Tuesday 31 March 2009

Pay Back gets worse

Those who wish to humiliate offenders are to be given a say locally in what sort of community punishment they undertake. North East Lincolnshire is to be one of the pilot areas for this experiment. The Probation Service (which is responsible for supervising work undertaken under community service orders) will have to put up five projects, and these will then be voted upon online to decide which is to be carried out.

I’ve blogged twice recently about one of our churches not being happy to have offenders wear ‘Community Pay Back’ high visibility jackets when they help keep its large churchyard maintained and tidy. At the end of last year the National Association of Probation Officers reported dozens of cases of offenders being abused, including a group of youths taunting one group as ‘nonces, smackheads and low lifes’ and things being thrown.

On 25th February I reproduced our letter to the Probation Service when we were being put under pressure to change our minds. 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.

Now the Government has selected exactly the method of consultation which will give those voices a real say. It will continue to maintain that its aim is to strengthen public confidence in the justice system by making sure that people know that community punishment is not a soft option. In doing so, it will simply fail to take into account the real motivation of many of the voices it will then have to heed.

A week ago I blogged about a new Conservative Think Tank report recommending a more constructive approach to prison regimes (even though the authors realised that their natural supporters may not understand why their experiences forced them to these conclusions). It is disorientating a week later to blog about a Labour Government experiment in providing what there is a real danger will be a less constructive approach to community punishment.

Perhaps a quiet but well orchestrated local church initiative could maximise the votes cast for constructive projects in which offenders can take pride and learn skills rather than for those which are menial or which put the offenders on display.

Sunday 29 March 2009

Running churches

We are almost predatory in the way we distract lay people from Christian discipleship in the world by getting them to run our churches instead, and the job of running churches which we give them is getting harder and more time consuming every year.

I used to speak about the ideal candidate to bring active participation and fresh ideas to a Church Council who said he couldn’t do so because he was committed to chairing a school governing body instead, and about the newly retired member who wasn’t available to join our pastoral care team because she chose to train as a Cruse counsellor instead. In both cases the better part of me rejoiced that church membership was part of what resourced them to make a difference to their local school and to bereaved people, while the worse part of me cursed the loss of the talent we needed badly to keep our own show on the road.

Now last week, quite independently, one of our Church Council Secretaries and one of our Churchwardens gave me helpful advance notice that they’ll not be available for re-election at the AGM at the end of April. In both cases they said that they were finding it impossible to do justice to the increasing responsibilities of the roles alongside the increasing pressures of their full time work.

And I don’t see it acknowledged anywhere how the increasing responsibilities creep up on us relentlessly and cumulatively increment by increment. The responsibilities added within the last year or so have been requirements to check for any criminal records held by those with contact with the vulnerable elderly (in practice, all those who have any formal involvement in our pastoral ministry), to make fire risk assessments on each of our buildings and then to keep them up to date , and to prepare to register our parish as a separate charity and then to meet all the obligations which that involves. These are things which can’t necessarily be done by the common sense of competent individuals alone, so useful but inevitably time consuming training events in Lincoln have been offered to help qualify people for their voluntary work in areas, in one case labelled as compulsory.

Meanwhile, the Great Coates Village Council has written this week to us to ask whether there is anything we can do to manage the ‘overgrown trees etc’ the churchyard which are limiting the view of the clock on the church tower, so we'll add that to the list of things at which to look. The picture taken this morning illustrates the point, and, I've just noticed, also shows the Curate arriving for Matins thus proving that she remembered to put her clocks forward.

Friday 27 March 2009

Bands of Hope

Temperance Societies was recruiting young children at the time of the Great War. Lily Siebenhüner, whose pledge certificate this is, was born in 1908, so would only have been six when it was issued. Her nephew John Walling is a member of the congregation at St George’s, Bradley, and he gave me the certificate on Sunday because he knew it would fascinate me.

The Blenheim at the top appears to indicate that the particular Band of Hope branch was that at Blenheim Chapel in Leeds; the great Methodist preacher Dr Leslie Weatherhead was Minister there in the 1930s before beginning his famous ministry at the City Temple in London. The illustration of children safely clinging to their sober mother is quite a feature too.

But what interest me most is the way her German surname has been updated with a new English surname in ballpoint scoring out the original name. John has written interestingly about the internment of German nationals during the Great War including her father (his grandfather). This was one aspect of the anti-German feeling which made the Royal Family adopt the name Windsor in 1917 and led to German Shepherd dogs being called Alsatians. Oswald was in fact her father’s forename (so he became Oswald Oswald, but probably not until after his release after the end of the war).

