Monday, 17 December 2012

O little town of Bethlehem

A powerful video of Palestinians telling of the birth of Jesus from Bethlehem.


h/t Graham Tomlin

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Corpse Bride

No, not the brilliant stop-motion animation film by Tim Burton but the words that came to mind as I reflected on the failure of General Synod to pass the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure by the requisite two thirds majority in each house. One of the most striking images of the Church in the New Testament is of the Church as a Bride. At the moment the Church of England seems in the eyes of many to be a Corpse Bride or at least on its death bed and gasping its last breaths.

I am rather dismayed at the speed with which some of my colleagues have rushed to print in the media to pronounce the last rites over the body. I can understand the frustration, anger and hurt that is around, I feel it myself, but many seem to have forgotten that every follower of Christ is part of the Church. It’s not an optional extra for us, it’s part of the deal. Down through the centuries there have been plenty of times when the Church seems to have written its suicide note but somehow, by the grace of God, it has not died. Our challenge is and has always been to work out how we deal with the set backs, screw ups and follies because we are a flawed and damaged crew united by the grace of God and called to work out that unity in the everyday messiness of life.

So when I think about the Corpse Bride I console myself with this truth; The Bridegroom has a habit of bringing that which is dead or dying back to life, so let’s not write the obituary too hastily.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Slogging up to Arras

A couple of weeks ago we sat down as a family and watched the film War Horse, both my children had already read Michael Morpurgo’s book, and then we chatted about the First World War.

I learnt about the horrors of war not in my history lessons but in English. The War Poets captured, in a way no historian could, the horror and waste of life on the front line during  the ‘war to end all wars’. Of course the ‘Great War’ didn’t signal an end to conflict, its outcome doomed Europe to a period of instability which was the seed bed of the Second World War and so many of the tensions and conflict which followed in Europe. On this day, when we remember all those who died as a result of these conflicts, I turn to one of those great writers of the early part of the last century to glimpse again something of what so many went through at such great cost.
‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said 
When we met him last week on our way to the line. 
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, 
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine. 
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
The General: Siegfried Sassoon
And then a sonnet for this day called Silence by Michael Guite:

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Fan Dancing and the Archbishop

It would have been more edifying for the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s name to have been revealed by Dita Von Teese fan dancing on the steps of St Paul, than for the complete omnishambles that the Church of England has managed to concoct. For months we have been encouraged to pray for those charged with discerning God’s will on this matter only for the news to have seeped out through leaks to favoured journalists and betting at the bookies. I don’t know who has done this but the whole set up seems to have been devised to make it likely this was the way the news would come out.

Anyway, enough of the rant, here are a few of my thoughts on the new Archbishop.
  1. I didn’t want the last one to go but I wish Rowan and Jane well in the next stage of their journey with God and give thanks for all they have so sacrificially given in serving him and us.
  2. We should give thanks for those who have borne the burden of discerning who should be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.
  3. I hope the new Archbishop will make a priority of finding a new way of appointing his successor so we don’t have to endure this nonsense again.
  4. It doesn’t matter how hard the Church tries to mess up God’s will for our lives, he has a habit of fulfilling his purposes even through our screw ups. That is as true for the people he raises up to positions of leadership as it is for the rest of us.
  5. I really don’t care what accent he has, what school he went to or how much money he has. All I want to know is that the Archbishop is someone with a heart to serve God in the place where he has been called to minister. God looks on the heart not the outward appearance.
  6. The new Archbishop needs, and has a right to expect, our prayers and support. Too often we have prayed for our church leaders on Sunday and proceeded to slag them off mercilessly the rest of the week. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be held accountable but the attacks on predecessors have usually been about our own preferences and prejudices that we have convinced ourselves must be God’s will.
  7. Throughout this post I’ve referred to ‘he’ for ‘he’ it will be. I look forward to the day when that is no longer the case.
Now where did I put that betting slip?

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Enough Waiting

Bishop Stephen Cottrell has called on the Church of England to say yes to women bishops. In a short and unequivocal statement the Bishop of Chelmsford declares that a decision to consecrate women bishops is of the Gospel. He basis this call on the outworking of Galatians 3:28 'There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus'.

 Bishop Stephen explains:
I believe this is one of those bits of scripture through which we interpret a lot of other bits. And I believe that that full humanity, which is ours in Jesus Christ, will be better revealed - much better for the world, much better for us - when men and women serve equally as bishops, priests and deacons within the Church of Jesus Christ.

The full text of his statement can be found here.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Let My People Go

Today is Anti-Slavery Day. Now you might think that to have a day dedicated to opposing slavery is meaningless in a country where slavery was abolished in 1833, but tragically slavery is alive and well in this country and overseas.Last weekend I heard two talks in very different contexts about slavery in India.

The first was the testimony given by a young woman called Pranitha Timothy at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. Pranitha spoke about her ministry with the International Justice Mission working to free slaves in India. Her story about the dangers in freeing a group of families held captive in a rice mill was chilling, as she recalled the collusion of the mill owners, the local community and the local authorities. These vested interests would rather have murdered those being held in captivity and those seeking to free them, than see them released.

The second talk, or series of talks, was from our church CMS link partners working in northern India. The nature of their work means that I cannot be specific about their location or their names, however, the focus of their ministry is on prevention and freeing children caught up in the slave trade. Again, the range of vested interests opposing their ministry means that they are working in very challenging situations.

It is easy to conceive of slavery taking place in other countries, harder to accept it still goes on in our own. Yet, today a report from the Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on human trafficking makes appalling reading. Last year 712 adults and 234 children were referred to the National Referral Mechanism as potential victims. The Child Exploitation and Online Prevention Centre estimates that there are about 300 children trafficked each year in the United Kingdom. The report claims that the first cases of trafficking for organ harvesting have now taken place. Yes, people trafficked into this country so that parts of their bodies can be taken and sold to someone else.

So what will you do on Anti-Slavery Day? Pretend it doesn’t happen? Dismiss it as something going on in the far flung corners of our globe? Or join in opposing slavery by supporting the work of the agencies I’ve mentioned or other organisations involved in the anti-slavery movement like Stop The Traffick?

