What would you recite in the dark?

Relatively peaceful. The Niger River running through Bamako, Mali

When I was in Mali a few weeks ago, I attended a mini training on what to do if you’re kidnapped. This was important, kidnapping being a major source of income for the armed groups who continue to roam unhindered throughout the north of the country, and from time to time may even move south where I was.

One of the suggestions was that if you were held for a long time, you could go nuts by the fact that you would not have a sense of the time passing, since they would take your watches, most likely, and you might be in the dark or blindfolded. [Going nuts is my loose translation from the French.] So our trainer said we should occupy our minds. If you’re a mathematician, do Pascal’s Triangle he said. Recite poems, or other things you might know by heart.

So what would I do were this to happen, I’ve wondered? I suppose it might depend on who my captors are. Would it do to recite the Nicene Creed if they were not Christian? And it might depend on other variables.

But what things do I know by heart, which I could use, apart from the Nicene Creed? A lot of hymns: ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’, ‘Immortal Invisible’, ‘New every morning’ and good old ‘All things bright and beautiful’ all of the verses of which every student who went to my school knows by heart.

Actually, a lot of Shakespeare too, some of which we also had to learn by heart. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained…’, ‘Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Lend me your ears!’ Some less salubrious stuff too, which the boys delighted in reciting: Ben Johnson’s ‘Come, my Celia, let us prove while we may, the sports of love. Time will not be ours forever…’ and Kipling’s ‘The female of the species’.

Seriously, though, I believe I wouldn’t even think of being frivolous. I don’t suppose I’d even remember Kipling’s ‘If’. I’d probably repeat over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”–the King James Version of Psalm 23. And maybe, “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord…”

So in the end the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer would trump Shakespeare for me. All those years at my grandmother’s knee much more central than school, it seems.

Or maybe it’s simpler: I’m a believer.


First woman bishop in Africa. About time.

ImageToday the Anglican Communion News Service announced with great fanfare that the Province of Southern Africa had elected the first female bishop on the continent. The Rev’d Ellinah Ntombi Wamukoya, 61, became the bishop-elect of Swaziland, a mere 10 years after women were approved to be deacons, priests and bishops in that province. She was elected after additional candidates were sought, since several earlier ballots failed to return a winner.

Well, forgive me if I rejoice only mutedly. I am glad that they finally recognized that a woman can lead the church. She has, by the way, been leading the town council as CEO for some time. But I wonder why it always takes so-o-o long for our church to recognize that women are people too; that women are people called by God?

Today incidentally is the feast day of St. Macrina the Younger, the older sister of Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, et al. Macrina in fact started an order of sisters long before Basil formed his monastic order, but his is the one that is known.

But much as I accept that in the 4th Century that was the way of the world, it’s hard to believe that in the second decade of the 21st Century the “enlightened” Anglican church is still so far behind that this election is a cause for wonder. This is 52 years after Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female head of government; 46 years after Indira Ghanda was elected PM of India, the second most populous nation on earth; 43 years after Golda Meir was elected PM of Israel; and 37 years after the election of Margaret Thatcher as the first female leader of a G-8 country.

Not to mention that this is also two centuries since the church’s Bible says Mary of Magdala became the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus, and the first of the disciples to bring the ‘good news’–i.e., the Gospel–to the others.

It is even more of a disgrace that the Church of England still has not figured out a way to have women bishops, though in theory they have been allowed since 2010. This is 23 years after Barbara Clementine Harris (pictured) was elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church. Twenty-three years, CofE. Give me a break.

Good luck to the new bishop and thank God that in some corners of this benighted Anglican Communion, light is breaking. As to the Cof E, “Honi soit qui mal y pense.”


Take the Long view when judging UN summits


When the Rio+20 Earth Summit ended in Brazil a couple of weeks ago, the immediate response from the skeptics was: it was a failure. As a UN staff member myself, I’d say, wait a bit first before you pronounce.

The UN has become a master at getting people together to agree on common goals. And though when the meetings occur many dismiss them as “talk shops”, when you look back after a few years, their success is patently evident.

Two summits come to mind: the 1990 World Summit for Children and the Millennium Summit in 2000. Both have led to better lives for millions of people throughout the world.

The Millennium Summit created the now familiar Millennium Development Goals. The UN, led by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, brought together what was the largest number of heads of state and government in history, with 189 countries represented. Among those who met were G-8 leaders like Tony Blair of the UK and George W. Bush of the USA, as well as leaders of the emerging powers, and of small island states like my own Jamaica. Together they agreed on the eight MDGs, and countries, civil society, and people who work in development, including—importantly—large donors, have taken them very seriously indeed in the last dozen years.

