January 30, 2012
Posted by nickbaines under Christian faith
| Tags: Bible
, Daily Mail
, Diocese of Southwestern Virginia
, Leveson Inquiry
, Lord Carey
, News International
, welfare cuts
|  Comments
Just got back from a great trip to our link diocese in the USA – Southwestern Virginia – and trying to pick up what has been going on while I was away. Both the BBC and the Guardian websites were re-shaped into US sites while I was over there, so some domestic news seemed to slip by.
So, what strikes me on my return?
1. The Leveson Inquiry continues, but things are getting worse as four more journalists have been arrested – this time not from the defunct News of the World, but from the Sun. I can’t weep for those who have (a) indulged in unethical or criminal activity in the name of ‘the freedom of the press’ or (b) shredded other people’s lives before simply moving on to the next cash-generating scandal. However, I do weep for good journalists who now find themselves tarred with the brush of corruption – even if they now know what it feels like to face a situation of personal injustice that they cannot resolve by themselves… an experience familiar to victims of their tabloid colleagues. Not to forget also that it was excellent investigative journalism (and considerable nerve) that exposed this apparent web of corruption in the first place. A good democracy and a good society need a good, free, intelligent, accountable and ethical press.
2. While we spent nearly four hours on Saturday night with a couple of hundred others in Roanoke packing 176,000 food parcels for Sudanese refugees and displaced people (the remarkable and motivated young people of Southwestern Virginia raised the $35,000 it cost – and did so explicitly in the name of Christ), questions were being raised here about the viability of the new state of Southern Sudan. The challenges are huge, but they extend even more precariously in the north (Sudan itself). Christians there continue to be persecuted, expelled, attacked, dispossessed and dispersed. At least one British newspaper keeps this in the news (others may be doing so, too, but I have only had time to check the one).
3. Lord Carey, former Archbishop for Canterbury has bashed the bishops for being so feeble as to defend the poor in the face of the governments welfare cut proposals. Actually, it is clear that the bishops in the House of Lords have not opposed cuts per se and do take seriously the need to re-calibrate who gets what in the future. With the caveat that I have lifted this from the OUTRAGED Daily Mail report, this is what Lord Carey said about the bishops’ amendment regarding Child Benefit:
‘Considering that the system they are defending can mean some families are able to claim a total of £50,000 a year in welfare benefits, the bishops must have known that popular opinion was against them, including that of many hard-working, hard-pressed churchgoers,’ he writes.
‘Yet these five bishops – led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds – cannot lay claim to the moral high-ground.
Victoria Coren responded effectively in the Guardian, defending the right – nay, the obligation – of Christian bishops to speak on behalf of the poor, whether or not they win the eventual vote. But, my question really has to do with the insinuation that the bishops should not go against ‘popular opinion’. This cannot be serious. Since when has ‘popular opinion’ been the singular guide to ethics, Christian thought and action, or prophetic wisdom? Coren put it like this:
But I’m not a bishop. It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.
The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.
Lord Carey might have an opinion on the government’s handling of the debt, but to suggest that the bishops should be guided by popular opinion (as opposed to, say, the Bible?) is just weird.
Or have I missed something?
January 28, 2012
Relationships change everything.
The media often have a perception of the church that allows through their filter only anything that has to do with sex or conflict. The 2008 Lambeth Conference involved a load of relationship building that didn’t press the buttons of the people looking only for conflict. It is hard – nigh impossible – to measure relationships.
In the last thirty years Anglican dioceses have established links with other dioceses in parts of the world where the culture, language and church is different. For the last eleven years of my ministry in the Diocese of Southwark we were closely linked to dioceses in Zimbabwe. Bradford is linked with Southwestern Virginia in the USA and Sudan.
A three-way link is a gift. Looking at developments in the American diocese though the lens of an English diocese is interesting enough. But, to look through the eyes and listen through the ears of Sudanese Anglicans provides a whole different challenge.
Yesterday I had a long conversation with Bishop Andudu who has been forced into exile from his Diocese of Kadugli in Sudan. While he was having medical treatment in the USA his home was destroyed, his cathedral torched, his office looted, his people attacked and dispersed. Andudu cannot now return to his people, so is ministering to his people who are exiled in a variety of places including Southern Sudan, Egypt, the USA and the UK.
While Bishop Andudu is here in the USA the Archdeacon of Bradford is in Sudan with another of the Bradford clergy.
The Youth Council here in Roanoke has raised $35,000 to fund 142,000 food packs for Sudanese refugees who have been expelled from their homes since the conflicts and ultimate separation of Southern Sudan from the north. This evening we will help them pack them, ready for transport to where they are needed. Who said all young people are selfish narcissists?
