Thursday, August 25, 2016


Today you will meet a stranger
Rather than having a name
They will be known by a series of letters and symbols

They are not you
They are someone else
They are neither enemy nor friend

They will walk with you into the future
You may hold hands if you want
Or try to shake them off

They are snapshots of you last June
And the albums contain moments
Of mayhem and magic

You are no more defined by these letters and symbols
Than you are by a photo
For to me you will always be A*

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thought for the Day

This morning one of the stories on BBC Radio Bristol was that someone had, almost certainly, discovered a large amount of ambergris on a North Somerset beach. But the challenge was to get a Thought for the Day out of it:

So, someone has found ambergris on a local beach.

There's a story in the Bible about a prophet who didn't go where he was told to go. Eventually, making headway in the wrong direction, some superstitious sailors threw him overboard believing he was the cause of the storm they were in. According to the story the weather then calmed, which terrified them, and the prophet was swallowed by a large fish.

In this unlikely tale it was in the fish's stomach that the man came to his senses - people in the Bible often come to their senses in strange places - and the fish vomited him up onto dry land. Maybe he should have checked to see if there was anything valuable nearby.

The man, name of Jonah by the way, then went where he had been called to go, to preach to people he didn't like very much. God, it is said, decided not to strike them all down and Jonah got mad because that was what he would have preferred God to do.

Later Jonah became angry at the death of a plant under which he was sheltering. God asked him a key question - if you're upset about a plant why shouldn't I be concerned about a huge group of people?

Jonah had no answer and we often forget that the fishy tale ends there.

You can read a lot into this well-known story, which we often call Jonah and the whale. Maybe the shortest lesson is that if God is calling you to do something you simply don't get to opt out.

And for us to to think about today? That pearls are oyster grit, ambergris is whale puke and brilliant, valuable stories can come from equally unlikely places.

For the first time in three and a bit years I got a round of applause in the studio (if two people can constitute a 'round').

Monday, August 22, 2016

Substitutionary Atonement

A comment in a preachers' support group meeting recently; what is your view of the atonement? Since many great and mighty tomes have been written on the matter, only some of which I didn't understand, I asked for a more precise question to answer.

I have been fond, in recent years, of preaching on Jesus by telling people how others made sense of his life, death and resurrection and inviting them to make their own conclusions. I have avoided putting my own stamp on any one answer.

Here is the question as it has now been posed to me:

Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for your personal sin, thereby allowing the only means of your personal salvation?

Let's break it down:

Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross...

Yes. Seems as clear as any historical 'fact' can be that that is what happened to him. pay the price for your personal sin,...

It is hard to tell from the Gospels if that is what Jesus thought he was doing. The New Testament passages giving theological meaning to that which he was about to do were all placed on his lips by the evangelists after he had done it. But Isaiah 53 sits there awkward and needing to be true. He was pierced for our transgressions? Who did the prophet mean?

It is clear that, post-resurrection, theologians tumbled to the truth that sacrifice was needed no more, death had no more threat and the devil (meaning something then that we probably don't mean now) was defeated.

The rest of the New Testament is written trying to make sense of the fact that, despite these truths, the church had problems and Christians were made to suffer.

One way of looking at it is to think of sin needing to be paid for and Christ pays the price. Another, perhaps one I prefer, is that in Christ's death and resurrection we have a demonstration of the futility of self-reliance. In Jesus I prefer the metaphor that something was restored rather than something purchased. I also like the example of the man of perfect obedience pointing us in a similar direction, albeit in intention only for we will stumble.

I do sing at Easter:

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin
He only could unlock the gates
Of heaven and let us in
(There is a Green Hill)

But those verses are pretty metaphor-rich in oh so many ways.

thereby allowing the only means of your personal salvation?

What happens to me is down to God. Trying to be his servant and a Jesus-follower leaves me tentative. 'The only means'? Who could ever know?

Many of my very conservative evangelical friends will go beyond seeing substitutionary atonement as a metaphor. They will say it is what actually happened. It is this attitude that led to Steve Chalke criticising that theology as cosmic child-abuse (which got him into trouble) and, I recall, thrown out of the Evangelical Alliance

Fact is that the cross remains a hinge-point of human history and a turning point of sacred mystery. It calls more for worship than black and white theological insistence. If this gospel was to be grasped by uneducated Galilean fishermen and passed on then it can't be the case that the finer points of Christian doctrine are of any importance. It must be a huge, general question with a huge general answer. Say yes to God. Whatever that means.

So, after almost a year of wondering if I dared write this final sentence. It is this. No.

But I also think the question is inadequately posed to allow for a yes/no answer. Thus the essay, so you could tell, I hope, which bit I was saying 'No' to.

My Particular Qualities

It has often been asked of me, usually by the same person, what precisely I bring to the household contract when I seem to find so much time to do things I enjoy doing. And I agree that I do have a job where a large amount of the things I enjoy doing can be labelled work, or 'research' if you're really going to split hairs. But since a lot of the hours I put in are when the rest of the household is at work I offer this list in a spirit of gentle self-defence:

1. I re-stack the dishwasher to take into account the likelihood of water, when sprayed from any apparatus, continuing to move, by and large, in a straightish line.

2. I search the pockets of all garments placed in the washing basket for:

Paper tissues (likelihood 90-95%)
Used railway tickets (35%)
Shop fixturing (10%)
Cash (0%)

3. I transfer all garments labelled 'hand-wash only' to the 'hand-wash only' basket. I make enquiries when unlikely items are found in the laundry basket (e.g. recently - shoes, suspiciously clean towels).

4. I turn lights off in non-occupied rooms.

5. I move furniture away from radiators to ensure smooth air flow (winter only).

6. I move furniture away from walls to prevent marking through repetition.

7. I sort through waste bins for stuff that could have been recycled.

8. I shop for items in the store-cupboard that need replenishing using a system of telepathy given the regular emptiness of the whiteboard when SOMEONE HAS FINISHED THE PICKLED ONIONS.

9. I know when it is green-waste day and when it is non-recyclable rubbish day.

10. I take in parcels for a wide range of local houses.

11. I am default cook.

12. I remain cheerfully sober until 'Can I have a lift from the station it's wet' is no longer possible.

13. I avoid rows and keep my sanity with passive aggressive social media posts.

14. I watch TV programmes only I like when only I am around.

15. I plan our box-set viewing, gig-going and social entertaining.

16. I can live with the fact it may have been me who finished the pickled onions.

A Level Results and That

In my late teenage years I was interested in football, music, board games and girls (I eventually narrowed it down to one girl). Every time the opportunity came along to try something new I took it. So I played rugby, hockey, squash, table tennis and golf. I guess I sought a sport for which I had natural aptitude and could have done well at without work. This is as big a theme of my life as annoying people by breaking the rules of grammar in favour of what I laughingly call my style.

The me who enjoyed study, thought and writing was some years off.

I have no idea how good I would have become at football and music if I had had someone champion/sponsor me. I didn't. On the advice and push of my Dad I got a back-up offer to the single university which thought it might take me (Swansea - geography). An insurance company in Brum had a non-graduate trainee scheme and the requirement was two A Levels.

So that became my career for eight years. And getting better than two grade Es clearly meant I had put too much energy in, not expecting to reach the dizzy heights of Swansea's offer. I did four parts of an Associateship of the Chartered Insurance Institute but again had no real motivation to complete it. I was good at my job though and promoted rapidly. I was a very young section leader (manager of a team of 7) at 24 and was, had things not changed weirdly and dramatically in a school equipment cupboard (more another day), earmarked as a trainee inspector.

Then I found myself, almost reluctantly, following the advice and prod of others to consider ordination. It wasn't completely out of the blue. I was a Christian and a churchgoer. It would have been odder if I had been neither - and perhaps more compelling a tale.

So I put my career on hold, studied part-time, jumped through many interview hoops, found I had the necessary two A levels to do a theology degree, packed insurance in and moved with family to residential training and then became a priest.

Throughout college it was commented that I had an attitude that would do 'just enough' rather than achieve academic excellence. But I also captained the first ever college football team to win anything, wrote and performed a musical, was year rep on the Junior Common Room Committee and got a brief stress-related illness. This was the beginning of my fully understanding the genetic hand I had been dealt. Just for 'fun' I revised excessively for one doctrine paper. By this I mean I learned a load of stuff I didn't really understand or care about. I came top of my group with distinction.

So where does that leave me? 43 years on from my A level results they have meant little except that I got two of them. I accept my lot in life to be interested in lots and specialist in little. I enjoy investigating new trends and crazes. It transpires that people think I have some ability with written communication (I was often told my essays were well written but light on content - should have been a tabloid journalist maybe) and I have had three books and many booklets published.

