Sunday, 20 November 2016

Bit of Culture Reviewed

Over the last few weeks there has been a kind of culture binge going on in my life. Part of it came from the Shout Festival which was a 10 day LGBT+ festival in Birmingham. Over it I saw a few things but there were two stand out highlights for me. They were Deep in the Heart of Me, performed by Ali Child and Rosie Wakley of the Behind the Lines Theatre Company and Looking for John written and performed by Tony Timberlake.

The former was a play which on one level is about a middle aged woman coming to terms with an emerging sense of her own sexuality, and doing a bit of a Shirley Valentine (but meeting a woman). However, this beautifully performed piece of musical theatre is far more than this. There is a deep exploration of the feelings around the empty nest going on. Whilst the venue it played in was the back room of a pub, which was a bit too small for the production and the audience was disappointingly sparse there was a strong connection with the audience in this piece. It was a real pleasure to watch.

Both Deep in the Heart of Me and Looking for John made good use of background images to help set the scene and increase the drama. However, that is where the similarities end. Looking for John, which was in The Door (the smallest performance space at Birmingham Rep) was an intense piece of drama which explored the life of John Curry, by focusing on a fan who was seeking to use John’s biography to make sense of his own. Whilst there was laughter there was also real pathos.

Whilst I would highly recommend both my favourite was Deep in the Heart of Me because it was really fun.

Balanced against the performance was comedy has been art. The IKON has an interesting set of installations which are on for another week, until 27th November. The current exhibitions include work from Ċ½ilvinas Kempinas who has been playing about with moon images and steel bearings to make some mesmerising pieces.

Sara Barker’s work has some interesting shape and colour and Philippine Hamman’s ergonomic furniture for those who don’t want to get up is fun.

If you get the chance to get to this exhibition I highly recommend it.

Whilst these events have all been in Birmingham I’ve also got down to London and had the chance to enjoy the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism and  Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans. Now, I’ll be honest I went because I’m a Friend of the Royal Academy which means I’ve paid for the years exhibitions. It’s a short wander from where Two:23 meet and I find wandering round gallery’s a way I encounter God more than in a lot of churches. Thus, I go and enjoy the art before heading off for formal worship. These days where I spend time reflecting on art before joining friends for worship are a real chance for me to spiritually refuel.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the Abstract Expressionism, however, I was really drawn in and enjoyed it. The Jackson Pollock pieces were the ones which really engaged me through their beauty but I liked a lot of the others too. Now, I’m not for one minute pretending I understood any of the art in this exhibition but the scale and colour within a lot of it really did have something which made you think ok, there is something going on here I don’t understand but I like.

The Ensor exhibition mixed pictures which were quite pretty, especially his early work, with ones which were down right disturbing. There were two contrasting crucifixions in the exhibition. One was darker and more traditional, with the crowd around Christ apparently praying. The other was brighter and the loin cloth almost had the feeling of a tutu. There were faces in this one which could have been the crowd or could have been the beginning of the harrowing of hell and may have been spirits. The latter one both disturbed and challenged me yet it was the more beautiful of the two.

These exhibitions are on into the new year and I would recommend them. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Bringing in the Sheaves by Rev Richard Coles - Reviewed

It took me a couple of chapters to work out that Richard Coles was going through the year in his book Bringing in the Sheaves: What and Chaff from My Years as a Priest. To be honest I have to admit part of the reason it took the first three chapters was he starts with Petertide rather than advent or January. As with a lot of things in this book there is reason for this and explanation given. The structure of the book is this version of the liturgical year – with hatching, matching and dispatching, thrown in there too.
It also took me a few chapters to get a hang of what type of book this was. The style of writing is quite different to his first volume of his autobiography Fathomless Riches or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit (which I reviewed here). Where as that is based around anecdote and self-reflection with a bit of education mixed in this is a much more focused book. It has the clear purpose of raising religious literacy amongst its readers whilst giving the stories and titbits of gossip which keep it interesting for those whose tastes might generally be a bit more low brow.

Besides an unpacking of the meaning of different parts of the church year and the anecdotes there is also a rich seam of history running through this book. Coles looks at the lives of a range of saints too and demonstrates his pure passion for as well as in-depth knowledge for church history.

