Friday, 27 February 2009

Bankrupting Trustees

The extent of the liability of charity trustees to have to pay their own money to meet the debts or obligations of the charity is scandalous. I know local individuals who’ve had to stump up thousands when a small charity ceased (the theory was that they should have been aware that the Manager wasn’t doing what she said she had been doing with the money). The current Governance magazine speaks of newly appointed trustees bankrupted (because they didn’t pick up at the first meeting they attended that the way an employee was being made redundant left them open to his suing them). Paid employees of companies are not left open in this way.

Guidance to trustees says we should keep this in perspective and that incidents are very rare. I continue to drive on motorways even though I know there is a remote chance that someone else’s bad driving will kill me. I continue to act as a trustee of several organisations even though I know that there is a remote chance that someone else’s actions will come back to haunt me.

But not everyone is so relaxed about this. Yesterday I heard the person who promotes and supports trusteeship at our local Voluntary Action organisation say that he wouldn’t act as a trustee of an unincorporated charity. Two days earlier I heard those involved in Freshney Forward (the Fresney Ward covers half this parish; locally ‘Forward’ groups are forums for Councillors, residents, statutory groups and voluntary groups) resist the idea that a specific activity should be opened up to grant possibilities by becoming a charity of which they would be trustees, and it was about this issue that people were nervous.

So at the Voluntary Action training event I attended yesterday, I was most interested in the way that the Charities Act 2006 will soon allow even very small charities to become Charitable Incorporated Organisations. This should give then limited liability but without having to register as a Company and thus have to meet all the disproportionate requirements of doing so (including filing all their returns twice - once with Companies House and once with the Charity Commissioners) and being subject to two quite different systems of scrutiny.

The only problem is that the provisions haven’t been brought into force yet. It needs to be soon, before the lives of too many other volunteers are ruined and the reluctance to consider being a trustee gets even more wide spread.

The event took place almost opposite the Town Hall and I’d never noticed the Bishop up on the front before. I’ve no idea who he is, but I rather like the way the bands on the back of his mitre fly about.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Community Pay Back again

The Government appears to be putting the Probation Service under a lot of pressure to reduce the high level of refusal by host organisations who had been asked to allow offenders sentenced to unpaid work with them to wear ‘Community Payback’ high visibility jackets. I posted on 4th December about one of our churches doing this.

We’ve now had a letter from the local Probation Trust asking us to reconsider. The letter quotes Government guidance which states ‘it is fundamental to public confidence that the community is able to see Community Payback work take place in their areas and the use of high visibility jackets is an important part of this’ while also saying ‘please be assured of our gratitude for the placement provided by you - I would not want this matter to become an irreconcilable issue between our organisations’.

I’ve replied in the same terms as my previous post:

Thank you for your letter which has been passed to me so that I can reply on behalf of St Nicolas’, Great Coates (although I am sorry that the tight deadline for a reply prevents me from discussing the matter further with the Church Council before doing so).

I am sorry that the Government’s dissatisfaction with the large number of hosts who have refused to accept its proposal that high visibility Community Payback jackets should be worn by offenders undertaking unpaid work with them has led it to put pressure on you, and I sympathise with the embarrassment you clearly feel in having to write to us about this.

Officials at the Ministry of Justice will be among those most familiar with the way in which policy initiatives can have unintended consequences and the way in which they can be supported by those with a very different agenda from the proposers. This is what appears to have happened with this particular policy proposal. An examination of the comments left by supporters of this proposal on news web sites quickly and clearly reveals that, although the Government says that it merely seeks community awareness, the vast majority of those who write to support the proposal do so because they see it as a welcome tool for delivering humiliation and retribution.

Those undertaking unpaid work with us will do so in a Christian churchyard which is not a place in which to make a public spectacle of those making reparation and thus expose them not only to those who may be comforted by the greater visibility of the justice system but also those who wish to gloat over or even possibly harass them.

Incidently, the letter also says that a failure to reply will be taken as consent, which seems to be proving a popular approach to consultation at the moment - it is the approach a Bishop used in a consultation letter to us a few weeks ago about something totally different.