If your exam results haven't been quite what you hoped for, relax and chill. In the grand scheme of things they may not matter very much.

Now. What do you want to do next?

Spoof Fragrance

Time for our annual game of 'What's in my bathroom?' The rules are simple. Here are five products. Four of them are in my bathroom. One I invented:

1. Moroccan rose night-time facial oil.

2. Argan oil skin awakening cleansing oil.

3. Eucalyptus re-charge power scrub.

4. Vanille home-spray.

5. Black peppercorn body wash.

Extra information. I share this bathroom with a woman of about my own age.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Thought for the Day

Thought for the Day at BBC Radio Bristol this morning, the day they were talking about vast void caverns being discovered under the Clifton Suspension Bridge and plans to build an eighteen story tower block near to a historic Bristol church. As delivered:

'What is this?' people said to Jesus. 'A new teaching. With authority. No-one did it like this before.'

The new style earned him followers and made him enemies. It cast doubt on the abilities of the old style of teaching. The style without the miraculous special effects. The new was threatening.

In Jesus' day there were few very tall towers and no-one flew.

Whether it's the 18th century Brunel-brilliance of Clifton Suspension Bridge, which we now learn has secret chambers. Creepy. Or the Gothic St Mary Redcliffe church which I find completely creepy and feels like it belongs in an episode of Ghostbusters (that'll get you feedback Emma). With a few exceptions, we all like our landmark local buildings. Mess with them at your peril.

But what makes a building or bridge the last word? Why can't the skyline change? Why not build something taller than the church?

Observing the recent history of the City of London, and my home city of Birmingham, Victorian red brick has given way to a vision of a new future in coloured glass and metal. Many fine buildings are now given a new back-drop.

The usual reaction on seeing new architecture is for most people to dislike it. Then to come round to it. Finally to love it and wish ill on anyone who messes with it.

We don't like change. But we risk complacency if we never move on.

I'm not making any comment about any particular tower block and I understand concerns.

It's just that we have learned to build bigger, better buildings.

I wonder if we might all try to get rid of our instant hatred of the new and give change a chance.

We could go into training. Even if it's only a different route to the shops, try something new today.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Awkward Phone Call

How about this for an awkward phone call?

Hello EU HQ.

Ah yes. This is Turkey.

Hi. How's it going?

Oh you know. It has its moments. Anyway, we are calling about the European Convention on Human Tights.


That's what I said but this stenographer is useless.

What about it?

Well you know we signed up to it?


Could we suspend that - temporarily?


On you needn't worry about that it's a local thing.

So, how long for?

(Muffled) How long you need Ahmed?

He says a couple of weeks should do it?

Call the Maltese

After a number of years visiting Malta and Gozo I have a pretty clear idea of the unique skills package Maltese workers can offer. So when should you call the Maltese in?

1. You need a crane to get an RSJ up to the fifth floor of a twin house only accessibly by a narrow alley. Impossible? No. Two Maltese can erect a crane overnight in a gap as long as there is 0.001mm clearance either side. Furthermore the whole job will be finished and the crane moved to the next job before most ordinary people have finished their breakfast. If they haven't finished breakfast they can still take the crane out through a crowded cafe bar without anyone moving or ducking.

2. Awkward little job involving road maintenance? Maybe a bulb has gone in a motorway barrier light? No need to stop the traffic. Jason and Gorge will don their flip-flops, run into a gap in the traffic waving a yellow flag and get the job done in seconds.

3. You have a small business opportunity but nowhere to site it. No problem. After abseiling down a cliff with a rucksack containing your lunch and reading matter to access a quiet sandy bay you will be greeted by a Maltese bartender offering drinks and his brother who will hire you a sunbed and umbrella. Nowhere is too remote to put a selling station.

4. You like the noise of fireworks but feel all those light-effects are a bit unnecessary. Don't panic. Wait until the Sun is directly overhead and the temperature at 30 degrees. Then the Gozitan Firework Company will put on a show that is all smoke and bang with none of that distracting prettiness.

What is going on?

It was as long ago as 1985 that Mayor Mario Cuomo (a Democrat by the way) came up with the line that Leo McGary eventually used in The West Wing:

'We campaign in poetry; we govern in prose.'

It served well as a general description of the seriousness with which campaign rhetoric should be taken. We got it. You paint yourself good and your opponent bad. You don't bad mouth, in an ideal world, nor do you lie or cheat. But a bit of hyperbole - it's kind of expected.

This last few months has seen the rule book torn up. From Brexit to Trump the new mantra is:

We campaign in feelings; we govern in facts.

So a Trump spokesman, presented with the facts that crime figures in the USA (amazingly) have been falling for the last fifteen years said:

'Not in Chicago they're not.'

And having it pointed out to him that it is possible for pockets of increased crime to exist in an environment where crime generally is falling, he said:

'People feel that crime is getting worse.'

Now this blog has been the first to admit that a mugging victim will find it hard to agree immediately that violent crime is decreasing.

But once, as commentator John Oliver said, ' bring feelings into a fact fight', what are the rules?

Speaking way back in the 1980s Donald Trump himself said that if he ever ran for office he would run as a Republican because '...those guys will believe anything.'

Maybe it's now:

We campaign in lies; we govern any damn way we want.

Politics really is appalling right now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Sometimes on special occasions, I will be asked to say grace. This job, giving 
thanks to God for the food, often falls the way of the clergy.

I try to keep it simple and, if possible, amusing. It is likely there are people 
there who don't believe in a God who provides.

On such occasions you may hear the grace-sayer pray that we might be 
mindful of the needs of others. At which point I develop guilt that my 
three-course wedding banquet is not the rice and vegetables on which many 

I have a slightly cumbersome relationship with luxury.

Bristol Cars is to unveil its first new model since 2004. The Bristol Bullet will be 
a limited-edition sports car built to celebrate the company's founding 70 years 

Part of me goes wow; another part ow.

They have just one showroom, on Kensington High Street. Customers have 
included Sir Richard Branson, Bono and Liam Gallagher.

Is it OK to love luxury? Before I answer I recall that I too have a slightly better 
car than I need. I try to give generously but I don't live inconspicuously.

Making luxury goods is someone's job. And you don't have to own a nice car to 
enjoy looking at one.

So as long as you have a heart for the poor and a sense that your luxury goods 
do not make you better than anyone else, I say good luck to you.

My wedding grace is this:

In a world where many are hungry we thank you for our food.
In a world where many are lonely we thank you for our company.
And in a world where many find it hard to start a conversation we thank you for
the wine.

Amen to that.

Monday, July 25, 2016


This is a lovely album from 2012. I review it for the benefit of anyone who seeks instrumental ambient music to play either as background or to read/speak over.

Nils Frahm suffered a broken thumb - bad news for a professional pianist.

Told, on medical orders, to leave his keyboard alone for a while he failed to resist that temptation. By the time the cast was cast off he had recorded the nine simple piano pieces you find on this album - a birthday present to me from Junior.

On the sleeve notes Frahm says, 'They have helped me feel less annoyed about my accident and reminded me that I can only achieve something good when I make the most of what I've got.'

As I re-organise a bit of this week's life due to the flare-up of my back condition, that was a useful little mantra.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Leaving Alexandria - A Book Review

I preached a sermon a few years back when I admitted to doubts about my faith, perhaps a little too candidly. It was a Marmite sermon. People came up to me either with genuine gratitude or suggestions of resignation.

I haven't read this author before. The little voices of my rapidly-fading evangelical credentials whispered, 'Don't touch.'

But I recall hearing him speaking about an earlier book 'Godless Morality'. He argued that if you use God in any way in an ethical discussion the response 'I don't believe in God' is final. No more can be said. So, he said, Christians must learn to do their arguments informed by God but expressing them differently. Holloway ending up chairing the ethics committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. So he had secular clout.

Unusually for a thought-provoking Christian author Richard Holloway can write like a dream. It makes it easier to follow. Sometimes you have to, in the words of John Habgood, ' determined not to let this idiot of an author prevent you getting to grips with the subject.' Not so here.

And that is a good job because the subject, as the sub-title says, is faith and doubt.

So here's a question, which I have asked myself many times: if you have doubts, does it demonstrate more faith to offer your life and career in Christian service than if you are clear and convinced? And if you do so offer, doesn't that prove that you had faith all along? It's complex, paradoxical.

Don't worry, this will be a book review.

Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit says Galatians 5. Faith is a gift of the Spirit says 1 Corinthians 12:9. This apparent contradiction suggests that somehow one can serve God in the gap between experiences of his existence. There will be times when this gap appears. 1 Samuel refers to a time when the word of the Lord was rare and there were not many visions. Yesterday's lectionary reading at Morning Prayer had Saul enquiring of the Lord but getting no answer. The disciples once had to wake Jesus and asked, in a boat mid-storm, if he cared whether they died. In other words, God is not asleep at the wheel, but sometimes it feels like that.

