Sunday, 15 January 2017

Trump That By Marching

Well January 20th looms and many of us are wondering how on earth someone with the opinions and experience of Donald Trump has been elected president of the USA. If ever I have been tempted to listen to voices that suggest I've overstated the case in defence of women's rights, this election has persuaded me that I have not! If ever I have been distracted by critics arguing that a 'soft' approach to the general misogyny and racism around is better than a direct approach, I repent! If ever I have allowed arguments that theological or philosophical views demeaning women or particular groups of people should be tolerated, I hang my head in shame! But while I think Trump's views about women and people who, in his opinion, are 'other' disqualify him from fitness for office, I don't think attitudes to gender, race and immigration explain Clinton's defeat or his election. All those things are part of a much deeper, more complex and potentially future-shaping phenomenon. 

Image from

One of the best articles I've seen on the Trump phenomenon is by Parag Khama titled 'Want To Understand How Trump happened? Study Quantum Physics'. It's on the blog Minds and Machines here. Khama argues that the whole of this decade, of which we are at the midpoint, will be remembered as 'the period when the global underclass revolt snowballed into a movement with political bite.' We have witnessed many, disparate movements growing up in apparently unconnected ways which are now challenging government and, more fundamentally, preconceptions about how societies are structured across the world.

So how is quantum physics relevant? Khan believes that just as Newtonian physics was based on apparently immutable laws which quantum mechanics showed to be insufficient to explain the complexity underpinning the micro-world, so the major political systems on which societies and global relations are based are now being shown up as incapable of containing the reality of global interconnectedness. In QM units are difficult to quantify and are in perpetual motion, invisible objects occupy space and exert pressure and the whole structure relies on probabilities, not certainties. Meaning is therefore relational or relative rather than absolute. Just as QM shook the Newtonian universe 100 years ago, there is a geopolitical revolution underway at the start of the 21st century.

In the political model we are used to, control over territory tends to trump (sorry!) all other considerations. When two forces collide in the political arena as well as in physics, one must give way and from the 17th century onwards (modernity) various models such as imperialism, capitalism, communism and now technological dominance have been used to provide the structure within which we all think and exercise or experience power. It is common parlance, now, to say that the 21st century will be one of complexity. We recognise that we live in a global network that has recently seen the end of the cold war, the  economic advance of South America, China and India, an increase in the mobility of labour and capital, rapid population growth with surging demand for commodities, and unprecedented technological development. We know (or most of us do!) that global warming is not itself the major problem facing existence, but the causes of it are and time to address them is running out. Quite small events and movements are contributing to massive and unpredicted change. Khan gives examples that, interestingly, range from ISIS and Al Qaeda to the Bill Gates Foundation to show how the power of relatively small organisations or even an individual can unexpectedly create new conditions.

This worldwide connectivity takes many forms - energy, knowledge, data, basic commodities like water and food, finance, transport  - and is now so complex that we are beginning to see the overthrow of political order as it has been understood for centuries. We have seen this in the emergence of Russia, the financial crash of 2008, the Arab Spring, the resurgence of the extreme right in Europe, Bexit and, now, the US election. We are seeing increasing numbers of 'feedback loops' producing unexpected outcomes. (Who would have guessed that the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would lead to increasing US isolationism, for example?) Are we in fact reaching the point where no leader, superpower, organisation, ethical, political or philosophical system appears to any of us robust enough to stand outside or above the whole? There is a loss of objectivity, a loss of trust in 'fact' and rationalism (who needs experts?) and a breakdown of regard for truth (as one person said in an interview I heard recently, 'If the facts suggest you have nothing worth hoping for, then who wants facts?') In different ways, in different cultures respect for authority - government, religions, media, knowledge - is crumbling. Faith in those who make you feel good within your own immediate cultural setting then becomes a given.

Because of the degree to which we are all now interdependent, it is no longer easy to identify consistently obvious 'others'. People are quick to try finding and naming them, but, in fact, they exist more in propaganda-fed minds and hearts than in reality. Put it like this: if your children and elderly parents are cared for by people whose origins lie in a different culture from your own, and your work depends on the contribution of people living half way across the world, while their livelihoods depend on market forces in a third part of the world over which neither of you have any direct influence, then who or what is the 'other'? And you may be tempted to despair or to focus on just a tiny part of the picture to find an object to hold responsible for your situation. 

The Trump phenomenon is, I believe, the result of the new, emerging political order in which there is a struggle going on to redefine the basic players and concepts. But here, I think, philosophy and religion help us. We have long learned to suspect rational absolutes and to question the means by which they are arrived at, especially in places where many cultures meet and engage. But where people of many backgrounds do engage there usually emerges some kind of slow recognition process. Every group has its way of identifying and speaking about truth, respect, authority, justice, harmony, care. And the way forward is through spotting the commonalities and being honest about the contradictions. What appears so worrying about Trump's political canvass is that he appears to play with these concepts in a capricious manner, demonstrating little consistency and saying things that sound contradictory. Much has been written in the press (and they are in the frontline of having to deal with this) about Trump's alleged 'gas lighting'. Frankly I am not convinced he does it intentionally so much as accidentally - unaware that he is playing with 'truth' until it gets him into trouble. That is possibly more worrying than if it were a deliberate, planned assault on truth.