The young people have with them a remarkable man with a remarkable story to tell. He is a Sudanese rapper (former child soldier) called Emmanuel Jal and he has been brought over from London to work with the young people here in Roanoke. I am writing this as he has 200 teenagers on their feet dancing. Even Bishop Andudu is dancing. I am sparing everyone’s embarrassment and sitting at the back writing…
This is the Anglican Communion. This is what the media misses when thinking, writing or broadcasting about the Anglican Church. Sudan has a different response to some of the ethical and social challenges faced in the USA or UK, but we are all here together and focused on making a difference where we can.
It is a remarkable sight (and sound). It is the sound of a common vocation and a common humanity in and though a common church. It is colourful. And it is very loud…
January 28, 2012
One of the challenges of listening through the ears of a different culture is trying to work out (a) what is being said, (b) how is it being said, (c) to whom is it being said, (d) why is it being said, and (e) what is being heard from what is being said.
Listening to a keynote speaker at a conference is always a welcome experience. For one thing, it means I am not having to do it. But, it offers an opportunity to think, to hear afresh and to learn. But, listening this morning, I realise that being the outsider makes me listen differently. I don’t know how people are hearing Angela Ifill’s address or whether she is scratching where the people are itching. I think she is. But, if she is, then the context, the audience and the challenges are not the same as those we face at home.
Inevitably I listen through my own ears and my point of reference is the context of the Church of England in the Diocese of Bradford. The issue of ‘welcome’ is pertinent everywhere, of course, as hospitality and generosity are key signs of God’s kingdom. But, I realised this morning that, despite the fact that I understand every word that was spoken and am familiar with every element of the presentation, I don’t know how this has been heard, understood and appropriated by the local audience for whom it was intended. I don’t know what ‘welcome’ might look like on the ground in the particular churches of this diocese.
So, nothing deep here. Just another fresh experience of how some questions have to be asked of any communication prior to knowing what the words mean – and what response they are intended to provoke.
January 27, 2012
The great thing about spending a week in Southwestern Virginia before the annual Council is that we got to meet a shed load of people and arrived at the Council already knowing many new friends. It also means that people trust me enough not to be perturbed when they come across something that surprises them.
Someone who heard me preach last Sunday morning at St Peter, Altavista, subsequently took a look at this blog. Down at the bottom were attachments – usually just the pictures I had embedded in the post. However, this one also seemed to have two (and I quote) “compromising pictures” attached. I have no idea what this means or where they came from. Furthermore, I can’t see them – but, clearly, others have. Funny old world… and now I am curious.
Anyway, the day began with a meeting with clergy and spouses from the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Four of us formed a panel: a retired bishop from Tanzania, exiled Bishop Andudu from Kadugli in Sudan, Angela Ifill who works with the office of the Presiding Bishop in New York City, and me. We each introduced ourselves, said a bit about our ministry, then were open to question.
Most of the questions focused on the situation in Sudan and Andudu was excellent. However, towards the end of the session someone asked about tribalism in Sudan and which elements of the conflict there have to do with race or religion. This led into a fascinating conversation about ‘tribalism’, during which I rehearsed the perceptive Helmut Schmidt encouragement to German politicians: don’t go into politics unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent level. Why not? Because in order to understand your own culture you need to look through the lens of another culture… and to do that you need to know something of that other culture’s language.
And how was that relevant to questions of tribalism in Sudan? Well, simply because, as I pointed out, tribalism is a human phenomenon and not an African one. A week in the USA (and Virginia in particular) makes it blindingly obvious to an outsider that even Americans are tribal. Mention the ‘recent unpleasantness’ (the Civil War to you and me) and you quickly see who is in which ‘tribe’. Loyal identification with one’s state also tells its own story. I also added that, as a good Brit, I know all about tribalism in the UK, in England and in any institution. (Although it was both undiplomatic and unnecessary for someone to ask if Liverpool fan’s attitude to Manchester United was another example…)
The point (which was followed up by a number of people afterwards) was that we easily identify the weaknesses, factionalisms and myopic loyalties of others whilst being unaware of our own. Something reminds me here of what someone once said about ‘planks and motes’…
But, being enabled to look at oneself through the lens of another is a complete gift and privilege. Being here in Roanoke offers not only an experience of another culture and another church, but also compels me to look though the eyes of interlocutors here at myself and my own culture. It isn’t always comfortable.
