Category Archives: Politics

One World Week – On Seeing Things Differently

Following on from my previous post, I’ve been giving some thought to what it means to be the Church in a messy world and turbulent political landscape. The following is a sermon (so quiet on the Tory-bashing, alas!) for One World Week (the texts are Micah 6:6 – 8 and Luke 4:14 – 30):

 

I’m a big fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for my sins, and I’m there on a Saturday night, week-in, week-out, glued to the television. One thing I dislike about the programme, though, is that they always seem to invite one or two people to take part who seem to be there basically for people to laugh at. Apparently, after the first show of this series, in which the contestants were paired up with professional dancers, one of the judges told Robin Windsor, dance partner of Emmerdale actress Lisa Riley, that they had no chance, presumably as she’s a larger person. Thus, when she proved that she can really dance, it was fantastic to see; just like when Susan Boyle wiped the smug smile off Simon Cowell’s face when she began to sing, that first dance challenged lazy stereotypes and forced people to look at things in a fresh way. Our two readings today are, in their various ways, about Israel being challenged to look at things in a different way, to re-think what being God’s people in the world was all about.

When Jesus had been baptised in the river Jordan, the same river that Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land, the Holy Spirit told him that he was God’s beloved Son. Immediately after, he was thrust into the wilderness by the same Spirit to face up to what that meant – he was Israel’s Messiah, and his mission was to re-define what it was to be God’s people, breaking down national barriers, among others. That was bound to lead to trouble, because it would mean challenging not just the ideas of ordinary people, but also the powerful religious and secular authorities of the day. After this time of preparation, which brought together all those years of prayer, thought, studying the Scriptures and wrestling with God, he was ready to begin his ministry.

Jesus returned to Galilee and went about preaching in the synagogues, gaining quite a reputation for himself. One day, as he’d done many times before on the Sabbath, he stood up in his home synagogue in Nazareth and began to read, this time from a scroll of Isaiah’s prophecies. He went straight to the place where it said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to tell the poor the good news. He’s sent me to announce realise to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free”. When he’d finished reading, he gave back the scroll, sat down and declared, “Today, this is being fulfilled right in front of you”, to the amazement of the congregation. These were words of complete and utter grace, pure and simple. However, the good mood wouldn’t last for very long…

A work colleague of mine supports Manchester City – I suppose somebody has to! – and just before the last match of the season, he fully expected his team to lose and so throw away the title. His experiences of many years had taught him that City had a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus managed to do just that in the synagogue that day. He’d had the crowd in the palm of his hand when he said that he knew they were all waiting for him to perform a spectacular act, like they’d heard about from his time in Capernaum. One can imagine the buzz of anticipation among them. However, he talked instead about prophets not being accepted in their home towns, and God choosing to rescue Gentiles through Elijah and Elisha when he could’ve helped Israelites. The people were furious – so furious that they chased him up to the mountain top on which the city was built and tried to throw him off, but he managed to slip through the crowd unnoticed. What was going on?

Well, expectation was rife in Jesus’ day about the coming of the Messiah, whom they imagined would be a sort of military leader who would violently shake off the rule of the hated Romans and plant Israel firmly at the top of the pile. Given the nationalism that underpinned most people’s thinking, it’s not surprising that the crowd reacted very badly to Jesus’ words. In the face of their hopes and dreams, he was telling them that God wasn’t just interested in one nation, but in the whole world. His message was about grace for everybody, rather than violent judgement for everyone outside of Israel. In quoting Isaiah 61:1 – 2, he was pointing to a broader vision of the Messiah’s role, and ultimately he was laying the foundations for the counter-cultural world of the Kingdom of God. Israel was going to need to think again about who it was and what it was for – what did it mean to be God’s people living God’s way?

******************************

One World Week is both an exciting opportunity, in that it’s a chance to come together and explore key issues in our world, and a deep challenge, as it asks hard questions about the Church. Are we a people who seek to break down barriers, to welcome all into God’s family, to shine the light of hope into the world’s dark places? By the way we live our lives, do we help to free the prisoners, give sight to the blind and bring liberty to the oppressed? This isn’t an easy business; after all, it ultimately led Jesus to the cross. It involves being willing to take risks and build relationships with people who’re in some way ‘different’ to us, which can be scary, but that’s the challenge that God lays down to us. Just like Israel, the Church cannot hope to be all God made it to be if it turns inward and becomes a kind of exclusive club, but instead it needs to look outwards for signs of God’s Kingdom work, role up its sleeves and join in.

