Friday, 24 November 2017

For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare by Samuel Wells et al Reviewed

There are various stories around the decline in the significance of the Church in the UK. Some start in the mid to late 1800’s, others focus on the first world war, some look at the changes in British society in the late ‘60’s whilst more argue it is to do with the introduction of the welfare state in the mid 1940’s. In truth it’s probably most appropriate to draw a timeline which marks all of these as significant stages in a process, which have differing significance to different denominations and churches. For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare by Samuel Wells with Russell Rook and David Barclay lay out an argument which focuses on the argument that the introduction of the Welfare State was the key point of significance. Hence this book engages with a re-evaluation of how the Church can engage with the review of welfare occurring 75 years after the Beveridge Report.

The significance of the date they choose to effectively link secularisation to matters, because it underlines a narrative which can be used to argue that the state has come in and replaced some of the functions of the church in providing care, education of the young and support those in distress. To argue that these were the “right functions” for a church in a society one has to buy into the argument, to some extent at least, that Christianity should have a privileged position in society where it is the recognised provider of essential services. Therein lies my problem with what is excellent a really good book which has some excellent arguments which I will go on to talk about.

There is a catch 22 situation which was excellently illustrated by Steve Chalke, of the Oasis Foundation, at the launch event for this book, which took place at Lamberth Palace. At the conference Chalke, one of the speakers, spoke about the need for infrastructure and governance to be in place for effective engagement at a national level in the provision of goods and services. He identified why, certainly regarding infrastructure, the Church of England was able to do this in ways others aren’t because they are a state church with a parish system. Yet, he was the only speaker that day to talk of spirituality rather than the Church/ Christianity or occasionally faith. The Oasis hub project in Birmingham which is one of the case studies in the book is also the only one which stems from the values we associate with spirituality and Christianity rather than from a congregation looking at how they can help the community, and seeks to work in a truly collaborative way where people are done “with” rather than “to”. Whilst the others reflect these values this hub has this as it's primary purpose rather than an additional one, which a congregation has. His organisation is also the only one to have actively, and I use this word advisedly, seek to oppose institutional homophobia and trans-phobia rather than seeking to protect privilege by continuing to give people the right to discriminate. (see their about section on their website).

I underline these points at the start of my review because they are important in understanding the unease as well as feelings of joy and hope this book unleashed in me as I read it.

The book is essentially as is recognised a report, and as such is too short to be truly nuanced. At 90 pages it can only ever be an overview. Hence, I think having a set of underlying assumptions which are not properly argued.

However, as I said it is a valuable text which provides much hope and gives a useful tool for thinking through social engagement in the contemporary society.

The biggest contribution I think this book makes is seeking to move from a deficit approach (which is what Beveridge took) to an asset based approach. Where as Beveridge said there were five great giants to be slayed (and if you’re not familiar I would point you to You Tube and a rather useful revision guide from History Helper) Wells et al argue there are five great goods society should be aspiring to: relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion and joy.

We have to be careful when talking about these things because focusing on the assets can detract from identifying the reasons these are lacking in our society and dealing with the root causes. This is avoided by the approach of dealing with some of the root causes by focusing on the assets as active verbs rather than simply ends to be achieved. It is an approach which can be seen in the case studies given.

Another strength of the book is it’s recognition of the need for flexibility and fluidity in approaches of social action looking across the spectrum from contradiction to co-operation. This is talked about in a real way which recognises what might start as a protest can end up in active collaboration with those who were at some point in the process “the opposition”.
There are also practical warnings in the book regarding making sure a project is fit for purpose and time sensitive.

So would I recommend it, yes but with the caveats referred to earlier. I’d also recommend some useful supplementary reading to go alongside it though, in order to develop it into the most useful text it might be.

The first text is Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. My reason for suggesting this as accompanying reading is that it looks at the way modern developments in technology are acting as barriers to the assets being discussed and diminishing these assets in our modern society. It is not a Luddite text, but rather it articulately discusses how our technology is a tool which we need to use well. Churches and Christians need to be as aware of their use of technology as other sectors.

The second text which I would suggest the reader engage with is Michael Volland’s The Minister as Entrepreneur: Leading and Growing the Church in an Age of Rapid Change. This book both provides a theological exploration of the approaches being advocated in the Wells text as well as some practical pointers on how to go about this. It also deals with some of the criticisms that might internally be leveled against congregations and ministers taking the type of approach advocated in the book.

A third text, for those wanting to see some different case studies and to examine how spirituality and supporting social action can come together would be The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross. (Which I have also reviewed in the past on this blog)

My final piece of accompanying reading would be Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today by Stephen Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder. This enables one to reflect on how context matters and how to shape this type of work as Christian but in a society which is more pluralistic than the Wells text might acknowledge. 

Friday, 27 October 2017

Found Out by Alison Webster Reviewed

I was sitting in GBK and had, Found Out: Transgressivefaith and sexuality, the new book by Alison Webster on the table, ready to read whilst I was waiting for my burger. The waiter came over, took a look at the cover, and asked if he could have a look. I said of course, he picked it up and said, “oh, I thought it was a yoga book from the picture”. I smiled and said no, but as he continued to read the blurb he asked “what is it then?” I was part way through and replied, “it’s a book about different women’s experiences of life and sexuality and a book which explains even though life gets messy God loves them as they are.” He smiled and said, “I understand”.