What can we do other than engage with the political processes of our own countries, use our powers of comment, persuasion and protest, and bring to bear on the next four years our very best understanding of fundamentals like truth, justice, respect, harmony, care? We are all going to have to be vigilant and far more active and radical in speaking out, beginning with listening to other points of view, voting, campaigning and acting as agents of change. No path too small! Begin where you are! And let's make sure that the 21st century political revolution is shaped as much by women as it is by men.

For anyone concerned about issues such as women's contribution to peace brokering, female representation in government, education for women, women's health and access to contraception, equal pay and maternity rights, violence against women and how the justice system impacts on women, one place to start is

Join a march in your locality or link up with other people who have similar concerns and are working in similar areas.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

End Violence Against Women

Women are half of humanity and bear the future; nothing that is of God can fail to give them voice. End Violence Against Women and Girls #16days16-days-of-activism

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Let's Applaud Dedication

Two stories in the media yesterday gave pause for thought about prevailing attitudes to health care workers.

The first was the clearing of Pauline Cafferkey from any wrong-doing by the Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting. The complaint against her was brought by Public Health England despite the fact that the evidence as reported in the press would suggest their own management was to blame, at least in part, for the chaotic screening process Pauline Cafferkey was put through at Heathrow Airport in 2014. The second was a report about a group of seventeen live-in care workers who are alleging they were paid 3.27 an hour by their employer at a time when the minimum wage was 6.70. As reported, the complaint seems to be about the fact that, while they are required to be present and undertake tasks over a 24 hour period, they are paid only for 10 hours.

So, we have two bodies whose role it is to uphold standards in public health very publicly discrediting a nurse who, by most people's standards, should receive an award for bravery. They have done this despite the fact it appears that one of the bodies may, themselves, have been part of the cause of the problem. Then we have a case which highlights the appalling payment level of some care workers and an argument that seeks to justify it by refusing to acknowledge that live-in carers have 24 hour responsibility for their clients unless they are relieved by colleagues.

The thing that struck me about these two cases is that they both show bodies who have responsibility for the conditions, training, welfare and standards of health care workers in fact letting down the very workers they should be supporting. This is a worrying situation. We need and should applaud the dedication of people like Pauline Cafferkey and workers who care enough to continue to support their clients in conditions that most people would find unacceptable. They do this simply because, well, they do care and they choose to put their clients and patients before their own needs. Nursing can be a risky business which can occasionally involve the nurse in the danger of contracting disease. Social care is unavoidably frought with the responsibilities of 24 hour  provision. There is no such thing as being present to people without 'doing anything'. If the bodies that employ, manage and regulate health and social care professionals do not affirm dedication and hold out against poor or unrealistic practice, then what sort of a health service can we hope for? We need more Pauline Cafferkeys and experienced care-workers in positions to influence policy and set priorities.

(As a post script, does anyone else wonder why the airport screening appears to have held an individual responsible for recording their own temperature? Isn't the principle of most medical examination that the officer undertaking the examination is responsible?)

Monday, 20 June 2016

A Few Rather Simple Thoughts on the EU Referendum

I don't think we should be having this referendum at all. We elect MPs to make these kinds of decisions because they have access to the crucial facts. The electorate can hold MPs accountable after an election but who will we hold accountable for the result of this referendum and by what means?

However, we are having a referendum, the outcome is of great importance, and therefore we should all vote.

I'll be voting remain. I cannot see how leaving one of the world's largest legislation-making bodies or one of its largest trading blocks can possibly be of benefit to the UK.
I want to see our government at the centre of Europe, able to influence decisions, policy, legislation, finance and membership from within. I believe that the relative stability  of Europe over the past 70 years has stemmed in part from the EU and that the EU is our best hope to avoid future bloodshed and to deal with humanitarian crises. I believe our membership of the EU strengthens our position with the USA, China and India and gives us a better platform from which to work with Middle Eastern countries.

I welcome the opportunities the EU brings for Britons to work in other countries and for citizens of other states to work in Britain. The place to deal with services and industries that survive by undercutting a living wage is centrally, across Europe; if there was a meaningful living wage operating in every country, that would deal with much of the angst about alleged job-snatching. I believe the current refugee crisis can better be addressed by the nations of Europe talking and formulating a shared response and I want Britain to continue to be part of the solution.

The present UK government has been to withdraw Britain from the Human Rights Act. To withdraw from the protections afforded in European law at the same time is madness. I think that many women, members of minority groups and many employees sometimes fail to realise the extent of the very basic protection they enjoy under European law.

We are facing huge ecological challenges and these can much better be addressed within the EU; the issues do not arrange themselves according to national boundaries.

There are regions within the UK that have benefitted hugely from European subsidies - South Wales, and parts of Scotland and the North East, for example. I have heard no plans for how the government expects to take on future demands for finance to support areas where the local economy is under threat.

