Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Will you be an encourager today? Or a moaner? Will you make a difference? Or wish everybody else would change?

One of the privileges of being a vicar is of being with people at serious moments of their lives. Helping to articulate gratitude for a life. Working to plan how to have a great wedding celebration. Giving voice to those who can't pray but want to.

Thing is I am just as likely to be on the receiving end of a rant about traffic being slow, rooms being too hot or too cold and meetings going on beyond the agreed finishing time.

We all work our way through the big decisions that face us, most of us doing pretty well and logically, then, faced with someone else being stupid in a minor way, we can implode.

My own moment came this week when a lazy driver shot through a one way section of a car park rather than driving the long way round. I was really cut up.

But we can find ourselves more uptight that someone parked across our drive than about the needs of refugees. More bothered by slow traffic or Bristol City's results than the progress our great city is making year by year.

Jesus' disciples once got sent out on a mission. 72 of them. His speech as they departed was this, 'The harvest is plentiful, the workers are few, go I am sending you out like lambs amongst wolves.'

There will always be wolves - meaning opposition. But there is so much good to be done out there, such a harvest, and so few people doing it, that you can't fail if you want to join in, to make a difference.'

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered this morning at BBC Radio Bristol. I also got involved in a brief discussion about reasons to be cheerful (to beat the January blues) because they had my list of 200 I published a couple of years back. Linked here and here. But the thought:

Well. Was Barack Obama a good president or bad? The 44th president of the United States made his farewell speech last night.

Statistics suggest that over the last eight years the Obama administration has made amazing progress towards eradicating poverty. Good news. But the outgoing president has said that he is frustrated by his lack of ability to control guns. Bad news.

Jesus set out his own agenda by quoting the great prophet Isaiah:

Good news for the poor
Freedom for the prisoners
Sight for the blind
Release for the oppressed

As a manifesto it's a great check-list to use when assessing someone's ministry or leadership.

It's not good news for the poor if your dwelling is rat-infested.

It's not freedom for the prisoner if no-one understands the shackles of drug-dependency.

And even if great leadership eradicates 90% of poverty, the 10% still hurt and still need to be heard. If I am hungry I will find it hard to accept that a food programme is making a remarkable difference.

And this is the reality of politics, by which I simply mean 'organising people', today. It is an endless task. There will always be people who need help. And always those who cast doubt on the motives of the aid-bringer.

Which may be why Jesus responded to the impressed locals by saying, 'A prophet is never welcome in his own town.' And it made them so mad they wanted to throw him off a cliff. Really.

And that may be why Barack Obama is thought of much more highly around the world than he is in his own country. Nevertheless, in this far off corner of a far off land, we should thank him for his service.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

2016 Review of the Year

So here we go with a look back at 2016. And it will involve a bit of  'Apart from that Mrs Lincoln what did you think of the play?' Elephants in the room, even if they stand quietly, tend to leave dents in the floorboards.

Album of the year? Well I remain of the view that in a year when Radiohead put out a new album everyone else should fight over second place. This is indeed the case. A Moon Shaped Pool is an astounding, magical, soulful, dramatic, creative and haunting piece of work. Best of the rest was Steve Mason's Meet the Humans.

Film of the year. Didn't spend as much time at the cinema as I would have liked which meant that much watching was last year's. Rogue One was excellent fun. Jack Reacher ignored the advice of the title Never Go Back and went back. People got hurt. I really enjoyed The Accountant though. I like maths, dialogue, thrills and espionage. All boxes ticked.

As previously noted I also have trouble reading books in the year of publication. So nothing from me about works that were actually published in 2016. My two favourite books of the year were as pictured.

Paul Mason was the only person I read who wrote a realistic guide to why Brexit might be a good idea - he then advised against it because the timing was wrong. In Post-Capitalism, he asserts that the era of the technological revolution has gone on too long and soon not everyone will need to work. But we will need to contribute and the world needs to work out how to pay us. I reviewed it here.

Everything Magnus Mills writes leaves me convinced I am being taken by the hand and led slowly somewhere very profound. At the end I wonder if I have read something deep, imaginative or a simple children's story. Any piece of writing that lets the reader decide what it was all about without comment - you read or hear few interviews with Mills - is a job well done. Reviewed here.

Eating out? It was the year we discovered Maitreya Social in Easton. As a seasonal, organic, local-produce, vegetarian restaurant in an ethnically diverse part of Bristol you might want to beware of catching right-onness. But the tastes are amazing. And if you don't contract a hipster beard there you certainly will do at WB at Wapping Wharf. Fish, chips and craft ale. I might have been its greatest fan/evangelist this year. By Saturday I will have taken almost everyone I like, who has visited the south-west with a mealtime to spare, there. (Takes quick break to issue another invitation.) Their Smokin' Barrels was my beer of the year.

Some honourable mentions. @porrdidgebrain entertained me on Twitter on a daily basis (sometimes hourly). Eddie Mair on Radio Four's PM made broadcasting seem an absolute breeze. As Did Danny Baker, both on Radio Five of a Saturday morning and as @prodnose on Twitter. Nacer Chadli restored my belief that there are players who will make a lung-busting run for the cause of West Brom (See his second goal in the 4-2 defeat of West Ham.)

See you at the end of 2017.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Garden Bird Watch 2016

The highlights from last year's observations:

Record number of house martins. Between 27/4 (first arrivals seen) and 13/9 (last sighting) we saw a decent population overhead which peaked at 22.

Likewise house sparrows. They seem to love especially the peanut feeders on a pyracantha bush. Maximum observed at any one time was well up this year, at 24.

First recorded observation of a nuthatch and a green woodpecker.  Also a song thrush for the first time for a few years.

Not cold enough (again) for the field birds to come near so no waxwings or fieldfare and  few goldfinches.

No sparrowhawks observed this year, which may explain the good sparrow population, although, in my experience, they would rather eat a dove.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Football Quiz of the Year 2016

An annual institution, not so much a quiz as a set of observations about the inadequacy of football punditry at all but the highest level. I resolve to pay less attention during Football on Five in future and, additionally, to mute the theme music. Attempt all questions:

1a. 'There was only one place that was going to end up.' Help this commentator by listing several places, other than the goal, star strikers have left the ball ending up.

1b. 'FA Cup 2nd round - it doesn't get any bigger than this.' Can you help the Halifax Chairman think bigger?'

2a. 'Sometimes in the Championship it's always going to happen.'

'January signings sometimes don't always work out.'

How certain was Adam Virgo of these particular eventualities?

2b. Likewise George Riley with 'Rarely a dull moment always applies to Leeds'.

3. Comment on the curse of the manager of the month award with special reference to the principle of regression to the mean. Name any pundit who would grasp this?

4. 'The light at the end of the tunnel is very strong but it is not gathering momentum.' Guess Phil Brown's physics GCSE result.

5. How many inches away must a defender be for an attacking header to be described as 'free'?

6. 'It's an audacity chip.' Can you spell the word Adam Virgo was reaching for?

7. Discuss West Bromwich Albion's ability to nurture psychologically well-balanced forwards with special reference to:

Peter Odemwingie

Nicolas Anelka

Saido Berahino

8a. 'He wants an end product on the end of things.' Where else might Michael Gray place that?

8b. Likewise, ''They are struggling for goals in front of goal.' Can you help Adam Virgo, identify other places this struggle might take place?