Having read the first books reflections on his time at Mirfield I was surprised that it got mentioned so often in this volume, as somewhere he had chosen to revisit.

He is still the wonderful camp guy making the point that he is determined to be open about his sexuality, yet he is also the happily “married” (legally civil partnered) guy who shares his life with the man he loves and their dogs.

The broadcasting career is in there but more interesting are his anecdotes relating to “ordinary” folk he comes across in the course of his ministry which has been to the very rich, the very poor and the standardly middle class.

So is it worth the read? Definitely but be prepared that this is much more Guardian Review than the Saturday Guardian Guide in style.

It is touching in places, particularly when he talks of his dad’s Parkinson’s, hilarious in others and overall enlightening. You learn lots without feeling that you are being hit over the head with it.

The overall feeling of this book is it is the one which Coles wanted to write. The one which enables him to write a theology book for the masses. Thus the biggest feeling I came away with was this guy has integrity. He’s not playing games, he’s writing the book he wants to. He is not worried it’s probably too faith based for some people outside the church and too honest for some in it. That’s what makes it so good, in my opinion – it’s an honest book written by a clever bloke who got famous through low culture but really has a heart for high culture.


Monday, 10 October 2016

From Chocolate Makers to LGBT+ Tories...What I've Learnt

Recently I went along to a Stonewall/ LGBT+ Conservative event and been to various events and demonstrations protesting against the Tories whilst their conference was in Birmingham. I’ve also listened to Vince Cable give the Lunar Society Adrian Cadbury Lecture and read a really interesting book by Deborah Cadbury called Chocolate Wars. All of these things have had the impact of both challenging and encouraging me.

I’ll start with my visit to the Stonewall/ LGBT +Conservative event, which has raised more than a few eyebrows amongst many of my friends. I went along because this event also involved the Diversity Network of Lloyds Banking Group, and as part of the day job I am looking at how we join up chaplaincy in HE with encouraging students to take a holistic approach when thinking about employability. How do we encourage people to see the transferrable skills gained in areas of their lives which are often privatised? The exploration of personal values also comes into this.

As I listened to the panel discussion which included Maria Miller amongst others I was surprised by how comfortable I felt amongst this group who were in many ways so different to myself. It reminded me that whilst ideologically I hold opposite views to them on many issues particularly around social policy there is much that can be worked on across political lines and there are things which we do hold in common with people if we move beyond the headlines. They were talking about the need to reform the Gender Recognition Act in line with the recommendations of the Transgender equality inquiry report from the Women and Equalities Committee. They also picked up on the need for people to recognise the differences in experience of LGBT+ people in this country. The experiences of those living in rural areas as well as the increasing levels of hate crime throughout the country and specific issues relating to sport are examples of issues we all need to address.

The other thing which made me feel more comfortable was the general dress code. It was standard professional dress. As I looked around I pondered how different it had been to the left wing events I had been to over the event. Karl and I had dressed casually on Saturday evening as we went to the pub to listen to a great evenings entertainment by Bethany Black and Grace Petrie, at the Eagle and Tun, yet had still felt overdressed. On Sunday I had gone straight from preaching to protesting and was clearly over dressed for that, but…I realised that the extent I was overdressed depended upon who I was with. Amongst the TUC socialist demonstration, I was ridiculously different, however amongst the pro-EU protestors with whom I paused for a short while I was less over-dressed. The Refugees Welcome walk of witness (which didn’t even manage to be a demonstration due to the invisibility involved and which I left to go on the TUC one) was somewhere in between.

Dress was an interesting aspect of the historical material in Chocolate Wars. The move from embracing plain Quaker dress to a more relaxed approach which fitted with the world was part of a wider movement away from strict values based on the faith. Yet, as the very interesting and informative book shows dressing well didn’t mean the values were completely abandoned, it was a series of various individual decisions which saw the values of business becoming so divorced from those which were at the core of many of the chocolate businesses originally.

The question of what happened to these Quaker values and how we might be able to recover some of these values was essentially at the heart of what Vince Cable was talking about in his public lecture on “The Governance of Business and Their Relationships to Society Locally and Nationally”.

