Gone camping

GBIf it’s seemed a little quiet here, I’ve been in France for a couple of weeks. (Truth told, I’ve been in France whether it seemed quiet or not.) And tomorrow I’m off to Greenbelt, so after this discreet hiccup, the hush will resume.

Unless you happen to be at Greenbelt, that is. We’ll have a Reform stall in the G-Source exhibition, so come by and chat, and we can make all the noise we like.

Quote of the day

desmond-tutu“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place.” Desmond Tutu

This struck a chord – not least because we’re getting the September edition of Reform ready for me to go on a badly timed holiday for the fortnight between now and press day. There’s a superb feature article just in from Roberta Rominger about homophobia, and an equally superb letter about hell. No spoilers here though. You can find out what they actually have to say in the magazine.

People like us


We did it in private. Didn’t we? It seemed easy to conceal. We regretted it, because we were caught and shamed.

Part of us disliked what we were doing, but another part dived in.

We broke the law, didn’t we, but in a way we felt was generally tolerated.

We started when we were feeling stressed and depressed, and curious.

We had moral boundaries – but they turned out not to be where we thought they were. What was once out of bounds became a habit.

It felt acceptable. Others did the same thing.

We stopped. But slipped back into it.

We are, in other words, exactly the same kind of people as ”Tom“ , who speaks eloquently in The Independent about the behaviour that landed him on the sex offenders register for downloading sexual images of underage teenagers.

It struck me reading it that, while our preferences and weaknesses may (or may not) be different from his, every single moral decision or process he described was utterly familiar from my own life, and, if you’ll pardon the leap to conclusions, yours as well.

The details of the damage done vary, but we are fundamentally the same kind of people. We are all both victim and perpetrator of the universal human habit of breaking.

How reassuring it would be if we could stick a label on the evil people to differentiate them from ourselves, put them all in a boat and send them off to some other place. But there is only one boat, and we’re all in it.

Worse than crack

crackHow much does crack cocaine hurt babies in the womb? There was an interesting and sobering answer to that question in The Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday.

Researchers in Philadelphia, led by Prof. Hallam Hurt, started studying the question in 1989. With one in six new mothers in the area testing positive for crack, they arranged a sample of 224 babies, all from poor local families. Half of the mothers had used cocaine during pregnancy, half hadn’t.

The study has run for 25 years and cost $9m. The point of it was to ascertain what kind of damage drug use did to unborn babies, for the sake of treatment and public education.

In fact the study produced a completely different result. They found, on the one hand, that there were no big differences between the two groups. IQ at the age of four, for example, was 79 for exposed children and 82 for the non-exposed – a small gap considering the national average is around 100.

But that was the other thing that struck them. The basic mental development of both groups was seriously held back, compared to the national average. What they had in common was that they were from poor, inner-city households. So the researchers looked into that as well as drug use. Across both groups, they found the effects of poverty devastating. A quarter, in each case, started school with abnormally low maths and language abilities. Four out of five had seen someone arrested. 35% had seen someone shot. And exposure to violence correlated to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Professor Hurt’s conclusion is as clear as it was unforeseen. She says: “Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.”

Plaque and proud

1bK33TEUVqZZA-WuJR20-QO5guxay8BYXYVRn5JC0XE,UZ9NNaoklSrgRCuzHdGR-Q7DSyNMN_27ZKqu2hWswL4There’s a new blue plaque on the wall of Church House, where Reform lives. We went out and watched it being unveiled last week. (The picture that looks like Neil McKenna flying a kite is in fact Neil McKenna pulling the veil off.)

It commemorates two gay men, Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, who lived here in Victorian times when our charming oblong red-brick office block was a row of houses. They performed onstage, in women’s clothing, as Fanny and Stella, and were arrested at home in 1871, and charged “with conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence”. They were acquitted when the prosecution failed to establish either the details of their sex lives, or that cross-dressing was illegal.