9. 'The robins are roaring once again.' (Football on 5 commentary) Should commentators on Bristol City brush up on their animal noises?

10. 'We've been knocking on the door and today we opened it.' Which side of the door was Justin Edinburgh?

Many thanks to the goal-line technology department for finally removing all questions about parallax from the paper.

Monday, December 26, 2016

I Am King

On Monday mornings I am king. But not today. Not on Boxing Day. No-one else can do what I do here. I know the rules. Card and paper separate. Brown paper goes with card. Food cartons also.

No black plastic because the scanner can't read it but you might get away with leaving a black top on a clear plastic bottle.

Textiles need to be separately bagged. Foil and cans sit comfortably together.

Compost the peelings. Other food waste in the brown bin. Green garden waste every month in winter then fortnight it in summer. Don't forget to buy a new green bin.

Christmas and New Year Bank holidays move everything along two days, then one day, then normal. Or back if Christmas is a weekend. Other Banks Holidays make no difference.

Don't put it out in a gale or it ends up in the porch of number 26.

If in doubt do what number 32 does. They're usually first.

Rich Gospel Investigates

As delivered at Trendlewood Church on Christmas Day. Apologies that the opening joke is a local one. You may need to fit your own in to use elsewhere. To use this in a service dress as a private eye (dark glasses, hat, raincoat with collar pulled up).

On the word intriguing – stroke your chin before speaking it
On the word suspicious - look round from side to side before speaking it
On the word mysterious - scratch your head as if puzzled

Rich was reading the letters page of his local newspaper. He found it hard to understand why people seemed so anxious about car parking spaces in a town you could walk round in an hour.

Very mysterious (head scratch).

Still, not a problem for him. Foreign supermarket chains could, under no circumstances, be enquired into by a firm that specialised in 'Paranormal, supernatural and doctrinal investigations'. He dealt with huge issues'; not Lidl ones.

As he folded the paper away he spotted an advert. He scraped the spots off again so he could read it.

Someone who can explain why my Advent calendar only goes up to 24.
Love Joanna

'This is indeed my area of expertise' he said to himself, thinking doubly deeply, although it came out as 'Well, well'.

But it was also a good question. Very intriguing (stroke chin).

When is advent? he asked. No-one answered, because he was alone. He decided to take his thoughtfulness to a coffee shop. He was in a quandary. He must have got in it absent-mindedly so he got out and found his own car.

In the local coffee shop he asked, 'When is advent?'

This time the other customers all looked at him strangely and returned to their lattés and laptops.

He noticed an Advent calendar on the wall. It started at 1 and ended at 24. Joanna was right. But he recalled that Advent Sunday was only sometimes on the 1st of December and it hadn't been this year. So that was very mysterious (head scratch).

He went round the shops. That didn't work so he went in. He bought a selection of calendars. It would probably be the only time he could put chocolate on expenses.

After careful research and some alka-seltzer he concluded that door number 7 was usually a fluffy thing, door 14 was often weird and door 24 had a baby behind it.

Nor was there any consistency. Nobody seemed to agree about the picture to put behind each window. Maybe that was why he got so many messages saying Windows was updating.

But there never was a day 25. Christmas Day. The best day was never there. Very intriguing (stroke chin).

Did people have no time for it?
Did no-one know what to put behind the door?
Was there no money to be made out of 25 door calendars?

Very suspicious (look over shoulders).

He should start a campaign for real advent calendars on which door 7 showed a woman with a 2.00 a.m. craving for pickled walnuts and door 24 had Joseph saying 'Push'.

He made a mental note. Then he scrubbed his head and made the note in his pocket book, which was far more sensible. He was making no progress. He went home and looked at all the things he had noted in his pocket book. He decided to sleep on it.

He woke 30 minutes later in great pain and decided to sleep on his bed instead.

Considering he was fully fit it was odd that he slept fitfully.

Waking early he took a bath. 'Oy that's my bath' said a three inch tall, five foot wide man from down the corridor. It was his flatmate.

Instead of taking a bath he used his own shower. As the warm water refreshed him he remembered an old priest he had once met. He seemed to be a kindly old soul and had a breadth of knowledge about all things theological - especially the mysterious (head), intriguing (chin) or suspicious (shoulders). But the man was very long-winded so Rich only visited him in emergencies.

He bolted down a bowl full of wild bird seed with some milk, unaware the the garden birds were now eating muesli and enjoying it more than him.

He raced to the church where the kindly old priest worked. He was replacing a pink candle with a purple one mumbling about Mary candles. Rich had no idea who Mary Candles was.

He knew the priest was a bit deaf. As he was facing away from the door he walked right up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

The elderly priest came round a few minutes later. Since he'd been terrified out of it Rich put him back into his skin.

'Hello Mr Gospel', said the priest, recognising him at last. 'What can I do for you?'

Rich explained about the problem with the Advent windows and how he was finding it all very mysterious (head).

The priest said, and we know he did because Rich took the precaution of recording it, having first reassured the owner of the precaution that he would give it back in a minute:

'An Advent calendar is a special calendar used to count the days of Advent in anticipation of Christmas. Since the date of the First Sunday of Advent varies, falling between November 27 and December 3 inclusive, many Advent calendars often begin on December 1, although those that are produced for a specific year often include the last few days of November that are part of the liturgical season. The Advent calendar was first used by German Lutherans in the 19th and 20th centuries but is now ubiquitous among adherents of many Christian denominations. December 25th is the first day of the season of Christmas, not the last day of the season of Advent.'

Amazing. He noted never to use liturgical, ubiquitous, adherent and denominations in the same sentence ever. But he had solved the problem.

As he left the church he saw Joe, the local paper boy.

'Hey Joe' he said 'Do you know why Advent calendars only go up to 24?'

He was looking forward to impressing Joe with his new-found knowledge. He liked impressing young people.

'Yeah', said Joe. 'It's so we can sell them next year if we over-stock.'

Trouble with trying to impress kids, thought Rich. They just don't get easily impressed.

And now he had another problem. Which answer to give Joanne?


Previous episodes of Rich Gospel Investigates Christmas can be found at:

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas Newsletter 2016

Punching above my weight for 39 years.
The annual letter from me and Mrs T is published here. Hope you enjoy it. It has photos. Such as this one.

Happy last week of Advent to you all. Please have a Happy Christmas when it finally arrives and enjoy all twelve days.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

My family have a terrible joke competition each Christmas. I expect to win as usual.

Under what tree do the shepherds sheer their sheep?

You clipped us.

What do you call an insect that doesn't know the words of songs.

A humbug.

Delivered wearing emergency nativity kit
OK I'll stop...

When Charles Dickens put the expression 'Christmas - humbug' on the lips of Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol he wasn't inventing a phrase but using the slang of his day. It meant something like 'a deception'.

Today we use it to describe a person who is not going to be drawn into something everyone else is doing.

Jokes yes, but bah humbug to Christmas jumpers, say I. Can't stand the perishing things. However...

You can donate to Save the Children's Christmas Jumper Day appeal without wearing a daft pullover. You can cough up for men's health in months other than November and without growing a terrible 'tache. You can help Motor Neuron Disease charities without jumping in a bucket of ice.

So I'm not saying bah humbug to you. Let's keep the fun in fundraising. But do try and allow people to be generous in any way they wish. Remember you can love your neighbour as yourself - your neighbour in Aleppo, Yemen or on the streets of Bristol - all year round.

