Sunday, May 24, 2015

A month and a half of Sundays - Adrian Chiles' Lent Challenge

So, a mixed bag, as were the priests. A third of them I found to be great, with a handful quite life-changingly brilliant. Another third were sort of OK. The rest were pretty hopeless, not least because I often couldn't actually hear what they were saying. And a handful were grumpy to the point of malevolence.
Spiritually, if I'm to really "connect" at Mass, I need a good priest to help me. And by good I mean, first and foremost, that they should look pleased to be there and pleased that we're there. Often they speak of great "joy" while looking as bored as swimming pool attendants.
Secondly, with the liturgy - essentially the same script which they do day in, day out - the best of them find a way of making it sound fresh. As the inestimable Father Paul Addison of Our Lady of Delours in Kersal put it to me: "The clue's in the word; communion is all about communicating." And the same is obviously true of the sermon. One of the beauties of daily Mass is, frankly, its brevity - invariably less than half an hour. Sometimes the sermon is dispensed with altogether, but often it just takes the form of a thought or two, which I find much easier to get my head round than one of Sunday's lengthy orations.
Adrian Chiles on his 46 days in 46 different churches. Worth reading the whole thing, great perspectives. And encouraging that he concludes it was one of the most rewarding and quietly intense 46 days of my life. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Faith & Welfare, Saints and Safety Nets

Review of Greg Smith Faith, Progressive Localism and the Hol(e)y Welfare Safety Net

You wait weeks for a report on faith and welfare and then two come along at once. Actually, there have been plenty, and with the re-election of the Conservatives, I'm sure there'll be many more.

The William Temple Foundation asked me to review Greg Smiths 'Temple Tract' on faith and welfare. Two recent events made it worth the read. The election result was one: though a Labour government would have still faced some of the issues and realities that Smith describes. The other is the recent report from the Cinnamon Trust, highlighting the vast scale of faith-based social action, and encouraging churches and other faith groups to do more in partnership with other agencies, such as local authorities.

It's this relationship between faith groups and local authorities that Smith focuses on. With a track record in ecumenical work in deprived urban areas, and a key role in the Evangelical Alliances research programme, he brings together the findings of EA research with case studies of local partnership working, and the realities of the welfare state in austerity Britain. Whilst the Cinnamon Trust report encourages faith groups to get on and work in partnership with others, Smiths e-book raises some of the issues those faith groups will need to wrestle with.

Snith's main premise is that recent politics and economics have created a new environment for churches and faith groups. Recession has thrown more people into poverty, and austerity has resulted in a thinner 'safety net', with more means testing. Meanwhile the government has raised the profile of localism - in some cases devolving to local councils the responsibility for parts of the welfare system (e.g. emergency grants and financial aid). This gives both a new challenge, and a new opportunity, for faith groups to work in partnership with local authorities in welfare delivery.

The book splits down into several readable short sections:
 - An outline of recent changes to welfare since 2010, and the current (frightening) picture of poverty and inequality
 - The contribution of faith groups to welfare, with a particular focus on the responses to Evangelical Alliance surveys.
 - A brief survey of 'progressive localism' - how a combination of austerity and local devolution is creating space for new partnership between faith groups and local authorities to provide welfare support.
 - Case studies of what this looks like in Blackpool and Preston, with an honest survey of the relative strength and levels of co-operation among the churches, and between the churches/faith groups and the local council.
 - 'Common values and sticky issues' - highlighting some of the hurdles to faith group and local authority partnership, and two of the ideologies which would challenge that partnership in the first place: neoliberalism (everyone must take individual responsibility, so don't help the 'undeserving poor') and secularism (faith groups have no part in the public sphere).

The e-book is a call for faith groups to work with local authorities in this new environment. However it also recognises that localism can degenerate into a postcode lottery - if more welfare provision is local, then it also becomes more dependent on the quality of local partnerships, personnel and delivery. The case studies highlight how much difference local factors can make to the quality and outcomes of support given by the faith sector.

