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.