If and where we do exit European controls (e.g. fishing quotas), I have heard no convincing plans about how the ensuing situation will be policed to ensure that other countries comply with British requirements.  

Britons are Europeans by global location. To opt out of a central role in governing and ordering our own continent is short-sighted in the extreme. It is always better to remain at the table and talk than to turn away. The majority of our political partners from other parts of the world want us to remain.

To vote to exit the EU will commit us to further years of uncertainty as terms of engagement with and beyond Europe have to be re-negotiated.

I don't think it's the function of religious leaders to tell people how to vote in a democratic election. They should encourage us to inform ourselves and to vote. But there is a difficult question which, worryingly, begins to raise itself in Britain today. Religious leaders should expose and name policies that harm groups or individuals on grounds of their gender, race or other personal, God-given characteristics, on grounds of poverty and exclusion from the resources needed for life, health, education and community cohesion, on grounds of belief and freedom of thought, and on grounds of dishonesty. At what point does exposing these things become allied with the need to speak out against certain specific political groups or movements? The ground is shifting in Britain and we should all be very very vigilant.

Friday, 8 April 2016

6 O'Clock News or Twitter?

Remember the days when the family sat around on Saturday morning (or Sunday afternoon) reading the newspapers? It was soooo irritating when Mum kept commenting out loud and Dad pontificated on an article he'd just read on something you really didn't care about. It was those family sessions with the weekend newspapers that gave me a lifelong interest in current affairs, politics and world issues. And it was evenings spent arguing with the speakers on Any Questions (the radio precursor to Question Time) that taught me not only to debate but to look outwards and try to learn about life from other peoples' points of view and from situations different from my own.

So, I ask, what's different about doing your news-gathering on social media and, in my case, especially Twitter? There are pros and cons.

  • it's more interactive.
  • there's a wider range of subjects and opinions readily available.
  • conversation is wider than just family & immediate friends.
  • it's occasionally prompted me to write articles/join campaigns that have demonstrably made a difference.
  • it's more democratic: anyone from anywhere in the world can contribute, they don't need to hold a recognised 'position' - MP, Pope, celebrity....
  • the information you see is not controlled by one group such as journalists.
  • I read news articles alongside articles on philosophy, science, arts, ethics, religion (no sport!) and professional development in my own field everyday so the cross-fertilisation of ideas is greater.
  • it's easier to drink coffee and eat toast while looking at a screen than when holding a newspaper.
  • it can be more difficult to distinguish between well-researched material and superficial, misleading or downright inaccurate information.
  • judgements about quality are down to you alone and not necessarily mediated through recognized publications with guaranteed standards.
  • what you see on screen is controlled by your previous choices and it's easy not to venture outside sites that are presented to you and make you feel comfortable or significant.
  • you tend to stick with limited material generated by people with opinions like yours. 
  • it's a dangerous illusion that you are free to choose what you read.
  • there can be pressure to get involved in spur of the moment uninformed or heated discussions.

On balance, it's just a very different way of 'doing news', neither obviously better nor worse. And, of course, it can be blended with the older conventions of TV, radio and newspaper. It all has to be kept in its place time-wise but I think I'm a little better informed than I used to be and a little more inclined to check things out with others - 'Was that article about a green moon appearing every 420 years really based on fact?' 

Online news is undoubtedly changing power structures. I'm excited about the effect this is having on politics. The political world as we knew it is already being challenged - think of the Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump phenomena or the degree to which there's now grass roots exchange between profoundly different cultures. Three years ago I did not regularly converse with people in Indonesia and China or with people of other faiths. This is all a bit of a melting pot and I don't think we can yet see how (or if) the conventional political structures will adapt and assimilate. Corbyn is a good case in point: it's undoubtedly true he has an enormous grassroots following - you can see this clearly on the internet and in the fact that local parties report figures like 800% increases in membership. But how much of this is based on purely internet activity which the parliamentary party system can choose to ignore? And how much is the response to Corbyn simply too disparate to have any long term impact - people see him as a potential leader for their passing cause? In the case of Trump and some of the right wing movements in Europe, the effect of the internet has been to produce knee-jerk reactions and over-heated debate - this is less benign than the Corbyn phenomenon. What we can be sure about is that politics will be different in 25 years time and all this will have a profound impact on both national and international balances of power.

I'm even more interested in the effect internet comment is having on authority. Organisations that have depended on a central authority which to some degree controls what people can know (the most fundamental kind of power) and the parameters within which they say and do things have already begun to struggle. A leadership team commissions a report or sets out a mission statement and it is now immediately open to highly eclectic degrees of scrutiny. Polite critical comment may be welcome; tearing something mercilessly to shreds may end in tears or sackings but authority will have been undermined, public image and relationships within the organisation damaged. I believe we have yet to see how conventional authority structures give way to a more democratic and less 'expert protected' approach to organisational development.

There was a cartoon doing the rounds at Christmas. The angels appear to the shepherds and begin to sing 'Peace to God's people on  earth...'  'Yes, yes,' say the shepherds, 'It's already been on twitter!' So what does the digital angel - harbinger of profound truth - look like and how will internet communities recognise such messengers? 