So this book is the story of a man who was convinced by Christian service and Catholic expressions of religion, but not so much by the heavenly destination his faith pointed to. His ministry, especially to the poor, whilst struggling with the reality behind the faith that had led him there was remarkable. He ended his stipendiary life as Primus (Archbishop) of the Scottish Episcopal Church. His learning and scholarship saw him become Gresham Professor of Divinity in the City of London.

Maybe the Catholic repetition and ritual of worship carried him on long after it had been drained of content; duty not joy. At the end he could go no more. He resigned his post and slowly, painfully left the church. He did it without great fuss.

He observes that an institution in crisis spends far too long in meetings discussing its purpose and future. Perhaps the one sentence I take away and wrestle with is the thought that out of certainty comes great evangelism, but out of doubt comes great pastoral work. Does the genuine consideration that the reward is in heaven take the edge off our desire (or need) to help the poor. In which case a belief that this life is all there is will make us determined to improve the suffering of all.

How often we reduce '...the mystery of what is beyond all utterance to chatter.'

I didn't end this book feeling sad but with gratitude for its honesty and the realisation that there is only so much honesty in this area you can exhibit as long as others will want you to retain your post. To be honest.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Holiday Reading

Just back from our sixteen days in Malta and Gozo. The following summer reading comments are a little lighter than usual. We flew out on the day of the EU referendum and were as surprised as anyone by the result. Even more surprising was a torrential downpour in Valetta on our first full day so we sat in a hotel room watching CNN and updating social media frantically. Imagine if we had gone on holiday in the 'old days' and not had access to news. What would landing back have been like?

Anything happen while we were away?
Well, it's like this. Everything you thought you knew is wrong.

Anyway that is a long way of saying that we read more news websites than we often do and so balanced it out with a slightly lighter reading agenda than usual. My 'edifying' books (with one and a half exceptions) came back to what I still call the UK with me, unread.

As usual the mark in brackets (out of 10) represents the holiday escapism factor and not literary quality:

Jonan Jonasson
Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All (7)
From the Swedish guy (in translation) who wrote about the hundred year old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared, the story of the dull recptionist, Per Persson, at a sleezy hotel, a priest who has lost most of her faith and a contract killer. They find money. They invest it in barely legal enterprises. It works. People don't like it. There is a body count but most of the bodies arrive in amusing ways.

Carl Hiaasen
Stormy Weather (7)
Hiassen populates his Southern States crime thrillers with grotesques and cartoon characters. Yes foks, it's more of the comedy black I so love. In hurricane season most people move out. Not so the storm chasers, dodgy roofers and inheritors of illegal zoos from where most of the animals have escaped. You will feel hot, sticky and insect-bitten by the end. Great fun.

Alan McGee
Creation Stories (5)
The only way to keep up with excess-loving, substance-abusing bands is to be a similar music publisher. Discuss. This autobiography is appallingly written. In homage to bands who achieve success by breaking musical rules, McGee attempts the same stunt with his book and the rules of grammar, punctaution and syntax. The style is that of a nine year old writing 'What I did on my holidays'. Since he was the manager of Oasis for a while the insights are interesting but I learned more about luck than talent.

Tim Dowling
How to be a Husband (7)
The Saturday Guardian columnist analyses his marriage. It is an affectionate look at a modern relationship and the reality of what sort of things go on in one that works. Relationship by sarcasm and sharp putdown can be a winning formula as long as both parties play nicely and go off alone for a while on jaunts.

Peter Carey
Amnesia (8)
My regular reader will know that Carey is just about my favourite author. He has won the Booker prize twice and been long-listed many times. Here he looks at an act of subversion not unlike Wikileaks. In this case it involves mallware-opening the cell doors of asylum seekers. Unfortunately the virus also lets a lot of really bad guys free from their confinement in the USA. Carey takes us on a journey into the past and back two generations. What makes an anarchist like this? Nature or nurture? Journalist Felix has to track down the perpetrator and write her story. It may save her extradition and her life.

Jonathan Coe
Number 11 (8)
The Number 11 of the title is three things. A Birmingham bus-route. The Chancellor's address. The number of floors down that a wealthy London family are prepared to dig to extend their house when they are told they can't go up or out. This novel is a survey of recent UK popular culture - reality TV, lucky winners, talentless singers, immigrant nannies and dog-walkers, the super-rich and, because Coe is a master and can do this sort of thing, a disabled, lesbian, mixed-race, woman in a central role. Read it and weep baby.

Carl Hiassen
Double Whammy (6)
This Hiassen is set in the murky world of competitive bass-fishing. Sent to investigate if a competition is being rigged, private investigator T.J. Decker finds that everything is as murky as the water in which the really big fish hide. Blame the TV evangelist who owns the broadcast rights to the very-popular angling shows if you want, but he knows people and you may end up swimming with the prize catch.

Owen Jones
The Establishment (7)
An interesting accompaniment to the news from home, Owen Jones' thesis that whatever the result of election after election the establishment always wins seems to be showing up true again. Bankers, newspaper proprietors and politicians don't suffer when things are tough; the poor do. Always and all the time. Jones' firebrand socialism would want to fix that and make the UK fairer. But would the establishment hang around?

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Stop the War

Twitter asked this morning, in the light of Chilcot, if anyone admits to being in favour of the war against Iraq. Now obviously the voting record of Parliament is there to see so there were many MPs in favour. I recall being encouraged by friends to go on the Stop the War Coaition march. I was uneasy.

Who goes on these marches? Obviously the first group of people are those who are against all war; complete pacifists who would rather lose their country peacefully than fight. I am a coward but I am not a pacifist. I believe there is such a thing as a just war.

The second group would be those who felt that this war was not right. This group would have mixed motives. Some would have felt that it was too remote, didn't really concern us. Others felt that the case for it had not been proven although, as I recall, nobody argued that Saddam Hussein wasn't a bad guy. This group wanted diplomatic means pursued, a second UN resolution or, to summarise 'a little bit more.' It follows that if they had seen what they wanted they would have backed war.

My point is this. Dodgy dossiers and faked intelligence were not a reason. Some, very smart, people felt the long-game hadn't been thought through. They were right. But nobody seemed to think they were being lied to.

But for many of us, doing the best we could with newspaper coverage, parliamentary debate and TV news, the case was just about made. This was a bad guy with a finger on some sort of chemical/nuclear trigger in one of the world's permanent trouble spots.

With hindsight I was wrong. We should have delayed and let the USA do all the working they felt called to. It would have jeopardised our relationship with the US (it was Bush's US so I wouldn't have lost too much sleep over that). If we had let them take all the blame they seem to have the ability to put failure behind them much quicker than us. US educational systems tend to value action and contribution over and above accuracy. The situation in Iraq would probably have been worse today. I value the ability of our troops on the ground to do the jobs required of them effectively and for our troop leaders to have unbelievable qualities of diplomacy after the theatre is no longer a war zone.

So I was pro-war. Just about. I started to worry when Iraqi looters took stuff from the museums of 'liberated' towns. I began to realise there had not been much thought about 'what next?'

All the tabloid press is hammering Blair now. At the time opponents of the war were hammered for being 'traitors' who won't support our wonderful troops.

I respect all those who were anti-war. Try and remember what the key reason was, for you. Watch out for hindsight.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

On Being a Curate

I wheel this out every couple of years for those about to be ordained. First written fifteen years ago at least:

The day after I was ordained I went into my study and wondered what a curate did all day. If this happens to you, enjoy it. Things come along to fill your time. But if nobody has sat you down and offered you any tips and hints for making the most of your title parish then how about these? Most of them were learned through failure and inadequacy rather than taught by a wise mentor. Perhaps they might make your life a little easier for the next three years. At minimum you might have as much hair at the end as you have now. And it will be the same colour. Grey hair may be a crown of splendour and a sign of a righteous life but it’s not the only crown or the solitary sign. So try these:

1. Meet people. Don’t have a newspaper delivered. Go and pick it up from the same shop every day. The newsagent knows what’s going on so is worth getting to know. Every three or four months buy one of every paper and compare them. It’ll help you to know how everyone in the parish is thinking. Go to the same pub at the same time every week. Then you’ll become a regular. Take your glasses back and you’ll become a popular regular.

2. However broke you are, never compromise on the quality of your food.

3. Remember that your vicar/rector is not always right, but apart from matters of grave heresy you’ll find your curacy a more pleasurable experience if you treat her/him as if (s)he is.

4. Have a talk up your sleeve for the unexpected occasions when you’re asked to say a few words. Change it every few weeks. Learn a couple of unusual prayers and graces.