In truth this book is far more than how I described it to the waiter and the description I gave does not give justice to what this book is. It’s an exercise in practical theology which takes things forward and gives voice. The opening chapter seeks to give the reader an introduction to this form.

It begins as a history book, where through the use of autobiography she gives voice to the experience of women of Alison’s generation – those now in their 50’s. As somebody just those few years younger I found this useful. I am old enough to have grown up through much of what she was talking about, but too young to have truly “lived” through it. There is a relevance in this because the book comes 20 years after Found Wanting, which looked at the experience of women in the church in what might now be described as a different time.

It then moves on to putting together a collage of participants voices and experiences. Looking at the topics of what Webster calls “resistance” and “reclaiming spirit”. The rich variety of people sharing - some heterosexual, some bi or gay, some black, some white, some Christian, some of other faiths, some cis, some trans, some intersex, some the partners of trans people, some single, some ordained, some lay, some abused, some loved – means that it gives a wider spectrum of books.

The participants are all anonymised yet all their stories are real, raw and powerful.
However, as I say this is not a sociological study seeking to unpack the stories and find the correlations between them and the reasons for those. Rather it is an exercise in practical theology which seeks to look at the overall pattern of what is being said through the lens of theological reflection.

The chapters start with a reflection on a part of the gospel story and then jump to the present having given a tool for the reader to think about how the narrative of the gospels and example of Jesus might relate to what is being spoken about.

Chapter five “Recreating Faith” looks at how a nuanced and slightly queered use of queer theory might enable us to develop a way of looking at faith which can deal with the dissonance and apparent contradiction which is apparent in the real, lived experience of many people.

Finally in “Remaking Love” Webster looks at the way in which we might live out our relationships (both with partners and more widely). In this chapter much of what was being said was not new but it was more concrete and wide-ranging than in other books (such as Robert Song’s Covenantand Calling). The reason for this gets to the root of this book. Whilst others are often looking at these issues from a theoretical point of view, Alison Webster looks at them from the point of view of current, real, lived experience. 

She is looking not to “solve the problem” of what to do about the churches engagement with those who don’t fit into the hetero-normative worldview that the institutions are working from. Rather she is looking at how those who don’t fit into that worldview are currently living and engaging with spirituality and what that might teach us as we move into the future.

The book also differs from many of the positive books relating to LGBT+ people and spirituality.  The use of the contributors voices is not to focus on victim-hood and injustice in a way which seeks to demand justice through rhetoric which refers back to the contributions. Rather this shows the reality of what is happening and how power, when misused is problematic, but how power can also be and is being reclaimed by those who may appear marginalised in creative and hopeful ways.

Do I recommend this book, of course I do for all the reasons given above. 

Oh and finally, must mention the publishers are Darton, Longman and Todd, who are producing a lot of the cutting edge, affordable practical theology at the moment.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny Reviewed and Responded to.

I picked Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by Laurie Penny up in the little indie bookshop, Camden Lock Books which is based in Old Street Station. It was one of those books I picked up because I liked the bright green cover and because the recommendation on the front came from Caitlin Moran. I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed as I read it, the cover wasn’t the best bit.

The feminist essays inside are a set of thought which speak out for justice (and not just gender justice) in a way which is clear and generally well argued. There were points I fervently disagree disagreed with but these relate specifically to different outlooks on “religion”, “sex” and “family”.

Over eight chapters Penny shares a set of essays on the interlinked yet diverse topics of :the US election and what it teaches about madness and resistance, love and other chores, culture, gender, agency, backlash, violence and future.

The basic premise can be seen as the world is messed up due to the behaviour of individuals and institutions and to get real justice we need to start to dismantle those institutions which are inherently oppressive. Rather than basing the arguments around class, as so many men on the left have, this book engages with a structural approach from the point of view of identity politics (which are not a bad thing).

This could be seen as confusing as at times, as in the discussion of polyamory where the view taken is somewhat individualistic but at the same time directly engaging with structural issues. However, it makes sense as an argument, although I disagree with the premise underlining it. Where Penny argues that polyamory makes sense because it frees one from the oppressive ideology of the family and notions of romance and love it is linked to showing how religion has used family as a weapon of control.

This is where as a Christian Feminist I agree with some of her arguments but argue it is the church which has been at fault not the faith on which it is based. If one reads the bible (as opposed to reading just other people’s critiques of it) you can see that there are major problems where multiple partners are involved (in narratives which the church has generally sought to look at in a more positive way – glossing over the patriarchal violence involved by some of the heroes of the bible). Jesus himself referred to a radically different way of looking at family when he asked “who are my mother and brothers?” – but within this he is not advocating polyamory. In Matthew 5 he makes the point that it is the woman who suffers when there are not a set of social customs in place which promote monogamy. The problem is not monogamy, but rather it is the misuse of power and sex as well as the social stigma towards women. However, we can also see in our modern society how men suffer too. When you look at the statistics young black men are less likely to make it through education and more likely to end up absent fathers in jobs which are below the level they’d be in if they didn’t have to leave education early to provide for their children.

