Parents’ fury over children’s care at crisis-hit heart unit: Doctors blocked us from having treatment elsewhere
Parents of children with serious heart conditions were ‘obstructed’ from seeking treatment elsewhere by staff at a scandal-hit heart unit, campaigners have claimed.
Heart operations on children at Leeds General Infirmary were suspended on Thursday night following concerns over high death rates and allegedly unsafe practices.
A senior heart surgeon at the unit has also been banned from operating on children while ‘aspects of his practice’ are investigated.
NHS bosses said they had been forced to act after finding that death rates were twice the national average – with ‘clear blue water’ between the number of patients dying at the unit and mortality rates elsewhere.
The suspension of the unit provoked a huge political row yesterday, with MPs and some parents claiming the timing – just 24 hours after a High Court ruling quashed plans to close the centre – was ‘deeply questionable’. Some experts said the data on death rates was ‘preliminary’ and should not have been used to justify the suspension.
But yesterday shocking new claims emerged that families unhappy with the care at the unit had been blocked from going elsewhere.
Staff at the unit – which has been operating under threat of closure since last year – were said to have been so desperate for patients not to go to another hospital that they gave ‘wholly inappropriate’ advice to patients. One such family was even reported to social services, it is alleged.
The NHS safety watchdog the Care Quality Commission was sent a letter by the patient group HeartLine last month, claiming that:
* A mother was referred to social services as having Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, because of her wish to move her son to a centre which would treat his symptoms.
* Another parent was unable to get a referral for a child’s desperately-needed transplant.
* A third mother who was told her child was ‘inoperable’ managed to contact another unit and get the child operated on elsewhere.
* Treatment was delayed for a fourth seriously ill child and obstacles put in the way of referral. He was transferred ‘in time to save his life, but perhaps not his health’.
Sophie Dring claims a cardiologist at Leeds General Infirmary tried to pressure her into having an abortion when her unborn child was diagnosed with a serious heart condition.
The 26-year-old said her son Toby, now 18 months, only survived because she researched his condition and discovered he could have life-saving surgery.
Miss Dring was five months pregnant when she was told her baby had hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which occurs when the left side of the heart fails to form properly.
She claims a consultant cardiologist then told her there was no chance of him surviving and that she should have a termination.
However, after finding there was an operation possible – at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle – she insisted she be referred there.
Toby was induced at 39 weeks on September 8 2011 and transferred immediately to the Freeman Hospital, where he underwent major surgery when he was just 22 hours old.
Miss Dring, of Whitby, North Yorkshire, welcomed news of a review into care service at Leeds General Infirmary. She said: ‘Toby still has a long way to go and will need a heart transplant in the future but he is doing well.
‘He lives life to the full. It is heartbreaking to look at him and think he wouldn’t be here if Leeds had their way.’
The letter compared the situation to the Bristol heart scandal in the 1990s, where 35 babies died and dozens more were left brain-damaged by hospital failures.
It accuses the unit of trying to protect its reputation as a safe surgical centre by sending complex surgeries to other centres or not risking operations that may be unsuccessful.
The LGI strongly denied ‘any suggestion we would act improperly’.
But Anne Keatley Clarke, chief executive of the Children’s Heart Federation, which represents 22 bodies including HeartLine, said she had written to the CQC because she felt ‘morally obliged to flag up safety concerns’.
She said: ‘It appears managers and clinicians in Leeds, together with the parent support group, have put their own interests ahead of the well-being of critically ill children.’
She claimed many families had been left too frightened to raise concerns in case it affected the care given to their children.
Mrs Keatley Clarke said the ‘chilling’ parents’ cases came after numerous other worries had been raised about LGI, and called for the unit to be permanently closed.
Leeds is one of three out of 14 children’s heart units set to close following last year’s Safe and Sustainable NHS Review aimed at providing services in a smaller number of specialised centres.
The unit fought back, with huge public support and a legal campaign against the closure. It won the first round of a court battle on Wednesday after judges found the consultation on closing the unit had been flawed.
The move to close the unit over safety concerns just 24 hours later led campaigners and MPs to question the basis of the court decision.
Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North West, said he was ‘stunned and appalled’ by the suspension and called for NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh to resign.
He also called on Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to immediately lift the suspension of the Leeds unit.
‘Sir Bruce Keogh should resign as he has both authorised this wholly unreasonable and deeply questionable action and also presided over the fundamentally flawed Safe and Sustainable review,’ he said.
The row intensified further when an expert claimed the mortality data on which the decision was based was ‘not fit to be used’.
Dr John Gibbs, of the steering committee for the Central Cardiology Audit database, which supplied the data, said the figures were preliminary and had not undergone the ‘usual rigorous checking process’.
But Sir Bruce yesterday said it would have been irresponsible to ignore a ‘constellation’ of warnings, including mortality data. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘I couldn’t sit back just because the timing was inconvenient, awkward or would look suspicious, as it does.’
The suspension was agreed by the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, whose chief executive Maggie Boyle apologised to parents and families who will be affected.
NHS England said the suspension was for checks to be made to ensure the unit is operating safely.
Two more adverse cases: Leeds General Infirmary suspends congenital heart surgery
A hospital at centre of a long-running row over the future of its children’s heart services tonight suspended all congenital cardiac surgery on youngsters. The temporary measure follows a number of claims relating to patient outcomes, and concerns about surgery standards.
Leeds General Infirmary said the measure was being taken to allow a internal review to take place.
Maggie Boyle, the chief executive of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: ‘Following discussions earlier today with senior representatives from NHS England and the Care Quality Commission the trust has agreed to carry out an internal review, independently validated and supported by external experts.
‘This will look at all aspects of congenital cardiac surgery for children undertaken at the unit in Leeds.