5. Wear your clerical collar everywhere for the first six months. It will help you to get used to it and stop feeling self-conscious. Once people know you, wear anything else; otherwise people end up talking to it, not you. You will be breaking canon law but it won’t be the only way so don’t worry unduly. Most changes to laws happen because people start breaking them.

6. Have a whole day off and another night off as well. Don’t go looking for extra work on Saturdays and Sundays. It’ll find you if it needs to.

7. Activate voicemail. Ignore phones during meals. Don’t leave it on when you’re on holiday or you’ll give the impression that you’ll be phoning back in a few minutes and have twenty or thirty annoyed people to call. Don’t leave a message about being on holiday (I know it’s obvious but I did meet someone who did) or all your favourite things will mysteriously vanish by the time you return and the back window will need repairing.

8. Pray and read your Bible a lot. It is work. What a privilege. Always offer to pray with people when you visit, but don’t do it without asking.

9. Walk to as many places as you can. Stop and chat on the way. Ask for 10% of the saving on your expenses claim towards a good new pair of shoes every year. You won’t get it but it makes the point. Always claim your expenses in full, monthly. If not paid you can get tax-relief on them. If you don’t need the money, gift-aid it back.

10. If you’ve got school-age kids then take and fetch them as often as you can. Talk to the other parents waiting outside.

11. Never say, ‘As I’ve said before’ during your curacy. You’ll have plenty of time for repeating yourself in later years.

12. Have a few pieces of music that absolutely guarantee to calm you down (or big you up). Mine, currently, are by a Norwegian band called Undergrunnen

13. Give people your full attention. Even after church services. The worst thing in the world for someone talking to you is to see you looking over their shoulder for the next person you want to ‘just catch’.

14. Remember that there is no difference between real and apparent care. The parishioners need to know that you care. The best way to do this is to really care but cultivate the skill of apparently caring for those days when you don’t.

14b) Infinitives may be split when necessary.

15. Collect postcards and send them to everyone at every possible moment to say thanks, how are you, I thought of you…

16.  Never suggest ten steps until you’re sure you can’t think of eighteen. If you think you might have three things to say announce you have four and then stop early if you run out. It'll get a laugh and give you an undeserved reputation for brevity.

17. Become an expert in some small thing. Cemetery wildlife. John chapter 4. Clerical wear 1880-1900. That sort of thing.

18. There are another 200 or so of these on Twitter at #ministrytip

I’ve managed to spend thirty-one ordained years not being the incumbent of anywhere so remember you are ordained for ministry not the vicarage.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Well? Is there a future for Labour?

Playing with some ideas. Probably what blogs are for.

Contrary to what many think I am a floating voter. I am a member of no political party and my vote needs to be canvassed. Granted that vote is unlikely to go to a party with an extreme right wing, but centre-left and centre-right can both reach out to me. That is mainly because socialism disappeared off the political map in the mid 1990s. But its followers didn't.

And now we have Corbyn. A socialist. A proper one. Elected leader of the Labour Party by its members.

And those who took the Labour Party from socialism are losing it back. The very thing that they valued above all others (that the leader is democratically elected by the members) leaves a leader in place who none of the non-socialists like or want.

So they tried all resigning. Thinking that perhaps, with no-one to appoint to a shadow office, Corbyn would go. He didn't. Because he knows that resigning, in this case, is not the honourable way out. He may yet do it because the poor guy has lost the will to live. He may not.

If he plays the long game how does it play out?

The Blairites have the Labour whip taken from them? They are deselected by their constituency parties? They clear off and form a new party?

Then Corbyn and a new, angry intake step up. Owen Jones? Paul Mason? Ha-Joon Chang? Or their followers. They are furious about what has been done in the name of political expediency. They get out preaching that the solution to our small-town woes is not racism but investment in manufacturing jobs. Rather than money going to shareholders there is a massive programme of renationalisation so no-one, ever again, can make money if someone is sick or goes to prison. The target of working-class anger becomes not a polish fruit-picker but a retired stockbroker in Surrey who gets a monthly cheque from a cherry-picker. All dividend and no responsibility.

The true way to get out of Europe, they might say, is to buy back our former utilities from foreign ownership. How well defended can we ever be if we can't make steel?

The race-riots (they start as soon as the racists realised we weren't cutting back on immigration) calm down. Someone with a good job making things has no time for rioting. It saves the government money. Stop austerity and build stuff. Especially houses for those who we need to come into this country to pay taxes so we can pay pensions to our increasingly geriatric population. Hi there.

I am a big fan of the Danish political drama Borgen. In Denmark it appears impossible to do government without coalition and compromise. No-one has a majority. We got a taste of that with the ConLib government from 2010 to 2015 - the LibDems taking the edge off the nastier side of Conservatism. You think not? Look what we got now. And of course they suffered big time for that, mainly because their promise not to raise tuition fees had to be compromised away.

But they'll be back. Nick Clegg anticipated quite brilliantly what would happen if we voted for Brexit. Tim Farron is sounding more statesmanlike by the minute.

So, although a series of binary switches need to fall in the same direction, maybe, just maybe, we'll end this with one extreme right party of UKIP/Conservatives, one centre right (Conservative) and two centre left (one new party that may use the New Labour banner and the other the LibDems) and a socialist party (Labour). If the three lefts can do a deal with the Scottish Nationalists they might make a minority government and bring in Proportional Representation.

Otherwise, I have no idea what happens. Don't want to think about it. But whatever the result we probably ain't leaving the EU.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


In the mid 1980s, when there was no realistic opposition to Thatcher's Conservatives, the satirical TV programme Spitting Image provided the opposition.

In one scene Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittain were canvassing door-to-door. When the door was answered they punched and kicked the person on the doorstep but each time the householder refused to vote for anyone other than the Tories.

If you don't have an effective opposition offering an altentative world view then the people who got us into the mess will re-elected to get us out of it.

It is said that one of the signs of madness is repeating the same mistake in the hope that it will have a different outcome. England's gone mad.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What's Next?

OK, here's my problem. I am out of touch. 95% of my Facebook timeline today is taken up by depressed and outvoted remainers. To some extent, despite being on holiday, I have found myself trying to minister, through social media, to a huge number of very disappointed people, mainly younger than me.

I understand why Brexit won and accept responsibility for trying to live a worthy life in a country where my views are in a minority. Done that before. Will do it again. Inclusivity and hospitality cannot be undone by a referendum.

And respect to those who have voiced their Brexit opinions and won the day. Many of them articulated clear, and unselfish, reasons for wanting out. I thought them misguided, still do, but they won.

However, digging a little deeper, I find the appalling hate-spewing racist views of those I am out of touch with. Such as those who insulted Brendan Cox's eulogy to his wife not three days dead. Or those who dismissed Rio Ferdinand's carefully-worded remain argument because he was now rich and out-of-touch, with references to the colour of his skin. Horrible language and sentiments. How do I engage with those who told both of them to  f*** off? Attempts to engage with them feel like they put my life in danger. How do I continue to engage with the guy who tweeted:

'Course I voted out. I don wanna live next door to a f***ing Turk'

It feels like the Galatians 3:28 universalism of the gospel message needs to welcome both him and the Turk. How do I do that?

I recall the words of Michael Stipe of REM, on stage in Cardiff about nine years ago. 'The thing you need to know about us' he said, 'is that we love our country but hate our government.'

I love my country (considering my country to be England) and really find loving some of the people I share the land with incredibly difficult.

It occurs to me that an Ephesians 4 church, about which I have spoken many times, welcomes thieves, slanderers, the foul-mouthed, quarrellers and the like. There are not enough unpleasant people in our churches. We need more.

On my return I think I want to ask my co-members if it is OK to go even more heavy on the inclusivity:

If you're LGB or T you're welcome
If you're a convicted criminal you're welcome
If you're not sure of all the petty theological nuances of Anglicanism you'll feel central here
If you hate Turks you're welcome
If you've had an abortion you're welcome
If you have H-A-T-E tattood on your knuckles you're welcome (fancy Sunday lunch at ours?)
If you have sought, and found, asylum, or even if you are in this country illegally, you're welcome
If you voted Brexit to claim our country back you're welcome
If you're Nigel Farage or a fan of his, you're welcome

If it works it will either be a true New Testament church or a weekly fist-fight.

Reporters welcome.

No, that wouldn't work. It's going to be difficult this getting-in-touch. Anyone else got any ideas?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

In or Out?

I voted by post last week so it is too late to change my mind. I'm terribly depressed about the European Union (EU)  referendum. Here is an issue which has a huge amount of agreement between our politicians (75% remain) and world leaders (95% remain). It was grossly irresponsible to call a referendum and allow its result to bind our behaviour. This is far too important an issue to leave to us ordinary people.

