Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Jeremiah 24

I see two baskets of figs, two bowls of hosaf.

Good figs in one, tender, desirable,

bad in the other, mouldy, inedible.

I hear tell the juicy figs grew in displacement,

the putrid in places of safety.

Can that be right?

Does exile and suffering develop flavour?

Adaptation and shelter spoil it?

An ancient seer saw them first,

his nation overrun, its sacred sites levelled.

Those deported, he sang, will struggle into ripeness,

those who escape or lie low, will settle into rot.

Texts were to come back in one of the baskets,

matured and refined in distinctiveness and distance,

which remain sweet on our tongues.

If anything came in the other, it was spoilt,

tainted beneath decomposing layers.

No song can make promises,

yet whisper tunes of exposed, vulnerable enrichment,

sound dirges for accommodation and collusive decay.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Flying the flag

As Government buildings begin to fly the Union Flag daily to enhance my sense of heritage, identity and unity, here are a dozen less well known perspectives on the United Kingdom.

1.  The census form I have just completed asked me to self declare my perception of my national identity – but being a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland wasn’t one of the options offered in the drop-down menu (although, I suppose I could have written it in under ‘Other’).  Whatever it may say, at a fundamental level, the United Kingdom government doesn't expect me to perceive my national identify as being UKish - in fact there doesn't even appear to be a need for a word for it.

2.  The British Isles has eight quite distinct areas of national Government.  Four make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) and four do not (the separate sovereign state of Ireland and the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, the latter having a parliament more ancient than that in the other seven).

3.  The United Kingdom only formally came into being in 1707, and its boundaries have changed twice since then (in 1801, when the present form of the Union Flag was created, and in 1921), with subsequent creation of different forms of partly devolved government in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, so it is only three hundred years old and has changed and developed a lot during those years.

4.  England, Scotland and (Northern) Ireland are represented by crosses on the Union Flag, but Wales is not represented on it at all; its political absorption into English government predates by centuries the Eighteenth Century creation of the United Kingdom.  Similarly, the present royal coat of arms has English, Irish and Scottish sections, but no Welsh section.  Nevertheless, Wales has retained a separate national identity and has by far the highest occurrence of bilingualism - although the use of its language within the United Kingdom parliament, while no longer forbidden, is heavily circumscribed.

5.  The first experiments with the earliest form of the Union Flag predate the formation of the United Kingdom and included a version for use in Scotland which placed the Scottish cross on top of the English cross, but the dominance of the English cross soon became normative.  Neverthless, Scotland has retained not only a separate national identity but also things like its separate legal system.

6.  The Good Friday Agreement (the most recent flexing of the shape of United Kingdom government)  is designed to cope, among other things, with the self identification of many citizens of Northern Ireland as Irish.  A single Irish national jurisdiction hasn’t existed for a hundred years, nevertheless the Irish Rugby team which defeated England last week had citizens of both the Irish Republic and of the United Kingdom playing together, and the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches both have dioceses with parishes on either side of the national border.  The United Kingdom Government will not be requiring the flying the Union Flag on its buildings in Northern Ireland.

7.  Our Government strongly protests at new Chinese laws requiring members of the Hong Kong Legislative Assembly to swear loyalty to the one party Chinese state, but it still excludes from the United Kingdom parliament those elected by a majority in any constituency who will not then swear loyalty to the United Kingdom crown – and seven Northern Ireland constituencies are at present unrepresented for this reason.  You cannot be an elected representative in either Hong King or Northern Ireland if you do not swear loyalty to the state structure you have been chosen to oppose.   

8.  There are levels of self identification in England as ‘northern’.  If the three economic regions of labelled ‘North East’, ‘North West’ and ‘Yorkshire and the Humber’ (roughly everything in England north of a line from Chester to Cleethorpes) were a separate country it would have a population larger than the seven jurisdictions (with their variety of assemblies and parliaments) of Guernsey, Ireland, Isle of Man, Jersey, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together.  Notwithstanding Conservative gains at the last General Election, a gathering of all its United Kingdom MPs would have a significant Labour majority.  Most of its citizens would live closer to the meeting place of another assembly or parliament in Belfast, Cardiff, Douglas, Dublin or Edinburgh than to the United Kingdom parliament in Westminster, many of them closer to more than one.  

