Monday, 15 November 2010

A fragile flower being crushed by heavy agendas

The poppy may be persistent in appearing each year but it is a fragile flower. It is not a chunky, robust flower. Its petals are light and open wide. The red petals may be redolent of the bloodshed of battle but its structure speaks of vulnerability.

The Royal British Legion has taken ownership of the poppy as a symbol. The British Legion is a charity which must maximise its income in order to fulfil its objectives. I have strong feelings about a country that sends women and men to be maimed and killed and then fails to take full responsibility. However the question why so much care has to be undertaken by fundraising is another issue. The reality is that many of those we have willed to suffer rely on the work of the British Legion. One must admire the way the marketers of the charity have re-energised their fundraising, particularly under the challenge of newcomers like Hope4Heros who are competing in the same sector. Those former and present members of the armed forces who have protested against the increasing show-biz aspect of remembrance are right and wrong. Quiet reflection does not put money in the bank. Concerts, celebrity endorsements and attention grabbing events do. The red poppy now takes its place with the wristbands and pins of other charities.

There are those who are intent on getting us to accept (or at least not criticise) involvement in Afghanistan and before that in Iraq. To question, the subtle message is, would be to deny the bereaved a sense of noble purpose in death and to say to those who have been terribly maimed in body and mind that it was all for nothing. This says much not just about a cynical ability to manipulate public opinion but about our general paucity of understanding of meaning in living and dying. The red poppy used to legitimate wars.

Remembrance is both passive and active. It is about bringing into the present the things of the past. It is also about reshaping the present in the light of the experience of the past. The poppy, red and white, calls us to be quiet in the face of the horrors of war both for combatants and for the myriad others affected directly and indirectly. The human lust for power and economic advantage takes us into war and it does us good to shut up and reflect. The delicate, fragile poppy calls us to go on to ‘seek the ways that lead to peace’. Is that the poppy that we have crushed by the other agendas?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

What's the real question?

There are some questions it is difficult to answer because of a wrong set of assumptions behind them. When the issue was newsworthy, I was asked whether I was in favour of the ordination of women. It was assumed that the problem at issue was the women part of the question. For me, though, the question was about the baggage that accompanied the idea of ordination. I am not in favour of men or women being ordained if it is seen, for example, as conferring power and privilege over other Christians. There are what I would consider to be unhealthy view of ordination among the churches. The concept, implications and content of ordination need to be thought through. Women should be equal in aspiration and opportunity in their vocations. It is how the churches often package those vocations that’s the problem for me. So a question about whether women should be bishops would raise the same problems.

I feel a similar response to the current challenges in England to a legal framework that allows civil partnerships but prohibits marriage to same sex couples. Am I in favour of same sex marriage? I cannot just say yes or no - which is fortunately really because as a minister of the Baptist Union of Great Britain I am not supposed to advocate such things. Such a question almost certainly assumes that the problem is the same sex bit and the marriage bit is unproblematical. There are many views of marriage in the churches and in society and some of them are downright unhealthy for women and men or for same sex couples. A trend for marriage to be seen as lovey-dovey happy-ever-after needs to be examined if relationships are to survive. Older traditional views of marriage as being about property and control are equally in need of examination. Husband and wife are not neutral words that just happen to be applied to a man and a woman. They each carry with them unspoken sets of assumptions about the nature of the relationship. These are just examples of the need to be clear what we think marriage means. Until we are clear what we mean by marriage, questions about who should get married are unanswerable.

That God’s love is inclusive and that healthy community requires equal opportunities to participate seem to me to be unexceptionable. It is how we package our roles and relationships that we need to think through.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Desmond Tutu at Porto Alegre

As Desmond Tutu steps out of public life, a particular memory comes to mind. It was at the WCC 2006 Assembly in Porto Alegre and I was sitting in an area that allowed me to watch those gathered in the hall – sometimes more interesting than the presentations.

Desmond Tutu contributed to a session on church unity. He received a universal standing ovation as he took his place to speak. The Assembly newspaper records: “A united church is no optional extra,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an impassioned speech to the Assembly on Monday. It is “indispensable for the salvation of God’s world.” ... Apartheid had continued so long, he said, because the church was divided, and God called it to unity. “Jesus was quite serious when he said that God was our father, that we all belonged to one family, because in this family all, not some, are insiders.”

