Saturday, August 09, 2014

Family and War - Walter's Story

The recent commemorations prompted me to jot down what I knew of my own family's experience of the first World War. The first was what I know of my grandma's first husband; this is the story of her second - my grandfather.

Walter Henry Peatman was 10 years old when he heard the news that his father Henry had died as a result of a farming accident. Falling from the top of a wagon, Henry had hit his head, and although he initially revived enough to travel home, he died that evening. Life was hard and money was short for the large family and Walter was the eldest son. He stopped going to school and got some work on a farm near his home in Ropsley in Lincolnshire. His first job was poorly paid, even by the standards of the day but another farmer had more sympathy and took him on for twice what he had been earning.

It was a world where class structure was firm, and deference was expected. A labourer could lose his job for not showing respect by doffing his cap to his landowner. Losing your job usually meant losing your home, as many labourers lived in tied cottages. Walter had even heard of men losing their jobs and homes because their children had failed to pay the respect deemed necessary to their so-called superiors.

In 1906 he took the huge decision to emigrate to Canada. He sailed steerage class, which took bout a week, and the subsequent train journey across Canada took 3 days. I understand he initially settled in Regina, Saskatchewan eventually living in a small town called Francis, about 40 miles south east of Regina. We know that because that is the address he gave on his attestation paper to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 17th January 1916. He always spoke warmly of Canada, as it had offered him opportunities the class-structure of England would have prevented.  A tattoo of a maple leaf on his arm was the enduring evidence of his attachment.

Walter was my grandad, although I (and everyone else, including his mates at the pub) always called him Pop. He, like many veterans of the horror of the Great War, very rarely said anything about his experiences of the trenches. My dad remembers asking him if he killed any Germans. He simply said "I don't know. I shot at a few". We once asked him about 'going over the top'. He wasn't a man who exaggerated or boasted, but he told us he went over 11 times. The odds of surviving that must be slim, although I once read some Canadian attacks had lower casualty rates. Perhaps he benefitted from that. He also once told me of a card game going on in a dug-out. He went down the trench line to the latrine. When he came back, the dug-out wasn't there; it had been hit by a shell.

War has its lasting effects, and Pop was once caught in a trench collapse. The terror of being completely covered and trapped in the dark meant he subsequently struggled to sleep in the dark when he came home. He told of how when he first came home, he left a light on in his room at night, and gradually used less and less light until he had cured himself of fear of the dark. What other terrors filled his dreams we'll never know.

When Pop emigrated, he probably didn't have much expectation returning to England to visit his family - it was a long and expensive journey. However, the war meant he was in Europe, so he went back to Lincolnshire after the war, intending to return to Canada. That was where he met a young widow with two children, who came from Nottingham, but was staying with people from his village who she had got to know when they came to town to sell produce. She (my grandma) wouldn't agree to sailing back to Canada. My dad says she referred to the sinking of the Titanic as having placed that fear in her mind. So they married and eventually settled in Chilwell, near Nottingham, which is why my dad hasn't got a Canadian accent and I exist.

In the late 80s, when I visited the Somme, I found a section of preserved trenches which were part of the Canadian line. I've no idea if this was part of a section where Pop served, but it somehow made it all feel a little more real, and not just a family story. It also made me want to trace his steps, insofar as that's possible. One day I'd love to go to Canada and see if I can find where he lived over there, and at least visit the towns he lived in and see what they are like today.

For a person of that era, Pop fitted in a lot of excitement, travel, action and danger in those first 30-odd years of his life. He spent the rest of them (he lived to 91) in and around Nottingham, mostly in Chilwell. Maybe he was ready for a quiet life.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Story of Horace Heath

Horace Heath was my grandma's first husband. He's not my grandfather, as he died on 24th March 1918, serving on the Western Front. I understand Horace was a baker in Nottingham, and he initially served in the Army Service Corps. By the time he died, however, he was in the Royal Irish Rifles. caught up in the German counter-offensive of 1918, which commenced on 21 March, often known as the Second Battle of the Somme.

He is remembered at the Pozières memorial and cemetery, which commemorates the casualties from that battle. You can view the Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry for Horace online here, which gives his parents' names and address and also my grandma's name and her address at the time. The houses aren't there anymore. Ireton Cottages are gone with all the older housing there, although Ireton Street still exists, and Sherwin Walk is close to where Sherwin Street used to be (just off Huntingdon Street).

