Saturday, 15 April 2017

Responding to Aune's How Can Universities Tackle Religious Descrimination

Yesterday Kristin Aune, an academic from Coventry, published an excellent article in the Guardian about how universities can tackle religious discrimination. Within the piece she uses evidence from the research collected for Religion in Higher Education in Europe and North America which she co-edited with Jacqueline Stevenson, (which I reviewed here), to give three obstacles to this:

1.    Religion being seen as being a minority interest
2.    Students are seen as a threat
3.    We don’t listen enough

Having looked at these three she then comes up with three things which could help:

1.    Collecting more data on religion and mapping this across to outcomes
2.    Integrating religious literacy into those courses which relate to post-grad teaching and learning qualifications
3.    Creating religious equality working groups

The comments generated by this article showed the barriers which are put up by secularists whose own ideology is, at times, as strong as any conservative religious believer. The comments also tend to relate to a particular view of teaching and learning which fails to look at the weight now put on the overall student experience by those in power. I want to look at this article from the perspective of a Christian chaplain embedded in the Methodist denomination.

The first point I want to make regarding religion being a minority interest. It’s a Christocentric view that I think many of us within the church can fall into too. The narratives of secularisation and church decline have been intertwined in a way which has ignored the reality that the two are different. As Linda Woodhead has said in a recent article in the Journal of the British Academy and others have pointed out they are two separate narratives. One can be said to be generally true whilst the other has been shown to be at best complicated and at worst false. We live in a country where church decline has occurred and more young people are describing themselves as being of no religion but religion and spirituality have also grown through a combination of factors. Those young nones are rejecting secular labels as well as religious ones. 

This dismissing religion as a minority interest also has the problem of ignoring faith is an aspect of identity which intersects with other aspects, particularly race and ethnicity.

As a chaplain who works with others in the university to try and increase employability skills among under-represented groups the lack of data is frustrating. I want to be able to demonstrate to managers that supporting initiatives which seek to help students identify the transferable skills young people are gaining through their involvement with places of worship is worthwhile and will add value to the organisation. To do this properly and monitor impact I need data.

If we learn to see it as church involvement is a minority interest but religion and spirituality isn’t it puts more of a focus on seeking how we can engage with people where they are, outside of the church context. This is a pastoral and missional approach which looks at helping people engage with God where they are, which is what Wesley focused upon.
Secondly, I agree with Aune that through legislation such as Prevent the surveillance of students can be problematic. I work in a university which has taken a very clear approach to the government legislation linking it to safeguarding and so avoids a lot of these problems. However, I know that the approach being taken isn’t uniform across universities. As the legislation is built around guidelines rather than firm definitions it is open to a range of interpretations.

The Methodist Church along with partners from the Baptist and United Reform Churches, together with the Church of Scotland has a strong history of examining this type of issue through the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). However, they need to be directed to do so by the churches and until recently this has not been on the radar of many in the Methodist Church, (or I would argue elsewhere), to a certain extent we have simply left it to the Anglicans to deal with and advise us on.

This is changing and several Methodist regional synods have recently passed motions noting the concern that some of us have regarding this legislation and the impact it has on chaplaincy work within universities and on multi-faith working. There is a hope that this will be discussed at conference with some kind of Methodist approach to the issue being given. Many of the concerns link specifically to the points Aune raises within this article.
With regard to the need to take religion as seriously as other protected characteristics I think this is really important. A founding principle of the non-conformist denominations was religious freedom. Linking back to the last point this is something which still needs to be defended, increasingly from conservative secular discourse.

As a Methodist who values the Methodist Quadrilateral I view experience as important. However, I am also aware that whilst the quadrilateral seeks to invoke Wesley’s way of doing things through looking at the role of the Holy Spirit it was actually put together by the United Methodist Church in America to help them work out how to bring together a range of strands of Methodist thought and the pluralism within that. The secular use of aspects of this approach can be incredibly useful in universities where there is a focus on “the student experience” and where senior managers, support services and teaching and learning staff are all required to consider this “student experience”.  

As a Methodist who is a chaplain I look at the experience through the lens of reason and tradition (both the tradition of the institution and the Church) and through the lens of scripture. This is why I agree for experience to be heard and injustices and good practice from it to be acted upon there need to be processes and forums in place. 

As Aune has identified these type of forum exist for other groups. I would argue that with regard to religion Chaplains are well placed to help develop and co-ordinate this type of work within universities. Yet, as already said the work we do on protected characteristics should not just relate to religion. We have a specific role that can be played in negotiating situations where different protected characteristics appear to be in conflict with each other. We are also well placed because with our semi-independent status we are also able to speak truth to power, in appropriate ways, which others may not feel able to do. 

With regard to the need to develop religious literacy strategies within post grad teaching and learning qualifications, again I think this could be an area that chaplaincy could contribute to.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

New Art Reviewed

Wondering what to do in Brum over Easter? Or looking for some great art to enjoy outside of London? You could do worse than come and explore some of the work being shown in the city at the moment. I Want! I Want! Art & Technology is on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 1st October, New Art West Midlands is displaying work around the West Midlands at the moment including in the Waterhall Gallery, (also part of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) until 14th May. Then finally, with a shorter run, Eddie Aigbe’s Beyond the Depths of Skin is in the Church at Carrs Lane until 19th April. Yesterday I explored all three, including the opening of the third, (and Eddie was kind enough to say I could photo and include some of the images from that exhibition in this post).

