Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wedding Fair Resources

this from Start the Week:

Wedding shows - resources and advice
As part of the Weddings Project Suzanne Gray in the national Comms office is leading on resourcing wedding shows at every level - national, regional, local. Please pass on news to local church leaders where you are, and also consider getting involved at diocesan or deanery level.

Suzanne writes:

Resources and advice for wedding shows
Wedding shows are a great opportunity for the church to demonstrate that we would love to welcome couples for their wedding, right in the middle of the weddings marketplace. More and more dioceses, deaneries and local churches are taking stands at wedding shows, and when they do they have such fun that they struggle to drag themselves away.

If you are thinking of having a stand at a wedding show, then the Weddings Project team can offer resources and advice to make sure your stand is a success. This includes professionally produced displays to help your stand look good, paper resources gift wrapped in ribbon to give away, and hints about the practicalities of running a stand.

Contact Suzanne Gray: for more information

Having been to the last 4 or so, I passed up the chance to go to the Westlands Wedding Fair in Yeovil last weekend. It's a reasonably well attended show, and there have been a few good conversations. The main business is in giveaways - copies of Nicky & Sila Lee's 'Ready for Marriage', and Celebrations choccies, which go down well with families with twitchy kids and stallholders with blood sugar level issues.

The stall we've run is mainly for information, as well as advertising the benefits of marriage preparation, but I must admit I question whether it's worth the investment of time, energy, and the stallholders fee. Perhaps we've been missing a trick or two, so I'll be interested to see what resources are available.

Has anyone else done a church stall at a wedding fair? What was it like?

Durham Cathedral SPCK/SSG: the Last Post

The final curtain has fallen in Durham on Phil and Mark Brewers bruising foray into UK bookselling. The good news that Durham Cathedral is sticking to its promise to re-open the shop under Cathedral management. Earlier this week the shop was suddenly closed (probably by email - that seems to be the Brewers preferred way of laying people off), following some rapid reshuffling of stock the week before as snow and frost damage started affecting the Great Kitchen, main site of the bookshop.

Church Times (subscriber only till Friday 5th Feb)
SPCK/SSG News Notes and Info (comments too)

According to the Northern Echo, the Cathedral has said that it will re-employ the 6 current staff, though it has longer term plans to do a feasibility study on the best site for a bookshop. I just hope that what was once a flagship theological bookshop doesn't get lost: it must be tempting for Cathedrals to follow the dollar and stock teatowels, fudge and union jack merchandise to pay for the biblically proportioned heating and maintenance bills. Durham used to be an excellent theological bookshop, and with a university and two training colleges on the doorstep, there must still be a market there if it can recover its reputation. The comments of the chapter clerk in the Echo report suggest that the bookshop and gift shop might be separate entities.

The Echo also notes: Neither the Brewers nor the Saint Stephen the Great Trust could be contacted for comment. Now there's a surprise.

Someone who I think is one of the bookshop staff has commented on the Durham Cathedral Facebook page: "We are devasted but I'm sure that the new shop will be a fantastic one. Thanks to our customers and friends for their support."

There is still some unfinished business:
- Unpaid staff, and issues over pension payments
- Brewer creditors, and whether they'll see their money again. However, unless creditors are prepared to pursue the Brewers through the courts (oh for a workable extradition treaty with the USA!), it's unlikely that the bills will be paid.
- The nature of the settlement with former staff who settled out of court with the Charity Commissioners in 2009.

Last I heard Phil Brewer owned a private plane (sorry, originally called this a 'jet', which isn't accurate - see comments. Got a bit carried away...) and Mark Brewer ran a law firm with 7 attorneys plus support staff, and regularly dealt with million dollar cases. They are named as the trustees of the Society of St. Stephen the Great (which originally took on the bookshops from SPCK), and the Directors of ENC Management (which took over from SSG, leaving all SSG bills unpaid and zeroing the Brewer debts at a stroke). I still can't work out how they get to walk away from all this. I also can't work out how Mark Brewer gets full marks for ethics.

As the title suggest, this is probably my last post on the SPCK/SSG campaign. Well done to Phil Groom, Dave Walker and Matt Wardman for being the backbone of it, lets hope and pray the Christian book trade can learn some lessons - they've certainly come at a price.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Social Attitudes: the God Question (s)

The recent 26th British Social Attitudes Survey has a full chapter devoted to 'Religion in Britain and the United States'. It opens "Religion is a cause of perplexity to the British. On the one hand it is associated with Christian virtue, traditional values, the Dalai Lama and all things bright and beautiful. On the other hand it brings to mind violent fanaticism, reactionary morality, Osama bin Laden, abuse and oppression. After a long history of religious turmoil and mistrust we no longer much mind (what religion our leaders are), but strong commitment makes us worried."

It's a fascinating essay, and pulls in data from the UK and USA to compare and contrast. Here are some of the questions, with a few thoughts:

1. "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?"
(1983 figures in brackets)
No religion 43% (31)
Christian 50% (66)
Non-Christian 7 (2)

Of the 'Christian'
Anglican 23 (40)
Roman Catholic 9 (10)
No denomination 10 (3)
and other mainline denominations mostly showing a drop.

There seem to be two main stories: the falling away in identification with the historic churches, towards 'no religion' (which reflects the changing of the generations) or 'no denomination', and the impact of immigration, which has bolstered RC numbers, and seen a rise in non-Christian faiths.

2. Belief in God

I don't believe in God 18%
I don't know whether there is a God and don't believe there is any way to find out 18%
I don't believe in a personal God but I do believe in a higher power of some kind 14%
I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others 13%
While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God 18%
I know God really exists and that I have no doubts about it 17%

So about 1/3 have a definite faith, 1/3 have a fuzzier faith - either fuzzy about whether God is there, or what kind of spiritual entity God might be, and just over 1/3 are atheist or agnostic

It's useful to have this level of detail: there are surveys which report a majority as believing in God, but 'believing' and 'God' aren't straightforward categories.

3. How religious are you?
extremely/very 7%
somewhat 30%
neither religious nor non-religious 22%
somewhat non-religious 11%
very/extremely non-religious 26%

Which might in part reflect the British aversion to extremes. It's also a sign that if Christians want to communicate their faith, anything percieved as 'religious' packaging (e.g. the institutional church) is off to a losing start. 'Back to Church' Sunday will cut no mustard with people who describe themselves as non-religious.

4. How often do you attend religious services (apart from special occasions)
Never 62%
less than annually 5%
At least annually 15%
At least monthly 8%
At least weekly 10%

Less than 20% of those brought up as Anglicans, or calling themselves CofE attend monthly or more often.

This also shows that any attempt by churches to connect with non-Christians based on 'religious services' is probably a non-starter too. Weird stuff done by weird people in a weird building. This bears out some of the TEAR Fund research , which found that 26% of adults go to church once a year, and 15% go once a month or more. Jesus didn't start with religion, he started with relationships, perhaps there's something in that.

4. Does it do you any good?
there's a question on the 'personal benefits of religion'
65% agree that religion helps people to find inner peace/happiness
67% agree that it helps people to make friends
79% that it helps people to gain comfort.

Even among the 'unreligious', 49% agree with the first statement, and 58 and 68% respectively with the other two. More curious is the 10%+ of 'religious' people who don't agree with these statements!!!

5. Influence of religion
24% said religion is increasing its influence, 3/4 of these said that was a bad thing. This is the National Secular Society argument - that religion is both in decline, but becoming more politically influential.

57% said religion is decreasing its influence, and about 4 in 5 of these thought that a bad thing.

Overall, about 31% thought that more religious influence was a bad thing, and 50% that it was a good thing.

That's a big challenge: I know this lumps all religion together (it would be interesting to ask the question about particular faiths), but if Christians are seen as bad news by a significant section of our society, then a long hard look in the mirror is in order. It also begs the question of what's seen as 'religion' - is the creche provided by the Mothers Union for prison visitors, or the church-run food bank seen as an expression of religion? Or is it dusty bishops talking about sex and Islamic extremists?

6. Religion and Politics
75% said religious leaders shouldn't try to influence voting behaviour, and 67% think religious leaders should stay out of government decision making. Lords reform here we come... There's also a tendency to think that, if elected officials were more deeply religious, then laws and policy decisions would probably be worse. There's a Bush/Blair legacy to that which the report picks out.

What does this mean for the way the church engages with the General Election? I know of several churches who organise local hustings events, and encourage people to vote and engage with the issues, though it sounds like a more directive engagement (see recent RC interventions) might not go down so well. Perhaps it depends on the issue?

