Friday, 18 December 2009

Different takes

On opposite pages of The Guardian ’s obituary section yesterday (17 December) were Oral Roberts and Sir Richard O’Brien – US evangelist faces the author of the Faith in the City report. You couldn’t get two more different takes on Christianity or on a particular verse of the Bible.

Oral Roberts was not tripped up by sex, like several other high profile tele-evangelists, thus saving the world from some unseemly jokes. The obituarist remarked that instead he ‘always devoted himself to money – and, occasionally, God’. Apparently his Bible fell open at 3 John verse 2. Of course if Roberts had anything other than the King James Version which uses the word ‘prospering’, he would have read about things being ‘well with you’ – that’s what the original Greek means and, to be fair, probably what the KJV writers had in mind.

But he took prospering to be strictly in the financial sense and had a lucrative line in equating faith in God (= donations to his organisation) as bringing its monetary rewards in the life of the believer. Roberts (not to be called Dr Roberts, according to the strict obituarist, ‘only having honorary degrees’) was described as treating religion ‘the way that Tulsans went into oil: to make money’. The obituarist did not point up any redeeming features. Tragically Roberts’ family suffered early deaths and financial scandals.

The sub-title of O’Brien’s obituary was ‘Industrial relations expert at odds with Margaret Thatcher’. O’Brien was in many ways an establishment figure – distinguished war service, involved with the Confederation of British Industry, adviser to the Department of Economic Affairs, Chairman of the Manpower Services Commission. He argued for greater worker participation in management and a better equipped, qualified and motivated workforce. He suggested that an ‘imbalance of status and privilege’ between boardroom and employees was the root cause of many problems (British Airways and banks might take notice). Margaret Thatcher not surprisingly sacked him from the Manpower Services Commission.

What really put him, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, on her list of enemies though was the Faith in the City report in 1985, produced by a working group he chaired. This had the nerve to suggest that much of the blame for growing spiritual and economic poverty in British inner cities was the result of Thatcherite policies. If ever the Church of England could be said to have attempted to speak a prophetic word for the people of the country, this was it. Things being ‘well with you’ for the whole of society, not just the elite, and in a total, not just financial, sense.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The importance of leaving

I preached this sermon at an occasional service held in the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva to welcome new colleagues and valedict those leaving. My thoughts were occasioned by my own imminent leaving the pay of the WCC and a desire to encourage others to consider whether it was also time for them to go. Sometimes people develop false perceptions of their own significance and benefit to their work. And there is always a temptation to hang on to a well paid job, even if others see you as a time server. We should always be asking the question of whether we are in the right place.

These notes don’t contain the more pointed extempore commentary delivered on the day.

Notes for a sermon at the Service of Welcoming and Sending Out, 17 November 2008 in the Chapel of the Ecumenical Centre

A question that is frequently put when people know you are leaving, as I have experienced these days: What are you going to do? The presumption that we only leave because there’s something to do, somewhere to go. Like all presumptions it should be questioned.

Is it only a man thing or a cultural thing that there is also a presumption that moving on is to something more significant, better paid, higher status? Even pastors get infected with this – if the new congregation to which they are moving is not bigger, it has to have special circumstances or immense potential.

Of course, moving on to something or somewhere is an important topic for reflection – and I could preach at great length about it, often! But this morning I want to concentrate simply on the significance of leaving in the context of this Welcoming and Sending Out service.

The two passages we had read for us this morning can help us – Genesis 12.1-10 and Matthew 17.1-5.

Abram’s family had moved to Haran from Ur of the Chaldes. They were wealthy with much livestock. There was no particular reason to leave Haran (war, famine, lack of pasture etc) and probably every good reason to stay and prosper. Then Abram gets this feeling that it’s time to move on – some God who he didn’t know had things for him to do. And he didn’t even get to settle where he thought he might be going – passing through and ending up as a refugee in Egypt.

The experience of the transfiguration was so powerful that Peter wanted to preserve it and stay living within in, keeping it for themselves. He proposed a building project – a tendency followed by Christians throughout the ages who spend far too much time being preoccupied with buildings. However, Jesus led them off the mountain into the pain and messiness of everyday life where his love and power were to be found.

So, why is leaving so significant?

Sometimes we should leave because it feels the right thing to do, even when it is not clear where we will go or what we will do. The faith-full act of leaving may open up possibilities that are closed while we are where we are.

Sometimes we should leave to break out of our comfortable existence which inevitably will undermine our creativity and commitment and lead us into unconscionable compromise to maintain our status quo. Living in Geneva may be a snare and a delusion. Yes, we can glory in God’s creation when we see the rising sun shine on Mont Blanc from one window and the setting sun glowing behind the Jura mountains from another. Yes, we can do good with our comfortable monthly pay cheque. This is real life, but not as the vast majority of the world know it.

Sometimes we should leave because we cannot prolong an amazing experience for ever and keep it to ourselves. And it is an amazing experience working here at the Ecumenical Centre. Where else will we come into contact with such a variety of sisters and brothers in Christ with all their variety of tradition and culture? Where else will we have opportunities of understanding how we, our nation, our church, our theology etc. are seen by others? Where else can we begin to understand why others say and do what they do? But all this is to be experienced in the life of the whole world, not just to be the experience of a few fortunate people.

Sometimes we should leave because we have given what we can give and new insights, experience, knowledge and energy are need. It’s a matter of self-knowledge, awareness of needs and, most of all, a matter of personal integrity.

Perhaps most of all we have to leave, sooner or later, because neither I or you are all that important. Before you start protesting, I’m not speaking of the way God loves and values each one of us no matter who we are or what we have done.

It is exceedingly dangerous when:
churches or the ecumenical movement begin to think that they are more important than, or indeed somehow control, the gospel, the good news, embodied in Jesus Christ;
individuals begin to think they are more important or significant than the churches and ecumenical movement and than the gospel, the good news, embodied in Jesus Christ.

