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Saturday, January 29, 2005

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Natalie Angier sounds off

You know, atheists may not believe in God, but they sure believe in Smug.

Check this screed out. A sample:

" Yes, the secularists are out there, but they tend to prefer large cities and other places with an active cultural and intellectual life. "

Good Grief. I mean, what has the Christian Church ever invented? Apart from Western Civilisation, of course.

Julian

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Friday, January 28, 2005

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This and That

I ordered this today: "Riot Control Agents: Issues in Toxicology, Safety, and Health". Sounds fascinating.

Thanks to Steve Sailer for recommending me at his blog. I was thinking about something he wrote once, about the boom in girls' sport being due in part to sports-crazy fathers without sons to invest their sporting dreams in. There may be something in this, and it may be related to the modern trend towards smaller families. If you think about it, if families used to typically have about four children, the chance of a father not having at least one son used to be 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5. That is, only about 1 in 20. But, in a more contemporary family of, say, two children, the chance of not having a son becomes 0.5 x 0.5, that is one in four. Ergo, there are likely to be many more sports-mad fathers without sons these days.

This article on the American family states that "The fertility rate peaked at 3.65 children per woman at the height of the Baby Boom in 1957 and then declined rapidly to a rate of 1.75 children in 1975." So my figures are about right.

Just another odd thing I noticed recently. The suffix "ton" is famously common at the end of English surnames and placenames: Bufton, Thurston, Preston, Paddington, etc. I had always assumed that this meant "town", but my Penguin Dictionary of Surnames says that it meant "farm". For example "Perriton": "pear tree farm". On the other hand, it seems that farmsteads did used to grow into hamlets or villages so things may be a bit more complicated. Eventually they might have grown into real towns.

Julian

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

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Brideshead Re-Revisited

I have always tended to think that Evelyn Waugh, as Oscar Wilde said of himself, "put his talent into his writing and his genius into his life". Stories about Waugh are better than his letters, which are better than his diaries, which are better than his novels. However "Brideshead Revisited" is clever and readable. I reread it again recently. It is hard not to think of the BBC series a few years ago, with Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, etc. etc. But the book itself reads like an idea for a script.

It's great fun, but is it fair? Is it good? I am not entirely happy with some aspects of it. One is that, for a man who knew a great deal about all sides of life, it comes off as a bit too glib. He seems to be playing to the peanut gallery in this book. I can see why anglophiles from America and elsewhere like it so much. The Oxford of the book is Hollywood Oxford: the London is Hollywood London. It is knowing, but not knowledgeable. I am no expert on many of the matters on which Waugh was, but even I, a mere Australian, can see when I am being given a version of life painted with a very broad brush. The characters and background are caricatures, to put it plainly.

I also find the treatment of the character of Rex Mottram, the Canadian adventurer and man of affairs, grossly unfair. It is pretty clear, even in Waugh's treatment of him, that he is in fact the kind of man England needed at the time. Waugh even has him give what I take to be a major speech in Parliament at the end of the book against appeasing Hitler.

What is wrong with Mottram anyway? He is a colonial (a Canadian), which is the beginning of his damnation in Waugh's eyes. He is manly, unlike the epicene Sebastian, for example. He is a useful person, who did not bother with Oxford. He wants to marry a pretty young woman from a good family, Lady Julia Flyte. He is willing to become a Catholic, but he finds the whole process confusing, and that little pest, Cordelia Flyte, misleads him about the details, and finds it funny. The reader is supposed to find it rollicking good fun too. The implication is that Rex Mottram hasn't got a soul worth saving. It reeks of spiritual pride and smugness.

Now Waugh was capable of all sorts of irony. Apparently his dedication of one of his books to the bravery of a particular soldier, for example, may have been ironic. One would never guess. Likewise it has been suggested that the scene towards the end of Brideshead when Lord Marchmain maunders on about his noble ancestors was meant to be ironic. Was it? I am not so sure. No, I think Waugh was indeed a pure rip-roaring snob, loving his character Marchmain and hating Mottram.