No-one from my family had ever been out to the cemetery until I visited in the summer of 1989. I camped near the Thiepval memorial to the 1916 Somme casualties, and then set about trying to find Horace (with no internet, of course). I had a regiment and a date of death to go on, but needed more information.

One location recommended to me was Deville Wood (known as Devils Wood to the soldiers) where South African troops were engaged in a bloody battle for control. Here the forest had regrown, but the undulation of the ground clearly showed the trench lines decades later. There was also an English-speaking visitors centre where I was directed to the memorial I was looking for. I felt a twinge of discomfort at seeing the (then) new museum had been opened by P.W. Botha - one of the last leaders of South Africa under apartheid. However, the memorial there commemorates some 10,000 South African casualties from the Great War.

Pozières is a large cemetery, surrounded by walls with plaques commemorating many more casualties than the graveyard contains. It's on the road from Albert to Bapaume. Horace isn't remembered on a gravestone, but on one of the wall plaques. It was a very strange and memorable experience to visit, read the entry with my grandma's name in it, and know I was the first from the family to have made the journey. I also remember a vivid weird feeling when it occurred to me that if he hadn't died, I wouldn't exist. Grandma married again (another blog post worth there!) and my dad was the youngest child from that second marriage.

Horace's two children ( my dad's half brother and sister) were still alive in the summer of '89, although Auntie Doll died only 3 months later. They had last seen their father as small children, waving him off at the railway station. It was very special to take them photographs of the plaque and the entry in the book of remembrance. They were, of course, overwhelmed and showed me some of the embroidered postcards he sent back, along with his medals and the little bits of information they had about him.

Out there are millions of stories like this, remembered in fading photos and little boxes of memorabilia. Perhaps it's through those that we get closest to the people who lived and died in the reality of the trenches.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ecclesiastical Family Trees

Forward in Faith, the traditionalist catholic organisation has made a statement about what it expects in a future C of E where there are female bishops. You can read it here. There is a commitment within the new legislation that there will be provision for those who do not recognise the ministry of women priests and bishops.

However, it gets complicated...

Once we have women who are bishops, they will be authorised to officiate at services in roles currently not open to women. They will ordain people - men and women. However, if your beliefs are that a woman cannot be a bishop, then those ordinations are not valid. That means that gender will no longer be a visible signifier of whether an ordination to the priesthood is valid in the eyes of a traditionalist.

It gets messier..

If women bishops preside at or even share in the ordination (or consecration) of a male bishop then that would create problems for traditionalists for that male bishop's future ministry. The FiF statement implies that even male bishops involved in such an ordination would be problematic if they were then involved in the ordination of a bishop intended to be acceptable to traditionalists.

What I don't know is how someone confirmed by a woman would be viewed by FiF. Presumably the confirmation wouldn't be seen as valid either, although they could presumably receive communion in a FiF as people desirous of being confirmed.

I'm not even clear on my own 'status' as a priest in the eyes of purists. I was ordained deacon and priest before 1994, but I was involved in the first ordinations of women as priests in 1994. Priests join with the bishop in laying on hands and praying at the point of ordination, and I was privileged to be invited to do so on two occasions. That doesn't seem to have been a problem to colleagues in the past, but it may be for some.

What all this points to is that the future is going to be complicated. Will future generations of those who wish to minister to traditionalists need a kind of family tree, in order to demonstrate that their ordination is acceptable? It'll be messy, that's for sure. This is the Church of England, after all.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Springwatch, Chris Packham and Christianity

Something caught my eye, whilst quickly flicking through the Radio Times (24-30 May 2014). Chris Packham is quoted blaming Christianity for the decline of species:

"Christianity doesn't help: we're made in God's image so everything is there to be exploited by us. It doesn't help people's attitudes" (page 26)

It's unlikely that Chris will ever read this blog post, but I thought it needed a reply. Chris appears to regard Christian belief/theology as instrumental in generating attitudes which disregard the environmental consequences of our actions.