Smith also points out that most of the time, there are no issues with faith groups being involved. The main exception is ‘only when people of faith feel so committed to their beliefs that they explicitly present them as truth claims, and when the perceive their beliefs as normative or binding on others that there is real difficulty’

Here is his summary of the argument of the paper:
I have argued that the growth of poverty and inequality and the neo-liberal project to roll back the hard fought for protections of citizens via state welfare, have led to a constructive reaction by churches, people of faith and others of goodwill, to fill the holes in the welfare safety net. But a holy safety net on its own is hardly sufficient to meet that need. Where central government has delegated, or more truthfully abandoned, many of its responsibilities to local authorities, without providing sufficient resources for the task, there are opportunities for creative partnerships. And in a context of post-secular progressive localism there are public spaces in which values and beliefs can be publicly articulated and where apologetics and religious dialogue can take place.

In other words, churches and faith groups both have new opportunities to serve, in partnership with local authorities, and new opportunities to bring the values of faith into the public square.

In the light of the Cinnamon Trust report I found this a useful booklet to read, provocative and challenging. It has a good summary of recent changes to welfare, is well researched and well referenced, and the combination of local case studies with the wider national picture works well. It was helpful to read the warning that discussions of 'the common good' from positions of power and institutional religion don't give voice to the actual experience of those who need, and are falling into (or through) the safety net.

Just a few quibbles - some page numbers with the index at the start would have been handy. I also was trying to work out who it was aimed at - a lot of Evangelical Alliance research was quoted, so parts of the booklet focused specifically on Evangelicals, in compare/contrast mode with other streams of belief and non-belief. But the main argument of the book seems to be directed at 'faith groups', and there's never an attempt to make a biblical or theological argument for evangelicals to be involved in the welfare state. If the audience was Evangelicals, then it needed more theology, and if it was faith groups in general, then the booklet probably needed less about Evangelicals in particular, and more research from other sections of the 'faith sector'.

I also found it a bit hard to follow Smiths definition of 'progressive localism'. I think I know what he was getting at, Progressive does not mean liberal or elitist. Rather it is something more fundamental than that: an attitude of mind or outlook on life that is, ‘outward looking and creates positive affinities between places and social groups negotiating global processes’. The term progressive has been used to emphasise that new alliances between different community and faith groups are not merely defensive, but ‘rather they are expansive in their geographical reach and productive of new relations between places and social groups. Such struggles can reconfigure existing communities around emergent agendas for social justice, participation and tolerance’. Progressive localism would be even less elitist if there was a clear definition of it that didn't rely on so many abstract nouns.

I was also surprised by the big leap in the final sentences to the conclusion that ‘for new times we need to see some fresh thinking. More democratic engagement, and a renewal and transformation of the major institutions of our society' It's not clear either what kind of transformation is required, or which institutions he's referring to. The radical final paragraphs seem to go way beyond the evidence and argument presented in the previous 20 pages, and I wondered if there was another booklets worth of thinking needed to unpack them! 

It's the kind of thing I probably wouldn't have read without being asked, but I'm glad I did. It's made me think about what we do here in Yeovil, and that I need to do more to encourage and give a voice to those members of our church who are engaging at the sharp end of this. Many people have no idea of what's going on around the bottom rungs of the social ladder. 

I don't know how the Temple Tracts work, but I'd really like to see a response to Smiths arguments from the Centre for Social Justice.

Faith, Progressive Localism and the Hol(e)y Welfare Safety Net is worth a read if you want something more chewy to put the Cinnamon Trust report into context, or for local church leaders involved in partnerships with their local authority, or wondering what that might involve. David Camerons re-election makes it even more relevant, and there are wider issues for the church here not just in provision, but in prophecy - how do we challenge the state when it neglects the most vulnerable, and how do we give a voice to those who are rendered even more vulnerable by a system which is supposed to be helping them. 

The church, and faith groups in general, are not in a place where we can happily take welfare provision back from central government and say 'that's fine, we'll carry on where we left off in the 1940s'. The Cameron government is also showing a worrying tendency towards abdication: following the Lansley reforms the Health secretary is no longer responsible for the NHS, academies are devolving and breaking up the education system, and Eric Pickles has just received a knighthood for 5 years of asking local authorities to make bricks without straw, responsibility for more provision yet with fewer resources. I'm glad there's an increasing openness for the state, voluntary and faith sector to work together in supporting the vulnerable, but it's not enough to keep rescuing people from the river, we need to head upstream to find out why they are falling in. 

