick.

Far from providing dignity in dying these proposals will sound the death knell for Britain’s outstanding hospice movement and palliative care. To die with dignity we don’t need doctors to kill us. The so-called right to die will soon become a duty to die quickly!
The Bill is to be based on the findings of Lord Falconer’s Commission on Assisted Dying.
Hopelessly biased and distorted, the Falconer Commission was stacked full of euthanasia sympathisers and was established by Dignity in Dying (formerly The Voluntary Euthanasia Society).
The British Medical Association (BMA) – who oppose any change in the law – passed a 5 point resolution that undermined the Commission credibility by questioning its impartiality and independence.

The euthanasia lobby decided to set up their Commission because when two genuinely independent Parliamentary Select Committees carefully examined the issue they did not recommend a change of law.

When votes were then taken in the House of Lords it resulted in large defeats for their proposals (148-100 and 194-141). The last attempt at legalization in Scotland also resulted in a heavy defeat (85-16) for Margo Macdonald’s Bill in 2010.

For the record, and to give some idea of the scale of the parliamentary Inquiry, the Select Committee covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively, 15 oral sessions, 48 groups or individuals giving evidence, with 88 witnesses giving written evidence; 2,460 questions were asked and the committee receiving 14,000 letters. Compare the coverage given by the BBC and others to the parliamentary Inquiry with the media circus and feeding frenzy generated by the Falconer Commission.

An unbiased and impartial account of this debate might mention the opposition to a change in the law expressed in Parliament – predominantly on the grounds of public safety – and by the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges, the hospices and Disability Rights Organisations – who eloquently set out all the negative outcomes which would result from a change in the law.

There is a systematic propaganda campaign being orchestrated by the media aimed at changing the law and for several years we have been treated to a barrage of propaganda. Even the BBC’s Radio Times joined the pack, claiming on its cover that watching a man die in Switzerland would be “5 minutes of television that will change our lives”.

The sub editor who chose that caption perhaps failed to appreciate its irony: that the 5 minutes it took to change our lives, irredeemably ended another’s life.

The BBC are in danger of being reduced to the role of mere cheerleaders, producing five programmes in the past three years in favour of a change, while signally failing to present the other side of the argument. But this isn’t just about bias.
The BBC’s recent programmes celebrating assisted suicide not only break their own Code about providing balance when discussing ethical issues but, even more seriously, they also breach the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines, published in 2000.
The WHO clearly set out the responsibilities and duties of the media. Consider some of these strictures in the context of the programme featuring Terry Pratchett and the euthanasia centre in Switzerland.
The WHO begin by reminding the media of the incredible impact which it can have in informing attitudes and behaviour:
“Media strongly influence community attitudes… media can also play an active role in the prevention of suicide.”

The WHO points to the way in which television can negatively influence suicidal behaviour. One study showed an increase in the number of suicides for up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide.

They also warn against publicising suicide stories where celebrities are involved and warn against sensational coverage – which they argue should be assiduously avoided. The coverage should be minimized to the greatest possible extent possible. The WHO is right when it says:
“Suicide is perhaps the most tragic way of ending one’s life. The majority of people who consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure that they want to die. One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.”

A person’s death should not be a form of prime time entertainment, part of the battle for programme ratings – dressed up in the name of a hollow compassion.

In this country 550,000 people die each year. Very rarely do any make the newspapers or the media. Why does one lethal cocktail – but not 549,999 deaths – warrant wall to wall campaigning coverage?

Macmillan nurses, hospices and palliative care give the overwhelming majority in Britain a dignified death which does not involve commissioning doctors and nurses as patient killers. By all means agitate for improvement where the provision or practice isn’t good enough but let the BBC end this one sided and relentless campaign.

Consider what is at stake.
Chillingly, Baroness Warnock, who shaped the laws which have led to the destruction of millions of human embryos, has said that the sick are “wasting people’s lives” because of the care they require: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.” Suggesting that we have a “duty to die” she said “I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally, you’d be licensing people to put others down.”
This turns the argument into a worth based on someone’s economic value rather than on their true human value and their human dignity.

In case you think “putting people down” just “couldn’t happen here” consider the situation in Holland.

Just before Christmas the Dutch announced that they are considering mobile units to kill people in their own homes. 1,000 of the 4,000 euthanasia deaths in Holland each year are now done without the patient’s consent.

Not content with this, the Dutch say that 80% of people with dementia or mental illnesses are being ‘missed’ by the country’s euthanasia laws. They say that the death-on-wheels mobile units are necessary because some GPs have refused to administer lethal drugs to their patients.  And, in March this year euthanasia clinic launched six mobile euthanasia teams in the anticipation that they will achieve 1,000 deaths per year.