Our Old Testament passage offers a vision of what it means to live God’s way. Micah was one of the minor prophets, and his ministry took place mostly in the latter half of the eighth century BCE, before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians; his writings thus span six decades of God’s people struggling with their calling to be a blessing to the nations. In our reading, Israel is represented as a worshipper wanting to know how to please God, and assuming that this can be done through sacrifices and offerings. However, sacrifices were meaningless if the life of the people didn’t reflect God’s life; unless their actions and words matched up, it was empty worship. Micah was trying to point Israel back in the right direction; true worship means seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

Bringing this all together shows that God’s deep longing is for his people to take the risks required to make his Kingdom visible in the world through the quality of our living, individually and as a community, and in doing so to break down the barriers that prevent there really being ‘one world’. There’s no point in gathering together every week for worship if that worship isn’t the catalyst for lives lived seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Here are three thoughts on what this might look like in practice:

Firstly, Jesus did perform spectacular acts that gained him a reputation as a miracle-man among some, such as the crowds in today’s reading, but actually, most of the stuff he did was pretty small-scale. Much of his ministry was comprised of lots of little acts, the power of which cannot be underestimated. It’s easy when faced with big problems like those we see on the news every day, to give into despair and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. However, we follow a Messiah who was prepared to be vulnerable and who made his selfless love known primarily in the small things of life. Never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness.

Secondly, Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask the big questions, and challenge those in authority. He unsettled the social and religious ‘status quo’, not just by meeting people’s immediate needs when he could, but by pointing out the underlying structural issues that caused those needs to arise in the first place. In our day, it’s the equivalent of asking why food banks are needed, rather than simply being pleased they’re there. This does mean getting political, though not necessarily party-political, and whether it’s getting involved in campaigns for social justice, going on protest marches, letter-writing, spending your money ethically or simply thoughtfully exploring the issues, it makes a difference.

Thirdly, Jesus made sure that he took time out to rest and to be with God. There’s always the danger of both burnout and of losing sight of God. Jesus’ relationship with God was the catalyst, inspiration, source and end point of everything he said and did, from the powerful and dramatic to the small and subtle. A living faith means putting things into action, but it’s still a faith – we need to depend on God for strength and energy, direction, and hope when the going gets tough, as it will.

Social action matters because God and all he has created matters. There’s no such thing as a waste person in the Kingdom, but there is light, hope, love and the possibility of transformation. One World Week is as good a time as any to begin put this vision into action…

On Being Radicalised

I’ve come to the conclusion I’ve been radicalised … by the Conservative Party. Allow me to explain.

There’s an increasingly right-wing faction gaining sway within the Conservative Party that believes that the Coalition is too left-wing and soft. It wants to take Thatcherism well beyond what Maggie did, and in a book shortly to be published called Britannia Unchained, the authors claim that the only way for Britain to compete in a global marketplace is to reduce the state to the bare bones and radically reduce employment rights, including abolishing the minimum wage. This group seem to have the ear of the odious George Osborne, and this week’s Tory conference included a lot of telling rhetoric about working harder and longer.

The basic ideas seem to be the following:

  • Employees have “excessive protections”, and not being able to fire someone for not busting a gut continually is unreasonable and creating a nation of idlers.
  • The claim is made that Britons work some of the lowest hours in the world, something I’ll examine later
  • The minimum wage for under-21s (the lavish sum of between £3.68 and £4.98 per hour) should be abolished to get more young people into work
  • The state should provide little more than a basic safety net
  • ‘Raw capitalism’, unhindered by employment laws, a minimum wage and environmental responsibility is the only way forward.

Paul Mason, the BBC’s economic editor, sums up the proposals as:

‘The race to the bottom, to be like China, is on, and we’re all going to do it. So your wages will meet the Chinese somewhere, and so will your social conditions”

Given the sorts of noises coming from the Tory leadership, it seems that while the Coalition is too fragile to go anywhere near as far as Dominic Raab and others would like to go, some of this mindset is finding its way into the mainstream. I, for one, think that Cameron and company are already living in a bubble and implementing policies that will be massively detrimental to some of the most vulnerable people in society. This ‘revolution’ is plain frightening, and I can’t be the only one who sees a society with no job security, slavish hours and social breakdown as a disaster, not an aspiration.

Let’s examine both some of the proposals from the conference and the claims of Raab and co:

  • Scraping housing benefit for under 25s is one of the stupidest things I’ve heard in years. The argument made is that many people are living at home well into their 30s while they struggle to get together the deposit for their own home, so why should others be supported in being independent by the state? Well, for starters, for many young people, moving back in with mum and dad is simply not an option: no room/overcrowding, abusive families, drug and alcohol issues (on both sides), poverty, no mum and dad. Moreover, even if one could go back to a safe and happy home, not everyone lives in an area with good job prospects, particularly in areas like the North East. I’d love to get on the housing ladder, but do not believe this should be at the expense of creating misery and making it harder for young people to study (especially those going back to college), escape abuse and be safe. Shelter argue that this policy will put young people in danger or trap them. It’s ideology-driven madness.

