Sunday, 19 March 2017

A distraction

I’ve simply been enjoying playing with at least a dozen uses of the word ‘tract’ this week.

It turns out to be one of those very physical words which dominate most of our figures of speech (in much the same way that the words ‘dominate’ and ‘figures’ function there) but we don’t notice this because the word is Latin.

It is part of the Latin word ‘trahere’, which is ‘to draw’ in the sense of ‘to pull’.

So to at-tract is to draw something towards you.

While, to dis-tract is draw something away.

To re-tract is to take something back – and this is one of those wonderful cases where modern English has two almost identical words, one with Latin roots (re-tract) and one with Anglo-Saxon roots (with-draw).

A con-tract draws people together.

To ex-tract and an ex-tract are about pulling something out.

As is sub-tract in the sense of taking something away - and 'taking away' is the exact Anglo-Saxon equivalent.

While abs-tract can be used like ex-tract and like sub-tract in the sense of pulled out or taken away, but can also be used marvellously as a physical image for all that is non-physical in the sense of what is non-pullable.

I particularly like in-tract-able, which is also something you can’t move.

Best of all, it seems to me, is something pro-tract-ed, which is to be long drawn out - and 'long drawn out' is not only the Anglo-Saxon equivalent here but also gives rise to the identical Latin / Anglo-Saxon hybrid word pro-long-ed.

Your digestive tract is also long drawn out.

And (although this is the least obvious) so is a tract of land.

A written tract appears to be something which draws out the implications of a proposition.

And a machine which pulls things along is either a tract-ion engine or, more simply, a tract-or.

Meanwhile, the picture is a wasp nest found in the roof space at St Nicolas’ during building work; we knew from periodic invasions of the church that there must be something there and are glad it has now been removed.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Resting on a mess

There is at the back of my mind a half-remembered sense that the story of the call of Abram goes something like this:

Abram lived with his father in the long-term family home at Ur, near the Persian Gulf, where they worshipped God in their own lights.  God called him to leave all this behind, travel to Canaan to establish a new family, a family with the unique characteristics that it was chosen by God, that it worshipped God as he really is, and that its members would flourish together.

But a closer reading of the passage from the Hebrew Bible set for the Sunday Eucharist yesterday (and of the verses which precede it and of the way the story runs on after it) reveals a different story:

Abram’s father Terah had already set out with his family for Canaan and had travelled all the way up the Euphrates (the green corridor which was the only practical trading route for such a journey), getting perhaps 60% of the way there, when, for some reason, he settled down instead at Harran (in a region we know well in our prayers today being about 100 miles from modern Aleppo in Syria and about 250 miles from modern Mosul in Iraq), and he eventually died there.

God then called Abram to get un-stuck from his late father’s new home and complete the journey to ‘a country I will show you’ and about which God will soon say ‘I am giving this land to your descendants’.  But when he moves through the land he finds a famine, so he passes through it to Egypt (exactly the process familiar to us from the story of his grandson and great-grandson Jacob and Joseph) - where he almost seems to pimp his wife to secure his own safety and establishes his own fortune in the fertile Nile corridor (quite like the original family home at Ur). 

When he finally returns to Canaan it turns out to be a place for his family to struggle together.  First they quarrel, then they find they can only live peaceable with each other by living separate parallel lives, and then they are engulfed in war with others - before too long Abram is pursuing enemies half way back to Harran.

My half-remembered version of the story is compatible with the genuine testimony of many:

they lived in pagan disbelief and debauchery, had a single moment of clarity and a call from God, and have lived since in a reformed and Godly way.

The closer reading, however, is more compatible with a different story and testimony.

I am on a journey to where God wants me to be, intending to leave behind the beliefs, habits and values of my home community.  

But I can get comfortable and stuck on the way and can easily recreate a fresh version of the place and life I began to leave behind.  

Even when God gives me another shove, I find the place where he wants me to be sometimes barren and often conflict-ridden.  

