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.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Politics has gone strange

This week has witnessed some strange goings-on in British politics. Brexit is, of course, dominating the political agenda for the UK government. Rivalries, splits and dissatisfaction have come out into the open and the Prime Minister seems to have held on to her job primarily because no-one really wants to contemplate the alternative.

For the first time that I can remember, supporters of Brexit on the right of politics started openly talking about the need for government spending to increase to prepare for a possible hard Brexit or even no deal. This was noteworthy for two reasons:

(a) Brexit was portrayed by its advocates as financially beneficial to the UK during the referendum and its aftermath. We know the £350 million per week was bogus, but there has been a continued narrative that Brexit would be good for Britain. However, it was already starting to look costly, as the devaluation of the pound had its impact on the costs of procurement for the NHS and the MoD. Now there is an admission that it will cost.

(b) Those on the political right are not usually very keen on increasing public spending. Indeed they are usually looking for cuts in spending to fund tax cuts. But in this case, even people like John Redwood were ready to spend big, and complaining that Hammond wasn't.

Meanwhile the Chancellor of the Exchequer was sticking to the cautious Treasury financial forecasts and stated his reluctance to spend on resources that shouldn't be necessary, were a tariff-free deal successfully negotiated.

This had a remarkable effect. The right-wing Brexit supporting tabloid press and the right of the Conservative party openly criticised their own Chancellor of the Exchequer for not being prepared to spend more public money. This was fuelled, of course, by the fact the Hammond was a strong supporter of remaining in the EU in the referendum, and they suspect he's still wanting to be a saboteur. For those of us who are not Conservatives, it's a bewildering and extraordinary spectacle.

It's obviously left Mr Hammond somewhat rattled. He's reported today as referring to EU negotiators as "the enemy", but later tweeted that it was a poor choice of words and was much more conciliatory.

None of this has been very edifying, and the clock continues to tick towards March 2019. As I have openly said all along, I would much prefer that we stayed in the EU, and that is what I would vote for again, given the opportunity. However, if we must leave, then chaos helps no-one. The poorest and most vulnerable members of our society need the best deal we can get in the circumstances, for they will pay the price if it all goes badly wrong. The signs are not promising. I hope I'm mistaken.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Cropredy 2017 Review: Day 2

Life crowded in, and I'm not a completer-finisher, but here's the next instalment.

There was a chance of rain over the festival, and Friday saw a bit of very fine drizzle for a time. Luckily the ground remained firm, and things dried up before we all became wet and discouraged. I think it's probably fair to say that this day saw the most varied programme on the stage of the three days. Let me explain.

To its credit, Cropredy gives a slot to the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award Winners, and this year they were Josie Duncan and Pablo Lafuente. Beautifully performed songs, they have rightly made an impact on the folk scene. Josie comes from the Isle of Lewis, and Pablo is a "young guitarist and fiddler from Spain via Stirling". Well worth checking out.

I can't quite remember when the gentle hazy drizzle started, but I suspect it reduced my enthusiasm to engage with the next two acts. Gerry Colvin was up first. A singer from Barrow with his band, with a career going back to the 70s. I've rarely seen a performer so excited to be performing, and especially to get a reaction from the audience. I didn't know much about him before the festival, but it's quite a CV on the website.

From the top of the arena field, once the weather improved.
Next on were Quill - folky rock with its roots in the Midlands, driven by lead singer Joy Strachan Brain, and a band that has been going since the 70s. Cropredy always has excellent musicians, and there's no doubt that Quill are, but they just didn't quite capture my attention like some acts. However, it could have been the weather...

Gigspanner followed, led by Peter Knight - perhaps best know for being part of Steeleye Span. They were a band who definitely fall into the folk category, but whose music has influences from further afield. Again terrific musicianship from a very experienced musician and his band took us up to just before 5pm.

CC Smugglers were up next. The lead singer was so excited he got a bit shouty between numbers, but great energy and fun to watch. They have also played Greenbelt, so they're obviously in demand for festivals. What genre? Well here's the description: "Listen to CC Smugglers and you’ll hear the ghosts of American folk music, swing, jazz, country, ragtime and bluegrass. Listen more closely and you’ll hear contemporary touchstones such as hip hop, metal, dubstep, house and dancehall. Nothing is off limits for this outfit." Now you know.

