Monday, May 21, 2018

Wedding Sermons - a Pondering

Much has been said about Bishop Michael Curry's sermon at Saturday's wedding of those we now know as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. If you haven't heard it yet listen here. But I recommend reading the text here and then listening to the delivery second.

Afterwards there was an outbreak of corporate shock. One tweet summarises the response. Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) said this: 'Rev Michael Curry could almost make me a believer'. A man from a Jewish family background but currently operating as a person of no faith, acknowledges, OK tongue-in-cheek,  that passion gets your argument quite a long way.

I think we are at an interesting hinge-point in our nation's history. If you check the sermon text you will find nothing very surprising. There were no references that may not have been used by many other clergy preaching at weddings that day. I've used some of them myself.

What was surprising was the passion, the energy, the vehemence of the delivery style.

If occurs to me that people are fed up of cerebral leadership. They don't want to hear what is right, rigorously argued; they want to hear someone lead them with power, charisma and drive.

Now this can go two ways. A people crying out for dynamic, strong, passionate, emotional, charismatic leadership might get a Nelson and might get an Adolph. They sure got a Donald.

The day to day of small-scale and large-scale political life is detailed, complex and can be mind-numbingly dull. We need people who can do the dull and yet can also passionately envision.

Passion did Brexit. It is hard to argue for the status quo (however good it is) passionately. We need to watch out for where passion takes us next.

Dead Dirty - A Poem for Pentecost

And another poem I wrote a couple of years ago but have never used, published or performed:

Dead dirty

Before the water you are thirsty
You are thirsty
As you approach the baptist you are thirsty
Your thirst to be quenched if you drink

As a sign of trusting the saviour you trust the baptist
To give you safe water
And refresh you
If you don't you stay parched

Before the water you are dirty
You are dirty
As you approach the baptist you are dirty
You will only be clean if he washes you

As a sign of trusting the saviour you trust the baptist
To wash you
And make you clean
And if you don't you stay dirty

Underwater you are dead
You are dead
As the baptist holds you under the water you are dead
You will only live if he releases you.

As a sign of trusting the saviour you trust the baptist
To let you go
And release you back into the wild.
And if he doesn't you are dead

Thirsty, dirty and dead

The English Revolution

Wrote this last week. I was waiting in the car having arrived early for an appointment. A sample from the Disposable Heroes 'Television' came on BBC 6 Music and I mistakenly started humming 'The Revolution Will not be Televised'. In fact that is a Gil Scott-Heron tune. But somehow it got me thinking that in this day and age the revolution, indeed any revolution, probably will be televised and thus this:

The English Revolution 

The Revolution will be televised 
The Revolution will be live-streamed and podcast
The Revolution should be bookmarked - visit 
The Revolution will be reported 
The Revolution will be commented upon and analysed 
The Revolution in pictures will be on pages 3-17 
The Revolution will be written up and sold back to you in 24 weekly instalments
(buy issue 1 get issue 2 absolutely free)
The Revolution is now available in paperback but eventually
The Revolution will be discounted on Amazon

How was the Revolution for you? 
The Revolution will be seeking feedback
Could you hear?
Were you warm enough?
Did you spend any money on the T-shirt?
If we did another revolution would a different day of the week be more convenient?
Would you like a revolution in your area?
Please state preferred method of dictator overthrow or tyrant assassination
Can you think of other people in your locality who might enjoy a revolution?

The Revolution fails to understand that the English public do not require permission to give feedback:

Dear Sir,

I hope that no tax-payers money was spent on the Revolution. I will not condone this until my green bin is consistently emptied on the correct day

Dear Editor,

I was appalled and shocked to discover that the Revolution was delivered with so little publicity. I was unable to participate due to a long-planned visit from my in-laws. Please would you make sure that more notice is given for the next one.

Yours faithfully

The Revolution will be delivered by properly-trained individuals
The Revolution will be high vis and EU compliant
The Revolution will use up-to-date energy-saving technology and is now going on stand-by
The Revolution will be an equal opportunities malevolent force
The Revolution will be seeking membership from under-represented communities
The Revolution currently needs applicants for whom Revolution is a second-language
The Revolution will not use your data without your express consent

The Revolution will be harmonised and institutionalised
The Revolution will be cost effective
The Revolution will be using SMART goals

The Revolution will be fat free and low cal
Gluten free revolutions will also be available
Once opened the Revolution should be stored in a cool, dry place and used within three days
The Revolution must not be diluted under any circumstances
The Revolution may contain nuts

Monday, May 14, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered to BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

'What is this?' said people of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. 'He teaches with such authority.' No matter what you make of the authenticity of the Bible stories there can be no doubt that a picture is painted of Jesus the leader; able to persuade people to follow him. Some left everything to do so.

How do you know if you're a leader? There are many ways. It may say so on your office door. Or in your job description. You could wear the captain's armband.

My favourite answer to that question is - look around and see if anyone is following you.

I don't particularly enjoy leadership. But I hate a leadership vacuum even more. If I'm in a group of people trying to do a job and nobody is being in charge I will, pretty rapidly, become in charge. The sorts of people who become clergy are often comfortable being in charge of projects and meetings.

A group of my friends with whom I used to co-lead once admitted that they often deliberately mucked around to see how long it would be before I took charge.

A friend I co-lead with, and trust absolutely, is happy with our joint leadership statement to our team - whoever appears to be in charge, is.

So I chuckled at the story of the Portishead annual residents' meeting that ended after six minutes because the authority of the person in the chair was not recognised.

It's tough this leadership thing. Are you in charge of stuff? How's it working out? May I commend servant leadership as the Jesus method. It involves juggling being in front, alongside and behind clearing up at various times. Let me know how it goes.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Bible and History

What do vicars do for fun on their day off? Well I can't speak for the rest but I find baiting the conservative evangelical world a nice pastime. Good morning.

A few years ago I was commissioned by a leading evangelical Christian home mission agency (narrowed down enough?)  to write a long piece on the Bible and history. I wrote it. You can read it here.

If it is too long for you there is a shorter, punchier version here.

The piece was rejected. The line in the rejection letter which stuck with me was, as close as I can recall - We don't think most Christians get out of bed in the morning thinking about issues of historicity.  I responded not by saying they were wrong but that they were right and the article would show people why they should (get out of bed with historicity on their mind and with apologies to Rory Gallagher for whom the problem was bullfrogs).

It was unpublished but they still paid me as I had done what they asked. I imagine the guy who actually commissioned the piece is still in the dungeons. All evangelical home mission agencies have dungeons don't they? During my short career as a writer I can recall three occasions when I was well paid for pieces that were not used.

Why am I telling you this? So, if you heard Today on BBC Radio 4 this morning you will have heard an expert (yes, we still have them) talking about the mismatch between the archaeological evidence and the written tradition in the life of Kings David and Solomon (there is a gap in archaeology between roughly 1000BCE and 800BCE.

Challenged as to whether this presented problems for the readers of the Hebrew Bible he responded that it depended on your approach to biblical interpretation.

So  my intuition was correct. BBC Radio 4 Today is helping more people to get out of bed with historicity on their mind. As well they should. The Hebrew ancient literature is both a national document of self-criticism (Jonathan Sacks) and (if misinterpreted) a theology of land-grabbing (me).

