Monday 20 December 2021

First anniversary of Deborah's death

The banner was launched today at Trapezium Arts, 58 Kirkgate, Bradford BD1 1QT; it was a pleasure to go over there for this.  She would have so liked the whole project.  It will be on display in the window there during its Christmas / New Year break until towards the end of January.

Friday 17 December 2021

I am the Alpha, Omicron and Omega

On a recent All Age Worship Sunday, children decorated a priest’s stole for use at Christmas. The Bible reading (from the beginning of Revelation) had identified Jesus as ‘the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end’, which is what I explored and what they then picked up. It has provided me with the theme for public messages at Christmas, first the 300 words I’m only very occasionally asked to supply for the Keighley News, which yesterday published: 

Our word ‘alphabet’ comes from the opening letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Beta. Who would have thought that the names of so many of the letters of that alphabet would be in such common use through 2021? 

Each time scientists identify a new version of the Covid virus, it is given the name of one of them. Early on, the most feared variant was the one given their letter Delta. In the last few weeks the variant making us take such care is the one given their letter Omicron. 

Now, it is strange that the Greek alphabet actually has two letters O. There is one which they called the tiny-O or the micro-O. This is Omicron. It comes in their alphabet just where we’d expect to find our O. The other they called the huge-O or the mega-O. This is Omega. They made it the very last letter of their alphabet. 

The readers of the last book of the Christian Bible knew this. They read ‘Jesus is the Alpha and Omega’, the writer picking up the first and last letters of the alphabet. Jesus, he says, is at the beginning and end of all things. 

Before the universe began, God already was. After the universe has ended, God will still be. Before we were born, God knew us. After we die, God will still find us. Before anything threatens us, God was with us. After we have gone through the worst, God will still be alongside us. 

As this Christmas comes, I am suddenly glad to know about these letters and how they are being used. Jesus comes among as the eternal Alpha and Omega. He places himself vulnerable as a human being to every variation of human trouble. He will be with us through Omicron and beyond.

I’m considering venturing something similar at one of our Midnight Communion services, which may come out a bit like: 

There is no variant of the joys and sorrows we face which God does not already enfold; there is nothing we can spell out about any of these which God does not already speak.

Sunday 31 October 2021

Three anxiety dreams


I had a dream recently in which I couldn’t get things ready for an imminent funeral: the prepared notes were missing, the robes hard to find, the journey full of wrong turnings, the sense never breaking that the mourners would be waiting but I’d never quite get there.

A very straight forward and unremarkable anxiety dream then. 

But it surprised me for a couple of reasons.  Despite a hugely difficult couple of years, one thing I haven’t been having has been anxiety dreams.  And when, longer ago, I did have them, they were consistently about not being ready for exams: somewhere less unlike my school’s campus than unlike my University’s setting, with the noticeboard, the syllabus, the tutor and the library all somehow equally inaccessible however much I searched.

And then I was sitting at the back of a Deanery Synod meeting having arrived in just good enough time, but too far back to catch everything being said at the front.  Despite trying to pace myself better this autumn, I’d worked all day and then come out for an evening meeting as well because the one substantive item was Looking after God’s creation: what changes can parishes and individuals make to have a positive impact which seemed important enough.

I’ve perhaps been a little mis-sold, the speaker began to say, and I was back robe-less and syllabus-denied, in a bad dream, unable to get anywhere. 

Relevant words were dangled before us, and we were given time to react to them with neighbours.  We began with Generosity, having been primed strangely with a story about what may have been a rich elderly expatriate in Monaco giving one of her high specification cars for the use of the local Anglican Chaplain.  Acceptable feedback turned out to be about giving money to the church, with family-creating, kidney-donating, time-sacrificing, debt-releasing, salvation-procuring generosity somehow inaccessible.

Stewardship was up next, and the nature of the topic-misunderstanding, which those who arrived earlier or who sat closer to those in the know at the front may well have already readily understood, became apparent.  It wasn’t the commission at almost the start of the Bible for humans to care, look after or steward creation which we were to explore, but all things were to refer back to giving money to the church.

Time was running out as first-fruits was tabled as the third point of reference, and the side reference from the front indicated that this too was to be taken as being about giving to God (proxy at this point for temple and church rather than creation and neighbour) before all else, and all the fruitful possibilities of what comes fruitfully into my hands being primarily for the common good rather my individual consumption remained frustratingly, unpickably out of my reach.

