Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hearing the Smiths again for the first time

My beloved bought me the Smiths box set for Christmas, consisting of the four studio albums, the only live album and three compilations from the 1980s, all beautifully packaged in vinyl replica album slip cases. And it's a revelation.

Now I am a smiths fan. I have a good deal of their output - some of it on vinyl from its original released date. But listening to this is like hearing the band for the first time. Each album has been lovingly remastered by Johnny Marr. And I guess, they each sound as the band had intended they would.

We fans are used to listening to the muddy analogue recordings that were released during the band's all-too brief career (the studio albums were released between February 1984 and September 1987). They sounded great and yet... Listening to properly remastered versions of these great songs (and there have been a number of ghastly remastered collections over the past decade or so) reveals so much that was unheard on the original pressings.

The first album always sounded as if it had been recorded at the bottom of a fish tank. Now, although it is still very much a work in progress, a band finding their feet as writers and recorders, it glistens with flourishes of Hammond organ and rolling bass lines previously unheard. And the songs shine as a result - Still Ill, This Charming Man and and in Glove were already classics; now Reel around the Fountain, Miserable Lie and Suffer the Children take their place alongside them. Indeed all 11 tracks clamour for attention in a way they never used to.

But it's The Queen is Dead that is the biggest surprise here. The sound on the new version is spacious and deep allowing the songs to take on a new life, providing the proper sonic backdrop to what I think is Morrissey's best set of lyrics.

Meat is Murder is still a bit of a disappointment - but I never really rated it their best (unlike a lot of critics) - the sound is crisper but some of the tunes are still limp and the title track is as preposterous now as it was then. Morrissey should stick to what he knows best - yearning love songs and wry observations on the lure and emptiness of celebrity. Still, The Headmaster Ritual, Rusholme Ruffians and That Joke isn't Funny anymore are still crackers.

If you got vouchers or cash for Christmas, do yourself a favour and get this; it's £30 really well spent.

Friday, December 23, 2011

the 2011 festive fifteen

Well, it’s high time for my festive fifteen, the stand-out albums of the year fast slipping away. One record secured its place in the top spot early in the year and, as expected, nothing has dislodged it. But other artists have produced music of outstanding quality this year. So before we get to the top of the spot, here’s ten of the best in no particular order.
Early in the year, Radiohead surprised with a download only release of startling quality. King of Limbs has since made it to all formats and is a joy (if you can use that term of a Radiohead album), full of great tunes and packing an emotional punch.
American Justin McRoberts has been putting out a multi-EP collection called CMY, of which C and M have emerged. Thoughtful lyrics swinging from robust and beautifully played tunes make these collections worth repeated listenings. There’s also great digital booklets available for each on the artist’s website (here).
Another find from the States are Civil Wars, a sublime country-tinged duo with amazing voices and guitar led tunes that are to die for. They’ve justifiably won some awards this year; they are destined for great things.
The ever reliable and permanently touring (though I can’t get him to the UK!), Bill Mallonnee released a new proper studio album – after a string of works in progress. The Power and the Glory is majestic and muscular, full of wry observations set to electric guitar heavy music and is quite lovely.
Ron Sexsmith, after years of working away in the shadow of lesser song writers, emerged with a mature collection of finely crafted tunes, Long Player Late Bloomer.
Still in the States, the Decemberists followed their epic The Hazards of Love, with an altogether lighter and at first blush rather ordinary record, The King is Dead. Repeated listens, however, reveal it to be a work of great depth with infectiously catchy tunes.
From our side of the pond, Elbow turned out another classic full of songs of aching beauty and wry observation from a writer hitting the heights of his powers. Build a Rocket Boys is full of reflections on growing up, of losing and finding love, of lessons learned along the way that barely misses a beat.
Fold produced an EP with proceeds going to the tax justice campaign. As if that wasn’t reason for buying it, the fact that it’s full of samples of great speeches over a fine electronic wash that provoke thought and conversation certainly is.
This year saw the passing of REM. Athens, Georgia’s finest called it a day seemingly at the height of their powers. Collapse into Now, the last studio record, is full of great tunes and Michael Stipe’s voice sounding wonderful. Then they top it with a career retrospective of 37 of their best songs and three new ones that show they’ve lost none of their magic. If you only buy one REM record, make it Part lies, part heart, part truth, part garbage1982-2011.
And fast becoming a favourite is Bon Iver’s second, self-titled work. I found his first record a trifle twee and annoying with its half-finished songs and chilly arrangements. This more than makes up for it, demonstrating that Justin Vernon is a fine song writer, not afraid to push the boat out on arrangements that range from folk to jazz, gospel to ambient which all fit snugly together in a hugely enjoyable 40 minutes.
And now to the top five.
Find of the year is split between two American Christian-hued artists, Josh Garrels and the Afterlife Parade. Both show a lyrical maturity and questing, evening questioning and imaginative faith that so rare in Christian music. Garrels is giving his album away at Noisetrade but don’t let that put you off. Afterlife Parade’s two EPs meditating on death and life are sonically and lyrically a treat. The stand out track is Simple off the death EP, a song that  captures the longing of the human heart for connection with God like nothing I’ve heard before.
The other new band that I got to see live this year at a gig in St Giles in the Fields church in November is the wonderful Other Lives. Think Fleet Foxes with depth and attitude (and I like Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues almost made the cut). Each song on Tamer Animals is musical adventure with the five members of the band playing a cornucopia of instruments to create little pop symphonies. It’s fabulous.
Paul Simon released his best album since… well, maybe his best album ever. With songs reflecting on life well lived and awash with the possibility of God, So Beautiful or so What would have been the hands-down best album of the year, but… It’s full of wonderful turns of phrase and is incredibly funky.
But album of the year is P J Harvey’s Let England Shake. This is an indescribably beautiful and heart-breaking record. It is also fiercely intelligent and serious. It’s a suite of songs that reflect on how England, a land  Polly Jean loves with a passion, has been shaped by war and conflict. She takes words from world war one veterans – especially the Dardanelles campaign – and weaves them with brief, episodic reflections on the shape of English character. It is an album as deep as an ocean, at turns desperately sad and wryly funny, played with panache and skill by a tight circle of musicians. It’s been described as her masterpiece, won the Mercury prize and is, quite simply the best record of the year bar none.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The weakness of black box Christianity