So, with tentativity, here is my course for those wanting to allow the possibility that we can learn about God without having to swallow whales:

The Liberal Evangelical Lectures - The Omega Course

  • Why everything you thought you knew about Christianity is wrong.
  • It's more about what you do than what you believe. If you're not improving the world stop claiming to be a Christian. Creeds should be about making a difference now.
  • There is no dotted line to sign on. There is water not to get too far from.
  • Jesus probably had a real Dad. The New Testament speaks of the seed of David as much as born of a virgin.
  • You can make church what you want it to be as long as it is gathering.
  • Booklist: A new kind of Christian, Love wins, The Case for God, Unapologetic.
  • There never was a garden but anyway, snakes can't hear. The devil ain't all that real but sin is. For many people hell is now.
  • The more I study the Bible the more liberal I become.
  • You can sleep with whomsoever you want except...
  • If you want to know what God's like look at Jesus.
  • Jonah was a story; Job was a play, Noah was a mythos. Some Bible stories are more than true.

This is not a complete course specification.

Like it? How can we make it happen?

Don't like it? Your consolation prize is Rory Gallagher singing Bullfrog Blues live.

Friday, May 04, 2018


Sometime around 1990/91 Gareth Owen, a neighbour and young friend, was the first person ever to say to me 'May the Fourth be with you.' I remember it. It was hilarious.

After a while this became a good greeting and then after another while (say twenty years) people began to wish each other a happy Star Wars Day, having fun noting who didn't understand.

Today several people, without irony or attribution, have said 'May the Fourth be with you.' I think they have expected me to laugh. I honestly have no idea why.

They are closely related to the sorts of people, who wear comedy ties - I know a joke and I'm going to tell it all day (children's hospital surgeons are excluded from this group - they have other, more laudable, reasons).

The secret of good comedy is timing. A forty year old somebody-else's-joke is bad timing. Very bad. Stop it.

Friday, April 20, 2018


TYA 1971 Tour Front Cover
I very much enjoyed last night's gig by guitarist/singer/song-writer Keith Christmas at Nailsea's Ring of Bells pub. The slightly weird bit of the whole experience was this:

I went to a number of 'variety show' gigs with my parents in the 1960s and also saw some bands in the days when they were guests on pantomimes. I can tick off Herman's Hermits, The Bachelors. The Searchers, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Barron Knights and Gerry and the Pacemakers. But these were two or three song gigs with comedians as headline.

Exploring my own taste in music from about 1969/70 onwards I got over-interested in Ten Years After and in autumn 1971 they were my first solo gig, at Birmingham Town Hall. These days I do not buy concert programmes (I worked out they were a rip-off quite quickly), but to begin with I would buy a programme and place it, for safe-keeping, in the sleeve of the album being promoted on that tour. Another use of a vinyl album. So I still have it.

The 1971 line up
The opening act I saw at that first gig was a young solo artist of whom I had not heard. Yeah, Keith Christmas. He was able to command the stage, as I recall, and his acoustic guitar playing was a bit good (although some of you will know I am not a guitarist). A lot of the audience remained in the bar.

I spent a large part of last night pondering on where our journeys had taken us since then. Keith had played with Bowie, opened up for many major bands and recorded much fine music. He describes his career as coming to an end but also seems to have become a prolific song-writer later in life. Some of his new material was outstanding. He has also had two sons and now lives in Torquay. I guess that if, in 1971, you would have told him he would eventually wind down his career playing to 25 people in Nailsea he would have been a bit disappointed, although he genuinely seemed to love the appreciative audience (I knew most of them from the local music scene). Did I ever tell you I had turned down an invitation to play keys in a Wurzels tribute band? Fact.
The autograph

But not half as surprised as 16 year old me would have been to be told that he would end up here as a vicar. Our journeys have been different but it was great to say hello to part of my past.  He has signed my tour programme. Look what he wrote.

Guitarists might like to know that Keith uses a rare B tuning of his own making from time to time. Some of the guitarists in the room seemed to be weeping at the sheer variety of picking techniques Keith used. Lost on me but I pass it on.

I try to go to as many local music events as possible and get to know the people. I have even dared perform at the Folk Club from time to time. There aren't many opportunities for the vicar to walk into a room full of men outside church circles. I love it.

One guy (hi Rob) told me he always enjoyed hearing me on the radio and when I told him I had been on that morning he said he would go home and listen to it on iplayer. 'I'm that sad' he added, with a wink.

Keith Christmas April 2018 
From time to time I have an experience that screams at me. Look where I brought you from. Look where I put you. What you going to do about it?

Thanks Keith, for the memory jog, the great performance and the reminder of the journey.

Health warning. UKIP members probably wouldn't enjoy his politics. 'I'm a bit of a leftie even for a folk singer'.

He once had to break it to the members of Chicken Shack that Stan Webb had gone home from a tour of Germany during the night after a telephone row with his wife. He told the story as his encore.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Thought for the Day

Lovely to meet Winstone this morning at the BBC Radio Bristol studio. He came to the UK aged 18 months in 1966 but has had trouble 'proving' his right to be here. He shared his story to encourage others, who may be in a similar position, to speak up and help the authorities understand the scale of the problem. It linked nicely into what I wanted to say:

What's your name and where d'you come from?

I find a great feeling of sadness in me that the Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants should be put through hardship after many years making this their home. Somewhere along the way this country seems to have embraced a jobsworth approach to compassion. Not good enough.

I have an old book I was given many years ago. In it I have written:

James Stephen Tilley, 107 Oakfield Road, Selly Park, Birmingham 29, England, British isles, Europe, Northern Hemisphere, The World, Near the Moon, The Universe, Space, Near more space.

Forgive my inadequate childish astronomy but I also note a quote afterwards from the late Anthony Buckeridge:

If this book should chance to roam
Box its ears and send it home

But the answer to the question of home and origin can be complex. As long as my book is on the earth it is somehow home. Since this land was unpopulated in the last Ice Age all our families have moved here. Some even walked.

So I love the thought my Christian heritage gives me, from one of Paul's New Testament letters, that wherever I find myself, and whatever happens to me, my citizenship is in heaven. It is about my destination not my departure.

It was the answer Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave to questioners when he discovered that the man he thought was his father was not. 'I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes... ' he said.

Cilla Black's Blind Date question 'What's your name and where d'you come from?' occupied our Saturday nights for many years. Turns out; the answer can be quite complicated.

Who are you?

Friday, April 13, 2018

It's the Little Things

Over the years of ministerial set-backs I have never been bothered by apparent discouragements in the big things. Big things are hard to do. They should be. People will have objections, clarifications or improvements. And that is all fine. In fact it is better than fine; it is the way things should be. It should be hard to re-order an old building, plant a new church or run a massive community festival. I wouldn't take any satisfaction in having been part of those three things in the last few years if they had been easy.

But some things are easy. And if it gets hard to do easy things then life can be grim.

A tale.

Over the years of my Christian service I have developed some aptitude in folding up and stacking tables. I am familiar with most mechanisms and even vaguely enjoy encountering a new one. The type of table you find in many church halls is pictured left. Buy them from Gopak if you need some more.

Now I well remember the day when I was struggling to rotate a particularly tough hinge; an old guy took me on one side and asked me if I wanted to know a secret. It was the twinkle in his eye that got me.

He proceeded to do a 'watch and learn son' on me. He stood the table up on its end and placed one foot on the bar I was trying to move, pressing down to disengage it. He then angled the table slightly towards him. When he returned the table to the vertical the legs had begun to fold. He closed them, turned the table through 180⁰ and repeated the process. Job done.

Ever since then I have used this method and have enjoyed liberating others by showing it to them when they were struggling. Everyone has seemingly been as pleased as me when hearing of such labour-saving. Until this week.

I showed someone and got the reply 'That doesn't work for me.' No further discussion was encouraged. I was sad because it either showed a particularly stubborn streak or an unwillingness to learn. I really wanted to know why. Had it been tried and found wanting? Was there some flaw in my scheme about which I was ignorant? (Training cuts both ways.) I sought clarification with a smile but none was forthcoming.

