Sunday, December 23, 2007

Signing off for 2007

A few days off beckon, so it's bye-bye blog until the new year. However, just to keep you going, a few items for the festive season:

December 24th The Christmas Linebacker

Christmas Day: He Is Here

Have a look at this very edifying slideshow of classic art around the Nativity.

Courtesy of Ship of Fools

December 27th Peace on Earth/Walk On (u2)

December 28th: Ed Byrne has some tips for next Christmas

December 29th: oh, just go and play with one of your presents.

December 30th: the 12 Days of Christmas (revised)

New Years Eve: The Choir 'Fine Fun Time' (link takes you to The Choir Myspace page, it should be the first song that plays. Best track I've heard in 2007)

New Years Day: log off and pray. Why would you want to be online?

O God of new beginnings and wonderful surprises, thank you for the gift of a new year. May it be a time of grace for me, a time to grow in faith and love, a time to renew my commitment to following Your Son, Jesus. May it be a year of blessing for me, a time to cherish my family and friends, a time to renew my efforts at work, a time to embrace my faith more fully. Walk with me, please, in every day and every hour of this new year, that the light of Christ might shine through me, in spite of my weaknesses and failings. Above all, may I remember this year that I am a pilgrim on the sacred path to You.

I'm Dreaming of a Slow Christmas

Touching Base @ The Wardman Wire

Complete this well-known phrase or saying: ‘The Christmas……’

If you thought of ‘rush’, congratulations, you win this online version of family fortunes. There’s nothing like Christmas for testing our patience: queues in the post office, queues into the car park, queues in the shops. My old church in Darlington does a Christmas service at the local ASDA at closing time on Christmas Eve, and people are always streaming past for last minute turkeys, CDs and crates of ale.

Slow thinking is better thinking
There comes a time when hurry stops being something we do occasionally, and becomes a way of life. I blame the internet...... (continues here)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Liverpool Nativity & Christmas TV

For principled Luddites like me who refuse to go digital (for reasons I won't bore you with), the Liverpool Nativity is being aired on terrestrial TV on Sunday at 10.45pm on BBC1. See what LICC (London Institute for Contemporary Christianity) thought of it here.

Whilst I'm here, some other Christmas TV highlights

Pirates of the Caribbean 1, Christmas Eve BBC1 8.30pm. A plot centred around an everlasting curse, broken only by the shedding of the blood of an innocent associated with the guilty parties. Or a cracking bit of slapstick. Or both. Never mind the in-depth discussion of morality (is the Pirate Code rules or guidelines), and Keira Knightly.

Little Town of Bethlehem Christmas Eve. ITV1 11.15pm . If you can't get to a late night service, a chance to see how Bethlehem's Christians are celebrating Christmas.

Doctor Who Christmas Day BBC1 6.50pm. Apart from being the 2nd best thing on TV this year (after Life on Mars), it's yet another Doctor Who with 'angel' baddies, following on from David Tennants impersonation of Jesus at the finale of the last series. Russell Davies tries to convince us he's an average guy by making soft porn for BBC3, but Doctor Who, like most of the fantasy genre, is bursting with spiritual resonances.

Holby City 27th Dec 8.00pm BBC1. Holby has eclipsed even Eastenders for its depression quotient in recent times, but this looks like fun: 'It's a Wonderful Life' for the end-of-his-tether Elliot (incidentally, Paul Bradley playing exactly the same harassed nice guy he played in Eastenders).

Extreme Pilgrim Jan 4th 9pm BBC2 Peter Owen Jones (self-styled Indiana Jones in a dog collar) gets beaten up by Shaolin monks in the quest for spiritual depth.

Plus a whole load of films shown much too late for their own good: The Good the Bad and the Ugly, the Royal Tenenbaums, Galaxy Quest, The Count of Monte Cristo (the superb Jim Caviezel version). The video will be working overtime.

Christian Politicians? Christian Scientists?

Following Nick Clegg's commendably brief and honest (how often can you say that about a politician?) answer to whether he believed in God, Matthew Parris has written a good piece in the Times about about how many recent PM's have actually professed Christian faith.

Parris concludes the article thus:
We don't want to be a bore but we sense a parting of the ways between faith and reason, and a need to stand up and be counted. Perhaps without meaning to, perhaps without thinking, Nick Clegg this week seemed to me to be responding to that anxiety for honest clarity. Millions more than will say so will approve.

Parris makes a good argument demolishing the idea that faith is a 'private matter' which has no bearing on public life. How can it be? Any truly committed Christian will find their faith impacting on the way they speak, do business, make friendships, make decisions, handle conflict, work out priorities etc. If this isn't having an impact on public life then there is some pretty deep level schizophrenia at work.

However, I think Parris is too willing to identify 'faith' with the unreasonable aspects of a religion. It's unfortunate that there is no Christian scientist with an equivalent profile to Richard Dawkins, who can make the case that faith and reason go together. I remember speaking to someone a few years ago who did regular university missions, and remarked that most of the people becoming Christians were studying science, rather than humanities, because scientists still worked with the idea that things were true or false, so could respond to reason.

Just one example: in Physics, the constants for just 2 elements vital to the existence of the universe: gravity and the quantity of matter, are fine tuned to an accuracy of 10 -61. In other words, if either of these constants was out by
then we wouldn't have a universe at all - it would be a cloud of gas with no solids, or a singular point in space collapsed in upon itself.

The point is, that if the universe is fine tuned to this level, never mind the horde of other things which have to be spot on (see here for a mind-boggling list)then it takes a whole lot more faith to believe it was an accident, rather than intelligently designed. Just reckoning with these facts doesn't make you a 7 day creationist, it simply makes you a decent scientist who isn't blinded by dogma. There is a culture within science, as there is in all other areas of life. The culture within the biological sciences is strongly atheist (with Darwin as a patron saint, there is still a sense of 'payback time' going on), but in other branches of science the picture is different.

Of course, there's still a long way to go from a cosmic designer to the personal God revealed in Jesus, but that's where Christmas comes in. God will give us enough evidence for his existence to lead us to the living water, but the decision to drink is up to us.

Cricket Quotes of the Year

Thanks to cricinfo, where you'll find plenty more....

"Who made them boring?"
Looking straight at the camera, a deadpan Richie Benaud responds to Geoff Boycott's call for four-day Tests because five days are, apparently, boring

"Is that Ranatunga? Strewth, he's not missed many lunches has he?"
Sky Sports' David Lloyd as the camera turns on a rather portly looking Arjuna Ranatunga in the stands at Kandy

"Oh, I do love those newspapers."
A sarcastic Ian Botham rubbishes newspaper reports about the impending rumours of Sanath Jayasuriya's retirement. Botham has been a regular columnist in the British press for more than two decades. Less than 24 hours later Jayasuriya confirmed the stories

"We are hoping to play New Zealand ... we are sure if we do not beat them, we can fight them."
Afghanistan coach Taj Malik causes palpitations in both the ICC and United Nations

"Yeh to Geoffrey Boycott ki maa bhi pakad leti". [Even Geoffrey Boycott's mum would have caught this.]
Atul Wassan gets innovative in describing the sitter Misbah-ul-Haq dropped in the slips, off Robin Uthappa

"I love the Boss range of grooming products and use Boss Skin refreshing face wash on a daily basis. When I'm playing cricket I apply Boss Skin Revitalizing moisturizer with SPF 15 to help protect against sun damage. At night I use the Boss Skin Moisture Gel."
Any ideas who Kevin Pietersen is promoting?