There were three areas which this lecture sought to address remuneration, ownership and social enterprises. As he spoke much of the lecture related to the frustrations Cable had felt as Business Secretary he looked at the problems with possible solutions to the issues he and his colleagues recognise exist within a world where free market capitalism has caused great inequality. For example when looking at the huge differences in remuneration he spoke of the problems caused by publishing pay ratios because many of the lower paid workers were sub-contracted in some companies.

He was scathing of the pension companies and the way in which institutional investors don’t hold them to account because they are focused on short term profit rather than long term social benefits.

With regard to having workers on the board, an idea which works elsewhere and reflects some of the practices which were part of the Chocolate companies and which our current PM is advocating he gave a warning. Beyond the multi-national nature of many companies now many firms are not unionised and so workers can become tokens working on behalf of the interests of the owners rather than representing the rights of those employed. Implicitly within this part of his lecture what he was saying was that we need to give a voice back to the unions rather than continuing to restrict them.

He was clear that we need to think about diverse forms of ownership if we are really serious about social responsibility. Within this he highlighted some of the problems which come out so strongly in the Chocolate Wars book of how ownership dilutes as the need to raise capital in order to expand increases and how do you lock capital in for future generations. He spoke about the role of private equity. Within this area the current story of the Eagle and Tun is interesting. The owner, a very nice Sikh gentleman, was explaining to us at the Anti-Austerity event with Petrie and Black,  how HS2 is threatening his business, this iconic pub. He doesn't want to take the short term approach and just make money from selling the land. He wants to have a business which will be able to take advantage of the development of the area and wants to be given a 25 year lease once the redevelopment has taken place in exchange for the building but has been told that is not possible. If we are serious about taking our country forward in a more socially responsible way we need to support businessmen like this who want to protect their businesses and the future of their families.

One thing which connected the Adrian Cadbury lecture to the LGBT+ Conservative event was the theme that we need to ensure that the discussion around Brexit does not mean the areas where we are making progress become lost or side-lined. This is something I think many of us believe. If we are truly going to move forward at this time of uncertainty I think that we need to identify, as these events did, the things that truly represent the shared centre ground.

On a final note in terms of recognising where my politics stand in this shifting area where I feel somewhat alienated by left and right these events gave me confidence that they stand where they always have. I am a socialist who stands in the tradition of people like Roy Hattersley and Barbara Castle. I am not part of the “far left” whilst I sympathise with much of what they stand for but neither am I part of New Labour. What I want is a modern politics based on values which are inter-generational and which can take in the shared concerns of people from left and right. 

Monday, 29 August 2016

Choosing When it's Really None of the Above

So I have my ballot paper for the Labour leadership election and I desperately want to write “neither of these two…..I want to vote for someone who represents neither the Corbyn camp or the parliamentary Labour Party but has the best aspects of the two.”

If there had the chance I would have liked to vote for Yvette Cooper or somebody of that ilk who actually represented where I am coming from. That is I want a candidate who stands a chance of winning votes from middle England and being media friendly whilst at the same time displaying socialist Labour principals.

What I am faced with instead is a choice between Corbyn and Smith. Whilst the former’s policies generally attract me I am unimpressed with the way it seems that he has let John McDonnell manipulate him.

I also believe that there is no way he can deliver us from a series of Tory governments over the next decade. The reason for this is partly because of the way the media are portraying him but it is more than that. He is focused on building a social movement and that is what he has successfully been doing. However, social movements are not political parties. With the system of democracy we have the key role of social movements is to act as lobbyists influencing those in parliament and bring about change outside of the chamber too. Social movements are effectively the way we let Parliament know we want them to act in different ways to those they are proposing or to take notice of issues which have been ignored.

With regard to the latter. I believe he has also allowed himself to become the puppet of others who have ambition to take power in the future and wanted a fall guy to be the interim leader. He is now saying whatever appears to be necessary to gain the leadership and has shown himself not to be a consistent and principled politician.

Whilst considering who to vote for I have also been thinking of the views of those around me. Many of the most principled people I know are supporting Corbyn because he stands for so much of what they have campaigned and worked for over the years. He is the change they want to see.

Then there are those who are in a similar position to myself and are generally going for Smith because there is the feeling we need to rebuild with somebody the PLP will work with.