These mobile death units are targeted at “unmet need” including people with chronic depression, disabilities, Alzheimer’s, loneliness and those whose request to be killed has been refused by their doctors. It’s as if the Dutch have forgotten the last time mobile death squads were deployed in Europe.
This isn’t giving people “dignity in dying”. Sending out mobile units to administer lethal injections, to “put people down”, will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable.

It diminishes the dignity and humanity of the sick and elderly and diminishes those of us who condone it.
Imagine what will happen in Britain if the proposed laws are implemented. You have a terminal incurable disease. You have the option of palliative care at £1,000 a week or a glass of barbiturates at £5. What will happen if we accept Lady Warnock’s proposition that “you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”

How many relatives would put an inheritance before a life? One in eight current cases of elder abuse currently involves financial abuse by relatives and it would inevitably increase if we change the law. And health ministers, counting their pennies in a recession, will be tempted to go for the cheaper option – one Conservative Health Minister has already announced her support for assisted dying. A Bill allowing assisted suicide will carry the seeds of its own extension. If we allow it for some why deny it to others?

So how long before the Dutch mobile killing units arrive in a street near you?

To imitate Holland is unnecessary, dangerous and unethical.

As the distinguished lawyer, Lord Carlile QC, puts it we have “a hard law, with a kind face.” We should keep it that way.

Lord Carlile says: “The real concern was, and remains, public safety — the potential for collateral harm to the great majority of terminally ill people from giving a few individuals a “right” to prescription suicide pills. The so-called safeguards… were paper thin.”
Baroness (Ilora) Finlay – herself a professor of palliative says we don’t understand the difference between euthanasia and indefinitely continuing inappropriate treatment:
“Doctors regularly discontinue futile treatment. But they don’t do it in order to end a patient’s life: they are simply recognising that death cannot be prevented by treatment… end-of-life decisions, which are made every day by doctors, aren’t the same thing as ending-life decisions.”
When the physical, psychosocial and spiritual needs of the patient are met, requests for euthanasia are actually extremely rare. Less than 1,000 people persistently ask for it. 95% of Palliative Medicine Specialists are opposed to a change in the law. The Association of British Neurologists warn that severe depression will lead to cases of assisted dying  and that a law which says two doctors can determine such cases will offer few safeguards.

There will be no requirement that either of the two doctors should have any knowledge of the patient concerned. It isn’t required that they should have seen the patient’s case notes – or even examined the patient. The whole casual process could take place over the phone.

There is no requirement that either of these doctors should have any expertise in, or experience of, the medical condition in question. And yet this is an essential pre-requisite for determining the presence of a terminal illness and for giving a prognosis of its course.

There are no arrangements for seeking an expert opinion in cases of doubt – what will happen, for instance, if a patient is suffering from cognitive impairment or their judgement is clouded by depression?

To suggest that vulnerable people could be protected by two doctors being “of the opinion in good faith” is dangerously naïve at best and deceptive at worst.

Such a casual system of assessment is totally out of proportion with the gravity of the decision that is being taken.
Proponents of change insist that public opinion favours such a change. But public opinion probably would re-introduce capital punishment, too, and are we to suspend prudent judgement in that case too?
Rather than imitating the Dutch, we need to get behind groups like the admirable Care Not Killing Alliance, to defend and care for the sick and elderly and to put our energy into extending compassionate palliative care and hospice provision, and practical loving support – let’s demand “dignity in living” with the same fervour as those who want to license the routine killing of the most vulnerable in society

Recall, too, the story that when Mother Teresa was the guest of the White House at the National Prayer Breakfast she described to President Clinton and his guests how she had visited a home for the elderly where they had no shortage of material conveniences, but “why” she asked “does everyone sit looking at the door?”

She received the reply “It is because they are looking for the relatives who never come to visit them and who have no time for them”. Care and kill should never be used as synonyms and have no place in the healer’s art.


The loss of human dignity and corrupted values


If we have scandalous concern for human dignity at the beginning and end of life Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet shows that the deficit is not much better when it comes to other vulnerable groups. 2,000 people  are sleeping rough in England the number increased by a fifth last year;  84,900 households (which may contain more than one person) are classified as homeless; the prison population has increased by 85 per cent since 1993 with 87,673 men and women are in our jails; gun crime in the United Kingdom claims 30 victims every day; the average lifespan for people who get involved in gun crime in Manchester is a mere 24 years; that one woman in every four will be the victim of violence in her own home during the course of her lifetime.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet   reveals that individuals now owe more in debt than the wealth generated by the entire country in a year.  At the end of July 2012 total UK personal debt stood at a revised £1.410 trillion – up from £1.406 trillion at the end of July 2011.

