Tuesday, January 21, 2020


Where do your opinions come from?

I have posted before about ideas. Research has, I believe, shown that original ideas are very rare and fewer than 1 in 20 people have them. Johnny Baker said 'Originality is forgetting where you found something.'

Most of us who get labelled 'creative' from time to time are usually doing our best with material reassembled to fit rather than being in the ex nihilo game.

But what about your opinions? I have, from time to time, been guilty of not deciding what I thought about a particular piece of art until I had read the reviews. But I like to think I know my mind. I know what I like and I like what I know.

This set of thoughts started upon me last Saturday as I was reading a Guardian article about Angela Merkel by Tim Cook of Apple. I realised that I had never formed an opinion of Merkel the person before. She had been part of my life (in that I kept hearing her quoted) for some years but I treated her with ambivalence. I didn't know if I thought she was a good thing or a bad thing but she was simply there. Then Tim Cook praised her and, before I had a chance to stop myself and examine my working, I thought 'Yes. That's what I think.' Somehow it fits my package of opinions on other matters if she is a good thing.

We've all met people who bear the opinions of the last person they spoke to. I had one colleague once whose previous company could be deduced by what he was talking about. 'You think that? I heard James say that once. Haven't you just been talking to James?' I never said these things to him and names may have been changed.

Earlier this year I was doing some interviewing. Reviewing how the candidates had done on each question I remarked that I thought one person had done well on a particular question and discovered that everyone else in the room disagreed. Since the meeting was moving to appointing a candidate I was happy with I did not labour the matter and chose silence for a while. Given that experience, anything I said may have made my preference less likely,

The interesting thing though was that every candidate gave the same answer to the question in question. But one was a bit more emotional about it and, in engagement with the questioner, persuaded a but more information out. It was the sort of subject where making a quick decision was done far better by taking the emotion out of the situation. I wouldn't have got the job unless I showed my working really well.

Elections and referendums show that many people get their opinions from habit and don't revisit their working. They do Level 1 thinking because Level 2 is too hard. Read Daniel Kahneman if this thought is new to you.

In a second hand bookshop the other day I found this book. It is a collection of Oliver Burkemann's wonderful columns from the Guardian over the years. Each piece is based on his response to popular self-help writing. I love the idea of not bothering to find your passion or your comfort zones. I also note that introverts are under-rated.

Where am I going with this? Not very far. Simply to say that most people manage to work out how they operate for the best without reading a book. It's the old joke isn't it:

Excuse me, where are the self-help books?

If I told you sir, that would defeat the object.

But most people don't come ready-armed with opinions. They develop them over the years in the company of other people. A group of people, persuaded by the most compelling member of the group on each particular matter, becomes an echo chamber.

So, to summarise, to develop life skills you don't need as much help as you think. To form an opinion you need more. That will be twenty guineas.

Monday, January 20, 2020

First Three Questions

When you get too busy which, let's face it, can happen to all of us who have jobs that involve a certain amount of reacting to circumstances, what gives?

I want to share three questions to ask yourself at the beginning of the day during a busy time. You probably do these things on autopilot most of the time but, when you are busy reacting, they can be forgotten. Not attending to them can cause harm. When you are a fire-fighter the fire you don't put out may spread. When you are a vicar it is the hurt you accidentally begin that may do that.

So, for a vicar, these are often Monday morning questions. It's Monday and I've been busy for four days. Here are the questions:

1. Who should I thank?

Thanking people often slips when you are busy. Send them a card. Drop them an email. Give them a call.

2. Who should I get straight with?

Did you say a word out of turn which you now regret. Roll it back before it festers. Most times it won't have hurt anyone but be in the habit of making sure it didn't.

3. Who should I tell?

Did you learn something that somebody else should know? I share leadership of a deanery with another person. We need to both know the same stuff.

I think these are useful.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Christmas 2019

Click on this link for our annual Christmas round robin newsfree letter thingy. There are, gasp, pictures. Also words. Many words.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Thought for the Day

As delivered this morning on the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show:

Time to cast our votes again. I won't be alone in voting with a peg on my nose for a candidate I agree with very little, to avoid a party I agree with even less getting a majority.

Recently I had the chance to speak about what would be the distinctive way a member of the Christian community might cast their vote. I had four conclusions:

Firstly, on the side of the poor. Anybody who manages to read the Bible and not consider there is a call on their compassion towards the poor is, I believe, reading it wrong. My Christianity tells me to try to use my vote based on what to give, not what to get.

Secondly, on the side of the truth. Jesus is described as the way, the truth and the life. I find truth in short-supply lately in political campaigning.

Thirdly, balancing both facts and feelings. A decision to live as a person of faith is just as much about feelings - it feels right to me - as facts - it makes sense for me.

Fourthly, on the side of inclusivity. The Bible says 'In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female - we are all one in Christ Jesus.' But, it's hard to be inclusive if we don't know enough people not like us to include? Maybe we should spend more time with those we disagree with.

It is Advent. A time for waiting in the Christian year. Looking forward to the celebration of Jesus' birth and wanting his earthly influence to grow.

How would Jesus vote? Can't say. I'll do my best to guess.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol just now on the breakfast show. The subjects in paragraph four are all stories from today's show:

Let me tell you the best way to hit a target. Find a wall with a bit of give in the plaster. Throw a dart at it. Now take a marker pen and draw a target around the point of impact. Bingo. Bulls-eye.

I've been doing ready, fire aim most of my life. It's a plausible approach as long as you are good at inventing a reason for that thing you just did.

In Christian ministry people are always looking for a way to count success. Which was more important - the 40 or so people who came to church on Sunday morning or the seven young people who came to a small discipleship group for teenagers later that day? If I miss a Christmas party for 100 homeless because I'm called to the bedside of one sick parishioner who might die, how will that look?

So what should we count to see how life in Bristol is going? We want that education, health and care plan figure to go up. It sounds like it's the only way it could go. We want more pianos in public spaces - well I do anyway. Pianos bring me joy. We want violence to go down and trees to grow up.

I've never scrutinised the purpose driven ministry of Jesus against his goals but it seems to me he kept planning to go to Jerusalem and was constantly distracted by people needing food, healing and advice. His ministry development review would probably have been disappointing. Jesus of Nazareth - stick to your mission action plan.

So here's a prayer for statisticians everywhere. At election time we need you to tell us how we are doing. And if we've improved. But that isn't everything.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Slow Down

Saying Morning Prayer (some call it 'The Office') has been an increasing blessing to me. It began as a curse. The wrong time to leave a woman with two small sons alone.

It grew to informality. I'd pray with people but not follow the set service. Last thirteen years or so I have been back to the beginning:

O Lord open our lips
And our mouth shall proclaim your praise

The words of my college doctrine tutor and tutor-group leader in year two, the late Tom Smail, come back to me from time to time. 'How wonderful not to have to be spontaneous at 8 o'clock in the morning.' And he was the man who, almost single-handedly, reinjected the Church of England with Holy Spirit Theology in the 1970s.

I start the liturgy (in my little church I am blessed with the company of two or three others most days) and my favourite bit is this:

The night has passed and the day lies open before us. Let us pray with one heart and mind.

(Silence may be kept)

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of your presence, o God, set our hearts on fire with love for you; now and for ever. Amen.

No matter how slowly I started, after the silence I continue slower. No matter what cares of the day I had woken with two hours earlier they begin to fall into line. I stack and rack as I take some control over the traffic of my life.

What reminds you that the day doesn't need to go as quickly as you think it does?

Thank God for Brexit?

I was given an opportunity to speak in a pub last week on whether there is a distinctively Christian approach to politics. This is what I said:

The title of this talk is 'Thank God for Brexit - question mark'. I emphasise that because it is a question not a statement.

The identity of the speaker is 'author and broadcaster'. I hover around the fringes of BBC Radio Bristol where I have done 150 Thoughts for the Day and have written some books, articles and broadcast pieces. But my day job is as a Church of England vicar and I wouldn't want to misrepresent that. I am a member of what national radio prefers to call generally - the faith community.

I am a Christian. I believe in God although I understand that as a more complex statement than it sounds. I believe, as the Bible describes, that God is beyond our comprehension yet in the person of Jesus Christ is uniquely revealed. Said St Paul (I paraphrase) as he wrote to the Colossians, 'If you want to know what God is like look at Jesus.'