However, beyond these are the marginal voters I have listened to over the years. These are generally people I have sometimes shared offices with or listened to as they have chatted with their friends on buses and trains. I know the concerns they have for themselves and their families. Concerns which in the last election made many of these people vote Tory when they were clearly undecided. They are often the people UKIP is exploiting the fears of and some of those who have taken us in to Brexit. These are not bad people in fact most of them are very good people, but they are people who have different ways of looking at the world to many of those closest to me and those whose thoughts fill my social media feeds. These are the people who the leader needs to win over with policies which give principled alternatives to the Tories but for which people will vote. What we need is somebody who can offer hope where UKIP are offering fear and scapegoating.

Now I know that Corbyn offers that to some extent and that is what is building his support. However, he is not offering this up in a form which will appeal to those marginal voters I listen to on public transport. Part of the reason for this lies with the media and the way in which they portray Corbyn but it also has to do with the way in which he has portrayed himself too. He has portrayed himself as somebody who is not willing to listen and rather than breaking with past can be seen as a return to it.

So is Smith the answer in getting their votes. No, clearly not. He is a man who appears to have so little charisma and principle that he does not have the power to overcome the damage that has been done here by both the PLP and Corbyn. Additionally, he is seeking to appeal to everybody and I suspect is genuinely appealing to very few.

What also worries me here is the way in which the Labour Party seems to be re-enacting some of the battles of the 1980’s with players who are just a little older now. History tells us that it was that infighting which led to the long years of Tory rule from 1979 onwards and gave Thatcher part of the power she had.

We have already seen how the government has used the publicity around this internal civil war to announce they are intending to replace our signing up to the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. What we are doing here is, I think, giving the government the opportunity (and their future majority) to develop policy that is going to be deeply damaging to the UK.

Additionally, the leadership contest seems to be bringing out the underlying structural sexism which was a larger part of the left in the 1980’s but still lingers in some parts today. Over the last couple of decades there has been real work in the party and trade unions which has overcome this but it seems with the macho posturing and infighting that has been going on by men of a certain age we have gone back to the bad old days.

Why don’t I walk away? Well, that would be the easy thing to do. However, I have a belief that we need a strong opposition to defeat the Tories and that will not ever be rebuilt if we all walk away. Even though I voted for Cooper in last year’s leadership election it was Corbyn who got me to stand up and say “yes, at heart I am really a Labour supporter and I want to do what I can to support the vision for our country I have become a reality now they are post-Blairism.” If we all walk away the Tories will have won without a fight and UKIP will step further into the void.

So why don’t I just abstain? I clearly don’t want to vote for either of the candidates and abstaining is what I would love to do. Yet, standing idly by is not an option. I have to decide I want one or the other because they are the choices I have.

I did hope writing this post would help but all it has done is underline why I think that what has gone on is wrong and why all involved need to shoulder responsibility for what they are doing to our country. When history looks back at what the Tories have done during this period and what, I think, will be the further dangerous rise of UKIP those involved in the PLP and the Corbyn camp will be seen to have been a large part of the reason it happened this way. I feel that both are equally to blame and am really angry about that. The PLP should not have had the vote of no-confidence but Corbyn should have stepped down when the result of that came through. We should have had a leadership contest with a range of contenders to choose from not just Corbyn and “stop Corbyn”.

So how will I vote? Well, I am tempted to in the end effectively give my vote to another and vote how he, (who has been excluded by the system which stopped people who legitimately became members in order to support their principles), wanted to vote. The person I am thinking about has faithfully voted Labour over the years and has held to the principles which mean he believes in the Corbyn vision.

That said, I think if Corbyn wins the situation will just get even worse because we need a fresh start. Yet I don’t believe Smith will or can give us a fresh start and I fear his leadership is one which will give Stephen Kinnock power. This factor is important to me as I have listened to Kinnock and come to the conclusion that he is the next Blair. So I still don’t know… the end it may come down to tossing of the coin and the hope that we get a new party rising from the ashes which truly represents what I am looking to vote for.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Reading, Feminism and Sprirituality by Dawn Llewellyn Reviewed

This review is based on my own experience of reading it, yet I share it with you the reader being conscious that I am part of a set of wider communities and that your reading of the text will be different to my own. This sums up part of what underpins the thinking within Dawn Llewellyn’s excellent book “Reading, Feminism and Spirituality: Troubling the Waves”.