Two cheers for David Cameron. It is a bold politician who speaks of the centrality of the Christian faith in our culture and calls for Christians to be bold advocates of it. I am grateful to him for the debate it has provoked.

His sharpest insight, as far as I was concerned, was this: 'the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too'. This is an argument that Vinoth Ramachandra makes about the Christian faith in a world of faiths and is well made.

The problem with the speech, though, is a problem that has beset politicians of all hues for a generation. It is the tendency to treat Christianity as a sort of black box of cultural and moral values. It is as if the nation has crash landed in some moral wilderness and rescuers searching for survivors have come across the black box flight recorder that tells us that prior to the crash we were heading one way, according to one compass setting of rules or values, then we suddenly changed course and hit a mountainside.

It is very appealing to a lot of traditional and conservative Christians (with both a small and a big 'C'). But I think Cameron's comments that he was a 'committed' but 'only vaguely practising' Christian and that he was 'full of doubts' about big theological questions betrays the problem here. The Christian faith is not a black box that can be consulted when we need a bit of moral guidance. 

It is first and foremost a call to discipleship, a call to follow Jesus, to embody his way of living in communities of like-minded disciples. Yes, Christian values are good and should be given a hearing in the public square; they speak to the human condition in a way that other systems do not. But to be Christian is follow Christ, to be caught up in the adventure of discovering who we are in him and to embody his revolution in our lives and communities. This is a radical call to remember the poor, to live for justice, to welcome the stranger and signpost the coming of his Kingdom of peace and equity. 

So, let's hope David  Cameron has begun a conversation. Let's join him in it and sees where it leads us.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sniffing out influence

I've been chuckling today because I have appeared on the dessert menu or coffee course of a list of influential baptists. You can check it out here at Neil Brighton's blog (I don't appear until the comments kick in!). It's a good list - the dinner one, that is. But I share Paul Lavender's concern and would want to ask a broader question.

What do we mean by influence and where is that influence best felt? To be fair, Neil's post has come out of conversations about where the Baptist family in England (particularly) is going. We face times of austerity like everyone else and have to make choices about the use of resources. We also face declining numbers - not everywhere, but overall. There are also exciting things happening but these tend to be on the margins, in places where the centre of Baptist life isn't really looking. And they tend to be happenings that defy easy definition and corralling into tidy pigeon holes.

As a movement, we have tended to struggle with pioneers. How do we train them, how do we resource them and how do we give them time to explore and find new maps for our mission? Our current list of ministerial competencies doesn't seem to have much space for anything that doesn't look like church as we've done it for the past century. That clearly won't help us chart a way to mission for the current situation we face, let alone the future.

Our current models are all resource intensive - costly buildings, costly ministers, costly initiatives to attract people, costly technical specs for our outreach. Now, I am one of those costs - a minister who gets paid for it in a church that spends a small third world country's debt on our buildings. But I see the writing on the wall for us and all like us and we have got to find better, more organic ways of engaging with people in our communities; a way that puts the Kingdom before the empire (our empire that is).

So I have a feeling that influence is something that is going to emerge at the margins, probably from those margins that we're not paying any attention to. I have a feeling that what emerges that will be influential will, in the first instance, be very difficult to see or understand. The move of the Spirit and the emergence of the Kingdom tend to be somewhat shadowy and hard to pin down at first. They certainly do not lend themselves to easy measurement or categorisation. A bit like Jesus, really.

So, if I was going to name influential baptists, I'd begin with Peter Dominey and Ivan King and church from scratch precisely because it is so difficult to get a handle on what it is and yet it has the reek of authenticity, the aroma of the Kingdom. That'd be a good place to go an sniff.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Advent and the coming of the Kingdom

We had a great time on Wednesday. All our girls - daughters and grand-daughters - were with us and we went off into London to visit two sites - the Occupy  London Stock Exchange camp at St Paul's and the Christmas market on the South Bank.

I was hugely impressed with the Occupy LSX site. It's well organised, clean and very friendly. We spent some time at the tent university, chatting about the revised general assembly's economics working statement with a couple of the people who hold things together there.

I was invited to come and do a session on New Testament economics, something I hope to do in the New Year. There was an openness to fresh thinking and debate about ideas that was really refreshing. Here is a group of people looking for a new world. I was reminded of the context into which Jesus came - a world of injustice, dominated by a powerful one per cent, a world at war, a world where the poor are disenfranchised and struggle to make ends meet (sound familiar?).

It seems to me that during Advent we should be asking questions about where our world is going and how it is going to be renewed. Some have pitted the Occupy LSX group with the church on whose doorstep it is camped. But this is a huge mistake.

As I chatted with occupiers, I was reminded of the encounter Jesus had with a teacher of the Law about what really mattered (which is the greatest commandment). The encounter ends with Jesus saying to the man that he's not far from the Kingdom of God (Mark 12:28-34).

