It’s been a good week. Sunday saw me begin it by celebrating a very special Battle of Britain service at Sutton Bridge. The packed church emptied just before the ceremony began to watch the fly past of a Spitfire. It was a very moving and exciting moment as it approached: ‘It’s on its way’ said the old ex-serviceman at the side of me ‘you can tell the engines of a Spitfire any time’. I, of course, with my peacetime tuned ears, could hear nothing. Sure enough, a few seconds later the magnificent craft hove into sight, circled twice, and sped off, wagging its wings in farewell. I admit to a lump in my throat, as this was one of a very few surviving planes that actually flew in the battle of 1940.
Tuesday saw the beginning of the annual Bishops’ conference in Oxford. There is something about 150 or so prelates cloistered together for four days which is quite scary. After a while, the defences are down and a glass of wine or two in the bar puts everyone at ease. Perhaps the highlight of the occasion was the address by Baroness Warsi: a Muslim lady from Dewsbury or Pakistani parentage. She spoke movingly and convincingly of the present government’s desire to see faith communities become recognised for the invaluable contribution the make to the life of the nation, and to make faith respected again. As a person of faith herself, this was from the heart. She moved on to talk about the Big Society, once more movingly and, for some, convincingly, about how this idea was not a spun way to effect drastic government cuts by increasing local responsibility and local action. I didn’t believe a word if it! But I do subscribe to the idea of Big Society-didn’t the Church invent it many hundreds of years ago?
In a spare few hours of the conference, I snuck off to see the newly refurbished AshmoleanMuseum: £6.1 million has just been spent on giving this grand classical old lady a facelift and a super modern glass extension. The new building can hold perhaps double or treble the amount of exhibits than the old one, and now you ramble through a riot of pre-Raphaelite paintings, Egyptian mummies, ancient coins, rings and jewellery and , for me, the most engaging exhibit of all: the lamp that Guy Fawkes held on the fateful first November the fifth. If you can, do visit.
And now, the Pope is here. I remember John Paul ll visit in 1982, and how this breathless young Anglican priest from Salford bicycled to Heaton Park in Manchester for the mass. I had my profound disagreements with John Paul (not that it would bother him!), but one did sense that you were in the presence of real greatness: and so it proved, for after a few years he was the prime mover in bringing down the Berlin Wall and winding up the fascistic Soviet form of Communism. Sadly, I am not as moved by the present Pope and believe him to be badly flawed in so many ways, not least because he seems intent on reversing the genuine moves forward that Catholicism has made since Vatican ll.
Strangely, the thrill I felt on seeing that Spitfire was akin to the thrill of seeing John Paul. Maybe my experience of Benedict is closer to that I had in viewing the antiquities of the Ashmoleon.