Sunday, March 31, 2019

Brexit Tales 4: The Christian with the Tract

It would have been either 1982 or 1983 whilst I was a student. I walked past this bloke in Oxford and he pushed a leaflet into my hand - maybe he could sniff out Christians, or just spotted my bad clothes. I stuffed it into my coat pocket and thought no more about it for a couple of days, as those sorts of tracts are usually pretty awful - especially theologically and presentationally.

Some time the following week I must have been bored, as I found the leaflet in my pocket and took a look. The details are a bit hazy now, but I do remember clearly that it was very agitated about the EEC and the UN. The issue with the EEC was something to do with it having [then] 9 members states, which correlated with something about judgment or the end. Meanwhile the UN was seen as a step towards world government, which would apparently usher in all manner of evil (rather than a more peaceful world).

As is often the case with these kinds of tracts, it was all based on verses from Revelation. The approach is usually to try and find some kind of correlation between events, people or numbers in that book and see it as proof of some forthcoming significant moment. Over the years I've had a few circular letters that have long screeds of apocalyptic stuff sent to me as a vicar. This was an early encounter.

Since then it has intrigued me that a certain kind of Christianity has continued to have a hostile view of the EU in keeping with the man with the tract. I'll come back to broader-based Christian views of brexit in a future post; the opposition I'm talking about here comes from a very particular kind of spirituality which sees secular organisations not just as neutral or non-religious, but as actively hostile and even in the hands of evil. as such it can all get a bit conspiracy-theory in its most extreme forms.

Last summer I attended a course at a Christian conference centre. Another group of women from some kind of pentecostal/charismatic network were using nearby rooms, and it was a hot summer's day so the windows were open. One of our group overheard them earnestly praying that "these evil men won't thwart God's will for brexit". We concluded that dialogue in the bar later would probably not be fruitful. More recently I came across the website of another preacher of a similar theological ilk describing brexit as a miracle from God that will enable revival. I couldn't help thinking that it was all a long way from why many Anglicans voted leave (I promise I will come back to that!)

Anyway back to tract man. There was an address on the leaflet - some kind of PO Box if I remember right. So out of curiosity (and I was a Christian Union rep after all) I wrote him a reply, challenging some of the points politely, quoting the odd Bible verse and asking a few questions. The letter was returned - the address didn't exist. The EEC grew in number and became the EU with 28 members. Maybe tract man has another leaflet that can tell us what 28 (or 27) signifies.

Hang on. 27= 3 x 9. Suspicious, eh?

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Brexit Tales 3: The North York Moors Railway

You probably weren't expecting that. Let me explain.

At the end of February half-term I had a day off. It was a lovely sunny day, so as trains were running, I went up to Pickering and took a journey on the North York Moors Railway all the way to Grosmont. It's a wonderful little place, complete with a picturesque station and a special Coop all of its own

As there was plenty of time, I decided to walk the Rail Trail back to Goathland and then catch the final train to Pickering from there. It's a decent length walk, but it follows the original tramway, built by George Stephenson that was replaced by the current railway. As a result it's a nice wide path, mainly flat, apart from quite a long, steady incline into Gothland itself.

Near the start of the walk, I noticed this sign

Full noticeboard

Then I spotted that the bottom of the sign had this (sorry about the quality)

The EU bit
It turns out that EU funding helped to make the Rail Trail happen. This small, fading label is the only evidence and reminder that that was the case (unless you download the linked leaflet and read the smaller print.) And all over the UK, I suspect that there are plenty of other projects and developments where we are completely unaware that EU money made it happen, as we aren't always very good at signposting it. A key part of debunking the £350 million a week on the side of the bus was the fact that a lot of EU funding flows back - including the "Thatcher rebate", payments for agriculture etc, funding research, Erasmus student scholarships, and funding for regional development.