 

  • Slashing benefits, and making them rise slower than inflation: I grew up on a deprived council estate with around 2/3 of people being without work when I was around fifteen. I did meet some who didn’t want to work and knew how to play the system. However, I also met a great deal more people who were unable to find a job despite filling out endless applications and were despairing, people trying to study or retrain but facing obstacles from the same benefit system that made it financially harmful to go into low-paid work (which means a better minimum wage, not greater poverty on benefits), and people whose life circumstances, such as disability, caring responsibilities, lack of decent childcare and so on made it impossible. To suggest that the majority of benefit claimants want to scrape by on next to nothing is absurd and simply untrue. Moreover, when there are no jobs around, what exactly are people supposed to do??? Existing on benefits should not be made even harder – for the vast majority, it’s not a choice and they are not scroungers!

 

  • Disabled people should be ‘encouraged’ back to work: Ruth Anim’s story is just one example of flawed assessments for disability benefit by private firm ATOS. Around a third of those turned down for benefits as a result of said assessments have had the decision overturned on appeal, and tragically, many have died after being declared fit to work. If someone wants to work and can do so given the conditions they live with, that should be supported and encouraged. However, forcing vulnerable people onto the Work Programme to save money is cruel. Moreover, mental health issues are often poorly understood, and along with the impact of various physical problems, ATOS assessors are not qualified to make these judgments. All the government has succeeded in doing is increasing hate crime and causing a great deal of distress. Enough is enough!

 

  • Employment rights can be traded for shares, and small firms should be subject to looser laws: In my not-so-humble opinion, trying to entice people into surrendering their rights, especially in relation to redundancy, is profoundly wrong. Increasing insecurity does not lead to greater productivity, but instead a dog-eat-dog environment in which teamwork suffers and stress-related illness increases. Ask anyone who has been in an organisation making selective compulsory redundancies. Moreover, as with exemptions to the European Working Time Directive, how long before signing away one’s rights becomes a condition of employment? Stress has already become the main reason for taking long-term sick leave. This will only cause more problems, and allow exploitive employers to demand unpaid overtime with impunity. What happened to work/life balance?

 

  • Britons work some of the shortest hours in the world. Such a view ignores some key statistics. For starters, according to the latest English Business Survey, 23% of businesses fear their employees are overstretched, compared to 9% who feel they are under-utilised. That doesn’t suggest laziness. The heart of the matter, though, is the balance of full- and part-time work. According to the Office for National Statistics, “The fall in average hours worked in the UK can in part be explained by the increase in the proportion of the UK workforce employed in part-time jobs, from 24 per cent in 1992 to around 27 per cent in 2011”, and partly because of the shift from manufacturing towards the service sector. Additionally, “Full-time workers in the UK work longer hours than the EU average”. However, my dear Tories, there’s no need to let facts get in the way of policies that benefit the wealthy, is there?

 

To finish my rant, here’s a pretty picture to illustrate the above. Note that the Greeks work the longest hours in Europe – fat lot of good that did them!

 

European working hours (Source: ONS)

Musings of a Guardianista

I have a few minutes to spare today so I’ve been browsing the Guardian website and come across some interesting stories about which I thought I’d throw my two-penny’s worth in:

  • Royal Ascot  have gone in for a much stricter dress code this year. Complications about dress suitability aside, I was very impressed to see so many well turned-out blokes in the photo. I think it’s a real shame that men’s formal dress is so often only the reserve of occasions such as weddings, and that even just donning a tie, without necessarily accompanying it with a suit, is now seen as over the top in so many situations. I love formal dress and would love to be able to wear a suit and tie and maybe even a waistcoat more often (and yes, even on occasion a morning suit) without it being seen as eccentric, stuffy or odd. I came across this blog recently about dressing well on a budget, and it convinces me even more that I could and should be allowed to make the effort – it won’t break the bank! It’s got me thinking I might try to take TractorGirl to Ascot next year, if only to dress up  🙂

 

  •  The education secretary, Michael Gove, has in his infinite (lack of) wisdom decided that GCSEs, introduced in the first place by a Conservative government, should be dropped in favour of a return to a two-tier system of  ‘O’-Levels and CSEs.  I think he’s got it into his head that if everything looks like it did in the 1950s then everything will be alright, and he seems to have forgotten (or chosen to ignore, or seeks to encourage) the inequalities seen back then, with people’s futures resting on their 11+.  I don’t think a return to that, especially in a de-industrialised, knowledge-based economy, will help achieve anything other than intrenching privillage, and I say this as someone who would have ‘benefitted’ from the grammar school system. Comprehensive education is far from perfect, as the article acknowledges, but it’s preferable to a system that brands people failures and further reduces social mobility at a time when university reforms are pulling the ladder up and away from people from backgrounds like mine – ordinary working-class.