‘We have taken the decision to temporarily pause children’s congenital cardiac surgery and associated interventions while this review is conducted, a process we would aim to complete in around three weeks.’
Ms Boyle said: ‘We apologise to parents and families who will be affected during this time, and can assure them we always put the safety of our patients first.
‘It is really important to us that the review is done as speedily and comprehensively as possible which, of course, we hope will show the services in Leeds to be safe. We are confident in the quality of the care provided by our staff and hope they will bear with us during this difficult time.
‘Families whose surgery may be affected during this time are being contacted directly by the trust.’
A vigorous campaign has been ongoing to save children’s heart surgery at the LGI after the unit was earmarked for closure as part of an NHS plan to re-organise services across England into fewer, more specialised centres.
Yesterday, Leeds campaigners were celebrating when a High Court judge quashed part of the NHS consultation process which led to the re-organisation, effectively halting the plan.
Earlier this month, the CQC confirmed it had received claims that the uncertainty over the future of children’s heart surgery at the LGI was harming outcomes because of a reluctance to refer some patients to the Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle.
The Freeman Hospital’s unit would be spared if the original NHS re-organisation plan continues.
The LGI strongly refuted ‘any suggestion that we would act improperly either by restricting referrals or by failing to carry out surgery where either of these actions was the right thing to do’.
Tonight Sharon Cheng, from Save Our Surgery – the group which is co-ordinating the fight to keep children’s heart surgery in Leeds – said: ‘We’re mystified. We don’t know of anything that could justify this step.’
The decision to sacrifice the unit in Leeds was taken last July by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) when it selected seven specialist centres for the future delivery of paediatric cardiac surgery in England.
The controversial decision, if it stands, means the closure of the unit at the LGI as well as Glenfield Hospital in Leicester and London’s Royal Brompton.
Yesterday, Mrs Justice Nicola Davies allowed a challenge against the Leeds unit closure and declared the decision-making process “legally flawed”. She said there had been “a fundamental unfairness” in the consultation process.
NHS England said the suspension was for checks to be made to ensure the unit is operating safely.
Sir Bruce Keogh, the medical director of NHS England, said: ‘The trust has taken a highly responsible precautionary step.
‘Some questions have been raised by the trust’s own mortality data and by other information.
‘It is important to understand that while this information raises questions, it does not give us answers.
‘But it is absolutely right not to take any risks while these matters are being looked into.
‘The priority must be the safety of children. I hope that Leeds will shortly be in a position to restart children’s heart surgery secure in the knowledge that everything is okay.’
We must stop Britain turning into a land without memory
It may enrage some historians, but Education Secretary Michael Gove is right that children should learn things by heart
Four centuries ago, John Donne wrote a poem called “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”. Because of the call of pleasure or business, the author is riding to the west, away from Jesus, who will rise (there is a pun on “sun” and “son”) in the east. He knows he should not be doing this, but he is “almost glad” to be facing the wrong way because the day of Christ’s suffering is something he cannot bear to see.
Donne is conscious that Jesus sees him, though, from the Cross. He asks Jesus to punish him for turning his back on him, and so improve him that he may become the image of Christ, fit to look upon: “Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace, / That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.”
In honour of this poem, which I have always admired, I decided to mark its 400 years by riding westward on Good Friday yesterday. It was penitentially cold, and my horse, probably not out of piety, was anxious to turn back and gallop east, in the direction of his stable. I had to struggle to keep him going forward.
I reflected, on our anniversary journey, of how our civilisation has changed since Donne rode and wrote. On almost any measure – of health, literacy, longevity, civil peace, parliamentary democracy, science, transport, the emancipation of women, prosperity, dentistry – things have got better. Only someone who knows very little about life in 1613 could say that he would rather have been alive then than now. I felt pleased that I would soon be back home in my warm house with all mod cons.
But there is a couplet in the poem which made me pause. Speaking of the narrative of the Passion, Donne says: “Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye, / They are present yet unto my memory.” He was writing in a culture when certain things of overwhelming importance were present in the memory of virtually every human being. We do not live in such a culture, and it shows.
Partly, of course, it is a matter of technology. Bertie Wooster had to ask Jeeves for information and the 99.999 per cent of people who lacked a valet for the purpose had to burnish their own memory. Now we can almost all Google. This is the mental equivalent of the microwave, and very useful it is.
I notice, however, that the decline of memory also has an ideological component. If you look at the extraordinary rows that have broken out about Michael Gove’s revised National Curriculum for history, you will see what I mean.
What Mr Gove is proposing is a return to narrative. He wants children to know the history of this country in the right order, from the Stone Age to now. On this basis, they should also build knowledge of European history and world history. He is suspicious of the emphasis in the current history curriculum on learning “skills” (such as the evaluation of different sources) if these skills are divorced from the framework of chronology and wider acquaintance with history. He notices the stupefying boredom, complication and bad exams which this emphasis has produced. He thinks it is better to know the names and dates of our kings and queens than to be plunged into comparing the attitudes of different historians to an isolated historical problem.
All this is sensible, though no doubt parts of it are difficult to implement. Yet it has enraged some distinguished historians. They hate the idea that children might have to learn facts. They use the tired old references to Dickens’s flinty-faced hardware merchant Mr Gradgrind (“Facts alone are what is wanted in life”) that I have heard trotted out in every argument about education for 30 or 40 years. They protest at “rote learning”. They regard the notion that things need to be remembered as offensive.
They also hate the suggestion that some things are more worth learning than others. Richard Evans is the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Inexplicably, given his views, he was offered a knighthood by this Government and, equally inexplicably, given his views, he accepted it. He has berated his fellow professor, Simon Schama, who has helped Mr Gove, for speaking warmly of “a sense of shared memory”. This is insulting, he thinks, to British people of different racial origins. It would be better to teach our Afro-Caribbean citizens the history of Benin and Oyo, for example.