As Bishop Gerrard from Tanzania put it: “We don’t necessarily agree with each other on a host of issues, but we are friends… and that is why we are here.” That is maturity. We recognise our tribalisms, but our unity (as Christians and as human beings) transcends the identified and owned differences and prejudices.
And if this post is accompanied by ‘compromising pictures’, it has nothing to do with me.
January 26, 2012
One of the things I learned as a vicar (and something I keep reminding clergy who move from one parish to another) is that you can learn the history, but you can’t share the memory. The problem, however, is that people in any community usually act and react from the unarticulated memory, rather than from the cold fact of history.
This notion has been renewed as I have listened and talked with people here in Virginia during the last few days.
Having flown in on Friday night to Roanoke, we spent Saturday in town visiting the art gallery and watching The Artist at a local cinema. On Sunday I preached at St Peter, Altavista, and in the evening at St John, Roanoke. On Monday we spent the morning at the offices of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia before being collected and driven to meet people in Waynesboro en route to Staunton where we were wonderfully entertained by the rector and his wife. Following a cheese and wine party with the Vestry of Trinity church, I even intruded into their Vestry Meeting (always good to see how other churches run their business).
After a very comfortable night – sleep matters with a schedule of constant new people and places – we visited Stuart Hall School and saw the wonderful Tiffany windows in Trinity church before driving to Lexington for a clergy lunch. This was excellent: generous hospitality and good conversation with good people. After a visit to the R.E. Lee Memorial Church, we went on a tour of the Washington & Lee University before visiting the Virginia Military Institute. Later we drove on back to Roanoke in time for dinner.
Wednesday saw us being driven to Christiansburg where we shared in the midweek Eucharist at St Thomas’s before meeting some young people (with educational and other challenges) on an inspired FutureWorks course in the hall. We then went to Blacksburg and toured Virginia Tech where 32 people were shot dead during a planned rampage by a student on 16 April 2007. We went from there to Radford University to meet students for dinner (and informal Eucharist) before spending the night with a brilliantly hospitable and friendly couple in town.
Tomorrow will see us visiting an art gallery with friends before having lunch with the local clergy and then being driven back to Roanoke to prepare for the annual diocesan Council in a local hotel. This looks to be a busy programme including some speaking, meeting loads of people and doing some stuff with hundreds of very motivated young people. We fly out on Sunday late afternoon.
So, why the ‘history versus memory’ stuff? Well, we have met some inspiring people and seen some beautiful and inspiring places. We have heard so many stories of life and faith from so many people. And we have been learning some history as we go. As I said to some people today, it is easy to feel that we ought to apologise for being British whenever we see or hear about the War of Independence. Here in Virginia, however, it is the Civil War that cuts deep and still shapes people. Yet, driving to our hosts from the university this evening I caught sight of a banner hanging in a house window in Radford that said: ‘Liberty or death. Get out of my way’.
It seems that the American default of holding individual autonomy to be inviolable leads to illusions of independence and power that ultimately tend to dehumanise. The tragedy of Virginia Tech hangs in the air (along with other violent atrocities) and calls into question all sorts of assumptions. Apparently, however, the right to bear arms is not up for consideration.
I am a guest – a visitor. I can’t share the memory that goes deep and has shaped the psyche of people and communities here. But, learning the history raises a raft of hard questions about what makes a society good. And the experience sends me away thinking about the power of a Christian gospel that calls for a radically new way of thinking and living. Today we celebrated the Conversion of St Paul – a conversion that, precipitated by an involuntary encounter with the risen Jesus, shattered his entire world view and broke him down to the extent that he took years of rebuilding his way of seeing, thinking and living.
Conversion is hard. Easily spoken of, but costly to endure. And always easy to propose to someone else.
January 22, 2012
Posted by nickbaines under Bible 1 Comment
This morning I was preaching in Altavista. Until I arrived in the USA on Friday I thought Altavista was just a search engine. But, it isn’t – it’s a real place in Virginia.
We (our wonderful hosts, Bishop Neff Powell and his wife Dorothy) drove an hour and a half to get there and everyone in the church was warm, friendly and very welcoming. They even understood my non-Queen’s English English. But, going there teased my imagination at the level of searching for links that might be rather fanciful. So, before we head off to the next service in Roanoke (preaching again) here are some tenuous connections arising from preaching on Jonah in Altavista:
1. Jonah was searching for a way to escape the call of God – something I and other Christians have worked on with great diligence.
2. God doesn’t give up on us when we run away – even if he knows we are racist bigots who haven’t quite ‘got’ God’s character.
3. God links together grace and generosity with the search of ordinary people (the Ninevites) for the freedom of a new start – even when God’s ‘chosen one’ thinks his own righteousness is all that matters.