"Shane, with your, er, sorry Shane."
An unnamed reporter can't let go of Shane Warne's memory as he starts a question to Stuart MacGill ... who had just reached 200 Test wickets

"Sri Lanka cricket at this moment of time is not going in the direction it should be going, especially with a set of muppets headed by a joker."
Marvan Atapattu endears himself to his selectors as Sri Lanka struggle against Australia in Brisbane (as I post the Sri Lanka v England series has ended in a deserved 1-0 victory to Sri Lanka, and but for the weather it would have been 2-0)

"I have enough on my plate."
Mike Gatting referring to his new roles in English cricket. Few believed he would ever mutter such a comment where food was concerned

"I am handsome but all the actresses can wait."
A modest Sreesanth disappoints the beauties who can't wait to star opposite him

"We were at a warm-up game in Zimbabwe once and the fast bowlers were on with the old ball. I was standing at slip with Inzi next to me. We crouched down as you do when the bowlers were coming in. Four or five balls later, I noticed Inzi was still crouching and surprised, I asked him if everything was ok. He replied, "I'm fine, just trying to sleep. The ball is old and reversing so there's hardly a chance there will be any edges to snap up."
Aamer Sohail recounts a classic Inzamam-ul-Haq anecdote

"That was unplayable, just like the Spice Girls."
The new Shane Warne doll, a playmate for the Boonie doll, gets his sledges in gear

"That had four written all over it - until it got stuck in the rocks at long-off."
The commentary from the PA describes the unusual playing conditions for the Basra Ashes between the English and Australian military contingents stationed in Iraq

"If I was sitting in an armchair then I'd be disappointed as well."
Rahul Dravid with a message for armchair fans who were critical of his decision not to enforce the follow-on at The Oval

"He's not driving well, he's not hooking and pulling well. It doesn't leave too much."
Nasser Hussain hands Andrew Strauss a not-so-glowing endorsement

"I don't know all the rules, but I don't know all the rules of Quidditch either."
Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe on his conversion to cricket - he attended the Lord's Test on his 18th birthday this week.

"It was a waste of time. The boot camp was a different way to reinforce the same things. My way would have been to lock us all up in a pub."
Shane Warne gives his alternative to Australia's controversial boot camp last year

"Remember to say 'Good areas', 'Work hard', 'Keep it simple'."
What cliches? A mischievous journalist passes Monty Panesar a note ahead of a press conference. Panesar said it just once in 15 minutes.

Rowan Williams debating with Ricky Gervais

Thanks to Ruth
for this link. I thought this was great, Gervais has clearly
thought about the subject, and Williams comes across as a great listener, and
through listening gains the right to put his point and get heard.

Ruth also links to this story from the Times, on new research on why people leave church by Richter and Francis. Their book 'Gone but Not Forgotten' is in my increasing pile of books I need to read, and 'Gone for Good?' is the follow up.

Here's a brief excerpt from the Times report:'Dr Francis said: “We discovered a variety of factors at work
in people's decisions to stop coming to church. Our hope is to offer a vision of
the church that will encourage people to come back and enjoy being together
again with other Christians.”
He said the churches should make sure they offer every Sunday the kind of warm welcome given to churchgoers at Christmas.
While this would not mean putting on a sparkling Christmas tree, crib and
mince pies each week, it would mean good cheer and lots of singable hymns. '

One a micro level, this seems to confirm the decision at our church not to have sung liturgy at the Christmas night service - if you don't know the tune, it's not 'singable' - and on a wider level the Richter and Francis research is in tune with the work of Mission Shaped Church and the ABofC's promotion of a 'mixed economy' church, where the church offers a variety of styles of worship and entry points to faith. 'Gone for Good' talks about a 'multiplex' model, which is a decent illustration, but I'd want to make sure that we don't reduce people to mere consumers of worship, there's a lot more to following Jesus than that.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nobody Expects the Spanish Extradition

And that's about all I have to say about the story of the 3 British Guantanamo detainees released this week. But I thought it was worth saying.

Mystery Worshippers

Great idea, find some non-Christians who are prepared to come to your church as 'mystery worshippers' to provide an objective view on what you do. It's being trialled in the Midlands, using people who normally inspect shops.

Here's the CRE site, who are organising it, with the help of Ship of Fools who have been doing this for years, but on a more ad hoc basis. (good review of our local Wells Cathedral here). Actually organising it and using it as a way of helping churches to reflect on what they do is a good idea.

So, is your church brave enough to hear the truth......................?

What is a Church?

If you're a bit stumped for things to talk about at your next cell group or church council, try this link from the Fresh Expressions website, a good game to play to get people thinking.

In recent days I've had to dress up twice to impersonate someone else. I've looked (sort of) like Santa, sounded like Santa, and acted like Santa (hohoho and a few presents for the kids), but of course I wasn't. All it needed was a few familiar markers - white beard, big sack - to pass as the big fat fellow.

I'm tempted to draw an analogy with the England cricket team, given today's performance. They look like a cricket team, they're in the right place at the right time, but there are serious questions about whether they really are a cricket team or a bunch of impersonators who are being found out.....

and of course we can play the same game with the church. That's what the link at the top is all about. An old building, a Sunday service, a vicar, we can convince people that we are a church by having the visible markers. But here's a question: is it possible to impersonate the real church for so long that we convince ourselves that's what we really are? For example, I've blogged elsewhere about the core marks of the church being worship, mission, community and discipleship, but have come across churches where:
  • worship is simply the habit of going through a particular format, which suits the preferences of people who go.
  • mission is non-existent, newcomers are not welcomed, and the people take a 'everyone knows where we are, so it's up to them to come to us' attitude
  • instead of community, it is a collection of individuals drawn together by a preference for a particular style of worship/building/church life. (Whenever I hear someone say 'my communion', alarm bells ring in my head.)
  • discipleship is resisted - people refuse to be taught for any longer than 8 minutes on a Sunday, and what looks like discipleship is actually expression of a particular polite English subculture. Either that or people just want the teaching to reinforce their prejudices, and don't want to be made to think, or challenged.
This isn't a black and white thing. Most churches are a mixture, there is no church which has got everything right. But every movement can turn into a monument, and then a mausoleum. That last term is one used by Jesus of the Pharisees, even though they'd begun as a renewal movement within Judaism.

And if we find ourselves in an impersonating church, rather than a real one, it's so much easier to bail out than to pray and work things out. The plague of the Protestant church is our inability to stick with each other, our blindness to community, and that the command to love one another (community) stands alongside the command to love God with everything we've got (worship and discipleship) and the command to make disciples (mission). There's the exciting opportunity in Yeovil to go back to the drawing board about the nature of the church, as we look to establish new Christian communities in new housing estates. My hope is that the process will be a good one for the more established churches too, helping us all to reflect on God's call, and what it means to be His people.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New Lib Dem Leader doesn't 'do God' either

The day after Nick Cleggs election as the new LibDem leader, the top story on him in the media is based on 1 word of his on 5 Live: 'no'. Asked if he believed in God, Clegg put himself at the opposite end of the faith spectrum to Tony Blair, though he made sure to disassociate himself from militant secularism in later comments.

See the link above for the full story. What fascinates me is that it's Cleggs religious views, rather than any other subject from his interviews today, that is making the headlines. Why does everyone want to talk about God (even a God they don't believe in) all of a sudden?

For the first time since Thatcher, I think we're starting to have a debate about what kind of society we want to be. Things like the place of faith, national identity, multiculturalism, environmental ethics, are all up for debate. I just hope that during this (probably brief) window of opportunity, Christians aren't timid. Whether we go forward as a secular (where faith is kept out of public life) or a holistic (where faith perspectives are seen as legitimate and positive) society depends on the debates that are going on now.

What It's All About

The song is Breath of Heaven by Amy Grant, and the film is 'The Nativity', which came out last year. (Just try to ignore the titles in the last 5 seconds!!!!)