I am unhappy with some of the theology in the book too. Lady Marchmain's explanation of why she, a fabulously rich woman, is not troubled by the line of Christ's about the rich man's entering Heaven being as hard as a camel going through the eye of a needle, is very poor stuff. Putting a silly, sentimental argument into Lady Marchmain's mouth should impress no-one.

Speaking of sentimentality, I very much dislike the way in which Sebastian's sottishness is presented as some kind of via dolorosa towards holiness. Drunkenness is a serious sin, not a path to God.

All in all, I find the novel quite enjoyable, but pretty much tripe. I wonder just how serious Waugh was.


Julian

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

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The Conservatism that dares not speak its name

Here is the Oz Conservative. He has a blog post on the real Kinsey, which says some of what needs to be said. I saw a monumentally stupid review of the Kinsey film ("Film strips off old moral corsets" by Stefan Kussy) in the latest Canberra Chronicle. Why do they pay such stupid people to review films when their opinions are less informed than those of the average taxi driver? And I mean no disrespect to taxi drivers. They often have something interesting to say.

Oz Conservative is "an Australian traditionalist conservative site". Many, indeed most, of the so-called conservative blogs are right liberal or libertarian blogs. For example, most of the Australian blogs listed at Troppo Armadillo as "moderate right" or "right wing death beasts" are not socially conservative or traditionalist. I have been disappointed by them on the whole. Oz Conservative is that rare thing, a truly conservative blog, the conservatism "that dares not speak its name."

Even famed "conservative" groups like the National Review people in America are often mouthpieces for right-wing liberalism, not true conservatism.

There is an analogy with "conservatism" in the Catholic Church. Some people claim, with some justification, that so-called conservatives in the Church, like the late Cardinal O'Connor of New York and the present Cardinal of Sydney, George Pell, are really right-wing liberals. At best, they are "neo-conservatives". By contrast, true traditionalism in the Catholic Church is rare, and precious, since it is an unbroken tradition of great richness and beauty.

Julian

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The Ones that Get Away

Over at my biology blog, I discuss why left-handedness might have evolved. Some of my notions have been addressed in this recently published paper:

" Handedness, homicide and negative frequency-dependent selection

Charlotte Faurie & Michel Raymond

Humans exhibit hand preference for most manual activities in which they are specialized. Right- and left-handers have coexisted at least since the Upper Palaeolithic, and left-handers are in the minority in all human populations. The persistence of the polymorphism of handedness is a puzzle because this trait is substantially heritable and several fitness costs are associated with left-handedness. Some countervailing benefit is required to maintain the polymorphism. Left-handers may have a frequency-dependent advantage in fights--the advantage being greater when their frequency is lower. Sports data from Western societies are consistent with this prediction. Here, we show that the frequency of left-handers is strongly and positively correlated with the rate of homicides across traditional societies. It ranges from 3% in the most pacifistic societies, to 27% in the most violent and warlike. This finding is consistent with a frequency-dependent selection mechanism maintaining left-handedness in these societies. "

If they have the supportive cross-cultural data, that is indeed exciting.

It is always a bit sad when somebody else beats you to some new ideas, but at least it shows you that you were on the right track. I had this happen to me when I was doing my doctorate in blood physiology. We were studying ruminant (sheep and goat) red blood cells, and our goats were Angora crossbreeds. I noticed, when "washing" the red blood cells in saline solutions, that the Angora's blood cells seemed very fragile. I confirmed this with the standard test, which was to see how much hyposalinity (correlated with hydrostatic pressure) the Angora red cells could withstand. Very little, it turned out. They were astonishingly fragile, those goat red blood cells. However, for various reasons, I did not publish my observation, and a year or so later a very comprehensive paper on red cell morphology appeared that included the same fact. Nonetheless, it was an interesting observation, and I was pleased to have made it.

The Angora cross goats were beautiful animals, with magnificent coats and mischievous temperaments. Much more fun to work with than boring old sheep.

Julian

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

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Funeral services in Australia

Over at Troppo Armadillo, they are talking about funeral services, including masses. I have only been to a few (Catholic and non-Catholic) funeral services in the last few years. One of the Catholic services was a requiem mass in the Traditional Latin Rite, the first held at St Christopher's Cathedral, Manuka, ACT, in many years; and another, recently, was a modern Catholic funeral held in our local parish. They were well-attended, dignified funerals. However the contrasts, and some anecdotes from other funeral services, do lead to some reflections.

