Been Reading….

The most recent book borrowed from MK Library wasn’t one of their “blind dates“, it was ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma. Not a new title, but one which looked like it might be interesting.

Reading it was an interesting experience. I found myself getting really into it and reading random bits of ‘wisdom’ out loud and in turn being asked what ‘hippy stuff’ I was spouting by Karl. Once I’d got the message that it was best to digest it inwardly without exclaiming “listen to this” every five minutes I did have to contain my excitement about the contents every so often.

Part way through it struck me that this stuff was things I knew anyway but which I’d become familiar with using a different language. The principles of reflection and keeping notes of your goals, etc was simply journaling. That’s something I try and keep up with doing anyway.

The reading for 30 minutes a day was similarly something I know Christians are encouraged to do. Regular daily reading of the scriptures and looking to read other books which are enhancing to them.

The meditation and silence is a tool we use for listening to and connecting with God.

The importance of self-control is something reinforced through the scriptures as is the fact we are all called to serve.

The material in this book then was stuff I already knew I needed to be doing but as the book says there is a difference between knowing and doing. We need to create discipline and new habits and that comes through overcoming our thoughts. This is where Sharma and I would diverge in view I think. He talks about the power to overcome these things coming from our minds, whilst I think that is true to some extent we can be helped to do this, I believe, through the Spirit. God can enable us to do things we feel to be impossible but it does require an act of will on our part.

Something I found interesting was the diarying in of time for yourself to nurture yourself. It’s something I know that I have taken the wrong way in the past. It has in the past become a bit of a “I must relax and do good stuff” thing, and that has failed. Being with Karl has helped me to see that within our lives we need some level of spontaneity and openness to experience the unknown.

So is it The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari worth reading? Answer yes.

Discernibly Different

I watched the first half of the debate yesterday afternoon and was struck by how many of the MPs on both sides of the debate were proclaiming their faith.

There was one MP who particularly struck me because his whole approach was discernibly different to the others and that was Toby Perkins MP for Chesterfield. Yes, he happened to be coming from broadly the same position I was on the whole thing,  but it wasn’t that what grabbed my respect. There was something noticeably different in the way he was speaking. There wasn’t the same style of “making a point” which most of the others were doing, he was talking more gently and from a different position.

The first thing he did was to make the point that this was the second reading of the bill and not the final reading. As he said if things were constantly voted out at second reading, before committee got to change some of the detail and correct some of the flaws, nothing would ever get passed. That point is important. Many people were talking as if the bill before them was the final version which they were having to decide upon, it wasn’t. There is now the committee stage and the opportunity for amendments to be tabled.

Then he said something very important about what he believed faith wise in regards to the bill:

As a Christian, I see Christianity as a tremendously generous religion. As I have said previously, I think that Jesus Christ led the way on promoting equalities. There are any number of stories in the Bible that make it absolutely clear that Jesus stuck up for groups that had been oppressed over the years. As a Christian, I feel entirely comfortable voting in favour of this Bill.”

This is important he felt comfortable supporting the bill. We need to remember that there would have been some people voting against who were not comfortable supporting it because of their beliefs, that needs to be respected. Whilst I don’t agree with them I was happy this was a free vote and think we should see more of these votes in parliament, where MPs are allowed to vote according to their beliefs and able to represent their constituents interests without fear of recrimination from the whips. People were being allowed to vote according to conscience, and this was clearer with some than with others.

There was also a personal element to his contribution which he referred to in regard to his mother. I think this may also have influenced the way in which he spoke.

This gives the report of all the contributions to the debate and the ones relating to Toby Perkins speech and the replies he gave when giving way, (not deciding to decline to do so because “it wasn’t in his interest” as one MP did) can be found at 2pm.