No Christmas Pressies if you're a Traffic Warden's kid

NCP has scrapped it's annual Christmas bonus for its parking wardens, according to the Daily Mail. They've announced it's 'not appropriate'.

There's a technical term for this, but it's not one I'll blog in front of the children.

(and yes, I did link to the Daily Mail website. I really am very very sorry. It won't happen again, promise)

Meanwhile the BBC has backed down on it's decision to bleep out some of the 'rude' words in the Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York', and will play the uncensored version. Cowards. Mind you, they should have bleeped out various words when it was first released towards the end of last century. Bizarre that they think someone saying 'a**e' is fine on air but 'faggot' isn't. Watch out, 'Bleep, the Magic Dragon'.

local carol singing

If you're around and fancy a sing in Yeovil over the next couple of nights, some carol singing dates:

8.30pm on Thursday in the Arrow, Abbey Manor (Quiz Night starts 9.20pm-ish, they've promised to lay on mince pies and coffee for us, which is nice)

6-7pm on Friday at The Bell Inn, Preston Road (mulled wine involved, allegedly)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Growth in London Diocese and Bishops Expenses

2 Anglican stories:

Great news from London Diocese of 7% growth in church membership over the last 5 years, including a 'top 10' of growing churches. I'm not sure if there's any other Dioceses reporting the latest info, but it's encouraging to see what's happening in London. There is an old adage that what happens in London happens 5 years later in other cities and 10 years later everywhere else (except perhaps Nempnett Thrubwell). The other interesting thing is that often when people hear about Anglican church growth in London, it's put down to the Holy Trinity Brompton effect (the home of the Alpha course) - looking at the top 10, that's clearly not the case. The top 1 is an HTB transplant, but several of the others are in an anglo-catholic or traditional Anglican stable.

On a different note, the Church of England has published figures for the expenses of its Bishops here.

The 2006 total was £11.3m, plus a further £13.2m on pay and maintaining bishops properties. The 2005 figures were £10.7m and £11m respectively.
The 2004 figure was £10.1m and £8.4m respectively.
That's a 43% increase in 2 years.

Oxford Diocese (I haven't checked others) did put a link on its home page to the information when it was first released a few days ago. Full marks for tranparency. In my own Diocese, office and staff costs for our two bishops have gone up by twice the 10% national increase. Comparisons are tricky - the same costs have gone up steeply in the last 2 years, but declined steeply in the 2 years before that. There has recently been a structures review in the Diocese, with a view to streamlining central structures, which may have a knock-on effect in the next year or two.

In the 6 years 2000-2006 the number of bishops declined by 1, from 114 to 113. Over the same period, the allocation of clergy to Dioceses (the 'Sheffield formula') has worked on a drop of around 10% in stipendiary clergy numbers (see this example from Liverpool Diocese, page 2).

I'm not really sure whether commenting would be helpful or not....

Wise Men Cartoon

Please note: not many people know that the Nintendo Wii was invented by Geordies. Most people mistakenly call it a 'wee', but the correct pronunciation is 'wye-aye'.

Attraction & Incarnation

An article on the Share website has made me think. The website is intended as a resource for 'fresh expressions of church', and the article looks at different ways of being the church and how it relates to the culture around it. 3 modes are explained:

'Attractional' churches adopt a 'you come to us' approach. Their activities are designed to encourage people to journey into God's love by joining the existing church. If they are involved in the community, it may be partly in the hope that their presence will be a stepping stone into church on Sunday.

'Engaged' churches are very active in their communities, working with them in all sorts of ways, largely as an end in itself. Social action is seen as a vital part of the gospel, requiring churches to be heavily engaged with their surrounding cultures. But when it comes to inviting people to journey into God's love, the assumption is that the journey will occur as individuals are drawn into existing church.

'Incarnational' churches are heavily involved with their surrounding cultures, but don't share the assumption that people – if they are interested – will come to faith through established churches. They try to encourage church to grow within the cultures they are engaged with.

It's ironic that at the time of year when we celebrate the incarnation of God, we become most 'attractional' - the church lays on Christmas services, and we encourage people to come to them, hoping that some of the occasional visitors will be prompted to think more deeply about Jesus and start exploring the faith for themselves. Are incarnational and attractional modes of church complementary, contradictory, or something else? Jesus got stuck in with the people around him, and he attracted people to himself as well.

However, what they were attracted to was not church, but Jesus - the danger of the attractional model of church is that it makes customers out of people who then expect the church to keep them happy, rather than disciples who will go wherever Jesus leads them.

Worship or Mission?
Alongside this is another massive and fundamental issue: what is the church for? Again, this is picked up in the Share article, but which is the basic calling of the church, worship or mission? Are we with the Westminster Catechism ('the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever'), or Mission-Shaped Church ('it is not the church of God which has a mission, but the God of mission who has a church'. Note: the link gives you the whole text of this book)

This debate is playing out in an interesting way at my local. In an effort to be more user-friendly for occasional visitors to the late night service on Christmas Eve, we've decided to go with said settings for Communion rather than sung ones. (Note to non-Anglicans - that means we say things like the Lords Prayer, and various bits of the liturgy, rather than singing them.) (Note to self: the fact I think I need to explain this maybe speaks for itself.....) Even those of us who are regulars aren't that hot on the sung bits of the service, and when about half the congregation are visitors to Yeovil for Christmas from other churches, or people for whom this is one of their very occasional visits to churches, there are a lot of people who will be excluded from taking part in those parts of the worship.

Some folk aren't too keen on the idea, and I think once we've had the debate, it may finally boil down to this question: are we here primarily to worship (and so if people want to join us they have to join us on our terms, as people called by God to worship him), or are we here primarily for mission (and so we make it easier for people to cross the threshold into the life of the church). Or we could neatly tie it all together and say the our ministry of welcome is part of our worship, and the Bible condemns worship which is done at the expense of, or to the exclusion of, other people (see 1 Corinthians 11). We will have all eternity to worship, but we have only this life to share the good news of Jesus.

If people come to church and get the message, through the way we do the service, that there is an 'in crowd' here and they aren't part of it, will that commend the gospel to them, or make them less likely to come back? Alternatively, will a service that people can't easily relate to sift out the genuine seekers from those who are their just out of habit? Jesus did some sifting of his own at various times. However, if he needed to be accessible to everyday people in the first place before he could start teaching the crowd about the demands of discipleship. If we're going to put people off, we need to put people off biblically - with how tough it is to follow Jesus - rather than with lesser things like whether or not we sing the Lords Prayer.

Monday, December 17, 2007

'Make Me a Muslim' Part 2

How nice it was to see the familiar scenery of the Dark Peak as the backdrop to part 2 of this Channel 4 series. You couldn't think of a nicer place to fast and wear a headscarf.

There was slightly less culture clash in this episode, mainly because people were being taken away from their home settings for a weekend retreat in Derbyshire. It was quite an interesting episode on the effects of fasting per se, whatever religious background you come from. The brief summary from the imam: that fasting heightens your senses, opens you to God and brings hidden things to the surface, is something most Christian writers on fasting would agree with.
And there was one moment of great insight from one of the participants: "you don't take on a religion, like some extra bit of yourself, it takes you, it's all-embracing", or something like that, I didn't have the presence of mind to write it down.

There were some very funny bits, like the taxi driver fed up at having a mere jacket potato to break his fast with, so he marched off down to the local pub and found it had stopped serving food. Less funny was the freedom with which the adults swore in front of the children present, and how reluctant they were to simply do what they were asked. I was reminded of my 2 year old refusing to get into his car seat - there comes a point where there ceases to be a point to the struggle, and it's just a battle of wills, the independence of the child against the will of the parent. Not for nothing is it called Islam - 'submission', something which crashes right into the independent spirit of the age.