Saturday 9 October 2021

Little energy


Initial gathering of segments for a memorial hanging for Deborah being prepared by those involved in Bradford Refugee Week (when the kits were handed out) and Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

Repairs underway at Haworth's Ebor Mill just beneath the Rectory.

Packing up after Haworth's 40s event - the recent single day version of the 40s Weekend which is due to return next year.

Light falling differently in the Bronte Memorial Chapel - where we have just marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Patrick Bronte's wife Maria for whom the family grave on church was first dug.

Sunday 12 September 2021

Buckling down?

September 2021 feels like the first normal month in two years, and it may reveal whether I have the emotional or physical stamina for the ones to follow. The base is low, and the expectations high, which is a daunting combination. But nevertheless steps are being taken (and half a dozen people who we'd not otherwise have seen in church were among a newly launched Family Service congregation this morning). 

Things felt as though they were taking off just a bit in September 2019. I’d begun a third year in post, a newly ordained Curate was just settling in, the different parishes finally consented to convene a shared meeting which sketched out priorities and next achievable steps they’d be happy to take, and some of the relationships built seemed to be producing, for example, at least some younger people in church . 

But Deborah’s initially puzzling symptoms were already showing up and, when we returned from our annual holiday in October, the nature of the tests being ordered quickly alerted us to the nature of the diagnosis which we’d receive after Christmas, from which rapid consultations and a fresh treatment regime were to follow in January. 

And within weeks the whole country was locked down anyway, and nothing was normal through pandemic, her final illness and the first six months of my bereavement – and the national restrictions were almost my friend as none of our plans could be followed through and my work pattern could accommodate my not working full tilt as we followed her final journey. 

Now things are starting up again – and, while we remain people ‘not without hope’, our now reopened congregations seem to have settled down at about two thirds of the size they were two years ago, with the deaths and movings away having taken several key people. 

Last week brought six different e-mails, perhaps each treating the beginning of the academic year as a natural new beginning. 

The diocesan Bishop (as encouraging and reflective as ever). 

The Diocesan Secretary (a helpful summary - from links to a ‘virtual library’ of material for the whole Living in Love and Faith process in which we are invited to engage, to a reminder about the Generosity Week beginning late this month which they’d like us to keep ). 

The Church Growth teams’ newsletter (multiple copies – it is entirely my fault for not alerting them to how many of their lists I now appear upon). 

The Safeguarding team’s newsletter (where vigilance is crucial - the process of my completing the latest update training has not been finally signed off by them before this news comes of newly created training I must now undertake; it suggests a Safeguarding Sunday the week after Generosity Week). 

The Environmental team’s newsletter (with the existential issue we can’t ignore – a reminder of the Creation Season we could be observing now, until it overlaps with Generosity Week). 

The area Bishop (very welcome on his return from sabbatical leave – including the first explicit observation that ‘share contribution across the Diocese is worryingly low’). 

Meanwhile, however poor the photo, I do like the latticework of these flowers, brought a few days ago by the neighbour who had spotted it would have been Deborah’s birthday.

Friday 20 August 2021

Artistic apprehension


I’ve been helped by a gradual realisation that attending to chunks of John’s Gospel may work best if viewed as listening to music rather than following a line of reasoning.

My knowledge of music theory is minimal, but I’m vaguely aware of the way in which a theme might be stated by one instrument, repeated, picked up by another instrument or by the whole orchestra, developed, and revisted.  I can often clearly hear this going on and, whether I do or not, can often feel the emotional pull of the theme’s reappearance.  I am more often simply unaware that this pattern is what has given a satisfying shape to the listening experience.

So, as we work our way to the fifth of the five Sundays when the whole of John 6 is being read, I put away previous years’ irritation at having to preach around “I am the bread of life” so many Sundays running, and my desperation that the choice of appropriate hymns was exhausted in about the second of the five weeks.