So my question for us all is this - is there a faith position, in my case a Christian faith position, on matters of national political purpose?

And at this point I need to tell you how I feel about national political purpose. I'm going to try and avoid telling you how I will vote at the next election. Conveniently that is because I don't currently know.

Political debate over the last few years has been like watching two people discuss a snooker ball. Politician A brandishes the ball and says 'It's red'. Politician B shakes a head and says 'No it's not - it's round'.

And the problem with that, if you need it spelling out, is not either of the statements but the words 'No it's not'.

We live in a constitutional democracy - although that got stretched to breaking point this year and may yet do so again - where oppositional politics is encouraged in every way. Someone says A so a person with view B is delivered to argue.

The BBC fights to stay neutral and since people on all sides think it doesn't it probably does but from time to time the oppositional style leads everyone to call foul. The science of climate change is pretty clear and so you don't need to balance it with a climate change denier. It is what to do about it that is the more complex discussion and has sides.

Plus, we don't have a neutral press. I'm not going there.

'The problem' said Matt Forde on 'The Political Party' podcast '...is that politics is often the war between two imperfect opposites.' I agree, but often presented as the war between two perfect opposites.

On 27/5/16 Richard Osman, perhaps one of our trainee national treasures, said, on Twitter, 'In most debates we have to listen to people who shout the loudest or are the most certain of their views. That doesn't represent most of us'.

So up until 2016 we had an electoral pie diagram that had blue wedges and red wedges of roughly similar sizes and almost always at least 35% plus smaller green, yellow and other coloured wedges. If we imagine it as an actual pie with slices, in 2016 we invited someone to have a slice of pie and they cut it, horizontally, through the middle.

And over the next three and half years our first past the post system, which we were reminded in a referendum gives us strong government and the people agreed, polarised to where we are now, that this election is about Brexit whether we like it or not. The Conservatives have allied themselves totally with leave, removing the whip from non-conformists. The Lib Dems have allied themselves totally with remain and the Labour party are trying desperately not to have their party re-aligned on Brexit lines.

On 16th June 2016 I wrote on my blog, 'Whatever the end result a referendum stops democracy in its tracks. We will have to move on with what looks as if it will be a 55/45 on a maximum 80% turn-out. And that, my friends, is a divided kingdom.'

A rare outbreak of insight, if I say so myself.

How does my Christian faith help me with how to vote. I have four things:

1. I am on the side of the poor. Anybody of faith who manages to read the Bible and not consider there is a call on their compassion, action and money towards the poor is, I believe, reading it wrong. But the dilemma this gives me is that:

a) I am on the side of the poor.
b) The poor, largely, voted for Brexit.
c) I believe Brexit will make the poor, poorer.

Before the referendum, journalist Rod Liddle said 'Somehow this referendum has caught the imagination of ordinary working communities who see it as a chance to register the complaint that something, not sure what, is changing about their world and they don't like it.'

Giles Fraser, prominent Christian thinker and minister and also Brexiter campaigned that our focus on making the EU more equal was a bias against the poor of the rest of the world. Although I don't think a huge amount of people who agree with him also want to see mass immigration from much poorer parts of the world. He also noted that for some communities the massive increase of residents from overseas, over a short period of time, upset them. Not necessarily because they were racists but somehow because they had lost their home.

My Christianity tells me to try to use my vote based on what to give not what to get.

2. I am on the side of the truth. Jesus Christ described himself as the way, the truth and the life. I find truth in short-supply lately in political campaigning.

Once 'We campaign in poetry; we govern in prose' (Mario Cuomo, Governor of New York, Democrat. 1985 placed on Leo McGary's lips in The West Wing by Aaron Sorkin) was seen as a helpful reminder.

Campaigning in half-truths is clever. Putting on the side of a bus that we send £350m a week to the EU made sure that how much we send was the subject of the conversation. It wasn't £350m. But it wasn't nothing either.

One of the problems with the remain campaign is that they didn't think of a parallel outrageous claim to put on the side of a bus. Maybe 'The EU has done more for peace in Europe than any other organisation since World War 2' would have changed the subject. I have no idea if it is true. It is almost untestable.

But to go from there to the cynical ploy utilised this week, after the leaders debate, of rebranding the Conservative Official Twitter feed as a fact-checking site felt, to me, like some line was crossed.

It was designed, I'm sure, to make the conversation about that and not about what the Conservative leader said. And it worked. I applaud the genius in the way I applaud the thieves in the Italian Job.

In 2018 a summary of the attitude to Donald Trump by philosopher Julian Baggini was this, 'People didn't vote for trump because he is telling the truth. They think all politicians are liars but he's 'our liar'' (Journalism in a Post-Truth World - Bath Festival).

But now, pick the bones out of this exchange, in one of Radio 4's current appallingly unnecessary bits of political vox pop from round the country. A hairdresser from South Wales was asked about her voting plan. She said:

'I'm going to vote for Boris Johnson. I know he's a liar but I don't always tell the truth so that makes him more human to me so I trust him.'

Where do I start with that? Actually, to be honest, I go back to my Bible and that statement on Jesus' lips. It is in John's Gospel. John used philosophical dialogue to make points. He put things on Jesus' lips that he didn't actually say in order to paraphrase what he did actually mean. It was normal to do that in those days. It's a tough conundrum this truth business but it was Jesus' followers who called him the truth. To find out if that is true you can read the other things he said in other Gospels where the intention was more reportage than philosophy.

But in this section, let me give the last word to Richard Dawkins, not the church's greatest fan. He said, responding to the suggestion that all politicians lie, 'Unlike all other politicians, Johnson and Trump become more popular with their fans the more they lie and the more appallingly they behave. That's what's new.' (Twitter 20/11/19)

3. I am on the side of both facts and feelings. A victim of a mugging, walking in through the door will find it hard to engage with the truth that crime figures are down.

In the USA in 2017 in the presidential election campaign an exchange happened that went something like:

Violent crime is up
Actually it isn't - it's down nationally
Not in Chicago it isn't
Actually it is - overall crime figures in Chicago are down but one or two types of violent crime went up
People don't feel the crime figures are down

Which led comedian/commentator John Oliver to say that 'He brought feelings to a facts fight.'

But feelings are important. Those who have voted to leave the EU have every right to demand that what we said we'd do, we'll do.

A decision to live as a person of faith is just as much about feelings - it feels right to me - as facts - it works for me.

Changing your mind involves vulnerability. Nations find it hard to change their minds.

4. I am on the side of inclusivity and equality. Galatians 3:28 says 'In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female - we are all one in Christ Jesus.'

Whereas Ian Burrell, in theippaer 13/11/17 said '...Brexit has left our nation horribly divided undermining the Union and fuelling nationalism while opening up fissures between young and old, rich and poor, north and south.' The opposite of Galatians 3:28.

In November 2017 Roger Scruton wrote in The Times:

'You can be a loyal subject of the British Crown and also English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh when it comes to other aspects of belonging. You can be a British Nigerian or a British Pakistani, and the future of our country depends upon the process of integration that will persuade new arrivals that this is not only possible but also necessary if they are to make a home here. You can be a British Muslim, Jew, Christian or atheist, since nationality, defined by land and sovereignty, does not extinguish religious attachment.'

My little churches have dealt with the fallout by not talking about it very much. Perhaps we should have and this might be a start.

For someone who values inclusivity I find that my social media friends and my family largely take the same view as me on Brexit. I chastise myself that I didn't know enough of the sort of people I professed to be wanting to serve and help.

Likewise one of my Facebook friends makes regular comments about Brexit meaning Brexit and last Christmas, responding to the suggestion that Brexit has ruined some families Christmas dinners, said 'No problem here - we're all no deal leavers.'

Do we know enough people not like us?

It is nearly Advent. A time for waiting, hoping and praying in the Christian year. For looking forward to the celebration of Jesus' birth (the date is another liberty with the truth by the way) and wanting his earthly influence to grow.

Recent research by World Vision told us that people outside the church think it is judgemental, anti-science and irrelevant. It's none of those things; but we need to do a better job of saying so.

Thank God for Brexit? I can't say. All I can do is continue a quest for truth, inclusivity, equality and hospitality and adjust my behaviour in the light of it.

