Friday, 17 March 2017

After listening (2): Philip North and the role of a bishop

So much has been written and said over the last week about the appointment of Philip North to be Bishop of Sheffield, his subsequent withdrawal, and all that happened in between. So much of it angry and bitter, polarising and dividing. And not simply, I've noticed, the usual entrenched poles and divisions. Among women and men who are passionate advocates of women's ministry at all levels of the church, there has been sadness and frustration with each other about how this recent conversation has been conducted, how we should rejoice or protest, how we might be seeking 'mutual flourishing' - and what on earth that even means.

I'm hesitant about adding to the words, the noise, the cacophony. It's taken me a week to feel ready to articulate something. I, like many others I suspect, reached a point where I 'switched off' from the debate because I had reached my personal saturation point. So I may have missed someone having said already what I want to say here. It's not a big thought. But it may just possibly be a thought that tries to nudge the conversation in a slightly different direction.

I don't want to talk about whether Bishop Philip would have been right for Sheffield. I don't want to talk about how the full ministry of ordained women and men might have been affirmed and celebrated in that context. I want to explore briefly what we expect of any of our bishops and how we appoint them in the first place.

One of our basic assumptions about bishops seems to be that they must speak. They must lead through saying the right things, in the right way - whether internally, to the church, or externally, to 'the world'. And we will watch carefully what they say - or have said - and judge them accordingly. They will explain their 'position' (on any number of issues) by what they say, and we will each of us locate them on our personal ecclesiastical 'maps' by what we hear from them.

Bishop Philip has been hailed, from all 'sides' (and it seems there are many), as a powerful, prophetic voice for people and communities that have been pushed to the margins of our society. On the day of his appointment, in an address at Sheffield cathedral, he spoke strongly of wanting to be 'a bishop for all'. He had 'a number of ideas' about how he would work to 'develop and enhance women's leadership' in Sheffield diocese, but wanted to speak to them first before commenting in public, he said. I have no doubt, in the appointment process, he was asked repeatedly to give assurances on precisely this question - and quite possibly to explain, to the handful of people involved in his appointment, what those 'ideas' might be.

But what if that process had unfolded rather differently? What if one of our basic assumptions about bishops was not that they must speak, but that they must listen? And that we would judge a good bishop by the quality, care and attentiveness of her or his listening? Listening which, if it is genuine and deep, always opens the listener to the possibility that she or he might be transformed, moved, challenged and changed?

What if, to extend this thought a little further, there were to be no firm announcement of the appointment of a new bishop until the candidate preferred by the nominations panel had spent a year (yes, a whole year) travelling round their prospective diocese, engaging in 1-to-1 conversations with clergy and lay Christians, and people beyond the church too, not trying to persuade them of her or his suitability for the role, but listening to them intently and receptively? Surely, after such a sustained and careful journey of listening, the candidate should be more confident in their sense of what this particular role will demand of them. And hopefully also, the members of that diocese will have a much better sense of who this person is whom God might be calling to minister with them. But most crucially, the bishop-to-be will have opened her- or himself to be transformed, moved, challenged and changed by those encounters. And that will, if genuine, have been seen clearly by those s/he has visited. And it will also, if genuine, have actually transformed, moved, challenged and changed the bishop-to-be her- or himself. And at that point, and only then, would we invite all involved, diocese and candidate together, to ask themselves and each other whether they can hear the prompting of the Spirit to confirm this appointment.

It would be painfully slow, and hard work. It wouldn't play remotely well in the news media and on Twitter. But it might just land us with some better appointments, some better bishops, and transformed relationships between bishops, their clergy, their sister and brother Christians, and their non-Christian neighbours.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

After listening? A response to the CofE House of Bishops

Dear Bishops,

I write this as a straight, white, middle-class, male priest in the Church of England. In those identity markers, I share much in common with most - but thank God, not all - of you. But I write too as a member of the body of Christ, a body which includes people like me, and - thank God - people very different to me, in sexuality, ethnicity, class, gender, vocation, theology.

Like the very gracious and wise statement from St Martin's in the Fields today, I too want to welcome some of what is in your report: first and foremost, your re-affirmation right at the outset that "all human beings are made in the image of God". What follows in the report, however, is not just "challenging or difficult reading", as you suggest. It is, I believe, deeply flawed in ways that you do not seem to acknowledge. Ultimately, in fact, it seems to contradict your initial affirmation: it fails to see, acknowledge and honour the image of God in may of our sisters and brothers in Christ. There are, I suggest, three interconnected reasons why it fails in this respect.

Firstly, while it claims to listen attentively to the Shared Conversations, this report represents a failure to listen. "The House hoped to sustain the atmosphere of careful and respectful listening that had marked the Shared Conversations," you write, "but was clear that the current situation requires some clearer assertion of where the Church now finds itself" (section 14). Among a select group of bishops, you continue, the "emerging consensus" was that "there was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage". What did need revising, you tell us, was the "resources, guidance and tone" (section 18). Among other things, "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships" (section 23) will be produced.