I let it go. No point in forcing the matter. But behind my back I heard another person say to the person who had just refused my advice - 'You should have just said 'Yes' and ignored him.' Was I mansplaining? I am a man and on this occasion it was a woman I was trying to help. Maybe it wasn't what I said but the way I said it. That's happened before.

It is a new level of parish audit for me. I have always used this one:

It will take you ten times as long to improve a church as it does to improve the coffee

My level two statement is now:

Before you train a congregation in evangelism try training them in table-stacking

Usual fee?

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Engaging Online

Bit of an essay this morning so grab a coffee.

Some people shy away from conflict; others embrace it. Some, having embraced it, throw themselves in all guns blazing and quickly escalate the emotional level to potential violence. So in a queue for chips after pub closing time you will normally find me being polite and showing deference, verging on getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

There is rarely a right time to talk to people who tend to escalate the emotional level quickly. It helps to be out of the crowd, sober, sitting down and showing hospitality. Or being vulnerable enough to go into their space (the home visit).

I quite enjoy talking people down and have had some success at it over the years. I commend eight years in a customer service environment as better pre-ordination training than a counselling course (although you may find counselling courses a help if you wish to become a counsellor). My time as an insurance claims handler was invaluable. Our job was to help people who had had a bad experience.

I didn't realise how ingrained this was until my time at the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) when an angry woman demanded to speak to someone's manager and I was the nearest thing we had to that at the time. We were in an open plan office and so my colleagues heard me talk to the woman for some minutes, bring her down, rein her in and sell her some useful books. I got a round of applause.

Sorry about the long, smug introduction, but you need to know those things. You see on social media - which I continue to assert is simply hanging out where people hang out - some of the signs and opportunities are missing. All sorts of people can leap into the middle of a conversation and hijack it. I think we are still working out the cues and prompts of the etiquette and from time to time it gets tricky. I think this is why some people choose not to get involved. You can't tell who is drunk, who is already angry for some other reason and who likes winding people up. But is that a reason to treat it like the post-pub fast-food joint?

I had a difficult time last week and I share it to hear any words of wisdom. This is what happened.

Out there in social media land are some human-generated posters that are deliberately controversial and rely on people, or bots, sharing them. I have a few Facebook friends who tend to share these. Some know what they are doing and others don't. There is, incidentally, a subtle difference between a friend and a Facebook friend. Without going into details now, we need to be aware of that.

So a Facebook friend, a white male, older than me who lives locally, shared a post from 2012 from the Facebook page of Enoch Powell saying 'One day the people of this nation will wake up.'

I commented 'Nailsea getting a bit too multi-cultural for you...?' (Nailsea is about 96% white), tongue-in-cheek but I knew what I was doing.

The response was 'Not Nailsea yet Steve but was in Birmingham last week. Just saying......'

This annoyed me and is as close to racism as you can get whilst still being able to deny it if asked. As Birmingham is close to my heart I replied - keeping it cool:

'What's up with Brum? That's my home. Lovely place.'

The friend 'liked' that and said nothing more. An unknown stranger jumped in with:

'The man was brilliant and ahead of his time.  Sadly we are way behind and paying the price!!!'

My friend 'liked' this too.

The correspondence closed at this point. I didn't rise any further as I didn't know the new commenter.

The next day the same Facebook friend shared another post, this time from the Refugees NOT welcome Facebook page. This organisation describes itself as a charity and is inconsistent about whether or not the word refugees needs an apostrophe in its title. Just saying...

'Two poisoned Russians, and the UK declares war on Russia. 500 murdered Europeans by Islam and UK embraces Islam.'

Now Christians Together in Nailsea are making a big effort to welcome and house refugees at the moment. Our town is friendly, hospitable and generous. We have welcomed one family to the area and are hoping to take up to ten more. I doubt that will change the 96%.

So, ignoring the factual inaccuracies that:

We haven't declared war on Russia
500 Europeans were not murdered by Islam
We have not 'embraced' Islam

I commented:

'This makes me so sad. I can't believe it is your genuinely held view.'

This happened:

SG (a stranger) said 'Just cus you're friends on fb...don't try guilt tripping probably one of the most honest and honourable blokes you are ever likely to meet....shame on you.'

I replied 'Sorry you feel like that SG. I just think that people can be honestly and genuinely misguided. I am sad but not ashamed.'

SG's reply:

'You may want to consider the possibility that it is actually YOU who is misguided ?? Nope...didn't think so.'

The original poster was kind enough to ask SG to step back from making things personal. He also said:

'Problem is Steve deciding which are genuine refugees and which are not. I have no problem in welcoming those who are genuinely in need but how to filter out the terrorists/health service tourists/spongers. Sorry but I feel, your (sic) welcome here but don't try to force your beliefs on us. Our country our rules.'

It got a bit silly after this as I suggested that the person was thinking of a different country and that my country's Christian heritage made it a place of welcome and hospitality to the alien and the stranger.

The sort of comments that followed were incredibly patronising and I responded to them all with politeness and a suggestion that we talk further over a drink.

But it is hard to hear 'Have you considered you might be wrong; no, thought not' or 'It's been on the news' without being goaded.'

My 'favourite' was when I suggested that one commentator and I might have different understandings of racism and I would be interested to hear her definition. The reply, edited, was:

How dare you question my understanding of racism. You know nothing of my background. I'm not staying here to be insulted.

Me and the original poster are still friends and I will accept the offer of a drink and a chat at some point.

But it has not ended well, I have made no new friends, been unable to convince people that I am genuinely interested in what they have to say and my attempts to lower the emotional energy and be calm have led to silence not helpful discussion.

I also note that the Facebook comment string is very hard to follow chronologically. I had to use my own activity log to piece it back together accurately.

My advice to future me:

  • When 'arguing' with people you don't know online use really simple language or they may not follow the line of reasoning. My convoluted style is not helpful in these circumstances.
  • Don't be goaded. If someone jumps to insult, don't go there. Bring it back down and apologise that it may be your own fault that you have not been clear.
  • Walk away if this doesn't work.
  • Look out for gnat-straining and camel-swallowing. I read 'Islam is not a race so it's  not racism - QED'. Let the writer's own stupidity condemn them without saying any more.
  • Don't let these people leave you with a dodgy opinion of thick-set, vest-wearing white males with chains round their necks, Or bottle-blond, white fifty something women with a smoker's complexion. That is to fall into the same trap as them.

Any other tips and hints? I'm helping run some training on social media use for church leaders next week. I felt that transparency demanded this be chronicled first.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered this morning at BBC Radio Bristol:

I'm tired. You tired? Hands up who's tired?

I got a scratch on my car. My gym socks got into a red wash and are now a fetching pink. My job has got bigger while my time to do it stays the same.

Thanks for being there; it's good to have a moan, moan, moan.

In the Christian calendar it is Wednesday in Holy Week. Some people call it Holy Wednesday. It doesn't have a great press compared to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday which many would recognise as days with special meaning.

But those who have given things up for Lent can see the finish line now. Four more days.

'It's a busy time for you,' says almost everyone I meet on the streets this time of year. I swear they think that after Easter I'll sit in front of the tele waiting for Christmas. If only.

Do I sound grumpy? Sorry. Moan, moan, moan.

Thing is that sometimes the annual cycle of celebrations doesn't quite fit with our own mood. I seem to be joined by the news stories - grumpy landlords, lame horses and even people voting against a businesses improvement district. What's the matter with everybody?

I wish I could search down the back of the sofa for a bit of positivity. But then I remember that the Christian story is unashamedly positive about the negative. A man willingly going to his death for others (like that brave gendarme this week). It is an inspiring story.

