Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas

Walk softly, as you go through Christmas,
that each step may bring you down the starlit path, to the manger bed.

Talk quietly, as you speak of Christmas
that you shall not drown out the glorious song of angels .

Kneel reverently as you pause for Christmas,
that you may feel again the Spirit of the Nativity, rekindled in your soul.

Rise eagerly, after you have trod the Christmas Path,
that you may serve more fully, the one whose birth we hail.

Friday, December 19, 2014

If politicians scripted the Nativity....

Nativity plays:
UKIP - the three wise men have been sent back where they came from and the virgin Mary has been told to stop breastfeeding in public
Conservative: the innkeeper has been stung for the bedroom tax after the stable was classed as a spare room. George Osborne says the Census is necessary as part of the long term economic plan.

LibDem - Promised 4 1/2 years ago there wouldn't be another census. Regularly briefing against Herod despite supporting him in power. Photos of Clegg in a 'this is what a Saviour looks like' t-shirt are being greeted with derision.
Labour - 'I met a shepherd the other day called Colin'. It's deeply unfair that shepherds are seated on the ground whilst other people have camels. Major policy speech on myrrh coming up.
Green: major plan to put solar panels on the hillsides around Bethlehem so that glory can be used as a renewable energy source.

The UKIP one was already doing the rounds on Twitter, so I figured it needed some company. Any bids for the SNP version?

Are people 'welcome' or welcome?

'Everyone welcome!' proclaims the poster outside the church. Is this a statement of fact, or a piece of marketing? It all depends on what happens when they turn up:

We all have people drifting into our churches from time to time. If they receive the right sort of welcome and feel they found a place where they can belong, a valuable start has been made. Here then is a 30 second checklist:
Outside: If the noticeboard is out of date and the grounds overgrown then the building is giving the impression of death and no-one will want to go near …
Inside: Solid wooden doors, long paths, dark porches, doors which don’t tell you whether to push or pull, poor signage and lack of disabled access are all things that seem small to us but which can put huge barriers in the way of a visitor. Remember, visitors will be embarrassed, nervous and unsure of themselves.
Welcome: The single most important factor in the first 30 seconds is the person you meet first on getting through the door … someone who smiles, is genuinely pleased to see people, and will enquire after the names of newcomers and show them to a seat is one of the most vital parts of a church.
Atmosphere: Walking into a buzz of conversation can seem friendly to those on the inside, but for a new person it can be intimidating because they feel that everyone has friends except them! The best atmosphere is one of prayer with music playing gently in the background so that the silence is compelling rather than embarrassing.
simple, but crucial. How welcoming is your church this Christmas?

update: just failed badly on the 30 second test at last nights service, what's the point in blogging this stuff if I then ignore it?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

12 Reasons Santa must live in a country estate, not a council estate

A few days ago, a high street store pulled a Christmas card stating why Santa must live on a council estate. The card was deemed to be offensive, so much so that every media report on the card had to reprint the whole thing in full just to show how offensive it was.

Of course the true reasons was never revealed: that the card is simply wrong. It's clear that Santa Claus is a member of the landed aristocracy:
  1. He has his own deer
  2. He only visits ordinary houses once a year, but doesn't like to be seen doing so.
  3. He doesn’t know how to open the front door for himself
  4. Whenever he enters a house, he has a drink
  5. He dresses in velvet
  6. He’s easy to mimic
  7. He drives an open-topped vintage vehicle
  8. He lets someone else do all the hard work, but he's still the one with the title
  9. He talks in an English accent but is ethnically from mainland Europe
  10. He has lots of stuff but is only generous once a year, and only then in response to a mass letter writing campaign. 
  11. He wears boots all the time
  12. His dress sense hasn't changed much since the 1950s

I hope that's cleared that up.

Monday, December 15, 2014

If I think x is wrong, does that make me x-phobic?

Odd piece by Giles Fraser in the Guardian a couple of days back, writing about Operation Christmas Child:

this literature promotes an exclusivist version of Christianity in the form of innocuous-looking comic book with the sinister message slipped in: “There is only one way to be friends with God.” In many places these boxes are distributed, this is thinly disguised code for: Islam is wrong.

I have two problems with this:

1. To say that something is wrong doesn't make you a phobic. This is a trick that goes all the way back to Freud, and probably long before: 'Disagreeing with me is nothing to do with my bad logic, it is an emotional flaw in you that is the problem'. Some things are right/true/correct and some things are wrong/mistaken/incorrect. Pointing out that something belongs in the later category, whether it's a system of thought or an answer in to a maths question, isn't a psychological condition. 

2. Last time I looked Giles Fraser was a CofE vicar, a Christian. Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, the Messiah, God in human form who dies for our salvation and rises again so that we might rise with him. (plus some small print). Jesus is both the fullest revelation of God on earth, and the God-given path to a restored relationship with God now an in eternity. That's what Jesus said he was, and that's what Christians believe. The leaflet simply paraphrases this: does that make Jesus himself sinister?

So someone else then turns up a few hundred years later, be they Mohammed or Joseph Smith, and claims to have a better idea than Jesus about who God is, how he is at work, and how to live in response to this. No Christian can logically go 'oh well, that's fair enough, you're just as likely to be right as Jesus'. There are flat contradictions between the Koran and the Bible. Jesus and Mohammed cannot both be right about themselves and about God. God isn't going to turn up in person to save the world, and then a few hundreds years later go 'oh that didn't work, I'll just go back to using prophets'. 