Much in this report has the character of an 'interim' document, a 'snapshot' of how things are right now, a 'work in progress'. However, what has happened is that you have chosen to end a period of intense and attentive listening - a process within which many people made themselves incredibly vulnerable - with an "assertion", a reiteration of the established position, a suggestion that what is needed is a resource to 'teach' that position more carefully. Any further reference to "listening" in the report is absent, other than a vague sense of "double listening" to "Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures" and to "the particular culture in which we live" (57), a listening "with other Churches in and beyond the Anglican Communion" (60), and "to other Synod members’ responses to this report" (69). Further careful listening, most particularly to the experience of LGBTI people within and beyond the Church of England, seems now to be irrelevant.

We are a divided church, and for some those divides are felt much more deeply than others. This is not a time for "reassertion" - it is a time for acknowledging those divides with deep sorrow, and for committing ourselves to further listening to each other. An "emerging consensus" among a small group of bishops is not an adequate basis on which to write a report such as this. However much I, and many others, may be impatient for a change of direction (and not just a change of tone) within the Church of England, this is one of those moments where a bit more daring patience is what is most needed. Who knows, at this critical time in the wider politics of the world, the hard-won experience of 'listening across difference' might even have been a gift we could have offered the world beyond the church.

Which brings me to my second point. You will by now have picked up, hopefully, the deep offence you have caused so many of your sister and brother Christians by pairing the terms "lesbian and gay people" with "those who experience same sex attraction". You may think you are practising, as well as advocating for, a change of tone with this report. You may believe that your reassertion of "the Church of England’s teaching on marriage" can be held consistently with a reaffirmation of the image of God in all human beings. However, if you are indeed continuing to 'listen', you might have heard just a little of the hurt felt by LGBTI Christians at your use of words here. A phrase that is heard to deny some of the deepest reality of people's lives, their most intimate sense of identity, their profoundest experiences.

What we are talking about here, technically, we call a question of ontology. Descriptions of reality, of 'the way things are', of who and what people are. Serious listening to other people takes seriously their own descriptions of who and what they are. Any suggestion that even the Shared Conversations were a 'level playing field' is falsified by this one reality: those on one 'side' of the conversation refuse to accept the ontological reality of those on the other side. Those who refuse to accept the God-given reality of same-sex love are not just limited in their listening - they are denying the reality of those they are listening to. To claim that the 'vulnerabilities', or the 'sacrifices', on both sides of these conversations are comparable, then, is to wilfully ignore the imbalance of power, of recognition, of capacity to listen and be listened to. To reassert, in such contexts, the Church of England's existing "teaching on marriage", in whatever "tone" of voice, is to continue in such wilful ignorance. Jesus' teaching on our attention to "the least of these" surely cannot come as anything other than a rebuke to such closedness.

Third and finally, your report is a failure of theology. You recognise, rightly, "that alongside missiology, we should place pastoral theology, ecclesiology and moral theology as cardinal points of the compass in navigating towards a right understanding and true judgment in this area" (section 58). You propose, as we've already noted, "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships". But nothing you say in this paper (and particularly in your outline of the content for that new document, in section 34), suggests that you will spend much time, effort or care exploring a theology of sexuality itself. To reassert the place of "sexual relationships" within the "current doctrine of marriage" fails to consider what Archbishop Rowan Williams has called "the body's grace": the place of sexuality within all of our relationships (and our sense of embodied identity), and the reality of both healthy and unhealthy sexuality, both inside and outside of 'marriage'. The report concentrates on questions of form and institution (marriage), and almost ignores questions of content (sexuality). It is almost as if you, as bishops, can only cope with thinking about sexuality when it is 'safely' boundaried inside the institution of marriage - and that the institution itself then allows you to avoid thinking about it even there.

On the day you published your report, I suggested, only half-jokingly, that my LGBTI friends in faithful, committed relationships should have lots of sex, "joyfully, proudly, even loudly". It raised a few smiles and laughs on a day when there was much shock, grief, anger and tears. But I was making a point of deep seriousness. "By their fruits shall you know them", said Jesus. It seems that for many of you, it is impossible to imagine that faithful, committed, same-sex relationships can possibly reflect the love, the joy, and the glory of God. It is easier to continue in that unbelief if you stop listening to LGBTI people, or fail to acknowledge the reality of their own lives and relationships that they describe. So as a straight, white, middle-class, male priest in the Church of England, I urge both you, our bishops, and my LGBTI friends, to a wild patience, and an attentiveness to the fruit of faithful, embodied relationships. Only then might we all truly discover that we are 'one body'.

Revd Al Barrett
Hodge Hill Church
Wednesday 8th February, 2017

Sunday, 8 January 2017

'Full of grace and truth': Epiphany in Hodge Hill

Being overwhelmed

You don’t have to take a glance at the news to feel overwhelmed by life – but if you do happen to turn the telly or the radio on, scan the front page of a newspaper, spend a minute or two on Facebook or Twitter, then it is hard not to be overwhelmed by it all: by war, and destruction, and mass displacement of people; by angry, divisive, hate-filled politics; by the very real facts of climate change, and their potentially devastating consequences for the whole planet... Let alone the smaller overwhelmings of our own and our loved ones lives: illness, bereavement, pressures of work or money or relationships, the list could go on...

So in the midst of the multiple overwhelmings of life, how do we respond? It is so tempting to put our defences up, hide away, do everything we can to make ourselves impervious to the pressures, stiffen the upper lip and ‘press on’ with life, cutting ourselves off from as many of the overwhelmings as we can manage...