My first comment is that what one person considers fresh and informal, another person will consider inappropriate and disrespectful. In the traditional requiem mass in the Roman rite, there is a single order of service. The Latin prayers begin with fear of judgement and pleas for mercy from God and end on a note of holy hope. There is less "celebration of the life of" the deceased and more entreaties for his wellbeing in eternity. Also, eulogies and remarks on the deceased are not a major feature. The more contemporary Catholic funeral I attended recently had a balance of "celebration" and "prayers for the soul of", and there were more eulogies and reflections. Although such ex tempore remarks can lead to a certain relaxation of grief and pleasing informality, they run the risk of moving from pathos to bathos, descending into irrelevance and irreverence. (It actually worked OK at the modern funeral mass I recently attended, but the potential for problems is obvious.)

My second comment is that the traditional Latin rite had - and has - the advantages of a standard, "no surprises" approach. You know how to act and how to dress. Extroverts, who always feel comfortable with their own actions, may not appreciate how much shy people like to know exactly what is expected of them. The traditional Latin requiem mass I attended a few years ago really looked like a serious occasion. The priest wore black vestments. There were women in black veils. There was solemn chant. One had the feeling - this is Catholic, this is old school, people should know what to do. In contrast, I was troubled at a Catholic modern requiem mass I attended by the fact that very few people actually kneeled during the consecration, which implied that many of the congregation were not practising Catholics, but most people seemed to wend their way up to receive communion in the hand. Were some of them non-Catholics receiving the Catholic sacrament? I hope not.

My third comment is more of a question: would it kill people to dress suitably? The men in dark suits; the women in dresses, not pants (and hats on the ladies would be nice). This is the most solemn of occasions. Australian informality is not for every occasion.

Julian

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

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Women's long hair as "costly signalling"

Amotz and Avishag Zahavi, in their book "The Handicap Principle", discuss long hair in humans from a sociobiological point of view. They note that humans are the only animals whose hair grows beyond a certain finite length. The Zahavis suggest that this permits what animal behaviourists call "honest signalling" and "costly signalling" by humans to potential mates. That is, the capacity to handle long hair and present it neatly and attractively, to "groom" it, despite its length, would be an example of "costly signalling". The health of the hair would be an example of "honest signalling" of health. Only a healthy, intelligent human could present a good head of hair.

I would like to focus on hair in young women. It is often asserted that women naturally grow longer and better hair than men. Certainly they do not suffer from baldness as often as men. It seems likely, then, that long hair is a more important "signal" in women than in men, and perhaps particularly so in young women, who are most likely to be trying to attract good quality mates. In many societies, women cease to display long hair once they marry. In some groups, for example Orthodox Jews, their hair is covered or replaced with a wig.

It seems likely that the ability to grow long hair is a sign of health and potential fertility in young women. One might expect that married women would tend to have shorter hair than unmarried girls (although I recently saw a married woman with several children with hair down well below her waist). It would be interesting to do a cross-cultural study on the treatment of hair by unmarried and married women. I would predict that the display of long hair would be much more prominent among unmarried females.

Julian

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

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Putting an even amount of sugar on cookies

Erie PA and Life writes (on 10 January 2005):

"Eriez Magnetics" makes magnets. They also manufacture other things such as feeding systems that vibrate to even out materials such as sugar or plastics so a magnet can pick up any metal in the material. Eriez was asked if they could make a feeding system that could deliver an even amount of a material to deliver an even coating to the top side of a product. Right up our alley says the smart people at Eriez. Eriez is now making the system that puts an even amount of sugar on cookies for Davis Cookie Company, which makes Archway Cookies in Pennsylvania. "

And that's why Americans are so successful. To lazier nations, uneven sugar on a cookie (or indeed a biscuit, as we say) would be something to be endured and accepted as a traditional inconvenience. But Americans have that "can do" attitude and they will not tolerate uneven sugar on cookies.

