Monday, October 27, 2014

Vicars - A Great Resource Squandered?

A major survey of clergy views on a range of issues has just been published, covering everything from austerity to the parish system, immigration to assisted suicide. Full tables are here, press release from Linda Woodhead here, and a helpful summary at British Religion in Numbers.

There are various fascinating bits of detail, e.g. a much higher concentration of liberal clergy in Cathedrals. The bit that caught my eye was this question:

Based on your experience, do you feel that the Church of England is generally good or bad at identifying and supporting clergy’s talents, gifts and initiatives?

Bad 16%
Quite Bad 33%
Neither Good nor Bad 20%
Quite Good 25%
Good 3%

Women were slightly more likely to rate the CofE better, as were younger clergy, and those ordained in the last 14 years, since 2001. The only subgroup in the stats who gave a net 'good' rating were Archdeacons and Bishops. Well, you would wouldn't you, if you were the ones who had the main responsibility for 'supporting clergy talents, gifts and initiatives'. (And this makes the problem worse - those who are mainly responsible for supporting clergy, or for making sure the support is there if they don't directly provide it themselves, actually think they're doing a good job)

This is a shocker, to say the least. About 70% of our budget goes on clergy, but only 1/4 of those clergy feel that their talents, gifts and initiatives are well supported by the church. Almost 50% feel unsupported to some degree or another. If half of your main workforce aren't being supported and resourced in using their talents and gifts, then it not surprising the whole enterprise is struggling.

Mind you, it would be interesting to see a similar survey of CofE laity. I don't recall any training in my 4 years at theological college on how to recognise and support the talents and gifts of my congregation. Though a key part of leadership is spotting, nurturing and deploying talent, we are still wedded to a vicar-does-everything model. In some places, it's the laity who are more determined to maintain it than the clergy. For a great post on what a gift-affirming church could look like (but doesn't) read this at Learning to Float.

Though a lot of the comment on this survey will focus on split views on same-sex marriage, or on whether the church can/should 'disagree well', this is a stat that needs close and sustained attention. If we really are failing 50% of our frontline paid staff then the CofE needs to look long and hard at how it supports us, and helps us to support others.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lone Voice

South Somerset District Council has just agreed an £8m discount package to a housing developer, so that a local housing site can be rendered 'viable'. The alternative is that it gets mothballed (that's the claim anyway: Barratts tried that one a couple of years ago on the other side of town then declared record profits the week after the agreement was signed). So that's less social housing, poorer maintenance for community play and open space, less money for community facilities, bus routes, etc. More houses, shabbier environment.

I'm pretty disappointed and annoyed by this, especially as the viability maths was badly skewed (I'll explain if you like but it would take a while).

But I'm just as disappointed and annoyed by this. Scroll to page 4. Only one local resident wrote in to complain. One. There's been plenty of sound and fury on Facebook, of course. And a local politician who's hoping to unseat David Laws as MP next year has been in the papers opposing it. But I note that nobody from his party actually wrote in.

This is potentially a new community of 1500-1700 people. There is a massive social housing shortage in the area. And nobody cares enough to formally speak up. (Note: putting :-( at on a Facebook comment doesn't qualify as 'caring'. That wont fix the swings, provide a bus route, or house a family.)

Someone I meet up with for prayer has a saying 'you've gotta love 'em'. Even on the days when Yeovil makes me sad and angry, I've gotta love em. Drat, it would be so much easier not to, but I don't think Jesus gives us any wiggle room on that.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

What annoys us doesn't annoy Jesus, and what annoys Jesus doesn't annoy us.

From a recent survey:

Modern life is a daily struggle. Here, according to a poll of 2,000 Britons for Nurofen Express, are the top 50 most annoying things about it.

  1. Your laptop/computer freezing
  2. PPI calls
  3. Slow Wi-Fi
  4. Being stuck in traffic
  5. People who take up two parking spaces
  6. Public transport delays
  7. Junk mail
  8. Waiting on the phone for the doctors

I think we'll stop there because I've already cried myself completely out. Waiting on the phone for the doctor? Well, it's a close call compared to dying of Ebola because there isn't a doctor for miles, and no decent road to carry any traffic to the nearest hospital (read adapted shed). It's simply tragic.

Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its mould, says Romans 12. If these are the things which really wind us up (I'm talking to Christians here, sorry if you're not one, please bear with me) then we have genuinely lost the plot. Clue: what is Jesus most annoyed about? Probably nothing that's in our top 50.