7. Moral Standards
89% say you should follow your conscience rather than what the leaders and teachings of your religion say. That pretty much reflects the number of people who are deeply religious.

60% agreed that there can never be absolutely clear statements of what is good and evil, or an absolute morality. That reflects where we are as a society - and a church identified with laws and rules isn't going to make much headway against that. I remember an Ethics seminar 15 years ago where we watched an hour of Eastenders and noted the dozens of moral issues raised in just a short time - processing morality through story and consensus, rather than principle and absolutes, is the flavour of things. I wonder also if this question is swayed by being part of the 'religion' section - things like racism, violence, etc. do seem to be seen in terms of moral absolutes, and nobody objects at public campaigns which try to enforce them (e.g. Kick Racism out of Football). Don't we still have some absolutes, but no longer on the turf which was colonised by Christendom?

8. Conversion
Only 17% thought it was acceptable for religious people to try to convert others, 81% took the opposite view. That raises lots of questions for mission!

About 3/4 of people think that being very religious means you're often intolerant.

9. Faith Schools
42% - no religious group should have its own schools
13% - some should have them, but not others
43% - any religious group should be able to have its own schools.

So this debate is truly alive and kicking. It's not going to go away any time soon.

There's a whole section on religious diversity and tolerance, which shows that we've still some way to go as a society. It also shows that Muslims have a serious image problem - about 1/3 felt 'cool' towards Muslims, (as opposed to neutral or warm) - far and away the least favourable result, apart from that for 'deeply religious' (29%) - most other religious groups were in the 5-15% range. A majority would be bothered by a large mosque being built locally, but relatively few by a large church. There's unease about the level to which Muslims are integrated into British society. The writers note: Muslims deserves to be the focus of policy on social cohesion, because no other group elicits so much disquiet.

Lots of food for thought here, both about perceptions and practices. Those of us percieved as being 'religious' are possibly trying to run a marathon with both legs tied together. Two responses are to abandon traditional religion, and its forms, for something more acceptable (but every movement becomes an institution in the end) or to try to make the case for religion (not a word I particularly like) being good news. That's not easy when there are plenty of examples of the opposite.

Plenty of chewing over to be done....

Friday, January 29, 2010

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us....

Pete at Postmodern Bible has blogged some more on the CODEC survey on sermons, and what people expected, and got, through the preaching in their church:

Respondents were asked what they wanted a sermon to do and also what they thought preachers actually did. The top results across all denominations for what congregations want were:
Challenge 77.4%
Encourage 74.2%
Motivate 66.8%
Educate 44.7%
Entertain 12.1%

When we asked them what preachers actually did the numbers shifted a little:
Challenge 67.9%
Encourage 76.1%
Motivate 52.2%
Educate 53.8%
Entertain 25.5%

What's going on here? Apparently, three quarters of respondents felt that preachers manage to encourage their congregations, with a similar number challenging them. However, despite 2/3rd of respondents expecting sermons to motivate them, only about half think that this is achieved.

So the message is: fewer jokes and Greek verbs, more challenge and motivation. Which all begs the question of what the sermon is actually for in the first place, and whether people's views of what to expect have been formed by being in a certain context, or by thinking through issues of communication, discipleship, and Christian teaching.

more at Pete's blog. He summarises: What is absolutely clear is that people across the denominations want challenging, provocative preaching that encourages them and moves them on. If they can be entertained as they receive this, then all the best.

I've been meaning for a while to devise a brief response form for sermons at our church. It's probably a question of courage, more than anything else....

Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Schools in Yeovil & Somerset Council Cuts

Yeovil Express is reporting today that, among a slew of proposed cuts to the Somerset County education budget, is money to support the building of 3 new schools in the planned Key Sites around Yeovil (Lufton, Brimsmore, & Lyde Road). The slightly over-dramatised prose notes that the cuts involve:

• Axing budgets allocated to support the development of new schools in Yeovil – at Thorne Lane, Lufton and Brimsmore.

Locals will be aware that these 3 sites have all been on the back burner for a while, though goverment money for affordable housing has kick-started the Lyde Road site, but only for the first 220-odd houses. Locals will also notice that Thorne Lane and Brimsmore are actually the same site (!), and the Express has forgotten about Lyde Road. Sadly, that's been the case with that development from early days, but that's another story.

Somerset is looking to cut £40m from its annual budget, a cut of 10%, connected to a freeze in council tax. The schools cuts are part of a wider programme, with roughly half the cuts coming from capital and half from spending budgets. There's plenty of background papers for the council meeting making this decision next week, and I'm not entirely sure which one to look at (!). If this is simply putting the schools funding back a few years, that's eminently sensible: the housing isn't going to be built within the original forecast, so the money for the school won't be needed for several more years. Alternatively if the budget includes a certain amount set aside into the capital fund each year for new schools, and that's being cut back, then there won't be enough money there to build the schools when they're required.

This may be a bit of a spanner in some local work we're hoping to do in building a sense of community and belonging on the new estates. The loss (or delay) of a key focal building and gathering place will make this a bit tougher.

The wider financial picture doesn't look good - the council is looking at redundancies, attempting to balance its budget, and unsure what level of government support will be there for councils after the election. It's a fair guess that it'll be lower. One of the fruits of the debt crunch is that we may have to get used to our councils doing less for us than before, or charging more to do the same things. The latter isn't really an option in the current climate. It's going to be tough.

(Ps I note with interest that the Labour candidate for Yeovil has set up a website Somerset Conservative Watch. Not much there as yet, but it'll probably increase as May approaches.)

An Apple a Day Keeps the Mattress Dry

I'm not entirely sure why lots of people are walking around holding incontinence pads to disguise their identity, something to do with Apples.

Cartoon by Dave Walker

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Square Pigeon in a Round Hole

Stumbled across an alternative to the standard blogroll at this South African blog:

A blogroll is really just a “blogger’s list of hyperlinks to other blogs”. More often than not it quickly degenerates into a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours rewards mechanism. I decided to drop it from my sidebar because I was concerned that by linking without prudence I’d give unfettered consent to views disparate from my own and I had a deep sense of discomfort with that thought.

The result is a Watchlist (probably not as sinister as it sounds), a table of blogs categorised by theological positions. It's probably a mark of my innate aversion to theological disputes that, even if I fit into some of those categories, I couldn't tell you what they meant.

There are some blogs I enjoy reading but whom I wouldn't link from the sidebar, because, as the quote above notes, links imply consent. I guess the easiest way round that is to change the sidebar heading to 'I don't agree with all of these but you might find them interesting'. There also seems to be a desire to protect his readership from false teaching and mistaken points of view.

1. If I wanted to protect my readership from false teaching, I should stop blogging. As one of my tutors used to say, "10% of what I say is wrong, the trouble is I don't know which 10%". 10% is probably way short of the mark.

2. Do readers need 'protecting', or is that just not treating them as adults? This is all linked to the debate on censorship, and having joined the campaign to get the adultery ads removed earlier this week, I would want to argue that, all other things being equal, we should be commending good things rather than bad things. I mentioned the site concerned, but deliberately didn't link to it. Being a church leader adds its own set of dynamics - I blog as myself, but I'm also conscious that there are standards and expectations attached to being a vicar. Part of what I've promised, and what I'm committed to, is encouraging and building up Christians in their faith. So I guess that's one of the filters which comes into play when deciding what to link/sidebar and what not to.

3. Does categorising blogs by theological position really help? I've probably got more to learn from people I disagree with than people I agree with, and interacting with bloggers of no faith, or different faith to my own not only helps me think through my own ideas more thoroughly, it exposes me to points of view and insights I'd not come across otherwise.

4. A sidebar link isn't unfettered consent: I'll often follow a link from here and go over and disagree with it. Unless its a Bishop, of course.... But I suppose it's a fair assumption that anyone listed in a blog sidebar is, effectively, recommended by the blog owner.

5. There may be safety in silos, but I really can't see what good it does if Christians retreat into bounded sets of like-minded people. The Biblical writers/speakers were out there in the market place, talking about politics, economics, relationships, war, agriculture, work, family, poverty, justice, you name it. It may feel more comfortable if we only have those conversations with ourselves, but it doesn't actually do any good. If Christians actually believe that their faith has something to say about these issues, and that the Bible is relevant to 21st century life, then we need to have the courage of our convictions and be ready to debate these things in the public square.

