söndag 28 oktober 2012

What should one campaign for?

A friend of mine has been campaigning this weekend for two anti-abortion groups. One of the groups has an in-your-face approach using gory photographs and takes the view that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. The other group takes a softer line, arguing that because abortion is so widely regarded as acceptable, the best that can be done is to minimise the numbers by persuasion and some tightening of the rules. My friend expressed misgivings about the first group, but another friend argued for the hard line approach when there were proposals recently for a tightening of legislation in the UK. He argued that the amendments should not be supported because this implied support for abortion.

One can see the point in all this, and the opposition always use difficult cases - rape, incest and conditions threatening to the life of the mother - to further the argument for liberal abortion laws.

There is another issue as well, which is that Christians then get accused of being unduly preoccupied with sex and what people do with their bodies. One can understand why this is so - the issues are easy to grasp and people are moved by a natural sense of revulsion - the yuck factor.

However, the church's teaching is about much more than sexual morality, and it would be a good thing if campaigners would look to these wider issues too. Take, for instance, the economy. The recent economic crisis, which is now turning into a chronic disease of economies around the world, could not have happened without usury, the system on which most contemporary economies depends. The bible forbids it. The Catholic church has repeatedly spoken out against it, for example in the Encyclical Vix Pervenit, the very first Papal Encyclical, issued in 1745. Yet how many priests have raised the subject in the pulpit since the crisis arose three years ago? Where are the campaigners? Morality is about more than sexual behaviour. We ought to be more vociferous about the broader range of issues, and more willing to acknowledge our own personal guilt through our participation in the process.

lördag 27 oktober 2012

Descralisation of Catholic worship

Increasingly, the post Vatican II changes are being re-evaluated. Innovations like communion in both kinds, the Blessed host received in the hands whilst standing, from lay ministers, removal of communion rails, are being recognised for what they are - a deliberate de-sacralising. The process is reinforced by the use of the vernacular, something which many of the other world religions have carefully avoided by reserving an ancient classical language such as Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit or Pali, for liturgical use. This is sound practice, not least because vernacular languages are politically loaded. The English language and the way it is used is closely tied to the class system and Britain's colonial legacy. One does not need to look any further than across the Channel to Belgium to see how divisive language can be.

Then there is the influence of the Novus Ordo on the music. In the EF, hopefully, at least the Introit will be sung to the tune of the day, and the other seasons have their settings for the Ordinary, as well as the seasonal hymns. Thus over the year there is a succession of music which reinforces the church's narrative teaching.

The worst of it is that some, probably most, of the post V2 settings are egregious, ranging from the infantile to the downright unpleasant and comparable to the kind of sounds that set teeth on edge. There is a particular problem with the English language because English texts sung to Gregorian tunes tend to end up with the emphasis exactly where it makes no sense, resulting in an absurdity, as here; in the first line of this setting of the Creed, the three-notes that fall on "Deum" are now on the word "one". This is not inevitable - this alternative setting here is successful.

I suspect that the use of Protestant hymns is more damaging than is generally appreciated. Because the quality of the music is often high, for example by composers such as Goss, Watts, Wesley, Hassler and Neander, it is difficult to fault them on musical grounds. But they are infused with a Protestant sensibility, damaging slowly and subtly. And it is difficult to argue against their use except on the grounds that this is not "real Catholic music".

See comments here on Father Raymond Blake's blog.

Elmar lenses compared

Elmar 1950s test Elmar 1990s test 

Leitz brought out the collapsible Elmar f/3.5 lens in the 1920s. It was then upgraded to an f/2.8 version in the 1950s and made available in both screw-fit and bayonet fit for the Leica M. The top picture is taken with a lens at f/5.6 setting, made in the late 1950s and is the very centre of the image.

The lens was redesigned and  revived for a while in the 1990s and continued in production until 2002. The earlier version is chromed brass with a 15 blade diaphragm giving a perfectly circular aperture. The newer version is black aluminium with a 6 blade diaphragm giving a hexagonal aperture.

The only difference seems to be that the newer lens has better contrast, presumably due to a reduction in stray light inside the lens, which makes the older example seem soft. But as for the definition, there is no perceptible difference. The newer one suits the black M9 better, whereas the old one looks best on its chrome M2. The comparison below is of a shot of part of the test printout from SuSE Linux. The upper one is the older lens. The circles are 50 mm across and the photograph was taken at a distance of 2 metres, again at f/5.6. The newer lens has the edge, but only just.