The act of leaving reminds us that none of us is indispensible. That even though we have been given a unique opportunity to contribute and to benefit, there are others who will come after us and make their contribution.

Throughout the scriptures we are reminded that the fulfilment of God’s loving and just purposes involves our faithful response – but it always is God’s purposes and ultimate glory – not ours.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Inter Faith Week

Like any designated week, Inter Faith Week will only be of value if it helps us the other 51 weeks of the year. Making the space to encounter people of different faiths with mutual respect has many benefits for us as individuals, for local communities and for society as a whole.

It shouldn't just be about learning what 'they' believe, as though faith was a collection of intellectual propositions. It shouldn't just be about how they practice their religion. Faith is a word which may be owned by many very different religious communities. But we should be careful because we all interpret it from our own experience and culture. A Muslim or Buddhist does not mean what a Christian means when they use the word, not that all Christians understand it in the same way. The most obvious dimension of meaning is whether faith is inherited or whether its is believed as a conscious individual decision.

Encounters with people of different faiths should help us understand how they believe as well as what they believe. It should help us understand what it means to see their religion and the world through their eyes. What it means to be a Hindhu or a Jew in British society. And equally importantly to understand how they see us.

In this way we don't just learn about other people, we learn about ourselves.

When I was working in Manchester before going to Geneva, I was part of a group of Christians meeting with a Hindhu and hearing about his faith. In talking about reverence for life he made the remark that he had to exercise his faith from the moment he put his foot out of bed each morning and casually added that we Christians only had to bother about faith on Sunday mornings. In later reflection, the group felt that they had learnt more about the living practice of Hindhu faith in Manchester. However, what really grabbed them was the genuine perception of this man of what the practice of Christian faith meant.

As Robert Burns said:
O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!

We learn to live in community by knowing ourselves as well as getting to know others.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Vote Christian - pay less tax

An advert for the Christian Party (political, that is) in this week’s Baptist Times has as its number one enticement “Do you want lower taxes?” – presumably on the basis of Jesus’ memorable saying “Blessed are the taxpayers for they shall pay less”. You would be disappointed if you ran down the list of reasons to be interested in the Christian Party expecting to find anything like the words Jesus as actually recorded in the Gospels. In fact, their language of less state interference or to have “once again” a just legal system might come from advertising for the Conservatives, the UK Independence Party or even from the non-racist parts of the policies of the British National Party.

But it’s the lower taxes bit I want to stick with. It’s a hook of self-interest – I get to keep more of my money to spend as I want. The Christian Party would probably argue that it’s more money to give away and I expect many of their supporters do work on the biblical principle that a tenth of one’s income is for God and giving only starts beyond that. But they would be the exception among the whole population.

As is the young man I saw interviewed who had studied ethics and on starting a well paid job (£33K he said) was giving away over 50% of it each year. He reckoned that his giving would save 1,000 lives each year and that was more satisfying than consumer expenditure. What can one say? Those of us who say we actively care about our fellow human beings and the environment don’t go that far – not by a long way. The majority of the population do give to charities but in the pounds not hundreds of pounds, let alone thousands of pounds each year.

Charitable giving is a fine idea for motivated and committed people. I don’t want to knock it and neither would those who benefit. Undoubtedly, the tax system could be improved, especially in respect of the rich who at the moment pay a smaller proportion of their earnings than lower paid workers. Undoubtedly, governments are wasteful and spend money on the wrong things. However, taxation is the best way we have of ensuring that we all pay our fair share. If we want all our citizens to have decent lives and we want to do the same for the poorest of the poor elsewhere, then taxation is a must.

Vote for a more equitable tax system but don’t vote for lower taxes – we may enjoy the extra money in our pockets and we may even give some of it away. If we earn enough to pay tax, we won’t be the ones who pay the price.

PS Jesus didn’t really say “Blessed are the taxpayers for they shall pay less”, I made that up. Of course what he did say was “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor”. If you object to paying tax, perhaps that’s the best thing to do!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Even by their own logic

Colonel Bob Stewart, who came to public attention through his service in Bosnia, had a background in military intelligence. I’ll pass on making the usual joke about that because, even though his post-army career may take him to being a Conservative MP, he is an intelligent man. So it’s usually worth listening to what he has to say, even if you happen to disagree sometimes.

In the course of a rather busy weekend, I caught a tv interview with him where he drew attention to the ‘intelligence’ relating to military operations in Afghanistan. The numbers were:
‘persons of interest’ (what interesting language the intelligence services use) in Afghanistan = 100,
‘persons of interest’ in the UK = 2,000.
If it raised questions for him, it did even more for me.

I also heard Gordon Brown saying that a clear connection between the Afghan/Pakistan border and the streets of Britain was the reason for the Afghan mission. How interesting. If it is true that the border region is a source of incitement to terrorism in the West (and we should stop continuing to conceptualise al quaeda as being like an enemy nation or even like the IRA), what are we doing trying to bring our style of political discipline to a whole national territory that has never achieved it, or even wanted it, for themselves or had it imposed by successive invaders. There are many reasons not to like the Afghan Taliban but to regard them as the same as the Taliban over the border is a dangerous over-simplification.

Logic would suggest that if they want to ‘deal with’ any state, it should be Pakistan – but there is another discourse about that country, particularly around nuclear weapons. Is Afghanistan somewhere where a UK government can be seen to be ‘doing something’ where it won’t cause too many other international problems? Because even by their own logic what we are doing there lacks credibility.

If so, why should young people be sent there to die or suffer horrific physical and mental injuries on behalf of the rest of us. Sometimes attacks on people on our streets are called ‘senseless acts of violence’ – isn’t the Afghanistan mission a state-sponsored senseless act of violence on our own young people as well as on the local victims?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Because I'm worth it?

Why is it that sometimes those who achieve high office or responsibility develop such a strong sense of personal entitlement that they lose their moral perspective? And it’s not just dictators, bankers and MPs.