So, put under any particular pressure, I can easily revert even to old moral choices of which I ought to be ashamed.

And, put alongside others on the same journey, I can find it much easier to live a separate stream from them rather than to pursue a struggle together.

As an individual, there is some comfort in recognising how simply Abram-shaped a faltering Christian journey can still be; it is as if it is almost our foundational pattern.

As a member of a church which says things about ‘mutual flourishing’ but which doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to engage in the mutual struggling of 'good disagreement' this is also an important message – perhaps a subject for a subsequent post.

And alongside all of this, there is a further detail which people do often notice when engaged in a close reading of the few verses set for yesterday.  When we get some of this right, it isn’t meant to be for my benefit or the benefit of my own people at all.  It is to be blessing on others - ‘so that you will be a blessing... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’.  Perhaps that is also worth a subsequent post in itself.

Meanwhile, we now know that the building work at St Nicolas’ is going to take a couple of weeks longer than first anticipated, so our ambition for the congregation to be back there in time for Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter is going to be disappointed.

The picture shows the mess on which the main beam running east-west (on to which the south aisle's roof beams rest) turns out to be sitting upon - the wood on the left is probably an earlier roof beam reused and the brick work to its right is probably the bottom part of what we know was the Victorian bricking up of an earlier clerestory window.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Great Coates progress

The village War Memorial has finally found a permanent home, and one at child eye-level.  The fraught saga over several years hasn't helped anyone much, but it is good that it is visible to the public again and that its new home is a building in which some of those commemorated on it were educated.

Meanwhile, round the corner at St Nicolas', work is well under way on the south aisle, although it looks as if our ambitions to be back in the building for Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter is in doubt now that the roofers have discovered how extensive the work is which they need to do.  A small bonus is that they have found and removed the wasps nest in the roof space which has given us problems over the last few years.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Following the cross

The top two photographs were taken inside St Nicolas' earlier in the week: work has begun sheeting off and protecting the fabric ahead of the building work which will take place during March.

The bottom two pictures were taken inside St Michael's this morning: St Michael's has put away its own processional cross for Lent and replaced it with the one from St Nicolas' ready to welcome both congregations worshipping together for a few weeks until the building work at St Nicolas' is completed.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

It matters enough

There were two by-elections last week.  The weather was foul.  So was the political climate. In their different ways, these two factors must have contributed to the result which came out like this:

Registered to vote but didn't do so: about 66 000.
Voted Labour: about 19 500, and they got a new MP as a result.
Voted Conservative: about 19 000, and they got a new MP as a result.
Voted for someone else: about 14 000.

Commentators have focused on the way the votes fell.  Labour should have done better than this since the by elections were in areas traditionally more supportive of it.  The Lib Dems and UKIP don’t look like significant players any longer if they can’t emerge from the pack at by-elections.  And so on.

But where is the commentary which focused on the majority who didn’t vote?

There has always been a perhaps unhealthy percentage who don’t, from about 20% at General Elections in the 1950s to about 40% more recently.  But more than half the registered voters?  Seriously?  Imagine how different either result might have been if just 10% more had been tempted out in the rain.

Perhaps those who have been most energised to campaign or vote by the prospect of the sorts of changes which ‘take control’, ‘keep immigrants out’ and ‘create a smaller state’ don’t see anything they are lacking. 

Perhaps those who have been energised by the old liberal consensus see a House of Commons in which a majority believe we are on a destructive path but vote for it anyway so don’t see much point in electing more of them.

Most of which aside, this makes me wonder whether this relates to my recent posts about Prof Linda Woodhead’s anlaysis of the ‘rise of the nones’ (that is, those who describe themselves as being of ‘no religion’ rather than, for example, atheist, Christian or Moslem)?  Perhaps non-identification and non-participation is quite as much a societal issue as one of faith?

Meanwhile, there was a real buzz in St Michael’s yesterday at the Traidcraft Big Brew event for Fair Trade Fortnight.  Four families involved in our Youth Group and ‘Last Saturday Thing’ worship took the lead.  Two newly attending families were also there getting to know people.  One of our regional MEPs (on the left in the picture) dropped in.  Over £200 was raised.