What strikes me about this conversation is the sense of the Kingdom's porous borders, of the fact that the Kingdom is looking to sweep into its embrace all who are looking for a new world. I am also struck by the fact that Jesus is open to insights from those who are apparently his enemies or at least those who are challenging his right to interpret the way things are. The teacher of the Law says that love of neighbour is more important than religious rectitude and Jesus says 'you're not far from the Kingdom.' I suspect he would say the same thing to the mixed and energetic group camped around the steps of St Paul's.

At advent we listen for the voice of the Kingdom - wherever it comes from.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beginning with Advent

Today is advent Sunday. So I'd like to wish a happy new year to all my readers.

Advent is the beginning of the Christian year year because it's the time when we get ready for the coming of Jesus, bringer of the Kingdom of God

There's a great post on a blog I hadn't come across before but will be checking out now. You can find it here. It's by an American writer and reflects on whose calendar we live our lives by - Caesar's or God's? The Christian calendar reminds us that we live our lives by a different story, the story of the coming of our king, his crucifixion and call to live our ordinary time as his disciples rather than as followers of some other value system.

I have often pondered shifting our church year from the three-term academic treadmill we currently follow to the ebb and flow of Christian year, beginning today with a period of reflection and preparation before the celebrations of Christmas, proclaiming through our programme the Lord whose values shape our lives.

Advent gives shape to the longing for change we see all around us at the moment - in the occupy movement, in the conversations with people talking about their daily struggles, in the dreaming of young people for a life that matters. Advent is the time when we reflect on what life is about and how God has promised to come and deliver us from the sins and chains that prevent us from experiencing lives of justice and hope.

Advent reminds us that God has heard and seen, that he is responding to the cries of his people by sending a saviour, a redeemer, a liberator, one who will fulfil the great prophetic hope that God will come to set things right. Advent reminds us that there is an alternative that flows from the heart of our creating, coming God.

And for Christians, advent gives shape to the story we live by, a story dreamed in the heart of God and told in a baby in Bethlehem; a story embodied and articulated in the life and teaching of Jesus; a story realised through the cross that breaks the power of injustice and inequity and in the resurrection that announces new creation starts here: see, says your God, I am making all things new.

As we mark advent, we are preparing ourselves to be part of that game-changing story. What a great to start the year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Other Lives soars to other places

On Monday night we went to see Other Lives at St Giles in the Fields. It was one of the best gigs I've been to for ages.

Other Lives are one of this year's most exciting break-through band (check them out here). They've been around a while but new album, Tamer Animals, is a step up from everything that preceded it. It's a wonderful collection.

Live the band are tight and slightly ramshackle; everyone plays a variety of instruments, sometimes many in the course of a single song, diving between keys, brass, autoharp, cello, tom toms, pump organ, guitars and violins. Even the drummer was seen playing a clarinet while keeping the rhythm at one point.

But Monday evening was not just a display of dexterous virtuosity, it was also an emotional roller-coaster ride. Other Lives produce music of romantic and epic sweep. I don't if it was the venue - St Giles is a beautifully appointed seventeenth century church - but the gig felt like something more than just a concert (though doesn't great music always create that potential?). Things came to a head with a cover version of Leonard Cohen's epic cri de coeur the Partisan, played with a fragile energy that really suited singer Jesse Tabish's voice. As he sang 'Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come; then we'll come from the shadows' and I thought about the news from Egypt and Occupy London, I found myself in tears.

Great songs articulate feelings too deep for conversation. I was in Romans 8 territory, the Spirit of God urging the birth of a new world of peace and justice, finding words for our longing for change. I don't what my fellow gig goers were feeling...!

This was a great gig in a truly wonderful venue. I hope St Giles will continue to develop as a place where good music is put on for medium-sized and appreciative audiences.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bursting at the seams at Messy Church

We had a wonderful messy church today. It was our third birthday, so we threw a party and nearly a hundred people turned up. This is the most we've had and is probably the most the hall can hold. There was a great party atmosphere, lots of good conversations and the sense that we were really connecting with a number of families for whom this is their only church.

Afterwards one mum who's not been coming for long, came and told us that it had been wonderful and that church should always be like this.

Then we had a good messy talk, using some DVD material from the Ugly Duckling company that seemed to work pretty well.

I think I'm learning through messy church that it is possible to do serious things in an all-age context and that we shouldn't be afraid to mix activities aimed at children and conversation between adults (which is what happens at a regular children's party, after all).

It bodes well for our continued thinking about neighbourhood groups and refocusing church on smaller units built around families.

I also discovered some blindingly good new music yesterday. it's by a band called afterlife parade, the brain child of singer-songwriter Quinn Erwin. They've released two EPs this year called respectively death and rebirth ans they are both really beautiful. The song, simple on the Death EP is one of the best songs I've heard all year. Both EPs are a collection of thoughtful, faith-questing songs. You can check them out here and download both EPs for under a tenner. That's got to be good.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Getting to grips with holiness

Giles Fraser is at his mouth-watering best in today's Guardian, reflecting on where the church should be and whether we've understood holiness properly.

It reminded me why it matters what we think and say about Jesus. I have been putting the finishing touches to a session on Christology for Spurgeon's next week which has been a little like herding cats with material refusing to fit neatly in my pre-planned scheme. Ah well.

But Fraser's piece brought to mind some words of Richard Bauckham that I will be sharing with my students. Reflecting on Philippians 2:5-11, he says: 'the passage amounts to a Christological statement of the identity of God. The exaltation of Christ to participation in the unique divine sovereignty shows him to be included in the unique divine identity. But since the exalted Christ is first the humiliated Christ, since indeed it is because of his self-abnegation that he is exalted, his humiliation belongs to the identity of God as truly as his exaltation does…The God who is high can also be low, because God is God not in seeking his own advantage but in self-giving.'