Now at this point if any enthusiastic supporters of brexit have got this far, they might raise the fact that this funding is not completely under the control of the UK government. Let's be clear - that is true. In fact, I would suggest that is an advantage. A government of whatever political persuasion will always be susceptible to the temptation to be more generous to certain areas than others out of political concerns. Not exactly buying votes, but it helps. If the strategic allocation decision is taken further away, based on criteria agreed by all member states, then it has a much better chance of being free from party political bias.

Back in the 1980s, I was in Durham, and I remember people talking about how European funding provided significant funds for the North East as it lost its traditional industries. In the aftermath of the miners' strike and then pit closures, it meant that interest and initiative was taken, even though business parks and restoring the landscape couldn't bring back those traditional jobs. Similarly, Wales has received substantial funds. I looked it up: £3.8bn between 2007-2020 via European Structural Funds investment, helping support employment, training and research, £957m between 2014-2020 via the Rural Development Programme, supporting businesses, farmers and communities and £200m a year Common Agricultural Policy, helping 16,000 Welsh farms. Likewise, Cornwall has also had substantial EU regional funding. The sad irony is that these regions generally voted leave in substantial numbers.

Leave voters might say at this point that as the UK government won't be paying into the EU, it can do its own grants. However, we have yet to see enough political commitment to do so (and just at the moment it's hard to see who is in charge anyway!) The UK government did announce a "Stronger Towns Fund", but we have yet to see detail about the "Shared Prosperity Fund". What is clear is that the latter would need to send a lot more money to Cornwall, if it is to match what was scheduled to come from the EU. It looks like brexit will redistribute funds around the country, and the likelihood is that Eastern England and the South West will lose out.

Some of these changes might be desirable, but I'm not an expert so I don't know. What I do know is that when we voted in the referendum in June 2016, nearly all of us had no idea what impact our vote might have on the regional development funding our area would receive. If only we'd paid more attention to those little logos when we saw them, we might have asked more questions before we cast our vote.

Brexit Tales 2: Talking To Bob

Bob is in his 90s, but he was just too young to be called up during World War 2, which he remembers clearly. He left school at 14 (they lowered the age during WW2) and he worked at Chilwell Ordnance Depot, which was one of the largest in the UK during the war. He remembers an air raid which failed to hit the depot, but left holes in the road. He greatly admired Churchill for saving the country, despite all of the risks. What may surprise you is that Bob voted remain.

I knew he had voted to stay in the EEC at the previous ballot in the 1970s, but I didn't know if he had changed his mind.  It turns out that he and I bucked the trend of our respective generations - especially in the Midlands. Since then we have had a number of conversations about it, and I found it fascinating to hear his reasons for voting the way he did.

One significant factor for him was that the European Union bound together the destinies of old enemies, which was one of the driving forces behind the foundation of the community in the first place. I remember seeing an interview with John Major where he described the change in his party after the 1992 election. A lot of older MPs retired, who had seen active service in the war, and the new intake had no such experience and many were more Eurosceptic. The older MPs had regarded the sacrifices involved in being committed to the European Union as a price worth paying for never seeing conflict in Europe such as they had lived through. I sensed that Bob felt the same way - after all his own father had been in the trenches of World War 1.

Another thing he remembers well is the era of post-war austerity. Working at an electronics company, and also having radio as a hobby, he remembers the problems and paperwork involved in obtaining imported items. Import controls limited what could come in, and in what quantity. Britain was faced with repaying loans from the USA, and money was tight. It also gave the United States a lot of influence over the UK in that period. I recently read a book called 1946 by Victor Sebestyen, which describes the events of that year and their long-term impact. In a chapter on the UK, he describes how pressure from the US accelerated the decolonisation process, and may even have meant that the withdrawals were done in a more disordered rush than they otherwise might. 

Bob remembers the Suez crisis, when the UK and France acted as if they were still superpowers and rapidly discovered that they weren't. US pressure, through the threat of withdrawing finance, led to the rather humiliating climb-down by the UK that followed. Britain had to face the fact that it was no longer in a position to act in the world without reference to its much bigger ally. As Harry Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, put it: "Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role."