So far, so good. A spirited performance but not saying anything unexceptional for the occasion. But then he went on to spell out what ‘all are insiders’ meant. For example, “Bush, bin Laden, all belong, gay, lesbian, so-called straight - all belong and are loved, are precious.” All those people whom society and the church love to demonise and exclude. It seemed very clear from some faces at that point that they didn’t think that God ought to love such people and that such people were definitely on the outside of any family they belonged to.

Desmond Tutu left to a standing ovation but there were some who deliberately stayed seated. It’s an interesting thought that church representatives might protest against the idea that Jesus actually meant what he said. It was Tutu’s gift to be able to confront us with uncomfortable truths not with some economic or social theories but on the basis of the gospel.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

40 Years On

It only seems like yesterday, but 40 years ago on 6 September 1970 I was inducted as a member of the ministry team of what was then called the North Cheshire Fellowship. Never being one to do the simple and straightforward when something more complex was possible, the whole thing had its peculiarities. The service was also the closing service of the church building where it was held, which bemused the local press.

Leaving aside the question as to why anyone should have thought that I was a suitable person to be a pastor in a local congregation, there were things about the situation that were controversial in Baptist circles. Baptists organised themselves in individual (and often individualistic) congregations. A group of 8 congregations, one of which was Congregational, was too radical for some in the denomination. Through rationalisation, overcoming some divisive history, the group settled down to being 5 congregations, one of which was a Baptist/URC LEP. Team ministry was also too much for many devoted to the one man(!), one church model. When my Baptist Union probationary period came to an end, I felt that the committee interviewing me expected an apology for not being in the traditional mode. Of course, I didn’t make matters easier by saying that putting me as the sole minister of a church would be stupid.

It was the group and team working that had attracted as well as the context of the small post-industrial towns which had been absorbed into Greater Manchester. The early 1970’s were challenging times economically and socially. Ugandan Asians expelled by Amin arrived in the area. Local government reorganisation gave opportunities for ecumenical engagement with the emerging Tameside Metropolitan Borough. Demanding, frustrating, exciting - I would not exchange those five years for anything.

Looking at the Order of Service for the Induction, I am struck by the rightness of one of the hymns:

SING we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, God's name exalt:
Sing we the words of Mary's song
Of God at war with human wrong.

By God the poor are lifted up;
God satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands:
The rich are left with empty hands.

Sing we of God who deeply cares
And still with us our burden shares;
God, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.

God calls us to revolt and fight,
To seek for what is just and right.
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat.

40 years on, I’ll still go with that.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Clapping for all occasions

Are we becoming more limited in our repertoire of emotional responses? I have sat in audiences where the desire to express appreciation through clapping has revealed an insensitivity towards the performance. The mood or thread of a drama is broken. At orchestral concerts, even when the conductor has suggested that immediate clapping is not appropriate at the end of an emotive piece of music, the last note is not even allowed to die away before the applause kicks in. Of course, we should show appreciation for what we have experienced. Clapping and cheering is absolutely right in context. But where, in other contexts, has the profound silence gone - not the silence of apathy but the silence that is so thick that you could cut it with a knife? Performers are rewarded by the audience recognising and responding to the emotional atmosphere that they have created.

The two minute silence to mark death on occasions like football matches has been replaced by two minutes applause. Public funeral processions, like those for troops killed in Afghanistan, are marked by applause. If we want to be seen as doing something to show sympathy and respect, how is applause an appropriate action? Standing in silence is doing something and, for my money, has infinitely more emotional power.

Are we becoming so hyperactive and so much in need of being surrounded with noise that we no longer know how to do silence?

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Confessions of a tactical voter

The news today (4 May) seems to be dominated by calls for and against tactical voting in the General Election.

I confess that I have been a tactical voter ever since 1984. Before that I had always voted for my party of choice. What happened in 1984 was that we moved from Rusholme, Manchester to Warlingham, Surrey and nothing changed when we moved back to Greater Manchester in 1992 to Cheadle Hulme. The real, sometimes only, choice in both Warlingham and Cheadle Hulme was between Conservative and Liberal Democrat.

For me, that was no choice because my instinct has always been and remains anti-Tory. Performance in office is another matter. The Conservatives have taken some counter-intuitive decisions like making non-selective education the norm (undermined by governments of both colours ever since). Labour have taken the UK into the disasters of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (albeit needing the support of Conservatives because of the resistance of many of their own MPs).

