The Body Politic

•May 14, 2013 • 8 Comments

It’s been an interesting few weeks. Having recently been interviewed by the media concerning the funeral of Baroness Thatcher, it has been instructive to gauge the reaction to my remarks. Some, of course, branded me the devil incarnate and suggested that I was being hateful and then, intriguingly, wrote to me or e-mailed me in a highly vitriolic and bile-filled way. Much of this correspondence was anonymous, and so one doesn’t really take much notice. Others called for my immediate resignation, or suggested that the Queen might be upset by what I said, or sought to remind me, as if I didn’t know, what the real political situation was in the 1980s. But, of course, this was a period I lived through as a priest on the streets of Manchester, Salford and Sheffield: areas deeply affected by the divisions of that period and which still bear the brunt of poverty, marginalisation and deprivation. It has to be said that I received far more support, both written and verbal, for the points I made, than opposition, and it is significant that the support centred around a concern for those areas which still experience both the fallout and the results of policies pursued 30 years ago. The problem is that we tend to live in sealed bubbles in this country, and it is hard for comfortable middle-England to understand, let alone experience, what the people of the deprived areas of our land undergo. Here we still have a serious social divide, and it is a divide which is as much a spiritual one as it is about material well-being: it’s simply too easy not to care and to dismiss the problems of the poor as self-inflicted. Much of this attitude benights the current debate about benefits. However, it was the underlying sentiments of those who took offence at what I said that most intrigued me for there was a hidden belief that I had no right to say what I said and should have stayed quiet. It seemed odd that those who seemed to be suggesting that I was somehow being unpatriotic and un-British in what I said should be so un-British in wanting to deny me a basic right of our democracy-the freedom of speech.

Much of this latent sense was encapsulated by suggestions that the Church had no part in politics. So, a recent correspondent to the Grantham Journal wrote this… Dr Ellis and his ilk only weaken the belief in Christianity by speaking out about things they know very little about. We must remember he is a theologian not a politician. To balance this, a letter in The Independent on 13 May said this…I would be happy if they (the bishops) became genuinely political and truly vociferous over issues such as war, poverty, injustice and child abuse. As it is, when challenged to speak out on such things all to often the excuse is “we must not be too political”.

Your’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t!

One would have hoped that this hoary old chestnut would have been well and truly put to bed by now, but perhaps there is still a need to assert that it is an absolute imperative that bishops and the Church-nay all people of faith and conviction-speak out about the economics, social trends, policies and manifestos which affect our well-being at the most fundamental level. For politics is the science of the people, and we are all people. For the Churchman there is strong support and precedent for this. Jesus, to my knowledge, only ever read directly from the Jewish Bible once, and he chose this passage:The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. It strikes me as being a highly political statement. Further, the very death of Jesus seems to have been precipitated by him coming into conflict with those who held political power in his day and who saw him as a political threat. Move on a few centuries, and we have the Roman Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity the State religion, putting it at the very heart of the Empire’s political life to such an extent that that the seats of temporal power, the basilicas, became Christian churches. On through history, and we must ask ourselves the question as to whether slavery would have been abolished if churchmen like Wilberforce had not stood out against the vested political interest of the day or whether equality for black people in America would ever have been achieved if it hadn’t been for the sacrifice of churchmen like Martin Luther King? And what about those bishops in the House of Lords, the very heartland of British political life: are they only to spout platitudes or are they to set their theological understandings about life and truth to critique the morality and ethics of political policies? And,  isn’t it true that the government of the 1980s initiated its ethos by quoting the Christian Saint Francis: Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

No, it is vital that people of faith join in the condemnation of the injustices, division, hatred and social fracture that political policies often cause and it is particularly important that the bishops do this, to do less would be a deep betrayal of faith. So, the question remains: ‘do you want us to speak out about the oppressive regime in Zimbabwe, the effects of racist politicians on our own streets or the erosion of the NHS, or would you rather we stayed silent and read our Bibles quietly and inoffensively to ourselves?’



New wine in old wine skins?

