‘The Human Propensity to F*** things Up’

“One of the major obstacles to communicating what belief feels like is that I’m not working with a blank slate. Our culture is smudged over with half-legible religious scribblings. The vocabulary that used to describe religious emotions hasn’t gone away…instead, it’s still in circulation, but re-purposed, with new meanings generated by new usages…

Case in point: the word ‘sin’, that well-known contemporary brand name for ice cream. And high-end chocolate truffles. And lingerie in which the colour red predominates.  And sex toys; and cocktails… ‘Sin’ you can see, always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something.

If I say the word sin to you…it’s going to sound like as if I am bizarrely opposed to pleasure, and because of the on-going link between sin and sex, it will seem likely that at the root of my problem with pleasure is a problem with sex.

So I won’t do that.  Because that isn’t at all what I mean.

What I and other believers understand by the word I’m not saying to you has got very little to do with yummy transgression.  For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity to fuck up.  Or let’s add one more word; the human propensity to fuck things up, because what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.  Now I hope we are on common ground.

For most of us the point eventually arrives when, at least for an hour or a day or a season, we find we have to take notice of our HPtFtU (as I think I better call it).  Our appointment with realisation often comes at one of the classic moments of adult failure; when a marriage ends, when a career stalls or crumbles, when a relationship fades away with a child only seen on Saturdays, when the supposedly recreational coke habit turns out to be exercising veto powers over every other hope and dream…

The HPtFtU dawns on you. You have indeed fucked things up. Of course you have. You’re human, and that’s where we live; that’s our normal experience.”

 

Unapologetic - by Francis Spufford

All text taken from ‘The Crack in Everything’, chapter two of Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense by Francis Spufford.

I would highly recommend Unapologetic, especially for those who are not Christians.  Its unlike any book I have ever read before because it takes seriously the need to communicate faith in a way people actually can hear and understand.  If you are a Christian then buy it, read it, and give it to someone who isn’t.

Buy Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

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From the DRC to London: helping Theodore realise his hope of education – by Rachel Henry

TheodoreTheodore*, 18, comes from the North East of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He was brought up in a region where there are regular attacks on civilians by armed groups.  When he was a child, his family fled an attack on their village and settled in a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Goma.

In 2008, during the violent ‘Battle of Goma’, Theodore’s father and mother were killed. He fled again, this time on his own as a 14 year old. He travelled by land through several African countries, and ultimately, after a journey of over 18 months, arrived in the UK aged 16.

In the UK

Theodore was taken into the care of the Croydon Social Services and given a temporary form of leave to remain in the UK that would last until he was seventeen and a half years old. He was placed in a house with other separated children who had also recently arrived.

In the house, Theodore struggled to communicate and make friends because whilst he spoke French, the other boys spoke Dari or Arabic. He suffered from regular flashbacks of the violence he experienced in his home country, and found it difficult to sleep at night because of the images in his mind of all he had seen.

Despite his interrupted education, Theodore has always wanted to become a teacher. When he arrived in the UK, the Refugee Support Network helped him get a place in an English for Speakers of Other Languages class at college and matched him with Sarah*, one of our educational mentors.

The big difference

When he first met with Sarah, Theodore told us that she was the only adult in his life who was not paid to help him, but was doing so simply because she wanted to. This simple fact made a big difference.  It started to help Theodore feel less alone and isolated.

Theodore has now been mentored for just over a year, and his teacher tells us that since being matched with a mentor his confidence has grown, his insomnia has reduced and he has made faster and better progress with his studies.

Last week Theodore phoned our team and said:

“You have helped me like no one else has helped me! Every time I think of you I say thank you God because you have helped me study better”

Help needed!

Refugee Support Network are running educational mentoring programme and we really need more mentors who can help people like Theodore. Watch this short film about our work:

Rachel Henry works at the Refugee Support Network, lives in Streatham, South London and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church.

Posted in Social action | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Cranmer and the toxic nature of anonymous blogging

Thomas_CranmerFor those of you who don’t know, Cranmer is the name of a blog which comments on religious and political issues.  He describes himself as “Bishop of the Blogosphere, Pastor of the World Wide Web and Chaplain to the Digital Archdiocese”.

Cranmer has won a large following by expressing right-wing, traditionalist perspectives on both religion and politics with idiosyncratic wit and clever prose.  You can read a long list of commendations (and criticisms) from well-known figures which he proudly shares on the home page of his site.