I found this to be a very readable book. It is is rooted in a methodological approach called “reader centred feminist research”. This involved using semi-structured interviews to find out how particular books had helped Christians and Post-Christian feminists in their spiritual journeys. Within this Llewellyn is challenging the notions that (i) waves of feminism should be viewed as distinct and based upon difference and (ii) that Christianity was only an influence on early feminist thought. I felt that one of her most compelling points was that Feminist Theology is stuck in the past and needs to catch up with more recent developments in feminism.

This book was refreshing to me and something I found fascinating. However, to understand why I found this perhaps more exciting than you may do there are a few things about me you need to know:

1.    Up until last year I taught A Level Sociology for a number of years and within the theory and methods section I would trot out the accepted wisdom on the different brands of feminism before linking them to specific waves. Then I would add in more on religious feminism than was in the text books because this was an area of particular interest to me. I also looked around for contemporary sociological studies which explained their methodology well in a way which was accessible, particularly for my more able students who I could happily send away with a whole chapter from a book to read.

2.    I am an avid reader myself. This is the twenty forth book I have read this year and I belong to a women’s book group at work as well having set up a small book group for the community in which I live. I also set up a book group in my previous church, having been part of one somebody else organised in the church I was in before that.

3.    I am a Christian Feminist who is familiar with the work of a range of writers who regard themselves as feminist or post-feminist.

4.    Some of the sample that Llewellyn used decided that they did not want pseudonyms used and as such I was able to identify that I knew one of the sample quite well from where I lived previously. The fact that this participant had passed me on a feminist text that I have found useful in planning worship somehow meant part of what was being said was personal and I could connect with part of the text on a deeper level.

So why were those things relevant and why do I recommend this book as an exciting and useful text?

Well, firstly it was a book which challenged me and gave me new theoretical information I hadn’t picked up previously. It also gave me new ways to think about things. As I say it was very readable and the language is understandable. This meant I was able to pick up the arguments being made easily and wrestle with them without getting caught up on trying to understand the points being made.  

Secondly, it challenged my own prejudices about second wave feminism. I know I owe that group of people a debt. However, particularly in light of the way it seems primarily to have been second wave feminists who have taken the rad fem approach of denying the gender of trans people or seeking to hold on to binary approaches I have struggled with them as a group. This book challenged that way of looking at things. The overview of the development of different forms of feminism explained why I am clearly located in the position I am yet it also disturbed my view of my foremothers and the way in which I have come to generalise many of them.

The third thing this book did was made me stop and reflect on how my avid reading is actually part of my own spiritual discipline. I had recently told my spiritual director how I like to go to some local gardens and pray there before or after spending some time with a book. When she had asked if it was a spiritual book I said sometimes but it was just as likely to be a novel or an autobiography. I just like to read there as well as pray there. Those books I read though are important and have been important in my spiritual journey.

Then there was the thinking about the relationship between reading individually and in community. I reflected on the different types of group I am and have been part of. Some of them fit in to Llewellyn’s argument that because of how books are chosen they don’t often fit into those which have been particularly significant in journeys. However in both groups I am currently in books are chosen and recommended by the members, in part because they have been significant reads to those people.

Finally, I really liked the way the methodology was explained in the appendix. This would be a great teaching tool for anybody looking for material to use at A Level or higher when teaching methods.

So as you can tell I enjoyed this book. It connected with me on a range of levels and said something very fresh and relevant.

The only problem is being an academic book it is pricey, I borrowed it from the theological library where I live, when ironically I had finished the novel I intended as holiday reading a day early and urgently needed something to read on the train the next day. It reinforces to me the need for these books to be made more accessible. I could get hold of it because I have the right access to a library. However, if we went back in time to when I didn’t have such access I would have been unlikely to have got hold of this. As a teacher I would have been unlikely to have been able to use the resource which would have been so useful to me at that point, because it would have been a hidden text. Ashgate, which are now part of Routledge I note, have started to overcome this by producing more of their books in paperback. Whilst they are still not cheap they are half the price which this book is and thus become just about affordable for many people. Palgrave Macmillan, the publishers of this book, may want to take note of this.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Where do we go from here? Thoughts on post-EU Britain

These are my thoughts about what is happening and has been happening since Friday, following the vote to leave the EU.