 

  • The Guardian have been running a series called ‘Breadline Britain’ on the impact of the cuts to the welfare state.  I know that there is a deficit and the country doesn’t have an endless supply of money, but it’s come to something if we can’t afford to care properly for the most vulnerable in our society, and if there has to be assessment for disability benefit, how hard can it be to ensure that the providers (ATOS – Welcome to the Paralympics!) actually perform such things competently and fairly, instead of being incentivised to declare people fit for work who are clearly not, especially those with mental health issues? It seems that the government really believes that people who are unemployed, sick, disabled or just poor only have themselves to blame. How can Cameron, who is supposedly a Christian, so readily lose sight of what it means that each and every person is made in the image of God? Contray to what his New Right ideology says, everyone is equally valuable in the eyes of God; policy should reflect that by genuinely caring for the most vulnerable.  I also don’t see how a system built on suspicision helps anyone – my own (thankfully limited) experience of the benefits system showed me how dehumanising it can be, and that was before this government got hold of it and made things much worse. Moreover, Cameron slating Jimmy Carr for the tax avoidance which costs a lot more than benefit fraud(!) has to be a case of pot calling kettle black if ever there was one!

 

  • Interesting comments from someone who works for the FSA. I don’t feel I can comment too much given who I work for, but I will say that his is not the only environment with dress-down Fridays and smart dress at other times, and in which a work-life balance is possible. Moreover, there are good reasons why the FSA commands little respect…

 

  • It’s raining in Milton Keynes… and I ought to do some work! 🙂

Why £9000 a year is wrong

I come from a very ordinary background. I was born and raised on an impoverished council estate in Preston, Lancashire by two ordinary people. My mother is a housewife (and cleaning obsessive, but that’s another story… ) and my father trained as a painter, decorator and joiner before ending up down sewers (which oddly enough, he enjoys… ). We didn’t have much money to go around but my parents made sacrifices so that my brother and I didn’t have to go without. I was able to use the education system to escape my surroundings and have been fortunate enough to study for an MMath at Bath University and a PhD at Durham, the former with around £1000 a year tuition fees, of which we had to pay around £200 because of my family’s income. Even so, I still have around £18k worth of student debt that I will gradually pay off, with the interest rate being linked to the RPI so I pay back what I borrowed in real terms. Despite this, I am one of the lucky ones.

Last week, students marched to protest at a possible rise in tuition fees to £9000, from a coalition government containing Liberal Democrats who made a manifesto promise, which Clegg apparently now regrets, not to raise fees. If this gets through, it will be accompanied by a drop in the money available to universities from state funds for undergraduate teaching, the shortfall being met by these increased fees. Now, I’m not in favour of using violence to achieve one’s aims and so do not condone the smashing of windows at Tory HQ, but I find it hard to blame those who did it. The new structure will, especially if accompanied by a flexible system allowing different universities to charge varying fee levels, lead to a situation where the poorest young people face active financial discouragement from pursuing a university career, or applying to the best universities as opposed to the less prestigious and cheaper institutions.

This is bad for several reasons, five of which are:

1) For someone from a fee-paying school, £9k a year may seem relatively little to just pay up-front, but for someone on the average household income or less, it’s a huge amount. Students from poorer backgrounds will therefore accumulate huge debts, before we get to living costs on top of that. For a four-year degree, that could mean around £56000 worth of debts, and with the proposed interest rate of the RPI + 3%, it will grow quickly unless the person walks straight into a high-payed job, which many will not be able or choose to do – we need public servants after all! This represents a steep financial barrier, to make the understatement of the year…

2) Social mobility reduced during Labour’s time in power, despite various measures to boost it (though not always joined up with other policies, alas), such as the Sure Start schemes. There is already ample evidence that the biggest determining factor of success later in life is the financial status of one’s parents. Widening access to university is one of the key measures in seeking to open doors to able young people who come from poorer backgrounds. I was able to take advantage of this, but was part of  a year of 170 pupils with only a handful of us going onto university. Aspirations were already low, and these fees will only increase the sense that higher education is ‘not for the likes of us’. Why should children from poorer backgrounds be forced to lower their sights like this? It’s a waste of so much potential.

3) Britain’s economy is moving away (and has been for some time)  from manufacturing to a service-sector based approach with financial services and research and development being key areas of growth. If we are to continue to compete with fast-growing and fast-developing nations like India and China, we need as well-educated a workforce as possible, and, let’s face it, we only need so many plumbers, electricians and so on.  Making higher education inaccessible to a whole sector of society wastes vital skills and talent that we will need if we as a nation seek to prosper in the global economy. We cannot afford to simply push young people into trades regardless of their suitability for these (and for that matter, nor should we discourage middle-class kids from exploring these avenues rather than pushing them into university).

