Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Much Longer?

Here's a thing. Those of us, not just Christians, who look round churches and cathedrals from time to time, have all seen boards listing the names of office-holders. Previous Rectors and former Church-Wardens are often ornately charted, carved in wood or occasionally set in stone.

Two things grate.

Firstly, when the board has clearly not been updated professionally. A fine calligrapher has listed every parish priest since Norman times, from (I'll invent these) Roger de Sainbillier (1075-1091) to Fred Smith (1999-2004) and then the latest name, Jenny Jones, is added in a childish scrawl of attempted mimicry. It's helpful social history of the backgrounds and genders of the clergy, but a terrible witness to care and attention.

Secondly, when a relatively recent new 'honour's board' has been produced with a distinct lack of imagination as to how many more vicars of this parish will be installed. The list goes from the sixteenth century and leaves space for three more. It's a comment on the parish's vision for the future.

Future rants may include:

  • Portraits in vestries of previous clergy demonstrating the approximate date of the invention of colour photography.
  • Acclamations of the three hour ringing of a double-back handed quarter muffled peel on the accession of some long-forgotten monarch.
  • Memorial brass plaques thanking a generous benefactor for a gift that is no longer in use. Spirit duplicator. Overhead projector. Microphone system. That sort of thing.
  • Cuddly toys of a grubby nature in children's area that carry the likelihood of several communicable diseases and may explain a lack of children in church.

I'll get on with my work now.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Broadcasting to the Nation

Not unconnected to the ear problem, now sorted, I struggled with my headphones recently. The volume seemed particularly low even though it was at max. Deafness creeping in?

I ran a quick test as to whether one ear was better than the other by taking each ear-piece out in turn. The sound was very faint either side. But I noticed one strange thing. For a brief moment, when one ear-piece slipped in my grasp, I had nothing in either ear and yet could still hear.

Ladies and gentlemen I solved the problem by inserting the jack into the socket just a little bit more. After a click the sound now came out of the earphones rather then my pocket.

For many hundreds of metres I had been broadcasting to the nation the hip and happening sound of a podcast of BBC Radio Four's science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage.

I am so cool.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Eurovision

In case there are those who do not follow my live tweets/FB on Eurovision here is the feed from last night. Thanks to those who joined in.

Happy to be offering the usual service of watching #Eurovision2017 so you don't have to. Expect sincerity without diplomacy.




'Expect repetitive flashing images'; music not dissimilar #Eurovision2017




Did everyone get the 'wear black or white' memo? Who was meant to tell Spain? #Eurovision2017




Comedy timing hard in a second language - don't think timing is all our three hosts need though #Eurovision2017




Let's start out with depress mode #Israel feels alive? a liar? a lot? #Eurovision2017




'No one has ever won from position number 2.' Song and dress mainly see-through plus wind, smoke and fiddler #Poland #Eurovision2017




Predicted text prefers walrus to #Belarus hey hey hi i i o o #Eurovision2017




Running on air you can push me down but I'll just get up again. How that work? #Austria #Eurovision2017




#Armenia #Eurovision2017 Already forgotten it. Will probably win.




And welcome the key change please. Big voices. #Netherlands #Eurovision2017




Dresses which got bigger. There's a novelty. Mamma mamma don't bistro now #Moldova #Eurovision2017




Lone dancer, lone fiddler, flames, rap in native tongue and Gareth Bale's missing topknot #Hungary #Eurovision2017




I'm sure those backdrop images were on my doctor's wall yesterday. One or two words in Italian. Dreadful. #Italy #Eurovision2017



Never ever wear a frock in a waterfall. You won't have to sing 'You know where I am' #Denmark #Eurovision2017




Please return my jacket to 1986 and the song to My Fair Lady #Portugal #Eurovision2017




A ladder, a chalkboard and a song about a skeleton. Man with animal head at top of ladder. What could go wrong? #Azerbaijan #Eurovision2017




A man of many parts. None of them small. #Croatia #Eurovision2017




Who knew eyebrow paint was a thing? Everyone has it. But only #Australia have clown shoes and a love that don't come cheap #Eurovision2017




That's the worst response to 'Guys, give yourselves a cheer' I have ever heard #Eurovision2017




The Eurobynumbers department decrees an annual 'throw everything at it' tune. #Greece #Eurovision2017




Never heard it before and got the drum-join bang on. Clap your hands and do it for your lover. #Spain #Eurovision2017




When changing key always agree the key to change to #Eurovision2017




#Norway #Eurovision2017 When it's all or nuffin, put your nerves in the coffin. Cool.




Here's the Brexit test. OK but Midge Ure did it better #UK #Eurovision2017




Let me be your gravity. Science lesson needed. Song not without merit. #Cyprus #Eurovision2017




Rap and yodel. No. Come back. Come back. #Romania #Eurovision2017




The four favourite Euro chords - rhythm Every Breath You Take by The Police. Stands a chance. #Germany #Eurovision2017




Band piercing a plenty. Song less so. Heavy man. #Ukraine #Eurovision2017




Quite under-stated. Nice. Bit like a theme tune to scandinoir #Belgium #Eurovision2017




Is it OK to say frickin? #Eurovision2017




Frickin slick or is it freakin? Tune Beverley Hills Flop #Sweden #Eurovision2017




Quite an accomplished performance for 17. Stands a chance. #Bulgaria #Eurovision2017




Changed direction faster than a Compass in a magnet factory. Legs should win some votes. #France #Eurovision2017




Well done Ukraine for hammering through 26 songs in two hours #Eurovision2017




We're still loved by Iceland then. Trying to hold off the cod war #Eurovision2017




I think a new tension-cranking device has been introduced #Eurovision2017


To finish, I was delighted to spot that Bulgaria stood a chance. They came second. Had no idea that Portugal would walk it. Enjoyed the new voting system so you genuinely don't know who will be winning until right near the end.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Latest Book Review Ever

In the mid 1970s, probably staying up to watch football and waiting for it to come on, I caught what must have been an early version of the Late Review or Newsnight Review. Given that my house was a liberal chattering classes free zone I had never watched the programme before. Anyone invited round who was not a true blue Conservative was explained to me before and afterwards, 'Well they are socialists you know', as if that made everything they said and did irrelevant. They probably lived in one of the slightly cheaper detached houses on the other side of the road and lectured at the university.

And that night one of the books being reviewed was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I can't recall much of the discussion except that my interest was caught. I don't think I knew that books could have titles like this.

I did nothing about it.

Fast forward ten years. In that time I had moved out, married, had two children and headed off to train for the ordained ministry. I wasn't much of a studier. Scary. I worked out how to write acceptable essays and pass exams. I captained the football team, co-wrote a musical, met some people who were actually politically engaged and I enjoyed their company.

How little I knew myself then. I swear that, given my character and knowing what I now know, if you had deposited me in college for three years and told me to find out what I thought I needed to know to be ordained I would have made a fist of it.

The study days I remember best, and learned most from, were those when there was no essay to be produced or exam to be passed. They were days when I pursued reading on a subject that had made me curious.

One such day was the day, browsing in the library, I came across Robert M. Pirsig's book. There probably was an essay deadline on something else looming but I would have had an intuitive sense that it was not so near that I couldn't take some time out to skim this book.

As I recall I read the first page standing at the shelves, the first chapter back at my upstairs library study cubicle and the whole book pretty quickly.

As a Christian with a conversion experience I had already had my life changed more than most and, if I'm honest, more than I wanted. Yet here was I reading a book with a sub-title:

This book will change the way you think and feel about your life

I think the Christian truth that sometimes you need to wait, hope, rest and pray came home to me more deeply by reading this book than it had through years of Bible study. It taught me what Rob Bell today calls punk wisdom. If you can't make sense of the information coming at you don't hide - take in some more. If the Director wanted you to know what that scene was about she would have told you. The greatest skill available to anyone, for free, is that of observing the surroundings and making connections.

