Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sights Part 1

What is the greatest sight you have ever seen? It's a somewhat strange question and if, like me, you hate those questions that require making comparisons between qualitatively different things then you are allowed to make a list in no particular order.

As a very wordy person it is good for me, from time to time, to meditate on sights. What comes to mind? Replaced into roughly chronological order it is these images:

My family went to the seaside on holiday. So I managed not to experience the English Lake District until a youth group holiday in 1977. It was a hot summer and we lodged in a cabin on the edge of Derwentwater. It is hard to imagine the shimmering perfection of green right down to the water's edge and then overhanging, enclosing a perfect lake, small enough to look lovely and to see it all, large enough to be impressive and have islands. If I ever visit the area and don't get to experience looking along the lake from the shore, Cat Bells to the right, I feel cheated. You can walk to this viewpoint from the centre of Keswick in ten minutes. If you see me do not disturb.

It is still 1977. Although time and vocation have played a few tricks since, I was able to take out a mortgage on a property aged 21. Shortly after moving in, and surrounded by furnishings and decor that had yet to do justice to my taste and represented only my available cash, I sat in an old armchair and looked up at the ceiling. I was overwhelmed briefly by a sense of gratitude that it was now my ceiling. This feeling recurred some years later when, after eight years of living in clergy property, we found ourselves in our own house once more. The shower had a leak. I enjoyed, briefly, the feeling of not having to phone a diocesan property department to ask if it could be fixed. It may have been a leak, but it was my leak. With that I think I have strayed from visual memory to emotional so I must claw my way back.

1978, and in our early days of marriage we had an unreliable, but delightful, green 850cc Mini. We part-exchanged it for a new VW Polo (red). UOF 247S, I clearly recall. It was our first new car and the most, apart from the mortgage, we had ever spent on anything. I can see it sitting on the drive now.

In the demarcation exercise of setting up a home and family I have rarely been in charge of the gardening. Some of the heavy lifting has been delegated to me but otherwise my work has been indoors. However whilst at college, between 1981 and 1984, I was given charge of one small bed to grow alpines, which I love. Over the three years I tended that bed like a favourite child. As the plants grew to maturity and all merged into each other, we moved out. I can still remember it with fondness though.

Alex the black labrador, is asleep by an open fire. I have never seen a more beautiful creature. Alex was raised in kennels as a show dog and then fell at the last (wonky tooth). He was trained to go to sleep at 8.30 p.m. Crazy for many other reasons he would be exploring the house and joining in (usually by sitting and looking hungry) family activities. At 8.30 p.m., often it seemed whilst in mid air, he would collapse in a heap by the warmest thing he could find. It was adorable. Occasionally two boys and a dog would be lying in a row, apparently all watching TV. This would be about 1986.

In passing 1990/91 I notice the interior of St Mary and St Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street. It is Christmas morning and packed. There is a sense of awe and fun. The children are allowed to sit on the Lumley Warriors around the outside of the nave when it is full. Alan the verger is spilling an over-full cup of wine. Being on a spot where Christians had worshipped since 883CE on this of all days. Great sight.

I find myself on the towpath of the Shropshire Union Canal in the mid 1990s. Looking along the bargeless grey-green water I see a flash of blue. I trace it coming towards me and, pivoting, follow it into the distance. It is kind enough to fly over the nearby bridge rather than under the tunnel and, against the brick background, I am able to confirm I have seen my first kingfisher.

Transported to 2009 I am in Japan and sitting looking at a caramel coloured wall in a perfect Zen garden. There are thin streaks, like contours, of black running through the mix. My guide explains that the builders would pour oil into the middle of the wall as they built it so that, over the next two hundred years or so, it would leach out and stain the outer surface.

Say it slowly. Two. Hundred. Years. The trouble with the planters of oak woodland around Fountains Abbey or Rievaulx, leaving surprise views to appear as the trees matured? Their vision, achieved within a generation, was too short-term, I now know.

Obviously, if you live with the one you love, it is likely that there is something visually attractive about the holder of that office. Might I suggest that this be a test question (not to be answered aloud) for those taking stock of a partnership. The one I live with? I like looking at her. Always have. There are some days when I actually just watch and prefer it to touching. Do you mind if we don't cuddle and I stand back to get a better view? Why? Because I can. The promise of the curves? Mixing matrimony and Eucharist I am able to say 'This is my body.' All my favourite pictures of her are in my head and can be accessed at any time.

Finally it is time for my holidays. Since 2000 we have been regular visitors to Gozo, the smaller island next to Malta. It has become a special place although it is not packed with special sights or sites. When I find myself needing a time out I take myself there mentally and have a coffee and a sparkling water in a little cafe. It is hot, dusty, smells a bit and we get it. The island, not the coffee.

I expect when I re-read this in a few months time I will need to do another list. Thus the title.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sabbatical News

It seemed quite a downer the other night to head off to bed knowing that I only had three more weeks of this sabbatical leave to go. Then a little voice pulled me over into the corner (do your little voices do that?) and reminded me that this would be longer than any holiday I had taken in the last twelve years. Thanks, little voice.

I have met a few people over the last couple of weeks as I wandered around town. The way the questions are phrased can be interesting. There are very different, qualitative answers to:

How's it going?

Are you looking forward to coming back to work?

How have you got on?

Pretty soon after the sabbatical began I knew that I should not beat myself up about outcomes. I have done lots of writing, but far more reading than I anticipated. That was a surprise but not a problem.

But with a work of fiction to try and finish (now plotted out and ready to be completed), being in the company of Peter Carey and Jim Crace can be depressing. Why would anyone ever attempt a sentence again while these two walk the earth?

I'll do it.

One thing I know I will need to do is be careful going back to conversations with groups of people. I haven't done much of that. Over this last weekend there were a couple of points in a small social situation when I wanted to run away. I had clear things to say and was interrupted and then the interruption was interrupted and by the time four more minutes had passed it felt rude to continue 'As I was saying...' Too self-important. Ten weeks free of small talk has been a blessing. Making someone who hates parties go to church to celebrate every Sunday has been crueller than you can imagine.

Just because you have cleared your head don't expect everyone else will have done so.

So to answer my questions:




Going away for a few days retreat next week. Catching up with friends for the weekend first.

In the air tonight

Reflecting on styles of leadership I recall another four box diagram that has followed me around for a lot of my time in ministry.

It was shared by Canon John Finney, an evangelism adviser in Southwell Diocese, back in about 1983/4. I think the context was a St John's College Evangelism Week.

He described congregations as if they were planes preparing for take off. Plane 1 is heading off into the sky looking for excitement ahead. Plane 2 is taxiing along the runway and will go next. Plane 3 is on the ground and not yet moving. Plane 4 is not yet loaded.

(Love the reflection of my hands in the image -  so unprofessional.)

Now, he said:

Plane 1 represents those members of your church who want to move on and are looking for new things.

Plane 2 represents those who will go with a new idea once they get it but will have hesitations at first.

Plane 3 represents those who are happy as things are and are change averse.

Plane 4 represents those who want to go back to some expression of the past when all was well.

Then he asked this. Assuming you can only communicate with adjacent planes, which metaphorical plane should the leader appear to be on?

There isn't necessarily a 'right' answer, because it's an artificial construct to get us to think about our leadership. But it sets out the dilemma.

If you avoid being on a plane at all and stand between them you can only communicate with two and one will probably run you over.

If you go on 4 you can't communicate with 1 or 2. If you go on 1 you can't communicate with 3 or 4.

So the choice comes down to this, assuming you want to keep in touch with the maximum number of people. Do you travel on plane 2, hopefully encouraging the very slow adopters in plane 3 and keeping a slight brake on plane 1's load of over-enthusiasm? The traditionalists in plane 4 may leave.

Or do you travel on plane 3 communicating constantly with plane 4 and encouraging plane 2 to go faster. Plane 1 may go somewhere more lively.

I find it helpful because it often feels within a church setting that there is just one more group of people than you can realistically deal with.

All passengers for the church of the future. Please go to Gate J.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey has given me more pleasure over the last thirty years than any other living author. As soon as I can I buy his new books.

Yet strangely I have never got round to this one, which won him the Booker Prize for a second time in 2001. He has been nominated on two further occasions.

