Friday, August 30, 2019

Breaking: Brexit Causes National Outrage Shortage

Expert in psychopolitics Dr Pavlov Kneejerk today sounded the alarm over the UK's national stock of outrage. "There is a danger of a serious shortage" declared Dr Kneejerk. "Until this week, there was a chance we had enough national outrage to share between child poverty, knife crime, food banks, global warming, the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor, and Brexit, whilst leaving a small percentage free for taking offence at complete strangers on social media."

But recent events have run national outrage levels dangerously low. "A sudden and disproportionate flow of outrage can seriously affect storage capacity" said Dr Kneejerk. The huge response to the prorogation of Parliament, which will result in the loss of only 4 days of Parliamentary time (9-12th September, as they do very little on Friday and Parliament was then due to close for 3 weeks for the Conference season), has led to emergency efforts to source additional outrage from new sources.

"There is a simple solution", offered Dr Kneejerk. "All it would take is an offer from Jo Swinson or Jeremy Corbyn to cancel their party conferences, which would free up a week of time for MPs, and would rebalance outrage stocks by matching actions to words."

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Love is a DIY Kit

Love is a do-it-yourself kit. We have to work at it, put it together day by day, piece by piece, little by little. We have to work at love. It doesn't just happen. 

Furthermore, love is not an emotion, a feeling. It is a commitment to another person: 'I love you. I am going to be what you need me to be. I a going to do what you need me to do. I am going to say what you need me to say. This is what I mean when I say "I love you". If you succeed I will rejoice with you in your success. I will be in the first row of your cheering section, clapping my hands off for you. If you fail, I will be sitting there quietly at your side, holding your hand. this is what I mean when I say I am committed to loving you.'

Love is a sweet and beautiful thing. It also will challenge every ounce of determination and courage in us. It is a gutsy commitment that invites another to 'take us for granted'. Take my love as a given. (John Powell SJ)


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Dominic Cummings

If the mainstream media was all we had to go by, the only 3 things we'd know about Dominic Cummings are 
a) Benedict Cumberbatch 
b) he said rude things about Tory MPs 
c) he didn't show up to a select committee. 

If they'd spent as much time actually reading his blog as they did trawling it for headline-worthy quotes we might all benefit. There is some pretty incisive critique of the way we do politics ("it is impossible to describe the extent to which politicians in Britain do not even consider ‘the timetable and process for turning announcement X into reality’ as something to think about — for people like Cameron and Blair the announcement IS the only reality and ‘management’ is a dirty word for junior people to think about"), and a guy who has thought and read deeply about how we do decision making and deliver results. 

Fascinating and rewarding read, if you have a spare hour. dominiccummings.com/

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

We've Had Our Eye On You For Quite Some Time Now, Mr Parker

It took a few hours for the parallels between The Matrix and Spiderman: Far From Home to finally compute. Like all postmodern superhero movies, they have a conflicted lead character, with a mentor, an antagonist, a global threat, and a girlfriend. But it's the final showdown (spoilers follow) which seemed so familiar.

In The Matrix, the final confrontation happens in a corridor, with Neo at one end, and Agent Smith at the other. Neo is 'resurrected' (long story), and finally sees reality for what it is - a computer generated illusion. He can literally see the code, rather than the objects they are rendering. It's an ability only he has, and it enables him to see what is real, and what is not, and to defeat (sort of) Smith.

In Spiderman: Far From Home, the final confrontation happens in a corridor - the viewing gallery of Tower Bridge. Mysterio, the villain, has control of an army of drones who can project an alternative 'reality' so real that it fools everyone. The movie up to this point has referred a few times to Spidermans 6th sense, his 'tingle'. As Mysterio turns the corridor into a fake 'reality' projected by the drones, Spiderman uses his 6th sense, rather than what he can see, hear and touch, to combat what is really there, work his way down the corridor, and defeat (sort of) Mysterio.