I hope and pray there will not be a general election soon as I believe that the only winners if this happened would be UKIP. They would not be likely to win but they would be very likely to increase seats. I suspect, they would use the argument that they wanted to act as a power to ensure that those in power were accountable. If this happened the right wing voices we’ve been hearing during the referendum campaign which have made those who are on the extreme right feel legitimised in their blatant racism would increase and I fear the increase in hate crime we’ve been witnessing over the last few days would also increase.

The last thing we need at the moment is a political vacuum but this is what we appear to have, with the exception of the voice of the Scottish Nationalists and the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. Unfortunately for the UK the leadership they are giving is to one part of our domestic economic union, (which is what I believe the UK is).

As a Labour member, (and somebody who joined in the last leadership campaign), I joined because I supported the ideals of Corbyn and felt his campaign was giving the Labour party a truly left wing identity again but I did not vote him as my first choice. Rather I put him as second choice because I believed Yvette Cooper stood more chance being seen as electable in the country as a whole and she seemed the moderate left candidate with the other two challengers being, in my view Blairites.

With regard to what is happening now I am saddened but not surprised. Corbyn who has never been a great EU enthusiast was honest during this campaign about his feelings and that honesty seems to have meant he has become the scapegoat for many. I think this is disgraceful, but as I say I think it was somewhat inevitable because many of the PLP are more right wing than a great deal of the members now. They were, I am sure, looking for an excuse to get rid of Corbyn at the first opportunity. I think that is what has happened.

What we need now is a leader who can act as a unifier but not a leader who will take us to what is now the right, in order to win votes at the expense of Labour values. We need to create an atmosphere where we can deal with the real concerns of those voters who did not vote Labour last time and those who voted for Brexit in imaginative and concrete ways.

We need to find ways to talk about immigration in a way which shows many of the real concerns they have are due to structural failures in the social policy of successive governments due to the failure of the neo-liberal consensus. Within this the New Labour project needs to be ready to shoulder blame too. At the same time, as we are in a situation where those structural failures are causing real concerns for people who are finding it hard to get their kids into schools and to get GP appointments.We need to have vision as to how to deal with these problems. It won’t just involve throwing money at them but it may well involve investment which will involve increased taxation.

We need to find ways to help people feel and get involved in civil society again. A lot of people who voted leave did so because they felt that accountability was being taken away from their elected representatives.

We need to deal with the social divisions in this country linked to class, ethnicity and age. This referendum showed the fault lines we have in this country around all three and I fear as the impact of both the Tory austerity programme and the leave vote both hit over the next five years this is only going to get worse.

Finally, we need to find ways for institutions and the academy to regain trust amongst ordinary people. The way in which the referendum campaign treated the concept of “expert knowledge” was in some ways understandable. It reflects the way in which society and post-structuralism in an information age has been developing. However, we need to work together to reinforce how in some areas people do have expert knowledge. Many of the people who were encouraged to distrust experts were those with trades. We need to show that we go to the hairdressing salon because we know that the person there will do a good job, similarly we go to the academy because the people there have something to offer us. When I go to the hairdresser I expect to have my say and to be listened to seriously and I think on the other side of the coin the academy needs to be ready to listen more to the public and not just as research subjects.

In practice where do we go from here and how do we get some of this stuff happening? Well, I don’t know to be honest - it's one of the reason why I think that people need to be talking not blaming now. However there are some things I think we can all do:

1)    Be ready to listen to those who voted differently to ourselves and to why they made that choice and what their concerns are.

2)    Stand up against racism and other forms of hate crime. We need to make sure any incidents we witness are reported.

3)    To recognise that the common enemy we have is inequality in our society and to seek to identify and challenge the real causes of this (which tend not to be immigration). To support those academics who are engaging with this through whatever discipline.

4)    To vote, even if we find it difficult to try and find the least bad option.

5)    To try and find at least one way to positively engage in our society. If we give up on trying to hope we really are stuffed.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Birmingham Central Hall.....Hidden Space or Living Heritage?