All in all, an extraordinary amount of social history from just one card. John’s book is The Internment and Treatment of German Nationals during the 1st World War 2005 (ISBN 0-952-38482-5), and he has also wrote last year about Oswald and Lily’s wider family in Coming Home 2008 (ISBN 978-0952-3948-3-0).

Meanwhile 80% of those who voted in yesterday’s Council by-election in this Ward did so for one of the three mainstream parties, and it was the Liberal Democrat who was elected; the by-election was caused by the death of his Liberal Democrat predecessor, and it is the largest party in the Council. There does seem to be a democratic deficit when three quarters of registered voters don’t vote and there are multiple candidates in a ‘first past the post’ system so a local Councillor can be elected by a clear margin but in fact only have the direct support of 9% of the registered electors.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Annunciation window

People at St Nicolas’, Great Coates don’t seem to be fond of or inspired by its early 1960s Annunciation window. They never really look at it, and, when I talk to them about it, they find the perspective flat and odd; Gabriel appears to have a dislocated wing, his lily appears to be stuck on the back of his hand, and Mary cannot quite get behind her prayer desk to kneel at it.

I have to make allowance for a personal sub-Christian bias against it having been mucked around by the artist (who I would liked to have met properly) and a large stained glass window appreciation group who once asked for access to it, arrived late, interrupted preparations for a wedding, elbowed the groom out of the way in the aisle, and then disappeared never to be heard of again by way of a word of appreciation or apology.

But their visit did make me look at it closely, so that I actually appreciate it much more now. I notice how fine the details of the faces are and how interesting the intensity and direction of their gazes is, and there at Matins for the feast this morning it added to my prayers.

Monday 23 March 2009

Canvassing on crime

I wonder what the level of local concern about issues of law and order really is, and I wonder how far it is based on objective information. The picture shows the latest damage to the previously repaired new lantern at the renewed entrance to St Michael’s to prove that the local Ward is not free from anti-social behaviour, and being subject to it is immensely frustrating. But today Jonathan Aitken launches ‘Locked Up Potential’, his report for a Conservative ‘Think Tank’ about the way in which our present prison system actually increases reoffending rates; he freely admits that popular perception does not see this and that his own back bench speeches on the subject before he experienced prison himself totally failed to understand what he now finds self evident.

Our local Council by-election has a candidate from ‘the Generalist Party’, a local initiative of which I’d been previously only peripherally aware without knowing anything about it. His leaflet has now come through the door - it does not include anything to tell me about a single policy he’d like to see the local Council implement, which is quite an achievement for a principal piece of election publicity. It does identify the issues which he hears local people say affects them as ‘The complete lack of facilities for the Younger and Older generations, the terrifying rise in crime and the lack of prevention methods!’, not one part of which is strictly true in relation to the Ward as far as I’m aware.

A second BNP leaflet has also arrived, and it actually looks more balanced and detailed if the Generalist leaflet is taken as a benchmark, and it has more visible policing as its lead item on both sides. I notice two peripheral details. One is that the publication address of leaflets for the other four candidates is local but for the BNP it is a PO Box in Worcester. The other is that tick boxes for a person’s title on the form which can be cut out and sent off for further information includes ‘Rev’ alongside ‘Dr’, ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’, which I’d like to think is a witty riposte to the General Synod’s recent resolution that membership of the BNP is incompatible with being a serving priest, but I fear it may be more cynical than that.

Friday 20 March 2009

Noticing graves

A girl born during the Great War was given the middle name Mons to commemorate its first major battle. I’d noticed the inscription on a 1960s grave in St Michael’s churchyard; her age and date of death are given so one can calculate when she was born. A member of the congregation remembered her and thought she’d had an uncle killed in the battle. A few weeks ago a couple visited the church when it was open on a Saturday morning saying it was their Golden Wedding that day. I dug out the marriage register for them and saw that she had the same middle name and surname; it was her mother’s grave which I’d previously noticed, and her mother was proud enough of her special middle name to pass it on to her daughter.

The time put into such research is not always as fruitful. This week I had a phone call from someone who wanted to renew a stone on a cremated remains plot ‘in St Nicolas’ churchyard’; she was worried that we were cramming new burials too close in the limited remaining space (which we are). I spent some time looking for the stone in the relevant area but couldn’t find it. I then searching the burial register without finding any reference there either, and then even went back to our pastoral records of funerals in case there had been a mistake. I phoning her back to say I was really sorry not to have got anywhere and to ask for more details. It turns out that her parents’ cremated remains are buried at St Nicholas, North Cotes (a village south of Grimsby) and not at our St Nicolas’, Great Coates (a former village on the northern edge of Grimsby).

