Friday, May 27, 2016

EU Referendum: Are we asking the right questions?

The public discussion around the forthcoming referendum has been pretty disappointing, noisy, full of hyperbole and, as Ian Hislop noted on a recent episode of Have I Got News For You, at times has degenerated into someone from each side saying the other is a bit like Hitler.

This referendum (and recent elections) have vented a lot of steam on which choice would mean we are 'better off'. That got me thinking about what a Christian analysis of that question might look like.

First of all, what do we mean by 'better off'? Do we mean that voting this way or that will result in personal financial gain? For me that is a very inadequate assessment of the value of a choice. At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I think most people would acknowledge there are are things in life worth more than money. What if a choice that left me with the same, or even less money, led to a fairer or more just society? What about human rights, freedom, the environment, personal well-being etc? From a faith-based point of view, focussing purely on material (and especially financial) satisfaction is a wholly inadequate account of human flourishing.

Even if we restrict the debate to finance, the question we are left with is who is going to be financially better off? Economists and politicians are on the air a lot debating the effects on economic growth in the short and long term of staying in vs. leaving the EU. History would suggest that if our economy suffers significant decline, it's likely to hit the poorest and most vulnerable. However, when the economy has grown, concern has grown about the widening gap between the least and most affluent, and that the economic benefits of growth have disproportionately gone to the wealthy. How does our discussion about 'better off' relate to a Christian understanding of concern for the poor.

Even if we can identify which voting choice will bring the most growth, will it enrich the lives of those who most need it? That will depend on our own government's domestic policies and priorities, and the people at the helm of the Conservative Party, and hence the government until 2020 may well be decided by the outcome of this vote (unless 2/3 of MPs vote to dissolve Parliament early).

And I am also concerned that the economic discussion seems to have been limited to the impact of choices and policy simply for the UK (or even England). What impact might the decision we are taking have on the wider world, especially the poorest in the developing world? Will remain or leave be the choice that opens up the best opportunities for the peoples of our world who most need them? Where do our global neighbours feature in the debate?

In Luke's gospel, at the start of his public ministry, Jesus is recorded as reading this in the synagogue:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Would it be too much to ask to have some thoughtful engagement with some of those issues? I fear I already know the answer.


Monday, May 23, 2016

The EU Referendum: Should I [vote] stay or should I go?

Dave, George, Nigel, Boris, Beaky, Mick and Titch. Ok I made up the last 3 for the sake of the joke. I wonder who you believe and which way you will vote? I'm going to vote to stay in the EU and play a positive part in shaping it into a fairer and more effective community of nations. However, it's not an easy question to settle, despite the simplistic slogans that abound on both sides.

We're being bombarded with exaggerated statistics and threats about migrants, threats to jobs, the cost of staying in, the cost of leaving. There's plenty of rhetoric about wanting our country back, some xenophobia and sadly not a little racism. Little short of civil war seems to be raging in the Conservative Party, and the referendum result will define the careers of a lot of Conservative politicians (and possibly others).

You can get some sanity. The BBC and Channel 4 news both have useful fact-checker sections that analyse the claims, and give a rather more balanced take on what might really happen. For example, the £18.8 billion we are supposed to be paying the EU turns out to be nearer £6bn when you take into account rebate, support for farming etc., and support for non-governmental organisations. You can see the Channel 4 analysis here.

The level of emotion the issue raises, particularly from those who advocate Brexit, is fascinating. I'm intrigued as to why it evokes such passion and even anger. It seems to touch a raw nationalist nerve. Of course, if the UK does remain, it could always consider leaving in the future; if we leave, it's almost certainly a final decision. That makes this vote one of the most important ones for decades.

The polls are rather inconclusive. There seems to be a narrow majority in favour of staying in the EU, but a lot of people are still saying they don't know. To muddy the waters further, younger voters are much more likely to vote to remain in the EU, but are less likely to vote at all.  Many younger people may not even be registered to vote, since changes were made in the way registration takes place. If you don't get a poll card soon, go to https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote You could change history!

Woven through the whole debate so far, is the internal conflict in the Conservative Party. There are, of course, Eurosceptics in other parties, but this issue has plagued the Tories for years. From my uninformed viewpoint, the vote looks like an attempt by the Prime Minister to deal with his party's Brexit advocates once and for all, and to secure the leadership succession for someone from his own perspective. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is clearly using his new-found zeal for the Brexit case to make his pitch to be a future leader, should the vote go his way.