•February 11, 2013 • 6 Comments

When I was younger, it was amusing for me to think that I was the only boy in my year to study Religious Education to ‘A’ Level. I was also the only boy to have done this for five years in my school. The previous boy was my brother. I was born and bred in a peculiarly secular part of the world, and South Yorkshire had, and continues to have, the dubious reputation of being one of the least, if not the least, churchgoing area in Europe. Even in those days I took a kind of instinctive interest in why the Church was so off-putting to people, and it became something of an innocent research project to gather people’s impressions, prejudices and opinions about Christianity. Bishop Ted Wickham had already written his seminal book  ‘Church and People in an Industrial City’, based on Sheffield and his experiences in the Industrial Mission there, demonstrating that the Church of England had never engaged the hearts and minds of the working classes in this part of Yorkshire and here, as elsewhere, churchgoing was largely a middle-class pursuit. The Church of England, with its Victorian morality, its emphasis on the feminine but ruled by men, and its unconscious, or perhaps very conscious,  support of the status quo earning it the nickname ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’ was culturally and emotionally far from the ordinary folk of the country. Couple this with the historically significant blow to ‘simple faith’ that was the First World War and you are left with the rich fertile ground for the advance of ‘scientism’ and rational secularism. My peers in my younger years were the heirs to these influences and so the playground talk would be of the irrelevance of the Church, of the naive stupidity of those who attended worship and how, in the heady, forward-looking years of the 1960s, it was an old-fashioned institution doomed to fade and die. It is these inchoate and largely visceral feelings about the Church and religion that people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens give a voice to and it is also why we have the paradox that the people of our country profess a lack of regard for religion but still resort to it in great numbers for baptisms,  weddings, funerals and events like Princess Diana’s funeral. The problem is not a lack of faith but a lack of faith in religion and, specifically, the Established Church.

Where does this leave us? Recently there have been two, seemingly unrelated, resignations taking place many hundreds of miles apart. The one is the present Pope, Benedict, who has, in a move unprecedented since medieval times, signalled that he wishes to stand down as Pontiff. The other is Canon Giles Frazer, the rather controversial priest who formerly worked at St Paul’s Cathedral and resigned from there in tacit support of the protestors in the Occupy movement who were questioning our world economic order. Pope Benedict is standing down because he believes that he is not strong enough in body or, significantly, mind and no longer believes himself to be up to the challenges of the role. It is a brave and unselfish decision. Frazer on the other hand is stepping down from the rather less high-profile role of writing a column for the Church Times, which he has done courageously, and with honour for his free-thinking, for some nine years. He cites ‘having less and less respect for the leadership of an organisation that often seeks to achieve little more than its own perpetuation’ and finds ‘the mealy-mouthed pronouncements of many bishops plain embarrassing.’  The Pope seems to be saying that the future of the Church now needs to be in younger hands and implying that the changes that are necessary are beyond his ability to effect. Canon Frazer seems to be saying that he fears for the ability of the Church of England to make these necessary changes or, in its present state, to have the will to make them. Sadly, Peter Sandford, one of the bright young things of the Roman Catholic Church in this country has a similar jaundiced view about his Church as does Frazer about mine. In a powerful, heartfelt statement he declares…’the Catholic authorities need to start speaking up as forcefully as they have done in recent weeks against gay marriage in defence of the poor and the marginalised.’ He goes on to accuse Archbishop Vincent Nichols of being all but invisible on the national stage except for his stand against gay marriage.

It is not hard to see where the young are in all this and that they share today all the anxieties about the institution of the Church that I and my peers had all those many years ago. In our hearts, even those of us most passionately concerned with the future of the Church and our faith, know that we cannot continue as we are now and no matter how hard we resist we can see the truth in what Frazer, Sandford and, yes, even a old frail Pope are saying. Change is necessary and it is urgent. Recently, the Church of England has shown itself to be resistant to this change by not agreeing to ordain women to the episcopate. The Bishops have tried to produce measures to achieve this, but it can all look, to those who watch us, like the desperate flounderings of old men trying to catch up with the world around them. We have also come out determinedly and loudly against same-sex marriage, despite the obvious groundswell of support for it in the land. No doubt, we will catch up on that one in a decade or two, but will be behind the game rather than leading opinion and change. And so, the rift between the people of our land and their Church widens and, meanwhile, 2 billion people wake each morning to face a foodless day.