Both movies are built on the same premise: instinct is a better guide to what is truly real than the senses. Spidey is on a class science trip across Europe, which is a great excuse for the movie to destroy several famous landmarks across the continent. One of the science teachers has an explanation for all the weird things that keep happening: 'witches'. So much for science, despite the fact that the whole scenario depends on a stack of high level science -drones, holograms, satellites etc.

But the big message is underscored by the two post-credits scenes. In the first, Spidermans defeat of Mysterio (recorded on camera) is re-edited to make it look as if Mysterio is the hero and Spidey is the baddie, and presented by the media to the world. Fake news - what can you believe? In a clever throwback (one of several), JK Simmons plays the Daily Bugle newscaster who presents the story, having played the editor of Tobey Maguires Daily Bugle newspaper back in the last reboot of the franchise. In the second post-credit scene, Nick Fury is shown to have been a shapeshifting alien all along, allowing the real Fury to have a holiday (on a beach which also turns out to be fake).

What is a more reliable guide to reality, instinct or sense perception? (and why does it have to be an either or?). What, if anything, can we trust?

If scepticism extends to everything we see, then lets go there: can we trust this film? Or my reading of it?

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Ron Weasley, Political Commentator

Boris Johnson is Prime Minister
Dominic Raab is Foreign Secretary
Priti Patel is Home Secretary
Gavin Williamson is Education Secretary

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Ben Elton, where are you now?

So there's to be scrutiny of the support given to guests on reality TV shows. I'm guessing once the Kyle furore dies down, not much further will be done, and the digital Colosseum will continue to trade in bread and circuses for the good and pampered citizens of Panem.

At the turn of the century, Ben Elton penned 2 novels about reality TV and public media consumption, both squirmingly close to the bone, and both relevant to the current public outcry. (Funny that last week nobody had a problem with Kyle). Dead Famous is a parody of Big Brother, but core to the plot is the production team engineering a murder in order to push ratings. Popcorn is even more brutal: 2 vigilantes set up a live TV feed into the house of the man they've taken hostage, along with a monitor which shows them how many people are watching. They tell the viewers: switch off, and we'll spare his life, if you don't switch off, we'll shoot him. The viewers don't switch off.

The likes of Kyle, Big Brother, Love Island, all happen because we provide it with an audience. Maybe it suits us to count ourselves as passive consumers of TV, but in the digital world, everyone knows who's watching, what, and for how long. Every viewing minute is a vote in favour of the programme I'm watching.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Phobia?

This week Parliament will debating something other than Brexit. I know, hard to believe isn't it. The subject in question is a definition of 'Islamophobia' drawn up by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. Ahead of the debate, the government has already rejected the definition.

Here's the definition
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

Where to start? Well, several other people have, so I won't, much. But a few thoughts
1. It's not a definition, unless you take off the first 8 words

2. Where 1 type of Muslim attacks another type, for being the wrong type, is that Islamophobia? Or is it more niche- Shiaphobia, Sufiphobia etc.? Or does it depend on whether they come from a different racial group?

3. To pick another trending phobia, homophobia is variously defined, but the definitions all cluster around an irrational fear, dislike and aversion towards homosexuals and homosexuality. This overlaps reasonably well with the psychological definition of a phobia as an unreasonable fear of or aversion towards x (where x is clowns, spiders, enclosed spaces etc.) If Islamophobia really is a word, and not a slogan, then why not define it in the same way: "An unreasonable fear, dislike and aversion towards Muslims and Islam." That sort of definition is transferrable to prejudice against Jews, Christians, Buddhists, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster et al.

4. In the political and public sphere, us of the '...phobia' label carries more than just the connotation of fear and aversion. It is mainly attached to words and actions, rather than mental states. The label is often used in a similar (but less potentially fatal) way as accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan - someone has said or done something you don't like, and an accusation of 'xphobia' is the easiest and clearest way to label them as an enemy of the people, and someone to hate, ignore and pour invective upon. Whereas a medical diagnosis of a phobia is descriptive, a politically defined phobia is performative, it is public language used to claim or defend territory, to win or shut down discourse, rather than a description of a psychological state.

