Sunday, September 13, 2015

A prayer on the day after the revolution before...

It's virtually a day since Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership, a day described as momentous or calamitous depending on which way you voted. I'm deep in Cathar country in South West France, with the spirit of heresy heavy in the air, feeling detached and nervous, yet strangely elated and hopeful.

For the first time in my political life I have voted for three individuals and they have each been chosen for the offices for which they'd been nominated - Corbyn, Tom Watson (as his deputy) and Sadiq Khan (as the Labour mayoral candidate).

My choices mean that I'm an idiot who knows nothing about that this will mean for the real Labour Party, according to some of my friends on Facebook; or that I am riding the wave of history, in the vanguard of a new movement that will not only talk about justice and equality, but bring it about in the fulness of time.

I'm not sure I agree with either camp to be honest. I voted as I did because I'm fed up of grey people, afraid of their own shadows, of being haunted in the media because of some off the cuff remark, telling me that they are the future. If that's true, then God help us; in the words of the peerless Nick Cave, 'We are mostly lost...'. I voted as I did because I believe the Labour Party is about equality, social progress, sensible interventionist economics and meeting the aspirations of ordinary people of every gender, race, religion, educational attainment, whatever.

Apparently, we needed to vote for a leader who could win in 2020 and therefore one who spoke the language of free markets and neoliberal politics, one who subscribed to a neocon view of the world and is therefore pro-EU, pro-Nato, pro-liberal interventionism and pro-Trident. I wonder. If I wanted any of that and nothing else, I'd vote for David Cameron as he seems to have that corner well and truly sown up. I'm not interested in a pale imitation of it because a pale imitation of a lie is still a lie.

Probably by the time I board the ferry a week tomorrow all hell will have broken loose with every faction of the Labour Party threatening court action against every other faction. I'm beginning to think I joined this party because it is so much like the church, so prone to split and fight over matters of arcane doctrine, so unwilling to accept difference, find common ground and press on towards agreed goals, so hard-pushed to forgive past slights. Of course, I remain a part of the church despite its infantile factionalism because I believe it stands for something bigger, better and more wonderful than that, so perhaps I can hang with a party that manifests the same tendencies.

My prayer for the coming weeks is that we will find a language and a platform to unite rather than rend asunder. I've been praying that for the church for most of my adult life and it's a prayer that's been answered in part; but then in this world getting part of what we crave is pretty good.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Enjoying our rare privileges

The deed is done. We are booked to travel to and from France in September. And we have booked our last night in Amiens (our favourite city) to have a final meal sitting by the river in the late summer sunshine.

All that's left is to decide our route to and from the South West - we have a gite between Toulouse and Carcassonne - but we're pondering twenty-four hours in Bordeaux.

Holidays are a wonderful thing. We tend to take for granted our ability to take off for a couple of weeks, secure in the knowledge that we'll have money in the bank to spend on our travels and a home to return to (that friends will have kept an eye on in our absence).

I was reminded of this privilege as I read Giles Fraser reflecting in today's Guardian on his trip St Michael's church in the jungle at Calais. He marvelled at the luck/grace of God that put him in possession of the little red book that enables us to freely cross borders, while so many of our brothers and sisters - with whom he prayed on Thursday (I think) - do not.

It is not a reason not to take holidays. But it is a reason to reflect on what we can do to correct an injustice that is visited on too many of our brothers and sisters.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Hearing the full NT choir

Today I have been mostly sorting out the New Testament Theology unit I teach at Spurgeon's. I've delivered it four times now (I think) and it is in need of a bit of a refreshment. I am also revisiting the essay questions in a bid to weed out the ones that don't really reflect the current unit content.

The whole exercise has got me thinking about how we handle NT theology in our churches. Do our teaching programmes reflect an understanding of the joined-up nature of the New Testament or do we just create sermon series as discrete entities with no reference to how to they relate to other series? I realise that in any well-rounded teaching programme in a church, there'll be attention paid to Old Testament texts as well as NT ones.

The grand daddy of NT theology - Johan Philip Gabler - argued that we pursue the discipline in order to renew the doctrines of the church in every generation. His discipline has developed in a variety of ways but two strong strands lead from him to the current world of scholarship. One is increasingly concerned with the early church as a historical phenomenon to be studied as we would study any other movement in history. The modern champion of this position is Heikki Raisanen who, building on Wrede, has produced some interesting historical studies but nothing to equip the church for its mission in the twenty-first century.

The other strand continues to look for ways of reading and understanding the New Testament in the contemporary world in a way that equips the church to bear witness to its central figure. There are many champions of this approach - among those with recent books covering the territory are Howard Marshall and Frank Matera, and from the recent past, the wonderful George Caird.

As I tweak the approach this unit takes to NT theology, I have two aims. The first is that I want to help students grasp the breadth and diversity of the NT witness to Jesus, to gain the ability to read each text on its own merits before trying to see how it agrees (or otherwise) with other texts. In particular, I am keen to encourage students not to read everything through Pauline eyes! So we look at 1 Peter and James and assess their unique voice before adding it to the NT choir.

