Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Conservative Party at Prayer

Strange, I'd always assumed it was the Conservative party which would be destroyed by the EU referendum, not Labour (update: though Michael Gove might still manage that). There's still time, but there's also something very interesting about the line-up of potential candidates. 80% of them anyway:

Liam Fox: "a society that actually aborts 180,000 unborn children every year is a society that needs to be asking a lot of questions about itself. For me it's a simple personal belief. It says, "thou shall not kill", it doesn't say, thou shall not kill unless Parliament says it's OK. For the same reason I'm against the death penalty. However, I do accept...that if the majority of the population decide that it's something they find acceptable, I've got to live with that. But I'm not going to be quiet and I'm not going to pretend that my views are other than they are for the sake of political convenience."

Stephen Crabb: "There's something unattractive about politicians who wave a flag called faith, but at a personal level it's important for me. The Old Testament talks about 'widows and orphans' - shorthand for the poor and vulnerable.

"Not a bad guiding star for social policy. Jesus Christ oozed compassion."
elsewhere, wisely but sadly: Warning of a "creeping intolerance" towards Christianity and religion, the Conservative Cabinet minister said "hard-edged secularism" had created "an enormous chilling effect" in workplaces that prevented people talking openly about their beliefs.
"I have never found it easy as a politician to talk about my faith," he said. "In an age where every word is watched for something that can be construed as a gaffe, off-message or representing some bigoted or irrational attitude, it is a topic which many of us steer clear of.
"It kind of makes life simpler."

Teresa MayYou don’t think about it at the time, but there are certain responsibilities that come with being the vicar’s daughter,” Mrs May admits. “You’re supposed to behave in a particular way.” She was always tall and walked with stooped shoulders because she was self-conscious. She was quite a swot at school. “I shouldn’t say it, but I probably was Goody Two Shoes.”
She was brought up listening to Test matches on the wireless with her father. Her pin-up was – I kid you not – one Geoffrey Boycott. “I have been a Geoff Boycott fan all my life,” she admits, laughing. “It was just that he kind of solidly got on with what he was doing.” ....
The Mays have no children, one of those “ultra-intrusive subjects” on which she has been silent until now. “It just didn’t happen,” she says quietly. “This isn’t something I generally go into, but things just turned out as they did.” She admits to a sense of loss. “You look at families all the time and you see there is something there that you don’t have.” As a strong Christian, she believes in making the best of the hand you are dealt. 

Boris JohnsonBoris Johnson has said it would be "pretentious" to suggest that he is a "serious practicing Christian" even though he "thinks about religion a lot".
Mr Johnson, who is tipped as a future leader of the Conservative Party, has previously compared his faith to the radio reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns (a metaphor which Cameron later borrowed).

Nicky Morgan "I've always been a Christian, but I suppose I particularly renewed my faith about ten years ago, shortly after being selected in Loughborough."The Church there was so active, that it made me realise just how much the churches contribute to community life, and that was something that I appreciated. So that was the moment for me to not just be a quiet Christian, but to step up and to say publicly that I was a Christian involved in politics," 
Tim Farron should call a prayer meeting. I'm serious.

Update: the danger of posting any politics story at the moment is that it can go out of date very quickly. Michael Gove "It's because I am a Conservative I believe in the rule of law as the foundation stone of our civilisation. It's because I'm a Conservative I believe that evil must be punished. But it's also because I'm a Conservative and a Christian that I believe in redemption. (source). The National Secular Society aren't going to know who to brief against first...

Update 2: Andrea Leadsom: "I always try to ensure that I'm doing what I think God would want me to... I try and keep in mind that God's there and guiding my hand and helping me...I try to keep my beliefs and my faith through the work I'm doing." from Christians in Parliament interview.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

And now the good news

In a beautiful demonstration of hospitality, Justin Welby hosted an 'iftar' (meal for breaking the Ramadan fast) at Lambeth Palace, with Sadiq Khan and the Chief Rabbi.

After 50 years there is a ceasefire in the Colombian civil war

After 6 years of hostility, Turkey and Israel have restored diplomatic relations, in a deal which includes Turkey building a new hospital and power plant in Gaza

Coldplay were awesome

The Dead Sea is an amazing place

Tennis, Cricket, Rugby, Cycling, the Olympics, there's plenty of sports we're pretty good at.

Islamic State is losing

The Belarussian sense of humour.

We apologise for this interruption to the usual narrative, normal service will be resumed shortly...

Sunday, June 26, 2016

What next?

