Two important things happened yesterday in Manchester which offer a contrast that maybe worth reflecting on. The Prime Minister gave his speech about his vision of ‘ a land of opportunity for all’, whilst just down the road (to be precise Oxford Rd) we are opening the first student-run foodbank in the country (link to BBC website). All around Manchester you can see the Conservative Party banners – with their conference slogan proclaiming ‘For Hard Working People‘. The implication is that we are not the party of scroungers, lazy welfare dependent – ‘feckless’ poor. The embarrassing truth is that according to foodbank usage statistics (collated by the excellent Trussell Trust), the crisis food provision is increasingly being used by the ‘working poor‘. The sad fact is that many hard working people seem to be getting poorer, especially those not protected by proper contracts.
The Conservative Party seem to have a schizophrenic relationship with Foodbanks, on one hand they are held up as being a great example of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ on the other hand there is considerable embarrassment about the incredible growth of the foodbank network. This is embarrassing for the government as it makes visible what was hidden before, food poverty. Food Poverty is something that teachers have noticed as alarming levels of students arrive at school with empty stomachs, here in Central Manchester we have the highest indices of child poverty in the country. It was sad to see a meeting between MP’s and foodbank managers was cancelled this week here in Manchester for lack of interest by the Conservative MP’s. We also had the same problem attracting Catholic Mp’s to speak to the students – none were interested in coming. Last year at the Labour conference a few Mp’s came – including the impressive Jim Murphy, who still came and talked to the students even though he had lost his voice.
Even if the government wasn’t interested – the media were – this report went out nationwide on ITV yesterday
Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank Observatory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Two alumni of Manchester who seem to be high-profile but are now sadly dead are Alan Turing and Bernard Lovell. Turing. mathematical genius, code-breaker extraordinaire, is widely considered to be the father of computing science and artificial intelligence. Designing the first model stored-program computer, he worked on the innovative Manchester Computers project which lead to the development of the first commercially available general purpose computer the Ferranti Mark One. It is an incredible legacy as arguably computers have been the most significant technological advance in the modern age. Bernard Lovell, sadly died a few weeks ago. A visionary physicist – his top-secret work on magnetrons during the WW2 helped Allied bombers spot submarine periscopes and Hitler blamed a major naval setback on his inventions. During this work he spotted other strange stuff – emitting radio frequency waves – cosmic rays perhaps? so after the War he set up the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope in Cheshire to find out. The worlds biggest steerable radio telescope, its spiralling costs and need for electromagnetic silence (thus blocking local development) led it to be called ‘Lovell’s folly’ – and he was staring bankruptcy and public hostility in the face. Until the space race started and the launch of the Russian Sputnik sattelites. When it became obvious that the only place in the world that could track them was Jodrell Bank – overnight he became a hero again!
Importantly for our work in the Chaplaincy is also his interest in questions of science and faith. A committed Christian, and organist in his local parish church, St Peter’s, Swettenham, for 40 years, with the big questions he believed cosmology must give way to metaphysics. This is important for me as we are developing a Faith and Science group here in Manchester. It is striking how many of the students who come into the chaplaincy are scientists. Talking to them it is clear that they find it increasingly difficult to talk about their faith openly with scientific colleagues, or in a science lab. We would like to counteract that by developing a thriving Faith and Science community here – with a specialist library, lectures. It may be that we will have an annual lecture named after Bernard Lovell. It is a shame that due to the aggressive and intolerant atheism of people like Dawkins, the wise, gentler voices such as Lovell’s seem to be drowned out. The Lovell Telescope will now be the nerve centre of what will be the world’s biggest telescope, the multinational Square Kilometre Array. But until his recent death Bernard Lovell remained modest about the limits of its discoveries. In his 90s he said he had never in his life been “faced with so many unanswered questions as now”. And in his final Reith lecture he sketched out wise and telling parameters for faith and science when he said:
I am no more surprised or distressed at the limitation of science when faced with this great problem of creation than I am at the limitation of the spectroscope in describing the radiance of a sunset or at the theory of counterpoint in describing the beauty of a fugue.
Jim Murphy at Manchester Universities Catholic Chaplaincy
In Britain it is the Political Parties conference season. The Labour party is just finishing its conference here in Manchester. I was very struck with the Scottish MP Jim Murphy who took an hour out of his busy schedule yesterday to talk to the students here at the Catholic Chaplaincy. Currently the shadow defence minister, and heavily involved in the Labour Party policy review, it was great to have him opening our ‘Faith and Politics’ season. The stock of politicians at the moment in the UK is quite low, especially after the expenses scandal a few years ago, when widespread corruption and greed was exposed. Having sat in on a Fringe event earlier on in the week, it is very clear that net-working and self-promotion seems to be rife at these conferences. Sometimes the self promotion seems stronger that the desire to serve for the common good, and this is probably why the public attitude to politicians has become, sadly, so jaded.
When Jim Murphy arrived it was clear he had lost his voice. It was a real strain to hear him speak. He had had two breakfasts that morning. He refused any money for the taxi fare – and spoke gently but with passion about how faith and politics can be complementary. I was quite struck by him – he didn’t need to come and talk to 35 students in the Catholic Chaplaincy, I’m sure it has done nothing for his political profile, there were probably more prestigious and more high-profile events he could have attended. But he was faithful to his booking, even though his voice was giving out. We were able to give him some throat lozenges as a thankyou gift, ‘I’ll have to declare these’ he said grinning. I was fortunate to be able to tell him afterwards, that he had done a great thing, as these students – some aspiring politicians , many Catholic, others not, had been really encouraged by him coming, and speaking openly about the tensions of faith and religion. He is a role model for them. He looked genuinely taken aback when I said that. If only we had more politicians like him.