Another issue which keeps cropping up is clothing for the women. The programme shows a mirror to how much we rely on our clothes to express our personality and to communicate with people. And if 'image conscious' can slide over into an unhealthy obsession with how we look (see the fashion industry, the burgeoning cosmetic surgery sector etc.) then how far do we go for concealment, and hide our 'image' in public, in order to save the fuller part of ourselves for our most intimate relationships? Good question to wrestle with. From infancy our kids are targeted with sexualised fashions - see the Bratz brand for pre-school girls - toxic stuff, and we don't realise it.

Make Me a Muslim

Cranmer has posted on this programme, aired last night on Channel 4. It was Big Brother meets The Retreat, but worse. The programme makers had selected a group of people who were as un-Muslim as you could get (the beer-swilling taxi driver who has bacon sandwiches for breakfast and sits alone at Harrogates only pole-dancing club; the soft porn model with 2 small children; the alcoholic homosexual cross-dresser), and then giving a local mosque 3 weeks to make good Muslims out of them.

The programme illustrated all sorts of things. Some of the Muslims clearly didn't realise that they were being set up for ridicule - the guy in the Arab scarf walking round the town talking to women in the hope of finding wife for the gay man just looked silly. The imam himself came across very well - he was unfazed by what he found out about the participants, but still very clear on what Sharia law said about things, as he carted of crates of booze, pornography, skimpy clothes and bacon from their houses.

The 3 things that struck me most forcibly were

1. that the programme showed what a depraved society we've become. Soft porn, or pop videos to give it another name, is accepted front page material in newsagents and on the screen. This programme was even pre-watershed, for goodness sake. As well as obvious stuff like drink and sex, the Brits were foul-mouthed, intolerant, proud, argumentative, and unable to accept that they might possibly have something to learn.

2. What a major culture clash there is between Islam and what's become accepted Western values. Islam itself is of course much more strongly cultural than Christianity, being bound up with the Arab tongue in the Koran, and having a conversion model that is much more about assimilation into a particular culture, rather than breaking down cultural and race barriers.

3. How much Christians have bailed out from presenting a discipleship of everyday life. Seeing the imam talk about clothes and how what we wear affects our spirits brought me up short, because the church has abandoned teaching on the small things of everyday life: clothing, food, spending, what we read, what we watch, mobile phones, punctuality, etc. So if people want a faith that makes spiritual sense of, and incorporates, the nitty gritty things, we have left the field wide open for others. That's not to say we need lots of laws, heaven forbid, but we need perhaps to do a bit more work on what a distintively Christian lifestyle looks like.

This is great

from the Free Christian Resources blog, linking to good sites for free clip art and images.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nestle vs King Herod: No Contest?

After my crisis of conscience as Father Christmas Last week (see Integrity Part 2) I mentioned to one of the organisers of the Christmas party that I had a bit of a problem with giving out stuff from Nestle. Well, word seems to be getting round, and a few folk in the school playground, who were unaware that there was anything wrong with Nestle, are now asking what the issue is.

More details can be found on the Baby Milk Action site, but here is the bare bones of it.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.5 million babies die each year because they are not adequately breastfed. Despite what is claimed on baby milk substitutes, breast milk is still far superior for babies as a source of nutrition and disease prevention. What's more, it is safer - where formula milk has to be made up from contaminated or unsafe water supplies, there is a high risk to the baby. The risk of death from diarrhoea and pneumonia increases dramatically if a family uses formula milk in an area with an unhygenic water supply.

As a result the WHO has a set of marketing codes, to safeguard vulnerable people. Nestle has violated these codes more often than any other company. Whilst breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months as the best option for a childs health, Nestle markets is products in the developing world as suitable from 4 months, and sometimes much younger. Health workers and key opinion formers are showered with gifts and free samples, and claims of health benefits of milk substitutes are exaggerated. In China, the worlds biggest market, where Nestle is having a big marketing push, exclusive breastfeeding of infants has declined from 76% to 64% in less than 10 years. Nestle has stationed doctors in Chinese supermarkets to give out free samples and deal with questions. The international code on marketing of breast milk substitutes forbids promotion direct to parents, but this is exactly what Nestle are doing in China, and many other places.

The result of their actions is to place the lives and health of millions of babies at risk.

The Nestle boycott began in 1977 in the USA, and spread across the world. It's old news, which is probably why so few people know about it, or folk who used to boycott Nestle assume that everything is fine now. The Church of England announced a boycott of Nestle in the early 90's, with a measurable effect on sales, but in the face of a p.r. blitz by Nestle over the following years decided not to renew it. I'm a Church of England vicar who thinks that was a mistake.

The only thing that Nestle understand, and other companies like them, is money. The thing that will change their practices is a financial hit, and one thing that Western consumers have is spending power, to use, or to withdraw. It's a chilly day today, and to keep warm I'm wearing a t-shirt which says "How you spend controls what happens on the planet."

So here's what not to buy.

Nescafe and all Nescafe brands
Rowntrees products (Nestle bought the company a few years ago) such as Kit Kat & Lion Bar
Ski Yoghurts
After 8's
Buxton Mineral Water
Nestle cereals: Shreddies, Cheerios, Golden Grahams etc.
Cosmetics by Garnier, L'Oreal, Lancome, Matrix and others
Winalot and Felix pet foods, among others.

For a fuller list go here.

In at least one respect Nestle are worse than Herod (the king responsible for the deaths of the Bethelehem babies at the time of Jesus). Herod didn't pretend to care, but then he'd never heard of marketing.

Integrity, Part 1

Touching Base @ The Wardman Wire this week

This is Me .. This is Me .. This is Me .. Ooops !
The fun bit of autobiographies is finding all those juicy details which were hushed up at the time, but are now owned up to in public. Duncan Fletcher’s cricketing memoir hogged the headlines for weeks with his revelations about drunken cricketers and behind-the-scenes rows, and The Blair Years showed us how well hidden Blair had kept the strength of his Christian faith and how devoutly he practiced it.

Shining A Light on The Other Face
We know that there is a hidden side to everyone. What we don’t know is whether that hidden side is better or worse than their public face. I vividly remember business meetings at a certain Somerset shoe company where people were unswervingly polite to each other during a meeting, then as soon as a particular marketing manager left they would be verbally ripped to shreds by those remaining. I had a big problem with this. It made it impossible to take anyone at face value, which in turn makes trust, and true friendship, a no-go area.

The film Jerry Maguire dramatises the same effect magnificently: Maguire (Tom Cruise) writes a radical proposal for his company, everyone claps him on the back and says how great he is; but once he is out of earshot they take bets on how quickly he’ll get fired. At the less glamorous end of the jobs market, in Brassed Off the miners talk tough about a strike but all vote for the redundancy pay.

Who am I ?
It’s even easier to be two-faced on the internet........ (to read the rest click here)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bad Idea of the Day

The government announced proposals to make the contraceptive pill available over the counter, today. Other people are better informed on this than I, but it was good to hear Nadine Dorries MP on the radio, making the case for caution. Being able to get the pill from pharmacies will make it easier for young people to become sexually active, increase risk from std's, and cuts parents out of the equation as kids send their 16-year-old looking friends in to get the Pill for them, rather than having to see a doctor.

The Department of health ('Doh'! for short), has no statement on its website about this.

Integrity, part 2

No, you haven't missed part 1, it should be appearing on The Wardman Wire on Saturday. But having decided to write something on integrity, and the match between actions and words, I found myself in the following situation:

School Christmas party, asked to play Father Christmas. Finding myself in a 'grotto' (a well decorated cupboard), giving away selection boxes of choccies to kids from the local school. Part way through I looked at what I was giving away and discovered to my discomfort that they were made by Nestle, who for 30 years have been the subject of a boycott due to their unethical marketing of baby milk in the developing world.