On July 2, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released the MDG 2012 report, saying that the targets on poverty, slums and water have been met. The number of people living in extreme poverty and the poverty rates have fallen in all developing regions, including Sub-Saharan Africa, reaching the target of cutting the extreme poverty rate years ahead of schedule. The target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of drinking water was met in 2010, five years early, with some 2 billion people having gained access since 1990. The target of significantly improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers has been exceeded. The proportion of the urban population living in slums went from 39 per cent in 2000 to 33 per cent in 2012, and over 200 million have access to improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities, or better housing. The world has also achieved parity in primary education between girls and boys.

It doesn’t mean that everyone in the world has safe drinking water—in fact 783 million still do not—that girls are not still out of school, or that people are no longer poor or living in slums. But it does mean that progress had been made, on goals which had been dismissed as “just talk”.

The World Summit for Children was the brainchild of James P. Grant, the visionary Executive Director of UNICEF. It was actually the first “summit” the UN held and set the pattern for others to follow. WSC was at the time the largest gathering of world leaders in history, bringing together 159 of them, including 71 heads of State or Government. They included the likes of George H. W. Bush of the USA, and Margaret Thatcher of the UK, and together they agreed on goals to be reached by the year 2000 for children’s health, nutrition, education, and access to safe water and sanitation.

The countries which signed on to the promises, and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child were held accountable for their commitments. They had to report to the new UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and had their progress mapped and compared in UNICEF’s Progress of Nations annual report. The results have been remarkable. In 1990 12.4 million children died each year before their fifth birthday; in 2010, that figure was down 7.6 million. The CRC has become the most universally ratified of any international convention—ratified by all but two of the world’s 192 countries.

In June, UNICEF and USAID had what could be called a mini-summit in Washington, called the Child Survival Call to Action: A Promise Renewed. It recalled to the nations of the world the promises made for children and asked for a recommitment to child survival. A new goal was set: by 2035 fewer 20 children per 1000 under five worldwide would die of preventable causes. Some say it cannot be reached, but if the past is really a predictor of the future, I’d say: don’t be so sure.

The UN works. And if you don’t believe, check us again in 10 years.


The man without a wedding garment

July 5 , 2012

Today’s Gospel reading is the one about the wedding banquet. A king prepares to celebrate the marriage of his son, and invites guests, favored ones, to the feast. But when the day came, the guests didn’t turn up. He sent his servants to remind them, but they gave excuses. I’m busy, I have other plans today. The king, enraged, tells his servants, go out into the “highways and byways” and invite anyone you see to come. Luke’s Gospel says the King says, force them to come in. But when this is done, and the banquet hall is filled, he comes in and sees a man without his wedding garment on and asks him: what are you doing here without your wedding garment? And then has him bound hand and foot, and thrown into “outer darkness”, for “many are called, but few are chosen”.

I’ve always had a problem with this story, because it has seemed to me very unfair. Of course the man wasn’t wearing a wedding garment. He was about his business, and people came and got him on the orders of the king to present himself forthwith to the banquet. I’ve heard explanations to the effect that it was “customary” for the wedding garment to be provided by the host and available at the door, so the man was at fault for not putting it on. But I suspect this is a lot of baloney, dreamt up by theologians to respond to people like me, who have been saying for years: but it’s not fair!

I think making it the man’s fault means you can talk about the individual’s responsibility in response to God’s call. You can take the burden for being logical and reasonable off the king, and put it on us. It totally ignores what Jesus himself says was the moral of the story: for “many are called, but few are chosen”. He didn’t say “few choose to come”. The burden of both call and choice is on the king.

Does this mean God is capricious, then? I know for the writer of Matthew, this passage is really about Israel, and the fact that they are chosen by God, but in his view chose not to come to belief in the Son of God. So because they chose not to come, others took their place, called or invited by the servants of the king. Despite that, it is really the king who chooses who shall be at his banquet, and who not. Maybe mistakes have been made by the servants? Not all called will meet the king’s standards?

The story in Luke doesn’t have this twist of the man without the wedding garment, so is it purely an addition, something Jesus never said at all? Maybe that’s all it was.

We want to imbue with profound meaning everything in the Gospels. But could it be that this has no meaning for our lives at all, and is simply an inside story about Jews and Gentiles, understandable to the people who first read Matthew, but not to us.

For me, it is either that, or the message is, don’t think you have any power in the relationship with God, because you don’t. You can think and sing about coming “Just as I am”, but God doesn’t have to take you. You have to really come “Just as God wants you.” Which blows the whole notion of infinite mercy and all that.

I don’t know what the right answer is. I know I don’t believe the “wedding garment was provided” explanation, and nothing more reasonable than the above comes to me. I’m open to other suggestions.