Jesus died willingly as an example and a gift to you and me of leadership and obedience. If the worst I have to do is wear pink socks to the gym I think I may have got off lightly.

I feel better now. Thank you for being there.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Sorry but I don't do that

As a bit of a follow on from my previous post on work-life balance I want to explore what it is you don't do.

'On Holy Tuesday the Diocese gathers to worship together and to bless the Oils which will be used for baptisms, the anointing of the sick, for confirmations and ordinations in the coming year.'

But to begin at the beginning...

In Holy Week 1985, my first as a curate, I had a crisis of confidence. I know, I know. My entire readership experiences corporate shock. It hasn't happened since.

I found myself doing such a lot of things I didn't want to do that I had no time to do the things I did. Specifically I was taking communion to so many old ladies that I did not get to give the youth group's Holy Week sufficient planning time.  I wondered if I had made a big mistake and would have been a more effective youth pastor (what I felt called to do at that time) if I had not been ordained.

On Good Friday I sat in church in the silences between three addresses I was giving in an hour and said, 'OK Lord. You can have another year.' Ever since then this has become a habit. I am a minister for life but I serve in one year chunks.

Today the clergy of Bath and Wells Diocese gather at Wells Cathedral for a Chrism Service. In addition to the blessing of the oils used in ministry it is deemed a time to encourage busy clergy to take some time for their own devotions in this special week. I won't be there. Here is a list of reasons:

1. My decision to serve for one more year is done in peace and private. I do not make good decisions about my personal life through group think.

2. I do not use oil in ministry very much and, when I do, I do not feel it makes it any more effective if it has been episcopally blessed. I value my bishops' functionality more than their ontology.

(By the way, since many cancer sufferers come to faith as they realise their life is ending, is this the oncological argument for the existence of God? That may be the most niche theological joke ever.)

3. I do not like or enjoy cathedral style worship. The sort of musical worship I enjoy would not gather a crowd, leaving me with the problem of corporate worship either being a crowd of people doing things I dislike or a crowd of people hating what we are doing and wanting it to stop. (Even my imaginary friends gang up on me.) My ordination kick-started this as everyone except me spoke of how powerful it had been to wear a dog collar for the first time and walk down the aisle singing 'The Church's One Foundation.' I didn't voice my opinion which was to do with a guitar, four chords and the truth - my ordination scored 1 out of 3. Also, I have inflated the number of chords country and western songs require by a third.

4. I am refreshed by silence, space and isolation. That which has been designed to encourage and equip me would have the exact opposite effect and I would need time to recover.

Now don't get me wrong. I understand the line about the corporate church that we should not deprive others of our gifts and presence. I think I have been to enough voluntary occasions to have earned my exeat.

Maybe one year I will go. I don't know. But just at the moment, where every direction I look in my life (work and personal) I see things that need fixing, I do not wish to make anything harder.

Enjoy the service fellow clergy. I'll put a link to this on Twitter but the wifi in the cathedral is disappointing so you may have to read it afterwards.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

It Must Be Possible

I remember a conversation in about 1984/5 as I finished my training for ministry. He probably doesn't recall but it was with Graham Archer (now on the staff of CPAS). The gist of it was an observation that almost all the clergy we had shadowed during our training worked hard enough to make themselves unwell, had little down time, failed to keep up with reading and often sacrificed their day off to complete tasks.

We both became people who enjoyed the clergy life and have never discussed it since, but I have lived with the thought in my mind ever since that not being exhausted is better than being exhausted and have tried to work slowly and steadily with regular breaks.

Don't get me wrong. I have some long and busy days. But if the previous working day ends, as it sometimes does, at 10.00 p.m. I don't beat myself up by having an early start the next day.

I take a decent lunch break if working at home and read or catch up on TV. If there are no evening appointments I stop work at 6.30 p.m. I don't accept more than three evening bookings Monday to Thursday.

So having had a bit of bonus responsibility thrust my way recently which, if you add it up, is an extra ten days work a year, I have resigned from two diocesan committees that require at least seven, to begin to compensate.

'Were those things you enjoyed doing?' asked a member of our Church Council at a meeting last night.

Well yes they were. But I imagine I will grow into enjoying being Acting Rural Dean for as long as that lasts.

It must be possible to work modestly and effectively. It is better to work a gentle year and have no time off sick if the alternative is to cram your work into your remaining healthy days when you are not signed off with stress (I accept that overwork is not the only cause of stress and I have little daily  travel stress).

And it is why, in a busy week with lots of things to do, I am having a quiet day to read and think because that is what helps me be a better leader. And why writing this reflection is both cathartic for me and possibly helpful to others and thus a good use of my time.

I'll keep you up to date as to how I get on. Thursday this week looks particularly stupid as a number of things I do all conspire to be on the same day.

It isn't easy. But it must be possible.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

I spent an hour in a coffee shop talking to a determined young man yesterday. So much passion for making the world better. So little idea where to start.

In the song Sensual Thing by the band The Four of Us, they say:

I wanna burst outside this canned reality
I wanna turn it around and see it like the way it's meant to be

I love that lyric. It has overtones of St Paul's famous lines:

Now we see through a glass darkly
Then we will see face to face

St Paul himself was using one of Plato's allegories when he wrote. Plato imagined prisoners chained together in a cave, aware of a light behind them but unable to turn round.

All three authors' lines have the idea of searching and longing. If only we stood in the right place, read the right books, met the right people, we would find the world made complete sense.

But we can't. We're facing in the wrong direction and can't turn round. One day we will find out if there is a God (if there is one). If there isn't we will never find out.

So meantime all that is left to us is to try and make sense of the world the way we're facing. Make ourselves a bit fitter. Stretch ourselves for Sport Relief. March for victims of a fire.

I hope my coffee-shop companion gets to channel his anger. The world will be better if he does.

Whether you make sense of the world using one of the great stories of faith or simply sitting in a darkened room, all we got is canned reality and we can't burst outside it, only make a difference within it.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered on BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast Show just now:

The God I worship and follow is of infinite variety and the creation I am part of reflects that.

How does a Thought for the Day script come to pass? You may have wondered.

Weeks in advance those of us who contribute to this slot get to agree a few dates.

Then, the day before we are to speak, the producer contacts us with a list of stories that will be covered on the show. We are invited to either link our thought to one of the stories, or to talk about something, from the perspective of our faith, that connects the stories.

Over the last five years I have spoken about the economy, education and Englishness; tower cranes and whale vomit.

So I submit a script, the producer checks that what I say won't get myself or the BBC into trouble, and away we go.

Why tell you this dear listener? Because the random selection of stories I received yesterday was the most varied I have come across:

Meals on wheels problems, a new school, a faithful lifeboat volunteer, stolen paving slabs, prosthetic limbs and all this on International Women's Day.

The capacity to use our individuality for good or evil is represented in the stories.

Psalm 104 tells of the many works of God and concludes that us mere mortals can mimic that creativity in worship and praise, with deed as well as word, or can destroy the very world with bad deeds and harmful words.

I don't know if you have spent your days nicking paving slabs or making the world a better place. All I know is that the God I worship and follow is of infinite variety and the creation I am part of reflects that.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018


A voice said 'Read' and I said 'What shall I read? There are too many books and I shall not have time to read them all.'

I am sitting in what is now known as my sabbatical chair. For many weeks last autumn I had the rare privilege of being able to read widely, well and without pressure.

Today is a long-diaried reading day, something I try to do monthly but about eight a year actually happen. It is the first since I returned to duties before Christmas. After the joy of reading without deadline today feels too short. It has taken me three hours to get to a point where the past is sufficiently reviewed and the future sufficiently planned for me to relax. Then I had to pick the books to get into. Done now.