So, two moral dilemmas in 1 cupboard. Not only was I decieving kids as to my true identity, I was giving them stuff made by a company partly responsible for the deaths of children in other parts of the world. Should I have bailed out?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Golden Compass: Review

(and whilst I'm here, a link to a good and thought-provoking review at Christianity Today)

In recent years, there seems to have been an unwritten Hollywood rule that to have a fantasy action blockbuster, you need to have English accents.

Okay, Harry Potter is set in England, and you wouldn't get away with American kids or teachers in that. But whilst in the 80's we had to put up with a distinctly transatlantic Robin Hood (Kevin Costner), a whole series of fantasy trilogies - Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and now His Dark Materials - are all being voiced by English actors, or people who can do a decent English accent (Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp).

There is a problem with this, which I'll come back to in a moment. The good thing is that I can understand what people are saying. The bad thing about the Golden Compass is, even if you can understand what people are saying, you can't understand what they're on about unless you've read the book. The book - the first part of the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy by Philip Pullman - deals with some quite profound themes, which struggle to make it to celluloid.

(Since other sites have a decent summary of The plot I won't attempt one here. Reviews have been patchy. )

The film has a decent stab at introducing us to Philip Pullmans parallel universe, where people's souls live outside their bodies in animal form, and the sinister Magisterium tries to control free thought and abducts children to perform nasty experiments. There are some nice touches - a London with the 'gherkin' tower alongside a swathe of unfamiliar buildings - which bring to life the parallel universes idea. However the other big idea of the film, the nature of 'Dust', is left vague - a necessity in terms of the plot, because Pullman himself leaves this as a mystery until book 2, but it makes the film slightly confusing.

There are other jarring moments too. The film leaves off the final few chapters of the original book, in order to have a Hollywood ending. The end of the book is tragic and blows the plot wide open, but the end of the film is very upbeat - heroine Lyra on her way to free her dad, accompanied by her best friend, the bear king Iorek, and adventurer Lee Scoresby.

Even stranger is to hear Gandalfs voice coming out of the mouth of a talking polar bear. The bear itself is brilliantly realised with CGI, but there's no mistaking Ian McKellen's voice, and that made it very hard to take the character seriously. McKellen wasn't the only one popping in from elsewhere - having watched a bit of telly on Sunday, I came to the film and couldn't help wondering if Christopher Lee had donned an extra waistcoat and wandered in from Star Wars 2, or if Jim Carter had had a quick dash through make-up on his way over from Cranford. I guess there are a finite number of British actors, so they are bound to start reappearing at some stage, and reappear they do!

The religious dimension of the books is underplayed here. You'd have to look very hard to see an anti-Christian polemic. Okay, the 'Magisterium' is a Roman Catholic term, but the word 'church' is never mentioned, neither is God, and the battle is between those who want to control freedom and free will, and those who want to be free. There is a fleeting allusion to Adam and Eve, when the mysterious Mrs Coulter (persuasive, glamourous and chilling) tells Lyra that many thousands of years ago their ancestors made a big mistake, which we now have the chance to put right.

Far more interesting is the rendering of people's 'daemons', their own souls living in animal form alongside them. When people die, these souls explode in a shower of golden Dust. The souls feel pain, talk with their human counterparts, and if the two are separated the person becomes an empty shell. The Magisterium have developed a machine to perform this procedure - 'intercision' - the inference being that once people are separated from their souls they become docile and obedient, and lose free will.

For me there is a big question here, where is intercision happening in our own society? What is going on that separates us from our souls? It's more subtle than a machine with buttons and dials, but there are plenty of empty eyes and defeated lives in the real world. The thing is it's easy to pick a fight with the church because
a) as Christians we try to be like Jesus and not fight back, so we're much easier to argue with than anyone else.
b) people are far more ready to think ill of the church, because many of them have very little to do with it, and the RC church is a traditional conspiracy theory baddie (e.g. Da Vinci Code)
c) if Pullman etc. picked on the real enemy of freedom, the real force of intercision, then they'd be biting the free market hand that fed them. For example:

Final thought: what actually carries the movie is not the special effects (which are great, but we're so used to seeing great special effects now that it's easy to take them for granted), or the star name actors - Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter is suitably sinister and complex, Daniel Craig is great but underused (but that's the book for you: Asriel appears at the start, reappears at the end, and then is absent for the entirety of book 2. At least he'll be free to do more Bonds), and the aeronaut Lee Scoresby is suitably grizzled and cowboy-ish. But the real star, who acts everyone else off the screen and into the next parallel universe, is Dakota Blue Richards, playing Lyra. A 13 year old Brighton schoolgirl, chosen from 10,000 others to play the part, she carries the film, and embodies the fierce innocence of the character superbly.

It's a pretty good film. If you've not read the book, I'd be interested to know how much of the film you understand, and if you have, I wonder if you were as frustrated as I was that the film finished where it did. It won't bring the Christian faith crashing down anytime soon, and might even kick off some interesting conversations.

Meanwhile, if you want a film which tackles spiritual issues head-on in a completely different way (and you can find a cinema that shows it), Silent Light is getting some good reviews, but don't go if you're expecting an action movie!

Christingle Thanks

Thankyou to Brimsmore Garden Centre, who hosted our Christingle service last night. A good time was had by all, around 80 people there with a bit of standing room by the garden tools, and 1 orange left once everyone had finished making their Christingle oranges. Raised £150 + for the Childrens Society as well, so I'm really chuffed with that.

Yeovil Town Band provided the accompaniment, and right at the end, as all the candles were lit, someone looked up at the underside of the glass roof (we were in the conservatory) and saw all the candle flames reflected like stars. Lovely.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

thought for the day

courtesy of ASBO Jesus

Post Office Christmas Cards: Get the Facts Right

I've had 3 emails from separate sources this morning all forwarding this:

"Royal Mail has traditionally alternated between sacred and secular designs for their Christmas stamps and this year it is the turn for a religious image. Royal Mail has issued two sets of designs this year. The main set of designs, available in all the main denominations is of angels, which is vaguely Christian but not explicitly so and certainly not specifically Christmassy. They have also issued a 'Madonna and Child' design for first and second class only. Post Office staff have been instructed to only sell this design if people specifically request it, but obviously people can't request it if they don't know it exists! If people don't buy these stamps, Royal Mail will claim there is no demand for religious Christmas stamps and not produce them in future. Please therefore ask for 'Madonna and Child' stamps when you do your Christmas posting and also tell your friends, contacts etc. to do the same."
Thank You.

The Post Office have said:

‘We have become aware of an incorrect assertion being made about the motives behind the sales of our Christmas stamps. There is absolutely no intention on our part to suppress sales of the Madonna and Child stamps in order to be able to claim there is low demand for religious stamps in future years. Indeed, we have produced tens of millions of them, and we want to sell them!! We have given publicity to both types of Christmas stamps, and the availability of both has been widely covered in the national and local press. Furthermore we plan to have the Madonna and Child stamps available every Christmas in future, alongside each year’s “special” set, which will continue to alternate between religious and secular themes.
Any help you can give in restoring the balance would be much appreciated.
Jonathan Evans OBE, Company Secretary, Royal Mail Group'

Dave Walker has posted here and here on the topic. I'm repeating his message because
a) I already get enough emails, without getting the post office scare story email again

b) Spreading these kinds of stories damages the credibility of the church when we have anything important to say. 'Christians? Oh yes, they're the people who don't check the facts'. As people who have a message to communicate, credibility is all important. To simply jump on some scare story and forward it on without checking it isn't just an innocent bit of emailing, in real life we call it gossip. It also chips away at what trust people have in Christians.