331 people every day of the year will be declared insolvent or bankrupt. This is equivalent to 1 person every 60 seconds during a working day.  Almost 30 of every 10,000 people living in the north west of England are destined for insolvency.

Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet reveals a society where too many people think they owe nothing to anyone except the pursuit of their own desires.  We increasingly fail to participate.

Opting Out of Society


The Caravan Club and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have more members than all of the UK’s political parties combined. Just 1% of the population are members of a political party in the UK. We have come a long way since the Liberal, Conservative or Labour Club sat in the heart of every community. Trimdon Labour Club – the scene of Tony Blair’s Sedgefield triumphs – closed a year ago.

In 1951 the Conservative Party had 2.9 million members, Labour, 876,000; today they have 177,000 and 190,000 respectively and the Liberal Democrats have seen a reduction of their membership by 30,000 to 66,000.

Involvement in church life has also declined. While almost 2 out of 3 still identify themselves as Christians around 15%, 4 million people, go to church at least once a month – the fourth lowest attendance rate in Europe. Intriguingly many still claim a personal relationship with God but decline to make the effort to take part in church life. They believe without belonging; believe without participating.

There has also been a decline in membership of trades unions from 13million to 7 million in little over 30 years; and representative organisations, such as Women’s Leagues and the Mother’s Unions, also experiencing significant falls.

For a society to be healthy we have to be participators and the trustees, not the owners, of what we possess. Social, political and economic activity must ultimately centre on the common good rather than individual acquisitiveness or the hegemony of the state.

Living and partly living: the abolition of man

TS Eliot could have had our diminished and dehumanised society in mind when he suggested that we are “living and partly living”, while CS Lewis prophetically foresaw a society where we would see what he famously called “The Abolition of Man”.

And how do we intend to address the deficit on Britain’s Dread Balance Sheet?

What can we learn from what has gone before?

During the eighteenth century men like John and Charles Wesley, their hearts warmed, as they said, by the Holy Spirit, stepped into the quagmire that was Britain then. Their new enthusiasm so alarmed the church authorities that church doors were literally barred against them.

In the fields and at make shift venues the re-evangelisation of England began.  The Wesleys, George Whitfield, and others, deepened the religious renewal – followed in the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians, and then by the Catholic Spring and Cardinal John Henry Newman and Cardinal Manning.  The religious awakening was accompanied by a commensurate awakening of social virtue and work for the common good,and among the achievements of Christian social reformers such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury were the abolition of slavery, the ending of child labour, public health legislation, ragged free schools, and significant social progress.

A century later, in 1904, Joseph Jenkins led an extraordinary Welsh religious revival which brought 100,000 converts in a year. Many became the flag bearers for political and social activism. The chapel spearheaded reform and deterred revolution.

Through these examples of religious and spiritual revival we can trace personal renewal and then national reconstruction.  We can also see the path we need to take.  Having understood the Dread Balance Sheet and analysed the root causes we then need to commit ourselves to act.

Be clear: a nation or State will not survive for long if its communities and civil structures are decaying or if its rulers do not pursue civic virtues. A society where individual autonomy and individual choice become trump cards in every game lives dangerously close to the edge.   A respect for law, a sense of personal responsibility, public spirit and munificence, firmness of purpose, discernment and foresight, perseverance, and a sense of duty might be chief among the civic qualities to which we aspire; and our gifts must be used for the common good.

It is self evident that our civil society has become increasingly uncivil as modern citizenship has revolved around the flaccid language of rights alone and with a weakened sense of ethics and a lack of virtue, and with no shared framework for reaching conclusions because there are so few shared values.

We have created a dehumanised society where we breed unrealisable demands, a cult of selfishness and materialism. The Jewish sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”


And what will be the fate of those who are only for themselves?  Eliot puts it like this in East Coker:

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark…

…And we all go with them, into the silent funeral…”


Does it have to be like this?

When Europe was facing the challenge of Nazism the Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, prophetically wrote: “The most important question for the future is how we can find a basis for human life together, what spiritual laws we accept as the foundation of a meaningful human life.”    

And to meet this challenge Bonhoeffer argued that we each have a duty to take a stand:  “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds. What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.”

 Bonheoffer also warned that “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself” while Dr.Matin Luther King said Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”

In every sphere of life today we need plain, honest, straightforward men and women willing to speak up about the condition of our nation.