5. But does that help? In the Islamophobia definition, there is no reference to fear or psychological states at all. It has cut loose from its etymological moorings. It also, oddly, brings in racism: a Christian living in Pakistan may have an irrational fear of Muslims, but it's more likely to be based on Islamic terrorism and mob abuse of the blasphemy laws than on race. In fact, they may have a deep fear and aversion towards Muslims which is entirely rational, if their experience includes repeated examples of anti-Christian violence, church burnings etc.  Some Islamophobia may have a racial component, but some doesn't. So if it doesn't, would it qualify for the APPG definition, or is that something else? What if Muslims themselves are irrationally afraid of their fellow Muslims, and their forms of 'Muslimness'? Or rationally afraid of them?

6. At what point does a 'definition of Islamphobia' cease to be a definition of Islamophobia, and simply be a definition of something else, which has been labelled 'Islamophobia' for political and rhetorial reasons? In the film The Princess Bride, antagonist Vizzini keeps declaring that things are 'inconceivable!' eventually sidekick Inigo responds "you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means". Repeated use of a word to mean x doesn't entail that x is what the word means. Humpty Dumpty famously declared "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, no more, no less", which results in 'impenetrability'. If the definition of a word is down to the user, rather than a commonly accepted meaning, then we lose the ability to communicate, and with it the ability to reason together.

7. The medical definition of a 'phobia' carries no moral baggage, but the political definition does. With two diverging understandings of what a phobia is, which one will give way first?

8. There is a danger that Islamophobia, and along with it homophobia, transphobia, and all the modern phobic family, will cease to mean anything. That it will just mean 'Booooo!', rather than communicate any clear content. If a word becomes 100% condemnation, 0% content, then another word will be needed to explain the phenomenon behind it, if we are actually serious about tackling it.

9. In order to be fair, we would not just need a working definition of Islamophobia, but a word for every other form of irrational prejudice and antagonism towards other social, racial, religious and demographic groups. At what point does this just get silly?

10. The (hopefully) blindingly obvious point that any definition needs to allow for rigorous analysis, critique and legitimate criticism of Islam, from historic sources right through to contemporary behaviour, without being used to shut this down.

11. And finally, which is more effective, running backwards away from something bad, or running forwards towards its opposite? It's easier to avoid negative behaviour if there is a positive culture of love, respect, hospitality, generosity and altruism. Focus on those positive things, and the negative behaviour withers away. Perhaps our focus on phobias is a symptom of a wider dis-ease, that we no longer have a shared ethos of goodness which we strive towards, and to which we can hold one another to account. Wrapped up in the supremacy of individual personal choice, a culture of rampant individualism is barren ground for a communal ethic. So more and more we find ourselves policing language, attitudes, and behaviour, so that you cannot be a threat to my rights. That's not a way of being society which has much of a future.

Maybe one day a traveller in an ancient land will stumble across a plaque, inscribed with descriptions of all the phobias defined in the early 21st century. And around it, the lone and level sands will stretch far away.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Why think when you can emote?

I've been following the Roger Scruton saga with interest. Scruton was recently sacked as an unpaid government advisor on housing, following an interview in the New Statesman. The selective quotation of Scruton by the journalist, and faux outrage on social media, led to a rapid sacking without, seemingly, anyone exploring the evidence, or the agenda of the journalist involved. The Spectator has got hold of the interview tapes, and Scrutons remarks, in context, are often saying the precise opposite of the spin put upon the by the journalist.

It's tempting to see the parallels between this and the recent no-platforming of Jordan Peterson by Cambridge University. In neither case has there been an attempt to engage with the actual thought of the person concerned. Instead, short circuit to dog whistle, emotional responses, and play your chosen  Ace of Trumps ('Offensive!' 'Racist!' 'Homophobe!') so quickly that nobody can check you actually had it in your hand, or whether it was produced from a secret drawer under the table.