My anti-Tory bias is a matter of personal principles (or prejudices). Even though I am irredeemably middle class, I do not forget my working class connections. I have met relatives who knew what it was like to sweat on the factory floor or on the land at the whim and to the benefit of their masters. Some relatives are still trapped in social deprivation. The Conservatives are a party of privilege where even the demeaning principle of noblesse oblige has withered.

I am from a non-conformist Christian tradition and, therefore, from a radical social/political stream that was opposed to the ruling class mentality of the Church of England and the Tories. Things may have changed with part of the Church of England embracing a more critical approach to the state in one direction and an individualistic faith encouraged by evangelicism resonating with a market economy in another. Embracing the radical non-conformist tradition probably may make me one of a dying breed but it does mean that I have an anti-Tory bias.

I fail to live up to the demands of the gospel but I do believe in them. I want to see the powerful brought down from their thrones, and the lowly lifted up; the hungry filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty. Political decisions may have to be pragmatic but they should be based on principle. So I want to know where the heart of a political party is as measured by the gospel. I do not say that the other parties embrace the values of God’s kingdom, even (especially) so-called Christian parties. However, my judgement is that the heart of the Conservative party, even as made user friendly by David Cameron, is not in the right place.

So, on Thursday my vote will be cast tactically. I can do no other!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Premium experience - an insulting offer?

It’s that time of year when Manchester City inform their supporters how much they will have to pay for their season ticket for next season. The City website carries the information that the area where I currently sit will be upgraded to offer ‘a premium experience for supporters’. This wonderful news carries with it the privilege of paying more and probably increasing amounts over subsequent seasons.

So what might be a premium experience? Well, quaint old fashioned thing that I am, for me it would be open attacking football that pleases the eye and excites. It would be skilful and committed players and creative tactics. I don’t expect City to win every match providing they lose to a team that’s better on the day. I know that a 0-0 draw can be exciting. The experience I seek when I go to the stadium is watching football – with all its ups and downs. What more could you want of a premium experience?

I’m not looking for a shopping experience or an eating and drinking experience. My boredom threshold is not so low that I need to be entertained before the match or at half-time. I feel quite insulted that the club I’ve supported in good times and bad, as ‘owners’ have come and gone thinks I am so shallow that I need that kind of premium experience.

The club did offer supporters a chance to participate in a survey and I answered their questions about what I want. I would be interested to see the results but I doubt they will be published. So I’m left with the suspicion that this was a sham consultation when the decision to offer this kind of premium experience was already planned. And that is doubly insulting.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The cloud that could corrode and destroy us

Not the cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland that has grounded air travel and caused anxiety and frustration for those trapped far from home. Instead, another cloud hanging over the UK General Election. It is sometimes seen in the British National Party and the UK Independence Party but is mainly hidden in the so-called mainstream parties. But it is there with its potentially corrosive and destructive effects.

We can describe it as xenophobia, racism, ‘me and mine’ism etc but to attach such labels isn’t really helpful. The cloud panders to a perceived base instinct of people as interpreted by popular papers, who are more interested in headlines that sell their papers than any principles. It manifests itself in a desire for a UK that is ‘cut off’ from the rest of the world, particularly mainland Europe. It parades commitments to the UN 0.7% spending on overseas aid yet talks of delivering that in ways that support particular ideologies and of benefit to the UK military-industrial complex as much as anyone else. It holds on to the mega-expensive Trident missile system for its symbolism of being a powerful nation, even against military analysis. It defends dubious military enterprises by unproven appeal to safety on our streets. All examples of a small and mean political discourse which will do us more harm than good.

And it’s all so irrational, even on the politicians' own terms. Without the immigrants we are encouraged to despise and shut out, the health and care services would collapse – a significant proportion of surgeons, doctors, nurses, care assistants and cleaners come to contribute to our well being. Even our football would be diminished by the absence of those who come from other countries – mercenaries, maybe, but ones that contribute to our entertainment. And we British enjoy the opportunity of working or retiring in other countries – yet still often see our hosts as the foreigners and not ourselves as migrant workers or immigrants.

