Saturday, May 02, 2015

Off with my head...

Forgive me but...

Would it be a great stretch of the imagination to guess that somewhere on the Mediterranean today, in a crowded boat of asylum seekers, a woman gave birth to a baby, salty water the only aid to hygiene.

And maybe in some deprived inner-city area across the world the words of Elvis remain true as child number six arrived:

For if there's one thing that she don't need
It's another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto

And perhaps somewhere on a Nepalese mountainside a mother gave birth to a healthy daughter just days after she lost her other children, crushed under rubble.

And also, somewhere on the continent of Africa, a child was born with HIV because the retroviral drugs necessary were simply not available to a family of their means.

And the world's press concentrates its energy on a child the least likely, of any child born anywhere in the world today, to come to harm.

I wish the royal family and new daughter well, but really...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Decisions, decisions

Nice little piece in the Guardian Weekend the other week  suggesting how nice it would be to be one of the forty passengers stranded, although safely, on a cruise ship stuck in an ice-flow for a few days. Once, the author said, everyone realised that they were going to be OK there would be no alternative but to celebrate the lack of choices and enjoy the party. In a life where choices often overwhelm us it is good to have some of them taken away. Really?

I think I may be the opposite. I am speedily decisive. I note that quite a lot of the choices that come hurtling towards us are not between good and bad but simply between two ways of progressing. It is failing to make a choice that slows us down. Carrying on, in any direction, is good.

I often have no idea what I want to eat in a restaurant until the last minute but never slow everyone else down. I just plump for something as the order is taken. I will have eliminated everything I don't fancy so what is left must be something I want to eat today. Who cares which I choose? You don't. And I act as if the decision was perfect so it was.

We don't need our choices reducing. We need to understand that in many choices there is not right and wrong but two rights, two alternative ways of making progress.

That will be twenty pounds.

Nailsea Hustings

Nailsea Christians have a reputation for putting on one of the hustings events which candidates absolutely must take seriously. So it was good to welcome all five to Nailsea School last night for a well-tempered, decently-chaired event.

In my experience it is usually the audience who are badly behaved and tonight was no exception. One questioner hid a comment in a question and segued from the minimum wage to gay marriage in two sentences. The chair, wisely, ignored him altogether.

All of the candidates were middle-aged white men. All wore jackets. Two wore ties (Labour and UKIP).

Four of the five seemed to speak human and would, in my judgement, have the interests of all the constituents at heart if elected, whether we voted for them or not. The UKIP candidate worried me that he might have a kidney in a jar in his bag and a set of surgical knives. No idea where that thought came from.

Liam Fox (Conservative and sitting MP) is incredibly smooth, a nice bloke and knows how to appeal to the audience. He got more rounds of applause than anyone else. That said it is a true blue constituency so he would have to go some to lose the seat. He chose not to respond to criticism but to leave it dangling and not to get embroiled in a discussion about the ethics of MP behaviour. In fact since all he could do was lose he chose, probably wisely, to be quietish.

The LibDem was proud of the work of coalition, or at least used the party line that he was. I think they're stuffed here. Last time they came a good second 27,000 to 20,000. This time they'll be lucky to get five figures.

The Green candidate wore green but had little chance to shoehorn green issues in. In fact, with five candidates each giving an opening and closing statement and commenting on all the questions, plus feedback from the audience, it is amazing how few issues we discussed.

Questioners were concerned about keeping our overseas aid budget as it is or better but only UKIP wanted to shrink it.

The discussion boiled down to whether we prioritise the poor or opportunity. It matters not how many times you aspire to be a culture where anyone can succeed; you still have to work out how to act appropriately towards those who don't. It matters not how kind you want to be to those who don't succeed; if there is no revenue, government cannot pay for it so some people must make money and pay tax.

We have had a yo-yo (see-saw better?) approach to this over the years. A coalition has prevented it going too far in one direction this last five.

In our constituency we would only (possibly) get a non-Tory MP if all the opposition candidates withdrew bar one.

It was good to hear all the candidates but in our democratic process it is tough to not be blue in this part of the world. You don't feel your vote really counts. Still, you don't want any other voting system since first past the post gives you strong government. Eh?

The people always win. A good and worthwhile evening, ably chaired by my colleague James Pennington.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

From a very early age I can recall having a profound sense of gratitude that I lived in England. I meet, and respect, people with the travel bug - but I don't have it. I like it here and have to be dragged abroad for holidays where insects bite and the sun burns.

England's not too hot and not too cold so the colour of the landscape is green and pleasant. Not too frozen; not too scorched.

It's not too high and not too low so most of it is habitable and little of it floods. Yes Somerset, I know some of it does.

That temperature again means we have few dangerous critters or wild animals that try to kill, poison or infect you.

And we have good management of potential health hazards. It's a sanitary country.

Natural disasters are few and far between - hurricanes, tornadoes, becoming snowbound or forest fires are all pretty unusual.

Last night I was listening to the candidates for election to Parliament in my constituency set out their arguments. I remind myself that democracy is not a privilege all enjoy. I can disagree with the authorities without being jailed for dissent.

We celebrate food heroes because many of us live with a choice of meal.

So a respectful moment's thought, and perhaps a prayer, for those who have lost their homes, or friends, in earthquakes. For those who are threatened with death if they don't change their faith. For those who have no choice about their leaders.

We are lucky. Some might say blessed. And along with that comes a God-given duty to share. We should respond in gratitude. When you have a chance to give to relieve suffering, try and be generous.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Worship and Personality Type

Using Malcolm Goldsmith's little book Knowing Me Knowing God (in which there is a longer and more complex version of the opening quiz) I produced a short Bible Study on worship and personality type for my small group last night. One or two people have expressed interest so here it is:

Get answers to the following questions. Discuss any interesting differences:

1. When listening to a sermon do you prefer:
a) Your heart to be warmed
b) Your head to be challenged

2. When there are periods of silence in services do you:
a) Wish they went on longer
b) Wish they were shorter

3. Do you think the church should proclaim:
a) The unchanging historic faith
b) A faith that requires a different expression in each generation

4. What do you prefer to get out of worship:
a) A variety of colours, shapes, smells and experiences
b) A variety of ideas

5. What do you look for in a minister:
a) Practicality and being down-to-earth
b) Vision and idealism

6. When conflict arises at church do you think:
a) This is an inevitable part of being human
b) This is a regrettable failure of Christian love

7. Are you mainly:
a) Appreciative of your church and its ministry
b) Critical of your church and its ministry

8. A good approach to spirituality is one which addresses the subject in:
a) Considerable depth
b) Considerable breadth

9. Which image of the church do you prefer:
a) A pastoral community
b) A prophetic community

10. Does your Christian faith offer you:
a) Assurance, security and structure
b) Adventure, unpredictability and insecurity

Bible study
Read two key passages:

Romans 12:1-2
Luke 10:38-42

Which one says more to you about worship?
Which do you instinctively prefer?
If Luke, are you more a Mary or a Martha?

Describe a perfect worship service for you.

Which would be better, for everyone to contribute to every service or for each of us to devise a whole one every now and again?