Still processing the referendum result, and not quite sure what to make of it. It's clear there's a massive trust deficit in the UK: politicians, economists, business leaders, bishops, unions etc. all queuing up to back Remain, and we voted the other way. Both sides appealed to selfishness and the rhetoric got more divisive as the campaign went on, amplified by the media (which prefers conflict to harmony). Social media and politics is now filled with blame and recrimination, with Corbyn now in trouble as well.

"I urge then first of all that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Tim 2:1-2) The kingdom of God has a better future than the United Kingdom or the EU. 'Do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it' says Isaiah. 

We need to pray, we need to get stuck into the debate about what sort of nation we are, we need to be positive, and we need to resist blame and divisiveness. If we don't understand why someone voted the way they did, perhaps we should listen to them rather than blame them. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Queen Reacts to Brexit

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year : EU
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

these words were reportedly given by the Queen to her dad for the famous radio broadcast at the start of World War 2. They seem appropriate. The Hand of God is the best guide into an unknown future. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Archbishops statement on the Referendum result

"...The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.
As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.
The referendum campaign has been vigorous and at times has caused hurt to those on one side or the other. We must therefore act with humility and courage - being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation. Unity, hope and generosity will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen, and to emerge confident and successful. The opportunities and challenges that face us as a nation and as global citizens are too significant for us to settle for less.
As those who hope and trust in the living God, let us pray for all our leaders, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron in his remaining months in office. We also pray for leaders across Europe, and around the world, as they face this dramatic change. Let us pray especially that we may go forward to build a good United Kingdom that, though relating to the rest of Europe in a new way will play its part amongst the nations in the pursuit of the common good throughout the world."
full text here
I'm disappointed at the result, but in the long run our fullest prosperity depends not on our relationship with the EU, but on our relationship with the Kingdom of God. I pray that the referendum is a discussion-starter, not a last word, on what kind of nation we want to be, and on what our vocation is to our own citizens, and to the world.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Overthrowing the North Korean government by prayer

Kenneth Bae is an American missionary to North Korea and organises groups of people visiting North Korea to pray: "they took it as a great threat, they said that I was trying to overthrow the government by prayer and worship." He was arrested and sentenced to 15 years hard labour.

He was on 5 live's afternoon edition yesterday, follow this link from 1 hour 10 minutes in.  Bae has just published a book on his experiences. "We had a lot of conversation (with the guards in the labour camp).. they started wondering about why I believe, once they said 'you are the prisoner, we are the guard, why do you seem happier than us, where does your joy and hope come from?.... you are a very strange kind of prisoner, you are always singing, always praying.' "

Well worth a listen, grim insight into a very dark place.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thought for the Day

"A big stone can cause waves, but even the smallest pebble changes the whole pattern of the water. Our daily actions are like those ripples, each one makes a difference, even the smallest.

It does matter therefore what each individual does each day. Kindness, sympathy, resolution and courteous behaviour are infections. Acts of courage adn self-sacrifice, like those of the people who refuse to be terrorised by kidnappers or hijackers, or who defuse bombs, are an inspiration to others.

And the combined effect can be enormous. If enough grains of sand are dropped into one isde of a pair of scales they will, in the end, tip it against a lump of lead. We may feel powerless alone but the joint efforts of individuals can defeat the evils of our time. Together they can create a stable, free and considerate society."

(The Queen, 1975).

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

EU thoughts

In no particular order

1. Some Christians  (update: now including the Archbishop of York) have made it quite clear which way they're going to vote, and which way they think our faith points. Others have said something different, and possibly more helpful:  I do believe that the pastor's job in any civilised democracy is to encourage a thoughtful, prayerful, political engagement by outlining the pertinent questions biblically without answering them in any publicly partisan way. The CofE's published prayer on the EU referendum drew ire from both sides by not praying explicitly for Brexit or Bremain, which probably means it was ok. 

2. Less of the spurious Bible studies please. I remember listening to a cassette (those were the days) of a serious scottish 'prophet' outlining how various bits of the Bible mapped onto contemporary politics. The cassette was recorded in the 1980s, and most of the contents are laughable. Even the notorious Rapture Ready website has binned its 'Rapture Index', which plotted the % likelihood of the return of Jesus based on things like the price of oil. So, for example:

The Protestant Truth society give us 5 reasons to leave the EU. Only one of the reasons has any Biblical or theological grounding, based on 1 verse (Acts 17:26, that God has set 'the boundaries of their dwellings'), which is used to endorse national boundaries and sovereignty. The verse is part of St. Pauls evangelistic sermon to the Areopagus in Athens. It dates from a time when the Roman Empire guaranteed the free movement of people around the Mediterranean, thus making Paul's missionary journeys possible. With border checks, he may never have got into Athens in the first place.

