Tag 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?

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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…

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!

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.

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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 🙂

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‘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.

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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’