I'll drink to that. Beer and chat my friends. Beer and chat.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Second Sleep

I love Robert Harris and was delighted to be given this for my birthday, in hardback so still feeling very new. I hadn't read any reviews so put it in the reading pile, near the front for when I wanted a page-turner.

I have now finished it. It's a brilliant book but I wondered whether I dare review it, for any summary runs the risk, in this particular case, of giving too much away. Even what I am about to say will invite you to take more care over the opening chapters with a 'Can't fool me' attitude.

The jacket says: '1468. A young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arrives in a remote Exmoor village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor.'

And this is the book's opening. Yet soon a twist that leaves you re-reading the first pages again to see how you missed the clues that this is not quite about what you think it is about. Those things you thought were the author's errors? Not so much. Should have known better.

The romp continues. A page-turner. A great story with a late medieval background. Yet a story that asks questions of us today, how we live, what we value and what will be our legacy.

Finishing it I chose to read some reviews to see how great reviewers had tackled the conundrum. They simply gave it away.

Even the amateur reviewers on Amazon and such sites were more cautious to be gentle with fellow-readers.

So, if it's not too late, go out and get this and read it without finding anything out. Then consider how you might vote.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Thought for the Day

As delivered just now at BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast with Emma Britton:

Friend used to work for a bank. He was paid to anticipate the future. He looked at political, social and international trends and the value of investments. When we first met he was taking a five to ten year look at a relatively stable market. Then the crash of 2007 happened. We had a little joke:

'When's the future John?'

'About half past three.'

John's retired now. I bet today he'd have trouble predicting the future more than thirty minutes ahead. I had three goes yesterday evening at a thought based on a General Election and democracy - things moved on so quickly I had no idea how to get it to be relevant for this morning.

We're also having trouble with the past. In a city built, to some extent, on the profits of slavery we're trying to work out how to own that with appropriate repentance. Plus, we were trying to build at a bus depot when we found a bomb from 78 years ago.

We may have finished with the past, but the past's not done with us.

Tomorrow many churches will be open for those who find the current political uncertainty worrying and need a place of quiet space. Perhaps prayer. If your attitude to an election is depression and your uncertainty about the future is draining why not set aside time to find something deeper? Maybe find a truth from the past, for now and to take into the future.

You might ponder the beginning, where the Bible speaks of deep truth that was there at the start; the middle where it is revealed in the man Jesus and the end where every tear will be wiped from our eyes. Bigger than Brexit. You betcha.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Where Did Trump Come From?

A piece in Politico magazine called The Victory of 'No' by Michael Grunwald told a story which I have heard quoted in a few places since, so I decided to read it.

In brief, on the night of Obama's inauguration as President a group of senior Republicans (including Ryan and Pence) sat down for a meal and started work on their strategy for getting power back. Their idea was simple. Oppose everything. Don't let Obama breathe without complaining he is taking the wrong type of breath. He wears the wrong shoes. He disrespects the USA with the colour of his suits. He got an inappropriate dog. He is the enemy within.

Regardless of whether or not he was espousing policy which Republicans could swallow (or even would normally agree with) he was to be opposed. He was a danger to the American way of life (whatever that might be; no-one ever says). Give him free rein and he will destroy America.

As a strategy this 'obstructionism' worked. They got back the House, the Senate and eventually the White House. But at what cost?

Because it was a strategy to get power and nothing more. If there were Obama policies with which they agreed they would simply make the country wait eight years before repackaging them so they could take the credit. They didn't actually believe that everything Obama did was wrong. But there was someone who did.

Because Obama was black? Because Obama was learned? Because Obama was fit, healthy and successful? Because he wanted our guns? Because he was pro-gay and liberal on abortion? Who knows. Whatever the reason, that Republican strategy stirred a dozy kraken and along came one who thought the strategy was not only good but it was also true.

When Trump announced he would run for the Presidency no less a woolly liberal commentator comedian than John Oliver looked forward to the party they would have at his expense. 'Bring it on' he announced to his viewers in 2015.

But Trump unleashed set about beating up not only every Obama-supporting Democrat but also every Republican who didn't wholeheartedly sign-up to the 'Obama is the devil incarnate' agenda.

'So the party’s anti-Obama strategy has ended up working almost exactly as planned, except that none of the Republican elites who devised it, not even Vice President-elect Pence, envisioned that their new leader would rise to power by attacking Republican elites as well as the Democratic president. President-elect Trump was really the ultimate anti-Obama, not only channeling but embodying their anti-Obama playbook so convincingly that he managed to seize the Republican Party from loyal Republicans. And in the process, he has empowered an angry slice of the GOP base that has even some GOP incumbents worried about the forces they helped unleash.'

Paul Ryan has had the good grace to look embarrassed when he stands behind President Trump. Shameless Mike Pence accepted the Vice-Presidency. But Trump has turned the Good Old Party into the Bad New Party (those initials ring any bells?) and two years into his presidency Democrats are wondering how to get it back without playing his game.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Training Exercise on Pursuing a Vision

Here's a little exercise I used yesterday, an amalgam of several other games. The bigger the group the better it works:

1. Invite people, alone and quietly, to think of one favourite food they would order if going out for a one course meal.

2. Invite them to think of a couple more things (second favourite, third favourite).

3. Tell people that the aim of the game is for the whole party to go out for a meal and order the same thing. Do not repeat this, ever. Now invite them to find a partner. The two of you have to go out for a meal and order the same thing. What will you order?

4. Twos get into fours and agree.

5. Fours get into eights.

6. Continue for as long as it is fun.

When it becomes obvious that the room has polarised into non-negotiating groups, sit everyone back again, especially the group of sixteen who, with their backs to the wall, are shouting lasagna at the rest of the room in a football chant (yesterday's experience). Take a calming moment or two, then the best bit of this is the debrief. Questions to discuss:

A) At one point did you stop looking for compromise and become intransigent?

B) How can an organisation pursue its vision unless everyone buys in?

C) How do you avoid a 'lowest common denominator' vision where you all go out for gluten-free, non-dairy cheese sandwiches or suchlike?

D) Who can remember the aim of the game?

Feel free to select and adapt as you wish. If any user finds a room that can come to agreement treat them like gold and praise them as such

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning where it was great to meet Dr James Freeman (@jgfreeman) a historian of British politics at Bristol University. In the interview before me he said that his current job was like being a meteorologist watching people die in a record-breaking hurricane. Nice metaphor. Talking of which:

A friend of mine came up with a metaphor for dealing with large and complex problems. He called it 'eating a slug'.

Some issues can seem so horrible and unpalatable that we never get round to tackling them at all. But, he said, the one thing you can be sure about if you absolutely have to eat a slug is that you want that critter thin-sliced. So it is with problems. Break them down into, ahem, bite-sized pieces and tick them off your to do list, slowly.

Jesus had a certain clarity of thinking too. He prioritised preaching over healing. He went determinedly towards Jerusalem as others counselled against it. He focused his teaching on the Kingdom of God and nothing else dealing with distractions one at a time. Clarity. Focus. Bite-sized chunks.

I loved the way the judgement of the Supreme Court on the shutting down of Parliament yesterday reduced a very complex matter to four simple points:

Is this a matter on which we are entitled to rule?
What is the relevant Law?
Has it been broken?
What should be the remedy?

I am a great fan of clear thinking. I am a great fan of Jesus come to that but you probably guessed.

Breaking problems down into parts is a useful device. What small thing can I do today to progress? Room needs decorating? Paint one wall. Too tired to weed the whole garden? Do ten minutes. House untidy? Fix half a room then have a cup of tea.

Today you may not have to save the world and I hope you don't have to eat a slug, but you could do something small that makes the end of a bigger problem a little nearer.

Try it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Thought for the Day

As delivered this morning at BBC Radio Bristol. The previous story was about a crane-driver who composed tunes from his cab in his 'waiting' time. Quite cool ones, actually:

In one of my favourite songs by a band no-one else has heard of the Irish musicians The Four of Us wrote:

I wanna burst outside this canned reality
I wanna turn it around and see it like the way it's meant to be

They may not have known that they were channelling St Paul's:

Now see see through a glass darkly
Then we shall see face to face

And he was channelling Plato's cave allegory. That's far enough back.