The question is prompted by a story today of resignations, sacking and suspension for disciplinary reasons of the senior leadership of a school and its governing body “after senior teachers allegedly paid themselves £1m in bonuses” Yet another high profile, much lauded head teacher bites the dust.

What gets into the minds of people responsible for running values-based organisations that they can behave in ways contrary to that which they espouse? We might expect it of bankers who after all only practice what they preach in making money. Schools work, or should do, on the principle that their own practice of communal life expresses the values they want to promote. I don’t think that many schools get their students to read Animal Farm to help them see the importance of getting their snouts first in the trough filled at the expense of everyone else’s rations.

It’s not only self-delusional head teachers. I’ve seen too many church leaders filled with a sense of personal entitlement, demanding five-star treatment, often at the expense of their own impoverished communities. I’m afraid that their saying that this is a way of showing respect to God does not wash with me. Perhaps following the example of Jesus in a less ostentatious lifestyle would be better.

The human mind is an amazing thing. It can believe and advocate fine sounding values and practices. At one and the same time, it can create a story about what I’m worth, how I’m entitled to that and how it is actually important for the people who pay the cost for me to be treated in this way. And it doesn’t make any connection between the two! But that’s no excuse.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What’s the good of higher education?

On BBC Radio 4 today, Lord Mandelson, discussing soon to be announced proposals for higher education in the UK, said that universities are there “to provide us with both civilisation and competitiveness” ( Well I couldn’t have put it better myself, especially the order in which civilisation and competitiveness appear. Nice soundbite and very pleasing to those who believe in education as a good in its own right and not merely an economic instrument.

However, the bite of the soundbite comes in the surrounding discussion. This seems to be all about giving businesses more say in higher education. Giving students information about the different levels of salary they might expect by taking different degree courses and even allocating funds according to the economic productivity of courses. So education primarily serves as an economic good for individuals and society alike. Nothing about the civilisation mentioned in the soundbite!

Now I’m all for developing people’s knowledge and skills. That does lead both to productivity and job satisfaction. We don’t have enough of it. But it’s a career long process and people may have more than one career in their lifetime. It’s not a front loaded process where people begin their working life equipped for everything in the future. It is both before and during – with the during, as contextual learning, being most effective.

But education is, or should be, so much more than learning knowledge and skills. It is about the whole people we become, not just our economic activity. Mandelson, who did benefit from education rather than training, has obviously not learnt from his own experience. Or does he regard it as only for the cultured few? Successive governments have starved non-work related adult education of funds. The Workers Educational Association thrived because ordinary people wanted to learn history, art, science, politics etc etc because they were interested and it gave them personal fulfilment – and contributed to the quality of community life. Thousands of people devote hours of study through the Open University whilst doing fulltime jobs because they believe in the non-economic benefits of doing a degree. And, if you think Mandelson is bad, just see what the Conservative party believe!

However, there is something that unites personal, communal and economic benefit, and civilisation and competitiveness. Something which is, I think, a primary function of higher education – no matter what the subject matter of the course. That is critical thinking – the ability to access, analyse and evaluate evidence, to put together arguments or cases and to be able to deconstruct those put forward by others. It involves self-awareness and the ability to see bigger pictures, including understanding that others may see and interpret life differently. It makes people both confident and open.

Higher education is good for us but not just to make money.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Political expediency insults us all

The very public spat between Alan Johnson (UK Home Secretary) and David Nutt (now ex-Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs) makes for entertaining political theatre – but it is profoundly depressing.

Professor Nutt had the temerity to state publicly that alcohol and tobacco were more dangerous than cannabis (something I thought was common knowledge) and that it was a nonsense to have cannabis classified in the middle rather than lower category of drugs with the consequent penal consequences for use. Professor Nutt is no libertarian hippy but is rather against the misuse of harmful substances. His trouble is that he is guided by research on the actual effects of different drugs and the demonstrable results of policies to deal with misuse.

The problem for Alan Johnson, who is equally against the misuse, and that’s the irony, is that political expediency means that he wants to play the hard man on drugs because they are perceived as the preserve of low-life who will only respond to punitive measures. (Middle class people may suffer from problems but we’re OK with that if they get help and we recognise that celebrities and aristos are different creatures altogether who need to be indulged - or at least we appear to.) He doesn’t want to go with the evidence (a) because it would seem weak to downgrade some drugs and (b) because logic would dictate an attack on the availability and use of alcohol. It’s been hard enough to tackle smoking and that was only possible because by-and-large middle-England had turned against it. Alcohol’s a different matter because voters like it and because like many other substances it is not harmful in reasonable quantities. There is a real issue here which needs to be openly discussed and probably no legislative solution that will solve the problems.

What is insulting is that Alan Johnson would prefer us not to be aware of the evidence. He wants to maintain a deceptive line that will scare us away from drugs. If the message is not politically expedient he and his colleagues shoot the messenger and rubbish the message.

We have had another example in recent weeks. A carefully researched report suggested that formal learning should not begin in primary schools until 6 – that young children learned best through play (actually play is a significant means of learning for all ages and should not be demeaned). Ministers dismissed the report before it was published and disingenuously characterised it as saying that children should not attend school until 6. They think that the public believes that teaching automatically results in learning (far from true as many of us can testify) and therefore children must be sat down and told. Accepting the report, even for discussion, might make them look weak. Another opportunity for public reflection lost.

Alan Johnson, one of the few senior politicians in any party not from an elite background, ought to be someone who trusts people's ability to understand that issues may be complex. But no, he seems to want to place us in a position of an uniformed choice of agreeing or disagreeing with what he says. It would be no better (and, on the evidence of history, worse) were the Conservative party to be elected next year. Political posturing and expediency insults us all.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Changing my climate

Blog Action Day unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day – 2009 is Climate Change

Climate change – been there, done that, boring, let’s get excited about something new. My former employers, the World Council of Churches (WCC), began raising the issue of climate change in the late 1980s, partly because part of their constituency in the Pacific region was disappearing under the sea. Not many people were interested, even environmental groups. But in the end it became fashionable and lots of people were agitating about it. Now I wonder if climate change fatigue is creeping in.

