Sunday, December 14, 2014

a festive fifteen...

It's that time of year when I traditionally tell everyone what new music I've been listening to this year. I do it more as a reminder to myself of what I've spent my money on than an example of exemplary musical taste. But some of you might be interested.

So, in no particular order (except my top 5), here are the albums I enjoyed enough to buy this year.

Robert Plant and the Shape Shifters Lullaby and Ceaseless Road; unexpected from the Led Zep vocalist.

the Hold Steady Teeth Dreams: good, honest, quirky American rock - though I have no idea where they come from!

Nick Mulvey's gorgeous First Mind.

Kate Tempest Everybody Down in which she showed herself to be as adept at rap as she is at poetry for the page.

Deacon Blue's A New House - not as good as 2012's The Hipsters but still a cut above the average.

David Gray's Mutineers not one I expected to like but did, possibly because production was by Lamb's Andy Barlow who bought an unexpected vibe to Gray's usual oeuvre.

Duologue Never Get Lost, their follow-up to the outstanding Song and Dance which delivers a very pleasing electronic groove.

Elbow produced their best record since Leaders of the Free World in the lovely, moving The Take Off and Landing of Everything.

Paul Smith (of Maximo Park) and Peter Brewis (of Field Music) collaborated on the quirky, gorgeous travelogue that is Frozen By Sight (really looking forward to seeing them at St Giles Church on 19 December - our Christmas treat).

U2 Songs of Innocence. Ok, I know there was a lot of fuss about it being delivered free to everyone with an iTunes account; yes, it was a tad gauche but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth especially when it turned out to be the best U2 album for quite a long time. Bono and the Edge produced some of their best lyrics and the band set them to some great melodies. Not having to pay for it was a lovely bonus!

And so to my top 5 (I loved the other 10 but these stood out for various reasons):

Jackson Browne Standing in the Breach in which the old trooper and songsmith to the revolution produced a set of ten songs that not only engage with all the important issues of the day in an intelligent and provocative way, but also offered a back catalogue of Browne's many musical styles. Great stuff.

Damon Albarn Everyday Robots the first solo album from the Blur front man. A minimalist, staccato feast of great tunes and affecting lyrics in which he pondered his history and our lives splendidly.

Lamb Backspace Unwind: a barnstorming return by the trip hop pioneers. Andy Barlow's production is quite wonderful and Lou Rhodes' voice has never sounded better - if there's a better female singer around, I've yet to hear her.

Bill Mallonee Winnowing in which the veteran singer-songwriter produces yet another career defining set of songs - just as he did last year and the year before. His ear for melody and his turn of phrase show no signs of dimming on a set of songs that probe faith in a post-everything world. Quite stunning.

Ben Watt Hendra: this probably edges my album of the year. A fabulous collection of songs reflecting on aging, memory, loss of parents and making sense of the world around us. Barely a note out of place in the second solo outing of one half of Everything but the Girl. He also produced a great biography of his parents, Romany and Tom - one of my books of the year.

Each would make a great stocking filler for a loved one or a sneaky seasonal treat for yourself.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

I have a piece in the Baptist Times

After the longest bout of illness I can remember having since being a child, I am slowly returning to work and was delighted to see in my in-box today a note from Paul Hobson saying a piece I'd written about Paul and poverty has been published in the Baptist Times.

You can read it here. I hope you enjoy it and find it stimulating. You can, of course, comment about it here or on the BT site.

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.