Thursday, November 29, 2007

Teddy Bears Picnic in Sudan

(I was going to call this 'Teddy Bears Pig's Ear', but didn't in case I got arrested by the Sudanese police.)

It's been reassuring to hear the consistent opposition from British Muslims and Muslim groups to the arrest and charge of Gillian Gibbons in Sudan for allowing her class to call a teddy bear Muhammed. How on earth such an act can 'incite religious hatred' is beyond me. In fact the actions of the Sudanese legal system are much more likely to incite hatred. Many Muslim groups have recognised the damage this case could do:

in Britain, the Islamic Human Rights Commission was among Muslim groups to call for her immediate release.

Chairman Massoud Shadjareh said: "Both the Sudanese government and the media must refrain from using Islam and Islamic principles to legitimise this fiasco, which may result in the unjust conviction of an innocent person, and which will only lead to the promotion of Islamophobia and further demonisation of Islam."

And a spokesman for the Muslim youth organisation, the Ramadhan Foundation, said "this matter is not worthy of arrest or detention and her continued detention will not help repair the misconceptions about Islam." . from the BBC website.

The trouble is that it's very easy to make the 'tip of the iceberg' argument. Yes Sudan is an oppressive rogue state, but it's not the only one with the death penalty for Muslims who convert to other faiths. Only recently a rape victim in another Muslim state was given a punishment after her appeal for a higher sentence for her abusers. However, as a Christian once you make this argument you discover a very large plank in your own eye with words like 'Crusades', 'Inquisition', and 'Cromwell' written on it. Which is exactly the argument that secularists make: trawl through any online debate about the merits of religion and you'll find plenty of 'plague on all their houses' comments.

Tricky one: at one level, getting into a 'my faith is better than your faith' argument looks petty. But at another level, Jesus and Mohammed can't both be right. It's one, the other, or neither. So if you do believe in God, then there is a debate to be had over the relative merits of Christianity and Islam, both the teachings of their founders, (and the historical basis for them), and the effect they have on people who embrace them.

Back at the centre of all this is an ordinary primary school teacher, who has suddenly found herself at the centre of an international storm through a purely innocent action. Anyone who's ever been on the wrong end of the village gossip know what this feels like, but now the village is global.

Grow up. Let her go. Leave her alone. And may the children in that class resolve never to be like their elders.

Great Curry in Yeovil

The Viceroy on Middle Street was chosen as one of the top 100 curry restaurants in the UK at the 2007 British Curry Awards, and deservedly so. Excellent meal there last night, very good service, it really does put the mass produced supermarket takeaways into perspective. End of digression into being a food critic.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ideas for Christmas Outreach

As an ardent believer in recycling (oops, nearly forgot, it's brown box night tonight in Yeovil. Not that ardent then.....) here's an extract from 'Biscuit Tin', a 3x-a-year- thingy I produce for local churches, with ideas and thoughts on mission. As Advent draws near, it seemed a good time to post it:

Ideas for Christmas outreach

- Christmas services in secular venues: e.g. Christingle in a garden centre (Brimsmore hosted one last year), or a supermarket foyer/café coupled with a till collection. Darlington ASDA let us do a Christingle on Christmas Eve – it drew nearly 200 people and raised hundreds of £ for charity, as well as being a great community event.

- Carol singing – house to house, in local pubs or local gathering places.

- Blue Christmas: a Christmas service for people who don’t like Christmas, either due to bereavement or for other reasons. There are resources for this at .

- Posada (where figures of Mary and Joseph journey from house to house during Advent). A set of resources have been developed by the Church Army: see

- Giant Advent Calendar: an idea pioneered by churches in Warwick (, having Advent windows opening at various places in the community, along with various workshops (wreath making, Christingle making) run by the churches. Would work especially well in a town centre, or in a compact village community.

- St Nicholas Day Biscuits A Dutch tradition of making biscuits on St. Nicholas Day (5th December) and taking them round to the neighbours. Great way to get to know people in your neighbourhood, something pretty much anyone in the congregation can do.

Having tried a couple of experiments last year - a Christingle in the garden centre and a Christmas service for kids at the local nursery - both have invited us back to do it again this year, which is nice. The Biscuits idea worked a treat in our road, as many folk had not long moved in, and if you've got children then it's a great family activity.

Advent Cartoon

A new one from Dave Walker

Meanwhile there is an online Advent Calendar c/o the Bishop of Kensington. Less calories than that one with the chocolates. Given that Advent is supposed to be a time of fasting and preparation, and that most of the fun is deferred gratification - waiting for the candle to burn down to day 24, or to see what's in tomorrows window, a chocolate Advent calendar is the exact opposite of what Advent is supposed to do: build anticipation.

Monday, November 26, 2007

It's like this for normal Sudanese all the time - the story of the British teacher in a Sudanese school who is being charged with blasphemy for naming a teddy bear Mohammed, after the children in her Year 2 class (7 year olds) voted for it. I blame the parents.

If Wikepedia is right, then the Islamic conception of blasphemy covers pretty much any criticism or critique you could make of Islamic religion. Nice trump card, a bit like Freud saying that anyone who disagreed with him must have a neurosis.

Blair and faith

Haven't got round to seeing the full video of last nights 'The Blair Years' - interesting that the BBC themselves chose to lead on the 'any public figure with a faith is seen as a nutter' comment.

Blairs words have led to a round of comment from pretty much anyone with an opinion. So here's mine.

1. Fair play to him for admitting, whilst still a public figure (though not PM) to how important his faith is to him. For Blair to make the effort he did to read the Bible daily and go to church wherever he was in the world, takes quite a bit of organisation and commitment.

2. I can't help making the comparison with depression, and other forms of mental illness. Several people I know with mental illness have found it very hard to go public, because they fear being stigmatised and thought of as 'nutters'. But it is only ignorance which leads to this stigma. If we all knew someone with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder etc., then we'd not label them as 'nutters', because we'd understand. Similarly, religious people only get labelled as 'nutters' because people are ignorant. To some extent this ignorance is deliberate - many are quite happy to let the Daily Mail shape their understanding of religion and what it does to people, rather than trying to get to know people with Christian (or other) faiths to find out how it makes them tick, and how they relate to God.