My first reaction is that Christians are being credited with an awful lot of influence. We're in the midst of a debate about whether Britain is a Christian country, and whether churches/faith communities should have schools, chaplains in hospitals etc. Many would question whether many people really do hold any Christian belief in a way that influences decisions, such as Chris Packham would suggest.

However, in cases where belief influences people, it is true that it can work both ways. One body of thought has held that humans were give dominion over creation, and that meant they could essentially do what they liked. My own hunch is that is largely a retrospective justification from the industrial age.

There is, however, a much more scary way of thinking that carries a "Christian" badge. Christians (often fundamentalists) who hold a so-called "end-time" theology regard this material world as a temporary provision before it all comes to an end and the "saved" (i.e. those who believe the same as they do) can live in heaven. That means that it doesn't really matter how much oil we burn, as it will all be over soon. Environmentalism is, therefore, a complete waste of time and effort. It's a theology very agreeable to oil companies and climate-change deniers.

My problem with Chris Packham's comment is that it completely disregarded the role many Christians play in preserving the environment in the UK and overseas. Many Christians understand the 'dominion' they are given in terms of stewardship, not ownership. If you have any notion of a divine origin for the world, then humanity is accountable for how its resources are stewarded and used. As Psalm 24:1 puts it "the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it". A thankful response for the privilege of sharing the wonders of this world should surely be to look after it, and to ensure others can enjoy it too.

Furthermore, it's clear that environmental damage in one part of the world can have ramifications in distant locations. Being considerate of the neighbour you live next door to is no longer a sufficient understanding of what a neighbour is. It's not enough simply to care for the person on your street; our decisions need to take into account our global neighbours. Our connectedness increases the size of our neighbourhood, and the resources we consume are too often exploited on the doorsteps of people much more vulnerable than we are. By challenging that, we express our care for our fellow human beings.

So, how does that work out in action that achieves anything? Here in the UK, there is Christian Ecology Link, we have a Church of England initiative called "Shrinking the footprint", and ancient churchyards are being turned into mini nature reserves. Meanwhile, many Christian relief and development agencies are working hard on environmental issues, ranging from climate change to water supplies, biodiversity projects, soil erosion, and many more.

So, Chris, I am sorry for the Christians who think that being given responsibility for the earth means they can do what they like. I'm not convinced that's what's driving most environmental destruction that concerns you. I think we all know that's got more to do with money. But I hope you can see from theology and from practical action around the world that we're not all like that, and we never have been.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Resurrection and Rev

At least one person asked for a final blog post on Rev, and the final episode has now gone out, so here goes. If you haven't seen it yet, feel free to stop reading now.

To make a series about a vicar who didn't fit the classic TV types was an interesting move. As I said in my previous post, it seemed to have the effect of engaging a lot of people - both clergy who saw the parallels with their own experience of ministry (their own or colleagues they have know) and those beyond the church who warmed to a genuinely human vicar. It also portrayed him struggling with the challenges of a city parish, the pressures of the institutional church, the characters you get in a congregation, and his own battles of faith. 

Of course, it had to use caricature and stereotype for comic effect, yet they were just that little bit closer to the truth than many sit-coms. Colin was a classic case - lots of churches have a kind of Colin, a rough diamond who can't quite turn things round, but somehow has a deep connection with the place. In fact Rev wasn't really a sit-com at all - I'm not sure what the right term is, but it was both funny and poignant, rather like M*A*S*H operated for a much earlier generation of TV viewers.

There were some clever dramatic devices. I don't know of any clergy who have been literally dumped out of a taxi in the middle of nowhere by a senior staff member, but I suspect some fellow clergy know the emotional, if not the physical experience. A conversation that the person in authority wanted to end, not having really listened in the first place, and it was all settled without anything really being settled at all. 

I also suspect incidents that alienated some viewers were the very things that endeared the series to others. The lapses in behaviour, swearing, making mistakes, and general vulnerability all made Adam more approachable, yet they also attacked the idealised picture that a lot of people have about clergy (and some clergy have about themselves). And then there was 'the kiss'. Social networks got very active after that episode, and even Alison Graham in the Radio Times - hardly a squeamish type - described her profound degree of upset. Adam stopped being the kind of vicar she wanted, who represented a Church she didn't belong to and a faith she didn't hold, but which she wanted to be there.