So Britain effectively had a choice either to become increasingly under the sway of the US, or to grow economically closer to Europe. As Bob pointed out, we have spent the last 45 years moving in one direction, so what sense can there be in uprooting all of that. All of the alternative possibilities we might have pursued instead of the EEC are now gone. It's not like we can go back to the end of the 1960s and have another go with the Commonwealth or the USA as if nothing has happened since.

The other key point Bob made was that the government has been completely consumed by brexit since the referendum. He feels that there were so many other things they could have been sorting out, which have been slowed or even put on hold. As we talked we even wondered if some of the very grievances that prompted some people to vote leave could have been dealt with, had the government been free to get on with addressing them. Either way, brexit seemed an unnecessary waste of a huge amount of money, staffing and energy, when so many other problems are before us.

So he voted remain. How do I know? Bob is my dad.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Brexit Tales: The Woman In The Shop

A lot of the chatter about Brexit online is pretty acrimonious, and much of it confused. At the moment, the Speaker appears to be a villain or a hero, depending who you listen to. Brexiteers and remainers alike have been praising or criticising him, and quite a lot of people are just confused.

So, I thought I'd just tell a few stories of my encounters with people instead.

It was a few weeks ago, and there had been some rumblings about the Irish backstop in the news. On a day off, so not visibly a vicar, I popped in to a local shop to pick up one or two things for lunch. As I came to the till, I heard an animated conversation between a woman paying for her shopping and the person on the till. As my stuff was checked through, the following conversation took place:

"Dictating to us...", said the woman, looking at me with an expression that invited me to join in.

It's important to note at this point that even when incognito, a vicar has to take care in how they express themselves. The person you're talking to might be at your next wedding/funeral/baptism and it helps if you're on reasonable terms.

"What's this you're talking about?", I said, buying time and checking that it was really the EU they were discussing.

"The EU. It's a dictatorship!", she said.

I decided to try the probing approach. "That's a strong word to use."

"Well it is."

The remainer in me stirred slightly. I had no desire to antagonise the woman, but I didn't want her leaving the shop assuming I agreed with her. So I came up with a question

"Can I just ask in what ways the EU has dictated your life? I'm not very aware of it personally."

There was a brief pause.

"Retail", she said.


"Yes. Retail."

At this point I realised I needed to bring the conversation to a peaceful close, which didn't leave her feeling got at, or me feeling I had misrepresented myself. I was also ready for my lunch.

"I see. I guess it's worth remembering our government supported a lot of the regulations we have, and my bet is that they'll keep most of them after we leave the EU. Anyway, I reckon it's out of our hands and we just have to wait and see."

This seemed to gain some consensus with the woman and the assistant, so I said a cheery goodbye and left.

Afterwards I reflected on this conversation. I may be doing the woman a disservice, but my hunch was that EU retail regulations weren't the main cause of her antagonism towards the European Union. But she clearly felt something very strongly, and the focus of that anger and frustration was the EU. I could have told her that only a modest percentage of UK regulations that came into force since 1997 were EU related, and of those only a tiny number were opposed by the UK. I could have pointed out that it's thanks to the EU that we know what contains palm oil, if that's a thing you're bothered about. I could have gone on at some length, but it wouldn't have served any useful purpose.

However, I don't think her grievance was about the mandatory labelling of aspartame. What it illustrated to me was how the leave vote tapped in to a sense of grievance, which was completely underestimated by the remain campaign. The so-called "project fear" did nothing to address or assuage that feeling; in fact it probably made it worse.

But here's my question: if and when the UK leaves the EU, and we get past the initial period of chaos and economic turbulence, will people like the woman in the shop actually feel they have a better life? Will they feel more empowered and connected to politicians? Will their local services be substantially improved? Will their retail be liberated? And if they are not, who will they blame?