From the opening hint that this is the Passover movement of the piece, and then the rehearsing of the feeding of thousand men, there is unleavened bread, lamb-blood-daubed doorposts, barley loaves and fish.  With a change of tune there is Jesus walking on water and the “I am” announcement.  Then the gift of manna in the wilderness is layered in, until the “I am the bread of life” theme is finally stated at verse 35, expanded upon, partially reflected back at verse 41, repeated at verse 48, and developed at verse 51.  Suddenly in that verse we have soared into eating flesh and blood, sounded out with variations in each of successive verses 53, 54, 55 56 and 57.

We haven’t been argued into a fresh understanding but swept up into it; our tune; the phrases which recur in our heads long after the music has stopped.

And then, for other reasons, I happened to take down William Temple’s Readings in St John’ Gospel * and found the third of three ‘general considerations’ he gives in his Introduction does not use the analogy of music but gets very close to the same awareness saying

One marked characteristic of the mind of the Evangelist... is... he does not argue from premises to conclusions as a method of apprehending truth.  Rather he puts together the various constituent parts of truth and contemplates them in their relation to one another.  Thus he seems to say ‘look at A; now look at B; now at AB; now at C; now at BC; now at AC; now at D and E; now at ABE; now at CE’, and so on in any variety of combinations that facilitates new insight.  It is the method of artistic, as distinct from scientific, apprehension, and is appropriate to truth which is in no way dependent on, or derived from, other truth, but makes its own direct appeal to reason, heart and conscience.

* Having coincidentally most recently posted about my paternal grandparents being cousins, children of sisters Jessie and Annie Mallam, themselves granddaughters of the Oxford Mayor Thomas Mallam, I mention in passing that the book is dedicated to the memory of Temple’s school friend Professor J L Stocks who was a cousin of both of my grandparents as a son of Jessie and Annie’s sister Emily.

Monday 9 August 2021

Five generations back


Passing through Oxford at the end of last month, I sought out this 1840 boundary stone of which I hadn’t been aware until quite recently.

It is on the edge of Port Meadow at the point at which the city of Oxford’s common land abuts that of Wolvercote parish.  An extensive contemporary newspaper article gives an account of that year’s mayor (and a whole company) inspecting (rather than ‘beating’) the bounds of the city.  They discovered that the marker at this point needed renewing with a fresh stone – it is hard now to recognise the city’s coat of arms at the top and the names of the mayor (‘Mallam’) and sheriff beneath with the date.

My father’s parents were cousins, their mothers being sisters (Jessie and Anne Mallam, granddaughters of this mayor).  And his grave is here.

Saturday 31 July 2021

When soft voices die


The first night of the Proms and a new composition by Sir James Macmillan setting two short poems of Shelley’s.  Four contrasting soloists took a verse each, until the four voices wove together in the final verse (the second of the two verses of this the second poem).

Music, when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory -

Odours, when sweet violets sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,

Are heaped for the beloved's bed;

And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,

Love itself shall slumber on.

The commentators were seduced by the fresh Prom experience, the opening word ‘music’, and the sense that the impact of music never dies – but the poem is about bereavement and the cessation of music just happens to be the first example

In my mind, the first verse could be about a walk home after a concert, possibly alone in the dark and cold and wet.  Not, Shelley says, a depressing lonely walk, because the tunes still echo in the mind, the scents of the evening (appetite sated and over indulged, perhaps) continue to enliven the spirit.  The warm glow of knowing that it been worth being there.

So, he says, bereavement ought to be like this.  What remains of what once flowered is piled wreathes on a grave (at least that makes as much sense of ‘the beloved’s bed’ to me as a petal strewn place to love and sleep), and what remains of what was once animated is accumulated reflection and insight (retiring alone to an actual bed now, not so much to ‘sleep on a problem’ as to ‘sleep on what love has given’).

In the morning, the final stage of the journey home from time with friends in John O Groates (where the pictures were taken) had been, unusually for me, by bus.  And there wasn’t Deborah, happy to travel anywhere without the car, the strap of her bag tightly round her coat, exploring fresh ideas in a book as she goes, most usually on her way into Bradford ready to help some refugees learn English or to engage with some activist or support group.

As a niece of hers commented on her obituary, ‘a reminder, always, of what goodness and grace really look like when out and at work in the world’.  Not just to catch still the tune, the scent of it, piled blooms and informed creative views, but, Shelley seems to say, to know these still to be the gift now however dull and solitary the walk.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether Mary Shelley, collecting together and publishing final work of her late husband including this fragment (whether a complete poem or something waiting to be worked up into a longer work?), had as much a sense of loss as a sense of what a privilege it was to have his work to share.