6. My baseline is, normally, not to link to something I wouldn't want to find my kids reading.

Having said all that, I'm aware that my sidebar consists primarily of sites which I enjoy reading, or which I agree with, and most of them are Christian bloggers. A bit more diversity might be the result of me putting my hyperlinks where my mouth is.

Last question: does anyone out there deliberately link to sites they aren't fans of? Most of my linking to other points of view happens within posts on specific topics, and the sidebar functions a bit like an Amazon page: 'if you like this then you might like...... '

Ht Khanya who points out that categorising people can prevent us from hearing what they're actually saying.

All or Nothing?

Can I be a Christian by picking & choosing among the ideas that circulate within the various Christ-based religions, assembling something that feels believable 100%, or must I take the totality of the dogma of one sect believing many parts to be untrue? I'm looking for a way in. Any suggestions?

Good question. The full version, including an attempt to answer it, at the prolific Holy Heteroclite.

Adultery Ads Axed

That was quick. Following a campaign launched a few days ago against the public advertising of 'marital affair', an agency which set people up for adulterous liasons, this message has just been posted on the Facebook campaign site:

STATEMENT FROM MARITALAFFAIR.CO.UK: “We have reviewed our advertising strategy and have instructed our agency to remove billboard ads from our current campaign in light of recent developments. We maintain that people have the right to chose their own lifestyle and that this site provides a safe and secure outlet for those who are considering this.”

This is awaiting confirmation (update: now confirmed), and we also need to make sure the ads actually come down. However I'm glad the company have had the decency to do what the Advertising Standards Agency wouldn't do. Their statement cries out for critique though: "People do have the right to choose their own lifestyle" but within what limits? Or none at all? What if my lifestyle included, say, vandalising advertising hoardings?

Well done to the campaigners, this is good news.

Fresh Expressions of Bookshop

Update: full statement from Living Oasis here, plus links to a brochure with their vision for the new shops/centres.

Dave Walker blogs on the plans for a number of former Wesley Owen shops to be relaunched as 'Living Oasis' shops, complete with:

# Coffee shop to be open to all – Christian and non Christian
# Lounge area – to be used, for example, by Church youth groups
# Children’s Play Area – a supervised and safe place for children whilst Mum/Dad relaxes or does some shopping in peace and quiet!
# Meeting room for Church use
# Prayer ministry facility

A few days ago I read the latest Encounters on the Edge by George Lings of the Church Army. Encounters is a brilliant series of booklets, looking at new forms of church, church planting, and questions of church and mission for todays church. The latest is on the '7 sacred spaces' of monasticism - 7 characteristic places found within 'new' and old monasticism which express the life of the community.

They are, in no particular order:
Chapel - place of public worship
Chapter - place of decision making and ordering community life
Refectory - place of eating and hospitality, community and service.
Cell - place of private prayer
Cloister - 'inbetween' space, unstructured, allows for informal interaction
Garden - place of manual work
Scriptorum - place of study.

There's a balance between places of work (the work of prayer, study and manual labour), public and private, formal and informal spaces, spaces where there are specific forms and 'rules' and places where things are more informal. Lings notes that in many churches, the only one of these spaces on offer is the 'chapel', but more and more churches now have a kitchen/community space, prayer chapel, office etc. Our local Yeovil Community church has a main auditorium, meeting rooms (chapter), places for prayer, and plenty of informal space for conversation and community life. There's also offices and workplaces, and a cafe (currently being re-thought).

So reading the bookshop proposals, lights began to go on all over the place. We have traditionally modelled the church's public presence on the Chapel, the place of public worship, and the other 6 spaces have had to fight for space around it (or in many cases simply don't exist). Cafe church is an attempt to put the Refectory at the heart of church life. What about Bookshop church, where the Scriptorum is central, but also with a balanced use of space for Refectory, Cell, Cloister (informal space = lounge) and Chapter? That's what the above list sounded like to me.

Except that it's not clear if these are intended to be the hub of an intentional Christian community, or simply a resource to the wider church. Can there be an intentional Christian community based around a high street workplace, the way that monasticism is an intentional Christian community built around a place of prayer, work and study? Would it be a church? (Does it matter?)

Our local bookshop functions a bit like the 'cloister' in Lings' list - I'm constantly bumping into people I know whilst browsing, and it's a good place for conversation and networking, as well as finding and buying books. I know of several churches who have added in bookshops to their site: it would be fun to do it the other way round: to start as a bookshop and add in places for prayer, worship, and the spaces needed to sustain and nurture a community life.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When I Feel the Touch.....

From Lesleys Blog

ANAHEIM — The latest Vineyard Music worship CD, "Intimacy, vol. 2," has
raced to the top of the Christian sales charts, but Wal-Mart is refusing to
stock the album without slapping on a parental warning sticker. The
ground-breaking — some say risqué — album includes edgy worship songs such as
"My Lover, My God," "Touch Me All Over," "Naked Before You," "I'll Do Anything
You Want," "Deeper" and "You Make Me Hot with Desire."

"We've had concerns about previous Vineyard CD's, but this time they
went overboard in their suggestive imagery depicting the church's love affair
with Christ," said a Wal-Mart spokesman. "It would be irresponsible to sell this
to 13-year-old kids."

all from an, um, highly reliable source.

Whilst we're on the topic: Ruth Gledhill on men and the feminisation of church.

They Shall Not Grow (Old) ?

Following the release of the latest batch of CofE attendance stats, various media reports picked up on a separate study, released at the same time, on the age and ethnic profile of the Church of England. The conclusions are based on survey data, so there may be some margin of error, but with a sample of 110,000 people, it's probably not going to be massive.

'Celebrating Diversity in the Church of England' noted that the average Anglican is a white 61-year-old woman. The 'youngest' Diocese, London, still has an average age 6 years higher than the average UK citizen (54, compared to 48). Of the 43 Dioceses, 24 have 50% or more in the 'over 65s' age bracket. Being positive, that shows that the CofE has great appeal to a certain age group. Put negatively, it means that, all other things being equal, in 20 years those Dioceses will be half their current size or smaller.

But here's an interesting thing. Yesterday I posted a table of the changes in adult attendance over 2001-8. A reminder of those Dioceses which were growing, and by what %

London 9.1
Southwark 6.4
Manchester 3.9
Ely 3.2
Hereford 3.1

I've excluded Europe, because it's not mentioned in the diversity survey. Now, compare and contrast with the Dioceses with the most balanced age profile, in this case, those with the smallest number of people in the over-65's category. The figure below is the % in this age group:

London 28%
Manchester 38%
Southwark 39%
Oxford 40%
Bristol 41%
Ely 42%

What immediately jumps out is that all but one of the growing Dioceses are amongst the top 6 in terms of youthfulness. The exception, Hereford, is the 4th 'oldest' Diocese, with 56% over-65s. But they must be doing something right. The presence of Bristol (actually doing quite badly growth-wise) is odd, and I don't know how much of a boost Oxford gets from all those students at the big university churches.

It makes sense: if there is a wider spread of age groups in church, anyone turning up on a Sunday is more likely to find someone who is 'like me'.

Two challenges:
1. Helping 'older' churches to think missionally about their natural age group. The CofE has tended to see older people as 'normal' churchgoers, rather than a mission field, but there are more and more churches who are recognising that, as the Rolling Stones draw their pensions, there is much more diversity among the SAGA generation, and much more to be done in making the gospel relevant and accessible to silver surfers, as well as to the devotees of the BCP who probably don't share the same worldview as the Stones' Baby Boomer generation.

2. Growing younger: I had a call the other day from a retired vicar who, at 70, is the youngest member of his church. Is it possible for a church like that to engage with younger people, or is it a question of starting again? At the same time there are other local, rural churches, who have started up after-school clubs, or used their resources to invest in a childrens worker.

I try very hard to discourage some of our rural congregations from beating themselves up about the lack of children and families in church, encouraging them to focus on their natural age group. But at the same time, we have a problem.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Advertising Adultery: Does the ASA care about your marriage?

It doesn't look like it. Dave Walker reports on an appalling company which promotes, and makes money out of, adultery. A complaint against one of their billboard adverts drew this response from the Advertising Standards Authority:

Complaints about offence often require difficult judgements but we don’t intervene where advertising is simply criticised for being in poor taste. Apart from freedom of speech considerations, even well-intentioned and thoughtful people will have different and sometimes contradictory opinions about what constitutes ‘bad taste’ or should be prohibited. We can only act if the ad, in our judgement, offends against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards.