I believe Islam is wrong because I believe Jesus is who he says he is. (To put this in perspective, I also believe there are certain traditions of thought within Christianity that are wrong, along with capitalism, communism, buying t-shirts made in sweatshops, texting during a conversation, and using Facebook as a form of therapy. I'm a mass of phobias) But lets have an adult, reasoned discussion about it, rather than chucking abusive labels at people who don't see things the way we do, closing down the debate before its even begun. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Top Posts from 2014

Here are the 10 most viewed posts from 2014 on Opinionated Vicar

1. Latest Church of England Attendance Stats: making mud seem clear: written in the light of the CofE stats released in March.

2. The Parish system: game over? (also attracted most comments)

3. Vicars: Personality Type and  Church Growth (some of the church growth research published at the start of the year linked particular clergy personality types to growing churches, though the growth was self-reported: do extrovert visionaries tend to big things up, or are they actually more suited to parish leadership than the average?)

4. First Woman Bishop: the Shortlist (not entirely serious...)

5. Vicars - A Great Resource Squandered? (in the light of some research which showed a large % of clergy saying the church was bad at recognising their talents and gifts)

6. Women Bishops: the morning after (a lament that the CofE had taken so long to get round to it, and had taken its eye off the main business of the church)

7. Questions for the CofE to ask itself  (how realistic & ruthless does the CofE need to be in order to survive?)

8. Is the Bishop of Bath and Wells a person or a tourist attraction? at the time when there was a public outcry at the prospect of the new Bishop of B&W living somewhere more normal than the Palace in Wells (complete with moat, swans etc.)

9. Latest CofE stats: Attendance by Diocese 2009-13 (table of attendance change by Diocese, based on the figures up to 2013).

10. Growing Churches and Good Vicars: Blog round up and thoughts  posted after Justin Welbys comments early in the year linking church growth to having a 'good vicar'

Looking at the list, it's striking how Anglican they all are - nearly all are about CofE structures, practice and priorities. There's a danger in that of becoming too niche, a talking/blogging shop for Anglican concerns alone. I blog regularly about all sorts of other things - mental health, politics, money, media, culture etc., but none of it gets the kind of traffic that these things do.

On one hand, I'm pleased these posts are getting the visits and comments - part of the reason for posting them is to get a debate going in the CofE. A few years ago I felt like a bit of a lone voice, going on about mission, growth and leadership, but now these are mainstream topics of discussion. And there are some easy ways to grab Anglican traffic (e.g. the #synod hashtag during General Synod meetings) which I haven't really worked out for the other denominations!

On the other hand, I'm still frustrated that a comedy list of women bishops gets more than 10x as many visits as a post on mental illness a few days later.

For info, because people sometimes ask, the top post here has had just over 4000 hits (according to Blogger stats, which I don't think are very accurate!!) The site gets roughly 500-700 hits on an average day, but again I'm not convinced that's accurate, and a lot of it is spam. As a sign of how blogging has evolved since I started, main traffic sources are Twitter and Facebook, though a link from Thinking Anglicans is still worth quite a bit.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Russell Brand visits a food bank, falls in love with a Christian

In a warehouse in a retail park Christians and sixth formers assemble bags of what would rightly be considered “staples” in a kinder world. Tins of food and packets of biscuits and it’s good that we’re near to the “White Cliffs of Dover” because it feels like there’s a war on and the livid coloured packaging goes sepia in my mind as Dame Vera scores the melancholy scene.

The Christians are as Christians are, kind and optimistic. The donations come from ordinary local folk “We get more from the poorer people” says Martin, a quick deputy in a cuddly jumper. “More from Asda shoppers than Waitrose.” As I contemplate cancelling my Ocado (or whatever it’s called) order Chrissy, the lady who runs the scheme says that this year people who received packages previously have now donated themselves. Previous recipients often volunteer an all. Here older folk and the students diligently box off the nosh and I determine to give them and their heartening endeavor a shout out on the show and my writhing, nervous gut begins to settle.

Chrissy explains how the Canterbury Food Bank has brought people together, not just those it feeds but those who volunteer. “It seemed like a good way to worship Christ” she says. Martin, who I am starting to gently fall in love with, observes that supermarkets profit from the enterprise as Food Bank campaigns encourage their customers to spend more there. “Do you think there’s an obligation for the state to feed people?” I ask “or room for a bit more Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the temple type stuff?”

They smile.

....The Britain of the future will be born of alliances between ordinary, self-governing people, organised locally, communicating globally. Built on principles that are found in traditions like Christianity; community, altruism, kindness, love.

from RB's reflections on last nights Question Time. 

Top Christmas Videos #10: The Writings on the Wall

Ok this is nothing to do with Christmas, but it's absolutely brilliant. Almost single-handedly redeems the pop video as an art form.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top Christmas videos #9 Christmas Starts

A shorter and much less expensive ad than John Lewis. Amid the various marketing attempts to colonise the birth of Jesus as a shopping festival, and the widespread confusion about whether Jesus plays for Chelsea, it reminds us that  Christmas starts with Christ.

