Friday, 23 May 2014

Voting and not-voting, for 5-year-olds

I came back from the Polling Station yesterday evening to be interrogated by my bright, questioning 5-year-old son, who was in the middle of bathtime. "Daddy, who did you vote for?"

I explained to Rafi that I'd thought long and hard, and had decided to write "None of the above" across my ballot paper.

"So if you didn't vote for anybody, what happens then?" he asked, sensibly. I took a deep breath, and tried to find an answer that made sense to me, let alone him.

I explained that, of the four 'choices' I was given, the UKIP candidate represents a party who think many - or most - of his friends and classmates shouldn't be allowed to live in this country (in fact, to extend the logic to its conclusion, shouldn't exist at all). I explained that the Conservative and LibDem candidates are part of the parties who are in charge of the country at the moment, whose economic priorities have made the majority of our neighbours poorer, and who have enacted brutal, degrading and destructive policies on people that I have come to call friends, forcing them to go hungry or cold, causing them huge stress, distress and physical illness, and making them think they are worthless 'human waste' from the social machine.

And I said to him, with deep sadness, that the only other candidate, for the party of Ed Milliband who once came to visit us and on whose knee a rather smaller Rafi sat, represents a party that lacks the courage and imagination to present a credible alternative. She also lives on the other side of the city, which is interesting, for her knowledge of, and relationship with, the people she has now (we know this morning) been elected to represent. Rafi asked if she was going to move here now. I said we should ask her.

I also explained that Uncle Tim, our friend, neighbour and retiring Labour councillor, has spent 3 years being passionately committed to using his position to help his neighbours when they've been in need, to help us make our neighbourhood a better place, and to campaign for issues of justice, local and wider. But just because he's done a fantastic job, that doesn't tell us much about his successor.

I explained that feeling that you have to choose between 4 unsatisfactory candidates/parties is not a 'free choice', and that choosing not to choose is also a choice. It potentially increases, marginally, the risk of a 'more worse' outcome rather than a 'less worse' outcome - but just think what would happen if we all decided to make this particular choice...!

And finally, and most importantly, I explained (the bath water was getting a little cold by this point), that politics has very little to do with voting. The important stuff happens after election day. Some of that is about what the elected representative then does with the position they find themselves in. But so much more - the really crucial political work - is what each of us does, day to day, with the little bits of power and connection and influence we have, on the streets of our neighbourhood, and in how we engage with those in decision-making positions, and how they engage with us.

I don't think Rafi's likely to become a politician any time soon. But I'm very, very glad he's getting political.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

#Rev, broken arms & little Easters

So this series of Rev has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. We’ve been through the twists and turns of the Church of England’s negotiation of inter-faith relations, same-sex marriage, and some of the harder safeguarding issues us vicars occasionally get confronted with. We’ve laughed – for some of us both knowingly and a little nervously – as the desperately overconfident numbers-driven machinations of the Church’s hierarchy have been laid bare with uncanny accuracy, and treated with deserved irreverence: what parish priest will not recognise a Diocesan strategy-cum-training-programme with a focus closely resembling the inspired ‘IED – Invade, Evangelise, Deliver’?!

But all of this, as the series cantered towards its all-too-early conclusion, receded into the background, became almost mere scenery, as the quite brilliant writers – with an emotional subtlety that nevertheless frequently left us viewers feeling clobbered, winded – brought to centre-stage Adam and Alex’s marriage, his drunken but not utterly unanticipated kiss with Head Teacher Ellie, the clergy disciplinary procedures prompted by jealous Reader Nigel’s formal complaint, and the closure of the ‘failing’ St Saviour’s Church. Plotlines converged, characters and relationships fell apart, in what could be seen, from many angles, as a pretty comprehensive tragedy.

But it’s not simply a tragedy. It becomes entangled, in the final two episodes, in the Church’s journey with Jesus through Holy Week and into Easter. It enacts a Passion, with Adam at its centre: a kiss – and the report to the authorities by a ‘friend’ – which betrays him, another friend who ends up denying he even knows him (with multiple cock references for good measure), a man in power washing his hands of responsibility (the kindly but institutional Bishop who ultimately finds Adam ‘innocent’, but places the burden of the church closure firmly on Adam’s shoulders: ‘if you resign, I can’t save St Saviour’s for you’), and finds Adam carrying a large, heavy, wooden cross through the streets of the city (delivering it to a colleague for a Palm Sunday procession), jostled and jeered at, spat at and wounded, stumbling and falling along the way as he presses on, through the night. As dawn breaks, on a hill overlooking the city, as he dances deliriously (singing ‘Lord of the dance’), Adam is joined by a shellsuit-wearing, tinny-holding, cliché-spouting ‘God’ (in the form of Liam Neeson), to whom Adam confesses, ‘I’m trying to keep something alive but I don’t think I can do it’. Amid the clichés, Adam’s companion reaches out his hand to touch him on the shoulder, saying, ‘We all have our crosses to bear – I understand, Adam, I’ll always be here’. And then he vanishes.