Elmar 1728645 Elmar 3936394

måndag 22 oktober 2012

Choir weekend at Vadstena

Vadstena  klosterkyrka by Elmar Eye
Vadstena klosterkyrka, a photo by Elmar Eye on Flickr.
We had a weekend at Vadstena, which was looking stunning with all the trees in autumn gold. It was attended by groups from choirs from Catholic churches all over Sweden, with a programme directed by the diocesan musical director, Ulf Samuelsson. We stayed at the STF hostel at Omberg, where forests of giant ancient oaks and beeches were also at their autumn best.

The music, however, got off to a difficult start, with a rehearsal in the vast cavernous interior of Vadstena abbey church, a fourteenth century building with a reverberation time of around ten seconds, as well as some particular resonances. Making matters worse was a organ that sounded as if it was out of tune in the bottom register - low frequency discords being amongst the most unpleasant sounds possible.

That the music was evidently not selected with regard to the special characteristics of the building quickly became apparent. With normal-paced music, much of it in parts, echoes of notes sung a few seconds earlier were coming from all directions. Trying to sing was a battle against the building. I could not cope with this bombardment of sound, so I gave up the fight and after the rehearsal, sat in the benches to listen.

There would have been no problem if the music had consisted of unaccompanied Gregorian chant. On the contrary, it would have sounded wonderful. A few years earlier, I had attended a concert in the church by two women from Finland who perform under the name Vox Silentii. One of the pair sung, very gently, one of the resonant frequencies of the church, whilst the other sung Gregorian chant from the time of St Brigit. From this, it can be concluded that the only sorts of music that can be sung in the building without difficulty are the Gregorian chant for which the building was designed and built, related forms of music such as Swedish or Anglican chant, and, possibly, slow-paced four-part polyphonic music by composers such as Palestrina.

From my place in the congregation during the service itself, it was apparent that, the sound coming from the choir was wonderful, that there was something wrong with the organ, and that the building was not designed for preaching either, as the sermon could be heard several times! The concluding piece by Mendelsson was little more than a mush of sound. At the end, I could not say that I had attended a service of worship. In fact, whilst described as a service and held at the time when Vespers would normally be sung, it was not a proper Vespers since it did not include the Magnificat, which are part of  Catholic Vesper.

After that low point, things improved. We were very well fed at the Folkhögskola, with home-made entertainment afterwards and an opportunity to make new contacts. We had breakfast in our hostel in the middle of the forest. Sunday Mass was in the modern church of the present Birgitta sisters. I am never quite sure what to make of the building. It has large windows, on one side giving a view across the lake, Vättern, and on the other a view to a garden with mature beeches, their leaves a golden blaze just now. However, with this natural beauty all around, the liturgy takes second place.

But in the smaller space, the buildings, music and singers were working together. It all sounded fine, including the previously difficult Mendelsson. The Ordinary of the Mass was the Misa de Angelis, with Credo 3 and the Pater Noster, which a lot of people seemed to be able to sing without looking in their books.

Next time
There will be other similar events of this kind. With a building like Vadstena Abbey Church available - though there are others too, such as Varnhem, there are great possibilities as long as the building's acoustics are respected.

The vespers could be those for the day, sung mostly in Latin from the Liber Usualis. Why Latin? Because, first, the language has simple open vowels; second, it is pretty close to what would have been sung when the building had just been completed; and third, but most importantly, it would be worth inviting a teacher or teachers to give instruction in the reading and performance of Gregorian chant, possibly a monk from Solemnes. On the Saturday evening, it would also be fitting to conclude with the sung Compline, like these French Benedictine monks, music which would be literally awesome in the Vadstena Abbey church.

Similar concerns apply to the Sunday Mass. Whilst the convent church is an attractive building, it does not function particularly well as a space for the liturgy due to the stunning views from it. The convent church is very much of its time - the 1970s, and one must indeed have concern for the future of that community itself, which seems to have had few, if any, vocations in recent years. There is not in fact a serious shortage of vocations, but it is the traditional Catholic communities that are drawing in the present generation of young people.