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Little Britain comes to Woodham Ferrers

This is one of the most imaginative approaches to advertising for a vicar I've come across. Normally a church will produce a parish profile; a large document full of facts and figures, job description and person specification. To be honest many parish profiles should be filed under the fiction section of the local library. The only way to get a feel for a parish, the church and its people is to go there. Woodham Ferrers and Bickenacre is a parish in the same deanery where I serve. Here the church has taken a different approach and I think it will pay dividends. Initial reaction to the video has been very favourable and I hope and pray they find the right person to come and share with them in ministry and mission. This is a great example of what can be done using the resources of social media and some enthusiastic participants.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Living distinctively

At the beginning of 2012 Bishop Stephen Cottrell launched Transforming Presence (TP), a visionary challenge for the Diocese of Chelmsford. Here +Stephen talks about the challenge to Christians to inhabit the world distinctively.

Over recent months we've been exploring the different themes of TP and reflecting on how we can respond in our three churches and as a team. So watch this space...

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Drug of the Nation

I first came across the song Television, The Drug of the Nation by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy when it was played at the beginning of U2’s Zoo TV extravaganza at Wembley in 1993. I thought it was brilliant then and nearly twenty years on I haven’t seen anything to change my mind .

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Possibly the best TFTD - ever

I don’t always agree with Giles Fraser, or should I say he doesn’t always agree with me. Last Wednesday I thought he delivered one of the most pertinent Thought for the Day’s on BBC Radio 4 I have heard since I first started listening to them back in the 1970s. Here is the full text and you can judge for yourselves:
In a BBC opinion poll out today, 46% of respondents agreed that Rowan Williams has helped the Church of England remain relevant to modern Britain. 27% disagreed, and 27% didn’t know. But what is all this business about being relevant? And how important is it? After all, the achingly trendy schoolteacher, desperately pretending to be one of the kids, is rightly a figure of fun. Is that what we mean by relevant? If so, then I suspect that the church is better off without it. Gimmicky relevance and trendy vicars are not going to make much difference to the broader arc of human history.

Indeed, by far the more important question is not whether what the church says is relevant but whether what it says is true. Is it true that God exists? Is it true that this God loves all human beings and seeks for them an existence that is fully and wonderfully alive? Is it true that Jesus died to free us from bondage to destructive self-absorption? You may think the answer to these questions is “no” – fair enough. But if the answer is “yes” - or even “perhaps” - then I think all this stuff about relevance looks after itself. Which is another way of saying that if the church wants to remain relevant, what it has to do is speak out of its deepest convictions. It has to re-tell its own story with passion and honesty. That will continue to be the job of the next Archbishop of Canterbury - who will be chosen by a meeting that starts later today.

It is an impossible job, of course. For there will be times when the church is saying something completely different to contemporary culture; when it will be deliberately out of step with the prevailing world-view. Christians ought to expect this to happen a lot - not least because we dream of a world that is transformed by God’s love, and, quite obviously, and in so many ways, the world in which we live is not a world thus transformed. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that Christians ought to be “resident aliens” – aliens because what we say seems so weird and out of touch with modern reality that it feels like it comes from another world.

And that’s is fine with me because I’m not all that enamoured with a great deal of what passes for modern reality. This is a world where millions die of starvation and where people continue to butcher each other for countless stupid reasons, including of course, stupid reasons created by religion itself. This is the reality the church must continually address and challenge. But let’s not call it relevance. We are not politicians wanting your votes. We are not shops wanting your business. The message of the church has been around for two thousand years, and I dare say is going to be around for another two thousand more. So we don’t really have to worry too much about focus groups or opinion polls. If what we say is true then it’s always going to be relevant. Indeed, it’s surely a matter of life and death.
Here's the broadcast (unfortunately the audio is slightly corrupted).

Monday, 16 July 2012

Jon Lord RIP

Another of the greats departs. A brilliant keyboard player who put subtlety and grace into metal. Thanks for some great songs Jon. I posted about Jon Lord's Durham Concerto a while back.

Saturday, 7 July 2012


Following on from yesterday’s post about being invited to a banquet, here is Stuart Townend’s excellent song Vagabonds.

h/t Chris Hollingshurst

Friday, 6 July 2012

Some banquet

In the post this morning arrived an invitation to a dinner and I began to get excited. My presence was requested at a Summer Dinner to launch an appeal. Then two things struck me about the invitation. I noticed that the dinner is next Saturday, so either they’ve been a bit slow getting the invites out or I was on the reserve list and not many of the original guests had accepted. I suspect the latter is the reason because the next thing I noticed is that the cost is £45 per head! Now I don’t know who the target group for this bash is but I’m not a Barclays dealer or director so I’m afraid I won’t be going.

The invite did remind me of a story Jesus told about a banquet. The great and the good had been invited but found lots of excuses not to attend. So the guest list was opened up to include the riffraff, though I don’t remember them being asked to stump up nearly a Nifty to get in. There was a sting in the tale, however, for one poor chap turned up in the wrong jacket and was promptly slung out. I’ve always identified with the unfortunate dinner guest as he seems to have been blessed with the same sartorial elegance as me. This is what I love about Jesus stories; there’s nearly always something slightly edgy or uncomfortable in there somewhere for those with ears to hear.

Knowing my luck, even if I’d accepted the invitation to the summer dinner and handed over the dosh I would have been refused entry. The dress code is ‘Lounge Suit’ and I don’t even know what one of those is, let alone possess one.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Something in the bank

I am not sure what I think of Back to Church Sunday; at times it feels a little bit more like Backsliders Sunday, with rather negative vibes, and it can excuse us from working at reaching out to the local community throughout the year. However, in this video Archbishop Rowan Williams raises some helpful insights about how we need to ‘galvanise the connection’ with the diminishing, but nevertheless still important, group of people who do have a residual connection with the Church and the Christian faith. I like Rowans phrase ‘we have something significant in the bank’ and we need to make use of it.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Love, Dad

It would be true to say that Ronald Reagan was one of my least favourite politicians. He represented so much of what I detested about politics and international relations in the 1980s. Today I came across this letter published by Letters of Note which gives a glimpse into the wisdom of a man very different from his public persona. The letter is written by Reagan to his son Michael shortly before he got married in 1971.
Michael Reagan
Manhattan Beach, California
June 1971
Dear Mike:
Enclosed is the item I mentioned (with which goes a torn up IOU). I could stop here but I won't.

You've heard all the jokes that have been rousted around by all the "unhappy marrieds" and cynics. Now, in case no one has suggested it, there is another viewpoint. You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life. It can be whatever you decide to make it.