Sir Richard suspects that we are threatened with “celebratory history”. He cannot bear to think that pupils might be taught that good old British Wellington won the battle of Waterloo: the true victors were Blucher and his Germans. Professor David Cannadine, another prominent historian, thinks that Mr Gove’s ideas are “blinkered” because they centre on the history of Britain. He mocks the idea that children aged five or six could “debate and discuss the concept of nation”.
Professional historians are right to be chary of history as propaganda or as good, but untrue stories (for example, there is no evidence that Alfred burnt the cakes). But it is surely a fundamentally wrong attitude to education which says that children should not learn some things indelibly. It is essential that, from very early on, some things become literally unforgettable. Children’s elders need to work out what those things are, and then make sure that they learn them, whether or not, at the time of learning, they fully understand.
This, after all, is how language itself works. A child starts to wield a word before he or she quite knows what it means. He imitates, at first; but from imitation, comprehension gradually flows. He hears a rhyme, and he likes its noise and enjoys repeating it, often before grasping fully what it is about. He hears a story, or a prayer, and bits of it stir him. The more of it he remembers, the more it will gradually mean to him.
It is also natural for knowledge to emanate outwards. One learns things first from one’s family, then from one’s teachers, then from the wider society and media. By analogy, this is the only sensible way to learn history. You will naturally want to learn first about the country in which you live. Contrary to Professor Cannadine, the concept of nation has a meaning for the very young, as anyone who travels abroad with small children will attest. Your own country is the most accessible model for understanding all countries, just as mastery of your own language helps you master other ones. It is a matter of working with the materials to hand.
If all this is denied, what happens is that the well-educated become very privileged and everyone else is cut off. The Evanses and Cannadines and other priests of knowledge can move freely in the world they have created for themselves, but the millions who have never really learnt anything important are held down in ignorance.
It is an extraordinary feature of the great religions that they are the only known structures of ideas and stories which deal with this problem. The teachings and life of Jesus were once known to all Europeans, and resonated just as much (possibly more) with the poor as with the mighty. John Donne knew that the memory on which he relied was one shared by all classes. Today, bogus egalitarianism has killed memory among uneducated people, and therefore increased social division. Experts attack “rote learning”, but I prefer the phrase “learning by heart”. Head and heart together is what we need, but our culture has separated them.
British Warmist organization a flop at weather forecasts
Some basic philosophy of science: If your theory is wrong, you won’t get the results you predict
Those of us caught in downpours in our shorts or left peeling soggy sausages off the barbecue could probably have told them all along.
The Met Office finally admitted yesterday that the forecasts it gave of ‘dry’ weather last year were ‘not helpful’.
But the organisation’s chief scientist still insisted two-thirds of its long-term forecasts are ‘very helpful’ – without specifying quite what that means for the other third.
In its official guidance to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Met Office said that last April was likely to be ‘drier than usual’.
Instead, of course, it turned into a washout that spilled over into the rest of 2012 – which became the wettest year since records began.
So while the long-term forecast suggested a national drought that was going to get worse, tens of thousands actually found themselves facing widespread flooding. The embarrassing admission came to light thanks to a Freedom of Information request.
An internal document revealed that forecasters had said at the end of March that they expected ‘drier than average conditions for April to June, with April driest’.
But in a report sent later to Defra’s chief scientist, the Met Office admitted: ‘Given that April was the wettest since detailed records began in 1910, and the April May June quarter was also the wettest, this advice was not helpful.’
The Met Office has been so embarrassed by its errors in the past that it stopped issuing long-term forecasts to the public.
Instead, it continues to give ‘probability’ guidance for coming months to Government departments such as Defra which need to plan.
But last year, it seems, its forecast did nothing to help anyone.
Yesterday, Met Office chief scientist Julia Slingo insisted that in almost two-thirds of cases their long term ‘probabilistic’ predictions were ‘very helpful’.
She said of last year’s forecast: ‘In March we were facing really very serious pressures on water resources – a major drought that had been going on for a couple of years. I thought I was right to emphasise the risk of dry conditions continuing as a precautionary principle.’
Still, Professor Sligo was not deterred from making a few predictions for those shivering their way through the Easter weekend.
She suggested better weather would arrive – but not until May. She said: ‘We certainly see the cold weather continuing at least for the next few days, and potentially into the middle of April. Our monthly forecast looking at April slightly favours cold conditions continuing.
‘Beyond that, I think, into the summer, it’s much more difficult to predict. I think we’re expecting a return to normal conditions into May and then June.’
In the short-term, forecasters say most parts of the country can expect dry and bright spells until Tuesday, although temperatures will remain very low.
The £9million bonus bonanza dished out to British green energy bureaucrats
Bureaucrats in charge of the Government’s controversial green policies have benefited from a multi-million-pound bonus bonanza since the last election.
The total amount of performance-related handouts given to civil servants at the Department for Energy and Climate Change has almost tripled since Labour’s final year in office to £9million.
One official received a bonus of £12,000, while others received payments of more than £7,000, to reward them for their work promoting renewable power such as wind farms.
Last night MPs lambasted the department for handing out so much at a time when consumers’ energy bills were going up as a result of the very green policies they are working on.
Last year, the DECC admitted that its green policies – which will fund a new generation of wind farms and nuclear reactors – will add an average of £95 to gas and electricity bills.
A separate parliamentary question has revealed more questionable expenditure at DECC, where more than £7.6million has been paid out over the last two years in pay-offs for staff who have left the department. It means 141 people leaving have pocketed an average of £54,595 each.