I'd like to see the final series in its entirety again, as I want to spot the point where they start using the passion narrative - the story leading up to and describing the crucifixion of Jesus - as the template for what happens. There's a kiss, a washing of hands, and following rejection by all his friends, a cross-carrying and time of darkness. In the midst of that there's a vision of a Jesus-type character (played by Liam Neeson). 

The in-between days from then are a kind of hell as Adam encounters his former parishioners, and starts to go through a breakdown. The Archdeacon explores possible job moves, coming out with a classic line implying chaplaincy might be an easier option (it isn't, believe me). And despite all Adam's desire to run from the church, no other career option appears to be either viable or desirable. He has no heart for an interview, and the temp job at the newsagent only faces him with his old congregation. Eventually all he can do is curl up in bed. The prayers of the other characters are heard for the first time, too. The Archdeacon's prayer sounding like the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector was a classic, and everyone except Alex tried to justify themselves.

As in the Biblical account, the women stay active, and it's through them, especially Adam's wife Alex, that the 'resurrection' of Easter morning gets organised, along with the much-delayed baptism of their child. I rather liked the ending, although I know some people didn't. The church had closed, Adam was no longer to be their vicar, there was no going back, and the future was uncertain. Just like the resurrection in the New Testament. We don't witness any conversations of reconciliation (other than Alex forgiving Ellie for the kiss), but Nigel, the archdeacon and members of the church are all there around the brazier and the font.

Comedy can sometimes do the profound better than any drama. just think of Comic Relief, Blackadder 4, or the aforementioned M*A*S*H. It can create a different kind of connection with the characters that means that when it gets serious, it really gets to us. Rev managed to do that, whilst holding up a mirror to us about our beliefs, ideals and prejudices. It asked us about the authenticity of the person we present to the wider world, and that's why it was both uncomfortable but compelling viewing.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Getting Upset About 'Rev'

After yesterday's edition of Rev, there was a flurry of tweets, expressing sadness and disappointment about it. Avoiding spoilers, suffice it to say the episode highlighted many of Adam's weaknesses, both in personal relationships and in misjudging a situation. My question is why did people (especially fans thus far) get so upset?

Rev has acquired quite a following amongst clergy, and I suspect it's because the series breaks out of the mould of depicting the type of vicar character you get in Dad's Army, or played by Derek Nimmo. Adam seems a lot closer to reality and seems to share a lot of the dilemmas modern clergy face. The series is also devastatingly well-observed in its depiction of 'types' one encounters in the ministry. One flaw I am aware of is that all the female clergy have not been very positive examples (but then no-one comes out that well!)

Despite his mistakes, I think a lot of people developed a lot of empathy for Adam, and to some extent placed their hopes in him to convey a more positive and contemporary image of the ministry. This has clearly extended well beyond clergy who share Adam's style or churchmanship. I can only presume, therefore,  that the sadness and disappointment that came through from some on social networks was because people felt let down. Adam had failed them, or maybe the series had betrayed them. The empathy was strong enough for people to feel got at, threatened, or let down because of Adam.

I think we need a bit of a reality check:

  1. Rev is a TV comedy. By its nature, comedy exaggerates and accentuates foibles, flaws and idiosyncrasies of the people it depicts. Miranda isn't a 'real' shopkeeper, many Home Guard were much more conscientious, capable and competent than Dad's Army, and so on. Just because the comic versions mess things up doesn't necessarily mean that 'real' ones do or did. It's comedy and it's fiction, but it draws on reality and stretches and distorts it to bring out the humour.
  2. The show isn't a piece of Church of England PR; it's a TV show on the BBC. We can't expect the BBC to do our publicity for us - if we're worried people might get the 'wrong idea' of clergy from Rev, we need to get on with living out our vocations as well as we can.
  3. A sitcom isn't a theology essay. I've seen people discussing Adam's prayers and the lack of references to God in the ecclesiastical conversations. As I have said, it's a comedy, so why should it be accurate. Of course there is an implied theology in the writing, but to be fair all too many 'real' meetings that I have been to about church policy, strategy and finance have made little or no reference to God, so that seemed quite realistic
  4. The reality for clergy is that we will let people down. We can't do everything, or meet all of the expectations people have of us. Adam does this in what are sometimes spectacular and larger-than-life ways, but the experience is real enough. It's not always easy to watch, but we know the feeling, albeit on a smaller scale (usually).
  5. Having said all of this, I suspect that Rev has made one TV clerge more accessible and easier to relate to than many fictional versions. Part of the reaction last night resulted from the fact that it's closer to reality than many, to the point that emotionally people felt it as real, even if rationally they knew it wasn't.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Women Priests