Some men feel their masculinity can only be proven if they play out in their own life all the locker-room stories, smugly confident that what a wife doesn't know won't hurt her. The truth is, somehow, way down inside, without her ever finding lipstick on the collar or catching a man in the flimsy excuse of where he was till three A.M., a wife does know, and with that knowing, some of the magic of this relationship disappears. There are more men griping about marriage who kicked the whole thing away themselves than there can ever be wives deserving of blame. There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it. The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out. Sure, there will be moments when you will see someone or think back to an earlier time and you will be challenged to see if you can still make the grade, but let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life. Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn't take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear. Do that and keep her still feeling a warm glow and you will know some very beautiful music. If you truly love a girl, you shouldn't ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors.

Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.

P.S. You'll never get in trouble if you say "I love you" at least once a day.
h/t Sarah Fey

Sunday, 13 May 2012

RIP Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn

Yet another legend departs the stage as the death is announced of bass player Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn. Thanks for some great music and for The Blues Brothers.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Friday, 20 April 2012

Thanks Levon

With much gratitude for some great music: Levon Helm May 26, 1940 – April 19, 2012

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Family meals, Passover and Palestine

I was interested to hear the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks’ contribution to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 Today last Friday. The focus of his reflection was on The Passover and he drew attention to it being a family occasion gathered around a meal, rather than simply a religious ceremony in synagogue. I warmed to what he said:
The Passover season is well and truly on us. We’re preparing our homes for the festival of freedom, with its special foods and elaborate rituals, one of the oldest religious rituals in the world, and one of Judaism’s most sacred moments. What’s special is that it’s observed not in the synagogue but at home, around the table, as a family. The starring part is always taken by the youngest child, and their role is to ask questions.
And if there’s one element of Judaism I’d love to share with everyone it’s this: If you want to survive and thrive as a people, a culture, a civilization, celebrate the family. Hold it sacred. Eat together. Tell the story of what most matters to you across the generations. Make children the most important people. Put them centre stage. Encourage them to ask questions, the more the better. That’s what Moses said thirty three centuries ago and Judaism is still here to tell the tale having survived some of the most brutal persecutions in human history, yet as a religious faith still young and full of energy…
And then I began to think of the many Palestinian Christian families who are unable to meet, celebrate and share together in the way the Chief Rabbi encourages. Palestinian Christians, along with other Palestinians, are inhibited by a security wall and security regulations which cut communities off from each other, divide families and friends and separate many Christians from their cathedrals and other holy sites. I would like to ask the Chief Rabbi how these people are being encouraged to celebrate as families and encouraged to thrive as a people, a culture and a civilization?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Real Hunger Games #Lentlink 9

The film The Hunger Games premiered a few days ago and looks to have been a box office hit having made the third highest opening weekend sales. The film, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, is set in a post apocalyptic world confronting issues of severe poverty, starvation, oppression, and the effects of war.

To coincide with the film Tearfund has launched The Real Hunger Games, focusing attention on the plight of the 1 billion people throughout the world facing poverty and hunger today. The Tearfund resources include details of its work, reflections on themes raised by the film and suggestions for campaigning for governments to take action.

Don’t just watch the film and forget about the issues, check out the Tearfund campaign and get involved. The Damaris Trust has also produced some resources to discuss some of the other issues raised by the film.
Lord God, we pray for everyone who is hungry today – whether they live thousands of miles away or in our local communities.
We pray urgently for food prices around the world to stabilise and fall, so that more countries do not fall into extreme hunger.
God we ask for wisdom for leaders and experts working to tackle hunger, and that they would be willing and able to make progress in identifying ways to combat food security and help communities adapt to changing weather patterns.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Open to death

Reflecting on a verse from tomorrow’s Gospel reading:
‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’
John 12:24
I remember a powerful account of what this might mean from David Ford’s book The Shape of Living. Ford writes:
Jesus taught and demonstrated  an alternative which above all centred on desiring God and the kingdom of God. The stakes were as high as could be, and he knew well that the ultimate stake is life itself. This meant facing death. p.39
etty hillesumFord goes on to quote a letter from the Dutch Jewish woman Etty Hillesum, who left some letters and a diary behind from the months before being sent to Auschwitz where she died. Hillesum focused on what really mattered in life in the face of death.
People here fritter their energy away on the thousand irksome details that grind us down every day; they lose themselves in detail and drown. That’s why they get driven off course and find existence pointless. The few big things that matter in life are what we have to keep in mind; the rest can be quietly abandoned. And you can find those few big things anywhere, you have t keep rediscovering them in yourself so that you can be renewed. And in spite of everything you always end up with the same conviction: life is good after all… And that’s what stays with me, even now, even when I’m about to be packed off to Poland with my whole family.
The conclusion Ford draws is that one of the deep secrets of Jesus’ vocation, demonstrated in the life of Hillesum, was that he had an unrepressed sense of death and Ford ends with this question:
How can we hope to shape our lives wisely if we have not faced up to death and are willing to risk it? Only that can give us realism, confidence and vibrancy to desire what really matters before God.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Prayer happens

Like many others I was shocked and saddened at the scenes from the Bolton v Spurs F.A. Cup match on Saturday afternoon as Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba received emergency medical attention for what appeared to be a heart attack. Fabrice was treated immediately by skilled professionals before being taken to a specialist hospital for further treatment. The footballer’s condition is still described as critically ill.

Some people have been surprised at the response from many players and football staff, football fans and members of the public who have expressed their concern for Fabrice and said that they are praying for his recovery. I guess part of the surprise is Fabrice-Muambathat many of those praying would not have necessarily described themselves as religious and yet they were praying. I’m not surprised. In my ministry I’ve met lots of people who at times when they have felt deep concern for another in need have turned to prayer. I’m not bothered either. God longs to hear our prayers and those of us who are committed Christians are often put to shame by the paucity of our prayers when compared with the prayers of others who wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as Christians.

A few weeks ago Richard Dawkins trumpeted the results of research which he argued showed that people weren’t as religious as they might claim. The full title of the survey was to find ‘the extent to which adults recorded as Christian in the 2011 UK Census (or who would have been recorded as Christian, if they had answered the question) believe, know about, practise and are influenced by Christianity, as well as their reasons for having described themselves as Christian in the Census’. Here’s a quote from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science press release:
UK residents who think of themselves as Christian show very low levels of Christian belief and practice, according to new research…
Indeed, many Christian practices, including regular reading of the Bible and prayer outside church services, appear to be unsupported amongst respondents self-identifying as Christian.
May I suggest another piece of research for Dawkins and his foundation. How about a survey of the extent to which people who wouldn’t describe themselves as Christian or religious, nevertheless participate in religious practices including prayer? I think the results may be quite telling if the responses to Fabrice Muamba’s medical condition are anything to go by.