Facts don’t count in a discourse of emotion. We are encouraged to huddle together in fear instead of being engaged with a large and generous political vision than can excite.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Happy 120th Birthday, Servette

It may be difficult for some people to understand but it really isn’t possible to live without football to watch and a local team to support. All the so called Manchester United fans who live in London and Arsenal fans who live in Leeds, who only watch any football on tv, haven’t got it. I need football to hand to feel at home in a place!

So when I got an interview in 1995 for a post with the World Council of Churches, I checked out the football possibilities. Servette FC had a good history in the Swiss league and European competitions. So my visit to Geneva included my personal intention to visit their ground to get a feel for things. However, I found they had a home match so I went along. Yes, I thought, I’d be OK here. So the decision to accept the WCC job was easy!

In the 13 years I watched them (when the fixtures didn’t clash with Man City’s home matches) I was able to enjoy a league title win and a cup final. Lots of European matches too. Then came the curse of the new ground. The old characterful stadium was replaced by a new stadium in preparation for the 2008 European Football Championship hosted in Switzerland and Austria. At the same time the club fell into the hands of the incompetent, having goodwill but lacking resources, and finally a fraudster (later convicted). The club went bust. It was reformed and, for complicated reasons, was able to resume in the third level rather than lower down the pyramid. Servette quickly climbed back to the second level where it has become becalmed.

So thank you, Servette for giving me the kind of excitement and heartache that is the lot of the football fan. Thank you for giving me something I could share with people who weren’t ecumenicalists or part of the international community.

Happy Birthday, Servette! May the next years be more pleasure than pain.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A mea culpa from the Pope?

Hans Kung has his own complex agenda with the Vatican. However, he is surely correct in calling for the Pope to admit his complicity in the scandal of paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church. “Protecting their priests seems to have counted more for the bishops than protecting children,” he said according to the agency reporting an interview published in Süddeutsche Zeitung today (17 March). “Decency requires that the primary party responsible for the concealment [of the cases], namely Joseph Ratzinger [the pope], makes his own mea culpa.” Those who have been concerned about abuse in the churches have been aware of the Vatican policy of gaining the silence of the abused and moving on the offender. Not only failing to address the incidents of abuse but setting up new possibilities. This behaviour is sadly not unique to the Roman Catholic church.

His call for a reconsideration of the celibacy of priests may be correct for all kinds of reasons. However, sexual abuse is far more complex than just sexually frustrated men working out their drives on children. It would be very dangerous for the church to reconsider celibacy on such a ground – particularly for children.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

'Christianity led me to the party’

‘God is not a Conservative, but Christianity led me to the party’ – not my testimony but that of Tim Montgomerie, founder of the unofficial but highly influential ConservativeHome website. It’s the headline for an interview in this week’s New Statesman (15 March 2010).

And how did Christianity lead him to the Tories? The answer was ‘because of what I believe about family and individual responsibility’. Not, apparently, the radical message of the gospels in the magnificat, the beatitudes or Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. If anything about Christian faith could provide a basis for involvement in politics, I would have thought it should be that.

Many Christians do go on about the family. According to the gospels, though, Jesus himself had questions about the family because of its potential to get in the way of the priorities of the kingdom. It wasn’t that Jesus was against loving, committed relationship but just that he wanted to blow it out of the narrow confines even of extended family, let alone our nuclear families - to universalise it. Family values is too small a vision for Christian faith.

Individual responsibility – that’s not good even for a ‘me and God’ kind of faith. It smacks too much of ‘there’s no such thing as society, just individuals’. There is a communal or collective aspect to Christian faith. Churches recognise that, for example, in baptism and communion. We collectively, rather than a collection of individuals, are the body of Christ. There is a personal responsibility for our actions and relationships but that is not the same as individual responsibility.

How tragic for Tim Montgomerie and for those he influences that a faith once experienced as turning the world upside down should come to be reduced to family and individual responsibility.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

No-cost conscience

170 nonconformists went to prison in England in the early 1900s for refusing to pay their taxes. The issue was that the 1902 Education Act had integrated most denominational schools into the state system. As the majority of these schools were Anglican, the nonconformists objected to their taxes paying for a kind of religious education they found unacceptable.