The second is that I want to encourage everyone who takes this class, and who is headed into pastoral or teaching ministry of some kind (an overwhelming majority), to think about how they will structure their approach to preaching the NT in the light of this unit. I think this particularly applies when we are thinking of doing some kind of primer in Christian basics. Do we just lift something off the shelf or do we try to create our own in the light of what the likes of Marshall, Matera, Caird and others are saying about New Testament theology?

But I believe it applies more generally. Is our version of the Christian faith simply Pauline or do we read the gospels on their own merits, hear the voices of the other writers with equal clarity to that of Paul. Now, don't get me wrong, I am pursuing detailed study of Paul; I continue to find him an intriguing, restless witness to a transforming encounter with Jesus, a man who wanted whole communities to experience what he had.

But he is not the entirety of the New Testament; and the other writers must not be assumed to be in agreement with him. They deserve at least to be heard in their own terms. The author of 1 Peter is an extraordinary voice, James a wonderful, simple purveyor of an intriguing view of Jesus, Revelation a roller coaster of missional engagement with an oppressive empire, and so on...

The question, I guess, is how do we ensure our churches get to hear the full NT choir? And does the unit I teach offer any help to some fledgling preachers, teachers and church leaders?

Still waiting for the debate to start...

Several of my Facebook friends have been posting about the Labour leadership election, saying that we need someone who can win. It's not enough to have good ideas, we need power, hey write; and therefore we need to elect the candidate who will repeat the Blair marvel.

I agree we need a government that is not run by Cameron and Osborne in the interests of the haves at the expense of the have nots. But booting out the Tories is not an end in itself. They need to be replaced by a government that stands for something; better still, that stands for someone, namely the poorest and most vulnerable in a way that ensures work, education, healthcare and housing is evenly spread across society.

I haven't finally decided who I am voting for in the Labour leadership contest. But I have decided to rule out those candidates who seem to spend their time attacking other labour figures rather than the government; and those candidates who do nothing to foster a genuine debate on the kind of world we want for our children - and how we might achieve it.

So, how do the various candidates think we will achieve a more equal society? Do they think that there's an alternative to the view that markets solve every problem from industrial innovation to distributing healthcare? How are they actually going to solve the housing crisis? And do we really think that all our defence eggs should be in the nuclear deterrent basket?

Now the questions make me sound like a Corbynite. But actually, they are the questions that we should have been asking for years because the current answers we have to those questions are clearly not delivering equality, good services, peace and all the other things we want for our children. The current answers have delivered at least three UK recessions and one major global financial meltdown, the fallout from which we are still living with. Maybe those answers need to be revisited?

So, when are going to start the debate on these vital issues?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Seeing the issues through the smoke

And so the Calais saga continues and instead of constantly shouting at the radio - 'what about the industrial action?' - to the annoyance of my wife and anyone else within earshot, I thought I'd return to the story here.

Yes, there are a lot of migrants in Calais and yes, they are trying to get to UK (because despite our repeated warning that they will not be welcome here, they feel a bit of racist abuse is preferable to being blown up, shot at, rendered homeless by armed factions, or whatever horror they are fleeing|). And yes, we have got to address this issue which is taking on crisis proportions.

But the situation is exacerbated, inflamed, stoked up by the industrial dispute affecting the port of Calais. On 1 July the Channel Tunnel company closed My Ferry Link, a service it owned that operated three boats offering twelve or more sailings a day. One of those boats was a dedicated commercial vehicle carrier. 600 workers stood to lose their jobs in a region of France that already has 13% unemployment

On top of that another ferry operator, DFDS, who were prepared to take on the boats but not their workers, found itself drawn into the dispute. The upshot of this is that the my ferry link vessels are permanently docked in Calais (having been disabled by their redundant crews) and port staff have refused to handle DFDS boats (which are now mostly sailing to Dunkirk).

So there are fewer places available on the ships that are still running and fewer berths for those ships to dock at in Calais. Hence the delays. If you remove twelve or more crossings a day on the busiest route into France, it's quickly going to lead to tail-backs on either side of the channel. Those delays cause queues of stationary vehicles which become a target for people desperate to cross to England by any means they can find.

Channel Tunnel security has not been helped by the striking dock workers demonstrating in the mouth of the tunnel, causing damage, burning tyres, disrupting the operator's business.

So, I wonder if the BBC, other news organisations, and the press, could focus a little more on this story in a bid to put pressure on all those involved in the tangled industrial dispute to get that sorted out. If it is sorted out, the port of Calais could fully open, ferries could sail on time, and more commercial vehicles could get about their business rather than joining the longest car park on the M20 and disrupting the lives of people in Kent.

Settling the dispute is not the whole answer to what we're seeing. We have to do something more than wring our hands about the migrant situation and call for the army to be deployed. But settling the dispute would get the port open, the traffic moving,and would enable the operators to focus more on sorting out their security than assuaging the anger of tourists and truckers.

It would also mean that when we go to France in early September, we won't be held up.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Summers are for updating course material

Today I have been thinking about the New Testament theology unit I teach at Spurgeon's. I want to make some changes to its content (strictly within the agreed parameters, of course). So I have been reading papers on the atonement, the Holy Spirit and James.