Thursday, 7 April 2016

Abuse as Crime Against Truth

It's very distressing to read frequent stories of abuse or allegations of abuse by individuals and institutions. Since the revelations about Jimmy Savile these stories seem to have become endemic. Behind each story is pain: the pain of the abuse itself, the pain of not being believed and having evidence publicly picked over, and the pain of being rejected, blamed or further abused by institutions hell-bent on protecting reputations and insurance costs. There's also the pain of those accused wrongly and the near impossibility of restoring a reputation thrown into question; again, lives are indiscriminately picked over and the public is not always able to distinguish proven from alleged behaviour.

These two extremes of pain - that of the victim not believed and that of the person wrongly accused - throw into relief the real nature of the crime of abuse. Because of its covert nature and the shame and difficulty in speaking about it experienced by many victims, abuse plays with truth in a way that is perniciously corrupt. Its hiddenness spawns untruth upon untruth. Ultimately, in many cases, it is simply not possible to get to the truth or to do so in a way that provides sufficiently convincing evidence. This playing with the nature of truth is what does such lasting, deep damage to both victims and the wrongly accused. Abuse is not only a crime against an individual, it is a crime against a community, putting intolerable strain on normal relationships and tearing up the rule book when it comes to trust. Over many years, often via a many-layered journey of painful, slow attempts at investigation, the abuser appears to 'win' by destroying the possibility of ultimate truth-telling and, with it, the capacity for trust and faith. There have been suicides.

So there are rightly severe penalties for those who abuse. There  ought to be tougher scrutiny and severe penalties for institutions that frustrate investigation, dissemble and cover up pointers (especially early ones) to abuse. This is not about suspecting abuse in places where there is none or about regulating behaviour in over-constraining ways, it is about a seismic change in institutional culture.

At the heart of physical, psychological or sexual abuse is the misuse of power and the creation of corrupt networks where power is inappropriately exercised. Healthy organisations have good levels of awareness about how power is exercised and how this differs from the exercise of influence. Power does not ultimately allow those over whom is it exercised space for choice, influence does and can use choice as a positively or negatively motivating factor. In all organisations both power and influence are present in complex ways that are related to the core purpose of the organisation. To create a culture that lowers the incidence of abuse requires honest acknowledgement of the ways power is used, with robust, transparent safeguarding checks and regulatory processes in place. 

Perhaps more significant, however, is the role of influence in an organisation. Influence is directly related to character. Being this or that sort of a person in this or that kind of context sways the opinion, motivation and behaviour of others. What do members of an organisation think about the exercise of power in their context? What is their attitude to whistle-blowing, bullying, gender relationships and minority voices? Most importantly, what behaviours are regarded as unacceptable or damaging and why? Healthy organisations spend time and resources promoting this kind of open discussion and look for behavioural changes as a result. Without this kind of education and re-education, opportunity for abuse will continue to occur and, as seems to have been the case in too many places, flourish.

What are the danger signs in an organisation?
  • Defensive attitudes to questions, suggestions and criticism
  • Refusal to take seriously concerns or complaints
  • Similar concerns raised about behaviour by unrelated sources
  • Frequent occurrence of low-grade bullying or humiliation
  • Covert, hidden behaviour or behaviour that obsessively seeks anonymity
  • Buck-passing and inability to resolve issues
  • Lack of freedom of expression
  • Lip service to and over-reliance on policies that are not properly carried out.

It will be interesting to see what the Goddard Enquiry uncovers. From current reports, it appears to be the case that abuse and its concealment occur either where there is an obvious imbalance of power (eg. the care system, the judiciary, schools and over-stretched police forces) or where belief systems are involved (eg. politics, religious groups, media). In the case of power imbalance, rather than simply escalating regulation of these bodies (though that may be appropriate) it would be good to see a thorough-going examination and incorporation of leadership structures and practices from institutions that show a low incidence of abuse - that could mean similar institutions from other countries or dissimilar institutions demonstrating high degrees of effectiveness in related fields. 

In the case of belief systems impacting on the incidence of abuse there must be, first of all, an honesty about the extent of abuse and the ways it has/has not been addressed at the highest level in these organisations. Only when this is achieved can these groups begin to address the painful and difficult questions about how belief and behaviour are related. In particular, such groups should focus on the way that authority, leadership, sexuality, gender roles and image are portrayed, enacted and talked about in their organisations. This is something which, although externally required, can only be achieved through changed attitudes among those in power and a willingness to listen to voices previously discounted or overlooked so that fresh truth and a more rounded story begins to emerge.

Here are two examples of projects I have recently come across that are working toward cultural change at opposite ends of the age spectrum: 4YP Bristol's project The Bristol Ideal which works in schools to help children explore healthy relationships and Age Action Ireland's Do Something which does inspirational work across generations. Both projects demonstrate an approach that shows commitment to the value of communication in bringing about much needed cultural change. 4YP works in the area of effective, accessible health education and advice for young people. Age Action's website also hosts a blog about issues to do with ageing - well worth a visit in my opinion! Click on the links below for further information.