The question is what does the self-abasement and cross of Christ tell us about God? The answer is eloquently given by Bauckham. But it begs another question what does it mean for us to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus? The very question Paul asks as the introduction to this amazing portrait of our servant God.

And it seems to me that Giles Fraser has put in finger on where an answer begins.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sorting out who we are devoted to

Sometimes something in a scholarly article that is otherwise dealing with rather arcane points of ancient history or Christian theology, leaps off the page and socks you between the eyes. It's a reminder that there is a close and vital link between academic study and Christian living.

I'm preparing a class on Christology, basing most of my reflections on the work of Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado who argue for a Christology of divine identity, derived from second temple Judaism. It's good stuff that helpfully moves beyond the rather arid discussion of ontological categories.

Towards the end of a review paper, where Larry Hurtado has assessed the impact that devotion to Jesus made on the first Christians and the surrounding society, he asserts 'In an understandable but probably misguided effort to make Christian faith as undemanding as possible, have churches by and large ill-prepared believers for anything in the nature of serious opposition, criticism, or worse? More positively, has the banal simulacrum that passes for Christian faith too widely today anything of the fervour and passion of the Jesus-devotion that empowered early believers to live, think, work, and even die for Jesus?'

And as we ministers are still smarting from that he adds: 'How well does the comfortable and low-demand Western Christianity of today (whether of ‘liberal’ or ‘Evangelical’ stripe) equip believers to engage their own social setting and political circumstances meaningfully and positively?'

Who says NT scholarship lives in an ivory tower, divorced from the reality of issues facing followers of Jesus today? Hurtado's observation that the power of the early church to leave a mark on its culture came from its devotion to Jesus. In a world of gods, the early Christians proclaimed that Jesus was the one through whom God had decisively acted, so God had shown him to be worthy of worship. And that devotion spilled over in their daily social, working and political lives. If Jesus is Lord, then no one else is. Such a profession cost many of these committed their livelihoods and even their lives. But from very early on, such a profession turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

If we want to do the same in our day, then maybe we need to sort out who we are really devoted to.


I was away when REM announced they were calling it a day. In homage to one of the world's greatest ever rock bands, I downloaded their end of career retrospective yesterday. Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982 to 2011 is a collection of 37 previously released tracks and three new ones. And they are all blinders!

Some critics suggest that REM went off the boil after Automatic for the People but I rate this year's Collapse into Now as one of the best records they ever made. It seems they quit at the top of their game. These 40 songs remind us what a potent force they were, Peter Buck's guitar the perfect foil for Michael Stipe's sometimes fragile, sometimes gritty vocals.

Listening to this retrospective makes me grateful for all the music and sad that they'll not do another album.

Showing there is an alternative - while we work out what it is

The great John Gray weighed into the debate over the future of our current form of capitalism in yesterday's guardian. The former LSE professor and author of False Dawn, among a slew of other prescient works, suggests that the protesters outside St Paul's Cathedral - and camped in other cities across the globe - are engaging with reality somewhat more effectively than our political leaders who remain in thrall to 'a defunct market utopia'.

It's hard to disagree. He points out that the calamity facing the Eurozone - with French bond yields now twice those of Germany and edging closer to the danger zone - is mainly because political leaders have no idea what to do. Unlike previous global crises of the same magnitude - and there haven't been that many - there is no global institution with sufficient cash and clout to sort out the mess - by knocking heads together if necessary.

Some people suggest, of course, that the markets over which governments have no control, are the ultimate expression of democracy, millions of individual investors exercising their choices through buy and sell orders. This is self-serving rot trotted out by brokers and politicians in thrall to their every whim.I might have a pension with a provider who bundles lots of pensions together and buys and sells on world financial markets, but I have no effective say in those buying and selling decisions. All I can do is vote for governments whose sovereignty is severely compromised by the operation of the markets. Every time I hear the Chancellor say that our economic policies are keeping the markets happy, I know that the UK's austerity workout is dictated by people I am not offered a chance to elect.

Gray argues that Europe's elites 'have yet to face the fact that radical change is unavoidable'. This is because they remain in thrall to a busted market utopia. The question is what kind of radical change is needed? And I come back to what I talked about last week - that at root this is a moral not an economic crisis. Gordon Gecko said greed is good in the film Wall Street but Paul points out that greed is idolatry and idolatry always brings calamity on its practitioners. So the radical change needed? Groups of Jesus followers taking him at his word and showing by their actions that it is possible to live in a way where our actions are not driven by greed but by generosity, not by hubris but humility. If as followers of Jesus we can learn to be content and live out of that contentment, we might show our neighbours that there is an alternative.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gallows humour and searching questions

Economist Paul Krugman shows the lighter side of the dull science in his ditty:
This is the way the euro ends.
This is the way the euro ends.
This is the way the euro ends.
Not with a bang but with bunga-bunga.

Gallows humour is essential in a time of crisis. The Nobel Price winning economist puts his finger (maybe unwittingly) on something important - that in the midst of all the necessary focus on numbers, there is a serious moral dimension to this crisis.

There is a tiny group of people around the world who have seen their wealth rise exponentially during the last decade - even while economies have been crashing and burning. In some ways Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, media mogul, billionaire, playboy, party-thrower, is a symbol and symptom of a moral failure at the heart of the financial catastrophe.