9.  There is no English parliament or devolved assembly.

10.  United Kingdom Government Ministers (and many, many others) continue to fall into the trap of saying ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ when referring to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – even today one did so while talking about the importance of flying the Union Flag to enhance our sense of heritage, identity and unity.

11.  The United Kingdom still has about a dozen surviving colonies, mainly partially self-governing island or island groups called British Overseas Territories.

12.  Remnants of previous identities takes a while to evaporate.  Nearly a thousand years ago, the English monarch was Norman French, and it was still the first language of English monarchs and English administration four hundred years later.  The French fleur-de-lys remained part of the monarch’s coat of arms at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century.  The present Queen still consents to United Kingdom law in Norman French, and the formal report of this is still conveyed to the House of Lords in Norman French, where the dates on its agenda papers still appear in Norman French; so usually today, more Norman French is used in the United Kingdom Parliament than Irish or Welsh.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Change constrained

A single session (or a short course) of ‘unconscious bias’ training is ineffective in changing personal practice.  Briefly helping us see how we may inadvertently act out forms of discrimination doesn’t reduce the levels of it others experience.  This appears to be what research now shows. 

Perhaps we emerge from this sort of brief training a little self conscious and thus simply less agile and adept, perhaps somehow slightly wrong-footed by what feels like a moral judgement on our instinct to be fair, perhaps even nudged into a level of denial.

Perhaps it is because the bias isn’t just, or even chiefly, sitting unnoticed in our heads or habits at all, but is woven into what we go on assuming are the neutral norms of the language and values around us – the obvious examples are the qualities and qualifications sought in a recruitment process, which might stereotypically describe the sorts of men who have traditional filled a role, or the level of academic achievement more accessible to those brought up with greater social or financial advantage.

The discovery took me back twenty-five years to being in my mid-30s.  I was working full-time on the in-service training of clergy across a large diocese, and it dawning on me that many of the sessions I organised or signposted people towards stood little chance of ‘undoing’ either an individual’s ‘formation’ or, more problematically, the tight expectations, historical constraints, structures and reward systems within which they operated.

I certainly observed many of those who had had perhaps eight years of ordination discernment, systematic pre-ordination training, and a supervised initial curacy appointment, quickly revert in their first incumbency appointment to previous instinctive approaches to ministry heavily corralled by the constraints of the accountability and framework of incumbent role and the unrecognised influence of the entrenched language and values around them.  To be clear, I had been one of those (and, in many ways still am).

Forms of ‘ministerial development review’ were becoming fashionable and I became hungry for opportunities to tabulate the results.  A limited part of this would have been to identify any recurring themes.  But the aim would then not be to revise the programmes we provided or commended, but to ask the question ‘What changes in things like accountability, affirmation, terms and conditions and reward systems might mitigate these concerns or propagate healthy alternatives?’. 

This wasn’t the approach which commended itself – and I moved back into parish ministry rather than renew my contract for a second five year term.  I recognise that no over-committed and highly ably-experienced senior staff was ever likely to welcome a self-congratulatory junior member of the training team pursue such a major and critical policy redesigning role.

All of which also milled around in my mind when Radio 4 brought me this week late into the game of Jackson Katz’s theories about how to solve the problem of male violence.  He is clear that everything from glass-ceilings to rape are not ‘women’s problems’ but problems for the men who most usually have been in positions of power and authority.  He is also clear that waiting for individual men clearly to transgress and then put them on remedial offending courses is as likely to be effective as ‘unconscious bias’ training has turned out to be.

He commends instead early work with young men on recalibrating what counts in ‘a culture of manhood’, and serious mentoring as they grow into relational responsibilities.  Which creates the echo in my mind of the possibilities of clergy support and in-service training which stays very closely alongside the ‘upside down’ kingdom thinking – constantly reframing language and expectations around it and supportively accompanying those exploring the implications of it.

And, to take a different but related tack, I’m suddenly weary suspecting that I recognise the same dynamic in the discipleship lay-development scheme I now see being developed around me.

I’ve focussed before on Setting God’s People Free (2017) asking about being “equipped to integrate regular patterns of Sunday (and weekday) worship, personal devotion, Bible reading and other practices of faith with the demands of family life, finances, personal relationships, politics, media and consumerism”.

