Saturday, July 23, 2005


While the publication of the latest edition of children’s author J K Rowling’s acclaimed Harry Potter series has been the expected commercial and media sensation, rumours abound that Pope Benedict XVI is less than thrilled by the young wizard’s antics – even though he is massively outselling Dan Brown’s 'Da Vinci Code' story, a definite subject of Vatican ire.

Press reports are claiming that the Pope believes the Potter stories “deeply distort Christianity in the soul”. Other clerics, such as Anglican priest, the Rev Richard Billingshurst, who triggered the scrapping of a school event based on ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, also say the novels make fun of evil and are harmful.

For a number of years preachers in America’s Bible belt have been denouncing young Harry, but other Christians take a very different view. Back in 2002 the Mission Theology Advisory Group of the Church of England and the ecumenical Churches’ Commission on Mission produced some reflections on Christian engagement with contemporary culture which said that churches should read Harry Potter as a morality tale. [full story]

See also Harry Potter and the birth of crossover fiction by G. P. Taylor, in the Church of England Newspaper.

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Saturday, June 25, 2005


International evangelist Billy Graham, who is 86 years old and in increasingly poor health, has addressed 60,000 people at New York’s Flushing Meadow as part of what will almost certainly be his last preaching tour – though he reportedly has still to decide whether to accept one final invitation to Britain.

Graham’s message was simple and hopeful. Eschewing the public controversies that have plagued American Christianity in recent years, he called on people to put their faith in Jesus Christ and to practice a way of life based on love rather than hate. He also said that poverty was the biggest problem facing humankind.

Billy Graham, perhaps the best known popular preacher of the twentieth century, has mellowed considerably in tone and approach over the years. He has acted as pastor and counsellor to ten US presidents, and has toured some 185 countries to preach before an estimated 210 million people.

Compromised by his earlier dalliance with the disgraced Richard Nixon, Graham, who is seen as a key figure in the worldwide evangelical movement, has subsequently distanced himself from the religious right and hard-line fundamentalism in the United States. [More]

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Friday, June 24, 2005


The Group for Evangelization of Churches Together in England has a newly developed web area here. GFE member David Spriggs of Bible Society is also a long-term consultant to MTAG. GFE has recently appointed Church Army officer Jim Currin as its executive secretary. He begins on 1st September 2005. Among current Group projects is one on 'Evangelising contemporary spiritualities'.

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A reader of this weblog has written in to recommend a website exploring different ways in which faith and reason have been handled in relation to one another throughout Christian history, and not least in recent science and religion discussions. The source is the University of Tenessee at Martin, USA.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005


The Rt Rev Ken Good, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, has written to all parishes in his diocese urging Christians to 'get out more'.

Accompanied by a seven minute DVD which urges Christian presence at car boot sales, pub quizzes, and night clubs, his letter comes ahead of Church Army Sunday.

Church Army, the Anglican society of evangelists has made Get Out More the key theme for this year’s Church Army Sunday which will take place on 25th September.

A seven minute DVD has been produced to give churches an insight into how Church Army is reaching out with the gospel in relevant and effective ways, and special materials and fact sheets have been created on the Church Army website to help equip churches develop and effective Christian presence in a variety of situations.

"We all recognise the need for encouragement to be more outwardly focussed, and in this diocese we are well aware of how effective the Church Army is in helping our churches build valuable bridges into the community." [More here]

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Monday, June 20, 2005


The Mission Theology Advisory Group is working hard on a new website, to be launched in the autumn, which will translate much of the work on Sense Making Faith (and more) into a useable set of resources for church educators -- and for spiritual journeyers per se. The site will replace this weblog, which is more of a diarty-like collection point for issues of concern to MTAG members.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005


The Mission Theological Advisory Group is working on the publication of its latest resource, Sense Making Faith, and investigating a new project on reconciliation as a fruit of the Christian Gospel. More information will follow shortly.

In the meantime we have been using this weblog over the last couple of months to highlight Christian engegaments with, or concerns about, culture - and issue MTAG explored (in order to encourage a positive but not uncritical approach) in The Search for Faith and the Witness of the Church.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005


While the new ‘Big Brother’ fails to excite British TV audiences and viewers seek ever more ingenious ways of avoiding ‘Celebrity Love Island’, a religious lobby group is encouraging pre-emptive protests against one of a large summer crop of new US reality shows, ABC’s ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’.

James Dobson’s influential group Focus on the Family claims that the programme, which has not been aired yet, will portray Christians as “bigoted, self-righteous and judgmental.”

‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ brings prospective new families into a suburban cul-de-sac. The white families who already live there have their prejudices tested with potential neighbours who include gay, minority and heavily tattooed couples. The winning family gets to move in.

The ABC series is one of nineteen new-launch US television shows that claim to highlight aspects of ‘real life’ ranging from the mundane to the bizarre. Although ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ has no premiere date, Focus on the Family is giving out the contact details of ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne on the web so that people can pressurise her.

Meanwhile the president of the American Family Association wants supporters to target sponsors of the programme. "Find out who the advertisers are and contact [them]", he declares. But Mr Tim Wildmon nervously cautions correspondents to “be careful that in your calls to ABC and its sponsors you don't become the stereotype you're protesting.”

Focus on the Family leader James Dobson famously remarked a number of years ago that “[w]hat ... I have called a ‘civil war of values’ continues to rage.”

In Britain some cultural critics of the reality TV craze have tried more positive ways of highlighting its defects.The broadcaster and feminist academic Germaine Greer (who said of ‘Big Brother’, “it isn’t the end of civilization – it is civilization”) decided to go on the celebrity version of the series herself in 2004. But she later quit in disgust.

The international development agency Christian Aid – which works with 40 churches and 600 partners in 50 countries – has offered young people an alternative world view to ‘Big Brother’ through its Global Gang website.The release of the Citizen Ship game for 8-12 year olds was timed coincide with the new 'Big Brother' series that began last week. It is about cooperation and justice rather than competition and hedonism.

Two years ago Christian contestant Cameron Stout, a fish trader from the Orkneys, actually won the UK Channel 4 series. He charmed viewers but was denounced by one critic as ‘terminally boring’.

A 2003 poll revealed that more people in the UK knew the name of the winner of ‘Big Brother’ that year than recognised the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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Monday, May 23, 2005


Following the historic thirteenth Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME), convened by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Athens from 9-16 May, British and Irish participants are calling for “an ecumenical recovery of the central Christian vocation to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ”.

The request comes in a letter to the WCC’s mission commission, which has been meeting this week in the aftermath of a gathering that drew together participants from 300 churches, confessions and Christian bodies across 105 countries. It was the most widely representative conference of its kind, involving Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Evangelical and Pentecostal delegates from six continents.

The letter to the WCC was coordinated by the Churches’ Commission on Mission (CCOM) of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and has been signed so far by the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Rev Graham Cray, the General Secretary of the Church Mission Society, the Rev Canon Tim Dakin, Fr Philip Knights of the Catholic Agency to Support Evangelization in England and Wales, the Rev Dr Jim Campbell of the Irish Council of Churches, Dr Kirsteen Kim, lecturer in mission at the United College of the Ascension in Birmingham, and Simon Barrow, Secretary of CCOM – which links the work of the global mission departments and agencies of the churches in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Welcoming the attention of the WCC world mission conference to the work of the Holy Spirit and the vocation of the church as a healing and reconciling community, the letter says that the next step for the ecumenical movement is to learn how to “talk the walk” better. More.

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Monday, May 09, 2005


The media watchdog has cleared the BBC of flouting broadcasting guidelines by televising 'Jerry Springer: the Opera', which attracted a record 16,801 complaints.

Ofcom said an investigation by its content board - the highest level at which complaints are considered - had concluded the show was an "important work" and did not breach its codes.The broadcast was widely criticised by evangelical groups such as the Evangelical Alliance and Christian Voice, some of whom saw the show as "blasphemous" and offensive to Christians.Other religious groups such as the thinktank Ekklesia, however suggested that Christians were missing a vital opportunity to engage with important themes such as the problem of evil and ideas of redmemption.

In in TV and radio interviews, Ekklesia's director Jonathan Bartley also pointed out that the characters in the show were not supsed to be faithful or accurate representations of religious figures, but were characterisations of the show's participants.

The regulator said it had received and replied to 7,941 requests prior to the show's broadcast on January 8 on BBC2 and a further 8,860 following transmission, including 4,264 emails via the Premier Media Group which runs London's Premier Radio - a Christian radio station.The radio station issued a press release about the Opera entitled 'Ban This Sick Show' and gave out the details of the BBC's complaints department on air four times an hour, causing the BBC to complain in kind to Premier for causing their switchboards to jam.

But Ofcom said the BBC had given "clear pre-transmission warnings about the content of the programme", which in its view "did not gratuitously humiliate individuals or any groups... in particular the Christian community".

The regulator said the programme was "appropriately scheduled well after the watershed" and the strongest language relegated until after 10.30pm and directed at the character of Satan."

This was a programme that satirised modern day 'confessional shows' where such language is commonplace... the language was to be expected and could be understood in such context."