It was a surprisingly moving occasion. Everyone agreed that there was something unexpected about seeing such a plaque on a church building. But Robert Rominger, welcomed it on behalf of the church, talking about how important it is to hear the stories of people who have suffered in such ways. In return, Neil McKenna, who wrote the book Stella and Fanny, paid tribute to the United Reformed Church, recalling how in his teenage years it had been “an oasis in a world of homophobia”.

At a time when it that’s the last phrase you expect to hear describing a church, the event made me feel enormously happy and proud to be a part of this one.

Coming up…


Yesterday I did the interview for September’s Reform (out 31 August), with the novelist Jenn Ashworth (pictured, to the left of the wookie in a suit). It was (for me) a fascinating conversation about growing up in a Mormon family, leaving that faith behind, and then writing a novel (her third) about it.

Interviewing interesting people is the best part of editing a magazine, I think, especially when it involves sitting in the sunny garden of Lumen cafe for an hour drinking cranberry juice.

Ashworth’s novel is called The Friday Gospels, and you find out more about it here. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, so I hope the interview will send a lot of readers in its direction. Better still, read it now and come to the interview prepared.

Old Nick


I came across this odd little building in Alfreton in Derbyshire on Saturday. It doesn’t look so odd in the photo, partly because it could be in the middle of nowhere (or the 18th century) but in fact it’s on the main road through town, with modern houses all around. Also you can’t read the name in the photo, but it’s called The House of Confinement.

Presumably it doesn’t see a lot of action these days, but is kept by the town as a memento to the confinements it achieved in the past.


Or so I thought, until I passed it again on Sunday morning, and saw these people outside.

Clearly the constable was there with the family to release their errant offspring to them after his Saturday night misdemeanours. Nice to see local traditions being kept alive.

Congratulations, it’s a mag.



Last week all the work that we in Reform Towers have been doing since January finally came to fruition. I say “all the work” but actually some of the work we’ve done since January has been making tea, which came to fruition a lot more promptly. But all the work that we’ve done on redesigning Reform came to fruition when this box arrived.

We were pretty jolly happy. I hope you like it too.

It was a bit like the old days, when I used to write books, and after all that work a box of them would eventually turn up – but better because by the time you’ve spent half a year waiting for the book to be edited and printed you’ve completely lost interest in it and gone on to the next thing.

What martyrs?

martyrThere’s an interesting book out by Candida Moss, called The Myth of Persecution: How early Christians invented a story of martyrdom. It attacks the tradition that in the Roman Empire, “vast numbers of believers were thrown to the lions, tortured, or burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ”. These stories are exaggerations and forgeries, according to the book, and “the ‘Age of Martyrs’ is a fiction”.

Moss makes extensive connections between this and the persecution complex of certain Christians today – inspired by this myth they are inventing their own imaginary martyrdom.

It’s an engaging read and solidly scholarly. The problem is that there’s simply no escaping the reality that large numbers of Christians were tortured and killed by the Roman authorities. Yes attacks were generally sporadic and localised, and of course many later martyrdom stories are obviously fantastic. But that does not make the whole thing a fantasy.

Take two pieces of immovable historical evidence. One is the fact the church faced a massive apostasy crisis in the third century, breaking up over the question of whether to readmit those who had denied their faith to save their lives. This is not a story that Christians would have invented, and it is not something that could have happened without a serious assault on the church.

The second is Tertullian’s second-century book Apologeticus. Written to Roman governors, who would, one supposes, know whether he is making it up, he discusses the torture and execution of Christians, and the policy of using these things to force them to recant. What’s more he defends them from the popular charge of being insane fanatics in their willingness to die for their faith – a charge that it would be rather bizarre of him to invent.

It may sound like a 1700 year old historical argument with little contemporary relevance. But what interests me (apart from the fact that it’s a 1700 year old historical argument) is that Moss’s book is explicitly a counter-attack to western Christians who today claim to be persecuted for their faith. However nuanced her argument may be, a lot of people will hear that the persecution of the early church has been proved to be fictional, which it hasn’t.

It is the present day “persecution” of western Christians that is fictional. We have always known that this fiction devalues the real sufferings of Christians in other parts of the world. Now it turns out that it is also devaluing and discrediting the sufferings of Christians in the past as well.