Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Voter’s Manifesto (part 1 of 5)

With the general election not terribly far away, it seems like the right time to think through who to vote for. The main parties have yet to publish their official manifestos, though the rhetoric and negative campaigning has already begun. I have tended to be a tactical voter, depending on what constituency I have lived in over the last few general elections. This is not my preference, however. I would want to vote for someone I can believe in, whose policies I can endorse and who I could trust to fulfil their promises and be of sound judgment to make the right decisions as and when they are necessary, but which cannot be anticipated.

So what would I want to see in a manifesto? This got me thinking. Why not just write a voter’s manifesto? I’m not aiming to have anything the length of an actual party manifesto, so this is more a sketch than a detailed proposal. No doubt I will have made some omissions which may be close to someone else’s heart. That is why this is a voter’s manifesto, not the voter’s manifesto.

I had planned to get this posted before the party conference season, but as you may find, it has gotten rather long. So while most of it was drafted before they got underway, I will admit that the section on tobacco was influenced by the Labour party conference. Any other similarities are purely coincidental, though you may well see some policy areas that would not be out of place in a Conservative, Green, Labour or Liberal Democrat manifesto (and yes, there is one area where I agree with UKIP – see if you can spot it).

My aim is not to present a panacea, but to start a conversation so that others may take up the plan I outline here and expand on bits, put some more flesh on the specifics and, if they so wish, disagree with my points and present alternatives of their own. I do this because of a belief. It is a belief that the people, the demos, are those who should set the agenda in a democracy. We should not wait for the political elite to tell us what they think and then ask us to vote for them. We should be telling them what we think and ask if they will fairly represent us.

Because of the length this has expanded to, I will spread this out over 5 days. After the opening 2 sections below the plan is as follows:

Wednesday: Environment, Employment, Inflation, Transport and Healthcare

Thursday: Company Law, Corporate Tax, Personal Tax, Loan Sharks and Regionalisation

Friday: Welfare, Europe, International Aid, Housing and Utility Costs

Saturday: Education, Immigration, Tobacco & Gambling, Culture and Defence

There is no strict rationale for the ordering. Some sections depend on others, so I’ve tried to include the more foundational first, but as ever, I may well have made mistakes. So without further ado, let us begin…

Democratic reform

I include this first because it has become one of the hot topics following the referendum on Scottish independence. I make no bones about the fact that I supported the AV referendum, but the fact that we voted no on that issue should not be taken as an indication that there is no appetite for electoral reform. So while the current first past the post system should remain in place for the election of the House of Commons, I would advocate decreasing the minimum voting age in all elections to 16.

Party whips will be made illegal. I have made the case on that before, so shan’t expand here.

Funding for political parties will be made more transparent, with all donations greater than £100 being declared and made available in a public register. Any donations made on behalf of a democratically elected body must disclose the number of people represented by that body and what proportion of the membership voted to approve the donation. Any donations made by a limited company, limited liability partnership, trust fund, charity or other similar corporate body must disclose the names of the directors and/or those individuals responsible for instigating and authorising the donation.

MPs should be dedicated to their role as a representative of their constituents. As such, they should not hold 2nd jobs, with a 6 month grace period after taking their seat in Parliament. This includes any directorships or non-executive appointments. They should also be prohibited from holding shares (pension funds exempted) during their time in office so as to minimise the risk that they could be compromised by acting in Parliament in such a way that benefits their commercial interests. They shall also declare any and all commercial interests they had in the 5 years prior to their taking their seat in Parliament, which shall be a matter of a public record. If there arises any possibility favouring any of these previous commercial interests, then they shall be deemed ineligible to vote. For any matter which does favour a commercial interest (e.g. a transport infrastructure project which uses a private company) then any MP shall be banned from taking up employment or acting as an advisor to that company for a period of no less than 5 years after leaving Parliament.

Similar restrictions will also apply to members of the House of Lords. However, this will apply after the Lords has been made a wholly elected chamber, elected on the basis of proportional representation.

Debt, Deficit & Austerity

There must be an open and honest recognition of the responsibilities held by successive governments and of the private sector which was subject to inadequate regulation from October 1986 onwards which contributed to the banking crisis, which was part of a global problem caused by laissez faire fundamentalist economics.

To reduce the deficit and bring down debt levels require some level of austerity. The coalition’s measures to attempt to reduce these, which have largely failed, have been misdirected on the grounds of an ideological attack upon the poorest in society, while letting off those who were most at fault for causing the crisis.

As a matter of principle, then, measures to reduce the debt and deficit should be borne by those who bear the most responsibility. This is not to victimise portions of society or to engage in any kind of “banker bashing”. Rather it is about restoring a balance to the economy through restitution levied upon those who created the imbalance.

Many of the measures elsewhere in this manifesto are directed towards this. Some spending will have to be pared back and further taxes raised. Anyone who tries to sing a different hymn is selling a fairy tale. Spending on those who are in need will not be subject to austerity measures, for those who cannot afford to lose more should not lose more. Instead, the spending on areas which cause harm must be pared back.

Tax revenues must be raised, with a marked differentiation needed to distinguish between small business owners and large corporations, which is not currently recognised to a suitable extent in the tax system. Some of the details of this will come later, but there will be a reduction in taxation for the smallest business, but this will be more than countered by a large increase in the taxation on large corporations. This is not to be punitive, but to ensure that those organisations which have historically enjoyed the privilege of paying less than their fair share shall begin to do so. Yet measures will be put in place to ensure that corporations cannot reduce the size of their workforce in order to preserve or grow their profits. Taxation must also not be passed on to the consumer.

Book Review: Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith

Regular readers of this blog may have noted that I don’t always read books that are particularly new or up-to-date. It’s rare indeed for me to ever pick something off a shelf above which hangs a sign called “New Releases”. Yet I went out and bought this in the week it was released (even if it has taken a few months to get round to it). Why was this so?

Like so many, I had not heard of Harry Leslie Smith this time last year. Though he has written a few previous books, I think it’s fair to say that he was not a household name. That changed with an article he wrote for The Guardian just prior to Remembrance Sunday. The quality of the opinion articles in that particular newspaper are of a variable quality, but that one stood out above the others as erudite, informed and highly emotive. Harry has followed this up with subsequent articles. It was the hope of finding more of the same that motivated me to get a closer look at Harry, his life and his take on the modern world.

One cannot escape from a theme in the book that Harry is in his twilight years. Yet age has not withered him, nor has time robbed him of his senses. Harry presents us with two books in one, but two that are intertwined. He gives us his autobiography, taking us from his working class upbringing in Yorkshire during the Great Depression, the death of his sister from tuberculosis in a workhouse, the divorce of his parents, life during the Second World War and the hopes that came after as the country was rebuilt following that devastation. The other book he gives us is an extended opinion piece on recent and current political and social affairs. This latter aspect makes it very much a book of “now”. I don’t know what the outcome of the 2015 general election will be, but it seems likely that there will be some change from the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. As such, the searing invective against the coalition may become dated fairly quickly. In fact, I hope it will. I think Harry would hope that it will too.

The back cover states “I am not a historian, but at 91 I am history, and I fear its repetition.”  Harry’s Last Stand is then very much a work of prophecy. That is not to say it predicts the future, but rather Harry has learned from the past, observes the present and warns of the future.

One of the ideas that jumped to my mind as I was reading this was related to a talk that Dr Naomi Millner gave at the Greenbelt festival, where she said that testimony fills in the gaps left by more academic study. Near the start of the book, Harry states that it is quite possible that some right-wingers may choose to dismantle his arguments. As I read, I could see that if one wanted to by critical, where the gaps in Harry’s writing were. Yet this shouldn’t be read primarily alone. Harry’s is a voice of testimony that supplements the evidence which damns the coalition. There are times at which Harry’s rhetoric is a little loose and he doesn’t give careful citation to his sources, but this should not detract from the overall thrust of the argument.

At the time the welfare state was established, the country was not in good shape. We were rebuilding after the devastation of the 2nd World War, but this meant that good men and women were able to look afresh and build a society where the ravages of the depression need not be repeated. A country where people could be given the opportunity to live dignified, comfortable lives, knowing that the state would support those in need when they needed it, rather than condemning them to the poor house. It the hope of this better world was what Harry fought for. Yet our modern leaders have not heeded the lessons of the past, kowtowing to the interests of big business (in whose pies many of the cabinet have their fingers dipped), what we are witnessing is the demolition of the best of British society by Conservative ideology, the greed that it lives for and which fuels it.

Written with both great eloquence and some plain-speaking forthrightness, there is much to learn here. Yet as someone with just a third of the life experience of Harry, I cannot say I fully grasp the depths of misery that his family endured during the 1930s. I hope I never understand them. As today’s political elite become tomorrow’s has-beens it will be someone from my generation that take the helm. Whatever their political leanings, it would be my hope that they are not ignorant of history. While this is not a comprehensive study, it fills in with humanity what is left out of the academic tomes.

The book ends with some very practical policy ideas. I may engage with some of these in a later blog post, as I couldn’t do them justice in this short review. These include the introduction of e-voting, lowering the voting age, recording spoiled ballots and advocating a change away from the first past the post system.

As you’ve probably worked out, this is a very UK-centric book. While it may be of some interest to those from elsewhere in the world, this is very much for a British audience. But other than that, I cannot think of anyone within that subgroup of humanity to whom I wouldn’t recommend it. As a political polemic, it is probably the most important piece of prose produced in recent years.

How to vote on the matter of killing people

Below is the content of a letter I have just sent to my local MP, Tessa Jowell, ahead of tomorrow’s debate and vote in the House of Commons on whether to launch air strikes against Islamic State.