Where does the rollercoaster go from here? I settled in to watch the last episode expecting an ‘Easter’, but having no idea what that Easter would look like, or how we would get there. Adam, collarless, volunteering in the local shop while applying for management consultancy jobs, shows many of the telltale signs of going through a breakdown, while the closed St Saviour’s is boarded up and fenced off ready for the land on which it stands to be sold to the highest bidder. Colin, having made it clear to Adam that what he’s done – destroying St Saviour’s – is up there above the Holocaust on the list of worst things in the world, runs out of the shop clutching handfuls of stolen stuff, including a chocolate Easter egg which he feeds to his beloved dog, Bongo, a meal which proves fatal to his canine companion. Adam retreats to bed, engulfed in grief and God-knows-what-else, half-whispering, half-sobbing the Beatitudes (‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’), deaf to his daughter Katie’s crying in the room next door.

It is Alex who finally takes charge, visiting Head Teacher Ellie at school to tell her she forgives her and to enlist her in her plan; and then getting Adam out of bed at 5am in the morning – Easter morning – to take him to St Saviour’s, where all of them – the ‘crowd of lost, hopeless, annoying people’ as Alex later calls them – are waiting for him. He runs away, and Alex goes after him. He must do a ‘last Easter service, a final goodbye’ – not for him, but for them. ‘I’m not their priest any more,’ he protests. ‘You gave up being a priest for Lent,’ she responds. ‘Well done. I don’t blame you. But now we need you back. And can we please finally christen Katie?!’

And so they return to the church steps, keeping vigil around the Easter fire, passing the light to a new Paschal candle, and joining together, loudly, to the uncomprehending annoyance of the neighbours, in the Easter greeting: ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!’ Archdeacon Robert hands Colin a spade to prise open the locked church door, Alex clothes Adam in his robes and dog collar, and Adam prays: ‘Dear Lord, I seem to be back in a cassock again. You won’t let me go, apparently. Is this what resurrection is?’ And they baptise little Katie, by candlelight, and her cries at the shock of the water on her head end the episode, the series, and – will we see it again? – perhaps ‘Rev’ for good.
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who was in bits at that moment – and I can still feel tears welling up as I recall it now. Among the many ways in which it struck me, I was left with a strong sense that this was an immensely faithful Easter story.

In what was effectively a ‘series review’ of Rev in the Guardian on Monday, a piece rather strangely written and published before the final episode was aired (and presumably not seen by the author), James Mumford criticises the ‘pernicious’ success of Rev as ‘imposing its own outsider viewpoint’ in its representation of the church, in a way in which ‘the devout do not speak for themselves’. In ‘both a lack of creativity and a failure of representation’, he says, Rev ‘denies the rich diversity of the church in England’, operates on the assumption that faith is ‘purely personal’, ‘not something held in common’, and not ‘transformative’: ‘Perhaps the show’s most wonderful character, the drug addict Colin, is a parishioner Adam is genuinely friends with. But there’s never a question of faith freeing him from addiction.’ Mumford offers a hypothetical plotline from ‘an insider viewpoint’: a woman knocked over in the street, ‘[h]er spine damaged, comes to St Saviour’s and asks for prayer. With low expectations Adam agrees but suddenly she claims she’s been healed and runs down the aisle.’

Now apart from its lack of acknowledgment of the number of ‘insiders’ on Rev’s writing and advisory teams (there are generous handfuls of ‘Rev’s in the credits at the end of each episode!), and the point about comedy that it misses in imagining that somehow Rev’s portrayal of the Church of England should be a bit like the BBC’s policy on party political balance, what really annoyed me about James Mumford’s review is its complete inability to acknowledge faith, personal and shared, as written all over, and under, every moment of drama and comedy in Rev. It’s particularly ironic, in fact, that Mumford was so impatient to criticise the programme that he couldn’t even wait for its Easter morning to come.