The Aigbe exhibition may be being held in a church and be part of their Easter worship, but it has challenging content, much of which comes from the artists experience working and having a studio in one of the more deprived parts of Birmingham. The paintings are in a variety of mediums and styles. There are pencil drawings which appeal to the more traditional tastes, pop art style portraits and more abstract collage styles amongst the work. The theme of the silencing of certain groups is subtly included in a number of works. There is a striking self-portrait included within the exhibition which Gillian Houghton has reflected on in the Holiness Journal.

The poet Bob Cooper, (Birmingham Methodist Circuit’s poet in residence), has a number of works in his most recent collection Everybody Turns which relate directly to his interpretation of Aigbe’s work. He read a couple of these at the preview last night where local singer and community artist David Benjamin Blower also played a number from his The Book of Jonah Album which was very reminiscent of Billy Bragg’s A13 in it’s acoustic punk style. I really enjoyed the exhibition because it wasn’t “twee”, “safe” or “nice”; it is edgy and if one has a knowledge of different types of head injury potentially disturbing. As the artist said last night “the exhibition is best enjoyed when you’ve got the chance to peel back beliefs and soul search and search Beyond the Depths ofSkin.”

The blurb for the Waterhall Exhibition says, “it’s showcasing a series of works of a neo-surrealist or other-worldly nature.” When you walk in you see Lisa Nash’s The Circle of Nature which has a giant rabbit behind a young woman cradling a young rabbit. For me it evoked the spirit of Mary Tofts the woman who lived in Leicester Square in 1726 and persuaded the great and good of the time she was giving birth to rabbits. Now admittedly that association may have been because I’ve just been reminded of her story in Tim Moore’s book Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair, (which I’m currently enjoying), but I think it is the way that the baby rabbit is being cradled.

Natalie Seymour’s work takes a look at a disused college which look amazing and is part of a wider collection of hers called "the college". My husband’s favorite work was a fractal based digital billboard by Jess Maxfield. It was one of a range of works we enjoyed in this exhibition which was probably the easiest to engage with and would be a really good introduction to modern art for the uninitiated.  

Then there’s I Want! I Want! This is the highest profile exhibition in the city at the moment being an Arts Council Collection being put on in partnership with the museum and art gallery. I have to say it was my least favorite of the three exhibitions. There were some clever pieces of work in there and the one where you obliterated text using original space invader gaming was brilliant. However, there were too many images floating around at once for a brain which developed before life seemed like one long Saturday night in a noisy pub where screens dominate in an environment which is far more sterile than it used to be. 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Now We Are 40 by Tiffanie Darke Reviewed

At first glance Now We Are 40: Whatever Happened toGeneration X may be dismissed as just about how what Tiffanie Darke (the author) and her famous/ successful mates think about their lives. But to dismiss this book in that way fails to recognise two important factors :1) the irony and 2) the depth this book actually contains within it.

The book covers a range of material from the reasons God is going down on her lifestyle list but is seen as one of the most important brands by June Sparpong to how we should embrace aging and issues around parenting. She also makes some important points about the difficulties and lack of opportunities Millennials face within this book.

Now that might all sound way to serious but the whole thing about this book is it’s written in a way which is fun, as you would expect from a lifestyle writer who was at the centre of the Gen X hedonism. You get nostalgic anecdotes thrown in which take you back and make you think, yup that was the 90’s. Now I’m not pretending that my experience of that time was any where near as exciting as Darke’s but there was something about being part of that generation which made life fun.

Generally I think the conclusions Darke reaches in this book about the way we took our eye of the ball and let the future generations loose many of the opportunities we had are true. However, having recently read Helen Pearson’s The Life Project (a book about the story of cohort studies – again a much more interesting read than that summary suggests) the evidence is that the pulling up of the drawbridge had already started happening by the time we get to our generation. In Pearson’s book data from a study following people born in 1970 were having less opportunity to reach the top than those born in 1958 if they hadn’t had a private education.

The parenting discussion focuses on Gen Z children, but the Danny Goffey (formally of Supergrass now of Vangoffey) and his wife Pearl Lowe had their first children in the 90’s like I did. Whilst many people were putting off having children until later some of us do have Millennials. I’d be interested in hearing what Pearl Lowe has to say about her kids experience now.

Brexit is also addressed in this book and the grief that many of our generation feel about leaving the EU is particularly palpable in her reading.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, totally, especially if you a Gen X’er yourself. I’d also recommend it to people who want to understand Gen X spirituality and faith. Whilst there is the Eat, Pray, Love approach discussed there are also some really interesting nuggets in there for those of us who are interested in hearing from people themselves rather than just listening to what the Church thinks is the case.

Note: the review of this book was what my last post was about. That was written in a hurry and when I was tired and most importantly before I read the book. Having read this book I stand by what I said in that post but want to add some more thoughts. We were the generation who found out it was ok to doubt and explore. God may be on the going down lifestyle list but he's still there being spoken about. 

We are, as the current Methodist Connexion magazine (which has grown into something really interesting) says well in a time of transition. X'er Trey Hall sums this up totally when he says it's a time of glorious mess. We have people like Trey, who is the Birmingham District Mission advisor there ready to give us a kick up the backside. We are in a time of chaos and uncharted waters and we need to be careful to make sure that we don't take our eyes off the ball, as Darke warns we have previously. 

In the same magazine another X'er Joanne Cox-Darling asks a couple of questions which stem from our generation. "What if we were courageous - and told our own personal stories of transformation and growth?" and "What if we were bold enough to celebrate the most creative ideas offered to us?" In this book Darke is doing exactly that telling stories of transformation and growth together with advocating the same thing as Cox-Darling that we celebrate the creative ideas offered to us. Whilst Darke's doing this generally and Cox-Darling is advocating these things to the church perhaps these messages are the strong ones we need to hear both as and from Gen X.