I purchased this in hardback. Carey's books are not for those who read twenty pages a night before turning the light off. But hardbacks are too physically heavy to transport on foreign holidays.

I started it once before and realised it needed time and commitment. Two months into a three month sabbatical seemed the perfect opportunity.

And what a joy. Eschewing commas, and using the word 'adjectival' to avoid swear words, or simply replacing letters with asterisks, Carey gives a genuinely believable voice to Australia's famous outlaw. He paints a sympathetic picture, more of a poor son of an Irish immigrant caught up in inevitable, and escalating, crime, than of a deliberate baddy.

The story is largely told by Kelly himself with an explanation, from the beginning but developing, as to how we come to be in possession of his manuscript.

And the story of life in bush-ranger poverty in the second half of the nineteenth century leaves me almost guilty as I read in a favourite comfortable chair with a coffee by my side.

If you have books to finish on your bucket list, add this one.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Four Box Trick

We (me and Mike Peatman) were playing with this little grid. Every situation in the church can be analysed with four boxes, carefully labelled of course. Welcome back into the Mustard Seed Shavings massive generalisation vortex.

Is the pastor an activist? Is (s)he driven to do stuff, or a person who prioritises faith and prayer over dirty hands? That is the bottom scale. We've called it faith / works for ease of labelling. You can choose your own.

Now. Is the congregation largely active? Do they prefer doing to being? Do they love getting on with jobs or do they prefer quiet mornings and sagelike contemplation?

Illustration 2 takes a wild guess at what a church would look like if the criteria were extreme. We haven't labelled illustration 1, mainly to annoy you.

So, a church with an activist congregation and an activist vicar. Driven will be the watchword. All go. Vision and goal-setting until you all die of overwork.

Illustration 2
A church with a gentle, prayerful pastor and a congregation that likes to do things will be very busy doing nothing. Bit of that, bit of this, jumble sale, coffee morning, one-off fundraiser, all feeling nicely pastored but without any sense of direction.

A driven leader and a compliant, direction-seeking congregation will take you into cult territory if you're not careful. Or off on many pilgrimages and prayer walks.

A meditative minister and a peace-seeking congregation sounds like the Quakers to me.

So, for your leadership team or just for fun:

Where is your church now?

Is there an ideal place that it should be? (Clue: probably not bang in the middle.)

Sits and Thinks

Sometimes I sits and thinks; sometimes I just sits. That is often attributed to A.A.Milne's character Winnie the Pooh but it wasn't him. It first appeared in Punch Magazine at a time when Milne was contributing - but as a cartoon caption. Not sure we can credit it any better than that.

We bought a vicar friend a bench with it as an inscription once. He was not the sort of guy with a reputation for enjoying solitude so it was a cruel gift.

After eight weeks of largely solitary sabbatical I have returned from a visit up north last weekend and two days at a conference with a mate. Before I return to work I have another weekend away and an inside-of-a-week reading retreat with two friends.

I needed to remember how much more whole, how much more together, how much more effective and insightful I am if I sits and, occasionally, thinks.

Mustard Seed Shavings

When Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) published my book for new Christians and seekers in 2012 they liked the title of the blog at that time and asked if we could use it as the book title. I agreed.

Now, after an unspectacular sales history, the book has been remaindered. They are gentler than that on the BRF web-site and describe it as 'currently out of print', although when I first attempted that sentence it came out as 'currently out of pint' which is more regularly true. I guess if you loved the book enough to cough up for a further print-run they would see you. The follow-up volume is still available. Click on the side-bar image to buy.

And if you want a copy of Mustard Seed Shavings I have bought a few which can be yours for £5 plus postage

Anyway, enough of this nonsense. I'm having my blog title back. It feels good to have it home after a disappointing journey.

Noises Off

Heard an interesting Crowd Science podcast about noise today. They explored the whole idea of  the word, which clearly has pejorative overtones. There are sounds, which are neutral. Then there is noise, which is unwanted.

I am interested because my attitude to sound has changed over the years. I am obviously deafer than I once was. Those familiar sounds, such as close family members talking, are easy to miss. I often fail to grasp the first few words of a sentence and have to ask for a repeat. It doesn't help that I have a life-partner who talks to herself pretty much constantly and so I tune that out then discover, from time to time, that it would have been wiser to have been listening.

Aged seventeen and eighteen I had music on almost constantly. I did history at A Level and a coursework essay could be endured with five sides of LP. About 100 minutes for 500 words.

But today I am far more likely to prefer silence whilst reading or writing. Music accompanies cooking or ironing. My parents were kind enough to endure piano practice, something I played forward with a son learning guitar. Chase the mistake anyone? I have music or spoken word on in the car when I drive but usually turn the radio off when trying to locate a new destination.

I grew up near the centre of a city. There was a background hum that never went away. The comforting, familiar sounds of home included Birmingham University Clock every quarter of an hour, and on the hour throughout the night.

On the Crowd Science programme they interviewed people in one of India's largest cities often dubbed the noisiest place on earth. Drivers in Chennai sound their horn as a matter of course for very minor reasons. A family who lived ten feet from a busy railway line explained that house-guests never sleep. 'But after four months you hardly notice it.'

In downtown New York everything has to become louder to drown the noise of cars. One expert said 'Make the cars quieter and everything follows.'

But it isn't as easy as that. Electric cars could be perfectly silent but pedestrians are used to having their ears as an early-warning system. Electric cars have to come equipped with some noise, to reassure drivers and warn the jay-walker.

You see we don't like silence as much as we think we do. We like sounds. Your bank's cash dispenser doesn't need to make a noise as your money rolls out, but we like it to. Equally deceptive is the software that makes a shutter sound on a digital camera. Totally unnecessary. But we are now self-programmed to respond. We like those clicks and whirrs. Most of you, if you have a printer in your house, will know when it is making the right noises pre-job.  It is a little dance of preparedness. I am doing what you expect me to do, it tells you.

When I first moved into my current home, a modern dwelling, I was weirded out by all its noises. But the clicks of those expansion joints as the sun comes round is a good thing. At half past two on a spring afternoon our conservatory wakes up. It is a cracking sound telling me everything is working as it should be.

We all get used to the sound of our home's heating system. Not noise.

I rejoiced at the arrival of quiet carriages on trains. Pretty soon I realised that I was more maddened by rule-breakers in those than the noise in the others.

I had an interesting discussion over the weekend  about sound quality on vinyl music. Is the presence of surface noise or left-over studio sounds an imperfection or part of the reality of construction? And do you tend to listen for the imperfections or to the tune? A member of my family is a musician whose main instrument is computer. No extra noises there. The music is good but it is a monocultural landscape without hedge or ditch. All sound and no noise. It was interesting the way someone such as Burial introduced industrial and surface noise sounds to his music to make dubstep. Improved by imperfection.

How do you take your noise? One bump or two?

Monday, November 06, 2017

Thinking Better

I may have been quoting from this book for many months now but I have recently finished it. In the beginning I thought it would be a work of popular science (the sort I can understand, in other words) but rapidly worked out that it had many more secrets to give out if I read it as advised on the jacket 'slowly'.

I wish I had been handed this book on starting out in adult life and told that a week reading it would make me richer and wiser. It would have.

I am not going to review it. I am going to say that you should buy it and read it.

And here are some things I have learned:

  • There are ways of asking a question that make yes more probable.
  • We are naturally lazy thinkers. We should, at minimum, develop awareness of the sort of situations where we might intuit the wrong answer.
  • The curse of 'manager of the month' awards is simply regression to the mean.
  • Anchoring shapes answers. If I ask you if the world's tallest building is higher or lower than 2,000 feet then ask you how tall it is I will generally get a higher answer than if I ask you if it is taller than 1,000 feet, first.
  • We over-assess the risk of events that have recently occurred.
  • We are risk-averse. No-one should take out any extended warranties if they have more than three appliances that might qualify. Put the premium saved in your own appliance-replacement-fund instead.
  • To demolish a case, raise doubts about the strongest favourable arguments. To discredit a witness, focus on the weakest part of the testimony.
  • Beware of outcome bias. We are poor at calling to mind non-events (times when things didn't happen).
  • Algorithms outperform experts but this is probably not what Michael Gove was getting at.
  • We tend to anticipate more regret than we will probably feel.
  • Do not passively accept the way decision problems are framed.
  • We have organisations because their checks and balances ensure fewer mistakes than individuals would make. Which is why Trump will probably kill us all if left unchecked.
The two papers cited by the Nobel Prize Committee are fully reproduced as appendices. They are completely readable for any one who has made it to the end of the book. Indeed the author comments that we may be '...surprised by how simple they are.'