But there is another way. A riskier way. We might, as theologian David Ford has suggested, instead seek to live ‘amidst the overwhelmings in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes [our responses to] the others’. That probably needs re-reading a few times, and chewing over a little, for its meaning, its possibility, to sink in: to seek to live amidst the multiple overwhelmings of life in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes our responses to the others.


And if we dare to look for that ‘one thing’, then the Epiphany season (which is really the Christmas season continuing to unfold) points us to ‘the glory of God’: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1:14). In Jesus, in Jesus’ human flesh, says John, we see the glory of God. And that glory is full (to overflowing) with grace (we’ll come back to that in a moment), and truth.


Truth is a timely word right now. What could it possibly mean to be ‘truth-full’ in what is increasingly being described as a ‘post-truth’ world?

A little further on in John’s gospel, we’re offered one answer to that question: ‘This is the judgment,’ says Jesus: ‘the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because those who do evil are afraid that what they do will be exposed [brought to light]’ (Jn. 3:19-20).

The light, of course, is Jesus himself. The baby recently-born in the Bethlehem manger. In the light from this child, we are able to see as clear as day – so goes John’s gospel at least – what those who do ‘evil’ hope to hide, ‘bury’, ‘shred’. And while we can all, I would imagine, think of things that we would be keen to hide, in a week when Republicans in the US Congress attempted to shut down their own Office of Congressional Ethics, we might not need reminding that those with the most to hide are often those with the most power in our world.

Look at the magi, kneeling before the baby. They recognised the truth about where real power lay. Eventually, at least – after a costly detour to Herod’s Palace. Herod recognised it too – remember his response, the response of all tyrants to any challenge to their power – to try to silence, expel, eliminate their opposition.

But what about us? What does ‘letting ourselves be overwhelmed by the truth of this child’ mean, for us?

In October 1996, the Archbishop of Bukavu, Zaire, Christophe Munzihirwa, was assassinated, while seeking to defend hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees from genocide. Just a few weeks before, he had spoken these words:
‘One cannot wait for conditions to be easy in order to act... [P]eople of good will must never be disheartened when faced with the sudden unleashing of violence. In the midst of it all, the seed sown in the soil of our heart slowly germinates. When God becomes a child, he knows that there is no better way for him to express himself than through the weakness of that child. This is love telling us that it comes unarmed.’
Where, into what situations, relationships, encounters are we being invited to go with ‘unarmed’, ‘undefended’, love? What are we being invited to see that can only be seen, in Archbishop Christophe’s words, ‘with eyes that have cried’? Where are we being called to open ourselves to being overwhelmed, out of passion and compassion for our fellow human beings? It was Leonard Cohen, who died in November last year, who sang of the ‘crack in everything’ that’s ‘how the light gets in’. Through what cracks in our world, in our lives – however painful, at times – might we glimpse God’s glory, full of grace, and truth?


I wonder if ‘grace’ is perhaps a trickier word even than ‘truth’ for us? It’s become a technical, theological word these days. But its meaning is gift, generosity... un-earned, un-deserved, un-engineered, un-expected... evading any attempts at ‘accounting’, ‘record-keeping’, ‘calculating’... exploding the logic of our economies of exchange and payment, debt and credit...

What might it mean to let ourselves be overwhelmed by grace? The Christmas season might seem to be the very best time of year to ask that question, and to think of real, tangible answers to it... Except... how many of us have ever found ourselves doing exactly such calculating and book-keeping with Christmas presents? much do we normally spend on X, we ask ourselves (quietly, usually, in the private safety of our minds)? Or even more quietly and privately – how much do they normally spend on us?! Because we wouldn’t want to over-do it... or under-do it...

Such calculations are the polar opposite of grace, of course... But thankfully, there is another Christmas story... a story we don’t have to travel as far as Bethlehem to encounter first-hand – because if we open ourselves to be overwhelmed by grace, we discover it all around us, in our homes, in our church community, in our neighbourhood... So let me just give you a few glimpses of my Christmas story – which, for many of its chapters, might well be something of your Christmas story too, our Christmas story here in Hodge Hill...

Tom's lights, and Santa's sleigh...

There’s a young man called Tom, who lives with his mum and dad on the Firs estate, who every year has hung out bigger and better Christmas lights all over the outside of their family home, and raises money (from people’s donations) for the Make a Wish Foundation, helping to make dreams come true for seriously ill children... As if that wasn’t enough in itself, this year Tom agreed to drive his Santa’s sleigh (complete with light-up reindeers and seriously amplified Christmas songs) around every street of our estate, on a couple of Wednesday evenings before Christmas.

Our very own Pete Burrill was Mr Claus himself, with a good friend from the Hub, Clare, being Mrs Claus. A whole team of us walked along with them, rattling our collecting buckets, ringing our bells, handing out Christmas cards and chocolates to anyone who came out of their houses... and they did – they really did!

We must have spoken to hundreds of our neighbours, and many, many more came to their doors, or windows, and waved. The stunned looks of disbelief on the faces of some of the children were enough on their own to make it worthwhile, but it was so much more than that. And people gave generously to Make a Wish – we collected over £500 from the two evenings.

The 'Street Nativity'...