With these considerations, it would be worth thinking about holding the main Sunday Mass in the Abbey church, possibly early in the morning before the main Swedish service if permission can be obtained. This too, would preferably be in Latin and include the correct Proper for the Sunday. Because of the complexity of these, it would probably be better to divide responsibility for singing the different parts - Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion - amongst parishes who could prepare them beforehand. The same applies, possibly, to the Offertory and Communion motets, which might be polyphonic, and perhaps also to the Ordinary. Alternatively, or additionally, the opportunity could be taken to introduce some of the other Gregorian Mass settings, such as Mass XI (Orbis Factor), and the austere Credo I.

As regards the Mass itself, unless there is any particular reason to include vernacular hymns - and there is little reason or opportunity to if the Proper is sung - then it would be a good thing to celebrate the Mass in the Extraordinary Form, complete with the sprinkling of holy water and incense, which would also have the benefit of conducting it as a High Mass with Deacon and Sub-Deacon, which would avoid the awkwardnesses of a concelebrated Mass.

Such a weekend could even inspire a few vocations to the priesthood or religious life. The programme for 2014?

Excusing antisemitism

As is well known, some Jewish communities in Sweden have been at the receiving end of a wave of antisemitism, including violent incidents. This is not coming from native Swedes but from Muslim immigrants from the middle east, or from their children. An article in Svenska Dagblad yesterday set out to explain why knowledge of the holocaust is irrelevant to the perpetrators.

The author, Helena Mechlaoui, argues that those responsible have themselves suffered from the actions of the Israel and the US, and feel that their sufferings are being ignored whilst attention is still being given to those of the Jews more than half a century ago. She appears to justfy the hostile actions on the grounds that Jews generally support the actions of the Israeli government, which is possibly true. From this she draws the conclusion that Sweden's Jews deserve what they get: bullying in schools, street attacks and vandalism of synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings.

She then goes to point out that the Holocaust was a consequence of European anti-semitism of Christian origin, and that people in the middle eastern countries are being made to pay for their guilt.

Now it is undeniable that New Testament texts can be interpreted as an incitement to antisemitism, but taking them as a whole, it is clear that such a reading would be a serious error. Historically, the church authorities at the highest level have usually spoken out against antisemitism. The waves of incidents that occurred at the time of the Crusades and again in Spain in the sixteenth century, whilst disgraceful, were exceptional. Moreover, they were motivated primarily by politics and economics rather than religious doctrine, which of course still does not excuse them. And it should not be forgotten that it was the Polish king Casimir who offered refuge to the persecuted Jews of the Rhineland at the time of the Crusades.

Mechaouli then goes into cover-up mode, with a statement that antisemitism in the middle east has no long history but began only in the twentieth century when it became clear that Jews wanted to establish their own state in the area "inhabited by Palestinians". This is obfuscation of the highest order. Antisemitism is woven into the very fabric of Islam. The prophet himself led the massacre of 600 Jewish men in the year 627. The Koran is full of passages which are an incitement to hatred of both Jews and Christians. The Muslim religious authorities have never unabiguously taken a distance from these statements, for instance by asserting that they should not be taken literally. Saudi Arabia, originally inhabited by large number of Jews, was quickly made Jew-free, and Jews in other lands where Islam came to dominate were always treated as inferior and for thirteen centuries subjected to penalties and outbreaks of violence. So the problems of the Jews in the middle east did not begin in the 1900s.For Mechaouli, who is described as a historian, to brush this under the carpet, is rank dishonesty.

Of course none of this helps the present situation. The issue that is really at stake is whether the recent Islamic immigrants to Europe, and their descendants, are to comply with the current values and standards of behaviour regarded as decent in the countries in which they have taken refuge. If they are unwilling to do so then they need to move on and take fresh refuge in countries where their views are more in line with the prevailing ethic.

torsdag 18 oktober 2012

Latest setup - old and new

Latest setup - old and new by Elmar Eye
Latest setup - old and new, a photo by Elmar Eye on Flickr.
Leica M9 with early 1960 Elmar. I am going to use this for a while and see how it works. The ergonomics of this old lens is better than the 1990s version of the Elmar. I particularly like the focussing button which locks in the infinity position. I got it a few years ago but only used it for a little while with film as I thought the definition was soft, but will give it another go with the digital camera. Nice to have this backwards compatibility.

onsdag 17 oktober 2012

Catholic Pentecostalism


Catholic Pentecostalism, otherwise known as the charismatic renewal movement, is characterised by a particular style of worship which has much in common with Protestant Pentecostal practice. I do not want to talk about it except to say this. The Catholic church is, and always has been, a Pentecostal church. And traditional Catholic worship is Pentecostal.