‘Trolling’

Recently, Cranmer has got into a heated twitter-based argument with the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, and his Chaplain, Canon Rosie Harper, over his criticism of her views on the Assisted Dying Bill.

I am not going to get into their disagreement on the issue itself – as can be seen by the differences between George Carey and Justin Welby, even Archbishops disagree strongly on this issue.  But sadly the argument descended in the way twitter rows often do, with the Bishop accusing Cranmer of ‘trolling’ Rosie Harper and Cranmer reacting furiously, and pompously, in his own defence.

Cloak of anonymity

The key problem this row again highlights, is that Cranmer writes under a cloak of anonymity.  This lack of openness about who it actually is expressing these opinions adds further toxicity to the frequently poisonous nature of online debate.  That it comes from an avowedly Christian perspective makes it even more incongruous.

It means that his arguments with real people – people with friends, family, followers and reputations – are not fair fights.  Cranmer writes drawing on knowledge that he has gathered in his real identity and mixes it freely with his fictional, pseudo-historical persona. Take this example from his recent post on his row:

“To be so accused by a bishop is a serious matter, especially when that bishop is one’s own temporal overseer whom one has met half-a-dozen times over the years…His Grace has also met the Bishop’s Chaplain twice. Not, of course, that either would have been aware.”

His views can run free, shared with thousands, harming or delighting people, without being anchored in the accountability which honesty and openness bring.

Accountability

I don’t pretend to be a blogger in the same league as Cranmer, but my experience over the last few years has shown me the dangers of this medium.  R&R has had almost half a million views since it started. As the numbers of readers increase, the need for accountability also rises.  Power corrupts.

What I write needs to be open to challenge when it does not connect to the life I live. What I do at work, in my community and in my church needs to correspond to what I write.  Otherwise there is too much danger of hypocrisy. How easily online personas become white-washed tombs full of old bones and corruption.

Anonymous blogging is understandable if you are living in an oppressive regime, or if you are whistle-blowing on major wrong-doing.  But neither of these categories are relevant in this case.  Cranmer’s anonymity gives a licence to say what he wants.  It is a freedom that is easily misused.

Toxic

So however popular, I think Cranmer’s blog has something toxic at its heart. It creates more problems than it helps resolve, generates more darkness than light.  And this is a theological issue – because it is not possible to stand for Christian truth through being deceptive.  We can only bear witness to truth by acting truthfully. As Paul puts it ‘Let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light’ (Romans 13:12)

A good example of intelligent and faithful debate on faith and politics is the God and Politics in the UK blog authored by Gillan Scott.  Here is a blogger who manages to write passionately and powerfully and generates a large readership.  But Gillan is open and humble about who he is. And its telling that he never goes in for spiteful remarks or cheap jibes.

Whoever is writing under the guise of this 16th century Archbishop should take note: ‘His Grace’ should add truth to his list of attributes.  Open the curtains and let the light in, share who you are and shed the cloak of anonymity.  Ultimately the truth will set you free.

Related:

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged | 16 Comments

If a picture is worth a thousand words…

Today’s Church Times cover is an absolute classic.

Cover of Church Times

 

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Why I support the strikers – by Jonathan Chilvers

Jonathan Chilvers out with the strikers today

Jonathan Chilvers out with the strikers today

Today I have been out supporting the Public Sector strikers in Warwickshire. Some passers-by came up to the picket line to show their support.

However, listening on the radio, a number of people have been hostile towards strikers. There have been three points people have made against the strikes:

1) “There’s no money”

The ‘cuts’ mantra has been drip fed to us daily for the last four years:

“In these times of austerity, when there is less money around, we have to face up to reality, we can no longer afford to do this, we all have to tighten our belts…”

The clear implication when applied to public sector pay is ‘don’t complain and ask for more than your lot, you’re being greedy and risking a recovery’.  The thing is, there is money – it’s just in the wrong places.

The UK’s GDP has just about recovered to where it was in 2008 before the recession. We’ve got higher national debt to repay, but there’s still a lot of wealth in the UK to make those payments.

In 1625 the great Francis Bacon wrote:

‘Money is like muck. Not good except it be spread’

The same is true today and after a 3 year pay freeze equating to a 17.5% cut in real terms, mostly low paid workers are well within their rights to be calling for a fairer share for the jobs they do.

2) “Public Sector workers are better paid than those in private sector jobs”

True. On average public sector employees are better paid, but this is not an excuse to stay quiet and ‘level down’. Public sector wages and terms and conditions should be a benchmark for all. It’s ironic that when some on ‘the left’ oppose private or grammar schools ‘the right’ say that you shouldn’t level down in the name of equality. But when it comes to wages that argument suddenly doesn’t apply.