In terms of my local MP Mark Lancaster he voted against the bill, which was what was expected, (statement here). I want to reiterate to anybody reading that having met Mr. Lancaster and heard his reasons for voting as he has, that he is certainly not homophobic. He agrees that the inequalities which exist in relation to transgender issues and inequalities between civil partnership and marriage need dealing with but did not feel this was the right way to go about it. Interestingly, depending upon amendments it is possible he may not vote the same way at the final reading – although I suspect he is likely to.

The other MK MP Iain Stewart was always going to vote for the bill with pride as his speech during the debate indicated. It was a speech which shows how at the end of the days enduring, faithful relationships are what people want – whatever you call it. I have to admit having met him a couple of times now I like Iain, finding him much more of the sort of Tory I can warm to to some extent – even though I am unlikely to agree with him on most things -, but I do worry that in his eagerness to support this bill he has not recognised its shortcomings.

My hope is that as we move towards the third reading that the critical, objective (?), eye of the likes of Mark Lancaster may work with the emotional understandings of people like Iain Stewart in order to see a final bill which meets the needs and concerns of the population at large and that it is debated with the sensitivity of people like Toby Perkins.

All that said my main hope is that we might see this and the whole Womens Bishops issue settled once and for all – in a way which brings about equality but also seeks to allow for compromise and where necessary real options for individuals and congregations to opt out (or in) – and that we may may be able to get on with focusing on our response to issues such as poverty. My hope is people may unite around issues such as opposition to the removal of benefit which is proposed under the welfare proposals, particularly for those effected by what has become known as “the bedroom tax” – understanding that people cannot always easily move and be uprooted, particularly if they are living in poverty to start with and around the IF campaign, which Tearfund and others are promoting.

And as ever with anything touching on sexuality or gender identity issues what I have writtenand the opinions given are entirely personal and given in my personal capacity.

A New Religious Right???

Hannah Mudge who is part of the new wave of Christian Feminists has posted this interesting critique of the new Theos Think Tank report looking at “Is there a ‘Religious Right’ Emerging in Britain?” which was produced by Andy Walton with Andrea Hatcher and Nick Spencer.

The Theos report used a mix of quantiative and qualitative data to look at whether the view put forward in the media and elsewhere, (including in the Guardian by Bishop Alan – our local bishop here), that there is a new religious right emerging is accurate or not. The introduction of the report indicates this is complex and that you need to read through the full report to understand the complete and nuanced picture.

The report begins by looking at the differences which exist between some of the groups emerging in the UK and those which are associated with the religious right in the US. It looks at the way in which the economic perspective of the groups in the two countries differ. In the US the focus is on liberalism and free market economic whilst in the UK a majority of those in groups which might be associated with the Religious Right have a belief in the UK based welfare system.

With regards to the issues they focus upon it makes the point whilst there are points of overlap there are also additional concerns in the UK such as those related to various forms of addictive behaviour and the sex trade. Also the Zionist agenda of the US groups is largely missing from the UK groups.

The nature of worshippers within the UK is greater than the US and this country has undergone a much greater process of secularisation. The impact of having an established church in the UK is also discussed.

The Theos report gave a brief history of the rise of the political religious right in the US coming to the conclusion that whilst  there appears to have been a decline in their influence they are not totally gone yet. The report identifies white evangelical protestants as the key group who have comprised the Religious Right.

The report goes on to make the point that issues such as gay marriage don’t define political debate in the UK in the same way in which they do in the UK.

There is an overview of the key organisations which have been accused of being part of the Christian Right in the past. These groups are diverse in nature and cover a spectrum of thought from the Evangelical Alliance on one end to Christian Voice on the other with groups such as CARE and Christian Concern in between.

One interesting observation made is the way in which the Evangelical Alliance leadership is less ready “to criticise or repudiate the tactics of British-based groups like Christian Voice” than in the past.