What annoys us doesn't annoy Jesus, and what annoys Jesus doesn't annoy us. And it should.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Where has God called me?

Vocation "it comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-interest. 
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work 
(a) that you need most to do and 
(b) that the world most needs to have done. 
If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). 
On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either.
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

Frederick Buechner

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Faith in the Workplace - Equality and Human Rights Commission Survey

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has an open consulation on religion and belief in the workplace:

Has your religion or belief, or that of other people, affected your experiences in the workplace or the services you receive as part of your daily life? Or perhaps they impact on you as an employer or manager?  If so, we want to hear from you, whether your experiences are good or bad.
We want to gather as much information as we can from employees, service users, employers, service providers, trade unions, legal advisors and religion or belief groups so that we can assess how a person’s religion or belief, or lack of it, is taken into account at work and when using services.
This major call for evidence is part of our three year programme to strengthen understanding of religion or belief in public life, to improve knowledge of what happens in practice and to make sure that the laws which are in place to protect everyone’s right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect are effective.
It runs until 31st October, and the evidence given will shape how the EHRC addresses issue of faith and human rights in the future, and assessment of how the current human rights framework works. (Not sure if that includes recent Conservative policy announcements!) The consultation includes questions about whether more or less legal protection should be given to people who hold religious beliefs. That could be a bit of a blunt instrument: I'd be keener to see more power for Christians to opt out of Sunday working in non-essential services than for Muslim nurses to wear a burka at work.

The consultation relates both to employees, and people receiving services. This is an opportunity to inform the way faith is taken into account in the public sphere and policy making, so please consider taking part.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Leadership is Influence

"Dr Paisley's life has cast an influential shadow over at least three generations: as a faithful preacher of God's word, as a people's politician and as a distinguished leader in church and state."

Some words spoken at the recent memorial for Ian Paisley. Not sure I'd want to be spoken of as casting a shadow, but we'll leave that one there. 

It reminded me of a definition of leadership I heard recently, that 'leadership is influence'. Which means we're all leaders, from the moment our cries first summon a nighttime feed or nappy change. Leadership isn't the exclusive property of those who call themselves leaders, or who hold the 'top' jobs, or who get their memorial services reported on the BBC. A word, an action, a comment on a Facebook thread, anything which nudges someone else's life, is leadership. You can lead from a throne, a pushchair, an armchair, a wheelchair, an academic chair, the second chair, anywhere.  

Which is both an exciting thought, and a scary one. Lead well dear reader.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The parish system: game over?

update: a couple of days after this post, the Bishop of Blackburn raised the threat level in his diocese and has put them on notice that they have only 2 alternatives, fundamental change or extinction. Ian Paul has an excellent analysis of the statement, and the challenges involved. 

From Anna Norman Walkers presentation to the recent 'Westminster Faith Debate' on the future of the parish system:

"In the Diocese of Exeter we have 607 churches, many of which are listed. Over 200 of them attract less than 20 to Sunday services, and 124 attract less than 10. The average age of a committed member is 65..... It is time, I believe, to allow some aspects of parochial life to die and trust God for resurrection rather than resuscitation. The battle for weekly Sunday worship is over in many parishes, and the canonical obligation associated with this need to be rescinded. The maintenance of a parish share system which has become a tax on mission for some, and a smokescreen from the reality of death for others needs to be abandoned, in favour of a system which enables healthy churches to flourish, and sick ones to expire in their present form."

Here in Bath and Wells we have just under 500 churches, 66 of these have 10 members or fewer, another 162 have 11-25. And we have a parish share system (for non-Anglicans, this is how parish churches contribute to central costs, including training and provision of vicars): the practical result of this is that one of the churches in our parish has grown by 32% in the last 9 years, the Parish Share we pay to our Diocese has grown by 92%. A further 10% rise awaits us next year. It doesn't take a maths genius to work out that this can't be sustained in the long term. Worse, it means that there's less resources available to invest in growth for the future. Every growing church set in a declining Diocese is faced with the same

The only escape from the spiral is that a) the majority of churches in the Diocese start to grow instead of decline (in the latest stats I have, declining churches outnumbered growing churches by 6 to 1) b) we change the way the sums are calculated and collected (as many Dioceses are beginning to do) c) we find the ecclesiastical equivalent of George Osborne and do some serious austerity. Otherwise, in the words of the designer on Titanic 'the ship will sink, it is a mathematical certainty'

The post on this blog that's been read more than any other, by some margin is 'The Leading of the 5,000', which looks at how the CofE can function with 5,000 frontline staff in a system designed for 3x that number. I note that whilst demand for some of the churches 'services' is stable (baptisms, weddings), we don't have a parish system that can be sustained with the projected number of paid clergy in the CofE. Part of the solution has got to be fewer buildings, releasing the thousands spent on insurance, heating & maintenance every year to be spent on the living breathing body of Christ.