In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that there should be a census of all the world…

•December 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Well, the figures are now published from the latest census about the life, times and culture of our nation today and they make uncomfortable reading for the institutionalised Church. It marks continuing decline in those touchstones which have defined the Church of England’s relationship with the people of our land: less people feeling they can claim the name ‘Christian’; less people attending regular worship and less people owning up to feeling the Church has a continued major influence in public life. Today, 4 Million less people regard themselves as Christians than in 2001 and there has been a 75% rise in those who follow Islam, and Norwich and Brighton emerged as the most Godless places in Britain- in  what many would already argue is a largely Godless country.

It is interesting and instructive to place these findings alongside others relating to changing social circumstances and understanding today: less than 50% of the country is married; the number of children born in single parent families showed a marked rise and there was a continued rise in the average length of life. At least one commentator has suggested that Christianity will be a minority belief by 2018 and the secularists, notably the British Humanist Society, are issuing the warning that the perceived conservatism of the Church, a perception recently enhanced by our public stance on same-sex marriage and women bishops, is part of the reason for this decline. Put simply, what the Church is saying about how we should exist in this world is dramatically parting company with an increasingly diverse, liberal and inclusive society and a massive majority of people are so out of sympathy with the Church’s views on things that they absent themselves from regular attendance, choosing to associate with us only on those easy and open occasions such as Christmas, Harvest Festivals and Remembrance Sunday.

Andreas Whittam Smith, a First Estates Church Commissioner and one of the founders of the Independent newspaper, writing in that organ suggests that this is further evidence, not necessarily of decline in influence, but ‘believing not belonging’. He goes on to say that, rather than hide our heads in the sand about these figures, we should face them square on and try to understand their significance for the Church. Hear! Hear! Getting up on the morning after the Census was published, one knew that we were going to be faced with a barrage of senior clergy telling us that ‘we don’t measure attendance the same anymore’ and ‘there is a complex pattern of growth and decline’: spin, all spin, and all demonstrating our unwillingness to face the facts…and people don’t believe a word of it.

Now, it has to be said that the Church is not the only institution facing such decline in influence and adherence: a diverse, inclusive and liberal society will always demonstrate these qualities by being suspicious of any organisation that attempts to be clear, unswerving and dogmatic in what it presents to the public. So, education has had to dramatically alter how it does things now from the days of my youth: the colourful, user-friendly classrooms and kindly teachers are a far cry from the uniformed, cane wielding days of my Grammar School experience, for instance. Similarly, the Police and Doctors have undergone a radical shift in persona and presentation. In contrast, the Church has shown itself unwilling and resistant to any of the changes it could make to stay in step with the mores of the society around us. Now, here, I am not talking about watering down core beliefs such as Resurrection, the Incarnation, and such like, but I am suggesting that there are second-order matters which it is well within our competence and right to change: ordaining women to the episcopate is one of them, it seems to me, and we now know what untold damage has been done to our credibility in our diverse, flexible and inclusive society. And, as we set up these issues as central and unchanging, we alienate the vast majority of the nation who simply cannot agree with us and therefore distance themselves from core adherence to a Church which tells them they need to subscribe to these views to belong. Along the way, we lose them from hopefully travelling the path of Faith with us in those core aspects of Christian adherence which are truly important and have something to say and offer to a stricken world.

Whittam Smith suggests, rightly I believe, that the institution of the Church is under severe stress in Britain today. Will it survive? Only time will tell, but he also goes on to talk about all those places were new gatherings of Christian people are bubbling up, vital, free and unfettered by the chains of the past. These emerging patterns of adherence are marked by numerical growth, by community and by fun and laughter-we have much to learn from  them. The question remains as to whether, in this Christmas season of birth and new life, the Church will allow itself to be a midwife to these exciting but challenging new expressions, or whether, once again, it will resist them as ‘not quite proper’.

We’ll see…

A very Happy Christmas, and may that fresh and new child born at Christmas be in your homes and hearts.

Not in my name?