Like Bonhoeffer, St.Edith Stein died at the hands of the Nazis.

A German-Jewish philosopher, who became a Catholic nun she died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. At a time when the Nazi State was stifling dissent and corralling its citizens into conformism with the tenets of National Socialism, Stein wrote tellingly about the responsibility of every citizen to be an agent for good or ill; and about  the way in which the values of the individual citizen determine the nature of the State in which they live. Both society and the State consist entirely of persons. These are not mysterious entities.  They are made up of men, women and children whose strengths and weaknesses, talents and needs, are all too real.

“The state is not an abstract entity. It acts and suffers only as those individual agents through whose actions the functions of the state are discharged act and suffer… Moral predicates apply to the state only insofar as they apply to the relevant individuals.’  

The State, then, takes its inspiration from the values of its citizens.

If Britain is to be remade it will require a huge effort to persuade every citizen to take seriously the promotion of the commons good.Out of the present malaise and crisis is an opportunity to proclaim a belief in human dignity, the worth of each life; the duty we each have to the communities of which we are a part: a call for an outpouring for the common good.

Crisis or Opportunity?

The Chinese calligraphy for the word crisis can also be used for the word opportunity.  Dire situations can be turned around.

Winston Churchill wept when he saw the destruction of the East End of London by Nazi bombardment. He understood the importance of drawing a whole nation around a common cause:  “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.”

Today, our nation faces a new common enemy and a new peril. It is both external and internal.  But it can also become a common cause; and one of the best weapons we have remains Churchill’s belief in those single words which we in Great Britain cherish: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.

Britain urgently needs to feel the sharp compassion of the healer’s art – and think what our country would be like if healing became a central mission of the Church in every family, neighbourhood and across the nation.

In the Four Quartets Eliot tells us that “The only hope, or else despair, Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre- To be redeemed from fire by fire.”

He is referring to the fire of the Holy Spirit and to “The dove descending breaks the air,  With flame of incandescent terror,  Of which the tongues declare,  The one discharge from sin and error … Love is the unfamiliar Name, Behind the hands that wove, The intolerable shirt of flame, Which human power cannot remove, We only live, only suspire, Consumed by either fire or fire.”

Touched by the sharp compassion of the healer’s art our hearts can be repaired and as we are healed we may then heal our families, our communities and our nation.

There is no other way and our task must surely be to persuade our fellow citizens to join us in seeking the balm of the wounded healer.

Yanbian University of Science and Technology Lecture, September 2012. Turning Dreams Into Realities.




“Turning Visions Into Reality – Dream, Plan, Achieve.” Yanbian University of Science and Technology, Jilin, September 2012. Delivered on the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the university at Yanji in North East China.  – click here for power point presentation to accompany talk (scroll down list to Yanbian (YUST)  Lecture.

It is a great pleasure for me to be at Yanbian today at the invitation of your founder and President, Dr. James Kim – for whom I have the highest admiration.

Dr.Kim says “I believe in the power of education”– and so do I. Dr.Kim believes that “education can plant seeds of the values that are critical in reaching our desired end. These values include understanding; respect; sacrifice and reconciliation.” I believe that too.

We also both know the truth of the Chinese proverb that says “if you want to plant for one season, plant a seed; if you want to plant for ten years, plant a tree; but if you want to plant for life, give a young man or woman an education.”

 The purpose of education must be – as my own university in Liverpool puts it – to help young people dream, plan and achieve – to turn your dreams into realities.

What Has Gone Before

Almost three thousand years ago, in the Book of Joel (2:28) comes the prediction that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams; your young men shall see visions.”

   And in the Book of Proverbs (29:18) it states that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

   What those sentiments anticipate is a generation of leaders who will speak with insight, have a clear vision of the future, govern wisely and act justly in both promoting the common good and in providing security and protection for their people.

Writing in the same millennium as Joel, Confucius offered sage advice about how anyone hoping to enter public life should first prepare:

  “To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”

A similar thought was captured by Mahatma Gandhi who said:You must be the change you want to see in the world”

   The Nobel Peace Laureate and eighth President of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, understood the importance of personal transformation as the preparation for political life. In his Prison Letters, he wrote that:

“We have to be reborn every day and make fresh progress every day. The object of our conquest is ourselves. We have to fight and conquer that self that is complacent, the self that tries to escape, the self that is arrogant and the self that is carried away by a single moment of success.”  

   For tomorrow’s leaders – that is your generation – facing today’s challenges – what Gandhi was signifying was the centrality of personal transformation.