It's great that there are so many events that raise awareness - it sometimes seems like every day is a special day for some charity or other. Just let's remember to keep our awareness raised when the fun is passed.

Although, talking of special months, in which month are you in most danger of amputation?

That would be Dismember.

I'll get my coat.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered to the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show with Emma Britton this morning:

Well it comes to the time of year when we sing carols. And people are looking forward to the BBC Radio Bristol Christmas Celebration on Monday.

And as a Christian minister I will probably get in trouble for this but some of the words of our carols really are nonsense.

For instance, when, in Once in Royal David's City, we sing:

Christian children all must be
Mild obedient, good as he

...we are learning more about Victorian parenting styles than Jesus' upbringing.

And from Away in a Manger:

The cattle are lowing
The baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

It is pure supposition that Jesus wasn't scared by the noise of cows that may or may not have been in or around his home at that time.

So what's going on? I used to get cross about all this but now, advanced in years, my tolerance has increased. What we have (beat) is a universal story.

The God I follow revealed himself in Jesus Christ, says the Bible. This is such a unique and special insight that song-writers, down the ages, have felt comfortable drawing attention to the truth by addition, embellishment and gloss.

This baby is so special, goes the story, that God made flesh is the only apt description. And he is going to live and die for everyone; so the Christmas story and songs can be all-embracing.

It's quite a liberating thought. It allows Santa, countless unlikely animals and all sorts of weird and wonderful extra characters, to be placed in worship at a manger. Not because of the baby; but because of who the baby turned out to be. And what he did.

Happy Easter everybody.

And when Emma responded by suggesting that babies in mangers raised safeguarding issues I was too slow to say 'Think Aleppo not Bristol'. Great comebacks often occur to me in the car on the way home.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

I wrote this poem last year in the pre-Christmas rush:

Christmas turns up about now
Screams to a halt - tyre rubber in the road
Look at me

Advent walked here, carefully holding a candle

Christmas bares its soul about now
Make me happy with food, fragrance and fashion
Buy me

Advent cradles its light from the breeze

Christmas accessorises everything about now
You need two of those, extra glitter and ribbons
Box me

Advent speaks of a truth beyond packaging

Operating with a sense of other-worldliness can be hard. Monday and Tuesday's Thought for the Day contributors spoke of Advent as a period of reflection, waiting, hoping. Advent asks us to wait gently while the world sits outside in its car, beeping its horn. Come on.

Does a carnival anticipate a heavenly party? Do Christmas lights speak of the one who is the light of the world? Do ambulances remind us of our humanity but that one day every tear will be wiped from our eye? Do medals for bravery emphasise the otherness of this world where there is evil but goodness can, and will, overcome it? Well, (beat) they might.

St Paul spoke of this world as seeing through a glass darkly - looking forward to seeing face to face.

The great seers and sages of the Christian past described special sites in our world as 'thin places' where God can be glimpsed more easily.

In one of his novels Philip Pullman spoke of the spirit world being accessed by a subtle knife - if you could find the right place you could cut your way though.

I hope you see God through the gaps in the rush and find yourselves in some thin places today. Peace.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Design by the Devil

Friend of mine was fond of posing this question, when running a training event for children's leaders in an old church building. How, do you think, would the devil have gone about designing a building for worship and ministry?

He would then suggest that perhaps the seating would have been made rigid and uncomfortable, the heating unreliable and the leader of any event put as far as possible from those engaging with it, maybe even up a flight of steps. If enough separation of leader and led was not established he posited a screen being built between the two to further cut down visibility. I think people got the point.

I revisited this question in a traffic queue recently as I wondered if the very Devil himself had been involved in the Southmead Hospital car-park.

Arriving, an hour or so earlier for a routine visit late afternoon, I had been unable to park not because of a lack of spaces but because the queue to leave prevented anyone from getting in.

On arrival I checked the payment system and saw the costs. I also checked that change was given. I established that I needed to use a payment system at a pay station before trying to exit.

I did my visit.

I got back to the pay station. On the walk stress point 1 reared. Reports had bothered me that 500 yard queues had built up recently because two of the three pay stations had been out of order. There was no queue but then I hit stress point 2. I had to enter my vehicle registration number at the pay station. I don't always recall my current reg although FWK 616L and UOF 247S are etched in my memory, my first two cars. Luckily an appalling obscenity is a good mnemonic for my current registration.

After paying, a message said I was free to leave and had over an hour to do it in. I was issued with no token or ticket.

I drove out, trying to leave appropriate gaps for vehicles entering the car park to get in but (stress point 3) impatient people then overtook me and blocked the gaps.

As the queue reached the exit I saw the cars stopping at a barrier. There was a machine next to it which some people touched and others didn't. Stress point 4 - had I failed to memorise a code or pick up a token?

Getting nearer I found that the machine was simply a 'call' button and that cars seemed to have to wait a while (15 secs) for the barrier to raise. I had to (stress point 5) put my faith in automatic registration plate recognition software. I also (stress point 6) had to be sure I had entered my registration number in the machine correctly. I was sure I had but in the queue the doubts built up. Was there a precise place to stop to make this easier? Who knows. The barrier rose after a brief wait.

Bearing in mind that people trying to leave this car-park are either already stressed because they have been ill and are going home, maybe still uncomfortable, or have been visiting a sick relative and are sad, might I humbly ask if hospital car-park design might be made as easy as possible for those who are in a bad way already.

I have heard of one visitor, catching up with a husband who has just had a serious illness diagnosed, having a complete meltdown and leaving a car on the grass and having to be helped by security and treated by nursing staff. Automated car-parks may well be a false economy. People in trouble want to see people who can help.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Get it in Writing

In my days of having a proper job, as a claims clerk in the insurance industry, we were encouraged all the time to get things confirmed in writing and to confirm any offers we made in writing. Writing was important. Although verbal contracts do exist and are legal, they are easily backed away from and it becomes one word against another in the absence of witnesses. Getting it in writing provided firmer evidence of a deal done.

We offer you £250 in full and final settlement of all claims for personal injury arising out of this accident. This offer is made without any admission of negligence on the part of our client. Please indicate your acceptance in writing and we will send you a cheque.

See. I can still recite it today. Sums of money have advanced a bit and cheques are antiquated but the principle remains.

In those early days as a house-owner I was introduced to the shady area of cash transactions.

Me: How much to fix the front gutter?
Builder: £90 should cover it.
Me: Can I have a written quote?
Builder: Ah. Then it will be plus VAT.

It is strange how our relationship with writing has changed. Because social media is writing or, at least, typing. A comment we might have made tongue-in-cheek, or in an offhand way down the pub is suddenly in writing. Or is it? Is that how people see it.

A few years back an irritated traveller tweeted, after appalling delays at Nottingham Airport, that he was off to blow it up. He was arrested and it took a while for a wise judge (on appeal, I recall) to see that he had been joking.

I really don't think that a lot of people see their social media outbursts as 'in writing'. Just as a young family member once told me that someone wasn't a friend but a Facebook friend (clearly having a difference in their head between the two types), I think that there needs to be a new word for posting, tweeting and updating that stops short of this being something that is being clarified 'in writing'.