Meanwhile, it is this less common metal grave marker in St Michael’s churchyard which has caught my eye most recently. After eighty three years the screws holding a small plaque to it have rusted away. It isn’t our job to maintain grave markers and grave stones; it would cost far too much and be far too much work. But somehow I think I’ll try to fix just this one back. All I know is that it commemorates Jackie Davis, who was loved, and who died in 1926 aged 22 months. I did find him in the burial register (he was John Alexander Davis), and I noticed that half the eighteen burials in the churchyard that year were of children aged between 5 days and 10 years.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Stipendiary aberration

Is stipendiary ministry an aberration? In certain circumstances, are we what weighs down the church? The idea comes to my mind increasingly often. St Paul may have said that workers in the church deserved their hire but this didn’t stop him thinking that he’d rather not be a financial burden himself.

I was at the local Methodist Circuit meeting last night. They tidied up final arrangements about their excellent ministry and mission strategy towards which they have been working for a little while. From September, each of the four Ministers will have care of a more logical section of the Circuit, ten of their nineteen churches (two or three in each section) have been designated as their ‘centres of mission’, and their parallel youth work in which they are also investing both a post and support for volunteers is flourishing.

But at the same time there was concern that many are not sure that their present budget is sustainable, and they agreed to have an extra Circuit meeting in June when they’ll know exactly how much income each church can contribute and can look at what the options are. They need to do this then because after that it would be too late to decide that they cannot afford to deploy four Ministers from September 2010 onwards, and stipendiary ministry is the only obvious area in which substantial savings could be made.

I noticed all this because I’ll be at the Mission Area Planning Group for our Anglican Deanery tonight and I know we’ll be saying strikingly parallel things: despite severe cuts in stipendiary ministry, before the Pastoral Plan we’ve made is fully implemented it may already have become unaffordable. The Circuit expects not much more than 200 members to generate the money needed to pay for a Minister (on top of the money they need to contribute to keep their particular church open), and this may be unrealistic. The Deanery budget needs to allow a full £38 000 to cover the stipend, National Insurance, pension and housing costs of each filled clergy post, and this may not be attainable.

Perhaps Non-Stipendiary Ministry is the real norm; however much people may like having people like me around, perhaps for churches like ours at this particular time the burden of keeping us in post is disproportionate.

Monday 16 March 2009

Celebrating Martin Niemoeller

A hard won lesson from the twentieth century is that Christian people should never consider voting for a party simply because it supports better law and order if that means turning a blind eye to the racist views on which it is founded.

I included those words in my sermon yesterday in case I needed it for a Press Release about the BNP candidate in next week’s Council by-election in this Ward. But the feed back I get from others is that the support for it isn’t significant so any public statement from the church would probably simply give it extra publicity. The only canvassing I have received so far has been a single leaflet which outlines national policies (increased police funding, restrictions on immigration and withdrawal from the EU) which aren’t areas in which a local Councillor has any say.

This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Martin Niemoeller, who was very fortunate to live into his nineties since he was a prisoner of the Nazis (in jail and in concentration camp) for eight years. At the time of the 1933 General Election he was pastor of a wealthy congregation in the Berlin area, and he advocated support for the party led by Adolf Hitler because it promised things like more police on the streets. Gradually he came to see that he had been wrong and was eventually arrested for his opposition.

He is perhaps best known for saying ‘They came first for the Communists, but I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist, and then they came for the trade unionists, but I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist, and then they came for the Jews, but I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew, and then they came for me, and by that time there was noone left to speak up.’

Jesus of Nazareth seems to have caused most offence when he associated with tax collectors and sinners and when he made a despised Samaritan the hero of one of his stories. I suspect it follows that we are most Christ-like when we are criticised by those who think they defend traditonal values because we stand alongside minorities and outsiders. I suspect that in recent years the people of the Yarborough Ward have been most Christ-like when large numbers of them stood up for a Pakistani human rights lawyer whose children were in a school in the Ward and whose asylum appeal was failing.

Meanwhile, I had to be in Freeman Street before seven o’clock yesterday morning and the sun was shining on the Grimsby Dock Tower towards which the road points.

Saturday 14 March 2009

Clergy capability

Do Bishops and dioceses have the capacity to scrutinise the work of the clergy effectively? This week the periodic informal meeting of the local Anglican clergy came round to this question again.