Top Christmas videos #8 No Pressure

another Nativity Factor winner, very clever, love the bickering angels

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

32,449% increase in 8 years. Guess what?

no, not the amount of plastic surgery done on prime time TV presenters. (though that's probably close). It's this:


update & statistical note: this figure is based only on those fed by Trussell Trust foodbanks. The Trussell Trust was set up in 1999 in Salisbury, and has grown to over 400 centres. There are other food banks (e.g. the Lords Larder here in Yeovil, which has been running since 1991. The 59,000 items they gave out to 3979 people in 2013 was a 25% rise on the year before, and 2014 is running ahead of 2013 in terms of demand. This isn't quite the exponential growth that the Trussell Trust have seen, but any growth is bad. The Feeding Britain report claims that there may be just as many independent food banks as those the Trussell Trust is running.

For example, in Somerset there is also the West Somerset Food Cupboard, though most of the others in the county (Bath, Taunton, Weston, Bridgwater, Somer Valley, Cheddar etc.) are supported by the TT.

Top Christmas videos #6: Beat Convention 'O Come O Come Emmanuel'

As featured on Songs of Praise and this BBC piece. This vid is from last year, and here's this years rap carol, GRYMG

Monday, December 08, 2014

Love your neighbour? First you've got to meet them. Here's how.

They teach that people should love their neighbour* but a major new study shows that churches are one of the few places most modern Britons might even meet them.
Ground-breaking new analysis of the friendship networks of almost 4,300 people aged from 13 to 80 has identified churches and sporting events as the last bastions of neighbourliness and integration in Britain.
Overall, it found that churches and other places of worship are more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.
*I think that was Jesus who said that, so it's not a surprise to find his followers modelling community (however imperfectly), more than most other settings. 
Media story here, based on some ongoing work by the Social Integration Commission (no, I'd never heard of them before either), with a report due out next month. I do sometimes wonder where else the children in our church (or indeed the adults) would get the chance to mix with such a diverse range of people: aged 0 to 90+, Navy commanders, nurses, single parents, widows, carpenters, engineers, teachers, Japanese, Romanian, Italian, Nigerian, kids from several local primary and secondary schools, Oxbridge degree, NVQ1, self employed, and I won't even start on the range of medical conditions. 
A few days after discovering our daughter had type 1 diabetes, a church member 55 years older than her had a chat: he told her he'd been diagnosed when he was 5, and it hadn't stopped him doing anything. To see the living, breathing proof of what we'd been told/read but hadn't really taken in was so reassuring, and just one aspect of the church being the church. 
I'm also reminded of something wise said by one of our tutors at vicar college: in church, just as we are enriched by the presence of others, so we are diminished by their absence. The church could do and be so much more if those who professed to be Christians realised that you do have to be part of a church to fully live that out.

Top Christmas videos #5 U2 'I Believe in Father Christmas'

lyrics slightly changed from the original, to make it an affirmation of faith rather than a denial

How to live 10 years longer

"living a pure life, no alcohol, no tobacco, going to bed early, praising God for his goodness and for the blessing of life".


Every Friday evening (the community of) Loma Linda falls quiet. On Saturday, Adventists take the day off from anything that could be considered work.

This includes browsing social media or, in some cases, watching television. For most, Saturday is a day to recuperate from the past week and to be with family and friends.

"Our Sabbath is more than just the church that takes place in the morning," says Dustin Aho, executive pastor at the huge University Church, which dominates the centre of town.

"The actual Sabbath day is in our name, Seventh-day Adventists, and so the day is crucial. What is more crucial to us is the time set aside for our community and for our God."

and vegetarianism. Here's the full story

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mental health - what's changed in 10 years?

I ask… What has any government really done to improve mental health care?
Charities and some very well known people are very vocal about conditions and campaigning for better services and provisions. But what of those that are asking for our vote? Having been in the system for close to 10 years, I have seen many changes…

• Loss of beds on inpatient wards
• Less support services in the community
• Services tailored more to addiction than mental health
• Massive increase in those suffering milder forms of mental illness, that have gone on to develop significant problems, due to lack of attention from relevant medical professionals
• Children being sent hundreds of miles from their families, just to receive the care required
• Mental health crimes increasing
• Police being used as ‘baby sitters’ for those that are deemed too ill to be in society at that time.
• Anti depressants being handed out more freely, with no follow up counselling or support

I have not seen any real significant increase in companies changing their view on employing those with mental health problems. Nor have I seen any huge Government plans to ease or aid the situation. However, I have seen a change in our communities....

read the rest here. Good, honest and challenging post from a local blogger and community organiser in Yeovil.

Top Christmas videos #4 Three Kings

another Nativity Factor finalist, very funny.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Food Banks: Still a Boom Part of the Economy

The Lords Larder, our local food bank in Yeovil, publishes stats on how many people it helps each year:

2012 - 42,000 items of food to 1986 adults and 1116 children
2013 - 59,000 items of food to 2570 adults and 1409 children

that's a 25% increase in clients, and a 40% increase in food given. Yeovil itself has a population of 45,000  - I think the parcels go further afield than just Yeovil, otherwise we have 10% of the population who are needing food parcels. Bear in mind also that this is the 2013 figure, it would be no surprise if the 2014 figure was even worse. And that's before we've looked at what's coming next.

It's been encouraging to see Yeovil College get involved in supporting them recently, with regular collections of food, and a cash collection at next Thursdays Carol Service. What's more sobering is to think that there are probably lots of college students who are receivers, as well as givers.