My emphasis. Are we really a nation which no longer finds adultery morally offensive? Is it now ok to make promises to one person, then have sex with someone else, without breaking any moral standard? Without wanting to turn into disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, I find this stomach churning, as will many people who've dealt with the fall-out of adultery and it's catastrophic effects on families, children and the adults involved. That some sick minded individuals want to turn a profit on this is bad enough, but then we already have plenty of people who profiteer from sin and no doubt we always will. But I really don't understand what the ASA are doing here.

Having said that, perhaps there was a straw in the wind last week. I've been following Kirsty Youngs series on the family on the Beeb: last week looked at the period from the late 60's to early 80's, and focused on sex. There was a cool, detached narrative on pornography, adultery, sexual promiscuity etc., without any noticeable moral judgment on any of it.

There's a Facebook group supporting the campaign against the adverts, which, if it attracts enough support, will demonstrate that ads like this do cause 'widespread offense'. Though of course, without the internet, most of us wouldn't have heard of it at all. There's a whole other discussion to be had on whether there's such a thing as 'local' anymore....

see also Maggi Dawn. Sadly the Times has a big cold slab of cynicism in the same vein as the advertisers, but hope is restored if you sort the comments by 'most recommended'.

Church of England Attendance by Diocese, Table for 2001-8

The latest Church of England attendance stats were released last Friday - good round up of the coverage at Thinking Anglicans, and comments at Church Mouse. Inspired by Bob Jacksons book 'Hope for the Church', which set out the change in adult and childrens attendance during the 1990's, here are the tables for the first 8 years of the noughties.

Adults: the measure used here is average weekly attendance. There's been a slight shift away from Sunday attendance towards midweek attendance, which reflects the change in working patterns, and possibly that, since nearly 1/2 of Anglicans are retired (more on that story later...), they're a bit freer to come to services midweek than they were when working.

London 9.1%
Southwark 6.4%
Europe 5.8%
Manchester 3.9%
Ely 3.2%
Hereford 1.9%

Ripon & Leeds -2.2%
York -2.2%
Lincoln -2.8%
St Albans -3.2%
Chichester -3.5%
Carlisle -4.1%
Gloucester -4.3%
Derby -5.0%

Canterbury -5.2%
Rochester -5.3%
Newcastle -5.5%
Chelmsford -5.6%
Total C of E -5.8%
Bath & Wells -5.8%
Guildford -5.8%
Winchester -6.2%
Southwell -6.3%
Coventry -6.3%
Birmingham -6.6%
Durham -6.8%
Leicester -6.9%
Oxford -7.1%
Wakefield -7.1%
Peterborough -8.6%
Bradford -9.4%

Lichfield -10.0%
St Edmundsbury & Ipswich -10.0%
Exeter -10.5%
Chester -10.7%
Salisbury -11.0%
Blackburn -11.2%
Sodor & Man -12.5%
Truro -13.1%
Portsmouth -13.8%
Norwich -14.2%

Liverpool -15.2%
Worcester -15.7%
Sheffield -16.1%
Bristol -18.2%

1. This is worse than last year - fewer diocese are showing overall growth - there were 9 in the 2001-7 period. London has fallen back a bit. A further 15 Dioceses showed only small decline (between 0 and 5%) in the 2001-7 period last year, that number has shrunk to 8.

2. Some of this will reflect the move away from weekly churchgoing towards 'regular' churchgoing. More churches are trying to offer a variety of services, rather than a 1 size fits all, and that results in people picking and choosing more, according to whether they like the choir, 1662 prayer book, or all-age celebration.

3. Fresh Expressions and cell groups aren't included in these figures. I have my doubts over how many 'Fresh Expressions' are actually FX of church, and how many are just a bit more diversity in the menu of worship. But that means there are other people who are members of Anglican churches but are not counted here.

4. This is still slightly better than the 1990's, but there comes a point at which you have to stop finding the comparison which makes everything look ok, and ask some hard questions.

5. How long does this go on before some Dioceses cease to be viable, and we merge some of them?

Here's the data for childrens attendance through the week. Looks both better and worse:

Southwell 51.7%
Southwark 25.5%
Winchester 20.0%

Ely 18.2%
London 15.2%
St Albans 11.0%

Bath & Wells 6.3%
Truro 5.9%
Gloucester 5.3%
York 5.3%
Newcastle 4.5%
Worcester 3.3%
Birmingham 2.8%
Ripon & Leeds 2.8%
Chichester 2.3%

Bradford 0.0%
Carlisle 0.0%
Coventry 0.0%
Guildford 0.0%

Manchester -1.1%
Lichfield -1.2%
Total C of E -1.8%
Oxford -3.4%
Canterbury -4.3%

Bristol -5.6%
Chelmsford -5.6%
St Edmundsbury & Ipswich -5.9%
Lincoln -6.0%
Salisbury -7.0%
Sheffield -7.1%

Rochester -10.3%
Hereford -10.5%
Europe -10.5%
Chester -10.8%
Peterborough -10.9%
Derby -12.1%
Norwich -13.3%

Sodor & Man -16.7%
Blackburn -18.1%
Liverpool -18.4%

Wakefield -21.6%
Leicester -25.8%
Exeter -28.9%
Portsmouth -29.0%
Durham -33.3%

1. The picture here is more extreme at both ends. Some Dioceses are seeing their childrens numbers collapsing, others are seeing strong rises.

2. At the same time, I'm pretty wary of these figures. For one, they're off a relatively low base - a few thousand in most cases. Also, counting can make a big difference. One local school has its Friday assembly in the local Anglican church. If all 400 children are counted as worshipping at the church midweek, that one stat would add several percent to the Bath and Wells diocesan growth rate. It may be that Southwell and Southwark have done something remarkable (most of it in the last year), or we may be looking at blips.

Final thought: I'd like to see if there's any impact of mission strategies like Mission Action Planning, or encouragement of Back to Church Sunday. It's noticeable that the places where these two originated - London and Manchester Dioceses respectively, are both among the (few) growing Dioceses. But I'm not enough of a statistician, neither do I know enough of how thorough Diocesan backing for these strategies is, to have a crack at that one....

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Bible: A History

Update: watched this evening: lots of good things about it - no daft camerawork, an argument that wasn't repeated either side of the ad break for fillers, a good spread of opinions (Jonathan Sacks, AC Grayling, Greg Haslam, John Polkinghorne) a presenter very clear about his own biases and open to learn something about the topic he was presenting, and very thought-provoking. Lot's of stuff I remember thinking 'ooh that's a good quote', but unfortunately I've forgotten the actual quotes themselves.

Jacobsen comes down on Genesis as a 'myth' - a story of origins which is about how we fit into the world and who we are, rather than a scientific account, which wasn't far from what Sacks & Polkinghorne were saying about it. I was struck by him saying that it takes more sophistication and imagination to read Genesis this way, rather than just assume it's a literal historical text and then accept or dismiss it on that basis.

New series on Channel 4 this evening, which looks like a follow-on to 'Christianity, A History' which aired at roughly this time last year. Based on the detail so far, they're even recycling some of the presenters: Howard Jacobsen kicks off the series by looking at the early chapters of Genesis and the Creation account, and Rageh Omaar is on next week looking at the story of Abraham.

It looks like we'll get a bit of Ann Widdecombe as well - I was going to say that she fills Cherie Blairs shoes, but that's not an entirely helpful mental image. I'm betting we'll get a bit of Robert Beckford as well. It would be great to have an artist, or a musician like Nick Cave, looking at Revelation and the sci-fi/apocalyptic literature, but we'll have to see.

If it's anything like 'Christianity, A History', each account will be a mixture of the historical and the personal. Jacobsens piece last year was a sustained polemic against anti-Semitism. His approach to Genesis sounds intriguing:

Jacobson describes himself as a 'non-practising Jew who fears all fanaticism bred by faith'. Yet he is moved to fury by what he calls the 'New Atheists', whose most vocal cheerleader is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Not only, in Howard's view, do they oppose fundamentalist certainty with a no less intolerant certainty of their own, but they misunderstand the nature of religion, in particular the function of the Creation Myth. On the other hand, he is disturbed by creationists who believe in the literal truth of the Creation story and try to use science to support their faith.

Today there is a raging battle between the two camps, those who believe that Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is a true account of how life began, and those who dismiss it as childish nonsense.

Jacobson sets out to find a path between the fundamentalisms of religion and atheism and to reach a way of reading the Creation story that explains why it continues to stir the imagination even of unbelievers like himself.