I love experts who can explain their expertise simply.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Jon Sopel - Notes from Trump's America

Jon Sopel has been the BBC's North American Editor for the last three years. Interesting times.

This book caught my eye. I always enjoy his broadcasts, pieces to camera and insights and usually end up informed.

Here he reflects on his hosts under interestingly predictable chapter headings such as guns and god. But there are some far more unexpected themes. I enjoyed anger and anxiety.

It is populist writing and easy to read. Having expected to browse and dip in I promoted it to the front of the queue and finished it quickly. I didn't have to look up any words.

To some extent it is an almanac of recent writings and thoughts. You will recognise all the people and events if you watch or listen to any BBC News output.

What I found interesting was the reflection on the differences between US culture and British or European. Why is the idea of a national health service seen so negatively over there? Why is the gun lobby so dominant? To what extent does the Democrat/Republican divide mirror our Tory/Labour one? Other, surprising, areas of difference include the volume of alcohol at parties, patriotism (which apparently works in an entirely different way to ours) and the quality of TV (US win on drama; we win on everything else). We note, in passing, that the print media is largely Democrat in the States but Conservative in the UK. Fox News isn't quite as bad as we think it is from the tweeted highlights. I recall my confusion that Democrats wear the blue accessories.

Jon Sopel also self-analyses the difficulty of being a fair reporter of situations where your gut feeling is tugging you to one side. During the Trump presidency the BBC has been tagged with the 'fake news' label. Carrying on doing your job in a balanced way in such circumstances is clearly very tough. Sad.

Short news items are helpful but we can fail to understand the big picture. This is the big picture. So the final chapter on truth reflects on where on earth we go now. And, to be truthful, none of us educated, articulate, liberal, chattering folk has the first idea any more. But I will take this book on the journey.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


My perspective right now is Christian, C of E, and, if you'll forgive me, liberal and evangelical. Deal with it.

I have been observing social media whizzing past shouting Reformation jokes out of the window in a nasty outbreak of drive-by Lutheranism today. Some have been quite good although, as ever,  Archdruid Eileen (excuse me) nailed it.

But it is worth taking a moment to ponder the appalling atrocities that were inflicted upon theological dissenters down the centuries, whatever the nature of their dissent. TV's Gunpowder (see previous post) has left the smell of burning, treasonous heretic on the breeze and, frankly, roast Christian doesn't really do it for me. My particular gift has been to be a slightly controversial minister in times when that has been a safe thing to be.

Silence and respect to all who stepped on to the gallows on matters of doctrine or ethics.

But, after centuries of conflict, Catholic and Protestant Anglicans have a gentle truce which only occasionally overspills into minor jibes at diocesan conferences. Here at ground level we rock on pretty well and all pray together nicely. Puritan abstinence and higher tracts are both under the ecumenical umbrella these days. No bad thing.

Most times we don't change the church from the top down.

My concern for the LGBT gang wasn't imposed upon us from above. I like people. Well, most of them.

My desire to occasionally not wear robes is now legal but I have been doing it for thirty years or so. All that happened was that General Synod legislated that it was OK for the ship to sail after it had voyaged a few thousand times, returned and been sold for scrap. It has a reputation for that kind of speed. I need some new not robes.

My reading of the Bible leads me to christocentricity, co-operation, conversation, broad inclusivity, welcome, hospitality and creative exploration of ways to do and demonstrate faith. One supply of  water to return to but few fences to stop me roaming.

I think that is the nature of my Christian belief 500 years on from the Wittenberg church door becoming the centre of attention for a bit. My church don't own a door.

Monday, October 23, 2017


We began to watch the much-trailed new TV series, Gunpowder on Saturday. Opening, as it did, with the horrific scene of the cruel execution of a Catholic woman for treason (hiding a Jesuit Priest) we chose to turn over. Maybe it is an age thing but I find it less and less entertaining, or helpful, to have to watch inhumanity.

Recently a song I love stopped me in my tracks. I must have sung When I Survey the Wondrous Cross a thousand times. I have even performed it.

I love lines such as:

Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my life, my soul, my all.

But I realised, for the first time, that I didn't like the word wondrous. Which victim of execution, looking towards the gallows, would be glad to imagine the method of  their destruction becoming an object of worship?

Gratefulness better than gaudiness, methinks. When I survey the empty cross, anyone?

Time for a bit of a rethink maybe. The writers of Gunpowder say they wanted the viewers to understand the level of anger that led to the Gunpowder Plot. Did it need to be that graphic? Reviewers are divided. I think they could have demonstrated the cruelty with more dialogue and less  screaming. Sometimes a cutaway says more than a lingering camera.

So why is this about empathy? In Karen Armstrong's excellent Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life she has a chapter on empathy and shares this quote:

'...when we look at the crucifix, our hearts break in sympathy and fellow-feeling - and it is this interior movement of compassion and instinctive empathy that saves us.'
(Peter Abelard)

Now I imagine my extremist evangelical reader has probably gone elsewhere now, but should any new ones be around I know that we are saved externally, not by any action of our own. By grace and by God. But take a moment to ponder that any saving that has happened round here was not worth a thing without a response that makes the world less a place of suffering and more a place of love.

Grace and Peace My Friends

Writer, speaker and broadcaster Rob Bell has been a useful resource to me over the years. He was the creative muse behind the NOOMA series of short discussion starter films. Click here for an example.

His books have intriguing titles such as Velvet Elvis, Or Jesus Wants to Save Christians. They are always nicely laid out with lots of white space. Easy to read for those who don't read a lot. Plenty of points at which you need to stop and say hmmm though.

He is American and Bible-based. But he is neither Bible Belt nor Brian McLaren. He prods all evangelicals with a stick but does it gently. He was once asked to leave a church because of his attitude to women. But not how it sounds. Turns out he was far too enabling and promoting of them for the likes of his eldership.

Now I have found The RobCast. If I might start with a criticism it is that he starts with 20 minutes material and crams it into an hour, but it is a light hour and feels like someone chatting to you in his shed. In fact for the most part he is in what he calls the back house - which I'd like to imagine is a shed.

The episodes are a bit like an interesting uncle chatting about life and faith in the corner. You can phase in and out of concentrating.

But he also has guests with whom he has conversations. Pete Rollins is a delightful guest. Pete's delightful Belfast accent totally baffles Ron when he talks about seeing a cow from a car. Both nouns sound the same. Identical even. Pete is also an ace Christian thinker. Sometimes I think he has read and memorised everything. But as Rob gets him to open up, and to explain the tricky bits of theology and philosophy, we all learn.

My favourite guest so far has been the episode where Rob's wife (Christen, I think) turns the tables and interviews him. And in overhearing this conversation we are party to the amazing happenstance of the marriage of a creative communicator and an editor. She is clearly the one who makes his books more concise than his podcasts.

I commend this podcast very highly,. If you have not found it already, seek it out.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Which Festival?

Figure 1
I have been mining some of my of pre-iPad note books for gold.

And a warning. Incomplete thinking in progress. This is what blogs are for.

Recipients of my training technique will know that there are very few problems that cannot be better understood by reducing them to four boxes.

I am grateful to the unidentified (in my notes), and no longer recalled, conductor of the Bath and Wells pre-Advent retreat in 2012. I took jottings as the addresses began and then I disappeared, as I often do, into a world of my own. Quotes from the saints became imaginings from the St.

S,o let's imagine that we divide the church's year into two parts. Those that focus on memory and those that focus on hope. By 'memory' I mean those festivals that look back on some key biblical Christian event. By 'hope' I mean those festivals that look forward to something happening in the future.

I am aware that many festivals, with good preaching, can do both of these things but stick with me.