4. Jonah’s search for justice against the Ninevites hits up against God’s longing for justice for the Ninevites.
5. Being sicked up from a big fish onto a beach might represent a big hint, but it doesn’t automatically mean that you then get the point. Prejudice and self-righteousness go deep.
There’s plenty more, but that’s for starters.
Anyway, over lunch with some wonderful people one man told us some great stories from his reading of World War Two history. The funniest was about the reunion of combatant paratroopers forty years after D-Day. These ageing old guys were invited to re-enact their original parachute drop into France. Hours after they had all been dropped and identified by family members and the local Gendarmes, one was still missing. Eventually they found him propped in a bar, smashed out of his skull. When they asked what he was playing at, he answered: “You told us to do what we did when we parachuted into France. So I did. I made my way to the pub and got smashed.”
I bet that’s what Jonah wished he could have done in Nineveh. At least it would have spared him having to see people discover that God loved them after all and wanted their lives and society to reflect that.
January 21, 2012
Posted by nickbaines under film
| Tags: Altavista
, The Artist
|  Comments
I am preaching on Jonah in Altavista, Virginia, tomorrow morning. This afternoon we went out to the cinema in Roanoke to see The Artist (the must-see silent movie).
Pride. Prejudice. And an unwillingness to face change. Redemption (sort of). Unmerited grace to be received.
I loved the film. It was clever, funny, surprising, poignant, beautifully shot.
I love Jonah. Clever, funny, surprising, poignant, beautifully told.
And in both the film and the ancient text: love can’t be bought – but it can be rejected simply because we are too proud to acknowledge our need.
January 21, 2012
I am writing this on a flight from Manchester to Atlanta, Georgia, where I will connect to Roanoke, Virginia, and spend a week visiting the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia which is linked with the Diocese of Bradford.
The only interesting bit of the flight so far was hearing two stewards agreeing that they “love the English accent”. “Which one?” was the question I wanted to ask. One of the amazing glories of England is that such a small island comprises so many distinct accents and dialects. I always pitied the German language Assistentin who came to Liverpool in the 1970s and, having spent too long in the company of Scouse teenagers, left feeling that she couldn’t understand a word of English after all. Ask about accent and you ask about the amazing history that makes it almost impossible to define what it means to be ‘English’.
Anyway, I was reading Thursday’s Guardian on my iPad and was struck by the piece by Martin Kettle on the newly-opened Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy in London which I long to see. I love David Hockney’s work: the vibrancy, the colour, the perception of a landscape as the seasons change, the transparency of the everyday and the banal that makes you look and think differently about what you take for granted in the familiar world around you every day.
Hockney celebrates drawing because… drawing is an instinctive human act from an early age, and because teaching someone to draw better is to teach them to see better. He does not add that to see better is to understand better, and thus to communicate better, but it is implicit and central to everything else.
I remember taking a holiday with my young family in Gloucestershire when I was working as a linguist specialist in Cheltenham in the early 1980s. My wife was dabbling in art and understood the importance of drawing. She made me sit down for two hours, without distraction, and draw an orange. OK, miss out the bit where she asked me why I had drawn a banana, but I learned two important lessons: (a) when you are drawing, you concentrate and focus – and you look differently at the world; and (b) there are different ways of looking and seeing.
How would you draw a chair? An ordinary, bog-standard, unremarkable upright chair? Well, I started to look at the legs, the backrest, the seat. I tried to use a simple technique to get the perspective right. After an hour or so of drawing something rather naff, the artist told me to start again and to look differently. She told me to draw the spaces between the seat and the legs and the backrest – out of those spaces the object would emerge.
And she was right. In fact, the chair looked more real and alive than it did when I tried to draw the object itself.
I think my point here is that we shouldn’t take for granted the way we look at what we think we see. This has a theological import, too. Sometimes we need to take our eye off the presenting object and look at the ‘space’ in order to see more accurately (or, at least, more interestingly) what is before us.
It was this that made me look at Mark’s Gospel differently several years ago (while writing Marking Time). The point of the gospel (and the filter through which to read the text and understand Jesus) is to be found in chapter one verses 14-15:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
For the Galileans, the only evidence that God was among his people again – that there was truly good news to be heard – was that the blasphemous Roman occupying forces were leaving. But Jesus asks people to look differently. The question now looks like this: “Can you possibly dare to believe that the holy God is here among you again… even while the profane Roman pagans remain? Dare you conceive of the possibility that God might be with you… even while your problems persist and resolution seems either impossible or, at least, remote? Dare you look differently (for the presence of God) in order to see differently in order to think differently (about God, the world and us) in order to live differently in the real world as it is now, but with a driving vision/narrative that imagines a different future?