Thing is. We all benefit from standing in someone else's shoes, seeing things from another's point of view. It's no surprise to me that a crane driver finds his view of the world a creative place.

I'm reading Robert Macfarlane's book Underland. He writes about places - landscape, nature and people. His latest is about the ground beneath our feet; under-city worlds, huge caves, mines, burials and offerings. The underworld. Seeing the world with him by looking up at it, the opposite of Spencer Fley's craneview, has been eye-opening. It helps that Macfarlane writes as the angels might.

When people ask what my faith means to me; how it works, what difference it makes I often see a sense of longing in the eyes of the enquirer. 'I wish I had your faith.' But you can't. Nobody can. It's mine and not yours. It's my world-view. It's my crane or cave.

If you dared a prayer today may it be one taught to the boy Samuel 'Speak Lord; for your servant is listening.'

Today is the 11th September. 9/11. A day which gave us an altogether different view of how the world was. Try and make peace with it.

Where do all our words come from?

Every now and again the lovely Guardian Review on a Saturday has a gem of an article. Last weekend James Meek had this superb little reminder. Click on the link for his article or read on for my summary first/instead.

The three languages of medieval Britain were French, Latin and English (but not as we know it). The Black Death forced the decreased population to accommodate each other and one language began to emerge.

Previously we had had:

  • Francophone aristos
  • Latinist clerics
  • Anglophone peasantry

Meek's point is that it is interesting how we still in fact use:

  • Latin or Latin-derivations for intellectual analysis
  • French for power, military and finance
  • Anglo-Saxon (plus Norse) for everyday
He added that the 'new clerics' include, lawyers, writers, some artists, scientists, journalists, some comedians, politicians, some entrepreneurs and actual clerics.

To use a word from each set he concluded:

Rise up, rebel, revolt

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Why I am an Anglican

We have been preaching a few one-off sermons over the summer on matters that are close to the preacher's heart but never come up otherwise. On Sunday I spoke on Why I am an Anglican. It contained some fairly un-nuanced church history and not enough detail but I thought turning it into an essay might be useful so here goes.

Personal Background
I have been a member of the Church of England all my life, although for the first sixteen years I didn't acknowledge it.

My parents were married in a C of E Church. I was baptised in a C of E Church. I attended a C of E Church as a child with my family occasionally but it was dull and frightening (an ingenious combination). I was converted by the ministry of a C of E youth group leader and a C of E leaflet deliverer and the houseparties run by a C of E parachurch mission agency for whom I eventually worked for ten years.

After marriage in a C of E church Liz and I spent six weeks at a Baptist Church. Truth be told it wasn't, at that time, the theology that turned us back but the emotional reaction that it simply felt wrong. Like wearing your watch on the other wrist or sleeping on the other side of a double bed.

So we stuck with our local parish church where we served and from where I heard the first tentative voice of a call to the ministry which has taken us since then to a C of E training college and then four different C of E churches. I think I am an addict now.

I am therefore emotionally an Anglican.

The emotion of gratitude for what the denomination has done for me.

The emotion of contentment that, looking back, I can see what I was doing in each place and why.

In Isaiah 49 the prophet hears that it is too small a thing for the words of the prophet to only be local. Despite the prophet feeling disappointed and exhausted his words are for ends of the earth. My home town now was the ends of the earth to them then, six centuries BCE. Low-lying as it is, it may not even have been earth.

Jesus was a Jew; the first Christians were Jews; the first churches in synagogues. Then they moved out.

The first division was between east and west, Roman and orthodox, around the fifth century over doctrine, as the creeds we still say were being formed.

The gospel came to this country seriously around this time. The first preachers had been Roman traders, including the stories of Jesus with other pagan stories. Augustine was sent by Rome and preached the whole gospel in the late sixth century CE.

Viking invaders wanted nothing to do with it and ransacked Christian communities but the Normans embraced it and energised a massive breadth of church-building.

A Jesus-centred Reformation across Europe in the fifteenth century may not have reached the British Isles but coincided with an awkward matrimonial tiff Henry VIII had. Since the Pope would not allow him to divorce a wife he chose to divorce the Pope instead.

The Church of England became established and Bishops eventually took seats in the House of Lords. The introduction of the 1662 Prayer Book meant that wherever you went in the country if you entered a C of E church on a Sunday or for a wedding, baptism or funeral you would recognise the liturgy, and it would be in your language of English, not Latin. And residence was eventually assumed to confer membership. Live in the parish and vote for the Church Wardens. Live in the parish and be baptised, married or buried in your local church - the only small print in the Prayer Book is that baptism can be delayed a short while for a period of instruction. Also in the Prayer Book is the idea that anyone can take communion. It simply makes the assumption that you will be confirmed or 'desirous of confirmation'. There is no time scale stated for that. You should not be a notorious or evil liver.

Reformation and establishment led to a huge persecution of those Catholics who did not want to be reformed, dissolution of the monasteries, whitewashing ornate church wall paintings and appalling violence to those who continued to pay allegiance to Rome.

The Catholic movement went two ways. There was a gradual toleration of Roman Catholic and indeed other faiths after the Civil War and the re-development in the nineteenth century of an Anglo-catholic element within Anglicanism.

Which is roughly where we are now with the exception of the development of new denominations around the preaching of the Wesleys (Methodism), an insistence on individual conversion and profession of faith at an adult age (Baptist) and various others.

One person once remarked to me that when two Christian organisations merge a third is formed.

In the middle of the twentieth century Archbishop William Temple re-imagined the desire to be a church that served the whole country. The parish system had been developed and refined by then but the nature of the broad-church C of E was that very different theologies could reside next to each other. Temple said he had a vision of 'The Gospel to every man's door with a single eye to the glory of God.'

Canterbury is now the head of the C of E and the headquarters of the word-wide Anglican Communion although holding this together is problematic without an agreed understanding of the ministry of women and sexual ethics.

But I am therefore historically an Anglican.

I am reformed. I look to Canterbury not Rome for leadership but do not see the Pope as the enemy.

I love the idea that every blade of grass in this country is some parish's pastoral responsibility and every person's door is some church's responsibility to provide spiritual resources, even if it only starts with a simple cake (my church gives cakes to newcomers in the locality).

But I am catholic (as in 'worldwide') which means, since the C of E broadened, that all C of E churches share a responsibility even though the service you experience may not be the same in every building any more. But the flip-side to that, with the ease of modern transportation, is that if you don't like what's on offer in your C of E church you can travel to another one. All we ask is that you share our mission to the geographical boundary for which we have responsibility here - Trendlewood. And as you know, it is my passion to make it possible for there to be an expression of church nearer your home and with Andy's (meeting today) we are well on the way to achieving that for our Backwell members.

And I love the formal structure (not the pageantry though) that we are episcopally led and the legal structure that we are synodically governed. Our church council can introduce a motion to Deanery Synod which can discuss it, pass it and take it to Diocesan Synod which can do likewise to General Synod and we can, theoretically, change the rules of the whole church from Trendlewood if we can make the case strongly enough.

And the structure that, within a diocese, we try to organise the finances such that those best able to finance ministry serve those in more deprived areas. Even before I was Area Dean and Trendlewood was independent I said, regularly, that we should pay our Parish Share with gratitude for the ministry it makes possible. It is more money that goes where we can't go and reaches those we can't reach. 100 years ago clergy in wealthy parishes were paid more than clergy in poor areas. This has changed.

But also theologically, I know of no way to treat someone as a Christian other than to baptise them. It is how the Acts of the Apostles describes conversion. Whole households are baptised.

That means we need another sign of profession of faith at maturity and that is where confirmation comes in. A statement of personal faith for those baptised as infants, and all baptised in other denominations. And a prayer to receive all the gifts necessary, from the laid-on hands of a bishop, to be a member of this broad church.

John Stott said once that if asked to describe his faith he would say he was first; a Christian. Secondly an evangelical Christian (one who believes that God has done everything necessary for salvation in Christ and that the Bible contains all we need to know of these things necessary for salvation and to live as a Christian). Thirdly he was an Anglican evangelical Christian. He would place the adjectives in that order.

I am an Anglican not just because it is the most convenient ship to fish from but because my service has its place here and, if all the other denominations disappeared tomorrow, not a single house or field in Nailsea, Somerset or England would become unprayed for.

So I am therefore missionally an Anglican as well as historically and emotionally.