When I read about him, I think about the prophet Micah describing the glitterati of his day in these words - brought vividly to life in the Message translation (6:10-16):

"Do you expect me to overlook obscene wealth
   you've piled up by cheating and fraud?
Do you think I'll tolerate shady deals
   and shifty scheming?
I'm tired of the violent rich
   bullying their way with bluffs and lies.
I'm fed up. Beginning now, you're finished.
   You'll pay for your sins down to your last cent.
No matter how much you get, it will never be enough—
   hollow stomachs, empty hearts.
No matter how hard you work, you'll have nothing to show for it—
   bankrupt lives, wasted souls.
You'll plant grass
   but never get a lawn.
You'll make jelly
   but never spread it on your bread.
You'll press apples
   but never drink the cider.
You have lived by the standards of your king, Omri,
   the decadent lifestyle of the family of Ahab.
Because you've slavishly followed their fashions,
   I'm forcing you into bankruptcy.
Your way of life will be laughed at, a tasteless joke.
   Your lives will be derided as futile and fake."

Berlusconi is a joke and yet he's the epitome of the lifestyle our culture lauds and apes. And we will all pay the price of his folly and the folly of the one per cent of the world who live like him. But the joke could also be on us who have lived by the mantra 'there by the grace of the market, it could have been me...'

But Micah tells us how we should live:

[God's] already made it plain how to live, what to do,
   what God is looking for in men and women.
It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbour,
   be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don't take yourself too seriously—
   take God seriously.

And he goes on to remind us 'Attention! God calls out to the city! If you know what's good for you, you'll listen. So listen, all of you! This is serious business.'

I think the market makers know how serious this is - with bond yields for Italy above a crisis level 7% and stock markets falling. But I wonder if we do. Do we believe there is a technical fix that means we can return to business as usual? Or do we need to  ask more searching questions about the kind of economy, the kind of politics we need to ensure justice and equity for all the world's citizens?

For all its incoherence, the Occupy movement suggests that there are growing numbers of ordinary people from all walks of life who are beginning to ask for a better way. Where are the leaders rising to this challenge, harnessing this energy, articulating this cry for change?

Friday, November 04, 2011

The sound of protest

I've been listening to some great new music this week from an outfit called Fold. You can check them out and pay whatever you like to download their output here and here. What's more, when you buy their music, some of your money will distributed to organisations working for greater justice in our society.

One of the tracks - We must speak - puts these prophetic words of Martin Luther King over a wash of beats and vocals:

'I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. A time comes when silence is betrayal. The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those that call us enemy. For no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. We are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.'

It's that last sentence that has been niggling at me since I first heard it on Tuesday. And it is those words that came to mind when  read these two great stories about different kinds of protesters - one at St Paul's and one in the States

Questions about church (again...)

There's an interesting post over on Mike Bird's blog (euanggelion) about the church. It's called 'In praise of the visible church' and suggests that people who question institutional Christianity are engaging in 'a ridiculous cop-out'.

But I find myself confused over what it is that Mike is defending here because one of his favourite quotes on the church is from Rick Warren who says 'the church is the people, not the steeple'. I say a hearty amen to that. And so would many of the people engaged in debates over what he dismisses as 'churchless Christianity'.

The issue is not can you be a Christian without a church - I think Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship in community; the question is 'what kind of community constitutes church?' It seems to me that a lot of critics of emerging church are wedded to a view of church that owes much to the Victorian era and precious little to the New Testament.

I think a good question to ask about what we do in the name of church is this one: 'would Paul recognise our gatherings as church?' I suspect for the most part, he wouldn't.

Over the past couple of weeks some people have been asking where is the church around the area of St Paul's and Paternoster Square in the City of London? Some have offered the somewhat pat answer that of course the church is in the tents on the steps. That doesn't really address the question because to be church, a community has got to consciously be shaping itself around the life and values of Jesus.So maybe the answer to the question is along the lines that both the cathedral and the protesters offer some pointers to what church might be but neither actually embody it.

I'll be teaching on New Testament ecclesiology in a couple of weeks time and am really looking forward to teasing out some of these issues - not least the key one of the relationship between mission and church. I hope Mike will post again (rather more fully) on what he means by church.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A kinder, gentler capitalism?

I bought the Financial Times today to read Rowan Williams' article and found beneath it an excellent piece by John Kay which you can read on the veteran economist's own website here.

I especially warmed to his sentiment that many people agree with the protest at St Paul's but few with what the protesters actually say. The reason for this is that we all think something's wrong but can't quite put our finger on what it is. He suggests the following:

'The incoherence results from a political void. Europe’s political left lacks any convincing narrative in the post-socialist world. The right tells a story in which greed is the dominant human motivation, government an incubus on the spirit of free enterprise. News “from the markets” is not of new products and services, but of the fluctuations of the FTSE. This rhetoric views doctors and teachers as parasites, not producers, and has provided cover for an unhealthy expansion of the influence of established large corporations.'

I think he might be on to something here. I was reading this as I listened to the World at One discuss the latest manoeuvres in the public sector pension wrangle. I found myself wondering why we are caught up in a race to the bottom; why the task seems to be to leave everyone without a pension. A number of experts were saying that the public sector workers need to realise that their private sector counterparts have virtually no guaranteed pension, so they should accept the same fate. The upshot of this, of course, is that the state picks up all our bills for retirement.

So how about changing company law to say that instead of maximising share holder value and ensuring that board directors retain their gold-plated pensions, companies have a legal obligation to invest in the retirements of all the people who have contributed to them making profits. If people are enriched by the labour of others, they should contribute to those people's well-being by paying them a salary and contributing to a pension for when they retire.

Further, all pensions should be set at what is needed for a person to live on when most of their major costs have been met (ie housing, school fees, two cars, etc). No one needs a pension of £750,000 a year and no one should be expected to make do with one of £7,500 a year.