Are we losing our ability to think? I'm no great letter writer, but the advantage of handwriting is that it takes time. And by the end of the letter you've maybe already decided you're writing nonsense, or you know that by the time it's written, sent, and received, the party at the other end has already had 3-4 days, and so have you, to gain a longer view of whatever you're writing about. For a philosopher like Scruton to be publicly accused, tried and found guilty within the course of a day, none of which would be possible without the social media/24 hours news cycle, is a worrying development. George Orwells '5 minutes hate' has become a daily feature, or even hourly feature, of social media. We know what trigger words to use. We know how to stir the crowd. We know how to signal virtue, and which virtues to signal - the protests over Donald Trump's visit will dwarf anything seen for the savage despots of China and Saudi Arabia.

Another post on the Scruton case laments the disappearance of serious thought within the Conservative party. It has disappeared in the nation at large too - a telling example of this was Tim Farrons (electorally disastrous) attempt to explain how liberalism works in practice. That someone might hold one set of views, but believe that the ideal democratic state was one where people could hold other views and openly practice them, seemed a thought too far for Farrons critics. Far easier to play the Ace of Trumps and add another body to the pile.

Orwells 5 minutes hate had two objectives. One was catharsis for the baying mob (who have always needed it, the cries of 'Crucify Him' echo down through history from the first Good Friday), and the other is to intimidate anyone who might feel like identifying with 'the enemy'. Alongside this was 'newspeak', a progressive editing of language so that it became impossible to think in a way which the state didn't want you to. I re-read 1984 last year and it was chilling to see how prophetic, still, Orwells depiction is. If you fear actual engagement with opposing arguments, its obviously tempting to simply erase them, saving you the bother of a) debating and b) the terrible inconvenience and existential threat of discovering you were wrong.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Who Do We Talk To?


A YouGov survey published this week found that 71% of us have someone we can talk to about big personal issues - 76% for women, and 65% for men. There's a sizeable chunk of people who have nobody they feel they can turn to, and not far off half the population who only have 1 person they can turn to. That's pretty precarious. 

A lot of services I'm aware of, both Christian and secular, have some form of mentoring, befriending or accompanying scheme, recognising that accountability and ongoing support help people with life change, and perhaps reflecting the scarce social resources out there to many millions of us.  

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The End? The gospel (of Sherlock) according to John



Good Friday: 'The End'
Easter Sunday: God adds a question mark

Of course, the two characters in the final scene would have to be called John and Mary, the first two believers in the resurrection. I'm sure it's coincidence...

Happy Easter! Christ is risen!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What to Boycott - Cut Out and Keep List for Celebrities

Brunei is late to the party, Saudi Arabia has had the death penalty for homosexuality, along with conversion from Islam to any other religion (Brunei just did that too but nobody noticed because it's not about sex), for as long as anyone can remember. Brunei has simply caught up with what a raft of hardline Islamic regimes have been doing for years.

I obviously don't need to point out the irony of Elton John using Twitter to promote a boycott of hotels owned by Brunei, when Twitter itself is part-owned by Saudi money.

So just to help Elton, George Clooney, and the couple of dozen other people who can afford to boycott the Dorchester hotel chain, here are some of the institutions supported by Saudi money in the UK, just to help you avoid them:

universities
Oxford University
Cambridge University
Durham University
Newcastle University
Exeter University
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
Edinburgh University
Dundee University
Bristol University
University College London
London School of Economics

Media and PR
The Independent
The Evening Standard
Vice
Freuds
Snapchat
Deezer
Virgin
Twitter
Snapcat
and several others

Industry and Commerce
BAE systems
Jersey Financial Services
HSBC
Uber
General Motors
Standard Chartered
The Savoy

It's also worth checking the money trail behind whichever Premier League football club you support. The UAE also has the death penalty for homosexuality, and 'apostasy' (conversion from Islam). Arsenal play at the Emirates stadium. Nobody has mentioned that. Strange.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Cambridge University goes on the 'avoid' list

Should university fees be paid to institutions which support censorship? The case of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian academic whose invitation to a visiting fellowship Cambridge was withdrawn via a tweet, highlights again the erosion of free speech in our supposed centres of academia. The vast majority of universities have restrictions speech or publications. At the acceptable end, I'd happily back anyone who didn't want sales of the Sun on their premises (until recently I'd have said the same about the Mail, it has moderated a bit under a new editor). At the unacceptable end is the 'no platforming' of speakers whose views are too difficult for tender liberal ears to listen to.