Amongst my friends there has also been a large amount of agreement. I have never picked my friends based on their political views (not deliberately anyway) but my Facebook stream is 95% remain. I have listened hard to, and engaged with, the 5%.

However some of the comments boxes have been full of vitriol from people I don't know. Seems to me that the leave campaign have appealed, successfully, to a Little England v Johnnny Foreigner distinction that doesn't exist. I was wondering yesterday if the remain campaign would have done better to say nothing and not campaign at all. Little Englanders hate being told anything and do not change their minds through rational argument.

Journalist Rod Liddle summed it up. Somehow this referendum has caught the imagination of ordinary working communities who see it as a chance to register the complaint that something, not sure what, is changing about their world and they don't like it. Few have thought it through thoroughly. Few have considered what next. Few buy the economic arguments (which 'Remain' have won solidly, again and again). Some are chanting that they are leaving while throwing empty beer bottles at French Police in Marseilles. So proud.

I'm incredibly depressed. It often happens around election time because I support a lot of minority views. But this in/out referendum has really got to me. So this will be my post on the matter and I won't tell you how to vote. I guess there are some things I need to get off my chest.

To begin with, I live in the most mono-cultural place I have ever called home. It also has one of the oldest demographics. Our Member of Parliament is Liam Fox - a 'big noise' in the Brexit campaign. So I haven't exactly heard compelling and balanced arguments on the streets and in the bars.

So what has got to me? I think it is the idea that as part of the EU our 'British' lifestyle has gone to hell in a handcart. I was having breakfast with some men the other day and I challenged a lot of the Brexit statements I heard. Not because they were necessarily wrong or contained no grains of truth but because they were rash generalisations, unsubstantiated claims or glib doom-mongering.

One older guy (perhaps about 70) said that he had spent the second half of his life watching things fall apart because of the EU. I asked him to name one way he had personally suffered, 'Oh, I haven't suffered personally...' he said 'It's just that...'

I suppose my depression is at the failure of most people to take a long view with a wide-angle lens. People movements have been part of our world since people evolved and looked for food. Since the last ice-age people have moved in and out of the British Isles. I am, genetically, from mainland Europe. Not sure if my ancestors walked or came with weapons. But they immigrated. Bet your life on it.

What on earth do you think happens when a largely peaceful middle-eastern community is overrun by ISIS? Or an Afghan village by the Taliban? That's right children (sorry to be so patronising but it really is so simple a child can grasp it); people run. The labourers and unemployed run. The school-teachers and beauticians run. The plumbers run. The architects run. The solicitors run. Women, men, children, young, old, fat, thin, good and bad - all run (or walk fast) for their lives. 'Sneaky migrants', as labelled by the Daily Express, is probably a representative sample of all the above; but the fittest. The ones who survived that long a run and that dangerous a trek or boat-trip.

Is there any way we can see the referendum being about being more generous, more welcoming, indeed setting an example to the rest of Europe?

I am depressed because the debate is about what we get not what we give. I am depressed because both sides have said it will lead to chaos if we vote the other 'wrong' way. I am depressed because inconvenient statistics, thoroughly disproved, are still being banded about. Hearing one quoted the other day I suggested that the individual should not rely on the Daily Telegraph so much. 'How did you know I read the Telegraph?' she asked. Oh, I just guessed. I am depressed that the politics of repeating a lie often enough is in such fine fettle. I am depressed, so depressed, about the quality of the debate I can barely bring myself to listen to it.

I am depressed because the Sun has too much power and fails any democracy test.

I was, until I sent off my postal vote, open-minded to not voting 'remain' personally if I did find someone, anyone, who could voice a 'leave' vision that made any sort of sense.

Paul Mason came close. He gave a principled left-wing case for Brexit in the Guardian online on May 16th. But he reminded us that a Corbyn government, however unlikely that might be, would never get its left-wing agenda through as an EU nation. See Greece. Brexit would probably hand control of the soon-to-break-up UK to Gove/Johnson and a return to Thatcherism max. Workers' rights could probably go hang. But if we vote to remain it would be a vote for an ever-closer union with a Europe that has some nasties looking right on the very edge of power. Cameron's concessions, he argues, were not negligible and left a future 28 member treaty unlikely, commitments to Lisbon revisitable and the relationship with the Eurozone and European Law negotiable. For a moment there I almost liked him but then remembered he was the one who had got us into this mess in the first place.

Richard Osman nailed how I feel. 'In most debates we have to listen to people who shout the loudest or are most certain of their views. That doesn't represent most of us.' (Tweet 27/5/16)

Whatever the end result a referendum stops democracy in its tracks. We will have to move on with what looks as if it will be a 55/45 on a maximum 80% turn-out. And that, my friends, is a divided kingdom. We will need quite a bit of magnanimity from the defeated. I predict a riot. I am depressed.

USA and Guns

It's been a strange, and terribly sad, week overhearing the voices of the religious right in the American south voicing their opinions on Orlando over the social media. Bible Belt - '...where there are more prisons than Starbucks.' (Kevin Spacey's David Gale in The Life of David Gale)

These people hate the very idea of Islam. It almost seems as if some of them welcome fundamentalist terrorism happening so they can up the vehemence in their rhetoric.

These people hate 'gays'. You will not find the expression 'LGBT' in their tweets. They often gather outside LGBT events holding random verses from Leviticus.

So when an ethnic middle-eastern, USA-born, bi-polar afflicted, proclaimed gay-hater who turns out to be gay goes mad with an assault rifle in the name of Islamic fundamentalism in a club full of members of the LGBT community - well they find it hard to get their anger pitched exactly right.

Know this friends. The shares in the company who made the weapon used by the murderer apparently went up by 50% over the weekend.

Number of people killed by guns in the UK per 100,000 last recorded full year - 0.04
Number of people killed by guns in the USA per 100,000 last recorded full year - 3.6

Ninety times more likely.

One Twitter user went through every condolence tweet from every senator and congressman and added the amount of money they had received from the gun lobby in the previous year. Eye-opening. It was a lot.

All this information is gleaned from newspapers and I have no first-hand knowledge. Apologies if any of it proves to be incorrect. It surely can't all be.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Guest Economist

We welcome Sir Bob Cashless to the blog. I will put to him your questions on the future of the economy.

St: Sir Bob. People say that leaving the EU will be the best way to drive up the wages of the poor.

SB: That's right.

St: It will?

SB: No. People are saying it.

St: But will it?

SB: If we manage to negotiate an out deal without free movement of people, which Norway and Switzerland didn't manage, then cheap labour from overseas will fade away over time and employers will be forced to offer more to attract strawberry pickers, care-home workers and chicken pluckers.

St: That's good isn't it?

SB: As long as they can afford the increased cost of chicken, fruit and care?

St: Not a huge increase though?

SB: Well in addition to that price rise the food prices also have to go up to cope with the EU agriculture support grant now going to the NHS.

St: They aren't going to do that.

SB: I know I was joking. But we are about to see a temporary, but massive, drop in the economy so nobody will be able to afford strawberries anyway.

St: At least it's temporary.

SN: Oh yes. The pound should be back to its 22/6 level within five years or so. Do you know anyone who wants a job picking fruit?

St: Thank you for your optimism.

SN: No problem. Fill up this glass will you?

Sir Bob will be back when he needs more money.


So it seems like the family story I was told about it being a variant of Tillé and of French descent is probably wrong:

Tilley Name Meaning
variant spelling of Tilly.habitational name from Tilley in Shropshire, named from Old English telga ‘branch’, ‘bough’ + leah ‘wood’, ‘clearing’.occupational name for a husbandman, Middle English tilie (Old English tilia, a primary derivative of tilian ‘to till or cultivate’).from the medieval female personal name Tilly, a pet form of Till.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning, responding to the news that the Southville Methodist Church building has been purchased by another faith community (The Church of England) for spiritual use:

My church has no building. Southville Methodists have a building and no people.

The problem with the church in this county is that there are too many churches. Strangely, the answer is to plant more.

Too many of the buildings are in the wrong place - where people used to live rather than where they do live. Or too close together.

But of course these structures are often grand, architecturally interesting and a meeting place for a wider group of people than the Christian community. When they close they are missed.

My church meets in a part of Nailsea that was fields when the big old churches were built. Now we minister to a large suburban housing estate and meet in a local school. We can't rely on people finding us. We have to make contacts and grow community. In fact, we're planting another one, in another school, with our friends at St Andrew's, Backwell. We're calling it 'Andy's'.

This coming Sunday we are organising a Big Picnic Lunch to celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday. If you live on Trendlewood Estate come along to Golden Valley school fields at 12.30.