Pray first for our churches and those with responsibility (wardens, clergy, PCC, staff, treasurers, project managers and ministry leaders) before doing our own list.


We have discussed here before the whole problem of writer's block. Some writers just put it down to a lack of discipline; others can only get the words flowing when they are 'in the zone'.

In my ten years producing Bible-teaching resources for CYFA (Church Youth Fellowships' Association) and four years as a part-time freelance writer, I had precious few days when the words didn't flow. I think the sheer joy I felt at finally doing a job where I could sit quietly and write was a great motivator. But it is also true that in both those periods of my life I had other jobs - at CYFA I was a trainer as well as editor and when freelance writing I was a minister at a local church four days a week as well.

Having other occupations for my time gave me a wealth of situations and characters to write about. Not that that sentence convinces.

Why do we restrict the 'blocked' idea to writers? I don't have very much writing to do at the moment. But I do have a number of things I really need to get on with and I'm finding it tough.

I think it might be one of those times where living in the introvert/extrovert borderland leaves me running out of ideas when I spend too much time internally.

This seems to be true because in a couple of sessions with small groups of people yesterday evening I was really extrovert - fired and strengthened by the presence of others in the room.

The best advice I can offer to anyone blocked by a particular task, writing or otherwise, is to spend some time doing something completely unrelated and trying not to think about the blocked thing. It often helps.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol earlier this morning:

St George's Day today. A Roman soldier, martyred for not renouncing Christianity in the fourth century, is the patron saint of England, dragon-slaying myth and all.

The red and white cross of St George has been used proudly by English football fans and misused badly by racists.

What does it mean to be English? I have been terribly confused. With England making up the greatest population of the union of kingdoms I have, over the years, celebrated English success when I meant British.

We have Team GB at athletics, one Irish rugby national team for the Republic and Northern Island and five separate national football sides.

In various invasions over the first thousand years of Christianity it is likely that many of the occupants of England fled to the Welsh and Scottish hills. Romans came and went. As did Vikings. And Normans. The population of England, so modern DNA testing tells us, largely represents a people movement from continental Europe. Yes, we're Anglo-Saxons, all immigrants in a cosmopolitan melting-pot.

Yesterday we celebrated the joys of cuisine this huge mix of people groups has given us in multi-cultural Bristol.

Today we remember a man, probably from the Roman Province of Syria Palaestina, born to Greek parents, who heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Jew, and became the patron saint of a distant country full of people from everywhere except there.

So forgive me being confused. And to quote St Crocodile of Dundee - maybe the land doesn't belong to the people; the people belong to the land.

On this day of all days may we celebrate that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

A brief discussion followed about the national symbol of England needing updating and presenter Keith suggested a pie. So the Keith Gooden Pie of Patriotism was born.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sensitive Skin

Shocking as it may be to regular readers and listeners, but there is a part of me that is sensitive. Ever since a bout of pitiriasis rosea (I think I recall the spelling) in 2007 the skin on my torso has been eczematic. Now I have a good regime of moisturising and can control it well.

One of the particular problems is having very artificial fibres next to the skin. I therefore cover up with decent cotton T-shirts and thin-knits. The more natural the garment the less likely it is to cause a rash after a few hours. This is slightly annoying but gives me an excuse to wear expensive clothes. I probably didn't need one.

On purchase my first task is usually to remove the label and washing instructions since they are made of nasty scratchy material. Here's the thing. The more expensive the garment the more carefully the label will be stitched in. I'm talking to you Reiss, John Smedley, T.M. Lewin. It is very hard to get your labels out without having to restitch. I don't ask my wife to do much for me but she is an able seamstress and has a stitch unpicker which she employs dextrously.

Why spoil an expensive garment by putting cheap labels in them? And why not put a big label in the shop saying 'If you are too stupid to work out how to wash this you don't want to buy it'?

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Special Easter Greeting

Courtesy of the Campaign for Real Liturgy ©, here is the Easter all-age opening we used at Trendlewood Church:

Leader: Alleluia. Christ is risen.
All: You say that every year.

Leader: You're supposed to say 'He is risen indeed, alleluia'.
All: No-one says 'alleluia' these days. You're so out of touch.

Leader: So what do you want to say?
All: Jesus is alive. Yeah!

Leader: Really?
All: No. We're not that trendy.

Leader: Big up to Jesus init?
All: Now you're being silly.

Leader: OK, you're in charge.
All: Let's just start with a moment of quiet.

Leader: OK.
All. Shhh!

It led into a very good, and well-observed time of silence. The Campaign for Real Liturgy is delighted to have its material stolen, adapted and unacknowledged. Which pretty much makes the whole © thing a waste of time eh?

Wednesday, April 01, 2015


Won't Get

Gotcha, fooled ya, big leg-pulled ya
Didn't see me come to getcha
Took a while to get things set so
You like daft and I look better.

Even worse to fool in rhyme
But it don't work; I haven't time
Instead it looks as though it works
But that's just metre and it's murky

Take me for a ... not again
I am the easiest led of men
Fools like me don't grow on trees
Gullible's travels on the seas

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Thought for the Day

As delivered today at BBC Radio Bristol, a day when the six month anniversary of an eloping to Syria was being remembered and also the engineering work on utilising the hot springs under Bath to heat the Abbey was being discussed:

Have you ever felt a compulsion to travel? An inner voice you could not ignore?

My Bible is full of people who heard a voice which they identified as God-inspired to go places. Amos from Judah to Israel. Philip to the Gaza desert road; Paul and Luke to Macedonia. There are other examples.

It may depend how you respond to foreign news? Are they the pages of the newspaper you skip? When BBC Radio Bristol talks about Syria how do you feel?

It is perfectly possible to be interested in the rest of the world without wanting to leave home. But clearly some people have the travel bug and some don't.

My younger son and his girlfriend have it. They see their working lives as a way of funding their journeys. India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam and Japan - all done. Yesterday they returned from Morocco.

These days almost all news from around the world is with us in an instant. Terrorism relies on that. It makes me a nervous father when they are away.

So, on hearing stories of ISIS, of Ebola, of famine or strife, some feel a compulsion to go and help or join in; others to stay and pray; still others turn to the sports pages.

On a day when we discuss the application of progress to the work of some heating engineers who travelled over from Rome to Bath a couple of millennia ago, maybe we should stop and think.

Our world is very much more joined-up than it used to be. Which gives us the opportunity of caring about what happens to people we may never meet. Do you?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

EE Sold Us Out?

When we first took out a mobile contract some years ago we used Orange. We were relatively pleased with the service apart from one small and quirky piece of behaviour - despite many corrections being offered they insisted on spelling my wife's name as Elizerbeth.

Now Orange became EE (and I gather are soon to be BT so what goes around comes around it was them we were escaping) and amazingly heeded the advice that they had got the spelling wrong. In the shop they corrected it. At least we thought they had. The next bill was addressed to Eilzerbeth.

We gave up moaning. But it has interestingly provided us with the information that our details have been passed to a third party. For yesterday Elizabeth (nice conventional spelling of this fine and ancient name) received a phone call from an organisation telling us we were entitled to compensation for the motor accident we had been involved in. Really? As far as we are aware we have been unharmed in accidents for thirty years or so.