And how about companies being legally obliged to maximise innovation and invention, quality in manufacturing, sustainability in investment and the use of resources? Then the news from the FTSE would not be about share prices and PE ratios but about new products and services that were genuinely adding value to society as well as company balance sheets.

John Kay argues that no one wants an end to capitalism; they just want a capitalism that is not about greed and gambling. I think we can all say 'amen' to that. As Rowan Williams points out, it is not just protesters who think the Robin Hood Tax is a good idea; Bill Gates and George Soros are supporters - neither men noted for their left-leaning sympathies.

What is becoming clear is that there is a growing chorus of voices saying that the false choice between austerity and bankruptcy needs to be replaced by a sensible conversation about how we can order our society, including the important financial sector, in such a way that everyone benefits and not just a few ridiculously rich people at the top of the pile.

It all sounds like motherhood and apple pie, I know. But of course mums are essential to the good ordering of society and apple pie fuels many a good conversation and fills a belly in a most agreeable way. So what exactly is wrong with that?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Honest talk about the seasons of life

I thought I'd share the thoughts from our church magazine with a wider audience as it's generally applicable and quite a few of my people don't read the magazine but do read the blog. 
So here it is

We Brits thrive on talking about the weather. I’m sure others cultures do it, but we seem to have it down to a fine art. In particular, we look for the good in every season. We love Spring because of all the evidence of new life bursting out all over, summer because of long balmy evenings stretching out in the garden, autumn because of the riot of colours in the trees.  We even have good things to say about crisp, cold winter days when the light is sharp and intense and our breath clouds as we walk.

Just as the seasons pass and we find something in each one, so there is a seasonal aspect to our lives and something good happens in each season we experience. Often people talk of something they are involved in with church or in the wider Christian community as being ‘just for a season’. There is a sense in which nothing that we are called to do is necessarily for the whole of our lives.

Of course, some things are: following Jesus is for life, as is devoting ourselves to the regular reading of scripture and prayer. If we pay close attention to James, helping the poor and marginalised and avoiding becoming embroiled in the world’s ways of doing things are also habits that should last our whole lives (James 1:27). And always being ready to give an account of the hope we have is something that we do from cradle to grave (1 Peter 3:15); indeed the call to mission is the call to a lifelong way of living that seeks to help others to see Jesus and find faith in him.

But other things are seasonal. And there’s good reason for this. Sometimes it’s right for us to serve on a committee or in a team of folk leading some enterprise or other – be it youth work, teaching in Sunday School, playing music, taking the offering, whatever – for a period of time, before we move on to do something else. Sometimes, it’s right to do something for a while and then take stock of where we are and what God is saying to us and perhaps move on from activity to a new one.

It’s good for there to be vacancies in the groups that run our church ministries so that new blood and new thinking can come into them. If we hang around for too long, all we end up doing is blocking to door, preventing others from getting in. If we stay doing one thing for too long, we can become stale, bereft of ideas, wedded to ways of doing things that are easy for us but which stop new ideas coming into the group we’re a part of.

But recognising the seasonal aspect of our own Christian life can be tricky. So we need to develop ways of talking about spiritual seasons just as we have all learned the art of talking about the weather. The danger is that some people want to give up a role they have because they are having a bit of a crisis of confidence and what they need is an encouraging word from someone who urges them to carry them on and promises to pray for them. The opposite danger is that people refuse to talk about what they do in church for fear of others asking whether it wasn’t high time they stopped and allowed someone else to have a turn.

We need to learn the art of forming relationships where we can share our feelings about what we’re doing in church and beyond, where we can ask others to be praying for us, and helping us to work out whether it’s time for us to seek fresh challenges, respond to new opportunities. The New Testament talks about this in terms of discernment. It’s a gift that is rooted in prayer and the Holy Spirit.

It works when a number of aspects of healthy Christian living come together. The first is that each one of us is open to hearing the voice of God as we spend time praying. This entails leaving silences in our times of intercession for the church and the world so that God can respond. Sometimes that response will be what can only be described as a vision – such as Ananias had in Acts 9:10 (though God needed to be pretty emphatic with Ananias since he was asking him to make room for the church’s worst enemy and persecutor to join them!). Most often, it’s a nudge or a feeling that we ought to talk to someone about how they’re doing and whether they’re still engaged in the activities that God wants them to be doing.

The second is that we develop honest and open relationships with one another. Now, we are not going to have relationships of the same depth with everyone in the church. We will relate to some people much more deeply than we do to the majority of our friends. But it is important that we each have a handful of close, warm and deep friendships, the kind that allow us to speak the truth in love into one another’s lives. Within those relationships, we occasionally find that when we sense that God has nudged us about something in our friend’s life, he has also been nudging our friend along the same lines; we find that what we speak about confirms what our friend has already begun to think about.

The third is to pray together, asking that God will confirm the sense that we each have that change is on the way. It helps if having prayed that we give it a few days to settle as we both get on with living and keep the matter in our prayers. When we chat again, we could well each have a sense that God is definitely telling our friend that a fresh challenge awaits them and that they need to relinquish a particular role or focus on something new.

In this process we’ve discerned the change of seasons in a person’s life and as with the weather, there is something good about every spiritual season that God leads us into if we go into it prayerfully and with our eyes open. Let’s get as good at talking about these seasons as we are about the weather.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Nailing the issue

This is a great quote for a Lutheran pastor Tom Gaulke from Chicago who has been spending time with those occupying Chicago in the way that people are occupying London (around St Paul's).