“I am writing to you with respect to the recall of Parliament to vote on whether the UK should join a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State (also known as ISIL) in Iraq.

My representation to you is that when it comes to a vote, that you should vote ‘no’.

No one would deny that IS are a threat and that they have committed acts of evil. Yet to sanction air strikes sends out the message “one kind of killing is barbaric, but another is acceptable”.

When one human kills, they not only terminate the humanity of another, but they erode their own. Nomatter how barbaric the methodology and ideology is that lies behind Islamic State, they remain human beings. They had childhoods, they had mothers who loved them. They may have committed acts which lessen their humanity, but we should not deny them of their lives. To do so lessens our humanity.

The methodology and ideology may be different, but we should not be fooled into thinking that air strikes are any less barbaric than beheading. It is simply a method that allows for a distance which reduces the visceral feeling of killing a fellow human being.

It is my understanding that the party leaders of the three main parties have already promised the support of their parties, in advance of the Commons debate. My wish is that you would heed not only my representation but also those of other constituents and that the voice of those of us opposed to government-endorsed killing are fairly represented in the debate.

If you have received other representation then I would be interested in knowing how many are for and how many are against the proposed air strikes.”

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I bought this some time ago, but have put it off due to the comment of the staff member who sold me the book. I happened to have bought it at the same time as Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and the person behind the counter complimented me on the choice of such a great pair of books. Having hated Lively’s work, I feared that The Night Circus would be similar, so I put off reading it for a few months, not least while I focused my fiction reading on with The Forsyte Saga.

I must say from the start that while I do agree with the maxim ‘never judge a book by its cover’ I am often prejudiced by a cover as to whether or not to buy a given volume. It might be the name of the author, the title or the design which entice me, but having not heard of Morgenstern or the book to any great extent, it was the cover design that made it pass from bookshop shelf to my shelf.

The opening passage of the book seems to have escaped from the subconscious mind and couldn’t help but be written. In a marvelous introduction, Morgenstern ignites the flames of the imagination with the concept of this circus that appears out of nowhere and which only opens at night.

From here, though, we suddenly go off on an apparent tangent. We are taken to the mid-late 19th century and an illusionist who goes by the stage name, Prospero. Only he is not an illusionist as such. You see, The Night Circus verges into the realm of magical realism. Prospero does “real” magic and tours theatres putting on a show whereby he performs his magic, but tries to make it seem as though it is an elaborate illusion, the converse to his fellow performers who put on shows of illusion, but try to pass it off as magic.

It is no great spoiler to say that Prospero is soon introduced to a daughter he never knew he had. And so the story really begins for The Night Circus is her story. Names are an odd thing in this book, for while they are used it is made clear that are often little more than labels which may or may not be someone’s real name. So we begin to get to know Celia Bowen, our protagonist. Yet does not every protagonist also have an antagonist? Well, in this black and white fiction there is, and we are introduced to our antagonist by the mysterious man in grey.

Between the man in grey (who I must say reminded me somewhat of the early glimpses of the man in black from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series) and Prospero, a contest is agreed. But they will not be the ones to compete; rather it is their protégés. Celia is Prospero’s, but the man in grey has none, though this is soon fixed with Marco, who is to become the aforementioned antagonist.

Around this point I began to feel as though I had been duped. After the grand opening, where was the circus? This was turning into a narrative of two young people, Celia and Marco, being trained in magic by their respective mentors. I know a friend of mine who started reading it said she gave up after it finding it boring. I wonder if it was around this stage that she did so. But rest assured, the circus does re-emerge and does form centre stage (quite literally) for the remainder of the book. For it is this contest, of which we know little other than that the two competitors are bound to each other in it, which gives rise to the circus as the arena in which the contest is to take place.

But this is no battle. We do not know the rules, but it is not any kind of a one off fight. It is ongoing over many years. Indeed, the years that go by give rise to probably my greatest gripe about the book, in that Morgenstern has fallen into the modern fad of using a nonlinear timeline. Admittedly, it is not as annoying as others that I’ve read, but I do tend to take an instant dislike to authors who think it makes them a clever writer, rather than make them a nuisance to their readers.

As the story jumps back and forth through the late 19th century, on to the early 20th and then back again, we meet a number of other characters along the way who play their part in the circus. There is the grand clockmaker, whose work is altered by Celia, using her magic to improve things here and there. There is Bailey, a young farm hand who has a chance encounter with the circus one day and who develops something of an obsession with it.

Morgenstern presents us with an idealised circus. It struck up in me thoughts that I recall always wanting to go to a travelling circus when it came into town, but never being allowed to, as my parents didn’t like the idea. So as a child, I never went. In a way, I’m glad, because the wonder that it promised would always be greater than that which we probably find upon entering the big top. So what Morgenstern gives us is the near-perfect circus, with acts that are more spectacular than any we’ve ever seen, with sweets that are sweeter than any that really exist, with nights more memorable than any we really remember.

All this brought back to mind what I thought was possibly an influence on the writing. The vivid descriptions of the illusionists in full flow made me think of the great ball scene from The Master and Margarita with Prospero in the role of a less malevolent version of Woland.

The bulk of the novel gives us insights into the life of the circus and the interplays between the various characters, though daren’t say too much for fear of spoiling it. Though one may rightly guess that the contest comes to an end, but how it does so is up to you to find out.

Morgenstern’s writing style is eminently accessible, which makes it a fairly quick read for a book of nigh on 500 pages. If anything, I felt that reading it over the summer was the wrong time of year to do it. It has a more autumnal feel to it. So given the time that this review is being posted, then I would certainly recommend it as a book for now, particularly if you are in need of a bit of gentle escapism.

Liberal? What do you mean by that?

This is a kind of follow-up post to a comment I made in my attempt to summarise a few of the talks at Greenbelt. In particular, it was my note that Linda Woodhead’s definition of liberalism was little different from a statement of individualism. After posting it, I was pointed to Eddie Green’s blog on the subject where he made a similar objection to Linda’s usage. In it, he gives a very condensed history of liberal theology. Given the extent of that history, I don’t think anyone could do it justice in the space of a blog post, so I shan’t endeavour to improve upon Eddie’s take. Nor is this really a response to Eddie’s, as I partly agree with it, but it is more a launching pad to explain my own usage of the term liberal, particularly as it applies to theology and church life in general.

With the history noted, I first of all recognise that we are shaped by it, but need not be constrained by it. So some uses of the term liberal may have drifted from what they were originally intended to mean. Depending on the precise context, I tend to use it in one four senses, listed below. I think it is also helpful in each case to identify what we might mean by its opposite, as Eddie rightly notes, the term ‘conservative’ is not always apt. This is another example of a phenomenon I have tried to articulate before, whereby we define what we mean by means to saying what we don’t mean; a sort of chiseling away by means of ridding ourselves of various negatives instead of asserting a positive.

In what follows below, please note that I am not advocating a binary liberal/not liberal viewpoint on each topic. There are grey areas and people can be nuanced, complicated mixtures of each. So this comes very much with a sense of “-ish” about it, where I am aiming for a generally, well-rounded picture rather than pin-point precision within a narrow spectrum.

  1. Socially liberal

In this sense, I am referring to particular hot potato topics which tend to be divisive. One forum I am sometimes found at is the Ship of Fools, where such topics are referred to as ‘dead horses‘ and a whole discussion board is dedicated to them. These include whether women should be allowed to hold any and all positions within a church structure, views on homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, etc. I would also include, in a wider sense, the more individualist view, where one has the right to do as one pleases, provided it does not bring harm to another.

In this sense, I would call the opposite a ‘conservative’ viewpoint. Though it is worth noting that people may hold more liberal views on some topics than on others. For example, I would regard myself as liberal when it comes to homosexuality (you may find me on the list of members signed up to Accepting Evangelicals) and I endorse a fully egalitarian view of church leadership, yet I do err towards a pro-life position with regards to abortion to euthanasia. I say that quite deliberately, as I do not wholly agree with many a pro-life advocate, but I would support a sharpening up of the law to protect both women and children.

  1. Economically liberal

This can be a tricky one, as the term most often used is not really liberal, but libertarian. So while it doesn’t quite fit neatly (Hey? What does?) it ought to be addressed given the similarity of the terms. In reality, this is better described as a right-wing view.

As I wryly commented to someone the other day, a libertarian is someone who wants the freedom to economically oppress others. And if you advocate any measure that tries to stop them, they will retort by calling you an authoritarian.

The confusion when it comes to using the term liberal or conservative in this sense is that those who are most liberal/libertarian/right-wing are in fact those who are more likely to subscribe to the economic policies of the Conservative party, where the ultimate expression of liberty is to be found in free market, laissez-faire economics, such as that advocated by the likes of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman (or even Ayn Rand).

  1. Theologically liberal

This brings us back to Eddie’s analysis where I would take a slightly different, but not wholly contrary view. While it is the modern heir of the views of Friedrich Schleimacher, Albrecht Ritschl or Walter Rauschenbusch, it has moved on rather since then, for a variety of historical, philosophical and theological reasons – for good or for bad. Not least we have the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction against German liberal theology and then modern liberal theology arising as a reaction against fundamentalism. The subtle change this entails is that while liberal theology began as a methodology (c.f. hermeneutical liberalism in Eddie’s post) it is now more about the conclusions one reaches.

So when someone talks to me now of liberal theology, I am minded to think not of christians who are merely opposed to the fundamentalism, but those who have swung too far in the opposite direction and play fast and loose with theology, where a prerequisite is that one does not conform to a recognisable orthodox belief. A prime example of this would be the Jesus Seminar. One could look at one member from that group, Marcus Borg, whose views I have critiqued before. Or one could look at the catholic scholar, John Meier, whose epic look at the Jesus, A Marginal Jew, rules out, a priori, the idea of resurrection and where he joins in with the trend of presupposing that the historical Jesus must be different from the Jesus of faith.