To quote Derek Tidball "some people use the Bible as a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than illumination." 

3. What is God doing? What do we make of the stories of Muslim conversions on the EU mainland? Having just finished 'God's Smuggler', by Brother Andrew, the opening of the borders of former Warsaw Pact countries is a major answer to prayer. Refugees are pouring into Europe from countries where the West has pursued war (Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan), and former colonies which we exploited and then walked away from. Maybe hospitality to those refugees is one way to repay our debt. Many Muslims are now in places where, for the first time, they can read the Bible or turn to Christ without risking a beating, imprisonment or 'honour' killing. 

4. The debate has mostly been about economics, and what we will gain or lose. Christians need to resist that kind of reductionism. For example  the EU 'free movement of people' treats citizens primarilky as economic units who can go where they like to work/retire, rather than people in community who have family, relationships, responsibilities and culture. The former undermines the latter. At the same time, appealing only to how much we would gain or lose financially sells voters short, and treats us as greedy consumers interested only in making money, rather than humans, citizens, neighbours and adults. So what if my house price goes down? What did I ever do to make it go up in the first place?

5. The Bible points towards a future where people of every nation worship God, anticipated by the day of Pentecost, and driven by the mission of Jesus to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. National borders, and international arrangements, are provisional. Jesus ministry and teaching show that God's love cross social, ethnic and cultural boundaries, from the Good Samaritan to the centurions servant. He also made a distinction between Caesar and God: you can't identify any human system of government with the Kingdom of God. The EU is not the Messiah, and neither is Boris Johnson. The Bible both recognises nations, and recognises that they are temporary, and the more powerful they get, the more they sign their own P45.

6. We're faced with a choice between two unknown futures, or possibly more: 

Brexit would quite probably lead to the break up of the UK, the EU and the Conservative party, which would be a dismal legacy for David Cameron to leave. It would also be a mess, as none of our main political parties are advocating it, so who on earth would lead the process? The NHS and social care sector would be decimated (though you could rightly argue we should never have become so dependent on imported labour in the first place, especially as most of the donor countries have much greater health needs than ours). 

Remaining in an EU which increases in size, power and economic influence by the year (ask the Greeks) isn't risk-free either. The project isn't working that well - the Euro has exacerbated the strain on poorer countries, and the rise of the far-right in many countries is a sign that people feel powerless. Whilst some parts are delivering (I'm thankful on a daily basis for the EU-wide food labelling laws that make it safe to go shopping for my coeliac daughter), others are not, particularly for the poor. If Bremain wins, it will be narrowly - taken as a warning sign and an impetus for reform that would be a good thing for the EU, taken as a blank cheque it would be very dangerous. Choose your spin, choose your future. 

If we do stay in, we are going to have to take the free movement of people much more seriously: with better efforts at integration, and honesty and good planning for the 300,000 net addition to the population we will get for the next few years. Politicians need to get their fingers out of their ears and stop going 'la-la-la' - yes we get benefits from immigration, and plenty of them. But we can't deal with 300,000 addition to the population each year the same way we dealt with 30,000, and we need a fuller vision of the human person than the EU's freely moving worker. 

7. David Cameron has dug his own grave. Having won an election on the basis that he wanted us to stay in a 'reformed EU', he hasn't won the reforms he wanted, and is now expecting us to believe that leaving the EU would unleash the Apocalypse. If it was that bad, he should never have offered a referendum in the process. As the main spokesman for Bremain, it is impossible to take his words seriously. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn is compromised by his own historic opposition to the EU, and the media fascination with internal Tory politics which means they don't report what Labour, Libdem or Green politicians have to say. We are not hearing the best arguments, and we are not hearing them through the best people. Come back Nick Clegg, all is forgiven. 

Does the Bible tell us how to vote on the 23rd? No. And neither will I. But it does tell us to act in love not fear, welcome others as Christ welcomed us, act unselfishly, resist human attempts to replace God with any other absolute claim to loyalty (national or international), and to pray for those in government.

God of truth,
give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum
with honesty and openness.
Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion
and discernment to those who vote,
that our nation may prosper
and that with all the peoples of Europe
we may work for peace and the common good;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, June 03, 2016

'The EU Referendum: How Should We Decide?' Book Review

How should Christians vote in the EU referendum? Amid the cacophony of voices and infographics, some might find Andrew Goddards Grove Booklet on the subject very helpful. 'The EU Referendum: how should we decide?' maps out a Christian approach to the vote on 23rd June, offering some useful background and insights along the way.

