Saturday, 31 December 2016

Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America Reviewed

Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America edited by Kristin Aune and Jacqueline Stevenson is a book focused primarily on research from the UK and the USA, although as the title suggests there are interesting chapters that look at the European context more widely and include Canada. It is an interesting and useful interdisciplinary text which brings together the world of Higher Education practice the sociology of religion which reflects both the editors and contributors’ fields of specialisation.
What I particularly liked about this book is that it contains chapters looking at a range of different faith groups and their interaction with Higher Education. Jasjit Singh’s chapter “Samosas and simran: university Sikh societies in Britain” gave an interesting overview of their development and current position. As a chaplain who interacts with a range of users of the university multi-faith centre in which I am based this gave me a useful insight.

Similarly, Charlotte Shira Schallie’s chapter looking at Jewish student identity and the politics of identification in Canada was useful in giving an insight into the experiences of students from that faith. Whilst primarily focusing on the debate within British Universities on Israel-Palestine Ruth Sheldon’s chapter gave a complementary insight into Jewish student identity.

These chapters came within section two of the book: “The religious student experience: learning from qualitative studies”, which was for me the most interesting part of the book. It also contained a paper from Aune and Guest developing some of the material from the research study and book Christianity and the University Experience which they were involved in.

The most enlightening chapter within this section was Invisible Islam: Muslim student migrant’s everyday practices in French secular universities by Anna Virkama. The portrayal of the French Secularism tends to be stereotyped within British media and discussion as does the way it is negotiated. This article reminded the reader that the construction of identity and the negotiation of context is complicated and differs according to individuals. The reductionist approach many of us take towards that situation is shown to be reductionist by this chapter.

Qualitative research and case studies are interesting and have much to teach us but it is also useful to examine the wider scope of the landscape and this is what the first part of the book does, using more quantitative methods coming from survey data.

The United States has more data available and so it is not surprising that two of the three chapters in this part of the book focused upon them. Jonathon P. Hill sought again to caution people against reaching reductionist conclusions about the secularising impact of secular universities by arguing for people to look at a wider range of variables in relation to religious affiliation and belief by students. This chapter adds a useful new piece to the pile of material relating to the secularisation debate.

This common theme of “it’s complicated and varied” was echoed by Paul Weller and Tristram Hooley looking at How religion or belief frame participation and access in UK higher education. The argument they gives argues that with regard to the core concerns of education, retention and achievement / teaching and learning / the university experience religion is important and there should be far more data being gathered, analysed and acted upon in relation to it.

This argument that much more notice should be taken of religion in relation to the policies and planning of universities is taken up in the final third of the book “The place of policies, structures and curricula”. This chapter focused more upon the UK and Europe and dealt explicitly with some of the issues which come out of us living in the era of PREVENT and the events which are argued to have made it necessary.

The chapter by Sariya Cheruvalli-Contractor and Alison Scott-Baumann about Islamic Studies in UK universities: challenging the curricula did this more implicitly than other papers in this chapter. They looked at the way many courses still have their roots in Orientalism and the way in which the courses need to update themselves to deal with the lived experience of Muslims and Muslim young people today. This goes back to the earlier themes this book dealt with so well, the importance in recognising the diversity of religious identities and negotiation of context. This theme is further underlined by Joke van Saane who looks at “the role of religion and personal life orientation in curriculum development processes within the domain of religious studies”.

Adam Dinham’s chapter calls loudly for higher education institutions (HEI’s) and society more broadly to deal with the urgent need for an increase in religious literacy. This call coming loudly from within practical theology and the sociology of religion community and beyond is one which we need to take seriously. Doing this would enable HEI’s and others to do what Duna Sabri is calling for when she talks of the need for us to take the religion part of the 2010 Equality Act as seriously as we do other parts.

The conclusion and overall recommendations coming from this text come within the introductory chapter from Stevenson and Aune where they give 12 practical recommendations about how HEI’s could move further towards being “religiously inclusive”.

Is this book worth getting hold of? Yes, most definitely, if you have any kind of role in planning, policy formation or teaching and learning within universities or are involved in HE Chaplaincy work. It is a unique book which was published as part of the Society for Research into HigherEducation (SRHE) series. The breadth of the book, the multi-faith contributions and the fact it is the most contemporary text available with a range of contributions from top researchers in the field make it, I would argue, an indispensable text for those currently seeking to develop medium term plans in the current HEI context with all its shifting sands. 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Political Night Prayer....Disturbing the Soul

120 + people turning out on a cold November evening in Birmingham for Political Night Prayer was not what I expected when I decided to go along. When I got there, I looked around and noted the faces I recognised and the “look” of those I didn’t. The room was full of those who might be described as veterans of activism. Yet, I think most of us were there because we were thinking “what now?” and none of us are quite sure how to deal with the current situation. We wanted Keith Hebden of the Urban Theology Unit/ Union (they’re in the middle of a name change) and others to guide us.