4) Ministers seem to forget that even if one does go into a well-paid graduate job after university (by which I mean £20k+), it takes a certain amount of time to get clear of initial debts like overdrafts accumulated during study or from relocation costs. One is not necessarily awash with money the instant one starts work! Saddling graduates with sizable loan repayments will make it more difficult to get started in life, as finances can be initially very tight, and harder to save for the deposit for a mortgage, and so on.

5) Where is the incentive to go onto further study knowing that through the three or four years it can take to do a PhD, one is accumulating even more of  a mini-mortgage without the resources to begin paying it back? This may lead to fewer UK students doing PhDs and, as already argued, we need such people if we want a thriving university sector and to continue to be a world leader in research and development. That is, unless we are happy to rely on people coming from abroad to fill these roles, but then the same right-wingers who favour these changes to HE are often not very keen on immigration…

Rant over…. this is simply a subject that makes my blood boil. Other young people should have the same opportunities I did or better, not less!

The Big Society?

I came across an article by Aditya Chakrabortty on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free‘ pages today about choice in public services and David Cameron’s idea about the ‘Big Society’. It’s about the idea that there needs to be as much choice as possible in public services. For example, parents will be encouraged to start their own schools and more schools will be given ‘academy’ status, which means, as far as I understand it, that private money will be involved and businesses, universities etc will be encouraged to run them.

This article talks about how, if presented with too much choice, people struggle to make any consistant and coherent decisions. Conducted by Columbia Business School, it echoes something I imagine we’ve all encountered. How do you choose between twenty different types of tomato ketchup, exactly?

It seems to me that to understand this, one has to take a brief glance back through European history in the last three-hundred years or so. The governing idea of the Enlightenment, especially when combined with industrialisation, was progress. Through science and the development of new technology, humanity could solve all its own problems, or so the mantra went. The march of progress was inevitable, and human beings would keep getting more and more civilised. The first world war blew that out of the water, but to some extent the mindset has persisted. Bonhoeffer spoke about ‘man come of age’, and even theology got caught up in the idea that we could dispense with revelation and figure it (in this case, God) all out by use of reason, which still persists in some liberal theological circles.

Arguably, postmodernism is a reaction against this by taking the ideas to the other extreme. Instead of an overarching universal narrative, we now are told that all meta-narratives (big stories) are power claims and that actually, each person’s perspective is equally valid due to the absence of a framework in which to evaluate truth claims. In other words, I can have ‘my truth’, you yours, and no-one can tell either of us which is the better or that they are wrong. As such, we are free to pick and choose those ideas which are helpful to us at a given time. Now, not all of this is bad (though surely claiming there are not meta-narratives is to construct a meta-narrative?) but while the idolatry of ‘progress’ has faded, ‘choice’ has taken its place. One hears ‘choice’ spoke of as inherently a good thing, which makes sense in a consumerist framework, but this is pushed as far as to say that denial or restriction of choice is inherently bad. In other words, choice now has ‘moral value’.

Why am I bothered by this? Well, on the one hand, I fear that relentless pursuit of  a choice-orientated model in public services could have three major consequences:

  • It could re-introduce the ‘internal market’ created by the Major government in the 1990s which was such a disaster;
  • It could create bewildering choice, as the above article suggests;
  • It could create more opportunities for middle-class folks with the resources to do things like start their own schools, but create further societal division as the poorest are left behind. Some communities just couldn’t do these things even if they wanted to, and it could make it even harder for someone from my background (from a council estate, parents on benefits or in low-paid work) to escape. I fear more choice equals less social mobility.

You may want to come back at me on these, especially the latter. There is a balance to be struck between the role of the state or voluntary organisations and the role of the communities themselves. Ann Morisy’s wonderful book ‘Journeying Out’  has a lot to say about this. However, both the modernist mantra of ‘progress’ and the postmodern mantra of ‘choice’ both seem to forget a fundamental fact about human beings – we are limited. Frances Young has this to say:

Human beings look for success, fulfilment, for valuation in terms of the contribution a person makes. But value is not something achieved, or even inherent. It is something given, something accorded to something or someone valued by someone else – the worth and dignity of each person is given by God. In community, we make real that dignity and worth by valuing each other, but the grounds on which any and every person has value is God’s decision to put his name there (to borrow a phrase from Ezekiel).  Above all the incarnation bears witness to the presence of God in the midst of the ‘limit’ to which all human life tends. In God-forsakenness, in the absence of God, is supremely and paradoxically the presence of God, and the terminology of kingship is subverted when the story is told of a king who plays the part of a servant, is marginalised, rejected, stigmatised, judicially murdered. The cross stands over against the false optimism of modernity and the assertions of post-modernity.