I only chose to write this because one of the skills of a role where the job description is a bottomless pit (clergy always have something they could be doing) is to unashamedly take down-time whenever it comes along. Those clergy who can actually work from 7.00 a.m. to midnight six days a week without something giving are very unusual. I have avoided that ever since my second post in Chester-le-Street when my things-to-do list got so big I couldn't read all the tasks in one sitting.

So despite a lot to do tomorrow, which could be started today, I am going to read for a few hours now without guilt. It will give me a better ability to do more in less time in future. For I will know things I won't have to look up; I will have access to quotes and examples for talks which will save preparation time and, perhaps most importantly, I will feel better.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Last Week

I have such a collection of random thoughts knocking about in my head after last week that this will be a bit more like a journal entry.

One of the reasons it is said that the English are such a creative bunch is that we need to respond to a huge range of climatic conditions. When we get several centimetres of snow we are often mocked because the infrastructure can't cope but if the last snow and extreme cold was six years ago not many people can remember where they put their snow-clearing equipment. I think we do pretty well. Obviously the person who thought long boiler condenser pipes to the outside world were a good idea will eventually be dealt with harshly, but it's not too big a demand on your life to pour a kettle of hot water over a cold pipe every couple of hours for a day or so.

I spent a bit of extra time path-clearing and preparing some musical worship because my worship leader was trapped in Portugal. But I had two meetings postponed. Swings and roundabouts.

Chatting to someone in church yesterday about the fact that I had become the musician he invented a concept of 'emergency gifting'. I like that. I don't often play keys and lead musical worship at Trendlewood Church because others can do that. Likewise members of the church who teach often choose not to do that on a Sunday as well (but will in an emergency). Some of our IT experts tend not to become our laptop/projector operators (but will step in). What is your emergency gift?

I advise all clergy not to have emergency gifts of knowing how the heating system works or running the tech desk. Have some areas of ministry where you deliberately choose to be ignorant and cannot possibly help.
Houseparty talk scheme

We are preaching a series through Lent on sin and forgiveness. Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak about the sin at the heart of King David's reign - his adultery with Bathsheba and the arranged murder of her husband. The sermon lent (excuse me) itself to the pattern of a houseparty talk from way back:

  • Sin spoils
  • Sin spreads
  • Sin separates

I asked for a show of hands as to how many people had heard this talk before. Out of 50 adults the score was 4 (including me). It prompted me to deliver the talk with a feeling of freshness because it was new to the congregation. In a post-service review conversation a number of us noted that the pattern of CYFA (Church Youth Fellowships' Association) houseparty talks might be due a revisit in our church.

One of the things I find valuable in keeping my sanity is to have tickets for something coming up. The tragedy of cultural imprecision means that there can be barren months when I don't want to do anything and then several gigs at once.

And so it came to pass that on Saturday night we enjoyed an excellent Tobacco Factory Macbeth. A sombre ambient-industrial soundtrack and strobe lighting during the ghostly scenes added to the atmosphere. The floor of the performance area was covered in pieces of chopped up black rubber (car tyres?) to a depth of about a foot. The cast used this to bury and discover props. Brilliant, brooding and bloody.

Juxtaposed with Reginald D Hunter the next day made for an interesting weekend. Those who speak in public seeking advanced delivery tips should go to as much stand-up as they can. I joked on the journey that the mileage should really be paid for by the diocesan training budget. I still think so. Reg's use of pause was awesome. It is a terrible risk to use pause if you are a stand-up in the environment of possible heckle. He must have had so much confidence in his ability to deal with such, although none happened. We enjoyed the pauses and waited for the punch-lines. I love the Everyman at Cheltenham but it was designed in the days when people were shorter. My limbs will unfold by tomorrow lunchtime I'm sure. Honourable mention to Wild Beer at Jessop House for services to pre-theatre food and drink.

Gigs coming up include Field Music and Calexico and then a debate evening at the Bath Festival.

Tonight I take my role of Assistant Rural Dean and Acting Dean to Portishead enhanced Deanery Synod with the Bishop of Bath and Wells. That makes the last three nights Tragedy, Comedy and Deanery. Good afternoon.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Gettin Jiggy Wid It

Staring at a large image of two black labrador pups playing in a garden, after forty years of marriage we broached the subject. Are we compatible? It may seem to you to be a long time to wait before deciding but some things are best not rushed. So we had a conversation. Tentative at first but then more passionate, about the right way to do it. And do you know, we agreed. So we did it. And enjoyed it.

First we sorted the straight edges from the rest of the pieces. Then we identified the four corner pieces and assembled the framework.

Then we carried out a thorough sort, identifying some obvious colour groupings. The black pieces were mainly dog. The grey ones paving slabs. The brown bits crate or barrel (hard to tell apart).

As the crates and paving became more complete we sorted more thoroughly learning to tell brown crate from brown slab. and although there were some subtle differences in our technique - I was the more patient and fastidious sorter; she the more emotional commentator on how difficult the whole task was - we worked together on a task, chatting, drinking from tea into wine and listening to music.

Instead of spending our holiday evenings sitting at opposite ends of a sofa reading; or sitting gazing lovingly at iPads, or watching one too many episodes of a box set before retiring, we did a 1000 piece jigsaw. I say 'did'. We had to give up at about 800 because we ran out of holiday and by then it was obvious that we had at least ten bits missing. Although we did identify four pieces that belonged in one of the other jigsaws - a puzzle two previous solvers had noted on the box had five pieces missing. Make that one.

But even the decision to put an unfinished jigsaw puzzle back in the box was taken agreeably.

So now we have a new leisure activity. We have bought ourselves a couple of puzzles and visitors to Vynes Mansions are welcome to join in.

And if you fancy a swap some time. Well we'd be up for that. And with the door into double entendre room firmly ajar I bid you good afternoon.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


I have written before about the difference between bread with presevatives in and a more natural product. Find my piece about Gozitan bread here. It's only short.

Recently I have noticed that we are not eating so much bread in the house again and our home-made stuff tends to deteriorate before we have finished a loaf. We solve this by making a new loaf and freezing half of it each time.

But another first world problem has appeared. We are the destination of choice when Lakeland bread-making packs approach their best-before date. And as the yeast has a few problems of ageing the packs often require a double knead and prove. Even this is not quite enough and some very solid products have appeared recently. Toasting a slice can take longer than a normal adult male has in the morning. So imagine the trouble I have. We play scissors, paper, bread in my gaff now.

I feel I need to crawl back to the lovely Colin at Nailsea's Tuesday Market and buy some of his soudough and rye creations. He calls them campaouille or something like that. Pronounced in broad Somerset the French would have no idea it is their language he is mangling.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol just now:

When Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday coincide, Easter Day is on All Fools Day. I said that recently and a helpful parishioner with too much time on his hands corrected me. Unless it's a leap year. Then April First becomes a Monday. It will happen in 2024, apparently.

This is the sort of thing that my sons label with the hashtag #vicarfact - stuff that clergy think important but nobody else does.

Tonight I will be at Christ Church, Nailsea in a symbolic act of Christian worship. We will make marks on our foreheads with ash to remind us of mortality. Then we will share bread and wine to remind us of eternity.

I was seeking a great title for the sermon at this communion event to embrace the lovey-dovey valentines and the reality of Lent:

Bread and ash? Too much like a recipe.

'Til death do us part? That's one of my wedding sermons.

Eventually I chose:

The best lovers say sorry

It's true. The beginning of Lent, often a time when people give things up, is more a time of reflection and repentance. If you are in a long-term relationship which has survived the years, it is likely that both of you will have learned to say sorry. If you are in the first stages of a relationship, introduce the word sorry at an early stage. You're going to need it.