Now, the answer here could be – as Penny argues – to reduce the shame around abortion. However, I disagree with that as an answer. Yes, I believe women should have a choice and their bodies and lives are of equal value to that of children, but if we were to encourage men to wear condoms as well as women to use contraception then their lives would often be improved too. Ideally, encouraging people not to have sex until marriage is more likely to be the ideal. However, religion has too often used this to encourage too many people to marry young and have children too early. Parts of this agree with what Penny is talking about in the book, parts of it are totally opposed.

What I am arguing is that if one starts reading the bible there is much which agrees with the analysis in this book, but there are also things which enable you to question some arguments.

One area if we read the bible in this way it backs up what Laurie Penny says we need to really adjust to – that good and nice men after often the rapists and abusers. The bible doesn’t excuse their behaviour it gives radical different approaches to seeing the impact and to looking at relationships.

Take for example Hagar the immigrant slave, who how ever you dress it up, was raped by Abraham on the suggestion Sarah who wanted a surrogate child. Now I have all sorts of problems with some parts of this text but at the end of the day it is God who meets Hagar and allows her to see him and say his name (a really big deal) and God who provides for her and her son, allowing her to prosper. This is the God who argues that single parents must not be exploited against and all women are of value.

If the church allowed people to wrestle with these texts more and see their implications, I believe much would change. However, as Penny says with regard to recent high profile abuse charges it is uncomfortable to wrestle with this stuff and realise nice men commit the majority of assaults. Abraham, the great patriarch was a rapist who used his power in a way which was contextual but still wrong. We’re now thankfully exposing where this same pattern has been at work in the church damaging the lives of generations of men and women. What would have been different if the church hadn’t been controlled by men ensuring the women and others asking these types of questions down the century were censored?  How much sooner would we have moved on from they couldn't possibly have done that? The climate is thankfully changing from where it was as Penny points out and this is as true in the church as elsewhere. We have moved from, although we still have distance to go, from the point Constance Coltman described a century ago when she said, “the only right that no branch of the Church has ever denied to women has been the right of confessing to faith by martyrdom”. (note there is now a q&a sheet which says more about Constance which has been developed to go with Kevin Snyman's film Constance which I have blogged about previously).

So as you see there is much which the book says which fits in with what I believe as a bible believing Christian……so the problem is not religion in itself but the misuse of religion, as so many Christian feminists have said in the past.

A final note on this book, which I highly recommend if you are willing to engage and intellectually debate and wrestle with what the writer is saying, is thankfully it includes material about and relating to the experience of Trans*. It questions the feminist “haters” who do go back to binary essentialist biological views of sex and confuse them with gender as well as ignoring the validity of non-binary and intersex people. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Trans Partner Handbook Reviewed by Jo Green Reviewed

The Trans Partner Handbook: A Guide for When Your Partner Transitions by Jo Green is a new guide that’s come out to help support the partners of trans* people, particularly those who are going through transition. It contains good advice from the author and stories and experiences of other partners too. The author herself is the partner of a trans woman and runs one of the main online support groups for partners of trans* people.

I have to say I am one of those who has shared their experiences and so this is not an impartial review. I was privileged to be able to share my experiences in the hope it will help others.

One of the things I like about this book is that it has the right balance of information and stories. The information is comprehensive and very useful. It also shows everybody’s journeys are different but there are some feelings many have in common. It also has a good mix of straight and LGB partners, as well as partners of trans male and trans female people.

With regard to what the book it is split into two halves: The Partner Experience and Transition. The first section includes issues as diverse as Finding Out Your Partner is Trans, Coming Out, Sexuality, A Partner’s Gender Identity, Sex, Mental Health, Counselling and Therapy, Loss and Grieving and Children, Fertility and Adoption. The second half looks at Social Transition, Medical Transitioning and Legal Transition. The resources section is one of the most comprehensive I have come across. Also it is easily readable and does not come across as a text book.

The book is one I would highly recommend to partners but also those who want to understand more about how to support the partners of trans people and what they are going through.

It is a secular book and those readers of this blog who come from a faith perspective need to take that into account at points when opinions are given which may not fit in with their view of life (particularly near the beginning when the author address those readers who may be involved in polyamorous relationships for example). As I say though a really important book which I would highly recommend.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Unpopular Culture by Guvna B Reviewed

So I didn’t initially intend to buy Unpopular Culture by Guvina B, which apparently came out in June. However, I did buy it when I found out that he featured heavily in the current issue of the Premier Christianity magazine and that the whole book was only 99p more than the magazine in our local book store, (which had a promotional discount on it). I figured I may as well read the whole book rather than the magazine. What follows is my review.

For the uneducated Guvna B is a MOBO winning British rapper. I could get into the categorisations here but as he says in the book he’s not a big fan of labels and to be honest I’m old and remember when it was as simple as “rap” “hip hop” and “electro”. There’s been times in  his career has been harmed by being pigeon holed as a Christian or gospel artist.

Whilst this book follows a certain evangelical path it is not your usual “trot it out and get them in” paperback. Whilst it’s clear that he has and does perform at big evangelical events it’s equally the case that he points to faith being a journey rather than being “an event”. This is refreshing and reflects the overall honesty which comes through the book.

Early on he briefly talks of his own experience of growing up on a council estate in an area which underwent gentrification as a result of the Olympics. Within this he talks of aspiration and makes clear that those who live in social housing do have aspiration but it tends to be more material and short term than the aspiration with delayed gratification.