Now let us make a further division. We divide those festivals that look upon that thing with thanksgiving and gratitude (something has been or will be done) compared with those that require us to be penitent (we are sorry it happened, or will happen).

This gives us Figure 1's four box grid.

Figure 2
Now let us look at the church's year and see which festivals fill the boxes. Top left (Figure 2) we have Lent. We look back on our lives, on Jesus' temptation in the wilderness and, starting in the dust of Ash Wednesday, we proceed slowly and gently, head down, with humility and restraint.

Lent is a time for reflection, for looking back and for adjustment of behaviour in the light of the journey to the cross.

There is little thanksgiving and only the hope of death in the air.

Advent (Figure 3) is a shorter time for reflection. It is largely replaced, in the eyes of the world, by Christmas, a season which runs from the day the John Lewis Christmas advert first airs until the first whiff of a sale is in the air.
Figure 3

Christians reflect while the world rushes past. Upon what do we reflect? Firstly the incarnation - the truth that this story of a baby somehow universalises God with us. Secondly a look longer ahead to a time when we will be revisited and encompassing the desire not to be unprepared for that. It is hope but it is penitent hope.

We try and put the brakes on the world giving thanks until Christmas Day. We fail, but we keep trying. No-one wants a confessional at the office Christmas party, even if it is being held in Advent 1.

The parables of the kingdom fit here. Wise and foolish virgins. Tenants in the vineyard. Wedding banquets where folk don't turn up.

Figure 4
So when do Christians do happy? Ideally, and primarily, on Easter Day (Figure 4). The memory of what happened to Jesus on the third day is a thing of great joy. We look back on what the hymn writers see as the greatest day in history. We have a corporate memory to be thankful for. Thine be the glory, risen conquering son (we find it hard to shake off our military metaphors though).

Of course all these festivals are, really, is us telling our great stories again. Stories told in and of faith. About faith. For faith. The stories are all set in history - they grew out of a particular time and in a particular place, but their historicity is not completely available to us. It is what the stories are for that is important, which is why we ought to be able to point to a festival which adds hope to thanksgiving (Figure 5).

But no one Christian event gives us access to this combination, easily.

Figure 5
I wonder if this was the place where the great evangelistic rallies used to fit. They are largely replaced by the Alpha Course these days. Summer camp talks on how to find 'The Way' were an annual marker in my Christian walk for many years. They were certainly occasions of  thanksgiving for a new future and hope inserted where previously there had been none.

But I tentatively ask this question. Is there a festival we should make more of because it fits best in the bottom right box? All Saints?

If not then we need to remember that each one of our three markers, Lent, Easter and Advent, needs unpacking by preaching, that it may point to the future and do it with hope.

What does what has happened have to say to us about what will happen?

Comments gratefully received in any of the usual places.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

13th Joke

A guy, born on the 13th of the month, proposed to the 13th woman he went out with. She accepted and they eventually married on the 13th. After a 13 day honeymoon on the 13th floor of a luxury hotel they returned to live in a new home - number 13 of course. After a blissful 13 months of marriage she eloped with Wigan Warriors.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Weird Weddings and All That

I took myself away again to another church as part of my sabbatical. Tried to sneak in quietly but was outed and welcomed from the front, 'But don't talk to him about religion'.

In the Church of England lectionary churches are still working through Matthew's Gospel. Towards the end of this book we reach a number of parables of the kingdom and yesterday it was 22:1-14 - known as the Parable of the Wedding Banquet although it is by no means the only thing Jesus is reported as having said or done with the context of weddings. More wine anyone.

Dick Lucas, who has devoted a lot of his ministry to helping preachers successfully handle the word of truth, has a number of key questions for the preacher to use in preparation. One of them is 'What seems odd to me?' When you have lived and breathed the scriptures for as long as I have it is hard to take this question fully on. Nothing much seems odd to me anymore. But, trying to be a newcomer to this passage (the preacher, in a place where the tradition is of short addresses only, gave us some helpful context about Matthew but not about culture) I wondered how odd this parable would be to those unfamiliar with the culture of the big, society wedding in Jesus' day.

(Friends I know every day is a Jesus day, that was shorthand.)

Here is an odd wedding.

1. It's the son of a king getting hitched. So it's special.
2. The banquet is prepared. Banquets in those days were prepared in the guests' absence and cooked in their presence.
3. The servants go to get people who have been invited. Invitations in those days were probably word of mouth. Once invited you got ready to come when you were told. It was not 7.30 for 8.00 on Tuesday 5th.
4. They don't come. This is outrageously rude. The king would normally be respected and it would be the well-to-do who had been invited, countrywide.
5. They are re-asked, reminded that the food is ready to be cooked. It isn't 'on the table' but the butchery has taken place and there are no fridges,
6. The invited guests kill the servants who have invited them. OK, now it gets really odd.
7. The king sends his army to destroy the city of the rude guests. That escalated quickly.
8. Then he invites anyone who is hanging around - good and bad - to come in their place.
9. Then he seriously chastises a guy who is not wearing the right clothes. Maybe he didn't have any? Where did the others get theirs from?

So what, apart possibly from all of it, seems odd to you?

Because it is a parable. And it tells us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And in parables the secret to understanding is often in identification of the characters. I think this parable (which appears in slightly different form in Luke and the rarely referenced Gospel of Thomas) has been through several stages of redaction. The verse about the army destroying the city may have been Matthew's own commentary on what had happened to his people between Jesus' death and his writing.

But if we wrestle with these questions:

1. Who is the king?
2. Who is the son?
3. Who are the servants who have been put to death?

...we will be well on the way but will have no application. If we take this final question we will be there:

4. If I have been unexpectedly invited to something special, and I am 'bad', what do I have to change in order to come in? What is appropriate behaviour, for a guest?

(Thanks to Tom Wright 'Matthew for Everyone' and Geza Vermes 'The Authentic Gospel of Jesus' for the help.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Sabbatical News

So, how's it going? You may not care but I know some do so here is a wee update. I am coming to the end of week five of a thirteen week sabbatical.

During the first week I was weary. Chatting to a couple of colleagues who had recently enjoyed sabbatical leave I discovered that this was a common theme. People who work with people and spend a lot of time giving out - speaking or listening; writing or reading - invariably survive on adrenaline quite a lot. Take away the deadlines and the stimulation and your body, often for the first time for ages, realises it can wind down. During my first week I successfully tidied the office, went to the gym and had a haircut. That's about it. Although I must say that having only one appointment in my diary for a week was both fun and stressful. I am used to waking up in the morning and running through a mental check-list of what faces me today. I had to keep checking that the answer was really 'nothing'. I also noted that not thinking ahead or planning ahead was weird. I am used to spending downtime contemplating stuff to happen in the future. I wonder at what point in the thirteen weeks I will need to place next spring in the mental sorting tray?

Week two was holiday. We travelled up to the north-east and visited a few old haunts from our Chester-le-Street days. One encounter was particularly helpful. Twenty-five years on, someone, a teenager then, thanked us for our work with young people. 'You made us feel we were the most important thing you did each week but by the time of the Sunday night meetings you must have been knackered.' That was lovely. Also true and we are glad it was noticed.

Returning home for week three I got going on the novel. I have always planned that this time would be about writing and had two ideas for books without a clear notion as to which one to pursue. Shortly before going off duty a new friend had advised me to go with the novel rather than the factual book (the other idea being volume three of my Christian help manuals) as it would be a more varied experience and thus more like a sabbatical escape. It is funny how people who barely know you can give you good advice. I took it.

The novel I have sketched out is a narrative at the moment, not a story. I used a method I read about from Will Self where I put every idea, scene and character on a Post-it note and then re-arranged them into order. Using several colours of Post-it I managed to get the various narrative streams to converge. I read a few chapters I had knocked out some years ago. To be honest the quality of the writing shocked me. It was excellent. Nothing seems to improve style like writing a lot and this stuff was from the days when I was working as a writer part-time. Could I ever get to that standard again? I realised that the answer was not necessarily to get on with the novel but to do more writing about anything (my journal suddenly sparked into life). But the existence of a table of Post-its helped me to begin inhabiting the world of Marco (working title) again.