Conversation Killers?

Gravetalk looks interesting....

It’s not easy to think about your own funeral. Talking about death, dying and funerals raises big questions that we need to face at some point, but it’s hard to talk to family and friends.
The Church of England has been helping people think about these questions for centuries. GraveTalk is a café space, organised by a local church, where people can talk about these big questions. The conversation is helped along by GraveTalk conversation cards – 52 questions covering 5 key areas.
I've used the Table Talk questions in a few settings - e.g. baptism preparation - and found them very helpful, so this could be a good variation on that theme, and a good way to approach what's often a taboo topic. 
I'm pleased to see the way the CofE is thinking more deeply around baptisms, weddings and funerals: the Weddings Project has been very helpful, with the new yourchurchwedding website, and there's been some work on baptisms/christenings and the best way to approach and prepare for those.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What Happens When Anglicans Pray


Excellent stuff from the artist formerly known as MadPriest. Sometimes I find myself getting like this, please stop me if you hear me pray something waffly. I used to be the kind of person who got twitchy during CofE prayers, and wanted to shout out 'but what are you actually praying for!??' Sadly I've got used to it over time. But give me a short, direct prayer any time. Maybe I should try some of them myself.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Christian Liberals

Tim Farron:

You would do well to find a public figure who will more passionately and articulately talk about their faith. Farron became a Christian aged 18, a decision he describes as "the most massive choice I have made," and his faith seems as powerful and fresh as ever: Speaking at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in 2013, he said: "Christianity, I am convinced, is not 'a bit' true. It is either not true, or it is so compellingly utterly true, that almost nothing else matters...if it is [true], it's the most important thing in the universe bar nothing; and if it isn't, we should close all the churches and sell them off for something else. There is no middle way."

and a friend of mine in Yeovil who joined the Libdems after an election night all-nighter at the house of a local vicar. I wonder who that could have been?

Mr Wilson watched the election with friends at the house of his local Church of England vicar.
“I had voted Lib Dem,” he said, “and spent a good part of the day after the election feeling down. It wasn’t just the national picture: in Yeovil we had lost David Laws, a very good local MP.
“But then, in the evening, I said: ‘No, I am going to turn this into something good.’ I went online and joined.”
Mr Wilson laughs when asked why. “Probably for the same reason I joined the Anglican church. It might be something psychological."  (haha! Anglican mind manipulation techniques, works every time)

With a nominal Anglican heading the Conservatives, and a Catholic current favourite in the Labour leadership race, we could end up with the 3 main parties being led by Christians of one stripe or another by the autumn. Who'll be in charge of UKIP is anybody's guess. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Depression: this is 'courageous', but it shouldn't be.

...I am going to talk about what I know – depression and anxiety. I find it hard to fully describe what happens in my brain because honestly, I don’t know what is normal and what is not, but I will give it a go.
Getting up in the morning is the hardest part of any day, not because I am lazy, but because waking up hurts. I am so tired every minute of every day, that there is always a need for more sleep, but, I have to get up so I do. This is the first battle I face each day....
Part of the point of Mental Health awareness week is that we no longer have to use words like 'courageous' for people speaking about what it's like to be mentally ill. After all, if someone describes what it's like to have the flu', or a broken leg, we don't call them courageous for describing it.

Update: Katherine Welby has written for the Telegraph too, worth reading. And a piece from the CofE comms people about the church and mental health, and how we can do a better job supporting people. 

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Election Reflection

It still seems a bit like a dream, but that's a combination of sleep deprivation and reading too many opinion polls. Congratulations to everyone who was succesful on Thursday, and for those who weren't, 'comiserations' doesn't really cover it. MPs who have put their heart and soul into a constituency for years suddenly thrown out.

A few post-election thoughts.
1. Brace yourselves. This is always the season when the things that weren't front page, or indeed any page, on the manifesto get brought in.