The fact is, we need to accept and embrace our limited nature and that unlimited choice is just as much of a myth as relentless progress. Being human involves engaging with limits, boundaries, in a creative way. For example, following a vocation will always involve a degree of sacrifice – if I am ordained and in full-time ministry, I can’t continue my old career; if I want to write an essay in a night I can’t go to the cinema as well.

Mr Cameron is a committed Christian. Maybe if this was taken more seriously in government, we could concentrate on creating excellent public services in a given area rather than a hundred-and-one bewildering options that disenfranchise those most in need of a help-up by the state – the poorest, most vulnerable and those with least choice.

Further to that, the church could learn a lesson too. The parish system of the Church of England is not perfect, but it means that, at least theoretically, there is a church there for any English person if they need it. While people may still shop around, that parish provision is vital, and I think Grace Davie is right in noting that people turn to it in transitional times, at crisis points, for a reason. How does this fit with Mission-Shaped Church and its ‘network’ approach? I don’t know, but it does show that mixed economy needs to be taken seriously. More thoughts on that when I’ve written my essay for the mission module of my theology course…

All change, please!

Two big changes recently. The first one relates to the new government, about which you’d have needed to be living in a deep hole under Barrow-in-Furness not to have heard about. The second may have been noticed by Church geeks like me – Bishop Tom Wright is to become a professor at St Andrew’s. Having spent the day writing job application letters, I do not have the energy for serious comment, so here’s some irreverent comment instead:

The footage of David Cameron with Nick Clegg was been really quite amusing. If they didn’t have this party-political-coordinated-ties thing going on at the moment it’d be hard to tell them apart! I gather that already some grumpy old right-wing Tories and more left-wing Guardian-reading Lib Dems are having a moan. My bet is it’ll last about six months before falling apart after a blazing row about something trivial that is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I for one am not keen on cross-party love-ins. It’s enough to make you wretch… Wonder what Mr Wesley would have thought: “No con-dem-nation now I dread…” I have rejoined the Labour Party.

Bishop Tom’s departure made the Church of England newspaper, and so did the comment of one blogger, whom I assume is in Durham diocese, that Tom should be congratulated on his amazing ministry, as not everyone could run a diocese from the American lecture circuit and the departure lounges of international airports. Maybe he should get a prize before he takes up his ‘do nothing’ chair. I think a droopy mitre might be appropriate, though I’m open to suggestions…

A Little Light Relief

My last two posts have been quite heavy, so here’s a little light relief:

I went to see Joan Armatrading with TractorGirl at the Sage on Thursday. I enjoyed what I can remember of the concert, but she was going for the stadium effect and so there was a screen with Media Player-style visuals as well as very bright lights and especially loud music, so it all got a bit much for my synaesthesia and apparently I fainted! TractorGirl’s blog tells of how I mistook Joan Armatrading for Joan Armitage for Simon Armitage, a middle-aged male poet. I’m special!

Earlier in the day, I had been to the Baltic to pass a few hours. While there, I bumped into a friend from undergraduate days who was there on a works do, which was random but lovely. In terms of the art, on the ground floor there was a series of three videos by Jordan Baseman about a woman who likes nature and flowers and all that, a man talking about his life of crime and a gay man discussing his first sexual experience in the days when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. I found the latter very moving but didn’t really rate the other two. The rest of the art was bizarre; some bright flashy lights and texts from Iraq war files by Jenny Holzerand something completely random and unintelligible by Raqs Media Collective, which I think was meant to be about falling in love, but just seemed unfinished.

—————————-

Gordon Brown has had an unfairly hard time in my opinion for calling Gillian Duffy a ‘bigoted woman’ when being driven away from a walkabout. I think her views on immigration and on Eastern Europeans were bigoted (where are they all coming from – Eastern Europe of course, silly old bat!) It has made me more inclined to support Brown; at least he said what he thought! After the hustings, I think my local Labour candidate is a good bet, so that settles the question 🙂

—————————–

‘The Cellar Door’ is one of the multitude of Italian restaurants spread throughout the centre of Durham. My previous visits there have been somewhat of a let-down. The service was slow, they never had the wine I wanted and the food was ridiculously greasy. Well, things have changed! I went there with Stewpot yesterday for dinner and it was much better. The food was edible and I didn’t feel I was about to lose ten years off my life. Service was better as the man who always wears a shirt that is too small wasn’t there and the wine was ok. I would now recommend it.