My apologies to you if you've recieved a slightly snappy email from me today, but I'd rather we were known for the gospel than for kicking the post office. Personally, I'd quite like to save the post office, and for local churches to be in a position to host local post office services if the government decides to shut them down. Spreading rumours like this doesn't help our case.

Update: I've just had a reply to one of my snappy emails, which says:

I have had two repsonses which may indicate this is a hoax but some of our congregation (St Paul's, Sherborne) have had problems getting them and our church warden actually challenged them at (a local) Post office after they said they were sold out and they sheepishly brought out two large bundles...

well, well, well.......

Monday, December 10, 2007

The John Lewis 'New Ways to Market Christmas' Department Disappears Up It's Own Bottom

Next year, a helium-filled nativity set that you can have on your ceiling.

new cartoons

Two absolutely brilliant cartoons on Dave Walkers site this morning, here's one:
and for the other you'll just have to pop over to his site.

Do they know it's Christmas?

Start the Week posts a story about research, published today by the thinktank Theos, on how well people know the Christmas story. It finds that 3/4 of people know the story in general terms, but only 12% have 'detailed knowledge' - e.g. that Jesus family fled to Egypt after his birth to escape Herod.

Meanwhile Trevor Philips, the governments equality guru, has waded into the debate over nativity plays (which seems to be this years version of the 'Winterval' lights story). On the radio this morning (and in the Guardian online) he was making an interesting argument: that banning nativity plays because 'they might offend people' actually plays into the hands of extremists and xenophobes.

The standard justification for marginalising the Christian story is that it might offend people of other faiths, yet these people are more than happy to celebrate Christmas and have a school nativity play. So it turns out to be a trojan horse at best, and a blatant lie at worst. Instead, what happens is that people of other faiths get blamed for their not being a nativity play, and the rejection of other elements of what a traditional British Christmas is supposed to be about. So councils etc. who blame non-Christian faith communities for the removal of Christ from Christmas are actually fuelling community tension, and playing into the hands of the BNP and their like.

On a lighter note, despite the young being, according to Theos, those least likely to know the Christmas story in any detail, they are also the most frequent visitor to our door to sing carols. Well, not carols. And not singing either. However, the dance routine to 'Santa Baby' by last nights 5 teenage lads was pretty good. I asked them to learn a carol and come back in Christmas week for some chocolate.

Off to see the school nativity play now....

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Prophetic Art, Prophetic Action

Cranmer is currently posting on the state of Bethlehem and its beleagured Christian population, and put up this picture of a new take on the nativity scene:

including the new Israeli security barrier. The sets are produced by the Amos trust, and the larger church-sized version has a 'detachable' security barrier. If only it were that easy in real life.

It's interesting that it's art and craft pieces which are drawing more attention to the situation in Bethlehem than words. That's something which Archbishop John Sentamu recognises, hence his dramatic chopping up of his dog collar on the Andrew Marr show today (watch it here) .

The trouble with prophetic action is that it always runs the risk of looking like a gimmick or publicity stunt. What's the difference between Sentamu's protest against Robert Mugabe, and David Blaine fasting in a perspex box for 40 days? There will no doubt be some people who cry 'gimmick' - it was clearly premeditated (why else would he have a pair of scissors with him on the show?), but it's grabbed the headlines, and is an image which people will remember.

Being a prophet is a risky business. People might label you, in Blairs word, a 'nutter'. Ezekiel cooking over his own poo, Jeremiah hiding his underpants under a rock, these aren't exactly the actions of fine upstanding members of the community. The line between prophetic action and idiocy is sometimes visible only to God. In a culture saturated with the media, prophets both have to be more media-savvy, but also more innocent. Everyone is after their 5 minutes, or 5 megabytes, of fame, and if people remember the messenger more than the message, then somehow the action of prophecy has gone wrong.

The other fascinating thing is the use of the visual. There's no doubt that words, in the hands of a master craftsman, can be incredibly powerful. But the visual arts, and dramatic actions have a power to communicate that leaves most of us amateur wordsmiths standing. Approaching Christmas, and thinking about how to communicate the old old story in fresh, challenging and meanginful ways, I have to tread the line between gimmick and dramatic visual aid in the search for things to show and do that will illuminate the Christmas crib from a new angle.

What helps of course is that pretty much every day at the moment there is a story in the news which can be worked with, whether it's the Archbishop, Blairs interviews, the survey on nativity plays, or the swell of voices from other faiths telling the secularists to lay off Christmas (see Cranmer again on Fridays 'thought for the Day'. )

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Various Saturday links

Richard Frank has posted a review of the Golden Compass, expect one here next week. "So to start by addressing the burning issue, will this film bring down the Church as we know it? Well the simple answer is no."

The Bishop of London is now blogging, making 3 bishops at the last count (Bristol - starting to post regularly again after a slow period - and Buckingham are the others, though I may have missed some.)

Christmas Day, therefore, is welcomed by non-Christians as a time for the whole of society to focus on family and community values as well as the spiritual. so says Orthodox Jew Zaki Cooper in the Guardian and he continues many Jews and Muslims regard as a shame the declining religious content of Christmas, and its evolution into a more secular celebration. Worth a read, and thanks to Thinking Anglicans for their weekly roundup of Saturday columns for the link.

Dave Walker seems to be on a roll at the moment, I sense a 'Dave Walker guide to Advent and Christmas' as a sequel to his Guide to the Church.

In preparation for that unwanted Christmas gifts, why not read Mark Dever's 'how to give godly criticism' in 5 easy steps, namely:
1. Directly, not indirectly
2. Seriously, not humorously
3. As if it’s important, not casually
4. Privately, not publicly
5. Out of love for them, not to express your feeling or frustration

plenty to reflect on there.

Finally Ruth Gledhill has picked up on Extreme Pilgrim, the latest TV offering to satisfy the desire for quirky reality TV, along with the smaller, but by no means insignificant, appetite for TV shows dealing with spirituality (The Convent, The Retreat, The Monastery, etc.). There's also an interesting BBC3 take on the nativity currently showing in trailers on the telly - the Liverpool Nativity seems to be Merseysides answer to the Manchester Passion, and seeks to weave the city's music together with the nativity story. Being an analogue refugee, we don't have BBC3, but hopefully it'll turn up on proper TV some time soon.

A Bigger Yes

The latest 'Touching Base' for The Wardman Wire:

Which of the following is the odd one out?

- Football

- Cricket

- Formula 1

- Horse Racing

The answer is Horse Racing - each of the other 3 is involved in an ongoing enquiry over some form of corruption, whilst the trial of Keiron Fallon and 2 other jockeys for race-fixing has just ended with an acquittal.

Of course it doesn't stop with sport. Canoeists, political donors, supermarkets, the whiff of financial corruption seems to be everywhere. Why?

It's been was fascinating to watch the section on Tony Blairs Christian faith in the recent 'The Blair Years' TV series. The most bemusing part was Menzies Campbells comment on Blairs faith:

click on the link at the top for the rest....

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Roger Daltrey's Generation want their Christmas Back.

Thanks to Ruth Gledhill for the pointer to this article about a survey of 10,000 Saga generation and their resistance to the removal of Christ from Christmas. (Ruth's post makes interesting reading in the light of my last posting, as it's about the death threats given to a UK imams daughter for converting to Christianity)

Here's an extract

The Saga Populus panel, the largest panel of over 50s in the UK, found widespread concerns that some modern Christmas practises are too "politically correct".

The biggest complaint was replacing "Christmas" lights with "winter" lights by local authorities, with 85 per cent protesting. The practice of replacing nativity plays with non-religious performances was described as the second greatest over-reaction to multiculturalism by 84 per cent of those polled.