You only have to look at the long string of appalling and abusive comments on certain celebrity posts to see that people seem genuinely not to have noticed that the person the subject of their opprobrium is actually listening/reading. I follow Gary Lineker on Twitter. He seems an interested and interesting character. He is not especially rude or crude and does not restrict his comments to the world of sport. People respond shamefully. By and large he reacts modestly. This exchange of views/insults reads like a conversation, albeit one with the drunk in the pub or the nutter on the bus.

And the trouble with writing is that it is not open to discussion who said what to whom. The evidence is there. This doesn't seem to dissuade the trumps of this world from saying 'I never said that'.

A few years ago I carried around a quote from Anita Roddick (her of the Bodyshop business). She said that ideas have wings. As soon as you pin them down they fail to fly. So she operated an ideas culture that didn't pin things down to paper plans too soon. Better paper planes in the air. Keep talking.

I like being part of a church where we all talk about everything all the time. Nobody is too insignificant to contribute to vision or strategy. All views can be shared and we are slow to minute them. We try to have as few secrets as possible. In this context a social media discussion has no more weight than a chat over coffee. And no less either.

That will be £50 please. For cash.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thought for the Day

Serious thought today. As delivered this morning at BBC Radio Bristol.

I know I often wander around the lighter side of the Thought for the Day room. But not today. Not today.

I was very moved by the Shrouds of the Somme installation on College Green when I visited it last weekend. It ends today.

Rob Heard's creation represents the 19,240 men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The first day.

I find it stops me in my tracks when I make a comparison. I think of the town where I live, Nailsea. The population is a little less than that. But imagining every single person in Nailsea falling victim to a sudden death. A whole town wiped off the map. That's the equivalent of what happened.

Everyone who died was somebody's friend, father, son, husband...

Both my grandfathers were the right age to be one of those people. They served elsewhere and survived. So I'm here.

Each hand-stitched shroud on College Green offers dignity to someone who died suddenly, violently, indiscriminately and probably without a chance to fight back. It is somehow restorative.

In one of his shorter works the poet Steve Turner wrote:

History repeats itself.
Has to.
No-one listens. 

I will be taking a funeral a little later this morning. And I will remind everyone of another, older poem a soldier wrote about his God:

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

So why not find a response. Say a prayer. Throw a coin in a Children in Need bucket. Keep your own moment of silence.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Statistics and Cathedral Worship

As regular readers (hi Mum) know, I am a great consumer of statistics. I am no expert but one thing that bugs me above all else is when conclusions are drawn from numbers which are simply opinion.

So now the church attendance figures recently released for 2015 (we're getting faster at this, believe it or not) show that attendance at cathedral worship is up compared with many other places where a downwards trend is observed.

And immediately one or two lazy commentators suggest that this proves that modern forms of worship are failing and we should all get back in the cloisters.

It does no such thing. In fact what we see on the ground is a number of very small evening congregations being wound up due to a shortage of organists, choir-masters, choir and indeed congregation. I should just have said 'everything' but I'm a sucker for merism ladies and gentlemen.

As they wind up, some people choose to worship at other times and other places; a number simply drift away, but a few, who were mainly attracted by choral evensong, find their way to the nearest cathedral. Up go the numbers.

It should be our expectation that as things get rarer the finest expressions of them survive the longest and attract the most attention. No conclusions beyond that can be drawn.

Reading Retreat

Many of you know that, for me, a retreat to get stuck into reading is the best way for me to keep fresh. I like lectures and conferences but probably learn more with my head in a book than any other way. It also explains why I occasionally mispronounce words I have only read, never heard, and attempt to use.

I am back from a few days away. I finished four books this retreat and made a start on a few others.

Rowan Williams - Being Disciples
Rowan Williams is a poet and a wordsmith. He is also aware that nuancing words is all we got, although he wouldn't have put it that way. Nuancing gave us the Good Friday agreement.

This is a short book that demands slow reading. It contains treasure. As Williams says in chapter five, on Faith in Society:

Churches and other faith groups might be called trustees or custodians of the long-term questions, because they own a vision of human nature that does not depend on political fashions and majorities.

He gives me a quiet confidence in my own inadequacy.

Carlo Rovelli - Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
I didn't pay attention in science at school. I wish I had but was never gripped. Maybe if this had been the first set book things would have turned out differently, in physics at least. Writing in English English rather than scientific English (in translation from Italian Italian I suppose) Rovelli covers relativity, quantum, cosmology, particles, loop quantum gravity (I know), time and in a beautiful final chapter, ourselves.

It is short, graspable for a non-scientist and very, very readable.

A.C.Grayling - The God Argument
I persist in consuming the output of those we might call 'the new atheists'. For it is the readers of books such as this with whom Christians will have to reason in the market place.

The difficulty for me is always that the 'religion' Grayling shoots at is often one I would also see as the target. I do not think he can imagine a Christian who does not take the Bible literally, or one who believes that morality is a human struggle and the answer is not usually beamed down from above. Even if it is we still have to engage with others in terms that allow for the incredulity that such might happen. He believes that morality, for the religious, comes only from a transcendent source such as divine command and does not arise from reflection on human realities and relationships. He's wrong.

For me, life as a Christian is life lived immersed in a different set of stories. There are not proof-texts but there are those who have gone before. There are not certainties but faith, hope and waiting. There is not separation from the way the world does its thinking; Christian and non-Christian minds are wired the same way.

But there is a man, on a cross, in the middle of human history, who points in a different direction to selfishness, pragmatism and finding someone to blame for all the trouble.

David Byrne - How Music Works
This book starts with the note that orchestras got bigger to compensate for the problem of string quartets not being heard in venues where everyone persisted in talking. It ends with the reminder that a 1969 UNESCO resolution confirms a person's right to silence,

In between music, and the industry attached to it, is dismantled before our eyes in order to be explained. The value of music to society is seen in co-operation. You can't fight if you're in time. Quoting William McNeil he says:

We don't dance because we're human as much as we are human because we dance.

Almost spiritual.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

This Week's News

I learned quite shortly after Brexit that trying to offer an analysis of several competing and complex voting intention strands was hopeless. In fact since then I have been annoyed a lot when people, usually Conservative politicians or Nigel Farage, have said 'What people voted for on 23rd June was...' because they then complete the sentence in any damn way they want:

  • Restored sovereignty
  • Take back control
  • Money for NHS
  • Immigration controls

When in fact people simply answered one question on one ballot and we cannot easily mine into their motives. Rod Liddle's, 'Something is wrong; this is how we tell them' was as close as any guess I saw and had the advantage of brevity.

So, reflecting on having been Trumped, may I draw attention to three articles which I think have the truth surrounded without any of them containing all of it:

1. Aaron Sorkin's letter to his daughter, published in Vanity Fair for an emotional take.

2. Michael Moore's analysis of why Trump won. He wrote it before the election, which is cool.

3. Paul Mason's observations of why and how politics is changing and what us lot (people such as me) should do.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Ribble Valley

We found ourselves in the very beautiful Ribble Valley. Sorry, that sounded like an accident. We meant to go there. It is a part of the country we don't know very well.

In the past we've done North Yorkshire Moors, Teesdale, Weardale, Lake District, Lancashire coast and many major northern towns and cities. It feels like we have got this part of the world surrounded without ever having entered. I did do a few training events at Whalley (pronounced Warley) over the years but never explored.