And then there was what we’ve come to call the ‘Street Nativity’. Our third one, this Christmas. ‘Mrs Claus’ swapped her padded red coat for a blue shawl to be Mary, and her new-born grand-daughter was our baby Jesus. The angels dazzled the shepherds amid more Christmas lights (this time for Alzheimer’s), the 4 magi came out of St Wilfrid’s Hall to join us, and Sonny at the Shawsdale chippy did a swift costume change from nasty King Herod to generous chip-shop owner, feeding us all for free with piping hot fish and chips. Even the donkey, kindly lent us by Curdworth Stables, got to gobble a tasty chip or two...

Countless quiet acts of hospitality and generosity

So much more kindness and generosity goes on out of the limelight though. I could mention the couple from St Wilfrid’s who invited a single mum and her son to join them for Christmas dinner, a link made through the new support group for parents with children with autism, set up by one of our fabulous Street Connectors, Jo. I could mention the immense generosity of folk from church here, who gave gifts of food for a Christmas hamper, and gifts of money, to help take some of the pressure off Christmas for one of our ‘Unsung Heroes’ and her family – and the kindness and hospitality Sarah and I were offered when we took the gifts round to them. I could mention Genny and the Old Rectory providing space for the Barrett family as we’ve sought refuge from the building work on our house, for a couple of months – and all the cooking, baking, crafting and games that our children have loved and learnt from Genny while we’ve been there...

'Cascades of grace'

All of these are just a few examples (alongside the many more that I haven’t seen personally, or heard of from friends and colleagues) of what the writer Ann Morisy calls ‘cascades of grace’ – a ‘domino effect’ where one grace-filled connection sparks another, and another, and another, and so on...

‘We have seen his glory’ we say with the gospel-writer John – the glory of a baby, lying in a manger... That is the message of Christmas, first told by Bethlehem’s shepherds – that is the repeated refrain of Epiphany, beginning with the magi... But like a stone dropped into a lake, the ripples of Christmas continue spreading outwards; like a solitary candle, whose light is enough to light countless others, the light, the glory of God, has come not just in a Bethlehem stable – but here, on the Firs & Bromford, across Hodge Hill, and in infinite glimmers of hope across time and space...

A quick glance at the news is enough to remember that there is much in our world that threatens to overwhelm us... but one of the biggest lies we are told is that Christmas is done and dusted, a past event, now packed back in its box and shoved into a corner of the loft. In words we’ll finish our service with today, the work of Christmas has only just started, the ripples of Christmas have only just begun to spread, the green shoots of Christmas have barely poked their tops above the dark and frost-hardened soil. Christmas begins. Here. Now. Let’s open our eyes to see God’s glory – truth-full, grace-full. Let’s open our hearts to be overwhelmed by it, transformed by it. And let’s see what cascades of grace, what ricocheting trajectories of hope, might be unleashed in our world...

Thursday, 6 October 2016

David, Goliath & ABCD

At Hodge Hill Church's 'Messy Church' last Sunday morning, our children got stuck into the story of David and Goliath. The big scary, armed-to-the-teeth giant (left) and the brave small boy with the catapult, '5 smooth stones' and a decent aim. The kids thought about what the 'Goliaths' were in their lives, and how those Goliaths might be defeated.

I've been reading a book recently, for the PhD research, that also plays with the David and Goliath story as a metaphor. Romand Coles' 'Visionary Pragmatism: radical and ecological democracy in neoliberal times' (Duke University Press, 2016) uses it 'to glean insights into how underdogs and social movements can alter the spacing, timing, and practices of encounter in ways that change the conventional contestation - or game - to enable victories deemed highly improbable' (p.9). While much of Coles' book is hopeful in tone, he is also realistic about the scale of the challenge: '[i]n the form of global neoliberal capitalism, Goliath is no longer a dumb giant but a dynamic malignancy that has developed transformative powers of an alternating current that are nearly unfathomable. ... It is not enough to learn from David in our efforts to initiate the game-transformative practices of a radical democratic habitus. We must also learn from the Goliath who has learned from David, without becoming ourselves what is horrendous about Goliath' (p.27). The 'Goliaths' of neoliberal capitalism have become adept at 'co-opting' our best modes of radical resistance for their own ends, says Coles. As 'Davids', we need to learn something of that same skill of co-optation, for very different ends - and by a very different means. I'll come back to this shortly.

As these things sometimes do, the Messy Church session and the PhD research coincided with a third event, a blog post by my friend and fellow community-builder, Cormac Russell. In the blog, Cormac reflects on a recent critical article from two academics in Scotland: Neoliberalism with a community face?: A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland (MacLeod, MA & Emejulu, A, 2014), which accuses the movement often called 'asset-based community development' (ABCD) of a capitulation to the 'individualization, marketization and privatization' at the heart of the neoliberal agenda. Drawing on reflections from John McKnight, one of those who first coined the phrase 'ABCD', Cormac highlights how far this particular academic critique 'misses the mark' - but also acknowledges some important challenges that the article raises, including the over-population of the ABCD movement by 'the voices of white, middleclass men'; and the danger that ABCD language (watered down often to 'asset-based approaches') too easily gets co-opted, 'misappropriated', for neoliberal ends, justifying the removal of state support for people and communities because, so goes the argument, they have their own strengths and can therefore cope on their own.