Week four I read a lot. Not on any theme but in a wide and varied way. I needed to observe others' style and beware of copying any one writer too much. And I had to get some new facts in my head. The ones I had been hanging around with were not good enough. I played with the Post-its. I now had a tale but it was a bit too Dan Brown and my target was slightly higher up the brow. Then I had a moment. What if this (dramatic music in head) became (dan dan daaaan) that! A twist. Not one I ever saw coming so the reader won't either. Clever old me.

On Thursday of that week I wrote a short story in one sitting. It was quite dark and based on one scene of a screen-play I had helped a friend conceive some years back. But it came out quickly and will be finished with a single edit soon. I say quite dark. It was rural January midnight. Where had that stuff been hiding? Oh the sweet catharsis of murdering an imaginary parishioner slowly.

It is week five. No work on the novel but much reading and musing. When I am being a writer I write all the time. This is the point I needed to get to. I wander around constructing sentences, dialogue and writing descriptions in my head.

I have spent little money this month. I bought two DVDs, two books and a new jacket.

Twice in my life I have been given a story. An idea has popped into my head so completely formed that seeing it as God-given is as good a way to describe it as I can muster. With these stories I know they are given to be told and they will help people. They will work. They are probably not to be published for money but shared for free.

This week I have another such story. All I needed in order to write it down was to go and see the world from the point of view of the narrator. I needed to be high up and looking out to sea at an island. Luckily I live where that is possible and this morning I walked up to Cadbury Camp to see what I could see. It is an astonishing place. An Iron Age hill fort. I was alone there. When built it was probably surrounded by sea on three sides. A perfect defensive strategy.

The People of the Island (working title) is on its way.

So, says TCMT, you had two ideas for books and you're writing a short-story collection? Do you know, I may be doing just that. It's fun.

But I have three appointments next week.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Workers in the Vineyard

During my sabbatical break I intend to visit a few other churches. Last Sunday I found myself at Nailsea Methodist Church where minister Deborah handled Matthew 20:1-16.

A straightforward and clear message invited us all to avoid being grumpy when others were doing well if it was not at our expense. It also encouraged us not to begrudge those who came to faith late in life, especially as they might have done so because of our labouring long hours for the same reward. We can all only be who we are and do what we can do, so do that, would be my summary.

But, as ever when pondering a well-known passage, my thoughts drifted to context. Where did Matthew put this tale? What can we deduce from where he put it? It's a story unique to Matthew, which puts us on our guard, knowing that he had an axe to grind and sometimes used his Jesus stories to sharpen it.

We have had teaching on forgiveness, divorce and riches in the immediately preceding material. The last line of chapter 19 has been that the first will be last and the last will be first. So does this expand on that? Yes, to some extent.

First thing to remember is Matthew's axe. His Gospel is all about the status of the law of Moses in the light of Jesus and in the light of the fall of Jerusalem. Any material unique to Matthew is likely to illustrate this point. So, says this story, if you want rules you've got them. A generous contract of employment for a day's work, signed at the start of the day and honoured at the end. The rules are kept.

Second thing, which you maybe do not know, is that this parable is based on a story from Jewish folklore, in which an employer rewards a hard-working employee for achieving more in two hours than other labourers managed in the whole day. His audience may well have been familiar with that.

But what might Matthew's readers have missed about the rules? Because the vineyard owner has to be God in the story. Israel is always the vineyard. And God (who likes to seek and save the lost - Matthew 18:10-14) comes a-seeking for employees.

The Gospel of grace is a new thing. It is a gospel where people who have been waiting all day for work don't get sent home with insufficient money to buy supper on the way. You can play by the rules if you want to; if you do you'll be treated fairly. But if you accept the wonderful free good news of the grace of God delivered in Jesus Christ you will get a better deal than the lawmakers and lawkeepers could ever have imagined.

If you are a follower of Jesus and have committed your life to that for a long time, good on you. But make sure you have ditched the idea that you are in a meritocracy. For the people who come to faith late after a lifetime of sin will know, better than you, that they did nothing to deserve it. Nothing. Thing is, neither, my friend, did you.

And forgive me getting all messianic on you but whenever Jesus calls people 'friend' in the gospels he is about to prick their bubble. So the story ends with Matthew's little coda, again. Lastly beats firstly in the topsy-turvy world of Jesus.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

It Was Better Yesterday

I am still reading my way, very slowly, through Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow. Each chapter is so profound and informative that, if it wasn't for the annoying statistic that 60% of the population of the UK do not read one book a year, it should be compulsory reading for everyone. Notwithstanding the alleged beauty of democracy it does seem abundantly clear that smart people know more than thick ones.

Hoping to finish it this sabbatical. So here's the latest lesson.

Most of us know that we have a tendency to idealise the past. We recall the good and forget the bad. In massive general terms this leads to sentences such as 'It was better in the old days' even though people got rickets and polio, children died in infancy and there was a war on.

The Match of the Day and Football on Five pundits should all read it as a condition of their contracts. Put simply, they are lazy. Which is not as rude as it sounds because it means they are using System 1 thinking (in Kahneman terms) as it is easier than System 2 and we all do that.

So when they say 'A top striker has got to be putting that away' when a gaping goal is missed, they are fooled by highlights' packages. They have in their heads every goal of last week's top four tiers and those showed, time and again, strikers putting away simple chances. System 1 recalls that. What they do not have is ready head-access to the hours of footage of appalling football. System 2 would do the hard thinking necessary to find that. Highlights are highlights. Lowlights packages don't sell, although this was recently voted the worst twenty seconds of football ever and it is compelling.

So pundits recall many occasions when simple chances were taken and not the far more numerous occasions when they were not.

Someone who cares more than me, enough to do actual research, watched hours of football clips of top strikers recently and found that 'simple' chances were taken on less than half the occasions they presented themselves. Put simply, missing easy open goals is more likely than not.

If our history is told only as a series of 'good things' then we will look back on it more positively.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Pooh sticks

Warning. There will be a lot of crap gags in this post.

For readers under sixty, allow me to introduce you to a delight to come your way. Shortly after your 60th birthday you will receive a bowel cancer screening kit in the post. This will involve you taking three samples from three separate stools on three separate days (going through the motions?) using a small cardboard stick and smearing some of the result on a small slide. You will then seal this (pretty damn carefully) and post to the screening service agency.

Roughly 20% of the UK's population of 65 million is over 60. 13 million. Assuming an equal distribution of birthdays, and noting that this test is repeated at two year intervals, that makes, again roughly, 20,000 kits a day with six smears of delight in the post.

I have recently received my second kit. I followed the instructions as previously but received a letter back in the post 'insufficient sample'. I had smeared it too thin. Damn. Go again. I went again (and again, and again) and resmeared. (That a word?)

I received a reassuring letter back in the post saying that although it was probably piles or cracked lips (anal lips, my dear arse) there was a trace of blood in my sample and would I go again three times.

We may have a problem with junk mail, but there is far more crap in the post than we think.

Losing It

A word of advice to businesses who get enquiries from stupid customers which are nothing to do with a transaction; how you deal with such queries will help your sales. A story:

Last Friday TCMT lost her wallet. It had either been stolen (but no use had been made of her credit cards) or left at a particular place. We had only been to one place where she used her wallet.

A phone call to this place received the response, 'No-one can help until Monday.' Detecting that this was slightly less than helpful she decided to pay a personal visit, a ten mile drive. After all it only had to be established clearly that they did not have the wallet there and it was time to be cancelling credit cards.

They were slightly more enthusiastic but insisted the wallet had not been handed in. They allowed her to escort them to the place where her wallet might have been lost. It wasn't there. Whilst waiting for one assistant to get another to help she heard herself described thus, 'It's that stupid woman again'.

She returned home and once more we turned the house and car upside down. No joy. Then bank cards were cancelled and an awkward thirty minutes was spent trying to replace only one of our two cards on our National Trust account (we are planning to visit a lot of properties next week).

The main sadness for TCMT was that the wallet was a gift from a son and much cherished.

This was the day before our ruby wedding anniversary and we had planned to spend it chilling and enjoying each other's company. The lost wallet took the edge off it.

The next day, Sunday, we felt a bit better and returned home after a morning out to a voice-mail message from the place that had assured us it didn't have the wallet and couldn't help until Monday. It had the wallet and had called on a Sunday.