Final thought. The team at Bristol Cathedral tweeted a reminder that Ash Wednesday is more important than St Valentine so the commemoration of that day, in the church, is held over until tomorrow. If you are late with your card it is OK - this year. And that's a hashtag #vicarfact

Monday, February 12, 2018

Liberal Evangelism

I've just come back from a very enjoyable conversation organised by our Diocesan Mission Adviser on the subject of Liberal Evangelism. There were thirteen of us in the room from the four corners of the Diocese. I am hugely grateful to work in a diocese that welcomes and enables this kind of conversation.

We all enjoyed being able to contribute freely and therefore to some extent confidentially. Not all of us who have liberal tendencies in evangelical churches are 'out' yet.

But to give you a flavour of the discussion, we grappled with things such as:

Young people have more of a sense of shame than a sense of sin. Can you do evangelism without making sin the start of the story?

Jesus taking bread, breaking it and saying 'This is me' is the ultimate deconstruction. How much do we think Jesus wanted a neatly packaged ideology to be his legacy?

If we want to grow in numbers we have to use language that is useful to people. Everyone should be welcome to come in and then to tell us what life is like in their experience.

I felt very much at home with this bunch of explorers.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Review of the Year

2017 was a weird year and it has taken me a month to work out how I want to summarise it. It was a year in which I carried a deep and underlying feeling of melancholy. Firstly sadness that the strongest nation on earth should step back from leading, pioneering and guiding and unashamedly put itself first as a slogan. Secondly sadness that our own nation continues to step back from co-operation, sharing and stepping forward together with other nations in favour of the more aggressive, and surely eventually doomed, policy of taking back control. It was a bad year.

To make a mess of a metaphor, in the shadow of this are my highlights:

I was very grateful to Stuart Maconie for a throwaway comment on BBC 6 Music last month - 'New music' he said ' music you haven't heard before.' He said this in response to a reader thanking him for introducing him to The Lemonheads.

With that in mind I note my Spotify algorithm introduced me to a lot of new music last year but not much of it from 2017 albums. But I pick out the following bands or artists I enjoyed for the first time:

Ultimate Painting
The Vryll Society
Wolf People
Beyond the Wizard's Sleeve
Mark Pritchard
Death Hawks
In a year in which I had three months sabbatical leave a lot of reading was catching up. Lee Child and Chris Brookmyre kept me page-turning when that was necessary. As did Robert Harris' Conclave. Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography educated me, James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life moved me, John Lanchester's Capital impressed me, Paul Beatty's The Sellout made me think, Stanley Donwood's Slowly Downward worried me, as did John Sopel's If Only They Didn't Speak English but for different reasons. I finally read Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang and it is one of the finest books I have ever read.

Podcasts were a new thing for 2017. I started with the wonderful S-Town and moved on through Serial 1 and 2. This led me to subscribe to the excellent This American Life. I now regularly listen to The Political Party and Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast. I dip into Rob Bell's The Robcast but find it annoying that he crams 20 minute's material into an hour. My heroes really shouldn't do this.

Honourable mentions to 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, The Infinite Monkey Cage, Crowd Science and More or Less, all of which were catch-ups rather than Podcasts.

Spent less time at the movies than I would have liked to (Ghost in the Shell good fun) but enjoyed DVD Scandi-noir a lot - Follow the Money, The Bridge, The Killing I, II and III. Line of Duty was also excellent.

Any year that we see Stewart Lee perform live he is going to be the best comedy gig and he was. David Sedaris reading his stuff was a good evening out. Music gigs were thin but Laura Marling supported by the excellent Ethan Johns was good. I enjoyed Ghostpoet but not The Marble Factory setting in Bristol.

Sad to see the end of The Barn pub at Wraxall. Coates House, Nailsea now gets our custom. Bordeau Quay in Bristol bit the dust (it had been going down for a while) but the Pony and Trap at Chew Magna goes from strength to strength as does WB at Wapping Wharf.

Grayson Perry's The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! at the Arnolfini was insightful, moving and strived to explain the two parts of divided Britain to each other.

Here's to more and better culture in 2018.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Thought for the Day

As presented at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Delighted that Cameron Balloons in Bristol have been chosen to make a special balloon for Blue Peter's 60th Anniversary. I have a Blue Peter badge which I won for being a runner up in a Christmas competition - a few years ago.

I'm wearing it today alongside another symbol.

Actually I may be wearing my sister's badge. We found it when clearing Mum's flat and it could belong to either of us. She let me keep it.

It is a sign of being part of a club. A precious club which now has three generations of followers and fans.

It's a few years since I was at vicar school. It was a great experience but things could all get a bit serious. Friend of mine had a great antidote to people getting over-earnest. He'd turn up next day wearing his Dennis the Menace fan club T-shirt and badge. The St John's College Common Room subscribed to the quality daily newspapers, the Church press and the Beano.

Badges are important. The earliest Christian symbol was a fish - because the Greek word for fish - ichthus -also spells out the initials of Iesu Christos Theos 'Uios Soterios -Jesus Christ God Son Saviour.

Some Christians still wear fish symbols or have them on their cars. I suppose it makes sure your driving is a good witness.

But many Christians also wear a cross - it reminds us of Jesus; specifically his death. That's the other one I have on today.

What badges do you wear? And what is the deeper truth behind them? For a badge is a sign or symbol of belonging. Belonging to the club of Jesus followers is my most important badge. Blue Peter means a lot to me; the cross means everything.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning. Joe is the presenter who does the travel news, early newspaper review and also accompanies guests from reception to the studio. He usually offers me a coffee:

How's your tea this morning? Half empty? Half full? Or just time for Joe to get another round in. Trolley services to the static radio presenter population of central Bristol.

Sometimes I read my Bible and find a pessimist in there:

St Paul looks forward to creation being liberated from its bondage to decay.

Then I open it again and find an optimist:

Neither the present, nor the future will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Different writer? No. St Paul again, a few verses later.

So? Is the world getting better or worse? What would you say?

On the one hand we hear this morning that when we drop our mobile phones they will have the ability to fix themselves, up to a point.

On the other hand we still haven't made our region a place without rough sleepers. There's that bondage to decay again.

But then we can be fixed in hospital from many illnesses and diseases which would have killed us 100 years ago - and we're all living longer.

Although we've not made enough progress in providing accommodation for those who get older and need care.

We live in the now and not yet era. In what I will call 'the Christian world' that is the age when we note that God has acted decisively in Jesus Christ, but we wait, longing for a greater fulfilment of all things.

And in the real world in which Christians live? Well more things are getting better than are getting worse, but sometimes it doesn't feel like that.

Have an expectant, hopeful and optimistic day everybody. Things are getting better and one day will be best.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Rural Deans' Shoes (clockwise)

Gray lace up

Brown suede cowboy style boot

Black lace up

Brown lace up

Black lace up

Brown lace up

Black knee length boot

Black lace up

One black slip on and a plaster cast

Lime green Converse

Black mule

Black slip on

Brown slip on

Black suede slip on

Brown lace up

Red ankle high Converse

Black ankle boot

Pink, metallic ankle high Converse

Brown lace up

Black ankle boot

Brown lace up

Brown slip on

Black slip on

Grey slip on

Black sandal

Brown ankle boot

Black lace up

Monday, January 15, 2018

RIP Cyrille

Many words have been written today about the sad, early death of footballer Cyrille Regis. I won't add much. My memory of seeing him play is of a man who saw football as a simple game. Push the ball past your opponent and then run faster than him. If he caught up with you don't fall over; make him do so.