2. The Conservatives won the election partly by taking credit for Libdem policies which they'd been converted to - e.g. on tax thresholds. I hope that continues - they could do worse than starting with Libdem policies on mental health and climate change, which are streets ahead of anything the other parties have offered.

3. The electoral system is a mess. If people are losing faith with our political system, they will lose even more if you have to cast 3.5m votes to get one MP, and then have this dismissed by those who win on the current system (as Francis Maude did on Question Time last night)

4. Unless there was some serious methodology error committed by pollsters, then voters are just as deceitful as politicians. Either that or a lot of people changed their mind at the last minute.

5. I'm deeply troubled by the fact that a country with epidemic levels of mental illness and family breakdown, in the process of bequeathing a broken planet to its grandchildren, with around 1m people using food banks, didn't really engage with any of this during the election. Instead we were told by politicians (and encouraged by the media) to think only of how awful it would be if Scots were involved in government.

6. I worry that David Cameron has a track record of using key political processes to party advantage: from the last minute attempt to unseat the House of Commons speaker, to the promise to put election promises into law to make sure they're kept (?) to exploiting the Scottish referendum vote, which in turn let the SNP genie out of the bottle. Without a set of coalition partners to explain, defend and agree with, my fear is that we will get more of this; policies and knee-jerk reactions that haven't been fully thought through. After all, it hasn't done him any harm so far...

7. Fellow Yeovil Church leader Adam Dyer wrote this:
today we survey a new landscape. A landscape of increasing poverty. Not just financial poverty, but social poverty, emotional poverty, spiritual poverty and political poverty. Poverty tells us that it will always be like this. Nothing will ever change. I will always be poor. It will always be each man for  himself. I will always be alone. It will always be an unfair system.
Poverty disempowers.
But the antidote to poverty is not just money, the antidote to poverty in all its forms is hope. A belief that this is not the end of the story. This is good news for the church, because hope is the currency we trade in.

Finally, having prayed for the election, it's now time pray for wisdom for the new government. 
They need it. So do we. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Pre-Election Prayer

"The Bible says Submit to the authorities for they are God’s servants who give their full time to governing.

Our great and loving God, we thank you for (candidates names), and pray your particular blessing on them all. You are the great king of all, and we commit into your hands those who will hold authority and be trusted to lead our country forwards. We pray for ourselves, that you would guide us in our thinking and voting, and help us all to play our part wisely as responsible citizens as together we seek the good of all. Have mercy on us and on our whole nation, for the sake of Jesus Christ who died for us, rose again, and loves us; for he is Lord, and we pray in his name. Amen."

This was the prayer that closed our Hustings on Tuesday night, and I asked for a copy of it. A good thing to pray for a general election. 

Politicians: How To Keep a Promise

You have 4 options

1. Make a promise, then make another promise to pass a law making it illegal for you to break the first promise, unless you bring forward another law to overturn the law you passed originally.

2. Make a promise, then carve it into a massive great rock and put it in your back garden, to remind you of the promise you made. 

3. Make a promise, then put it into a large document, and use red lines to mark out the promises you're really going to keep, as opposed to the ones that are neither here nor there. Note: get the right sort of red, infra-red is invisible. Mind you, you'll probably wish you'd used infra red after all

4. Make a promise. Keep it. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Yeovil Election Hustings

Tues 5th May: Its hustings night tonight in Yeovil, 7.30pm at the Gateway. In case any of the candidates are reading this, here's some advance notice on the questions I'll be submitting.

(on behalf of someone who can't make it to the event)  "What would you do to improve public transport?" If you can't drive, afford the taxi rates, or not able to walk far and rely on public transport (fine during the day, if you're in town, but useless in the evenings, Sundays, or going to and from a village...) then it's very poor.

Why are rates of mental illness increasing, and what are you going to do about it?

76% of young people in custody are from fatherless families, and family breakdown costs the UK £46 bn a year. Is there a conspiracy amongst the political parties not to talk about this, or have you just given up trying to do anything about it?