OK. Shameless plug over. What's the thought for the day? Well it's this. Churches are not buildings. They are people. St Peter, the rock on which Jesus said he would build his church, was a person. Sometimes described in the Bible as a body with many parts, or as a temple of living stones, or even as a flock which needs shepherding; the church is people.

I'm glad the Southville Methodist building has a new lease of life. I know that if you took away all the church buildings in the land there would still be a church.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Two Lefts?

Whilst at College over thirty years ago a friend introduced me to the idea of two year resolutions. It was one of those 'eureka' moments for me. Why do we make resolutions on December 31st every year and why only for a year? The idea was simply to pick a thing you would like to do (positive, not 'giving up' which is negative) and try and become proficient at it in two years or so.

One of my favourite two years was the period when I tried to become ambidextrous. Up until then I was very right-sided. Nothing wrong with that. But was it holding me back?

There is something very interesting about the Latin words behind that idea of being ambidextrous. Latin for right is dexter; for left is sinister. So a right-handed person has dexterity; a left-handed is a potential danger. A person who can use both hands equally well is, literally, one with two right hands.

The learning process is full of danger. I decided not to tell anyone. I continued to be a one-footed footballer in matches but tried to use both in training. To begin with I did much simpler things with my left foot; short passes and blocks, but gained confidence. A left-footed tap in from five yards wasn't the greatest goal ever but it was my first with my left foot and it would have been harder to get my feet in the er, right position to score with my usually preferred foot.

Two moments which gave me, and only me, great pride, and which I have never shared before, are these:

St John's v Lincoln College in 1983 and a run down the left wing ending with a cross dinked up perfectly to the far post to be headed home (it wasn't).

St John's v some hall of residence that season when put through on goal I hit it early with my left on the volley and it powered into the bottom corner of the net before the keeper had made any plans to to stop me.

Other things are simpler. I pour the milk from a jug in my left hand and the tea from the pot in my right. In my day job the juxtaposition of bread, wine, plate and cup looks more balanced to the congregation if done both-handedly.

Want to learn? Deliberately position your drink vessel so you have to use your left hand.

If you have a tablet or phone that requires a swiping mechanism take a game such as 2048 or Candy Crush. Play left-handed.

Start typing with, at least, your fingers in the correct positions asdf jkl; on proper keyboards. Tablets replace ; with the return key.

Constantly ask yourself the question, 'Could I do this with my non-dominant hand?' Then try to. It's fun. It's rewarding. It's your little secret.

That will be a £30 back-hander please.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning. I prepared this thought when the Breakfast Show was having the Bristol Refugee Festival as its lead story. As it happened it got bumped in favour of the news that Broadchurch III is filming in Clevedon. I had to add in a bit of last minute explanation:

The Bristol Refugee Festival starts today.

I loved the Tom Hanks' film The Terminal. He plays Viktor who finds himself unable to enter the United States due to inadequate documentation. But because of a military coup he cannot return home. The movie follows him working out how to live and survive at the airport terminal where he becomes a minor celebrity, and improves life there.

Our hearts have been tugged on many occasions over the last few years at stories of migrants and refugees. Their home situation too terrible to stay but leaving without any definite plans for an eventual home. Staying worse than a long trip in a leaky boat.

When someone says 'Fire, get out' one doesn't necessarily carefully plan where to spend the next night. If you don't get out you may not have any further nights to spend.

The Bible is full of stories of refugees - Moses leading his people for 40 years in the wilderness, Joseph's family fleeing to Egypt to avoid famine, Jesus' and his parents escaping Herod.

Down the ages people-movements have been a key feature of life on Earth. But with borders more and more settled over the years it is tempting to shut the doors to newcomers.

The biblical concept of hospitality is to receive from the stranger by removing the barrier of hunger or cold. I offer food and shelter so I can hear your story and be blessed by your life.

The Bristol Refugee Festival celebrates the contribution of refugees.

After Jesus' death and, we believe, his resurrection, it was Christians escaping persecution who took that message to other countries. It might have been an initial burden to those who welcomed them; but then they discovered the treasure they carried.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Book of Strange New Things

Michael Faber addresses unusual ideas and raises philosophical questions but writes page-turners. In this book he follows Peter, a Christian and evangelist, who leaves his wife on earth to take the Gospel to aliens.

They seem to understand enough to want to embrace this way of seeing the world but we wonder if they are capable of such a response to the Bible (The Book of Strange New Things, as they call it).

We wonder what happened to the previous evangelist replaced by Peter, about whom little is said. And we wonder if building a church is the best use of all this spiritual energy, a question close to my own heart.

A further complication is that the affairs of earth seem to go badly wrong while Peter is away and his wife has to face economic disaster, famine and riot. Can their relationship survive the distance? Is his job worth it?

All good questions that were faced by Victorian Christian families taking the Gospel overseas. See what you think.

I have also enjoyed and been challenged by Under the Skin and The Fire Gospel by the same author. Those were relatively short works; The Book of Strange New Things is longer and develops ideas more fully.

Premiership Football and Coin-Tossing

A few years ago I played a whole Premiership season using a coin toss to decide games. The system was simple.

Heads = goal

I tossed a coin for each team and each match. I tossed until a tails came up then I stopped. The number of consecutive heads tossed was the amount of goals scored. This gave a spread of points at the end of the season which had nothing to do with skill and everything to do with luck.

The winning team had 67 points; bottom of the league 31. It would only have needed one slight change of luck, one more heads for the top team and one fewer for the bottom team and the range of points would have been a nice 30-70.

What do we learn? We learn that this season only Arsenal, with 71 points, and Leicester with 81 were better than an ordinary team with good luck might have performed. Arsenal marginally better; Leicester considerably.

Only Aston Villa, who were atrocious, were worse than an ordinary team with poor luck. Everyone else was unlucky (Norwich and Newcastle to be relegated) or lucky (Arsenal, Spurs and Man City to get in the top four). 4th to 8th, and 11th to 16th could have been much changed by a couple of offside or penalty decisions.

Leicester deserved to win; Villa deserved to go. The rest was inseparable from luck. And it explains why so many managers go on and on about referees' decisions. Because they are out of their control.

A few seasons back West Brom sacked a manager for poor results although at that point in the season the club had receieved two letters from referees apologising for mistakes; mistakes which would have led to a certain two, and possible four, more points. And a much more respectable league position.

Chelsea sacked a manger for not delivering the Champions League trophy when they lost the final on penalties and the last penalty hit the post.

Club owners make some terribly tough decisions based on luck. On the other hand who wouldn't want to employ a lucky manager?

Leicester fans enjoy your party. You absolutely deserve it. No-one else should rejoice. And Villa should despair and offer opponents a coin toss rather than playing the game for the next couple of seasons. Might work.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol just now:

Some years back my wife, Liz, was helping a customer apply for interest-free credit.

'Sorry', said the lady looking at the housing options section, '...there isn't a space here for my accommodation.'

So, 'Where do you live?' Liz asked.

'In a castle' the customer said.

Liz ticked the box marked 'other' much to the annoyance of the woman, who clearly wanted to put castle on the form somewhere.

As one of the clergy of the Diocese of Bath and Wells I occasionally get to drive into Wells Palace, across the drawbridge, and park in the grounds. Feels good.

Last March, hiring a large manor house for family and friends to celebrate a key birthday, of course we took a picture of us standing in the doorway. Who wouldn't?

I'm an Englishman and I sometimes wish a castle was my home.

I'm also a Christian vicar, a follower of the teaching of Jesus, a nomadic preacher from 2,000 years ago who relied on the hospitality and welcome of others. So, as I get to live in a bigger house than I could afford, I feel a moral duty to welcome others in - and I try to.

I'm not great at economics, but this I know. Rare things are expensive. Scarcity raises the price. Cheap diamonds sound dodgy.

So if we have a home, our castle, we shouldn't pull up the drawbridge and pour oil on the heads of visitors. Or deny ownership to others.

People have a fundamental human right to shelter. But this isn't the first time my thought for the day has ended up asking what happens when shelter is too expensive for more than a few.

Apparently even people who own castles need credit these days.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Eurovision 2016

'I like to live tweet comments on Eurovision. The Twitter feed makes it all worthwhile. Here are all the comments together:

In preparation for #Eurovision  I am listening to the surprising and awesome beauty of A Moon Shaped Pool.

