Friday, October 31, 2014

What is the government's moral duty?

In an article laced with dodgy statistics on the progress of spending cuts so far, not to mention the effects of tax cuts in this parliament, the prime minister suggests that governments have a moral duty to lower taxes.

Is that right?

I would have thought that governments have a moral duty to ensure that taxation is fairly levied so that the government's primary moral duty to support the weakest and most vulnerable in our society has sufficient funds.

That would suggest that a government's moral duty is to progressively tax everyone to ensure that it has enough money for the services for which it is responsible and a measure of redistribution (always a feature of the tax system).

Such would be view of both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who, last time I looked, were not people of the extreme left.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In praise of Lamb

Listening to the new Lamb album which is a work of wondrous beauty. Backspace Unwind is the band's sixth album and it sounds fresh and original, a lush mix of Lou Rhodes sublime voice and Andy Barlow's electronica. Occasional bass and strings add depth, so the twelve songs on the iTunes mix are each note perfect.

There is an interesting thematic thread running through the album which reflects our sense of being so tiny and insignificant in a vast universe and yet finding a sense of ourselves, even a permanence, in the love of another. It's a familiar enough theme but it's brought to lustrous life by the jittery edginess of Barlow's electronic washes and the fragility of Rhodes' voice.

It's startlingly beautiful throughout.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Not all change is revolution, but little changes can transform communities

We are two weeks into our new way of doing Sunday mornings and so far it's going well. It's not that we've enacted a revolution, you understand, just made some changes to shift the focus of what we're doing more towards discipleship.

So, we start with a block of worship songs that aim to lead us on a journey to an encounter with God. Then we have a 'sermon' (15 minutes) followed by refreshments, a chance for everyone to talk about what they've heard. Once everyone's got refreshments we have a Q&A about the morning's theme or get into groups to talk about we'll apply what we've heard to tomorrow (whatever that holds for us). At the end we get everyone together, draw the threads together, hear from the children and go home.

It doesn't sound too revolutionary but we hope it will be. We have changed the palate of the music we use - more contemporary, stringing songs together to lead us on a journey. We have changed the way we deliver the teaching to make it more focused. To aid learning we have produced a booklet of notes (we are working our way thematically through James) that forms the basis of the conversation both in church and at home groups. We are using the same teaching plan over all three services so that we do not overload on information.

The aim in all this is to focus on our lives as followers of Jesus. That's simple, what every church should be focusing on. It is also our aim to attract and keep people looking for a vibrant, relevant and welcoming worshipping community (something we have been struggling to do over recent years).

Change is always difficult and I am delighted with the way so many of our people have risen to the opportunity that this new way of working. Let's see what the next few weeks brings. I for one am excited.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Exploring Paul and poverty

Today my new Grove booklet is available for download here. For a mere £3.95 you can dive into the debate about Paul's economic location and what he has to say about poverty in his world and ours.

I'd be interested to know what people make of it. So download it, read it and debate the issues it raises for us and our churches here.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Why try to answer the West Lothian question?

A footnote to yesterday's reflection on the aftermath of the referendum.

I watched Tam Dalyell on Newsnight last night. He's the instigator of the so-called West Lothian question. It became clear in the course of the conversation he had with Kirsty that he had asked the question originally, not as something that needed to be addressed if devolution went ahead, but as something that in his view scuppered devolution entirely.

The question is unanswerable if you have a devolved assembly within a union of nations. The problem he raises, as I understand it (and please correct me if I am wrong), is that if you devolve certain powers to a regional administration which means that the MPs elected to Westminster from that region are barred from addressing issues devolved there (unless they are members of both assemblies), they should also be barred from discussing and voting on issues in Westminster that apply only to other parts of the union that the said MP does not represent.

So, the answer to the West Lothian question is not the imbecilic 'English votes for English laws' within the current Westminster system or the 'what's good enough for Scotland is good enough for England cry' of John Redwood. The answer is the same arrangement as in Scotland, i.e. an English assembly that has devolved powers similar to those of Scotland with representatives elected to it on the same PR system used in all the other devolved assemblies. English Westminster MPs would, of course, in exactly the same that Scottish MPs currently are, have no say in those English laws (unless they sat in both the English devolved assembly and Westminster).

Merely, having days at Westminster devoted to English business that all other MPs are barred from involvement in, does not replicate the arrangements in other devolved regions in any way equitably.

This suggests that the only way to move forward is to have a federal UK with a number of devolved assemblies around the country - perhaps based on cities or urban conurbations and their surrounding rural areas - with an elected chamber for the UK sitting somewhere in the middle of the country - Northampton or Lincoln - to act as arbitrator when the regions clashed on policies affecting the whole country and foreign policy. I think the NHS would have to be in the UK assembly t ensure that it was genuinely national and remained a public service funded by taxation and delivered by public servants.

This is similar to Gordon Brown's proposal, I think, with his idea of an elected house of Lords or second chamber taking the national and arbitration role. It is, of course similar to the system in the USA which might not be a model of governmental efficiency!