Independence
The hippy in me rather likes the idea of everyone working together, and removing the things that separate us. That will already distance me from those who wave the flag more passionately than I do (unless it's football, when I share the despair of England fans everywhere). 'Britain needs to be free to make its own decisions', say the Brexit team. For them it would free from our shackles, and we would regain control of our national life and not be "ruled by Brussels".

It sounds rousing, but is it true? It invokes an idea of sovereignty that doesn't actually tally with reality. The UK is signed up to many international treaties, including the EU ones. Membership of the UN and NATO are obvious and large commitments, but there are many more. Treaties can either be honoured or ignored - that is our sovereign right as a nation. However, decisions on complying with a treaty or not can change the course of history. Who, in 1839, when signing the Treaty of London could have foreseen it would be the reason Britain would declare war on Germany in 1914? Treaties hold a nation accountable to other nations for their actions, and can have enormous consequences. So we are never completely independent, and in or out of the EU, the UK will still have to take into account all kinds of treaties and trade agreements and abide by their conditions.

Before the UK was in the EU, the Suez crisis showed that Britain was far from fully independent, even though it still had considerable military capability. The United States forced British and French withdrawal by using its economic power. Was the UK really that independent before it entered the EEC, and how realistic are the hopes of those who want us to leave now? Would we end up depending more heavily on other large economies, having to comply with their policies and wishes? Membership of the EU means the UK has a say in decisions and votes in its committees, councils and parliament. Leaving could leave us powerless to influence larger nations, economies or even corporations.

And why shouldn't our government participate in a community where we are mutually accountable? European nations which were once been dictatorships, are now stable democracies within the union. The notion of international law is often perceived in Britain as a way of civilising parts of the world that have suffered under dictatorships, and a way of bringing tyrants to account. But it works two ways, and there may come a time when that accountability protects our freedoms too.

Economics
The Brexit campaign makes a lot of the UK's contribution to the EU, which I referred to earlier. Whatever figure you go with, the debate really starts when you try and assess whether staying in is actually worth that contribution. The EU is a key trade partner for the UK, and vice versa. EU countries won't want to lose the UK as a market, but surely we have to assume there will be some loss of privileges for leaving the club. Some point to Norway as an example of a thriving non-EU country. Norway contributes in order to have EU market access, and has to abide by EU regulations to sell products. The UK would have to negotiate a deal, and if successful, pay the fee and follow the rules, with no say as to how they are formulated.

I doubt there would be immediate economic meltdown, and some of the George Osborne's predictions about Brexit need careful scrutiny. Many think the pound is likely to sink in value, at least initially, but other effects may take time. We do know that investment in the UK by large manufacturers, like Nissan, were encouraged by the fact that the UK was within the EU single market. Cars could be exported from the UK to mainland Europe, without facing the same barriers as vehicles from Japan. Nissan, Toyota, Honda, etc. won't shut the shop immediately, but decisions about future investments would have to take into account whether or not the UK was still in the EU, or at least in a trade agreement with good access to EU markets.

Of course, not all benefits of EU membership have been about trade figures. The EU took on Microsoft about anti-competitive practices, following complaints from competitors. It resulted in huge fines and a change of practice by Microsoft. When dealing with corporations that have turnovers larger than small countries, it sometimes needs an agency the size of the EU to be effective. Mobile roaming charges are another example of where the EU is changing the market.

In the end, if you really want 'out', you'll take the economic hit, and if you really want 'in', the membership fee will seem reasonable for the benefits received.

Democracy
People supporting Brexit are a diverse bunch. They range from some on the extreme right, such as Britain First and the EDL through to those on the left who follow in the footsteps of Tony Benn, who advocated leaving at the last referendum. The right play up patriotism and fear of the foreigner; the left tend to highlight the way that the EU can favour business interests over the democratic will of the people. For example, the Greek government weren't allowed to implement the policies that got them elected, due to the financial restraints imposed by the EU.

So what is the democratic accountability of the EU? Of course the answer is that it is complex. We elect MEPs, we appoint a share of officials, and our elected leaders participate in councils, conferences and negotiations. There is accountability, but it's not straightforward, and it's also not as clear as it would be in a genuine united states of Europe.

