Wednesday, March 20, 2019

If you thought Brexit was a mess.....

A British journalist is being interviewed by the police for 'misgendering' the child of a high profile transgender activist (update: the case also involves tweets labelling the treatment given to the child - not presently offered legally in the UK - as 'mutilation' and 'child abuse.'). The activist, Susie Green, runs Mermaids, a charity which supports young people who think they may be experiencing gender dysphoria, and also runs national campaigns and advocacy programmes. Mermaids recently received a £500k grant from the National Lottery which is now under review. Meanwhile the Tavistock Centre, the one specialist youth gender clinic in the UK, was subject to a critical report earlier this year, and questions have been raised about the quality of care for young people who are prescribed puberty blockers.

This is a deeply personal and potentially very distressing area. Research suggests that a significant percentage - possibly a majority - of teenagers who consider themselves to be born in the wrong body, no longer hold that view in adulthood. That still leaves a significant percentage for whom it is a settled reality that persists into adult life. At what stage is medical intervention wise, or justified? If adulthood may not fully kick in until you're 30, how long should people wait, or be made to wait? (Susie Green flew her child out to Thailand at age 16 for medical procedures not available in the UK, and for which Thailand has since raised the minimum age to 18). Are the other issues experienced by children with gender dysphoria related to it, or are they exacerbated by the isolation, bullying etc. which can go with being 'different'?

Unfortunately, like Brexit, this debate has taken on all the appearances of two pit bull terriers fighting over a rabbit. With a rapid rise in the number of referrals for childhood/adolescent gender dysphoria, and increased public profile (and debate - see the current issue in athletics over what categories trans athletes can compete in, or what prayers vicars are allowed to say with people who have transitioned), this is something which needs careful, evidence-based, serious discussion, not flame wars on social media and the police being called in on people who disagree with you.

Fewer of us are in, or grew up in, stable family relationships than previous generations. There is a higher level of sexual confusion, mental distress, and risky sexual behaviour than we have seen for generations. It's no longer possible to advocate a 'normal' or 'ideal' vision of sexuality, relationships and human thriving without being labelled as psychologically unbalanced (or 'phobic' to use the shorthand). Everything goes, and tolerance is the prime virtue. At one level, the flux gives us a chance to discuss previously taboo areas, at another the level of confusion makes it highly possible that we will botch things. Where mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing are at stake, we  - and especially those wrestling with questions about their gender identity - are not served by hysteria, prejudice and trench warfare, on either side of the discussion.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

We're out of Cake

Brexit Metaphor of the Day



Having voted for 'no cake' and 'no death', John Bercow has informed Parliament that they won't be allowed another vote on the choice between them. Theresa May wants a further three months to decide between the two.

There is no majority in the house of commons which can agree whether the withdrawal agreement is actually cake, or whether it's death. Whatever it is, it will have run out by March 29th.

Jeremy Corbyn, whose 'cake tests' (is it a cake; are you sure it's a cake; can it be cut so that everyone has exactly the same size slice as everyone else) have been routinely ignored, now thinks there should be a national taste-off between the two options, except when he's asked about it, and then he doesn't. 

This metaphor is incoherent. Which makes it all the more suitable as a Brexit metaphor.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A good day to bury bad priorities

Today the government is expected to announce continuing benefit freezes and tax cuts. On Friday Comic Relief will be asking us to donate to projects which deal with poverty and financial hardship, homelessness, mental illness, and providing hope and a future for young people.

I wonder if these 2 things are, in any way, related?

If the government is officially outsourcing the welfare state to the charitable sector, I'd rather they came out and said it rather than did it by stealth.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Meaningful Vole

It turns out that all those statements which Theresa May has been reading from were written on a faulty typewriter with a broken t key. Here is what she will be offering the House of Commons on Tuesday

It may appear to be about to dive headfirst down a dark hole, but any similarities to the position of the Prime Minister, House of Commons, or indeed nation as a whole, are purely coincidental.