It concludes by making the point that in the UK the groups are focused around a small number of concerns, with some exception they don’t have the same ties to a particular political party in the UK as in the US,  that whilst the income of such groups is not insignificant they don’t have the same funding as in the US, that there is broader support for these groups than just within the those who might be associated with the religious right, that they have a limited access to political power in the UK . The key conclusion is that the US and UK are in many ways not comparable – in part because of the different structure of the broadcasting industry within this country.

The report makes the point that those groups which have most access to the political powerbase are those which are most moderate in their approach and views and those which are most extreme and perhaps most hungry for political power are furthest from it.

It goes on to counsel the media and others that they need to be careful in their use of the term “Religious Right”.

Hannah Mudge’s response commends the report, as I do. She shows how in the UK feminists and socially conservative groups are working on similar issues, all be it from differing positions, citing lads mags and the sexualisation of childhood as an example.

She argues that we need to proceed with caution because whilst the majority of groups do have less resources and influence they are setting themselves up as having the “true biblical response”.

Mudge ends with a series of challenges.

The first of these is a challenge to journalists that right-wing groups must not dominate the media narrative on Christian issues. To this I would argue that neither should the liberals who are in many ways in direct opposition to the right-wing groups. Part of what creates the climate of fundamentalism is fear and if the voice of the moderate evangelicals is not heard the myth of two sides, rather than a broad spectrum of opinion, is reinforced. This is the reason why Christianity Magazine publishing the Chalke article and their own editorial was so important. It brings into the public space the truth of the diversity of opinion which does exist.

The second challenge is that moderate and progressive believers need to make themselves heard. Again the Chalke story feeds into this. Steve Chalke has spoken of the fear he felt in being honest about his opinions. That culture of fear needs to be removed and that can only happen when more people have the courage to speak out. The don’t ask, don’t say culture which exists in evangelicalism and results in a gap between public rhetoric and pastoral practice on a range of issues needs to be removed. There needs to be a new honesty so that the two can begin to match each other more.

The third challenge she gives is for Christians to be discerning about the organisations we support. This requires Christians to seek information but the problem here is where is the information coming from? If it is churches giving Christians the information they are more likely to trust it.

I came to reading this report and Mudge’s response at the end of the week when Christian groups and others had been meeting with a local MP to give their views on the same sex marriage bill. I want to outline what has happened locally to illustrate why the report is right but also why there are other issues to be thought about which are not mentioned, and which may explain some of the differences which exist between the UK and US.

The MP had a meeting set up with local faith leaders who were opposed to the same sex marriage bill, through one of his office employees. The information of this meeting was diseminated through professional and social networks, primarily through the office of one of the new churches. The meeting with the MP was apparently well attended, with all but two of the participants being from the new churches – which in MK includes the black majority churches.

The email also went through to some people who weren’t in opposition to the bill. The result is some people had a seperate meeting with the MP and one of them, from a mainstream denomination, went to the meeting which was mainly attended by the new church leaders.

There was, on the part of the MP, a clear desire to be seen to hear all the voices of his constituents.

His expressed view on the bill is that in current form he has major concerns. He agrees that the inequalities which currently exist between civil partnership and marriage and between couples where one is trans and others need to be sorted out so that equality is achieved. However, he is also concerned about the way in which this is being done and whether the bill will have unexpected consequences in the future.

He has clearly read the bill and is not homophobic. However, he has had letters from the pro-gay side which have apparently implied he is homophobic if he votes against. This has understandably annoyed him.

What I want to draw out of this is the role of new church denominations and black majority churches in the UK as well as the way in which non-religious and more liberal people need to think about their language.

Taking the last point first. The language of secularists and those who have set themselves up against the socially conservative evangelicals (within and beyond the church) and others is sometimes as extreme as that coming from some religious groups who appear to be on the right. The impact of these words needs to be recognised as does the fact religion is a protected diversity strand, alongside others, and equality issues being promoted by faith based groups will be taken equally seriously to other diversity and inclusion issues.