In this sense, the opposite of liberal is not conservative, but orthodox. It is worth noting the warnings of Richard Niebuhr about overly-liberal outcomes:

“In a similar manner the idea of the coming kingdom was robbed of its dialectical element. It was all fulfillment of promise without judgement… In its one-sided view of progress which saw the growth of the wheat but not that of the tares, the gathering of the grain but not the burning of the chaff, this liberalism was indeed naively optimistic. A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

– H.R. Niebuhr (The Kingdom of God in America, my emphasis)

The above quote was made in an essay by J.B. Stump in The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought. Yet he (Stump) continues:

“…before joining with him [Niebuhr], we should remember that Christian doctrine has not been static throughout its two-thousand-year history. There was significant development in the fourth and fifth centuries as the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity were articulated in the Greek language; in the Middle Ages, it was the doctrine of Atonement that underwent significant revisions…”

So we would be wrong to think of orthodoxy as something that is necessarily fixed. We must always reserve the right to be wrong and to be corrected. Rather, I think of orthodoxy as something that is faithful, but where a change of view may be necessary. The theological liberalism at the other end of the spectrum is one that looks at orthodoxy and declares it to be old hat, and must be in need of change or updating. So the belief in the historical, literal, physical resurrection comes under fire primarily because it has been a lynchpin of orthodox belief. Yet the older form of theological liberalism, arising out of the dust settling after the renaissance and reformation, need not have had a problem with miracles. Rather, it is naturalism (or hyper-naturalism – at the exclusion of other ways of looking at the world) that gives rise to problems with the resurrection and other miracles.

  1. Ecclesiastically liberal

This is the final sense which I use, which seems sensible to me, but which others consider to be slightly idiosyncratic. While the others have been more to do with beliefs, this is to do with praxis. In particular, a liberal church is one that has a free and open worship, informed by, but not tethered to, tradition. The opposite of this would be a traditionalist, or conformist, church, whereby the practice is very much as it has been for centuries.

Dropping into a Sunday morning service, one would be immediately struck by the differences between, say, a high Anglo-Catholic CofE church and a New Frontiers church. At first glance, one might wonder what similarities there are. Are they even the same religion? Well, to that, I would answer ‘yes’. What differentiates them are what aspects of that religion they choose to emphasise and to then display as the public face of their churches.

To give an example, my parents are very much post-Anglican but after moving house earlier this year went to an Anglican church and described it as like going back in time to the 1950s; nothing had changed in the last few decades.

Another hallmark that can be used to discern between liberal and traditionalist churches is whether they have, and if so, to what degree, any level of segregationalism. This tends to be a hangover from catholic clericalism whereby the church leaders are in any way segregated from the rest of the church. Any use of the rhetoric of ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ would be indicative of this, as would the requirement of the church leaders to wear special clothes which demarcate them from everyone else.

The more ecclesiastically liberal churches have less of this and, tending to have a more congregational approach where one may extend Paul’s great equality slogan of “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” to include “[there is neither clergy nor laity]” just as the more socially liberal (see above) may use “[there is neither gay nor straight]” and in areas where racial tensions may be running high, one might hear “[there is neither black nor white]”. Whether such paraphrasing makes for good biblical study may be answered differently by those who take differing stances on the question of theological liberalism!

So hopefully, you can see that all are in some way linked. Just to reiterate, I use these only as rough guides and recognise that individuals and groups have a variety of ways of expressing themselves and their beliefs which defy simplistic categorisation. To illustrate, let’s look at 3 case studies.

So what sort of person am I?

  1. Well, when it comes to being socially liberal or conservative, I would regard myself as broadly liberal. That doesn’t mean I adopt the label first and then, consequently, sign myself up to what might be consider THE liberal position on each issue. Rather, I consider each on their own merits, think about them and arrive at my own conclusions, and then look at who happens to be my nearest neighbours.
  2. In terms of the economics, I am left-wing. I’ve written about that before so shan’t further elaborate on that here.
  3. In terms of the theological, I would say I am mostly orthodox. The only chink in this is that I do not affirm the historicity of the virgin birth. I simply find the evidence for it to be unconvincing and that I do not think that it is a necessary prerequisite for an incarnational theology. It is not that I reject it as a consequence of the rejection of the possibility of miracles, as seems to be the case with some. Rather, my hermeneutical liberalism doesn’t lead me to the creedal conclusion. I’ve given a sketch of my theological approach before both here (recently) and here (a few years ago).
  4. In terms of ecclesiastics, I am most definitely liberal. I am no great fan of traditionalism and find freedom in worship to be far more preferable to liturgical chanting. Part of the reason I am part of the charismatic church rather than a conformist is because the charismatic gives more room for the Holy Spirit, whereas I’ve found more traditionalist churches, by dint of their rigidly scripted services, make no such room for the Spirit to move and may even, in some cases, verge on the warning of quenching the Spirit.

So that’s roughly where I stand. On the balance of the above, I would choose the epithet ‘liberal’ but I hold onto it very gently, willing to let go in case by doing so I end up aligning myself with views and practices which are less than helpful or faithful.

Another example

I had the mixed pleasure of visiting a different church a few weeks ago. It was a part of the Nigerian denomination, the Redeemed Christian Church of God. What sort of church were they?

  1. Socially fairly conservative – Though very welcoming on a Sunday morning, one need only do a little reading around to find that the official line of the church is at times very homophobic. That said, they do have egalitarian leadership. I’m not sure on their stance on other divisive issues.
  2. Economically right-wing – they place great value in personal wealth and seem little interested in matters of social justice. The posters currently adorning the front of the church depict a woman dreaming of a bigger home with a quote from Isaiah 55:8-9 above it.
  3. Theologically liberal. Linked to the above, they have taken a view that endorses the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. This is not something I would regard as orthodox.
  4. Ecclesiastically liberal. As with most pentecostal churches, their expression is about as far removed from the traditional idea of the English church as one could hope to find. This is loud worship, unscripted, with all joining in. It’s not for everyone, but one would be hard pressed to call it staid.

So here, we would see them mostly as ‘liberal’. Yet because of their socially conservative values, they are sometimes branded as just being a conservative church. Yet I hope that I have shown that it’s not necessarily quite as simple as that.

Yet another look

For further contrast, it might be worth looking at a very different kind of church. This is a description that I have gleaned from a number of conversations with a colleague of mine. He attends a very high Anglo-Catholic church in a fairly rural parish. The church is part of the sub-faction of the CofE known as Forward in Faith.

  1. Socially, it is rather conservative. They certainly adopt a pro-life stance and in the wake of the general synod’s decision to allow women the possibility of becoming bishops, there have been grumblings about the church crossing the Tiber and fully converting to Catholicism in protest. Their views on homosexuality are mixed, with some members being very set against it, others are more accepting and some are affirming.
  2. Economically very right wing. The colleague from whom this information is gleaned is a staunch Thatcherite and very much epitomises the idea of “the CofE is the Tory party at prayer”. I know that’s not true in the whole CofE, as it is a richer, broader church than just that. I’m just looking at one example here.
  3. Theologically orthodox. For the most part, anyway. My colleague is actually rather theologically liberal. As he puts it: “Well, it might be true. I don’t really know. I say the creed and I pray the Lord’s prayer, but that’s because you’re supposed to, not because I’m certain of it.” In some ways, he adopts a Pascal’s Wager approach to faith. As for his particular church, I get the impression they stick fairly closely to the Anglo-Catholic line, even if the Anglo part is rather quiet.
  4. Ecclesiastically traditionalist. This is VERY high church, or “smells and bells” as it’s sometimes called. The kind of church where one might well wonder, ‘do they realise there’s been a reformation or not’. Again, to quote my colleague: “Well, that’s what religion’s supposed to be, innit. It’s less about what you believe and more about what you do. Church without the ceremony just wouldn’t be a proper church.”

Wrapping it up

That’s turned out longer than I intended. If you’ve read this far, thank you for doing so. While I doubt many will agree with me wholly, I hope you’ve found it some of it useful, or at least thought-provoking. If anything, this should serve as a guide for any of you who interact with me regularly to have a clearer idea of what I mean when I use terms such as ecclesiastically conservative, theologically liberal or orthodox.

If anything, this should help explain why I find the epithet “conservative evangelicals” to be rather unhelpful. There are some ways in which evangelical christians are more conservative than others, but there are also some in which we are more liberal. And within evangelicalism, there is great variety and a richness of diversity, without necessarily causing division; as there is in other churches too. To some, single issues may define one as conservative, but that is not my view.

As people, as churches and as Church, we walk along the way to the kingdom of God. The path may be narrow and we may stray off course from time to time, both individually and collectively. I believe that Jesus is the way, not christianity. Christianity is the searching for the way. Sometimes we need minor corrections, sometimes we need big reformations and renewals where we’ve gone completely the wrong way or forgotten things. Even then, we don’t necessarily fix everything, sometimes making wrong that which was right. So of course, I may be wrong; or rather, I may well be wrong about a number of things, as you probably well know!

So, over you now.

  • Do you recognise these 4 criteria as being fair and reasonable, or do you think a different way of looking at things is preferable?
  • Are there any issues which ‘flip a switch’ and make one automatically liberal (or otherwise)?
  • How might you describe a) yourself b) your church in such terms – and is there a difference between the two?