We were just down the road from Clitheroe. The Aspinall Arms at Great Mitton became a firm favourite. The Tolkien walk around the rivers Calder, Hodder and Ribble, passing Stonyhurst College, was excellent. Allegedly JRR worked on the Rings Trilogy here and named/described some places he knew locally. We got to know Booths supermarket. Their bags were the product of an excellent slogan-writer's mind - Cumbria not Umbria; Wuthering Bites.

Further afield we visited to the north of Morecambe Bay - Arnside and Silverdale - from where I took the panorama photo here.

Lovely autumn colours and not too cold yet. Great break.

Monday, October 31, 2016

What time is it?

No strangers to post-hour-change confusion, at least in the biorhythm department, today took things to new heights.

I was looking forward to a day off, brought forward from later in the week when a conference is taking place.

In the early hours of morning the alarm went off and Mrs T crept out of bed. I realised that I would not get back to sleep (I am usually stirred by her creeping) without a jimmy and therefore popped next door, semi-comatose.

Returning to my bed I found it occupied. 'I'm still here' said the occupant, sounding very much like Mrs T. Instead of dropping back to sleep I had to concentrate on the explanation - that the clock showed 4.55 and the alarm, set for 5.55 had gone off an hour early. I asked helpful clarifying questions (well I thought so) and Mrs T waited for me to hit snooze again and then left the room to get her mobile, no longer trusting the bedside alarm. I stirred as the light from the other room flooded through the open door and again when she returned to bed.

I snoozed once more and seconds later was awoken by the bedside alarm sounding at the correct time followed shortly by the phone alarm.

I think I may have slept again from 6.00 - 7.15 when coffee was produced for me. By then I had given up and started on the recycling (Monday job).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Annual Battle

Good afternoon and welcome to the finale of this year's programme of Vynes Glebe one-on-ones. I'm Pru Nowt. We reach autumn and the annual battle between Steve the Clip and his garden pyracantha bush. Last year the plant won easily but our hero goes into battle this year with new ideas. Over to our commentator Angsty Gardner. Angsty:

Yeah thanks Pru. We hear Steve has got himself some extra gloves, is being sensible enough to wear long-sleeved clothing this year and, get this, has two saws and a set of working secateurs. But his usual stumbling block is the desire to get things over with quickly. This is often his downfall. He needs to work slowly and steadily.

And he's off and a few good clips to the outside middle making himself space to work in and up. Good start.

Now he's got the ladder and he's taking the outside branches off. He seems to be learning. 2-0. But wait, what's this? There are two branches just out of reach. He repositions the ladder but still he can't get them. He leans in at the top if the ladder - asking for trouble and - yes, as I expected a full puncture wound to the lower abdomen. 2-1.

Still, he took the last branches out. 3-1. Now all he has to do is cut them down to size and put them in his green bags. Going well. Nearly there.

It's the last minute and this is indeed injury time. He grips one of the last pieces between his knees and impales the inside of both his legs simultaneously. 3-3. Can he hang on for a draw?

And as he takes off his gloves and rolls up his sleeves he finds another set of wounds he doesn't even recall getting. That's dramatic. That's final and that's painful. He throws the gloves to the floor in frustration.

4-3 to the bush. This is Angsty Gardner handing you back to the studio.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning on the back of a story that a Bristol Charity (ARA), which deals with gambling addiction, has seen an 80%  increase in the number of people it is helping.

The word 'addicted' has had a bad press. Google the words 'addicted to...' and you get links to sex, drugs, alcohol and gambling. But also iphones, doctor visits and hoarding. And the Robert Palmer song Addicted to Love which, it turns out, isn't about love at all.

But whether trying to get to the next level at Candy Crush Saga, or to see every televised goal scored last weekend, I note the pitfalls for those of us with easily-addicted personalities. We should keep back from the one-armed bandits.

I observe, with some dismay, the adverts on TV for easily-accessed online gambling sites. Not because it isn't a harmless pleasure. For some it is. I have put a few coins aside for a game of cards with friends from time to time. But because those who have a tendency to addictive behaviour may not notice until it is too late.

Some professional footballers have spoken of how hard it was for young men with money and long periods of boredom to avoid the lure of a bet. With disastrous consequences for family and finances.

I'll take a liberty with my Bible by changing a word. The believers were addicted to the apostles teaching. They were addicted to the fellowship. They were addicted to the breaking of bread. They were addicted to prayer. They were addicted to helping the poor.

Sound odd? That is because the word should be 'devoted' not 'addicted'. But advice lines and web-sites suggest that those with gambling devotion need to distract themselves with another activity. I welcome the availability of charities to help.

An addiction or devotion to Jesus certainly can give you a glad and sincere heart. We might as well face it. He was, and is, addicted to love.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Aims and Goals

I came across this tree on a walk in Arnside and Silverdale recently. It's a lovely part of the country; highly commended. The tree reminded me of many of the small trees I used to be allowed to climb when visiting the Lickey Hills near Birmingham as a child.

I struggled to make sense of it at first. Branches seemed to splay in every direction and it had uprooted a few years back. The first image here shows that the uprooting had been such a powerful trauma that bits of concrete, through which the root system had developed at some stage in its life, had been lifted as the tree fell.

Sometimes outside forces are so strong you have no choice but to go with them even if they take you in a direction not a part of your original plan.

But, as the second image shows, this tree was a stubborn so and so.

Since the roots had not been completely er, uprooted, they continued to provide sustenance and a branch, once pointing proudly southwards towards the sun, became the trunk and grew upwards towards the light. New roots developed over the trunk of the old tree.

And in so doing the original fallen trunk is beginning to be pulled inexorably back towards its first goal. One fell. Now two are striding on.

A bit anthropomorphic that, but if you can't make a training session about vision and priorities from the material you need to go back to college.

Thursday, October 06, 2016


I read a status update from a clergy friend going on sabbatical. In this post a four-figure number was mentioned as the number of emails to be cleared out of the inbox.

Well, oh dear.

I know people have difficulties with jobs that become so big they will never be done but really. Thousands?

How do you claw your way back from this? Slowly. You know roughly how many emails you get daily so each day make sure you deal with more than come in until the problem is gone.

Or quickly. Put all of your current inbox in a folder called 'old inbox'.  Now deal with each day's new emails alone and only dip into the old inbox when you get a reminder. Diary to delete it in a year's time. Some people may be irritated but not as many as you have irritated so far with your massive inbox.

Some quick tips:

1. Stuff that is:
  • Not relevant
  • Not for you
  • Already out of date
  • No action required.
Delete it at once.

2. Stuff that needs to be retained for the future but not acted upon. File it. It is kind, but not essential, to send a quick acknowledgement. If it is more than a week old don't. You'll look stupid.

3. Stuff that needs a reply. Either reply quickly, if you can, then file it, or send a brief acknowledgement and add the job of thinking about it to your things-to-do list. Then file it. Yes. Get it out of your inbox to somewhere you will be able to find it. I use googlemail so you can label your emails so that they appear in more than one folder. I also always operate remotely so never download emails to any device or PC. Outlook is dangerous.

4. So, how do you organise an email filing system? Any way you want but I'll tell you about mine. By and large the bulk of stuff I need to keep is about future events, many of which are Sundays.

So my first few folder labels are simply Sunday dates. As they are numbers they stay at the beginning of an alphabetical filing system:


When the first email comes in about a future Sunday I start a folder for it. I delete these folders a month after the Sunday.