It was twenty years ago today that the first women were ordained priests - the first service being in Bristol. A few weeks later during 1994, I had the privilege of sharing in that 'first batch' of ordinations both at Southwell Minster and especially at Debbie's in Coventry Diocese. For many of the women in that first cohort it was the end of a long wait. Some had been deacons since 1987, most had been deacons for more than a year (generally male deacons are ordained priest after a year). A significant number had been deaconesses for quite a period before that (deaconess was an authorised and licensed lay ministry for women before ordination was open to them.)

Despite having been a strong proponent of the change (I was a member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women at theological college) the prospect of celebrating it brings mixed feelings. First of all, the logical consequence of women priests was women bishops. We have yet to get there, although the indications from General Synod are that the new fast-tracked legislation should go through to permit women to be ordained and appointed as bishops in the Church of England from sometime in 2015. 

Second, the settlement that came out of the key vote in 1992 left the church with an mess. In order to get the vote through and keep everyone on board, it allowed parishes to refuse to accept the ministry of a woman as their incumbent or to preside at holy communion. In effect that made their ordination as priests a matter of opinion. Yet at the same time the Church of England was saying that they were legally and canonically ordained. We even have the strange scenario of traditionalist bishops licensing women priests to serve in parishes and administer sacraments that they [the bishop] themselves would not receive. The unavoidable conclusion is that institutionally the church failed to make ordained women truly equal to their male counterparts. 

So you can see it's a mess. Whatever side of the debate you sit, I think we can all agree on that, and I'm not sure I feel ready to celebrate when there seems to be so much unfinished business around.

The awkward question now is whether this mess will be further complicated when women become bishops. The wording of motions and legislation is tedious, but if a [woman] Diocesan bishop is not genuinely the bishop of a Diocese, then that immediately undermines her office. However, if some arrangements are not made for those who object, the legislation may fail, and there will certainly be an almighty row. 

I don't have an answer. I'm just not ready for a party.

Sunday, March 02, 2014


A lot of older people in Morecambe come from Yorkshire. In its heyday, it was the resort of choice for Bradford, and the only direct train service to anywhere other than Lancaster still goes to Leeds. However, I meet a lot of people who have lived in this area all their lives, known round here as sandgrown'uns. [Not sure about spelling and punctuation, but you get the idea.]

What these people don't realise is just how weird it is for a Midlander like me to live here. It's not the people, or the accent, or the dialect; it's the sea. Every time I walk for 5 mins to the end of my road I find a small beach, and everything in me says that's wrong. Allow me to explain.

When you live in the Midlands, the sea is a day trip away. From Nottingham, the coast of choice is usually Lincolnshire - Skegness, Mablethorpe, Sutton-on-Sea, Ingoldmells, etc. It's about 80-90 miles and even with modern road improvements it's a good couple of hours. My family liked trying other options, so long drives to Caister, Bude and even Pembrokeshire filled the late 60s and early 70s for me. Wherever we went, the first glimpse of the sea was a competition in the car, and that was the only sea I usually saw - on a couple of holidays each year.

So each day when I go up to the promenade, even after nearly 5 years here, I'm still excited and surprised to see Morecambe Bay. As sea views go, it's one of the best with its tides, its fantastic sunsets and the views of the Lake District in the distance. Every time I see it, something in me wonders if it will soon be time to 'go home', followed by the very happy thought that home is only a few minutes' walk away.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Clergy, poverty and moral authority

I was initially quite surprised by the tone of a recent article in the Independent. As a newspaper which is politically critical of the government, you'd expect it to be positive about others offering criticism. But no. There is a moderate defence of welfare cuts, coupled with a dismissal of the recent intervention by the Archbishop of Westminster and the recent letter signed by Anglican Bishops, Methodist chairs of district and URC and Quaker leaders recently published in the Daily Mirror.