Let’s work together to deal with low pay across the board. Employees in the private sector are just as able to strike as those in the public sector, but are historically less unionised. That needs to change.

3) “the strike is disruptive and damaging”

People have to take a day off work because school is closed or can’t go to the library or the swimming pool. Yes, this can be disruptive, but low pay is far far more damaging. Millions try and juggle electricity and food bills with the added stress of paying the extras for a school trip or children’s birthday.

Low pay isn’t about not being able to afford a holiday – it’s about constantly living on the edge of surviving at the end of the month. Debt causes arguments, stress and relationship breakdowns. Witness the surge in CAB divorce advice when the first post-Christmas credit card bill hits the mat at the end of January each year.

Fuel, food and rent/mortgage rises have driven inflation which is exactly what the low paid spend the lion’s share of their wage on. A pay freeze for 3 years is catastrophic for millions of families.

Taking one day’s strike action to try and get a fairer deal for the next three years was a sacrifice in itself for many. I was humbled by a number of strikers juggling childcare and travelling long distances because they thought it was worth taking a stand. Many of them told me that they were doing it for their colleagues in the same team as them who didn’t feel able to strike because they didn’t feel able to lose a day’s pay.

Proud to support

We may tentatively be entering an economic recovery, but how we share the wealth in that recovery is crucial. It’s time to stop falling for ‘The Myth of No Money’ and start working for a more equal society where every person gets paid a fair wage whether in the public or private sector.

The people I met today on strike demonstrations were at the forefront of taking a stand to end damagingly low pay and I am proud to support them.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 3 Comments

The worst decision ever made by English cricket

One of the key reasons that the Football World Cup captures people’s imagination is because everyone can watch each match as they are broadcast on free-to-watch channels. This means it is a collective, national experience.

Imagine what it would be like if the World Cup matches were just on Sky and the rest of us had to make do with just highlights?  It would be rubbish.

Incredible drama

But this is exactly what has happened to Test cricket since the ECB sold the rights to Sky back in 2005.  Just this week, the first Test Match against Sri Lanka at Lord’s ended in unbelievable drama.  England needed two wickets to win in the final over.  Stuart Broad got a wicket with the first ball and then with two balls left the last Sri Lankan batsman was given out LBW and the England team celebrated wildly.  But the decision was immediately reviewed by the batsman and the replays showed he had hit the ball and the decision was reversed.  England failed to win by the thinnest of margins.

It was Test cricket at its absolute best.  But how many children actually watched it and experienced the drama?

Revival

It was this kind of excitement which enfolded in just about every match in the iconic 2005 Ashes series where England regained the Ashes for the first time in 18 long years.  Every match was a classic and every single ball could be watched on terrestrial TV.  It was a series that did more for the popularity of cricket than any other in history – the vast crowds and passionate support made it feel almost like a religious revival.

I was at the Oval with my brother on the final day to see the famous win and I will never forget it.  The next day I was in Trafalgar Square to see the open top bus tour. It was scenes that I never imagined would happen – cricket breaking into the realm that football normally occupies and loads of children, men and women sharing in the celebration of victory.

The worse decision

But right at the moment of biggest opportunity came the worst decision.  For this amazing series was the last one ever to be broadcast on free-to-watch TV.  I am sure there was a good ‘business-case’ for the decision – but the implications have been disastrous.

England won the Ashes four years later.  Sure, the series was not as exciting but the key difference was that a tiny fraction of people could actually watch it.  Sure cricket fans celebrated but there was nothing like the public buy-in.

Good for the few

I know plenty of people will point to the good things that Sky have done.  The coverage has improved with loads of new technology and investment.  But, as with football, will more money really help the game itself?  As I see it, the few have done well and the many have lost out.

The thing is that good, live international cricket is the best marketing that the game can possibly have.  The legendary status of the 2005 series or others such as Botham’s 1981 Ashes would never have happened if only a few could have watched it.  The BBC coverage enabled the country to experience the thrill and drama: free to watch TV means that the national team can be owned by the nation. But those days are gone.

Enduring appeal

Danny and TomThis season I have just taken on the management of the under 11s cricket team which both my boys play in.  Their enthusiasm for the game has meant that half the team is now made up of kids from their school.   We have had a run of four incredibly exciting matches which have all gone down to the last over.  It has been brilliant to see kids in state schools being able to have the opportunity to play proper cricket.