I want to offer just two additional 'wonderings' into this conversation, which emerge from my own mix of practice and reflection here in Hodge Hill, and my current PhD research.

Firstly, I want to highlight Rom Coles' suggestion that what he calls the 'quotidian practices of radical democracy' - the patient, receptive, arts of paying 'full-bodied attention', 'listen[ing] deeply', 'exercis[ing] hospitality' and weaving the web of community between people (in a neighbourhood, and wider) - needs to 'oscillate', be 'interwoven', with what he calls 'evanescent' forms of 'countershock politics' (the Occupy movement is a good example) which 'block' (even if only temporarily) the malignant 'mega-circulations' of neoliberalism and 'dramatically prefigure alternatives that open and reconfigure the hegemonic common sense of our times' (p.163-4). 'Radical democratic countershock politics, when separated from the lively energies and agencies of quotidian political practice done well, tends to fall in love with itself in ways that can quickly leave it clueless about how to organize to generate more transformative waves, broader and more durable assemblages, and radical effects.' On the other hand, the 'patience' needed for day-to-day community building can easily turn into 'narrow complacency'. '[T]here are no guarantees. The best we can do is become very mindful of the risks involved in such politics, carefully work in both dimensions, reflect critically after each action, and learn as we go' (p.172). This 'oscillation' is, perhaps, something ABCD needs to attend to, lest those of us who advocate it vocally turn down the cul-de-sac of 'narrow complacency' of which Coles warns.

Secondly, and very briefly, I want to underline the concern that the ABCD conversation - like so much else in the world - is dominated by white, middle-aged, middle-class men. Cormac and John self-consciously inhabit that category. So does Rom Coles. So do I. What do we do about it? When we are vocal, we are doing our best to speak up for something we believe is deeply important - not just for our own self-interests, but for those of our neighbours and friends, and also the countless others who as yet are strangers to us. But we do not - I hope - only speak. At the heart of ABCD approaches (at least as I understand and seek to practise them) is the importance of listening, of inhabiting spaces that are not 'ours' and under our 'control', of seeking to 'hear others to speech' and into fullness of expression, connection and life - of being radically receptive to the gifts and challenges of others. That, when done at all well, involves a large amount of 'dispossession': something white, middle-aged, middle-class men have not been well-known for, across history. It is a practice 'we' (and the 'we' here is much more specific than universal) need to keep learning, developing, returning to. It means letting go of stuff, of status, of power, of definitive claims to truth - of language, even. Maybe part of our radical resistance to the co-optation of 'ABCD' is to let go of the language of 'ABCD'? Another part of it is to identify when it is we need to shut up and listen to others speaking. And one of those moments, for me, is right now...

Saturday, 25 June 2016

No, no, no, no, no... yes...

"A decisive result". "The people have spoken". "A victory for ordinary people over the establishment". "Democracy in action". "We must unite". "We must listen to what the people are saying"...

Well, in the words of Jim from 'The Vicar of Dibley', "No. No. No. No. No... Yes..."

No, 52% to 48% (even of 72% turnout) is not a decisive result. It is a narrow majority, with a very significant minority voting in the opposite direction. And so no, 'the people' have not spoken. If the vote says anything about 'the people', it is that 'the people' are deeply divided.

And no, this is no 'ordinary people vs establishment' victory. Many 'ordinary people' may be feeling happy, at least temporarily, that their vote has been one of the 17 million that 'won' in this particular referendum. And while it's true that a whole load of the rich, powerful 'establishment' were advocates for 'Remain' (including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, the IMF, a whole load of big business, alongside the rather different bed-fellows of economists and political scientists, church leaders and educators)... well, welcome to the 'post-establishment' world of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan-Smith and the like... Truly a revolution of the 'ordinary people'.

Which makes the 'democracy in action' point all the more interesting. Really? Democracy, the 'rule of the people'. The decision of a narrow majority to 'Leave' imposed on the almost-half-the-UK who voted to 'Remain' - is that 'democracy'? A decision shaped profoundly through appeals to gut feelings, through lies and misinformation, by the powerful forces of a couple of multi-millionaire newspaper moguls and their mates? A decision that has come at the end of a so-called 'debate' with very little light (facts, for example; policies and plans for the next stage, perhaps) and far too much heat (not to mention hate, division and suspicion), on both sides? And a 'debate', if we can call it that, that was largely conducted in a 'stage-managed' way in TV studios, and much less often, in any meaningful sense, in the pubs and clubs and village halls and churches and mosques and schools and the like, that was so impressive in the lead-up to the last Scottish independence referendum. If these last few weeks have shown us 'Great British democracy', then I would suggest it's profoundly broken (and I can't claim any moral high ground here - we might have organised a hustings in Hodge Hill before GE2015, but we didn't do anything before this momentous vote).

And then there are the calls to 'unite'. Calls not just from the victors, but from the outgoing Prime Minister and from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, among others. It's seductive language. Unity's a good thing, right? The decision's been made, we must pull together, rather than pull further apart. But it's cheap, far too cheap. It's rooted in a lack of critical examination of the false assumptions above. 'Democracy has done its thing, the people have spoken - so the minority should stop moaning that we didn't get the outcome we wanted, and unite behind the decision that has been made'.