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Ordination Anniversary

Today is a significant anniversary for the Church of England. It marks 25 years since the first group of women were ordained priest in Bristol. It marked the end of a strange transition time, as I had trained alongside women, including Debbie, and my year were all ordained deacon in 1990. The men were ordained priest in 1991, but the women weren't, as the changes had not yet gone through. 
Because of the timing of our move from Southwell Diocese to Coventry in 1994, Debs missed the big services in both cathedrals, but it worked out nicely as she and one other candidate were ordained at a special service at All Saints', Leamington Spa. As I was sharing here in Beverley the other day, Debs was 7 months pregnant at the time, and said Jono gave a big kick at the moment of ordination. You can see the 'bump' in the picture. That must explain why he now works for a church...!
It was St Barnabas' Day, 11 June 1994, so red stoles were worn. My first Sunday back on duty after Debbie died was Pentecost Sunday, when we also wear red, and this was the stole I wore. It's probably the only bit of clergy garb that really holds any significance for me - reminding me of her, and also that extraordinary day.

The following day, Debbie presided at communion at St James', Whitley - the first time a woman had ever done so, of course, and she also officiated at some other 'firsts' at other churches in the months (and even years) that followed. Back then it was all new, exciting and for some people deeply traumatic, but now it all seems very familiar and normal. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Musings about a People's Vote

The Prime Minister is busily trying to keep her deal for the UK to leave the EU on the road as I type this, but it looks increasingly like she will fail. One possibility that seemed unlikely at one time, but is a real possibility now is that there could be a further referendum to ask the people to decide between options that Parliament cannot resolve. 

I've been interested in the fierce reactions such a proposal has produced, and a few thoughts occurs to me:

1. There is no point re-running the 2016 vote. The current mess arises from the fact that the option to leave was left so open to interpretation. Any further vote should be on whether to pursue specific proposals. My own view is that deal / no deal / remain should be those 3 choices with a 1,2 preference vote. 

2. I find it intriguing that brexiteers are so hostile to such a vote, as many of their comments seem to assume that options for leaving the EU would lose. If leaving is the "will of the people", surely that would triumph - in whatever version.

3. The warnings of civil unrest from brexiteers shows that they assume that those who voted leave both fear losing such a vote and this would result in a violent reaction. I think such warnings risk generating the very action they purport to warn about. It also assumes that remain/soft brexit supporters are, by comparison, peaceful should their hopes be thwarted. 

4. A second vote is deemed undemocratic. I've always thought that's a rather odd thing to say about giving people a vote. I agree that re-running the previous vote would look like trying until you get the result you want. However, a fresh public vote to resolve our MPs' impasse in Parliament may end up being the only available solution other than chaotically crashing out of the EU unprepared, and with no functioning government.

My previous posts will leave no-one in any doubt that I still believe that the UK should remain in the EU, but I'm not holding out any hopes that the 2016 result will be reversed. Attitudes have hardened, and although some polls suggest remain might win such a new poll, it would need a clear majority to persuade any government to change course. The question remains as to who will govern us when the House of Commons and the government in power are so divided.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Moving On and Best-before Dates

The whole process of changing jobs as a C of E vicar is a relatively long one, and when you know you have a job, there is usually a bit of a delay before an announcement can be made. So I have had to sit on the fact that I would be moving from Morecambe for about a month. I'm going to be vicar of St Nicholas, Beverley and half-time training adviser for the Archdeaconry of the East Riding. That's in the Diocese of York.

Letters have to be exchanged, and a new DBS certificate obtained (the latter being the main cause of the delay). In the meantime it's all kept confidential to a relatively small group of people until it can be announced officially in the old and new location simultaneously. It's an immense relief to have it all out in the open, so we can begin to work on the handover, and I can start to plan for my move.

A few people have asked why I am going, so I thought I'd blog a few thoughts about moving on.

After Debbie died, I remember being asked if I would move, and I knew at the time that I wasn't going to engage with thinking seriously about that for at least a year. You don't make good decisions in the midst of turmoil, and more importantly I felt that the church community and I needed to grieve and process what had happened together. From time to time I have seen jobs being advertised, and I had no interest in looking at them, so I knew that was the right instinct.