It had been put somewhere it shouldn't have been put by the person who had found it on Friday evening. Nothing sinister. Just incompetence.

Losing a wallet can happen to anyone. It is a one-off stupid act. In failing to help us the place we lost it has won the stupid battle at least 3-1. And we would, if we had been really helped, have been singing the praise of the establishment that understood the predicament. As it is we preserve their anonymity.

It's a nice wallet, sentiment is resurrected and replacement cards have arrived.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Thought for the Day

I was allowed to use my BBC Radio Bristol slot today for an unashamed plug for tomorrow's Community Festival. This is the script:

Some choose solitude and live as recluses or hermits. Most don't.

Unless we opt out, part of being human is relationships. We are social beings.

Where I live, in a modern part of Nailsea, the estate builders had a different idea. No public meetings space. No heart to the community. Houses built so neighbours don't bump into each other.

But in two years running of royal events that led to street parties folk were keen to meet. So a few people decided, back in 2013, to trial a community festival. A big party where the local talent - music, craft, classic car owners, food and drink - could get together and meet.

I am proud that members of Trendlewood Church, where I am vicar, played a huge part in this. It was repeated in 2015, this time for free due to sponsorship. The third one is tomorrow. Golden Valley School Fields. At noon. Still free.

All the stories in today's show are about people needing people - illness, therapy, benefits and protests. There will be a time in our lives when we all need help. It is good to have met people in advance of this. Someone often knows the person who can help you.

I recall a day when Jesus saw a huge crowd and had compassion on them and began to teach them. When they were hungry we are told he found a miraculous way to multiply food.

We'll have food. Lots of it tomorrow. Also advice in the form of talks on things such as debt, parenting and looking after the environment. As well as meeting some impressive people who have made a great effort at improving the world for those less fortunate.

Worth meeting them?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Talks Tent

I'm excited to have been given the opportunity to curate a talks tent at the Trendlewood Community Festival this year. There are people in our local community doing interesting stuff around the world. From 2.00 - 5.00 p.m. a selection of them have twenty minutes to present something of their passion.

Here's a flavour of the topics:

What can a local radio station do for the community? (Joe Lemer, BBC Radio Bristol)
Who can help you with your money? (Tim Moulding, CAP Money)
Who can help you with your parenting and your marriage (Ian Wills and Trevor Watts, CARE for the family)
What can a local church do for a community (me, Trendlewood Church)
From Trendlewood to Uganda to educate children (Mark and Megan Walters, Hope for Life, Katanga)
Nailsea's best kept s
ecret (Nancy Elliott, Nailsea Community Trust)
How green is your estate? (Pat Gilbert, Friends of Trendlewood Park)

Got one more surprise guest up our sleeves too. I hope. Do plan in to your visit the chance to listen to some of these excellent speakers.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

New Popular Culture

I haven't listened to much new music for the last few months. I feel the loss but it was a decision, of sorts.

I think I have discussed previously the rule, as it relates to those of us with limited time to engage with cultural activities, of cyclical proficiency.

In case you haven't come across it, the rule suggests that developing knowledge of one area of culture can only be achieved by disregarding some other area temporarily.

Do you have a hierarchy of culture? I think I do, although it has flexibility. I read every day. I make sure I haven't gone to sleep without reading some of a book. Even if it's only a chapter of a pappy thriller before lights out, it is a rule of life for me. No TV or tablet in the bedroom last thing at night.

Secondly there is sport. In particular football and cricket. Not so much live these days but I make sure I keep up with the weekly TV updates.

What else is there? Theatre, cinema, music, art. I love all these things.

So it becomes quite awkward, when I am already lamenting that I haven't been to the cinema for six months or so, when something new and demanding pitches up. Podcasts are it.

I let them pass me by for a while, apart from occasionally catching up with a Radio 4 show I had missed. Then I started noticing reviews of podcast shows in the weekend newspapers. About Easter time this year people were writing and talking about S-Town. Presented by Brian Reed of This American Life (a programme on Chicago public radio that became a podcast once it could) it is a wonderful seven part story that introduces people not normally given air time so positively, heads off in all sorts of strange plot-twist directions and ends with a nice resolution.

It wasn't long before I discovered Serial, another spin-off which goes into an old news story in more detail over a longer period. It hunts for miscarriages of justice, or at least the truth about controversial carriages of justice.

Now I am into twenty two back years of This American Life and I may be gone some time. It is what is on the headphones as I walk about these days, or playing in the car on long journeys. Getting inside the skin of the USA and introducing intelligent, thoughtful stories is a real antidote to the news from Trumpton.

If it's OK, please nobody invent any new culture for a bit. Thank you.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Thought for the Day

Came off the substitute's bench to do this TFTD at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

How did the older son know his prodigal brother had come home? He heard the sound of music and dancing.

Where does the Bible tell us Jesus did his first miracle? At a wedding reception.

I used to work with a colleague who would, as the saying goes, celebrate the opening of an envelope. There is so much bad news in the world, he used to say, that we should celebrate the good.

If we had a big project he would divide it up into sections and mark the achievement of each part.

He liked to party.

It is funny how we celebrate numbers ending with 0 or 5 with special enthusiasm. So we have a silver wedding anniversary and then ignore 26-29. 49th and 51st birthdays are similarly unpopular. You don't get a memento for being in a job 19 years.

I've always felt that we mark some strange things with a party. The greatest gathering of all my friends in history will be after my funeral. Hmm.

I have to admit I didn't know about the Therapy Bell - a bell in the children's cancer ward at Bristol Children's Hospital which is rung by patients when they no longer require treatment. But it felt to me that it is a lovely thing to do. It is simple, momentous and appropriate. Bells also help us to remember that not everyone gets through cancer treatment.

It is good to mark that there is a tomorrow when previously there wasn't. And important for all of us to resolve that when the shadow of death falls across the lives of others we must not waste any of the precious time we still enjoy.

Have a happy Monday everybody.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning after a brief plug for the Trendlewood Community Festival on August 26th:

I've heard fantastic singing in churches. Singing that would raise the roof. Surprisingly it is often best at funerals of church members. But not always.

A few years ago I was leading a funeral service. The atmosphere was low; the singing disappointing. The first hymn was The Lord's My Shepherd, a version of Psalm 23, to the well-known tune of Crimond.

We reached the end and I felt I had been singing largely solo throughout. The organist continued. No, I thought, he thinks there's another verse. Then I became aware that some people were singing, albeit quietly. The last verse. The verse I'd finished.

I got one of those adrenalin rushes you get when you know you've made a mistake. How many verses did I sing wrong? One? Two? All of them?

When you make a blunder the only thing to do, once you've established that somebody noticed, is to eat humble pie. I messed up. I fessed up.

It's 50 years since Bristol was rocked by the sound of the sonic boom as supersonic jet engines, which later powered Concorde, were tested over the city. The 'boom' damaged buildings.

The MOD even, I am told, paid compensation to a church whose roof cracked.

Churches have been part of the landscape of our city for many years. Many of them predate the bicycle, let alone sonic booms in the sky. They represent a time when the most up anybody could achieve was to climb the steeple.

Cracked roofs or dodgy singing vicars, churches represent an abiding hope in a God who was the shepherd of shepherds when King David wrote his psalm. And they remind us, if we heed it, to give glory to the God of sheep and technology; of buildings, planes and people.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Book Review

Slowly Downward by Stanley Donwood. This is a weird book. Well weird. Even the juxtaposition of author and title seems somehow not quite right but it is hard to pin down what is quite wrong.

The sub-title - A Collection of Miserable Stories - gives up the first secret. Amazon suggests '..clarity and minimalism like that of a haiku genetically spliced with propaganda leaflets and air-sickness-bag instructions.' This is the second, also telling us that Amazon reviewers are clever. The back cover includes a commendation from Thom Yorke and inside the cover we learn that the author has something to do with Radiohead's artwork. Ah, I see.

So we have a series of very short not really stories, more like ideas, any one of which a jobbing author should be able to mine for gold.

There is a lot of death, injury, hopelessness and general misery. To finish this review in the style...