Life Without Values

  Without such change, political life can be a game of charades where its participants are seduced by the allure of power; where, in a Faustian Pact to obtain self advancement, they trade the principles they once espoused and the ideals they once embraced.

  A key objective for tomorrow’s leaders must be the promotion of harmony: harmony in our world, between nations, between cultures, between beliefs, between mankind and the natural world. When we bring together of our thoughts, our words and our actions, that is harmony.

Harmony and Peace

The Asian belief in the centrality of harmony is something which the West needs to understand and embrace. In ancient Chinese Taoist thought all reality is determined by constantly changing relationships and by the harmonious complementarity of the two primal principles of Ying (the receptive, feminine, the earth) and Yang (the creative, masculine, heaven).

Hinduism sees the idea of ahimsa as pivotal.  Ahimsa proclaims a rejection of the use of force and all that is harmful. For Mahatma Gandhi the ancient ahimsa was promoted as non-violence in all spheres of life including the political realm.

A second objective must be compassion and the promotion of peace.

For the Buddhist all life is suffering.  But karuna – the concept of compassion in Buddhism – mitigates the suffering through an outpouring of compassion and encourages each encounter with humanity and nature to be based on loving-kindness.

For Jews the Hebrew word shalom (like the Arabic word salaam derived from the same word stem) has a more substantive meaning than the English word peace. Jews use the word as a benediction or a blessing and the implicit prayer that the person so greeted will reach a place of contentment, happiness wholeness and inner peace.

The New Testament develops this understanding of the Old Testament message of peace.  Jesus’ nativity is proclaimed as peace on earth; God’s kingdom is to be the kingdom of peace and righteousness; the Beatitudes praise the peacemakers as blessed and Jesus intensifies this message through the command to love one’s enemies. The disciples are told to speak peace in the name of Jesus after His Resurrection He greets the disciples with the words:”Peace be with you!”

Without this inner peace, and inner calm, which so many of the world religions foster, it is not possible to promote peace among the nations or within a nation; or to forestall chaotic anarchy and conflict.  But, once you have experienced this inner pace and inner harmony the challenge is to take it into the service of the world.

Service Not Power

 Political life should revolve around the concept of service, not power.

  Politics needn’t be a dirty game of power hungry self-seeking, personal gain, manipulation and deceit. If it does become an avaricious dirty game it will be because those who are playing it do not have clean hands. Politics is only as good as the people who enter it; only as good as their vision; only as good as their conduct.  The quality of what they do will depend on their willingness and capacity to become the change they wish to see in the world. 

  The sophistry is sometimes offered to the aspiring politician that, if only they can climb a little higher up what the nineteenth century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli described as “the greasy pole” of politics (“I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole”), and then they will be in a position to change things.   But, by then, usually, the only thing which has changed is the would-be leader him or herself – and not in the manner which Ghandi had in mind.   If they have failed to master themselves, the effect of power on an individual can be disastrous.  





Politics As A High Calling

Aristotle, the author of the classical work “Politics”, saw political leadership as a high calling and the father of democracy held that shame would attach to those who refuse to play their part.

Aristotle insisted that that everyone should pursue virtue and work for the common good – koinonia – a rich word which implies active participation, common unity, relationships and sharing of gifts.

 Koinonia is not about constitutions or civic structures of government but about the qualities in mankind which made civic co-existence a possibility. It is about our inter-connectedness with Aristotle writing in “Politics” we are “not like solitary pieces in chequers”.




The Ancient Virtues

Aristotle’s ancient virtues remain for me the key to building a civil society:








Prudence; and


But these were not theoretical qualities. Koinoinia requires action and through engagement and deeds we both learn and change.

From Virtue To Action

Let me give an example from British history of one man who entered political life and who, although he never became Prime Minister or the leader of a political party, made a profound difference to the koinonia – to the common good.William Wilberforce lived from 1759 to 1833 and entered Parliament as the youngest MP. Wilberforce was motivated by his religious beliefs but once said that “A private faith that does not act in the face of oppression is no faith at all.”

He identified the slave trade – traffic in human beings, sold for profit into lives of abject misery – as the greatest humanitarian cause of the day.  For forty years he dedicated himself to the abolition, first, of the Trans Atlantic slave trade and then to slavery itself. When he was on his death bed he was finally brought the news that the law had been changed by Parliament and that the trade had been abolished.

By and large, those who led the campaign for abolition of the trade were men and women of deep religious conviction, notably the Quakers, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharpe, Olaudah Equiano, Josiah Wedgewood – who created the medallion “Am I Not a Man and Brother”, John Newton, the Liverpool ship’s captain and slave trader who changed his mind and last composed “Amazing Grace” – the Liverpool MP William Roscoe and William Wilberforce himself.