Having said that, our own elected government still passes the vast majority of legislation that affects us, and has a vote or veto on many issues. And, as I covered earlier under Independence, our nation is accountable to other nations (who we didn't elect) for all kinds of issues, from human rights to using CFCs in aerosols. And if the Greek situation concerns us, remember that the IMF would impose all kinds of economic restrictions on the UK, if crisis hit, as it did in 1976, forcing chancellor Healey to change the UK government's economic policy. Many would argue that staying in the EU makes such a crisis less likely, and as the UK is not part of the Eurozone, the European Central bank doesn't have the same power over the UK as it had over Greece.

Conclusion - stay in and play an active part.
We have to be honest and say that we can't know what the consequences of leaving will be. We can be a little more confident about what staying might involve, but even there it's uncertain. Attitudes are changing in Europe to migration, nationalism and more. However, the EU holds 28 nations with a history of conflict together in a unique community.

It is far from perfect, and many issues need to be addressed and resolved. We know that's possible - even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall can get policy changed (which is more than Nigel Farage managed in 14 years on the Fisheries Committee). I want my country to be in there, challenging and shaping it to be fair, just, and a community that not only benefits its members, but also the poorest parts of our world. Withdrawal would mean retreating into a more isolated way of understanding ourselves as a nation, take away our place at the table, and has the potential to threaten the livelihoods of us all.

Oh, and by the way, there aren't 26,911 words of EU regulations on the sale of cabbages. In fact, there aren't any.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Bereavement 4: The Mirror of Erised

If you are familiar with Harry Potter, you will know about the Mirror of Erised. Harry stumbles across this remarkable object, tucked away in a disused classroom, during his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical mirror doesn't show a person their reflection, but instead it gives a depiction of their heart's desire. There is an inscription across the top which states this - backwards, of course. "Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi."

When Harry looks into the mirror, to his surprise he sees himself with his parents, who had actually died when he was just a baby. Captivated by this image, he tries to show it to his friend, Ron, but Ron doesn't see the same thing at all. As Professor Dumbledore puts it when he finds Harry there: "It [the mirror] shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts". Harry spends a lot of time in front of the mirror, looking at alternative reality that can never be, and using it as the next best thing to having his parents actually back with him.

I was reminded of this the other day, as I was sorting through some stuff on the computer and looking at some old photographs. There were a couple of pictures of Debbie from before she was ill - one from a several years ago - which triggered all sorts of memories. After a while, I realised that I had been daydreaming for a little while in front of one of the pictures on my computer screen.  My imagination had taken me back to the scene where the photo was taken, and just for a moment I was enjoying the happy moment the photo captured, as if I was there.

Reality returned with a jolt, with the realisation that I was sitting in my study on my own, and whilst it was a happy memory, I couldn't actually go back there. So I understand the draw for Harry to the mirror. In his case, it was to dwell in a scene which could never be - sharing time with his parents as an older child. For me, it would be to travel back into the past to be with Debbie, fit and well.

But tempting though this is, it is also potentially destructive. You can't stay there in front of the mirror for ever, as it disconnects you from reality. Dumbledore says to Harry that "men have wasted away before it [the Mirror], entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible." Looking through old pictures with friends and family is fine from time to time, to tell stories and remember, but as Dumbledore concludes "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. Remember that."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Bereavement 3: The Parable of the Swiss Army Knife

What does bereavement feel like to go through? Not a question you can usually ask someone in the thick of it, so I've been asking myself that question. Blogging about loss is actually proving quite therpeutic for me, and it seems to have made some connections for other people, so I've decided to continue.

If you want some theory, you could read about K├╝bler-Ross's 5 stages of grief, which can be a helpful insight from a psychiatric viewpoint. It can help to explain  lot of confusing and sometimes disturbing feelings that people go through. But not everyone fits the pattern. Humans are all different, and we don't tend to comply with tightly drawn up models in all circumstances.

Instead, I'm going to give you a little story that resonates with what I have been feeling. I've drawn on my own recent experience of bereavement and also what I have observed in others for the longer term effects. I've decided to call it the Parable of the Swiss Army Knife.



I still have my original Swiss Army knife. It's a Huntsman, which is mid-range - two blades, a screwdriver, a can opener, a saw, a bottle opener, a cork screw and that pointy thing which is a mystery, but I used to create starting holes for wood screws. After a long career in camping / DIY and serving drinks, it's lost its shine, but all the sections are still functional. When I first got it, the main blade was fabulously sharp, and sure enough I was so taken by surprise by its edge that soon I slit my thumb being careless cutting something with it.