I have decided that my students will get to read Michael Gorman's 'Effecting the new covenant: a (not so) new, new testament model for the atonement' because it's vintage Gorman - and he is a scholar they really need to be acquainted with; Peter David's 'God and the Human situation in the letter of James' because it's one of the few papers that deals with James on its own terms and not as a foil for Paul; but I can't decide on a new paper on the Holy Spirit. I am toying with a paper by Max Turner on Luke-Acts, but it is a quite specific rebuttal of the position adopted by Robert Menzies, rather than a general introduction to Luke's theology of the Holy Spirit, so I'm not sure about it. I think I'll need to keep looking - if anyone has any suggestions, they'd be gratefully received.

The rest of the unit will remain as it is. I'll just be tweaking some of the material to update it, revisiting the bibliography to make sure that it's up-to-date and revising the essay questions. Once that's done, I'm hoping to revise a paper gave at the post-grad seminar with a view to publication and then begin revisions on some on-line units that require a make-over. That should all keep me out of mischief through the summer.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The news from France...

So, last week we were in France. After a fabulous weekend in Amiens (one of our favourite cities on the planet), we went to Le Pas Opton, Spring Harvest's French base, for Dutch week. We had a great time with some wonderful Dutch believers.

We went to France through Calais - our usual route - but were being warned ahead of leaving that our journey would be a nightmare and that we might never get there! Well, we did. However, on the Friday we were sailing we set off extra early and went to Dover on the M2 rather than the M20 because operation stack was in operation on that road.

We left extra time because we expected to hit traffic and had been warned that passport control takes longer than it used to. There was nothing on the M2/A2 so our journey took just over an hour. We sailed through passport control with no one manning any of the booths and so no one looking at our passports. We were so early we could not check in for half an hour. On disembarking in Calais we left the port in modest traffic with no disruption.

We expected the return to be worse. True passport control was slow - mainly because there were not enough lanes open - and the timetable was disrupted. But we were sailing within an hour of check-in, which is relatively normal. Admittedly, we were on a ferry that should have left an hour and half before we arrived in the port! Most travellers seemed cheerful enough, however.

So, today on the BBC news there were reports of chaos in Calais caused by an ocean of migrants forcing their way into Britain by any means they could find. This was not what we saw. In fact we didn't see any evidence of the migrant invasion at all on our trip. What the BBC failed to mention is that the main disruption in Calais is caused by an on-going industrial dispute between workers of the company My Ferry Link and the company's owners, the channel tunnel company (hence the disruption to the tunnel over recent days).

The only person who mentioned the industrial action was the man from the Freight Transport Association who thought strikes should be outlawed in the industry. Perhaps a better solution would be what the French government appear to be proposing at a meeting next Monday which is that they take control of My Ferry Link. This would ensure that capacity on the cross channel is not reduced (the dispute is over My Ferry Link's current owners shutting the company down and taking the boats out of the water, thus reducing available space and allowing prices to rise).

It is the industrial action that has given the migrants desperate to get to the UK a chance to risk making the crossing. The result has been a rise in the number of deaths in the water and on the tracks of the channel tunnel (the latest was the body of young man found on top of a train this morning). So part of the solution to the migrant issue would be to settle the industrial action swiftly and justly, increase the capacity of the carriers on the route (either under or over the sea).

There is talk of a big lorry park being built in Kent to free the M20 from becoming a car park from time to time. That sounds good. How about also building a reception centre on this side of the channel so that we could take our fair share of the migrants coming to the EU and not leaving them in the hands of people traffickers?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Whose money, whose decision?

The mantra since the Thatcher-Reagan years (I think based on Milton Friedman's model of the economy) is that the money the government spends is tax payers money. It isn't. Tax payers have paid it to government for them to spend, according to the programmes on which they were elected.

I expect my government to act justly with the money that it has been given stewardship of by the nation's tax payers. For this reason, I expect two things. The first is that everyone who owes tax will pay tax - whether that's individuals or corporations; they will not look for sophisticated ways of avoiding paying what government (elected by all of us - or in our current government's case by barely 25% of us, but that's another blog entirely!) has deemed people should pay.

The second is that I expect government to spend according to principles of justice and equity, fairness and what is in the interest of the well-being of the majority of citizens. I think this means that in moral terms, governments should make decisions ethically. For me that would mean that governments would take seriously what the bible says about money and community, about shared prosperity and the well-being of all. I appreciate others might take a different view, based on a different morality.

So Europe's tax payers are not bailing out Greece, as though Europe's leaders had gone round dragging Euros from reluctant citizens' wallets and purses. No, Europe's governments are using their money (that gathered in taxes which is now theirs to disperse) to do the right thing by Greece. At that very least, it means that Europe's leaders must explain why they have taken the decisions they have and not hide behind their taxpayers. We do not know what they want.

Curiously, we do know what the Greek taxpayers want because they expressed their view on this single issue and an overwhelming majority of them wanted something different from what they are being offered. The fact that Europe's leaders ignore the democratic will of the Greek people nails the lie that they have any interest in the tax payers of any country.

What they do, they do in their own interests and we the people should not be implicated in their ineptitude.