We’ve said all there is to say. International organisations, governments, pressure groups, even industry and commerce have made fine sounding statements. Case proved, for all except for a few contrarians. Thank goodness for them - in their attempt to stamp out what they see as a pernicious falsehood they keep the issue alive.

The problem is we have hardly begun to do what we need to do. I’ll begin with a soft target. If you search the WCC’s website you find around 4,500 references to climate change, most of them raising the issue and calling for change. Yet you will find it hard to discover the WCC’s own environmental policy. I know that the organisation has thought about environmental risk assessments in planning meetings that bring people together from all over the world, an annual environmental audit to accompany the financial audit and measures to incentivise staff use of public transport, to give some examples. Yet, understandably if not forgivably, it finds it hard to grasp the total change in organisational culture and style of working that such actions would imply.

The 10:10 campaign, supported by the Guardian newspaper - - challenges us to commit ourselves to reduce carbon emissions by 10% by the end of 2010. A UK survey quoted suggests that ‘81% of adults were very or fairly concerned about climate change and three quarters said they were willing to change their behaviour to help combat it’. Well, I’m part of that three quarters. But am I part of what they describe as ‘a small, saintly portion of the population’ who do anything significant?

If the WCC was a soft target, I must take aim at the hardest target of all. That is me. I have to change. It’s not just up to other people, organisations and governments, it’s up to me. I have to change the climate of my own way of life. And I suspect that just spending an extra 10% of time in bed doesn’t count.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Challenging the orthodoxy

What have Elinor Ostrom and Metropolitan Geevarghese Coorilos in common? Who, you may ask. If you weren’t aware of the award of the Nobel Prize for economics or the meeting of the WCC Faith & Order Commission (mutual understanding of what the churches believe and organise their life) this week, you may be forgiven. These two people, eminent in their own spheres, but not well known outside have each put forward views that challenge commonly accepted wisdom. In describing their views briefly from my reading, I probably do an injustice to them.

Ostrom, a political scientist from Indiana University, USA, has researched how people maintain fish stocks in India, Kenya and Nepal as well as researching other resources such as pastures, woodlands and lakes. Current orthodoxy in such issues suggests that this is best done either by the state or, more commonly these days, by privatised enterprises. Ostrom’s research indicates that when individuals join together and form collectives resources are better maintained and protected. She is interested in how people co-operate rather than compete - and the beneficial results that stem from that.

Metropolitan Geevarghese Coorilos of the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church in India gave a critique of a document that had been prepared by the Faith and Order Commission on the Nature and Mission of the Church. The methodology of such exercises he described as being from above – the experts and the specialists. He pointed to the absence of any involvement from below. This meant that the world of the poor and dispossessed, particularly the Dalits in India, found no resonance in the document.

What these two have in common, to answer my own question, is not just that they have challenged the orthodox positions in their own areas. It is that they do so on the basis of the participation of people, not just those who are powerful or experts. In the one case, people are not so irredeemably selfish that they cannot act collectively for the common good. In the other, it is people (especially including the poor and excluded) who ask the real questions about the nature of the church.

Answers to issues that confront the whole life of the world may not just be found in what the Metropolitan describes as ‘esoteric and intellectual’ discussions but closer to home.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Talking like

Avast there, me hearties, ‘tis the International Talk Like a Pirate Day today (Saturday 19 September). Shiver me timbers. The eyepatch keeps slipping so I can’t keep on writing in this vein. Of all the worthy international days that overfill the calendar, this is probably the unworthiest and perhaps the most fun.

From Treasure Island to Pirates of the Caribbean, pirates make a good swashbuckling story. The reality was certainly more dark and bloody and modern-day piracy of all kinds is nothing to celebrate. However, it’s fun to talk like a pirate and even to image who you would make walk the plank. I have got a little list!

However, some international days are much more demanding because they challenge us to actually change the way we speak and act for good (Didn’t you just know it would turn serious). So two days later, 21 September, is the UN International Day of Peace which for the churches is also the International Day of Prayer for Peace.

I certainly find it easier to talk pirate than talk peace. But if we really do want to give peace a chance then someone has to learn to talk and act peace. And it really does need to be us, all of us.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Disrespectful idealisation

I don’t know why but over the past few weeks I’ve become conscious of the fact that the world is now only populated with wonderful people, apart from a few monsters. Every death, every retirement, every occasion where people pay tribute that I’ve come across has demonstrated this to me. No one was or is less than perfect.

Why are we finding it so difficult to respect and honour people for what they actually are or have been? To do justice to them, not some idealised, airbrushed image?

Remembering back to a time when I frequented funerals (in a pastoral capacity, I hasten to add), there was a loving realism about the way in which people spoke of the deceased. They recollected times when that person had proved to be all too human, even laughing at their foibles. They were mourning a real person whom they had known and loved, not a perfected construction of their imagination. The trend to idealisation is neither healthy for those who have to work through their grief nor respectful of the person.

The other day I almost choked on my cup of tea as I read what had been said about someone I knew reasonably well. Some things were truthfully said, and it was right to say them. Some other things were manifestly exaggerated if not actually untrue. I cannot imagine how they were said even with tongue firmly in cheek and fingers crossed. How was that respectful of the person to whom tribute was being paid when most of those gathered would have known the reality? Would it not have been better to stick with the things that properly and deservedly could be said?

So it was with a sense of relief that I watched and read the tributes to Senator Edward Kennedy. A realism both about his personal flaws and his political achievements. That was respect.

Sunday, 23 August 2009


The waters are so muddy. A dying prisoner. Bereaved relatives with emotional wounds still sore. Questions over evidence, trial and other perpetrators. A pariah state being brought in from the cold. Possible trade trade-offs. Celebrations and anger. Different views of what state justice requires. The list could go on. About the only thing agreed by everyone is that Pan Am Flight 103 fell out of the sky on 21 December 1988 with the loss of 270 lives from the plane and on the ground.