If you want to join in my fun then I will be using #Eurovison

Easier to say, 'One or two moments may not contain flashing images.' #Eurovison

Belgium. Another one bites the disco. Several important pop clichés. Acceptable. #Eurovison

Czech Republic starts with 'I've made mistakes with the monsters in my head'. Self-fulfilling prophecy?  #Eurovison

Netherlands - 'I'm going nowhere and I'm going fast' an equally apposite opening. Piano playing different notes to the pianist.  #Eurovison

Azerbaijan - amazing lighting but 'Gonna take a Miracle'. Male dancers request pictures of their outfits are deleted at midnight. #Eurovison

Hungary - when you hit something that hard you really expect a noise. No key changes yet but welcome to whistling. #Eurovison

Italy - first non-English song? Oh no. She changed half-way through. Tuning issues. #Eurovison

Israel - We are all made of stars? Breathy. Not Moby though #Eurovison

Bulgaria - criminal trousers, bit of an Irish whistle, not as catchy as we were led to expect. In fact unhumable #Eurovison

France - I thought the French were down on English. Sorry doesn't rhyme with glory. Bit catchy. #Eurovison

Oops. @judemunday tells me that was Sweden not France but he was called Frans. You drop your guard for a moment... #Eurovison

Germany - she's wearing ALL the clothes #Eurovison

Sure this is France now. Woo oo oo oo oo always goes down well in the arena. Half in English too. Got a chance but that last note #Eurovison

Poland How does a country get to the point where it thinks this best represents them? Key-change, frock-coat and hell of a hairdo #Eurovison

Australia - strong voice but song sucked. Doubt if #Eurovison will be at 4.00 a.m. next year.

Cyprus, trying anything to lose the Greek vote. A bit of rock in the jolly Foreigner sort of way.  #Eurovison

Serbia - this is such complete, pure Eurodross I expect it will win. Big ballad with a key change. #Eurovison

Lithuania - I blame Gary Barlow. Got a chance. #Eurovison

Croatia - #Eurovison audiences can be dangerous but wearing an ammo-pouch is a bit OTT. Oh wait. Someone undressed her a bit.

Russia - coming to a hotel pool during your holiday every day this summer. Clever visuals. Key change. Winner so far. #Eurovison

Spain - not for me but loads of energy and lots of stabbed keys as expected in Eurodisco #Eurovison

Latvia - nice to have a different synth sound, this one as per 1980s Japan; rest a bit predictable #Eurovison

How do you end up with a diagonal vpl? #Eurovison

Ukraine - this is really good. Dubstep beat. Anxious vocal. No chance. #Eurovison

I love Malta but they put a lot of pressure on the relationship. #Eurovison

Georgia - what Oasis would have sounded like without the Gallaghers #Eurovison

Austria -   Before singing SAW stuff like this you must be in a soap for five years. It's the rules. #Eurovison

UK - really nice tune. Take That feel. One of the best chord sequences of the night. #Eurovison

Armenia - lots of female solo singers this year? Big lungs and a fiddle. #Eurovison

So I like Belgium, Sweden, Russia, Ukraine and UK #Eurovison

It takes 26 #Eurovison tunes to make you realise Justin Timberlake has talent. Respect.

This spoof is the best thing since my own #Eurovison song in 2006:

La la la got force fed in
And my sweet song became a din

Should win.

Before this next tweet can I just say what a brilliant job you've done and what a great show it's been #Eurovison

Just to remind you I said:

Ukraine - this is really good. Dubstep beat. Anxious vocal. No chance. #Eurovison

Crazy, crazy competition.

We meet next year in Ukraine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


The economics of industrial capitalism comes in waves of roughly fifty years, argues Paul Mason. Each period ends with advancement that leads to a step-change. He identifies these as:

1790-1848 Factory system, steam-powered machinery and canals.

1848-mid1890s Railways, the telegraph, ocean-going steamers, stable currencies and machine-produced machinery.

1890s-1945 Heavy industry, electrical engineering, the telephone, scientific management and mass production.

Late 1940s-2008 Long cycle transistors, synthetic materials, mass consumer goods, factory automation, nuclear power and automatic calculation.

Late 1990s-date (therefore overlapping) Network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods.

Within the last phase he identifies the seeds that will (must?) lead to post-capitalism. From the freeware on which much computer work is undertaken to Wikipedia putting encyclopedia sales staff out of work, more and more stuff has no pecuniary value. But the last wave has had an extended shelf-life, due inter-alia to the opening of huge new markets in China and India with money to spend. It will end.

Alongside this he has an urgency about climate change. He tells us that we must get used to the idea of leaving 80% of the world's fossil fuel in the ground and untouched; yet the oil companies are valued on the basis that 80% will be accessed. If there is no future for the world in 2050 (a real possibility) then there is no need for a post-anything.

We need to plan for our own redundancies in the sense that fewer and fewer of us will in future need to be paid to work but the world needs us to contribute. 'Once information technology pervades the physical world, every innovation brings us closer to the world of zero necessary work.' How do we solve this?

Well given his Guardian columnist credentials it won't surprise many to learn that the right will pull up the drawbridge against any or all of his ideas. But the final chapter is strongly argued that pretty soon there will be no choice. Public ownership. Profit no longer the motive. The end of greed. Save the world. That sort of thing.

It was legislation that stopped the big corporations from child labour and slavery. Only legislation will get rid of McJobs and make multi-nationals care about the environment. What's the alternative?

Well-written and challenging by the economics editor of Channel 4 news.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

I occasionally walk into glass doors. In one Nailsea church they open automatically to enter. But you have to press a button to leave. Clever. Stops children escaping. The price is a sore nose for the old and stupid such as me.

At Gloucester Services recently I noticed an older gentleman cursing that his hand drier wasn't working. Because he was holding his hands over a stainless steel waste-bin. Being generous, it looked a bit like the hand-driers of a few years back. He had not recognised the sleek air-blade driers on the wall. I gently assisted him without making him look a fool. After all, that will be me in a few years' time. If I haven't knocked myself senseless on doors.

I am delighted that justice appears to have been done for the family of Melanie Road, a teenager murdered in 1984. Her killer, Christopher Hampton, pleaded guilty after DNA evidence linked him to the crime. Hampton, now 64, will probably spend the rest of his life in prison.

In 1984 we were a decade from mobile phones being commonplace. No-one could have foreseen then that this unsolved murder would eventually be concluded with a swab from the mouth of Hampton's daughter in respect of an unrelated matter. We get cross with progress but forget what benefits it brings.

Take away those years of technology and a wise biblical author once wrote that we do not know what tomorrow might bring. We don't. But they added that we should not worry about it. Well, not if we are living innocently and righteously. But if you left DNA evidence at a crime scene 30 years ago it might be appropriate to be worried right now.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Abbey House Quiet Day

Got this message from Abbey House, Glastonbury today. Now nobody minds being given an unexpected  free day but if you fancy a day's peace and quiet in the company of Luke 15 then why not book in, if you're able to.

Monday 9th May - Quiet Day "Lost people matter to God" with Rev Steve Tilley

If I am being honest there are two reasons why I want to ask you to consider coming to the above Quiet Day at Abbey House. Yes, one reason is that if we don't get quite a few more people booking we will have to cancel it, and I haven't cancelled a Quiet Day yet! But the second reason is just as true - if you don't come you will miss some great input from a very talented speaker and a chance to enjoy the very special peace of Abbey House and its gardens to recharge your batteries!

Steve Tilley's Twitter blurb says he has been "disorganising religion since 1975" and his blog describes him as "possibly the most or least normal vicar you will ever meet". Not convinced enough to come yet? Talking about the input for the Day he asks "Is God more like a partying shepherd, a dancing house-cleaner or a bad dad light on discipline?"

Why not come and debate this with Steve or just enjoy the peaceful surroundings of Abbey House and the great lunches we provide?

Book by calling 01458 831112 or emailing

Yours sincerely

Rob Norman

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

I Love the C of E

I do, I do. In all its wonderful mix of stupidity and glory, I love it. Here's an example:

I have been the minister of a planted church for ten years, Although every church in the land was once planted, the idea of church planting has controversial overtones for some.

Trendlewood Church was planted by Holy Trinity, Nailsea in 1989 (Palm Sunday) to be a worshipping presence and attractional model of church in a part of town which used to be fields and became housing development.

There are only three public buildings on the estate called Trendlewood and the church has met in all of them at some time or other - two schools and a pub. There is no available land on which to build a meeting place.

Anxious to assert its own vision and direction in ministry the church spent the year 2014 seeking guidance regarding its future mission, concluding that it was called to be more independent; in fact as independent as possible.

The Diocese, through its officers, indicated that Trendlewood could not become a parish without a building and so Trendlewood has sought the maximum possible independence within this restrictive framework.

Last night the Holy Trinity and Trendlewood Annual Parochial Church Meeting (APCM) affirmed the proposal to pursue this by a massive majority.

There are very few examples within the National Church with which to compare this. Even the part of the C of E's web-site dealing with unusual pastoral arrangements has nothing directly comparable.

So, if you had to give a name to this new, exciting, emerging, unusual expression of church what would you choose?