I don't like motor cycles. I like the way Pirsig describes taking them apart. He likes looking around at the scenery as he rides long. I like looking out of the window. Sometimes, when I do that, I catch a glimpse into my soul. It's not that bad.

Pirsig died recently. Here's a key thought. It's a life-changer. He discusses fixing his bike. At the top of the page of notes (it can be an imaginary page) he writes:

Problem: fix bike's electrical system

This is a mistake, he says. Even if he is 90% certain that the problem is in the electrical system and it is the first thing he is going to check, he may have taken a major wrong turning. He should write (and again the page can be imaginary):

Problem; fix bike

Followed by:

Theory 1; check electrics

Then, when he finds the electrics working, he won't have run out of ideas.

The same sort of thinking applies (I now apply this thinking) to idea-generating. If a group of people are bouncing ideas around do not put the first idea generated in the top left hand corner of the flip-chart page. If you do that you impose an order on the ideas that, psychologically, suggest that the best one comes first. Start in the middle and work out. Make the connections and collate after all ideas are out. If you are doing an ideas-generating session without a flip-chart or other visual display I can't help you any more.

I have more important things to do than write this piece but, as it happens, while I was writing it one of the problems I should have been attending to solved itself and went away.

I described myself as a Zen-Christian once, this upset some people from the Hezbollah wing of the Church of England so I stopped.

But hear this from chapter 25:

I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature,...

...or with programs full of things for other people to do,...

...The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Christian sentiment; Zen expression.

Oh and this. If you believe in the ultimate inter-connectedness of all things. Yesterday there was a bit of fuss on the news about a female red-winged blackbird that had accidentally found its way across the Atlantic to the Scottish Isles. I just re-read page 1 of the book and there is a father trying to impress his eleven year old son by pointing out a red-winged blackbird. The son is unimpressed.

Five years after reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I became a bit interested in birds. Female red-winged blackbirds don't have red wings.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Thought for the Day

One of those days where, due to traffic, I dashed into the studio and delivered and then dashed out again. Time on the road 85 minutes. Time at BBC Radio Bristol - 8 minutes.

'Amen, Amen.'

Or to translate. 'Truly, truly.'

Jesus was fond of the phrase 'Truly, truly, I say to you.' In the Bible he uses it to respond to old teaching.

'You have heard it said... but I say to you...'

There have been a lot of falsehoods peddled in campaigning recently.

Brexit campaigners offered £350m to the NHS.

President Trump denies climate change is a thing.

Both lies. Soundly disproved.

Elections for the role of Metro-Mayor take place on Thursday - with the candidates promising new bus schemes, travel plans, car shares and more.

What is the status of a promise? Only one candidate ever gets to deliver on their promises. Those not elected can shelve their promises for another few years.

Meanwhile the one elected, cynical me says, has to work out how to ease back on any of the more grandiose pledges made whilst electioneering.

Christians don't, of course, have a monopoly on the truth but we can point to one who claimed to be the truth. And the central attribute of understanding yourself as a Christian is not to get your identity from any earthly structure or promise but from Jesus.

For humans can be unreliable. Can lie. Can let us down. And if we get our identity from people we follow or support we will suffer a crisis when they disappoint.

An identity based outside this world's structures, treasure in heaven and citizenship based there, strangely keeps our feet on the ground. For when I am empty and nothing; then God can use me here. For I rely not on my own strength but on the one who strengthens me. And that's the truth.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol an hour ago:

One of the ideas most commonly used by members of the Christian community for their experience is that of a journey.

I am here. And I want to get there.

I was looking for something and I found it.

We have just celebrated Easter, the culmination of Jesus' journey and the promise of resurrection. A final destination if ever there was one.

It is true, of course, that at the time the Bible was written, journeys were complicated. The fastest you could get anywhere was on the back of an animal. A trip of ten miles needed planning. If it required walking then there and back took a day.

Today we can get Chinese food to take away and vaccines to cure illnesses - all in the seeming blink of an eye. Isn't it interesting that so many of our stories on the show this morning are about journeying? Taxis to get home from the railway station. Bus or rail links to the airport. And yet those we call 'travellers' find themselves with a bad reputation.

What can we conclude?

Well when I was a child I was impatient. 'Are we nearly there yet?' the rear-passenger chorus line.

When I was a young adult I thought I had arrived and knew everything.

Now I'm getting on I realise that I probably won't change the world but I can make a difference and I don't have to rush.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was right when he said 'Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.'

Which is me finished and left with a day's journey to two school assemblies in an hour's time. Isn't progress great?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Let's Agree to Disagree

I am quite happy to agree to disagree with you about the identity of the greatest band of all time, the location of the finest restaurant in the known universe and, at a push, the best way to drive from Nailsea to Wells although on the latter your logic may be at fault but I'll let it go. Preferences are simply that. No one person's favourite necessarily has to be everyone else's.

But the other day my timeline on Facebook was invaded by this:


And the person posting had said 'Onwards and upwards, lets make Brexit successful.'

I posted:

OK I'll rise to it:

1. We were and still are.
2. We just jumped ship from an agreement by 27 states to agree to play by the same rules (I should have said 28).
3. Glad you agree it's not fair now. Shall we take more refugees?
4. We were and still (just about) are.

To which I received the reply:

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, obviously I'm very happy with the referendum result along with 17,410,740 voters.

I gave up with a:

Don't I know it.

But I don't agree to disagree. I disagree. I made, I thought, clear and valid objections. And in those circumstances I'd like to hear reasoned, or even emotional, arguments for why you are right and I am wrong.

Sometimes it's necessary but 'Let's agree to disagree' is too often lazy. And that Conservative poster is not a plan for Britain. It's a bunch of meritless slogans and emotive catch-phrases at best. In its suggestion that everything is endlessly broken apart from when the Conservatives are in power it is nasty, demeaning, passive-aggressive rallying.

I don't pretend that other parties all behave fine. Not for a minute do I do that. But I insist that sloganeering codswallop followed by 'Let's agree to disagree' is no way to demonstrate to the world how to use social media well and wisely. It's the equivalent of shouting over the wall and running off.

Next time you shout over my wall be very afraid. I might invite you in for a cup of tea and a chat. I'd like to listen to your reason.

...you died and your life is hidden...

On Easter Sunday morning I preached, although I didn't write anything down, on the epistle.

I discussed what it means to say, post-Easter, that '...you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God...' an assertion Paul makes in Colossians 3:1-4.

It wasn't the greatest sermon I have ever prepared but I had enough to say on our setting our hearts on things above and waiting for him to appear.

The thing that caught me out, and thus book-ended this average sermon and helped lift it, was the version of the Bible in the pews. It was the New International Version, with which I have few problems, but with a sub-heading for the passage.

You can do theology until you're whatever colour in the face excessive theology turns you, but somewhere around line one of paragraph one of reformed Christian thought we might expect to read that the Gospel is a free gift, given by the grace of God. If you are not currently a member of my faith community then please do not feel you are being force-fed this; I simply ask you to accept that it is what we believe and it is orthodox. People went to the stake for the assertion that you cannot buy your way into heaven. Christian behaviour is a response to the Gospel not a cause of it.