•June 13, 2012 • 59 Comments

There have been many recent statements from senior bishops and others within the life of the Church of England which have raised questions in my mind as to the nature of our Church and its relationship with our country. In response to the Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, public statements have been made which purport to give the ‘mind’ of the Church of England. We seem to have got ourselves into an invidious position in, on the one hand, trying to support gay people in their relationships and affirm the love they hold and not to appear homophobic and, on the other hand, seeking to uphold a traditional view of marriage as being exclusive to a man and woman. I am sure that all the statements that have been made are sincerely put, but they appear anodyne because of the tension between the two positions. However, they are united in affirming that marriage is not just about a legal contract but that there are also, perhaps more important, sacred matters to address and the way in which God’s grace inhabits human relationships and reveals Himself to us through them. For those guarded about same-sex marriages, the fact that God’s creativity is shared in human marriage through giving birth to new life in children is an essential part of the married state. For those in favour of such marriages, it is the primacy of divine love which is at stake. But it is another question that the intervention of the good bishops raises in my mind…

Which is: ‘in what way can the statements of the prelates be taken to be the mind of the Church of England in this and other related matters?’ For, in truth, the bishops in the media have not spoken for me or the way in which I understand this thorny matter and, I suspect, they do not speak for a sizeable minority or even majority within the life of the Church. However, it is possible that I will soon be approached by the local media to defend the position taken up by my colleagues and the pressure will be on to ‘toe the line’.

The issue is therefore, for me, one of freedom.

You see, the Church of England is not like the Roman Catholic Church or other ecclesial bodies in having a central magisterium which speaks authoritatively for the Church on any given matter. So, the Church of England has never been able to come up with the ‘party line’ about contraception, for instance, in the way that the Church of Rome has. Despite the countless people who ignore the injunction, the fact still remains that to be a Catholic is not to be a user of contraceptives. Still less is the Church of England like a political party with a manifesto that needs to be publicly shared by all adherents regardless of private belief. The religious life within the Church of England should not be about conformity to centrally created opinions at all costs-as the ‘voice of the institution’-but more ‘pilgrimaging’ together within the complexities and dilemmas of life under the refreshing and renewing guidance of the Holy Spirit. The ability for the Church in England to see things differently and to honour diversity was a hard won freedom at the time of the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries when folk died for the right to see the Mass, Baptism, the Bible and many other matters of the soul from different perspectives from those handed down through the, then, closely held traditions of the Church. It is this freedom of interpretation and of the need for structural adjustment to changing circumstances that has allowed our Church to leave many things to the individual’s conscience but also to make serious advancements such as the ordination of women to the priesthood. When we have veered from this freedom we have, for instance,  caused ourselves the embarrassment of condemning Darwin. At the heart of this very attractive aspect of the Church of England’s life is the knowledge that we are a diverse and highly inclusive Church from which there can be no unified voice or opinion in these matters, and it this aspect of our Church that has kept me faithful to Anglicanism all my life.

So, I am forced to say that those of my colleagues who have spoken out on same-sex marriage do not speak for me and neither, I dare to say, do they speak for the Church of England-they are rehearsing their own opinions.

Some things I don’t understand!!!