If you've ever cut yourself on anything really sharp, you'll know the experience. You know it's sharp, but you have no real sense of what such a blade can do to you. Initially you feel nothing - no pain and if the blade is sharp enough, you don't even feel the cut occur. I remember looking at my bleeding thumb with initial disbelief. How did that happen?  Then you realise  you need to do something about it, and perhaps even get some assistance. As you start to clean the cut and get the slit held together with a dressing, that's when it starts to sting. Sometimes the sting is quite acute, especially if antiseptic has been used to prevent infection.

Once everything is contained, there's a dull ache, and sometimes a throbbing sensation. You have to be careful what pressure you put the wound under, as it can make it sting quite badly again, or even re-open the cut. You have to protect it from acquiring an infection and turning into something nastier. Eventually, it's safe to be exposed again, albeit with a slightly ragged edge, where some skin has died at the edge of the original cut. I seem to remember those edges peeling and flaking for a while afterwards. Once it had all healed up, I didn't have a visible scar from that particular cut, but it was certainly more sensitive for a while as things knit back together under the surface. However, I can still remember where it happened over 40 years later.




Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Bereavement 2: No Unfinished Business

When Debbie went into Saint John's Hospice, she was visited by some friends, but we inevitably had to limit the number and frequency of visits. Her energy was limited, and talking and communication took quite a lot of effort. That being the case, I wanted to ensure that if there was anyone Debs specifically wanted to see, we got it arranged asap. So I asked her if there was anyone she wanted me to get in contact with. "No-one", she said, "No unfinished business. Tell them I love them all." It was such a great line that I quoted it in the address I gave at her funeral.

During the days afterwards, I've begun to realise what a blessing she gave us being able to say that. At an earlier stage,  I recall her saying to me that she didn't think that there was anything significant she felt we needed to talk about, as we had already spent a lot of time discussing the bigger issues - illness, hopes, fears, changes in expectations, and the prospect of her dying. It mean that if the end came suddenly, we wouldn't feel cut off with so much left unsaid or undone.

Likewise, I know Debs got in touch with a lot of people - sometimes people she hadn't had a lot of contact with for a while. She was doing a lot of email and Facebook messaging in that period. Although I haven't read those conversations, I know she derived a lot of pleasure from being in touch with people, and in some cases renewing relationships. By being so pro-active, she actually reduced the likelihood of any of us having any significant sense of regret.

However, over the years in the ministry, I have seen a lot of bereaved people with regrets. Guilt is a common feeling at a time of loss. When I take funerals, I try and find a way of acknowledging that unfinished business, as regret and guilt are normal and familiar parts of the experience of bereavement. So often people say "if only we'd had a bit more time to..." It's very important to reassure people - after all in many cases the person who has died probably wouldn't have been worried. This is especially so when someone dies suddenly. Not everyone has the opportunity to do what Debbie did, and people can be left with no opportunity to tie up loose ends, clear the air, write the letter or pay the visit.

The way things worked out for us was actually quite remarkable. After her diagnosis, we got through a whole set of significant family milestones in 2015 - a wedding, family birthdays (18th 21st and 80th), a holiday, Fleetwood Mac - a concert we had been looking forward to for months, Christmas etc. We even managed a few extras in 2016, ending with a fantastic living room gig by the lovely Yvonne Lyon. When Debbie was first ill, we weren't sure we'd get very far down that list, so we took it a step at a time, trying to make the most of the undefined amount of time we had.

Obviously if we could have extended that period of reasonable health for Debbie longer, we would have done. It's not difficult to write a list of things we had hoped for together, which we had to let go of - ideas about a nice holiday for our silver wedding and early dreams about retirement had to go. But having had such bad news at the start of 2015, it felt like we had had enough time together to feel some sense of completion. We at least finished a chapter, even if the story ended prematurely.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Bereavement 1: Marking the Journey

As I said a while ago in a previous post, I've had mixed feelings over blogging about being alongside someone with cancer and now the experience of bereavement. Debbie's blog was very much about her story, and I didn't feel I had a lot to add in those weeks. However, since Debbie died I've been wanting to get a few ideas and feelings logged somewhere, so I'm going to post a few reflections. I have dealt with hundreds of bereaved people, but inevitably you are always at a distance. Writing about it first-hand is a very different project.