And now I tabulate the three dozen example questions provided for someone seeking to make pledges in a whole Rhythm of Life approach, more than half of which are about personal prayer and well-being.  To take one example, Finance is twice mentioned - in relation to giving to the church (strikingly, the only reference to church among the examples) and to charity – with no nudge towards questions about how faith might impact on our consumerism, how we invest out money or how we trade fairly.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

If you can remember that you are an idiot

I’m placing at the beginning of my Lent the background radio noise to my breakfast yesterday: Eddie Jones, Head Coach of the England Rugby Team, reflected in the sports news on England’s defeat by Scotland last week; I went back to BBC Sounds to listen to it again several times until I was sure I’d transcribed it fully and accurately.

As bizarre as it may seem, these are the weeks where you really enjoy it as a coach.  You got it wrong the previous week.  We’d all love to get it right all the time, but we don’t.  And now you’ve got a chance to atone.  Everyone is in to you.  Everyone knows better than you.  And you’ve just got to remember that you are an idiot.  And if you can remember that you are an idiot, you can look ahead and be optimistic and really confident about the game coming.

At every moment there are the missteps which have brought me thus far.

You got it wrong the previous week.  We’d all love to get it right all the time, but we don’t.  And you’ve just got to remember that you are an idiot.  

I’d love it to be otherwise, but I get things persistently and idiotically wrong.  Lord, have mercy.

At every moment there is the possibility of grace.

Everyone is in to you.  Everyone knows better than you.  As bizarre as it may seem, these are the weeks where you really enjoy it as a coach.  And now you’ve got a chance to atone.

Those who nurture faith know it is not strange that joy and atonement are just here.  Christ, have mercy.

At every moment there are the next steps to take.

And if you can remember that you are an idiot, you can look ahead and be optimistic and really confident about the game coming.

Remembering I’m idiotic dust is what lifts hope towards what is to come.  Lord, have mercy.

Meanwhile, the pictures are taken along and away from the south wall of Haworth Cemetery, a small section behind the top row of marked graves, where, the sister of one of those buried there told me last week, there are more than fifty unmarked babies graves, mostly from the 1960s; she and the cemetery authorities are beginning to explore whether others want o join them in seeking to establish an appropriate memorial.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Hope for alchemy

Where does one re-start?

We were given, and were grateful for, a lot of cut flowers which have come and gone, but one of the few bulbs has journeyed through its spring, summer and autumn since.

Perhaps it is with the old reminder that the alchemists were right – not only is it possible to turn base metal into gold, in fact all gold has been created that way.  All that the alchemists missed was that the power of their chemistry sets and crucibles was only a fraction of what it takes to transform base metal within the furnace of the stars. 

And the discovery, fresh to me, that the music of the celestial spheres exists as well; at least part of the universe is tuned to B flat.  There are sound waves moving outwards through the gas around black holes’ event horizons, more than fifty octaves below Middle C.  Given the wavelength of a note doubles in each of those octaves, it is millions of miles across in that octave and so wouldn’t strike a neighbouring ear drum that often.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Two gifts

The section of Mourid Barghouti’s poem Midnight (which she had marked in the copy by our bed) read at Deborah’s funeral yesterday:

The soul retains its passion
even on the cross,
the body has its dance,
even on the ropes.
The war enters into farce:
They bomb a butterfly!
It becomes
even more farcical:
the butterfly has not died
but, with its fragility still intact,
has grown yet lovelier,
towering above the hubris of the general
and his science of war.
Here is half the triumph:
the butterfly, armed with
nothing but its beauty and the thrust of its wings,
enters the contest, sure of death.
It will die, it knows it will die,
– from the qualities of the killer and from its own qualities.
from the window of a future despair,
it will return,
flapping its wings in the rooms of fancy.
The soul retains its passion even on the cross,
even on the ropes, the body has its dance.

And the view of the sun on the snow on Pen-y- ghent today (taken by one of her sons from the edge of the site in which she had just been buried).

Monday, 21 December 2020


Deborah Mullins, teacher, textile artist, friend of those unjustly treated, greatly admired and loved  

8 September 1959 - 20 December 2020

She died just at the time people would have been beginning Sunday worship on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, reading the same Gospel as was read at our wedding on a feast of the Annunciation: "Here I am, servant of the Lord; let it be as he has spoken".

She and Mary shared a birthday, together singing "Our souls are overwhelmed by God, mercy cascades down the generations, and the promise remains that justice will reverse the inequalities and oppression we allow".