Monday, 23 February 2009

'We're watching you'

I had a hoax call while I was on holiday during Half Term. I was just about to take one of the children out when the phone rang and someone asked in a very tentative voice whether he could find out some things about the church. ‘I’m just going out,’ I said (not wanting to be trapped into a long conversation), ‘but of course I’ll let you know anything you want’ (not wanting to brush off a vulnerable caller who might have had to summon up courage to make contact).

Only a considerable way into the conversation did the caller reveal that he wasn’t nervous at all. He was employed by English Heritage to check that I’d say the same things about the church on the phone as I’d said in the annual return of information we send it following a grant for work on St Michael’s roof a few years ago which it made in a joint scheme with the Heritage Lottery Fund.

I posted on 12th January about the way congregations rarely financed our major buildings in the past and the way the role often then played by rich patrons is often now played by this sort of grant making body. I didn’t add that money skewed the power relationship then and does so now.

My inexperience very inexpertly tripped over the tail end of the old relationship a few years ago. One of our other churches is in what was a village which from the Commonwealth onwards was almost wholly owned (alongside other chunks of England) by one family. The family retains an element of the formal patronage of this whole parish today as a result. The family’s Estate is gradually withdrawing from a lot of its local involvement and put in a planning application as part of this process. I objected to the particular application and pointed out that one of the things it said didn’t appear to be true. Since then the donations previously given by the Estate to the church each Christmas stopped arriving; I’ve never been certain whether this was simply part of the same gradual withdrawal process or whether I was being told that greater acquiescence and deference was required from those who receive largess.

Now in turn I’m tripping over the new relationship, and ended up feeling contaminated by this phone call. Just as those in debt sign whatever agreement is placed in front of them, we accepted all the conditions for the major grant which seemed the only way to repair a church roof. Some conditions seemed reasonable - the money should be used for the purpose for which it was given and the building should remain available to the whole community. Some conditions seemed a stretch - direct English Heritage consent would be needed for any future alterations, something which potentially leap frogs the protection the ministry and mission of the church sometimes needs when putting in an application for alterations to the scrutiny body on which both heritage and church representatives make a joint decision. And one condition simply leaves me open to this sort of phone call - it felt as if I was being told ‘we’ve bought you: we can deliberately deceive you as much as we like, but woe to you if we discover you’ve made even a tiny error in what you say to us’.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

'Housing is not enough'

Attention has also to be paid to the whole environment from art and community facilities to open spaces. The quotation and approach come from the parish priest for the area behind St Pancras Station in the 1920s where he established the St Pancras Home Improvement Society which continues as a Housing Association today. At the beginning of a Half Term trip to London we not only visited the Station but also delved around in the streets behind and found these examples of the public art he inspired. They are the tops of washing lines, and in this case represent St Nicholas after whom the particular block of flats is named.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Monday, 16 February 2009

Pigeon muck

Ministry here is not so much characterised by washing the feet of the poor (which our monarchs used to do on Maundy Thursday), or of cleaning the sores of lepers (which was St Hugh’s speciality), or of a litter sweep in the community (which we did include in our Lent activities last year), but shifting pigeon muck off the roof of St Michael’s. It isn’t usually me, and I’m grateful to those who pay regular attention to the valley gutter which runs a lot of the length of the church, but even I had to get my hands dirty on Saturday.

‘We have water coming down the north turret,’ the Churchwardens told me. This isn’t somewhere we’ve had it before, and it did seem my turn to do something. So I levered my way up through the small hatch at the top of the narrow spiral staircase to find that the roof of the turret was like an open lead tank full of water and much else. I assumed there must be a drain somewhere so, after they had passed up some rubber gloves (you will have realised that ‘I had to get my hands dirty’ was symbolic statement rather than a literal one), felt around until I found it.

One advantage of beginning to carry a camera in my pocket was I was able to taken a number of shots to show them where the water appeared to have risen above a join in the lead (from which point it was probably making its way in - at least we hope that is the explanation because if not we have a problem somewhere else). The picture here is of the offending small drain (once clear and swilled through) and will be of significance to nobody but myself, but then this is my blog.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

More than a church

We shouldn’t think of our Cathedral as one big church but instead as closer in size to one small diocese. This came to mind again yesterday when I was reminded at the Cathedral Council meeting that its annual turn over is over £3 million, which is more on one day than that of the village church in this parish in one year.