'Stop moaning' can very easily become a repression of political dissent and protest, as well as a repression of the simple, human necessity of grief and lament after a shocking sense of loss. 'Unite' can be a very convenient call from those who continue to hold the reins of power to get behind them and their agenda - an agenda that goes far beyond 'Remain' or 'Leave', and that has a whole lot to do with a tiny minority preserving their own privilege, and grabbing further power, resources and control for themselves - not to mention further marginalising, disempowering, excluding and scapegoating of minorities who are already vulnerable and fearful: it is one thing to say that all who voted 'Leave' are racist (they're clearly not), but another to highlight the frightening increase in racist attacks (verbal, physical and, yes, murders) that people in the UK are experiencing as directly connected to the language of the 'Leave' campaign (the tiny steps from "we want our country back" to "pack your bags and go back to where you came from" that are already being witnessed).

What's also pretty clear is that we've not just woken up to a 'divided country'. Our country has been divided long before the EU referendum campaign kicked off - and not just on this issue. Just think how little traction language of 'the common good' seems to have in public debate. Geographically, we're divided: not just between the nations of the UK, but between North and South, between rural and urban, between London and everywhere else. Economically, we're divided: not just between 'the elite' and 'ordinary people' (the 1% and the 99%), but between house-owners and house-renters, between 'middle-class professionals' and 'working-class', between the 'just-about-OK' and the 'deeply-precarious', between employed and unemployed - both in terms of our ability to access and participate in something we call 'society', but also in the way media and politicians have framed our language and labels. Culturally, we're divided, between libertarians and authoritarians (as one perceptive bit of post-referendum analysis by the Fabian Society highlighted), between feminist, environmentally-concerned multiculturalists and those who still believe such trends are signs of unnecessary 'political correctness' (as one of Lord Ashcroft's pre-referendum polls showed with frightening clarity).

So what's the 'Yes', however qualified? We must listen. Listen to what people are saying. Listen to the people who celebrated on Friday, and listen to the people who were disconsolate. Not speculate on what the result means, on why people voted like they did - that's not 'listening'. One of the great fallacies of democracy is that people 'speak' through the ballot box. People don't 'speak'. They put a cross in a box - in one of only two boxes, on this occasion. That's not 'speaking'. So let's go and listen to what people are actually saying. And let's not just listen to the surface conversations. Let's dig deeper. Let's listen for the fears, anxieties and insecurities underneath. Let's listen to the best hopes, ideals, longings underneath. Let's listen for difference as well as for agreement. Let's listen, particularly, to those who are articulating experiences very different to our own. Let's listen in places where we are uncomfortable, where we are the strangers, the out-of-place. Let's listen, especially, to those whose voices are less-heard, muffled, indistinct, silenced, incoherent, faltering. Let's listen, to help them be heard, help them speak things for the first time, things they've never dared say before, help them find some coherence amid fragmentation and fragility. And by listening to people, let's help them (and us) listen to each other.

The political theorist Albert Hirschmann talks about 'exit', 'voice' and 'loyalty' as the three strategies for dealing with conflict. We can 'pull together' (loyalty), we can speak up (voice), or we can get out (exit). There's been plenty of focus on all three of these in the last few weeks, and no doubt much more to come in the weeks and months that follow. But they're not the full story. Because 'speaking up' without learning to listen to others just increases the volume, the cacophony. And 'loyalty or exit' doesn't account for the possibility of travelling - physically moving, and opening ourselves to be changed by encounters with people in different locations, geographical, economic, cultural, political, to our own - a 'to and fro' where we learn both to be more hospitable on 'our turf' but also take the risk of being strangers and guests in other people's territory.

Some of us this might be picked up in the Archbishops' post-referendum language of 'reconciliation' - but the danger is that we seek reconciliation too cheaply. 'Being with' our neighbours who differ from us is no easy process, no easy achievement. There's a whole load of divesting ourselves of power, of many of our defences; a whole load of patience beyond our usual busyness; a whole load of courageous 'leaning towards' others whose surface views we might dislike, even sometimes find viscerally disgusting; a whole load of resistance and blocking of those power-strategies (deployed both by the obviously powerful, and the relatively powerless) that seek to close down conversation, hide behind parroted cliches, shout louder, deflect responsibility, or retreat into a 'benumbment' that will not listen to anything anyone says because it's all become overwhelming. There will also need to be an acceptance that harmony, unity, are illusory and unhelpful goals. The best we can seek - and it is truly the best - is creative tensions, constantly reanimated tensions between social goods that resist any easy reconciliation.

So I want to say No today. No. No. No. No. But also, tentatively, the beginnings of a Yes...

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Let's call the whole thing off

If - as very occasionally happens - a discussion at one of my Church Council meetings has ended up producing rather more heat than light, rather more emotion (anger? frustration? incomprehension?) than clarity of purpose, rather more introspection than a sense of wisdom being received and discerned... then the last thing I think of suggesting is that we take a vote. Much more likely is that we agree to go away, sleep on it, reflect, pray, talk together some more (in one-to-ones and small groups as well as in the formal confines of a Council meeting), try and listen to each other better... and then re-convene to see where all that has got us to. Voting 'in the heat of the moment' is almost always going to give some a brief sense of the elation of victory, give others over to a bitter sense of disenfranchisement, and all of us wounds that are likely to run deep, and last for a long time. The process of seeking healing for those wounds is almost always longer, more painful, than that process of 'active pausing' would have been.