This might be seen as abandoning the smaller churches: my view is that unless smaller churches (indeed, all churches) can learn to see their life in Christ as something distinct from their building, they are in serious danger. Our buildings are resources we have for a season, nothing more. Unfortunately, as Marshall McLuhan nearly said, we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us. If a church cannot conceive of existence without a building, it has not just been shaped, it has been warped out of recognition.

One part of the possible answer: Exeter diocese are exploring the idea of 'Festival churches': parish churches turning into places which provide people with occasional offices and festivals wanted by the community, putting ownership back in the hands of the community, and releasing the local church community from the task of maintaining the building on their own.

Update: the next debate in the Faith Debates series looks at whether buildings are an asset or a liability. Could be interesting.


What do we mean by 'reliable'? I forget the source now, it may have been one of Tim Chesters excellent  books on culture and mission, but one insight has really stuck with me. It's the difference between two sorts of availability.

People like me, with diaries, watches, appointments etc., work on chronologial availability: we agree to be in x place at y time, and we are. (Mind you, those who know me and work with me might observe that I'm frequently a few minutes late, but that's another issue). We book things into the diary, that's how we organise our availability.

Or there is emotional availability: the person who is always there when you need them, but don't expect them to agree to a cup of tea a fortnight on Monday. Availability is organised around need, relationships, family and the present moment; rather than schedule, priorities and ordered time.

To the latter, the former group might seem a bit distant, standoffish, over-busy. To the former, the latter might seem a bit chaotic, unreliable, high maintenance - needing to be reminded about meetings and appointments.

Chronological availability is more typical of middle class culture, but will come more naturally to people of a certain personality type (yes, Myers-Briggs again, I'm a 'J' - i.e. a natural planner/organiser/strategist), emotional availability is perhaps more typical of working class culture, (or the Myers-Briggs 'P', go-with-the-flow type)

All too often, people start a conversation with me with 'sorry, I know you're busy....', I wonder if that's to do with all of this, or the fact that I tend to whizz around at high speed a lot of the time. Perhaps that's the nature of this role, with over 200 church members, double that (at least) of community/'fringe' contacts, never mind friends and family. I'm aware of relationships which struggle because the two partners work with different types of availability, and the mindset of the other seems deliberately contrary, rather than just a different way of being available.

Jesus seemed to manage both, he was emotionally/spiritually available in the moment - the blind man at Jericho, the woman in the crowd - but also managed his time and his priorities ('let us go to the other villages, for I must preach there also').

A challenge in church leadership, and in discipleship generally, is how to blend the two. Being on time for a meeting is just as much about caring for and valuing people as being on the other end of the phone when they need you.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Diabetic dilemma?

I'm opposed to use of embryonic tissue/unborn babies (pick the description which expresses your ethical position) in scientific research. To put it simply I believe that every life is precious and that people are not means to an end.

However I also have a child with type 1 diabetes and was really pleased to hear the recent announcement of a major step forward in diabetes treatment. In diabetes, the immune system attacks the cells in the body which produce insulin, which in turn regulates blood sugar. Being able to create, and implant, replacement cells is the only possibility of a cure, short of a transplanted pancreas. Scientists have managed to create new cells which a) work in mice and b) in large enough quantities to promise a general cure, rather than a few lucky individuals.

There's still a long way to go, but it gives me hope that my child won't have to inject themselves 4 times a day and take their blood sugar on a regular basis.

But, part of the story of the research is the use of embryonic stem cells, i.e. cells harvested from partially-developed unborn humans.

So I have mixed feelings. And mixed thoughts. If I boycotted everything that had an ethically dodgy history to it, I'd have to leave the UK for a start, it being a country enriched through slavery, exploitation of the poor and of other countries. But I do boycott some things, and actively try to make decisions based on my faith and ethics, rather than on what's cheaper/most convenient/etc. How far does that go? I wouldn't dream of denying my child a treatment that could dramatically change her life. It would be easier if it was me that was the diabetic, then I'm the only victim/beneficiary of whatever moral sum has to be calculated.