And earlier this month, the Daily Mail revealed that the department has gone on a recruitment spree since the last election, with staff numbers soaring by more than a quarter since May 2010.
Now, thanks to a series of parliamentary questions by the Tory MP Priti Patel, it has emerged that the department – headed by Lib Dem Ed Davey – has also been spending millions on bonuses.
In 2011/12, the latest year for which figures are available, some £9,072,483 was spent on bonuses and other payments on top of salary.
This is a 156 per cent rise on the £3,538,274 total in 2009/10, Labour’s last full year in office. The figures show that 1,062 staff received bonuses and other payments. The 20 top payments included one payout of £12,000, five of £10,000, and 14 payouts of £7,500.
To make things worse, the independent Committee on Climate Change, which advises the Government on energy policy has had its own bonus spree, with taxpayer-funded bonuses increasing by 43 per cent over the past four years. The highest was £15,000.
Miss Patel said: ‘Families will be shocked to see their taxes being used to fund a dangerously expensive and excessive bonus and entitlement culture among bureaucrats who are already handsomely paid.
‘Not only are officials at DECC detached from reality as they plan to destroy our landscape with wind turbines and drive up energy costs with their green energy fantasies, they also have no concept of the need to make savings in Whitehall.’
A spokesman for DECC said the extra payments included, as well as bonuses, overtime and other superannuation costs.
She said: ‘We are working very hard to ensure energy bills are as affordable as possible. ‘The Department focuses bonuses on its best performers. We believe performance awards help drive high performance towards achieving important policy objectives.’
MPs want immigrant ban to save British jobs
Britain should be able to block immigration from other EU countries during the current period of high unemployment, according to a group of influential MPs.
In an article for The Telegraph, the joint chairmen of the cross party group on balanced migration, Frank Field, a former Labour minister, and Nicholas Soames, a former Conservative minister, say that David Cameron must do more to tackle “the elephant in the room” by restricting European immigration.
The MPs, two of the most influential politicians in the immigration debate, suggest that draconian action should now be considered “during periods of high unemployment” — such as now — to protect low-skilled British workers struggling to compete with foreigners for jobs.
One in five young British workers is currently unemployed, with about one million people aged 18 to 24 out of work.
The MPs say that Britain is still facing an influx of people at an “unsustainable level” despite Coalition action to reduce immigration.
They add that the expected wave of immigration from Bulgaria and Romania — which could lead to 50,000 people a year moving to this country from next year — means that the need to tackle the issue “could not be more stark.”
The proposals of the cross party group on balanced migration are regularly adopted by the Government. The group has praised government action to tackle immigration from Asia, Africa and elsewhere, but believes that the focus must now be on Europe.
“[An] area that needs to be considered is whether EU members should have powers, during periods of high unemployment, to restrict the free movement of labour, at present guaranteed in EU law,” the MPs say.
They add: “We will seek to support the tightening of immigration policies in the year ahead, not least to ensure that the public can have confidence in our immigration system.”
Several European countries have recently imposed some limited immigration controls on EU nationals — controls that are legally permitted by the EU in “exceptional circumstances”. In 2011, Spain won the right to reimpose immigration controls on Romanian migrant workers as unemployment soared in the country.
Last year, in an interview with this newspaper, Theresa May said that the Government was drawing up contingency plans to stem immigration if the economic collapse of a major EU country resulted in an exodus of citizens.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister made a speech on immigration that set out plans to reinforce rules restricting access to benefits, the NHS and social housing for European immigrants.
However, Mr Cameron disappointed many by ruling out more far-reaching restrictions, and the measures were criticised for having an apparently small potential impact.
Mr Field and Mr Soames say that the speech sent an important message that should now be built upon.
“Although Mr Cameron was criticised on the basis that very few migrants would be affected by his new proposals, this misses the point,” the MPs write. “His purpose, instead, was to ensure that future migrants (including EU nationals) are deterred from coming here to seek benefits and services. “His proposals on changing the entitlement rules for benefits, social housing and the NHS are a welcome first step. It is right in principle that access to services should be granted on the basis of contribution, and indeed the cross party group has been active in raising these three issues for some time, most recently calling for an entitlement card to access NHS services to replace the current system whereby anyone can access the NHS after being here for 24 hours.”
In today’s article, Mr Field and Mr Soames also confront suggestions that any further crackdown on immigration would undermine economic growth.
They write: “We yield to no one in our desire to ensure that immigration control does not impede the economic recovery on which so much else depends. We have been forthright in our view that businesses must be able to bring in the talent it needs, and are campaigning to make the process simpler and swifter.”
European immigration currently accounts for about a third of net migration — which is currently running at about 160,000 people a year.
Why I love Easter more than Christmas… and it’s got NOTHING to do with bunnies and chocolate eggs
Quentin Letts reports on a British Easter below. An account of my limited observance of the occasion under a blue Australian sky can be found here. — JR
Good Friday is the most contradictory of national holidays. It is quite unlike Christmas. Far preferable, I reckon.
The banking system comes to a halt — and not just in Cyprus. Offices have closed until Tuesday.
Tradesmen kick on to double-time tariffs. Public transport switches to ‘weekend timetables’ (often a euphemism for simply giving up the ghost, to use an expression from the Bible’s account of Good Friday).
There is enough of a close-down to make the Easter weekend feel distinctive. At the same time, supermarkets will be open from dawn to midnight, their aisles crammed with beady-eyed shoppers.
Have we bought the Easter eggs? Have we got mint sauce for Sunday’s lamb? We forgot the daffodils for Granny! Instant U-turn and back to the shops we go.