I don't just think that the Church of England is a nice part of a Church of God which could manage without us. I think it is the rock which enables the other churches to exist. It is the voice of the church in this country. It has the legal responsibility to spread and share the faith. It is a body of many parts.

Whereas once my membership was tentative and awkward, today it is as close to passionate as I get. We (yes we) should not need to ever form or join another church. For we have all the gifts and power we need to change this one.

Although you may know the expression, that if you ever find a perfect church don't join it. You'll only spoil it. Is the church full of hypocrites? Yes. One more won't make any difference.

Missionally I agree with it
Historically I understand it
Emotionally I love it

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning. Someone had broken all of a Bristol pub's windows with a hammer, for the second time. And reporter James Hanson had been learning to ice Bake Off standard cupcakes. I had one. It was lovely.

Over the summer at my church we've been looking at a strange list of characteristics. St Peter suggests in a letter that Christians should add to their faith these six things:

'Goodness, Knowledge, Self-control, Perseverance, Godliness and Mutual Affection.'

It feels a slightly odd command, since 'by faith alone' is a central tenet of Christianity. You can't add anything to what Jesus has done for you. You can't make yourself more saved.

But working through the list we have come to the conclusion that there are things that would make us a better example to others.

Which bake-off contender hasn't found that it took perseverance to learn their piping skills? How much self-control do you need not to be angry with someone who constantly breaks your windows?

But, without victim-blaming, we have found that each of the qualities adds something to our character. Goodness? Well it's better to be good than bad. Knowledge? Surely growing in our understanding of the world is helpful. Likewise self control trumps lashing out. Perseverance giving up, godliness devilry and mutual affection is an advance on hating everyone.

Next Sunday I'm going to ask the congregation to decide which is their weak spot and we'll pray for each other to do better.

Now clearly window smashers should get a life rather than wasting other people's. Do something useful with their hands and their hammers.

Lock em up or educate them? Perhaps we'll leave that one to the politicians, once they have a moment.

But what about you? Which is your weak spot? And, here's your homework, do you want to improve?

Saturday, August 24, 2019


I am currently reading, and loving, Robert Macfarlane's Underland. On the basis of the first 100 pages it is going to be my favourite non-fiction book of all time. This got me wondering what my top five are, currently.

I think my criteria would be:

1. Something that adds to the sum of my knowledge in an area where I am already interested.

2. Something that persuades me to be interested in a subject about which I know nothing.

Here is my list. It nearly included some academic theology, sport and biography but, with apologies to Nick Hornby, Andrew Lincoln and Humphrey Carpenter, these made the cut:

Passage to Juneau
Jonathan Raban
Picador 1999

This came under category 2. I have never been at all interested in sailing although the sea had some attractiveness when viewed from a sturdy platform. I toyed with the idea of the navy but the navy successfully put me off during a course designed to put me  on.

Then I read a newspaper review of this book. It caught my imagination, I think because the writing was praised as much as the subject matter. Quite rightly.

Recreating a 1000 mile sea voyage north from his home in Seattle, Raban speaks of the myths and truths of the sea as only an experienced mariner traveller can. During the voyage he explores ancient documents and his inner world, reaching some dramatic places and conclusions.

Prisoners of Geography
Tim Marshall
Elliott and Thompson 2015

I enjoyed many games of Risk as a child, quickly working out that the places that could be attacked from few sides were the most easily defended. Who knew that this would be the key to the dominance of the actual world as well? The winners were always going to be the people who populated North America. The Europeans are separated by so many mountain ranges and rivers they will never get on without some sort of union. The Russians need an ice-free port. The arbitrary way former empires carved up the territory of people who already didn't like each other very much was never going to be a recipe for peace. Why is the world like it is? Easy to understand if you have this book.

Mark Forsyth
The Elements of Eloquence
Icon 2013

I was given a good grounding in English by my two schools and owe the second one an apology for under-achieving. What my education gave me was an ear for a phrase which sounds right. When the writer hits a sweet-spot. And how to notice a dud.

What I failed to allow my education to give me is a knowledge of the science behind this. I didn't develop an interest until Junior did English Language A level and we chatted about how language works and both read David Crystal.

This book, a gift from a friend, added science to my natural ear. It answered questions I didn't know were worth asking, such as why we play ping pong and not pong ping, why Please Please Me is a good song title and why we say knives and forks when we mean cutlery (that's a merism, by the way).

Excuse the errors. It wasn't enallage it was clumsiness.

The Essential Difference
Simon Baron-Cohen
Allen Lane 2003

Men are from Mars Women are from Venus popularised the long-discussed idea that males and females see the world differently. Simon Baron-Cohen, interestingly, does an academic version of what his brother Sacha does through the medium of comedy. Sacha disguises himself as an unusual person in order to deconstruct mainstream thought. Simon analyses unusual people to find out what makes them different.

He does find differences between male and female brains - some because of nature and some nurture. One year old babies faced with videos of cars or people did divide on gender grounds. But not all men are better at stacking the dish-washer than all women. But, by and large, his research showed a male interest in systems over people and for women the opposite.

Reading this I understood myself better. It was sobering to read that people with my score, on his self-assessment paper, had, in the past, been given an autism statement.  I fell one step short of being an acute systematising male. Which makes me a cute, systematising male. You knew that.

Francis Spufford
Faber and Faber 2012

The more biblical I get the more liberal I find myself. Which has always begged the question as to what speaker I might take people to hear, or what book I might give them, to explain why I am still able to own the insult 'Christian'.

When all has been deconstructed what is left? An ethics teacher once told me that when you deconstruct a light bulb you are left with everything but illumination. True. But there is no need to deconstruct a light-bulb if the manufacturer is still around to show you how it was made.

Spufford deconstructs nothing. He constructs an emotional defence (wrong word because he wasn't attacked) of hanging on to a dream, a story, a meta-narrative that there is some other. Not in the gaps that human understanding will one day bridge but so far so beyond and above that only the Christian story can pull it together and provide a base from which to explore.

First time I've read the story of someone who is emotionally content to be an ordinary Christian, although an extraordinary writer.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


I have been most influenced in my spiritual walk recently by the writings of rabbis. Jonathan Sacks 'Not in God's Name' was a profound exploration of the sibling rivalry of the Hebrew Scriptures still playing out amongst nations and faiths today. Danya Ruttenberg's extraordinary use of Twitter as a teaching tool has opened to me the insights of a female reading of patriarchical texts.

Last night I heard a new speaker, albeit one I had read and heard before but not live; one in the great rabbinic tradition. He spoke of joy.

He did it joyously, owing much to the tradition of modern stand-up with a soul. And also to the fine yiddish (can I say that? Correct me if I can't) comedians such as Jackie Mason I recall from days of yore. His jokes were funny, his visuals added much and his observations were er, observant.

Much was made of a few people who added value to what would be expected of them in their day job. Those who offered the unemployed a free dry clean of interview clothes. Those who made an imaginative sign when the door of the shop had failed. Those who played with a kid when they should have been serving the queue. Those who designed sneakers with a unicorn's horn on the top for girls of a certain age. These people, it was suggested 'get it'.

And joy was also to be found in the apparent failures of those who had given a cat-lovers magazine a strange name, or named a road using only consonants. 'They had a meeting and decided that...?'

And joy was to be found in the maths of a romanesco cauliflower (we'll forgive it being described as broccoli).

Yes, joy is knocking around for those who seek it.

The centre piece was an exploration of Ecclesiastes a book which contains the central point that living for the moment is as good as any method because we're all going to die. He exposited the Hebrew word behind 'meaningless' as 'mist or vapour' using a water mist spray as prop. If, he said, someone was being cynical you should take them down with the accusation that they haven't gone far enough because 'We're all going to die'.

So if we should spend more time living in the moment - someone in the audience was called out for taking notes 'There's always someone in the front row taking notes; thanks for doing our accounts' - what is the Christian hope? I had abandoned my iPad this evening for a notebook and pen but I chose to ignore it then and just listen. So my review is based on memory.

Well the Christian hope isn't eternal life. Not for this speaker. The hearers of Jesus would never have understood eternal life as life going on for ever. That would have been more of the same, looking on for the most as the few enjoyed the trappings of success but never enjoying them themselves. No, eternal life's secret is revealed in the 'This is what it's all about' statement as someone enjoys a great family moment, embracing all in the postprandial bloatedness of Christmas lunch.