After getting in to power, every party launches a major new policy that wasn't in their manifesto - VAT rises, independence of the Bank of England, NHS reorganisation etc. What are you not telling us this time?

The CofE bishops pastoral letter on the election argues that we are becoming a society of strangers, rather than a community of communities. Does an election campaign based on fear – of foreigners, scots, or just the other lot – make us a better society, or a worse one?

“The different parties have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see, or distinctive goals they might pursue. Instead, we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best. There is no idealism in this manifesto” (from the Bishops letter) please comment

Weds 6th May: update: I ended up asking the a question about mental health, which got half a proper answer from the Libdems and Greens, and the public transport question was asked by the chair. About 12 questions were asked in all, to a packed house at the Gateway (400-450 people?). There must have been getting on for 100 questions submitted on the night, so choosing a representative selection was quite a job in itself. The chair did a great job keeping it civilised and on time, and fair play to all the candidates - answering questions off the cuff in front of a big audience is a real challenge.

I felt a bit sorry for the Labour candidate, who got first go on both the first question (on supporting marriage) and on euthanasia - the other candiates then copied her answer! Interesting to hear Libdem David Laws say he'd vote against assisted dying (good), and the Greens Emily McIvor came across very well, and probably got the most applause from neutrals.

Well done to the Gateway for having us and for all the microphones working well - perhaps the Libdems will do their next manifesto launch here! Good to see lots of people, and lots of Christians, engaging with the election and thinking through the issues. 

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Saturday Strangeness

In the country with the biggest obesity problem on the planet, 11,500 turn up to watch 2 people get weighed. I wonder how many burgers they got through between them?

A welcome relief from the election campaign, instead of talking about a posh bloke, Labour and what the outcome will be, we can talk about a posh bloke, labour and what the outcome will be.

The boxing match in LA will generate over £250m. You'd like to think that some of it would find its way to Nepal. I hope that some of the folk who spend £30-60k to climb Everest would think it more worthwhile to spend that money saving Nepali lives.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Do the Conservatives know what the House of Commons is actually for?

This is ridiculous:
A Tory government will introduce a law guaranteeing no rise in income tax rates, VAT or national insurance before 2020, David Cameron is to announce.
The Conservative leader will pledge legislation within 100 days of assuming office to ensure rates do not rise in the next Parliament.
The law is not a plaything, what exactly is the point of this idea? Just make a promise and keep to it, how hard can that be? Oh yes, 'no top down reorganisation of the NHS', immigration, I see your point. I could just about see the point of the fixed term parliaments act, and we've bee spared 18 months of wittering about when the election is going to be. But simply passing a law which says that you will do what you've said you'll do is both a betrayal of the purposes of law, and a very revealing act in itself. It's an admission that, whatever politicians say, we can't trust them. 
Two questions
1. Will David Cameron be arrested and tried if the Conservatives do raise income tax, VAT or NI? And I'm assuming that not raising thresholds at least in line with inflation counts as a tax rise. 
2. How do we know they will keep this promise? The promise itself is only made because we know that politicians don't keep their promises, but it's subject to the same trust deficit. As far as I know, the LibDems are the only party in recent political history to have made a promise, broken it, and then admitted that they broke it and apologised. 
Could we pass a law making political gimmicks illegal? David Cameron seems to think that just about anything can be turned into a short-term electoral asset: the unity of the UK, the legislative system, fear. Stop for a minute and think, please.

In the meantime, if you want to pass a popular law, how about one forcing Conservatives to turn up to election debates ?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Yeovil Election Hustings 5th May

Yeovil churches are hosting a hustings on Tuesday 5th May, 7.30pm at the Gateway (home of Yeovil Community Church) Addlewell Lane, Yeovil. All 5 candidates are going to be there, which is an improvement on last time, when (due to the presence of the BNP, and some not wanting to share a platform with them) the candidates appeared one by one and never got to engage directly with each other.