Book Review: Being Christian by Rowan Williams

Disclaimer: This was gifted to me by the publishers, SPCK, as a reward for making a pun on Twitter. I think it was something about their authors to food, and I mentioned Rowan-berry Williams. I was not asked to review the book and do so, as ever, wholly of my own initiative.

This little book, subtitled Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, is based on a series of sermons he gave in the final week running up to Easter, though the year wasn’t specified. Williams has identified what he sees as 4 characteristics of the christian life (a point for discussion may be whether these 4 are the best choice, though I wouldn’t say they are bad at all). This isn’t a deep theological treatise, but it has hints of depths for us all to explore. As an example, I might cite a single sentence where he sums up the entirety of liberation theology: “For many people in the 1970s and 1980s it was surprising to realize [sic] what the story of the exodus, for example, meant to people in deprived communities in Latin America.” The book is suffused with such sentences that hint that there is more to things than are shown here, even if it’s like walking down a corridor, being shown doors that are slightly ajar. We are given a fair impression of what may lay behind these doors, but we are left to explore them by ourselves.

This is aided by a number of questions at the end of each chapter which may be used either by oneself or as part of a group study.

It is worth noting the title carefully, or rather, what the title isn’t. One other review I read of it made a criticism that Williams said nothing about how to become a christian, particularly noting that there was nothing about repentance. This is not a fair representation. For starters, Williams does talk about repentance, even though it’s not a section in its own right. More than that, though, the book is not called Becoming Christian. This is not a piece of apologetics nor does it describe the ways by which one might come to faith. There is an assumption here already that the reader has some idea of what the 4 headers are about and of who Jesus is.

Baptism

Readers here should be aware that I grew up in a baptist church which had a very deep, developed theology of baptism. It is usually one area where I differ from my anglican brethren, though it was rather lovely to see that Williams didn’t advocate any of those aspects that I normally cringe at: specifically, the advocacy of infant baptism or a functional (as opposed to symbolic) view of baptism. Some of the latter is hinted at, but Williams doesn’t quite go so far as to say that baptism makes one a christian.

Rather, he gently looks at the idea of being buried and raised with Christ and what that means for the individual. Interestingly, he cannot resist jumping ahead of himself and writing about prayer at this point. What I found most interesting was a comment that prayer is not something that ought to be striven for, but is a natural reaction in the life of the christian, much the inevitability of sneezing.

Bible

This was a chapter I must say I found quite intriguing, not least because I found Williams’ take again quite unexpected. He makes a very sharp distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of their historicity. Williams seems to view the whole of the OT as being an identity-creating narrative but whose historicity is unimportant.

For my part, I am unsure as to whether the historicity of the Old Testament can be downplayed quite so much. While I would agree with Williams that the primary purpose is that of a forming a cultural identity, I am less easily convinced that the historical basis is unimportant. The fact that there is a relative paucity of corroborating evidence, either in literature or archaeology should be something that troubles us. If it were somehow proved the Abraham never entered into a covenant with God then I believe that that would have a profound impact on New Testament theology.

Talking of which, Williams has no such qualms about the historicity of the NT. He emphasises the centrality of Jesus as being the primary means of revelation. For the christian life is one of listening and God’s own voice is not more clear than when speaking through Jesus. There isn’t space here for a huge discourse on source or form criticism, so please don’t come to Williams’ writing with that expectation.

Eucharist

Going back a bit to my baptist upbringing, one of the other areas I would tend to disagree with the anglican mindset regards what Williams calls here Eucharist (which I recall Roger Forster describes as being a fancy way of showing that you know a bit of Greek), but which in the low church is more often referred to as communion or breaking bread.

Williams does stick to the Anglican party line in this chapter, more than he did in baptism, by advocating a highly functional view of the eucharist, even going so far as to mention transubstantiation at one point. So you will not be surprised to read that I profoundly disagree with him on this point. That is not to reject the chapter entirely. Even for the nonconformist, there is a gentle richness here so that one can see the world through the eyes of one particular tradition. He reminds us that communion can be approached in different ways, as a remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made and as a celebration of the resurrection. All this, though, is enabled through the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether it occurred to him quite how charismatic this sounded.

Prayer

In this final chapter, Williams takes a slightly different approach, with the bulk of it taken from 3 figures from fairly early on in christian history: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. I must admit, though reasonably familiar with Origen and having heard of, but been unfamiliar with, Gregory of Nyssa, I had never previously heard of John Cassian. As one might expect, the Lord’s Prayer plays a fairly prominent role here as a model by which we pray.

Williams has more surprises up his sleeves here. In emphasising the personal nature of prayer, Williams advocates the notion of a priesthood of all believers, again something not one might expect from a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet he also emphasises another aspect of prayer, whereby we do it as part of a community; a community who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Overall, I got the impression that the book tried to be a spiritual classic. There wasn’t an awful lot to tie it to the time and place in which it was composed. It didn’t speak to a particular demographic, but had a feeling of timelessness to it. However, that’s not universally true and a few hints here and there could become dated in years to come, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

I’m posting this review comparatively late to when I finished it, so can look back and see what stuck. The overriding sense I get now is that it is a book that I should have read much more slowly than I did. At less than a hundred pages, I thought I was going slowly to eek it out at one chapter per day. It isn’t a work of theology, but it should hold a mirror up to our theology and praxis and remind us of some of the basics of christian living that distinguish us from the rest of the world at large. Such reminders are no new thing in christian literature, yet I have a feeling that this will be read more times and recommended in years to come than many a more plain effort.

There is far more in this small volume than I could cover here, for to do it justice might require a page of writing to unpack each paragraph. So while it may not take you long to read, it will be hard to resist turning back to it and noting the quotes that the publishers highlight for the reader to ponder. If what I’ve touched on sounds interesting, then this is definitely a book for you.

A Friday thought: Scottish independence

For a long time, I’ve chosen to stay quiet on the subject of the Scottish independence referendum. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, even though I do not get a vote, here are a few thoughts and observations as the campaign reaches its climax.

The democratic process

The wording of the question was a problem to begin with. You may recall that the initial question was posed as “Do you agree that…” which was deemed illegal as it was too leading. So that wasn’t a great start.

This was counteracted by the decision to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. In my opinion, this was a very good move and I would be keen to see it extended to other elections and referendums. I recall being annoyed that there was a general election called in 2001 as I was a few months off turning 18 and hence I couldn’t vote. Yet while my views continue to evolve, even as a 16 year old it seemed wrong to deny my age group the vote. The argument has been that we lacked enough life experience or political understanding to be able to make an informed decision. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. If we denied the vote simply on the grounds of not being well enough informed then that would cut out a great many adults.

However, the democratic process wasn’t all that well designed. The issue here is that the vote was given to those resident in Scotland but the outcome would be to affect those who were born in Scotland. In effect, those who were born there but do not currently live there would have a change of nationality enforced on them by a vote which they were not capable of taking part in. Also one has the issue of non Scots who live there voting, though I am not opposed to that. While they wouldn’t have their nationality changed, it is a significant enough change to warrant them having the vote. Others may disagree with me on that.

The question of the economy

Much of the debate has revolved around the economy and so the debate has been shifted from whether Scotland should be independent to whether Scotland would be better off as an independent country rather than part of a union. This was always going to be a big issue, as emphasised by one of the names of the ‘No’ campaign – better together. Though I couldn’t help but think about it in a utilitarian way: what result gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people? Was it a case that Scotland was being held back by the rest of the UK and would prosper alone, leaving the rest of the UK unaffected or was it a case of “we’re off, screw you”? I think the answer is the former, even if it has been portrayed as the latter by some in the ‘No’ camp. But then comes the crucial question: is it actually true? This is a question I don’t know the answer to and haven’t found either side convincing on.

When the polls started to narrow and the markets had the jitters, I saw some comments from market fundamentalists to the effect that this proved independence was bad for business. For some businesses, I don’t doubt that independence will have an adverse effect. But how bad it might be and for how long, will vary from business to business. Personally, I think most will be largely unaffected. If a small number of big employers were to signal their intention to move south as a result of a yes vote, then I would anticipate something akin to a ‘corporate tax war’ whereby the Scottish government would seek to keep (and even attract business) by undercutting the UK corporate tax rates. Though, of course, this would mean they’d have less in their treasury to spend on the social welfare state. Which brings us onto the currency.

The currency issue has ended up playing a much bigger part than it probably should have done. The reason I say that is that it could have been avoided if the ‘Yes’ campaign had had the courage to plan for a new Scottish currency. As it is, their presumption of a currency union backfired. If they had a firm and workable plan in place, then as part of the wider economic question, the ‘Yes’ campaign would have been far stronger. Though as one parody site put it, Alex Salmond’s plan was akin to someone choosing to rescind their gym membership but insist that they can continue to use the equipment afterwards.

It is my belief that the it was the failure to adequately sort out the currency issue that soured the rest of the debate, which has only gotten worse as the date of the referendum has drawn closer. Having failed to come up with an alternative currency, the team behind the ‘Yes’ vote were unwilling to reveal a plan B, which was seized upon by the ‘No’ team who were unwilling to say that negotiations could be entered into. Stubbornness on both sides did neither of them any credit.

The bitter campaigns

All this set us up for an ever more divisive campaign. Given the nature of the referendum that shouldn’t be a bad thing. But it was worse than divisive. It got tribalistic. As is often the sad case with politics, the desire to hold the higher ground often leads to a refusal to acknowledge a good point made by one’s opponents. There have also been cases of demonising the other side and accusations of foul play.