Estimates of the numbers of Africans sold into slavery vary but over nearly four centuries about 12 million people were forcibly transported into bondage.

 Between 1701 and 1810 around 5.7 million people were taken into slavery, 2 million coming from the Slave Coast, where Benin is situated.  Around 39% went to the Caribbean, 38% to Brazil, 17% to South America and 6% to North America.

 Many of the slaves shipped out of Africa from the Bight of Benin were taken to the port of Ouidah, which is situated near Cotonou, the present capital and which I visited .Not since I visited the holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel had I experienced such harrowing emotions.

 In the total Atlantic trade, British ships are estimated to have made 12,000 voyages and to have carried 2.6 million slaves.

 In his Journal of a Slave-trader, John Newton wrote:  “I have no sufficient data to warrant calculation but I suppose not less than one hundred thousand slaves are exported annually from all parts of Africa, and that more than one half of these are exported in English ships.”

 The last letter written by the great John Wesley was to Wilberforce and asked “what villainy is this?” which allowed the enslavement of Africans. Wesley told Wilberforce to put his trust in God and to work for an end to such evil – “a scandal of England of religion and of human nature.”He told him to be a force for change and an “Athanasius contra mundum”literally to be like the 4th century Christian Bishop, Athanasius, “Athanasius against the world.”  Take a stand: be willing to pay a price. Take on the whole world if necessary. Be a sign of contradiction.

 What We Can Learn From Wilberforce


  Wilberforce’s story has great relevance to anyone interested in entering public or political life. His was the first great campaign for human rights and human dignity. It involved painstaking research; the production of newsletters and leaflets; fundraising; the creation of logos and eye-catching public awareness; posters; press reports;  public meetings; marketing and publicity; lobbying; petitions; boycotts; and parliamentary and political action at every level.

Wilberforce needed persistence – it took 40 years – and tempted though he was, he didn’t give up at the first discouragement and defeat. He couldn’t have done it by himself – it needed coalitions and alliances. It needed intelligence and passion. He invoked the importance of combining pressure and prayer. Wilberforce identified a priority – what he believed to be the greatest injustice and a cause to which he should give his life in political service and he made it his chief concern – rather than the gadfly’s approach, jumping from one fashionable or faddish cause to another.

The Relevance Of This Story For Today


If we want to put principles of common humanity and the pursuit of the common good into practice today we should first identify the cause to which we should devote ourselves. For some it will be the freeing of people’s held in oppression; for others it will be the safeguarding of the created world; for others it will be standing up for the dignity and sanctity of human life or opposition to the capricious use of capital punishment, arbitrary detentions or corrupted legal processes; for some it will be the championing of people with disabilities, or a despised minority, or an economically or socially disadvantaged group; for others it will be holding leaders to account, opposing corruption, working for democracy or freedom of expression, belief or conscience.

Wilberforce once said “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”

If he were here today he would return to the cause of the suffering of his fellow creatures and to the question of slavery. Consider the following:

  • 27 million people enslaved today
  • ILO say this includes 8.4 million children
  • 700,000 trafficked every year
  • Debt Bondage affects 20 million people
  • Forced labour, child labour, economic servitude, racially motivated and caste based slavery all still persist throughout the world At least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide
  • 80% of the 700,000 people trafficked annually are women and children
  • Human trafficking is the third largest source of income for organised crime (after arms and drugs)
  • Trafficking generates  an average of $7 billion per year: one year it was put at $32 billion

The popular myth is that slavery is a thing of the past, but more people are trafficked today than were enslaved in the entire history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Most people assume that the slave trade was long since consigned to the dustbin of history by William Wilberforce.

In reality the trade in human beings is a rapidly growing scourge that affects countries and families on every continent.

Those trafficked may be forced into prostitution or to work as domestics, as labourers, or market traders and in a variety of other jobs. Recent research suggests that, at an absolute minimum, hundreds of women and children are being trafficked into the UK each year.

The UN believes it is the second largest criminal activity in the world, second only to drug smuggling; that it nets $36 billion a year to the traffickers; and that 100,000 Modern Day Slaves are trafficked around the European Union each year.

. People have been transported into many forms of slavery and not from choice.

They include children who are pawns in debt bondage whose alcoholic or drug dependent parents get a lump sum payment from traffickers to take their children to London or other cities to ‘educate them’. In fact the education is in how to commit ATM theft, pick-pocketing and shop lifting.