I hope he makes it clear that not all atheists are 'new atheists', and not all believers are fundamentalists.

Some general blurb:
This series explores the origins, ideas and influence of seven sections of the Scriptures, tracing how they came into existence and how they have shaped the world we live in today.

Each film is written and presented by a prominent figure with a particular interest or experience relevant to the part of the Bible being examined. They offer a personal interpretation of some of the best-known aspects of this ancient book, which still guides the lives of millions of believers across the globe.

Jacobsen also wrote about the series in this weeks Radio Times, which hasn't yet found its way onto their site. Shame.

Oh, and BBC4 had a rerun of the 9 lessons and carols for atheists last night.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Exit Pursued by a Union: Brewer Pulls the Plug on Durham Shop

News on various blogs in the last 24 hours of the final moments of what used to be SPCK Bookshops. Regular readers will know that they were taken over by Texan family Phil and Mark Brewer a few years ago, and that the chain has gradually fallen apart amidst mistreatment of staff and attempted gagging of bloggers reporting the story.

The Charity Commissioners took possession of all but two remaining shops earlier this year, and settled out of court with 30 staff who, with the help of USDAW, were pursuing the Brewers for unfair dismissal and non-payment of wages. Then Chichester was seized and has now re-opened under the former manager to great rejoicing. I guess marching into the heart of Durham Cathedral was going to be difficult for a government agency, but Durham themselves gave 12 months notice on the bookshop in April 2009, and this week the Brewers threw in the towel and closed the shop, just after various health and safety concerns had forced the removal of the remaining stock from the main selling space, the Great Kitchen.

The Durham Cathedral site states that a new shop will open on the site in due course. I hope, for the sake of the existing staff, that it's sooner rather than later, and that the shop can recover some of the damage to its reputation inflicted by the mismanagement of the last couple of years.

From what I'm aware, there remain unpaid bills both to suppliers and to staff which the Brewers are liable for. I don't know if extradition policy works both ways, but it would be nice to think that they can't just disappear off into the USA undergrowth without some kind of accountability.

Another concern at this stage is that the new shop may follow the line pursued in other Cathedral bookshops, of going for the tourist market more than the theological book trade. Without the buying power of a decent sized chain (as SPCK was), an independent store may copy the likes of, say, Salisbury (to pick a local example - I've not done a comprehensive survey of all the cathedrals) and go for the dollars. That would be understandable, especially given the massive maintenance bill on Cathedrals, but it would be a loss as well.

New Kids on the Blogroll

A few blogs which have caught my eye in the last week or two:

Out of the Cocoon. Welcome to the blogosphere Paul Walker, known to a few of us from Twitter, good start with a book review and some reflections on preaching. Look forward to reading more.

Postmodern Bible, Pete from CODEC who promises to blog daily on communication, technology and stuff like that. He also reports on one of the longest acronyms in the Northern Hemisphere.

Vic the Vicar a Deanery Missioner in Lichfield Diocese, plenty to say about mission action planning, and other mission issues.

Lesleys Blog superb - really well presented, well written, good thoughts, and she's linked me in the sidebar. Some good posts recently on Tory marriage policy, and first impressions of the blogosphere.

Want to be a Free Thinker but Still a Nice Person who draws attention to some very, um, interesting 'Christian' dance moves.

The Reluctant Ordained haven't quite worked out how to categorise this yet, so I won't. "until we let go of control and allow people to be ruled by the heart we will always be smothering something beautiful."

ArmyBarmy Remix which I think is something to do with the Salvation Army down under. Recent topics include love, breasts, and holiness: I've met many holy people. People who are completely sold out - no compromise left in them - they are submitted fully to the Lordship of Christ and they are the most fun, free and abandoned people I know - they live adventurous lives - they life full and large.

By the way, in case you're wondering why these aren't all immediately in the sidebar, there's a simple answer: laziness. Any blog I enjoy which is on Blogger and has one of those 'Follow' buttons can be added at the click of a mouse, and it is. The rest need at least 45 seconds work to cut and paste the links etc., and have to wait for one of my 'sorting out the blog' days, which occur, shall we say, infrequently.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Indiana Owen-Jones is back: 'How to Live a Simple Life'

Just the other day the thought crossed my mind 'it's January, there must be a Peter Owen-Jones series coming up'. Then I wondered if there was anything else he could do after Extreme Pilgrim, and Around the World in 80 Faiths.

There is: How to Live a Simple Life is billed to air on BBC2 'in the Spring'. I hope they time it to coincide with Lent. Here's some of the blurb

Anglican priest, Peter Owen Jones, goes back to basics to try and live a simple and more meaningful life, inspired by the teachings of St Francis of Assisi, for a major new BBC Two series – How To Live A Simple Life.

The series was filmed over an eight-month period in Pete's small Sussex country village of Firle. Like millions of others Pete felt caught up in a pointless frenzy of spending.

St Francis was inspired by Jesus' sermon in the Gospel to live a life of "voluntary poverty" as the key to deeper relations with both nature and your fellow being.

Pete must grow his own crops, raise chickens, barter his skills for cuts of meat and even live without money.

He has to throw himself at the mercy of his community in the village of Firle, and ultimately at the mercy of total strangers, as he takes to the road without money, begging for food and accommodation.

After living a simple life, will Pete find that real meaning comes from helping one another rather than from mindless spending?

And are the best things in life really free?

On a similar theme, Andy Reed MP tried living on £5 a day last year, and you can read his blog on the subject. There's no question that we have to find a way to live on less: if everyone on the planet had the same consumption levels as the UK, we'd need 2 Earths to support it. The danger is that we watch one or two people downsize on our behalf, and feel that by watching it on TV and feeling vaguely approving we've done our bit. It's going to take a lot more than that.

Looking forward to it: I'm not always on the same page as POJ, but he's very watchable, and I love his ability to throw himself into things. There's a childlike enthusiasm there which I envy.

More on those much-anticipated sermons

Following the brief flurry in the blogosphere earlier this week, which greeted the news that over 96% of churchgoers looked forward to the sermon, (Times report here), Pete from CODEC (the research body which published the findings) has blogged at greater length about what the survey did and didn't say. He notes, after reading the comments on the Times piece:

There seems little surprise - even to the ridiculously high 96.6% approval rating. Actually the figure is not quite accurate (it should be 96.9%) or as good as this suggests because the actual report says that 63.7% 'frequently' look forward to the sermon, with another 33.2% 'sometimes' looking forward to the sermon. So, if you feel among the 4% (or rather the 3.1%) who don't look forward to your regular sermon slot and that lots of your friends don't either, then it might be that you and your friends identify more with that 33.2% who look forward to the odd highlight or special occasion - 'sometimes' looking forward. Startingly, the other 3.2% (rounding up issues?) 'seldom' look forward with absolutely no one (0.0%) saying that they never looked forward to the sermon.

My first thought on reading this that the figures might be down to many of the sample being in the Durham area, and therefore looking forward to the sermon on the off-chance that it might be Tom Wright guest preaching this week. More seriously, the research notes that sermons don't seem to have much impact on those who hear them. Moreover more of the impact seems to be introverted (e.g. sensing the love of God) rather than having an impact in how people live their lives or treat others.

Pete comments:
the survey does give us some questions:
Why aren't sermons changing people's lives?
Why are people happier to reflect internally than to change their behaviour in response to a sermon?
What's the interplay between contemporary events and issues and the pulpit - and whyever has the church not got this right yet?
How come so many people seem to like preaching when the anecdotal evidence says that people find preaching boring?

My thoughts at the moment:
1. What is preaching trying to achieve? The primary task of the church is to make disciples (Matthew 28), but Jesus uses a number of means to do that, not simply teaching. If churches are relying simply on monologues to bring about life change then, short of an Obama or MLK in the pulpit, how much is really going to happen?

2. The revival of stand-up comedy as a popular public form of entertainment is a sign of where the sermon is perhaps going. The likes of Jeremy Hardy and Ricky Gervais can hold the attention of an audience for a couple of hours whilst developing an argument -it's the monologue form, a sermon if you like, but delivered in an entertaining way. The survey finds that Anglicans more than anyone else look to be 'entertained' by a sermon. Maybe we watch too much comedy on TV.....

3. It's a great opportunity for preachers, but easily squandered. You can almost hear the hiss of a deflating congregation when the preacher goes off into the clouds, or starts telling them off, or retreats into cosy phrases. Each sermon is an opportunity. I imagine the figures are also skewed by the fact that people stop going to church. How many people would carry on going to a church where they never looked forward to the sermon?