Today my lunch break from work was spent wandering around the old Methodist Central Hall in Birmingham, where Birmingham's Hidden Spaces are holding an exhibition until tomorrow.

I hadn’t been in there before, but I had heard about its history. There are various outlets around it and back in the day it had been a big rave venue. These days it has been a club, but it has lost it's licence and a recent appeal and so it's future is yet again up in the air. I knew it wasn’t in great shape, but I was shocked by the level of disrepair within there. There is a major investment needed in this building which is grade 2 listed as you will see from the pictures I took in there.
Wandering around this building that the Methodist Church had sold some time ago I was deeply moved. There was an emotional reaction which I wasn’t expecting.
As I looked around there was something within me which was trying to make sense of it all. This was not just a building, this was the former spiritual home of some of those I worship with and some of those who sit in congregations I preach to when I am fulfilling local preacher appointments. It is also the building that I pass every day on my work in a university chaplaincy which is on the campus which lies in the shadow of this great building.

In an effort to make sense of it all I turned to the work of Rev Dr. Joanne Cox-Darling and a paper within the Holiness Journal, which Wesley House, Cambridge produce. The article I turned to was Mission-shaped Methodism and Fresh Expressions. Now, before I start I want to make clear that I am aware chaplaincy is not a fresh expression, as such. However, as Kate Pearson identifies within her chapter in Ross and Baker (eds) Pioneer Spirituality: Resources for reflection and practice there is an overlap between chaplaincy and pioneer ministry.

Within her article Cox-Darling has a section on Central Halls which she quotes one minister as identifying as “the Fresh Expressions of their day.” She goes through and identifies some key aspects of their theology and ecclesiastical practice which were important and went beyond the buildings.

As I read through this article and reflected on what I had heard a guide in the Central Hall say with regard to what she thought had contributed to the demise of the central hall I was conscious that within our work we need to recognise far more the inheritance we have and the link to those who were there before, sometimes in the same physical area.

Cox-Darling talked about Central Halls having their own standing orders and legal status, giving a flexibility. When I compare my role and place as a chaplain, who is not ordained and is answerable to an ecumenical management committee of whom the Methodists are a part to my husband and the world he is entering as a student presbyter I appreciate that I do have a freedom others don’t. I do have far more flexibility in my ministry.

The guide at the exhibition had explained that the physical geography of the area had changed and that contributed to the decline of the Central Hall. In the early twentieth century the area was an urban one on the edge of the city centre, surrounded by houses where the universities now stands. For the Central Halls, Cox-Darling argues, “the context is the primary focus of mission and ministry, not necessarily to the original inhabited congregants. “
Today chaplaincy exists not only within the university where I work but also amongst the retail community in the city centre. There is also a Methodist Deacon who has a city centre focus within the area. Reading Cox-Darling reinforced something that has been there in various ways all year as I have thought about our proximity to the old building, we in those roles are in a very real way the current incarnation of the Central Hall.

She goes on to talk about the way in which “the missional theory of Central Hall ecclesiology maintains a focus on contextual appropriate service to a local community and a relevant vehicle for authentic and passionate communication of the gospel.” This acts as both a comfort and a very big challenge to me. This isn’t about proselytising, that is clearly not something we can (or wish to) do in this context. It is about being there and being honest why you’re there and sharing God’s love in a way which is real and passionate.

For the most part, as I explained in a recent piece for the circuit bible study material linked to Holy Habit on service, that translates to those things which get built upon filling or emptying the dishwasher and setting out chairs. It is the hospitality and being about which builds relationships and it is through them you not only get to support Christians but most importantly to come alongside and share God’s love with those who are unlikely to set foot in church and learn from them as they to show God's love too (even if they would not name it as such). Put like that, I think that a lot of what was going on in the central hall probably isn’t too different from what we do in our context.

So whilst the building might be crumbling I would like to think the spirit of Central Hall is still there and yes, it is there in fresh expressions and inherited church but it is also there very much within chaplaincy.

My understanding of the heritage I have as a chaplain in the context within which I work has grown as a result of the visit to this space and the wrestling which accompanied it. I still have questions relating to what I saw today and am still disturbed by aspects of it but thanks to the insight of Cox-Darling I am not despairing rather I am humbled as I realise that it is my turn to hold their baton for a season.