3. Though how much of this fear is genuine, and how much imagined by Christians? Ok, for Blair, he knew the media would sieze on it. But in real life, people often find faith quite intriguing. When I quit my job at Clarks Shoes to train as a vicar, several of my meetings with the marketing folks turned away from shoes to more interesting stuff like whether I supported women vicars (it was 1991), people were clearly fascinated to have a real live Christian specimen, of their own age and background, who was willing to answer questions.

4. It's interesting that most of our political leaders are happy to be slightly religious - Thatcher was a Methodist, Brown played on his Presbyterian upbringing (but note - upbringing is the past, not the present!) David Cameron is a bit more measured - he supports church schools and is a member of the 'relevant faith' - though he'll probably have to put it a bit stronger than that when God asks him where he stands. But overt faith, US-style, is beyond the pale for us Brits. Bizarrely though, we're quite happy to get carried away with other things - shopping, football, Deal or No Deal. The less serious it is, the more seriously we take it.

Rowan Williams in Athens

Well, not literally in Athens, but the ABofC's interview with a Muslim magazine put me in mind of Paul standing before the Athenian council in the book of Acts, preaching the message he had always preached, but using completely different vocabulary to his normal Jewish audiences, because the Athenians had different cultural reference points. Williams tries to use neutral language, rather than Christian house vocabulary, to communicate with his audience.

There is a lot of fascinating stuff in the interview, for example:
Beyond the tensions of international disputes, we discuss the more fundamental conflict between religion and modernity.“There is an essential clash somewhere. It is to do with the functional view of human beings. What are humans for? The Muslim, the Christian, the Hindu, the Sikh, would say that we are for the glory of God; so that God’s light may be reflected and God’s love diffused. It is never just about how we fit into the cogs of society, or about economic production. The more our education system is dominated by functionalism, skills, productivity, and the more our whole society is determined by that kind of mythology, the harder it is for the religious voice to be heard. There is a real abrasion between lots of the forms of modernity and religion.”

This is a crucial insight to hold onto - since the Industrial Revolution, the economic point of view has increasingly held sway over any other in terms of our understanding of people. The UK education system is explicitly geared to creating a well trained workforce for the economy. Immigration policy is organised around economics, so is international policy. We are defined as 'consumers' - there was that symbolic tipping point many years ago when British Rail changed from speaking of 'passengers' to speaking of 'customers'. There was a lot of annoyance at the time - we just don't like being defined economically, but over the years we've got used to it.

and this, on the connections between the pace of life, fear, anxiety, and faith:
However, ultimately he believes that “thereis a conflict at the essential level. There is something about western modernity which really does eat away at the soul. If the soul is, to give the most minimal definition, that dimension of us which is most fundamentally in conscious relation with the Creator, then those things which speed us up and harden us are going to get in the way of the soul. We don’t know how to talk about it any longer but it is language that we still reach for. The worst message we can give off is compulsive anxiety, ‘I’ve got to fix everything’.” Throughout our discussion the themes of fear and anxiety are played out in different ways. Increasing fanaticism and obsessions with “the uncontrollable other” are due to fear and anxiety which ultimately he believes is a lack of faith in God. “When belief is weak we are not willing to let things rest in God’s hands because we are not sure that they are there. We can’t trust God sufficiently to rest in what we are and who we are.” For the Archbishop, “confidence is a key; the right kind of confidence; not arrogance, but real trust in God.”

Thinking Anglicans has links to various press reactions to the story, Ruth Gledhill, unfortunately, has decided to headline with the ABofC's comments about the USA. There is so much more in the interview than this, and anyway, what he says about the US is broadly right and deserves to be heard and thought about.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Buy Nothing Day

Today has been Buy Nothing Day, which is fine by me - see this interesting article on the BBC website of the psychology of bargain hunting.

Whilst we're on shops, we're planning to show the film 'Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price' next weekend, just in time for the Christmas rush, along with a Fair Trade stall. It's not what you'd call a balanced movie, the format is a series of episodes which take the words of the Wal-Mart bosses, and measure them against reality on the ground.

If you want a UK perspective on the same issue then try Tescopoly, a web watchdog on the impact of the Big 4 supermarkets on UK communities. Their 'local campaigns' section details what's happening near you. Good to hear, by the way, that the Tesco plans for the centre of Darlington were overturned after popular protest, well done folks.

Mark Russell talk at 'Drenched in Grace'

Thinking Anglicans has posted this link to Mark Russells excellent closing address at the recent Drenched in Grace' conference.

Russell is the new head honcho at the Church Army, a mission-minded evangelical, and the conference was organised by 'Inclusive Church', an organisation campaigning under the following rubric:

We affirm that the Church's mission, in obedience to Holy Scripture, is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every generation.

We acknowledge that this is Good News for people regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation.

We believe that, in order to strengthen the Gospel's proclamation of justice to the world, and for the greater glory of God, the Church's own common life must be justly ordered.
To that end, we call on our Church to live out the promise of the Gospel; to celebrate the diverse gifts of all members of the body of Christ; and in the ordering of our common life to open the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop to those so called to serve by God, regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation

All of which I agree with, though for IC there seems to be the subtext that sexual orientation and sexual practice are all of a piece, and therefore all sexual orientations other than heterosexual should be treated as on a par with male-female relationships. (That's not something I agree with.)

Which makes it all the more impressive that they should invite an evangelical like Mark Russell to speak at their conference, so well done to them, and well done to Mark for what reads like an excellent address, and if it looks good on paper, it probably sounded even better in person. Coming from Northern Ireland, he has a vital perspective on how fundamental disagreements can be overcome and worked through, something the Anglican church needs to hear at the moment.

Links update

The links on the sidebar have just been updated - a couple of redundant blogs deleted, a few new ones added in, and some attempt to put things in alphabetical order. There are some blogs with an astronomical number of links down the side, but this isn't one of them. If you're desperate for that sort of thing, then try Steve Tilley or Madpriest and see if you can get through their links before you draw your pension.