It doesn’t see itself primarily as a business - it sees itself as a church and one example of a strap line is ‘Lincoln Cathedral: a holy place for all’ - but it simply has to operate a lot of the time as a major business. So, we learnt, it commissioned a report on its ‘economic and social impact’ which has just been published. English Heritage and the Association of English Cathedrals had done something similar in 2004. The exercise is obviously in part to impress upon potential funders that they are not just being asked to support a big church.

It is fascinating how much can be quantified. A quarter of the visitors in a sample period came from overseas, and an assessment of its impact on the local tourist industry concluded that the equivalent of 650 jobs are dependant on its being there, including 7% of all the tourism related jobs in its economic region. That is before one starts to assess its impact in terms of things like culture, craft skills, education, regeneration and retail. An analysis of its impact on house prices (measurable up to two miles away) and industry (where there is an impact on level of inward investment) also shows what a difference having it there makes to the local economy.

I took the picture on my way to the meeting. The house on the right is where I lived when working for the diocese ten years ago. The magnificent one on the left with the turret is called ‘Wold View’ and I like to assume that the name meant the Lincolnshire Wolds could really be seen from there a hundred years ago before the north Lincoln houses and estates were developed.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Being churchy

An idea clarified for me at the Deanery Synod last night. Not a sentence I anticipate thinking or typing very often. We’d be working at how attention to those outside our congregation makes us better Christian and better churches. Someone from Christian Aid had helped. Material covered in this blog in the past ranging from debt to the local Muslim community had all been thrown in as well. What, I asked, could we be doing to make sure this perspective is not lost as we get more and more pressurised in simply covering the basic churchy things? Train our Parish Lay Ministers differently was the first answer someone gave.

Of course. As we seek to share ministry more widely we are taking care to provide training, a team context and supervision for wider categories of authorised lay ministry. We expect them to take a worship module before being let loose at too many services. We expect them to take a pastoral module before being let loose on too many people. We don’t expect them to take a community development module. We don’t expect them to take a kingdom seeking module. So we shouldn’t be surprised if a lot of our ministry is more inward than outward looking.

Actually, I should have tumbled this point long ago. It is rather obvious. And I now remember that a lecture to the clergy in the diocese a couple of years ago about church growth did in fact mention it. Parishes which develop large lay teams, it was said, don’t actually score well on growth, and this may be because they are simply managing to preserve the old model of keeping congregations content and well served much better than they would otherwise be doing.

It isn’t quite as simple as this - the issue is touched on in the Foundation module, there are Parish Lay Ministers making a difference in many communities, basic theological education should jolly well have hinted at kingdom seeking, and our Parish Lay Ministry course offers a module in evangelism - but the clarification in my mind was striking none the less: while I look for opprtunities for real engagement in the parish's ministry, I am putting really quite a lot of effort into building and supporting patterns of ministry to be more efficiently churchy.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Seeking success

Was Jesus as worried about success as the Children’s Society?

Near the beginning of the earliest story about Jesus (read at our services today) the impact of his ministry produces a quite startling response: ‘the whole city was gathered together at the door and he healed many’. Early the following day he finds somewhere remote to pray briefly before, among all those searching for him, a disciple or two hunts him down; he tells them that they must move on elsewhere to preach ‘for that is why I came out’.

A quite common take on this passage is that, just as Jesus needed to get way for a quiet time with God when he was besieged, so we shouldn’t let our busyness get in the way of our prayer life, which probably says more about the situation most preachers find themselves in than about the passage itself.

Isn’t it more likely that it is saying that Jesus is so worried that his ministry is being skewed by celebrity and success that he needed to get out of the situation, wrestle with God, and determine to go off elsewhere instead?

In which case there might be less surprise at what Children’s Society’s careful attention to what many thousands of people are saying about childhood has discovered. It really did seem a surprise that apparently good things like personal fulfilment and the wish to achieve to provide a secure home should appear to be attacked, but there it was. The pursuit of status and success turned out to be the thing most clearly identified as getting in the way of providing a good childhood.