So my question became this. How detached do you have to be from that mainstream Christian thought to think that  'Rules for Holy Living' is a good sub-heading for the passage? I am perfectly happy to accept that there are implications for my behaviour based on my beliefs. I am even content to identify with people who set themselves a voluntary code of practice and live under orders. But rules? Not today thank you.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning. It was followed by much hilarity when presenter Emma called some vandals 'scrotes' and then asked round the studio if that was a BBC word or not. At which point newsreader Keith said it was the latest model from Ford and we all collapsed. Wasn't it an insult Fletch used on Porridge all those years ago?

Today is known as Maundy Thursday.

Jesus, eating the Passover with his friends the day before he died, washed their feet.

It was a humble act. That of a servant leader. Afterwards, speaking of what he had done, he is recorded as saying:

'A new command I give you. To love one another as I have loved you.'

The first word of that sentence in Latin is mandatum - many scholars think we get the word Maundy from that.

But where two or three scholars are gathered together there is often a bit of a barney. Others suggest that the name comes from a different Latin word mendicare - to beg. They say that the names of the money containers used by royalty to give alms to the poor on their way to mass this day, gave the day its name.

The great thing is that both acts are still emphasised. The Queen gives out Maundy money each year. Symbolic foot washing is still practised.

As Bristol considers the possibility of becoming free from corporate advertising we note that symbolic acts have power. Power to subvert and power to influence.

As do symbols. If I hold up a wooden cross there can be no doubt what I am alluding to. It is one of the greatest advertising symbols of all time.

But wouldn't it be great if a city, indeed a whole region, was to become known for its acts of generosity, humility and kindness?

Jesus said his disciples should be recognisable by their love, for one another and their neighbours. Well I'm a realist. It's not always that simple. But it may be a better advert for my love if I wash your feet rather than put up a poster.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Thought for the Day

Bit late posting this today as I've had stuff to do. I hate days with stuff to do. Here is this morning's script as delivered at the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show with Emma Britton:

'You who took the branches green and waved them high above the crowd
Did you realise that next week you would scream for sacrifice.'

Lines from a Palm Sunday song a friend of mine wrote a few years back.

I want more money spent on my kids' school. I don't want to be caught on camera ignoring a traffic sign. I want agencies safeguarding children to be perfect. I don't want my chosen life-partner's behaviour to be a surprise to me.

Stories from today's show.

I want. I don't want.

'I want, can't have' said my Mum about ten thousand times.

The life skill we need to develop is to pilot our boat of potential selfishness through the choppy waters of other people's needs. What provides the most good for the greatest number of people? That is the question asked by the philosophy utilitarianism. How to maximise benefit and reduce harm?

Trouble is we are human. In the Bible St Paul wrestled with this. He observed that he felt wretched because he did what he didn't want to do and didn't do what he should do. It has ever been thus (beat) because selfishness, weakness and negligence get the better of us. All of us. However hard we try.

Some of you listening this morning will believe in God. God who wants us to move from selfishness to service. Others will be happy simply with the utilitarianism. Trying to be good.

We embark on a journey in the Christian Church this weekend, following Jesus' last days from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and arriving at Easter Sunday.

It reminds us that things don't always work out how we would want. But they do work out.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Which Newspaper helps you understand chocolategate?

Do you read a newspaper? It was quite a straightforward question at my ministry selection conference in 1979. One of the lay interviewers (the retired British Ambassador to Canada) asked it. I gave a true answer, which at that stage was the Daily Mail. That had been the paper I grew up with and, at the tender age of 24, I had never bothered to change. On Sundays my Dad had bought three papers - the Express, Times and Mirror and he spent Sunday mornings smoking and reading. I read the sports pages. Some of the guys I worked with bought the Sun or Mirror and I felt happily superior to them. The Times was for management.

Oh how things have changed. Politically and culturally I woke up. After ordination I changed to The Times, then The Independent shortly after its launch. In the mid 90s I became a Guardian reader but struggled to keep up given the amount of online material also coming my way. I embraced the iPaper and still do but tend to buy a Saturday Guardian or Sunday Observer. On Gozo for two weeks a year I read the Telegraph as the others take too long to arrive or sell out early. 

But to return to that selection conference question. Yes I read the iPaper and weekly Guardian but almost never on the day of publication, which, at minimum, gives me a good handle on their ability to prophesy. For daily news there is the BBC news app, a C of E media feed, a daily edigest and of course my Twitter feed with several news sites followed.

One of the skills required today is the ability to edit your input stream. For satisfactory balance you must not allow it to consist entirely of people with whom you agree.

But sometimes the entire stream goes bonkers, such as today when the whole of the UK internet seems to be discussing whether the National Trust had edited Easter out of chocolate and whether that mattered much. The Archbishop of York seems to have got it wrong, the C of E comms people have had to issue clarifying comments, the Prime Minister has got involved (which shows how trivial it is for she never has an immediate comment to make on serious issues) and Peter Ormerod, usually a beacon of sanity in a daft world, has managed to upset almost everybody by being right.

Watch and learn my friends. Watch and learn. And if being interviewed for the ordained ministry pitch your answer to the media question at a level the interviewer will understand. So sit by them at breakfast if you can.

Tomorrow. Is selling nails on Good Friday blasphemous?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Restaurant Review

When London broadsheet newspaper food critics are allowed out of the capital they are normally pretty scathing about the places they visit. And what us ordinary folk, who go to nice, expensive restaurants once in a blue moon, always have to bear in mind is that the sorts of places they are scathing about are the sorts of places we go to all the time. And the sorts of places they are nice about are not for the likes of us.

I wonder what they would make of a place we had lunch last week. Possibly they would see it as attempted murder.

On the A40 between Carmarthen and Llandeilo is a pub called The Half Way House. We stopped at it for lunch because it was cold and wet and we were hungry. There are no pubs round here in the Good Pub Guide. Not even in the lucky dip section. We used to think this was because the inspectors were too lazy to come out here.

We chose to stop because it was announced by a large brown sign on the main road. In England a large brown sign usually means historic coaching inn, or charming place worth visiting. Not so in Wales apparently.

There are many half-ways about this place. The first one is that it feels like a crash weld between a 1985 Little Chef and a Wetherspoons in a town where the only industry has closed.

We should have been more observant. In the warmer months it is the guardian at the gates of a caravan park, a place currently devoid of caravans and not even looking very parkish. It's second bit of halfwayness is therefore that it is between being a restaurant and a shop. It has a deli counter although today the cold cabinet held only wax-covered Snowdon cheese. The sort that is quite nice as long as you don't keep it too cold. I expect in the summer you could buy other stuff.

'Table for two?' This is not a normal greeting in a pub. I asked if we could see the menu first. It had a reassuring lunch sandwich menu as well as the à la carte. I am wary of à la cartes in these places as they are normally microwaved straight from a freezer. But it is hard to mess up a simple sandwich so we agreed to sit. We could have had two tables each and not crowded the place but we were shown to one of the two tables for only two people.

Do retain the phrase 'It is hard to mess up a simple sandwich'. We will revisit it.

There was one real ale which turned out to be local and not awful but I wouldn't have wanted two. The current Mrs Tilley had a glass of red wine and drank some of it, an act she regretted.

Our food order was a ploughman's and a coronation chicken sandwich, working on the basis that we both know what these things probably ought to taste of.

Surprise number one. The ploughman's was a sandwich too. Well it had been listed under the sandwich section of the menu but still. It was a cheese sandwich. It was surrounded by something that makes cheese wetter in a sandwich. Maybe something that evolved from mayonnaise. 'I wondered why they gave us forks' said TCMT. It was accompanied by chips, a green salad that included coriander and a pot of something red. More on that later.

