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.