——————————

Finally, life is a bit mad at the moment. I have two job interviews coming up in the next week that would see me doing something rather different to maths PhD work but would both be interesting in their own ways. Prayers for those (Thursday 6th and Tuesday 11th) would be appreciated 🙂 I am doing a science and theology talk on Thursday as well, it’s election day and at some point I have to write an essay on Mission-Shaped Church for my theology course. In addition to all the busy-ness of the next few days, I am absolutely sick of hearing stuff about homosexuality. These last two blog posts have opened a can of worms, and so if anyone talks about it to me, they are liable to get this kind of reaction:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1Zl1stDsUI[/youtube]

The ‘Christian Hustings’

Following on from an earlier post, last night I went to the ‘Christian Hustings’ hosted by ‘Christians and Candidates’ with TractorGirl. Chairing the event was the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, and the Labour, Lib Dem, Tory and UKIP candidates were there. It was held on my home territory, in Elvet Methodist Church, and all the downstairs and about a third of the balcony was full of young people, a remarkable sight given I’m used to seeing a mostly empty church. The organisers had a clear agenda, to address what they considered to be vital issues for Christians, namely freedom of speech, homosexuality, the family, abortion, embryo research and euthanasia. As one can see from the links above, the view taken on these issues was mostly a conservative evangelical one, with which I often find myself being deeply uncomfortable.

I was not impressed with the UKIP candidate, Nigel Coghill-Marshall. He came out with some sexist gems like working women “have their Gucci handbags, now they want a child” and some of his other views were racist. TractorGirl tells me that he was articulate and thoughtful for a UKIP candidate, which is worrying.

The Conservative candidate, Nick Varley, is a twenty year-old local lad and I have to admit I was impressed by him. He talked sense and while I don’t share all his views, was impressed with his integrity, how he handled disagreeing with the vast majority of the audience and dealt with the Bishop’s questioning. He was against section 28, which is important, as I’ll explain later.

The Lib Dem candidate, Carol Woods, came across as very nervous and uncomfortable dealing with a religious group with whom she disagreed. I was uncomfortable with her statement that religion and politics should be kept separate in public life and her desire to see the bishops removed from the House of Lords. Having said that, the rest of what she said was good stuff and I liked her, even her focus was perhaps too ‘town not gown’ given the audience.

The Labour candidate, Roberta Blackman-Woods really impressed me. I admired her for sticking to her guns over the Equality Bill and other issues like abortion, and I felt that she cared about representing all of her constituents. She seemed a genuinely warm person and handled the disagreements with the Bishop and audience members well.

For the most part, the debate consisted of a grilling of the candidates by the Bishop, who was genuine, gracious and fair. While I struggle with the assumption that the conservative evangelical view is the biblical view, he did, in fairness, give me the opportunity to take the mic when TractorGirl and I were the only ones applauding Nick Varley’s disagreement with Section 28 in a church with about 400 people in it!

I felt it was really important to challenge the idea that there is only one Christian view on issues like human sexuality. Before the debate began, TractorGirl was nervous of introducing me to a fellow Streetlights person as her partner, and this confirmed to me the need to speak out, even though I must admit that given 95% of the audience disagreed with me I was terrified, and there were cameras there for some sort of Christian TV channel.

When given the unexpected opportunity, I explained that I am both a Christian and gay, that Section 28 was a bad thing because ‘no promotion of homosexuality’ was interpreted by my school to mean ‘no discussion of homosexuality’, which left me feeling that my sexual orientation was a dirty secret to keep hidden (not least to avoid being bullied any more than I already was – I was different enough already!), and that where I am is a painful place to be as one gets a hard time both from the gay community (who often assume conservative Christians are homophobic, which is mostly not the case) and from the Church (I’ve been told I’m going to hell several times and either insulted, humiliated or at best just blanked by people). The Bishop was very gracious in response to this, and we had a lovely chat afterwards. I collected another picture for my ‘Me with Bishops’ collection of photos (an odd hobby of mine), which I’ll post when TractorGirl gets it developed.

The evening has convinced me that I will vote for Roberta, despite my reservations about some aspects of Labour Party policy, which has moved so far to the right as to be vastly different from the ‘democratic, socialist party’ on my old membership card. I had been worried the candidates would be bullied into submission, but they all held their own and liberal Christians like me will hopefully have a representative who listens to their views as well as engaging with more conservative folks. I was upset a bit by the nasty looks some people I know from Christchurch gave me as I left, but I think I did the right thing in standing up for what I believe, while doing my best to respect others.

In response to a discussion on Facebook, I’ve got some book and website suggestions:

Rowan Williams, ‘The Body’s Grace’

Gene Robinson, ‘In The Eye of the Storm’

Michael Vasey, ‘Strangers and Friends’

Daniel Helminiak, ‘What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality’

Robin Scrogg, ‘The New Testament and Homosexuality’

Kim Frabricius, ‘Ten Propositions on the Church and Same-Sex Relationships’

Homosexuality and Elections

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook their reasons for not signing the Westminster Declaration which is currently doing the rounds with the election looming and the perceived threat of Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill to Christianity in Britain. It’ll be pretty obvious to anyone who knows me that I won’t be signing and have profound issues with it, not just relating to sexuality but the whole idealisation of the nuclear family. It got me to thinking about various encounters I’ve had with people in the Church in the last few months:

Person A is heterosexual and, due to the teaching of the church they belong to, believes that sex is wrong outside of heterosexual marriage.