Kids stuff

Bit of a catch up blog this morning. Several stories about childhood doing the rounds this week:

Ian Duncan Smith wrote in defence of fathers, something which seems like a no brainer, but in the governments IVF proposals which came before parliament this week there is a proposal to ignore a childs need for a father when considering IVF applications from single women or lesbian couples. Duncan Smiths Breakthrough Britain report is one of several to have noted the negative effect an absent father has on the development and health of children.

Meanwhile yet another survey on religious attitudes, this time about church schools, which shows that over 75% of the population are very positive about them. Just under half those surveyed reckon church schools are significantly different from state schools - and a worrying 1/3 of these people thought that church schools tried to force their opinions on children and pursued 'narrow' religious agendas. Which just goes to show you can't believe everything you read in a survey: the church schools I've come across (ok I'm biased) are very balanced, pursue the national curriculum, and are anything but a coercive religious community. There is a sustained campaign against faith schools from various quarters, so there's a job to do in putting across what really happens.

Finally, some new research has found that babies as young as 6 months have a sense of right and wrong. Not a great surprise - if God has made us in his image, then the moral sense, as well as the capacity for love, the desire to communicate, creativity, all these things would be normal things to find in humans of any age. The sadness is that most of them are quenched or warped by the time we become adults.

And finally, but not in front of the children, the story of the official singer at the England-Croatia game who fumbled the Croatian national anthem, mistakenly singing the word for a certain part of the male anatomy and comparing it to a mountain.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Money can't buy me Euro 2008

England 2 Croatia 3. As most of the commentators said last night, the better team won, and England didn't deserve to go through.

But this is a good thing.

First, we'll be spared all the usual hype that goes with the European or World tournaments when England are involved.

Second, it may (but don't hold your breath) force the English FA to wonder whether all its offerings on the altar of Mammon have really brought the blessings it sought. The torrent of cash pouring into English football has found its way into the pockets of shareholders, sports agents and overpaid players (John Terry's £135,000 a week salary puts him in the top 0.001% richest people in the world, according to the Global Rich List).

Meanwhile English football is drying up at the roots. 12 years ago Alex Ferguson was starting to put together a Manchester United team drawn from the MUFC youth academy: Beckham, Scholes, Butt, Giggs, the Neville brothers, all home grown, all becoming established international players, helping Man U become a European champion team. Now Ferguson is doing the same thing again, but look at where the players are coming from: Rooney - bought in from Everton. Tevez - Argentina, Anderson - Brazil, Ronaldo - Portugal, and so on. The home-grown players in the Man U first team are the same ones as in 1995 - Scholes, Giggs, Neville - all coming to the end of their playing careers. Meanwhile its not uncommon for Arsenal to field a whole side of overseas players, with Chelsea and many other premiership clubs not far behind.

And whilst all this is happening, the average working person is being priced out of the game. For a swathe of Premiership clubs who were founded as sports clubs for the inner city poor or from inner city church Sunday schools, (e.g. Everton, Villa, Spurs - see the book Thank God for Football), their original working class base is one of the many things sacrificed on Mammons altar. Even here in Yeovil, the repeated pleas from our local club chairman for better crowds bump up against the practical reality that adult tickets start at £16 a throw. There seem to be only 5,000 or so folk in the area who are willing to pay that on a regular basis, no matter how much encouragement they get.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ditch the Day-Glo

This is the title of a new website authored by Phil Creighton, to tie in with his book 'How to be heard in a noisy world'. It's a very helpful book on all aspects of church publicity, covering things like

- noticeboards

- how to create a decent website

- church notice sheets and publicity

- working with the media

- creating a reader-friendly church newsletter/magazine

- creating a church logo

- using technology

- the church building, and the messages we send by how well (or not) it's looked after

and pretty much all aspects of the communication/publicity side of things for churches.

It's a very good book, with attention to detail (e.g. exploring the readability of different fonts, and the kind of message they send), and plenty of examples of both good, and bad, publicity. Some of the church noticeboards are particularly grim, and make me shift uncomfortably in my seat when I think of the condition of one of ours! Any church wanting to review it's publicity, or even explore one of the areas above, would get a lot out of consulting the book.

Just 1 thing which I wasn't sure about. Creighton is pretty scathing about poor quality publicity materials, which is fair enough. But when he got to talking about mass-photocopied leaflets I started twitching. We did 3000 of said leaflets at the start of the autumn - an A5 card, duplicated on a risograph, and distributed by an army of 30 or so volunteers from the church. I think it's the fact that it wasn't a glossy printer job that made it stand out from the leaflets for Morrisons and Dominos pizza.

We reckon there have been about 20 new contacts through that card, from baptisms to toddler groups to folks turning up at church. So we're doing it again for Christmas. Creighton is right that quality materials aren't beyond the budget of many normal churches, now that technology has brought things within range for us. But I wonder if there's an authenticity about something that's a well-done but clearly in-house production.

If you want to browse the book and live in Somerset, it'll be back in the Diocesan resources centre in Wells by the end of next week, as I currently have it out on loan! In the meantime, here are some of the links he recommends: - material for church magazines etc. - advice on website design - resources for newsletters, magazines etc.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Early Christmas?

I'm not quite sure what happened to Sunday night TV, but after several weeks of waiting for Top Gear to finish bleating on about cars so that they could do their stupid stuff, suddenly Sunday night TV required 3 videos recording simultaneously to do it justice. The Beeb's latest costume drama Cranford is both hilarious and thought-provoking. It's a note-perfect study of a community dealing with change, whether it's the new doctor and his new techniques (stitching a wound rather than amputating a limb), the working classes learning to read, or whether a woman should walk in public behind a funeral procession if she's the only remainin relative (brilliant scene where the upholder of all etiquette in the village, Miss Deborah, spends the evening 'in prayer and reflection', to decide whether to break the code she religiously enforces in order to demonstrate love to a neighbour). All this and Philip 'Life on Mars' Glenister too. Great stuff.

Then there were 2 cracking films (Spiderman, 21 grams), The Blair Years, a reminder of the genius of Kenny Everett, and the almost unwatchably grim Bulgarias Abandoned Children. Sadly, all of these were shown post-watershed, whilst prime time was colonised by Stricly Come Yawning, I'm a Nonentity Get Me Out of Here, and Antiques Roadshow. However, good Christians who were at a Sunday evening service would have got back just in time for the good stuff.