Eight in ten were upset that some companies have banned Christmas decorations and some schools have banned children from sending Christmas cards.

Sending cards saying "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy holidays" rather than references to Christmas was seen as the most reasonable of modern practices, however, and more than one in five described non-religious Christmas card messages as a "sad but accurate" reflection of modern Christmas.

Unfortunatly, there's no link on the Saga site to this poll, so it's hard to check on the facts behind the commentary. It's even more sobering to think that in just over 11 years they'll be polling me. Run awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!

Update: The following day, I got a circular from SAGA in the post. Is someone out there having a laugh?

Guest Blog @ Wardman Wire 2: 'How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sharia'

Sadly, it's not the first time that someone's used this title, as a quick google will tell you. Anyway, here's the second of my guest blogs at The Wardman Wire:

Touching Base - How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sharia

And it starts like this...........

Exit pursued by a Bear

Gillian Gibbons is safely back in the UK, thank God, thanks to the intercession of 2 Muslim peers, and widespread international condemnation of the Sudanese government.

What the whole sorry business has demonstrated, if a demonstration was needed, is that there are radically different versions of Islam at work in different places.

to read the rest, click the link.


Good round up of several news stories linking to this them over at Richard Franks blog, pulling together Blair, yesterdays debate in parliament, Richard Dawkins and the unprofitable teddy bear of Khartoum. Worth a look.

Local politics links for Yeovil

I was alerted today to the blog of the local Conservative prospective candidate, so in the interests of fairness, here's links to all 4 of the main parties for Yeovil.

and here is David Laws voting record in the Commons

Kevin Davis has a go at Laws for asking lots of questions at taxpayers expense: Clang! As a LibDem front bench spokesman, that's what he's there for.

thankfully the BNP has gone silent in Yeovil for the time being.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Banksy in Bethlehem

Bristol-based 'guerilla artist' Banksy is one of several artists who've been beautifying the wall around Bethlehem. Click on the link for pictures - powerful stuff. Pray for the peace of Bethlehem, and for the Christians in the birthplace of Jesus, impoverished, imprisoned, forgotten and oppressed.

Sikh Government Minister says 'Celebrate Christmas'

The UK should "celebrate" the role of Christianity in the country's heritage and culture, the government has said.

Community cohesion minister Parmjit Dhanda told MPs the religion had had a "significant impact" in securing people's rights and freedoms.

Read the rest of the story here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Blog Counter Birthday

308 posts and 400 days ago I thought I'd start a blog, inspired initially by Steve Tilleys. From what I recall, the initial idea was to post thoughts and resources about mission, leadership, and Christian reflection on culture, society and current events, with a few random posts about cricket thrown in.

Initially it was for folk in Yeovil, but the blogosphere being what it is, things have expanded somewhat. I added a blog counter exactly a year ago, after a month of firing things into the air with absolutely no idea of who was reading them, if anyone. From about 30 hits a week at the start of '07, the traffic is now starting to break 200 a week regularly, which is pitiful by the standards of the popular blogs. For example, the top religion blog according to Blogflux (discouragingly, it's an atheist blog!!!), gets 12,000 hits a week. Dave Walker is a creditable 3rd.

Of the 3200 or so people who've been here, between 30 and 40 pop back at least once a week. If you're one of them, bless you for watching. And do post comments - one of these days I'm hoping we could get a proper debate going!

Brimsmore Christingle

Just been up to Brimsmore Garden Centre to organise the Christingle for their 'Magical Christmas Evening' on 11th December (7pm, if you're in the area). This was one of a few new Christmas things we trialled last year to see if they would work, and after a good sing with 50 or so people last year, they've invited us back to do another one. Talking to the staff, it sounds like there's been quite a bit of interest among customers.

I don't know whether it's the season of goodwill, or just because people in Yeovil are nice, but there always seem to be plenty of open doors, and willingness to work together. The local nursery have asked for a Christmas service in church, and the Parish Council have let us put posters advertising the Christmas services on their noticeboards.

Tomorrow is the eve of St. Nicholas Day, so we're taking biscuits round to the neighbours in the evening - a tradition we nicked from relatives who lived in Holland for a while (did you know that 'Santa Claus' comes from the Dutch for St. Nicholas?) It was a great way to get to know people last year when we'd not long moved in, and in turn gave rise to a round of very nice dinner parties amongst the folk at this end of our street. More importantly, when a neighbour was recently bereaved, we were able to rally round as neighbours and support in practical ways, rather than just being strangers who'd become too embarassed at not knowing one another to make the first move.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A few changes around here

The perceptive visitor will notice one or two changes recently:

- Links have been revised, with a few inert blogs removed, and some new ones added in

- Technoratic tags added: I couldn't find a way in Blogger to publish links down the side, so I've used a Technorati tool to do it, so that you can follow topics if you want to.

- More posts on the webpage: I seem to have been churning a lot of stuff out recently, so rather than go through lots of back pages you can now see the latest 12 posts here, rather than 7. I hadn't even realised until today how I could change this feature, so please don't ask me for any technical advice. If you do want technical advice on Blogger blogs, try Steve Tilley.

Any feedback would be appreciated....

Old pun, new context

Now that Gillian Gibbons has been freed - well done those peers, who said they never did anything useful? - I can post this. Thanks to MadPriest for making me laugh (but don't visit his site if you're of a sensitive disposition!!).

whilst I'm here, credit where credit's due:

BBC News

"Each time we have stories like these, that distort what Islam stands for or misrepresents what the compassion of Muslim law stands for, then we have repercussions and people begin to feel that Islam has no place in modern society...

"I have not come across one single Muslim in our country who has supported what has happened.'' (Ibrahim Mogra from the Muslim Council of Britain)

School nativities and praying children

Couple of stories in the news today. BBC breakfast had this piece on schools supposedly abandoning nativity plays. The obligatory National Secular Society rep was quite restrained, (though their website headline - 'schools favour secular productions over the nativity play' is again inaccurate and misinterprets the findings - a 'modern reinterpretation of the nativity' doesn't mean a secular version, most of these re-tell the nativity story quite well, but aren't a straight rendering of the story), and the other commentator talked a lot of sense, wrapping up with: “Our identity is being chipped away at for want of ‘offending anyone’, but most people aren’t offended.”

The full story was broken by the Telegraph, though it's only based on a survey of 100 schools, so I wonder how accurate the findings (that only 1/3 of the schools surveyed were having natiivty plays) really are. It seems to be mainly a piece about political correctness, arguing that people of non-Christian faiths aren't as offended by the Christian story as they are made out to be.

Here's a quote from the story:

Terence Copley, Professor of Educational Studies at Oxford University, said the idea that the nativity could offend other faiths was "crazy".

"I have never met a single Jew, Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist who has objected to the commemoration and celebration of the birth of Jesus," he said. "In Islam, he is a prophet and his birth is described in the Koran. It is not other religions that are pushing for this at all.

"If we avoid Christmas we are pandering to a secular minority and allowing the event to become all about commercialism, presents and self-indulgence.

"There's nothing wrong with a bit of self-indulgence but if we don't teach about Christmas and deal with it confidently, not just in RE, we are failing in our duty as educators."

Meanwhile a CBBC survey of 1000 children aged 6-12 has some interesting findings, including

  • School work dominates family conversations (52%)

  • Two-thirds of children pray but half of these pray only at school

  • One in four children do not count their father as immediate family

  • Children spend an average of 3.5 hours a day with their parents

  • Thirteen per cent of children said they never eat together as a family

  • More than half (56%) would like to spend more time doing things with their parents

  • Most bullying happens at school - one in three have been bullied at school, one in five elsewhere

  • In careers, boys still dream of being sportsmen (footballer - 26%), girls want to teach (12%), become a hairdresser (11%) or nurse (10%)

  • The real world still beats online - children would rather play outside and talk to friends face to face

Some sad stuff there, about fathers, family life and bullying, but the overall picture is of kids who (in the main) enjoy school and have friends. And if 1/3 of kids pray on their own, that is 4-5 times the number who are involved in church (or other religions), there's clearly a job to do there in resourcing and encouraging that, so that children can develop their own relationship with God.