There is a full list of sporting fixtures. Hotels are in high season. Garden centres and DIY stores brace themselves for a rush. Easter is not just the start of the Church year — it is also the beginning of the season for green fingers and bruised thumbs. With all that DIY going on, hospital casualty departments will be busy.
All this occurs on the most mysterious, mournful day in the Church calendar. What a satisfying paradox this Easter weekend is.
It starts with a day whose very name can perplex. ‘Good Friday’ marks Jesus’s crucifixion. Why should a day marking a painful death be ‘good’?
The origins of the name are uncertain. It may be a corruption of ‘God Friday’ or it may be that it was called good because the Crucifixion led to the Resurrection. The Germans call today ‘Karfreitag’ — the Friday of Suffering. Perhaps that is an example of Teutonic pessimism.
Good Friday has its rituals. These nowadays include queuing for a parking space at shopping centres such as Gateshead’s MetroCentre and Dartford’s Bluewater. But there are other, more elevated traditions, and without them Easter would lose something.
From Canterbury to Jerusalem, millions will fast while others will eat only fish. In Ross on Wye’s marketplace yesterday, I bought some fine-looking coley. It was only 8am but the fishmonger was doing brisk business.
Good Friday laments will be intoned across the Christian world. Empty coffins will be borne through city streets, flowers hurled at them by wailing believers. Easter may be a ‘festival’, but it is preceded by this most grief-stricken of days.
In England, altars are stripped, vicars wear black and candles are removed. Yet if you enter a church on Sunday it will be a riot of flowers — Hereford cathedral, for instance, becomes filled by the intoxicating scent of lilies. It may set off Mrs Letts’s hay fever, but this contrast, the sudden switch from winter to spring, darkness to hope, is integral to the Easter idea.
Before we can crack open those chocolate bunnies and Easter cakes — are you a simnel fanatic or a fruit and almond fan? — we have to earn it. Some churches hold long religious services called ‘The Three Hour Agony’.
The agony is officially that of Jesus on the Cross, yet as a boy in Gloucestershire I would contemplate an agony of boredom as the marathon of sermons ensued.
One Good Friday in the 1980s, I found myself in Santiago de Compostela, a historic pilgrim town in north-west Spain. The streets were packed by crowds gawping at men who processed through the narrow streets in white robes and hats that made them look like the Ku Klux Klan. They beat the cobbles with staves. Easter has this almost exotic mixture of gloom followed by frenzied exultation.
In other countries, believers whip themselves, don chains, even nail themselves to crosses. The bemused onlooker may ask: you call this a holiday? Well, yes. The apparent oddness is what makes it so special. Otherwise it would just be another bank holiday.
Last weekend, I added my honking tenor to a makeshift church choir. We met for the first time at 2pm on the Saturday and were given scores for The Crucifixon by the Victorian composer John Stainer.
There were about 30 of us, volunteer singers of varying standard. The idea was that we would rehearse for three hours, break for tea, then give our sole performance of the oratorio — to an audience of, as it happened, ten people. A cold church, wobbly harmonies, a tiny throng of onlookers: it no doubt sounds like Vicar Of Dibley stuff, about as spiritually uplifting as the telephone directory. Not so.
The rehearsals may have been painful but when it came to the actual performance, I found myself extraordinarily moved. It was not just Stainer’s tunes, stirring though they be. Nor was it the comradeship of choral singing that got me.
As the story of Holy Week unfolded, I found that Easter means more to me with every passing year. In that draughty church, I realised that I now prefer Easter to Christmas.
This is not to attack Yuletide which, only three months ago, we were celebrating with bells, holly, mince pies and the Christmas edition of Radio Times. I am as much of a sucker for that as most people.
Christmas has been mottled by commercialism, I suppose, but it remains a lovely family time. I well up like a leaky faucet when our ten-year-old comes clattering down to our bedroom on Christmas morning, hoping to find her stocking. I even, at weak moments, fall for Charles Dickens’s crippled Tiny Tim piping goodwill to one and all. Christmas offers a manipulative sugar rush of emotion.
Easter’s story is more layered than the happy little saga of the manger at Bethlehem. This is a story more epic, more intellectually satisfying — more showbizzy!
Medieval impresarios understood this. They staged mystery plays which covered Old Testament ground (The Garden of Eden — phwoarr, check out Eve and her skimpy outfit — and a bickering Mr and Mrs Noah) and some of Jesus’s miracles (the raising of Lazarus and the turning of water into wine always went down well).
The climax of these entertainments was Holy Week: the drama of Christ entering Jerusalem, being tried and crucified, then rising from the dead.
Christmas nativities end with the three wise men trotting off on camels and Joseph and Mary gawping at their presents. Touching? Yes, even if, as happened to us, your daughter is playing Mary and drops the baby — it was only a doll, thank goodness.
But compare that to the dazzling events of Easter and there is only one winner.
Easter has everything a West End producer could demand: a dusty Jesus riding into the city on an appropriated colt; the last supper; betrayal by Judas and arrest by soldiers from an occupying force.
There is a crowd scene when Pilate allows the mob to grant clemency to crook Barabbas; there is the bloodshed on the cross (some gore always goes down well with an audience); Jesus’s generosity to the thieves being executed alongside him; and then the dawn scene outside the sepulchre.
Imagine the first stirrings of birdsong and the ethereal light. Mary Magdalene arrives and finds the tomb empty. A second later: there is Jesus before her, alive. Showstopper.
Why does this mean more to me now than it did a few years ago? As we age, we lose loved ones. We accrue sorrows just as trees grow rings.
Perhaps this is why Easter is so powerful, so much more affecting than Christmas. Easter is a festival to sadness as much as to joy.