Julian

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Saturday, January 15, 2005

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Summer reading

When I get a spare moment, I am dipping into the following:

"Predestination: the Meaning of Predestination in Scripture and the Church" by Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP.

"The Estimation of the Time Since Death in the Early Postmortem Period" by C. Henssge et al.

"Measuring Minds: Henry Herbert Goddard and the Origins of American Intelligence Testing" by Leila Zenderland.

"Journal of Wildlife Diseases", vol. 30 (3), July 1994.

"Developing Manhood: the Testosterone Agenda" by Dr William Phillips.

"Working on the Edge: Surviving in the World's Most Dangerous Profession: King Crab Fishing on Alaska's High Seas" by Spike Walker.

"Hominoid Evolution and Climate Change in Europe, Vol. 2: Phylogeny of the Neogene Hominoid Primates of Eurasia" by Louis de Bonis et al.

"The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals" by Simon Conway Morris.

"The History, Nature and Use of Epikeia in Moral Theology" by Rev. Lawrence Joseph Riley.

"An Updated Classification of the Recent Crustacea" by JW Martin and GE Davis.

"Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History" by Stephen Jay Gould.

"Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany 1900-1945" by Michael Burleigh.



Julian

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Friday, January 14, 2005

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Nice hot day

Well, it is about 11.30 pm here in Canberra and the temperature is still 80 degrees Fahrenheit. My wife just asked "what is that in Celsius?", but to me Fahrenheit temperatures always seem more expressive. We used to speak of "century heat", 100 degrees Fahrenheit [38 degrees Celsius] here in Australia, back when we measured in Fahrenheit. We certainly came close to it today. When I was mowing the lawn, it was about 36 degrees Celsius. When I came inside, I was sweating a lot and I could just feel the heat coming off my body. I was still quite comfortable though. I would really like to experience the 40+ Celsius temperatures they have been having in more western areas of New South Wales, just to see what they feel like. I think 40 or 41 Celsius is probably the hottest I've ever experienced.

I am not claiming that summer is always comfortable, but the discomfort of hot weather bothers me a lot less than the discomfort of cold weather.

I think the funniest sight was seeing our old smoke Persian cross cat lying out on the porch, for all the world like one of those lazy lions resting on the African savanna that one sees on nature programs.

Julian

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Why the clerical class (journalists and clergy) should fear the Internet

It has long been a staple opinion of "progressives" that, with better communications and more democracy in whose opinion gets heard, there will come greater support for "progressive" causes. If it proved nothing else, the humiliation of America's mainstream media, as represented by CBS and Dan Rather, has given the lie to that argument. What greater communications have done is allow for the real opinions of the masses to be heard. The Left have not liked what they have heard, but that is their problem. As someone said recently, far from "speaking Truth to Power", the mainstream media have long been "speaking Power to Truth", busily engaged in hiding the facts and spinning opinions.

Catholic Analysis has some relevant thoughts. He includes a specifically Catholic thought:

" For Catholics who are passionate about the truth, the internet revolution is an indispensable tool in the New Evangelization. Catholic blogs will always let you know that you are not alone, no matter how crazy our culture becomes. And knowing you are not alone has a way of dissipating the fear that fuels mindless conformity. "

Showing how it is done, here is a critique of a recent shameful event in the Catholic Church in San Francisco. The blogger, Bettnet, is able to inform the entire world of the moronic apostasy of the local church. Perhaps knowing that their ridiculous behaviour has made them a worldwide laughing-stock might make them think before they again stage such a liturgy. Ironically, this service was aimed at apologising for clerical sexual abuse but only added spiritual abuse to physical, with stupid prayers to pagan "spirits".

As John Ray wrote on his blog recently:

" ... Leftists have to be good at propaganda or they would not survive. Reality ... does not suit them at all. "

But it is getting harder to make propaganda, if only because, as the coffee mug for bloggers I saw recently put it, in the American idiom, bloggers are "fact-checking your ass, 24/7."

Julian

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

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Seeing "The Incredibles"

A good film, if surprisingly long. I went with a ten-year-old and a four-year-old. The former was very entertained, the latter got very little out of it. I found some nice moments of humour for adults. The portrayal of the marriage had some moments of surprising realism.