Update: major new report coming out on all this Monday, which the Archbishop of Canterbury has thrown his weight behind. Sounds like it will be calling for more food banks, turning Make Lunch into an official part of the welfare state, and getting more 'waste' food used rather than binned.

update 2, and here it is, Feeding Britain

Top Christmas videos #3 'The Christmas C(h)ord

Nativity factor winner a couple of years ago. This is really clever.

Dai Woolridge has done a few other things too

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Turnip Prize - British Art at its Best

Here's the winner of the annual Turnip Prize, an annual Bad Art alternative to the Turner Prize. I'd have gone for Stick Another Shrimp on the Barbie, but to be fair they'd gone to a bit too much effort.

Another triumphant contribution to global culture from Somerset, the awards were given out just up the road at Wedmore. All we need to do now is to get Cider Monday properly organised for the first Monday after Black Friday (whatever that is).

Top Christmas videos #1 Second Chance

There are so many great vids to use at Christmas that it's hard to know where to start, so I'll start here, and if there's time you'll get one a day from now until Christmas. Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude! I think this originally came from the Churches Advertising Network.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The Nativity Factor 2014

Having given us the Beatbox Bible a couple of years back, the Nativity Factor this year comes down to a straight play-off between two teams. Last weekend, they were filming their offerings, and they've been uploaded today. Here's a look behind the scenes.

If you've missed it in previous years, here's a collection of the top entries. The idea is to provide a modern take on the Christmas story in a 2-3m short film. I liked Incarnational Homespun Blues, and the Christmas C(h)ord, but they're all worth a look.

Update: here they are

The Audition

and #Nativity, bit of an angel theme this year.

whichever gets most views by December 22nd is the winner.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

After Black Friday

Having 'celebrated' Black Friday, here's a plan for the next 7 days:

What On Earth Did I Buy That For Saturday

Think about going to church to ask for forgiveness for elbowing a granny out of the way, but decide against it Sunday

Sorry You Were Out, Please Ring 666 101 Between 5am and 5.02am Yesterday To Arrange  Redelivery, Or Collect In Person From Our Office In Carlisle But Only If You Have 6 Different Forms of I.D And Even Then We'll Tell You One Of Them Isn't Valid So You'll Have To Come Back Another Day. Or Failing That We'll Just Leave the Package With a Neighbour, That One You Don't Get On With, Who'll 'Forget' to Tell You They've Got It Until It's Had 2 Days Rain and A Severe Frost Monday   (Also known as Cider Monday, for those in the West country. Actually, every Monday is a Cider Monday for those in the West country)

Red Bill Tuesday

Irregular Activity on Your Card, Transaction Has Not Been Processed Wednesday

I Completely Forgot About the Advent Calendar Thursday

And I Forgot The Flaming* Advent Candle Too, Now We've Got To Burn Through 4 Days In One Go But I'll Be Lucky If I Can Keep the Kids At the Table That Long Friday

I'm So Depressed I'd Better Go Shopping Again Saturday


*see what I did there?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Close the borders

With todays news that net migration to the UK has risen to over 1/4m, here are a few things that need to go back where they came from.

Black Friday: US capitalist tradition of monetising a popular festival (see Christmas, Hallowe'en), being imported en masse by the UK high street. Except in this case, we don't even get the festival. No  Thanksgiving, just more shopping. Because clearly we don't shop enough. At it certainly doesn't look like it's bringing out the best in our national character. (Update: the following day is now officially called What On Earth Did I Buy That For? Saturday)

NHS Staff: sure, we can't do without them, and we've failed so badly at training our own that we need to import about 30% of frontline staff for hospitals. But are we seriously suggesting that the UK has more need of these trained staff than, say, Pakistan, the Phillipines, Romania? We no longer have the Empire but we're still just as rapacious when it comes to stripping other countries of their assets, in this case, highly skilled medical staff. 25% of doctors from sub-Saharan Africa are working in the West. Meanwhile our own specialists are busy administering botox. Who cares if a few more kids die in Uganda so long as we keep those celebrity wrinkles at bay?

Female 'pop star's: take your pick - Madonna, Kylie, Katie Perry, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus etc. Is this what a feminist looks like? Judge a woman not on the contents of her character but on the absence of her clothing.

Weather: stupid rain, coming over here all the way from Mexico and the US, without a visa, raining on our hills, running down drains built with British money, causing floods that the British taxpayer has to clear up. And there's been more this year than ever before, we're being literally swamped with the stuff.

If Jesus ran the Home Office (and the railways)

The YouGov website invites you to imagine what Jesus would think of immigration, gay marriage, and rail nationalisation. Because obviously, these are the 3 things he's most bothered about in the UK at the moment. When you put in your opinion, the results of a recent poll are then revealed:

   View image on Twitter
YouGov note that Jesus would be strongly out of step with public opinion on the death penalty (the majority are in favour of it) and on immigration (the majority favour tighter controls). But as the table shows, we still have a tendency to think Jesus agrees with us, whether we're Libdems on marriage or Kippers on immigration. It's a reminder of our tendency to make Jesus in our own image. (For another excellent example of this, read 10 sins we take less seriously, and work out whether Christians are just relaxing about stuff that we were too uptight about, or letting the world and the culture mould us instead of Jesus).