Please pray

If you read this, and you're the praying sort, please could you pray for David, our college chaplain in Yeovil, who's currently in hospital with potentially a very serious illness.

This is the latest in what's felt like a series of tragedies and major blows over the last couple of weeks. There are plenty of good things going on too, but the bad things seem to be happening all at the same time, and it's quite hard to stay positive and to rest in God at times like this.

Update, Nov 21st: David was discharged from hospital and sent home! The specialists have decided that things aren't as serious as first thought, and have asked him back in a few weeks for a check up. Relief and thanks to God all round. Thankyou for your prayers

Saturday, November 17, 2007

This, of all things, taken from the National Secular Society website...

Government anxious to “work with faith communities”

Communities Minister Hazel Blears says the Government is not just prepared but anxious to work with “faith communities” – but only if they agree to provide services to others of different views and not use public money for proselytising.

Mrs Blears told a church conference last week that “faith groups” have a “vital role” to play, but said that the Government had been slow to recognise it. She said: “In the past, faith groups have found doors closed: little recognition of their role, little willingness to debate it. And it was a real missed opportunity that we chose not to make more of their enthusiasm and expertise.”

She said that despite Tony Blair’s well-known religious enthusiasm, there were many in the Labour party who were sceptical about what religious groups could offer. “There were concerns, such as whether faith groups could deliver services unconditionally to people who held different views to their own. These were legitimate questions, but they have not gone unanswered, and we now have a more mature understanding of the contribution faith communities can make. It’s never been clearer that faith groups must be part of the response to the problems we face. As government attitude has developed, so has that of faith groups. We have seen faith groups accept and show how they can live up to that: a promise not to use public money to proselytise, a promise to serve those with whom you fundamentally disagree.”

The NSS add a comment that the record faith groups suggests we're incapable of serving other people without being bigoted. It all depends which record you point to. Maybe they should come and look at the Yeovil Night Shelter, the Lords Larder, Urban Warriors work in schools and with young people, the lunch clubs, toddler groups etc. etc. that the churches in Yeovil are supporting.

One point the NSS does have is the suspicion that the Government are trying to back away from responsibility to the disadvantaged, and are trying to recruit faith groups as an unofficial welfare state to take over certain responsibilities. This is full circle: schools, hospitals, welfare provision etc. all started with the churches, and in the voluntary sector. However, it can be a bit of a poisoned chalice: with government money comes government control, and it takes a lot of discernment to work out where church and state agendas happily coincide, and where taking state money would lead us into conflict and compromise.

But lets be positive, it's good to hear this coming from a government minister, and it's a good thing to quote in our dealings with councils, lottery bids, etc.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fresh Expressions of, um......

The big thing in mission in the CofE at the moment is 'Fresh Expressions of church', and there is a temptation to put anything vaguely innovative down as a 'fresh expression'. I've resisted registering stuff we're doing at St. James' as fresh expressions, because none of them are new churches, or new Christian communities, they are just new or experimental options within an existing pattern of worship and church life.

For example, we have a Cafe Service, which each month attracts 30-45 adults and 20-25 kids, roughly half of which are folk who don't come to anything else, but many of whom come regularly to the cafe service. At the moment, for them it's just a relaxed, high-caffeine church service, it's not the expression of their faith through worship, mission, community and discipleship that marks a true church, so it's not a 'fresh expression of church'. If you want churchy jargon, which I don't really, it's more like a 'seeker-friendly service'.

Or, 'Start the Week', our unimaginitively named prayer time at 8.45am at the local church school. It's basiclaly all-age morning prayer, lasting 10 minutes, with an interactive prayer time and focusing on prayer for the school community. There's a regular turnout of 12-18, of all ages, some of whom go to other churches and some of whom, as far as we know, only pray with other people at 'Start the Week'. There is, I guess, the possibility that it will become a regular time of group prayer for people who aren't members of churches. But again, if that's 'all' it is, it's not church.

To use a framework developed by George Lings, these things are probably smaller arches in what needs to be a bigger bridge (see his 'Encounters on the Edge' no 33 on cafe church). On their own they enable part of the journey, but there's the need for other 'arches' of discipleship, community and mission to enable people to fully live and express the Christian life.

So I suspect that, despite roughly a third of the parishes of the CofE saying they've started a 'fresh expression of church', most of the things with this label are fresh expressions of worship or prayer within the life of the church, rather than a brand new community of disciples emerging with its own form of church life.

And for a brilliant example of what that could look like, go here, to an innovative new church in Oxfordshire. As we're thinking in Yeovil of what a creative Christian presence could look like on new housing estates, we need to do a whole lot more than just turn up and put on a worship service for people to attend. That's not mission. The trouble is, it's quite close to what a lot of our established churches are already doing......

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Quote of the Day

Darren Gough: "I can't imagine playing with a pink ball. If people had said when I started playing that we'd have pink balls I'd have said, 'No chance'."

not the most observant of sportsmen is he?

Get the full story here.

C of E stats part 2

Further to the last post, my Diocese, Bath and Wells, continues to be one of the Dioceses with falling membership, despite having a higher ratio of clergy to general population than most other Dioceses (explained mostly by the number of rural churches we have - there are 2 local villages which have a church and population of around 40), despite the fact that 15 other Dioceses have experienced growth in the last year.

Even more local, I've been crunching our Deanery figures (for non-Anglicans, a Deanery is a local grouping of parishes, ours covers Yeovil and the surrounding villages, 27 churches in all).

The good news: all but 2 of the churches have experienced numerical growth at some stage in the last 5 years. The bad news: it's rarely sustained, and in each of those 5 years the number of shrinking churches has outnumbered the growing ones. Church membership across the Deanery has fallen nearly 12% since 1996, and though 9 churches have grown overall during that time, many of these have been smaller ones, and the drops in other churches far outweigh the gains. As with the national picture, big losses in a few churches wipe out small gains in others.

When a church has a membership of 6, it's hard to read anything statistically significant into an increase or decrease of 1. Maybe someone's mother in law was visiting the week they counted. Aside from one or two of these, and a couple of larger churches which have grown by a fraction, 3 churches have grown in a significant way in the last 10 years.