Universities are places of learning. Part of learning is working out how to defend your own ideas, and to critique those of other people. We have anti-terror laws to police the worst excesses of hate speech and incitement to violence. But hearing a view which makes you feel uncomfortable is not the same. As a Christian, I heard lots of things said at my university, many by lecturers, which I found offensive, insensitive or just difficult to hear. I even went to a debating society which featured Jacob Rees-Mogg and lost a robust debate on whether capital punishment should be brought back (you can guess which side he was on). But I'm glad we could debate it. It helped me think through my own position, and the arguments I used to back it up.

In a few years time I may become a 'customer' of one of these universities, what with being a parent of children at secondary school. I'm already composing a mental list of the ones I don't want to finance, if this is what they are going to do with the money. Cambridge has become a house of fools if it thinks the best way to advance learning is to no platform one of the leading public thinkers around. It's on the list.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Brexit: Pictures from an Alternative Aural Universe

first meaningful vole

second meaningful vole

third meaningful vole

indicative vole

cut-stems onion
peoples vole
gin rail all-action

There, I hope that makes sense of everything.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Trainee Youth Worker Opportunity in Yeovil

From September 2019 our churches are looking to take on a trainee youth worker, through South West Youth Ministries (SWYM), for 1-3 years. Details are here, and applications can be made through the SWYM website here.

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.

update: major piece in the Times about the Tavistock clinic (paywalled)

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.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

A bit of press coverage

Goodbye St. Peters Hall Yeovil. After serving the local community for 50 years, it's now being pulled down, to be replaced with a new community centre. Between the the church, the community association, and partners from the local council and housing association, we've raised £927,000 of £945,000 required, and demolition started on Monday.

BBC Radio Somerset did a piece earlier in the week, fast forward to 1h 32m in and then again 2h 34m in. John Clark in the second clip is a local councillor, and is the tall guy at the back.

A few other news pieces, apologies for the duplication of news and photographs!

Diocese of Bath and Wells

Somerset Live (online version of the Western Gazette)

Yeovil Press

Yarlington Housing Group

It's amazing how God has brought together the funding, the team, and the vision for the project. It started with 4 people in a chilly back room in Jan 2014, wondering what a church of 20 elderly people and a fledgling community association could possibly do with a creaking old hall. It's notable how folk who aren't part of the church are regularly commenting how it's all come together, from the project team (with every skill we needed, and every job we needed doing had someone willing to do it), to the finances (£900,000 raised in 13 months).


Friday, January 18, 2019

Brexit - New Options on the Table

Lard Brexit - build a barrier made entirely of lard along the Irish border. This avoids a hard border (except in exceptionally cold weather) and ensures that Brexit is smooth, if not orderly.

Chard Brexit - a no-deal Brexit is piloted in a small town in South Somerset, and then rolled out nationally once teething problems are ironed out. Worked a treat with Universal Credit.

Irish Buckstop - leaders of the main political parties play the popular party game 'pass the Arlene'. Whoever's left holding the DUP when time is up has to come up with a deal which commands a Parliamentary majority. 

Toffed Brexit - Using a Parliamentary protocol last invoked in 1381, Jacob Rees-Mogg compels the entire Withdrawal Agreement to be translated into Latin, and commences negotiations with all the European states who still use it. Within a month, he and the Pope have sorted everything.