Full tables are here, which also has a breakdown of the results by declared religious standpoint. Not surprisingly, those of 'no religion' think Jesus would be more likely to support gay marriage than either Christians or those of other religions. And I can't get my head around the 1 in 20 'Christians' who think that Jesus (refugee to Egypt) would want no immigration at all into the UK. I suspect we are dealing with a spectrum of understandings of what 'Christian' means!

The unasked question was 'how much does this shape your own view?' I also wonder whether the sizeable number of 'don't knows' for all questions represents the historical and cultural distance between us and Jesus, or (in the case of Christians) the legacy of several generations of privatised spirituality which doesn't give people the tools to think through issues in the public square. Immigration is a big issue, how do we as churches help people to think Christianly about it, rather than leaving it to a bidding war between Farage and Cameron?

Ht political betting.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Not a postman

"The congregation assumes that we mean what we say and seldom asks us, 'do you actually believe that stuff or are you just paid to say it?' ...what we are ought to match what we proclaim and we are uneasy when it doesn't.. Standing in the pulpit takes us directly into questions of personal integrity, authenticity, holiness and transparency. We want to be WYSIWYG preachers where what the congregation sees is what it gets. It was said of John Chrysostom that he 'gesticulated with his whole existence.' "

If you're delivering a message that you're not personally committed to, that makes you a postman, not a preacher.

(David Day, Embodying the Word)

Same goes if you're 'just' a plain old follower of Jesus.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bacon and Eggs

There was a story told (probably apocryphal) in seminary about how crusaders, as they were preparing for battle, would be baptized with their sword hand out of the water.  The soldiers would march through the water, with the water washing over thier heads, but their hands held high out of of the water.  They didn’t want to baptize the hand that would be used to kill their enemy.   Everything else had been consecrated and set apart for God, but their hand was their own, to do with as they please. (source)

I'm not sure where I first heard this one, but the image of holding things 'out of the water' is a powerful one. It's probably easier for other people to spot what's in your upraised hand, but we don't always welcome that kind of feedback. How fully immersed do we want to get?

I heard it put in another way in this book by Gavin Calver: When it comes to a cooked breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

Mike Pilavachi speaks of a young man he was dealing with, who split up with his long-term girlfriend because there might have been someone better out there. He makes the comment that whilst older people give a sharp intake of breath at this point, folk in their 20s and 30s often shrug and say 'fair enough'. In a commercial culture which is constantly offering 'upgrades' to the technology we have come to depend on, commitment to a particular make & model is actually a hindrance to getting the best. Consumerism erodes a sense that commitment is a virtue.

The crusaders story reminds us that we're not the first ones to struggle with the notion of 100% commitment. But how do we talk about a discipleship which costs everything in a culture of chickens?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mental health provision: demand up 30% staffing down 8% under the Coalition

The Royal College of Nursing says there are now 3,300 fewer posts in mental health nursing, and 1,500 fewer beds, than in 2010.

At the same time, demand has increased by 30%, the RCN said.

A mental health charity said this was damaging the care patients received, leaving them needing long-term support.

According to the RCN's figures, mental health nursing posts declined by 8% in the past four years in England.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, posts were cut by 1%.

full report here. 1/3 of mental health nurses are over 50, so there are both long and short term issues.

Though its nice that lots of people have clicked on my spoof shortlist of candidates for the first women bishop, but I'd much rather they clicked on this. I really can't get my head round the fact that Nick Clegg made this a key part of his conference speech a few weeks ago, that the Libdems make all the right noises, but then all this happens on their watch. The mismatch between words and deeds is not just a scandal, its life-threatening.

Update: I preached this morning on the picture of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, where Jesus speaks of how, when we do an act of kindness for a vulnerable person, we are doing it for him. That goes for governments too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

How to use Diocesan church attendance stats

A few days ago I reported on the latest CofE attendance stats, and noted that Leicester diocese had made a remarkable turnaround. Having lost nearly a quarter of its adult membership from 1990-2010, it has grown modestly in the last 4 years.

During an idle moment (I get 3 a year) I popped along to their website, and discovered this. Think for a moment of the embattled CofE church warden. Every year they are sent a large form from the Diocese to fill in with statistics of all shapes and sizes: baptisms, funerals, how many children were present on the 3rd Sunday of October, etc. Usually all they get in return is a letter a few months later telling them their parish share* has gone up by an eye-watering sum.

Not so in Leicester. All those lovingly collected stats are equally lovingly turned into a detailed report on what is actually happening across the Diocese. Data on church growth and decline, joiners and leavers, baptisms, weddings, size of parish, fresh expressions etc. There are some fascinating breakdowns: e.g. that in the deanery of NW Leicester, the average vicar is doing 30 baptisms, 31 funerals and 10 weddings a year. Give that man/woman a sabbatical!

Coupled with a helpful headlines page, this is a real attempt to interrogate the data and learn from it, to let the stats speak, and to link them to specific initiatives in the Diocese (they have a thing called Mission Partnerships, those churches which are part of one do better), and specific goals (e.g. the number of mature Fresh Expressions by a certain date).

Also worth noting, the stats were collected in November (they cover attendance in October 2013) and reported in the following February. That's a pretty impressive turnaround, and again speaks of a diocese which values the information it's collecting: if it's important and we've something to learn from it, then lets learn it as soon as we can, rather than waiting a year. The CofE national stats this year, for the first time, came out within 12 months of the original data collection. Only in the church would this be seen as a good result, in retail it's more like 12 hours.