Then there is sex trafficking. Girls mostly, with threats of violence to themselves and their families if they try to escape or keep money from their ‘clients’ (2,200 brothels in London alone); and the cannabis factory boys – many brought in from Vietnam.

Of the 15,000 domestic workers coming to Britain a year, approaching 700 are likely to have been abused in some way.

Without political pressure from the highest level, fighting human trafficking will continue to be a low priority for the police. If the police find a gang that deals with arms or drugs, they are likely to be dealing with human trafficking as well. The criminal gangs are sophisticated, flexible, and not short of money. Demand and abuse go hand in hand. There is big money to be made by trading in people who – unlike drugs or arms – are recyclable.


Human Rights, Human Life, Human Dignity


But human rights abuses come in many forms and closer to home, in China there will be situations crying out for a twenty first century William Wilberforce- champions of human dignity, of good ethics, of the safeguarding of precious resources, of the principle of duty, and many other noble and good causes which promote the common good. Your task is to find the cause which needs you to champion it.

While you are students at YUST you must be equipped to reach beyond academic attainment. Young people must have the opportunity to think, enquire, debate and understand how decisions will affect their lives and the future of their nation. They need to have lain before them potential ethical dilemmas, moral conundrums, technological and scientific challenges, the rapidly changing pace of living – and world crises, ranging from hunger, to global warming, to the exploitation of finite resources.

Education of the citizen must above all underline the moral significance of self-knowledge – as agents in the way we live and affect others. We need citizens who embrace the idea of individual moral responsibility for their actions.

Unless we are able to conceive of ourselves as an agent or agents with regard to how we behave, it will be impossible to develop any sense of responsibility or judgement in the way in which we use science.

Gaining that sense is important, for it is often the case that a new scientific discovery can be put to good, ethical uses that can improve our lives, but will also have more sinister, unethical applications that will cause harm. In other cases a technology may be clearly beneficial in principal, but must be deployed with care, lest unintended side effects end up doing more harm than good. This is why it is important that the next generation of scientists are given a good moral education, so that they can be mindful of and differentiate between the different applications of their work, and carefully consider the ethical implications of the discoveries they make.

Let me give one example of what I mean.

In the last few decades, climate change has become a serious issue for the international community. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the planet is changing in ways that will adversely affect lives everywhere, but particularly those in less well developed countries, such as the equatorial African states where droughts are set to increase in frequency – we need only consider the events of this year, where many lives have been lost in countries like Somalia and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa – where I have travelled  – to understand the devastation this will cause – or the island nations of the Pacific, who could be swallowed up by the ocean entirely if sea levels rise as many scientists predict they will. Make no mistake, this is an issue that respects no borders and that all nations ignore at their peril.

Climate change is an unfortunate side-effect of the industrial age, a product of our short-sightedness in seizing short term benefits at the expense of the future. But just as it arose from the products of scientific progress, so the answers will come from the scientific community and from your generation. But you must always guard against corruption and the debasing of ethics.

It is a sobering thought that more than half of the participants at Hitler’s 1942 Wannsee Conference, which planned what was called “the final solution to the Jewish question” – that is the extermination and murder of Europe’s Jewish people – were either medical practitioners or in receipt of other academic doctorates. Nazi collaborators included a cast of scientists, doctors, judges, lawyers, philosophers and academics. It’s so very easy to be corrupted.

In other cases, scientists may feel that what they are doing will lead to a useful outcome – a new treatment, a better understanding of the disease. Yet this does not mean that all methods are acceptable.

The seductive scientific argument that “if only” you would permit us to do this or that experiment we might make any number of useful discoveries gets dangerously close to a form of blackmail. It relies on the old canard that the end will justify the means; that unethical experiments may be used for seemingly ethical reasons. There is also an assumption that modern man is far too sophisticated and far too decent to fall into the sort of monstrosities characterised by the Nazi scientists. Yet, history teaches us that vain gloriousness and hubris attended by vanity and conceit are often the trump cards when men seek to justify their unethical actions.

So, you need to be champions of change whilst preserving the highest ethical standards and ideals. Nothing in science – whether it be physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology or neuroscience – can lead to the conclusion that the universe is bereft of meaning or intelligence or that we can be other than guardians and custodians during our brief sojourn on our small part of this great creation.

Einstein asserted that misuse of science could only be countered “by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. …I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith.”

The first words of the Confucian classic, “The Great Learning”, says that “The way of great learning consists in manifesting one’s bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.”

That love of the “the great learning” at the service of humanity should inform all that you do at YUST and inform your lives as you seek to turn your visions into reality and to change the world.

Let me draw to a conclusion.