My second major grouping is 'Forthcoming Appointments':

Forthcoming Appointments
 CMD (13/3)
 E*** P****** Visit (12/10)
 Funeral (13/10)
 Hope for Life Dance (29/10)
 Reading Break November

When the first email comes in about a future event I start a folder for it. I delete these folders a month after the event.

My other folders are sub-headed under 'People', 'Church' and the inevitable few that will not categorise.

5. I deal with emails about three times a day for five minutes. I have turned off email notifications on my tablet and phone. Email is meant to be non-intrusive communication. It is not for the urgent. If you want me to come and give you a lift from the station now, ring me (unless you know the family secret group on Facebook).

6. Email is meant to be a communication aid but it needs a little bit of management to keep it under control.

7. Once a week diary to clear your inbox. There will always be one or two stubborn messages you couldn't decide what to do with. Shift them weekly.

8. I lose emails. I make mistakes with filing. I sometimes dither a bit. But I'm pretty good. This is why.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol today.

National Poetry Day. This year's theme 'messages'. Couldn't resist:

Good morning you people I'm having my say
I bring you a thought for a poetry day
It's breakfast with Emma on the BBC
But just now she's shut up to listen to me

I bring thoughts to ponder but linked to the news
And some of these subjects have stirred up your views
For instance crowd-funding's become all the rage
To afford cancer treatment on your weekly wage

And am-dram type students considered it best
To cancel their show which was causing unrest
Was that par for the course or maybe stupidity?
Do you think that an actor should straddle ethnicity?

And what of the modern world - toughened or tender
Are there job limitations on the basis of gender?
The Clifton Suspension Bridge has a new master
Will the fact that she's female be great - or disaster?

This topical programme delivers the show
That informs and debates and discusses and so
Attend to the message; listen in to the chat
You'll never keep up if you don't manage that

It's Keith with the headlines and Joe with the travel
If they're not on form then our lives all unravel
The papers reviewed and the markets explained
All bases are covered - no, one yet remains

This faith-based two minutes of which I'm the provider
Should take local thoughts and then focus them wider
Because if hearts and minds are the radio's goal
Then just for a moment attend to your soul

I cannot pretend, if I did I'd be odd,
To view every tale through the eyes of my God
But I can leave a message; I can drop a thought
That a holy perspective should sometimes be sought.

I added one further effort to the limerick competition:

A good-looking feller called Joe
Did the travel on a great breakfast show
But he got in a mood
When Emma was rude
And made all the traffic go slow

I seem to have become Pay Ayres. It's the Somerset air.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Food Labelling

The Prime Minister's speech to the Tory Party Conference was, like Grace Brothers, pretty terrifying on all levels. Having stayed quietly in the background during the EU referendum campaign she is now leading a party of her own making which I think can only be called Conservative Lemmings. As one commentator said, having jettisoned the methodology of Norway and Canada our closest model for existing in the free world will be North Korea.

Economists will tell us what this all means as long as there are some still around who haven't been attracted by the bright lights of retraining as trade negotiators.

So let us talk about something I have a vague familiarity with - food labelling. Living with two vegetarians, one pretty strict about avoiding meat in any form, I have become familiar with searching through the small print on food labels. The EU recognised food-labelling system at least means that the symbol/information for which I search is readily identifiable on all products.

If we go back to deciding how to label our own food then I'm sure we will still have to use this format to export to the EU.

What are the choices?

1. Claim we have taken back control of our food but do absolutely nothing to change and continue to live in a world where food safety standards are shared. May well happen.

2. Have higher standards than the rest of the world. Great to be an example, but if we simply make it harder for people to sell to us then we should not expect great trade deals when the roles are reversed. File under unlikely.

3. Have lower standards than the rest of the world. Then end up importing a load of dodgy food that can't be shifted in the other nation's home market. At home, unscrupulous food producers will no longer have to add the awkward 'may contain horse' to their beef mince label. Hope not.

4. Quietly withdraw this ridiculous promise on a fast news day. Very possible.

We always had the right to label our own food. We chose to do it in co-operation with other countries to make the EU a better place not just formerly-great Britain.

If Brexit means brexit then it does exactly what it says on the tin. Always read the label.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Guest Economist

We welcome back our occasional visitor Sir Bob Cashless:

St. Sir Bob, the people have voted to reduce immigration so we wonder what the economic impact of that will be?

SB. Have they? I couldn't have been paying attention.

St. Yes, we had a referendum back in June.

SB. Ah. the one where we voted 52-48 to leave the EU?

St. That's right.

SB. It is very clever of you to know what reasoning all those people used for voting Brexit.

St. Well public opinion seems very down on immigration.

SB. Public opinion is an idiot. Are you expecting a pension?

St. Yes. In about five years.

SB. Well you may be lucky. But us younger folk won't be. We need masses more workers in this country so immigration is one of only a few solutions.

St What are the others?

SB. Well we could under-invest in the NHS so people die a lot sooner. Or we could hike up taxes on young people by making them pay for their education. Or we could pull back from all our healthy eating campaigns and have people gorge themselves to an early grave. Hmm. Come to think of it...

St. What?

SB. This government's brighter than I thought. Got any more of those sausage rolls?

Sir Bob will be back next time he needs a few quid. Talking of which, Harry Backhand will be here later in the week to take your questions about football.

Me and Physics

I thought I would read a book about physics. Either I had no natural aptitude, or I was insufficiently stimulated, but I never grasped it at all at school. I learned to do a very good impression of my physics teacher though - which seemed more important at the time.

Thing is, I have quite a good track record of 'grasping' things when necessary. If I see the point I will devote time to grasping. I even gave eight years of my life to vehicle identification once I realised nobody in the motor insurance world would take me seriously if I couldn't tell a Vauxhall Viva from a Ford Escort. It was 1973 by the way. After I left in 1981 I vowed never to be interested again.

I did the same for early church history which I mastered for about two days in 1983 and it contributed to a theology degree. I may get back to that one.

So I am reading a book about physics. The one illustrated. And I am underlining physics-type sentences that overlap with the arts world. Ones without equations, basically.

You see I can grasp: curves where there is matter. and gravitational field are the same thing.

So, although Riemann's constant would be jolly useful if I needed to do calculations, my two pull-quotes are the heart of an understanding of relativity. And I've only finished one chapter.

Now, on to quanta.

Why did I get so old before I began to find that learning stuff is fun?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Revolution 1966-1970 at the V and A

A brief coda to my previous post reviewing this. A review in theipaper by Robert Bevan (copied from the Evening Standard) made two negative comments; that it was populist and that it ignored, inter alia, architecture. A brief response:

Firstly, I don't think you can critique an exhibition for being populist. Museums are full of high culture and whilst important and helpful it don't pay the bills. A certain amount of the common touch is necessary. Us commoners seem to have been, in the main, impressed.

And secondly architecture? Well most architecture built 1966-1970 was probably conceived pre-66. ' is the most responsive barometer of social change ... you can react more speedily to the demands of the times with three-and-a-half metres of cloth than you can with, say, 5000 toms of reinforced concrete' (Marion Hume, The Independent, 2/12/94). Architectural ideas form 66-70 went up in the early 70s.

But I save the worst until last. The final scathing comment in a review that gave this exhibition 3 stars (out of 5) was that it failed to mention the Gay Liberation Front at the 1971 Festival of Light. Could it be that it was a year late? I only ask. I'm not a professional reviewer.