Maybe a group of people who had spent too long switching their computers off using the start button had a propensity to give names that are the exact opposite of the style. So yes folks, if it all goes through without a further hitch, we will be:

A Conventional District

Can you imagine how much I want to insert the letters U and N prior to the second word? Yes, that much.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

How do you make decisions? Do you arm yourself with the best possible information then sit down with a cuppa and go through the details? Or do you act on hunches? Have an intuitive sense of what's wrong and what's right?

Should you vaccinate your children? Are the warnings right? Which experts should I listen to? Do I believe what I read in the papers? How do I assess risk?

And what about the relaxing things I can do that may involve substances? Cigarettes? Coffee? Beer? Nitrous oxide? Is it my decision? Should I listen to advice? Does it affect my decision if they are legal or illegal things?

Should I get fit? How? Train for a marathon? Or should I perhaps start on the easy level of a fun-run?

But have you noticed that a lot of life is about decisions? Have you heard of the Bible book of Job? Did you know that after questioning God, asking why he had suffered, apparently for no reason, the book ends with four chapters of God's questions?

Who is this that darkens my counsel? Where were you Job when I laid the earth's foundations? Who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars danced together and the angels shouted for joy?

What answer do you think Job gave after hearing a hundred such jibes? Did he own up to questioning things beyond his understanding? Or did he stand up to God and voice what he thought?

Do you think I'm going to tell you the answer? Or have you noticed, in this age of personal decision-making, that every sentence of today's thought is a question? Is it me that does thought for the day? Or is it you?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Happiest Days of My Life?

Richard Garner has been the Independent's, and more recently theipaper's education correspondent for many years. He has now retired and last Thursday wrote a fascinating retrospective on the changes upon which he has reported. I put the article on one side to consider again.

Find it here.

He notes some things of tremendous interest.

I had, for instance, forgotten that the abolition of corporal punishment in schools in 1986 was passed by only one vote. Mrs Thatcher, who would have voted against the measure, was delayed in traffic. Nice to know that traffic congestion isn't all bad. And it reminds us that Thatcher was not really a reformer at heart - she was a keep-it-as-it-is conservative in oh so many ways. Had she got there she would only have delayed the inevitable. Can't imagine the Major government ignoring such an issue, especially once they had their own mandate in 1992.

He records that the arrival of literacy and numeracy hours in the early days of the Blair government under David Blunkett's management was also a great drive upwards in standards. I reckon that the 1997 Labour Government (or New Labour as we must now remember not to call them again) had been sitting on its hands for so many years (eighteen in fact) that it did all its best work within eighteen months.

He applauds independent scrutiny of schools, noting in passing that the current chief schools inspector is proving too independent for Michael Gove's liking. The 'I thought we were friends' line ain't working. Academies will get just as much of a pasting under him as any LEA controlled school.

With some back-bench revolt afoot the current government, Garner says, may struggle to get their academisation legislation through.

And he ends with this:

'...treat teachers as professionals, not guinea pigs for constant change. After all, you wouldn't dictate to a brain surgeon how he or she should do their job, would you?'

Thanks Richard Garner. You have educated me.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Married in 1977 we have a book of twenty wedding photographs. Yes. You heard me. Twenty. I have a lot of special memories about that day, mainly because I got to concentrate on it.

There's an article knocking around from the New Yorker. It suggests that in the future we will only look at things in order to photograph them.

I have in my possession one photograph which worries me immensely and tells me the danger of such a future.

Two weeks ago I baptised a couple of lads at church. It was a great experience and the crowd (outside on a cool March morning) watched and cheered. I baptised by immersion in a large paddling pool.

Now such a baptism involves carefully, and pastorally, making sure the candidates are fully under the water. I try not to scare them or bully them.

But one photo clearly shows me holding one lad underwater by the throat. There can be no doubt. 

Except there is. Because the crowd will tell you I did not do that. It is a passing shot. It caught my hand moving position and froze it. And there lies the danger. Not from photoshop, although that is dangerous enough, but from thinking you have captured reality when you have created it.

Try and record reality with your own eyes and brain and then see if the photographs remind you of it. This ship may have sailed.

Grumpy Old Curmudgeon

One Christmas my Grandfather - a man for whom the word dour may well have been invented - took the opportunity to moan to one of my uncles about his Christmas present the year before.

Take a moment to think what sort of person does this. Firstly he delivers a complaint about a gift and secondly has waited a year before doing it.

'That fridge thermometer you bought me last year. It doesn't work.'

'That's OK' said my uncle (a bloke we called uncle but not a real one) with a smile on his face, 'I've bought you another one this year.'

Now tell me how you feel about this if I tell you this. He was the MD of a firm that made fridge thermometers.

Given that I have (I am told) a generous nature and a cheerful disposition it says a lot about the strength of the genetic material on the other side of the family.

Gig Openings

I was fortunate enough to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers touring their first album in Birmingham in the 1970s. Hyped up for an evening of exciting rockage we wondered which of their great up tempo tracks they would open with. Maybe American Girl or Anything That's Rock n Roll.

He chose Lunar.

Now this is a great song. Listen to it here

But as a show opener it was remarkable. It is filled with expectation and in the trembling vocal contains the idea that something big and loud is about to break out. It leads you to the rest of the album (which the band then played). But the song is all angst. It felt like the tune played over the PA as the lights dimmed rather than the first of the gig. Only after it had finished were the crowd addressed. Quite brilliant.

Thinking about it for no reason the other day I got to pondering the best openings to gigs I could recall. And they are all quite a while ago. Maybe beginning a gig isn't quite what it used to be. Too much ambling on, 'Hello bristol' (or wherever) and then playing. So how about:

Genesis at Reading in 1973 began with Watcher of the Skies. A huge brooding organ-filled sound. Peter Gabriel, only his head visible, eyes painted with luminous make-up, was encased in a sort of box. As the song progressed it was raised hydraulically into the festival night sky until he sang the final verse twenty feet above the stage. It was outrageous theatre only slightly dampened by the failure of the hydraulic mechanism and it taking about ten minutes to get him down again. I used to get terrible stomach cramps in those days, a mysterious late teenage thing that disappeared as mysteriously as it came. I had one that night but I can only recall the opening of the gig not the pain I was in. I like that.

The following year I saw Jethro Tull at Birmingham Odeon. The lights dimmed and a single spotlight picked out a black and white clad guitarist riffing on a black and white guitar. He was soon joined by a similarly clad bass player (what happened to stage costumes?). This guitar and bass dance around the stage continued for a while until the rest of the band joined in and we were off. Can't remember the tune, or much of the rest of the gig, except the pictures still in my head forty two years later.

In 1987 I saw The Mission at Rock City. Midway through the first tune I realised I had experienced the perfect iconic rock moment. To a mighty drum beat three, wind-machine-assisted, long haired guitarists were standing with one foot on a monitor surveying the crowd. They each had a fag hanging out of their mouth as they played Beyond the Pale.

I would add one further gig which I have only seen on DVD. Deconstructing the gig idea totally David Byrne (who else?) chose the Stop making Sense tour. He walks onto a bare stage with a huge ghetto-blaster and says 'I've got a tune I want to play you.' He presses 'play' and the drum track to Psycho Killer is heard. This is Talking Heads' best known song and usually their encore. He plays it solo, on acoustic guitar. Over the next two hours the band turns up section by section, a back-drop is added and by the end (the beginning?) there is an orchestra, visuals and everything you need for a great opening.

Your turn.



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Palm Sunday is the commemoration of the waving of palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem. My Nailsea church has its birthday on Palm Sunday. Founded on that day in 1989 we always count the festival as our anniversary. Last Sunday we were 27. 

We had baptisms and a party. It was a good day.

The week we are in now, in most western Christian churches, is known as Holy Week. It includes three special days:

On Maundy Thursday we recall Jesus' last supper with his disciples.

On Good Friday we mark his death. Hot cross buns don't capture the severity.

On Easter Sunday we have surprising and exciting news to ponder. Almost unbelievable. Chocolate eggs fall a little short of the level of celebration required.

But real events are no respecters of festivals. So people die on happy days and are born on sad ones. Yesterday as ministers, myself included, prepared material to tell the story of victory over death, some people who got up early to catch planes or trains ended their lives in waiting areas. Hard to call that a good Tuesday. 

The humdrum of our lives is full of good and bad. No disabled access. Bad. Great actor visits Bristol. Good. Animal cruelty on the increase. Bad. School students multiply £10 many-fold. Good.

This week Christians celebrate the remarkable triumph of good over evil. The bad things which happened to Jesus the preacher are not the end of his story.

Evil, however horrible it is to those who suffer, will not have the last word. For we recite the tale of one man who suffered and we ask:

Didn't he used to be dead?