Change doesn’t just happen by itself; and it may come at a price.


Change Doesn’t Happen By Itself

As a teenager I felt especially challenged by the killing at Memphis on April 4th 1968 of Dr. Martin Luther King, then aged 39, who five years earlier had given his landmark speech – “I Have a Dream” – in which he described the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence as a promissory note:

“A promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “inalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned.”

Fundamental change in the USA, Europe, and in South Africa’s apartheid regime – how we view colour and race – was ushered in by King’s sacrificial entry into political life. But he understood the price that would be paid to bring change:

“Change,”he said, “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”

Those who believe that politics is about grandstanding, sound-bites, personal aggrandisement, the pursuit of power, or a charmed life will rarely develop King’s bent back but nor will they have the satisfaction of bringing an idea or a great cause to birth.

Two months after Dr.King’s assassination Robert Kennedy also paid the ultimate price in championing civil rights and opposing racial segregation. Kennedy’s religious faith led him to a profound belief in the importance of individual actions, that each of us is made in God’s image (Imago Dei), is, therefore, of inestimable worth, and that we should neither be discouraged by seemingly impossible odds or by the intractable nature of the challenges we face:       

“Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.” (Robert Kennedy).

Looking at the world today, there are no shortage of great challenges:  – 800 million people racked by starvation or despair, living below any definition of human decency; at egregious violations of human rights,  from Iran to North Korea – where I have travelled several times; famine in Somalia and the Sahel; unspeakable violence in Syria and Nigeria, Congo and the Sudan; and at the domestic challenges in Britain which I describe in a lecture entitled “The Condition of England Question”, which include 1 million young people not in education, employment , or training,  and over 2.6 million without work – a 17 year high in a flat-lining economy and 1 million elderly living in toxic loneliness who don’t see a friend or a neighbour during the course of a typical week.

 We can very easily overawed – like the boy in Louis Stephenson’s rhyme who is dejected by the one-damn-thing-after-anotherness of life and despairs that “the world is so big and I am so small I do not like it at all at all”.   As Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said: “In this life, we cannot do great things, we can only do small things with great love.”

I often remark that we are not great boulders but small stones – and that it is small stones that must first move for a landslide to happen.  To take up this challenge, as Gandhi had it, we must become the change that we desire to see; and be encouraged by Winston Churchill’s observation that “to improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

Politics should always be a campaign of service where the love of power is replaced by the power to love. Politics should always be about service not self-seeking; virtue not vanity; speaking up for the powerless, not narrow partisanship; respectful of opponents, not the silencing of dissent; tolerant of difference, not the crushing conscience and not blindly accept the dog whistle of people who want you to follow them.


A Price To Be Paid

There may also be a price to be paid if you commit yourself to political service. Think of Kim Dae Jung’s years in prison. In the end he was not executed but political leaders may well have to pay the ultimate price.

Think of the fate, 18 months ago, of Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti and the Punjab’s Governor, Salman Taseer. One was a Christian, the other a Muslim. They stood together in opposing prejudice, terror and intolerance. Both were murdered.

Bhatti sensed the almost inevitable consequence of his courageous words and actions.

He said that his stand would “send a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair” adding that his life was dedicated to “the oppressed, the down-trodden and the marginalised” and to “the struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom and the empowerment of religious minorities’ communities.”

 The story of Shahbaz Bhatti is a one which should inspire us all. He was called to a political life and in the end he laid down his life for his friends: standing against a world which he knew to be unjust and which needs to change.

Shahbaz Bhatti life and death reminds us that change comes at a price. John Henry Newman captured this though when he reflected that:

 “Good is never accomplished except at the cost of those who do it, truth never breaks through except through the sacrifice of those who spread it.” 

  Like Dr.King and Robert Kennedy or Kim Dae Jung, Shahbaz Bhatti sacrificed himself for his beliefs and in the service of others.  Like Gandhi, his own life represented the change he wanted to see.  Most of us will never be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice but let us never forget Aristotle’s warning that shame will attach to those who refuse to play their part; and that evil triumphs when good men and women do nothing.  As Dr.Martin Luther King once observed: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” while Dietrich Bonheoffer, who died at the hands of the Nazis warned that “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”

So, to turn today’s dreams into tomorrow’s realities you will need courage and determination; you may need to go against the tide; to speak out and behave with intelligence and compassion.

You will need to cherish your dreams: to dream; to plan; and then to achieve.   I can think of few places where you will receive a better preparation to meet those challenges than Yanbian University of Science and Technology.


Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool is Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University and has served in both Houses of the British parliament for the past 33 years. Image