So there will never be agreement on whether the decision of the Scottish Justice Minister to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds was correct. Anyway, much of the political posturing from inside and outside the UK is the usual exploitation of an issue for other ends.

In all of this storm we seem to have stopped thinking about what the Justice Minister said. "Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days." We may recognise someone’s inhuman beviour but not regard that as an excuse not to express our own humanity. Receiving compassion is not to be deserved or to be a right. It is something to be given because it is needed. Being compassionate is a strong thing to do not a weakness.

The Justice Minister’s words ought to appeal to all those who call themselves Christian – it is of the essence of the gospel that God’s love in Jesus Christ is for those who need it rather than deserve it. You have to be absolutely sure of your own righteousness to believe in a vengeful God rather than a compassionate God! From its earliest days Christianity has had to put up with being called weak because of the primacy of compassion over pay-back. So much so that some have developed their own forms of hard-man/hard-God faith - presumably because they do not feel strong enough to live with the perceived weakness of the gospel. Personally, I'm glad of a compassionate God.

Whether the decision to release the prisoner was expedient is a question that will go on being raised. But I want to affirm the strong principle of compassion and to applaud the Scottish Justice Minister for putting it so bluntly.

Friday, 14 August 2009

The day of reckoning draws nigh!

At 3.00pm on Saturday afternoon Manchester City will take the field away to Blackburn Rovers in the first match of the 2009-10 season. For Manchester City fans it’s not just another start of another season. Over the past few months around 100 million pounds has been spent on new players. The oil-rich owners of the club have invested what is small change to them. They have not put their expenditure as a debt on the books of the club like other owners of English Premier League clubs – at least not at the moment. But they will want something in return – their money is an investment rather than a gift. It is not quite clear exactly what they want, but a good image, certainly. So the first return on their investment has to be success.

Pity the poor manager if the result at Blackburn is not a victory for City or at least a ‘we was robbed’ draw. The press pack would be howling that the manager has only a few days to save his job, if not to be sacked forthwith. There will be no excuses for failure to be at the top of the league table or thereabouts after the first few matches and to remain there until next May. So no pressure there, then!

I’m old enough to remember City carrying all before them, playing flowing football. But even in those days, if there was a banana skin to be slipped on, City found it. One of their great players once remarked: “If there was a cup for cock-ups, we’d win it every year”. It has been City’s endearing, if frustrating, all-too-human qualities that has made them such fun to follow. Even down into English football’s third level where the home crowds were still larger than those of most teams in the top division. The great quality of the fans was they could laugh at themselves in their chants and songs.

Some clubs have now almost reached the point where playing football is the means to promote their merchandise – replica shirts and a whole catalogue of branded goods. Winning increases sales. The commercial revenue stream becomes more significant than the income from spectators. Their desire is to become a global brand, as well known as Coke. Real fans, that is those who actually watch matches, don’t just become customers, they pay out good money to participate in someone else’s money making scheme.

So the day of reckoning is not just about success, it’s also about style, at least for this fan. Will City become a team that grinds out results through superior players, where the three points when the final whistle blows is all that counts and the notion of football as an entertaining spectacle - the ‘beautiful game’ and the ‘workers’ ballet’ - is relegated to obscurity? Something tells me, and I hope it is true, that fallibility is in the DNA of the club. Otherwise, all the fun will go out of being a City fan.

Of course, I do want City to beat clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United. I just don’t want City to become like them.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Am I still in favour of ecumenism?

The other day I was asked if I was still in favour of ecumenism, now that I have left the employ of the World Council of Churches. Not an unreasonable question as I expect you'd ask someone if they were still in favour of junk food once they'd stopped working for McDonalds (before BigM calls its lawyers, I will point out that the lettuce and tomatoes are healthy).

My answer is that I am in favour of ecumenism but, to misquote Star Trek, not as we know it. Too much of churchy ecumenism is focused on churches reaching an accommodation with each other. Formal agreements and covenants between churches exorcising past fights are all very well. Christians of different traditions being able to talk and pray together is good. Working together on issues of justice and peace is essential. Don't get me wrong, the church and the world are better for such things.

The danger is that it misses the point. The ecumenical movement is, or should be, a protest movement against what Christianity and the churches have become - of which, division and disunity is a symptom not the cause. When we are ill, it's always nice when distressing symptoms are alleviated but we always hope that the doctors will concentrate on dealing with the basic problem that causes them. Ernst Lange (1927-74), in And Yet It Moves: dream and reality of the ecumenical movement, describes the ecumenical movement as:
the most massive domestic Christian protest against the way Christianity, by its alliance with the powers that be, had been transformed into its exact opposite (p5).
Christianity, in other words, has allowed itself to be (even encouraged itself to be) subverted and corrupted by being more interested in power, influence, status and wealth than with the diametrically opposed values of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the ecumenical movement is to change, renew, transform the churches as the living embodiment of Christianity - not make them nicer to one another but basically unchanged.

I am in favour of ecumenism as a church-changing movement but not simply for the sake of some better form of church (the church is only a symptom of Christianity!). Such an ecumenism engages with the causes of disunity and doesn't paint over the cracks. Such an ecumenism ought to set us free from being defensive and protectionist - a faithless position, if ever there was one. Once we give up on agonising about ourselves we will have more energy to engage with the agonies of the world.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Holiday reading - if you dare

This weeks's issue of the New Statesman (left leaning current affairs weekly) has the obligatory suggested holiday reading list, but with a difference. Not the usual list of worthy biographies or the latest in political science but oldies that are worth (re)reading. I was glad but not surpised to see among the de Beauvoir, Marx & Engels, Orwell, Dickens, Gaskell, etc etc, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - a must-read, if ever there was one.