Questions can be put on the night, but you'll need to be there by 7pm to give us time to sort through them and choose a good cross-section of issues. There's refreshments afterwards, and the event is free.

the local candidates are:
David Laws                Liberal Democrats
Emily McIvor             Green Party
Marcus Fysh               Conservative Party
Sheena King                Labour Party

Simon Smedley           UK Independence Party

David Laws won the seat with 55% of the vote last time, but faces the double headwind of the Libdem post-coalition slide, and his personal involvement in the expenses scandal. Despite that, YouGovs 'nowcast' snapshot has Laws as the favourite again, which may leave him as the last Libdem standing in Somerset. 

There are blue and orange posters starting to appear in greater numbers around Yeovil, and David Camerons flying visit the other day is a sign that the Conservatives are after Yeovil too. It's not in the top 75 seats where the Conservatives were closest last time, which probably indicates that the blues are giving up trying to topple the tougher Labour marginals and going after the Libdems instead.  

If you're in the area, come along, should be an interesting night....

Mental Health - all the party policies in one place

The Mind and Soul website, which is one of the best things on the internet. has produced a helpful summary of all the mental health proposals of the main parties. There are quotes from each main leader, a list of what's in their manifesto, and what isn't, and it all looks pretty fair and balanced.

It's been put together by Will van der Hart, who concludes thus:
However you choose to vote in the General Election, enjoy the democratic freedom that empowers you. Pray for those who are in leadership and carry the responsibility for seeing a huge improvement in the provision of mental health services within the UK. Also pray for those in other nations and our own, who through discrimination, repression and stigmatisation are denied their basic rights becuase of mental ill-health.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

Put your mushrooms in the sunshine

Jeremy Clarkson, mushrooms, Acts chapter 5, back stage passes. Its amazing the connections you find sometimes.

Yesterdays challenge was preaching on Acts 5, the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who conspire in secret to buy a good reputation in the early church, forgetting that God sees what we do when we think nobody is looking. Whether it was greed, or desire for the kudos which went with appearing generous whilst trousering some of the proceeds, we don't know. But they sell some property, present what they claim is the full amount to the church, whilst conniving between them to keep some back.

The result is pretty dramatic: God shows Peter the secret scheme, he confronts them with it, and they drop down dead. Be wary of what you put in the collection plate, it should carry a health warning.

Simon Walker has written some excellent leadership books, where he talks about the front and back stage. The front stage is performance, what we let others see. The back stage is private: fears, decisions, research, private crises, the things we normally keep people out of. The election campaign is all front stage: a frenzied attempt to manage what is seen and heard, and an equally frenzied attempt to keep all the 'back stage' stuff out of view. Nobody wants another Gillian Duffy moment. So, David Cameron was in my constituency yesterday, a fact I only discovered on the news later. Why? Because the only people who knew were Conservative supporters and invited journalists. God forbid he should meet a real voter.

Politicians dread the moment when the back stage mess falls through the curtain onto the front stage. Don't we all. It can be very public - Jeremy Clarkson has gone into some of the 'back stage' reasons for his well publicised blow up a few weeks ago. They don't excuse it, but a combination of divorce, bereavement, cancer and a high profile highly scrutinised job probably isn't a recipe for mental calm.

There was a recent food programme which mentioned that mushrooms, if exposed to sunlight for an hour or two, turn from nutritionally useless fungi into a rich source of Vitamin D. Something grown in the dark, when exposed to the light, becomes a health benefit rather than a mould.

Paul writes "you were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light". If Ananias and Sapphira had let someone else backstage, had brought the mushrooms out into the sunlight, they might have realised that trying to decieve God was a stupid idea, and thought again. God already knows everything we're trying to keep secret, as we try with varying degrees of anxiety to manage our front and back stages. What a gift to find someone who we can allow back stage, and who treats kindly what they see. What a gift to find someone with the integrity and character to allow some of their back stage to be visible.

The more stage managed the appearance, the more we think 'you must be hiding something'. My draft question for our local hustings next week is 'in your personal life, or in your parties policies, what are you not telling us?' Just because a politician, (or a vicar, or a TV personality, or a friend, or...) doesn't admit to having a back stage, doesn't mean it isn't there. The church should be a place where we are aware of the damage it can do to keep things in the dark, and where we find sufficient trust and grace to bring things out into the light. Put your mushrooms in the sunshine.