My 5 year-old son broke his arm just before the Easter holidays. Well, technically, in fact, he had his arm broken. He’s had no sense of anger at the person who did it, but has been deeply sad about missing the first half of the summer term’s football training. He’s obsessed with football, and when we’re out and about, or just in the back garden, he can’t be restrained from kicking a football about, or even making ambitious sliding tackles on someone else who happens to have the ball. As concerned parents, we regularly have to remind him he’s broken his arm – but because his arm is in a plaster cast, it seems he imagines he’s invincible. Yes, something went wrong, he knows, but nothing further can go wrong now, he reckons.

Plenty of my fellow Christians seem to operate with a faith either of the ‘invincible plaster cast’ variety, or of the hypothetical healing story variety. Resurrection faith is either protection, or liberation, from the tragedies of day-to-day reality. It happens instantly, and it lasts for ever. Easter morning comes, and everything from now on is as bright as the mid-day sun.

But the Easter faith that I know doesn’t work like that. Healing, where I’ve witnessed it, seems to be mostly a life-time of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ (and that’s at the most positive end of the maths). Lots of stuff – trauma from the past, feelings of inadequacy, fears about the future – never ‘goes away’. There are lots of decisions we make, with the best possible intentions and good faith, that seem to cause as much harm as they do good. We feed our beloved dogs chocolate because we know they love it, and then they die. A plaster cast on an arm doesn’t stop us falling off a climbing frame and breaking a leg.

In Hodge Hill, we’ve got into a tradition of keeping our ‘Easter vigil’ on a patch of wasteland, at the edge of our estate, that’s been abandoned for decades. Much of it is knitted with brambles, and a dumping ground for fly-tippers. And we meet there, as the sun goes down on Easter Eve, and we light our lanterns, and we tell stories. Rarely are they stories where everyone lives happily ever after. Many of them are stories which catch tiny glimpses of healing and life and hope, but amidst fragilities and struggles and brokenness that simply don’t go away. That wilderness gathering is a place of lament, as much if not more than a place of hope.

And then we return, the next morning. It is still a thorny, rubbish-strewn wasteland. And all we do is light a candle, and shout – with the same neighbour-annoying loudness of Adam and his friends – ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!’ And then we carry the candle through the streets of our estate, and into church. It gets blown out constantly, by the slightest breath of wind, or by our movement as we walk. And we have to painstakingly re-light it at every stopping-point along our route.

Later in the morning, and on every Sunday throughout the 7 weeks of Eastertide, we pass the light from that Easter candle through our gathered congregation, from person to person – an awkward, sometimes uncomfortably slow, process, clumsily passing on the little flame of one tea-light to the next. And every Sunday morning in Eastertide too, we make a space for people to share their ‘resurrection stories’: again, often in awkward silence, waiting what sometimes seems an eternity to ‘hear to speech’ a few, often quite tentative and stumbling, testimonies to glimpses of healing, forgiveness and renewal amid life’s ongoing hurts, struggles and tragedies.

We still do a fair bit of shouting and singing, but I hope something of what we do is faithful to our reading of the gospel stories of resurrection. A sense that it doesn’t all suddenly turn out right, that fear and bewilderment accompany resurrection, that there are slow, painful journeys of ‘working through’, and that when disciples return to the city with good news, they are also returning to a place of threat, vulnerability and violence, much of which they find they themselves are implicated in. As theologian Shelly Rambo teases out at length, in her reflections on those who live with the memory of trauma, there is a sense in which, even come Easter Day, the trauma of Good Friday remains – the enduring, broken ‘middle space’ of Holy Saturday becomes the space in which we work through what it means for love to also be part of that ‘remainder’. Or, in Adam’s words, ‘you won’t let me go, apparently – is this what resurrection is?’

The Easter morning gathering of the cracked, the broken and the divided, slipping through the prised-open door of St Saviour’s with their Easter candle and a baby to baptise, embody perfectly the shared faith of the Christian church as I know it. Even the Archdeacon is there, leaving aside for the moment his preoccupation with ‘church growth’ – and his preoccupation too, in perhaps a telling parallel, with himself. We know in that moment that Adam has not left the priesthood – has not even yet left St Saviour’s, even though he will do. And although perhaps in this moment the script does not quite do justice to the faith we see – those gathered are united through their belief in Adam, we’re told, even though it is clear that’s far from the full story – we do see in Adam’s ‘grace and anger’ – which his wife Alex saw in him many years before, for which she first loved him, that which makes him a priest – not the saviour of St Saviour’s, but a visible, truthful, authentically humble, doggedly persevering, and quite infectious, resurrection faith. “Blessed are the cracked,” as a recent travelling companion of mine has written, “for they shall give light.”