Ofcom said it had sought to achieve "the appropriate balance" between harm to religious beliefs and the need to safeguard "freedom of expression".

In clearing the BBC, the regulator said the scene involving Jesus in nappies was a "dream sequence" in which characters in the first act played out a "cartoon full of grotesque images" in the style of the Jerry Springer Show format."

In light of this, Ofcom did not believe the characters represented were, in the context of this piece, conveyed as faithful or accurate representations of religious figures, but were characterisations of the show's participants."

Christian groups said they were disappointed with the ruling. Peter Kerridge, chief executive of Premier Christian Radio, described the decision as a "slap in the face for traditional Christian faith and practice".

He added: "I am extremely disappointed by Ofcom's decision. Freedom of expression should never be sufficient reason to attack the values of any section of the community and this particular programme appeared to set out to do this to people of Christian faith."

The BBC welcomed the ruling, which came weeks after its governors also cleared the show."We are pleased at the finding that Jerry Springer: the Opera was not in breach of Ofcom's code," said a spokesman."We believe that Ofcom and the GPCC's [governors programme complaints committee] earlier adjudication recognise the importance of freedom of artistic expression."

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Monday, May 02, 2005


The UK’s fifth terrestrial TV channel, mocked for years as an archetype of ‘dumbing down’, is to run a major new series on big ideas that have changed the world – including Christianity, presented by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The retired Archbishop, who played a major role in the struggle to overthrow apartheid in South Africa, has been chosen to represent the global significance and reach of Christian faith. Tutu is a household name to millions, and he is popular with many people who are otherwise turned off by what is seen as an 'institutional religion'.

Christianity is often depicted as yesterday’s thing or as a victim of secularisation in the West. But it is still the world’s largest religion with 2.2 billions adherents, and in many parts of the globe it is growing fast.

The Archbishop will present the Gospel of Jesus as a message of radical change for people and for societies. He will emphasise justice, peace and forgiveness at its core. But he will not hide from Christianity's betrayals and problems.

The six 45-minute Channel Five programmes adopt an ‘essay’ format, and feature key public figures talking about major issues. In addition to Archbishop Tutu, these include former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who will explore the rise and fall of communism.

Other presenters include ex-Labour minister Tony Benn on democracy, academic and cultural commentator Germaine Greer on feminism, economist and critic of neo-liberalism Joseph Stiglitz on capitalism, and controversial scientist Bjorn Lomborg on environmentalism.

Channel 5, better known for programmes like ‘Celebrity Detox’ and ‘Cosmetic Surgery Live’, say that the ‘Big Ideas That Changed the World’ series offers a chance to hear people talk about important world views in a way not usually allowed by our sound-bite culture.

“Throughout the history of television there has been a noble tradition of authored documentaries, but this type of series seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years,” a Channel 5 spokesperson told the Observer newspaper at the weekend.

The programmes are a challenge to the BBC, which has been criticised for pushing many of its more thought-laden programmes off its terrestrial service. The series will start at 19:15 on 31 May 2005. [via Ekklesia]

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Thursday, April 07, 2005


A new poll has found that 30 percent of Americans believe Jews were responsible for the death of Christ - up from 25 percent in 2002.The survey is interpreted by some as offering more evidence that it has contributed to growing anti-semitism.

But the poll actually found that the percentage of Americans holding "unquestionably anti-Semitic" views declined from 17 percent in 2002 to 14 percent today. The "2005 Survey of American Attitudes Toward Jews in America" was released in Washington at the Anti-Defamation-League's annual convention.

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was last month cited by a report as the cause of an upsurge last year in Canadian anti-Semitic attacks, now running at a record pace.The League for Human Rights of B'nai Brith, releasing its 2004 audit of anti-Semitic attacks in Canada, said last year's media coverage of Gibson's film and its alleged depiction of Jews as the "Christ killer" led to an often violent spike in attacks against the Canadian Jewish community.

When the film was released it was labelled a setback to the achievements in Christian-Jewish relations over the past 40 years.. It was suggested that the film was based more on a novel from the visionary meditations of an early nineteenth-century nun than on the gospels. Religious and social activists called on Mel Gibson to donate the profits of the film to causes they suggested truly represented and symbolised Jesus Christ's life, principles, and teachings.