I suppose the surname of the family, when they were living as ordinary people in suburbia, namely "Parr", may have been a pun on "par", as in "average" or "standard". The mother had been a superheroine, Elastigirl, with miraculous physical flexibility. I wondered if this was not a play on the idea that modern mothers must be infinitely flexible in meeting life's demands.

I can see why the movie has a conservative appeal. The family works together. There are three children. The mother is a housewife. The father is a breadwinner, although he is not happy in his mundane job. Their superheroics are all ultimately designed to keep the family together and happy.

I found the movie a bit confusing. You have to think quickly to "join the dots" at times. I also found the movie loud and I think it would upset or overstimulate younger children.

Julian

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My favourite CD

This is just about my favourite CD, at least in the category of sacred choral music, which is one of my favourite genres. Do they have genres in music, or is that only in literature?

Anyway, I like this CD of "Serbian and Bulgarian Religious Chants" very much. Why do I, a Latin Mass Catholic, prefer Eastern Orthodox music? I think it is because it has more "heart". It sounds more like I imagine traditional sacred choral music should sound. Some of the music on the CD is by Stevan St Mokranjac. I have a record of Serbian church music by this composer. "Liturgija" is the title. I know little more about it, because the liner notes are in Serbian. It is very good, but there is a lot of surface noise, its being about fifty years old I believe.

Julian

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Monday, January 10, 2005

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A good, intriguing name for a blog ...

and a good blog: The Inn at the End of the World.


Julian

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Friday, January 07, 2005

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A note on Nyngan, and an addition to the blogroll

I forgot to say that Nyngan, New South Wales, despite being pretty much in a semi-arid zone, suffered from a flood in 1990. There was a spot near town designated as that from which the townsfolk were evacuated by helicopter. There was an Iroquois helicopter, donated by the Australian Army, in a park in town, to commemorate the event. I was struck by how small the cabins in those "Hueys" were. They came to symbolise "Vietnam" in many ways, and they were so important, but up close they seem small and fragile.

On the road to Nyngan, I saw a sign on a bridge announcing not a river, nor a creek, but a "waterhole". I felt I had finally found the Outback. We saw some melons growing along the railway track, and I wondered if they were native melons, but it seems they were an introduced species, known as "jam melons". I asked a young bloke at our hotel in Parkes, a farmer I suspect, and he made the rather "Irish" remark that farmers grow them for cattle, but the cattle don't like them. It seems, however, that the calves get some valuable nourishment out of them. Cow to calf: "Be a good boy and eat your jam melon. It will make you big and strong."

I am adding Midwest Conservative Journal to my blogroll. He is an American member of the Episcopal Church (Anglicans, as we say). I think he used to sell John Calvin coffee mugs, so we probably wouldn't agree on certain theological points. But his instincts are sound and he can be very funny.

Julian

PS Here are some more religious coffee mugs: a Pope Michael I anti-pope mug and a Pope Clement VIII mug (with a pontifical quote blessing coffee).

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Thursday, January 06, 2005

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Opus Dei

What is it about Opus Dei that seems to drive journalists nuts? The ABC's Stephen Crittenden is really poking the Catholic possum here. Some quotes:

" ... foreign bodies like the Vatican and Opus Dei ..."

" Are you a member of Opus Dei? "

" I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Australian politician make an admission like the one you’ve just made. "

" He left the Catholic church in Victoria a smoking ruin, and he nearly destroyed the Labor party. "

The inquisitor from the ABC then turns his attention to Protestants:

" Does Jesus only exist in the right-wing of the Liberal party? "

" Is there any doubt that at the moment the Liberal party in New South Wales is experiencing a fairly co-ordinated campaign to move right-wing conservative Christians into party branches, and indeed to get them preselected? "

This was on the ABC's Religion Report. Of course, the last thing the ABC wants is that people should be in any sense religious ...

As for Opus Dei, they tried to recruit me once, but being a member sounded too much like hard work. Besides, they are just a bunch of boring neo-conservatives. They are not particularly radical. It beats me why they always make the trendies wet themselves.