My late father, at the church service before Easter, always read that passage from chapter 20 of St John’s Gospel which describes Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the resurrected Christ. I only have to read the words — ‘woman, why weepest thou?’ — to hear his dry, very English voice speaking the words.
It is as though he is there beside me, just as Jesus was next to Mary. I may not be able to touch my dead father’s body, but it is nearly as good and it provokes feelings in me stronger than the easier, safer story of Christmas. So I hope that, as well as a happy Easter, you have a thoughtful Easter, even an Easter brushed by sadness. For that is how it should be.
The painful price we pay for love and the REAL meaning of Easter
By Bel Mooney
A few weeks ago, on one of the very few tall walls in our old farmhouse, we put up a dramatic, nearly life-size woodcut — actually five separate blocks — of Jesus Christ on the cross.
I’ve had it in store for ten years, with no suitable space, but at last we’ve been able to hang the work of art.
I do realise that a massive crucifixion wouldn’t be everybody’s idea of interior design. It’s more demanding and far less fashionable than the gentle head of Buddha, which crops up everywhere, from budget home stores to garden centres.
But I love this work for multi-layered reasons — and not just because the artist, Paul Riley, is an old friend.
It’s a big statement, and one which teaches me as much as it taught people in centuries past.
Why on earth would a gentle soul like me choose to live with an image of extreme suffering, torture and death? Because it is a help.
Because Easter is the most important chapter in the Christian story, and because the iconic image has important truths to tell us all — believer and non-believer alike — about the human condition.
The image of the cross towers over Western civilisation. With the joyful Nativity (complete with riotous angels in the sky) and the sombre sweetness of the Madonna and Child, it is an essential part of our consciousness.
Even a questioning intellectual like the great writer Rebecca West understood this. She wrote: ‘Jesus of Nazareth sits in a chamber in every man’s brain, immovable, immutable, however credited or discredited.’
To be honest, a part of my determination to display this great crucifixion was sheer, bolshie rebelliousness. Suddenly it seemed as if Christianity was on the run. When someone is forbidden to wear a cross around her neck in the workplace, a call to protest sounds in my ears like a trumpet.
Fascinated by other religions since my schooldays, I’ve read widely in the sacred texts of the world and made radio programmes discussing a variety of beliefs.
Why on earth would a gentle soul like me choose to live with an image of extreme suffering, torture and death? Because it is a help
Why on earth would a gentle soul like me choose to live with an image of extreme suffering, torture and death? Because it is a help. (Above, Jim Caviezel portrays Jesus in the film The Passion Of The Christ)
But the fact that Britain has always been part of the Western Christian culture matters more than I can say. Our national flag is a pattern of crosses for good reason, and so let it remain.
Notice that word ‘culture’. You can be an agnostic (as I am), yet revere the centuries of tradition which once influenced every man, woman and child who learned the stories of the Bible with their first words; knowing that ‘the greatest story ever told’ has inspired some of the greatest art — painting, sculpture, music, architecture and literature — in the world.
I feel that if the day comes when the young are no longer taught any of those references (let alone the faith itself), I shall be ready to meet my maker, because everything I value will have gone. That time seems to be on the way.
As we hung the masterly woodcut, I thought (with grim merriment) that if an unholy alliance of Secularism and Sharia ever holds sway in this land, and Christian images are actively discouraged if not forbidden, then this mutinous old lady will put up barricades and retreat to her sanctuary.
I’ll be a rebel, reading real books (including works on atheism!) and listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion as I contemplate the cross, in the knowledge that once again it has become subversive, even an emblem of revolution.
Convinced Dawkinsites can jeer, but who cares? And keep your lectures on all the wrongs committed in the name of Christianity. I know all that stuff.
But my imagination is shaped by the pictures in the little Bible my father bought me in 1953: gentle Jesus meek and mild curing the sick, listening to the children, standing up for sinners, driving the greedy men out of the temple, riding on a humble donkey. How I liked him.
So I am content to embrace teachings like ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ as my bedrock, for how can we live unless by seeking better lives?
When my instinctive humanism quails before human wickedness, I still find meaning, consolation and emotional sense in Christianity. And when I myself wish I could write to an advice columnist, this helps keep me sane. Contemplating the Crucifixion, I see beyond the unspeakably cruel punishment.
Central to Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ accepted his terrible death for the sake of flawed humanity.
He was the Lamb of God who sacrificed himself to take away the sins of the world. So the wider significance of the Easter story is that love and suffering are indivisible.
The history of a familiar word can lead you to a deeper meaning. We’ve high-jacked ‘passion’ to mean strong, enthusiastic feeling (passion for sport) or rage (in a real passion) or, most commonly, tumultuous sexual desire.
Pictured, the Wintershall Players perform the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square yesterday
The traditional Passion play was about the Easter story, with its root in the Latin word for to suffer, to endure. This connects to the word ‘patience’. And patient is what you must be when you shoulder the commitments of real love. Pictured, the Wintershall Players perform the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square yesterday
But the traditional Passion play was about the Easter story, with its root in the Latin word for to suffer, to endure. In turn, this connects to the word ‘patience.’ And patient is what you must be when you shoulder the commitments of real love.
When you love another human being, you begin to make sacrifices on many levels. Perhaps above all, you sacrifice freedom.
But to take the frightening step from ‘me-first’ to ‘you-first’ isn’t easy — which is why some people never do it. They won’t take the risk, but find a reason to step back from the brink and retreat into the safety of the self.
The terror of commitment which seems to afflict so many young people is rooted in selfishness. The idea of giving so much that you actually value the happiness of somebody else more than your own doesn’t fit with the requirements of those who’ve never been refused anything, and regard the freedom to have endless multiple choices as a right.