Linda McAvan chairs the European Parliament’s Fair Trade Group and has achieved its agreement that Fair Trade tea and coffee are automatically served in the Parliament building and changes to procurement laws so that public bodies can specify Fair Trade produce in their tenders.

Perhaps it is this patient low grade work to which both politicians and church are called – ‘there can only be speaking and acting authentic possibilities... our picking up that many people think we are onto something when we explore forgiveness (may) be one hint; the chord struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s focus on Wonga may be another significant example...’ and sticking to our guns about fairness may simply be another (however high the percentage of those who are simply not interested enough even to be hostile).

Friday, 24 February 2017


My wife only has an occasional walk on part in this Blog (I've noted before that this is normally on the edge of a photograph, either to provide scale or because she hadn't moved over quite far enough to keep our of shot) but this week City & Guilds announced the Medal for Excellence for each of their 2015/16 courses and Deborah (who is an artist in textiles) is one of those medallists - so all this post needs is Proverbs 31.28,29 and a picture such as this one which was taken in our kitchen this morning and is of the latest batch of threads which she has dyed.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Gifts we don't want

Some of the things which made Birmingham an important place in which to train for ordination in the middle of the 1980s have been coming back to me. 

The Bishop of Lincoln happened to ask me about it at breakfast earlier in the month and we named both Prof John Hull and Prof Frances Young in the conversation. 

And then the beautiful film Notes on Blindness was broadcast on BBC 4 this week – a film based on the notes which John Hull was making at the time as he explored the process of his going blind – and I was back in the midst of those conversations thirty years ago.

The film brought him to the place in which an overwhelming experience of grace gave him a sense of God placing a dark cloak over him – so that he had to own his blindness as a gift (albeit one he did not want) and the only question was then what he would do with it.

At the same time Frances Young, then a newly ordained Methodist Minister, was articulating her response to her son Arthur’s severe disabilities using what I take to be the same ‘theological method’.

But neither John Hull’s blindness nor Frances Young’s son’s disability were simply ‘raw material’ for ‘theological reflection’ but rather the realities integral to their lives, the lenses through which they read scripture, the questions with which they interrogated tradition, the filter through which they sifted other Christians' explorations and experience.

It strikes me belatedly that my own ministerial formation alongside these sorts of reflections explains why I find those who have a ‘problem with suffering’ so puzzling - when they made me want every such encounter to be the starting point which strips away previously easy answers and casual assumptions and takes me somewhere new.

So facing the realities of dispossesionbereavement, dementiasecular assumptions (thanks to Stephen Pattison, another of my Birmingham teachers of the time) and of stillbirth are examples of the places where faith can be refined and therefore renewed and validated rather than undermined and abandoned.

And just perhaps the Church of England is at such a moment with the gifts of both the experience of those who wish to own the reality of their same-sex marriages before God and of the painful division this has provoked.

It has brought our Archbishop this week to focus anew for those of whichever very different views of these realities:

No person is a problem, or an issue.  People are made in the image of God.  All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ.  There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people...  we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church... this must be... based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual... The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ - all of us, without exception, without exclusion.

It brings me back to my reading of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 - returning from what would have been a marginalising experience at the temple in Jerusalem and full of urgent questions about his reading of Isaiah 53.

I’m certain it is not just or even chiefly a story of an intellectual question (‘who is Isaiah speaking about?’) receiving a satisfactory academic answer (‘this is how we understand the ministry of Jesus’) and thus provoking a religious response (‘what then prevents me from being baptised?’).

It is a story of a painful reality (of emasculation and religious exclusion) encountering Gospel possibilities (‘don’t let the eunuch say I’m just a dry tree’ comes in the same part of Isaiah) which opens up new life itself (‘and he went on his way rejoicing’).

The picture was taken in St Nicolas’, Great Coates after the children had left last week.