But, I wanted to shout, there are some looking on who don't get to do that. It's terribly, well, middle class.

In my youth there was this chorus:

If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy
Let Jesus come into your heart
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy
Let Jesus come into your heart
Your sins he'll take away
Your night he'll turn to day
Your heart he'll make over anew
And then come in to stay
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy
Let Jesus come into your heart

I hadn't sung it for nearly 40 years and I'm glad but I just wrote out the words from memory,

Christians from all over Bristol, younger than most congregations I serve, flocked to hear this stand-up rabbi. His name? Rob Bell from Los Angeles, California. Christian writer and Communicator, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church and a man with disciples.

What was distinctively Christian about it? I'm not sure. I may have missed something. Help me.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sad Story

Had been away overnight. Not been home long Saturday afternoon, about 3-4 p.m. when the phone rang. This conversation. I've changed the names:

Me: Hello, Steve Tilley speaking

Caller: (Cheery) Hello it's Jenny Hopgood

Me: (Nervously) I'm really sorry but I don't think I know who you are (Honesty is always wisest in this situation)

Caller: Is that Dave?

Me: (Exasperation showing slightly) No, this is Steve Tilley speaking. The number you have called is ... (I give the last six digits. It contains no sixes)

Caller: (Apologising) It's meant to be a six (call ends)

I go and sit down. The phone rings immediately.

Me: Hello, Steve Tilley speaking

Caller: I definitely put a six that time. I must have been given the wrong number

Me: You've either been given the right number and dialled (I know) it wrong or for some strange reason when you call the right number it is misdirecting to me. There is no six in my number (I repeat it, in full this time)

Caller: I definitely put a six on the end (call ends)

I go and sit down. A few hours later I remember I haven't listened to my voicemails. Of the six times the phone rang while I was away four left no message, one was the background sound of an office call centre and no message and one was this, from 11.00 a.m that morning. I recognise the same voice as my recent wrong number caller:

'Hello Sally, it's Jenny. I've booked a table for us at the Compass for 1 o'clock. It's by Junction 18 of the M4.'

Someone had probably been sitting alone in a pub for two hours cursing their friend

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Bigger Barns

I did that trick last Sunday, at an early said communion service, of preaching blind. I took no notes and riffed on the readings. I used the material I came out with as the basis of a longer presentation later that morning. For those who feel tempted to say that it is appalling to preach without preparation I refer you to the forty years I have been doing this. That's gotta count for something.

Why am I owning up to this? Well, because in the volatile mix of adrenaline and terror that lack of preparation leads to (I once had seven members of the Liturgical Commission pitch up unexpectedly, doubling a congregation) I saw something new. Luke 12:13-21 goes like this:

Someone in the crowd said to (Jesus), 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.'
Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?' Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.'

And he told them this parable: 'The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

'Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, 'You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.''

'But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

'This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.'

The thing I noticed is this. It is in the context of a story told to illustrate the dangers of prioritising possessions. Jesus, having given another clue as to who he is not by refusing to be a judge, a task the great leaders of the Old Testament had to accept alongside leadership, warns about the uselessness of storing ridiculous excess.

The man in the story is a rich man. He has the option therefore of extending his property. He has the wealth. But he chooses to do this following an abundant year. He has wealth and then has abundance on top. He has no need of a good year. He is set up for ordinary years.

I note here that there is nowt wrong with wealth creation. But it carries with it a social responsibility - to invest in people (employ them) or in further business (employ more). And to share the wealth rather than store it. My one-liner was this - socialism is only necessary because capitalism doesn't see the work through.

Jesus wasn't saying that God will kill you if you do this. He was saying that all of us will give up our lives at some point and a barn full of grain will be no good to us then. If capitalists were socialists as well we wouldn't need socialists. I didn't say this in a sermon, but it may have been the great insight of New Labour.

'Eat, drink (and be merry) for tomorrow you die' is Paul's lifted-quote description of life without hope (1 Corinthians 15:32b). Paul pointed to the resurrection of Jesus as the only hope-giving event worth noting. But Jesus points to the responsibility of those who have the means to eat drink and be merry now (before the resurrection hope was a thing) to give practical help to others. The Gospels were more about now, thenthan we ever realise. Still are.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

The first book of the Bible begins with a universal story. It's couched in conventional terms. There's a heavenly place. Paradise. But it has one rule. Soon the rule is broken and the blame is discussed.

Wasn't me it was the woman.

Wasn't me it was the snake.

Someone else's fault.

Every year in a boarding school I used to run a summer camp for teenagers. At the first mealtime we recited all the rules that might make the place unsafe for a young person. It was a long list. One of them was this. The school insisted we make it clear that no-one was allowed to go on the roof because it was dangerous.

As I shared this rule I sensed a load of young eyes looking back at me thinking 'Hmm. Go on the roof. Good idea. Hadn't thought of that.'

Exposing those young people to a radical idea, even though it was revealed immediately as folly, was enticing.

What is it about 'don't touch' that makes us really want to? Why does a blank wall in the Bear Pit attract the budding Banksys?

Well that, I think, is the Bible's point. We don't get tempted by sin we haven't thought of. I let down your tyres because I thought you were mean parking in my village. I don't let down just anybody's tyres. I'm not a psychopath.

On our teenagers' houseparty we settled on a couple of key rules that were life or death matters and added 'Be sensible - there may be further explanations of what it means to be sensible over the course of the holiday.' We never mentioned the roof again. So nobody ever went looking for the access door to get there.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Adventures in a Dog Collar Part 347

This is a true story. It reminds me again that the only way anyone can become a half-decent writer (I make no claims) is to go to places alone.

A few days ago I was advised to allow extra time to get from Nailsea to Wells because of the Glastonbury traffic. So I did and arrived an hour early. I opted for a sandwich and a pint at my favourite Wells haunt, The Crown. It's my favourite because they have a knack, not available at many pubs, of fast-tracking the sandwich queue.

At the bar I was asked for a table number. This is not easy for a single diner because you need to leave a possession unguarded at a table in order to reserve a seat. I found a seat where a couple were just leaving and left my bag with them.

Having ordered I went to the table and the occupants asked if I wanted to separate two tables which they had put together. I said no and then the man noticed my dog collar and told me he understood that as I was a clergyman I was gregarious (friends, keep your chuckles down, please).

Then, having told me I was gregarious, he told me the story of how the Master of Divinity at his College suggested that as he knew a good port and could sing he ought to consider ordination and put him in touch with the Professor of Theology at Exeter, where my story-teller now was, who would ask him for dinner. Some more junior members of whichever faculty he was at were, apparently, miffed that he queue jumped the dinner list at such dinner. On arrival he was asked 'Have you met the family' and when he said he had not he was given a huge scotch and told me would need it.

This may seem garbled because I got all this in a stream of consciousness and the idea of being stopped for clarification didn't seem to occur to my speaker.

He was then asked if he wanted to join a Hebrew, Latin or Greek supper club. The story sort of ran out without a punchline (the man was not ordained, then or ever). Surprisingly he then asked me who I was and where I came from. I got as far as 'ordination weekend' when he continued with a string of how he was going to the deaconing on Sunday. I also answered the question with the single word 'Nailsea' and hit a poor joke about a chiropodist. His companion left in the middle of all this (with a resigned expression on my behalf).

Someone in the story was called Robert Mortimer I think.

Sometimes I can only be a pastor if I remember I am also a writer. I can listen because I can anonymise, retell and hopefully entertain. Do with all this what you want.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Green Unpleasant Land

To fulfil the desire to be part of a bigger community discussion about issues facing society, the team at Andy's (a Trendlewood-style Christian community meeting in Backwell, monthly) organised an open meeting on sustainability, climate-change and the like. It took place last Thursday. I was invited to open the proceedings on behalf of the faith community. This is what I said:

It is a privilege to be here as part of the input to this discussion and also to go first.

When Archbishop of Scotland Richard Holloway wrote a book called 'Godless Morality' it caused a stir. His point was this. If I start from my faith position and say 'God says...' then all you have to say to disagree with me is 'I don't believe in God'. Our conversation ends. Christians, he argued, can be informed by their faith position, and need to be open that this is what they are doing. As a Christian my faith informs my opinions. But I need to go into the market place of ideas arguing each position on its merits.