The white majority new church networks have often been socially conservative but have also been involved in social entreprenurialship and social justice in a way that the US churches haven’t. These new churches, (such as New Frontiers), do have international links including to the US and are encouraging people to get politically involved but not in the same way as in the US. They understand the importance, in the UK context, of working with local authorities and so on. They are also part of wider networks such as Street Pastors and so the picture is quite complex.

In terms of the black majority church they are an increasingly significant group within the UK, particularly in the face of secularisation and whilst they may be socially conservative they are often not politically conservative. This element is important if we are to understand the true picture of what is happening in the UK and at the moment they are being marginalised. Race issues which remain in the US may also be important in making sure that the Religious Right does not emerge as a significant force in the UK. For organisations such as the EA the black majority churches are clearly being seen as a constituency to court.

So to conclude it’s complicated. We do need to be watchful as Mudge suggests and we do need to take her challenges seriously, as we do the Theos report. However, we also need to look at the full picture of what is happening in the UK taking the role of the new churches as seriously as that of political parachurch groups which the report focuses on.

Think, Speak, Act Conference Review

The cynical might have described Think, Speak, Act as a Christian Guardianista day out to whinge about Coalition. The cynical would have been wrong about this conference organised by the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT).

True the first key note speaker was Giles Fraser, a Christian contributor to the Guardian and there was literature and comment about the immorality of the forthcoming benefit changes, especially in relation to housing and the bedroom tax floating around but it was about far more than that.

Giles Fraser, who it had to be said looked a little like the accused prior to the event – sitting on the side seats with loosened tie making notes and looking uncomfortable in the shirt and tie he had on with his jeans, was talking on ‘Theology in Action: St Paul’s and Occupy’.

This title led to the best comment I heard all day. The lady behind me was looking at the programme before the kick off and turned to her husband and asked in all innocence, “where is St. Paul’s and Occupy? I’ve not heard of that church.”

Anyway back to Giles Fraser. It was primarily an intelligent and thoughtful critique on the philosophy of perpetual economic growth. It was linked to this recent Guardian article he has written.

Within his talk Fraser explained the Church has something distinctive to offer to the debate on this issue. The distinctive messages we have to offer are (i) the idea that what we have is a gift entrusted to us and (ii) there is such a thing as having enough. He used the picture of the manna given to the Israelites in the desert during the exodus.

He also argued the church has generally had a bad theology  of economics, despite it being the main moral issue addressed in the bible.

Two striking sound bites within his talk were “money is the sacrament of seriousness” and “the best way to tell our attitude to money is to look at our bank statement.”

The film shown during the plenary session with a variety of delegates saying what was most memorable illustrated the impact these two soundbites had had on many of those present.

In terms of the whole Occupy thing relatively little was actually said. What Fraser did say was often framed within a “us” and “them” language, as was some of the comment made on where we go from here. This was something I picked him up on within the q&a which followed his presentation. His response recognised something of the real complexity of the situation, but I still felt he was too focused on emphasising the institutional nature of the church.

If, as I’ve said, Fraser looked a bit like the accused sitting there uncomfortable in his shirt and tie then Martyn Atkins looked like he might be the solicitor representing him. The differences in appearance reflected something of the differences between the talks.

Where Fraser had been the streetwise vicar reflecting on what he’d heard and experienced Atkins approach was much more academic and book based.

Using scripture from Jeremiah and John he reflected on a range of images and motifs of what being a Christian is like. These ideas were taken from books by Margaret Myers(didn’t catch title)  and Donald Messer  (A Conspiracy of Goodness).

For me the first two motifs of Myers he used were the most striking. The first was ‘resident alien’ and the second was ‘the pilgrim’.

In regards to the ‘resident alien’ he made the point we need to work out what justice is in a complex world.

When unpacking what it means to be a pilgrim he focused on how pilgrims don’t travel alone, they are partnered. He said we need to be partnered ecumenically and with others outside of churches who are ahead of us in reflecting God’s values. Within this part of his talk he emphasised the need to learn from and partner with those who can show us how to embrace inclusion through their equality and diversity practices. He also said we need to partner locally, not seeking superiority because our buildings or staff may be involved.