The range of responses I’ve had when coming out to such people goes from ‘I don’t think it’s God’s plan for your life’ to ‘you’re going to hell’, with various in-between views. What I find difficult here is not disagreement itself, as healthy dialogue helps everyone to be better informed, but the lack of respect and willingness to listen inherent in some people’s responses (though liberals (including me, for which I’m sorry) have also done this to more conservative Christians).

Person B is side B and has been deeply hurt by their experiences of the gay scene, which they have found to be exploitative and dehumanising. They share A’s belief but hold it with much greater vehemence than most.

The person I’m specifically thinking of is a good friend of mine and maintaining the friendship in these circumstances has been deeply costly for both of us. While I want to be understanding and there to support them, (partly because I respect their integrity but mostly because I love them) it is painful because of their unwillingness to acknowledge that part of the reason I’m a happier bunny these days is because of being honest with myself about my sexual orientation and being in a loving, faithful, committed relationship. I think admitting this would be too threatening to the religious view that allows this person to move on from their past, and they have been (almost uncertainly unintentionally) very hurtful in how they express their views. Tied in with this is their opposition to the ordination of women.

Person C used to be side B because of the teaching of the church they were in but gradually has become side A. They consider it crucially important that the views of A and B are respected and will go out of their way to avoid offending them.

On the one hand, I agree with this. The command to love one’s neighbour as one’s self does not just apply to those who agree with my own views on issues of human sexuality. On the other hand, there is a fine line between respecting opposing views and compromising integrity. While being ‘in your face’ is not helpful, neither is hiding away. Further, this view can be naïve about how some people will appeal to the Bible or ‘nature’ to justify their existing prejudices. Hatred is hatred, whether or not there are Bible verses to back it up (re. the BNP’s claim to be authentically Christian).

Person D is side A and attends the Metropolitan Community Church. They cannot understand why anyone would want to belong to a mainstream denomination that can make life hard work for gay and lesbian Christians.

I have some sympathy with this as the ordination process in the Church of England makes sexual orientation a defining characteristic (where as I have finally(!) realised that actually it is a very small part of who I am) and reduces relationships to what happens in the bedroom. It can be very difficult to be in a mainstream church and I know people who attend MCC because of their experiences and how much it hurt them. My experience of it is of a loving group of people who made me very welcome. On the other hand, for me, mainstream denominations are not going to change if all LGBT people jump ship, and this does make sexual orientation pivotal, which I am uncomfortable with doing.

—————————————————-

My reason for pondering these encounters is the upcoming election hustings in Durham, chaired by the former Bishop of Rochester, which as the links in TractorGirl’s post on this show, has a definite agenda in terms of the Equality Bill. According to some of these folks, because of my relationship, I am not a real Christian. It seems to me that homosexuality is being used as a set piece issue for people who are struggling with the lack of automatic deference in a post-Christendom age, and is something about which they feel they must ‘make a stand on’ over and against the wider culture.

All four of these encounters, especially that with B, have been difficult as they highlight the loneliness one can experience being Christian, female, gay, in a committed, loving relationship and in a mainstream denomination. I am happy to engage with and hope I manage to respect those whose views are different to my own within the C of E and the wider Church. However, I often feel that I am treated with very little respect and am expected to bend to the opinions of others. Having said that, the churches in Durham of which I am a part have been wonderfully supportive and my sexual orientation is much, much less important than the fact that I am happy.

I’ve drafted this e-mail which I attend to send to the Labour and Lib Dem candidates (as realistically our next MP will be one of them):

Dear Candidate,

I am writing to you about the forthcoming election hustings at Elvet Methodist Church on Friday 30th April. As is clear from my research into the motives of the organisers, there is an agenda in terms of opposition to the recent Equality Bill and a sense that issues like homosexuality are forcing Christians to act against their consciences. Some of the language implies that gay Christians in relationships are not really Christian at all. As someone in this position, I hope that you will bear in mind that there are many Christians who are gay and in committed, faithful and loving relationships, which is a very lonely place to be, given the hostility one sometimes encounters from both the Church and the gay community. The message that the Equality Bill sends out is, in my opinion, very important as it affirms the value of LGBT people in society. While clashes of this with individual conscience are difficult to resolve, please do not forget that those of us stuck in the middle often have the hardest time of all. I pray that instead of getting bogged down in such discussions, these hustings give an opportunity to discuss the issues that really matter, like care for the poor and disadvantaged, climate change and care for creation, and human rights and dignity, which are so central to the Christian Gospel.

TOH