So, some brief insights from my faith perspective with which I hope most of us will not take issue, whether we have faith or not. Three things to say to open our evening:

1. The stewardship of the world is our responsibility.

In the book of Genesis, one of the two stories of creation suggests that looking after the planet is God's first charge on humans. If we don't do the stewardship, no other creature will. The second story of creation, a little more culture-bound, suggests that work being drudgery and relationships unequal is a consequence of selfishness.

Rowan Williams said: 'In the Bible God calls the world good before human beings are on it.'

2. Later on in that creation story God asks what happened. The man then blamed the woman and the woman blamed the snake. Selfishness. The Bible knows that our natural tendency is to blame someone else. Them. But I am one of them.

Whilst big change will come from big movements changing countries and organisations the change of heart happens in us as individuals. Romans 3 says 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.'

A newspaper once ran a letter competition to ask what was wrong with the world. It awarded its prize to the shortest letter:

Dear Sir,

I am,

Yours faithfully

And the good news?

3. Redemption is possible. Romans 12 says we should let God transform us by the renewing of our minds. It is a passive sentence. Seeing the possibility of turning things around is something we can allow to happen to us; not something that has to be forced upon us.

We are very slowly discovering that hearts and minds can be changed. It is now anti-social to smoke in someone's house. It didn't used to be. It is now anti-social to leave dog excrement around. It didn't used to be.

What will our grandchildren find remarkable about what we do? Maybe that we value the oil companies based on the assumption that 90% of the world's oil will be available to them. Economist Paul Mason reminds us that the survival of the world depends on 90% of the world's oil staying in the ground.

Why did we ever use plastic straws, they will ask. Just as we ask 'Why did people have slaves?'

Why, they might say, did you all have your own lawn-mower? Good question.

The American satirist P.J. O'Rourke said:

'If Martin Luther were a modern day ecologist he would have to nail 95 T-shirts to the church door in Wittenberg.'

He has a point. We can be too T-shirt slogan minded and not heart-changing enough.

There is a danger that in embarking on a new wave of political populism we are also seeing selfishism. A populist government in Brazil sees local economics as more important than rain forest. A populist president in the USA sees 'nice businesses' as more important than climate change.

So, to summarise, I need to campaign and put my recycling bins out properly. Shout and listen to the voices that don't understand what I am shouting about. Demand change and try to be the change I am demanding.

And members of Christian churches should be the first to sign up, because sin, selfishness and stewardship are huge themes of our holy book.

Steve Tilley July 2019


Post-Capitalism (a guide to our future) - Paul Mason 2015
All the Trouble in the World (the lighter side of famine, pesilence, destruction and death) - P.J. O'Rourke 1994
The New International Version of the Bible 1978 (now updated to a more inclusive language translation 1996)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Thought for the Day

Slightly more personal TFTD today as one of the stories was about an innovative new device being used in a local dementia care home. Anyway, as delivered an hour ago at BBC Radio Bristol:

Honour your father and your mother that your days may be long... So says one of the two versions of the fifth commandment.

My Mum is 91 and lives in a dementia care home near where I grew up.

It's been tough walking the last few years with her. From the decision that she wasn't safe to live independently, to the person who now only recognises me some days when I visit.

Several good experiences have come out of this. There's the quality of the carers. Lovely people. And the power of music; some old folk who cannot speak still sing and recall lyrics. There's a friendship we develop with the other visitors - co-members of a club we wish we didn't belong to. And there's the genius of those who invent devices to help such as the high-tech touch table at Manor Park.

Mum now identifies every slightly-built middle-aged man with glasses as me. So, even though my visits are becoming less regular, she swears she saw me in the garden yesterday, or on the tele. It's stopped the guilt-trip she used to lay that I didn't visit often enough. Yes, some of the humour I find in this is decidedly dark.

Back to that commandment. Why would honouring parents make your days longer? Simple. As with much biblical wisdom it's fiercely practical. Before social security old people, who could not work the land, became an economic burden. The way the kids learned to look after you when you were old was if you had modelled it with your own folks.

I don't know the end of Mum's journey; but I am grateful for the people, known and unknown, who share it with me.

Jake Black RIP

Who, you may ask? He's the guy who did most of the spoken word bits and not a few cosy harmonies on the wonderful output of the Alabama 3. If you haven't been keeping up there's usually about eight or nine of them and they're from Brixton. They blend cool country, acid-house, gospel, techno blues with quite a lot of scotch and a few things less legal (in my humble opinion from row 15).

Still not there. OK the band who did the Woke Up This Morning theme tune from The Sopranos. They always included it in their live set and boasted it kept them fed.

Jake Black performed as his alter-ego the Rev'd D Wayne Love, a Presleytarian minister of the church of St Elvis the Divine. They used many Christian influences in their songs. Indeed the opening track on their first album Exile of Coldharbour Lane was called Converted and include the singalong gospel couplet:

Let's go back to church, let's go back to church
Been so damn long since we sang the song, let's go back to church

My Name is Johnny Cash, a tribute to a great influence, suggested that the country singer was around at the time of Jesus:

I was there when they crucified the Lord
I said to Jesus 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash'

Blasphemy. Well maybe yes and maybe no but I ain't gonna take offence.

The first time I saw them, in Oxford, they supported themselves with an unplugged set of paired down versions of their best tunes. Their live gigs were fabulous entertainment and still will be without the good Rev'd. I had a bit of a personal bet then that their lifestyle would stop short of sixty years of age in many cases. D Wayne was 59. In this video he is on backing vocals. Find many live examples on YouTube.

Full obituary from the Guardian is here.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Holiday Reading

It's about this time that I like to show off about my holiday reading. The mark out of ten is nothing about class and all about ability to entertain a man on a beach or by a pool in the sun.

After a fairly light start I spent the whole of week two on a magnum Trollopian opus - all 870 pages of The Way We Live Now. I don't normally advise people to stick with things for the first 300 pages but in this case the middle section, as a series of relationships fold and unfold due to being conducted by correspondence and no-one ever saying what they mean, is fascinating. And later we come to discover whether Melmotte, much sought after for his investment backing and his patronage, is a man of means or just an upper-class gambler. Much serious gambling takes place in the book but only so that a series of IOUs can be passed round a gentlemen's club with no-one ever being so uncouth as to call in a debt. Even the club itself may not be as financially buoyant as it seems. And if it isn't well, where is a chap to get breakfast at noon now?

And its relevance today? How about ''Melmotte was not the first vulgar man whom the Conservatives had taken by the hand, and patted on the back, and told that he was a god.' (8/10)

Back to the start. Never read any Val McDermid before but will be. Broken Ground is a police procedural crime novel. No twists but an unusual story, several turns and a satisfying outcome. (7/10)

Kate Atkinson's Transcription is the story of a war-time counter-espionage project and how it catches up with the young heroine of the book, several years later. It does what Atkinson does best of all - flits between the dramas of 1940, 1950 and 1980 with the greatest of ease. (8/10)

Jon McGregor is one of my favourite authors. He writes dreamily slow-paced page-turners (how does he do that?) with insights into everyday events with an eye not to forensics so much as to the bits of stories that don't usually get told. So Reservoir 13, which I read last year, was about a missing girl but that incident was used as a lens to see the effect the event had on the village in which it was set. The Reservoir Tapes is the story, made for radio, of the people in the previous story; allowing them to be interviewed and to answer for themselves. (9/10)

A Peter Carey is never far from my reach and The Chemistry of Tears was a delightful piece of writing. Museum researcher Catherine, grieving for a dead lover, is given a project to investigate, to rebuild an automaton made by a great inventor to entertain his sick son. (6/10)

Mark Billingham's The Killing Habit is a DI Tom Thorne case inspired by a true life story of the M25 cat killer. Quite a romp. Page turner. Not, it turns out, much about cat killing at all. Last 100 pages shoot by. (8/10)

I try to catch up on things I missed in my yoof. I think school inoculated me against decent writing so Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway was probably on some English Literature curriculum. I managed to fail the O Level but would fancy another go now. Gritty real life intrudes on a posh party in a day in the life of our eponymous heroine. (6/10)

And to add a bit of learning. Well Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister and university economics professor, distils his wisdom about trade, money and the future of the world into words his young daughter might understand. Interesting section on how cigarettes became money in WWII prisoner of war camps.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Going Up

As I approached the church where I was covering an Ascension Day communion today I heard voices in the churchyard but couldn't see anyone. People of a nervous disposition should be assured that this will not be a ghost story.