Music from the 1990s

I recently accepted a Facebook challenge to post a link to one 1990s tune everyday for seven days. Here are all seven:

Mike Peatman has challenged me to find 7 tracks from the 90s to share with y'all. He thinks I will find it easier than him. He's possibly right. Cracking decade of inspirational music. Maybe some of my old Chester-le-Street yoof will have an interesting take on this. How about it Paul Stockdale? My first thought was that early 90s means Madchester so here are Happy Mondays taking a 70s John Kongos tune and giving it a club vibe:

Day 2. In the 1990s I first began to realise that rap and hip-hop were worth attention. Shout out to Definition of Sound but this track combined fresh samples, funky riffage and a protest song.

Need to tag someone else every day. Got a view Andrew Smith? Take the challenge.

Day 3. I Heard this on Radio 1 when it came out and realised at least three of my favourite types of music now existed in one genre. Heard it performed live in Bristol this month at a 25th anniversary gig.

Simon Marshall is showing interest. Tag.

Day 4. In 1997 far more than three people from Brixton invented themselves as The Alabama 3 and brought out their first album Exile on Coldharbour Lane. Fusing acid-house, country and blues with a bit of D Wayne Love's spoken word they jumped to fame when this tune, which we hear them doing live in 2013, became The Sopranos' theme.

Naughty word wording in intro. 

They are a great live band. Truly great. Steve Couch loves them too. Fancy being tagged?

Day 5. Radiohead have been an enduring nineties band, innovating and re-inventing album after album. The single Creep off their first album gained popularity but second album The Bends was just a great rock collection. Until this, the final track, which presaged the soulful and reflective gorgeousness that was to be scattered throughout their next twenty years. 

Any Radiohead fan want to accept the tag today?

Day 6. No matter which decade of my music awareness you choose, my love for guitar, bass, drums and vocals jangly pop has never wavered.

I toyed with REM  and the under-rated Airhead but opted for this which was one of the first tunes Ben Tilley (fancy a go?) put me on to. Still one-hit wonders, the mighty Toad the Wet Sprocket. Bear with the ads:

This is the seventh and final day of my challenge to choose seven 90s songs in seven days. I may not have chosen my favourite seven tunes but I believe I have charted my musical education over the ten years. No Oasis/Blur for me. I always burrowed down a bit deeper than most looking for my gold. I love saying to people, 'You must hear this...'

Simon Marshall has already mentioned the idea of music which kept him company on long drives home from CPAS training evenings. In the late 90s I probably played Faithless' Sunday 8pm more than most albums.

But in the week it was John Peel 10-midnight and he introduced me to stuff I would never otherwise have heard. Shout out to Witness and Appliance (but jangly guitar already covered). Los Lobos had a great sound. Lexis (drum and bass ish) came out in 2000.

So here's an unexpected closer. Hayes and Cahill were on Later with Jools in the mid 90s and I began to hear their laments, jigs and reels in a way I had missed with other artists. Recently they performed in Nailsea and I met them. Delightful guys. There's some up-tempo stuff on The Lonesome Touch (1997) too but carry my coffin in to this.

Carry it out to any of the others from this week.

This has been quite a male task. Any women want a go?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Revolution; 1966-1970

At the Victoria and Albert Museum at the moment, running until 26th February 2017, is an excellent exhibition about the years 1966-1970.

It aims to answer this question:

'How have the finished and unfinished revolutions of the late 1960s changed the way we live today and think about the future?'

It is hard to decide when the sixties (as referenced by writers) actually started. They usually mean the period that started in earnest once the Beatles hit the charts and drifted on into the next decade. So about 1962-1971 is 'Sixties' culture.

I spent that period being 7-16 so it is the time I grew up. But my first festival experience wasn't until 1972.

But the years 66-70 saw one of the most important periods in history for cultural change. Our understanding of race, gender, travel (to space), fashion and many other things began a process of change which continues to this day.

Visitors to this exhibition, wearing headsets to replace the hotel lobby background music with rock and roll, wander through the late John Peel's collection of vinyl sleeves. Clever technology aligns what we hear to on-screen voices as we approach a TV and so we hear archive footage of social commentators from the period. We go to the Moon, experience student riots and sit in on the Woodstock experience (The Who, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimmy Hendrix).

We gaze on the costumes from the cover of Sergeant Pepper and get to read Paul McCartney's handwritten resignation letter from 1970.

It costs £16.50 full price with a number of discounts. Those who were aware of all the sixties are now pensioners. Although I do recall someone saying that if you could remember the sixties you weren't there. Man. You need a timed ticket and it will take a couple of hours to enjoy properly.

Illustrations are a couple of our vinyl sleeves - Traffic's Mr Fantasy from 1968 and Free's Fire and Water from 1969.

Thought for the Day

I managed to reference a lot of the stories on the show today and, of course, received the usual feedback I get every time I mention how old I am. This is what I presented at BBC Radio Bristol this morning, amidst tears of laughter for reasons not entirely unrelated to Noel Edmonds telephoning cats:

Today's starter question. In a mature society, what should we pay for? What should be free?

Jesus told his disciples that there was no point gaining the whole world and losing your soul. And he told them if they wanted to follow him to take up their cross. Souls valuable; bodies expendable, we conclude. Tough challenge.

Having time to kill in a big city recently I went into a museum. I was encouraged to make a donation but I didn't need to. It was free.

Wandering around I felt the first twinges of toothache. My thoughts moved quite quickly from the pain and inconvenience to 'I'm glad I pay for a dental plan.'

Museums free.

Dentistry costs.

Nailsea is the first place I've ever lived where town centre car-parking is free. I've reached that peculiarly arbitrary age where prescriptions are free and I can get discounts on travel costs.

Meanwhile people are having to find huge amounts of money to pay for a university education, which I got free, and some have found that it's cheaper to go to the United States to get a degree.

Tax credits have been a brave attempt to make sure that work always pays - perhaps making the point in the process that nothing comes for free.

Meanwhile repairing acts of vandalism is expensive for our city.

So, what should be free? Education? Prescriptions? Dentistry? Museums? Transport? Basic benefits? None of the above?

The job of politics is to work out how to organise services into free, subsidised and fully-charged stuff. The work of the faith community is to remind everyone what is of real value.

A relationship with God has no price tag. It's a free gift. But it has very costly implications.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


I started writing this sitting in my study last Sunday having been awake for a couple of hours. I was pondering and praying, as I do. Often my early start on a Sunday is because there are things to finish and I find only the pressure of a deadline works. Last Sunday was different.

I had lots of spare time on Saturday and all prep for Sunday was accomplished. Obviously when I woke up that morning I had several ideas in my head about how to do it all better. I tweaked a few things.

But mainly I woke up early on a Sunday because that is what I do. Almost always have. Tell me why? Because I don't like Sundays. Sundays are shadow side. Sundays are small talk. Sundays are a different sort of music to my personal preference. Sundays are telling people (especially children) certainties from a background of exploration and question, if I'm not careful.

And yet Sundays are where the God I try to worship and understand and the humans I try to serve get it on. And in the crazy mix of over-commitment, lack-of-commitment and all stations between we make slow progress towards being the church of God.

Have I hit it right? Have I been doing Sundays as well as I could? Who could ever say? A colleague used to pray after every service, 'Forgive what has been amiss; use what has been in accordance with your will.' That's about right.