Golden Compass resources

Further to the last post about the Golden Compass film, and Philip Pullmans ideas, another handy resource. If you go to he has as series of Pullman articles, as well as a downloadable insert for church magazines, newsletters etc. We've printed out some copies of Mark Greene's article, linked in the other post, for folk in church.

Also, and very helpfully, Oxfam in Sherborne had 'The Subtle Knife' for a quid, so I'm half way through that. The more I read the more I wonder whether Pullmans issue is with God, or with authority and hierarchy. Obviously, being fantasy books, there's plenty of fantasy and supernatural stuff, but the fascinating ideas (dark matter = consciousness = angels, the reality of the human soul, parallel universes etc.) are all deeply spiritual. But the other thing they are is democratic - the enemies are 'The Authority' and the Magisterium, both centres of power and control - and Pullman writes for a French Revolution in the spiritual realm, deposing the monarch and installing a republic. The universe is still there, and it's still intensely spiritual and soulful, it just doesn't have a Lord.

It needs someone else to write book 4 of the trilogy to explore what happens in that kind of a world. No, wait, it's already been done, it's called human history.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

First Guest Blog

St Aidan to Abbey Manor @ The Wardman Wire,

Wait Not, Want Not: Why Bother with December 1st to Christmas Eve?
A new weekend column - Touching Base - from David Keen.

Someone has given us a chocolate advent calendar.
There are 4 problems with this:

1. It will rot my kids teeth, or make me fatter, or both.
2. Daily fights over which of the kids will open it.
3. They’ll now expect a chocolate advent calendar every year
4. Possibly the most serious … chocolate advent calendars destroy society, the soul and the planet.

click here to read the rest.

and if you're at Yeovil Family Church on Sunday morning, you may recognise some of the themes....

Woo Hoo! It failed!

A few months ago I emailed the Fresh Expressions newspaper complaining that all the articles were about success stories, which was hugely discouraging for people who had failed, were in the process of failing, or who were afraid of doing anything in case they failed. (Stuart Murray of Urban Expression has a nice line: we need to move from 'don't do it in case it fails' to 'do it in case it succeeds')

So, it's failure time. One of my experiments during the autumn was to run a mini-series of 'issue' films in our church room, using the newly acquired data projector, and trying to link in the themes where appropriate: e.g. 'An Inconvenient Truth' tied in to harvest, and 'Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price' linked in to Christmas, with a fair trade stall. The latter was this evening. Apart from me and the 2 stallholders, 1 other person came. After helping me tidy away, they borrowed the DVD and went away to watch it in the comfort of their own home.

The good thing is that after such a resounding flop, I'm not tempted to run any more. Half a dozen people might have kept me wandering down this particular blind alley. So that will save a lot of energy and frustration. Either the concept is wrong, or the presentation is wrong (as a separate event, rather than as part of something we already do), or people are too busy, or it needs more of a group running it rather than just 1 person with a daft idea.

However, I do have quite a high regard for the 1 person with a daft idea - I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said "The reasonable person adapts themselves to their circumstances. The unreasonable person persists in trying to adapt the circumstances to fit themselves. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable person."

Never mind, other experiments have had more success, and England have their noses in front in the cricket. All is well. And failure is so much better a tutor than success.

SPCK's new owners

If you don't follow Dave Walkers running commentary, you might not know that Christian book chain SPCK has been taken over by the St. Stephen the Great Charitable Trust. If you want to know what they're about, have a look at and watch the video, or read Dave's blog.

It seems to be a splinter Orthodox church (not actually part of any of the main Orthodox patriarchates) who want to do up old church buildings, like a religious version of English Heritage. By all accounts their handling of the SPCK bookshops has been draconian, so you might want to be aware of exactly what you're supporting by buying through the SPCK chain. The publishing arm of SPCK remains independent, so fear not, Tom Wright isn't on board with this, even though he has the beard for it.

Guest Blogging

For December I've been asked to do some guest blogging on The Wardman Wire, a politics and current affairs blog which posts regularly on faith and religious issues. Even more gratifyingly, the first post on there made a 'Best of the Web' list at the Guardian. The piece in question was shamelessly recycled from my post on Rowan Williams a few days ago.

Not sure at the moment whether to just link to these pieces, or publish them in full in both places. I'm more bothered about whether I'll be able to think of enough things to muse on that people will want to read and engage with. Today it's chocolate advent calendars, and the environmental crisis.

Interestingly, I was asked if I wanted to blog under a pseudonym. In some ways that would be easier, but the discipline of being accountable for what you say to people who know you face to face is actually quite a good one for me. Also, so much of what makes me think is just day to day stuff, that to sever the link between 'real life' and online reflection wouldn't work.


Having a bit of a reading spurt at the moment, just started 'The Subtle Knife' in a bid to get my head a bit more round Philip Pullman, thanks to Oxfam in Sherborne for that.

Novembers novels were 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time' by Mark Haddon, which picked up several literary prizes in 2002-3, and 'Long Way Down' by the ever-excellent Nick Horby. Both from the local charity shop, 'Break', on Abbey Manor.

3 thoughts from these:
1. Perspective. Both books are told from the characters point of view. In 'Curious Incident' it is a 15 year old boy with Aspergers Syndrome, who sees a dead dog in a neighbours garden and decides he will find out who's done it. In 'Long Way Down' it is 4 very different characters, who all (at the start of the book) are about to commit suicide, but meet each other at the same spot. In both books, I could hear the characters voices - Hornby's insensitive teenage girl is spot on - and it enabled you to see the world through other people's eyes, even if they were eyes you didn't really want to see through. But: does literature like this actually help us to see the world through other people's eyes, or is it just vicarious entertainment, and we emerge from the novel no more able to empathise with our neighbour than when we started?

2. Swearing. Ok I sound like a prude, and maybe I just read the wrong stuff when I was younger, but there really is a lot of swearing in both books. Yes they are trying to show what real life is like, I accept that. But there's a brutalising effect - interestingly picked up by one of Hornby's characters, a Catholic single parent, who begins by being shocked and offended by the bad language of the other 3 characters, but by the end of the book it has become like wallpaper. Do we lose something by this coarsening of language?

3. God. It was interesting to find that both books deal with spiritual issues. Hornby of course is no stranger to this: 'How to be Good' has the memorable and all too true account of it's main characters visit to an uninspiring church, in a bid to somehow connect with God. In Long Way Down, his Catholic character sees God's hand in her not managing to commit suicide, and in small things which start to make her life worth living again. Haddon's book has a chapter where the narrator explains why he doesn't believe in God, before heading back to the main narrative of his (for him) epic journey from Swindon to London. As with so much of the book, you don't know whether you're expected to agree, to understand, or just to think about it.

Several years ago I did some reasearch on Matthew Fox, originally a Catholic priest, but thrown out of his church for various misdemeanors. One of his early bits of writing was a survey of Time magazine in the US, to see how spiritual issues were treated. What he found was that the articles on the church generally dealt with issues of politics and power, but to find spiritual issues you had to go to the arts pages. Music, books, art, theatre, that was where the spiritual questions of life, death, meaning, identity, love, God, etc. were being dealt with. These things are written so deeply into us that we cannot help but come back to them again and again. And if the church isn't wrestling with these issues, then other people will.