Dawkins appeared in a debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury (yes, Rowan is still Archbishop until then end of the year) on the subject of the nature and origins of human beings. At one point late in the debate a member of the audience raised  a question  about the problem of suffering. Dawkins’ response was to say that ‘stuff happens’ in a rather fatalistic and resigned manner. My response would be to say that ‘prayer happens’ and it seems that many share that response.

Anyway, I thank God for the skill and dedication of all those who have been and still are involved in treating and caring for Fabrice Muamba and I, like many others, continue to pray for him and his family.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Thanks Rowan

downloadI’ve had the privilege of seeing the Archbishop of Canterbury in a variety of settings. After Lambeth ‘98 Rowan, still then Bishop of Monmouth, was invited to speak to the Chelmsford Diocese Clergy Synod and gave a magisterial summary of that contentious conference, teasing out the nuances and complexities in contrast to the headline grabbing bluster of others. It was no surprise when he was made Archbishop of Wales soon after and then Archbishop of Canterbury a couple of years after that. Rowan, as ABC, came to lead a session at Spring Harvest on God and Creation that ended with a bomb scare and evacuation from the building which prevented a Q & A session. In case anyone thought Rowan was running scared he came back and was interviewed at length during the Big Top evening celebration. A friend published a book, quite a short book and just one in a series, and he received a hand written letter from Rowan with some comments on the illustrations in the book!

I also greatly enjoyed working with Jane Williams as a colleague on the faculty at St Mellitus College. Jane hosted us all for a staff residential at their house next to Canterbury Cathedral and I was reminded that this was a family home as well as an official residence. At Spring Harvest Rowan was asked what we could pray for and he asked for prayers in particular for his children. Whenever I read some of the vile rubbish that has been all too frequently spouted about Rowan, it is his family I think of because they have born the cost of Rowan’s ministry alongside him. I try to imagine how I would have felt as a teenager reading or listening to some of the abuse hurled at Rowan and what I would think of such people and the faith which they espouse.

Today Rowan announced that he would be stepping down as Archbishop at the end of the year and sadly some have taken the opportunity to hurl further abuse at him. I’m not going to link to these articles because that would simply give them more of the attention they so desperately crave. I simply contrast Rowan’s graciousness, prayerfulness and Godliness with their vituperation.

Reading Rowan’s theology can sometimes be a challenge but always rewards close attention. In debate or discussion with opponents such as Richard Dawkins, or in conversation with the likes of John Humphrey’s, one senses the pastor heart longing to see these people come to know the God who loves them. Rowan’s poetry opens up another side to his faith in God and love of life.

There is one incident amidst all the international travels, conversations with world and faith leaders, debates over matters such as the Anglican Covenant and the Ordination of Women to the Episcopacy, that I want to remember about Rowan’s time as ABC.

A father sent Rowan, along with other Christians, a letter his six year old daughter Lulu had written to God. You can read the full account here but the letter simply said:
To God how did you get invented? From Lulu xo
Rowan sent a personal reply which reads as follows:
Dear Lulu,
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It's a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
'Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn't expected.
Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I'm really like.
But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!'
And then he'd send you lots of love and sign off.
I know he doesn't usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
+Archbishop Rowan

Monday, 5 March 2012

Nice One Rory

roryGreat to wake up to the news that Rory McIlroy is the world’s number one golfer after his win in Florida. It made up for Ireland blowing a golden opportunity to beat the French in the Six Nations rugby yesterday afternoon.

To celebrate here’s a song from another of Northern Ireland's great sons.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

A modest proposal

Like many people I was staggered to read a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics proposing After-birth Abortion or the killing of new born babies. This is the abstract summary of the paper:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
It’s a chilling read and yet I can’t help thinking that all the authors have done is take the ethics of abortion to a cold hard logical conclusion. And the conclusion is this:
If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.
Two considerations need to be added.
First, we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible, and we do not think that in fact more than a few days would be necessary for doctors to detect any abnormality in the child. In cases where the after-birth abortion were requested for non-medical reasons, we do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess.
Second, we do not claim that after-birth abortions are good alternatives to abortion. Abortions at an early stage are the best option, for both psychological and physical reasons. However, if a disease has not been detected during the pregnancy, if something went wrong during the delivery, or if economical, social or psychological circumstances change such that taking care of the offspring becomes an unbearable burden on someone, then people should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford.
It is not surprising that the paper has drawn heavy criticism of the proposal, its authors, and of the JME for publishing the article. It is surprising that the editor of the JME should be shocked at the response to the paper. He defends publication and condemns the criticism, describing those attacking the paper as being engaged in a ‘witch hunt’. Julian Savulescu’s argument seems to be that it is justifiable to publish anything as long as it is presented as a reasoned argument:
However, the goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises. The authors provocatively argue that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn. Their capacities are relevantly similar. If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible. The authors proceed logically from premises which many people accept to a conclusion that many of those people would reject.
So here is another reasoned argument which I trust the JME will publish. It’s not new and I am grateful to Philip James for reminding me of it. Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal in 1729 arguing:
For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland
From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and
For Making Them Beneficial to The Public.
Here are some excerpts from Swift’s proposal to give you a flavour of his reasoning:
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.
I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation…
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Swift concludes:
I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.
Swift as we know was a satarist, the Journal of Medical Ethics by contrast is supposed to be a serious scientific journal.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Davy Jones RIP

One of the first songs I ever had, recorded on a reel to reel machine I got for Christmas 1970. Thanks for all the memories of a great show and some cracking pop songs Davy. Oh, and for causing another David to change his name to Bowie!


Count your blessings #Lentlink 8

count your blessingsChristian Aid is inviting people to Count Your Blessings for Lent 2012.

Lent is a time to take each day to reflect, pray and be thankful for the goodness of God and the blessings that we have received.
Make Lent count this year in a fresh way by joining us on the Count Your Blessings journey and supporting some of the poorest communities in the world.