I found the material about educational achievement interesting and frustrating. He went on a path of progression which involved doing not so well in his GCSE’s. really not good in his AS Levels but then turning it round to get to university. This path is not unusual but it is increasingly being cut off to people. A Level departments no longer exist in a lot of colleges and the modular system has been abandoned. Whilst he is not overly positive about his university experience it is clear it is “the way out” for many of those young people in social housing (and elsewhere) who do have that long term aspiration.

Now, when it comes to the aspiration “cycle” he makes clear that we need to encourage people to be themselves and own the gifts God has given them. The school, job, relationship, mortgage, family repeat cycle is one which can have negative aspects to it if that is the only goal somebody has.

So you can see a lot of wisdom in this book. It also contains a more positive take on social justice than some books of this type can. As well as talking about supporting a child through the Compassion sponsorship scheme he talks about really engaging in issues. As somebody who says they were desensitized to a lot of things for a long time he says if you start looking at the news and thinking about how you would react if you were seeing your own family it makes a difference. He also mentions, explicitly at various points, the topic of police brutality including the case of Eric Garner.

So do I recommend this book or is it just for young people? Well, I found it useful and at times challenging. Yes, I could get through most of it in the time it took me to drink a large glass of white, but so what. This young man has some important things to say and they appear to being said with integrity. His basic bible teaching isn't bad either.

He does mention the difference of writing for a Chrisitan and secular audience and I have to say I’d love to have read what he’d written if it was for a secular rather than a Christian publisher and with a secular audience in mind to sell to. Still he has a living to make and so do his publishers and so this is the book we get and I have to say it isn’t a bad read all things considered.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Doorways to the Sacred by Phil Potter & Ian Mosby (eds) Reviewed

Doorways to the Sacred: Developing Sacramentality in Fresh Expressions of Church edited by Phil Potter and Ian Mobsby is the latest book in the Ancient Faith, Future Mission series. As with other books in this series it is predominantly Anglican in it’s outlook, whilst trying to be an ecumenical book and is made up from contributors based in the UK and USA. These include people like Graham Cray, Lucy Moore, Sue Wallace and John and Olive Drane who many will be familiar with.

The book looks at various sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, healing and confession raising questions relevant to their use in missional communities. The book appears, to the outside reader, to have two aims. Firstly, to argue the importance of the sacraments and look at how they might appear in missional communities and Fresh Expressions. Secondly, this book appears to be seeking to give a reasoned argument as to why some of the “laws” or “rules” around the sacraments that the church has need to be re-examined to give more room for them to be contextually appropriate. The book shows how the rules around who should and shouldn’t be taking communion, for example, are already being broken with regard to everybody – baptised or not – being able to come to the table in many situations and words being used which are more contextually appropriate than some of the official liturgies. In her chapter on communion and Messy Church Lucy Moore talks of now being at a point of entering negotiation with the Liturgical Commission.

The book is also interesting for those of us who have been following the literature for many years by showing where some of the people and missional communities themselves have moved onto as time has progressed. It outlines how some have taken the journey from “post-evangelical” to Anglican vocation on to parish priest seeking to use what they have learnt in their missional communities in deprived parishes. Ian Mobsby is interesting in that he has moved on from Moot and in his current appointment is becoming a mixed economy parish containing both “traditional” community and “fresh expression”. Similarly in the USA Karen Ward has moved from a “hipster, arty community” in Seattle to seeking to develop a new community in a poor parish in Oregon. It has Reagan Humber, who is one of the priests at the House of Saints and Sinners in Colorado talking about their recent move of building as well as about the open policy they have, which readers of Nadia Boltz-Weber’s books will be familiar with.

Cray starts by talking about how sacraments are useful in our contemporary world but they have to be something which take us beyond our current yearning for individual experience. This is something which is echoed by other authors, but as John Drane points out it can be that individual experience within a corporate ritual which enables somebody to have a moment with God where they become oblivious of everything and everybody else. Sue Wallace uses the example of the Eucharist being the Tardis which enables us to go back to the foot of the cross – which I think is a good example for showing how sacraments can and should be both communal and individual experiences both at the same time.

With regard to who should take the sacraments and whether they should be truly open to all this is explored in the book. As one might expect the overwhelming response is they should be. However, there are some useful points made about why boundaries or careful handling may be needed. Ian Mosby talks of the value of confirmation as a sacrament but how we need to ensure that it is done of a young person’s own free will and certainly not just to help said young person get into the religious school of their choice. As somebody who made my own daughter argue her case for “adult baptism” before I would give permission – wanting to ensure that it was done from a point of belief not “fitting in” I echo what he is saying. 

Jonathon Clark has an interesting chapter where he looks at how baptism can be open but it needs to be seen as a commitment to a community rather than an individualistic act.
The book is split into five main sections: Sacraments in Context and Culture, Sacraments in Formation and Worship, Sacraments in Initiation, Sacraments in Eucharist and Holy Communion and Sacraments of Healing, Confession and Reconciliation. However, as one might expect with this type of book Eucharist and Holy Communion does tend to dominate.
The most interesting section of the book for me was the final one on healing, confession and reconciliation. With my low church background I had never thought of confession as a sacrament. Yet, it is an important one as Bryony Davis who mixes prison chaplaincy with leadership of a missional community in Surrey (not linked to the prison context) explains within her chapter.