In my view, the onus should have been on the ‘Yes’ campaign to make the case for independence. By and large, this has been what they’ve been aiming for, though of late a few below the belt aims seems to have had more effect. The job of the ‘No’ campaign should have been to critique the proposals. Starting with the currency issue, though, the flat denialism of the ‘Yes’ campaign, jointly with the scaremongering of the ‘No’ campaign, stoked the fires that meant reason and evidence were drowned out by rhetoric and emotionalism.

The fact that the ‘No’ campaign did resort to near-threats and scaremongering did them no favours at all. It also played into the hands of the ‘Yes’ campaign by giving them room to dismiss any fair and reasonable critique as similar scaremongering. As such, the noise from both sides made it more and more difficult to assess the truthfulness of each side.

Both sides have been guilty of saying some pretty stupid things. Alex Salmond saying that Scottish independence was like ending apartheid was monumentally crass. That was matched by some comments I saw on social media likening the SNP to the BNP. They may be one letter different but their ideologies are a world apart.

The ‘No’ campaign really shot themselves in the foot when the 3 main party leaders abandoned Prime Minister’s Questions and went to Scotland in a moment of panic after one opinion poll said the referendum was closer than ever, even if the ‘Yes’ campaign did celebrate it like a landslide victory. I alluded to demonisation earlier, which was most evident here in Salmond’s cry of “Team Westminster”.

I would not deny the ‘Yes’ campaign’s claim that consecutive Westminster governments have been out of touch. I knew a similar sentiment when I lived in the north-east of England. Yet to imagine that the further away you are from Westminster, the less they care is, I believe, wrong. Having lived in London for a year, I know areas 3.5 miles from Westminster that are just as neglected by Parliament as those 350 miles away. Yet that’s not a reason to vote ‘No’. If anything, it is a reason for greater reform in our politics.

If anything, the greatest reason the ‘Yes’ campaign has is one of principle; that it is inherently correct that they should have self-determination.  But self-determination is not a guarantee of prosperity, which is why the promise of economic benefits of independence ring hollow. If there was a promise of “it is right that we should govern ourselves, and it may be tough” then that may be more honest than the vision of independence that has been sold to the Scottish people.

Yet credence has been given to the ‘Yes’ campaign by the sheer panic and late promises from the ‘No’ campaign. The mixed messages of stick and carrot have done the unionists no favours and so it is understandable that people will vote ‘Yes’ on a promise given currency (pun intended) by the flustered nature of the response.

It has been interesting how ‘left’ v ‘right’ has played out. I’ve read some comments from the ‘Yes’ campaign that to vote ‘No’ is an act of selling out to the establishment. Yet the SNP’s socialist credentials were dealt a blow when they didn’t bother to turn up to vote on the latest bill going through to abolish the bedroom tax. There’s a very good analysis on that particular bill here.

Conclusion

Ultimately, there are some very good reasons for voting ‘Yes’ and there are some equally good reasons for voting ‘No’. No one can know for certain what the result of independence might be, all we can do is guess. As highlighted above, some of those guesses are questionable. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, all we have is democracy on a subjective matter. If the opinion polls are to be believed, it will be a very tight vote. It may be interesting to see if a reasonable estimate could be made to see if the enfranchised 16 & 17 year olds make a difference.

Whichever way the vote goes, it will be interesting. I know that for saying that both sides have behaved badly that I have received some flak from ‘Yes’ campaigners and been accused of advocating a ‘No’ vote. I don’t advocate either side. If you are reading this and you have a vote, my only wish is that you exercise it.

Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 4: Monday – final thoughts)

Monday

MudOn Monday, it rained. And it rained. And it rained. It was a bit of a horrible day and forced the organisers into a number of changes to the schedule. In thinking it through, I was trying to work out to what the extent the weather affected my impression of the day. It would be naive to imagine that it didn’t colour the day, but I did come away with the impression that the festival was dying out in a bit of damp squib. Looking through the programme, there weren’t the variety and number of talks I wanted to go to that there had been on Saturday. That’s not to say it was bereft of things to do, though.

Pete

With my legs and feet in tatters, I decided to take a taxi in, but that meant that I was able to make it just on time for Pete Phillips‘ 9am slot on spirituality in a digital age. I’ve heard Pete speak before at the 2012 Christian New Media Conference and his talk here was in a similar vein. The main thing that I took from it was that there is a temptation to be resisted for us to regard online communication as something inherently different from the rest of our lives. Instead of looking at that way, though, it should be seen as a valuable tool that can supplement and aid spiritual expression. There were a few videos played which I admit I struggled to see the relevance of, even if they were quite pretty. The room also had a few faces there that I hadn’t seen for a while, so it was good to catch up. I think the essence of the talk I could summarise with a conversation I had with Richard Burridge later that afternoon. Having said that it was my first time as Greenbelt, he asked me what brought me. My awareness of it came about through friendships cultivated online and I said: “Part of my reason for coming was to meet up with some friends, in some cases for the first time.” I doubt many of us will ever meet most of those who we interact with online, but it might be fun and worthwhile spending time in the company of others. I know I got to know one person much better over a cup of coffee at Greenbelt than I had in a number of interactions over the last few of years on Twitter.

After Pete’s talk, I wanted to go a session on modern monasticism. I first heard of the movement, when I was part of King’s Church Durham, around a decade ago now. The pastor, Mark Bonnington, had the mantra ‘mission and monasticism’. Now I haven’t taken any vows (with my face, celibacy is a fact of life, not a choice!) or wear robes or anything like that. Nor does Ian Mobsby, the bloke who was giving the talk. Unfortunately, it was rather crammed and I got stuck in a queue foe coffee so could only half hear. As a result I couldn’t really comment on the talk, but I did pick up his book, A New Monastic Handbook. Having eventually got a coffee, I decided to head to the next venue so I could guarantee myself a seat.

That next venue was the Jesus Arms. The event: a quiz. Those that know me well know I love quizzes and can be very competitive. I had arranged to meet a couple of folks there but we didn’t catch sight of one another. Some of the tables were being brought in from the outside and given a rub down with some kitchen roll so we could sit on them. I helped as much as I could and bagsied a table. A few random folks came along and we formed a team. When it came to team names, we were advised to pick something appropriate for the awful weather. So we opted for ‘Soggy Bottoms’ in honour of both the rain and a love of The Great British Bake Off. When we came to swap answer sheets, though, it seems that we weren’t the only ones. I wonder how many other teams who we didn’t swap with also picked the name! We managed to talk ourselves out of a few right answers and were about 8 points behind the eventual winners. It was reasonably well organised, though. I thought there was a slight lack of books on the agenda, but no one ever gets the exact questions they want.

After that I had lunch and headed back to The Table (the very wonky venue). It wasn’t so much the topic of the talk that brought me there, as it was the speaker. David Pullinger in part of my extended family (my brother-in-law’s uncle – so our nearest shared DNA is in my nieces and one of my nephews who I will be seeing this coming weekend). So I thought I’d show up in support. He was there representing Christian Connection, though more on their ‘research wing’. So while the talk was entitled ‘The Theology of Singleness’ there wasn’t much theology here. Instead it was more about demographic statistics and the issues that churches would face with a growing demographic of unmarried people. There wasn’t an awful lot of practical application here – it was more about raising awareness of the statistics and encouraging those there (where I guess single people probably formed the bulk of the audience) that late marriage is becoming the norm. I did consider asking a question, but refrained, as one of the major things that I see is that while it is now reasonable to see previously marginalised groups such as women or LGBTI in church leadership positions, outside of those churches that forbid marriage (handily ignoring 1 Tim 4:1-3) singles seem to be disproportionately under-represented. It would be interesting to know how this might vary between denominations. If I cast my mind back through the wide variety of churches I’ve been in, I can only recall 3 or 4 sermons ever that have been given by someone who wasn’t married. What I cannot tell is if my experience is unusual or if this is a ‘hidden prejudice’. I know when I’ve raised the point in the past, some have reacted very angrily at the very suggestion, which I find interesting, to say the least. The objection usually comes in the form of what-about-ery from a particular group who want to engage in a game of “I’m more marginalised than you” which is not something I have any fondness for a rarely rise to the bait.

Nadia & Sara

Following on from this, and with some of the locations changed because of the weather, I just went over the Big Top to see what was on. We got a conversation between Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sara Miles on the topic of ‘glorifying the stranger’. This was phrased in terms of contrasting it with simply ‘welcoming’. Sara said that welcoming strangers is what ‘nice’ churches do because we try to be good christians by welcoming others to do things our way (this was said with an ironic tone). Most of the conversation consisted of them giving examples of issues they’ve faced within their churches (one Lutheran, one Episcopalian) caused by having strangers in their midst. They both advocated an open communion, which I would wholly agree with, though I wasn’t so keen on their advocacy of the use of liturgy in churches. Others may take the opposite view to me there. There was some helpful advice, though I thought this was rather for those in leadership roles, or at least the decision-makers within a church. This idea was strengthened in the Q&A session, which was fairly long in comparison to the main presentation, where almost all the questioners seemed have particular roles within the church. I confess, this section gave me both the feeling of curiosity and uneasiness, as the phrasing of the questions often came with a bit of baggage, so one maybe got a little too much insight than was necessary. For them, I’m sure it was helpful, but some of the pastoral issues maybe ought not to have been aired in such a public forum. If you were there, did you get the same idea?