When I was at primary school, over 50 schools in the Croydon area played hard-ball cricket.  Now only 8 do and most of them are private schools.  Whatever millions Sky give the ECB, this fact is a complete disaster for English cricket

And this is not because cricket is unpopular.  As we see with twenty20, the game has enduring appeal but too few are getting the opportunities to watch it and even less the opportunity to play it.

Something I know for sure, is that if more kids had been able to watch the amazing end to the Test Match this week, then more kids would want to experience that kind of drama for themselves.

Posted in Sport | 8 Comments

Why I’m supporting Bosnia at the World Cup – by Jonathan Chilvers

Bosian flagEngland may be perennial hopefuls at World Cup Finals, but for Bosnia & Herzegovina it will be the first time they have made it to the competition since the country declared independence in 1992. I’ll be supporting them when they kick off in their first match on Sunday.

Bosnia is a country born out of war and genocide as the former Yugoslavia swirled into terrifying chaos after the end of the Cold War. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks divided and fought on ethnic and religious lines.

Novi Most

Mostar bridge destroyedI visited Bosnia in the year 2000 working with the wonderful Novi Most Christian charity. For a month I helped run summer camps for children and young people drawn explicitly from across the ethnic divides beginning the long and fraught journey towards reconciliation.

Novi Most means ‘New Bridge’ and the charity draws its imagery from the beautiful, 400 year old bridge  that spanned the river that separates the mainly Bosniak and Croat banks of the city of Mostar. The bridge was bombed in the war before being reconstructed in 2004.

Novi Most continues its work with young people across Bosnia bringing skills, hope Mostar bridgeand opportunities. I particularly admire their faith in the people they work with to be agents of transformation in their country. They are well on their way to handing over leadership of Novi Most to Bosnian nationals – a long term aim they have pursued with a fierce determination, with remarkable results.

A team under seige

Ethnic tension is still runs dangerously high in the country and differences are still entrenched in the educational and political life of the country. Youth unemployment runs at a desperate 50%.

That is why football and this World Cup are so important.

Members of the current Bosnian football team started their lives living under siege or as refugees fleeing for their lives (See this fascinating recent Guardian article). Like those children I was privileged to meet at Summer camps 14 years ago, their whole lives have been shaped by conflict. Yet players like Manchester City’s Džeko are now superstars and give hope that these children can transcend their past and achieve something as they begin to forge a positive identity for the nation.

Hope and heart – a multiethnic future?

Croatian coast

Me on the Croatian coast with children from Mostar, Bosnia

Not all people living in Bosnia support the national team preferring Serbia or Croatia, but almost uniquely for Bosnia the team is multi-ethnic. Like the Novi Most it is a tangible symbol of a more hopeful Bosnian future.

Bosnia has been thrown into a tricky group with Argentina, Nigeria and Iran, but are hopeful of making it to the last 16 of the competition. I’ll be cheering them on from my armchair whilst thanking God for Novi Most and the Bosnians bringing hope and a new heart to the nation.

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When the church leaves the building (for real this time)

My last post shared a great clip from a Hollywood film which featured a powerful example of the church sharing its message beyond the doors of its building.

But at the end of the day, it is a film clip.  It’s not actually real.

So, its great to share another video of a real example of the church getting out of its building and taking its message into the community. And what is even better is that this is a story about something that the church has done in my local community, involving my friends and family.

It may not have Marlon Brando in it,  but it does feature my wife…

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When the church leaves the building…

This is my favourite scene from the Oscar-winning 1954 film On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando.  One of the key characters is a priest who is encouraging the dock workers to stand up against the corruption of the Union bosses.  One docker, Kayo Dougan, is prepared to testify in court against the violence and extortion. But the day before he is due in court, an ‘accident’ happens at work and he is killed by falling cargo.

The priest comes to bless his body and delivers a great sermon to the dockers.  The best line is when someone shouts aggressively “Get back to your church Father” and he replies:

“Boys this is my church!  And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the Waterfront, then you got another guess coming.”

Posted in Films & music, Theology & Church | Tagged | 1 Comment

Chalke and cheese: Oasis and the Evangelical Alliance

Steve ChalkeJust over 20 years ago I went to the Christian festival Spring Harvest for the first time.   One of the seminars I went to during the week was on ‘Green Issues’ and was part of a series entitled Soapbox.  The speaker was highly engaging and charismatic and I still vividly remember some of his lines:

“Green issues?  I’ll tell you what, green issues are just another New Age heresy…we shouldn’t care about the rain forests, we should care about the Word of God.  We should cut down more trees so we can print more Bibles…At the end of the day people don’t need oxygen, they need salvation.”