As the evening drew on I was struck by a range of things which both encouraged and disturbed me. First the encouraging: the room was full of people who wanted to come together prayerfully to look at where we go from here. The worship was well organised and in many ways beautiful. There was a clear will expressed amongst people to become co-ordinated in doing something to try and move forward from where we find ourselves at the moment. That was the positive…..

Now on to the stuff that disturbed me a bit, the stuff I want to use this post to help me unpack in my mind.

The key thing is we are looking at how to engage with a popularist uprising of the disengaged and the disenchanted. The “Islington Dinner Party” insult being used so much in the direction of the Labour Party leadership particularly is talking about an intellectual approach which is out of line with the thinking of many. Now, I want to say that I think, generally, this is an unfair slur on Corbyn. However, last night I got it a bit more. There is a relativism to things when it comes to class.

Hands up, I am middle class and in many ways might have that “Islington Dinner Party” insult thrown in my direction due to my academic background and that of many of my friends who I chat with on social media and so forth. Yet, last night I found myself feeling excluded and like I was in a room of “posh” people whose lives were obviously far removed from me.
In terms of worship one of the things was the singing Taize chants in a range of modern European languages, but none in English. Yes, the English subtitles were underneath but due to the complexity of the pronunciation, etc. I was unable to sing two of them. The short Latin one I could manage in full and then there was one where I could manage to sing one word over and over whilst leaving others to do the complicated bit. I did mutter to the person sitting next to me I wish I had a GCSE in some foreign language.

There was one folk style tune but nothing within the evening which might be described as “low culture”. I reflected on the difference between this and the way I had been able to really engage with the Shelter Carol Concert earlier in the week which for me had enabled me to comfortably engage than any faith based event I could remember. That event had included a bloke who had been in Dexy’s midnight runners singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as well as the Choir With No Name singing in a style which I could enjoy. It had also included some high culture, but unlike the night prayer it mixed both together and I had felt comfortable rather than excluded.

Now please don’t get me wrong I’m not talking about differences in styles of worship here I’m talking about something deeper……….that gulf which seems to be getting wider in society between the “elite” and “the ordinary person on the street”. If we are seeking to bridge that and bring people together we need to do it in our worship as well as in our conversations.

That takes me on to Keith Hebden and what he was saying. Now don’t get me wrong I have a lot of time and respect for Keith and his theology and authenticity. Yet, when he was talking the nagging feeling of “the gap” was there. It spiked when he was talking about going to Lourdes, because he was passing. Now, he said it in the same way as somebody like me who doesn’t go trotting round France might talk about popping into Next when going through Birmingham, to just have a look around. For me and those who are more economically challenged than me the thought of just passing Lourdes was a complete anathema. Again if we are going to engage with what is going on we need to think about who “we” are and who “we” want to include.

As Keith spoke about acts of solidarity he had been involved in as well as the need to organise in order to mobilise I had mixed feelings. My thoughts moved between ungracious ones about hippies and into positive ones about there was something in this. I was conscious of the material in “Blueprint for Revolution: How to use rice pudding, Lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanise communities, overthrow dictators or simply change the world” by Srdja Popovic (of Canvas) and Matthew Miller, which is a book I would highly recommend to you. The need to go through a series of steps in the right order to achieve the change you desire rather than a void other people can exploit is so important.

As I sat reflecting on all this, and later woke in the night with my mind mulling these things over I was disturbed….I am disturbed. I could see the social movement theory in what he was saying but I was not sure I could see Christ.

We’re currently in Advent and I have already heard a variety opinion given on what that means in the current context; some talking of journeying, some talking of living in the now as if it were the what we are awaiting and some talking of time to be and reflect.

Something is bubbling up, something is disturbing, where is it leading? I am not sure, for now the best response seems to be to gather when we can, searching together for the answer. Taking opportunities like this to pray, but also engaging in organised and random acts of kindness as well as listening. Listening and hearing the voices of those we “other” through our middle-class elitism. That is where I am grateful for social media.

In his talk Keith Hebden talked about the way it does not give freedom of speech, it involves power given by others. This might be true, but it does give opportunity for us to hear those different voices from time to time if we stay connected to them when we may not like their posts. As for the alternative platform, he is suggesting. It will still have gatekeepers……these things always do.

So you see I have no answers either……in fact day by day I have less answers and a more disturbed spirit, but equally and paradoxically I do have more hope. I look at the way in which people are coming together and looking for what to do….rather than just what to say & there I do see Christ. 

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. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

10 things learnt this year as a student presbyter spouse in Brum

So it’s been almost a year that we’ve been up here in Brum, and I’ve done a full academic year as a chaplain in term of teaching time for undergraduates. I’ve did a bit of a review at the 6 month mark so here is my end of year one.