Any guesses?

Holy Trinity Yeovil, who moved to a new building at the heart of their community in 1998, and saw a big jump in membership around that time, which they've just about held onto since.

And those heroes of mission strategy and visionary leadership, erm, Tintinhull and Chilthorne Domer. 2 villages just up the road from here, with faithful parish ministry, high church worship, and a commitment to their local schools and community (do you know anywhere else where the Rector organises and inter-village conker championship?)

Next year will be interesting - new leadership at a couple of churches, a new cafe service at another, and a parish Action Plan at our church which is bearing fruit in lots of other areas - trouble is, as we can't physically fit anyone else into the building, growth will be tricky until we start running more main services, whether on a Sunday or at another time of the week.

If you want the crunched numbers, drop me a comment and I'll email the spreadsheet to you.

In the meantime, great to hear today of a thriving Polish congregation at the local RC church, I wonder whether the indigenous Polish culture will survive contact with our broken society, or maybe God's brought them here not just to drive taxis and work in nursing homes but to pray for us and to be a source of goodness in the community.

Latest C of E stats

The Church of England has just published it's latest attendance, finance, clergy numbers etc. stats on the web, the stats are here, and the press release is here and there is some comment on the Ugley Vicar blog. The data is mainly up to the end of 2005.

It's not very encouraging. The press release leads with the fact that giving is up, which is good news, but hides away at the bottom the fact that attendance is down, after a couple of years of holding steady. (to be fair, the attendance figures were originally issued earlier in the year, so the press release is leading on the new news, rather than the old news)

Even further hidden away are scarey things like the age profile of the clergy, which is already significantly older than 10 years ago, and the projections have hardly anyone under 40 in church leadership in 15-20 years time. Despite increased ordinations, an increasing number of those ordained are non-stipendiary, so the number of full-time leaders is still falling, as well as ageing, and possibly becoming more theologically liberal.

but hey, Jesus is still risen!

Monday, November 12, 2007

More on Philip Pullman

A few links on reasoned Christian responses to Philip Pullman:

Article by Mark Greene at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity - excellent starting point. With a bit of formatting you can print it off on 2 sides of A4, for people who don't have web access or who prefer to read 'real' documents.

Various materials and links from Damaris. There's also a book, Dark Matter, on Pullmans thought and writing.

Report from Ekklesia on a debate between Pullman and the ABofC

Interview from the Catholic Herald with Pullman

Richard Frank takes issue on his blog with people calling for a boycott of the movie.

Other takes on Pullman here, here (journalist Peter Hitchens, not to be confused with Christopher Hitchens, is a fellow National Secular Society patron with Pullman) and a debate on Ship of Fools

Finally a page from Pullmans own website, with the text of a talk he gave on religious education, which shows where some of his thinking comes from, and gives some of his critique of religion.

A nation at prayer?

According to TEAR Fund, who seem to be doing some interesting bits of research of late, 1 in 4 of UK residents pray at least once a week, and the majority identify some benefit that comes from praying. According to the research (and note, these are projections from a sample of 2,000), 9 million of us pray every day, and London is the 'prayer capital' with nearly 3/4 of its residents praying regularly. Twice as many people pray regularly as come to church, though I guess some of these are people of other faiths. Even 12% of atheists pray, which must be an interesting experience for them.

A few others details: women are more likely to pray than men, only 1 in 4 of people in their 20's pray, compared to 61% of over-75s. Around half of Anglicans pray daily, among people in new churches or Pentecosal churches, it's over 80%. The most common benefit ascribed to prayer was a sense of peace, which the research contrasts with the busyness of modern living and suggests that the quest for peace is part of what nudges people to pray.

The full research is worth reading - it's clearly and simply presented, and gives lots of food for thought. The TEAR Fund angle is to encourage people to pray for the developing world, which comes 5th on the list of top prayer topics behind family and friends (clear winner), thanking God, healing and guidance.

The report confirms the work of the 'Church in a Spiritual Age' project, which found plenty of evidnece of spiritual seekers and practices outside the church, and challenges Christians to find a language and a practice of discipleship which makes sense to modern day seekers. It raises for me some big questions:

- How can we as Christians rediscover the work of spiritual direction - helping people to pray - and liberate it from the need to be part of the church structures. If 2 in 5 people are praying, there is massive potential for encouraging and equipping these people to pray more, with more confidence, and a better idea of the God they are praying to.

- Are we seeing straws in the wind? at baptism preparation I give people a leaflet of Graces - mealtime prayers - suitable for all the family. It's something we developed at my old church in Darlington, and it seems to be well recieved, and it gets used. The other is our new 'Start the Week' prayer time at the local primary school - several families and members of the school community have been along, some who aren't regular churchgoers, to this 10 minute, all-age, interactive prayer time. Does being bite-sized make it easier to digest?

- How do we as a church resource ordinary Christians in prayer. I'm always on the lookout for Advent and Lent resources that people can use in their own prayer times, or as a family, during the special seasons of the church. We don't want to be spoon-feeding people, but at the same time the seasons of 4 weeks/40 days are great times to introduce people to new spiritual disciplines or new ways of praying.

Finally, the story is reported here by the BBC, with the obligatory comback from the joyless National Secular Society, who must be quite worried that 1 in 8 of their people are praying on the quiet. Given that they have only 7,000 members, (though the NSS are notoriously reluctant to publish membership figures) I'd be worried too.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Golden Compass

With the end of Lord of the Rings, all quiet on the Narnia front, and the drawing to a close of the Harry Potter saga, there is a new fantasy series in town: Philip Pullmans 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, all in print, but coming soon to a cinema near you.

The first book 'Northern Lights' has been filmed as 'The Golden Compass'. It's already generating a lot of comment from Christians, I've seen emails saying we should boycott the film, others saying we need to go and see it to grapple with the issues it raises.

The Pullman books are highly religious, but as a kind of photographic negative of Lewis's Narnia (though Pullman states that he didn't write them with this in mind - see an interesting interview with Third Way here.) In Pullmans parallel world, people have souls on the outside of their bodies which take the form of an animal (called 'daemons' by Pullman), and the Church, through the 'Magisterium', is a sinister and controlling authority. God is a weak old man who hides behind the power of the angels and who dies during the 3rd book, which concludes with an invitation to the 'republic of heaven'.