Then something happened which told me that things had changed. Someone I know referred to a post being advertised, and for some reason I took a look at it. As I did so, I realised I was beginning to take quite an active interest, and that I was thinking myself into the situation to see if it was a good fit. In other words, the prospect of moving on had taken a different character.

None of this was a negative reflection on my current church or parish - they've been great. I love Morecambe with its challenges, opportunities, characters, community and creativity. There are so many people, activities and places that I will miss, so it's not an easy decision. Plus it has one of the finest sunset views you'll get anywhere.

A snap I took last night
But it's now over two years since losing Debbie, and at some point I knew I had to make a new start. One of the features of being a clerge is that [almost always] you can't move house and stay in the same job, and you can't move job and stay in the same house. This big old house was a home for four of us and a dog, and now it's just me, except when Ellie is home from university, so increasingly I've felt a need to move on.

Besides that, I have always been very keen in all my appointments not to exceed my "best-before" date. Over the years, I have known a few clergy who weren't aware that they had, and it can have a detrimental effect on them and their ministry. My current parish has lots of good things going on, but I believe it now needs someone who can work with them on the next stage of development. For me to do that would effectively require me to commit to being here until I retire, and I know that wouldn't be the right thing. It's time for someone else with a fresh perspective to be involved in writing the next chapter for Morecambe Parish Church, just as I will be bringing a fresh perspective when I work with my new church at Beverley.

Underlying all of this is the very important principle that no-one is indispensable. That should be true for any organisation; it should be especially true for a church. As I said on Sunday, the life and ministry of this church doesn't depend on me, it depends on the God whose gifts we were celebrating at Pentecost.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Hello, blog. It's been a while

The blog has been quiet for a while. I'm not exactly sure why. It's partly because there's only so much creative energy I can find at one time, and also I've not been quite sure what to say. Anyway, I have been musing on a few things, so a few occasional comments will be surfacing again over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Do we believe in change?

The recent case of Jared O'Mara has prompted me to think about what we as Christians mean by repentance or making a new start. Mr O'Mara is the Labour MP who famously unseated Nick Clegg from his Sheffield Hallam constituency. He recently resigned from the Women and Equalities Committee following the discovery of online posts he made back in the early 2000s which are homophobic, derogatory about women and also about people who are overweight.

Mr O'Mara is now 36 years old, so these posts were made in his early 20s. He's clearly embarrassed about them, and has very publicly disowned the views he articulated then. Those who are standing by him say that the change is sincere and real, and that he should not be judged now on the views he articulated then. However, social media and the press are often much less forgiving, and there will doubtless be plenty of people saying he's only sorry because he was caught out.

Now I don't know Mr O'Mara or his innermost attitudes and feelings, but his predicament asks us all some interesting questions. I have no doubt that no-one reading this post would like every view they have ever articulated to be replayed. I am sure we have all said or even written things which we would certainly regret, and which we would now disown. It's all too easy to join in the vilification of a public figure on Facebook or Twitter, but what if all of our own faults and foibles received the same scrutiny. It's always worth pausing for thought before being carried along with the crowd. 

The second question it poses for me is whether we ever really believe in change. What would be sufficient proof for me to believe that someone had indeed put their past behind them? If we are too naive in accepting someone's word about their change in character, that has the potential to be very damaging. This has been seen acutely in the way abuse allegations have been handled in church circles in the past. Once offenders have been dealt with by the law, there have to be safeguards in place to ensure that the risk of a repeat offence is minimised and everyone involved is protected.

On the other hand, we know from our own experience that we do indeed change in other respects, whereas the media (and especially social media) can be very unforgiving, particularly if the person under scrutiny holds the opposite view politically to those making the comments. 

All anyone can do to prove that change has really occurred is to be consistent and develop a track record of speaking and behaving in ways that demonstrate that. That may mean making certain decisions about the situations we place ourselves in, or the influences we expose ourselves to. In Christian circles, we call that repentance, which is turning round from walking one path, and walking a different way - the way of Jesus. We may sometimes be met with scepticism, cynicism or complete disbelief, but the possibility of change offers us all hope that our mistakes don't have to have the final say.