The idea behind these Soapbox seminars was that the speaker would be deliberately controversial, playing devil’s advocate to encourage the crowd to disagree and contradict him. A bit like Speaker’s Corner.

But there was a slight problem: hardly anyone did disagree with what was being said.

Apart from a few bearded blokes near the front who were almost frothing at the mouth, most of the people around me were in complete agreement.  They were nodding and doing that ‘hmmmm’ of approval that Christians do when they agree with a speaker.  Instead of being shouted down, the outrageous views were greeted with comments like ’He’s right’, ‘Absolutely!’ and even the odd ‘Amen’.

It was the last time that those Soapbox seminars were run at Spring Harvest.

And it was the first time I ever met Steve Chalke.

Influential

This is just one example of the power of influence that Steve Chalke has within the church. Back then he was the poster-boy for the Evangelical Christianity.  His brilliant communication skills have inspired and invigorated thousands of people and he has been by far the most influential advocate for Christian social activism in the UK.

But over the last 10 years, Chalke’s views have become increasingly controversial within evangelical culture.  It started with his book, written jointly with Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus which questioned the doctrine of penal substitution (that Jesus died to appease the wrath of God).  Then last year he came out strongly in support of committed gay relationships.  His most recent project questions the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible.  Each of these controversies have sent reverberations around the evangelical world.

I think some people see Steve Chalke a bit like Miley Cyrus.  They appreciated him in his Hannah Montana years because he was fresh, talented and safely within the mainstream.  But now many see him as subversive, a bad influence and even dangerous.  More like a theological Wrecking Ball (do you see what I did there?)

Theological journey

Like many who are drawn deeper into social activism and a concern for justice, Chalke has been on a theological journey.  Using a chart I have used a few times before, Chalke has moved in emphasis from the blue side of this chart over to the red:

Tribal TheologyA couple of weeks ago it was announced by the Evangelical Alliance that Oasis’s membership of the Alliance has been terminated.  The key reason given is that Oasis (the organisation Steve Chalke founded) were deemed to be running a campaign to change the church’s historic perspective on sexuality. The news has caused immense debate on websites and blogs.  (Read Oasis’ response here)

Benchmark of orthodoxy

As the Evangelical Alliance’s Basis of Faith is held up as a benchmark of orthodoxy, the EA have the increasingly impossible task of policing the boundaries of evangelicalism.  And as I know from my 8 years at the Shaftesbury Society, remaining a member of the EA is very different to actually agreeing with its pronouncements, or adhering to them in practice. I think the key problem for the EA is that they are perceived as excluding dissent and closing down a discussion on sexuality that is urgently needed.

Shift of perspective

The reality I am continually seeing, especially among younger Christians and those committed to social justice, is a marked shift of perspective towards an inclusive and accepting position on same-sex relationships.  Whatever is preached from pulpits, there are a wide range of views on sexuality within even the most conservative churches. Debates on these issues continually break out in the youth groups and home groups of evangelical churches and no one should pretend otherwise.  I am not convinced that evangelical leaders are really facing up the huge sea-change that is going on.

After the publication of The Lost Message of Jesus, the Evangelical Alliance organised a major event where over 700 people gathered to discuss the meaning of Christ’s death and the atonement.  It was an important event because, unlike the vast majority of tribal gatherings, it actually brought together people who disagreed.  It did produce a heated discussion but at least it was happening in an open and honest way.

Genuine dialogue

And this is what I think is needed on faith, the Bible and same-sex relationships.  You can go to plenty of conferences which will reinforce either an inclusivist or conservative positions, but these often simply feed existing tribalism rather than create genuine dialogue.

I know plenty of Christians who I respect who hold different views on this issue. To talk in simplified terms, I work in a church setting which is inclusive and attend a church which is conservative.  Like all churches, each has strengths and weaknesses.

Christians need to discuss sexuality honestly in a climate of faith, rather than fear. To listen, rather than label.  To converse, rather than just seek to convert.

Sadly, this is not the perception given when organisations are ejected from networks.  It is further evidence of the truth of Oliver O’Donovan’s phrase, that when it comes to the church and gay relationships, it is still “a conversation waiting to begin”.

Related article: When Two become One (tribalism in the Church, part 2)

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