I've been reading a few books on 'home church' and base communities recently, where the sermon seems to be replaced with something much more interactive and applied. The danger of preaching a prepared text is that it never connects with the real lives of the people who are listening. Having said that, that's what I do most weeks, so I might have questions about the efficacy of preaching but perhaps I don't have the nerve to follow those questions through in practice to their logical conclusion.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conservative Party Family Policy; what does 'Family Support' really mean?

Our marriage preparation course starts in a couple of weeks time, so I'm a bit more tuned into political debates on the family and family support than normal. Yesterday the Conservatives published their 'Draft Manifesto on the Family'. That's not quite as grand as it sounds - a 4-page excerpt from their draft manifesto, which is been released in bite-sized chunks on what seems like a daily basis.

Here is what I understand to be the aspirations, and concrete Conservative policies, for families. Some of this is a direct cut and paste, so my apologies if the grammar doesn't quite work. A few comments in brackets:

- Ending child poverty by 2020
- “Britain is one of the least family-friendly countries in the developed world. This will change with a Conservative government.”
- Support the provision of free nursery care for preschool children and we want that support to be provided by a diverse range of providers.
- Ensure that the public sector becomes a world leader in flexible working.
- Make sure couples are given greater encouragement to use existing relationship support (what does this mean?)
- “A Conservative government will help families with their finances”

Policy Commitments

- End the couple penalty in the tax credit system
- Recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system in the next Parliament. This is as much about ‘sending an important signal that we value the commitment that people make when they get married’, as it is about personal finance and taxation.
- Freeze council tax for two years, in partnership with local councils (? Isn’t that taxation policy?)
- Reform the administration of tax credits to reduce fraud and overpayments

Sure Start/family support/childcare
- Take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention, increase its focus on the neediest families, and better involve organisations with a track record of supporting families. (new providers to be paid on results)
- Provide 4200 more Sure Start health visitors, giving all parents a guaranteed level of support before and after birth until their child starts school. (to provide advice on physical development, and support for emotional health of whole family – particularly the relationship between parent and child, and parents themselves)
- Bring all funding for early intervention and parenting support into one budget, to be overseen by an Early Years Support Team within the DCSF. Currently spread across many sources and departments.
- Review the way the childcare industry is regulated

- Funding for relationship support on a stable, long-term footing through multi-year funding settlements

Workplace practices
- Extend the right to request flexible working to every parent with a child under 19
- New system of flexible parental leave – i.e. making maternity leave transferable within a couple

1. What do they mean by ‘relationship support’? Relate? Sure Start health visitors? Marriage and relationship preparation through civil and church registrars? I'd like to hear a bit more about what this means, and what it would look like in practice. It sounds good, but what is it?

2. Health visitors are a good thing, but it might be worth looking at their job remit. The giving of information and options to a stressed new mum when she actually wants advice and wisdom is sometimes worse than useless. If health visitors are actually able to mentor new parents, and pass on wisdom about parenting and relationships, then they will be a lot more use. It sounds like the Conservatives do want to raise the bar on Health Visitors to make them a bit more proactive. But that more 'directive' approach carries its own risks, and involves a lot more input. 4200 extra health visitors will only scratch the surface. However, targeting them at the most dysfunctional families might make some headway, provided they are well prepared and resourced.

3. Flexible working is all very well, and will help, but one of the key pressures on families at the moment is the culture of debt and overpriced housing. It’s a generation and a bit since a mortgage could be supported on one income, families are now under pressure to have two earners, and juggling this around young children means that Mum leaves for her evening shift on the ASDA checkout 5 minutes after Dad gets home from the works. That’s not conducive to a stable relationship. The logic of that tax freeze on local authorities needs to be extended to the whole economy. A low-debt economy where value is placed on family, community, and non-material goods is needed as a counterweight to consumer capitalism, which drives families into overwork, overconsumption and debt, with all the associated stresses. Debt is a factor in a significant number of marriage breakups - I think the figure is about 25-30%.

4. The really thorny issue is how you intervene in the parenting of small children. It's widely recognised that the early years are crucial in how a child learns to see themselves, others, and the world, in how much they develop emotionally, intellectually and socially, and whether they're able to go on to form stable loving relationships themselves. How much tough love is required to intervene in chaotic families with a merry-go-round of partners and deskilled parents who've never been mentored into good parenting and relationship skills themselves? And what kind of 'intervention' would work without being oppressive? To what degree can the rights of parents be infringed to protect the wellbeing of their children?

5. That probably requires some joined up thinking with the education system. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be anything in the draft Education Manifesto which addresses relationship skills. There is no point trying to tackle low attainment if that's just the symptom of a chaotic and dysfunctional family background. I know of a local school which wrestles with this as a key issue: the school feels that it's struggling against the background that many children come from, and providing security, love and encouragement is just as important as helping children to learn the basics. Is there a place for relationship education and parenting skills on the school curriculum? If education is about what can't be left to chance*, then can we afford to leave to chance the basic life skills which will make a crucial difference for the families which schoolchildren go on to have? It's not failsafe, but isn't it worth a try?

6. Who are these 'organisations with a track record of supporting families'? Is that folks like Relate, NCT etc., or more voluntary, community-based groups? What kind of stuff is going to be farmed out, and with what sort of strings? Will Sure Start be subcontracting?

I'm glad the Conservatives have kicked off this debate, and I hope that the parties can all recognise that we have a serious problem here. A proper debate, rather than simplistic call-and-response politicking, is what we need.

I'm well aware that 5 sessions of marriage preparation is a drop in the ocean for the couples who'll be coming along next month, but it's more input than many recieve. No organisation, be it church, government, voluntary sector, Relate, Sure Start or whoever can carry this ball on their own. On that level the tax break for married couples is right: we need to address the culture around families - there's no point them being propped up by one or two structures if culture and society as a whole is toxic to committed relationships and the raising of children in a loving stable home. That's more than policy.

*source: Christina Baxter, head of St Johns College Nottingham, it's a definition which has always stuck with me.

Update: its very interesting to compare these policy proposals with the actions proposed by this Demos report into childhood and character. There's a lot of overlap, though the more concrete interventions to support struggling families proposed by Demos aren't mentioned in the Conservative proposals. And look who's in the picture for the launch of the report....

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Religion and Society

Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty wrote in the Times yesterday defending the right of BA employee Nadia Eweida to wear a cross on her lapel at work. She mentioned...

an extremely disappointing employment appeal tribunal that found no discrimination, because “Christians generally” do not consider wearing a cross as a religious “requirement”. This fundamentally misunderstands the idea of individual rights and freedoms, which do not depend on how many people agree with your conscience or speech. It also opens up secular courts to lengthy arguments as to what is a theological necessity. Making windows into men’s souls is as pointlessly complex as it is dangerous.

Which all sounds pretty sensible to me. It's one of those cases which is easily used by one group to proclaim that Christianity is being persecuted and marginalised, and by another group to talk about Christians foisting their faith uninvited upon others in what should be 'neutral' space.

She goes on:

It seems to me that any society has three choices in dealing with this small question of religion.

The first is to elevate an approved faith to the point of dominant status over all other belief systems. It is formally woven into the legal, political and social system, every sphere of public life and as much of private life as possible. An extreme example might be Afghanistan under the Taleban; a more moderate one, Britain at earlier and less enlightened times in its history.

The second option is, in many ways, equal and opposite. It is based on the view that faith is all dangerous, divisive mumbo-jumbo. No good can come of it so, if it cannot be eradicated altogether, it must be chased from the public sphere, confined to a place of worship or the home, upstairs under the bed with the pornography. An extreme example would be Stalin’s Russia; a more moderate one, the French Republic.

You will have guessed that I favour a third approach that is based on human rights and resonates well with a society such as Britain’s. Here the struggle for religious freedom has been strongly connected with the struggle for democracy itself.

I believe that human beings are creatures of both faith and logic, emotion and reason and it is as well that the law reflects this. It may be true that religion has caused much war and prejudice but it has also inspired much art, music and compassion. And it is also true that scientists and engineers have produced some of the greatest advances in human history, but also some of the stuff of nightmares.

If we really believe in freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this must include the right to the faith or belief of one’s choice, the right to no faith and to be a heretic. Proportionate limits on this precious liberty don’t arise because a minority causes irritation or even offence. We interfere when someone is harming others, or in the workplace when, for instance, their faith or clothing prevents them doing their job.