One of the highlights of my first Cropredy in 2016 was the Pierce Brothers making their debut. Two lads from Australia, who had been touring small venues in Europe turned up, having just played a bar in Belgium. "Which stage are we on?" they apparently asked, expecting a small side venue. It was explained to them there was only one stage, and it clearly blew them away to have such an opportunity. They went down so well they got an invitation to come back this year, and they were great. Humour, energy, and still really excited to be there at all.

A lovely touch was when they told the story that their sister required medical treatment that wasn't covered by insurance. When they crowdfunded for her, Cropredy goers chipped in and helped, which showed the connection they had made.

The contrast with the next act couldn't be greater. At the tender age of 84, Petula Clark was playing her first ever festival. It was a strange choice of artist. Let's be clear - she can certainly still perform, and has an incredible CV and a remarkable set of recollections and stories. And I remember as a small child her hits like Downtown being on the radio. They were all in a very polished set, but it did seem a bit out of character with the rest of the line-up. Still, there were plenty of people singing along.

Although Petula Clark was probably technically the headline act for Friday, Richard Thompson followed her. An original Fairporter and a great musician in his own right. Personally I preferred his acoustic set, which treated us to a number of favourites including this - Vincent Black Lightning 1952.

This was the third time I have seen him live, and I am always fascinated by his acoustic guitar technique. As a friend put it - he is a musician's musician. I'm not quite so keen on his electric material, but there is no doubting his legendary status and musicianship. A good way to finish Friday.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Cropredy 2017 Review: Day 1

This was my second visit to the legendary Cropredy festival, and I'm running the serious risk of being labelled a folkie. My only answer to that is that the line-up of 2016 and 2017 have been much more diverse than the reputation might suggest. As we approached and saw people walking through the village, we recalled my friend Bob's comment last year that "some of them don't even try to look like muggles." We were again lucky enough to have Bob and Ann's home to stay in and commute, as they live nearby, and are brilliant hosts.

It's a gentler festival - one stage, everyone is friendly (and quite a few - but not all - are a bit older). The arena field slopes gently down, and most people bring chairs, cold boxes of drink and food and we get to know each other between sets. I even sat near someone who I knew from over 20 years ago when I was his curate!

Fairport always start and finish the gig - playing an acoustic set at the beginning of the programme. This was the current line-up, all of whom are great musicians and honour the Fairport sound. The first day was quite a mixed bag in itself. Feast of Fiddles includes members of Fairport, Steeleye Span, Show of Hands and more. All great musicians and an enjoyable set, but perhaps not my top pick for genre.

Dogs are also welcome. These two were near us - complete with trolley

Phil Beer had a busy afternoon, as he reappeared alongside Steve Knightley and Miranda Sykes with Show of Hands. For me, this was a great set - superb musicianship, with challenging songs that have a conscience. Catch them on their tour of cathedrals this autumn.

I didn't know what to expect of the Trevor Horn Band. Lol Creme from 10cc had joined him, alongside some great younger musicians and vocalists. We were treated to a live set of songs that he had produced or been involved with performing, along with a couple of 10cc hits. We had the full range - Kiss From A Rose, Video Killed the Radio Star, 3 Frankie Goes to Hollywood hits, Cry, Owner of a Lonely Heart (vocals: Matt Cardle) and he even managed to find someone to sing Slave to the Rhythm. Plus we got Rubber Bullets and I'm Not in Love. The production of the original records was really important in most cases, and yet the band managed tight, complex arrangements without the need of backing tracks. Probably the set of the day.

Following that was always going to be a tough one, and the lot fell to the Divine Comedy. Somewhere I have a CD of Fin de Si├Ęcle, featuring the hit single National Express. However, I have to confess we slipped away after a few songs - at that stage in the day I think we needed something more engaging. In fact if the order had been reversed, I think Trevor Horn would have held the audience much better. But it was a good day, and we got a slightly earlier night than we expected.