There are a variety of resources including a weekly reflection and you can also take part via Twitter and Facebook. Count Your Blessings has been endorsed by Tom Wright:
'As economic and political troubles increase around the world, many of us forget just how much we ourselves have to be thankful for. ‘Count your blessings’ is a great way of using the discipline of Lent to remind ourselves of just how fortunate we are – and of the very practical ways in which we can share our blessings with those in greatest need.
For more information about Christian Aid campaigns including Trace the Tax check out their website.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

40 #Lentlink 7

‘For my thirtieth birthday I gave myself some time away from it all.’ Check out this beautiful reflection on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.

h/t St Mary’s Great Baddow.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Fairtrade Fortnight #Lentlink 6

What do we buy and where do we buy it from? During Fairtrade Fortnight you are invited to Take a Step in 2012 as a way of engaging with justice for farmers in developing countries. If you want to know why you should bother then watch this video.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Together #Lentlink 5

Together is the title of the Church Urban Fund email newsletter. This months edition has some great ideas for individuals and churches during Lent. Here are some examples with links:

Lent starts here
Lent is traditionally a period of spiritual reflection; time to give up luxuries and treats and to take on an activity that encourages spiritual growth and transformation. If you've downloaded or ordered our new Lent poverty course then we hope you're getting ready to start exploring some of the challenging issues of poverty in England. There's still time to download the free course or order it from us - we can also send Lent collecting boxes or Gift Aid envelopes, and there are lots of Lent fundraising ideas online.

Growing church through social action?
There is a hypothesis that when a church looks outward - actively loving and serving it's neighbours, especially the 'least of these' - then the church will be healthier and will grow. We tested this theory for our latest research, which was carried out by Christian Research Consultancy amongst Anglican parishes - around 900 clergy were surveyed, and in-depth interviews were held with eight church leaders who had successfully transformed their churches from failing, poorly-attended buildings to lively community hubs. You can read the research findings online or request copies of the reports.

If you want to know something of what CUF is doing to transform lives then watch this video.

Broken by drugs - transformed by God's love
Raised in Clubmoor, Liverpool, Craig was a teenage alcoholic who soon became addicted to drugs. When he met Jo - at a detox facility during one of his many attempts to kick a cocaine habit - life seemed to be getting better. But the strain of trying to make things work lead to rows and violent fights and when Jo realised she was pregnant, she feared that Social Services would take their baby away. Things looked bleak, but with the help of a Church Urban Fund-supported project at a local church, a different future was possible.

Why not check out the CUF Youtube page, follow on Twitter, or become a friend on Facebook?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Sun Rise service

the sunI know it’s short notice but like most people I was caught unawares by Rupert’s latest wheeze and so I am announcing a special Sun Rise Service to be held tomorrow at our local shopping centre. We will meet at the church at 6.30am for a brief period of reflection as we remember the late lamentable News of the World. Then I will lead a procession to the local newsagent for the purchase of the Sun on Sunday, the latest publication to grace our culture from the Antipodean media mogul. This will be followed by a reading of the journal at the coffee shop. When the three minutes of looking at the pictures are up we will remain at the establishment to finish our beverages before returning home. Participants are then free to do what they usually do with products from News International; in my case it will be lining the floor of the rabbit hutch although our rabbit refuses to do his business on anything coming out of Wapping and Thomas More Square.

the Nail #Lentlink 4

Passion nail in His handYou hold in your hands a nail that was used to crucify Christ. If you accept it, this nail is the beginning of a deeply moving and personal journey through the Passion story.

The Nail is written by Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, and it is a powerful series of reflections on the crucifixion of Jesus seen through the eyes of some of those who witnessed his death. Would we have behaved any differently? Each reflection includes a Bible passage, a narrative from the perspective of the character and a short prayer.

Will you accept the nail that crucified Christ?
Lord Jesus Christ,
We confess that just like your first disciples we have failed you,
We have run away when we should have stayed,
We have blamed others and excused ourselves,
We have stored up treasure on earth
and ignored the treasure of your way:
Lord forgive us, Christ have mercy. Amen.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Nature and Origin

I managed to watch the excellent debate between Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams and Anthony Kenny from Oxford on Thursday afternoon. The topic was 'The nature of human bdawkins williamseings and the question of their ultimate origin.' I also followed the Twitter stream on the debate for a few moments before giving up because it was just so tiresome and predictable. The debate is available to view on the Archbishop’s website.

A few brief reflections. I was really impressed with the tone of the debate. There was no grandstanding, chest thumping or brow beating which has sadly marred many of these debates. (I think for example of the Stephen Fry & Christopher Hitchens verses Ann Widdicombe & Archbishop Onaiyekan bout in the Intelligence Squared debate on the Catholic Church.) This may have been for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the audience was asked not to applaud and so the debaters didn’t play to the crowd in a Question Time way where each contributor raises their voice to a frenzied crescendo on every point to elicit clapping. Secondly, we had some real experts in their fields who had the intelligence to engage in rational debate and interact with each other’s arguments. There were also a few moments of genuine wit as well as wisdom. Those of us engaged in apologetics would do well to learn from the gracious manner in which the debaters engaged in the process.

However, I was genuinely surprised at how out of depth Richard Dawkins seemed once the debate turned to philosophical matters. At one point he said ‘I am not a philosopher’ and virtually excused himself from the discussion on the rest of that point. The problem for Dawkins is that he is continually trying to make philosophical points or at least engage with matters of philosophy and theology in his statements and writings. If you are going to comment on the discipline of others then you need at least to be able to engage with the language and concepts. By contrast, although both Kenny and Williams stressed they weren’t scientists it was clear that they had read Dawkins’ work and were familiar with some of his evidence. Kenny at one point challenged the research Dawkins appealed to regarding choice and free will (the processes involved in picking up a glass of water) and I thought convincingly exposed it weakness.

My second reflection leads on to my third. It seemed to me that both Kenny and Williams were comfortable engaging with Dawkins on matters of science and acknowledging his expertise. Williams went out of his way to praise Dawkins’ writing on the beauty of the universe. They not only accepted but celebrated science and displayed a humility about the subject. It was clear they had both thought long and hard about Dawkins’ evidence base and its strengths and weaknesses. By contrast Dawkins wanted to reduce everything to the purely scientific. Everything, he said, could or would be explained within the discipline of science. Therefore Dawkins sees no need to go outside his discipline in order to understand the subject of the debate. This perhaps explains why Dawkins doesn’t give the disciplines he doesn’t respect the courtesy of studying them in any depth.

Some may have found it frustrating that Williams was prepared to live with questions and uncertainty, for example on the problem of suffering. Anyone who knows the Archbishop’s writings and theology will understand that this is characteristic of his approach. His faith in God means he doesn’t feel he needs to have all the answers neatly tied down, that’s God’s problem not his. This for me is the heart of the matter; the contrast between someone who wants to have everything understood and explained and someone who is content to live with ambiguity and uncertainty within faith in One who doesn’t explain the gaps but encompasses everything. Or as Williams put it, a God who is ‘Love plus Mathematics’.