Arriving at the church door I could still hear the voices loud and clear but still no sign of life. Then I thought to look up. Two guys were hanging from the tower by ropes working on the clock. I filed this under 'normal churchyard behaviour' although lead thieves are becoming more and more audacious.

Communion progressed without great incident until my sermon. Then, as I delivered a line about this being an anti-gravity sermon because on Ascension Day we learn that what came down must go up, one of the abseilers appeared at the back of church. He hadn't fallen; merely prusiked (I think that is the term) back up the rope and come down the tower stairs.

It's just that I could see him and nobody else could, except the choir. So the congregation wondered why the choir and I were chuckling.

And I had to admit that to have guys working on the tower on Ascension Day and to have one of them appear as a visual aid with high vis clothes, coiled rope and hard hat gave a bit of oomph to the laboured 'don't stand there looking into space' line.

Post Ascension, you won't find Jesus by climbing up anything. He's more risen than that.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Thought for the Day

Sometimes a lighter thought is called for so I had a bit of fun with numbers today. As delivered a couple of hours ago on BBC Radio Bristol:

5th anniversary
20 miles per hour
20 thousand pounds

Today's show seems to be surviving on numbers.

Recently I celebrated my birthday, but because it didn't end in a 0 or a 5 it was not a 'significant' birthday. We love our numbers don't we? Long as they divide by 5.

Wouldn't it be strange if we only partied properly when it was a prime number? Normal people celebrate being 60 but why not enjoy being 59 and 61 far more? Certainly be odd.

The thing is that we use round numbers as a convenience. We like patterns so we tend to see sequences even if none exist. We like a party and have come to celebrate significantly every ten years.

What difference would it have made if the speed limit was 21 mph and the fund-raising target £19,999? Very little; but it would feel culturally wrong. Not rounded but weird.

Welcome to the Bible call-centre:

Press 7 for deadly sins
10 for commandments
12 for apostles and
666 to disconnect immediately

Some people try and play games with the numbers in the Bible. What do you get if you multiply the number of times Jesus said you had to forgive your neighbour by the number of the beast? Well, a headache at minimum.

The God of the Hebrew Bible self-described as 'one'. Jesus said 'I and my Father are one'. Christians believe in one God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - three persons - one God. Monotheism.

I like 1. It's simple, memorable and celebratory. You can count on it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Danny Baker, Racism and the State of Things

If, like me, you are a big fan of Danny Baker, the events of Thursday night will have disappointed you. Wit, raconteur, story-teller and extraordinary broadcaster he has kept me company for maybe twenty-five years of travels and leisure time. I have enjoyed his radio shows, read his books, recently found his Lineker and Baker - Behind Closed Doors football podcast revealing and I follow him enthusiastically on Twitter. Each evening he posts a picture of himself wearing a ridiculous hat, usually a fez, holding a beer or wine and saying 'Good evening everyone.'

I have a few expressions I use occasionally which I learned from him. If there is a suitable break in the conversation I try to attribute to him:

'Pull on that thread and the whole of your life unravels.'

'Picked myself up and came in fourth.'

There are probably others.

So this morning I was disappointed not to have my weekly dose of beautifully managed and appreciated callers, minor celebrity interviews and, of course 'the sausage sandwich game' on Five Live. Sacked. For a racist tweet. And almost nobody thinks it wasn't.

If, at this point, you do not know what I am talking about then off you go into a quiet corner with a Google. Others would be bored by a summary. Searching for 'Prodnose chimp' would probably do it.

And while reading a newspaper instead of listening to his show I found myself, hugely coincidentally, reading a review of his current live tour:

'This is a show of such warmth and lust for life that the only correct response is to sit back and enjoy it. There's no score-settling, no superiority, no victims.' Later in the same review '...he chooses to be a good news gospel, preaching about what a ride life can be if you're open enough.'(Paul Fleckney in The Guardian 7/5/19)

Browsing my Twitter feed yesterday it is as clear as it always was that Baker is a Marmite broadcaster. The haters were glad he had gone and didn't care why. The lovers did not tend to condone what he did but lamented that it had happened suggesting, in as close as you can get to empathy, that insensitivity is the tax you pay on quick-wittedness.

On Thursday night the first I heard that something was amiss was to read a Tweet from Baker himself (@prodnose) apologising that he had accidentally used an image to illustrate a joke which could be misconstrued. He was clearly remorseful and deleted the Tweet as soon as the error was drawn to his attention. The sign, to me, of a good apology, is one that is issued before the receiver becomes aware that they need it.

So, although others feel he must have known what he was doing, I simply don't accept that the quick-witted (a club I try to belong to) work like that. It is possible, I think, to be racist without being a racist. And the speed of apology and withdrawal is key.

I don't think the BBC had any choice. A little bit of me understands that. Another little bit wishes it lived in a world where they did.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Song of Songs Goes to a Bar

In honour of the Morning Prayer readings from Song of Songs here is a sketch I wrote for Scripture Union's Word Live a few years back.

Bad Chat Up Lines

The scene is a bar. The mood can be set by quiet 'lounge' music and the occasional clinking of glasses or noise of cutlery and crockery.

Barkeeper Yes what can I get you?

Female customer Can I have a Diet Coke please?

Barkeeper Sure. Are you alone? Waiting for someone?

Female customer No. Yes I am. My friend will be along in a minute. Is there a (pause) problem with that?

Barkeeper Oh no, no. But Derek's in the bar over there and he comes over and chats up any new attractive female customers. I just try and keep him away, that's all. His lines are all terrible clichés.

Female customer You mean 'Your father was a thief...'

Barkeeper '...he stole the stars and put them in your eyes.' Yeah that's about the measure of Derek.

Female customer Do you believe in love at first sight?

Barkeeper Or should I walk past again? Is there an airport round here?

Female customer My heart is taking off. I think I've heard them, all.

Barkeeper Watch out for 'You see that Porsche in the car park...'

Female customer Ooh sorry, not familiar.

Barkeeper When you say 'Yes' he says, 'Well mine's the Transit van parked behind it.'

Female customer Oh dear (pause), but listen. Can I have a go? I think I'm quite good at repelling boarders.

Barkeeper Of course. Be my guest. I don't want to interfere. I'll be over here if you need me. Ey up. Here he comes.

Derek Well (cheeky laugh), what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?

Female customer Girl? Girl? If I were a girl I would be under age and should be thrown out.

Derek I'm sorry. I was confused by your beauty.

Female customer Easily confused are you?

Derek Only in the presence of such grace and elegance. Can I buy you a drink?

Female customer Can you do the sweet smell of mandrake and the fresh fruit of the vineyard?

Derek You what? I was thinking of another Coke.

Female customer Moving on. My round thighs? Perhaps you consider they are like jewels, the work of an artist's hands?

Derek Eh?

Female customer Surely my neck is an ivory tower and my nose a mountain?

Barkeeper There's nothing wrong with your nose; it's lovely.

Female customer Do you not find my eyes like pools of infinite depth?

Derek (A little embarrassed) Well they are, er very nice but er, that is...

Female customer Isn't my hair like finest purple cloth?

Derek It looks blond in this light.

Female customer Does not my breath smell of sweetest apples; my mouth of finest wine?

Derek I know they don't clean the pipes that often but that Coke must be off.

Barkeeper I heard that.

Derek Sorry Trev.

Female customer I haven't yet heard you praise my navel like a drinking cup, my stomach a pile of wheat surrounded by lilies. My breasts are like fawns. I am a tall palm tree and my breasts like its bunches of ...

Derek (Running away) Hey lads. Leave this one. She's a nutter.

Barkeeper Wow. Have one on the house. Where did all that stuff come from? That was an epic performance.

Female customer Oh, it was more than epic. It was (pause) biblical. Here's my date now. Isn't he just a gazelle? Pomegranate wine darling (air kissing) - mhwa mhwa.

Barkeeper (Aside) Oy Derek. I think you could be right for once. Weird this one. What sort of Bible can she have been reading?