Again, all pretty sensible. However, within 'human rights' is normally some kind of pecking order - the debates over the Equalities Bill at the moment are about whether the 'right' to freedom of sexual expression trumps the 'right' to hold certain religious moral views, or vice versa. So an approach based purely on rights doesn't get us out of the woods.

I was also struck by the fact that none of these 3 scenarios is equated to what we have in England at the moment. Christian faith has, to some degree, a privileged status (e.g. Bishops in the Lords, established church) though in areas like faith schools an area once reserved for Anglicans is now open to all. But you'd hardly describe the Church of England as 'dominant'. In one sense it holds the ring, acting as a broker for the many faith groups in England, and the way the CofE engages with politics and society has itself been shaped by history, and the constraints of being the 'national church'. We can't simply start from scratch, we are where we are, and though it has its faults, the relationship of church, religion and state continues to evolve in a fairly consensual manner.

The other thing which puzzled me was where an organisation like the National Secular Society would stand on these 3 options. Their stated principles are along the lines of the 3rd option, but a cursory glance at their website and public statements seems to indicate a contempt for faith more along the lines of option 2.

A debate to be had is on the nature of the 'neutral' spaces in society, like the workplace. Should any expression of faith be banished, or is it better to go for a 'live and let live' approach, where people can express what's dear to them on the understanding that they don't impose it on anyone else. That is an issue of culture as much as law: I personally would dread a society where everything has to be settled by appeal to the rule book. Unfortunately the headlines in the culture wars are being made by narratives of 'persecution', 'intolerance', and 'fundamentalists', which force people into corners and make a culture of acceptance and grace less likely.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Strange but true? 96% of churchgoers 'look forward to the sermon'.

From the Times today

...some ember still seems to burn in Britain’s 3.6 million regular churchgoers, for almost all of them feel a sense of expectation for the Sunday sermon, according to researchers at Durham University.

Fully 96.6 per cent of those surveyed “look forward” to the sermon, with 60 per cent saying it gave them a sense of God’s love.

At a time when churches are agonising about how to move to a “digital” from an “analog” age, the results suggest that there is life in the old forms yet.

The College of Preachers of Durham University admits that the results are “counter-intuitive” — particularly in an age where “sermonising” is seen as a deadly sin. The college plans to carry out a larger study to discover why people like sermons so much.

The most recent survey, carried out by Durham’s Codec research centre to mark the 50th anniversary of the College of Preachers, offers preliminary suggestions.

Nothing obvious on the CODEC site, there's a brief mention of it on the College of Preachers site but no obvious link to the research itself. Without knowing a bit more about the sample size, questions asked etc., I'd be reluctant to draw any firm conclusions...

Update: the Director of Research at CODEC comments below:-
The research was carried out by CODEC at St John's College on behalf of the College of Preachers. You can obtain a copy for only £5 from St John's College - - sadly we can't publish the complete copy online as research costs money and we need to recoup some of the costs. By the way, its a PILOT survey - small scale .

Fasting from Criticism

"The Lord continues to deal with me about my critical spirit, convicting me that I have been wrong to judge any person or situation ("Do not judge, or you too will be judged... Matthew 7:1-2). One morning last week He gave me an assignment: for one day I was to go on a 'fast' from criticism. I was not to criticise anybody about anything.

Into my mind crowded all the usual objections. 'But then what happens to valued judgements... how could society operate without standards and limits?....

For the first half of the day, I simply felt a void, almost as if I had been wiped out as a person. This was especially true at lunch wih (my family).. several topics came up about which I had definite opinions. I listened to the others and kept silent. Barbed comments on the tip of my tongue about certain leaders were suppressed. In our talkative family no one seemed to notice.

Bemused I noticed that my comments were not missed. The fedreral government, the judicial system, and the institutional church could apparaently get along fine without my penetrating observations..." (Catherine Marshall)

Marshall goes on to say that letting go of criticism gave space for creativity, and discovered that her critical spirit had stifled the flow of ideas and creativity in her own mind and spirit.

I found this very challenging, and could relate to a lot of it. As a regular blogger, there's a temptation to believe that the world needs my 'penetrating observations'. It doesn't, it's just me that needs to download them somewhere. If someone else chooses to read them, then that's free group therapy for my need to be recognised, except that it's not therapeutic: it actually feeds the need to download my thoughts in public, rather than keep them to myself.

For info, the source for this is Spiritual Classics by Richard Foster, which is a selection of reading from different authors with commentary and questions for reflection. I'm trying at the moment to read one excerpt every Monday morning, rather than ploughing straight into work. Plenty of food for thought. Even better, the label on the front reminds me that I got it at an 80% discount...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Soft Play Church

Great story in the latest Fresh Expressions news about the Wesley Playhouse, a Methodist Church in Yorkshire which refitted as a soft play area & cafe after asking the community what they needed.

Her dream has become an amazingly successful reality – thanks to the efforts of a dedicated volunteer team, key sponsors, and a church willing to take what was seen as an enormous risk. "As far as I'm aware, nothing like this has ever been done anywhere else in Britain," says Caroline. "We now have 3,000 sq ft of play area, a café that operates alongside it and a supportive local community who have taken it to their hearts and now use The Wesley Playhouse as the venues for birthday parties and celebrations. We've even had several Christenings there as a result of people feeling so much part of what has very much become their own fresh expression of church."

Since its launch in 2007, the project has seen over 24,000 people come through its doors. It's a long, long way from the days when the pre-Playhouse Howden Clough Church had just 10 members attending regularly.

I know a church in Bath which has a bouncy castle and puts it up once a month for 'Fun Church', but I guess they've shifted a few pews to make room for it. Something like the Wesley Playhouse seems like a logical next step. This Youtube clip tells the story, and is pretty challenging on how we deal with the historic legacy of church buildings and rediscover what the local church is really about.

Pix and review of the food here.
local press coverage.
Wesley Playhouse website.

Blue Monday and Beautiful Minds: Christianity and Mental Health

Today is apparently Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year (particularly if you're an England cricket or Sunderland fan): the mathematical formula is here, and John Pritchard the Bish of Oxford has published some relevant prayers, for example:

Gracious God, you know our need of money.
‘Times are hard’, they say,
But harder for some that others,
harder for us, in fact.

....I don’t ask you for money (how could I?)
But I do ask you for more patience than I’ve got
and more grace that I find in my frustrated soul.

Meanwhile this conference caught my eye, looks fascinating:

The Beautiful Mind?
Emotional Health & Christian Theology
A Conference by: Mind & Soul and St Paul's Theological Centre

26th March 2010.

How we deal with our emotions is an increasingly popular topic. Yet things seem to be getting worse not better, with growing numbers of people suffering from depression. People are looking to faith and spiritually for answers - but is the church ready to respond?

Mind and Soul have teamed up with theologians from St Paul's Theological Centre to offer you this one day conference on Emotional Health and Christian Theology.

here's some of the topics being covered in sessions:

A Thorn in the Flesh: Finding Strength and Hope Amid Chronic Suffering
Capturing The Affections: Getting to the Heart of the Problem
Demons: Do They, Don’t They, What If?
‘If We Claim To Be Without Emotion...’
Mad, Bad or Sad: A Christian Approach to Antisocial Behaviour
Mental Health and Material Wealth: When Prosperity Theology Promises Emotional Healing
Perfectionism: Thomas Cramner’s Gospel for the Overachiever
Prayer Ministry and Psychology: The Relationship and the Risks

full brochure here.

It's hosted by Holy Trinity Brompton, who seem to be developing quite a range of practical courses to complement Alpha. 'Dealing with Depression' looks interesting, but there's not a great deal of info on the HTB website.

The organisation Mind and Soul are one of the sponsors of the day conference - hadn't heard of them before, but they profess to offer a Christian approach to mental health issues. This is a long standing interest of mine, and there seem to be some good articles and resources on the site. Anyone come across these folks?

(And no, they still haven't fixed the Alpha poll that was hijacked by a few mischievous bloggers/Facebookers last year. Click on 'results' to see what I mean.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

'Independent' piece on Street Pastors

Seem to be linking to a lot of stuff at the Indy these days:

An increasingly familiar sight in Britain's towns and cities, the inter-denominational band of Christians are on an inner-city pilgrimage to do God's work, armed not with Bibles, but with sick bags, flip flops and first aid. The organisation was set up in London in 2003 by the Rev Les Isaacs as an outreach project to tackle the gang, gun and knife culture he saw in Lewisham and Hackney.