PS whilst we're on Brexit, I'm a Remainer but even I think the BBC's coverage of this stinks.  For example their '10 ways you could be affected by a no deal Brexit' completely fails to mention that changes in tariffs could mean prices go down, as well as up, and that reduced house prices will be good news to the people who have been priced out of the market since the 1980s. The housing market is vastly overinflated, with a ream of social, relational and financial consequences both for home owners (who are paying a higher slice of their income in mortgages) and non-owners (who can't get into the market at all). I'd rather we weren't leaving, but at least present the facts in a balanced way. I guess I should know better than to ask that of the Beeb by now...

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Booing the Bishop

Last week I watched a school performance of Les Miserables, a great performance and a powerful story of redemption, mercy vs justice.

It wouldn't be anything like so popular if Jean Valjean, after stealing silver from the Bishop, was simply sent back to jail to rot. Instead, the Bishop lets him go free, plus some extra silver candlesticks, with the lines

But remember this, my brother
See in this some high plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the passion and the blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have saved your soul for God

We all applaud a story of mercy shown to an undeserving man, and redemption from a destructive lifestyle. Ok it's fiction, but it's also the gospel. What might happen to Shamima Begum if she encounters mercy, rather than strict justice? Or should we have applauded the implacable lawman Javert and booed the Bishop?

Monday, February 18, 2019

Split Ends

Who would have imagined that the Conservative Party would be the last to split over Brexit?

In December, 8.5% of the Libdem parliamentary party resigned the party whip over the issue. Ok, that's only 1 person...

Just over a week ago Nigel Farage registered a new party, and claims that 100,000 people have 'signed up', though there's some debate over whether that means they're supporting it, or have just subscribed to the live feed for a bit of political entertainment. This follows the resignation of most frontline UKIP figures over the last year.

Today the 7 Labour MPs  - at only 3% a disappointingly small split compared to the Libdems - handed in their cards. It's hard to see where they'll end up without some real heavyweights in the ranks (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn etc. - Burnhams Twitter feed has been strangely quiet today). But there are plenty of moderate Labour MPs facing deselection from their own constituencies due to Momentum infiltration. Like Russell Crowe's gladiators, they may decide they're better sticking together than being picked off one by one.

That leaves the Greens - who with only 1 MP can't really split - and the Conservatives as the only national UK parties still in one piece. For the PM it's a staggering achievement, in both senses of the word. I'm guessing that being in power is a key gravitational pull on some of Mrs Mays backbenchers, they all saw what happened to Douglas Carswell.

Update: ooops, spoke too soon. Still, they were last to split, even if only by 48 hours.

Update 2: no reference to the Conservative Party on Justine Greenings Twitter feed or homepage. It's quite an achievement to complete her whole biography with no mention of the Conservatives either.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Church of England - Evangelism on the Agenda

It would seem an obvious thing for a church to prioritise evangelism. Jesus parting words were 'go and make disciples of all nations' (Matthew 28), and the outcome of Pentecost was that the first disciples would be witnesses to Jesus (not 'do' witness but be witnesses). After a serious finger burning exercise in the 'Decade of Evangelism', it's exciting to see the CofE picking the ball back up.

General Synod next week has a large chunk of time devoted to evangelism. I used to witter repeatedly about the failure of the national CofE to engage with mission, one reason this blog is a bit quieter than usual (apart from having 2 1/2 years without a full time colleague) is that I've less to complain about.

As well as debates on Estates evangelism, and growing faith in families and schools, Synod is also going to be asked to approve GS 2118. Calm down now, I know you're excited. If approved, the national parliament of the CofE will be signing up to 4 headline commitments
1. That every worshipping community makes evangelism a priority
2. That every parish gets involved in 'Thy Kingdom Come', a (now global) prayer initiative focused on seeing more people come to faith
3. That every diocese helps all their members to find more confidence in sharing and living the good news of Jesus in daily life
4. That the church be held to account for 1-3, plus a cluster of other recommendations (see below).

Readers of this blog from other church streams may be slapping their foreheads repeatedly at this point. Surely evangelism as a priority is a no brainer? Well a) not if you're Anglican and b) not if you're British. We've never been that comfortable talking about faith in public, and indeed when we do it puts a substantial number of people off.