Age Action Workshops

Schools Project to Prevent Abuse


Friday, 18 March 2016

Two Calls to Reconciliation

It's usually very peaceful in Southwell Minster. Wander in on a grey afternoon and you will find a polite, helpful but un-intrusive welcome. There's often an interesting art exhibition in situ and I was not disappointed last Thursday. An hour to spare between appointments on a wettish afternoon presented me with an unexpected opportunity to drop in and I was delighted to find, as so often, an exhibition that chimed in with the season, stimulated the imagination and raised all sorts of questions about familiar stories and beliefs.

The artist Ian McKillop currently has an exhibition of paintings in the Chapter House entitled Transforming Pain Into Hope. It consists of two series, 'The Seven Last Words from the Cross' and 'The Seven Songs of Resurrection.' The extraordinary thing about McKillop's paintings is the extent to which, at times, he places the viewer alongside and very close to Christ so that you are looking at the scene almost from Christ's perspective. This is theologically very powerful and achieves Mckillop's expressed aim of helping the viewer explore what it means for the Divine to enter the world through the Christ event. McKillop's 'Seven Last Words from the Cross' challenge the viewer to think about the Divine response to persecution and violence and about the yearning for reconciliation that lies at the heart of the Godhead - sometimes uncomfortably as we see that love and forgiveness are bestowed universally and not confined by human notions of justice.

The 'Seven Songs of Resurrection' were astonishing, I thought, for their portrayal of the Spirit of the Risen Christ being unleashed and gradually transfigured into the Spirit that enters the lives of all believers. The sense of Divine power pervading the world through transformed lives was palpable. 'These paintings are...conceived as memorial to innocent lives taken as a result of war in all nations.... Destructivity, terrorism or warfare is not Christ's way to solve political or social problems. The images ask us to learn new ways, following Christ's loving, self-sacrificing, forgiving, non-recriminatory, peace-bringing example. We are asked to pray and work for peace.' These paintings were inspired by a visit to Wurzburg, a city devastated in 1945 and rebuilt preserving and creating as much art work as possible.

The exhibition closes on 22nd March so hurry! For more information about the artist and a preview of his work, go to McKillop's website here

It was hard not just to stay with the impressions and thoughts created by these wonderful paintings on the nature of forgiveness. However, I couldn't resist a small pilgrimage round to the south side of the Minster to see one of my favourite works of art. Jonathan Clarke's 'Stations of the Cross' have been at Southwell for a number of years. Portrayed in aluminium and oak, Clarke's stations have two very distinctive features. Firstly, you are invited to touch and to walk along the Via Dolorosa through tactile experience. Secondly, the size of the cross changes as you progress along the route. It becomes larger as its burden becomes heavier and, at the point of crucifixion, it fills the visual field. Uniquely, you are then invited to move beyond the cross, turn, and look back toward Golgotha from the perspective of the deposition and tomb; as you do so, the size and impact of the cross diminish.

You can see an image of Clarke's Stations in the gallery on his website here (in date order under 1999.)

A great deal of food for thought, imagination and prayer.
Thank you, Southwell Minster!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Candlemas 2016: Mary at Southwell

Southwell Minster has been hosting an exhibition The Art of Mary  here as a lead into the celebration of Candlemas. It presents the work of 22 contemporary artists whose names I've included below. It's a really unusual and exciting exhibition showcasing an amazing variety of images that provoke conversation between themselves and enliven the attempt to conceptualise the Mary hidden in the stories, biblical and traditional, we have about her. This is the interaction of theology and art at their best.

Matthew Askey's very personal oils portray the 'self effacing generosity' required by motherhood while Mark Cazalet's Epiphany Star is universal in scale, combining ideas from the Magnificat and the Magis' profession to produce an extraordinary canvas ranging across the joy and grief of Mary's experience and connecting it to the experience of all humanity touched by the Divine. Nicholas Mynheer's ten Scenes from the Life of Mary encompass most of the narratives we have about Mary 'from the teenage mother (who pondered the word of God in her heart) to the young mother who seemingly overrides Jesus' words at the mature mother at the foot of the cross.' Each picture introduced me to some observation or question about Mary I had not encountered before. Karen Thompson's photographs, although 'inspired by the art of Renaissance painters and 'Old Masters',' had a very contemporary feel and raised for me questions about memory and generational wisdom passed between mothers and daughters. One of the most striking paintings, (perhaps its impact was enhanced as it was the first one I saw) is Roger Wagner's Writing in the Dust. At first viewing, it does not seem to be about Mary at all but about the woman taken in adultery in John 8. The artist's comment explains why this depicts something significant about Mary but I won't spoil the impact by repeating it here. However, the painting is haunting in the many, many questions it raises about first century and twenty first century relationships between religions, genders and communities. Jean Lamb's Our Lady of Mercy and Our Lady of Sorrows, displayed to good effect in the Chapter House, brings Mary's open, potential-drenched womb to the heart of the exhibition and adds the teasing detail of unknown divine? human? hands holding or, perhaps, presenting Mary herself as gift among us. Susie Hamilton depicts the post-annunciation moments following the angel's departure, showing Mary deep in thought amid gorgeous, light-filled emptiness. Sophie Hacker's First Communion of the Virgin is inspired by Oliver Messiaen's Vingt Regards Sur L'Enfant Jesus and returns us to the universal significance of the Christ event - Mary's womb with a 'fragment of nascent life' presents over a background of star-scattered space. 