One of the weaker arguments of the editorial is that the church leaders represent a "tiny fraction of the population", this coming from a paper with a circulation of a little over 70,000, when there are rather more than 1,000,000 attending the Church of England (not to mention our ecumenical allies).

However, this misses the point. The article also implies that the welfare cuts and austerity agenda are moral because they are endorsed by the majority:

"Is the pursuit of policies that are supported by the majority of the electorate of no value, for example? And would it be a more moral course to fail to tackle our dysfunctional welfare system and even more dysfunctional public finances, risking not only the standard of living of all but also the taxes out of which benefits are paid?" full article

Whether the majority of the UK population endorse current austerity policy is an interesting question in itself. Even if they did, this wouldn't automatically mean that such policies were beyond moral questioning. There have been times in our history when the prevailing view needed to be challenged. When those campaigning against the slave trade started, they were a small minority, but that didn't make their moral case invalid. Neither would it address the very real question of whether this government's austerity policy was the best way out of the financial crisis, but that's for another blog post!

I'd like to suggest that many clergy are actually remarkably well placed to comment on the effects of current policy on the poor. Many of us have people knocking on our vicarage doors asking for help with food, energy bills or clothing. It's hard to know what to do, and it leaves us all with a feeling of not doing enough. That's because clergy, unlike many other professionals, live in contact with people in need and live in the middle of the communities they serve. We meet people on the street, outside the school, in the pub and in the paper shop. That doesn't make us special - it just comes with the role. People come to the church with their needs, and we hear a lot about them, simply because we're here. Quite a few church leaders have been vicars and ministers in similar circumstances, and even if they haven't, the ministers they lead have plenty of opportunities to share and to show what is going on in their patch.

Perhaps the most instructive thing about the Independent editorial is that it indicates a shift in credibility and reputation for the Church, and especially for its senior leaders. When the Faith In The City report was published by the Church of England in 1985, it stung the government, and was welcomed well beyond the active membership of the Church. In the period when the Labour party was in turmoil, the Church was seen as providing genuine alternative critique and even opposition to some of the policies having a detrimental impact on the poorest areas of England, and by implication the whole of the UK.

I doubt that could happen now. Perhaps the decrease in church affiliation is part of it, but I suspect it's the public perception of the church's leaders that is a bigger problem. Some the scandals in churches over the neglect of child protection, the public statements on gay issues and equal marriage, and the endless Synod debates over women as bishops haven't commended us to the population as a source of moral leadership worth listening to.

This is a loss, as I think the contents of the church leaders' letter and the capacity of the churches to refer to real hands-on experience in communities across the nation would be well-worth listening to.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sermon on Genesis Chapter 1

Sermon for February 23, 2014 on Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

On December 24 1968, Apollo 8 came round the moon and for the first time, human beings saw the earth rise over a horizon. On that mission they read over the radio from orbit above the moon Genesis chapter 1. We’ve just heard that story of Creation from Genesis Chapter 1. What did you think when your heard it? Was it as you picture how it must have happened, or is it so far removed from what you understand that it’s completely irrelevant?

Science tells us that the universe is about 13.2 thousand million years old, and the earth is about 4.5 thousand million years old. This is based on many different scientific observations and calculations, and on the assumption that the scientific processes that enable our complex world to function are consistent. The same scientific laws that mean the lights come on, and I weigh 11 stone 6 have applied and worked throughout the life of the universe and give us that evidence. 

On the other hand, if we go with the Bible’s timescale, it’s all much more recent than that. Bishop Ussher of Armagh once calculated from the Bible that the world began in 4004 BC. Some have calculated it as a bit further back than that, but the point remains that a literal reading of the Bible means the world could only be a few thousand years old at most.

How widely is the Bible’s timescale believed? In 2012 a Gallup poll recorded that 46% of Americans believed that God created humans in their present form sometime in the last 10,000 years. Many also believe the earth to be only a few thousand years old. There are now schools in the UK, where creationism, as it is known, is taught on the curriculum alongside scientific analysis as an equal theory. You can even go to a zoo and animal park in Somerset called Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, which is run by people who believe that the earth is recently created. It gets 130,000 visitors a year.

Meanwhile, there is an increasingly vocal humanist and atheist voice in the media who not only accept the scientific data, but see the discoveries and insights of science as final proof that religion is nonsense. Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion won’t even bother debating with people who take Genesis literally.

