FIRST THINGS: The moral, social and religious challenges of the day

02 November 2006


Burns & Oates £9.99 (0-86012-388-X)Church Times Bookshop £9

THE cover of this book reminded me of the “odd one out” round in TV’s Have I Got News for You: four faces with, at first glance, no obvious connection between them. Perhaps the publishers hope that the juxtaposition of the four — Cherie Booth, Gyles Brandreth, Charles Moore, and George Weigel — will arouse curiosity, for only the cognoscenti will know that what links them is their Roman Catholic faith and status as “Tyburn lecturers”.

The Tyburn lectures, Michael Ancram tells us in his foreword, were established in 2001 to honour Roman Catholics martyred at that notorious spot. The lectures are not opportunities to re-examine the past, but to showcase Catholic thinking today in relation to moral, religious, and social questions. This book contains the first four lectures.

Each certainly does what is intended, though the thread holding them together is desperately thin. While Brandreth writes a delightful, heart-warming piece on childhood, Weigel offers a dryish essay, more suited to an undergraduate textbook, on Catholic social teaching. Moore and Booth’s pieces on, respectively, truth-telling in public life and human rights are lively and readable; but, as a whole, the book has a somewhat uneven feel.

Moore reminds us that “martyr” originally meant “witness”, and calls on people in public life to say more boldly what they believe. He accepts that his own trade has not exactly encouraged straight talking, but longs for a Thatcher or Bevan to counter the blandness of much politics today.  I read his suggestion that no politician today was saying anything so boldly that it would be remembered long afterwards just as George Galloway was taking on the US Senate; but his point is surely sound.

Booth’s is a thoughtful piece on the Church and human rights — including human rights within the Church itself — and Weigel’s is a useful resource for students of contemporary Catholic thought. But the gem is undoubtedly Brandreth’s, with its unsentimental call for a rediscovery of childhood and its challenge to adults to make it happen. Children still want to scout and guide, but where are the people to lead them?  When will children again have places to play? “It would be inconceivable to build even one house nowadays without provision for car parking,” Brandreth writes; “yet you can build an entire estate without providing safe playspace for children.”  If the Tyburn lectures can generate this kind of debate, long may they continue.

Andrew Bradstock is Director of the Christian Socialist Movement.

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