I think that this section is important because whilst other chapters allude to working with survivors this section directly relates to it, (amongst other groups). There is a huge work to be undertaken with regard to this area and it is something that I believe churches are only just beginning to get their heads around. Missional communities by their nature of working “on the margins” to some extent are useful sources of wisdom on this work. Yet, as Julie Leger Dunstan makes clear there is a difference between what is occurring in these contexts and counselling. She highlights the place of spiritual directors in being able to hear confession, but not being counsellors (as they are very clear they are not there to be).

The one real nod to UK ecumenicalism, apart from some of the comments in Lucy Moore’s chapter comes in a moving chapter from Simon Sutcliffe who talks of reconciliation rather than confession. He argues that this sacrament is deep in Methodist DNA if one looks back at the class meeting structure, yet he says as Methodists we only tend to concentrate on communion and baptism as the sacraments.

So is this book worth a read? I would say yes if you want to think through what sacraments are in a way which is non-threatening. I say this as somebody who values ritual but finds the rules of the church with regard to who can and can’t do things related to sacramentality and how they have to be done “properly” difficult to get my head around. This book speaks into my experience and the times I have found the eucharist most special being ok. These experiences came in festival fields where nobody knew who was what and my CP blessing / wedding when we had an open communion table in Bletchley Park. Excluded from the church building in that situation due to what our birth certificates said about gender we were able to have a table in space where all were truly welcome in what was effectively a pop up church where the ball room became church for that hour.

If you are somebody who is hung up on “proper polity” you might find this a difficult read, but that’s good too because we need to find ways forward. We need to find ways where the traditional is fully respected but also all are open to receive the invitation to wholeness God which the sacraments offer.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Worry Dolls - Go Get Gone Reviewed

The Worry Dolls debut album Go Get Gone is jaunty from the start. Endless Road the first track shows off their musical abilities, particularly on strings.

The next song Train’s Leaving goes on to showcase their country credentials but it is the third track Miss You Already which truly brings both together. This heart break song which has Nashville stamped all over it is both ghostly and beautiful. The duo who sing and play on here showcase the beauty of both their playing and their voices on this one.

The album shows off what they can also reproduce live. The banjo on Don’t Waste Your Heart on Me sounds like it was honed in the fields of the American South, but in reality it was Liverpool in England where they came together when they were both studying music.
You might wonder if there is something fake about them then? Are they just another couple of country singers like Ward Thomas who look good and don’t sing too badly? No, having seen both live at Cambridge Folk Festival this year I have to say there is a clear difference between what the Nashville Machine has done with the Ward Thomas twins and the real talent of the two girls in the Worry Dolls. Don‘t get me wrong I enjoyed the Ward Thomas set but it didn’t enthuse me in the same way as the Worry Dolls set did, which got me straight over to the merchandise tent buying the CD.

She Don’t Live Here the fifth track on the CD highlights the folk roots which mix with the country sound. Whilst not the strongest song, with keyboard featuring more heavily, it does have a romantic feel to it.

Bless Your Heart is probably my favourite song on the album. It’s got slightly more of a dancey feel than some of the other tracks. It’s also got a bit of bitchy humour in it, but sung so beautifully.

Light oh Light takes it down again and highlights the harmonies the duo have going on as well as giving the strings centre stage again. Lyrically it gets a bit repetitive, but hey ho…..when the key line is “I’m tired of singing the same old song” they may have an underlying reason for doing so.

Passport gets a bit dancey again, in that kind of floaty dress hot summer kind of way which doesn’t require much energy.

Things Always Work Out is lyrically a good song with a chilled feel, the sort you’d like to listen to with a good glass of wine.

Finally you get Someday Soon which is another floaty, perhaps a little to chilled if anything. That said the sound and strings on it remain mesmerizing.

The album is definitely worth listening to and I’d highly recommend it, but I would say if you get to see them live that’ll be even better; they’re touring the UK again in early November.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The British Sea Side Stay Reviewed - Morecambe

It was high season in Morecambe last week, but it had the feel of a seaside town in March or April. There was a strange mixture of hope and aspiration alongside a resigned culture of decline in the town, which we stayed in for three nights.

Why did we choose Morecambe in the first place? Well we couldn’t decide between the country and the coast and Morecambe gives the best of both – having the bay, but being in such proximity to the Lake District.

Then if I’m honest there was the cost element. We were booking a holiday on a budget, taking advantage of the Virgin Train Sale. This meant that our choice was going to be somewhere along the West Coast Line. We could get from Birmingham to Morecambe for under £30 taking advantage of this sale, along with use of our Two Together Railcard. Hotel wise we went for the Travel Lodge on the basis of you know what you’re getting and it was relatively cheap – giving a discount as we were staying a third night, but also very clean and comfortable.

We knew that we weren’t planning to do breakfast at the hotel, but rather find a local cafĂ© or coffee shop. We weren’t disappointed Kerry’s Coffee House did well. It did an excellent breakfast menu, using local organic ingredients. We got a good breakfast for two people each day for somewhere in the region of £10. The staff were friendly enough, but some of the other customers were symptomatic of the resorts problems we thought. On the second morning there were a couple of older ladies came in and it was obvious we were sitting on “their table”. There were comments made about not liking to sit near the door, but we ignored them. Then they appeared on the third morning, when we were sitting at a different table. They were clearly somewhat confused or dismayed that we were there again. Their view was that we didn’t fit and a comedy style conversation between the them then ensued where we heard that my husband and I were obviously not happy, because we weren’t looking at each other enough and he must be on benefit. In fact he is a Methodist Probationer Minister about to take up his first appointment and we are very happy.