The rest of the Gospel illustrates just who were those who could ‘repent’ (literally, from the Greek) ‘change their mind’… and who were those who just could not. Read it in this way and see the rather shocking picture that emerges.
Hockney is bewilderingly brilliant and exciting. I don’t look at a bend in a Yorkshire road and see orange fields and technicolor trees as he does. But he compels me to ask whether I am missing something in the world around me simply because I don’t stop and look and question and wonder.
Martin Kettle’s observation has wider pertinence:
… it seems to me that Hockney and his art express and address the kind of people and country that he and we wish we were. There is something religious in his work. And when Hockney takes a pop at Hirst, I, for one, will cheer, because he is taking a pop at the kind of country we have become, in which attitude is more important than morality, price trumps value, and in which to shock and make a name is privileged over doing something lovely or true.
January 18, 2012
I was driving over to a primary school in Ilkley this morning (dribbly rain and mist over the wild moors) and listening to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was being interviewed about the British Government’s apparent approval of the idea of a new London airport (after Heathrow, Gatwick and City – Luton and Stansted don’t count as they are nowhere near London). The wisdom and feasibility of such a new venture will continue to be debated, but that isn’t what grabbed my attention.
Boris responded to an insinuation that it would take decades to build the thing and would, therefore, not be worth starting. He said that just because it might take a long time didn’t mean it shouldn’t be started. And this reminded me of something else: cathedrals.
When the architects and builders of our great cathedrals began their work – driven by imagination and a vision for a future – they knew they probably would never see the finished article. They would be dead – the building would take generations. Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican) was started in 1904 and almost everybody involved in imagining, designing and building it was dead by the time it was finally completed at the back end of the twentieth century.
Or think of gardens. Capability Brown designed some of Britain’s most glorious gardens, but knew he would never see what he had designed because by the time the trees and plants had grown, he would be long gone. This didn’t stop him doing it.
I took a couple of academic friends to the pub this evening to talk about a range of matters. At one point the conversation ran onto the shortsighted utilitarianism of current university funding methods in England. It seems as if the ‘now’ is all that matters and the Market will control all our destinies. Any idea of vision (what should a university actually be – and for whom and for what end?) or long-term constructiveness gets lost under the pressing immediacy of instant financial viability. Yet, I guess this is just one more example of a pragmatic culture which has lost track of its guiding narrative, its traditions and memory – living in and for the ‘now’ and hesitant about building for someone else’s future that can’t be guaranteed anyway.
Pessimistic? Maybe. But, any culture needs people who imagine a future, invest in it, know why they are doing it and who it is for. They must be driven by a vision for a society that doesn’t confuse ends (people/society) with means (the Market).
I don’t know if Boris is right about the airport. But, he has the right perspective on time and investment.
January 16, 2012
Is it possible any longer to live without electronic media? I write this on my laptop with my mobile phone next to me on my desk (I am expecting a call) and a load of tweets telling me to watch Sherlock on iPlayer.
The Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), as part of its ten-year Reform Process, identifies every month a ‘Project of the Month’. (Which reminds me of when I read about the American funeral directors who were trying to improve ‘the bereavement experience’ by nominating a ‘Crem de Month’ award…) This is seen as an imaginative way to disseminate good practice, creative ideas and good stories. Today I got the EKD Newsletter (email firstname.lastname@example.org)) and was struck by this month’s winner.
One week – no media involved getting groups of young people in Württemberg to hand over their mobile phones, not watch television and not use a computer for one whole week. If you read German, follow the link. Basically, each person kept a daily diary, recording their experiences – what was hard and what they discovered positively from the experience. Daily meetings and activities were run in order to keep the kids motivated. At the end of the week there was an evaluation of all that had been experienced and learned, and the phones, consoles, laptops, etc. were ritually returned. (The kids were probably dribbling with anticipation by this time…)
What is interesting is that many of the young people discovered new creativity, spent more time with their families and communicated more and better with them. You know – talking and old stuff like that.
Yes, some failed to make the week – often (interestingly) because the parents couldn’t bear missing their diet of television.
And the point of it all? To question the nature and volume of media consumption and to improve media literacy among the young people so that they are in more control of their media consumption rather than being controlled by it. One teacher commented of his class: “For one week we gave the children their childhood back.”
Apart from the imaginative nature of the project itself, it does touch on issues being raised in England: the way the media shape our minds, the nature of childhood, and how to measure the well-being or happiness of our children – given that British children appear to be some of the unhappiest in Europe.
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