I have never seen a Diocesan document like this before, do any of the other Dioceses do something similar? If not, why not? Any diocese serious about looking into the detail of decline and addressing it (or the detail of growth and learning from it) needs this kind of analysis. Well done them.

*parish share is a sum paid to a CofE diocese by each of its churches, which goes into a common pot to pay for clergy, training, central admin and resourcing etc. Because most CofE churches are shrinking in size, any church which has stable or growing membership normally faces a parish share increase which comfortably outstrips their rate of growth. This continues for a few years until the parish share gets so big that the church can only pay it by cutting back in other areas, or diverting resources into fundraising, at which point it joins the massed ranks of declining churches. Yes, I know, you don't have to tell me.... 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why do people use Food Banks?

A new report jointly published by Oxfam, the CofE, the Trussell Trust and Child Poverty Action Group busts some of the myths about why people use food banks. Some of the findings are very troubling: they point to a welfare state which no longer works as a safety net, relying on charities to plug the holes. We appear to be heading back to pre-Beveridge days. Here's part of the main summary:

Key findings from the research showed:

  • Food banks were predominantly a last-resort, short-term measure, prompted by an 'acute income crisis' - something which had happened to completely stop or dramatically reduce their income
  • Income crisis could be caused by sudden loss of earnings, change in family circumstances or housing problems. However, for between half and two thirds of the users from whom additional data was collected, the immediate trigger for food bank use was linked to problems with benefits (including waiting for benefits to be paid, sanctions, problems with ESA*) or missing tax credits
  • Many food bank users were also not made aware of the various crisis payments available in different circumstances, and even fewer were receiving them
  • 19-28% of users for whom additional data was collected had recently had household benefits stopped or reduced because of a sanction* and 28-34% were waiting for a benefit claim which had not been decided*
  • Many food bank users faced multiple challenges, including ill-health, relationship breakdown, mental health problems or substantial caring responsibilities.  Many were unable to work or had recently lost their job.  The frequency of bereavement among food bank users was also a striking feature of this research
  • Use of emergency food aid in the UK, particularly in the form of food banks, has dramatically increased over the last decade. Figures from The Trussell Trust show that numbers receiving three days' food from their food banks rose from 128,697 in 2011-12 to 913,138 in 2013-14.

Most food bank users interviewed spoke of how severe personal financial crises were often the last straw that had brought them there, only turning to food banks as a last resort when other coping strategies had failed. Deciding to accept help from a food bank was frequently described as 'embarrassing' and 'shameful' but users reported that they would have been completely bereft without it. Considerable personal strength and dignity was also shown by participants, with many displaying great resilience in spite of their circumstances.

The research showed that the very real challenges people face are too often being compounded - rather than assisted - by their experience of the social security system*.

One mum**, who had to give up work to care for her son with serious medical conditions and required intensive support, spoke about her experience when her Child Tax Credits were halved without notice and was horrified by how she was treated. "When our money was stopped, there was no compassion, there was no way to get support," she said, adding "we got behind on all our bills; everything just got swallowed up, and my direct debits were bouncing.

"I thought the system would protect me. I never thought I would be completely ignored. I feel I was let down hugely. My benefits are my safety net - if they're removed, how are families like ours meant to survive?"

The research is based on 40 in depth interviews, and data collected from another 900 users at selected food banks. Over half were there in part because of problems with state benefits.

Food banks vie with gambling as one of the boom areas of the austerity economy. (Remember how we only got hit with that EU levy after drug addiction and prostitution were counted into the GDP figures). It's all pretty depressing. This is where we need our politicians, but it's the charities and the churches who are putting the spotlight on it. Good job we don't stick to our knitting and stay out of politics.

update: links to some of the media coverage of this here, scroll down a little bit.

'If you disagree with me, I have to love you more'

from Justin Welbys address to Synod this week:

....the future of the Communion requires sacrifice.  The biggest sacrifice is that we cannot only work with those we like, and hang out with those whose views are also ours.  Groups of like-minded individuals meeting to support and encourage each other may be necessary, indeed often are very necessary, but they are never sufficient.  Sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree.  What may be necessary in the way of party politics, is not sufficient in what might be called the polity of the Church.

In this Church of England we must learn to hold in the right order our calling to be one and our calling to advance our own particular position and seek our own particular views to prevail in the Church generally, whether in England or around the world. We must speak the truth in love.

In practice that has to mean the discipline of meeting with those with whom we disagree and listening to each other carefully and lovingly. It means doing that as much as when we meet with those with whom we do agree, whether it is during sessions of General Synod or at other times. It means celebrating our salvation together and praying together to the God who is the sole source of our hope and future, together. It means that even when we feel a group is beyond the pale for its doctrine, or for its language about others or us, we must love. Love one another, love your neighbour, love your enemy. Who in the world is in none of those categories?

the title of this blog post is a saying of the great George Bebawi, one of my tutors at vicar college. It's a reminder that following Jesus means we make more effort, not less, with those whom we don't see eye to eye with. It may be that one of them is Jesus (Matthew 25:31-end)

Monday, November 17, 2014

First Woman Bishop: The Shortlist

The CofE is to have women bishops, or 'bishops' as they'll now be known. Leaving aside the tenuous link between current practice and the actual role of a bishop in the Bible, there's bound to be a flood of 'who'll be the first one?' blogs and articles.