I realised I couldn't write. In despair I walked to the kitchen, noticing the single word 'coffee' on the shopping board.

Monday, July 31, 2017


A number of you will already know that I have been granted a period of sabbatical leave in the autumn. Many colleagues have sent helpful wishes and comments; many others have expressed jealousy that this is not available in their line of work.

Without wishing to get over defensive, may I try to offer a brief summary of what and why.

Sabbath is essentially a biblical concept. We are encouraged to rest one day in seven. The root of the word can be found in Latin (sabbaticus), Greek (sabbaton) and Hebrew (shabbat). It is all about ceasing. But in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus the fields are to be given a rest one year in seven - a fallow, sabbath year.

Essentially rest is at the root of the idea. The fields get their breath back and they can grow more and better crops in future. People get their breath back and focus on their creator (today we have tended to separate a day of rest from a day of worship as people often only work five days a week). Organic farmers tend to use this system today. The late Nigel Lee, a colleague in Christian ministry, took great pride in telling me that he was spending his sabbatical doing almost nothing.

However the word does usually mean taking an extended period of leave in order to achieve some goal. In academia this might be travelling for research or writing a book.

When I worked at the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) I was granted two months leave from other duties to study contemporary culture. It was fascinating and different work but it still felt like work and I had to produce a long paper for my employers with recommendations for future behaviour in the light of my findings. This would have been in the late 1990s.

When I worked at St Paul's, Leamington I was granted an extended holiday as an acknowledgement that their over-use of my part-time hours had infringed on my other part-time work as a freelance writer and thus they gave me the hours back. I wrote full-time for that period in about 2005 or 6 for seven weeks.

I have had a sabbatical dangled before me for three years now. I have left the fruit on the tree twice. Once to get Trendlewood Church's independence completed. Once to get Andy's (our congregational plant joint with St Andrew's, Backwell) off the ground. As a neighbouring parish is in vacancy I considered postponing it once more but a wise archdeacon said there would always be reasons not to do it and they can drown the reasons to do it, so I should go for it.

If I am honest, after eleven years in the same job, I am a bit drained and need to fill myself again. Whatever your opinion of the necessity and style of full-time Christian ministry there can be few doubts that over the long term it is gruelling. I stood alone in front of an all-age congregation yesterday trying to get the dial to go up to eleven. It was tough. The tank's empty. The ideas are thin. I'm as tired as a pick your own rhetorical device.

I have had to devote a lot of extra time to making sure the things I normally do will be OK. Services are almost covered up to and beyond Christmas. Things I simply do without thinking about them (I have no secretarial or PA help here) such as our weekly communications and social media updates need not only to be passed on but others need to be trained in them.

So now, after thirty three years of ordained ministry, I am taking three months, from September 11th - December 10th inclusive. I intend to write. I have two books conceived and hope to finish one of them. Neither currently has a publisher although I have some contacts and have had  three previous books published. One is a spiritual book about the nature of faith; the other a novel.

I am looking forward to this with a sense of purpose and guilt. I know there are others who work hard who don't get the opportunity - although these days many demanding jobs offer career breaks in the contract and pay enough for these to be affordable. I will try not to waste the time. I accept that it is a privilege. Thank you if you have contributed to making it possible.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

'Our youth love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble their food and tyrannise their teachers.'

So said Socrates in the sixth century BCE.

So the police have sent out guidance to schools to pass on to parents about anti social behaviour during the summer holidays.

Where I grew up a ditch separated the back gardens of two rows of houses behind my home. One game was trying to get from the bottom of the hill to the top by navigating the ditch, occasionally crossing gardens when it became private property.

In the school holidays my friend and I tried to do this but reached a garden where an owner was outside.

Waiting on the corrugated roof of a shed for the coast to be clear (as you do) I became aware of a creaking sound. This turned to a cracking noise and I plummeted into the shed through the collapsing roof.

A belated apology to the owners of number approximately 24 Serpentine Road for the shed reduction provision.

Most of us did something in our teenage years that, if caught, would have seen us charged with anti-social behaviour.

The school holidays are times for exploring barriers - adventures stopping one short of mischief. We will do well to occupy our children's time with activity. Writer Garrison Keillor praised:

'Selective ignorance, a cornerstone of child-rearing. You don't put kids under surveillance: it might frighten you. Parents should sit tall in the saddle and look upon their troops with a noble and benevolent and extremely near-sighted gaze.'

If you are without sin please feel free to cast the first stone.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


This paper tissue bears a single word. It is the punch-line of my best joke ever.

TCMT was finding her holiday sleep disturbed by a noisy dog.

She purchased some ear plugs to help her sleep better.

She later asked if the dog was barking because she couldn't hear it.

I said it was not barking, currently.

She couldn't hear me.

An hour later, when the dog began barking, I woke her up and showed her the tissue.

Monday, July 17, 2017


I have caught up with a few sci-fi films recently such as Interstellar and The Martian, but Arrival was the best of the bunch. Why?

Well let me ask you a question. Have you ever met someone so unaware of world geography that they might say something such as, 'I wouldn't want to go to Africa because I don't speak African.'

So the premise of this film is that when life forms from another world arrive they may not come in a single craft to explore, or as an invasion fleet to attack. They might come in a small fleet and all distribute themselves around the earth.

The 'arrival' happens in the opening scenes after a brief back-story concerning the lead character, a linguist called Loiuse Banks, which we need to know. And the different nations that are visited engage in various ways and are reluctant to share their learning.

It occurs to me that I hope someone, somewhere has drawn the conclusion that if we are ever visited by another world the only response possible and sensible is a peaceful one. Any life form that has worked out how to do space travel will, we must assume, have vastly superior weapons technology.

Note also, in passing, that we should discard old ideas very slowly. On entering an alien space craft the team need to know if the atmosphere, which appears OK, will harm them at all. So they take a budgie.

And if we ever get to a planet with intelligent life on it we might bear in mind that more than one race might live there and some of them may be welcoming and some not.

Made I think.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

A Word about Warning

Warnings about Brexit recession were wrong

It behoves those of us who try to write from time to time to be very careful criticising misuse of language for we can be very sure we will be the next to be guilty. On the basis that when I err I try really hard to take it on the chin, permit me a grumble.

Here's a bit of dialogue:

Dad: If you don't look both ways before you cross the road you'll get knocked down by a car.

(three years later)

Dad: Hello son. You haven't been knocked down by a car. I see my warning was wrong.

Now. Can we all pick some holes in that please. Good. The son was not incredibly lucky. Nor was the warning wrong. More than likely a change in behaviour prevented the thing being warned about from happening.

A prediction can be proved wrong. A prophecy (if time limited) can be judged false. A warning is designed to change behaviour so as to avoid the thing that might happen. It isn't wrong if it works.

Few warnings about Brexit recession were couched in a time-frame. It is possible, maybe even likely, that important people have taken action to adjust economic behaviour in order to avoid recession.

So the warnings weren't wrong.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Emotions of Voting

Slightly longer essay today, addressing a question I have been pondering since last year.

I have been voting since 1973. So I have been trying to have a think. About how people feel. You see I am part of the liberal chattering classes. People who talk about stuff and enjoy doing it. And our political views tend to cluster around the centre. I have a lot of time for the Owen Joneses and Paul Masons of this world and the way they argue their cases. They may have seen something in anti-establishment post-capitalism that others have missed. If they are right the whole edifice of political understanding is going to topple in the next few months/years. At minimum they are on the side of the poor and that's no bad place to be.

But for the sake of this piece I want to use a working assumption that the people who think and talk about stuff balance each other out. It's good to talk. But getting an emotional change is important.

What have been the emotional turning points of the many elections I have witnessed?

In 1974 I lived in a true blue Conservative household. My parents ran fundraisers and were personal friends with our MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak, Harold Gurden. Another Harold, Wilson, had been PM 1964-1970, and was seen as the enemy by my parents and their friends. Wilson won a small victory (a minority government ensued). A West Indian, vox-popped on the TV news said he was voting Labour because it was '...about time someone got rid of pompous Mr Heath.' Heath wasn't awful but the wage demands he faced were gob-smacking. As a classical music conductor and highly experienced yachtsman he had leisure interests that were not exactly working class. I think the emotional trigger was indeed pomposity, perceived rather than real.