After this, I went wandering around a little bit. It took ages, but I couldn’t get very far as I was on my last legs. I ended up in a venue I hadn’t been in before, The Playhouse. This was mostly because I thought it was a children’s venue, but it turns out it was more for theatrical productions. I had kind of forgotten that word ‘play’ had dual meaning! I came in after there had been a showing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. There was a sort of interview done later with Richard Burridge entitled ‘What Have The Pythons Ever Done For Us?’ This came from a conference that took place at King’s College, London earlier in the summer – which is where Richard is a Dean as well as a professor of biblical interpretation. Apparently, Michael Palin had been invited to Greenbelt to take part, but wasn’t able to come due to a prior booking commitment. It was good to hear it expressed that if Life of Brian were released today, then “the church” wouldn’t react in the same way, though I couldn’t help but get the impression that when Richard spoke of “the church” that he actually meant the CofE rather than “the Church” as a whole. I still think some quarters would object to the film, even if would be more likely to be Christian Voice than any mainstream or otherwise representative group.

And with that, I think Greenbelt was sort of over for me. A lot of people had gone already, so the site felt relatively empty compared to earlier in the weekend. I wandered around as much as I was physically able, but apart from visiting the bookstore (not for the first time in the weekend) I couldn’t find an enticing reason to hang around. I had a look at my programme but nothing leapt out at me. Because of the bad weather, some of the transport arrangements were screwed up. Also, because there was no mobile signal on site, I couldn’t ask for a taxi and I was in no fit state to walk back to the hotel. So my plan was to get the shuttle bus to its only destination: the train station. The plan was to pick up a taxi from there. There was, however, a snag. Having been told the shuttle bus was running all day until 10pm, when I eventually got to the box office from where I had also been told it started, it turns out it wasn’t starting until 7pm.Yet I got there about 5:30! So I sat and flicked through the introductions to some of the books I had bought, whilst people slowly found their own cars and made their own way off the site. Sat by myself, in a tent in the pouring rain was not how I had envisioned the festival. It went some way to washing off the good memories, which is partly why I wrote this fairly lengthy series – in order to re-grasp what I thought at the time. With so much going on each day, it would be easy for it all to fade and that even 2 months down the line, I wouldn’t recall some of the talks or they’d merge into one another.

Sold Out

Looking back, a few days on

So then, as I write this nearly a week after the festival, what were the lasting impressions and things I got out of it? Unfortunately, one of the lasting marks seems to a scar on my leg. Though it is healing now, the tissue is somewhat different from normal skin. I was trying to think if I would return next year. If the shuttle bus continues to only go between the station and the site, omitting where people are actually staying, then I would probably stay away on that basis. There was much to value there, but I would probably opt for the podcasts. Even though I would miss out on the camaraderie (yes, there was a lot of that), it would be necessary to literally save my skin.

In terms of the talks, I think it might have been good to have slightly fewer bookselling agendas. Though I appreciate the need to do so (a fair chunk of my salary is derived from book sales) some greater variety might be in order. A few others noted a slight anti-evangelical tone in some parts of the festival, so a few more evangelical speakers would be add to the variety, though on the whole it was fairly varied. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t dabble enough in other expressions of christianity. Going Quaker for an afternoon was as daring as I got. I know there was a Taize service, though when I went to one in the past I hated having orders barked at me and being told, “no, no, you’re doing it all wrong” because I turned anti-clockwise instead of clockwise. Or there could have been the goth communion, but at my age, I don’t have the stamina to stay up til midnight much.

One thing that I looked for, but found little on, was much talk on the theology of finance. I admit, that’s a particular interest of mine, but short of submitting a paper and trying to get myself on the speaking platform, I’m not sure who we might get to speak. But I think I’m more likely to become a Quaker than ever be invited to speak at any christian gathering.

Having had a couple of days back in London, it’s been odd adapting back to city life. It seems a world away. I go back into my habit of coping with the multitude by seeing people as objects to be dodged around and walked past rather than individuals with their own hopes and dreams, histories and stories to learn from. Or as members of a community with a collective memory and unique cultural expressions. I’m not advocating that my “London” view is healthy, but it’s just how I live in the city. Getting back into the swing of work was interesting. I think my head was still at Greenbelt, mulling over some of the things I’ve heard and which I’ve endeavoured to convey onto you. As such, I admit that the first few days haven’t been the most productive.

I picked up 5 books which I shall get round to reading sometime. In total, the stack of unread books I’ve got on my living room floor right now could keep me busy for the next year even if I don’t get any more. So don’t expect reviews of the 5 immediately. I have plenty of others to be getting on with. Only time will tell as to how much truly sinks in and whether those around me notice a significant difference in my theology, my praxis, my questions. Where possible, I’ve tried to draw some links between the talks I went to, perhaps in the hope that this loose web may help capture some wider insight.

One point I might revisit, as a critique of the festival as a whole, is that it really isn’t all that ‘green’. The lack of adequate public transport meant that it was only really accessible for those who came in their own private transport. For those like me, who make the choice, based on their personal ethics, to use their own legs or only public transport, the festival was unnecessarily hard to get to. So perhaps in future, there could be a greater effort into providing alternatives so that people could have a reasonable alternative to bringing their cars.

At times I got the impression that ‘changing the world’ was considered easy – as exemplified by one of the “ethical stores” on site, which had a slogan on their side to the effect of: “[if you buy are products, you will make the world a better place]”. I remain cynical about such claims. I saw the birth no great movement here, and if any movement was already in place it was that of the celebrity christian – a movement that has some good and some drawbacks. I would hope that my motivations for the talks I went to was based primarily on the topics and secondarily on the speakers, though with so much choice I picked the talks I went to more on instinct than by a fully rational process. As I commented to someone at the time, I could have done with a spreadsheet to help me.

There are more of you I met than I have detailed in this little series of blog posts. So apologies if you were not named. It was a delight to meet you all, and I think I’ve updated my Twitter list of ‘Folks I’ve met’ so I hope you don’t mind being added to it.

So as we all go back to our own homes and settle back into our routines and rhythms, however irregular they may be, what was your take on Greenbelt? I’m sure there are things I’ve written which you disagree with, so please feel free to engage (some have done this on Twitter already). Having looked through the Flickr page of the festival, there was much that I seem to have missed. I’m sure you could gather half a dozen people and find minimal overlaps in their experience. So this is just my testimony; one of many thousands. What’s yours?

Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 3: Sunday – sermons & discussions)

Sunday

On Sunday morning, I headed back to the site for what was really the one event they had going on then, the communion service. I will write more about that separately on another site (late edit: it may now be found here), but here’s a brief precis:

I got to the site at about 9:30, though having been told by a friend where to meet, I couldn’t find the location mentioned, so I just parked my butt and said where I was. Though it was meant to be a multi-denominational service, it struck me as all rather Anglican in nature. There was some shamanistic chanting and those behind the communion table donned those scarf-like things that you get in very conservative churches. That said, one Anglican I spoke to afterwards said it was still rather different from what they had at their regular Sunday service. So I wonder if in trying to appeal to all and sundry, there was quite widespread alienation.

Communion

On the flip side of the high church stuff there was some happy clappy elements, it even threatened to turn into a barn dance at one point. Depending on your view, either the highlight or the nadir was a song I’d never heard before called “This little light of mine” which was so off-the-scale in terms of happy clappy, it made Shine Jesus Shine seem like Allegri’s Miserere. If my church ever sings it, expect me to excuse myself for a few minutes.

Though probably the biggest disappointment (and I know I’m not alone in this) was the “sermon”. Having noted that quite a few of the talks I attended the previous day were in some ways related to books that people had out, I was hoping for a more normal Sunday message where we could get a reasonable exposition of a passage of scripture, with practical application for how to apply it to our lives. Instead, though, we got another book plug. It was out of place and a sore misjudgment on the part of the speaker (and the organisers, if they knew that that was the message that was going to be preached). And the less said about the content of the sermon the better.

The site

But I did manage to get some good sermons, as afterwards I headed to the venue known as The Mount, which is where the Quaker service had been the previous afternoon. Well, given the venue name, it was kind of inevitable that there would be sermons there at some point. This was sort of relay sermons with some great songs in between. If I could get hold of the songs, I would love to direct them to you. Imagine Billy Bragg were a christian, passionate about social justice and inclusion, then you’d get a fair impression of what we had. The other sermons we had were from Nadia Bolz-Weber and Padraig O Tuama (A transcript of Nadia’s is available here). While each did their own part, and I didn’t manage to take notes, the overall impression I left with was one of the down-to-earth practicality of christian belief. It was a call to action, without any hectoring tone, of a need to be gracious and live lives that reflect the best of humanity.

Mpho Tutu

After a lateish lunch, I went over to the Big Top to continue a quest to hear of the best of humanity by listening to Mpho Tutu and Richard Burridge in conversation. Mpho seemed, on the basis of the billing, to be the guest of honour. She had spoken a little at communion earlier, giving a blessing to the congregation in Xhosa, though it was a pity there was no one to translate. The conversation largely revolved around Mpho’s father, Desmond Tutu. During the talk, we had a few clips played from a video he did about the notion of Ubuntu. Not the operating system, but the original word from which it is derived. Richard spoke about his own dealings with Desmond and the history of Greenbelt’s involvement with the anti-apartheid movement. As such, I felt that we didn’t really get to hear Mpho much, which was a bit of a shame. What I did get was that her big idea is that forgiveness is a process that we must go through. So simply say “I forgive you” is not exactly the same as enacting forgiveness. In other words, it’s not something switched on and off like a light. I couldn’t help but think of a parallel with Bonhoeffer’s notion of costly grace. I’ve read some who have said that they can never forgive those who have wronged them. To those, I would direct them to Mpho’s testimony.

Afterwards, I met up with a friend who I knew through Twitter. We’d exchanged numbers earlier and went off for coffee and a chat. After this, I headed to the main stage to listen to a DJ set by Gilles Peterson. If you’ve not come across him before, Gilles is to jazz what John Peel was to rock. He seems to be round for a while, as I recall listening to his Worldwide show at midnight between Wednesdays and Thursdays when I was a teenager. He opened up a whole new side of music that you could just never hear anywhere else. Different styles, odd vocalisations, rhythms that were alien to the usual fare of Radio 1 stuff.