We noticed that the piped music had moved from George Michael and other dead people to 'It's a wonderful, wonderful life.' It felt as if even the backing track was giving us the finger today. Our co-diners had smokers' complexions, the gait of the under-exercised and the build of people who ask for thanks to be sent to the chef for the wonderful gammon and pineapple.

Now. Coronation chicken is not that hard. It has about four ingredients but the recipe does involve the application of heat to some of them at some point. It was less of a surprise that this was a sandwich but the surpriseometer went into the red as I considered how little resemblance the product placed on my plate had to any sandwich I had ever eaten. Granary bread normally puts up more of a fight to contain the filling. As I lifted the thing to my mouth everything fell out of the bread. Again the provision of a fork was essential. The fries were not awful, only over-cooked and sliced too short suggesting that they had been cut from potatoes that were not completely ready for the compost heap, but the uncooked curry powder in the sandwich rendered it unfinishable. There are about three occasions in my whole life when I have failed to complete a sandwich.

My green salad was also based on micro-herbs. I suspect they had been over-ordered. Oh, and red onion. There was a lot of red onion about.

Which brings us to the pot of red stuff. I had one too. We turned our attention from finishing lunch to identifying the red stuff. Now red stuff is a narrow playing area. Our first guess, made well before tasting, was that it might be beetroot. Strike one. This pot - did I mention it was plastic and not unlike a communion glass in a free church - contained very unusual things. A few slices of cabbage, not red cabbage but cabbage that had become red, were in there. As was some dried fruit, maybe sultanas. There was an orangy taste. It had the consistency of under-set jelly. It smelled of pot pouri. Our final answer, Chris, is that it was the contents of the sink trap which neither citrus nor pine cleaning fluid had managed to disperse.

£19.45 in case you wondered. As we left the heavens opened and as we entered the car the Archers theme music began to play. Only the company and the laughter we were both holding desperately in, stopped it being the worst lunch ever.

More food critics should experience this sort of thing. 'Restaurants to avoid this month.' I'd read it.

Oh, and Good Pub Guide folk. You know what you're doing. Apologies.

Martin McGuinness

One of the things I hate about modern political discourse is the failure of 'sides' to express their 'opponents' position as strongly as possible before disagreeing with it. Points scoring is cheap and nasty. Proper listening and understanding moves everyone forward.

So to Martin McGuinness. He is someone who, if forced to identify such a person, I would have said was my enemy in 1972-4. The IRA tried to kill me. They missed by a day, blowing up a Birmingham pub I had frequented the night before. I didn't lose any friends but my home city lost its vibrancy for a bit.

When he embraced the idea of politics to move things forward there was a lot of suspicion. I think rightly so. Whenever anyone has a change of heart it takes a while to be convinced. Those who suffered at his organisation's hands are clearly going to be the last people to forgive. And so we hear Lord Tebbit still expressing hate, as we might expect from a man who was seriously injured by a bomb which killed some of his colleagues and paralysed his wife for the rest of her life in 1984.

When people who once breathed out murderous threats stop threatening (Saul /St Paul anyone?) it is hard to get on board with them.

Nobody, to my mind, has touched on one thing that would have been hardest for Martin McGuinness. He had to take the IRA with him. That this was difficult was emphasised by a batch of atrocities committed by the 'Continuing IRA' as the peace process began.

I was brought up to hate Irish Republicanism. I never grasped their complaints. I did not have their case put to me as strongly as possible. They had no face in the media and for a time their words were spoken, on the news, only by actors.

It was, of all places, on the sleeve notes of an album by a fine band That Petrol Emotion, that I read the material produced here.

High unemployment, job discrimination, gerrymandering of political boundaries, a derisory public housing provision and the linking of the right-to-vote with a property qualification led in 1967 to the formation of a broadly based non-political and non-sectarian civil rights movement composed of all shades of non-Unionist opinion. By peaceful protest demonstrations, it demanded such reforms as 'one-man one-vote' (universal suffrage), an anti-discrimination act, reform of local government and the abolition of the draconian Special Powers Act.

On October 5 1968, a peaceful civil rights march in Derry (including parents and members of the band) was brutally attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the instructions of the Unionist-controlled Stormont Government. This was followed by the organised attack of a peaceful student march from Belfast to Derry by Unionist extremists setting a precedent of anti-nationalist violence in the subsequent months and culminating in the British Government's decision to draft in its troops to uphold 'law and order'.

In the face of such belligerent intransigence, it was a small step from demanding civil rights to demanding a complete severance of ties from Britain and the establishment of a socialist Irish state. The resurgence of the Irish Republican Army, largely dormant from the late '50's, heralded an age where constitutional politics went from sick-joke status to complete irrelevancy for the Nationalist community...

(End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues -  Virgin Records Ltd 1988)

For the first time I understood why Northern Irish Republicans felt as they did. I related it to the appalling sentiment expressed in Psalm 137 (the bit we rarely emphasise) that the Israelite who dashed Babylonian babies against the rocks would be happy so doing.

I am not condoning what many chose to do thereafter; merely showing a strong expression of the Republican case.

In the 1980s and 1990s, some back channel work went on, quite counter to the 'We don't talk to terrorists' sound-bite regularly wheeled out by politicians. If someone is so angry they will gladly dash the heads of innocent babies against the rocks it behoves us to find out why in any way possible. It was very brave of some people to do this.

McGuinness never revealed where the bodies were buried. I don't know, but I imagine, that at every step after renouncing violence his own life was in danger from those who didn't want to do that. Especially when they saw him and Ian Paisley laughing together and being nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers.

So, for me, he was not a good man, nor a bad man, but a man of contradictions. Some of the truth he took with him to the grave. I understand those who don't want him ever to rest in peace. And those who do.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

On being an Assistant Rural Dean

I announced on social media this week that I had been appointed Assistant Rural Dean in the Portishead Deanery. This caused much mirth, mischief and misunderstanding amongst the people I know and love. As well as being a great name for a new firm of solicitors, this suggested to me that a brief piece about how the Church of England actually works would not go amiss.

So, with respect to those who actually know what they are talking about, a rough guide to the C of E school of management. This is populist writing, not academic.

England has a national church. The Church of England's existence is established by Act of Parliament and its laws are the laws of the land. The monarch of England is its head. Senior bishops sit in the House of Lords, contribute to debates, and sit in scrutiny upon every piece of legislation produced by the House of Commons. That is its privilege. Its duty is to ensure the pastoral care of everyone in the land. Every blade of grass and every piece of concrete is someone's responsibility. Where you live affords you the right to be hatched, matched and despatched in a Church of England Church by a Church of England pastor.

The local Christian traditions and styles vary greatly around the country. People are welcome to travel a bit to belong to one that is more 'them'.

The country is divided into two provinces - York and Canterbury - overseen by two archbishops, one of whom, Canterbury, happens also to be the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion (more on that another day). These provinces are further divided into dioceses, each one overseen by a diocesan bishop. Some dioceses have suffragan or assistant bishops and the work is divided up by some according to geography and others according to specialism.

I work in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, geographically equivalent to the County of Somerset. It has two bishops - the diocesan is known as the Bishop of Bath and Wells; the suffragan as the Bishop of Taunton.

Each diocese is further subdivided into archdeaconries headed by a go on take a wild guess.

The Diocese of Bath and Wells has three archdeaconries - Bath, Wells and Taunton. I work in the archdeaconry of Bath, where the archdeacon is retiring in June if any clergy colleagues fancy following in the footsteps of a much-loved genius. Look out for adverts.

Archdeaconries are further sub-divided into deaneries. There are eighteen (or is it nineteen, can't remember?) of these in our diocese here, of which five are in Bath Archdeaconry.