Film is powerful, but just as 'The Passion of the Christ' didn't convert the entire world, and 'The Da Vinci Code' didn't destroy the Christian faith, neither will 'The Golden Compass' and its sequels herald the end of the world as we know it. It is important that we're aware of the material it deals with, and that as Christians we have something more to say than 'ban it!' The books, and the film, deal with spiritual issues. They reach drastically different conclusions to the Gospels, but if people are going to be talking about the human soul, the nature of God, the role of the church, the existence of other worlds, what sin is etc., then this is home turf for most of us. I for one would rather debate than denounce.

We have nothing to fear from these sorts of questions, and if the church we are part of really is different from the way it's portrayed in the books and film, then most sensible people will spot the difference. Either that, or we can say 'come and see what it's really like'. It's only if the church you are part of is recognisably Pullmanesque that you've got problems....

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

More family stats

Various stats on the 'average family' here on the BBC site. Interesting to look at the chart above on the average family spend. Notice anything? What jumped out at me was the negligible spending on health and education. Do we realise how blessed we are, to get these things for free?
Another thought: according to the Global Rich List, we spend more every week on drugs (legal and illegal) than 70% of the worlds population gets in income. I'm tempted to say put that in your pipe and smoke it, but as a beer drinker there are fingers pointing back at me.

The Vision Thing

A lot of the talk around yesterdays Queens Speech was about vision, and whether Gordon Brown had one, and if he did whether it was really his or just a rehash of other people's ideas. Brown has been talking for a while about setting out his vision for Britain, but, as David Cameron pointed out, we've still not really seen it spelled out. The Queens speech, being simply a list of bills to come before parliament, delivered by an apolitical monarch, is never going to come across as particularly visionary anyway.

So what is vision? Well, a few things it isn't....

1. Vision is not talking about vision. That seems to be what Brown has been doing, and I've seen it happen in other places. 'we have to be a visionary church' etc. Talking about having £1m is not the same as actually having £1m, and talking about having a vision is not the same as having one.

2. Vision is not strategy. A strategy is how you put the vision into practice, and strategy without vision is like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

3. Vision is not elitist. There's a myth that vision is something had by great leaders, who descend from the mountain and impart it to their eager disciples. Rubbish. Everyone has visions. We all have a picture of life as we'd like it to be - that's a vision. We have a picture of church as we'd like it to be - that's a vision too. Some of these 'visions' are pretty off the wall, and some of them just simply fail to be grounded in real life and relationships, which takes me to...

4. Vision is not idealism. Most towns the size of Yeovil have their church-hoppers. After 3-4 years in any one place, they get bored, or decide that the church they currently go to isn't as close to the Kingdom of God as the other church down the road, or the new Vineyard/NFI/HTB etc. church plant, so off they go. 3 years later they are at it again. Why? Because they have a vision of church, but they fail to ground it in reality, and in relationships. It is an ideal which doesn't ever let its feet touch the dusty earth.
If after 3 years you can simply up sticks and leave a church, I'd suggest that you haven't really become part of it anyway. A church is the body of Christ in a particular place, it is a relational community of people who worship God through Jesus and invite others to do the same. The kind of folk who are just looking for the best church to attend have a consumerist mentality that is light years away from what Jesus taught.

So what is it?

For examples of vision grounded in reality, there aren't many better than Churchill. His vision wasn't up in the clouds - theres nothing more gritty than 'we will fight them on the beaches...and we will never surrender!' - it is earthed in the reality of the situation (war) in the character of the people he is addressing, and it is painting a picture that people can rise to and drive towards.

Which leades on to my favourite definition of vision: 'a picture of the future that produces passion' (Bill Hybels)- to do this vision has to be attainable, but also something worth attaining. Too high a vision, and people will be deflated 'we can't possibly do this'. Too low a vision, and people just won't be inspired.

Another key thing here is integrity. If the vision isn't a picture that's owned by the visionary themselves, and if it doesn't produce passion in them, then it is manipulation. Marketing is false vision, and is manipulative: here is a picture of you/your life/your face/your experiences for you to attain to. Spend money and it can be yours. It works very well. We are fed these false visions all the time.

But genuine vision is Martin Luther King dreaming aloud of an integrated society, it is the elderly apostle John writing 'what we have seen with our own eyes and heard with our ears, this we proclaim to you' - the visionary lights a torch from the fire burning within him/her and offers it to others.

Hybels writes, in Courageous Leadership of what vision achieves - it increases energy, moves people to action, increases ownership (if people know what your church is about then they can get in on it. If they don't, it can be a very frustrating organism to be part of), and provides focus (a clearer idea about where to put our energies and where not to).

The challenge for leaders is to get sufficient time away from the immediate demands of leadership to actually work out, with God, with others, what the vision is. We can develop strategies and schemes to deal with short and medium term problems: our church is looking to employ a children and families worker, that's a strategy. Activists like me will, unless we're careful, end up with lots of schemes and strategies but no vision. Contemplatives will, unless they're careful, end up with a vision that's impossibly high, or never get round to crystallising and grounding a vision at all. Between hyperactivity and dreaming, the middle way of vision brings the dream into real life and leads to focused activity directed towards making the dream a reality.

We need to arrive at the burning bush, the picture of the future which energises us, and which we can communicate to others to release energy in the church. And to do this, like Moses, we need to leave the flock for a bit.

Great news for cheapskate missioners

like me.....

The Ugley Vicar has links to the free online text of 2 classic books on mission, by Roland Allan:

Missionary Methods, St. Pauls or Ours?
and the wonderfully titled
'The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the causes which hinder it'

With the crumbling of the SPCK chain in the UK, second hand section and all, it's good to find stuff like this on the web instead.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Compton Durville 2008 programme

The community of Franciscan nuns at Compton Durville, near Yeovil, has published its 2008 programme on the web, and you can find it here.

They've also added an Advent Quiet day to their December programme, on Weds 5th December, details here.