Friday 2 July 2021

Political disconnection

I’ve looked at the actual figures for a third recent by-election and I can’t work out why the substantial fall in voter turnout is not being widely discussed. 

Some of those registered to vote in 2019 will have died or will have moved away since, and some of those registered to vote in 2021 will have only recently become old enough to vote or have moved in.  But broadly it is the same pool of people – and 18.9% of them (between one in six and one in five of them, about 15 000 people) voted in 2019 but didn’t do so in 2021.

To be clear, of the people who actually voted last time, more woke up yesterday and decided not to vote at all than went out and voted Labour, and more people decided not to vote at all than went out and voted for Conservative. 

Put it another way, in 2021 Labour held on to only 59.4% of its 2019 voters and the Conservatives held on to only 68.6% of its 2019 voters.  This will be expressed in the standard media as a ‘swing from Labour to Conservative’, but it is actually a heavy swing against both.  

There was a maverick candidate who came third in both 2019 and 2021, two quite different people.  The first gained the support of 8.1% of the registered voters in 2019 and the second 10.4% in 2021, about 1830 more voters in 2021 than in 2019.  But this is a much less significant fact than the striking one that more than half of those registered to vote did not actually do so.

There is now a Conservative MP for Hartlepool, a Liberal Democrat MP for Chesham & Amersham, and a fresh Labour MP for Batley & Spen.  They and their supporters will be pleased.  But is it the disconnected whose size of the vote surged in all three by-elections.

The pictures are both public artwork close to each other in central Bradford.

Sunday 27 June 2021

Discerning sacrificial discipleship


A portion of 2 Corinthians 8 set for services this morning, and I’m uncomfortable with what almost looks like Paul's manipulation across the wider section of this letter. 

He isn’t sure those to whom he is writing are really on top of the project in hand.  And his emissary has reported back that they aren’t that chuffed with his leadership, so getting them back on track will be tricky.  So he claims to admit that his last tough missive might have been ill judged, albeit somehow necessary.

He also lards in things like ‘I am not telling you what to do – but you’ll know to do the right thing’, ‘I’ve told people round here that you are on top of things – it would be so embarrassing if this turns out to be wrong’, ‘I’m not putting pressure on you to be more generous than you want to be – just remember that you owe everything to the generosity of Christ’.

My discomfort, to be clear, is that I recognise myself and the wider church of which I am part in this.  The echo of unintentionally hectoring clergy armed with calls to sacrificial discipleship sound around me and sound like me.  

‘Here is scripture, let us see how it applies to our life.’  A good call, requiring careful discernment.  ‘Here is a challenge in our life, let us see what insights scripture might have to be bring.’  An equally good call, one requiring even more diligent discernment.  But ‘I’m sure I know the answer, and this bit of scripture backs it up and explains why you should agree with me’, not so much so. 

So I was reflecting with people this morning about how I might preach stewardship as a call to overflowing generosity to family, neighbours and those in need (and, yes, the church), not as something motivated by the need to balance the books of our institutions.  The national misuse of the ‘first to the Lord’ text (from just a few verses earlier than those set for today) still at the front of my mind all these years later.

Or safeguarding as seeking to shape places where people will flourish (including, yes, rigorous attention to necessary awareness and procedures), not as something motivated by the need to match diocesan criteria.  The three-yearly renewal of my safeguarding training over the last few weeks was saying as much.

And, the rub for me this week as our Parochial Church Councils are able to meet for the first time in ages and we have to begin to tackle our sharply reduced post-pandemic viability, how can we see what God wants ahead of us, not how can we see that God wants us to adopt the schemes I think are the necessary next steps.

The pictures come from exhibitions in windows in central Bradford during Refugee Week.   

Friday 18 June 2021

Placing trust?

Let me think what I’m not seeing said about the Chesham & Amersham by-election.

The non-Conservative vote simply didn’t surge.  There were relatively few former Conservative voters who chose to vote Liberal Democrat this time.

It was turn out which skewed the figures again: 76.8% at the 2019 General Election (a typical level for this constituency in the recent past) but just 52.2% at this by-election – a drop of about 17 500 people. 