As you’ll notice I’m not going to focus on the chaplain bit, which incidentally has been great. I want to put together 10 things I’ve discovered as a student presbyter’s wife which hopefully will give my friends a bit of an update whilst maybe helping some people who are getting ready to come here in September. I admit as I read this it is a very middle class list….but hey I am middle class and so I make no apologies. Also I am conscious I have been able to get a job up here and so can afford to do some of these things, even if they are not extravagant. Not everybody is in that position.

1.    Whatever you think it will be like living in a theological college you’ll probably be wrong. – I had a whole load of assumptions which had to be unlearned very quickly. I think lots of other people did too. For me the issue was thinking I was entering some kind of academic bubble where I would be able to talk theology with lots of people. Truth is as a partner you don’t get to talk theology much, apart with your partner. The students want to chill and not talk theology in the evening and so you have to find spaces to engage in elsewhere unless you are auditing a class (which I understand some partners do).

2.    Living in a communal environment requires you to be sociable. – I am a southerner, as such the idea that people might knock on your door just to be sociable was an anathema to me. I haven’t really ever encountered neighbourliness of the sort they have round here before. It’s all a bit strange. For me the one bit I actively choose take part in when I can is Sunday lunch. I am entitled to a couple of more meals a week but don’t take them. I know some people think this is crazy because they see them as paid for in with our rent, but I don’t. One thing that helps you stay sane round here is keeping hold of the choices you can. So much is dictated by the rhythm of the college that it’s good to be able to hold on to what decisions you can.


3.    Whilst it’s a moderate drinking culture there is more of a social drinking culture in the theological college than I was previously used to. – Hubby and I are not big drinkers but all the way through the first term we noticed that because we hardly ever drunk much before our intake really did significantly increase when we arrived because we were drinking more regularly. The bar in the common room is very reasonably priced.


4.    Birmingham is a great place if you’re looking to have a good life on a budget.WinterbourneGardens and the Birmingham Museums are worth getting membership too. The IKON gallery is also well worth visiting regularly. The Crescent Theatre has some good value stuff on and Waterstones in Birmingham has some really good events. That’s just for starters.


5.    If you shop right Waitrose can be cheaper than Sainsbury’s. – Now this was not something I was expecting to find, but if you’re clever with what you’re buying and use the offers together with buying the excellent tasting Waitrose own brand you can do brilliant shops on a budget there. This is excellent because it’s the biggest supermarket in walking distance to where I live. The My Waitrose Card is my favourite loyalty scheme.


6.     A daily planner on the fridge is really useful. - In terms of knowing when you and your partner will be eating together / get to see each other I find the planner we got after I forgot how the routine of this place worked really useful. It enables us to identify which night Karl is going to eat in college (he has to every lunch time during term time and at least one evening). It’s also useful for me to know when he will be out on placement and so grabbing something quickly after a lecture, before I get home from work. Also it enables him to know when I am working late or out at a meeting and so will be eating at a different time too. Paper Chase do some lovely ones.


7.    If you want something to happen try and organise it. – The one thing I really wanted not to lose when I moved was being part of a book group which was a small group of Christians meeting together to discuss literature. So I organised a small one on campus when I arrived. It’s primarily for partners and adult children but anybody is welcome. Sometimes when you organise something nobody will be interested, but other times it might just happen.

8.    Date Time is important – I am a tad independent and am very much myself as well as being Karl’s wife. I also was lucky enough to find a job when I moved. As such I am not, perhaps, your “typical partner” – not that that person exists. Karl and I schedule in “date time” because we are both busy people. When we do get time together we tend to go off campus to have time away from the computer and to enjoy exploring Brum and the surrounding area or more often than not catch a film using our Cineworld Unlimited cards (something I think are an excellent investment). This means that people don’t often see us together. Apparently some people can find that a bit weird or problematic and it can give concerns about the state of a marriage. Truth is now Karl’s not commuting and I am not spending lots of time doing prep and marking we get to see each other far more than we ever have. The fact we have both come from professional backgrounds means that we are used to having to put in that time for each other but also allowing the other to be very much their own person in terms of having time to do whatever it is they need to be doing well.


9.    You end up mixing with all sorts of people – It’s great you mix with people from so many different backgrounds here, but it can be hard especially initially. I’ve learnt that just because I have one set of norms and values it doesn’t mean other people have the same ones. However, you have to learn to live with each other because underneath it all you’re going through similar things.


10. Make your own space in your flat and keep it as your home– For me putting together my kitchen space with an inspiration board and prayer space within it was really important. It meant that within this environment which is dominated by my partner’s studies I have a bit of space which I can say is mine. It is also useful if you can work with your partner to ensure that they have clear work and home division. For us it works well because Karl has a clear ethos of dividing the two and dresses for “work”, normally, as well as using the library for study so our flat is truly our home.