The feeling of middle class 30 & 40 year olds choosing to being there on holiday being somewhat of a novelty was palpable elsewhere too. We were looked at like we were oddities, something we did not experience in Lancaster, Heysham or the Lake District but we did quite a bit in Morecambe. 

As I say though there is clearly an aspiration for this to do what Margate is doing and becoming a revitalized resort. This is not only apparent through the restoration of the Midland Hotel which is an example of art deco magnificence but also through places like The Honey Tree Chinese Restaurant. Having wandered down the sea front ruling places out, primarily on the basis of the staring from the local residents we found this wonderful place. The food was first class and the bathrooms with the individual flannels and hand creams were also excellent (although a new hand dryer wouldn’t go amiss). What showed the aspiration most though was the way that we were treated, there was almost a desperation to give wonderful customer service – so much so we did wonder if they thought we were food critics. The waitress who delivered our food sounded like she had been trained Eliza Doolittle style, having perfect diction with her broad Lancashire accent when she told us “smells delicious doesn’t it”.

The difference between our experience in Morecambe itself and it’s neighbour of Heysham couldn’t have been more different. Heysham is more middle class and whilst the service at the The Royal was more relaxed, whilst still being of a very high standard – we didn’t feel like some kind of novelty here. The menu here was what one might expect in a typical British village pub and we had a great Steak and Ale pie at a very reasonable price. Walking back along the coast from Heysham we were able to take in a beautiful sunset and enjoy the two mile walk.

For those wondering about visiting the resort I’d say go for it. Not only do you get the sands and scenery around the bay it really is so easy to get to the Lakes. We got a £11 Northwest Day Ticket from Stage Coach and took advantage of the bus to go to Windemere and Bowness. It takes just under hour and half but you get to see the most breath-taking scenery. For Keswick and Derwent Water we took the train to Penrith and then the bus.

One thing I was a bit sad about was that whilst there were lots of tributes to Eric Morecambe about there was little commemoration of Thora Hird, who had also been born in the town.

I have to say I so hope that Morecambe does keep going with trying to achieve the aspiration which is clearly there and more people get to see the charm. If you haven’t been I advise you to do so, but be ready to deal with the culture of despair amongst some of the ageist (and that’s what the elderly women in the cafe were) locals. If it all gets too much I can recommend the Rotunda Bar to escape to, it’s attached to the Midland Hotel, it’s not the cheapest bar in the area but it’s worth a look in.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Realms of Glory by Catherine Fox Reviewed

Realms of Glory by Catherine Fox is the third of the Lindchester Chronicles (after Acts and Omissions and Unseen Things Above). It again looks at life in this fictional Anglican diocese over the course of a year. As the third book it of course provides continuity but this one felt different, less catty – certainly from June and the middle of the book onward and desperate to give us some hope.

The books were written in weekly blog installments, but I have preferred to wait for the complete books. Thus, I didn’t know what to expect – although I did know this is the one where some of the loose ends or perhaps loose characters were likely to be sorted out. This tying up of loose ends was arguably too neat, but one knows that just because the end of one stage of life ends with apparent tidiness and just the odd frayed end that it can all unravel again and this is a mere snapshot of one point in time.

As I say this book somehow differed in tone but was perhaps my favourite as it was less pantomime in places. There was no moral commentary on what we should think of people and perhaps most importantly no highly characterised villain - (just as well because after the last one I spent two years as a university chaplain wearing a navy hoody with the word chaplain on the back being mocked by my husband). There were ordinary people struggling the difficult aspects of ordinary life.

This book contains no sensational affairs or falls from grace, although the ones from the first book is touched upon at one point. It does contain compassionate, sensible safeguarding and pastoral care – perhaps reflecting on how the world and the church has moved on from when the first book was written. In fact, there is only one point when it moves into the realm of possible, but really? And that is when one of our heroes delivers a baby – but really? I mean he’s good but delivering a child that quickly as well as keeping the other kids occupied with cookies?  Still it did raise yet another smile in relation to this character who the reader has been rooting for through all three books.

The author lets herself slip through slightly more in this book I think. She is a lecturer who teaches creative writing and there are writing tips peppered through this one. Whilst all fictional it was interesting to see how life has mirrored art. The lecturer married to the archdeacon finds herself married to a bishop when he gets promotion. In real life Fox wrote this in blog form whilst married to a cathedral dean and by the time it was published in book form her husband had been promoted to bishop. The angst she, like many, felt about both Brexit and Trump also comes through.

But what of the CofE politics you might ask? Those things so prominent in the first two books. Well they’re here in this one…..the Green Report and the ongoing debate about same sex marriage. Yet they are less of a focus, certainly after Brexit. They move, rightly, into the background with points (such as the reliance of many diocese on LGBT+ staff) being implicitly rather than explicitly made.

Did I enjoy this book as much as the other two? Yes, and in some ways more. It wasn’t the happy endings it was the fact surprising things happened but in a more gentle way.