Goddard begins with a critique of the debate thus far: we should challenge many of the common ways we are encouraged to think about answering the (EU) question'  including the depressing and growing tendency for elections to be fought by appeals to each voter’s self-interest, often narrowly their private, economic self-interest." Christians seek the best for the common good, for the whole of society, not just me. How do we extend that principle to nations (the best for the whole of the EU, or the world not just the UK)?The answers may not be clear, but it may be a better question than whether I can get on the housing ladder. 

After a sketch of the history of the the EU project since the war, and the see-saw of British attitudes and engagement with it, the booklet expores at 3 areas in more detail:
 - Composition of the EU, what is our attitude to community, nations and nationalism
 - Motives of the EU: what are the values that shaped its origin, shape it now, and how do we engage with them
 - Structures of the EU: what is the role of government and representation in an international political entity?

Nations and nationalism
Goddard points out that the Bible relativises the importance of nations: they are a natural part of human social development, and can be a vehicle for blessing or curse. Israels vocation of being a blessing to the nations was lost in isolationism and rebellion, but Christs full work will be complete when people from every nation are drawn to worship together. Even Israels 'special status' is subordinated to God's mission. The Bible reminds us that nations are flawed and often temporary, but also that peace between nations and human community and social sharing are good.  The Bible knows little of benign empires - a nation that keeps expending into other nations is usually tied up with idolatry and exploitation, be it Egypt, Babylon or Rome. The 'ever closer union' of the EU, and the increasing centralisation of power (e.g. the Greek terms for bailout) should make us wary. 

Goddard also reminds us that many of the EU states have walked away from former colonies, leaving many of them in poverty, to seek closer union with one another. The refugee crisis is a reminder that not all free movements of people are equal. If Africa suffers because of EU trade rules, then Europse has a moral responsibility to those beyond its borders, as well as those within. 

Migration raises another set of issues - whilst migration is key to the Biblical story, and hospitality to the migrant and stranger is a cental gospel virtue, there is also a theology of place. When the free movement of people turns citizens into economic units, and communities simply as places where fellow EU workers live, we have lost something of what it means to be in community, in place, in relationship. 

EU motives, aims and ethos
As Israel soon forgot how dreadful Egypt was, perhaps we're too easy to forget the wars which ravaged Europe until quite recently. I'm currently re-reading 'God's Smuggler' by Brother Andrew, and we should rejoice that borders once closed to the gospel are now open. The founding vision of the EU, was grounded in Catholic social teaching, and a desire for peace and co-operation, but over the decades this has drifted. Notions of a common good and subsidiarity have mostly become absorbed in trade and economics. Whilst the social chapter, and relief and development aid within the EU, highlight the social dimension, economics calls the shots. The Euro crisis was all about money, and whilst bailouts might look like an expression of solidarity, the conditions of austerity attached to them certainly don't feel like it. We may have had decades of peace, but the more the periphery feels alienated from the centre, the greater the discontent and chances of fracture. Ask the Scots. 

The EU isn't alone in pursuing money and trade ahead of most other values - the idols of the USA, the Far East and the City are no different. The economic tone of the debate, on both sides (if you saw Question Time on Thursday, see if you can find one argument used by Liz Truss for staying that isn't about money), makes it clear that we are living in a material world, and in or out it will be tough for non-economic values to gain a hearing.

Structures and Democracy
There's a helpful sketch of EU institutions at the start of chapter 4, which looks at how political institutions and authority should work. With low turnout, and a low sense of connection to the EU as a community, how can voters in the UK feel that the EU ever has a sense of legitimacy? Political/delegated authority has to have a live link to the community it serves, but "there is still no real community of the EU, no overarching EU identity" (24) - Europe is a project, not a continent. 

The conclusion sketches out what a Christian argument to remain, or to leave, would look like. How far is the EU vision based on Christian principles? How far does the EU foster co-operation? Should Christians be seeking to mend difficult relationships rather than walking away, or has the EU become a failing superstate? Is freedom of movement an opportunity for hospitality, or a corrosion of community and the sense of identity and place necessary for human flourishing?

As you can probably tell, Goddard doesn't have a definite answer either way. What he does clearly call for is a debate which goes beyond economics, beyond self-interest, and beyond caricature: "it is vital that Christians model good practice in how they set out their case and argue with opponents, and that they encourage others to do so.’ (28). For Christians there is a bigger picture, God's redemption of all nations and peoples and that any nation stands only in relative importance to the Kingdom of God. 