But now its remit is changing. The number of Street Pastor groups has increased dramatically in the past 12 months, with night-time patrols established in 30more towns and cities, bringing the UK total to more than 150. These days the organisation is as much about caring for drunken revellers as it is about separating warring youth gangs.

...At half past 10, we gather between Coyote Wild Nightclub and Vodka Revolution. A mob of barely dressed girls totter forward, seemingly primed to unleash a salvo of teenage derision. Their leader is 17-year-old Bethany Ward, who seems remarkably blasé about declaring her age in front of a row of bouncers, and she is all admiration. "I just wanted to say that these guys are legends," she squeals. "When my mate was puking up the other weekend they gave them water and put them in a taxi. They don't shout at you like your parents do."

Reading the whole piece is probably enough to put any sane person off having a night out in Derby.


Disasters Emergency Committee donation form.

Christian Aid Haiti Appeal

DEC phone donations to 0370 60 60 900

Saturday, January 16, 2010

When is a Plan Not a Plan?

Excellent post from Vic the Vicar! (his '!' not mine) on planning

As the Mission Action Plan season picks up speed (we need to revisit them and present them at our Annual church meetings) I would like to remind everyone else that they need looking at and revising where necessary. As I do I would like to remind you of the reality of planning church in that many who plan fail to plan success but merely plan to fail. If your plans are not realistic, not constantly revisited and not developed by long periods of praying then you're planning to fail. If you seek a church of one hundred and the reality is that you're experiencing a diminishing congregation than either God is falling you or you're merely sitting with eyes closed and fingers crossed hoping for a visit from the growth fairy!

What are you going to make your reality? Do you understand the needs of your community, know what they need and what you need to be 'Church' for them? Have you plans? If you do, when did you last revisit them?

Emphasis mine.

Anyone out there use Mission Action Plans? What's your experience of them? Or, to escape from the church context, any good/bad/other experiences of strategic planning in the workplace?

Friday, January 15, 2010

National Secular Society and the General Election

Excellent piece of analysis by Matt Wardman about the National Secular Society, their political agenda, and the likely extent of their influence after the General Election.

Ironically, I think that if the NSS was pushed to the margin, the case for a secular state could be put far more strongly, as there’d be far fewer insults thrown around, and far more use of accurate information in the debate.

Ice Age: Advice for Churches

Just through from the Diocesan office...

Urgent - Diocesan Guidelines for local churches in the event of sudden Ice Age

Important: Meteorological and Geological research at the Poles suggests that previous ice ages happened in a matter of days rather than over thousands of years, triggered by global warming. Most churches are totally unprepared for ministry and mission at – 50 Centigrade!

The present cold spell has underlined the need for these guidelines

Please read these guidelines carefully.

In the event of a sudden ice age ….

Ministerial and Organisational
Older churches will stay open (as no noticeable change in temperature).
Some PCCs, clergy chapters, 8.00 am congregations can continue meet as usual (same reason).

Liquid Churches will be frozen indefinitely.
Emerging Churches – will disappear again.
Clergy Capability Procedure to be revised and reissued as ‘Clergy Incapability

CME grants will be claimable for:

Thermal cassocks
Inuit-English phrase books
Thermal underwear
Lem Sip
Thermal Scrabble

Mission and training resources

Rick Warren - The Purpose Driven Sledge
Bob Jackson - The Road to Hypothermia (fully revised)
Revised Arctic edition ‘Igloo-Shaped Church’

Study guides on:
‘Leading your church into a Crevasse’.
‘Developing every-penguin-ministry’.
‘Go with the floe - reaching out to the unchilled.

DVDs of ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, Ice Age 1&2, Ice Station Zebra, Ski Sunday highlights.

New Grove Books Arctic series is planned
‘Parish visiting in the Arctic’ – coping with frosty receptions.
‘Leading Evangelistic igloo meetings’ – some ice breakers.

In preparation - recipes for those Arctic Alpha meals: incs Penguin casserole, Penguin en Croute, Medallion of Penguin, Quiche (V), Arctic Roll or Penguin biscuits. Wines (chilled).

Worship Resources
‘Permafrost Praise’ – new song book includes ‘In the bleak mid winter’, ‘Empty, frozen here I stand’, ‘All through the night’ and ‘Snow Jesus Snow’.
Children’s section includes favourite - ‘Jesus wants me for an ice berg’.

Common Worship Guidelines includes
Baptising with ice
Communion with frozen wine (…. bread, priest and congregation etc)
Sharing the peace (frequently, vigorously and prolonged - but not on lips).
Leading ‘All-Penguin’ worship.

During the sunless winter months (September 1st to August 25th), Morning and Evening Prayer will be replaced by continuous Night Prayer.

Specially adapted version of the Psalms including: Ps 23 ‘The Lord is my Penguin Herdsperson’ and Ps 130 ‘Out of the Crevasses I cry to thee, O Lord’

Encultured sermon outlines on the sayings of Jesus including -
‘Many are cold but few are frozen’
‘You didn’t freeze me, I froze you’ etc

Health and Safety notes:
Vocations and Selection - all Bishops Advisory Panels must be thoroughly defrosted before use.
Derby Diocese will join the Northern Arctic Regional Training Partnership
All courses will be accredited by the Rejkavik College of Higher Education

CME (vicar training) days coming up
Training your husky (sequel to days on ‘Finding your Husky’ and ‘Catching your Husky’)
How to make: harpoons/sledges/ice shoes/igloos/whale fat reading lamps/ a living (delete as applicable)

thanks to Chris for forwarding this.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

CAP Money Course

Good to hear that the Christians Against Poverty 'Money Course' will be running in lots of places around the country. We've teamed up with another local church to offer it from next week, after a pilot run in the autumn which worked very well.

Christian Today has more about the course, and CAP's work and vision.

“Whilst many in the UK are still reeling from the recession, we are convinced that, with the principles advocated in CAP Money, many will be saved from slipping further into debt, whilst picking up excellent financial skills that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.”

CAP has an ambitious plan to open 80 new debt counselling centres this year, in addition to its existing 112 centres. It is inviting churches to consider running CAP Money as part of their outreach within the local community.

Speaking to Christian Today recently, CAP Operations Director Kathryn Foster said the expansion reflected the scale of the need. “Sadly we don’t see the need lessening. We would love if it our debt management courses got so in the fabric of society that people didn’t need debt counselling any more but we’re a long way off that,” she said.

Dermot O'Leary "Do the work, then say the prayers afterwards"

An interview with X-Factor host Dermot O'Leary in the Radio Times this week alludes to his faith:

A former altar boy, O'Leary has kept his faith; his production company goes under the title Ora et Labora ("pray and work"), though he points out that his personal modus operandi is to "do the work, then say the prayers afterwards." And while religion is clearly important to him, it is, he says "an underlying thing, not something I like to shout about. I don't like evangelism and I've probably got more in common with a liberal Jew or a liberal Muslim than someone who'd consider themselves a conservative Catholic."

At time of blogging, the interview isn't fully up on the BBC site. There seem to have been a lot of thought-provoking interviews this week:

Tom Wright on discipleship and character

Rev Richard Coles, former Communard, who's approach to his faith is quite different to O'Leary's:
The dog collar is fascinating to people," he reflects, "when it doesn't repel. I've got used to being shouted at in the street." When I express surprise, he brushes it aside. "What is really boring is when people greet me with 'More tea, vicar?'" So why not go round in mufti and save himself the bother? "Because I'm a priest." But aren't you a priest regardless of what you wear? He looks genuinely puzzled at the suggestion. "What I wear identifies me as a priest. I don't agree with all this trying to appear 'normal'. If you want that to be normal, don't take off your dog collar and then put it on again, because what you're doing is playing along with the view that wearing one makes you odd."

Les Isaacs, founder of Street Pastors

Third Way subscribers got an interview with Marcus Brigstocke this month. They should line up Dermot O'Leary too, I'd love to hear him unpack that comment a bit more.

Stanley Hauerwas on leadership and servanthood
Communities have diversities of gifts. Part of your responsibility as an administrator and leader is to help members of the community own them as contributing to the overall good of the community. To be in a position of power means that you recognize how fragile the power is. You wouldn’t have it otherwise. And you have enough confidence that you don’t have to win all the time. That’s a real ascetic discipline, a discipline of the ego, that is absolutely crucial for being an administrator and to allow the institution to go on once you’re no longer there.