If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 25 April 2010


It would seem that the Foreign Office and the Catholic Church itself have both suffered a massive sense-of-humour failure.

The Government has apologised to the Pope over official documents that mocked his forthcoming visit to Britain by suggesting he should bless a gay marriage and even launch Papal-branded condoms.

There have been embarrassed retractions from Ministers, and a very serious denunciation of it by some bishop or other on the TV. David Miliband is said to be "appalled" and a spokesman calls the document "clearly foolish". They all seem to have no idea what has been going on. Look, people, the ideas were generated by a brainstorm [1] session, when a group of officials were tasked with thinking up some good ideas for a Papal visit. This is what happens in brainstorms. You state at the outset that no ideas are 'wrong', that nothing will be ridiculed, and the more outrageous the better. With a good group, you can generate some fantastic ideas. Most will be rubbish, but some will be excellent. And most of all, some of the most fantastical, which seem at first sight to be utterly irrelevant, can lead you to look at things in a new light and the synergy lets you come up with ideas which are fresh and creative. Businesses use them all the time, and they work.

The usual method would be to write them all up on a flipchart, have a good laugh at the most ridiculous, and then let the collective mind wander until some genuine gems come about. The group leader then ought to write up the results and chuck the flipcharts in the bin. The mistake the unnamed FO official made was to circulate the unedited version. Oops!

But really, is it all that serious? Some of them seem to be really good ideas. 'Benedict-brand' condoms could cause a revolution in the sexual health and birth rate of some of the developing nations. Spending the night in a council flat in Bradford would do more for the church's credibility as a champion of the poor and oppressed than any number of silk robes or expensive palaces. And setting up a helpline for abused children might seem to some people to be quite an appropriate response to some of the ghastly things we have been hearing about lately.

If the Church had taken this one on the chin, with a bit of humour ("We note the suggestions made by the Foreign Office, and His Holiness promises to consider them in due course"), it would have done more for their public perception than this:

The Rt Rev Malcolm McMahon, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham, was astonished and angered by the proposals. He said: “This is appalling. You don’t invite someone to your country and then disrespect them in this way. It’s outlandish and outrageous to assume that any of the ideas are in any way suitable for the Pope.”

I have no objection to the Church being so pompous about itself, but there's no rule that says the rest of us have to. Lighten up, fellas - these are only ideas we are talking about. Nothing to be afraid of. And I would have thought, to be frank, that the Church had far more to worry about these days than a couple of humorous proposals which didn't include the rape, molestation or beating of innocent children, for example.

[1] This is apparently now an unacceptable phrase, as it denigrates people with epilepsy. The recommended phrase is "thought shower". How feeble can you get?

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