Wilson went to the country again later that year and came away with a very small majority of 3.

I had voted once aged 18 and once at 19.

In 1975 an advisory referendum was held re continued membership of the European Economic Community. Do you know I simply can't be certain how I voted, if at all. My views were probably swayed by my parents although I recall a vociferous geography teacher who I respected. I recall him. But not his views.

I voted Tory one more time in 1979 helping bring Thatcher to power. The trigger was those Saatchi and Saatchi posters showing dole queues - 'Labour isn't working'. That the unemployment figures never fell, were never that low again during Thatcher's rule and communities were devastated emotionally made it very hard for me to ever vote Tory again. I felt duped by about 1982.

But the left couldn't pull it back. In response to the '79 election Michael Foot took Labour away from the centre left. In 1982 Mrs Thatcher sent a task-force to win an unlikely military victory over Argentina in the Falklands and Foot was derided for wearing a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph. He didn't, but I think the newspaper reports that he did were the moment he lost in 1983.

The centre-left fell apart and some departed Labour. David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins formed the Social Democratic Party and the 1987 election was Thatcher's third consecutive victory. Neil Kinnock pulled Labour back to centre-left and resisted the advance of the SDP, they in election alliance with the Liberal Party. He won more seats but it was still a Tory landslide. Those SDP/Lib votes cost Labour a few marginals. I voted SDP in one which the Tories won by 300 or so. I was rebuked by my Labour-voting friends. The popular press convinced swing voters that Labour was soft on defence, still riffing on Cold War themes. I can recall no one image that achieved this but I read that one Sun headline was 'Why I'm backing Kinnock, by Stalin'. An abiding image of Kinnock, which I still have in my head but couldn't date, was of him walking on the beach with his wife and being knocked over escaping a small wave. Turns out this was in October 1983 when he was elected leader of the Labour Party. It was used against him a lot.

Which gets us to 92. Thatcher had gone, knifed by her own party in 1990, and John Major was in. Against all odds he won. He went around the country with a soapbox and met people. Kinnock got a bit presidential. At a huge campaign event at Sheffield arena he went for the fist-pumping instead of a statesmanlike entrance. In his own words 'I inhaled'. He believed he had won and forgot to do the things that had got him to almost winning. Again the Sun hit him hard 'Will the last person in Britain please turn the lights out' they headlined. There was a massive swing to Labour but not enough. The pollsters were wrong (unusual then). But the small Tory majority of 20 disappeared in several by-elections and they couldn't shake the accusation of being sleaze-ridden. They hung on for five years, during which Major offered to accept a leadership challenge which he fought off. The emotions of the campaign, and the time leading up to it, was that eighteen years of Tory rule had run its course. Tony Blair won a landslide in 1997 having rebranded his party New Labour and convinced the city and the Murdoch press that he was to be trusted.

Quite soon afterwards he had a chance to express the feelings of the nation and he found the expression 'The People's Princess' to describe Diana, Princess of Wales after she died. He seemed to be able to do this regularly although once, commenting on breakthroughs in Irish politics he said 'This is not a time for sound-bites; I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.'

In 2001 Blair won a quieter landslide (he lost five seats) in a low turnout election. William Hague was the leader of the Conservatives at this time. I think the country looked at him and saw a number of set-piece images of someone who didn't look prime-ministerial. The emotional memory I have stored is of Hague and his advisors wearing team Hague baseball caps and getting wet at an amusement park water-ride.

Until the Iraq war New Labour was quietly getting on with things. Trusted but not loved. In 2005 they saw their majority cut from 160 - 66. The Conservatives under Michael 'Are you thinking what we're thinking' Howard picked up some seats but the anti-war votes passed to the Lib Dems under Charles Kennedy, a popular figure. The Lib Dems picked up 22% of the popular vote (6 million votes) but it produced a disproportionate number of seats at 62. What would they give for 62 seats now after their 2015 wipe-out?

The much-heralded passing of the Prime Ministerial baton to Gordon Brown took place in 2007. I always felt his dour manner and partial-sightedness were not in any way relevant to his ability. Indeed I recall him breaking his first holiday after many months, on day two, to chair the response to a new outbreak of foot and mouth. That it was contained (unlike the previous outbreak) was hardly reported. Then came the financial crash. It is clear that Brown and a few other key players took some emergency decisions that averted an international financial meltdown. That the Cameron Conservative campaign in 2010 managed to pin him with responsibility for the recession that followed, rather than foolhardy investment bankers, led to his downfall. That and, in my opinion, the  moment when he was rude about a woman he had just met whilst not aware he was still mic'd up. She didn't hear his insult but a journalist felt it was in the public interest to make sure it was delivered to her. I would have liked to have experienced a longer Brown premiership.

But the country had still not turned to the Tories. They managed to form a government in coalition with Nick Clegg's Lib Dems who had kept their 22%, increased their vote by another million, and lost 5 seats. Go figure.

The coalition lasted a full five years but Lib Dem supporters never forgave Clegg for campaigning on no university tuition fees and then surrendering that pledge in coalition. In 2015 Cameron got a small majority, the Lib Dems lost all but 8 of their seats and the Scottish National Party wiped out Labour (distancing itself from New Labour now) in Scotland. If a country gets an image to wrestle with it was one of Labour leader Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich badly. Which of us could say that a photographer would always catch us eating daintily? It contributes to the behaviour of those seeking election, whilst in the public eye, being far from normal. Would you want a man with sauce on his chin leading the country? Well? That was what the election came down to. That and the Ed stone, about which the less said the better.

During the coalition a referendum was taken on introducing an alternative vote system. Laughably it was argued that first past the post produces strong government.

In 2016 the referendum on leaving the European Union took place. It was an appalling campaign. The energy was with those who wanted what came to be known as Brexit because it is much easier to campaign for change than to keep things the same. Even though most people don't like change but this may have been about changing back. A campaign for Scottish independence had failed roughly 55% to 45%. But the much reproduced lie, written on the side of a campaign bus driven round the country and on a leaflet posted through my door even on the day of the referendum long after it had been denounced and disowned, that £350m a week could be given to the NHS rather than the EU, seemed to convince the electorate. The outcome to leave 51.8% to 48.2% showed a divided country. And thus it has remained.

Cameron resigned. None of the leading lights of Brexit stood for leadership and a staunch remainer became PM. A year later Mrs May went to the country to seek a stronger mandate to negotiate and lost her majority completely. Emotionally her lack of emotion, spontaneity or encounter with real people hurt her. She also produced a manifesto that many of her party did not contribute to. She chugged out bland phrases -strong and stable; Brexit means Brexit - Jeremy Corbyn, fighting his first General Election as Labour leader got out and about and seemed to speak human.

And now, in 2017, we have a minority government, propped up by the 8 seats of the Ulster Unionists. We don't know how Brexit negotiations will go. We suspect that the majority view in the country has changed to remain (which would only involve 2 in 100 changing their minds). And we worry that the nasty, anti-foreigner sub-class is being fed false hope for its obnoxious views.

Obviously there was far more going on than these freeze-frame moments; but for me they carried more weight than a single image or incident ever should have done.

I read recently that the part of our brain which is activated when we are physically threatened is the same part that lights up when when long-held views are challenged. Our response to argument is therefore based on flight or fight. Anyone who has faced vehement opposition in debate only to discover later that the opponent has quietly changed their mind will be familiar with this.

What does it mean for campaigning? Big adverts, lie or not, don't change the minds of any but they cement the views of the already loyal. Mind-changing happens when there is an emotional breakthrough. When I look at someone and decide I can trust them.

There is some irony in the fact that Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned for Remain but was criticised for failing to put his heart and soul into it, may only be able to put his renationalisation and subsidisation social democracy into effect outside the constraints of the EU. But he is hoovering up votes from young people who were 75/25% Remainers.

It is worth remembering that a liberal was originally a free person. Liberal chatter was that which was denied to the owned, to slaves, for fear that if educated in liberal ways they might realise a way out and learn to organise themselves.

Those of us who love being part of Europe, in more than just name but in Union, are wondering how it came to this. And what we can do about it. Our emotions are more stirred than at any time in our personal history.