The other artists are Hester Finch, Chris Gollon, Lee Harvey, Ellie Hewitt, Rebecca Hind, Iain McKillop, Hannelore Nunn, Celia Paul, Gill Sakakini, Anna Sikorsky, Helen Sills, Hanna-Leena Ward, Tom Wood and Sandra Cowper. Matthew Askey led a schools-based project (the Minster School, Huthwaite and Selston schools) to create an origami nativity.

The exhibition as a whole is a wonderful preparation for meditation on the mysterious story of Christ's presentation in the temple. I went twice with different friends and both times found it rich with insights into the way sorrow and joy, practicality and dreams, specific detail and universal significance, fear and hope are brought together in the words exchanged between Simeon, Anna and Mary. 

Monday, 4 January 2016

On Not Celebrating Christmas

Quakers don't traditionally celebrate Christmas.The incarnation is something that we try to be conscious of everyday. Moments and places of God breaking into the world that catch us unawares are causes for joy and celebration at any time. I seem to recall Calvin taught something similar about the crucifixion and resurrection and the keeping of Good Friday and Easter. God's presence at the heart of the world's suffering, the hope that suffering will be transformed, and the reality of new life where it is are always with us; the challenge is having eyes to see.

It's interesting (and difficult) not celebrating Christmas in a culture where you can't get away from it. Carol services, trees, cards, carols on the radio and in shops, gifts, the obligatory rich food and mulled wine and, above all, the expectations make it nearly impossible. So what is the sensible way through?

It's been a complete refreshment to the soul and a very spiritually enriching experience to take a step back. Where there is real joy and excitement, it's wonderful to watch and join in. Where the impact of the story of Jesus' birth is genuinely challenging, delighting or changing lives, that's something to make the heart sing. It's been lovely, though, to avoid, as much as possible, the commercialism and the frenetic sense of having to engage in so many expectation-driven and only tangentially relevant activities.

The quiet has proved rich and I have pondered moments like 

* The calm of midweek evening streets in Nottingham for a short interval after the shops have shut.
* The December Peace Supper when we ate and talked about education programmes to teach children skills of reconciliation.
* The silence in Sunday Meeting for Worship unusually punctuated by the children's contributions - a story, a single verse from a carol, a light given and stars made. (I still marvel at how the children enter into silence - a whole hour of it on this occasion!)
* A shivering man who asked us straight out, 'Please will you give me enough for a hot drink?' We got talking and I began to appreciate how easy it is, if you have some money, not to think about its real value. It takes a lot of 5ps, 20ps and 50ps to afford a drink, a meal or socks.
* Letters from friends around the world not heard from very often. Meetings arranged with old friends for the year ahead. 
* The welcome of being invited into neighbours' homes, to the village Panto and to the WI dinner as strangers and newcomers.
* The neighbour who rigged up lights in our hanging basket to illuminate the driveway.
* Fires and the warmth of shared meals.
* The background of floods affecting friends in Cumbria and Yorkshire and Wales and the executions in Saudi Arabia reminding us again that the old, old stories of rulers and natural phenomena disrupting human life have contemporary relevance.

My one concession to conventional Christmas celebration was a tree. My father was a forester and we have my grandparents and parents' decorations, some handmade and dating back to the 1920's. I love to have a tree in the house for a short while each year because it reminds me of Biblical trees from the Garden of Eden (conveying knowledge and the power of life and death) to the Book of Revelation (where the tree on the bank of the river that flows through the holy city produces fruits that are 'for the healing of the nations.')

To those of you who have kept the 12 days of Christmas, may their joy and insight remain with you throughout the year!

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Our Father at the Cinema

The banning of a Church of England advert for prayer consisting of the recitation of the Lord's Prayer has undoubtedly resulted in hundreds of thousands of people watching the ad and hearing the prayer! It has also stung the Church of England and, indeed, many people who count themselves Christians and can't see what all the fuss is about, or who regard the ban as an attack on freedom of speech and religious belief. Even the Prime Minister commented that he thought it all ridiculous, perhaps reflecting a sense of shock that, in a nation that has until recently regarded itself as Christian, this could happen.

"The Lord's Prayer may be committed to memory quickly
 but it is slowly learned by heart.' F.D. Maurice

Digital Cinema Media, who imposed the ban, state that their decision is based on anxieties that the ad 'risked upsetting or offending audiences'. More importantly, I think, they also state that showing it would run contrary to their policy of not screening ads that 'in the reasonable opinion of DCM constitute political or religious advertising.' They hold that 'a clear neutral stance remains the fairest policy for all and allows DCM to treat all political and religious beliefs equally.' This is a very coherent position. The Church of England's legal department have stated that this decision may give rise to legal proceedings though it's difficult to see on what grounds they would succeed since the Equality Act 2010 makes it clear (Section 13) that discrimination depends on a person or company treating A differently from B - it's not discrimination to treat all entities equally well/badly (sometimes called the 'bastard to everyone' defence!) So the debate is centring on 'giving offence' and the fact that there is no 'right not to be offended' in British law. 