This is particularly so when Latin is used and sung to Gregorian chant melodies. The fact that the Latin words are not immediately understandable means that one has no option but to let go and accept the sound. And the sounds of Latin are very particular, with pure open vowels alternating with simple consonants, and almost entirely lacking in the compound vowel sounds found in the Germanic languages or the complex consonts that characterise the Slavonic languages. Latin vocals are produced by opening the mouth and throat and letting the sound emerge on the breath. Thus it becomes a form of speaking in tongues.

Gregorian chant makes full use of this through the use of the feature known as the Jubilus, a single syllable sung to extended sequence of notes as in the Easter Alleluia above, where the words "Alleluia" itself, "Dominus","exsultemus" and "ea" have this feature. Significantly, the Protestant Reformation brought with it music characterised by the exact antithesis, with one note per syllable being held up as an idea. Alleluia is of course Hebrew for "Praise the Lord", the constant repetition of which is one of the marks of Pentecostal worship. Thus, traditional Catholic worship is Pentecostal.

tisdag 16 oktober 2012

The Feast of St Teresa of Avila



Yesterday was the feast of St Teresa of Avila, for which should be sung the Introit Dilexisti Iustitiam above. It was a big occasion, marking the formal inauguration of the Year of Faith. Bishop Anders, gave, as always, a clear and inspiring sermon. The event was well supported by clergy, many of whom had travelled a considerable distance to attend, the servers, as always, performed well, and the church was packed. The liturgy, unfortunately, was a bit of a let down, beginning with the resolutely Protestant hymn "Tell out my soul"



This should not be happening as there are good choirs available locally, in addition to the one attached to the church, plus two first rate organists. Catholic faith is not promoted by dull liturgies with Protestant tunes. Obviously changes need to be made sensitively, not in a rush and with the reasons being explained. But there is a need to get more momentum behind the "Reform of the Reform". If it is not, people will eventually drift away. Restoring the Catholic spirit to the liturgy is becoming a matter of urgency. The guidelines laid down in Sacrosanctum Concilium need to be understood and followed.

Vasagatan trees for the chop

Vasagatan och cyklister by Elmar Eye
Vasagatan och cyklister, a photo by Elmar Eye on Flickr.
The lime trees in Vasagatan are being removed because some of them are in poor condition. They will be replaced by a named variety of ornamental maple whose leaves turn red in the autumn. Some of the new chosen type were planted a few years ago and can be seen in the background on the right.

Unfortunately it is going to be at least ten years before they get to a significant size. I would also question the wisdom of planting an entire avenue with a single variety of tree, or even a single species. The English landscape was once famous for its elms, Ulmus procera. Within a decade they had vanished, victims of Dutch elm disease. The trees were in fact a clone, and as soon as some disease came along,  they were all equally vulnerable and they all succumbed. Itr was only a matter of time.

Formal avenues always present a problem from this point of view because the sense of formality is lost if the trees are not all the same. But if the trees were at least grown from seed, there would be the genetic diversity to reduce the chance of losing them all at one go in the future.

tisdag 9 oktober 2012

Hard cases and bad laws

There is an old saying that hard cases make bad law. One of the arguments used against the abolition of slavery was that elderly widows depended on them. Elderly widows are wheeled out whenever the issue of land value taxation is raised - the example given is of the 95 year old woman whose husband bought a 2-up-2-down slum terrace house in 1946 for £100 with his demob money and now the site it is standing on is worth a million. Under a system of land value taxation she would be subject to a heavy tax even though she has only her meagre pension to live on and the house itself is falling down, has no bathroom and only an outside toilet.


Campaigners for tougher abortion laws face the same kind of thing. Opponents ask, "What about women who have become pregnant as a result of rape?" Or "What about pregnancies where tests have shown that the baby, if born, would be seriously disabled and a burden on the parents?"


Those who are campaigning for changes like this are generally not so stupid as to realise that there may be situations where exceptions to a principle may have to be made or dealt with in a more accomodating way.

Picking on hard cases is a dishonest debating technique which is used by people who are wholly opposed to whatever it is that is being suggested. One might as well argue against speed limits on the grounds that someone might be on their way to the hospital with an acutely ill passenger in the car.

Nothing to do with Islam

Following the incident in London on Friday night, there are still journalists and politicians who attempt to distance the present round of t...