There are several key ideas underpinning the report
 - The integration of evangelism and discipleship. I remember the stir caused by William Abrahams 'The Logic of Evangelism' in the 1980s, reminding evangelicals that we are called to make discples, not converts. The report therefore sees evangelism as an integral part of discipleship, not a separate activity.
 - The work of LICC and others in exploring 7 day a week discipleship
 - The word 'confidence', which keeps recurring - as a church, and as individuals, many of us lack the confidence to share our story, or even invite people to a church event.

The report sets out 6 'operational priorities' for the next few years. These are going to be challenging, but exciting, if we take them seriously
a) Every person equipped to be a witness - 'mobilising the million' CofE members to be more confident in sharing their story and Jesus' story, and developing a culture of invitation in the church

b) Every person released to live out the gospel 24/7 - which links up with the discipleship/setting God's people free agenda currently being rolled out nationally.

c) Every church prioritising children and young people in evangelism  - with the startling statistic that 65% of CofE churches have less than 5 members under 16, and half of these have none.

d) Every church a welcoming community, both as people and as places, and makes the most of 'life events' to connect with the community and build an ongoing relationship

e) Every church considers developing a new worshipping community. London diocese has traditionally led the way on strategic church planting, but it now looks like this will become a national expectation

f) Every leader trained and equipped to be competent to lead in evangelism and encouraging disciples. Though this is the last of the 6 priorities, this is the potential bottleneck. For many vicars, their gifts lie elsewhere than evangelism, and for many others, it's simply not on the radar. This will take quite a shift in culture, but it's a shift that's needed.

An appendix to the report picks up on specific areas - new estates, ethnic minorities, chaplancy and youth.

A few thoughts
1. There is a concern threaded through the report that this work will lose 'momentum' and not become embedded in CofE culture. This may have half an eye on the future leadership of the CofE - John Sentamu is retiring, and Justin Welby is 6 years into his stint as ABofC - most recent occupants of that role have managed about a decade.

2. Linked to 'confidence' is apologetics, which doesn't get a mention in the report. One of the things which gives Christians confidence in their faith is seeing that it answers key questions well and coherently. This work may be happening elsewhere, but it strikes me that the CofE needs to regain its nerve in the sufficiency of the Bible and its worldview to provide a framework for life, ethics, thinking, and spirituality.

3. 'Setting God's People Free', with its focus on everyday discipleship, does seem to be gaining traction, and has the potential to transform Dioceses and local churches. It's good to see the evangelism agenda linking up with this, but it will take excellent resources, prayer, and consistent leadership over many years to see these changes get to the 'average' churches. A small number of churches 'get' evangelism already,  small number will probably never get it, so it's good to see the report zeroing in on the thousands of 'average' CofE churches in the 20-60 membership range, and considering what this all looks like for them.

4. This is being driven/led from the top, to which I cry 'at last!' But at Diocesan level it needs to be broken down a bit, otherwise Dioceses could end up appointing a forest of advisors and facilitators. I've said it before and I'll say it again, anyone in a Diocesan post needs to be part-time in a parish, so that they remain grounded in the realities and responsibilities of parish life. Advisors in spirituality need to be leading their churches in prayer, advisors in evangelism need to be equipping their own local church to share faith with confidence etc. That gives credibility and context to the people promoting this stuff, and also prevents them 'going native' into a Diocesan culture which becomes separated from the coalface realities of parish life.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Lightening Rod on the Irish Border

So Teresa the Relentless is off to Brussels again, to renegotiate the 'Irish Backstop'. Because that's the only real problem with the Withdrawal Agreement for Brexiteers, isn't it?

Um, no. It's only 1 of 8 things on John Redwoods list. Jacob Rees Mogg has several others, and lets just assume for once that Boris Johnson is consistent and still believes the stuff he said last month. Just as Brexit itself has turned the distraction levels up to 11 and prevented good and careful governance of the UK, so the Backstop has become a distraction from debating everything else in the 585 page Agreement.

If no other part of the Withdrawal Agreement is rewritten, Teresa May could come back with movement on the Irish Backstop, and still lose a vote on the Agreement to Brexiteers. This has the potential to become an even more colossal political mess than it is at the moment.

And if the Agreement somehow gets through, the 'May way or the highway' strategy of bringing the agreement to Parliament at such a late stage, compounded by the time lost on confidence votes and infighting, makes it possible that a huge bit of legislation will get through Parliament with almost zero scrutiny of the details.