I've already given my suggestions for Archbishop of Canterbury after Rowan Williams stepped down, which were roundly ignored, but undeterred.....

Teresa May: plenty of experience with public school/Oxbridge educated colleagues, so no problems with the House of Bishops. Won a personal battle with Michael Gove in the cabinet, so the church school and Guardian-reading constituency is sewn up.

Clara Oswald: has spent most of the last year trying to deal with a crotchety old man with limited social skills. Don't worry, there are plenty more out there and they'll start writing to you in longhand from about your 3rd week onwards.

Tess Daly: plenty of experience trying to make discouraged adults feel better after they've spent all week preparing, and given their all in front of a room full of people, only to get harsh comments from folk who sit in the same seats week after week, and watch but never do anything.

Emma Watson: sooner or later there's bound to be a 'she only got the job because she's young and pretty' so lets just get it out the way now. After all, who cares that she's talented and intelligent?

Tinky Winky: purple, carries a handbag, and wears a three-cornered bit of headgear which is clearly a prototype mitre. Subliminal advertising for women bishops which has clearly played a major part in todays vote.

Fiona Bruce: carries a suitable air of authority and can hit a moving parishioner with an arched eyebrow at 60 paces. Good CV: Crimewatch for minor infringements of canon law, Call My Bluff for dealing with Reform and other lobby groups, and Antiques Roadshow for pretty much everything else.

Olivia Colman: already knows the CofE inside out from being a vicars wife in Rev., and now heads up something called Broad Church, a community of people with troubled histories who are struggling to get on with each other. Hang on, has she been consecrated already?

any more suggestions?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Latest CofE stats: Attendance by Diocese 2009-13.

The CofE published its latest attendance stats earlier this week, along with a slew of other tables and data sets on baptisms, weddings, funerals, growth, decline and pretty much anything else it could report on. There are various bits of commentary already out there on what it all means, or doesn't.

For several years I've been tracking comparative data by diocese, to see which are doing well (and we might learn from) and which aren't (ditto). The stats for the 20 years to 2010 are pretty gruesome reading, and best handled with prayer and half a pint of sherry. There's even some encouraging things in the latest set of data, despite the continuing overall drop in numbers.

The report itself suggests that for 'trend analysis', Adult Weekly attendance is a good indicator to use. So, here's my usual 'table' of how each Diocese has got on. There's been a recalculation of the stats recently (which were probably overestimating attendance and membership), so we can't go back any further than 2009 because it wouldn't be a like-for-like comparison.

Adult weekly attendance, 2009-2013.
Southwell & Nott'm
Ripon & Leeds
St. Albans
Sodor & Man
Bath & Wells
St. Edms & Ipswich
Total C of E

Over the 4 years to 2013, 9 dioceses grew, 1 was stable (though Sodor and Man is more the size of an average Deanery), and 33 declined. So shrinking Dioceses outnumber growing ones by about 4:1. To see Leicester, Southwell and particularly Liverpool growing is quite a turnaround from recent history. What are they doing differently that other dioceses could learn from?

London continues to be the engine room, with the growth of the last 20 years it is now twice the size of any other diocese bar Oxford. But maybe, just maybe, the days when London was the only growing Diocese in the CofE are over. And if those growing dioceses continue, they show that the CofE can grow in both urban and rural, Northern and Southern, richer and poorer areas. The CofE is starting to take church growth seriously, I would love to see a piece of work on what Diocesan best practice for growing the local church would look like. 

The figures for childrens attendance, which I'll do if there's popular demand, are less encouraging, with a big drop in 2012-13, and a faster rate of decline overall. But these are smaller and more volatile, and not as reliable as the adult figures. 

Everything I've said before about these stats still stands. What I wrote 2 1/2 years ago is still pretty much true now:

....the reality of decline is that we feel duty-bound to maintain the parish system and the local church building until it kills us. So the burden is never reduced, but it falls upon a smaller and smaller number of people.

4. Who is accountable for all this? Can we, will we, ask our bishops and clergy what they've been doing, and what they're doing now? Who is learning the lessons? Or are we (in Einsteins definition of madness) continuing to do exactly the same as before in the hope of a different result?

...6. I have the figures for childrens attendance and they are even scarier. If the church is relying on children as 'the future of the church' then we're looking at a church 60% the size of what it is at the moment.

7. The CofE has only two realistic options. The first is to start strategic planning for a church which will be 20-25% smaller in 2030, based on the continuation of current trends. The second is to shift significantly towards leadership, investment and structures which are focused on growth. There are currently incremental steps towards the latter (Fresh Expressions, mission funding, Bishops Mission Orders etc.), and a vast amount of 'make do and mend' towards the former. 

I don't know what it will take to provoke the necessary sense of crisis, the deepening of conviction that we need to tackle this issue, so that the CofE overcomes its sniffiness about 'bums on pews' and recognises that there's a reason the New Testament talks about the number of people being saved on a regular basis. It's because each of those people matters to God, and each of those people is someone we're called to reach with the gospel. The CofE is largely failing in that task, and until we have reckoned with that, we call into question our claim to be called a church at all. Are we actually doing the task our Master has set us?