The surprise came at book 4 - The New Testament. "If ever a man appeared today who preached pacificsm, who urged setting no store by status, told the wealthy to sell everything they have and give the proceeds to the poor, and freely associated with those respectable people considered outcasts, we would consider him a radical." The article recognised that, almost inspite of the church, the New Testament has inspired many left-wing politicians more than theoretical socialist texts. The New Statesman speaks no more than the truth. The New Testament tells a radical story and the teaching of Jesus calls for a radical response.

Unfortunately, the churches have often failed to live out all four of those qualities listed - supporting war rather than peace; being obsessed with hierarchy and status; amassing wealth; excluding those who don't fit. The New Testament has been used to support an unjust status quo rather than drive transformation. On an individual level the New Testament has been abused by those who agressively proclaim faith yet who are so unsure of the love of God that they are fixated on their own personal salvation.

The New Testament as holiday reading - perhaps even (especially) for church people? Safer to stick with the romance or thriller, no danger of anything radical there.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Never spotted

The news of the death of Bobby Robson, probably the best English football manager of his generation and a good, but not perfect, human being has saddened me. As the manager of my home town team, Ipswich Town, he had a decade of achievement in the English league and european competition. His service there was at the time I and my friends were at various universities and colleges.

Each vacation we used to reunite in a local park to have a kick around most mornings we hadn't got anything better to do. Jumpers for goal posts. Rain, snow, sun - didn't matter.

Bobby Robson lived not very far from the park and it was said that he often walked his dog there. For obvious reasons we weren't much in favour of people who walked their dogs where we played. Well, it would have been OK if walking was all the dogs did. But we made an exception in our minds for Bobby Robson.

There was always this hope that one day he would walk past with his dog and be so impressed with my football skills that he'd sign me up for Ipswich Town there and then. If he'd have valued all of us, the world would have lost a teacher, head teacher, university researcher etc and whatever it was that I became and instead we would have been bright shining stars of the football firmament.

But we were never spotted. Like Godot he never passed by.

Just as well really. He would have smiled our passion for the game but laughed at my delusions - as I did in rare moments of honesty.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

War is organised murder

Harry Patch, the last living British soldier to have experienced the trenches in the First World War has died at the age of 111. The last of a generation of young men most of whom did not come home in one piece. They deserve our respect.

Politicians and royals such as Prince Charles (who boasts a chest-full of medals, for what one wonders) have been quick to comment. But then, these are mainly people who have a history of and vested interest in glorifying war – usually whilst keeping themselves and their families well away from the carnage.

No glory in the experience or words of Harry Patch though. He said ‘War is organised murder, and nothing else.’

He didn’t quote the Roman poet Horace on war: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori [How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country]. He didn’t echo the war based sentiments of Cecil Spring-Rice’s hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’:
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
No, Harry Patch said that war is organised murder. And he knew what he was talking about.

So, organised murder is a strange thing to be celebrating at Westminster Abbey as apparently will now happen. Or perhaps not given the history of much of the church in enthusiastically supporting war. Harry Patch faithfully and rightly joined in commemorations of his fallen comrades but what’s the betting that his view of war will be conveniently forgotten at the service. Would Westminster Abbey host a service for serial killers – a crass suggestion if there ever was one. Yet murder is murder whether it is organised by the state or individuals.

The ultimate respect we could pay to Harry Patch and his comrades would be hear his words.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Come fly with me?

Today, 25 July 2009, is the 100th anniversary of the first flight across the English Channel. Louis Bleriot flew his flimsy aircraft from Sangatte and crash landed near Dover Castle. The Airbuses and Boeings of today are recognisable evolutions from that plane. From a do-or-die hop across the Channel (Bleriot couldn’t swim) to flying to the other side of the world in one of the safest forms of transport - an amazing century.

Air travel has enabled us to see places most of us would have only read about before and to meet people who have enriched our lives. We shouldn’t underestimate this. But there is a down side to it as well. Forbearing to mention the spread of nasty viruses, I refer to climate change to which air travel makes a contribution.

I get a bit tired of people who tell me that the churches are jumping on a politically correct bandwagon when climate change is mentioned in sermons and resolutions are passed about it at church assemblies and councils. To its great credit, the World Council of Churches was raising issue this many years ago, before even some environmental groups took it up. Not surprising really as some of its constituency in the Pacific region are seeing their islands disappear under the rising sea.

However, the World Council (and most other international organisations) is confronted with a dilemma which I don’t think it has really faced up to. One the one hand, its style of operation relies on vast amounts of air travel – staff going out from Geneva and people being physically gathered together from all over the world for meetings. International organisations are addicted to air travel. And, I will confess that I have done more than my fair share. On the other hand, actual behaviour rather than fine words give moral authority. Perhaps there should be some act of repentence for relying so heavily on such destructive behaviour and a commitment to new ways . After all, who is going to take any lectures about climate change from air travel junkies?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Tired of living, scared of dying

There’s one person I know who isn’t scared of dying. That’s my mother. At 96 she says she has no qualms about dying, and I believe her. She easily gets tired by the physical process of everyday life and the effects of advanced age but she isn’t tired of life. She has a constant procession of visitors to her room who tell me that visiting her makes them feel better.

I sometimes wonder whether western society has got itself into a way of thinking that death is unnatural and have become scared of it. Death can be untimely and it can feel unjust. But death is the one certain thing about life. We now seem to have convinced ourselves that doctors should be able to cure every disease and repair every damaged part of our bodies. When they don’t, they have failed. No matter how clever we are in medical science and health care, we can only extend life not ultimately deny death.

As the swine flu pandemic takes a firmer hold, we may be in danger of scaring ourselves to death through being scared of dying. The more we are told ‘don’t panic’, the more we panic. After all they would only tell us not to panic if there really is something to panic about – that’s the way our perverse logic can go.

Christian Aid has the telling slogan – We believe in life before death. Perhaps we should all apply it to ourselves rather than only see it in the context of those who go hungry. Live life, enjoy being alive each day. Stop being scared of our own dying and only worry about those whose deaths we cause through wars and the unjust systems we support.