A 'Passion Fund' it was suggested would be an appropriate vehicle for healing because making money from the death of Jesus "is another kind of crucifixion that distorts the true meaning of Jesus' suffering and death." A poll released by the Pew Research Center in Washington almost exactly a year ago provided the first statistical suggestion that the film's box-office success might be associated with an increase in anti-Jewish feeling.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2005


A report commissioned by a group called the Ecumenical Research Committee (which carried out a church survey in 2003, but is not formally linked to any of Britain and Ireland's recognised ecumenical bodies), says that the decline in church attendance in these islands is linked to two major factors. One is the reduction in effective pastoral care being offered by clergy, in particular. The other is the decline in effective Christian apologetics - the attempt to explain the nature of Christian faith and its plausibility for people in a post-Christian culture.

The findings, reported in this week's Church of England Newspaper, are derived from a yearlong £20,000 survey which attracted 14,000 respondents to a tick-box survey. Some 73 per cent of respondents either explicitly or implicitly referred to a lack of explanation for belief as a reason for the decline in church numbers and interest in Christianity.

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Thursday, January 20, 2005


The massive protests against BBC2's decision to show Jerry Springer - The Opera on late night TV, especially from Christian groups, raises a mass of questions about faith and culture. The show, which is a stage production that transferred from the fringe to London's West End last year, portrays the sad world of the legendary chat show host's guests. The humour is in combining high art music with 'trailer trash' stories, humour and bad language.

At the end of the first half, Springer is shot by someone who is furious about the humiliation inflicted on one of his guests. In the second half, hallucinating on the brink of death, he imagines the "greatest ever Jerry Springer show" in hell, where biblical figures (including God, the devil, Jesus, mary and Adam and Eve) have a stand up row about whose fault it is that the world is in such a mess. Springer's conclusion is that "there's no right and wrong, everything is holy": a larger parody of his actually "be good to yourselves and each other" closing remarks.

Christian groups have said that the show is obscene and blasphemous, though many of the protests have come from people who have not seen it or refuse to watch it. Ironically, a number of Christians have been involved in the production, and they take a very different view.

A sympathetic review of the issues the show raises is contained in Simon Barrow's article, Jerry Springer - A Post-Christendom Opera? He points to the cultural gulf between many Christians and those who work in the media and entertainment business, the difficulties of handling religious offence, and the theological questions about what Christians are witnessing to in an age where dominant Christian assumptions no longer reign.

Ekklesia's Jonathan Bartley also says that Christians have missed the opportunity for a serious discussion about the meaning of the Gospel by getting hung up about bad language and portrayals of God and Jesus which dissent from cherished Christian understandings. We can't control what others say about us, he says. But we can make a positive contribution ourselves.

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Friday, December 24, 2004


See you in 2005...

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Thursday, November 11, 2004


A number of review comments from leading scientists about Alister McGrath's new critique of Richard Dawkins (see yesterday's post) have appeared at the Blackwell site. Several of them are also Christians. But Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Project is not. Google's cache on the book is here. Dawkins has yet to reply. It should be a lively debate, following on from the biologist's public encounters with Keith Ward, formerly Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, in the late '90s.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Bishop David Atkinson, the Anglican co-chair of MTAG (and a former scientist himself) recommends that we read the new book by Alister McGrath: Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (Blackwell, Oxford, 22 October 2004, £9.99).

The author writes about this project as follows:

'Is atheism losing its appeal? At first sight, this might seem an absurd question. After all, leading atheist Richard Dawkins recently topped Prospect magazine's poll of public intellectuals, while Jonathan Miller's heavily promoted BBC4 series A Brief History of Disbelief started its run last week, proclaiming that atheism is the wisdom of our age. Only fools and charlatans, it seems, would dare to disagree.

'We have heard all this before, of course. For more than a century, leading sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists have declared that their children - or surely their grandchildren - would live to see the dawn of a new era in which the illusions of religion would be outgrown. Yet there are ominous straws in the wind suggesting that now it is atheism that is in trouble.

'Atheism, once seen as Western culture's hot date with the future, is losing its appeal. Its confident predictions of the demise of religion seem hopelessly out of place.

'Celebrity preoccupation with the kabbalah or New Age beliefs is easily dismissed as superficial - yet it is a telling sign of our times. It reflects a deep-seated conviction that there is more to life than what we see around us.

'Surging interest in spirituality and growing impatience with the intellectual arrogance and intolerance of media atheists is leaving atheism stranded on a modernist sandbank.
Furthermore, its intellectual credentials are under fire. Dawkins, atheism's most articulate and influential proponent, argues that we will - or ought to - abandon religious ideas as children abandon their innocent and naive belief in Santa Claus.

'It is time for us to grow up, he tells us, "leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age".

'Yet Dawkins' arguments simply do not lead to that conclusion. Nor do they stand up to critical examination. Dawkins' rhetoric implies that the natural sciences constitute an intellectual superhighway to atheism; but his logic fails to deliver on this promise.