"Just as I wouldn't expect a gynaecologist to have a debate with somebody who believes in the Stork-theory of reproduction, I won't do debates with Young Earth creationists," he said.

So where does that leave us? Does thinking about these things worry or disturb us? Perhaps we would prefer not to think about it, in case it unsettles the faith we have. The problem is that both extremes – the atheists and the creationists end up arguing with each other as if their views are the only two you can hold. And we end up squeezed between people who are downright hostile to our faith, and people whose beliefs defy all the scientific evidence, but say we should believe them to be proper Christians.

None of this is new, of course. Once scientists started making discoveries that challenged the Bible’s account of things the debate started, and we see it most sharply with Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection, or evolution as we usually refer to it. As Christians, we know that without the Bible, our faith makes no sense. It gives us the big story that helps us understand why we are here. Are the only choices to discard the Bible because of science or to discard science by putting blind faith in the Bible? Do you have to be an atheist to be a good scientist?

Speaking as someone with a degree in chemistry, I want to say an emphatic 'no'! Many eminent scientists in a range of expertise have a deeply held Christian faith. The two don't have to be seen as contradicting each other.

So here’s 3 starting points to answer the atheists on one side and the fundamentalists on the other about Genesis 1.

1. Genesis 1 wasn’t written as a scientific text book.

Scientific thinking and method as we know it didn’t exist until fairly recently. At the time Genesis was written, possibly up to 3000 years ago, people understood the world very differently. The world was in a dome, with water above that sometime came through as rain, or rose as floods. So Genesis wasn’t written to answer modern science’s questions. That means that if we go to the Bible looking for things it never set out to tell us, we get funny answers.

Genesis 1 addresses questions about God and about the world, and about human beings and their place within it. It isn’t about the modern disciplines of physics, chemistry or astronomy - it never intended to be. People who know about these things say it’s written in the form of a poem. It’s painting a picture, not recording a documentary.

The Great War - World War 1 - is in the news a lot at the moment. If you want history, you read history books about the war (and some are busy re-writing those at the moment). But if you want to know what it felt like, or the how it impacted the big questions of belief or faith, you need to read Wilfred Owen or the other war poets. Don't read poetry for science, or science for poetry.

2. Genesis 1 is about God.

Other cultures at the time had stories that look like Genesis. There are other creation and flood stories - one was in the news recently, describing the ark like a huge coracle. But the other cultures had gods who got in a mess, who didn’t always have control. Some of them essentially lived inside creation, and struggled within it. But Genesis 1 speaks of a God who is involved in the universe but beyond it. Look at the text: "In the beginning, God… God said…, God said..., God made... etc. 

The God described here isn’t tangled up and held captive by the chaos, He turns it into created order. This is about one God, a supreme God, and a creative God who shares his creativity with creatures he can have a relationship with. This is new stuff in the ancient world, but the author of Genesis tells about the God of Israel in a form familiar to the people of his day.

3. Genesis 1 is about us.

This passage contains one of the most dangerous ideas for the Western world. It could bring down capitalism, and revolutionise the way the world works. Know what it is? It is that we are stewards, not owners. God is generous here – he gives food, skills and abilities, the beauty of the earth and its wonder, the amazing possibilities of being human. But when he places human beings in dominion over creation it’s not “here’s the keys, do what you like”. This earth is somebody else’s property, and the people are accountable.

Our world works on a different basis. Economies are based on people earning, buying, owning and consuming. It relies on people acting as if the only criterion is whether they can afford it, or at least can they find the money from somewhere. But stewardship asks different questions. How would I explain my decisions to spend? Would I share? Do I understand the earth’s resources as on trust? Do I see myself as accountable to God? That’s called stewardship. Ironically the Greek word for stewardship is 'oikonomia' – the word we get economics from. 

If we get obsessed with proving things literally in Genesis that defy science and logic, it’s a dead end. Worse, if we get bogged down in that, we forget what it is really trying to say to us.

In Genesis 1 the writer is saying that we need to understand our God, our place in the world, in the order of things, and the wonderful privilege and responsibilities of living within that world. If we could only appreciate that more, perhaps the world would be a safer, more just and more equal place for all to enjoy.