I am in the Deanery of Portishead. Each deanery is overseen by a rural dean although in other parts of the country the title has been changed to area dean due to the absence of anything vaguely rural in the area. The title seems to date back to a time when most of our country was rural not urban. It would surprise quite a lot of people to know that this is still the case, says this city kid.

In some of the larger deaneries a more collaborative style of leadership is called for. Sharing the load is good since rural dean is not a job in its own right; it is an extra responsibility placed on the shoulders of someone who is already a parish priest. It also acknowledges that in diverse deaneries (ours has three major towns of 15,000 plus and another of 8,000 but several smaller communities in between and many farms) it is unlikely that one person will have all the skills needed to lead.

It is in this context that I have been appointed Assistant Rural Dean and it might help locals to know what I said when accepting the responsibility:

I will be the person (of the three of us, you and two assistants) who keeps their head in the future. I will approach deanery life with a 5-25 year head on. I am a visionary not a strategist. How our evolving vision applies to our different parishes (the strategic) will be up to them but they should have a huge buy-in to the vision we settle on.

I will champion mission enabling, and help as far as I can, but be aware that half my job is mission enabling in the Nailsea LMG (Local Ministry Group - a unique arrangement in Bath and Wells - ed) and it would be too much to extend this to the whole deanery. So it will be an encouraging/facilitating approach to the rest of the deanery, available for consultation with clergy/churches as required. Many deaneries are now appointing half-time mission enablers. We may wish to consider this.

I will work with the Mission and Pastoral Group on the deanery MAP (Mission Action Plan - ed) with a view to finishing it before my sabbatical in the autumn. I am happy to be the person who draws up the eventual document.

I will stand in for you (the Rural Dean) as and when required and would be particularly happy to be involved in appointment processes, especially if we are heading for a point where there will be some common wording, about the deanery, on all future vacancies. We should be able, between the three of us (another assistant still to be appointed), to make sure that we are always represented at diocesan rural deans' meetings.

I cannot see myself, easily, having much Sunday morning time to cover elsewhere but my Sunday evening commitments are relatively light.

Ideally, as we said, the Deanery Standing Committee would become separate from the Mission and Pastoral group so that we don't mix the nitty-gritty day-to-day stuff with vision seeking.


So I am excited to have permission to spend more time on something I love doing and am aware that I need to get up to speed on a load of things pretty quickly. I will have a lot of questions.

To answer some specific questions posed in social media feedback:
  • No, I will not be leaving. This commits me to several more years, probably up until retirement (which can happen any time after May 2021).
  • No, there is no extra money.
  • No I don't get a badge. Or a cape. Nor even a phone box to change in.
  • Liz wants to be called Lady Dean. She finds Lady Ass unappealing.
Hope this is useful.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Poached Pears

Someone bought a bottle of cheap rosé to your house? You don't like it and don't want to take it to another party? Try this:

You will need:

4 ripe pears
Half a bottle of rosé
Two table spoons of dark brown sugar, preferably muscavado
Pinch of vanilla salt
Blob of butter
Tea spoon of corn-flour
Juice of half a lemon

Squeeze lemon juice into a bowl. Peel, core and quarter the pears adding and mixing to the lemon bowl as you go to prevent browning.

Heat blob of butter with the sugar on a hob until combined then add pears and lemon. Also a pinch of vanilla salt. You could use coarse salt and a drop of vanilla essence I guess but I don't know how it would taste. Stir around a bit then tip in the wine. Simmer for 25 minutes then take out the pears and set aside.

Continue to reduce the wine liquid. Add cornflour and water paste to complete, making sure the flour cooks out and go on until it thickens and reduces to your taste.

Set aside until needed than add the pears back in. Warm up, or serve cold. Greek yoghurt nice accompaniment as well as chilled lounge music. Candles and expectations also optional.

Thought for the Day

As delivered on BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast Show an hour ago:

When I moved to the area ten years ago I realised that I had spent a lot of my previous time with younger adults. Most of my friends were my juniors.

It came as a shock to the system to mix with people my age. I found it a bit dull at first.

In the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible; what Christians call the Old Testament, we read:

'Remember my words. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.'

But later we read of a young man called Elihu, in the Book of Job. He says:

'It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right.'

I was interested in the story about children from Beckett Hall Nursery regularly visiting Osborne Court Care Home. In fact I am interested in any gathering where we manage to avoid generational groupings.

Churches are pretty remarkable places for this. There are some that have lost touch with younger members but many have not and good dialogue between young and old happens week by week.

At Trendlewood Church in Nailsea, where you find me most Sundays, our youngest member is six months old and our oldest over eighty. At Andy's Church in Backwell, a new project I am involved in, last Sunday's attendance was 30 adults and 34 children.

Remember from your childhood the adult who was always pleased to see you, never judgemental and a huge support in all you did. They were probably called Grandma or Grandpa.

So lets see if we can increase the opportunities for young and old to mix and build on the imaginative work of one nursery and one care home. Well done.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Ears - what gets into them?

In the early 90s I struggled with blocked ears for a while. Thinking they would need syringing (as it was a problem my Dad had) I went to the doctors only to be told I had ear infections in both ears. Some antibiotics cleared things up. Strange to have had painless infections but I guess these things can happen.

Wind forward ten years and I was on holiday. Coming out of the swimming pool one day the water did not clear from my ears. Couldn't shift it. Suffering quite horrid pain on the aeroplane home and the pressurised cabin I made a doctor's appointment, expecting antibiotics again would be necessary. This time I was told there was no infection or blockage but that a pressure imbalance was the likely cause. I was given a nasal decongestant to use which worked. From time to time thereafter, when my ears felt blocked, I used the decongestant and it helped.

Two years ago I had a recurrence and the nose spray made no difference. This time the triage nurse told me my ears were waxed up and I needed to use oil for a month then get them syringed. It took a few years for the patriarchal DNA to catch up with me but Dad I got there eventually.

Since before Christmas my ears have felt blocked and I have been tipping oil into them ready for a syringing appointment this week. On attending I was told that both ears were clear and I probably had some fluid at the back as the legacy of a cold virus (which I have had since early December). 'Lay off the oil for a few days' was the advice. 

So I'm back on the decongestant which seems to be working now I replaced the one that was best before 2009.

Self-diagnosis is over-rated. But going to the doctors for minor matters makes me feel guilty.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning, trying to link several storylines from the show which are in the long paragraph towards the end:

Jesus was out of the house early to pray. Gone before the sun was up. His companions came searching. 'Everyone is looking for you' they said.

They were. There were probably queues in his village of sick people needing healing.

How did Jesus respond?

'Sorry fellers, I needed some head space?'

'Gosh where does the time go?'

'OK, let's go to work.'

None of the above.

I was chatting to someone yesterday who tends to get too busy. I'll call him John. John works and plays hard. John is more concerned with whether a challenge is interesting than whether he has time to do it.

By the end of the conversation John was already asking if there were other bits of ministry with which I needed help. I avoided the temptation to say 'All of them'.

Whether raising money for somebody else's cancer cure, spending a night sleeping in a crane or even collecting cuff-links the common link is time. It takes time to do these things. No-one ever got good at anything without giving over a chunk of time to it. Specialists are busy. The generous-hearted are busy. I would wager those who holiday on a crane next to a lively harbour-side are probably busy too. And our dam-buster war-heroes had to drop every previous priority and make their new expertise - the enemy.

So what did Jesus say? He said the remarkable, and shocking, 'Let's go somewhere else'. In Mark's Gospel, where we find this story, he prioritises preaching over healing saying, 'That is why I have come'.

Sporting expertise or built up collections have an opportunity cost. What wasn't done in order to do the thing that was.