I'm very conscious that posts like this could become quite self-indulgent, and it's true that it will help me to clarify my own mind and get things out of my system. However, I'm also aware that my familiarity with funerals and other people's bereavements gives me a perspective that could be helpful to others. So, I hope these next posts help some people; if they don't, that's absolutely fine. I'll blog about football or something before too long!

A couple of days ago on the the BBC Today programme, there was a discussion about how many people die in hospital, when this was probably not the outcome that they or their relatives would have wanted. In a new book, Dr Seamus O'Mahony argued that many of those who die in hospital do so over-medicalised and without having made any kind of advance care plan. Obviously there will always be people who die in hospital, due to acute or sudden injury or illness, but many of us don't realise there are choices we can make. The key issue is getting people talking about it, because doing so brings out so many of our fears.

At a very early stage in the diagnosis of Debbie's cancer, we knew, at the very least, that her life was in grave danger and the possibility of curative treatment was, as she put it, a fragile hope. Not only did Debs blog about those issues, but she also did a lot to help us to anticipate what her dying would mean for us, and how we might all best prepare for it. Initially she wrote poems and letters for people, wrote an initial draft of her funeral (more about this in a future post) and talked very openly about letting go of some of her hopes for the future. Paradoxically as she did that, it seemed clear to me that she became more and more content and appreciative of what she had experienced in the past and the life she was enjoying in the present.

Having had some involvement at our local hospice as a minister, Debbie knew a little about it. It always struck us as a place which was peaceful, caring, and concerned with the whole person and their family. So we asked questions about what resources the hospice could offer, and how people came to be referred there. If, as seemed likely, her illness was terminal, then we both wanted to avoid the latter part of Debbie's life to be dominated by an endless round of interventions, and Debs was also clear she had no desire to die at home, especially if that meant our home would be a constant flow of nurses and visitors and our bedroom would look like a hospital ward. If possible, we agreed the hospice would be the best place for that final care of both her and us - and so it proved to be. Further down the line, Debbie completed a document where she explained her choices.

The critical issue is to get the conversation started. This coming week is the 2016 Awareness Week for the Dying Matters coalition, titled The Big Conversation. It's to encourage us all to start talking, whether there is a pressing reason to or not.


There are also other resources to get the conversation going, such as the Church of England resource Gravetalk, and a local initiative called My Last Orders.

Of course, you don't need any of those to talk about death and dying, but they can help to break the ice and get the conversation started. Whatever route you take, I can vouch for the fact that talking things through in advance is hugely worthwhile. Some people die suddenly, leaving relatives wondering what their loved one wanted; others reach a point in their illness where they can no longer communicate their wishes to those they will leave behind. Our experience was that talking it all through at an early stage meant there were no major questions left unresolved for us. We knew what Debbie wanted and felt, so we could work with her to achieve that, insofar as it was possible. What's more, we could get on with getting the most out of the time we had left. In the event, everything worked out according to her wishes, and that makes a big difference to how we are all feeling now.

So start the conversation. As the poster says, talking about dying won't make it happen.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Information about Debbie's funeral

Here is a bit more information for Debbie’s funeral tomorrow at 1pm
If you’re not familiar with the location, the church is on Church Street, Morecambe. Parking is limited, and we need to ensure there is space for the funeral cars, so the primary school playground next door will be open for parking, there is a pay and display car park on Matthias Street by the Town Hall, and also on-street parking in nearby roads.
Church will be open from 12 Noon, with music playing chosen by Debbie. We expect a lot of people, so there will be a video relay across in the War Memorial Hall . Please don’t worry about bringing children - Debbie would want them to know they are welcome. If you are worried about how they might cope with being in the service, you can always take them to the hall instead and follow things from there.
Tea, coffee and cake will be served over in the hall after the service finishes for those who don’t wish to attend the committal. Please note the journey to Dalton woodland burial ground takes about 25 mins, so we will be a while before we return to join in.
You are welcome to come to Dalton, but please bear in mind that parking is limited. If you are driving there, please try and make sure you take a full car, as that will help the pressure on space. The weather is currently good, so we don’t anticipate it being muddy. Even if it stays dry, do make sure your shoes can cope with the ground being uneven. If it rains, we’ll need something waterproof on our feet.
Whether or you can stay on after the service or not, please don't leave before signing one of our special memory books over in the Memorial Hall. We would really like to have a record of everyone who attended. Just writing your name is fine, but feel free to add anything else (or even draw something!) If you’re bringing children, please make sure you have a few crayons or felt tips for them to join in.
You can make a donation on the day, which will be split between St John’s Hospice and Messy Church. We will also be setting up something on Justgiving soon.