He was one of the few players to command the respect of four local-rival Midlands teams - Wolves, West Brom, Coventry and Villa. Although I think us Baggies got the best years of his career.

My one anecdote that others may not know is this. About fifteen years ago Cyrille played in a charity match between a Coventry All-Stars team and Leamington FC. Our diminutive, but nippy full-back, nutmegged Cyrille and ran off down the wing.

Returning to his position Cyrille wandered over to little Johnny Burgess and said, 'You only get to do that once son, alright?'

For a polite and gentle giant it was said in the single most menacing way I have ever heard something that wasn't an actual threat issued at a game. Johnny did not do it again. I have no idea what would have happened if he had. It reminded me a little of a parent saying 'I'm going to count to three...' You never let them get there.

RIP Big Cyrille. Thanks for the memories.

Out of the Mouths...

They say that when you are least equipped to do things yourself is when God can use you. I'm not sure I'd work that up into a thesis for lack of preparation. But yesterday, after losing my entire planning day on Saturday for family medical reasons (friends will find the answer on Facebook), we had one of the best Andy's services ever.

Andy's is a monthly congregation plant; a co-operation between Trendlewood Church and St Andrew's, Backwell. It is aimed at families, at people with no faith, some flickering faith or lapsed faith.

Yesterday we were launching a new style using Scripture Union's Explore Together material. We had the highest attendance since we launched in 2014. There were 50 adults and 27 children. This is a fabulous ratio and many churches would be envious.

Andy's is always slightly chaotic and that is what gives it character. We went through an hour of worship, prayer, learning in groups and feedback. We launched the Alpha Course starting on 25th January. We used four of the suggested groups:

  • Listen (in which I preached - surprisingly popular)
  • Chat (a discussion group)
  • Quiet (wander and ponder)
  • Busy (in which we respond to the passage with drawing, modelling and building, chatting the while)

It felt extraordinarily warm.

We had a lovely moment at the end. After the notices I asked if anyone had anything else important to say.

Now, over Christmas, Andy's people made a nativity scene which was placed in a disused phone box. It got a little media attention. The children made sheep using the materials with which teachers will be familiar. They were squashed together in a box now. I had invited anyone who had made anything they wanted to keep to go and get it after the service.

So one of our younger members said this:

'I made a sheep before Christmas and I want it back but I don't know which one it is.'

'What a a brilliant question' I said, stalling for thinking time.

Eventually we decided that anyone who could identify a sheep they wanted should get it within ten minutes of the end of the service after which my enquirer could choose her favourite one to take home. Everyone was happy with this. They didn't teach the wisdom of Solomon at vicar school; this stuff takes thirty years of ministry.

 We re-united a baby Jesus with its donor family, which felt right and proper.

If you live in the Backwell area and fancy joining in with this slightly unusual way of doing church, we meet at the school Sixth Form Centre on the second Sunday of the month. Why drive ten miles to go to church when there is one down the road?

Go on-line to sign up for Alpha.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Wives Submit to Your Husbands

I have been asked to make the text of my sermon from last Sunday on Ephesians 5:22-33 more widely available for discussion. Here is the text, slightly adapted for the wider audience and with some of the more stupid stuff edited. You can listen to the delivered version online if you want warts and all. Be gentle with me brothers and sisters:

It's been good to sit at home and wonder what people have been preaching on Ephesians while I was on sabbatical leave last year.

I think my summary of what I have heard from those of you who have listened to sermons in the series so far is that they have been challenging - challenging about belonging to the church and challenging about relationships.

So, not because you haven't been listening, but to show you that I have. And because we've had Christmas and New Year since the last in the series, let me summarise:

In Ephesians 1 we read of God's will for humanity. It is God's will to save us and he has acted in history to do this. The prayer for the Ephesian church is that, having been saved, they may grow to maturity.

Chapter 2 explains that there is nothing we can do to earn our own salvation. God's grace and Jesus' death on the cross bridges the gap between humans and God. There are no longer barriers. The church is for everyone. It goes on to say, in Chapter 3, that no-one is excluded from the church and we need to understand the extent of God's love.

In Chapter 4 we learn that this diverse group of people, the church, have different gifts and using them is how the church reaches maturity.

So when we reach chapter 5 and today's passage the letter has been outlining the standards which God expects of his new society, the church; now it gets on to the implications of those standards for relationships.

And the relationships we look at are relationships in the home; relationships that were probably represented in every congregation that first heard this letter read. Husband and wife; parent and child, master and slave.

The church in Ephesus was formed in the fire of Paul being publicly maligned, extraordinary miracles, false prophets, riots and beatings. Paul's farewell speech is a classic example (Acts 20) of Christian example. He says: 'You know how I lived all the time I was amongst you.'

There is some dispute as to whether this letter came from Paul's own hand or his school of thought, but we know about Ephesus and its difficult start as a worshipping community.

The key question for today's student of the Bible is this; which of the Bible's teachings are timeless as written and which are culturally bound?

If a teaching is culturally bound then we need to look at the principles involved and not the specifics. This will be more obvious when we look at the relationship between slaves and masters later. In Bible times slavery's existence was an assumption. The Bible's texts do not challenge it. But since the early nineteenth century all civilised societies have opposed it and worked for it abolition in its many forms.

And so to our passage. At the time of writing there was a hierarchy which was undisputed. So our three sections that follow v21 and its idea of mutual submission emphasise the submission, in those days, required of wives to husbands, children to parents and slaves to masters.

Tom Wright, in his commentary, points out that St Paul lived in a world where women were considered not only inferior to men but also they were people who had bodily functions that might make a man unclean.

In John Stott's 1979 commentary he says:

Now the very notion of submission to authority is out of fashion today. It is totally at variance with contemporary attitudes and permissiveness and freedom. Almost nothing is calculated to arouse more angry protest than talk of 'subjection'. Ours is an age of liberation (not least for women, children and workers), and anything savouring of oppression is deeply resented and strongly resisted. How are Christians to react to this modern mood

Stott then goes on to argue that although slavery is, rightly, now outlawed, obedience to parents by children is not. He equates the authority a husband has in the household as more like the latter than the former.

1979 was a long time ago. I'm not sure I agree. But let's start with three statements we should all be able to agree with:

1. In a Christian household all should be under the authority of Christ. Nobody should forbid that which Christ encourages nor allow that which Christ condemns. So whatever authority is up for grabs it has to be limited authority.

2. Secondly Galatians 3:28. Paul is clear that there is equality in Christ.

3. There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to exercise submission to male authority in a household. We have moved on from the ages when this was the done thing. It is no longer compulsory; but it is not disallowed.

I don't think we want to argue with those three.

Stott sees a complementarity of roles but in the context of equality. Tom Wright argues that society has made a mess of marriage and that male authority, exercised under Christ's authority, would be the answer.

What do we say?

Whatever we say, we say in a country with a Queen and a female Prime Minister.

Whatever we say, we say in a church with female bishops.

I think we say that leadership is always necessary. Where there is no leadership the people perish. So a couple need to work out, and if they have children model to those children, how decisions are taken.

I think we say that for Christians submission to Christ is always necessary. This is the mutual submission of both parties in a couple submitting to a higher authority. This is the background (v21) of all the relationships discussed.

And I think that we say that this passage suggests that the individuals in a relationship need to love each other, submit to each other, love themselves and be willing to make the sort of sacrifices for each other that Christ made for his church.

Marriage vows are a covenant, not a contract. It is not 'I will do this for you if you do this for me.' It is 'I will do this for you, whatever.' It should not be entered into lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God.

It is appalling that in 2018 there are still abusive relationships.

It is appalling that in 2018 women still earn less than men in many situations where they do the same work.