But the caller asked if she could speak to Eilzerbeth. Gotcha. We will be tracking the movement of this address list.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Garden Bird Watch

A bit later then usual I have managed to analyse the figures for 2014. It was a disappointing year for garden birds - fewer species than previous years and numbers of regular visitors well down.

The only numbers that were up were magpies and house sparrows; an encouraging little gang of sparrers who seem to have the measure of the two local cats.

Only saw the sparrowhark a couple of times - its existence obviously makes the smaller birds (up to collared dove size) warier.

No greenfinches, chaffinches, bullfinches or jackdaws. House martin numbers reduced. Winter not cold enough for fieldfare or redwing to visit from the fields.

Feeders all charged though so I'll keep watching. Robins, dunnocks and blackbirds all nesting very locally.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cultural Islands

I have mused less on culture recently than I did in the mid 90s and early 00s. I found a definition of culture which I loved, and have never seen improved. It has not proved necessary to say much more. Until today. I have a new thought. But first the definition.

Musician and producer Brian Eno says that culture is 'Everything you don't have to do.' Thus food is not culture but cuisine is. Clothes are not culture but fashion is. And so on.

It means it is not a cultural decision to eat rice if rice is the only thing on the menu. But once there is a choice of two foodstuffs, or about how to prepare the one, the decision being made about food is cultural.

I've had one or two discussions with folks who don't like this over the years but their arguments against have never seemed to take us beyond 'I don't like it'. I like it.

How we worship the one we call God as a church is, above all, a cultural decision. A church represents the attempts of a local community, perhaps in the context of a national church's guidelines, to worship God and serve others in God's name. It will develop a culture. It follows that the smaller the Christian community gathering on a Sunday is, as a percentage of the community it is there to serve, the less likely it is to be culturally relevant to the non-attenders. The choice of day is also a cultural decision.

Now I am the minister of a planted church which was set up in 1989 to be a worshipping community in a particular new-build place. Many people who moved onto this estate joined this church and established its habits. Two things happened. Well OK, lots of things happened but I am going to talk about two.

Firstly this community established ways of doing Sunday church that were a bit different. To begin with it met in a pub, which got some publicity but did not last a year. Meeting in a school enabled an informal style which people bought into more easily. Movable chairs and a light airy atmosphere worked well for this. Musicians played instruments other than an organ. This attracted outsiders from beyond the boundaries of its area becasue they liked that sort of thing. It became eclectic. To some extent it also neglected its mission to its area of the parish in which it existed. To some extent. Don't worry about giving me examples of how it didn't so neglect.

Secondly, a group of people who joined the church from another place, geographically speaking, who had rejected the cultural style of the nearest church as 'not them', asked if we could enable them to set up another community nearer where they lived. We are doing this.

I have returned again this morning to a determination not to allow the cultural preferences of the church community to jeopardise the relationship with non-attenders as I listen to an illuminating and helpful set of talks on hospitality. Because hospitality is one of the key values I have tried to ingrain in the church. Hospitality not simply us giving books to people and telling them where to sit, but a real welcome, a helpful accompaniment of stranger plus coffee and biscuits that are free. Followed up by a visit to newcomers by someone not the vicar and an invitation to eat with people as soon as possible.

I have repeatedly said that hospitality is not welcoming people when it is convenient for you but when it is convenient for them.

But it is more, I now learn. For hospitality, in its strictest sense, is a meeting of equals. The provision of warmth and nourishment is not the hospitality; it creates the environment in which a genuine encounter can talk place where both bring something to the meeting. The Old Testament, I discover, had no sspecific word for providing food and shelter. It didn't need one since it was a part of what you did automatically.

Your church should be changed every time someone new walks through the door. Ours hasn't been, enough. But if that were to happen we would never become a cultural island in which people say to us 'We don't like your style' the way they have to the other local church. For our style would be up for grabs to anyone who wants to join us. Strangers come and contribute. What a massive vision. And what a massive culture change for the church to adopt it.

Thanks to Nick Jepson-Biddle, Precentor of Wells Cathedral for sparking these thoughts at a chapter quiet morning. Grateful.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Circle

What is the goal of the social media? What is the endgame?

Set not too many years into the future this novel talks about the massive social media organisation known as The Circle. It has swallowed Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Amazon. People no longer tweet, they zing.

And the talk is of completing the circle. Becoming transparent so everyone can see everything you are doing 24/7 apart from comfort breaks.

People who don't want to share, wish to stay hidden, are treated with suspicion. Even hounded.

Mae starts work with the Circle and soon becomes a key employee, sharing her ideas and indeed her life with millions of followers.

Total transparency will eliminate crime. It will enable people to exercise their right to vote knowing everything about each candidate, for a candidate who is not transparent will be treated with suspicion. It will help us find anyone with anything to hide. It will bring us all closer together and stop wars. Won't it?

Even illness seems to be a thing of the past as the Circle's massive turnover enables bang up-to-date treatments for employees who become unwell. And their families, Mae discovers.

This is utopia isn't it? Well?

The book is a thriller and a page-turner but is also a slow reveal. Is there bad in here somewhere? Is someone trying to tell Mae about a sinister flip-side? And will she listen?

I loved this book but also need to think about it a lot. You must read it.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

A Word of 2015 Testimony

Stephen Fry said recently that you can't believe in a God who allows parasites to eat the eyes of African children. It's an imagination failure really. People find it very hard to imagine a thing, a being, an essence (words fail us) who inhales bad and breathes out good. Someonething so amazing that their very existence encompasses all that is evil and redeems it.

It is amazing that some of these people with such a limited imagination are actors.

Almost fifty years since we moved beyond the god-of-the-gaps idea - that God is what you have left when science has reached its limit - still there are people who carry the idea of a too-small God around with them in case they have to do some emergency debunking.

The faith community can live with this. We laugh at it. We know that it is better debating style to select the strongest expression of your opponent's case to argue against. At least, some of us do.

We do not all recognise the God the atheists hate.

But we also chuckle at the way some people, who pronounce themselves members of the faith community, actually have put their trust in something they think they've proved. They believe in God on the basis of evidence, the balance of probabilities. That's not faith my friends. But sadly, neither is it science. It's pseudo-science and it deserves to be ridiculed. Even the very sad expression 'intelligent design' suggests that other human theories, by comparison, are unintelligent. This is, on the one hand plain rude, and on the other placing far too much infinite value on the earthly word 'intelligent'. Don't ascribe human characteristics to God. That way lies a barren land of omni-this and all-that. Take your shoes and socks off instead.

Faith is acting as if something is true because in doing so it becomes real for you and makes sense of your story. It provides a meta-narrative (and I know we are a bit suspicious of meta-narratives these days) which guides, points and helps. Neither a crutch, nor proving it but simply a theory of everything. Now where have I heard that expression before?

We all prefer to live in hope. My missing child will return. My cancer will be cured. I will find a job. And no, putting those three things in the same sentence is not to confer equal seriousness upon them. So living, in what the Church of England funeral service describes as the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, is not counter-intuitive at all. It helps us live.