Julian

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

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What I did in the holidays

We went to Parkes, in New South Wales, heading away from the coast, not towards it. This contrarian behaviour helped us avoid the traffic. My wife and I both like visiting country towns. We may go to the coast for a seaside holiday later in the season.

Parkes is a regional centre, fairly nondescript, its most famous feature being the Parkes radiotelescope just north of the city, made famous by the movie The Dish. It was satisfying to finally see the radiotelescope, which really deserves the overused word "icon". When I was a nerdy little boy, such installations held great magic for me, and it was quite exciting to finally see it in real life. In the visitor's centre, there was a replica of the control panel, which was used in making the movie. (I noticed a typo on one of the dials). Since the success of the film, the number of visitors to the radiotelescope has increased by about 100%.

It was good of the observatory people to put on a reasonable display, and I was pleased that they felt it was appropriate to tell visitors exactly what the telescope was doing, hour by hour (it operates continuously). While we were there it was timing pulsars. Later in the day, it was scheduled to search for new pulsars in the "Perseus arm of the Milky Way."

As well as this day trip, we drove one day as far as Nyngan. I have long been intrigued by the long, straight road indicated on maps that runs from Narromine to Nyngan. I was very pleased with the way the vegetation changed as we drove towards Nyngan. There were roadside trials of saltbush, distinctive trees and a totally flat landscape with a completely straight road that ran right beside the railroad. Classic Australian outback driving. It was fairly hot, probably about 34 degrees Celsius. I had hoped to strike a really hot day, well into the 40s (just to see what it felt like), but apparently that is more typical of February weather.

We went to Mass at Parkes, and popped into the Forbes Catholic and Anglican churches. I was rather unhappy with what I saw of Catholicism in the Forbes-Wilcannia diocese. The mass in Parkes was fairly gruesome, with altar girls poncing around in pants. But at least I was spared the Catholic effort in Forbes, where they apparently have a roster of lay "commentators" on the day's readings: a fairly transparent dodge for getting in a bit of sneaky lay preaching. The problem in country towns is that you have little or no choice (thank Goodness, I can usually get to a Traditional Latin Mass at home in Canberra).

The best that can be said for the mass I attended in Parkes is that it was a valid mass. In other ways, it was pretty banal and depressing. But, as I told myself, I am not responsible for such masses - the parish priest is. If he wants to say mass assisted by a girl in jeans, that is his business. Likewise, if the Bishop of Forbes-Wilcannia want to encourage lay preaching, that is his responsibility.

Perhaps it was just my imagination, but the congregation at Parkes seemed old and sad. Many of them would have remembered a time when young women sat modestly in the pews.

Something interesting is happening in the local Anglican diocese. A lady called Canon Colleen O'Reilly was quoted in the local newsletter as comparing the situation in the Australian Anglican church to the persecution by Puritans of the Little Gidding community in 17th century England. I assume this was a dig at the Sydney Anglicans, who are of the Low Church persuasion, though comparing them to "puritans" is a bit harsh. Also, I am not sure how well Canon Colleen's historical analogy succeeds. From the checking I have done, it seems that the Little Gidding community meddled in the politics of the English Civil War. They hid King Charles when he was "on the lam", so it was hardly surprising that the Cromwellian soldiery trashed the joint.

I think the Australian Anglicans recently rejected the idea of women bishops, and Canon O'Reilly is a frontrunner for one of these jobs. The Sydney Anglicans are not supportive of such notions, so one can understand her displeasure with them.

I gather that one of the Jensen brothers (a prominent Sydney Anglican) was quoted along the lines that the recent Tsunami could be a chastisement from God. I suspect he was misquoted, or not fully quoted (here is a statement from the Sydney Anglicans). Journalists wouldn't get a theological nuance if it bit them on the bum. I don't think the Tsunami tragedy is a chastisement, other than the usual ongoing chastisement of living in a fallen creation, where such things will always happen. I have toyed with the idea that the fatalistic religions popular in the relevant part of the world (Hinduism and Buddhism) are not conducive to disaster planning, though.

Julian

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