Normal employment legislation does not apply to us. This has been made clear to clergy who have tried to take grievances to Employment Tribunals and have simply been told that they are not been able to proceed. It has also been clear to parishes where nothing can be done to tackle the scandal of the small number of clearly negligent clergy. The reasons the legislation does not apply to us includes how surprisingly uncertain it is who our employer is or what job we are meant to be doing.

Ten year’s ago the Government took powers simply to designate categories of workers who do not have employment rights as having them; it suggested that Anglican clergy would be one of these categories unless the church put in place new provision of its own to sort out things like these anomalies around grievance and capability procedures.

So the Church of England has worked at this since then and is now putting new ‘Terms of Service’ legislation in place. And alongside new rights inevitability come new forms of accountability; it appears that there need to be forms of ‘ministerial development review’ and related ‘continued ministerial education’ both with an element of compulsion to make things like grievance and capability procedures work.

And that is where the question came up again for us. Those at the meeting seemed quite relaxed about a new pattern if it ‘adds value’ for us and if it genuinely tackles the few scandalous situations. But the question was would any compulsory outcomes be based on sufficient depth of encounter with us? It would be hugely destructive and counter productive if they did not.

I raised the question with our Bishop again on the meeting’s behalf, knowing that he is already sympathetic about the issue. He and others in the diocese ‘share the concerns about our ability to resource what the new requirements will demand of us’ and have a pilot scheme for ‘ministerial development review’ in mind to ‘help us see what is realistic’.

There is an irony that most people seem to agree that we don’t want a multiplication of human resource expenditure in Bishops’ and diocesan offices across the Church of England, nor a distraction of these offices from other tasks, while also not wanting the new system to fail us by not being adequately resourced.

Meanwhile, the moon did interesting and bright things behind the cloudscape the other night, which I didn’t have any chance of capturing properly.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Water, water everywhere

Water getting in through the roof of ancient churches is almost literally a recurring nightmare, with the anxiety, expense, investigations, negotiations and time involved. We've reroofed much of St Michael's, Little Coates in my time and we're monitoring the state of the roof at St George's, Bradley where a recent small repair stopped a trickle of water coming but also revealed that the fixings on the slates all seem to be near the end of their lives. Now it seems to be St Nicolas', Great Coates' turn. And one of the things St Nicolas’ doesn’t need at present (at it prepares to appeal for money to replace its failing 1960s heating system) is the need to do work of any cost or size elsewhere in the building.

The first photograph of the south aisle roof shows the markings which have alerted us to the problem. The second shows where a drainage pipe discharges across exactly this part of the roof. The roofing firm who’ve looked at it didn’t discover any obvious cause such broken or slipped slates which would have been easy to put right, so proper investigation will now have to follow.

Meanwhile it recommends just £120 worth of work to put a temporary plastic extension on the down pipe to bring water into the lower gutter and thus stopping the flow across the roof until the proper investigation and consequential remedial work is all done. The Archdeacon is happy for this to happen if it is genuinely a temporary move. The local Planning Department’s first reaction was that we’d probably need to go through the full process of planning permission (including, it added sweetly, providing proper drawings of the whole church) before it could say 'yes' as well, but it has been in touch today to say that we can put up the pipe.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Ancient faces

So far this century, half the sixteen churches in this deanery have had significant money spent on them (or on their neighbouring halls) to enhance their availability as a major community resource.

At our neighbouring church of St Hugh (in the West Marsh area of town) some of the funding has also come in to support a development worker. She phoned last week because she has new funding to work with a group of those with learning difficulties. I’d noticed in the local paper that the centre there was going to be open for an initial couple of hours in the week where this group was going to run a café.

Her phone call was about a local history project in which she is involving them. She wanted to bring them to look round the churchyard at St Michael’s on Thursday. Sadly this was a day when I was away all day, but I met up with her on Wednesday to show her round in advance.

We only have one gravestone which dates from the eighteenth century, but among the half dozen or
so of the oldest gravestones we looked at this two hundred year old face (from 1806) which is slowly beginning to disappear. I’d never dwelt on it before, but I went back to the grave yesterday to enjoy it again (and take this photograph) and I hope they did too.

Friday 6 March 2009

Biblical toxic waste

Jewish or Christian Taliban would have an obvious charter to execute both apostates and those who resist their own authority if the middle part of Deuteronomy 17 were to be understood to be the word of God. Each of the major faiths can be and has been contaminated by this sort of toxic waste in its tradition. Each needs to be acutely aware of the dangers of this sort and rigorous in not promoting an understanding of scripture which leaves anyone open to it. Each needs to highlight this ourselves rather than wait for a Richard Dawkins triumphally to uncover it.