And so from this standpoint we observe the scientific community describing the universe as we know it beginning at a Big Bang, then refining the theory to suggest a series of bangs and crunches ad infinitum backwards and forwards (whatever that means in a multiverse we may have to now know as eternal). And as we observe we posit the existence of the infinite, the ultimate, the beyond-our-ken, the logos, the ground of our being, God. And for some of us it nourishes and sustains us to hope there is more than this, to live as people of faith that this life is not the only one on the market.

Not that we can tell with certainty if our atoms are to be redistributed around the universe or if there is to be a general resurrection. Most thinking Christians have jettisoned the whole damned-to-an-eternity-in-torment thing.

Wise guy once suggested this was the equivalent of seeing through a glass darkly, stealing an idea from Plato. And same guy suggested that in Jesus of Nazareth there were more clues to the other-world than in anyone else.

Which means that many great human stories and metaphors were told to try and get the truth of this man (somehow human and yet divine) taped. God's son? The lamb of God? The son of man? All make a point yet all fall short. No construct of words will ever get anywhere nearer than shoes and socks off time.

Trying to make sense of his death - some call the attempts 'theories of the atonement' - has led to all sorts of forms of words. Christus victor? Substitutionary atonement? Victory over death, sin, the world, the flesh, the devil?

For the evangelical community substitutionary atonement has become more than a model. It was, they say, what actually happened. Christ died in our place. So any member, or former member, of that community in all its breadth, is ostracised for daring to suggest that this might not be the whole truth.

I made this point in a Twitter conversation a few months back and the great Richard Dawkins said something along the lines of 'You mean God sent his son to die for the sake of a metaphor. That's worse.' Meaning that it was worse than all the other theories of the atonement with which people were wrestling and he was disagreeing. I love Dawkins. He writes well. He has helped me understand complex science. And he has had the humility to pull back from his rather aggressive stance against people of faith. He now acknowledges that friendly conversation works better. Respect.

I promised to write a bit more about it and it has taken until today to say this. Believe in God or not. It is entirely up to you. But make sure, if you don't believe, that the God you don't believe in isn't too small for anyone to believe in. Any creed, metaphor or historical account that is raised beyond the level of faith to actual, real, historical truth about the one we hope and trust is the creator and sustainer of the universe has become an idol. And we don't do idols in the Christian community.

Christ did not die for the sake of a metaphor. But metaphors are all we have to describe the sake he did die for.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Today is World Book Day. Right now you may be helping a child to attend school dressed as a favourite character from a book.

I love books. I almost never go anywhere without one in case there will be an unexpected wait.

An English teacher, Mr Parry, once picked on me to tell the class what I was currently reading. I remember, with some embarrassment because I was a happy reader, the mind-blank moment I had.

He championed teaching by sarcasm. 'When a book and a head collide and there is a hollow sound,' he said, 'it is not always the book's fault.' Ouch. In those days you could hit your pupils over the head with a book.

Ever since I have recorded the titles of books I have finished. Just in case Mr Parry pops up again, I guess.

Writing is time-travel. My writing in one place and time becomes your reading in another. What a luxury.

When printing first came along communities had very few people who could read. Priests were often the best-educated members of their village or town.

As a vicar I am no longer in such a position. Indeed, if I preach something people find distasteful it won't be long before they have searched online for six other sermons on the same subject. The internet has changed preachers from dogmatists to gentle guides. Jolly good too.

My key text in my work, the Bible, is not one book but sixty-six, by at least forty different authors and editors. It still tops publishers' lists yet may well be the world's best-owned, least read book. Here's a thought for World Book Day. Have another look at the greatest story ever told. It changed my life.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Brits

The DVD remote had broken. That was the only reason folks. Yes I know it was a lifetime vow and I am sorry. I won't do it again. What? Write about it? Yes of course I will write about it. I feel it would be letting people down not to.

So, circumstances conspired to make watching The Brits necessary last night. For those who don't keep up, this is a satirical comedy programme about popular music. It is the industry's shop window of self-congratulation assisted by the children of Sun readers.

First the set. On stage there was a massive posse; a group of dancer/backer/on-hanger people who saved having to pay too much for backdrop. The arena was set out with a clear demarcation between the scrubbed and the unscrubbed. The celebrities, nominees and Simon Cowell sat around tables drinking champers. The hoi polloi were in the tiered seating heading back several miles. The tables were decorated such that an overhead shot appeared to be of a full box of chocolates.

The presenters were that well known duo PJ and Duncan, child actors from Byker Grove who had a hit once and managed to get nominated for a Brit for it. Since then they have made a living out of being professional Geordies Ant and Dec though no-one has any idea, without thinking about it, which one is Donnelly and which McPartlain, which little and which large and which of the two is the funny one. Come to think of it they may have been existing as a comedy duo with two straight men for some years.

From time to time comedians are put on stage to introduce awards. The wise ones (stand up John Bishop) make no attempts at humour but announce the winner, hand over the ugly statuette, and run off with the fee. The unwise (need I tell you this year it was Jimmy Carr again) make jokes about Madge's HRT supplies at which no-one laughs. The sound of thousands of weird people not laughing at once is an awesome one. A sort of silence of the odds. This effect was also used in auto-muting the vocal when Kanye West said something naughty. Since the backing track was not that complex, and the software pulled a bit of the music through the black hole too, and almost all the song was naughty, the effect was amazing. Norman Collier eat your heart out. That is how to do the faulty mic routine.

Hello darkness my old friend.

I drop in to the Brits every ten years or so and always search for the word which describes my reaction. It is like watching an amateur at a country fair having a go at dry-stone walling. Unassisted they would make a wonky edifice with no lasting potential whatsoever but you would be compelled to stop and stare. Come to think of it that is a genius analogy.

I began some time in the 1980s with Sam Fox, Mick Fleetwood and the dodgy autocue.

I revisited for Jarvis Cocker and the Michael Jackson protest.

Given my delight in the best of contemporary music it is always strange to hear nominees for awards of whom I have never heard, my home, car and life being Radio 1 free zones.

I usually wonder which audience elimination programme they won. Sam Smith. Sorry mate but who are you?

George Ezra sang his song.

The interviews involve telling people what a great year they've had, a statement with which they agree. 'It's been mad'. Then asking them how drunk they intend to get at the after-show party which is a great witness to the children of Sun readers.

The headline - Oh My God it's only Madonna - sang a song so dreadfully forgettable that after a few bars one of the backing singers grabbed her by the cloak and pulled her off stage. He failed to follow up with the Vulcan death grip or a blow to the head with an empty champers bottle so she got up and carried on.

This, in a world of warfare, political machinations and fascinating debates about the future of democracy, was the third item on ITV's self-generating news programme which followed.

I am going to buy some more batteries for the DVD remote today.

Tomorrow - the Kardashian bottom debate (cont'd)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

More Teaching Vicar

Some time ago, maybe here, maybe somewhere else, I received an email bemoaning that the church was under satanic attack. A list of examples was given of things that, if I were a gambling man, I would have put money on happening in any group of people the size of that particular church.

If the petty squabbles, relationship difficulties and people-behaving-badly stuff listed was a sign of the devil at work I wondered, in replying, who was in charge of the attack where (insert name of nation) was being (insert name of disaster). I did it more tactfully than that, I like to think, but in essence offered the suggestion that the email writer should calm down a bit and get some perspective.

It was what happened next that I loved. I got a further reply suggesting that the church needed more teaching on this.

That's right. The response to me, the pastor, offering teaching, was to say we needed more teaching. When actually the person wanted more teaching that accorded with their own views.

We live in a world where people are told they haven't listened if they are not going to do what the complainant wants. People who insist they need closure simply want to write a happier ending than the one currently on offer. And teaching not to the pupil's taste is deemed inadequate.

That's me finished moaning for a bit. Will write lighter stuff over next few days holiday. Probs.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Chelsea 2 Leeds 1

Took the funerals of two enthusiastic football fans this week. On Monday Kev was sent off in his Chelsea kit. On Wednesday Malcolm, a fervent Leeds United supporter, took his leave.

Juxtaposing these two events this morning my mind went back to the 1970 FA Cup Final replay. I watched it with my Dad on a black and white TV. I had started watching the Cup Final on tele in 1964 and have watched almost all of them since. My memory of those first few is still pretty clear though.

In the Leeds Chelsea match Bobby Charlton was a studio guest and at half-time was discussing Leeds' goal scored by Mick Jones. Now Mick was what you might call an old-fashioned centre forward. Good in the air, led the line well and headed for goal in as straight a line as possible. My memory of his dribbling skill is that he simply went into a series of fifty-fifty tackles and won them until one-on-one with the goalkeeper. I may be doing him a disservice since I can remember one great run and cross in a later cup final. But I think he broke his arm in the same match.

Still, in 1970, he had hustled and bustled past several defenders and scored. Charlton said, 'He should have been fouled'.

Watching the footage of that match back it is clear that you would not have picked up a booking if you had slipped a flick-knife out of your sock and and severed an opponent's hamstring. It is also obvious that this would have only been a minor inconvenience to said defender who would have been back on the pitch stretching after a couple of wipes with an icy sponge had distracted him while the trainer tied a knot in it. The winning goal involved David Webb of Chelsea shouldering the ball and several other players into the net after a near-post flick on.

But at Charlton's comment my Dad let out a harrumph. He could harrumph for England, my Dad. He was also, by and large, a rugby man who thought football was inferior (but bless, he never told me that to my face and accompanied me to many matches).

A bit of the world changed then. If Bobby Charlton said an opponent should have been fouled... Gentleman Bobby, a footballer everybody, even rugby men, respected, had advocated cheating. Dad met my future father-in-law Ken in 1973 and he returned my Dad to rugby. Together they won the 1970s world harrumphing championships when Leicester beat Moseley at Twickenham with a late push-over try.

Forty-five years on the deliberate foul is part of the everyday game, cheating players take advantage of this and it is clearly all Bobby Charlton's fault.

RIP Malcolm and Kev. Thanks for the memory.

Monday, February 16, 2015


Incredibly moving, encouraging and amusing night Sunday night as I got to be guest, without responsibility, at the confirmation of the oldest member of our small group, a sprightly 80 something who came to faith through an Alpha course we ran a few years ago.

She was terribly nervous. Bless. As the Bishop of Taunton entered Holy Trinity, Nailsea she led the candidates in behind him. 'Just follow the bishop' someone had obviously said to her. So she walked one foot behind him like in a Madness video. When he reached his chair he stopped and turned only to have Beryl six inches from him. Grandmother's footsteps. The bishop loses. Beryl did the only thing she could do in the circumstances (what can I give him?) and handed him her large-print service order. The chaplain gave it politely back.

It became apparent that no words of rehearsal had stuck with Beryl. She was happy to be being confirmed and her minder, Linda, shepherded her around perfectly for the rest of the service. 'We need more Beryls' said the Bishop to me later. He is right. She grasps little of the complexities of the faith into which she is being confirmed. She likes being loved and included and this is one of our values in the Nailsea pioneer community. There's a party going on. Join in.

Mrs T said she wanted to talk to the bishop. She had that determined look with which I have learned not to argue. I took her over to meet him and she kissed him and said 'Thank you for 'getting' my husband.'

I pointed out that it was obvious I was punching above my weight. 'You always do' he said. Because he gets me and that unexpected, well-worded complement was just perfect. Thanks Bish.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Thought for the Day

Thought for the day as delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning following the announcement that in Durham breathalysing students is being considered, for their own safety:

How protected do you want to be? Freedom to do something daft which may cost you your life. Or a nanny state with kid gloves and cotton wool.

What steps should we take to stop young people hurting themselves after a night's drinking?

Ban alcohol.

Ban universities.

Two stupid extremes. But they help us place ourselves in the sensible middle, balancing over-reaction with turning a blind-eye.

The Bible begins with this. A universal story that goes back to human origins. A garden with only one rule. One dodgy tree. One forbidden fruit. Everything else - fine.

It is a story of there being certain limits on freedom. To save ourselves from hurting other people for sure. That is why we can no longer smoke where it might make the innocent unwell.

But also to save us from ourselves. You take too big a risk getting behind the wheel of a car if you are intoxicated. Too big a risk with the lives of others and your own life.

So why not go one step further and only allow the sober near dangerous rivers? Breathalyse the students before allowing them to walk home by the water.

That Bible story is the account of why, once one rule is broken, more rules need to be introduced. The first people, thrown out of Eden eventually need judges to settle disputes, kings to rule and page upon page of laws of which the ten commandments are but a summary and today we have more rules about vegetables than the Bible had about violence.

We only need one rule. Use your common sense. Trouble is, it is so uncommon that what it means to be sensible needs to be clarified from time to time.

How long has this been going on?

Do you have any idea how long you speak for? Not from the pulpit if you have such an edifice, really or metaphorically, but in meetings and discussions. Most people who love the sound of their own voice underestimate, when asked to guess, how long they speak for. I know one person who always contributes to meetings in five minute chunks. The idea of getting a one sentence intervention out of him (it is a him) is cloud cuckoo land.

Next time you have a meeting ask someone to time the length of the contributions. It may surprise people. Or you?

You may have to introduce a guest for some reason in order for this to happen and, it goes without saying but I will say it anyway, that if you tell people why the guest is there it will change behaviour.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

How Many Trees?

I wonder if you have ever noticed the awkwardness presented in Genesis 1-3 about the number of trees in the garden. Let me work through them, reference by reference:

In Genesis 1 everything is straight-forward (in a literary way). God creates vegetation, including trees, on day three (1:11).

There are two separate accounts of creation and in Genesis 2 we have a more human story. There is a garden and in the centre of it are two trees. One is the tree of life and one the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9).

God tells the man he must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). The woman has not yet been created.

At the beginning of Genesis 3 a serpent pitches up and asks Eve (now in existence) what the rules are. She refers to the one tree in the middle of the garden and explains that it cannot even be touched or she will die (3:3). She doesn't name the tree.

After a bit of intrigue in which the serpent offers a convincing argument (to Eve) she eats and shares the fruit with her husband. Note, it is not an apple.

In 3:11 God asks the man (he addresses Adam) if he has eaten from the tree he was told not to eat from. He blames the woman, she blames the serpent.

Before chucking them out of the garden for good God says (to himself?) that he must do this in case the couple eat from the tree of life also and live forever (3:22).

Many ancient creation legends have a tree of life. As far as I know only the Hebrew/Christian one has a second tree. And even the author/editor of the story seems a little unclear about how it all fits together. Life, death and knowledge. Inter-connected but complex. Nice little allegory.

Thought for the Day

'It wasn't what you said it was the way you said it.' Ever been on the receiving end of that bit of pocket wisdom?

I am reading a fabulous little book by Mark Forsyth called 'The Elements of Eloquence'.

It was given to me by a friend who always sends copies of her favourite book each year to five people she thinks will enjoy it. Lovely thing to do.

In the book, sub-titled 'How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase' we are introduced to the proper names for all the different ways of speaking.

Please, please me sang the Beatles, possibly unaware they were using polyptoton.

Why do you have flip-flops and not flop-flips? Why do bells go ding-dong not dong-ding? Because English has a feel for the correct order of words. If you break it; that's called hyperbaton. Used by Yoda in Star Wars, it was.

And why say 'everybody' when you can say 'ladies and gentlemen'. That's a merism.

So, whether you are complaining about a football result, a supermarket or the weather (that was a tricolon by the way), it will make a difference how you say it.

When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man I put childish ways behind me.

St Paul had a way with words. Epistrophe, in fact. But it helped him tell his Christian audience to act more maturely. They might not have listened otherwise.

If we have an axe to grind we might make progress if we get our language sharper too. It's what you say and how you say it.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Don't Panic

From time to time I take the early communion at a particular neighbouring church. Over the years I have learned a number of things.

Often, on arrival, some people will be going crazy about something not very important (to me). Although I have to keep my wits about me because equally often something very important (to me) will not have been attended to.

Today I arrived fifteen minutes before the start. I find that if I arrive any earlier then I am somehow implicated in the things that have gone wrong.

I was greeted by the sound of a Church Warden on the phone, frustrated because nobody was answering. At the end of the call I was told the power wasn't working and perhaps a fuse had gone. This meant the PA was not able to be used. I noted that all the lights were on and walked slowly to the vestry to put my robes down. As I walked up the aisle I spotted that there was no president's Common Worship book on the communion table.

I have made it my business not to mirror the panic coming my way in this place and never to be distracted from my immediate task. Having reached the vestry and hung my robes I returned to the PA desk, walking deliberately slowly. It was demonstrated to me that the on/off switch was failing to make the little red lights come on. I followed the mains lead out of the back of the cabinet to the wall socket and switched on the power. Little red lights came on. Two comments were heard:

'That switch is not meant to be turned off.'

'I didn't know that switch existed; I've never seen it before.'

I waited until the last minute before enquiring if there was a communion president's copy for me to use. There was. 'I knew I'd forgotten something.'

The number of people requiring communion was over-stated by two. Counting to twenty-three is not that hard.

After the service the money-counters were trying to find a working pen in a drawer full of non-functional ones. My suggestion that the non-functional ones be not returned to the drawer was greeted with fascination at its ingenuity, yet caution at its workability without permission. I noted that when I placed last week's notice sheet from my stall in the vestry recycling box it was later examined by someone else to make sure I had not disposed of anything important. Perhaps all notice sheets are photocopied before recycling.

My line:

Pens, pens everywhere
Yet not a drop of ink...

Caused no mirth whatsoever.

On leaving I met the man who had been the recipient of the 8.15 'phone call. I do not think it was a new experience for him to be awoken with an enquiry about the PA.

I love this church.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Raindrops on Roses?

I don't really see the world in terms of favourites. I was in a group setting recently where we were taking it in turns to share our favourite song and favourite Bible passage. Rabbit in the car headlights time.

I make a list of my desert island discs but it changes regularly. I like lists. But making the final decision as to which one record I would take. Hard.

Many of my colleagues were making their decisions on the basis of emotional or sentimental attachments - memories. Lots of my memories are attached to bad music so that's not on the list.

I've just got back from my Mum's, a woman who wouldn't throw away an envelope if it had a dead person's writing on it. I don't mean she gets mail from the dead; just that she keeps mail a long time.

Reasons to be cheerful - I can do that and posted about 200 a few months back. But choosing one. Ridiculous.

Today I was particularly cheered by a bacon double cheeseburger and fries. But I could manage without ever eating another one.

You don't have to have a favourite everything, or indeed anything. And sentimental attachments to things? You'll live out your old age surrounded by crap. If in doubt; chuck it out (which strangely, was the motto of the insurance claims department I used to work for).

Now, where did I put my lucky handkerchief?

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Tonight I am very much looking forward to the annual dinner of the Nailsea Mountain Rescue Team. What's that you say? There are no mountains in Nailsea? Quite so. But if any should appear we will be one of the few low-level towns in the south-west that is prepared.

I suspect you smell a rat. And you would be right to do so. It is a spoof organisation consisting of a bunch of people who like a bit of a drink and then to walk off the calories. It's a joke, made all the funnier by the absolutely straight-faced way the members explain what they are doing.

Last summer, on one walk back, the team discovered a couple in the middle of a field who looked in need of rescue. Closer inspection revealed that their horizontal position was intentional and the presence of the team undesirable. Oops.

We all need a bit of fun. Even Shakespeare's greatest tragedy King Lear has a fool in it to remind the king he is flawed. Writing to the Corinthian Christians St Paul adopts the style of a fool and boasts of his weaknesses. The jester reminds us we are all human and full of frailty.

We can get a bit over-serious about bad news. Tourist offices closing. Medical money misused. School league tables drawing attention to failure. All doomed.

So tonight, as the coxswain of the Backwell Lifeboat joins us as our special guest I will take my chaplaincy duties responsibly and then enjoy the company of a bunch of folk who, from time to time, don't take life too seriously, and make sure they have climbed every mountain in Nailsea. Please don't call me early on Saturday morning.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Poetry Challenge

Last night' s Cafe Create poetry challenge was to write a poem about silence featuring the words:

Water polo
Beagle two
Psycho therapy

I woke up, couldn't hear the wind
My ears had sinned
All input binned
Tinnitus - tinned

The sound is slaughtered
Decibels quartered
Ear-holes mortared

It is a no no
If you go low
You should say woah
Under-water polo

I tried to see
If there might be
Another key
A noise to set my panic fee

The taps flow rate
A soundless date
The shower sedate
Maybe I could alternate

Turned on the news
But missed all cues
Unshared views
No Humphrys bruise

I think the noise
Often annoys
Ruins my poise
But I didn't want to lose its joys

Now I get
A dreadful threat
No rhythm set
A silent castanet

So let's see
What becomes of me?
Can't raise the fee

Farewell laughter my old friend
I think you got me in the end
The prophets subway walls just send
Me round the bend

What's a guy supposed to do?
It feels like glue
My ears are through
There's more response from Beagle 2


Four groups:

Traditionalists support change as soon as it has been repeated twice and become a tradition.

Hesitants support change when most people support the change.

Early adopters support change as soon as they see the benefit or potential.

Mavericks support change.

Where do you put yourself?

Where should a leader put themselves?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

I was chatting to a group of young adults about what they call 'the old days' and I call my past.

They couldn't grasp how I used to meet up with friends without a mobile phone. 'Well' I said in a patronising, fatherlike voice I save for such occasions, 'Each time we meet, before we leave, we fix the time and place of the next gathering and then go there at that time.'

They all looked gobsmacked. How awkward. What if you are late? They could agree to meet in Dundee on Saturday, tweak the arrangements right up to the last moment and agree a precise meeting place once there. It's a luxury.

I showed them a picture of the first office I ever worked in. A busy insurance company. On each desk just a phone and a load of files. No computers, yet.

If I was to have a word now with my twenty year old self the array of communication devices in this studio would be utterly baffling as Twitter feeds, autocues, Facebook updates, texts, calls and live material are seamlessly linked. Well, usually.

The young me understood bullying, had even suffered a bit of it, but would not have a clue what I was talking about if I mentioned cyber-bullying.

We can end up thinking that this is a very 21st century problem needing a very 21st century solution. It isn't and doesn't. All it needs is the age-old rule to treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself. So old, it's in the Bible.

Online is just another place where people hang out. The good and the evil. There, as anywhere else, people should be respected not bullied.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Short Term 12

This is a lovely little film directed and written by Destin Cretton (new to me) from the autumn of 2013.

It is set in a centre / care home for troubled children and young people. None of the cast were particularly familiar to me.

As Nate is introduced to his new co-workers over the opening credits we are led to suspect this will be about a fish-out-of-water posh kid learning to understand deprivation for the first time. In fact Nate isn't the star of the show; the whole cast is.

We visit a team of caring care-workers - sometimes working with the therapists who offer more directed interventions into the young lives and sometimes kicking against them - and we observe day-to-day interactions. We are left to marvel at the patience shown by thousands of such employees around the world day-by-day. This film is a counter to the bad stories about abuse in such establishments.

Sometimes a barrier is broken by shared artwork; sometimes by rhythm and rap. It is about being incarnational and looking for connections.

That said, all is not well. Even the carers have their demons and through gentle dialogue and a number of scenes where 'show' is used much better than 'tell' we learn more.

This is a tough place to work, a tough place to grow up and yet, because the problems are real, the redemption, when it comes, is too. So a troubled young girl can help a worker, who has buried her own past, to deal with it.

The book-ending of two, almost identical, scenes is a lovely framing device to start and finish. That they mean different things is all to do with context.

Great performances. Only 96 minutes of your life needed and I rented my copy from Amazon for 99p. Best use of money this year.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

If everyone is good, good is average

My fascination with statistics has developed over the years. Possibly because I am a bit nerdy; maybe because as an intuitive by nature I need to remind myself constantly that statistics are counter-intuitive and need to be studied to reveal their secrets. As I am fond of saying, a mugging victim will find it hard to believe that crime is down in the moments after the attack.

I read another example of this in the excellent 'Thinking Fast and Slow' by Daniel Kahneman this week, discovering the delights of 'regression to the mean'.

Which is better? Shouting at the poor performers or praising the good?

Time's up.

What is your gut reaction? Probably that there is a place for both stick and carrot.

Now let me tell you more. In an organisation where everyone is on top of their game - say it is sales - give or take, most of the team members sell 100 units a week, most of the time. One week a sales rep shifts only 23. You are the team leader and you have that person in your office and give them a dressing down. They can offer no explanation for their poor sales and so you assume they didn't try hard enough, missed some leads or allowed private affairs to get on top of them. After a stern talking to and threat of disciplinary action, you send them packing.

Next week they come in with 105. You pat yourself on the back for your management skills.

Another week a second member of the team pitches in with 342 units. You invite them to your office, praise them, give them a bonus and a 'sales-person of the week' award and an afternoon off.

Next week they come in with 95.

Which is better? Shouting at the poor performers or praising the good?

Time's up.

Obviously the counter-intuitive conclusion from these results is that shouting works but praise doesn't.


Your intuition was right at the beginning.

You see, all things being equal, from time to timely average performers will produce above average results and below average results. They average out. Rarely, but occasionally, very bad and very good results will crop up. Remember that in this organisation everyone is on top of their game. I told you that. So circumstances will conspire to have an occasional customer who wants to buy loads of your product as a one-off, giving you an outstanding week. And sometimes all the good customers stay away at once. It just happens like that because averages are, well average.

The shouted at will put extra effort in and do slightly above average next week but they won't keep that performance level up. The praised will be encouraged, slightly complacent and try slightly less hard.

It all reverts to the mean.

So if neither make a big difference, ask yourself this. Will my workforce do better in an environment where the good is praised and the bad understood? Or in one where the bollocking is the only tool?

Friday, January 09, 2015

How to compare two things.

I read just now that:

'Gordon Taylor has apologised for comparing the Hillsborough tragedy to the Ched Evans rape case.' (Source -

I wish he hadn't. Apologised, that is. Because that was not what he did. No such comparison was made. What he did was to give the Hillsborough case as an example of people being thought to be guilty and found innocent. Simply an example of something that does happen from time to time and that is a miscarriage of justice.

Now I am not making any pronouncement on the innocence or guilt of Ched Evans. He has been found guilty by a court; he continues to protest his innocence. We shall have to wait and see.

And of course I am bound, at this stage, in accordance with the rules of the game of language as currently played, to say that rape is rape, rape is serious, rape is a crime and the rapist is to blame. Otherwise I will be offending people who will think I am not taking it seriously enough.

Here's my problem. The world currently seems to take the view that putting two things in the same paragraph is comparing them. It isn't. And it is educated journalists, who should know better, who are making sure people who were never meant to be insulted fully understand the non-nuances of the insult that wasn't made so they feel insulted.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Why Retreat?

From time to time, those who have pretty ordinary working lives look across at us clergy and wonder why it is necessary to take sabbaticals or go on retreat quite so regularly. 'Chance would be a fine thing', you almost hear them say.

Don't get me wrong. Retreat time as part of work is a privilege and not one I take for granted. I also get to worship and pray as part of my working life. Equally nice.

Someone once, in a fine evangelical sermon, used the example of the two biblical seas. The Sea of Galilee receives and gives and is alive; the Dead Sea only receives and is dead.

It reminded us all of the need to serve and be served if we want to live as Christians. I have met followers of Jesus who were out of kilter in both directions.

If you only give, only serve, especially as a preacher and teacher, you will soon not only dry up, but cease to exist. A sea that doesn't receive will soon be a place where the water used to be.

So I am away for a few days. I am with a friend who shares a comfort with the routine and timetable we have established over the years. We set aside times to talk - about what we are reading and about our ministries. We set times to eat and times to read and even a time to nap in the afternoon.

It is a luxury. But our churches would not want to experience us trying to minister without this six monthly half week away. It is not holiday. It is an investment in our being better by stepping back. To this end it would be a useful addition to the annual timetable of many senior leaders in industry. Stopping to think is not actually a luxury. It is a necessary. Many walks of life would be the better for those responsible having not just holiday, but thinking breaks.

You can often better reflect on your situation by getting out of it for a while. Get away.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Jesus, Virgins and Christmas

Andrew Lincoln was one of my college lecturers and gave some ground-breaking New Testament expositions. This book, a detailed and academic look at the doctrine of Jesus' virginal conception, is quite simply one of the best works of theology I have read.

I confess to using my theological library as a point of reference rather than as a set of tomes to devour from beginning to end, although I am trying to change. I read this book from cover to cover, stopping many times to ponder or look up references. It is now covered in highlighter pen.

Andrew, Portland Professor of New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire, shows how much weight we have heaped upon the two short stories at the beginning of Luke and Matthew's Gospels. He goes on to explain why this might have been, what sort of writings they are and how it is possible to have the highest possible Christology without knowing anything of, or relying at all upon, these accounts, referencing John, Paul and Hebrews.

He then, helpfully, advises all of us who might find it hard to say the creeds if we are required to be saying history, of the manoeuvres we make all the time and every day, to interpret things in different ways whilst saying the same thing as each other.

He also helps us preachers keep our integrity whilst preaching the birth narratives at Christmas.

But, as someone said to me after a carol service this year, maybe more people would come to church if they didn't feel they had to swallow all this nativity stuff as history? Maybe indeed.

Christians share one faith, even if Southern Baptists are rather closed-minded about what that faith is.

Great stuff.

The Chair

When Meredith Belbin produced his ground-breaking work 'Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail' he identified the key role of chairing. Except most of the time he didn't call it that. He called it 'co-ordinating'.

If you come across someone who is a good co-ordinator (in my time monitoring Belbin test results I have only experienced one person who had this as their headline preference) then their skill will be to use the gifts and skills of the rest of the team to achieve the desired results.

A good co-ordinator may bring nothing to the party. They may never have an original idea. They may not solve any problems. They may not know anyone who can help. But they will probably know who can. Someone in their team.

They are often very humble people although very 'in control'. Maybe the right place for the control freak is in the chair.

So one of the great things to see is a good chair announcing success. They will use the language of 'we' all the time. Whereas a control freak without the co-ordination skills will tend to take credit for success.

Here's the question. I expect you knew by now that there would be a question.

Is the Prime Minister the co-ordinator of the country? And if (s)he is, why do we need her or him to be charismatic?

The answer is something to do with democracy and ancient memes. We feel instinctively uneasy at voting someone into power who can't eat a bacon sandwich properly, forgetting, of course, that 99 photos of correct bacon-sandwich eating were disposed of until that one was found.

The best person for the job may be the least charismatic; the one who stands up afterwards and says 'My team did this - not me'

Monday, December 29, 2014

Football quiz of the year

Flex your own punditry muscles in this annual quiz.

1. 'He is well respected because he is a football man.' What is Neil Warnock on about?

2. Name any controversial, on-pitch incidents that Arsène Wenger saw last year.

3. Discus the anatomy of a footballer with special reference to:
A) Leaving your leg in.
B) Putting your head in.
C) Having an arm in an 'unnatural position'.

4. In a conversation between Lee Clark and Stephen Gerrard who would be bored first?

5. 'If you're not interfering with play what are you doing on the pitch?' In relation to the current offside law interpretation how fast is Brian Clough spinning in his grave?

6. Place in order of my nervousness:
A) West Brom one up in the ninetieth minute with three minutes of injury time to play.
B) West Brom two up after ten minutes.
C) Alan Irvine indicating he wishes to make a substitution.
D) Anyone except Saido Berahino stepping up to take a penalty.

7. 'It is the duty of all players to avoid being fouled if they can.' What would pundits make of this early clarification of the rules of the game?

8. Ashley Young is touched in the stomach. Indicate by use of diagrams the part of his body he will rub as he falls.

9 Recall a game in which Newcastle's Steven Taylor wasn't stupidly brave.

10. In which episode of The Football League Show did Steve Claridge avoid saying 'There's no doubt about that'?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Before We Get Too Excited

Well they were queueing to get in at Trendlewood Church on Christmas Day as we hastily added more and more chairs to our usual 90 or so. Eventually, with a watchful eye to emergency potential, we crammed 131 into Golden Valley School Hall. Nothing makes things go well like a crowd.

There were some new or irregular guests, for which we give thanks, but mostly, like those cicadas that time their breeding cycle for prime numbers of years so they hatch when the food is plentiful and, from time to time, all coincide, all our families came home at once.

The thing that is great though is that this bunch of people returning to families for Christmas lunch, were raised by the informal Anglicanism of Trendlewood Church's ministry. They don't bat an eyelid that instead of a sermon on Christmas Day the children have made a Lego video of the nativity. They willingly accept the vicar wearing a VW badge around his neck and encouraging them to make clay bling. They share communion around tables and include the children who enjoy running for a grape when the wine comes around. They end with another nativity video which is poignant, funny and not a little South Park edgy.

Everyone is encouraged by a crowd. Re-union conversations are going on long after we have finished at a service where we offer no refreshments because we expect people will want to get home.

I was encouraged by our little crib service on Christmas Eve, started last year so that we now have two, simultaneous, crib services in the parish. This year we advertised in the school newspaper and picked up a fair few local families who came for our short telling of the Christmas story, in its simplest form, with some carols, prayers and mince pies. Our numbers were up on last year so that we had over 50 in attendance.

Today we are meeting as a church but not so much to worship (we will a bit) as to chill together. We will have coffee and croissants, Sunday papers, a break for carols and prayers and then mulled wine and nibbles. You can come for the whole morning or just for a bit.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thought for the Day

Well Good Morning and a very Happy Christmas to you all.

This is a recorded thought. Vicars are in demand on Christmas morning. Later on a member of my lovely Trendlewood congregation in Nailsea will taunt me. 'It must be hard for you to have to work on a Thursday' he will say.


After I have finished my duties today, cooked the family lunch and had a bit of a sleep, I may finally get round to reading some cards and newsletters from friends.

One terribly sad thing happens around this time of year. One of our early cards is addressed to Mrs J. Armstrong (I've changed the names).

It is always signed:

To Julie and Rob and girls

From Jim, Tricia and girls

There is no sender's address.

We have lived in our house for over eight years. The previous occupants, one of whom was Julie, left no forwarding address. I was led to believe that the relationship ended in separation and certainly, just before the house was purchased, there were more than just daughters living here, suggesting that a new family had begun and two sets of children were merging. Mail arrives for people with two different surnames.

So, the senders have not heard from their friends for eight years, don't know they've separated, formed new relationships and moved, yet continue to send a quick card (early, to get it done with). They add no address, no news and no clues.

I wonder how many times this story is repeated around the country.

And I ask myself. Are we really keeping in touch with each other's lives? As you read your cards this year spare a thought, and maybe a prayer, for the senders.