Yellow Lines - The red lines in Teresa Mays withdrawal agreement are replaced with parking regulations. All MPs are charged hospital car park rates for every minute spent in the House of Commons debating the Brexit deal. Agreement is reached within a week.

Taking Those Eels off the Table - Jeremy Corbyn comes up with an innovative but irrelevant proposal for fisheries policy.

Peoples Vole - in a British attempt to emulate Groundhog Day, a small rodent is held aloft on March 29th. If he casts a shadow, we stay in the EU, if he doesn't, we carry on holding the little blighter in the air until the sun comes out.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Youth Work Placement in Yeovil from Sept 2019

We're looking to take on a youth work trainee for up to 3 years from September 2019, to work in 2 local secondary schools, support youth groups at both churches in the parish, and explore ways of connecting with local young people beyond the church. Bed and board are provided, along with a weekly allowance and expenses. Details are here https://swym.org.uk/placements/trainee-youth-worker-3/ - if you know anyone who might be interested please point them in our direction!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sex Education from the BBC: what's missing?

More than a third of women and a quarter of men in their teens and early 20s admitted it had not been "the right time" when they first had sex.  Thus the BBC reports on the 'National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles'. They then give a helpful list for anyone wondering...
When is the right time?
  • If you think you might have sex, ask yourself:
  • Does it feel right?
  • Do I love my partner?
  • Does he/she love me just as much?
  • Have we talked about using condoms to prevent STIs and HIV, and was the talk OK?
  • Have we got contraception organised to protect against pregnancy?
  • Do I feel able to say "no" at any point if I change my mind, and will we both be OK with that
Yup, 'Am I married to my partner'? doesn't come into it. The first 3 conditions are subjective - the survey assumes that children as young as 13 are able to answer these questions well and be 'sexually competent' Have they ever met a 13 year old? All the criteria would be also satisfied by someone cheating on their partner.  The only moral question here is consent - tick that box and everything else is ok. Is sex really that trivial? 

I note in passing that the report never refers to 'children' - "22.4% and 36.2% of men and women who had first sex at age 13–14 years were categorised as ‘sexually competent". Child sexual behaviour is reported as if it were adult sexual behaviour. Am I alone in finding that a bit disturbing?

The genuinely radical option here is to honour sex as the ultimate physical expression of commitment, saved for the one person to whom you make the lifelong covenant pledge of marriage. Even if you don't buy the 'sex as an expression of commitment' thing and just want to be pragmatic about it, if you value the relationship you're in, you'll wait, as it's better for the relationship.  

There are public health benefits too: sexually transmitted diseases are transmitted by, you guessed it... They jumped massively in 2012-15, and the number of people attending sexual health clinics in Wales has doubled in just 5 years. There would be dramatic falls in STIs if it was normal to pursue faithfulness to a single partner and public health policy encouraged people to wait. Sure, not everyone will do it: not everyone takes up the MMR vaccine either but that doesn't make it bad practice. And it could save the NHS up to £1bn a year, which is before we get into all the other financial costs of a culture of casual sex.  A culture which the BBC itself has been normalising for decades. 

One of the complaints in the Br***t debate is that you can't question immigration without being labelled as racist. Can we discuss sexual behaviour without being labelled as moralising? 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Peoples Vote: Why We Need to Re-Run the 2017 General Election

The people of the UK should get another say on the result of the 2017 General Election. Why?

1. Because some of the claims made during the campaign have turned out to be demonstrably false.

2. Because the facts on the ground have changed, and we know more now about the negative outcomes of certain courses of action (Universal Credit, approach to the Brexit negotiations, dismantling the welfare state, making Chris Grayling Secretary of State for Transport) than we did then. So we would be better informed for this vote than we were for that one.

3. Because the electorate has changed, over a million people are now eligible to vote now who were under 18 at the time of the 2017 election. How can we not involved them in decisions about their future?