He finished his talk, which was the last of the afternoon, by reflecting on how in the past evangelicalism and social action were seen as separate but now they’re not. He explained the importance of taking a holistic approach.

The keynote speech was interesting and I agreed with what was being said but I did wonder how this would all work out in practice, particularly the partnering and speaking out. Methodism is to some extent constrained by what Conference have and haven’t said and done. The inability of the denomination to respond to the parts of the same sex marriage consultation which related to gender identity because there was no mention of the subject in the CPD illustrates the constraints the denomination faces.

Beyond the keynote speakers were workshops which we’d previously booked into. There was lots of group work involved in the workshops which sometimes worked well and at other times not so well in the sessions I was in.

The morning workshop I went to was on ‘what does my local area really need’. It was an ok seminar, but within a few minutes I realised that it was wrong for me as it was about things with which I was somewhat familiar.

The afternoon session on preaching and praying for justice was fantastic though. It was focused and Janet Morely facilitated us very professionally as we identified the key aspects of good and bad practice in preaching for justice and praying for justice and fed back. This was workshop that I would recommend for any conference aimed at preachers or worship leaders. (If Connected Worship were being repeated I would highly recommend considering booking Janet).

All in all a good conference but one I felt could have been improved by having an activist session led by the JPIT themselves. I think it would have been useful to discuss how we campaign alongside them on global and national issues as well as locally in our contexts. Groups like this have a key role in connecting the hyper local with the wider networks and national/international campaigns they feed into. This is something I think would have been good to explore further.

That last bit said it was good and the JPIT had worked hard putting it together, as they do on everything – it is no suprise this conference was a sell out.

They are an important resource to the Baptists, URC and Methodists who they represent and this needs recognising more widely than I think it sometimes is. Hurrah for the JPIT.

Preparing for Lent

A few years ago I put together this set of creative ideas for Lent, it reflected where I was then. As in previous years the stats tell me it is being picked up again as people look for Lent ideas.

In many ways my view of Lent has changed a bit since then in part through reading some of the Maggi Dawn archive material on the subject. The other reason it has changed is because of a sermon I did during lent a couple of years ago. Within it I focused on the fact that we often try to manufacture our suffering during lent, trying to imitate Jesus’ temptations. However, are we actually designed to be more like the angels who came to attend Jesus after he had faced those temptations? Are we people who are called to come alongside those who have had to go through genuine suffering and attend to them and help them?

Part of my thinking on this came from the work I was doing on single parents I was doing at the time and my understanding of Genesis 21:15-19 in particular. It was clear that the angel acted as an encourager and somebody who signposted Hagar to the resources she needed. She was somebody who was in the wilderness for a reason too, and in this case had lost hope. Her life was changed by an angel of God responding, as a result of God hearing her call and pain.

I want to argue that as we prepare to enter this period of Lent we need to ask ourselves who are we and where are we? What is our role in the story this Lent? What I mean is we need to establish whether we are people who are in the wilderness or people called to support those in the desert. Are we people who need to be sustained through difficult circumstances by our knowledge of scripture and by the love of God and may need signposting to resources or are we amongst those God wants to go and meet those in the desert, in order to support them and show God’s love to them?

In both situations God is involved and both sets of people are totally dependent upon God, but in different ways. Whilst it may seem that only the wilderness role involves suffering the “angel role” also requires giving things up in order to fulfil that calling. Time will be involved and it may also need us to step outside of our natural comfort zone.

When I started writing this I was going to give some suggestions of what you might do for Lent, depending upon your role but I can’t. Lent when looked at like this is something very personal. If you are in the wilderness this Lent you will know exactly why that is and it will be something incredibly personal to you. If you are not in the wilderness you need to be praying and listening to God in order to discover which bit of wilderness you need to go to and how you need to be responding to the person God wants you to discover there. This wilderness experience may be personal or corporate – again we don’t know.