I don't feel like I have much wisdom to share in this week of a big, big decision in the history of the UK. But I'm increasingly passionate in one plea.

To those of my friends, neighbours and sister- and brother-citizens who are thinking of voting 'Leave' this week: please don't.

Not because I think there are no credible, thought-through arguments for why 'Leave' would be better for the UK (although I would suggest the weight of credible, thought-through arguments does seem to be tipping rather heavily towards 'Remain').

Not because I think everyone who wants to vote 'Leave' is xenophobic, or racist, or a 'little Englander' with no broader view of the world (although there do seem to be quite a few in those camps).

Not because I have any clear sense of what the future holds if the UK votes in either direction.

But for one reason that I would suggest trumps (pardon the rather untimely word) any others. Because the 'debate' in the lead-up to this vote has been crap. Utterly, appallingly crap. Angry, and fear-mongering, and divisive, and full of lies and half-truths and claims entirely lacking in evidence. On both sides. And so a decision this week to dramatically change the status quo (to 'leave the EU', whatever that will even mean in practice) that is made in the midst of all of this - whether that decision is 51% to 49% or 99% to 1% - will quite certainly open wounds not just across the continent of Europe, but within the UK itself: deep, divisive, open wounds that will take many, many years to find any kind of healing. A deep sense of bitterness, blame, and resentment - if not palpable fear.

So if you think 'Leaving' is the right thing to do, let's decide it properly, and with a good dose of British caution and care thrown in for good measure. Let's agree to put it off for a bit. Let's give ourselves a couple of years to do some proper research, some proper discussion, some proper listening to each other. Let's try and capture a bit of what they had in Scotland before their independence referendum in 2014: a genuinely grassroots conversation about 'what kind of country we want to be', that happened in pubs and village halls and schools and shops and churches and mosques and around kitchen tables. Let's make a decision that we can all say we've genuinely had a part in deliberating and discussing - not one made by gut responses shaped by the rich and powerful. Let's make sure the conversation includes a much clearer sense of what we want 'Leave' to mean - and, indeed, what we want 'Remain' to mean. We could even try and take it beyond the crude and crazy binary 'In or Out' of this Thursday's ballot papers.

So if you really, passionately want to 'Leave' - let's get there in a decent, careful, British kind of way. Let's give ourselves a bit more time. Let's 'keep calm', 'have a cup of tea' and talk it through properly. Because this week's no week to make such a crucial decision.

Remind me who hates whom, again?

Moments after I pressed 'post', late last Thursday afternoon, I realised what I'd done. I realised I'd done just what I can't stand other people doing at moments like these: I had linked my lament at a horrific loss of life (the murder of Jo Cox) with my political prejudices (that Nigel Farage's latest poster was blatantly racist); I was, at worst (however unconsciously), 'using' this tragedy - this personal tragedy of the death of one woman, a wife, mother, daughter - to confirm what I already believed and had been saying about where our society is going wrong. I was called out on it by a good friend, who I'm glad is able to say such things to me, and I was sorry, genuinely.

And yet. All murders are political. They are never simply 'random acts'. They have histories, they are entwined in relationships. If not directly between perpetrator and victim, at the very least relationships and histories that have shaped a perpetrator, brought them to this moment of senselessness.

And perhaps senselessness itself is the wrong word, misrepresents: because although we dearly long (with St Augustine) to consign evil to the non-realm of meaninglessness, to label all acts of violence senseless is to conceal the meanings, however murky, that their perpetrators believe them to have. And those beliefs are themselves the products of meanings not merely fabricated by isolated individuals, but also absorbed by them: from messages they have received, consumed, from others; from family, or neighbours, or school, or prison, or religion, or the internet, or politicians, or the media, or corporate marketing machines, or...

We act because an action 'makes sense', even just for a moment, within the meaning-games we have absorbed, consumed, inhabited - as well as constructed for ourselves.

And so, when we try to 'make sense' of the most horrific of actions, we need to look to the meaning-games within which the actions, and the actors, are situated.

And therein lies the great danger for all of us. How quickly we 'join the dots', make the connections, add 2 and 2 and make... well, is it 4? Or is it 5?

The man who shot Jo Cox shouted 'Britain First' before shooting her, and was a vocal supporter of that far-right group, it seems. The man who shot dead 49 people in the Orlando night club was a Muslim, we're told. But the former, we're also told, had a history of mental health struggles. The latter, we're also told, was revolted at a gay couple kissing. Which dots do we join? Which connections do we make?

Every human being, one of my pastoral theology lecturers once pointed out, is in some ways like all other human beings; in some ways like some other human beings; and in some ways utterly unique. But in what ways? And how do we know?