4. There are question marks over whether party spending limits were broken, as there were in the 2015 election. 

5. Because we're even less happy with the result now than we were then.

6. Because we need to trust the people.

7. Because we only knew general details about Conservative policy at the time of the election, and they've gone and done things which weren't in their manifesto. Like teaming up with the DUP. Which we didn't vote for.

Coming soon: Why We Need to Re-Run the 2019 General Election.

Prayer - A Typology



I have no idea what a 'skinny' is, but we're starting a series on prayer tomorrow and this is fun and insightful at the same time.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Fifi and the Flower Tots Replacing Question Time

Really looking forward to the BBC's replacement to Question Time, bringing together the old political Q&A format with the childrens cartoon series Fifi and the Flower Tots

Every week the following roles will be taken by a leading politician or journalist:
Stingo, the scheming and manipulative wasp
Slugsy, Stingos slow-witted accomplice
Primrose, the prim and proper guardian of good manners and decorum
Violet, the creative free spirit
Bumble, the accident prone bumble bee

For week 1, these parts are played by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Anna Soubry and Jeremy Corbyn. All presided over the the kind and gracious Fifi Bruce, who sees the good in everyone

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

The Yeovil Traffic Light Jive



local road 'improvements' have inspired one man into song. Come to Yeovil and see what all the fun is about. If your local traffic lights have gone missing, you'll probably find they've ended up here.

I know I know, #firstworldproblem.

Brexit metaphor of the day

An escape room where the creators haven't left sufficient clues and devices to actually unlock it and get out. There are 2 minutes to go until you run out of time, and the escape room manager - who would normally let you out if you hadn't solved it - has locked up and gone to write his memoirs.

You can only get out of the room if all the team exit through the same door. There are 2 doors, and a majority of the team are against door May. A majority are also against door No. Some of the team believe that if you are still in there when time runs out, the floor will open up and everyone in the team will plunge to an unpleasant fate.

One individual believes that the clues can be found in the Europe section of the escape room, even though it has been thoroughly searched and there is clearly nothing else there.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Brexit: The Uncivil War: a window on the UK soul.

Brexit the Uncivil War was an eye-opening and very well made bit of TV, which, if you missed the agenda, reminded the viewer of the various sets of criminal and malpractice charges against the Leave campaign at the end (good piece here on how the Remain agenda was pushed throughout the whole piece). The central performance was a compelling turn from Benedict Cumberbatch, and despite a large degree of dramatic license, most of the central facts and plot of the piece seem to be based on reality. This, if you've got 30m spare, is the first hand account by Dominic Cummins of what they did and why;



There are all sorts of bits of the programme which gave pause for thought:
 - the repeated refrain about sections of society whom nobody listens to (great joke about Cummings taking Douglas Carswell to a place where he had no idea where he was 'but its in your constituency Douglas'. Carswells take on the show is here. ). The political machine relies on population profiling, and pitches messages to the groups it needs to win over in order to win votes. If that's how the 'democratic' system works, then it simply leaves out all those who a) the vote machine can take for granted or b) it doesn't need. Vote Leave won because it connected with many people in that category, and made the emotional connection of lost control whilst Remain was stuck on facts about economics.

- niche advertising, and the control of the algorhythm over what we see online. Are you less likely to see this blog if you're unlikely to agree with it? Just about every day on Facebook (my main social media medium) there's a post about how FB only lets a small fraction of your 'friends' see your posts and how to hack out of that. We end up trapped in the feedback loop of social media - every bit of data we post feeds into the equation which decides what data we're allowed to see. This both traps people within a particular bubble (unless they intentionally navigate out of it), and does the same for decision makers and politicians. A medium which proclaims, in the words of the Nokia slogan, that is is 'connecting people', is actually disconnecting us.

The current Brexit turmoil is making this worse - because (as Cummings states above) Brexit is an issue which cuts across parties, no single major party supports it or can deliver on it. The normal delivery mechanism of politics has broken down, so voters are left with politicians who are fundamentally disconnected from the things they voted for. Remainer politicians cannot deliver because they lost, and Brexiteer politicians cannot deliver because they are (still) not on the front benches, or framing the negotiations and deals.