Pray one for me #Lentlink 3

It’s OK to pray. Many people do and about a wide variety of subjects. Some big, some small, but all important.

By posting a prayer request at the Pray One For Me website, you can be sure that it will be prayed by Christians on your behalf.

Your prayer can be about almost anything. Some of the most frequent topics are family and friends, thanking God, guidance, healing and worldwide problems. When you post you will be offered the chance to say what category your prayer falls into and you can add your own tags. But if it’s about something else, that’s fine. Your prayer is unique and it will be treated like that.

Pray One For Me is run by the Church of England for Lent.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Imagine a changed world #Lentlink 2

Read this excellent article on Lent by Jane Williams: Lent is a chance to take stock and imagine a changed world.
This is how the New Testament tells it, and that's why Jesus's followers "do" Lent. For a few weeks, we try to see that the world doesn't crumble if we don't have everything we want; we try to make ourselves and our resources that little bit more available for ends other than our own…
…there is really no point at all in a Lenten discipline that isn't about reimagining the world so that it revolves less about our own desires and more about the good of all. When Lent ends, that vision of the world doesn't. It's a world that is less about what I want, and more about what we all need, in which the good life for me is unimaginable unless it is also the good life for you.
jesus lent 1

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Don’t give up #Lentlink 1

‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ I have lost count of the number of times I get asked that question each year. Perhaps people think there are lots of things I need to give up! This year I have decided to give up asking the question ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ because it strikes me that it is a negative question that reinforces the idea that Christianity is all about things we can’t or shouldn’t do.

Instead I want to ask the question ‘What are you doing for Lent?’ Lent should be a positive experience for us as Christians; a time for us to reflect on our relationship with God and each other and a time to creatively engage with God’s will for our lives and his world. If you are going to give up doing something for Lent then ask yourself what is the creative positive alternative? Some people give up eating chocolate or biscuits for Lent; a positive alternative might be to change to eating Fairtrade chocolate or biscuits. Of course if you need to give up eating too much chocolate or too many biscuits then you should be doing that anyway and shouldn’t need to wait for Lent and use God as the excuse for a crash diet.

During Lent we will be continuing our series on the Fruit of the Spirit in our morning services at St. Mary’s. One positive action might be to take one of the Fruit of the Spirit each week and think of a practical positive way of cultivating that fruit. For example, think of an act of generosity you might offer towards someone you know or do something joyful as a celebration of God’s gracious love.

There is an excellent resource to help us creatively engage with Lent called Love Life Live Lent which has suggestions for celebrating Lent as individuals and families. For more information check out the website.

May this Lent be a positive experience; a time when we grow closer to God and become more alert to his will for us and for his creation.

Oh, and I’ll use any excuse to post one of my favourite Peter Gabriel songs.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Sunday, 19 February 2012

This little tweet of mine

I was getting ready for bed on Tuesday evening when I caught part of a news report that a vicar had been found dead under suspicious circumstances in the South West. Saddened, I offered up a prayer and then my wife asked if I knew who it was because the vicar had recently moved from Witham which is not far from Chelmsford. I asked if she had heard the name and Kate said it was John Suddards. My sadness tuned to shock because I had known John for quite a few years and we were colleagues on a particular diocesan working group. I tweeted a brief message about the news and then went to bed. Here’s the tweet:
Shocked and saddened to learn of the death of a friend and clergy colleague John Suddards on this evening's news bbcnews.
The next day I headed off to Norwich with the family for a few days break and on the way happened to phone the parish office to check on a couple of things. It was then that I discovered the national and regional press had been trying to get hold of me because of my tweet. I didn’t respond to any of the messages as I was on holiday and I didn’t want to discuss the matter with the press anyway. Over the rest of the week I’ve followed the story as it has gained prominence in the news but felt it unwise to comment further about the matter via social media.

So why have I put up a post about this on my blog? Simply as a reminder to me and my colleagues that everything we publish is out there, can be read by anyone and we need to be alert as to who might pick up on it.

I give thanks to God for John’s life and ministry and pray for all who mourn his death; especially his family, friends and brothers and sisters in the churches where he served so faithfully.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

What’s Darwin’s book called?

The Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science has commissioned some research to discover ‘the extent to which adults recorded as Christian in the 2011 UK Census (or who would have been recorded as Christian, if they had answered the question) believe, know about, practise and are influenced by Christianity, as well as their reasons for having described themselves as Christian in the Census’.

Dawkins was joined on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme by Revd Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's, to debate the survey and here is the recording of their discussion.

The highlight for me comes at about 3.15 when Fraser says ‘Richard, if I said to you what is the full title of The Origin of Species I’m sure you could tell me that.’ Dawkins responds ‘Yes I could’ and Fraser says ‘Go on then’. Dawkins' response is rather revealing as he struggles to remember the full title. The point Fraser is making is that you wouldn’t  dismiss someone’s belief in evolution just because they can’t remember the full title of the book, yet, this seems to be the approach taken in the survey regarding the Christian faith. Fraser goes on to critique the survey and the interpretation placed on it’s findings.

 Are the UK"s Christians religious enough? (mp3)

I must say I am fascinated by the amount of effort expended by Dawkins and his chums in opposing the Christian faith. I am greatly encouraged that they take Christianity so seriously they feel compelled to devote so much time and energy to their cause. Perhaps as Christians we should feel challenged to be as serious and energetic about the faith we espouse.

Monday, 13 February 2012

A whinge and a prayer

There has been plenty of comment in the aftermath of last week’s ruling by Mister Justice Ousley in the High Court that Bideford Town Council could not hold prayers during council meetings.

Quick off the blocks were the National Secular Society who had championed the cause of ex councillor Clive Bone in his case against Bideford Council. Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood claimed a great victory for secularism:
This judgment is an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it. This is particularly important for activities which are part of public life, such as council meetings.
There is no longer a respectable argument that Britain is a solely Christian nation or even a religious one. An increasing proportion of people are not practising any religion and minority faiths are growing in number and influence. This underlines the need for shared civic spaces to be secular and available to all, believers and non-believers alike, on an equal basis.
In fact the NSS hit the track so fast that one wonders whether they had made a false start. Certainly more considered reflection on the judgement tends to suggest that their perceived victory may not turn out to be all they have led themselves to believe.