"The more the corporations focus on the wealthy, the more they worship the god of wealth, the more they're sacrificing the 99 percent, The crisis isn't just economic or political. Really, it's a spiritual crisis. For Christians, it's a matter of idolatry," he says.

That seems to nail it. We look for political and economic solutions to the mess we're in and that's right and proper because it is part of our mandate as stewards of creation. But in order to solve a problem we have to identify it properly. And Gaulke has put his finger succinctly on the issue - idolatry.

And idolatry is a spiritual problem requiring a spiritual solution. Whatever politics and economics we conjure to extract ourselves from this mess, without repentance and humility, they are sticking plasters placed over an arterial burst.

You can read the rest of piece where Gaulke's quoted here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Approaching the heart of the matter in the camp at St Paul's

So St Paul's will open again as the health and safety issues have been dealt with apparently by moving a couple of bikes and re-siting a handful of tents. It's good that this grand Wren landmark will reopen for people to marvel at the space.

But let's not confuse this building with the Christian faith. As its outgoing canon chancellor, Giles Fraser, so aptly put it yesterday: "Ironically the church is a church of the incarnation. That means it has to address things to do with everyday life, including money. Christopher Wren's forte was not 'Jesus born in a stable'. What the camp does is challenge the church with the problem of the incarnation – that you have God who is grand and almighty, who gets born in a stable. St Paul was a tent maker. If you tried to recreate where Jesus would have been born, for me I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp."

Its reopening will coincide with the publication of the protesters' demands. Interestingly, they have to do with bringing democracy to the City of London. The manifesto has not made to the Occupy London website yet but details of the demands can be found here.

They seem to be a pretty coherent agenda for change. Maurice Glassman, the labour peer behind the blue labour initiative welcomed the proposals, saying: "By declaring that the point of their protest is the democratisation of London the meaning of the occupation is transformed. It opens a prospect for civic renewal and the challenging of unaccountable power elites.The protesters have stumbled upon the source of financial power within the British state. This could get interesting,"

I think his last statement is the one that resonates with me. This could get interesting. In a world dominated by soundbite politics, people have been critical of the protesters for being against everything and for nothing. Many of their spokespeople have been sadly inarticulate when appearing before the cameras with news people demanding a 30 second soundbite that sums up their  reason for being there. This, linked with criticism that they tweet and drink lattes, indicating that they take capitalism's goodies while rejecting its ethos, has made people dismiss them as middle class slackers.

Now we are beginning to see some interesting thinking emerging from the tented village. These are ideas that the political establishment ought to discuss with those putting them up. As Giles Fraser says "A great many people think that something has gone wrong in the City of London and that the wealth generated by the City does not exist for the benefit of us all."

The trouble is that the establishment just wants to man the barricades, clear the embarrassing blot off our streets and return to business as usual. The trouble is that on the day when it's revealed that the remuneration packages of the FTSE 100 companies have risen by an average of 49% at a time when their work forces are seeing real incomes fall, business as usual is just not acceptable.

Yesterday figures from the US revealed that the richest 1% have seen their wealth grow considerably over the past year while the 99% have seen theirs fall. It is clear that there is something broken at the heart of our system.

What is quite encouraging is that there are a number of business people and thinkers who are seeing this. Umair Huque (and others blogging at the Harvard Business School) argues for an end to trading and raiding and a return to creating and building. People at the heart of capitalism recognise that it is in crisis, failing to deliver for the majority what it has increasingly hoarded for a tiny minority. The trouble is that the financial crisis of the last three years demonstrates that the costs of this to everyone else is far too high.

So today is the day when the protests get interesting. The Corporation of London should save the money it will be shelling out on lawyers seeking injunctions and spend it instead on coffee and muffins to fuel proper conversations with those camped on their streets.

If democracy means anything, it surely means that we need to find mechanisms for hearing the voices of everyone; that those voices are listened to, ideas weighed, new thinking allowed to emerge. If it is rule of the people, by the people, for the people, then decisions need to be made by more than just a coterie of the great and the good being rubber stamped by their hangers-on in Parliament.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why paying our dues is a sign of love

Richard Murphy is an interesting accountant. That's a sentence I don't write very often! Murphy has been quietly gaining a reputation as a commentator on what is happening in our economy and wider society from the perspective of taxation. Now, this doesn't sound riveting but just consider these two observations.

First, the Greek financial crisis is partly - if not mainly - a crisis of the non-payment of tax by the rich, by businesses and, by example, of anyone who can get away with it. If government coffers are denied income, spending will inevitably lead to problems.

Second, that the £50bn evaded or avoided by UK tax payers - corporate and individual - would go quite a long way to solving our own deficit problems without punishing the poor for the sins of the wealthy.

I believe that paying tax is a sign that we love our neighbours - as Paul says in Romans 13:6-7 as he reflects on what it means to love one another. So, I confess that I read the  article and commentary by Nick Cohen in yesterday's Observer with my jaw in my breakfast cereal this morning (you can read it here and here).

In short, he is reporting a pretty significant spat in the House of Commons over the behaviour of the head of the Inland Revenue. MPs on the Public Accounts Select Committee have accused Dave Hartnett of lying to them and called on Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, to sack him. Why? Because he has cut deals enabling some of the richest institutions in the UK so they can avoid paying billions of pounds worth of tax. The list of beneficiaries includes Goldman Sachs and Vodafone. The fact that he has enjoyed 107 lunches over the past two years with large corporations, the big four accountancy firms and countless merchant and investment adds to the picture of a somewhat cosy relationship between Britain's tax collector-in-chief and many of the groups who pay little or no tax.