Politics debate

After this, I went to sit in the Pagoda, awaiting a 5:30 discussion which featured a couple of guys I used to know. In my days at sixth form college, I would frequent an Anglican church town in the neighbouring town and afterwards a few of us would head up to the cemetery for hot chocolate and toasted sandwiches. Two of the panel of 5 used to live there. The motion proposed was: “This house believes that the 2015 Election will make no significant difference to the future of Britain.” At the start of the meeting we took a straw poll which came out 50/50. Another poll was made at the end, but more of that later. On the ‘for’ side were Louise Donkin of SPEAK and Martin Newell of the Catholic Worker Network. On the ‘against’ side were Pippa Morgan of the LibDem Christian Forum and Gavin Shuker, the Labour Co-Op MP for Luton South. The chair was Andy Flannagan who is the head of Christians on the Left, formerly known as the Christian Socialist Movement. It may strike you, as it did many in the tent that this was a particularly left-leaning panel (though there was an amusing moment when, in reference to physical location, Louise was said to be “on the far right”). It was noted that Conservative representation was sought but that no one was available to come to Greenbelt to represent them. All four candidates spoke very well. From my point of view, I thought Louise probably came off as the most reasonable. Martin was good, though I thought his views were a little simplistic. For example, why I would agree that the scrapping of Trident would be a good idea, I think careful planning would need to be done so as to not unnecessarily increase unemployment or do to the towns which house Trident workers what Thatcher did the mining towns in the north of England. Yet I wouldn’t hold that the threat of unemployment should prevent discussion of nuclear disarmament. On the against side, I have to say that Gavin rather outshone Pippa; his experience of debating showing. I know Sarah Teather was around on site on the day, so I did wonder why she didn’t represent the Lib Dems here.  The question really hung on the term ‘significant’. No one denied that the outcome of the election would make a difference, but whether there were big enough differences between the parties was what I doubted. After the debate had gone through some prepared questions, the floor was opened up so the audience got to participate. The questions here varied in quality, often straying away from the main topic at hand and into more general politics (like an edition of Question Time, only without a token comedian, Daily Mail columnist or Nigel Farage). After a few had been asked, I decided to raise my hand to ask a question, about a topic that I feel quite strongly about. I can’t recall exactly how I worded it, but it was something like this: “[One of the causes for disillusionment with politics is the perception that politicians have greater loyalty to their party whips than to their constituents. Would you agree that the whips should be either abolished or reformed?]” (for an earlier take on it, see here). To make it a bit more specific, I wanted to ask the elected members of the panel (which turned out to just be Gavin) if they had voted against their party lines on the basis of representation received from one or more constituents. Louise and Martin both agreed with my premise, that whips are undemocratic and should be scrapped. To focus on Gavin’s response, though, he named a number of bills that had passed that had been subject to a whip, including the founding of the NHS. In effect, though, his answer was a variation of “[the end justifies the means]” which I found quite unsatisfactory. In fairness, though, he did say that he had voted against his party, though that was on his own conscience rather than on the basis of representing his constituents. The vote was taken again at the end and this time it was not a draw. While I remained voting on the ‘for’ side, I was now in the minority. As I left, I remained unconvinced, but my hope is that young politicians like Gavin and Pippa do not allow Westminster life to jade them, as both showed a decent level of integrity. Probably the strongest point made, harking back to one made by Owen Jones the day before, was the potential of the election to be changed by those who don’t currently vote but who are entitled to. My personal idea is that if there is to be any increase in voter turnout, it may be for UKIP and which may dilute the Tory vote, favouring Labour in some marginal seats.

4 ladies

I had a bit of a break for dinner (a lovely Goan fish curry) before heading to a talk I had been more or less instructed to go to. 4 friends were doing a discussion about ‘transition’. Now, this had been a little ambiguously worded, which was unfortunate as I was led to believe that some thought it was a talk on being transgendered. In fact, it was 4 stages of going through being an Anglican minister. One had just left their career to start their training. One had just finished training and was now a vicar. One had just finished their first vicaring job and had moved onto a new parish. The last had just a parish to go and work in a cathedral. I freely admit, and I said it to their faces, that it was almost wholly irrelevant to me. I’m not an Anglican and have no intentions of becoming one any time soon. I still haven’t got my head round all the various ranks within the hierarchy, but I think lay reader is lower than deacon which is lower than rector, but I’m not sure if there are in between steps. Even one of the participants (@goodinparts – imagine Hyacinth Bucket but with all the haughty pretension replaced by gentle charm) admitted that she didn’t really know what a canon pastor does – and she is one! Congregational and presbyterian structures are so much simpler! Anyway, before the talk started in a very packed tent, I was surprised when someone knelt down next to where I was sitting and said, “You must be Simon!” in a very cheerful manner. I must admit, I’m not accustomed to being accosted, so was slightly taken aback. It turns out it was @losthaystacks who for some reason I thought had either a Northern Irish or Western Scottish accent. So it took a few moments for me to come round to anything civility and actually say hello. Later, after the talk, I also got to say hello to @ClareLissaman who was hosting in one of the venues, but who I had wholly failed to recognise due to her wearing a hat. Back to the 4-way talk – the conversation was very interesting and bore the hallmarks of its origins – a chat in a pub.

After this, the whole site geared up for the headline act: Sinead O Connor. I was not particularly fussed about seeing her, but I had been offered a lift back to the hotel, so after the injuries sustained earlier, I was going to stick around to listen to the set and avoid walking back in the dark. She was OK. One could have predicted that some of the language would be a bit fruity (though having listened to Nadia Bolz-Weber earlier, this would not have been the first time the air turned blue at Greenbelt). Some people had let their small children stay up to listen but quickly moved off after the first song referenced “pissing in your coffee”. Even the next morning, I heard some small children talking about the swearing. Mid way through the set, I went off to grab myself a drink and ran into a few friends. But we all managed to get outside for ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ which everyone joined in with. Sinead was clearly the most professional of the musicians we had, and in general the quality of the music on Sunday was better than that which we had on Saturday. But I had no urge to stick around and shout encore. I joined a steady stream of people who were filing away into the dark, but this time I remembered my torch, which helped to prevent me from turning my ankle on a divet.

So I got back to the hotel, looked at the weather forecast and got myself ready for a very soggy Monday.

Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 2: Saturday – lots of talks)

Saturday

I got the distinct impression that Saturday was the main day for going to talks. It was certainly more intense than any other day. I set off from the hotel just before a quarter to 8 in the morning, having worked out the right route and was hoping I could cover the distance in an hour and a quarter to get to Bex Lewis‘ 9am talk. As it was, I underestimated how badly injured I was, but this soon became apparent as I headed down the road. It took me an hour to do the first 3 miles, but I was in a lot of pain and had slowed to a limp. As I was on the last stretch of the road, somebody stopped to offer me a lift to the site, which I was grateful to accept. I got to the site just after 9, but I thought I would have kedgeree for breakfast and go in for the second half of the 1st talk. Unfortunately, I made a bit of a false assumption. Having seen the timetable was split into hourly sessions, I thought each talk would be 50-60 minutes, just like university lectures were. So I got into the right tent at 9:25, only to find that everyone was in the middle of an exercise involving sticking bits of paper together. This was to the be the end of the session which ended at 9:30.

So I stuck around for a bit and had a chat to a few people, before heading on to the next venue in plenty of time. I went to The Table, which was a marvelously wonky venue. The stage looked at though it was tilted, though in fact that was a trick of perspective, as the whole tent was on a slope, so everything was wonky apart from the stage. So you had to sit on the right hand side of the tables or else you’d risk falling over backwards. Anyway, I was there for a talk on myth given by Naomi Millner. I’d not heard of her before, but she made a fairly good impression. The talk wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but that’s no bad thing. The dominant points I got out of it were that the word myth has a long history to it, but that it really has very little etymology. It just means what it means, with no part of the word referring to any other ideas. In addition to this, there was an interesting take on the nature of testimony, whereby she said that testimony is filling in the gaps left by more systematic study. Where I disagreed with her slightly was about the identification of who are “oppressors”. This came up in the context of telling the stories, the myths, the identity-creating narratives of groups that have been oppressed in the past. While I would acknowledge that as a white, straight, middle-class male, I am part of a demographic that has historically been in the role of the oppressor – a role which has been diminished somewhat in recent decades, but which has not wholly been undone, I would resist the identification of each individual, including myself, friends and family, with the whole of the demographic group. So while I may try to give voice to those who have been voiceless, it is not as reparation for any wrongdoing on my part.