And if use of embryonic tissue isn't a bridge too far, then what is? If a medical/scientific discovery is made, do we do the best we can with it, no matter how the breakthrough came (e.g. through creating & dropping a nuclear bomb, during an arms race, vivisection, sending a rocket into space rather than helping millions in poverty)? A discovery can't be un-discovered.

As you can tell, I'm a little confused.....

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Nick Cleggs mental health target: a remarkable moment in politics

Update: there is currently a 'synchroblog' by dozens of Christian bloggers on mental health. A full list of links can be found here (scroll to the bottom) and here

This may or may not be a watershed. For the first time ever, the main announcement in the conference speech of a major UK political leader will be about mental health. Just before his 5 years in government ends, Nick Clegg wants to see a maximum waiting time of 18 weeks for counselling/'talking therapies', and a 14 day target for younger patients.

Here's the relevant section of the speech, in total the section on mental health made up over 10% of Cleggs address this afternoon, and I can't recall hearing anything like it ever before from a party leader
Labour introduced waiting times in physical health – we will do the same for the many people struggling with conditions that you often can’t see, that we often don’t talk about, but which are just as serious. So if you are waiting for talking therapies to help with your depression, you will be seen within six weeks – 18 weeks at an absolute maximum – just as if you are waiting for an operation on your hip.
If you are a young person experiencing psychosis for the first time, you will be seen within 2 weeks, something we are going to roll out across the country – just as if you suspect you have cancer.
If you are having a breakdown, if you are thinking of harming yourself, for any emergency which takes you to A&E, you’ll get the help you need – just as if you had gone to hospital with chest pains or following an accident.
These are big, big changes. And in Government again the Liberal Democrats will commit to completing this overhaul of our mental health services – ending the discrimination against mental health for good. And while I know not everyone in the party is going to agree, I can tell you now: I want this smack bang on the front page of our next manifesto.
This is a major step forward, and hopefully is the beginning of proper treatment for mental illness. The Chief Medical Officer recently pointed out that mental health is more than 50% underfunded by the government, and (with Clegg in government) funding is still being cut.

But lets get this in perspective. 18 weeks is 3024 hours. If you have a broken arm and report to A&E, you'll start getting treatment within 3 hours. People with depression will get anti-depressants before 18 weeks, but if you are down, anxious, possibly suicidal, an 18 week wait feels like an eternity. It's 1/3 of a year. It's unclear what the 6 week target is, but if that was the average wait then that would be a major step forward.

And, Clegg needs to make sure that the talking therapies themselves are therapeutic. Simply getting someone to a CBT counsellor after 18 weeks isn't enough. The counsellors themselves need to be well trained and competent. It's not a question of getting people into the system at the appointed time, or off the books after they've had their quota of 6 weeks of CBT. Mental health is usually a recurrent condition, and the practice of discharging patients, who then have to start all over again a year later when they've relapsed because there was no ongoing, low-level support, is counter-productive.

It's the nature of depression, anxiety and mental illness that people with it tend to shout about it less. We're less likely to let on to other people, and we're less likely to have the energy and confidence to complain about inadequate treatment, or lobby for something better. It tends to shrink your world, rather than expand it. Mental health needs consistent, well-informed advocacy from politicians and the wider community if it's going to cease being the Cindarella service.

The £120m pledged by Nick Clegg is a drop in the ocean, but given the current uninspiring choice between the main parties, if one of them is promising a thought-through plan and funding to raise mental health from non-league to championship status, then I'll be voting for them in 2015.

(PS, there was a good piece on Newsnight last night, including a report by Katharine Welby on mental health, in relation to Cleggs speech. It also touched on how mental illness is seen by the church. Worth a look, starts at 20min 50sec in.)

Update: some media coverage
Nick Robinson at the BBC ignores mental health completely
Ross Hawkins at the BBC has 7 words on it
the commentators simply don't seem interested.

Make Lunch - Training in and around Yeovil

Make Lunch is a national network based on the simple idea of providing free meals during school holidays for the families who qualify for it in term-time. There are dozens of centres around the country, and we're hoping to get it established in Yeovil.

Make Lunch run 'discovery' sessions for people who want to know what it's all about, and training sessions for people ready to get started. These are running locally on 18-19th October, details are here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

College Chaplain/Associate Vicar post in Yeovil

Regular readers of this blog will, I hope, develop a yearning for Yeovil, a sensation for Somerset, a deep love for the deep south.