I once heard Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, being interviewed on BBC Radio 4. He has to live with death threats from those who feel threatened by the fact that he is gay. His words have stuck in my mind – death is not the worst thing that can happen in life.

[If you are wondering where the heading ‘Tired of living, scared of dying’ comes from, it is from the song Old Man River from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat – saves you having to Google it!]

Saturday, 18 July 2009


Parents are naturally concerned for the wellbeing of their children. So it’s not surprising that the media have made their way to the school gates to get some reactions to increased numbers of deaths from swine flu. It’s also not surprising that a high level of anxiety is revealed, probably increased by the interest of the media.

Yet the school gates scene raises some questions in itself. Try to drive down any road adjacent to our local primary school and you find the way blocked by cars parked either side as parents drop off their children or wait to pick them up in the afternoon. If we are going to be worried by statistics, why aren’t we more concerned about the deadly effects of childhood obesity which is partly fuelled by being driven around rather than walking? And if you want a more statistically certain way of being killed or suffering serious injury, then use the roads.

It seems strange that we panic over something like swine flu that we cannot control, and only mitigate at best. Yet we constantly accept higher risks, seemingly without a second thought, when they are entirely under the control of our own behaviour.

But then dealing with our anxiety about our wellbeing by taking Tamiflu tablets is one thing, changing our lifestyle is too much to expect of us.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Staying alive

Thirty-nine years ago fresh out of theological college I joined the team ministry of a group of six churches, four of them in the area which became the Borough of Tameside and two just over the border in the City of Manchester. The two Manchester churches were in Openshaw and, as is the way with these things, were the result of a split. Thus there was one in Cornwall Street and one in Mersey Street – their locations accidentally symbolic of the psychological, if not physical, distance between them. So I began by preaching regularly in both churches. They were faithful people but small in number. Then they reunited, probably more responding to economic reality than anything else, at Mersey Street. I continued my contact with them as a visiting preacher for almost ten years after I left that team ministry.

The area has had times of difficulty ever since fields were first built on in the industrial urban expansion of Manchester. Many other churches in the area have closed, their denominational authorities preferring to put their human and financial resources into areas where there is a better immediate return on their investment. I suspect there were many times when shutting up shop at Mersey Street seemed a more attractive option than hanging on in there. Put like that it doesn’t seem either creative or attractive but being present gives an opportunity to do things that those who drive in and then drive off again cannot. For such a small congregation it has, over the years, been involved in all kinds of projects from bikers to credit union, from health to urban spirituality.

On Sunday afternoon I returned to Mersey Street. The houses in the area immediately round the church were all boarded up – even some which had been rebuilt about 10 years ago. The area is being regenerated so the church building had been compulsorily purchased by the City Council. It was the closing service of not the church but the building. In the midst of physical desolation and disruption, the service looked joyfully to the next steps for the church – first to continue to work and worship without their building, then to make creative use of the compensation.

Their new logo features a tent – one of the best images for the church. The logo also features a dancing scarecrow. If that intrigues you, look at

Monday, 13 July 2009

We’ve been here before, and before, and before

A piece of family history on my mother’s side is that one of my great-grandfathers was General Roberts’ drummer boy in his youth. Who was General Roberts and what has it got to do with anything? The answer lies in Afghanistan in 1880.

political manoeuvres were being made to pull British forces out of the bubbling cauldron that was Afghanistan – not from today’s news but an account of what was happening in March 1880.

General Roberts became a popular hero in Britain when he led a forced march from Kabul to relieve the garrison in Kandahar in August 1880. British army engagements with what we would now call local militias had resulted in heavy losses and the survivors made their way to Kandahar. The garrison came under siege and needed to be rescued. The troops had to cover twice the normal daily distance on foot in the conditions we see regularly on the tv news. The garrison was relieved and the local enemy faced and routed (only to regroup and attack another army in due course). The British buried their dead and had completely retired to India in six months.

Britain had made three attempts to control Afghanistan in the 1800’s all of them ending disastrously. From 1979 to 1989 the Soviet Union also tried but in the end cut their losses and withdrew.

Do we learn nothing from previous follies? More importantly, divine and human wisdom tells us that trying to subdue people never ultimately works. There is, as St Paul reminds us, a more excellent way.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Leaving it all to 'them'

An articulate young woman in the audience of the BBC’s Question Time last night commented on the panel’s discussion on alcohol fuelled problems in city centres. Young people should be provided with more things to do, she suggested. Why, I asked the tv screen, can’t she and her friends organise something for themselves? How much imagination and resources would it take (less money than buying drinks all night, probably)? Why expect the local authority or government to do it for you?

But I shouldn’t be too hard on her. In general, we seem to expect that ‘they’ will do it for us. And ‘they’ (the experts and the authorities) have been only too happy to encourage us to think that way. So the responsibility for peaceful community life becomes that of the police. When they talk of policing with the consent of the community, they get it wrong. The community doesn’t exist to assist them in keeping law and order, their role is to assist the community. It’s primarily our responsibility. Likewise with schools, it’s the community’s responsibility (not just parent’s) to nurture and educate children. Schools assist and support. But we seem to prefer to hand children over to the professionals – and then complain if they get it wrong. In churches, there seems to be an increasing tendency to leave it all to the minister instead of recognising that the ministry of the church is collective not individual. Churches should be caring communities not self-centred groups who employ someone else to look after their spiritual needs and do a bit of good in the community.

Do we pay our taxes and make our church offerings so we don’t have to be bothered? So ‘they’ can do it for us?


Now there’s a word to make you disinclined to read this! It’s going to be about ecumenism too!

Listening in on other people’s conversations may be considered rude but it is often fun to try and work out what lies behind what they are saying. It was a bit like that when I read a report of the address given by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA to its General Convention. In fact, I had to check out what she said on the ECUSA website. It was:
Some of the ecumenists in here will twitch at this word, but we should be in the business of subsidiarity – the church as a whole should not be doing mission work that can be done better at a more local level.