Scratch the surface of so many problem page letters I receive and you realise that for many people the issue is not loving, but how to be loved. ‘Why can’t I find love?’ they ask. Of course I am sympathetic, but feel more uplifted by those letters which express the problem as, ‘I have so much love to give’.
Let me be clear: by invoking human love I’m not referring to the serial sexual antics of much-married stars which get splashed over Hello! magazine, but something far more mature.
The pain rooted in real love is of a very different order to the romantic agony felt when sexual desire goes wrong. It may make you stand by the sinner in spite of your better judgment, or strengthen you in an endless vigil at the bedside of your loved one. ‘I can’t bear the thought of you dying,’ whispers the young wife to her husband, knowing he feels the same.
You don’t want pain? Then you cannot allow yourself to love.
Then what of children? When you have a baby, the love you feel is so different from the old affection for parents, or adoration of a beloved partner. This protective devotion would confront a horde of wolves threatening your child.
You yearn to protect it from all the danger and grief of the world. This love makes you accept financial burdens, and tells you that from the first sight of the tiny squirming creature in a nappy, your own desires MUST take second place to the needs of this child.
So you shrink from responsibility and sacrifice? Then don’t have a child. Love the child and you are immediately nailed to your own small cross.
In one beautiful medieval poem, Mary, the mother of Jesus, begs: ‘Take down from the tree my dear, worthy son / Or stick me on the cross with my darling.’ All over the world, devoted parents identify with that cry in their very souls.
At the stroke of a painterly brush, we move from mother and child, to adult child and mother; from the Nativity to the Pieta — the child Jesus as a man, taken down from the cross to lie in his mother’s arms. So the premonition of pain in the Madonna’s eyes was correct.
How I understand that image. Since family love in all its complexity shaped the adult that I am, the passion (yes, that word) I feel for my family puts me on the rack every day of my life.
Parents are forever tortured by the jabbing spears of their own imaginings. What’s more, your own life seems more precious than ever — not because of its selfish pleasures (fun though they are), but because you want to stay alive for the sake of the people you love.
For me, the arrival of two grandchildren has intensified this feeling. Believe me, it’s no tight-lipped sense of martyrdom, just a merry shouldering of the weight of love, just as Jesus willingly bore his cross along the alleyways of Jerusalem.
The phrase ‘a cross I have to bear,’ comes easily to the lips, even if the speaker isn’t thinking about the emblem of Christianity. It might refer to a difficult boss, thinning hair, an inherited blemish, even a disability. It says there are some things you just have to put up with.
But endurance is hard to accept. Used to choice in all things, people stamp their feet like spoilt children when the hand of Fate wags a finger and says ‘This is how it’s going to be’.
Since family love in all its complexity shaped the adult that I am, the passion (yes, that word) I feel for my family puts me on the rack every day of my life
That’s why Pastor Niebuhr’s famous Prayer is so wise: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’
Naturally, we should all work to right wrongs (the disgraceful state of a local hospital for example); yet you can wear yourself out railing against destiny and death.
The suggestion that we must endure — accepting hardship as the pathway to peace — may seem tough. Yet learning how to deal with not being happy is the most important first aid for the soul.
On the Cross, Jesus cried out for help but it didn’t come. It couldn’t come. I’m afraid that truth sometimes has to be borne.
But that is not the end. It doesn’t stop at the Cross. There is the light at the end of the tunnel, the ultimate pipe dream, hope against hope.
Please don’t ask if I believe in the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. ‘No’ is the only sensible answer.
But on the other hand, I’ve always wanted to have faith in the possibility of miracles. Jesus died on the cross and on the third day he rose again? My reason rejects it, at the same time as my heart whispers, ‘What do I know?’
What I have no doubt of is this. The message of endurance, of self-sacrificial love and of forgiveness expressed by the great Crucifixion is entirely glorious.
Whatever your beliefs (or lack of them), it can give you strength to bear all problems, no matter what you believe.
Because all of us need to hope that the metaphorical stone will be rolled away — and that we will each be allowed to walk out of our private darkness into a garden of spring flowers.
This is redemption: the possibility of a changed life.
Christians are the butt of bad jokes in Britain
Gentle mockery or sharp satire aimed at Christians and their leaders has been replaced by abuse of Christianity itself
By Ann Widdecombe
Our Man at St Marks, All Gas and Gaiters, The Vicar of Dibley, Father Ted, Rev. Some of the finest comedies have chosen the Church as its subject and would indeed make most Christians laugh, give or take the occasional wince as a barb goes home. I have very fond memories of Our Man at St Marks and long for the day when it is released on DVD but I won’t hold my breath.
For although Christianity and comedy have long been natural bedfellows, something has changed in recent years. Gentle mockery or sharp satire aimed at Christians and their leaders have been replaced by abuse of Christianity itself.
The BBC asked me to look at why this might be and to try to explain, to a secular world, why it matters so much to Christians. After all, comedy producers respect Islam sufficiently to avoid laughing at the Prophet so why are even the most sacred aspects of this country’s major faith seemingly the stuff of so much comedy? Is it because the Church here is seen as part of the Establishment? Or is it due to the rise of militant atheism? Or is it simply that comics would be afraid to do to Islam that which they regularly do in their routines to Christianity?
We began making the film with one obvious drawback: it had not been a priority throughout my life to watch mockery of the Church. I had not, for example, seen Life of Brian. It was widely banned at the time of its release and I have never since felt that I was missing anything. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, assured me that it was “very funny”, so I watched excerpts chosen for me by the producer.
Most of it, being slapstick and Pythonesque, made me yawn. A man claims he can suddenly see and promptly falls down a hole. I got over laughing at that sort of predictable Carry–On stuff about 50 years ago. Then, however, came the crucifixion scene and my soul revolted. How could anybody not find that offensive, Christian or not?