This at a time when a number of PAYE customers of HMRC are being hounded for underpaid tax because the Revenue seems incapable of doing something as simple as programming its computers correctly. We should not be surprised if people lose faith in the tax system because they feel they are paying their due while those with influence and sharp-suited accountants are robbing us blind. Isn't this what has happened in Greece?

Which brings us back to Richard Murphy, a man who thinks that we need to bring capitalism back under democratic control. We need to note that he's not anti-capitalist (a term that is so devoid of meaning as to be completely useless in describing anything or anyone). He thinks that this begins (though doesn't end) with a just, accountable and transparent tax system where people and corporations pay what they owe. He blogs here and anyone interested in charting a way to a saner, more just society ought to read his stuff.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Is it 1968 again?

I was too young to take to the streets in 1968 - though I remember the heady days of that year quite well - and I'm probably too old to occupy the City now (though, I'm not sure of that).

It is heartening to see countless thousands of young people taking to the streets in cities across the globe. And totally understandable: in Spain, where the movement started in May, unemployment among the young is touching 50%; even in the UK it's almost 20%. In virtually every economy the young and the poor are paying for the reckless activities of the so-called masters of the universe.

It's a shame that the demonstrations in Rome turned troublesome, with tear gas and water canon being deployed. But it is still thrilling to think that in 80 cities across the world, people are standing up (or should  say, sitting down?) and saying enough is enough. And that the young are leading the way for all of us. We cannot continue running the world in the interests of a minority of rich people, arguing that their profits will generate funds that will trickle down to the poor at their gates. It's time to nail this lie: trickle down doesn't work, it never has and never will.

It's also time to say that ordinary workers and young people at the start of their working lives should not be asked to pick up the bill for an economic meltdown that arose in the financial sector because of the actions of a small group of people who got above themselves.

We'll know we're approaching 1968 when the airwaves fill with songs about the possibility of a new world order and the movie theatres run films that offer an alternative to business as usual (sadly Hollywood seems incapable of producing anything with a brain at the moment). There are hints of this. The new BBC drama Hidden appears to be asking questions about the rich and their effect on the rest of us. But one swallow doesn't make a spring. Has anyone heard any political pop recently?

At least what today's news shows us is that not every young person on planet earth is gripped by apathy and sitting in front of the X Factor!

The wider lessons of the Fox hunt

I've not blogged about Dr Fox. I'm glad he's resigned but I haven't felt that I've anything to add to the acres of comment that is available elsewhere. The Guardian has done a good job chasing this one down but so has the Times and the FT.

What really swung it for me was the evidence that Fox and Werrity were effectively running an alternative foreign in their meetings in Sri Lanka. There is a government that we need to be very cautious of, a government that still has questions to answer about the death toll at the end of the civil (questions that it doesn't seem to want to ask, let alone answer). And here are messers Fox and Werrity lobbying for influence and possibly contracts in a way that contradicted what the Foreign Office is trying to do.

It seems to me that one of the key things that this whole sorry affair raises is about the role of the civil service (who Fox and Werrity appear to have sidelined on a number of occasions). And this issue comes into even starker relief with the news from earlier this week (all but lost in the frenzy over the defence secretary) that Gus O'Donnell is stepping down as Cabinet Office Secretary and head of the home civil service and his job is being split up.

This is a major constitutional change and just appears to be being nodded through. It takes from the heart of the government machine a single pair of eyes watching over how the civil service and ministers are working together. Even Peter Oborne - not a man I often agree with - sees the danger of this as he explains here. He is also hugely critical of the appointment of Jeremy Hayward - a man as much a banker as a civil servant - to the role Sir Gus is vacating.

The Fox affair reveals a government at risk of blurring the lines between government and business, between a division of powers carefully balanced in our constitution and policy increasingly driven by lobby and special interest groups.

Whatever way we vote, whatever we think of the government, we need to be concerned when it seems that unaccountable people have more power and influence in our system than those properly recruited and trained to run the government machine alongside ministers.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Asking the right question

In the middle of the hand-wringing that's accompanied the Care Quality Commission report on the horrendous way that many elderly people are treated in our hospitals, Joan Bakewell asked a simple question on this morning's Today programme.

She asked where people learned to care in our society in view of the decline of religion. She said that she learned compassion in Sunday School and church and asked where children and young people learn it today. It's a good question.

I hope it gets a good answer

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New beginnings and rethinks

Autumn might be the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness but in church and at college, it's a bit of a frantic time of new beginnings and initiatives.I'm really enjoying teaching New Testament Theology - though feel a good way beyond my comfort zone - and have a really good group to work with.

At church this week we reviewed how our home groups were going. An instant poll revealed that some 70 people attended the groups last week - more than I was expecting. It suggests that we are doing something right in a time when people are busy and have many calls on their time and commitments that they are keen to prioritise meeting together for study and mutual support.

We also began to talk about a fresh vision for home groups. This has been generated by my reading of Alan Roxburgh's recent book and by a small group of us exploring what it means to get back into our neighbourhoods as the focus of our activities as followers of Jesus. But it has mainly been stimulated by the fact that I am having a growing number of conversations with people who want to engage mid-week but aren't looking for a home group or church-based bible study and prayer activity. These people say they want to do something.

So we are looking at how some of our groups could feel their way to being more missional and neighbourhood focused. To this end, we have cleared the mid-week evening programme of everything but home groups (with the exception of a monthly Bible study that is attracting 25 people) to allow groups to explore what shape they might take on if they were more missional and neighbourhood based.

It will take some time but I was encouraged by the response both at the meeting and subsequently. People seem to be up for a challenge, recognising that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't really work and seeing the need for the church to be more engaged with its community.So, let's hope that this autumn sows the seeds for future fruitfulness.