Now. What are you here for?

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Lent Reading with a Difference

Do you want your Lenten reading to give you an opportunity for some spiritual reflection? How about changing your relaxation-reading habit for Lent?

All these (mainly) novels walk alongside Christian texts in some way, shape or form. Rather than reviewing them, although some have been reviewed here previously, I have suggested one, all-encompassing, discussion question. If you read only one make it Quarantine.

The Gospel According to the Son - Norman Mailer
The life of Jesus as he attends to the voices in his head.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman
What if the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith were actually two people?

Quarantine - Jim Crace
What sorts of people were around in the days when spiritual novices wandered off into the wilderness to fast?

Three to See the King - Magnus Mills
Would you wager your current contentment against the possibility that there may be more to life than this?

Have a Little Faith - Mitch Albon
What does faith look like from the outside?

Blind Faith - Ben Elton
Does the fact that somebody is watching you all the time change your behaviour?

The Book of Strange New Things - Michael Faber
How possible is cross-cultural evangelism without selling our culture too?

How to be Good - Nick Hornby
What does 'being good' even mean?

Even the Dogs - Jon McGregor
Could there be such a person as one without value?

The Testament of Gideon Mack - James Robertson
Is there a difference between a true story and a story that really happened?

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Thoughts on Leicester City

I have very little to go on save a few conversations and a brief highlight from one game, but that never usually stops me chucking my oar in so heads up.

Away in the Champions League last week Leicester City produced an outstanding away goal to give themselves a chance in a two-leg tie. The goal, scored on the break in their stylish counter-attacking way, involved a perfect Danny Drinkwater cross and a late-arriving Jamie Vardy putting it away. Cracking goal. Shortly after that their manager, who had led them to the Premiership title the previous season, was sacked.

The next match saw Leicester beat Liverpool 3-1. Vardy scored twice.

Some people pointed out that the sacking of the manager gave them something to prove. Well that worked then. We'll see if it continues so to do.

But I see something different. That Premiership-winning season showed us what can happen if a team has everything go like a dream. Since that can rarely be expected, Gary Lineker's offer to present Match of the Day in his pants was not one he thought he would have to keep.

All teams are trying to do what Leicester did. For few does it come right. In my judgement last season Leicester played teams in the right order. There is a right order and you want to play teams on a run of confidence-sapping defeats, with star players missing or with nothing to play for. Their team suffered minimal injuries. I reckon their defensive pairing of Morgan and Huth avoided a lot of deserved suspensions. Their style worked. Shots went in the corner of the goal rather than hitting the post.

Then they sold Kanté to Chelsea for £30m and couldn't re-invest it in anyone similar. Teams such as Leicester need to take £25m profit when they can get it. The big four will buy the players from the next ten teams, if they are vaguely any use, to keep themselves as  big four.

Chatting to fans I learn that the style was the same this year but it simply didn't work so well. Final passes were misplaced. Shots narrowly missed, were well saved or hit post or bar. A bad run sapped confidence. Players got injured. Huth and Morgan were a season older and slower.

In that away goal at Sevilla I saw the season turn. That was Leicester at their best. They would probably still have beaten Liverpool who are depressing right now.

In football details are everything. You have to expect that everyone is trying to do the big things right. The detail of that away goal should have put the Leicester owners on notice to keep faith with Claudio.

Leicester City aren't a great team any more. Last season they were a little above average and this season are average. They will finish mid-table. 

My own team, West Brom, are having a remarkably good season but eighth is our rightful place and seventh the dizzying heights of ambition.

Last season was a joy for football fans because it gave us all hope. Which is stupid. It shouldn't have. Normal service is resumed. Chelsea walking it. But the teams still in the Champions League haven't experienced a Leicester moment yet. I wonder?

Rules of Rugby Union

I am very ignorant of the rules of Rugby Union with any precision - I understand the general idea is to score tries and goals. What happens in the unviewable mass of trunks and limbs known as a maul or ruck is a bit like what goes into sausages. Let's focus more on the outcome than the process eh? That ball will pop out eventually. In rugby, not sausages.

The driving maul however has given me a great sports question. Are there any other sports where a score is achieved which nobody in the crowd is able to verify?

So I found myself watching England v Italy on Sunday and there came along a development. The sneaky Italians used the rules to their advantage. Turned out the England players didn't know the rules that well and chose to ask the referee what to do, getting the now much-repeated answer 'I'm a referee not a coach.'

The Italians worked out that if you didn't gather round a tackled player then there was no ruck and if there wasn't a ruck they could stand where they couldn't stand if a ruck had formed because, there not being a ruck, there was no gameline and no offside. I think that's it. Purists hated it because it was against the spirit of the game. I loved it because one you can't be a purist about a game that involves so much physical violence and two it was within the rules so people formerly known as purists can suck it in.

There have been moments in my preferred game of Association Football where the authorities have had to answer the question 'Do we want this to be within the rules?' Loitering offside but not interfering? That's now OK. The Ernie Hunt/Willie Carr free kick routine? Not OK as it isn't a proper kick. Launching a throw-in after a hand-spring? Tough to do in confined space but allowed. Touching the goalkeeper with a feather? OK, bad example.

Now the English rugby team worked out at half-time what to do. No rule change appears necessary although rugby union law makers have itchy trigger fingers. It is simply that an interesting extra dimension has come along that the game does not have to be played the way it has always been played. Rucks are not compulsory and tackled players may not have the option of taking time to make the ball available, all the time.

Love it. Well done Italy.

Thought for the Day

Ash Wednesday. The start of Lent.

I was chatting to a colleague about giving things up for Lent. Confessing that it wasn't part of my personal pattern she asked me what it was I would give up if I was the sort who gave things up. This is the kind of deeply philosophical question that makes me like people more.

But the reason she was asking me was so she could tell me what she thought I ought to give up. This makes me like people less. She thought I should give up sarcasm - my knee-jerk response to make a joke at someone else's expense every time they spoke. Which was pointed, and probably a little bit true.

So I did. Failed three times, but thought more carefully about not putting people down for fun. Did me good.

As Easter approached, and the chocolate-starved eyed their wrapped eggs with longing, I wondered how I would celebrate the end of my fast.

I could not finish my Easter services and then leap in the car tearing round the parish in acts of drive-by rudeness. I had to let that Lent make a difference - for ever.

Imagine giving up theft for Lent and then robbing sheds again. Or stopping using your mobile whilst driving - until Easter. Don't give up something for Lent if you should give it up for good.

Tonight in a quiet service I will ash people, placing a mark on their foreheads as a reminder that from dust we all came and to dust we will all return. Those words are followed by:

'Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.'

Ash Wednesday teaches us our place in the whole scheme of things.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning, with answers to the music quiz as a footnote:

1. If I were a wealthy man I wouldn't have to work hard.
2. It's all about the money, money, money
3. Money, money, money in a rich man's world
4. It makes the world go round.
5. Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie.
6. Pay the butcher. Pay the baker. Pay the taxman. Pay me later.

Well that's enough shameless demonstration of pop lyrics. I'll blog the answers later. Well done if you got all six.

But today's stories on BBC Radio Bristol are incredibly cash-centric. What should your Council Tax buy? How much should you be fined for parking offences? And where does that money go? How do you raise enough money to say a proper thank-you to a hospital for saving a child's life?

At my local church I try to preach on money no more than once a year. It's at the end of November if you want to avoid it. But then, if people don't respond generously - and I'm happy to say they usually do - it would be remiss of me to wait until next November to mention it. Of course, if I do, someone will say 'You're always going on about money'.

And maybe that's the thing. It is all about the money. About a sensible discussion concerning what my taxes should buy and what I can choose to spend the rest on.