There are examples, most notably during the exodus, when groups of people found themselves going through wilderness experiences and having their needs met in that situation. Equally when Jesus was going through his period of temptation there was more than one angel who came to attend him. Yet for Hagar it was one angel and a single parent and her child involved. Again the wilderness experience is personal and contextual.

So this Lent I want to encourage you away from the spiritual self-improvement of that previous post and into something more abstract and difficult.



Attracting the Visitors

Destination Milton Keynes has produced a great new video  which is informative about the sights of MK, even if the commentary does sound like everything is being said in an ironic way. Now there are a few things missing from the video – the roundabouts and grid system, the skateboarding potential which is directly linked to the Buszy and so I could go on. Not sure if this video will attract the visitors or not.

If not perhaps the lure of hidden loot will do it. There is apparently £8,000 hidden within MK Gallery which has been placed there by an artist. According to the report in the MK Citizen (the local paper) the gallery don’t know anything about it. Think I’m going to keep my eyes extra open when I head to the Gallery tomorrow evening for the film Paper Tiger Reads Paper Tiger Television.

Amendment Required

Another private and personal post declaimer.

This is the link to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill which is currently going through parliament, due for 2nd reading on 5th February.

I support the aim of the bill and would ask you, if you are able, to write to your MP if you are in favour so that they are aware. If you do write I would also ask that you ask for an amendment. The bill confirms that people in a civil partnership will have to convert to marriage if one partner is transsexual and wishes to gain a full gender recognition certificate. Karl and I have our civil partnership coming up this summer, as some of you will be aware. For various reasons we wish to keep it as a civil partnership rather than register it as a marriage – this bill will not allow us to do so.

Part of what Maria Miller said in this statement in December was that she wished to take away the pain of people who were supporting their trans partner having to change their marital status because one of them was transsexual. Whilst she is keeping this promise to married people where one of the couple is trans it won’t apply to those in civil partnerships. That seems like an unintentional(?) discrimination to me, an amendment would solve this.

Daughters Influence

Looking at the BBC 6 Music poll to find the best track since the station began broadcasting in 2002 I realise that to some extent my musical taste was influenced by Third Party. Some of the stuff which I like on the list was defo from what she would play on You Tube.

From the 100 songs things which particularly caught my eye were The Futureheads Hounds of Love which would have come into the same category of music as Scouting for Girls (who were missing) and The Killers Mr Brightside which was on there. Florence and the Machine Kiss With a Fist is somewhere on the list too and is a contender, as was Five Years Time by Noah and the Whale. They’re the group I’ll eternally regret not going to see at Cambridge Folk Festival when they were on. Not sure if we were seeing anything instead or just didn’t get to the stage where they were on – whichever gutted.

The Strokes Juicebox isn’t my favourite song of theirs. For me nothing will beat the moment I first heard New York City Cops, which literally made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck in a way I think only Supergrass’s Caught By the Fuzz has before. Not sure why when I was talking about key gigs I’d been to in a post the other week that the Strokes at Alexandra Palace in December 2003 wasn’t on there.

For me the greatest song though? Well it is a toss up between Vampire Weekend’a A-Punk, Richard Hawley’s Tonight the Streets Are Ours and Kaiser Chiefs Oh My God.

Which am I voting for? Well it has to be Kaiser Chiefs because it’s a indie pop classic which you can dance around whilst doing the ironing, jump around in a crowd or just generally tap your feet whilst bobbing your head whilst sitting reading a book to. Pure indie pop anthem.

Voting closes tomorrow evening – what would you vote for?

And what would you vote for which is within the period but not on the list? For me it would be The Wombats – Let’s Dance to Joy Division.

(Note links started going funny half way through and so if you want to see them you’ll just have to follow earlier links to the You Tube playlist.