I've recently been to see Spectre, Suffragette and MacBeth and I wonder how I might have reacted had any or all of them been preceded by the screening of ads with an uncontextualized and unexplained recitation of, say, the Tephilla and Shema (Jewish prayers) or verses about alms-giving from the Koran or a demo of the principal positions in Tai Chi. I imagine I would have watched politely and even been quite interested but I would have been puzzled about the relevance and purpose of showing them. And I might wonder whether, next time, there would be Pagan, Buddhist, Humanist or Sikh ads and where this was all leading.

Odd, this move to advertise the possibility of prayer. We are told by various surveys that between 65% and 80% of the population prays. We know that a lot of people use the Lord's Prayer; as the churches have hastened to point out in defence of the ad, billions of people around the world use it every day. We know that, as well as people of faith, some people who regard themselves as agnostic or of 'no religious belief' pray at times of extremity. We know that prayer is profoundly and intrinsically bound up in the way we live and that to separate it from this whole-life context runs the risk of emptying it of much of its power. We have the example of Jesus who appears to have taught the Lord's Prayer to His followers, at their request, and then trusted the example of their prayers, lives and words to spread it. And we have the example of the relative ineffectiveness of teaching the Lord's Prayer to generations children at school by staff who do not share the faith, as has happened over the last 40 years.  So what is the ad setting out to achieve and what can we learn from the reaction to the ban?

If the idea was to communicate that everyone has the option to pray, it was unnecessary. In my experience people know that. If it was to remind people of the existence of the church or the words of the central Christian prayer, there are probably better ways to do it. If it was to invite people into a relationship with God and with other people who pray using the #justpray hashtag as I suspect it was, then OK, but let's recognise this for what it is, namely, an evangelistic enterprise using competitive, consumerist tactics to influence people's spiritual practice and choices. I'm not convinced that this is where the church best puts its effort and money.

Strangely it is in it's own miscalculation that the Church of England has succeeded. Due to the DCM ban, thousands of people have sat quietly in their own homes and places of prayer and meditation and considered the relevance, power and challenge of these ancient words. The prayer Jesus taught His followers is based on even older prayers from Judaism. Who knows what the fruits will be? Who says spiritual benefits are not born of mistakes? There's something about redemption here. But there ought to be something, too, about honesty. We live in a religiously diverse society where faith or belief systems that assume, as of right, to have a voice that is denied others are dangerous. Jesus lived at the cross-roads of the main trade routes of His time where several of the world's religions were in evidence. He seems to have trusted to the fruits of a life of genuine prayer over-flowing into action to persuade people to try prayer out for themselves. 'Jesus was praying in a certain place and after He had finished, one of the disciples said to Him, Lord, teach us to pray.' (Luke 11.1) Attempting to join the maelstrom of consumerist advertising, though well meant, is not necessarily the same thing and is not quite where we should put our faith or our hope for the future of Christianity.     

Monday, 30 November 2015

What's in a Name?

It hugely disadvantages women that, part way through our lives, most of us change our name. We may do this more than once. I married when I was 38 and already had publications and a career in which I was widely known by my birth name. I did try to use my husband's lovely and distinctive name for a while but people kept on reverting to my old name and, temperamentally, I think I was averse to losing the deep connections to my roots.  A bank manager told me not to worry - I could compromise and 'have as many names as I liked so long as I did not use any of them fraudulently!' So, for quite a while, I struggled with the attempt to have a 'professional' name and a 'family' name. It didn't really work. On one memorable occasion I went to speak at a conference just after moving house. At the reception desk I attempted to register but to my embarrassment I couldn't remember which name I had booked under or my new post code or whether I had told them I was a vegetarian! The receptionist looked at me very strangely! So, after experiences like this, I reverted to keeping faith with my birth name. I suspect that, had we had children, their arrival would have been the point at which I would have given in and conformed to the use of my married name.

One of the pieces of advice given to me when we married was that to change my name would mean that I 'lost' all my publications to date. In fact, I realise, I would have lost much, much more. For example, I recently thought of a school friend. I wondered what she's doing now. I knew that she'd done some research so I looked for her online. Nothing came up and I realised that I do not know her current name.   Women lose contact with each other. They become invisible to colleagues, they disappear off friends' radar, work radar and even out of history when they change their name. They are denied the power of continuity of identity.

There's been a petition doing the rounds recently inviting support for mothers' names to be recorded on marriage certificates beside fathers'. I'd go further and encourage women to keep their birth names when they marry. Norway has a tradition that women do this; male children then take their father's name and female children, their mother's. This is one way to avoid the loss of identity that many women face on marriage. It would also do away with the dilemma of what happens about your name if a marriage ends.