Taking this into account, one notices that the Labour and Liberal Democrat share of registered electors was actually very stable (30.1% in 2019, 30.4% in 2021), albeit with a very striking strategic shift in which lots of Labour voters must have backed the ‘most likely to beat the Tories’ Liberal Democrat candidate.

And, if that is so, one notices that about a quarter of those who voted Conservative last time (that is the 17 500 missing voters – a strikingly high abstention rate), stayed at home this time; they knew that there was no risk of a Conservative Government being brought down.  They might have been miffed by the sorts of things which commentators are mentioning (in the last few days both lockdown extension and the revelation that the Prime Ministers knows his Health Secretary is hopeless, in the longer term planning worries about HS2 in the past and wider local development in the future), but this simply didn’t make them vote Liberal Democrat.  

At least, not in any numbers – some previously Conservative voters will have voted Liberal Democrat (by-election protests of this sort were once standard), in which case the maths says an approximately equal number of previous Labour voters would have stayed at home (which was a significant factor in Hartlepool).

Meanwhile, I’ve been dwelling through the middle of June on a reflection for St Barnabas’ Day.  This crucial figure sought out the previous persecutor Paul to minister in the new church in Antioch and later fell out with him spectacularly about recruiting the previous deserter Mark to minister across the new churches in Asia Minor.  If on a Sunday at the moment we read from 2 Corinthians (written by Paul) and Mark (just possibly written by this Mark), we are still reading what Barnabas’ two risky recruits went on to produce.

The picture is from a window in St Michael's, Haworth taken for use on Sunday when we will dwell on David’s lyre playing to sooth the mental disturbance of King Saul.

Thursday 10 June 2021

You must be mad

“You would have thought that people would be happy, that they were glad to be able to begin to get out, that there would be good will,” she said from behind the cashier’s desk at the petrol station.  It was her response to someone who was clearly a Vicar innocently asking how emerging from lockdown was going for the surprisingly deserted business.

“You would have thought they’d remember clapping for carers, becoming aware of how much they depend on those who keep basic things running, but they don’t.  I know what’ll happen.  It will be crowded in here later and then there will be a glitch – with the till, with someone’s credit card – and the queue will get long and unpleasant.  I had someone the other day push to the front, slap down some cash, shout a number and walk out.”

“Yes,” said the hotel manager I shared the story with, “they were really considerate for the first day or two, but many of them are now simply have their heads down to get what they want without much awareness of anyone else.”

So a slightly different light was shone across last Sundays’ Gospel (Mark 3.20-35) as I began to read it and prepare for the Sunday coming up.  The crowd, Jesus’ family and the religious scholars all seem to be making things difficult.

Jesus’ ministry explodes into Mark’s Gospel.  Thirty-five verses in, he has already taught, defeated the powers of evil, healed, and been pursued when he tried to escape somewhere quiet.  Things do not let up (there is fear of being crushed at one point) and now, two chapters further in, he has just established a group of twelve co-leaders of some sort perhaps to make things more manageable.

You would have thought people would be happy.  There was an opportunity to step away from everything which had restricted life.  New radical ways are being explored and demonstrated.  Not quite.

The crowd, it says, became so pressing that Jesus and his co-leaders were not able to eat.  I think of the long shifts key workers have had to endure without even time for a meal break, one nurse emerging early on to find the supermarket stripped.  Perhaps there are touches of a motivation to get the food on offer (John 6.26) or see Jesus as a performer (Luke 23.8).

Jesus’ family have been told he is not sane and have come to restrain him.  I think of worried partners and children whose initial admiration and support gave way to real concern which reaches the point of saying “you need to stop doing this now for your own health”.  I notice that it doesn’t say they thought he was mad or attempted to restrain him, only that they had been told so and had come to do what they might have thought was the appropriate things.

And the religious scholars roll up to say he is possessed and fundamentally mistaken.  We don’t know how mainstream they were, of course, so this may be a bit like the anti-vax movement weighing in, or flunkies of Presidents in denial.

In any other year, I would have been tempted to dwell on what Jesus taught.  About the scale of God’s real family.  About how misattributing God’s activity being about the only thing to put us finally outside the pale.

But this year, I simply wonder whether any stunning but challenging new possibilities (from Jesus’ radical new way to emerging from lockdown) will ever plain-sail its way across human nature, so we are likely to have a bruising time if new possibilities open up around us.