Whilst we're on religious communities around Yeovil, here are a few links:
Hilfield Friary Franciscan monks, north Dorset. They seem to be downsizing, but still a going concern.
Compton Durville website Somerset
Chantmarle Christian centre, Dorset. Most of the pics on the website are of the hotel, the conference facilities are a little bit more functional! However, this still gets well used by local churches.
Mill House Retreats gorgeous little place for individual and small group retreats. Just off the M5 at Tiverton
Abbey House Glastonbury with the added bonus of a great view over the Abbey ruins.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The UK's vainest women?

The following story from the BBC website:

Liverpool women 'UK's vainest'

Women in Liverpool are the vainest in the UK - checking their appearance in a mirror up to 71 times a day, according to a new survey. The city topped a poll ahead of London and Newcastle.

Some women re-apply make-up as many as 11 times a day. Rosalind Chapman, from Transformulas International, which commissioned the survey said it proved that British women like to look good.

She said: "British people often get criticised for not being as image conscious as our European counterparts but this survey is the proof that we love to check our appearance and look good."

Comment: Ms Chapman has obviously never been to Liverpool. It's not vanity, they're checking that their hair extensions haven't been nicked.

New Family Survey

A new survey on family life has been published by the BBC today, you can find the story at
with links to the full research, plus one or two comment articles.

I've not digested it fully, but there's some interesting stuff:
- around 1 in 6 families has a family member they never speak to. Yorkshire people seem to be the most forgiving (1 in 10), folks in Wales and the N.W are the worst.

- the average distance from adults to their parents is over 80 miles. This has a big effect on weekend activity, as a trip to see mum and dad is, with this kind of distance, more likely to take a weekend than just to be a trip down the road, which has a knock on effect to church attendance, and how Sunday works for people as a regular day of worship. There's a micro-trend of children going to their grandparents churches when they go to say, even though they are many miles away from where the children live.

- overall, attitudes to 'the family' are very positive - many people say they are happier with family than with friends, and see family life as very important.

- not mentioned in the BBC articles was that the research lumped together 'married' with 'partnered' (i.e. cohabiting) as a single category. It would have been interesting to see if there were any significant differences between married and unmarried couples. For example, given that cohabiting relationships have a much higher rate of breakup than marriages, the question about how often people argue might have been illuminating.

- with nearly 30% of families arguing once a month or more, could the church help people to learn how to argue well, and with relationship skills generally?

- we're still very relational: 38% of people who no longer live under the same roof as their children speak to them every day.

- half of families share a main meal together every day, 30% do so once a week or less.

- a strong majority put increased marriage breakdown down to the ease of divorce (61%) rather than marriages being less succesful (21%)

and now for my family tea.......


Bishop Alan has just been on retreat and has some excellent reflections on worship, which are a bit of a breath of fresh air. Great pictures too. He's been reflecting on the Rule of Benedict, a framework for community Christian life which has sustained monastic life for centuries.

Interestingly, as we think about how to form missionary Christian communities in new housing estates in this area, the idea of a common rule of life for community members is increasingly popping it's head up. Church membership tends to be defined by attendance at certain public events (e.g. if you're Anglican), or being on a membership roll, in other traditions. The early church had certain core activities - meeting, eating, learning from the apostles, praying, sharing property - which read more like a monastic 'rule of life' than the things we normally use to define who is part of the church and who isn't. It's an issue I want to explore - how to have a local 'church' which is bound together not by common attendance at certain meetings, but by commitment to a particular rule of life which sustains their presence as neighbourhood disciples and missionaries.

Lego Church

Some great pics of this Lego Church at the Forgotten Ways blog , it's clearly not anglican as the front rows are fuller than the back ones. One of the commenters has had a stab at some LEGO acronyms, though I'm not quite sure what 'exuberosity' means, nor whether it's an accurate description of inert plastic figures who won't go anywhere unless you physically make them. I'll stop before this turns into a metaphor.....

Christianity in Iraq

Really interesting and encouraging post on Cranmer's blog about the new religious freedoms enjoyed by Christians in Kurdistan, and the way the current situation in Iraq is affecting Christians. A side of the story we don't often hear. Keep praying.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Advent and Christmas resources

Ok we're not even past bonfire night, but there's only 3 Sundays now before Advent starts, and my yearly quest for advent resources is just about starting. One resource we produced at my previous church was a short service for use with an advent wreath/candle at mealtimes, along with daily readings for Advent. You can find that here (the link also has a good resource section on the Jesse tree tradition)

Other handy links to Advent resources can be found at:
Anglicans Online
The Text This Week unfortunately some of the links are out of date is a good crib for the history of Advent and how it's celebrated in different places, with some good links at the end.

Advent at home:
Another format for Advent prayers in the home, from a more Cathlolic tradition, with simpler prayers than the link at the top of this post, and a good link to other child-friendly prayers
Celebrating Advent tells you how to make an Advent wreath, good link for families who like to make stuff together, with a simple structure for prayers and readings through Advent.

I guess in a lot of this my aim is to give normal Christians stuff that will help Advent and Christmas come alive for them, rather than things for churches to do. Equipping people to pray and worship at home, especially families who are trying to teach their children to pray and worship, is a vital task of the church.

And finally, a site with liturgies for 'Blue Christmas', an idea from over the pond which gives folk who don't enjoy Christmas the chance to worship anyway, in a slightly different mode from the normal carol service. I think this is a great idea. It's more Christmas than Advent, but if you're thinking about having one, now would be a good time to plan it in!

Most popular Bible Verse

Thanks for Dave Walker for the pointer to TopVerses, a new website which lists Bible verses by how many times they are cited on the internet.

At present, bottom of the pile is 1 Chronicles 25:23, which I'm sure you all know by heart, coming in as the 37059th most popular Bible verse, some way behind John 3:16 and all the usual suspects. However, this will probably be a self-unfulfilling prophecy, as by citing it here, that may cause a sudden surge up the rankings. I just hope that 'Hananiah, his sons and his brothers, twelve' aren't too bothered about how popular they are on t'internet. Inexplicably, the verses either side are both about 10,000 places higher, so Jeremoth and Joshbekashah are probably giving Hananiah, his sons and his brothers 12 a bit of a ribbing about it.