Heresy Corner summarised the grounds for the ruling succinctly and he observed that the NSS had failed to win its case on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights:
Mr Justice Ouseley rejected the main part of the NSS case, that incorporating prayers into its order of business the council was unlawfully discriminating against Councillor Bone and abusing his human rights…
The decision to "ban" prayers was a narrow one, resting on what many would consider a point of pedantry: whether the prayers could be tabled as part of the formal agenda, in which case they had to be integral to the council's business, or whether they had to take place informally before the meeting was called to order. The case turned on the interpretation s.111 of the 1972 Local Government Act, which by coincidence has today been superseded by the Localism Act.
The piece went on to comment that the NSS’s intentions had been frustrated:
What the NSS plainly wanted was a declaration that council prayers violated the human rights of non-believing councillors. That would have provided them with ammunition to continue their battle against other manifestations of public religiosity. By confining his decision to a narrow point of statutory construction the judge denied them anything more than a symbolic victory.
The Heresiarch developed the point that the Act on which the judgement was based has already been superseded:
The second reason why today's decision may not mean anything is that (as I mentioned above) the Local Government Act has now been superseded by the Localism Act. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, today criticised what he thought was the decision (it was an instant reaction) on the grounds that "we are a Christian country" and that "the right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty." But he also mentioned that under the new legislation councils have "a general power of competence - which allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. Logically, this includes prayers before meetings."
Jonathan Chaplin writing in The Guardian has also pointed out that the implications of the High Court ruling may not have been as the NSS would have liked.
The quality of comfort that the National Secular Society (NSS) can take from the ruling that Bideford council prayers are unlawful can perhaps be summed up in Alan Hansen's familiar comment about top Premier League football clubs going through a rough patch: "It's important to get a result even when you're not playing well." NSS certainly takes home a point, but their lead arguments – that such prayers, lasting about three minutes and allowing an opt-out, are so imposing upon nonbelievers as to violate their human rights – didn't make it past the halfway line at this particular meeting. Mr Justice Ouseley concluded that the mere fact that non-religious councillors like Clive Bone might feel "uncomfortable" during council prayers did not constitute a discriminatory disadvantage serious enough to warrant the protective intervention of the state. When a senior judge acknowledges that mere temporary subjective discomfort in the presence of religious or other beliefs or practices we happen to dislike isn't enough to justify the blunt instrument of legal proscription, religious freedom is strengthened.
However, Chaplin also posted a warning for Christians anxious to retain the place of religious practice in formal civic process.
But Christians who have backed Bideford council on this occasion would be well advised to get to work now preparing their counter-arguments for the time when a local authority in an area like Tower Hamlets makes what might then be an entirely lawful majority decision to open its meetings with readings from the Qur'an – from which, of course, Christians would be accorded an opt-out. Christians who have hastily leapt to the defence of Christian Britain and denounced the ruling as yet further evidence of the marginalisation of Christianity from the public realm should perhaps be careful what they wish for.
I can’t help feeling that in all the fuss over this ruling and other cases perceived to be hostile to Christianity we are missing something very important. A few weeks ago I was involved in a diocesan conference for about 1,000 people focusing on our vision Transforming Presence. Overall it was an excellent day and you can read a summary of the outcome here. However, early on in the discussions on my table of 10 people we quickly became side tracked. One person commented about the way Political Correctness was preventing Christians witnessing effectively and before I knew what was happening several people had launched into perceived PC anti Christian anecdotes drawn from local situations and well known stories in the national press.

After a while I asked the group to tell me why it was that we had been so ineffective in sharing the gospel before these ‘PC’ rulings took place. I don’t remember us doing such a great job of witnessing before British Airways staff were told not to wear crosses or B&B owners were told they couldn’t discriminate against homosexuals. Quite the contrary; during a period of time that, according to my table mates, was perceived to be much more favourable to the Christian faith we quite spectacularly failed to see lots of people come to faith in Jesus Christ and the church grow.

The reason why we are where we are in the church is not because we can’t have prayers on the agenda at a civic council meeting. The sooner we grasp that fact then the sooner we can turn our attention back to the task that we have been given as Jesus Christ’s followers; to share his Good News by word and deed with a society that desperately needs it.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Time to Talk: Stephen Cottrell

Bishop Stephen’s closing talk at the Time to Talk conversation a couple of weeks ago in the Diocese of Chelmsford. A thousand people gathered together to reflect on Transforming Presence, our diocesan vision. Just one quote amongst many in his address:
It’s not the Church of England I care about, it’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

League Table NVQ

Looks like I’ve missed the boat in signing up for an NVQ in Football League Table Analysis. I was just about to nip down to the local college of further education to sign up when the news came through that the Government is axing or ‘downgrading’ a whole list of vocational courses. Secretary of State Michael Gove has announced that he is unhappy that some schools seem to be improving their standing in the GCSE league tables by including certain vocational qualifications and treating them as equivalent to a GCSE or four.

The media have been quick to plaster the front pages and bombard the airwaves with tales of thousands of courses in the likes of fish care and nail technology. Mention of these two courses is surprising given the prices people will pay for koi carp and how many nail boutiques there are on the average high street but I understand the concern.

However, there are plenty of young people who have benefited from studying vocational courses who might otherwise have struggled with the more traditional academic subjects. These courses have often been a valued route into a career or higher education. One of my young relatives, who found the traditional academic school route very challenging and is severely dyslexic, thrived on a vocational course which led to a good degree from a highly regarded university and then a career in an important U.K. industry. The initial course she took in animal husbandry is the type of course that is being held up for ridicule in support of the Secretary of State’s decision.

I’ve no problem with a more rigorous scrutiny of the courses offered by schools and how they are validated and accredited. The danger is that we throw the baby out with the bathwater or, as the prospectus might say, the child care course out with studies in centripetal evacuation of h2o from large ceramic containers.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Bishops bully Bullingdon boys

If I was Rowan Williams I think I would be rather flattered by the picture published by The Sun today. Rowan is portrayed as a Lenin type figure from the old communist propaganda posters and comes across as rather dashing in a The Matrix meets Dr Who sort of way.


The picture accompanies a rather silly article by Trevor Kavanagh in which he claims that the bishops have bullied the Government by opposing its proposed welfare cap legislation. Kavanagh is The Sun’s former political editor and the piece is fairly typical of the fare he churned out throughout his time at the newspaper. Here’s a taste of what he wrote:

WHEN unelected bishops use the House of Lords to bully an elected government, it is time to wonder not just at their monstrous cheek, but why they are there at all.
Last week, they sabotaged a £26,000-per-family welfare cap on the grounds that it was "too harsh".