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Grimsby Story

Beginning working life at 14 as a net braider (or perhaps initially only ‘filling the needle’ for someone with experience who braided the fishing nets), and finishing it at 60 ‘on the line’ producing supermarket ready meals, is a life story I hear from time to time when making a visit before a Funeral. I often say of such a life that it demonstrates the Grimsby story. Before the Second World War the support network for the huge trawler fleet landing fish here shaped whole communities. By the 1980s the number of boats landing fish was tiny but the Fish Market on the docks remains the largest in the country and the food processing industry had become a significant employer instead.

In 2001, I took quite a different Funeral. It was for Ralph Williams whose huge refrigerated trucks transported lots of this fish (perhaps landed in Scotland and brought for sale in Grimsby or bought in Grimsby and taken to be processed elsewhere). His family told me that his grandfather had run a fish cart business on the docks so the development of his firm also illustrates the Grimsby story, right through to being taken over by Quayside four years after his death.

Ralph’s widow Marie, a neighbour of St Michael’s, a kind and generous person, and a quite presence not only on Sunday morning but also at our mid-week Communion, died yesterday. We shall miss her a great deal. I was driving by the docks soon after I heard and went in to take these pictures: one of Ralph Williams’ now half derelict buildings on the North Wall (representing the large number of trawlers which used to dock there and the small family businesses which used to support them) and one of Quayside’s trucks (representing the continued life of the new high tech Fish Market at which it is just beginning to unload). We thank God for Ralph and Marie Williams.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Ambiguity on Humber

When it was proposed to open a hostel for asylum seekers in Grimsby, a local Curate went to one of the public meetings. At it, she mentioned that the Chief Constable had said that potential residents were more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of it. Afterwards, one of the protesters said to her ‘I thought you were supposed to be on our side’.

I’ve mentioned her story quite often since. Sometimes it is to illustrate a conviction that, if we have to pick sides, we are suppose to be on the side of the marginalised and of truth. Sometimes, more basically, it is to illustrate a conviction that this sort of engagement in the communities we serve is where we’re called to be.

But I find I simply don’t have a handle on the protests about foreign workers which I first saw in blog comments about the Tioxide closure in this parish and which then erupted publically at the Lindsey Oil Refinery further up the Humber estuary. I think this is because I don’t have an objective authority like the Chief Constable to help me identify who the marginalised really are in this situation and where exactly the truth lies.

It seems absurd that, despite close attention to the media, I don't know whether or not the contract was awarded abroad only because cheap labour enabled a lower bid. I don't know how many people unemployed locally have the skills for the job. I don't know how many British workers are employed abroad as a result of similar contarcting processes.

So I don’t think I’ll be posting or preaching my own naive take on the situation, instead just a little lamely trying to keep the situation in the public prayers in our churches; living with an awareness of ambiguity, an awareness that things are more complicated than fixed opinions make them seem, is another part of the human calling about which I tell stories equally often.

Meanwhile, the photograph taken at the weekend is of some sort of inspection platform in the Humber itself. It appears that it can be towed by sea-going tugs while floating on the hull of the platform and then the legs let down when it is in position.

Monday, 2 February 2009


'Here we turn from Christ's birth to his passion.' The Church of England's contemporary liturgy sees the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple as a hinge in the Christian year. We are half way between equinox and solstice. We use and then finally put away the whites and golds we've used through the Christmas and Epiphany season. We hear the prophet recognise God's glory made known among us in Christ, but then warn Mary that her heart will be pierced.

So some of the seventy-five people of all ages at the second of our monthly The First Sunday Thing (our new style Family Service) yesterday created this signpost: travelling in the Bethlehem direction the decorations are images from Christmas cards; travelling in the Jerusalem direction the decorations include Good Friday images.

I posted here on 16th December about creating the service’s own blog. After a great deal of badgering, the local paper featured this on Saturday. There is a stained glass window of the Presentation in St Michael’s which includes both a heavily stooped Anna resting on her walking stick and a small boy carrying a bird cage containing the animals to be sacrificed. I suggested wittily on the other blog that this appeared to show the very first act of all age Christian worship, but the paper’s deft handling unfortunately managed to make this appear to be a very major claim for the First Sunday Thing itself.