Kneeling Down

19 09 2010

[You can listen to this episode here, or subscribe by searching ‘James Townsend’ in the iTunes Store.]

It is said to be the oldest profession in the world. This is a phrase that has always lacked, for me, a certain legitimacy. Presumably there are other forms of human employment which pre-date the exchange of sex for material gain. The provision of food, say? Or perhaps protection. Then again, who am I to question the one scintilla of nobility afforded to the world of prostitution.

If you happen to be both a committed and an observant listener, you may have noticed that it is just over a year since I moved to Manchester. I am pleased to report that the city has kept me remarkably well these past twelve months. This is not a place of classical pretensions – Manchester does not claim to be the Florence of the North, or a little Athens in the Pennines. Neither could its organic history of planning hold a candle to Baron Housman’s Parisian gentility.

Manchester holds a very different appeal. It holds a grittiness, a rough edge which one might not want to introduce to one’s mother, but will surely provide a bit of cheeky entertainment until you want to settle down. You can meet all sorts of people here, and learn about the full range of the human condition – not that I recommend describing it as such while propping up a bar in the Northern Quarter.

Meeting people is always a worthwhile experience, but it is also sometimes an uncomfortable one. Having moved to the south side of the city centre, I now enjoy a new commute, populated by a new group of men and women going about their business early in the morning.

If, like me, you were to pass behind Piccadilly Station at about seven o’ clock in the morning, you may start to shift uncomfortably in your seat. That is because this is the time and place that a number of Manchester’s ladies are dropped off from their evening’s industry – their grey, drained faces sucking at their first cigarette of the day; the brisk morning wind chilling their exposed thighs.

I do not know what it is that they do, but I can imagine and, if I’m honest I don’t care to imagine in any detail. Whatever these ladies are returning from, their situation does not appear to be a very happy one.

The coverage seems to have smothered our televisions and newspapers, but somehow I doubt that the young ladies I see every morning are concerned much with the Papal Visit. It does seem incongruous that for such a secular country (and that, after all, is what so many people tell us these islands have become) – for such a secular country, so many people are motivated to come into the streets and cheer the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church.

Even more peculiar, Pope Benedict is invited, as part of his formal State Visit, to address parliamentarians in Westminster Hall. Alastair Campbell famously said “we don’t DO God”, and to an extent he was right. British politics has thankfully avoided the rather tasteless public confessions of faith so deeply engrained into American public affairs.

And yet Alastair Campbell was attempting to smooth over a different truth – that is that our public affairs are mostly run by people of a very profound faith. If we look at British Prime Ministers from the Twentieth Century, all have had faith as a dominating feature of their lives.

James Callaghan quoted from the book of Isaiah when titling his memoirs ‘Time and Chance’. The influence of Margaret Thatcher’s Methodist upbringing was plain for all to see, and Tony Blair famously grappled, and continues to grapple with the role of Faith in his own life.

The clear theme emerging from the Pope’s visit to our shores has been the impact of modern secularism. A man known as God’s Rottweiler should not be expected to pull his punches and, although in courteous language, Benedict has lived up to his reputation.

In particular, the Pope has directed his remarks at young people, imploring them to avoid the ephemeral temptations of drugs, alcohol and pornography. Instead, he maintains, true happiness can only be found in God and the love of Christ.

It is so tempting, and too often so easy, to portray the Church as an out-of-date institution with little to commend it in the modern world. So many of us find religious teaching conflicts with our true experience of life as lived by the common man.

Is it right then, for us to expel religion from public life? To leave the fanatics to their own devices and resist any movement to bring faith into it all?

Our political leaders seem to say ‘no’. They appear to value to it – but only in their private convictions. Religion should be kept in a box labelled ‘not for public consumption’.

Well, at the other end of our society, there may well be some people with a different view. They may not fully appreciate the significance of the Pope’s words for them, but it is them that he might well have in mind.

I must confess that in my description at the beginning of this letter, I did not give you the whole picture. There is a reason that the ladies of whom I spoke choose to be delivered under the dark arches behind Piccadilly Station. Every morning a van pulls up to serve hot tea and a revitalising breakfast bun to these unfortunate people.

And what is the logo on the side of this van? The Salvation Army.

For those of us happily situated in a comfortable middle class existence, God, Faith, Religion and the Church may seem a restrictive and outdated system of repression. But before we throw it all out, let us spend a moment of thought, perhaps even of prayer, for those people who do not enjoy such a cosy existence.

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