Millions of Sun readers would give their eye teeth for an income like that — equal to £35,000 before tax. Indeed, since many struggle to bring up kids on a far smaller income, they want to know why the cap was set so generously high. So do respected anti- poverty campaigners including Labour MP Frank Field, despite party leader Ed Miliband's opportunistic bleating.
Parish priests, poor as church mice on £22,000 a year, also ask why their prelates are so generous with other people's money…
But the point is not simply that plump, well-fed bishops are so out of touch with modern Britain.
Anyone witnessing the empty pews on a Sunday morning can tell the Church of England has long lost its moral compass. It has abandoned the moral codes that bound its congregations, choosing to "understand" transgressors rather than upholding the Ten Commandments. It has nothing significant to say to 21st Century Christians about jobs, education or the economy. Rather than confront these crucial challenges, it ties itself in knots with sulphurous rows about gay marriage and women bishops.
Under Marxist Arch Druid Rowan Williams, the Church has deserted the ecclesiastical battlefield and surrendered to muscular Islam.
Kavanagh was not the only one to attack the bishops and he refers to an ill judged piece written for the Daily Mail by George Carey former  Archbishop of Canterbury. Last week Carey opined:
When the Church of England bishops voted against the Government’s proposal to cap welfare benefits at £26,000 a year, I have no doubt they did so because they believed it was their duty to speak up for the very poorest in society — especially those voiceless children who, through no fault of their own, might suffer as a result.
As the bishops pushed for an amendment to the Government cap which means that families can still claim £50,000 a year in benefits, they must have known the popular opinion was against them, including that of many hard-working, hard-pressed churchgoers. They also knew that the case for welfare reform had been persuasively made, even if they didn’t agree with it. Yet these five bishops — led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds — cannot lay claim to the moral high-ground.
I say ill judged because both Carey and Kavanagh have chosen to ignore one basic fact; the bishops did not oppose the Government’s proposal to cap welfare. What the bishops did do was propose an amendment so that Child Benefit was not included in the cap. In an excellent piece written in The Telegraph Tim Stevens the Bishop of Leicester responded to Carey’s criticism:
Though he ceased to be Archbishop of Canterbury nearly a decade ago, Lord Carey, as a life peer, is entitled to express his opinions on issues of national importance. But the point of debate in Parliament is that we listen to each others views before making up our minds. Many Peers last Monday were persuaded to support the Bishops’ amendment by the power of the arguments they heard. This makes it all the more disappointing to me that Lord Carey was not present to hear them.
Yet much of what Lord Carey had to say this week accords with the views of the Bishops. Firstly, I and most within the Church have supported the principle of a reduction in the welfare budget. We have listened carefully to the arguments that a cap on benefits is necessary, even if we retain concerns about its application.
Secondly, we did not vote against the cap itself, even if we have questions about the principle. We agree wholeheartedly that work is the best route out of poverty and that reducing state dependency is an overall necessity. On all that we agree.
However, I disagree profoundly with the Government’s and Lord Carey’s view that our action in the Lords was about prolonging a culture of welfare dependency, or the implication that increased material poverty for some is a price worth paying to alleviate what some have described as the poverty of aspiration. Like others in the Church, I see the real effects of poverty on families and communities in my own diocese on a regular basis.
Child Benefit has always been a benefit paid to working and non-working families. It has not previously been means-tested and is payable to the main carer, to help with the cost of having children. For many it is a lifeline. And like access to the NHS, it has long been a central plank of this country’s universalist approach to social security. That universalism is now being eroded.
Much has been made of the principle of fairness in access to state support. But is it fair to children that a two earner family of any size with a household income in excess of £80,000 a year could still receive Child Benefit from the Government, yet under the welfare plans a child born to a large family with a benefit income of £26,000 would receive no financial support?
The Bishops’ amendment simply sought to exclude Child Benefit from the cap, to ensure that some financial support is still provided for each of the estimated 220,000 children who might otherwise be adversely affected.
Exempting Child Benefit will help prevent many children falling into serious poverty and could protect against family break up, or even homelessness.
This is hardly the raging of a group of Marxist militants seeking to destroy an elected Government. It is the reasoned argument of a small group of bishops who persuaded a majority in the House of Lords to support their amendment. Of course this has not stopped Kavanagh and his mates in the press railing against the bishops despite the fact that their basic premise is false, but then when has The Sun and The Daily Mail allowed the facts to get in the way of a good rant?

There was one journalist who went out of her way to stick up for the bishops. Victoria Coren wrote a piece in The Observer commenting on a Question Time discussion about the bishops and their amendment and commented:
The issue of the bishops blocking a benefit cap in the House of Lords was debated by everyone, on the panel and in the audience, purely in terms of whether or not they agreed with the "rebels". This reflects the way the story has been reported and discussed generally. It is as though the country has become so atheist, it has actually forgotten that bishops are men of God and the gospels.
They are talked about as rich men with no idea that £26,000 is a fortune for some, or leftie men being typically obstructive, or naive men who don't realise the coffers are empty, but never as Christian men who are perhaps just trying to say what they think Jesus would have said. I'm not saying I agree with them. I do think the benefits cap argument is riddled with false logic, and the surrounding debate pernicious when it encourages the working poor to blame their struggles on the non-working poorer, rather than, say, greedy banking practice and the governments that pave its way.
On the other hand, I'm as frightened as anyone by the idea of generations growing up who have never known waged income, or who might actually choose a life on welfare over an attempt to look for work. I'm not immune to a shudder at the thought of people sitting on their fat arses in front of Jeremy Kyle on the flatscreen, sharing a KFC bucket with their pit-bull half-breed, thumping their step-children and drinking my tax money.
But I'm not a bishop. It doesn't matter whether I think they're right or wrong; I think it's their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.
The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it's happening, they hate it. I think the problem they've got is that the New Testament, if read as an economic tract, is innately rather socialist. It's all sharey-sharey. Jesus wanted everyone to get a bit of bread and fish. He was all about the divvying up and the helping one's neighbour. So, if Christianity is going to make itself heard on tax-and-spend policies, it has got to lean towards spreading the spoils around.
There's not much the bishops can do about that. Their hands are tied. The gospels say what they say. If their lordships wanted to support the idea that handing out bread and fish is bad for people because it demotivates them from doing their own baking and fishing, they'd really have to leave the pulpit and get a job on a tabloid.
Contrast what Coren wrote with Carey's pension padding piece for The Daily Mail. In summing up the debate I leave the last word with her:
For the health of the debate, and fully to reflect the range of national opinion, it is vital that some people argue vehemently for reductions in welfare, or even the complete abolition of handouts. But it would be bloody terrifying if the church were among them.