Jump forward to 2010 and we have two issue where churches in England want their consciences (or prejudices) assuaged by the taxpayer. On the whole Christians have a good record in promoting legislation for people’s rights – see the story of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s just that in reality churches don’t want it to apply to them – so the anguish about employment legislation on having to treat women or gay people fairly. The state has to bend the rules, apparently, to allow for the churches’ conscience in such matters. Nowhere in the discussion have I heard it recognised that there might be a price that the churches had to pay in maintaining their conscience, if they wish to do so.

Likewise there seems to be a feeling amongst many religious people that there is nothing wrong in the state funding their schools and religious education. Although it is wrong to call it religious education, more like specific faith nurture very often done by emphasising the quality of one faith against the deficiencies of others. You don’t, I think, build a tolerant society by using taxes to fund divisive education – a lesson still not yet learnt in Northern Ireland. The creeping religiousification of the state school system in England by taking schools out of local community ownership and into the hands of people with particular religious agendas, however benign some of these may be, is dangerous for the well being of society. If your conscience tells you that you want to nurture children and young people in faith or you want to bring new people into your fold, you are free to do it – but you should pay for it yourself.

Having a no-cost conscience is a strange thing to be thinking about in Lent.

Monday, 15 February 2010

‘Ready Steady Cook’ Worship

For those not familiar with the BBC tv programme Ready Steady Cook, it is based on chefs being required to produce a meal from sets of ingredients purchased by non-chef participants. Sometimes it looks as though the items were bought with an idea of what might result, sometimes they appear to be a completely random selection.

Preparing a service of worship is never easy. It is difficult enough when one is only confronted with the lectionary readings and, of course, the context in which the worship will take place.

Sometimes though, it feels as though the ingredients presented are so disparate as to make the worship preparers task a real challenge. This last Sunday, deputising for the pastor, was a case in point for me. The lectionary demanded that attention be paid to the transfiguration of Jesus. It was Valentine’s Day – it’s a reality even if you think it is more a commercial than romantic opportunity. The congregation were to be engaged with the youth group’s project for the year – 10:10 (the campaign to reduce carbon emissions by 10% in 2010 - For what it’s worth, it struck me that for all the extraordinariness of the experience on the mountain top and the desire to permanently memorialise it, when the disciples returned to everyday life they had not been able to be inspired or empowered to respond to the situation that confronted them. The plaintive complaint of a distracted father to Jesus is a powerful counterpoint to the mountain top – We begged your disciples to do something but they could not.

So my conclusion (at least according to the scrappy notes I preach from – I have no idea what I actually said!) was:
It’s all very well to get romantic on Valentines’s Day but it’s how the relationship works for the other 364 days of the year.
It’s all very well rejoicing in the world we have been given to enjoy but it’s how we live responsibly in it every day.
It’s all very well coming to church and rejoicing how much God loves us but it’s how faith shapes and enables our behaviour the other 6 days, 23 hours each week.

Unless worship is prepared on the Ready Stead Cook principle, attempting to integrate all the ingredients that come from different directions, it will always run the danger of being a great experience (sometimes) but one which makes no difference beyond the moment.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Don’t blame the exam protesters

A Facebook protest group about a recent A Level Biology exam has attracted thousands of members. The complaints seemed to be that the questions did not give students a good enough opportunity to reproduce the content of the syllabus they had sweated to learn. It was hard, apparently, to discern what the right answer to the question was. They were annoyed and fearful that all this would result in a poor mark which would spoil their chances of their desired university place.

Only having second hand information, I’m in no position to comment on the specifics. However, it seems that these students have learnt one lesson very well. Education is about preparing for and taking exams. Exams are the opportunity to show that you have learnt the content of a syllabus. It doesn’t matter too much if you can’t understand providing that you can describe how something works or what happened and the consequences of that. To be honest, I have passed exams by simply reproducing what I’ve been told without having any understanding. This view of education has been pushed by politicians of both major parties when in government and society has gone along with it. The beauty of it for an instant results oriented culture that it is measurable. Results can be analysed and we can congratulate ourselves on how much better schools and universities are doing or blame someone when results decline. But it isn’t education!

A defender of the Exam Board suggested that questions in this particular instance had been designed to get students to apply the principles of what they had studied rather than only reproduce ‘facts’. Exactly the right approach in my view. Education isn’t a memory trick. It is about understanding, knowing how to use, critical thinking.

But don’t blame the exam protestors. They’ve only bought into our delusion.