So if any of you are able to get ordained at short notice (or you know anyone who's a CofE curate/vicar already), then this job might be of interest, serving Yeovil College, the main FE college for the area, and the town centre parish of St. Johns & St. Andrews. It's a new post, reflecting both the need for chaplaincy at the college, and the growth of the parish church, with a key town centre ministry.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Disappearing up our own selfie

What with the woman who married herself, and Stephen Fry declaring that his drug use affected nobody but himself, the first week of October 2014 may mark the point at which our culture disappeared up its own selfie in pursuit of individualistic self-love.

Fans of the Royal family used to be content with a handshake when they passed by in the crowd, but yesterday the Queen's trip in Northern Ireland showed that now nothing less than a selfie will suffice

I'm preaching in the morning on the 60 or so 'one another' sayings in the New Testament, and struggling with the limitations of the English language. So much of it is written to 'you' - which, reading the Bible on my own, in my own room, in my own time, in my own way, naturally must be the singular form. Not so. As the Texan Bible reveals, most of it is written to 'Y'all', the plural 'you', it is instructions to a community, to be read, understood and applied in community.

Maybe this is why we talk about rights so much, because we no longer think relationally. A right is something owed to an individual, and is regulated by law. We need them, but for normal personal relationships to be conducted on this basis shows that those relationships have broken down. To the early church, resorting to law to settle issues was a serious failure, because the gold standard was to sort things out in relationship.

Among church members now, most of our lives are lived apart from one another, so it's naturally to think individualistically when applying the Bible to our lives, in contrast with the communal spirit of Acts 2 (daily meeting together, eating, learning and sharing life). So both our culture, and the structure of our lives, make it hard to hear the Bible saying what it is really saying.

What happens when a selfie culture reads an ussie Bible?

Andy Hawthorne/Stephen Nolan interview: an inspiring 26 minutes of radio

If you've not heard Stephen Nolans recent 5 Live interview with Andy Hawthorne of the Message trust, then listen to it here. Brilliant. Nolan isn't a Christian by any definition, but he's clearly struck by both Andy's story, and who he is:

"There's something thats kind of drawing me to the expression on your face, you've got this radiance about you, this exuberance, this happiness about you, I'm just intrigued as to what this is all about..."

"Even if (you're deluding yourself) you're getting a contentment and joy that non-believers don't have."

"I've desperately wanted to believe in God for a very long time, but I don't want to bluff myself."

Hawthorne is completely up front about his faith, and I would love to be 30 years into ministry and still have the passion and enthusiasm that he's got.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Wonga: The Welby Effect Part 2

After announcing yesterday that profits had more than halved, another Wonga story this morning. The Financial Conduct Authority has just put up a press release headed with the following announcement:

Wonga has entered into an agreement, known as a voluntary requirement (VREQ), with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) that requires it to make significant changes to its business immediately.

Reading between the lines, the FCA says that Wonga aren't doing enough to check people's ability to pay back their payday loans. Roughly 375,000 customers will now be released from punitive debt interest as a result, 330,000 of which have arrears of over a month - for them, the entire debt is being written off. That's 375,000 people who Wonga now admits it shouldn't have lent to in the first place. Their website now acknowledges the 5000%+ annual interest rate that Wonga previously deemed 'irrelevant'. It doesn't look at the moment as though the interest rate is changing, but they will be lending to fewer people.

Wonga made 4.6m loans last year, so the write-off amounts to 8% of the total number of loans in a year, and will cost them £220m. That's more than 5x their declared annual profits from 2013. At this rate Wonga could be out of business before Justin Welby has time to say Amen.

More from the FCA:
“We are determined to drive up standards in the consumer credit market and it is disappointing that some firms still have a way to go to meet our expectations. This should put the rest of the industry on notice – they need to lend affordably and responsibly.

“It is absolutely right that Wonga’s new management team has acted quickly to put things right for their customers after these issues were raised by the FCA.

Effective today, Wonga has introduced new interim lending criteria that should improve customer outcomes.

Wonga's press release in response is mildly worded mea culpa "we recognised that we may not have always made the right lending decisions, and on reflection some of these loans may not have been affordable", i.e. we were bleeding people dry who couldn't afford the repayments and we've finally been had up for it. 

Wonga's publicly stated priorities, after cutting out lending to vulnerable customers, include a plan 'to address the total cost of credit'  Hopefully the next wave of the Welby effect is an end to usurious rates of interest. After that, we need an end to advertising  during childrens TV programmes - the TV watchdogs need to step up to the plate now that the FCA have shown how its done. (you can lobby for that here)

And finally how about a few more stories about credit unions, so that people know there is an ethical alternative to branded debt sellers. 

If you live locally, here's a couple for starters: