Thursday, October 06, 2016


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

Well, oh dear.

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

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

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

Some quick tips:

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  • Already out of date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

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

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

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

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


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

My second major grouping is 'Forthcoming Appointments':

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I added one further effort to the limerick competition:

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

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

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Food Labelling

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

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

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

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

What are the choices?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Guest Economist

We welcome back our occasional visitor Sir Bob Cashless:

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

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

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

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

St. That's right.

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

St. Well public opinion seems very down on immigration.

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

St. Yes. In about five years.

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

St What are the others?

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

St. What?

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

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

Me and Physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, on to quanta.

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

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Revolution 1966-1970 at the V and A

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

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

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

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

Music from the 1990s

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Marshall is showing interest. Tag.

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

Naughty word wording in intro. 

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

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

Any Radiohead fan want to accept the tag today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Revolution; 1966-1970

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

It aims to answer this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thought for the Day

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

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

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

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

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

Museums free.

Dentistry costs.

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

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

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

Meanwhile repairing acts of vandalism is expensive for our city.

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 09, 2016


Articles of Religion?


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

Memorable uses of the number indeed.

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

This one's a keeper I reckon.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Christian Culture

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

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

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

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

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

I think I score 3. How about you?

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Iconic Sanctity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hymn of the Big Wheel - Massive Attack)

Thought for the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get used to it.

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Rev'd Roly Bain

I was sad to hear of the death of Roly from cancer. I didn't know him well enough to write an obituary but I wanted to share one thing that stuck with me.

In the 1990s there was a service at Stoneleigh to celebrate the anniversary of the Diocese of Coventry.

There was a procession to an outdoor stage and robed senior diocesan clergy made their way there. Amongst them was Roly who had been a guest for the day. As the Bishop and co sat on their stage seats Roly wandered amongst them, looking deliberately confused and producing a feather duster. He proceeded to dust all the bigwigs.

It remains with me as a picture of the necessary progress required in the Church of England.

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.