All this matters, I think, because in western society personal identity shapes an individual's life very profoundly. To look into someone's face, to know who they are, to hear their words, to see their nuanced feelings and to appreciate something of the continuity of their story is vital in allowing them full participation in economic, community and social life. (Just think, today, of how the press are trying to get at Jeremy Corbyn on the grounds of the consistency or otherwise of his political beliefs!)

Here's a list of famous women you may not immediately recognise by their surnames yet they used these names for substantial parts of their lives:

Barbara Betts,
Marie Sklodowska,
Elizabeth Stevenson,
Mary Bourke,
Angela Kasner,
Golda Mabovitch,
Joan Anderson,
Eartha Keith,
Eva Duarte,
Margaret Roberts,
Dorothy Crowfoot,
Indira Nehru,
Margaret Jackson,
Agatha Miller,
Theresa Brasier,
Audrey Ruston

But you will instantly recognise the ones who did not change their names:

Joanne K Rowling, 
Florence Nightingale, 
Marie Stopes, 
Barbara Hepworth, 
Nicola Sturgeon, 
Harriet Harman, 
Judi Dench, 
Betty Boothroyd, 
Enid Blyton,
Shirley Bassey

Names are not a trivial matter. They are highly significant. Don't give yours away too easily! Among the list of women who changed their name, it's probably due to their first name you have recognised them. This is the case over much of history - we know the few women we know by their familiar name and this in itself cuts down the number of women we can recognise without confusion.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Refugees, Climate Change and Prophetic Vision

Emma Thompson was interviewed by Emily Maitlis of the BBC's News Night a couple of days ago here The interview ranges over a number of topics - arctic oil, climate change, the Mediterranean refugee crisis and the relative merits of the Labour and Green parties. At one point, Thompson is pressed on her priorities by Maitlis - why is she campaigning against the oil companies' plans to drill for oil rather than throwing her weight behind campaigns to help the refugees? Her reply is that the two issues are directly connected. If the arctic drilling goes ahead, its effects will mean that the current refugee crisis 'will look like a tea party,' to use her words. If present global warming continues unabated, and oil extraction in the arctic is not stopped, Thompson says that the prediction is for world temperatures to rise to unsustainable levels by 2030. This will mean an explosion in the numbers of displaced people as large populations attempt to resettle in response to devastating climactic events.

I was impressed by Thompson's clarity in holding together the short and medium term prospects. We live 'on the edge' so to speak. We are rapidly approaching the point where transition from dependence on oil will be forced upon us. The sooner we start to take this seriously, the gentler the transition may be for our generation in the West. However,the reality is that it will not be a period of gradual evolution for many of the populations of the world. Global warming will lead to currently unimaginable levels of war, civil strife and displacement of peoples. 

There is an extra-ordinary passage in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus makes predictions about the destruction of the world order of His day. This material, which includes what is often referred to as 'the Abomination of Desolation', occurs in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21v.5ff. Jesus' thinking and words seem to blur the detail of His contemporary situation in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire with a much more far reaching vision of turmoil in the distant future. This is rich soil for theologians to pick over as they try to disentangle the specific events to which He may be referring. In a similar vein, a friend who had worked in central Africa was on a thirty day retreat at a convent in the UK at the time of the first massacres in Riwanda. She had no access to the news but suffered very disturbed visions of darkness and blood and rivers of people trying to escape some unidentifiable force. These visions, she felt, could not be entirely explained by her own knowledge of the local situation, though she knew of some of the pre-massarce social tensions.

There is something in Emma Thompson's interview that reminds me that intuition and imagination borne of long reflection and put alongside a thorough-going, detailed knowledge of particular situations produce what we might call 'prophetic vision'. It also convinces me that there is 'something in the air' about the changes ahead of us today. The immediate challenges to re-home refugees and establish a compassionate relationship between Europe and peoples fleeing the parts of the Middle East torn apart by violence may, in fact, be birth pangs of a more radically changing world order than we like to think. Hence the resistance in things both great and small. I'm pretty sure that those who heard Jesus' words squirmed at His bluntness and downplayed or ridiculed what they heard. Prophecy can sound out-of-step to the point of bizarreness but it also has that 'won't-go-away' edge and that odd mixture of detailed knowledge and universal relevance. However much we rail against voices that appear to overstate the case, the tectonic plates of our world order are shifting. The relationship between the so-called developed world with its over-powering economic structure and the previously less well resourced countries is changing; the relationship between world faiths and secularism is changing and, above all, the climate is changing more than almost any of us are ready to acknowledge.

Luke's version of the 'Abomination of Desolation' is preceded by a tiny vignette. The first 5 verses of Luke Chapter 21 give us one of the best-known the stories in the Gospels; the widow who gave her mite. She put a tiny offering of two copper coins into the Temple's Treasury. Jesus, ever one to observe the minute detail of a situation, says, 'I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, put in all the living that she had.' It is in response to being moved by the gift the poorest person brings that Jesus' discourse about world events arises. Refugees bring gifts. The poorest and most vulnerable people remind us that we are all vulnerable and connect us to one another and to the vast forces to which we are all susceptible. Jesus' sadness and contempt was for those who behaved as though they were safe, untouchable, secure.