A large proportion of the current EU was, 30 years ago, part of either the USSR or the Warsaw Pact. International arrangements change, even some which seem set in stone. There is a boiling frog moment when some arrangements become too toxic to tolerate. At what point does rootless migration, disconnected politics, unaccountable power, Greek poverty, and the primacy of mammon cease to be a price worth paying?

There is plenty more to be said: about justice (the current EU setup does a good job relocating the poor for the benefit of the rich); about mission; about the environment; about pretty much everything.  The EU referendum raises so many issues - is it right for a country as prosperous as the UK to rely on migrant labour to prop up a standard of healthcare denied to the countries from which its employees come? Is more 'democracy' based on an appeal to individual economic self interest every 5 years something worth leaving the EU for? Is it right to make such a big decision just because David Cameron wanted to use the promise of a referendum as a political tactic?  

I found 3 thoughts particularly helpful:
 - Christians are called to be faithful in relationships and to try to make them work, rather than walk away. (But there does come a moment to leave Egypt...)
 - Nations never have the ultimate demand on our loyalty.
 - Christians should vote for the common good, not personal self-interest.

 Two things disappoint me about the debate thus far: the apocalyptic language on both sides, and the silencing of non-economic voices in the campaign. The BBC correspondent even had the gall to ask Jeremy Corbyn why the Labour message on Europe wasn't getting across. Um, because you're not reporting it? An appeal to self-interest will reinforce selfishness, an appeal to values, justice and love will reinforce values, justice and love. The referendum debate is a mirror - would you actually want this nation in your club? 

The Leading of the 5,000 part 2 - vocations and canaries

Every few years the CofE publishes an analysis of the number of vicars, and the latest (covering up to 2015) has just been published.

By some distance, the most-read post on this blog is 'The Leading of the 5000?', based on the previous set of clergy stats. It was an attempt to work out the number of vicars the CofE would have in the long-term:

if every year the CofE ordains 275 people, who work on average for 25 years, then our long-term full time workforce is 6875 full time clergy. Some of those will end up as archdeacons and bishops and cathedral staff (about 360 on current numbers) and others will end up in diocesan jobs, which leaves about 6200. There are currently around 1000 ordained clergy in chaplaincy jobs, in the NHS, armed forces, educational institutions, theological colleges etc. 

Which leaves 5000 of us in parish ministry, some of whom will be in training posts, so not allowed (I nearly said 'not able', but that wouldn't be true) to run a church. 

Has anything changed? The latest stats show a very slight move in the right direction. Average age at ordination is now 42 for women, 37 for men - with 60% of new ordinands being male, that makes an average age of 39. Add on 3 years for a curacy, and you're now looking at 26 years of active ministry for each one who works until retirement.

However, even though clergy can work until retirement, the average age at retirement is 64-65, which probably reflects the scores of clergy who take early retirement. There isn't any mention in these figures of retention rates (or 'collateral damage', as this post terms the loss of clergy to stress, burnout or ministry-wrecking moments partly induced by the nature of the job). If that average retirement figure takes in the number who leave early, then we're looking at an average working life of 23 years.

The numbers ordained each year were, in each of the last 4 years, 266, 288, 286 and 315. We'll know in the next few years if 315 is unusual, or the start of a trend. Here's the impact that might have:

If the CofE is ordaining 266 people a year, who work 23 years each, our long-term f-t workforce is 6118
If the CofE is ordaining 315 people a year, who work 23 years each, our long-term f-t workforce is 7245.

And as I said 3 years ago, from that headline figure you have to subtract bishops, archdeacons, clergy in non-parish jobs etc. Even the higher figure is 500 fewer than we currently have, and Peter Ould notes that some dioceses face a monster recruitment task in the next 5 years with 30%+ of clergy due to retire.

The CofE has a big push on now for ordinations, and ordaining younger people. Good. We also need to put time and thought into the number of clergy who are leaving, or living on the edge of leaving, because of the demands of the role and the inadequacies of their preparation and support. There are too many stories like this:

We were a cohort of men and women, on average in our 30’s, passionate about our faith, hopeful for the future of the church, and committed to lead and serve the church in its worship and mission.  10 years later I happened upon two of that same cohort seriously considering leaving the ministry.

The issue here is the same as the issue in 'The Leading of the 5,000'. We haven't redesigned the way the church works to accommodate the new reality. A system designed for over 10,000 full time priests serving a population of 10 million is not going to work with 5,000 serving a population of 55 million. Those leaving the dog collar behind are the canaries in the coalmine, they have sung, but is anyone listening?