, though under Justin Welby's leadership, with a number of excellent new bishops, and the national CofE starting to focus on growth and discipleship, perhaps the tide is turning. But it is still a heck of a long way out. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Angry Men

Paul Mason, Channel 4 economics editor, finally lets rip
Well done that man. Why are there no prosecutions for this?

Here's another one, if you think that Russell Brand is genuinely upset rather than just stirring for effect.

Opinion polls show the vote declining for both major political parties, it's almost as though the electorate doesn't trust anyone to run the country. We need more angry men, and women.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Big changes at my old vicar college

St Johns Nottingham, where I studied in the 1990s, has just announced some radical changes. Basically, they will stop taking in full time residential ordinands from 2016. Here's part of the statement.

The Church of England is currently reviewing its patterns of ministerial education, and St John’s recognises the call of this review to match the needs of the church with available resources. After many months of prayerful consideration, the college Council and Directorate are ready to take the bold step of remodelling the college to meet the future training needs of the church. This plan will see an end to the admission of any new full-time residential students at the Nottingham campus from September 2015, and the development of new models of ministerial formation and training for discipleship. Recruitment of new full and part-time students on all Midlands CYM and Extension Studies programmes will continue as normal. 

Sarum college in Salisbury did something similar a few years back, with the closure of the old Salisbury and Wells theological college, it's still the regional base for part-time training of ordinands, but runs a host of other training courses too.

It's sad to see the 'old' St Johns go fewer residential training centres means fewer choices for potential ordinands, but full-time training is costly, and a lot of training is much more effective when done in context. Probably the best bit of vicar training I did was the Arrow Leadership programme run by CPAS, which is designed for people in full-time Christian leadership already, and is designed to be done whilst 'in context'.

There's also something to be said for many of the trainers to be contextually based themselves. Academic faculties can be good and creative places, but they can also get detached from the realities of church leadership which they were intended to serve.

It's a courageous move, and I imagine there's been a lot of prayer and agonising. Fresh expressions of training?

Ian Paul, former tutor at St. Johns, has written on this in much more depth, and looks at the wider issues of theological training. Well worth a read.

Monday, November 10, 2014

New CofE stats: we did better than UKIP, but still not well enough.

An avalanche of new attendance stats published today by the CofE, along with a press release with some of the headlines. At some stage I'll do my usual Diocesan level number crunching, but with changes to the way the stats are calculated, that could be a challenge! (update: now published.)

The overall picture is still a gradual fall in attendance (1% year on year), declining churches outnumbering growing churches, but some encouraging bits too. There's an analysis of the background of 'joiners' and 'leavers': 67,000 people joined a CofE church in 2013. 27,000 of these were moving from another local church, or had moved house, but 40,000 weren't transfers of any sort, either returning to church after not being members for a while, or, for 30,000 of them, joining for the first time.

For perspective, this 40,000 who joined up during the year (rather than transferred) is not far off the total membership of UKIP, and slightly lower than that of the Libdems. Total CofE membership is 3x the combined membership of the Conservative and Labour parties.

Also worth pointing out that the CofE is finally catching up with itself: to get the 2013 data before the end of 2014 is quite unusual, especially as we only had the 2012 data 7 months ago. So well done to the people in the stats department. Now, any chance of getting it on a spreadsheet?

It's also good to see that we now have bishops aware of the Boiling Frog Scenario and sounding the alarm. We've had 1-2% year on year decline for too long to keep saying it's 'holding steady', rearranging pews on the Titanic is not an occupation with a future.

update: some good analysis by Norman Ivison here.
CofE comms blog, Bev Botting head of stats explains some of the data.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Early Christmas

Well, if John Lewis can do it....a couple of early Christmas goodies, for fellow vicars/church leaders whose December diaries are already starting to twitch.

The Nativity According to Chocolate: there are probably several versions of this around, here's mine. Big advantage of this Christmas talk is you can eat it all afterwards. It's about the only sermon I've preached more than once by popular demand.

Beatbox Bible: the source of the Beatbox nativity, there's now a range of Christmas-related raps to choose from based on the early chapters of Luke. I've just downloaded the Annunciation story for £3.23, to use in the Yeovil College carol service. The theme is 'Christmas Remixed' so it'll work a treat.

There, that's the reading and talk sorted. For anything else, try these links at Godspace.

UK Generosity Hotspots. Don't come South looking for charity.....

And the UK's most generous city is...

Sheffield is the most generous city in the UK. The city that gave the world cutlery, the Human League, Michael Vaughan, Jessica Ennis, and, um Nick Clegg MP. That's according to some research by a biscuit company, so it must be true.  It looks from the map as though people get stingier the further South and West they are. I was raised in Sheffield but now live in Yeovil; do the maths, but you're wasting your time asking me for a cuppa. I'm joking of course.

But its nice to see that a bit of basic civility and kindness is alive and well, in the North anyway.

‘In many situations, people get more of a buzz out of extending the hand of generosity to others than they do when being a recipient of the gesture themselves.’ said the neuropsychologist who did the research. 'It is more blessed to give than to receive', said Jesus a few years earlier. 

Ht Metro

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Milton Jones on faith, comedy and atheism

I stumbled across this Milton Jones interview whilst looking for something else on Youtube, like you do. A couple of interesting snippets about how he sees his faith and comedians who trash Christianity. I like what he says about the church as a gym at the end of the first clip: not a place to stay in and show off to the other members, but to get you ready to go out and do something.