Owen Jones

I had to duck out of the Q&A session as I wanted to head over to the Big Top, the largest of the indoor venues, to hear Owen Jones speak on the politics of hope. The tent was pretty packed and I only managed to get a spot near the back, mostly behind people who had brought camping chairs with them and so blocked the view of most of us who had to sit on the grass. But that didn’t bother me too much; I was here to listen, not to see. Owen is someone whose political views I broadly agree with, though I do find his rhetoric at times go a little over the top. I had thought that like many of the Greenbelt speakers, he was here to plug his new book. But he didn’t bring it along with him, nor did he even mention it. Given the title of the book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, I did wonder if the talk was a summary of it, but I couldn’t say for certain until I read the book, which probably won’t be for some time. For someone my age, Owen is certainly a confident and able speaker. He didn’t need any notes and spoke from the heart, with good recall of facts. The gist that I got was that it was an invective against the current coalition government with some loose ideas for possible policies to undo the harm inflicted on the populace. One of the phrases that stuck in my head was his assertion that (I paraphrase) we have “[socialism for the rich, dog-eat-dog sink-or-swim capitalism for everyone  else]”. If you want to read more on this, he more or else copied it out in article published in the Guardian a few days later. His plea was that if we wanted to enact change, we needn’t wait for polling day. He encouraged us to join a political party (he didn’t specify or point people to any one in particular) or to look into a cross-party grouping he is involved with, The People’s Assembly. While I applaud the encouragement to be more politically involved, I am tads more cynical. It is not out of laziness that I don’t join a political party, it is a matter of principle. I have heard all too often that you can enact change from the inside, but being unable to do that even in a small church, I doubt the reality of that in a national party. If anything, my ideas are most closely aligned to the Green Party (who seemed to be well represented at Greenbelt) but I disagree on their stance over nuclear power as an alternative source of energy. Given the poor system of democracy we have at the moment, I also tend to vote tactically and I am of the view that a vote for any of the parties that don’t sit in the top 2 in any given constituency is probably a wasted vote. At the end of the talk, Owen was gracious enough to open the floor to give a voice to others, which actually tied in quite well with the view advocated by Naomi Millner just an hour earlier. It wasn’t really a Q&A session, just a chance for people to have a voice. There was quite an amusing intake of breath when one chap admitted to being a member of the Liberal Democrats.

The intention was then to head off for lunch. I managed to meet Dyfed Wyn Roberts, appropriately enough whilst I was tucking into a Welsh lamb burger. I had planned to take it easy until Brian McLaren’s talk in the afternoon on the main stage, but Dyfed suggested we head off to hear Linda Woodhead on the topic of ‘The Crisis Of Religion In The UK: History, Causes, Consequences’. From the outset, it was made clear that the title was rather misleading. Rather than use the word ‘crisis’ in the conventional sense, this was to be understood more as a tipping point, a crux. The point being that crisis should not be thought necessarily be thought of as a bad thing. The focus of the talk was on demographics with a fairly broad-brush approach to societal trends. An interesting point that I picked up was the family is no longer the norm. So with particular reference to the recent Conservative announcement that they would make their policies family-friendly (or in other words, single un-friendly – way to get my vote!), it is based on a view of British society that is out-of-date and becoming less and less reflective of reality. It was asserted that religious populations have followed trends increased liberalisation that we see in society (with some variation between religions & denominations), but that the leadership hasn’t followed the trend, which creates a gap. It is this gap which has created the ‘crisis’. The talk and a couple of the questions were a little sour, not least with the “well the house of laity [in the Church of England] doesn’t represent the laity”, a dig at so-called “conservative evangelical” churches, which was quite lacking in grace and a fairly flat dismissal of all Christian Unions in all colleges and universities. So for all the good that the talk had, the tone amongst the audience, which Woodhead didn’t make much effort to counter, had rather an anti-evangelical prejudice which left a bit of bad taste in my mouth (nothing to do with the Welsh lamb, that was lovely). The other thing that gave me pause for thought was Woodhead’s definition of liberalism. It was very much aligned with John Stuart Mill’s view which was pretty much synonymous with individualism. So I wonder if that kind of liberalism ought to have much place in such a communal setting as a church.

Brian McLaren

After that I went to park my butt on a spare patch of grass by the main stage to listen to Brian McLaren. He is someone I’ve heard of before, but had never heard before. His book, A Generous Orthodoxy, has been on my reading list for some time, but unfortunately, it wasn’t on sale at the bookshop. They had several others of his, including ‘Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha And Mohammed Cross The Road?‘ which I later bought and managed to get signed.

The reason I chose that particular book was because it seemed to expand upon the theme of the talk, which largely revolved around how christians relate to those of other faiths. There is a danger in reading such a book as I found Brian’s talk to be probably the most agreeable; that is, the one where the views espoused were aligned most closely with my own. So if you want to get a fair impression of my view, but put more eloquently than I can, then please do listen to the talk (I think all talks can be purchased from the Greenbelt website). As such, there was little there to challenge me directly or cause me to think thoughts that I hadn’t already thought before. During the talk, the clouds did come over and we had a bit of a miserable shower. Though everyone was prepared for it, and we just put on our raincoats or popped up umbrellas, much as you might see at Lord’s or Wimbledon in the summer months, earning us a collective compliment of, “you guys don’t miss a beat” as the stage from which Brian was speaking was covered, so he remained dry as a bone. The rest of us did impressions of cows by staying put in order to keep dry the patch of ground on which we were sat. One of the interesting things that Brian alluded to was also mentioned in his billing as ‘one of the world’s 25 most influential evangelicals’. Leaving aside the issue of the merit or usefulness of such lists, he said this his “credentials” as an evangelical were under threat. When I spoke to him afterwards, I was keen to encourage him not to abandon the label if he felt pressured to do so, but to simply be evangelical as he sees it. I may write more about this another time, as given the reference in Woodhead’s talk above, it may be useful to look at the growing tide of anti-evangelicalism amongst some christians, and see where this hateful prejudice against one’s own brethren stems from and how it might be turned around.

The downside of having seen Brian McLaren is that I gave up on going to see Michael Northcott speak on the political theology of climate change (also the title of a book he has out), which was on in the Pagoda (which resembles the Great British Bake Off tent more than an actual pagoda) at the same time. But I planned to head over to the Pagoda afterwards for a talk by Dave Tomlinson entitled “The Bad Christian’s Manifesto” which again, is also the title of his book – are you picking up a theme here?

Nick Spencer

Alas, by the time I got there, the place was packed and even at the door, for want of a better word for an opening flap in a tent, people were stacked several rows back, trying to get in. Clearly a popular talk and I stood no chance of getting in. So I looked for any talks starting in half an hour’s time that I might like to go to and which I may have a chance of going to see. So I cross over the path and went to the Treehouse (probably my favourite venue of the weekend) to see Nick Spencer of the Theos think tank give a brief history of atheism. A while ago, I bought a book on the very topic by Gavin Hyman, but haven’t got round to reading it yet. So it won’t be until some time after I’ve done that that I may get round to reading Nick’s book on the topic. But it was interesting to listen to him nonetheless. Like me, he admitted that this was the first time he had been to Greenbelt, but it was clearly not his first time at public speaking. I had expected him to make mention of the early christians being referred to as atheists, but he didn’t do that. Instead, harking back to Naomi Millner’s talk earlier in the day, he gave us a creation myth. This was a creation myth “according to some modern atheists”. It was certainly a caricature, and a very amusing one at that, though I wondered how it might be received by any atheists. If there were any present, they certainly didn’t make themselves known. From here, though, the talk became a lot more academic in style, but enthralling nonetheless. So what did I get out of the talk? The lasting impression is that atheism as we know it is not one thing, but comes from a number of sources. Like a river, it may have many tributaries that feed into it, with a fair bit churned up along the way. Yet in terms of the so-called “New Atheism”, there is very little that is new about it, other than the shrillness of the rhetoric. But you probably knew that already. The real interest was the characters between the likes of Hume and Voltaire who I was less familiar with. So while I picked up the gist of the history, I will have to educate myself a bit more to become as familiar with it as Nick has.

After all this, I though I had had my fill of listening. Just as you might have had your fill of reading by now. But if you’ve stayed with me, thank you for your patience. So I wanted to do something different and even try something new. One group I have long admired from a distance is the Quakers, and they had a meeting at 6pm that afternoon. I’d never been to a Quaker meeting before, being rather intimidated by the prospect of just turning up in a way one generally isn’t in a more conventional church. The local group to me meets just once a month and the address on the website is residential, so I wouldn’t want to just turn up on someone’s front door and ask to be let into their living room. So this was an opportuity to try it out. I ventured up the short hill (very slowly, given the state of my feet and legs), and parked myself just under a canopy that had been erected. On the ground were two leaflets. One was entitled ‘Your first time at a Quaker meeting’ and the other was a longer one with some guidelines for the Quaker ethos. They were both immensely helpful and I read through them both before it got underway. It was very good of them to lay on provision for newcomers. I cannot say how different it was from a normal meeting, though clearly some things were changed. For example, I understood that the meeting was usually deemed to start when two or three gather. Yet we had a spoken introduction before moving into a time of silence. Well, I say silence. There was a lot of noise coming from the main stage. I think it was supposed to be music, but on the whole I was unimpressed with the musical offerings on the Saturday. It was just disjointed a cacophonous. This unpleasant combination of sounds drifted across to where we were, making real silence impossible. Nonetheless, no one spoke for some time, before a few people spoke, either reading from the little red booklet of Advices and Queries or sharing thoughts. What struck me was how similar this was to my own experience of charismatic churches. Often there is a space made for people to speak. This might be referred to as speaking in tongues, giving a word of knowledge or of prophecy. However you generally phrase it, it comes down to being a prompting from the Holy Spirit. The only difference is that the Quakers do it silently, whereas the charismatic churches are more vocal. Yet the theological praxes are remarkably alike. I wonder if a Quaker going to a charismatic church for the first time might feel the same thing. If you want to try, you are welcome! I’ve a lot more to learn about Quakerism, but I do have an anthology of Quaker writings that is gradually getting nearer the top of my reading pile (it’s about 12th from the top), so I can read it with at least a pinch of experience.

With that, I decided to call it a day. I had been intrigued by the idea of the midnight goth eucharist, but it was not even 7pm and, having been nonplussed by the music on offer, there was little to entice me to stay around. So I decided to make my own slow way back to the hotel and try to get some rest before heading back in the morning.