So for the Bible Study at the end of the first session for our Lent Course last night we studied the whole of the Chapter. We found deep seams of truth and insight from this distillation of what Jewish people felt had been revealed to them about God’s will. This ranged from the need not to make God shoddy and easily dispensable offerings to the need to judge noone on the say so of a single witness. It included things from the study of the end of the Chapter about which I posted on 9th November.

For me, it is quite moving that the precious seams and toxic waste lie next to each other, and so very wothwhile looking at the whole Chapter rather than just picking out the attractive bits.

Our theme had been ‘You can’t believe in Adam and Eve can you?’ (as we pick up this Lent the themes I posted about on 12th July) and I was able to talk about the dangers of the wrong sort of attitude to ‘the plain meaning of the Bible’ (about which I posted about on 24th November). A new churchgoer and the non-churchgoing friend she brought with her were able to say that it was a relief to hear the person in authority say the things they had been thinking all along but which they had thought was a barrier to being a Christian, which made the whole exercise worthwhile.

Now the next easy Lenten task I've set myself is to get ready for 'If God is good, why do people suffer?' next week.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Relegation zone

Two teams drop out of the Football League each year and it looks increasingly likely that this year Grimsby Town will be one of them. It has accumulated fewer points than any other team in League Two, but, until last night, had been cushioned from the drop zone by two teams which started the season with the handicap of penalty points. Now one of them has motored passed us and we sit in the relegation zone for the first time. Realistically it is only disasters for Chester (or a spectacular revival in form for Grimsby) which could keep us in the League; the two teams above Chester are seven points clear of us and each has a game in hand.

I didn’t used to follow these things so closely, but we have a season ticket holder in the house with whom I’ve been to the odd match (we picked him up from outside the ground wet and resigned after last night’s match) so I follow stage by painful stage the agonies of being a Town supporter. And, I was reminded by the previous Chief Executive of the local authority a while ago, it really matters to the welfare of the local community. I posted on 14th February about a survey of the economic and social impact of Lincoln Cathedral on its local economy. As far as I know, no similar assessments have been made of having a flourishing local football team, but he was convinced that there was a quantifiable value in having one.

Meanwhile, St Aidan’s, Cleethorpes sits opposite the ground and has displayed this sign for a little while now. I remain totally squirmingly unconvinced by the utility of such posters, but the number of them punning away outside different local churches means lots of people disagree with me. However, the ‘Free Membership Available’ poster for the Golf Club opposite St Michael’s did fleetingly tempt me to consider putting up one at the church saying ‘Free Membership Available Here Too’.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Resist racism for Lent

The BNP is putting up a candidate for the council by-election in this ward later this month. Turn out at the last two elections has been under 30% and this time there are five candidates who could split the vote, so it is theoretically possible that someone could be elected with as little as 450 votes.

I think it is the first time it has contested this ward so I’ve no idea what level of support it might actually receive. On one hand it put up the same candidate for Parliament at the General Election when he only gained 4.1% of the wider vote, and it isn’t long ago that a large number of local people were campaigning in favour of a local asylum seeker whose children were attending one of the Primary Schools in the ward. On the other hand there is clearly a low grade perception among some people that the access of local workers to contract work across the whole EU isn’t of value and the non-negotiable Christian commitment to the alien and stranger in one’s midst isn’t a promotion of ‘traditional values’.

The choice of phrase comes from yesterday’s Independent. As the candidates for our by-election were being announced, it happened to feature BNP members canvassing for a similar by-election in Cumbria. They weren’t that sold on people like me (‘The Church of England is all Marxist rubbish with no traditional values left at all’) and had a wonderfully surreal take on our multi-faith society (‘I’m not really a religious person but the fact that we can’t celebrate our own religion in our own country annoys me’).

Other recent news stories about similar by-elections have included situations in which local clergy have publically discouraged people from voting for BNP candidates, which hasn’t made them any more impressed: ‘the clergy should really keep out of trying to influence the local electorate and instead minister to their dwindling flocks’ and ‘they are cosseted against the current economic climate and don’t have any real fears over losing their jobs’.

To be disparaged by the BNP is to stand in good company. I’ll have to think about whether to say something and what, where and when to do so.

Meanwhile, this window is part of the understated Arts and Crafts influenced decoration in the early twentieth century Methodist Church in our neighbouring village of Healing where I led a Quiet Day yesterday.