Monday 10 May 2021

Of indifference and hostility?

Let me think what I’m not seeing said about the Hartlepool by-election.

The Conservative / Brexit alliance simply didn’t surge.  It is easy to track because there has been an election every two years.  The percentage of registered electors in Hartlepool who voted Conservative + UKIP (in 2015 and 2017) or Conservative + Brexit Party / Reform UK (in 2019 and 2021) is 27.8 (2015), 27.1 (2017), 31.7 (2019, up not even 5% in the 'Get Brexit done' election) and 22.7 (2021, down 9% to a rate lower than in 2015 and 2017).

There will be so many factors behind this drop in support, so drawing conclusions would be very difficult; there would certainly be less urgency to make the ‘Get Brexit done’ point in 2021, and being habituated to Covid restrictions may have kept at least some supporters at home.  But it really doesn’t look as if there was a groundswell of previously non-Conservative voters saying to themselves ‘a Brexit-supporting leader, wonderfully unconstrained by restrictive conventions, who can bulldoze and thus get things done, now gets my vote’.

So, given the Conservatives didn’t exactly win it, it is Labour who certainly lost it.  All Labour would have had to do was to turn out a quarter of the registered electors to vote in its favour and they would have kept the seat.  But they only achieved about half this. 

Given Labour’s habitual and principled residual committed support must run at something like this level, this is even more astonishing than most commentaries have observed.  It must mean that almost nobody outside a committed Labour core was motivated to say to themselves ‘what Labour is saying makes compelling sense to me’ or ‘the Labour leader’s forensic demolition of the Prime Minister’s lies and incompetence motivates me to get alongside him’.  Even if all of the commentators’ suggestions about factors which might have contributed to this may have truth about them, it remains hard to see how they adds up to anything like this astonishing level of disconnect from Labour (or at least from Labour as encountered in such a place).   

Perhaps therefore the winners were the totally disconnected.  The 2015, 2017 and 2019 turn outs were not brilliant but ran between 56.8% and 59.2 %, averaging of 58.0%.  This time it was less than three quarters of that at 42.7% - perhaps 10 725 missing votes compared to 2015-19, people who were not just failing to vote Labour but failing to vote at all.  It needs to be shouted that well over half the registered electors did not participate.  And nobody seems to be worried by this level of democratic deficit at all (perhaps least of all the party and its dominant media supporters which can gain an MP with the active support of not much more a fifth of the registered electors).

Meanwhile, the most consistent of the commentators’ suggestions is (and this is an almost direct quotation) Labour was more concerned about Palestine, Black Lives Matter and transgender rights than the issues which mattered to the missing voters.  But this doesn’t explain why a Labour party which focussed on South Africa, women’s equality and gay rights retained their support in the past.  Is it worth at least asking why that is?  And is being ethnically cleansed, racially abused and victimised for one’s sexuality an acceptable new normal which everyone now is invited to agree doesn’t matter (unless one lives in a self indulgent out-of-touch woke liberal backwater)?

For the Batley by-election coming up, the almost direct quotation earlier today is that too much attention has been focused in that multi-cultural constituency on those not like us (asylum seekers, migrants and refugees) which seems to be the same thing in spades.  Does anyone think it matters if Jo Cox’s constituency is set up to be a place in which accepting the electoral advantage of living out the hostility of our environment is assumed?

Thursday 22 April 2021

A Spring Day Off


It is now four months since Deborah died, so I thought I ought to go out and discover somewhere new on my own.  We’d walked part of the old railway line near Thornton, including the viaduct there, but had not explored the nearest section crossing Hewenden Viaduct.  Photographically, some nice enough moments, emotionally, not so much. 

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Jeremiah 24

Jeremiah 24


Two baskets of figs, two bowls of hosaf.

Good figs in one, tender, desirable,

bad in the other, mouldy, inedible.

The juicy, they say, grew in displacement,

the putrid decomposed in places of safety.

Can that be?

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 came back in one of the baskets,

refined in distant distinctiveness

and still sweet on our tongue.

If anything came in the other,

it spoilt and was lost.

No song can make promises,

yet whisper tunes of exposed, vulnerable enrichment,

sound dirges about accommodation,

about 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.