Often I feel I survive Sundays. And survival, as someone once wrote, is the lowest form of life. Later that Sunday a chat with old friends, a fine meal out and an evening on the sofa was enough to redeem the day and by today, Wednesday, I usually feel I could do another Sunday.

On Monday evening a bunch of us sat around and dreamed a few exciting dreams for our little church. It was good.

I have this picture, which I coloured in myself, on my study wall. Too many people focus on what they want to achieve all the time. They often fail. There is a certain sort of vision which is based on avoiding what you don't want to happen, first. Survivors get to do vision. The sunk don't.

The best way to improve the quality of a corporate experience, which you would like others to join, is not to have occasional great ones. It is to eliminate the bad. So the chances of a visitor coming along to a disappointing day are reduced. Because when my church is being rubbish, and it is occasionally, not always my fault but always my responsibility, I get that sinking feeling, that some newcomer or visitor may have been lost by that first impression, which almost always happens on a Sunday.

So I don't really like Sundays. But I accept them as a necessary part of my duties. I try not to sink. And occassionally I catch a glimpse of an amazing island.

Friday, September 09, 2016


Articles of Religion?


Number of lashes St Paul got, assuming he was good at maths and that is what he meant by 40-1?

Memorable uses of the number indeed.

But today it is the number of years for which Elizabeth Christine Anne (the current Mrs Tilley) and James Stephen have successfully troth-plighted.

This one's a keeper I reckon.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Christian Culture

I was archiving some old sermon and talk/seminar folders from the 1990s when I came across notes I had made for a presentation interestingly entitled 'Are we becoming a Christian counter-culture?' It was delivered first in about 1996 and adjusted and re-used for a few years thereafter.

We are all (Christians) 'in' the world, but to what extent are we of it?

At the time I was using as biblical material Paul's experience in Athens where he encountered  a new culture and explained the gospel to that culture starting from where they were - an unknown god. It was a bit simplistic - I was largely speaking to untrained youth workers - but the questions that follow are a reasonable indication of the extent to which you have separated yourself out from the world in order to live in a Christian counter-culture. I speak as one who has often been warned of going to the opposite extreme.

It included this questionnaire, which I had forgotten all about. Every yes scores a point. The nearer to ten you get the more likely it is that you have lost touch with the real world:

1. Most of my favourite music is Christian.
2. Most of my close friends are Christians.
3. I read more Christian books than popular fiction.
4. I wear a Christian logo/badge over and above a simple cross such as a WWJD wristband.
5. I belong to a Christian group or union at school/work, or work in a Christian environment.
6. I regularly go to national Christian events/festivals - Spring Harvest, Greenbelt, Soul Survivor, New Wine.
7. I have, or aspire to, a career in Christian ministry.
8. I find the world's values a constant source of temptation and try to keep clear.
9. I come from a Christian family.
10. I hardly ever go anywhere where I meet non-Christians socially.

I think I score 3. How about you?

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Iconic Sanctity

Don't worry. The title isn't a belated attempt at a googlewhack.

There was a discussion on the radio yesterday morning (BBC Radio Bristol) about the Massive Attack gig on Clifton Downs last Saturday. I was phoned to offer an opinion.

During the course of the debate one contributor (who was clearly against it ever having happened) suggested that Clifton Downs is 'an iconic place' and its 'sanctity' should not be spoiled in this way.

I won't rehearse the for and against of the gig. I was there. It was wet. It was enjoyable. It was not my experience that it was badly organised but it was for some.

I want to discuss being iconic. For me the use of the word 'iconic' in this way suggests a thing that can be made to stand for something larger. When you see a picture of it you think of the bigger picture. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is iconic. An image of it across the gorge stands for Bristol. Maybe with balloons flying over it. I don't think the Downs pass this test. A picture of the Downs does not speak of Bristol. I could not pick our Downs out of a downs line-up.

Secondly 'sanctity'. This word has two uses. The first is 'holy' or 'sacred'. I don't think this is true of the Downs. Second is 'ultimate importance and inviolability'. I imagine this is what the speaker refers to.

How do places become ultimately important and inviolable? Shared memories? Repeat events? Unique use? And what places a gig for 20,000 people on the no list but Sunday football and dog-walking on the yes?

I don't think the caller is saying anything more than 'I don't like this kind of thing'. I do.

Cathedrals are iconic and places of sanctity. But if they didn't have event-memories soaked into the bricks they would be nothing.

The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes.

(Hymn of the Big Wheel - Massive Attack)

Thought for the Day

A lot of thoughts for the day spend several paragraphs talking about the news and then say 'It's a bit like that with Jesus' or similar. Recently I've been starting with the spiritual bit immediately and then relating it to the news as we move on. Anyone got any views?

Today's, as delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

One of the responses we read in the Bible to Jesus' teaching is that it astonished people. Sometimes because he accompanied his words with miracles; on other occasions because he carried authority - an authority people hadn't seen before.

It took something pretty amazing for new teaching to take hold, but take hold it did.

You see people don't like new stuff. We don't like change. Never have. Be it bus timetables or invisible fences for cows, concerts on the downs or arenas in the town. We are suspicious of the new and can be quite quick to jump to the conclusion that it will be worse. We need to be very dissatisfied before we seek change.

The gentle liturgy of the breakfast show washes over me, daily. M5 slow. Hicks Gate roundabout busy. Temporary traffic lights on the - you fill in the gaps. I wrote this yesterday.

The new information is wrapped in the comfortable and familiar style. If Joe tells me the city is clogged up it doesn't feel so bad.

We love familiarity, and therefore even explain the new in terms of the old. Apparently, pitching the Alien film franchise, the screen-writer's stroke of genius was to describe it as 'Jaws, (beat) in space.'

What did people say about Jesus? Are you John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets come back? Are you the new Moses?

No, says Simon Peter, he's not the new anything, can't be explained in terms of the past, he is the Messiah. The promised one. Something completely different. Unfamiliar. The future.

Get used to it.

Don't agree? Your presenters will gently and reassuringly tell you how to call, tweet or text.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

I heard someone the other day review Magnus Mills as like a cross between Albert Camus and Enid Blyton. I'd have said Kafka and Blyton myself but you get the picture. Maybe he sits in the middle of a triangle.

If unfamiliar I recommend The Trial as a Kafka starting place and The Fall for Camus. Sorry I just set you five hours pre-review homework.

In Mills' stories (his novels are often novella length) everything moves slowly and with restraint. People hold back from saying things too directly, or put it off until tomorrow. Everyone is therefore very 'English'.

In All Quiet on the Orient Express a holidaymaker stays at his destination for a whole season doing odd jobs of greater and greater significance because, having said yes to one, he can't find a way to get out of doing more. No-one wants to appear rude.

The books are often a meditation on a particular subject - work, exploration, transport.

In this latest we are introduced to a field divided into nominal sections - north-east, north-west, south-east, and south-west. Some people live there already, all in tents. Others arrive, always by water. The initial occupants are torn between being welcoming to strangers and suspicious of them. Is that group building a drainage ditch or a defensive wall?

Some visitors are more chaotic, causing damage and being noisy.

It doesn't take long to see the field as a metaphor for England and the events a mirroring of English history, but this is just as much a mediation on how we get on with our neighbours.

Don't expect a plot as such, or for the end to be any sort of finish. But do enjoy one of the most original writers working in English today.