•May 22, 2012 • Leave a Comment

There’s one or two things which I still don’t understand about life…such as, why can Mark Zuckerberg reap £20 billion from the sale of Facebook whilst, simultaneously, around a billion people globally starve? Why is it that those who were least able to create the credit crisis-the marginalised and deprived-are affected most by austerity, whilst some bankers, who created the crisis, continue to take big bonuses? How is it that we subsidise our farmers so there is no economic benefit in over-producing food when 45% of the Yemen’s population starve-some 10 million people- in one of the driest, least developed countries in the World? I’d also love to know why we happily pay our footballers many thousands of pounds a week whilst our nurses and teachers command around the same sort of sums in two or three years? And whilst I’m on it, didn’t the Sci Fi comics of my youth promise us that, in the future, machines and robots would do all the work for us and we would all live luxurious lives as all the wealth was fairly distributed to us all instead of, as we can now see, they simply rob many people of work? Further, I still can’t understand why we find it perfectly acceptable to march into Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait to free the oppressed and downtrodden people but, somehow, find it unacceptable to do the same in North Korea and Zimbabwe where unspeakable atrocities are a daily occurrence, and why is it that what is a crisis and cataclysm of Biblical proportions for the indigenous people of those countries somehow becomes a business and profit-making opportunity for the West? And why, when we fight these wars of liberation do we call the accidental deaths of innocent women and children in the wake of our bombs ‘collateral damage’, whilst those who kill innocents on our own shores are ‘terrorists’? It seems, also, that we find it routine that we should be able to move to live and work in other countries, mainly sunny and opportunity-laden ones, and yet often deny or restrict the ability of people from other countries to come here to do the same? Why, oh why, is it that we acknowledge the rising tide of unemployment in our country, sometimes accepting it is a necessary economic tool for growth, and then brand the unemployed ‘benefit scroungers’? We are entitled to the Biblical ‘three score years and ten’, and yet recent studies show that the poor in our land die significantly younger than the rich. Then, why, when Bob Geldof highlighted the horror of global poverty all those years ago, do we still live in a World where the difference between rich and poor is getting ever wider, and more and more people suffer in a World of plenty? These are some of the things that I don’t understand.

But I’m beginning to understand this: that in 1980s there was a significant shift in the World to accept the theories of Milton Friedman as the basis of our economic structures. Asserting that there must be no barriers to free trade and no restrictions or accountability, the western developed countries, followed swiftly by those which wanted to develop rapidly, were urged to ‘let the tall grass grow taller’ and to ‘let the bull free’. Eschewing government interference in business, profit became the only motive and we were encouraged to believe the newly created wealth would ‘trickle down’. And so, the theories of Milton Friedman became ‘Reaganomics’. So, here we stand today in a World beset by debt crises and recession which, in turn, is a mere symptom of the greater world crisis which the ‘things I do not understand’ point us to. Yet, another thing I don’t understand is, after all this mayhem is over and the austerity has caused its suicides, family breakups and brought more people into poverty and starvation, why it is I have the lurking suspicion that some people will actually profit from this mess and the rich will continue to get richer and the poor, poorer and will live in an ever more sharply economically divided world and communities?

Is it too much to hope that, after the putative withdrawal of Greece from the Euro and after the worst has happened in Spain, and the ripples of these two disasters are felt on our own shores and throughout the globe, that we stand back and say: ‘I don’t understand why we stand for this’ and demand a new and fairer way of running the economic affairs of the World?

Shortly after the revolution in Poland which brought Lech Walesa to power with the promise of a new order he was asked what would replace the severity of Communism. he answered…’a mixture, it won’t be capitalism. It will be a system that is better than capitalism, that will reject everything that is evil in capitalism’.

I’m waiting…and I don’t understand why we are being so patient.

A fantasy world?

•May 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Thought for the Day-LincsFM

It’s true what they say: having grandchildren is very different to bringing up your own kids. Released from the anxiety of having to ensure that the child behaves himself, eats properly and shows appropriate good manners, you can instead enjoy the wonders of childhood once again through the senses and emotions of the grandkid. So, one happy corollary of growing older and having kids who themselves have kids is that you can sit and watch children’s TV completely unconcerned about whether it’s educational or not and contributing to the child’s maturation process-it’s simply fun. Recently, my attempts to rediscover the unalloyed joys of our early years have led me into the the previously undiscovered, and actually rather intimidating, arena of the theme park. Disneyland Paris beckoned as an entree into the genre and, lately, a rather drizzly visit to Legoland confirmed both my grandson and I in the belief that there is nothing more exhilarating or fun than being jiggled about on a roller coaster like a human milk shake; wandering through the imaginative delights of the minute cities-all made out of the magic plastic bricks-and suspending reality as we explored the lost world of Atlantis, ancient Egypt and the scary unfamiliarity of the futuristic Star Wars display. All was fantasy and fun, a make-believe world that, just for a few moments allowed us to escape the real world outside and experience one full of unending wonder, glitter and childish hope and awe.
We had, of course, to return, and as I left behind my newly returned childish persona and re-assumed my adult personality in the harsh world of reality outside the multi-coloured doors, I was left with two thoughts…I wonder why it is that we can so easily create these worlds of wonder and awe with plastic and glitter and yet find it so difficult to work to make our real world one of hope and joy and love? I also wondered why we often find ourselves blinded to, and cynical about, the wonders and beauty of this incredible Creation we have been given to live in: a world infinitely more wondrous than those created by the toymakers. For we truly inhabit the mother of all miraculous worlds and perhaps we must all live and work to make it more so.