The Bible says surprisingly little about money but it usually describes it negatively aware, as one verse says, that it is a root of all kinds of evil. No. The Bible is more concerned with generosity now and treasure in heaven.

But I still quite like the idea of going to work in a tank.

Massive respect if you got number 6.











1If I Were a Rich man from Fiddler on the Roof
2Price Tag - Jessie J
3Money, Money, Money - Abba
4Money Makes the World Go Round from Cabaret
5Money - Pink Floyd

6It's Only Money (part 1) - Argent 

Hello

There has been a sudden explosion in viewing figures here which, as is often the case, does not seem to be due to any particular effort I have put into it. But welcome anyway if you are one of the 75 or so extra people a day who have popped in recently.

If you haven't the time to search online for more info about me, and you want some, then here is a bit of a mini CV:

Steve Tilley is an Associate Vicar in the Diocese of Bath and Wells. He heads up Trendlewood Church and its joint work with St Andrew's, Backwell called 'Andy's' and has responsibilities in several others.

Steve is a very experienced minister who has worked in and with a number of parishes and Christian organisations around the country. Born and brought up in Birmingham, he has been in Nailsea for the last ten years.

He is passionate about too many things including growing healthy churches, church planting, alternative worship, new ways of doing and being church, re-imagining ministry, work with young adults, training leaders, making new contacts and the performing arts. He is regularly heard on BBC Radio Bristol's Thought for the Day.

He enjoys working with the diocesan teams on vocations, mission enabling and communications.

He is married to Liz, a retail professional with her own career, and they have two grown-up sons.

In his spare time he enjoys cooking, films and TV, playing keyboards, reading modern fiction and writing (including blogging) and on social media where he tweets as @s1eve). He can bore you about West Bromwich Albion for several days.

Publications
Proclaiming Good News Down-le-Street (Grove 1991)
Various CPAS youth group resources (1993-2003)
A Day at the Cemetery (short-story, BBC Broadcast 1999)
Contributed chapters to various youth work and Christian culture books (1995-2004)
A Youthworker's Tale (SU 2003)
Mustard Seed Shavings (BRF 2012)
God's Church My Place (BRF 2013)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Black and Funny

The comedian Jimmy Carr joked:

Say what you like about IEDs but we're going to have a hell of a paralympic team.

I thought about that again recently. There was a nice little piece in theipaper last Tuesday about lovers of sick jokes. Researchers described humour as a two-staged problem solving process. It's true. All jokes involve the ability to reinterpret.

The key question, 'If you want to gauge a person's intelligence tell them a sick joke and see if they laugh.'

So, in similar style to the Jimmy Carr joke:

Doctor have you got the test results on my baby?
Well the good news is you're never going to struggle to find a parking place.

Now the Jimmy Carr joke will make you laugh as long as you are sure there are no insensitive amputees in the room. Then you might worry. The first time I heard it he was telling it in Afghanistan to a group of hardened squaddies. They fell about. Its success relied on a knowledge of the risks and a willingness to embrace the reality of injured friends by laughing. If you're still trying to work out what an IED is then you've got no chance of laughing.

Yet most of us cannot imagine the circumstances in which the test-results joke is funny. We see the way the joke works, may even find ourselves briefly entertained, but have a moment of self-censure.

A few years back on social media I came across:

Research proves most suicides caused by attempting to change duvet covers

It was followed by some comments by the sickened who felt it took suicide lightly. I couldn't possibly mock. But the joke works in exactly the opposite way. It is funny because it takes the slightly annoying and awkward job of duvet-cover-changing far too seriously. And anyway, once you gotta explain it it ceases to be funny and becomes damage limitation.

A few years back a marriage preparation course produced by a Christian Home Mission agency included a list of things a couple might get up to during intimacy. One of the things was:

Cover each other in ice-cream and lick it off

I had never used the course (or wasted good ice-cream thus) but found myself in a church, seeing couples, who had been given the material. One such couple, having discussed their wedding with me, then told me in no uncertain terms that what I had done was disgusting. Disgust works very well in a female Geordie accent by the way er, man.

I pointed out that if they agreed that neither of them ever wanted to lick anything off the other then the material had served its purpose - a discussion had taken place and agreement had been reached. But no. Their disgust went beyond that. Their disgust was at the very suggestion - this was not simply something they didn't want to do but that no sensible person should ever want to do and the church had suggested it. It was an uneducated response. The course compilers may have been daft not to foresee that but it was true. This was a couple who couldn't see the world from another's point of view.

And there, I think, is the rub. See the world from another person's point of view. Those of us who walk near the edge of humour's cliff from time to time need to rely on the joke-hearers also being sensitive. Sensitive to the fact that offence may not have been the primary aim. For, to be sure, comedians cannot give offence; that is to allocate them too much power. It can only be taken.

Must dash. Those kittens won't torture themselves.

Nailsea Mountain Rescue Team

As delivered on Friday night to an expectant room most of whom stayed for the after-dinner speeches. Those unfamiliar with our work need to know that there is a long-standing and bitter rivalry between ourselves and the Backwell Lifeboat Association:

Mr Secretary, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to address the fourth annual dinner of the Nailsea Mountain Rescue Team.

In a year in which the world seems to have embraced the ideas of alternative facts and post-truth it may be that we are way ahead of the world, our very existence being a living and breathing example of alternative facts and post-truth and having been so for some years.

The world may think one needs mountains for a mountain rescue team but that is a very old-truth way of looking at things. Allow me to present you with some alternative facts for a few minutes:

There are two fewer attendees at this year's Annual Dinner. Neither of them were mislaid on mountains. However, due to the inadequacy of our sister organisation, we cannot guarantee that they were not drowned.

Five energetic and robust training sessions have been undertaken this year; sessions 14-18 in the history of our organisation:

Session 14 - Mar - the Jubilee, Flax Bourton
Session 15 - May - the Black Horse, Clapton in Gordano
Session 16 - Jul - George, Backwell
Session 17 - Failand Inn
Session 18 - Rising Sun, Backwell

Our secretary was apparently unable to recall the dates of these final two due to intense postprandial warm-down procedures.

It was a successful year with no rescues needed. As this is the second year in which emergency activity has been unnecessary we appear to have achieved remarkable consistency.

It may not be a coincidence that, thanks to our support by visiting once a year, the Rising Sun has been refurbished.

But we are always looking for new volunteers. He is not here this evening but we are told the Rev'd Trevor Dean will be joining the team this year. However since he is alarmingly fit, blessed with chaplaincy skills and medically proficient he may turn out to be over-qualified. I spoke to him at the gym today and he said, and I quote:

(Gasp, puff, pant, heavy bathing, Spin Class)

I think we should turn him down.

From the Royal Navy David Kay will also be joining, bringing many years of valuable naval experience to the team. We hope he will be able to share some of his knowledge with the Coxswain of the Backwell Lifeboat Association who is proficient only in excuses for missing training sessions and dinners. One of these excuses, that he is washing his hair, is wearing a bit thin now, as indeed...

The other, that he is out scouting for a new lifeboat, is one with which we can deal.

The Mountain Rescue Team often walks near to the lake after several pints of training. The new route taken by the Christmas Walk led by Mountain Rescue Team member Dave Boddy also goes via the lake to the Rising Sun, less spiritual members preferring to walk around it. A water-related accident would ruin the final stage of the walk to the Ring O Bells for debriefing purposes.

It is therefore vitally important that we support the valuable community contribution that the lifeboat service continues to provide.

Due to your generous support - we have had a whip-round - and some incredibly creative accounting, Dale (absent this evening) acquired a lifeboat with the money that the Mountain Rescue Team has raised.