It is appalling that in 2018 marriage relationships break down too easily and are discarded not repaired. As society becomes increasingly throw away with its domestic appliances it should avoid being like that with its domestic arrangements.

But these things do occur. The terrible way women generally have been treated by men, particularly in politics and the arts as we have discovered recently post-Weinstein, is national news. It is good that women have spoken out loudly #metoo

There is, I think, a responsibility on Christian men to speak out for the rights of women.

Our passage's big theme is this - we should allow each other to thrive. Marriage should be liberating not stifling. Freedom in a framework. Trust. Mutual flourishing.

If you are considering whether someone is Mr or Mrs Right and making a commitment of marriage with them? Well it is not a matter of wondering if they might be the right one. It is a matter, as soon as you are married, of treating them as if they are.

But if you are a Christian and they are not it will be hard for this passage to be authoritative for your relationship.

It is clear to me that this sermon could be a series on relationships, and may need to be.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Garden Bird Watch 2017

A very undramatic year of watching the birds through the window. A successful brood of collared doves led to there being 7 in the garden at one time back in the summer. We saw 19 different species (a bit low) including those flying overhead. A good number of house sparrows and the sparrowhawk was back.

House martins were observed between 16th April and 6th September with 20 of them chirping and feeding overhead in late August. 5 swifts were picked out of that lot when they put on a crowd-pleasing show of zooming between the houses around that time.

The field birds stayed in the fields mainly (too mild to need the feeders).

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning on Breakfast with Emma Britton:

I enjoyed spending some time with my two sons over Christmas. They rarely fail to make me laugh. Don't tell them. We keep our relationship strictly sarcastic. Occasional guests at our Christmas table find our conversation complex. It's rudeness without throwing things and never gets out of hand.

At one point a rather cringe-worthy conversation developed in which Mrs Tilley and I found ourselves having our parenting skills critiqued.

Turns out that, when watching our boys play football, we were embarrassing parents. The summary of our ability to encourage was that we stood on the touchline and shouted, perhaps too loudly, 'Play better'.

Getting advice about your parenting twenty five years too late isn't that helpful, although I pass it on for the benefit of those of you who still have relationships to fix.

Our view of God can be pretty similar. He stands on the sidelines looking at our lives and we occasionally hear him shout:

Do better.

Be cleverer.

Act wiser.

Many of the items in the news today are not things we can do anything about. The weather. Celestial displays. A motorway closure to move a large aeroplane.

But maybe we can react better, cleverer and wiser.

We have finished our annual rehearsal of the great Christmas stories of the Christian tradition. But one theme is worth taking on with us into the new year. How will you react when news is unusual or unexpected?

The year to come will present unique opportunities to strain our patience. If you don't feel up to responding to the challenge, the truth is that God is down to it. And of course BBC Radio Bristol is here to hold your hand on the journey. No pressure Emma. No pressure.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Football Quiz of the Year 2017

This year's quiz is based on having spent too much time watching Football of Five:

1. 'If you get a touch (on the ball) it's a fair tackle.' How many years is it since Steve McLaren read the rules of football?

2. 'You've got to grasp the nettle before it stings you.' Would you trust Martin Keown on a field trip?

3. 'He's got some of the best feet I've ever seen.' How familiar is Clinton Morrison with anatomy?

4. 'His performance, until he left the field, was outstanding' (Micky Gray) Name some players who have made outstanding contributions having left the field.

5. 'It started 0-0; it could have gone either way.' How much would you pay Phil Brown for this?

6. '...and Matty Taylor wasn't going to miss from there.' Did Bristol City supporters share this commentator's optimism?

7. 'I feel this is an unobtainable lead.' Can you help Mark Bright describe a 4-2 lead with five minutes to go?

8. 'Give Hernandez service like that and he will score 99 times out of 100.' Is Chris Kamara watching the same games as us?

Finally, an essay question. Re-arrange theses clichés into a Chris Iwolumo analysis:

Must do better
Gotti hit the target
Little give and go
Great ball in
Everything is spot on
He'll be delighted with that
Can't happen
Can he get his shot away?
From the get go
Ticks all the boxes for me
They're on a fantastic run, they've just got to get back to winning ways
Showing great quality
What a finish
It's a big, massive game
I gotti say
Should be better
Always on the move
Just that little bit of quality

Thursday, December 28, 2017


Every one of my Advent thoughts contained a quote from a song. Here are the solutions:

Intro: Fly Like an Eagle - Steve Miller Band

1. Three Steps to Heaven - Showaddywaddy and many others
2. Counting Out Time - Genesis
3. Two tracks by Soul Wax
4. What a Wonderful World - Sam Cooke
5. Brain damage/Any Colour You Like - Pink Floyd
6. Across the Universe - The Beatles
7. Death Walks Behind You - Atomic Rooster
8. The Magic Number - de la Soul
9. Time for Action - Secret Affair
10. Beauty and the Beast - Ariane Grande
11. Drummer Man - Tonight
12. We Three Kings - traditional carol
13. I Should be so Lucky - Kylie Minogue
14. If - Bread
15. You're Beautiful - James Blunt
16. Money - Pink Floyd
Money Makes the World Go Round - from Cabaret
Can't Buy me Love - The Beatles
17. REM - It's the End of the World as we Know It
(and a sneaky Ian Dury from Reasons to be Cheerful)
18. Stevie Wonder - Happy Birthday
19. Genesis - Supper's Ready
20. Ghostpoet - Sloth Trot
(and a sneaky Talking Heads plus Simon and Garfunkel in the social media link)
21. Wham - Last Christmas
22. Pink - Get the Party Started

Adult or Child?

Do centuries end with 99 or 00? This is one of those number questions where the facts and the feelings clash. Of course it felt like the new century began at 2000 (when the big number switch 1999-2000 took place). But in fact (not feeling) there was no year zero and so each century lasts 100 years and actually finishes with 00.

Also, our country defines an adult as someone aged 18, but others don't. So the statement is only true based on our culture and values.

So, trying to anticipate all pedantry, the following statement is either going to be true on 31/12/17 or 31/12/18 or not.

And I am grateful to @bethbethbeth_ for telling us what her Dad told her. And to the ubiquitous @richardosman for making it more widely known. This is the thing:

'...on New Year's Eve, every single adult in the world will have been born in the 20th century and every child will have been born in the 21st century and that's the only day that's true for...'

Isn't that a beaut?

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Advent Thought 22 and Number 24

As soon as the world of retail notices people enjoying something it takes it off them, polishes it, and sells it back to them. Tony Parsons said words along these lines in his excellent book Dispatches from the Front Line of Popular Culture. Since the book is now 20 years old it would be interesting to re-read it and see how it has aged. May do that.

Taking the long view of Advent I notice that Christmas jumpers, which were never a thing, have been thus polished.

And Advent calendars are much fancier things than the ones of my youth. In the early 1960s they were a piece of landscape foolscap paper with 24 cardboard panels or windows. You opened one each day and tried to work out how the image was related to Christmas. My sister and I were required to remember whose turn it was. I'm sure we both feel the other one cheated.

Whilst the pictures were somewhat semi-detached to the festival we both knew that a nativity scene was coming along on day 24 - the biggest window of them all. The calendar, of course, started on December 1st so there were 24 windows. Then the world of retail can keep its left over stock until next year.

This is my final Advent thought. It is Sunday, the fourth of Advent and also Christmas Eve. The 12 days of Christmas start tomorrow.

Everybody's waitin' for me to arrive
Sendin' out the message to all of my friends

I hope you have managed to wait, hope, rest and pray during this Advent season. And I hope you have managed to hold on to one or two precious thoughts that nobody can make better with polish and packaging.