As I end this review I want to say thank you to the author for the trilogy, which I have very much enjoyed.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Recommending Brum

Culture and community are two words I’d use to sum Brum up, as I come to the end of my two years here. These words have been reinforced in various ways over the last few days:

First the culture; we’ve been enjoying The Big Sleuth which is a trail of beautifully painted bears around the city. As with the owls two years ago these are raising funds for Birmingham Children’s Hospital. They can be found around the city and surrounding area. The Cathedral Square by the CofE Cathedral is a particularly good place to find them. Incidentally they also have a retro 80's film festival coming up.

The bears also embrace the community feel as within the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and elsewhere there are bear cubs which have been painted by schools and community groups.

In the main Library of Birmingham the themes also meet with the Connecting Stories exhibition. This exhibition looks at the contribution people from South Asia have played in this country over the centuries and in contemporary society.
If you enjoy social history, including women’s or social movement history, this is definitely for you. It has a great story of a princess of South Asian decent, who was born in Suffolk, selling suffragette newspapers outside Hampton Court where she had apartments. There is also local material linked to the Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970’s.

As I prepare to move on in the coming weeks I can truly say I’ve never lived anywhere I have loved as much as here. The culture is vibrant and the community welcoming.

If you’re wondering where to come for a day out or even a weekend away this summer you could do worse than consider Brum. I’d really recommend both the bears and the exhibition, especially as both are free to enjoy.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Why advice on pastoral care for families is needed alongside the liturgy of celebration

I fully welcome and celebrate the Church of England’s decision to move towards an official liturgy for trans people, but I think an element of the discussion has been missing. We are talking about giving ministers a liturgy to use, but we have not spoken about giving them advice or training on the pastoral care needed around administering these services and the feelings that they may arouse in family members, which will need to be handled with sensitivity.

I have spoken before on this blog about the feelings that were aroused in me when my husband had this type of liturgy within a service. Whilst it was a time of great celebration, it created feelings of real dissonance in me. I was suffering from feelings of ambiguous loss and had had no formal way of acknowledging that. For me, the naming liturgy felt like a funeral as well as a celebration. It was formally celebrating the “new” identity of Karl which implicitly meant his “dead” name was truly that, as was the “old identity”.

One aspect of the debate not being fully acknowledged or explored at the moment is the impact on family and partners who are supportive but are having to deal with the feelings of dissonance and ambiguous loss we have been talking about.
We need real work doing not just on the pastoral care of trans people but of their families too. Churches will often be welcoming families who are on a journey, not just the trans people.

Now, I get this is a sensitive subject – I have been in rooms where when I have spoken about this there has been difficult emotion. There have been trans people who have been rejected by families and there have been trans people who have felt guilt about the journey others have had to take with them. On line I have had trans people who have said what I am saying seems to reject trans people.

I want to be clear, my husband’s transition is the best thing ever to have happened to him and I have seen him flourish as a result of no longer having to repress who he is. We have a Hungry Caterpillar money box which celebrates the butterfly emerging. I am 100% supportive, but I had to go through a grief process as a result of this and those feelings of loss that family, particularly, go through needs to be recognised. We need to produce resources which help those coming alongside in churches to understand the complexity of these situations and how to pastorally approach them.

Reflecting on a weekend of Pride, Hope & Celebrating God at Work

This weekend was Pride in London and there were a Christians at Pride group marching again, just as there have been for a number of years now. Except this year it was different, very different.

This weekend the Church of England synod in York and as has become a regular happening LGBT+ issues were discussed. Except this time it was different, very different.

This weekend I preached at the church which has been home over the last couple of years, just as I have in other churches. I was faced with the dilemma of whether to mention anything about LGBT+ witness and mission in my sermon, just as I have on a couple of other occasions as a local preacher. Except this time it was different, very different.

So what were these differences and what do they have to tell us about what is going on in the churches and the Christian LGBT+ world?

The Christians at Pride Group was bigger than in the past, much bigger. This year it was made up of about 250 people and was the third biggest group after Barclays (the main sponsor) and Stonewall. It was also a much more mixed group culturally, with a far higher number of BAME people involved, (despite what this picture seems to show). It was not just “the usual faces”, many of them were watching in the crowd – being among those who stood next to the “angry Christians” turning their yellow negative placards into a rainbow proclaiming love. There were also some at the church where the annual Pride Service was being held offering hospitality through a tea party in the garden.

The Church of England synod was different because whilst there was the “official discussion” on what to do about LGBT+ issues with the usual prevarication and kicking into the long grass there were compassionate and important motions passed. These were motions bought by synod members and diocese which committed the Church of England to condemn conversion therapy and look to develop an official recognised liturgy for people who wanted to mark their transition and reaffirm their new/ true identity.

The church I was preaching in is a URC/ Methodist church which has in the past year signed up to Inclusive Church and become a recognised One Body One Faith Church. It set up a stall outside the church, which is on the Birmingham Pride route, and gave out water and sweets to those in the Birmingham Pride parade this year. It was also one of the co-ordinating groups involved in getting Christians at Pride in Birmingham off the ground this year. Preaching there I didn’t have the dilemma of whether to mention LGBT+ issues I knew I could do so, encouraging the church in the way in which God had been working in there. I could talk about the impact that their actions have; how they help the LGBT+ community and the way God is obviously working through them. I could talk about the way in which I know that church has not changed their thinking (it all went through Church meeting very quickly and without much debate) and they probably don’t think they’ve done anything much but actually what they’ve done is really important.