Anything else would not answer the West Lothian question at all. The question remains, of course, whether this would lead to the fragmentation of the UK into a series of competing city states, all out-gunned by London to which the answer is almost certainly, yes.

It's right, as all the headlines this morning suggest, that the union can't survive in its current form. But as the Times banner headline puts it 'Salmond quits as powers for Scotland are blocked' shows, the current government's plans are not going to solve the problem raised by the referendum; they are only going make matters worse. No surprise there, then.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Illuminating our new dark age

I kept out of discussions on the Scottish referendum on social media or here because I didn't have a horse in the race. I have friends on both sides of the debate, not to mention a brother in Aberdeen and other family in the borders. But I didn't have a vote and so any opinion I might have had was somewhat impotent.

I was stirred by some of what I heard - I have to say I was particularly impressed by Gordon Brown's final speech. Perhaps it's true that he can now add saving the union to saving the financial sector that was already on his CV.

Sadly I awoke this morning to the UK's prime minister (not the English one as we don't have one of those yet) reneging on key parts of his promises ahead of the referendum. I guess I shouldn't be surprised but appointing William Hague to chair a cabinet committee to draw up legislation was not part of the offer made last week. At the very least, there needs to be an all-party committee or group tasked with moving devo max forward - Perhaps Gordon should chair it.

But here has to be a lot more than that. I lost count of the number of times over the past few months that I thought 'why can't we have this kind of fundamental conversation about our democracy where I live?' I envied the Scot's their vibrant carnival of democratic renewal and was suitably in awe of the turn-out (over 90% in some parts). I was also delighted by the maturity and engagement of the 16-17 year olds enfranchised for this vote. How can we resist calls for them to be given the vote across all elections?

We need a constitutional conference, a sort of Putney debates for the twenty-first century, where everyone gets a chance to meaningfully contribute to the kind of politics we want across our union. This is not dealt with by solving the west lothian question, which is a best a minor issue and at worst a massive distraction used by miffed little englanders to bash the devolution settlement, and getting on with business as usual.

We need to see democracy cascading down to the level that ordinary people operate at. Politics needs to be taken out of the hands of professionals, those with vested interests in maintaining the tawdry status quo. So let's start talking about the kind of society we'd like to see in our churches and pubs, let's get people together locally to talk about the things that matter to them, to discuss ideas, to dream dreams (and let's not get bogged down in what it'll cost - let's make plans and cost them later).

'In the new dark age no one puts up a fight,' sings Bill Mallonee on the wonderful In the new dark age on his new album, Winnowing. The indy referendum has lit a light hundreds of miles from me - but I can just about make out its glow. We need a lot of lamps being lit everywhere across our land. 'In the new dark age no one trusts anyone,' he sings (how sad but how true); 'the only lamp burning you.'

So step up, step up; come and see what is illuminated when we put all our lamps together.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finding renewed confidence

Here's a second random observation from our recent trip to Sri Lanka. I was there partly at the invitation of the Lanka Bible College. So a week of our three week stay was devoted to teaching a course on New Testament social history. I've done this three times before - to different sets of students.

This year I had nine men and women working their way through a masters programme in divinity. It's difficult to gauge what level these students are at compared with students doing a masters course in the UK. My guess is that they are at an equivalent level of second year undergraduate (level 5 I think).

But these guys, after a slow start, proved to be a lively and conversational bunch who by the middle of the week were beginning to make connections between what we were studying and their various ministries in Sri Lanka. We had a number of really good conversations about how we live the good news of Jesus in a way that makes it accessible to others.

The second weekend we were there I was leading a seminar for baptist leaders - lay and ordained. Again, we had a good conversation about how churches needed to be organised to more effectively engage in mission.

Churches on the island still tend to be very hierarchical and ministry is seen as a way of gaining status in a culture where status and honour are still key drivers for people. However, in the course of conversations both in college and at the seminar, I detected what I felt was the stirring of a willingness to explore new ways of being church and new approaches to engaged in mission. I took this to be a moving of the Spirit.

One church talked of using English lessons for Tamils living nearby as a way of making community with those beyond church; another spoke of running a programme for those struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. Both were thinking missionally about their context and church life. I've not found this kind of thinking from Baptist church leaders before and it was encouraging. Churches are exploring how they can use their resources (like the building pictured) to engage more creatively in the mission of making Jesus known in sometimes difficult circumstances.

There is a recognition that the church and culture are growing further apart - something that is all too prevalent in the UK - and of the need to leave the comfort of buildings and well-worn programmes to do something new. It is not easy being a Christian in Sri Lanka - especially outside the capital. But opposition is leading to a renewed confidence in the gospel and desire to share it with others.

I came away from my eight days feeling stirred and encouraged. That is not always how I feel when I reach the hotel for my chill out time. Of course, when you find renewed confidence in others, it stirs in you - and that's great. God is good.