Not knowing the hinterland of her use of the word, I will take it at face value. And it bothers me. Subsidiarity is defined by the online Cambridge Dictionary as:
the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level or closest to where they will have their effect, for example in a local area rather than nationally. Not, as another online dictionary does, to be confused with subsidiary.

Why should, as she suggests, ecumenists be bothered be subsidiarity? Only, I think, if ecumenism is simply equated with relations between churches and with the engagement with issues by experts at the national or global levels. Ecumenism is not just about bilateral or multilateral ecclesiological dialogues between Christian traditions or engagement with the World Trade Organisation, the Human Rights Commission and all the other United Nations organisations. If ecumenism is to be anything, it is not as a set of organisations but a movement of people. Its energy, legitimacy and moral authority should come from the commitment of people not by resolutions of church governing bodies. Subsidiarity should be a good word for ecumenists. The churches as national organisations should be playing catch-up with what is happening on the ground. Not the other way around!

Looking at it like this, makes me feel that it is perhaps those who have a vested interest in the church structures who are most afraid of subsidiarity. People deciding and acting locally is probably the last thing they want. People might decide that all that stuff that keeps Christians apart is less important than the demands of the gospel in their context. People might decide that radical new ways of being the church and transforming society should be adopted. Where would we be then!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Pragmatism - is that all?

As is their custom, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has issued a statement welcoming the agreement between the USA and Russia to cut their stockpile of nuclear weapons.

We urge them to stand side by side in that shared responsibility and make urgent and unambiguous progress together. In fact, we believe that by doing so they will gradually gain the moral authority needed to encourage other states in eliminating these weapons of mass destruction.

Well, of course, who wouldn’t welcome the agreement? It’s pragmatic international politics and, on that level, let’s hope for more of it. The churches, and all people who value their lives and life in general, should encourage it.

But is the role of the World Council of Churches simply to support pragmatic political approaches to which everyone will sign up? Who takes this opportunity to say clearly, unambiguously and loudly that nuclear weapons are obscene and an offence to God? Who reminds Russia and the USA that that they have conveniently left themselves with enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other and the rest of us with plenty left over to do it all over again, without the cost of keeping the surplus stockpile safe and in order? Why should the WCC do little more than pat them on the back?

My former colleagues in the WCC know well that I have problems with this kind of statement. Inoffensive statements may win friends in high places but it has always seemed to me that the gospel is more about pulling the powerful off their thrones than encouraging them to think more highly of themselves than they should.

I want a WCC that isn’t afraid to offend by offering a radical vision in its statements that reflect a faith that should turn the world upside down – or perhaps the right way up.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The performance not the performer

If we expect our entertainers, politicians or even church leaders to be perfect human beings, then we are bound to be disappointed. For better or for worse, to be human is to be fallible. It applies to us all, whether our lives are lived in the public eye or in relative obscurity. The popular media make a lucrative but unsavoury living from building people up one minute and then exposing their weaknesses the next. Shock, horror - the person is only human after all as they yield to this or that temptation.

Yet where do we draw the line? When does being fallible become unacceptable? For so-called celebrities, we seem to tolerate or are even amused by drunkenness, drug taking, bed hopping and riotous behaviour. How about murder? Well OJ divided us on that. How about paedophilia? Gary Glitter was left in no doubt about popular sentiment.

Am I the only person in the world who finds it bizarre, if not obscene, that the news that a 12 year old finalist from Britain’s Got Talent (it turned out not to have very much) is performing at the Michael Jackson Memorial has been hailed as wonderful by the British media. Michael Jackson may have cleared of particular charges by a court in one instance but his own words as well as the court papers reveal his paedophilic tendencies. The lure of the global exposure and the performance fee probably drown out the irony for the boy’s parents. I doubt they think that it’s OK for boys to be abused, even by a superstar.

The second BBC channel has cleared its schedule to show the Memorial. He was a talented entertainer, perhaps not the genius some claim, and the pleasure his music and performance gave to millions should be celebrated. But Michael Jackson was who he was for all his talent – a deeply troubled man who worked out his problems on others who themselves were vulnerable. We have to remember that too.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Bishop and I

The reports on the controversial remarks of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali on homosexuality and on his involvement in a renewal/secessionist (you choose which!) movement in the Church of England reminded me of one encounter with him.

I once had the pleasure of meeting with a delegation from the Church of England to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. I knew some members and my previous experience had meant working for and with the C of E so I thought I was at home amongst them. My presentation seemed to be well received and the initial questions were sharp but friendly.

Then Bishop Michael spoke up. Why, he wondered, didn't the World Council of Churches have anyone from England amongst the executive staff. I have since thought of all kinds of retorts I might have offered - but perhaps it was as well that they didn't come from my lips at the time. I simply and rather humbly offered myself as the proof that there was someone from England. But, no, no, I didn't count. English representation only counted, apparently, if it were by someone from the C of E.

Even though I stand in a tradition that did break away from the C of E, albeit centuries ago, I hope that if that particular story replayed itself, I wouldn't have to ask "Which Church of England would that be then, Bishop?"

An act of solidarity

Thank You, Mr President - an anniversary tribute to Abraham Licoln was the title of the concert by the Halle Orchestra and Choir on Saturday evening, 4th July, to celebrate Lincoln's 200th birthday. But why should Manchester celebrate Abrham Lincoln? The answer is a great act of solidarity.

The blockade of the southern states during the American Civil War led to the drying up of the raw cotton that fed the cotton mills of Lancashire. This caused considerable hardship amongst the workers. No cotton, no work, no pay. The cotton workers held a meeting in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 31 December 1862. Instead of urging the breaking of the blockade, they sent a letter to Lincoln in solidarity with the fight against slavery. Their hope was for the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity - chattel slavery. Lincoln replied, deploring their sufferings. He said, I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice humanity and freedom.

That puts my efforts for trade justice into perspective - I just pay a bit extra for faitr trade products, not go hungry. All honour to the cotton workers who were prepared to pay a high price for a just cause.

PS It was an excellent and moving concert too.