The passage I was preaching on yesterday was Matthew 11: 16 -30 (note without the gap which the lectionary suggests) and this talks about some recognising God’s signs and wonders whilst others rejected them. To recognise what God was doing in the world then you had to recognise experience. I think the same is true now…..we need to look at experience as well as using scripture, tradition and reason.

Experience is what is telling me something is happening, God is at work through ordinary people in the church who may or may not belong to the LGBT+ community. Experience is telling me that divisions in the church between different groups are being broken down. Is telling me, through conversations I’ve been having with people and coverage of Christians at Pride in publications like Pink News, that the perception the wider LGBT+ community has of Christians and the gospel message is beginning to change.

Yet, I know all this doesn’t happen without hard work. I know that there are those who have been patiently working towards where we are now for many decades. So I want to thank them for their hard work and faithful witness over the years.

I also know that there is still much to be done if LGBT+ people are to be fully accepted, acknowledged and included in the church. There is still much to be done if our relationships are to be treated on an equal basis. I know that the more the church embraces the LGBT+ community the more vicious some opponents will become, as they realise they have lost the argument (I remember the late Pauline Webb explaining this was the case with the campaign for women’s ordination in the Methodist Church).  

Yet as I have shown God is at work and I have more hope than I have ever had.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

RIP Prof Berger and hope for his legacy

Today we heard from Boston University and others that Prof Peter Berger had died earlier this week. Not only was he one of the great sociologists of religion, he was a great example. Berger was one of the few academics to have gone on record to say, “I got it wrong”.

In an interview, from 2013, with the Crescent he explains more about it. He says that in the 1980’s and 90’s there was a standard view of secularisation given by many which became received wisdom. However, this picture was wrong, secularisation is more complex. He said that secularisation is linked to geography and intellectualism. We need to be more sophisticated how we think about it.

Within the interview he says “The problem with modernity is not that God is dead, as some people hoped and other people feared. There are too many gods, which is a challenge, but a different one.”

I look at this interview, after having listened to some of the debates this week coming from Methodist Conference. Speaker after speaker noted that mission needs to take priority and we need to change how we do things.

Theorists like Berger don’t give us any magic formula- we need to get a grip on there isn’t one. However, they do give us information to consider in our decision making and planning. Yes, we do need to pray and look to God, but if we worship God with our hearts, minds and souls we need to bring our minds into play. As a Methodist, I take scripture and tradition seriously, but I also view reason and experience as important too. Sociologists such as Berger have given us much to help with using the quadrilateral.

I am passionate about mission, but I’m also passionate about that mission being thought out and contextually appropriate. So thank you Professor Berger for your contribution to the field and may you rest in peace.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Transfigurations - Transgressing Gender in the Bible by Peterson Toscano Reviewed

Peterson Toscano, who will be familiar to Greenbelt Festival goers, has a video of his work exploring biblical texts relating to gender diversity, which can be streamed through Amazon now. It is work you may be familiar with if you have seen him in recent years, but which will be new to many.

Transfigurations – Transgressing Gender in the Bible looks at a range of different biblical characters through the use of a range of performance pieces. He begins by looking at Deborah and the scripture found in Judges 4-5. This illustrates how femininity is cannot be defined in a particular way because what it means to be female is something which has diverse meanings.

He then moves on to look at the story of Joseph, described through the perspective of the hyper-masculine uncle Esau. Within the explanation of this narrative which follows Peterson talks about the way that the story talks about blended families before moving on to looking at gender diversity. He looks at the issue of gender diversity using biblical scholarship to explore the clothing of different colours which Joseph was given and the context he was working on. He acknowledges the explanation he gives may not be the only one but it is one which needs listening to.

So within the first two pieces he introduces us to a piece of scripture many of us will not have explored before and reintroduces us in a new way to a biblical character we will have been familiar with from a young age.

Next he moves on to eunuchs and explains their place in the ancient world. He uses the book of Esther to look at this group again using a performance piece. As with the other dramatic representations the use of his hands and intensity of his facial expressions are key to making this work.

In the discussion he moves on to look at other eunuchs including an Ethiopian one in Jeremiah. Again whilst gender variance is the thread which links this with the other characters in the concept of ethnicity is also gently dropped in.

From here Peterson moves on to another performance piece looking at the more familiar Ethiopian eunuch who we read of in the new testament. We don’t know the name of this eunuch so Toscano gives them a gender neutral name. Finally we get another character who gets a bit part mention in the bible but again seems to be acting outside gender norms.

If you are not familiar with the concept of gender diversity I would suggest that you use these videos in conjunction with the Genderbread Person materials from Sam Killerman to help you understand further the concept of gender diversity.

I would recommend this video for those who want to explore gender diversity from a biblical perspective. I’d also say this is a great way back into scripture for those who want to explore scripture more but currently it somewhat dry.

This video is particularly something I would recommend to those who are scared of theology, thinking it is something dry and dusty done by old men in cathedrals or universities. This shows biblical scholarship can be interesting and transmitted in ways which are interesting and culturally relevant.