'He seems to have made the gradual transition from a scientific populariser to a dogmatic anti-religious propagandist more suited to the 19th than the 21st century.

'In part, my reason for writing Dawkins' God - the first book-length study of how he moves from his scientific presuppositions to atheist conclusions - was concern about the quality of his engagement with religious issues.

'For example, he ignores the awkward fact that the history and philosophy of science raise the most serious doubts about whether any worldview - atheist or religious - can be constructed on scientific grounds.

'Dawkins' approach simply airbrushes away problems, such as the philosophical difficulties raised by moving from observation to theory or deciding on the "best explanation" of what is observed.

'If the great debate about God is to be determined solely on scientific grounds, the outcome can only be agnosticism - a principled, scrupulous insistence that the evidence is insufficient to allow a safe verdict to be reached. Either a decision cannot be reached at all or it must be reached on other, non-scientific grounds.

'As the late Stephen Jay Gould, America's leading evolutionary biologist, insisted, the natural sciences simply cannot adjudicate on the God question. If the sciences are used as the basis of either atheism or religious beliefs, they are misused. So need atheism worry about its future? Miller and Dawkins clearly think not. But I wonder.

'Maybe it was once brave and intellectually sophisticated to dismiss those who believe in God as deluded, unthinking fools. Now it just seems outdated, arrogant and intolerant.

'I hope we can move beyond shopworn rhetoric and have a serious discussion about the evidential basis for atheism and its future.

'As a former atheist myself, though, I wonder how much longer it can rely on recycling the weary and increasingly unconvincing cliches of yesteryear while overlooking the shocking legacy of institutional atheism in the 20th century.'

Alister McGrath is professor of historical theology at Oxford University.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Anne Richards writes:

Imagine entering a labyrinth and traversing its paths. You encounter a heap of wreckage and twisted metal, scrapped cars, all the junk of human waste. What does this mean? What are you supposed to think? A little further on and you encounter a huge cross, hung with wine bottles, pouring with water and shot through with brilliant light. What is this? What is this water and poured out wine? Even further on and you are blasted with the heat of flaming boulders, the earth caught fire. What is this encounter? Is it God?

This story of a Labyrinth experience set the scene for our last meeting and underlines the method we are now using for our work. Our material is not about interpreting people’s experiences, re-reading them and re-presenting them as Christian discourse, but enabling people to have experiences and helping them to name for themselves the God who is disturbing them, calling them, urging them to live fully as they are intended to do.

If we prescribe what we will say and think and feel before we enter the labyrinth, if we’ve already got the interpretation lined up, then we are denying to ourselves the element of awe and wonder, of being surprised by the God of surprises, of being shocked or overwhelmed. David Ford reminds us in The Shape of Living about the importance of being overwhelmed by the power and presence of the living God and this overwhelming is something that our work on the experience of our senses offers.

Central to our discussion at this meeting was the sense of taste: taste and see the Lord your God is good. In our rich western society, eating is largely divorced from the experience of being hungry. We live in the time of the celebrity chef, the chic ambience of restaurants, the pleasure (?) of receiving a coin sized roundel of meat calling hopelessly to the elegant green leaf on the farther shore of a delicate china plate. We go on diets, we binge and fast. We worry endlessly about foods that are ‘good’ for us, foods that are ‘bad’ for us. We are greedy and wasteful. We get fat. We die.

And elsewhere of course, people do not get fat. They have little or nothing to eat. And they die.

The Son of Man came eating and drinking. But who did the cooking and the washing up? The risen Lord cooked breakfast, offered hospitality and the sharing of food. The risen life offers this physical reality and sense experience: taste and see.

So in reaching out to people outside the church, we shouldn’t be telling them about food but starting with real ingredients: taste and see. It’s no good telling them about God and expecting them to believe our experiences offered to them as dream food, beyond their ken. We have forgotten that God’s command is to live. George Herbert knew it:

You must sit down sayes Love and taste my meat
And I did sit and eat.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Developing Shared Leadership and Leadership Stories – two videos (November 2004) £8.99 each or £14.99 for the set.

Exclusive footage from the 2003-4 ‘Future Church Conference’ of Building Bridges of Hope, the leading ecumenical project supporting missional church.

BBH explores the practicalities of mission accompaniment and communicating the Gospel effectively today.

In the first video (55 minutes) eight church initiatives across Britain and Ireland share their insights. The second video (89 minutes) looks at the ‘how and why’ of empowering church leadership with vision and values.

Containing a group study leaflet, these videos are hands-on rather than ‘made for TV’. The official publication date is 15 November 2004. Email here for further information

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