 - truth has always been rationed in politics, but the focus in the Brexit campaign (as in most political campaigns) was not about truth or facts, but about which messages 'cut through'. Not what is real, but what do people relate to. Trump has taken this even further. A previous generation mixed ideology and passion - there was a way of seeing the world, and a passionate commitment to a vision of how it could be set straight. Modern politics, and political coverage, in the main bypasses ideology and heads directly for the passions. BBC news, for example, has decided that the detail of Brexit, policy etc. is far too difficult for its viewers to understand, and has given us the last 3 years almost entirely through the lens of internal power plays in the Conservative party. Just about every major news reporter on the Beeb buys into this soap opera perspective. ITV news at least makes some attempt to brief and inform viewers what issues are at stake. And it has Tom Bradby, who is great.

I'd recommend either watching the programme, or watching the clip above, it's an interesting window on the soul of the UK. For me its a reminder that listening well to people takes more time than preaching at them, but can be 100x more effective. And ironically, for a Brexit campain which made so much capital out of people's sense of being ignored, the social media they relied upon actually increases our alienation and feelings of disempowerment. I quit Twitter last year because, amongst the 2500-odd people I was following, so many of them seemed to be angry with each other. On an almost daily basis I logged off feeling more emotionally disturbed than when I logged on. If the genie of anger is out of the bottle, then (as Brexit: An Uncivil War observed observed) thats not a force anyone can control.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

10 favourite tracks

One or two chums on Facebook are posting their 10 favourite tracks of all time. It's impossible to pick 10, so at this present moment here are those which come to mind, with a 'subs bench' of honourable mentions. Ask me in a week and it'll probably be a completely different list...



Subs bench: Evanescence – Everybodys Fool, Matt Redman – For the Cross, Kathy Burton – Great is our God, Keith Duke – You Lord are In This Place, Saint Etienne – Like a Motorway.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Dark Side Theology

Its a busy week in the night skies. First we took pictures of a giant monkey nut on the edge of the solar system, Ultima Thule, which turned out to be two giant rocks stuck together. Did Tangerine Dream know this when they released 'Ultima Thule Part1 and Part 2' back in 1972?  Unlikely, as it was only discovered in 2014.

Closer to home the Chinese landed a craft on the so-called Dark Side of the Moon, (which gets exactly the same amount of sunlight as the other side).

The Moon is a remarkable thing
 - it takes exactly the same length of time to rotate as it does to complete a single orbit of the earth, meaning we face the same 1/2 of the moon all the time. You'll have to check with NASA whether that makes moon exploration any easier, I'm guessing it does.
 - it is exactly the right size and distance in proportion to the sun that a full solar eclipse blocks out the suns disc but allows us to view the corona. Again, that's quite handy in a number of ways.
 - it is the right size and distance to create significant, but not (usually) life-threatening tides on the sea-dominated earth, which moderate the climate, distribute food, support coastal eco-systems, aid navigation, and should provide for tidal power if we ever get round to funding it properly.

It's almost like someone set it up that way....

Anyway, back to the Far Side of the Moon. If you lived there, would you know about the Earth? It would be the centre of your universe, the context in which your 'planet' lived and moved and had its being, the original source (many think) of its existence, but you'd never see it. You wouldn't even be aware of it. It would only be possible to see the thing if you made a long journey round to the other side. In the meantime you might be tempted to think that everything else orbited around you.

The third astronomical phenomena of the week is Epiphany, this Sunday, when MASA (Magi Amateur Stargazers Association) despatched a mission to a distant satellite, investigating new and strange events in the night sky. At the end of a long journey, they found the source of life, the centre of the universe. They discovered more in that one journey than any lifetime of study. The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim his handiwork (Psalm 19).

For scientists who study the heavenly bodies, the study is one thing, but to actually see the object of your study is something else entirely. Epiphany means 'unveiling', the God who can not just be known about, now he can be seen.