Update: Click here for information about donating and downloading a song Debs wrote.

Thank you for all the cards and greetings. We can’t hope to respond to them all, but we have read them and they are appreciated.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Debbie

Debbie, September 1992


I am sorry to have to let you know that Debbie died at St John’s Hospice on Wed 13 April at around 5.50pm. She had not been conscious for a couple of days, and spent the day sleeping, calm and in no discomfort or pain. I was there with Jono, Ellie and Amy when the end came, and it was very peaceful.

The Hospice was where Debbie wanted to be for this stage of her illness, and we are glad that was able to be the case. We are very grateful to all the staff who have made her stay so comfortable, and who have been so hospitable to us.

Debbie's funeral will take place at Morecambe Parish Church, Church Street, Morecambe at 1pm on Friday April 22, followed by burial at Dalton Woodland Burial Ground. Please don't feel obliged to wear black - wear whatever you think appropriately reflects your relationship with Debbie, and what she means to you.

As you would expect, the service was planned by Debbie in advance and has features that very much speak of her. One of them is that Debbie wanted to invite everyone to bring a natural flower to the service - there will be a point where they will be gathered during the service. There's no need to bring a big bunch, and please don't worry about it - we’ll have flowers available for anyone who hasn’t got one.

Everyone is welcome to come to the burial ground for the final part of the service. It is a just short walk from the parking area to the location of the burial. The main path is quite firm, but please bear in mind that some of the ground might be soft going, so have some appropriate footwear with you.

There will be an opportunity to make an financial offering on the day and the money will be divided equally between St John’s Hospice and the work of the national Messy Church team. Anyone not able to come can send a donation for Debbie to the Funeral Directors, Alex Willis Funeral Home, 2 Middleton Road, Heysham, Lancashire LA3 2QD

Thank you for accompanying us on this journey.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Don Humphries RIP

It was very sad to learn of Don's death this week. As I look back over the time I have been in some kind of Christian ministry (as a lay assistant, then in training, then ordained for 25 years) his influence is probably the most significant. This isn't an attempt at a comprehensive obituary - it's about the person I knew.

Don at a Holy Trinity, Cambridge Church picnic around 1986/7


The first time I heard of Don was at our church youth group. The Sunday night meetings always ended with a time of open prayer, and some of the group members earnestly prayed for him for a few weeks. It turned out that he had had pancreatitis and major surgery. In 1978 I met him for the first time, when I went as a teenager on of the CYFA holidays [aka houseparties or ventures] that he ran. Based in a boarding school in Clevedon, hired during the holiday, it was a lot of fun, games, getting to know people, as well as talks and worship. I liked it so much I kept going - at different venues during summers and new year reunions. Eventually I ended up on the leadership team, and worked for Don from 1985-7, when he was at Holy Trinity, Cambridge. Part of my job was promoting ventures and organising them.

Looking back, Don was a fascinating character. He was full of seeming contradictions, yet when you got to know him, it all made a kind of sense. He could be quite a control freak, yet was willing to trust relative novices with big responsibilities. He could be dogmatic, yet had a team who represented a broad range of views and always warned against simplistic responses to complex questions. He wasn't beyond a sexist comment, yet became an early evangelical champion for women's ministry in the church, when it wasn't commonplace to do so. He was very open to the charismatic movement, yet never one for hype or pushing people to expect or have experiences of a particular kind. He could be quite intimidating, and some people were scared of him, yet he shared his vulnerabilities and had an openness unusual in strong leaders. It created a deep sense of loyalty, and the venture team have always felt like an extended family for many of us.

Don had more than his fair share of suffering - as well as the pancreatitis, I mentioned earlier, he lost a son, Thomas, at only a few weeks old. It happened during a venture holiday, and none of us who were there could forget it. Don and Zoe even came and spoke to help us understand what was going on. Later Don developed Parkinson's disease, which for a number of years didn't seem to diminish his enthusiasm for ministry. After he offered, I invited him to speak at the church where I was based in Coventry in the mid 90s for a special Harvest weekend. He also acted as a mentor for me for the time I was there, asking good questions and offering wise advice.