Let's get some stuff straight. In a manner of speaking. Some people who call themselves 'Muslim' are violent, some are homophobic. There are also plenty of violent, homophobic self-declared 'Christians', and violent, homophobic atheists. But there are also - and I know some of them and am blessed to be able to call them family, dear friends, neighbours - many, many peace-loving Muslims, Christians and atheists who are either LGBTQ themselves, or love and ally themselves with those who are. And what's more, can point to places from within their own traditions of belief and practice which firmly ground those loves and solidarities. The labels of faith affiliation are big, broad labels - to the point that we can look at each other across the breadth within a faith tradition and barely recognise a shared faith. Many is the time I've looked at the words or actions of others who call themselves 'Christians' and responded with horror, disgust, wanting to put as much distance as I can between their faith and my own.

Let's try another one. Some people who have long-term mental health struggles are violent, and some have extremist, fascist views. There are also, quite obviously, are many, many people who have long-term mental health struggles who are passionately, painstakingly committed to working for a peaceful, just world for all. Some of these, again, I am fortunate enough to call family, dear friends, and neighbours. Again, the label is so, so broad - that blanket pronouncements about 'how we should respond to people with mental health problems' might, for one person, be entirely appropriate, and for another, be utterly, destructively wrong.

There is nothing - absolutely nothing - about being Muslim, Christian, atheist or struggling with your mental health, that makes you inherently more violent, homophobic, or fascist than anyone else.


If you participate in meaning-games (in the most serious sense) that portray some human beings (whether because of their gender, or sexuality, or ethnicity, or religion, or nationality, or statelessness, or disability, or state of mental health, or low level of income, or way of dressing) as less valuable, less worthy of respect or reverence, less 'human' - then you are doing your little bit to legitimise fear, hatred, and violence against such people. If you laugh at the jokes, or tell them, if you write the news headlines, or buy them, if you create the images, or share them on social media, if you use the words, preach the theology, shore up the institution, buy the products, or 'merely' stay quiet when you witness any of this going on around you and let it go unchallenged - then you are part of the problem, you have your own share in the violence, the hatred me the fear-mongering.

And of course, 'you' means 'me'. I am part of the problem. My hands are not spotless, my words innocent, my actions pure. I am complicit in the fearful, hate-full, violent dynamics of our world. I cannot stand blameless lay 'outside' and point unambiguously to those 'others' whose fault it all is. This, simply, is what we Christians call 'original sin'. None of us can escape it. It touches us all.

The question is what we do with it. Do we jump into it with both feet and hate with the worst of them? Do we despair of the whole damned world and turn our back on it all? Or do we do our little bit of throwing beached starfish back into the life-giving water, loving those we can love, challenging those we can challenge, repenting where we can repent, learning where we can learn, befriending where we can befriend, forgiving where we can forgive, hoping where we can hope, that - against all the odds - love, ultimately, wins?

On the Sunday after the Orlando shootings, after Jo Cox's murder, I led a couple of services in Hodge Hill, as I do most Sundays. In one sense, we did something 'special'. We began the main morning service by gathering around an altar draped in rainbow fabrics, each of us holding in our hands a small piece of one edge. We lit a single candle in the middle. We said short prayers, we sung, we kept silence, we held hands. But in another sense, we Christians in Hodge Hill did last Sunday what we do every Sunday (and other days too): we gathered together the fragments of our lives and our world as it has touched us over the preceding days; we offered to God our penitence for our part in the brokenness of our world, the hatred and division which we know is even within our own hearts - and opened ourselves afresh to God's healing and forgiving love; we prayed in solidarity with the suffering and the bereaved, for healing and peace and justice; we joined consciously with that 'great cloud of witnesses' of those who have gone before us (sometimes dying violent deaths) in witnessing to God's kingdom of life and love and wholeness, longing for that kingdom to come 'on earth as in heaven'; and then we re-committed ourselves to turning that longing into a reality in our daily lives. Nothing unusual in any of that - but extraordinary nevertheless.

A good friend who is a chaplain at Warwick University shared with me another story of simple, faith-full human responses to last week's tragedies, in some ways much more extraordinary but no more 'superhuman' than our response in Hodge Hill:

"On Thursday night the societies at Warwick organised a vigil for the Orlando shooting; over a hundred went.  It was led by Pride but all sorts got involved, including one of our orchestral societies who played.  Faith societies were visibly present.  Afterwards, one of the Christian societies walked back to the chaplaincy with Pride members to light candles with those who wanted to, and the Muslim attendees went back to the prayer hall for prayers and to prepare food.  Later,  people from all the groups that night gathered at the Islamic prayer hall to break the fast together.  There were all sorts of blurred lines between the 'liberation' and 'faith' societies as we sat on the floor and ate curry together; people whose identities are complex and unique.  I joined just for the food but what I saw in my snapshot of the evening filled me with hope.  On Friday night, students from a Christian group came to mine to eat and pray - what they had taken part in the night before had been transformative for them.  They’ll carry that with them for the rest of their lives."

The words and actions we consume, in which we participate, form us and transform us. No simple labels will ever do them much justice, tell us much about their content and character - or ours. Our challenge, as human beings, and as societies, is discerning (literally, teasing out) the multiplicity of different meaning-games that form us - and finding ways of nurturing those which are good, and life-giving, and disentangling ourselves from those which are unhealthy, and destructive, to ourselves as well as to others. We might call that process of discerning, disentangling and nurturing 'faith'. We might call it 'politics'. I think it's probably both, and more. But I know, because I have witnessed it, that when it is done carefully, painstakingly, across differences and divides, and drenched in love, then it has the power to cast out fear.