Next I was shown a scene from Goodness, Gracious Me in which the body and blood of Christ were mocked with two recipients putting chutney on the bread and ordering a couple of bottles of wine. It was justly banned by the BBC and has been forbidden to be aired again. We had to get special permission to view it but those who made it were unrepentant, apparently oblivious to the enormity of the offence caused. Anil Gupta, one of the creators of the series, still felt aggrieved at the ban.
Yet this repellent scene was to provide one of the programme’s most riveting moments for me, when I was interviewing comedian Marcus Brigstocke, whose initial reaction was to defend the scene. I tried to explain to him why I found it so upsetting and then asked him if he would draw the line at anything, fully expecting him to say no, that comedy should know no bounds, but instead he bravely responded that my explanation had given him pause for thought.
Stand-up comics tend to make two assumptions: that Christians have no sense of humour and that all their audiences are unbelievers. The first is so ignorant as to need no answer but the second explains the current trend towards thinking that even the most sacrilegious mockery will be seen as fun. Such comics work on the principle that only stupid people believe in God and that their audiences are too intelligent to do so and will therefore share any joke directed at any aspect of religion.
There are increasing claims that Christians in this country are being persecuted: Christians are forbidden to wear a small cross in a workplace which includes colleagues wearing turbans or hijabs, which by any definition are vastly more visible. One has been demoted for posting a perfectly moderate expression of dissent over gay marriage on his private Facebook site. Others have been disciplined for saying “God Bless” or “I will pray for you”. Others still have found the police on their doorstep because someone has taken exception to their views and invoked either hatred or equality laws.
Perhaps then the modern trend towards ridiculing what is sacred to Christians in comedy – as opposed to ridiculing its priests or congregations – is a part of this persecution? Why otherwise single out only the one religion?
To that the comics answer that people can laugh only at what they know and understand: that the average Briton knows next to nothing of Islam and even less of other minority faiths. Indeed it seems unlikely that Life of Brian would have much resonance today. To laugh at the joke “blessed are the cheesemakers” you would have to know that Christ had said “blessed are the peacemakers” and standards of Biblical literacy now make that unlikely.
So the laughs today are sought not in subtlety but in coarseness, sneering at the creed having replaced satire aimed at the believers, and mockery of the person of Christ replacing mockery of His all too fallible followers.
It is a vital distinction.
We have no blasphemy laws these days but with that freedom comes the responsibility which should always attend the exercise of free speech: truth, courtesy and an awareness of impact. It is the last of these which is so neglected by so much modern comedy.
Heard the one about the vicar, the priest and the rabbi? Or the vicar who skived off church to play golf? Or how Noah’s ark was ruled unlawful by the EU? Everybody has a favourite Church joke but I made this programme in order to ask where the joke stops and how much further it might go. Sadly I think it might go a lot further before common decency prevails.
Cameron accused of betraying Christians: Astonishing Easter attack on the PM by former Archbishop of Canterbury
Many Christians doubt David Cameron’s sincerity in pledging to protect their freedoms, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says today.
In an article for the Daily Mail, Lord Carey squarely accuses ministers of ‘aiding and abetting’ discrimination against Christians.
He says he believes there is an ‘aggressive secularist and relativist approach’ behind the Government plans to legalise gay marriage and says the Prime Minister has ‘done more than any other recent political leader’ to ‘feed’ Christian anxieties.
As a dramatic new poll released on the eve of Easter Sunday revealed that more than two-thirds of Christians feel they are now part of a ‘persecuted minority’, Lord Carey insists the Government must do more to demonstrate its commitment to pledges to stand up for faith.
The survey suggests churchgoers increasingly feel religious freedoms are under assault from aggressive secularism.
Critics say court rulings against Christians who want to wear crosses at work, and legal action preventing prayers before council meetings, have helped make people feel marginalised.
In the article, Lord Carey expresses particular alarm about apparent Government support for a campaign by Labour MP Chris Bryant to turn the 700-year-old Parliamentary chapel of St Mary Undercroft into a multi-faith prayer room so that gay couples can get married there.
But he also turns his fire on the Prime Minister, saying: ‘It was a bit rich to hear that the Prime Minister has told religious leaders that they should “stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation” when it seems that his government is aiding and abetting this aggression every step of the way.
‘At his pre-Easter Downing Street reception for faith leaders, he said that he supported Christians’ right to practise their faith. Yet many Christians doubt his sincerity.’
The ComRes poll suggests there is continuing resentment over the Government’s decision to legalise same-sex unions, even though there is special protection for the Church of England in the law.
More than half (58 per cent) of Christians who backed the Conservatives in 2010 suggested they will ‘definitely not’ vote for the party in 2015.
The ComRes poll of 535 regular churchgoers, commissioned by the Coalition for Marriage (C4M), reveals that more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority’.
The march of secularism means that if trends continue, Britain will no longer be a Christian country by 2030 when the number of non-believers will have overtaken the number of Christians.
In the past six years the number of Muslims has surged by 37 per cent to 2.6million, Hindus by 43 per cent and Buddhists by a massive 74 per cent.
Numbers who choose to call themselves Christians fell by more than 4million in a decade after 2001, the 2011 census showed. Fewer than six out of ten – 59.3 per cent – described themselves as Christian.
A decade ago nearly three quarters, 72 per cent, did so. Some 33.2million people said they were Christian in 2011.
Downing Street strongly rejected Lord Carey’s attack. A spokesman said: ‘This government strongly backs faith and Christianity in particular, including backing the rights of people wanting to wear crosses at work and hold prayers at council meetings. Christianity plays a vital part in the Big Society.’