Latterly we were less in touch, but I got to his marriage to Sarah, and as Steve Tilley has also recalled, he memorably cut the cake with shaking hand he said "there may be casualties" - typical humour. I kept sending him a card and news at Christmas. He didn't always manage one back, but I know all of us who had grown up with his ministry were in his thoughts and prayers.

Would I be a Christian without Don's ministry? Probably - I already was when I met him, but his encouragement was key to me seeing faith as more than attending or 'consuming' what other people produced, and seeing it as something to inform, challenge and tranform you life. Would I have had confidence to take responsibility, do things up front and eventually move into ministry? Probably not. Don inspired, challenged, critiqued and supported many of us on that journey. For some it was to ordained ministry, but to others it was to being missionaries, youth workers, and perhaps most importantly to being Christians getting stuck in at their churches and in their communities.

Don's illness meant that he didn't have the career he might have expected, but his influence on the church may well be greater than some who achieved higher office. Those of us who knew and loved him will always have a deep sense of gratitude to all he gave us.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Matter of Life and Death

A lot of friends and acquaintances will know that Debbie has been blogging since her diagnosis with cancer back in February. If you've read one of her most recent posts you'll know that we are now in a phase where containing the progress of her illness is probably the most we can hope for.

During this time, I was asked whether I was going to blog about it from the point of view of someone close to a person with cancer. I'm not quite sure what has held me back from doing so until now - perhaps not feeling it's 'my' story, not wanting to appear to wallow in things, or simply not knowing what to say. However, as our family has gone on this unexpected and unwelcome journey with cancer, I have been aware of a few recurring themes, so I thought I'd have a try at putting some of them into words in a few posts. This first try isn't a carefully thought out article - it's just what's bubbling in my mind at the moment.

We are in a strange phase now, not having any real idea of how long we may have, but a sense that this indeterminate period of time has an end point. Debbie has been physically constrained by her illness, but is very much here and with us - in and around the house, sharing meals, conversation, laughter, watching TV, writing and blogging and in many ways being her usual self. So we have a kind of double track going on - valuing the present, and also making sensible preparations for what is to come. Debs and I were only talking yesterday about how disconcerting, but necessary, it is for me to think myself into a future without her, even when she's in front of me and talking to me. Yet even as I write that down, it's quite hard to believe it's me typing it.

Since Debbie's current condition was confirmed, I have realised how weird it is to be a clergyperson. For 25 years I've been spending time with people who have been seriously and terminally ill, I've been with them close to and at the time of death, I've been with next of kin when they've heard of diagnoses and bereavements, I've prepared and taken hundreds of funerals and helped people find bereavement support. Does that make any difference? I guess it's a classic 'yes and no' response. Bereavement won't be any easier for me emotionally, than it would be for anyone else, but it will, at least, be familiar territory.

My experience is that for most people, conversation about death or dying is completely alien. I meet adults who have rarely, if ever, gone to a funeral or seen someone who has died. Many were prevented from attending funerals as children, and carry 'baggage' from that with them into their adult experience. It's fairly unusual to meet someone who has a clear and full idea of everything that's involved around the death of someone. And, of course, most people want to stay in denial that someone might die, until the issue is forced upon them by necessity. I have witnessed, and have felt, the great temptation for people to cling on to any hint of an upturn in someone's condition as the sign of a major recovery. Under those circumstances, any discussion of the subject of dying tends to be suppressed, as if talking about it will make it more likely.

If I was going to offer any advice out of my experience, it would be to encourage people to start talking about death and dying - what you hope for and what you fear, how you'd like to be remembered, and even some first thoughts on what sort of ceremony you would hope for. Do this before it's too late, and preferably when you have some time to think, read, research and discuss. I'm glad we have had some time to do this - it means we can go forward into whatever the coming time may hold, with some key decisions made, knowing it will be easier for those of us who are left. Crucially we'll know that one of the most important events in our life with each other was not a taboo that held us in fear, but a daunting challenge that we prepared for together.

In case any of that has helped, here's a couple of useful resources and links that might help to get you started:

Church of England Funerals Site Lots of information about ceremonies and practicalities.

November is Will Aid month, so it's a good time to get one written/updated and support some great charities in the process.