We’re going up!

•May 9, 2012 • 4 Comments

So it’s final, after several months of some of the best and most committed football I have seen from a Sheffield Wednesday team for several years, we have finished second in League One and earned automatic promotion. The final day match with Wycombe Wanderers was something of a foregone conclusion and, after a reasonable few minutes of Wednesday besieging the already relegated opposition, our winger, Antonio, broke through and scored one of the tightest and classiest goals we have seen for some time. In the second half, Nile Ranger found the net with his head and sealed the deal that we would triumph over the Blades and climb into the Championship without having to go through the tension of the playoffs. It was a suitably special and exciting occasion, and thousands of blue and white clad fans stormed the pitch and carried the triumphant team on their shoulders. I for one, am delighted that we are going up and confidently predict that we will not remain the second tier too long before we reach, once again, the promised land of the Premiership. As exciting as it all was, I was not left as exhilarated at this promotion as I was at our last one when we won the playoff final in Cardiff.It’s worth examining why…

On reflection, my slight ‘doubts’ about Saturday’s occasion were borne out of the reality that both our goals were scored by on-loan players from top class clubs. These were players who had been brought to the Club with our Chairman’s money-the millionaire, Milan Manderic. At one point in the midst of Saturday’s dizzy excitement, the crowd of some 38,000 people began to sing his name, clearly hailing him as the saviour of our historic and venerable club with its roots deep in the working class community of Sheffield. Threatened with extinction just a few months ago because of crippling debts which, to my mind, an incompetent former directorship had recklessly accrued, Milan had come to a deal with the lenders and bought Sheffield Wednesday, as he had done Leicester and Portsmouth before, for a mere 10 million pounds-less than the cost of a lesser Premiership player. On Saturday, the crowd invested Mandaric with all sorts of emotions and fine principles that they hoped he acted out of: surely he poured money into the club because he loved it as much as we fans? He must have saved Wednesday because he felt sympathy and respect for a venerable institution? Did he not feel the same pain and pleasure at the Club’s fortunes? Was he not truly one of us?

The reality is that, as badly run as the Club was at that time,when we last gained promotion we did it through the craft of an excellent manager, Paul Sturrock, who used to the full and with strategic genius, the limited ability of the players we could then afford. This time, players capable of playing two leagues higher have seen us promoted. There was something noble about the former as opposed to the uneasy feeling that this time promotion has been bought, and bought at the expense of other worthy clubs who do not enjoy the attentions of the sugar daddy. There is a whiff of unfairness in the air. And what of Milan’s higher motives in all this? Well, when he sacked Gary Megson and received the approbation of the fans, his immediate response was to the effect that it was his money and his business and he would do what he liked and the fans could like it or lump it. In truth, Milan is only at Hillsborough because it represents a significant financial opportunity, and when it stops being a putative cash cow he will sell the club, just as he has elsewhere. In fairness to him, I don’t think he has ever claimed otherwise. In the meantime, those 38,000 fans, all of whom had paid high prices to attend the match and who lauded Milan as a saviour, should enjoy the new, and I hope continued, success of the club in the full knowledge that they are also contributing to certain individual’s personal fortunes and are willing collaborators in this and that, for some, the only success that is of any consequence is financial and not the higher sporting achievements of humanity.

In the meantime, I too will enjoy our climb up the League and the prospect of a higher standard of football and the consequent pride in our club and team, but it will be with the uneasy feeling that all this will be achieved, not for the general good and welfare of Sheffield Wednesday and its fans and the creation of a true ‘club’, but for the personal gain of the few who will then take their capital elsewhere when the Owls no longer represent a good investment-or not as good as the next one.