I invite the secretary to make the presentation.

And I invite you to drink to his health.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol just now:

After Jesus died Peter retreated to what he knew. John's Gospel records him saying 'I'm going fishing'. It looks impulsive.

How do you make decisions? Are you intuitive like that? You don't know why you do what you do but you just do it. Or do you like some evidence and guidance?

Finding myself with a minority position in a number of recent political arguments - defeated, lost, confused - I confess to feeling in a similar position. I don't fish, but a few days back a desire for solitude and reflection was certainly high up the list of things I wanted. Please. No more news!

But later I was called to visit some people struggling with a number of tough issues and wanting to talk. And, although I squeezed the visit into an already busy evening, for an hour and a half I knew I was where I needed to be and doing what I needed to do.

Work as a priest is rewarding when that happens.

Over-loaded with information and feeling we can't do anything about refugees, poverty and global politics, I don't know how you make the decision to come out from under the duvet and face the world. Sometimes I don't quite know how I do. But we have to, if we want to get the chance to make the world a slightly better place.

The one we now call St Peter found a bigger mission than fishing. And I can keep trying to make a difference to a small number of local people where I serve. I can't do much, but I can do something. That, and of course Emma, your gentle voice, is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Trusting Statisticians and so on...

There was an excellent Long Read in the Guardian last Saturday about the death of statistics. In a detailed piece William Davies discussed the current environment of appealing to emotions rather than facts. Now I am sitting in the middle of the current maelstrom in which members of the liberal chattering classes whirl. I really don't know how it has come to this. But I have watched the developed western world  (if I may call it such) get here and would like to have a go at discussing why.

I am a stats nerd. I never miss More or Less on BBC Radio 4 and take longer than most people digesting (and sometimes checking) graphs and tables in papers. Current bugbear - the axis that doesn't go to zero making variations seem worse than they are. I know this is not normal. I also tend to avoid thinking with my emotions having been encouraged by endless management training courses to 'take the emotion out of it' when facing conflict. Or to put it more bluntly, a football coach once said 'Never think with your bollocks son they're not meant for that.' So I tend to look for the reassuring solidity of facts.

But in politics especially over the last thirty years facts have been used messily. Summarising political debate a few years back a friend of mine paraphrased a BBC Radio 4 interview. Imagining they were discussing a snooker ball, he said one person asserted:

This ball is completely red.

Only to get the response:

No it's not, it's completely round.

A more subtle and duller version would be (and these facts are all made up):

The cost of travelling has increased 12% year on year since the year 2000.

Responded to with:

This government has put £10bn extra into public transport, making a 15% increase in investment in real terms over the corresponding period.

You will recognise the sort of discussion. At least in the second version the divisive 'No it's not...' is missing although it is pretty much assumed.

It is not a contrary position. We may not like it but this is exactly what an 'alternative fact' is. It is quite possible for both sides to be right with stats.

During the recent US Presidential campaign the statistical fact came up that a massive reduction in violent crime against the person, nationwide, was being reported during the Obama administration. Challenged on this a panellist on a news show said:

Not in Chicago it isn't. Followed by, People don't feel it is like this.

John Oliver accused the guy of bringing feelings to a facts fight. Yes. He did. And I think he won.

And what do we need to say of Michael Gove's Brexit campaign rallying call that people had had enough of experts. They were, and still are, tired of the sham expertise that rubbishes the other side's stats as a matter of course. For the message received by the public is that all stats are wrong, not just those ones. It was not because of the experts that experts became mistrusted, but because the information provided by the experts was used so badly. And it was ironic that it was Gove, one who had been doing that, who called it so.

This has been an opinion piece. But it is my opinion that facts matter. If they don't then we can plaster whatever we damn well like on the side of the campaign bus. It doesn't mean we have to do it.

And finally, as a coda, those of us who believe in facts need to quadruple check the 'facts' we share, especially on social media. Trump didn't photoshop his hands and it makes us look bad to suggest so. Neither did he hold hands with our Prime Minister in a giant love-in; he helped her down some dodgy stairs. We'll do photos another day, but those things freeze movement and can make it seem permanent. Some photo editor somewhere has 99 pictures of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich properly.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

#mumwatch

Hey. Here's a thought. Stuff changes. I know. Thank you.

So I was visiting Mum - the dementia addled, mainly deaf, partially sighted Mum who is now in residential care.

And we had a weird hour together.

At one point she mumbled and I made the mistake of saying 'Pardon'. She then said 'You what?' We disappeared into a black whole of frustrated courtesy.

And after she finally understood that it was me who hadn't heard her she had forgotten what it was she had mumbled.

But, remarkably aged 88, she can read, even without her glasses. So I wrote a few things down and she understood.

So now I have a new plan. Monday's 'Things to do' list now includes writing a letter to Mum. One side of A4 and 14 point font makes 250 words including the addresses. Not overly demanding. But possibly restoring communication.

We'll see.

Jonathan Raban

A recent interview in the Guardian told me something that I had feared - Jonathan Raban has been ill. In fact the piece chronicles his recovery from a very serious stroke in 2011.

I have taken my time reading through the Raban catalogue. Part of this may be that the idea of reaching a point where there will be no more Raban to read fills me with pain.

Some people are universally acknowledged as great authors; they often receive awards and prizes. Raban has had his share of such.

My connection started with a review. The review in a newspaper in 1999 was so enthusiastic I felt I had to order it at once in hardback. I did and read half of it over the next few nights, before sleep. Then I decided it was too good to read that way. It needed to be finished uninterrupted and not tired - preferably sitting by the sea. I did that.

Passage to Juneau is a travel book, the story of Raban repeating a yacht journey from Seattle to Juneau in Alaska, reading and reflecting on the works and diaries about the journey along the way and encountering people as he sought harbour. It was also a commentary on where he was with his relationships and a marriage coming to an end. But mostly, it was a series of sentences every one of which was better than any sentence I have ever managed. It was a writer's book. A book for people who like to write. In the company of writers I can read about almost anything. Even boats and travel.

I discovered the huge back catalogue of Raban's writings from the jacket. It was a 'Why did nobody tell me?' moment.

I chose a work of fiction next - Surveillance. Again it was an experience of great writing. It was a giant metaphor for the way, in post 9/11 USA, everybody was watching each other suspiciously. It was still relatively early in the days when prospective dates googled each other.

It was a story about journalism, secrets and relationships. I loved it.

And currently I am reading Driving Home, which is a collection of Raban's journalism in newspaper and magazine. It includes reviews of books, people and places.

You mean that's it? Indeed. So why am I writing about an author of whom I have read two and a half books? Well, it's so you get to start earlier than me. And also because of a sentence in Driving Home. Some context.

I have never heard of, nor read anything by, William Gaddis. And, in effect, the piece Raban wrote for the New York Review of Books called At Home in Babel in 1994 tells me not to bother. Speaking of two Gaddis novels Raban says:

'Scaling The Recognitions and JR, one keeps coming on the remains of earlier readers who lost their footing and perished in the assent.'

Gaddis is going to be tough going. And with other authors this sentence is cruel. In Raban's hands it is an invitation. He goes on to extract the juice from the best of Gaddis' work in such a way as to leave the Raban reader thinking they might dare become a Gaddis reader. Because Raban is, and I think this is the point, a generous writer. He writes to find the good, the best, in people, places, journeys and books. If Jonathan Raban will hold my hand I, not much of a traveller, can journey.

So even though I am new to him and inexperienced I hope he lives long enough to write so much more that, if I read slowly enough I will never run out. I think that's a prayer.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thought for the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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