Don't tell the bishop

Ambling aimlessly around the net, you might stumble across the following site, which tells you which Christian denomination you fit best with. My results were quite worrying......

Your Christian Traditions Selector results
· URL:

(100%) 1: Anabaptist (Mennonite/Quaker etc.)

(94%) 2: Congregational/United Church of Christ

(90%) 3: Methodist/Wesleyan/Nazarene

(88%) 4: Presbyterian/Reformed

(86%) 5: Baptist (Reformed/Particular/Calvinistic)

(86%) 6: Pentecostal/Charismatic/Assemblies of God

(84%) 7: Anglican/Episcopal/Church of England

(83%) 8: Eastern Orthodox

(76%) 9: Seventh-Day Adventist

(68%) 10: Roman Catholic

(60%) 11: Church of Christ/Campbellite

(60%) 12: Lutheran

(51%) 13: Baptist (non-Calvinistic)/Plymouth Brethren/Fundamentalist

Not that I have anything against Mennonites, it's just a bit of a worry to find Anglicanism coming in 7th. However, the survey itself is pretty poor - one question on the relationship of church and state has a variety of options for how to keep them separate, or 'don't know', and various questions on the end-times and predestination that I know are deeply exciting to someone in the USA but don't really mean much to me.

If you want to narrow the survey to Protestant churches, you can go to

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Abortion review

Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee Report on Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967

The Science and Technology Committee issued its report on scientific developments which ought to be considered in any new Parliamentary debate relating to abortion. In summary the main report, which is strongly anti–life and contrary to the weight of evidence submitted to the Committee, was supported by eight of the eleven members of the committee, including the chairman Phil Willis. Links to media coverage and opinion poll listed below.

The Committee concluded that:

There is no scientific basis to reduce the 24 week upper limit for abortion.

The requirement for two doctors’ signatures before an abortion can be carried out should be removed.

Nurses and midwives should be allowed to carry out early abortions.

An exhaustive list of abnormalities on what constitutes “serious handicap” (which is used as a reason for aborting foetuses after 24 weeks) is not feasible, but that guidance on the meaning would be helpful.

Foetal pain is not relevant to the question of abortion law.

A minority Report (contained in the Committee’s report at page 71) was proposed by Nadine Dorries and seconded by Bob Spink, essentially rejects the committee's findings. The minority report also highlights the misgivings on the oral evidence selection process. Of the 18 witnesses chosen to give evidence before the Committee, 13 were pro-abortion and only 5 pro-life.

Press Release

Full members of the committee:
Mr Phil Willis MP, Liberal Democrat, Harrogate and Knaresborough, (Chairman)
Adam Afriyie MP, Conservative, Windsor
Mrs Nadine Dorries MP, Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire
Mr Robert Flello MP, Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South
Linda Gilroy MP, Labour, Plymouth Sutton
Dr Evan Harris MP, Liberal Democrat, Oxford West & Abingdon
Dr Brian Iddon MP, Labour, Bolton South East
Chris Mole MP, Labour/Co-op, Ipswich
Dr Bob Spink MP, Conservative, Castle Point
Graham Stringer MP, Labour, Manchester, Blackley
Dr Desmond Turner MP, Labour, Brighton Kemptown

Christian Medical Fellowship comment and Press Release on Report
Nadine Dorries on Radio 4 (Needs Realplayer)
MPs call for abortion law reforms
Meet Dr Death, the Lib Dem MP Evan Harris who backs embryo experiments, euthanasia and freer abortions
Tories lead the protests over call to relax curbs on abortions
Rebel MPs' minority report over abortion change is rare form of dissent
MPs reject cut in 24 weeks time limit for abortions
Make it easier to get an abortion, say MPs;jsessionid=JJSY5Z2UPXVUTQFIQMGSFFOAVCBQWIV0?xml=/news /2007/10/31/nabort131.xml
Bob Spink: Abortion inquiry findings laughable

Public Opinion Statistics:
76% of people, including fully 81% of women, think abortion a baby at six months' pregnancy is cruel (Choose Life/ComRes May 06)

68% of people, including 72% of women, want a substantial reduction in the upper time limit to around 13 weeks (Life/ComRes Sept 07)

55% of people regard the present law allowing abortion up to birth on grounds of disability as unacceptable (Choose Life/ComRes May 06)

69% of people think that making abortion available too easily cheapens the value of young life (Life/ComRes Sept 07)

75% think that preventing alternatives by offering attractive alternatives is better for women (Life/ComRes Sept 07)

I'm not a big fan of public opinion, since by the same standard we should bring back capital punishment, but I'm blogging this press release from the Lawyers Christian Fellowship in its entirety because this is such an important issue. I may be dense, but 200,000 abortions a year doesn't suggest to me that our laws are too restrictive, so it beggars belief that the MP's want to liberalise the abortion laws still further. And I can't imagine how a midwife, who's vocation is to bring babies into the world alive, will possibly be able to deliberately end the lives of unborn children. How long before 'allowed' becomes 'it's part of your job'?

If foetal pain is not relevant to abortion law, does that mean non-fatal road accidents are not relevant to road safety? Or that anaesthetic is not relevant to surgery? Am I alone in finding this a deeply worrying sentence to come from those we've elected to govern us?

Another nail-biter

Following the parade of close-call sporting events in recent weeks, Tennis is now in on the act, with 11 players, including Scotlands Andy Murray, still in with a chance of grabbing the last 2 places in the end-of-season Masters competition. If, by any chance, you're interested, the ATP site has the very latest on the race here, and there's a live scoreboard from the make-or-break Paris Masters competition here (click on 'live score'). Murray is on court as I post (12 noon). As long as its not f*otb*ll, you'll hear it here first!

In the meantime, don't know whether to laugh or cry at the serialisation of Duncan Fletcher's memoirs, and the resultant tag wrestling match involving him, Boycott, Botham, Flintoff and anyone else with an opinion. It seems pretty heartless to for Fletcher to drag other people through the mud in public, even if he feels his life in the public eye was made harder by the actions of others. It's always a temptation for a leader, to use the limelight to settle scores with maximum damage, but where does revenge actually get us?