Living in the fog of news; when news confuses rather than clarifies

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The phrase the “fog of war” emerged in military planning towards the end of the 1800s as a way of describing a commander’s confusion both of their own real strength, that of their allies and of their enemies.  Amidst this fog, military intelligence becomes the key tool to try to give clarity to planning.

Today we are learning to live with the “fog of news”, an uncertainty about what is happening and of the validity of our own views and the views of others.  The phrase “fake news” may be associated with President Trump  but although he may have named it he did not invent it.  Whilst we hold on to the idea that there is a definitive source of “accurate” news, if you have been involved in any story which then becomes reported as news, likely as not your own perception of those events will be very different to what is reported.

Similarly in choosing the source for the news we consume, we are already giving a slant to how we will see the world.  The Guardian’s world view is different from that of the Daily Mail and Channel 4 news feels very different from Channel 5 news.  The BBC may play on its brand integrity but all too often that mask slips.

It might be assumed that the task of news media is to help lift the fog but often they just add to it.  So the BBC lead with their interview of an ex-police officer’s comments on the contents of the computer of Damian Green.  Having initially focused on the questions it raised about a politician’s integrity, then they focused on the motivation for the police officer for giving the interview and criticisms of the breach of confidentiality.  The BBC had both generated the scoop and the story about the scoop and in the process had added fog to fog rather than bringing light to truth.

Everyone jumped up and down as President Trump announced the re-location of the US embassy for Israel to Jerusalem.  In the rush to highlight the maverick nature of this new President, little was made of the fact that this has been long-standing US policy and that other US Presidents had spoken of realising this ambition although none had actually acted on it.

For all the hours of reportage on Brexit are any of us really clearer what is happening? Similarly lack of clarity hovers around allegations of sexual harassment in parliament and in the film industry.  Stories drop in and out of the headlines, much depending on when “news” is no longer considered to be “new”.   Refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean, mass shootings regularly happen in the US, the conflict in Ukraine drags on, civil war is a daily reality in many countries such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic but, in the main, as such events are not new they are not news.  We are regularly told the NHS and Social Care are on the brink of collapse yet nothing seems to have changed so are we blindly moving towards a cliff edge or is someone crying wolf?  24/7 rolling news does not mean we are necessarily better informed about what is actually happening in the world and the demands of rolling news means that reactions are more knee-jerk and less considered.

Amidst the fog, many seem to feel that this just validates their own opinion (or should that be prejudices?) and become more bunkered in their own world view.  If others are not offering clarity then my own perceptions are as valid as anyone else’s .  The denser the fog, the more shrill the voices and the more acceptable it seems to vilify, or blacken, the name of those who dare to offer an alternative voice.

In the midst of the fog of news we cling to any passing certainty and try to make it our own.  But what happens if we let go of certainty and admit to not knowing?  In the search for truth a certain humility seems in order.  In admitting to not knowing, we open ourselves up to listening more to others, we learn to value discernment over proclamation, we become genuine searchers after truth rather than merely seeking evidence to support what we really thought all along.

In our own parliament, on the floor of the House, we are treated to the degrading spectacle of MPs trading their own versions of truth in a manner that often makes a cat fight look dignified.  But away from the spotlight, parliamentary select committees bring together people from diverse political backgrounds, who with the help of experts, do a much more effective task of seeking after truth, and often to the discomfort of the party in power.

In the fog of news, it is not the loudest voice nor the most repeated assertion that helps bring clarity but rather the gathering in a genuine spirit of not knowing.  It is in the letting go of prejudice and in the openness to those who come to life from a different perspective that the fog thins. It is in stilling my assertions, and in giving attention to the too often drowned out voice, that some clarity may emerge.

Perhaps if news was not 24 hours 7 days each week but 7 minutes of reflection each 24 hours we might see the fog lift and our clarity of vision improve.

 

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Advent: a reminder that to be Church is to always be compromised

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Advent has arrived and with it come the annual pleas to keep the season as a special time in the life of the Church and to resist the creeping advances of Christmas. Clergy try to hold a line by keeping christmas trees in churches at bay and resist the too early singing of carols.  Christmas we are reminded begins on 25th December and can then be celebrated for twelve, if not for forty days; that is the real Christmas season.

There is no doubting that Advent is an important season in its own right.  A time of proper preparation, reflection and penitence.  We recall how the patriarchs and matriarchs longed for the coming of God’s Saviour.  We hear again the words of the prophets spoken to people feeling abandoned in exile.  We think of John the Baptist seeking to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  And we honour Mary as she in a unique and personal way responds to the call of God.  This at least is the acceptable face of Advent and with Advent wreaths makes the Church appear to joining in the count down to the BIG DAY although really the themes here are more significant than can be captured in the evermore commercial offering of Advent Calendars

As we prepare to meek God in the Christ-child we are also encouraged to consider when we will meet God at the end of our life and to contemplate the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell – although any preacher deciding to major on these themes is usually regarded as a bit of a party pooper.

Then of course is the theme of the Second Coming, when Christ will return again and complete the work of Salvation begun in his earthly ministry two thousand.  Although from the first a key part of the Christian message (Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again), the Church is shy of being associated with the doom-mongers and end-of-the-worlders – safer to stay with keeping the focus on the babe in Bethlehem.

Each of these important Advent themes is linked by the theme of waiting which in itself is a fundamental human experience and with which all too many can identify.  But in an impatient world, and where taking the waiting out of wanting is seen as a virtue, these rich Advent themes are always going to struggle to make traction beyond the faithful few.

The dilemma for the Church is whether to stand out against the crowd and in so doing appear grumpy and out of touch.  Or does the Church go with the flow and risk lessening its message to the lowest common denominator.  Some will always want the Church to stand out for truth, for the purity of its message, seeing its difference as a virtue and a sign of its success.

Jesus himself recognises this same dilemma – John the Baptist comes neither eating nor drinking and is thought to have a demon whilst Jesus eats and drinks and is thought a glutton and a drunkard.  But what matters is Jesus is there amidst the mix and mess of people’s ordinary lives and from that comes the natural chances to speak of other (and deeper) things.

Trying to keep a good Advent is yet another reminder that to be Church is always to be in some way compromised.  Whatever path we take will will always in some way be less than we wanted to be.  Thankfully the salvation which the Church preaches is not about goodness and perfection but about grace.

The Christmas message begins not by being stand-offish and remote but by getting down amidst the muck and chaos – to join in where other people are already gathering and celebrating. The real skill is then discerning the stepping stones and bridges that in quiet, affirming and unthreatening ways then enable us to shift the gaze from the sausage roll in the manger to Love hidden in the straw.

It is only a compromised Church that can make that connection; only a broken Church that can heal.

 

Cathedrals: Mother Church or Distant Aunt?

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Traditionally cathedrals are known as the Mother church of their diocese, emphasising the link between parish and cathedral, diocese and cathedral.  The cathedral is the home of the seat of the bishop (the cathedra) and here clergy and people gather with their bishop for acts of celebration and of learning.  The cathedral also prays daily for the bishop and the parishes in the bishop’s care.

Cathedrals also seek to be Mother church in the way they offer support for clergy, encouraging them to come and spend a quiet day in the cathedral, for reading or reflection, away from the pressures of the parish, or even to come and stay for longer with the cathedral becoming a place for retreat and refreshment. Cathedral clergy also make themselves available to offer support and guidance to parish clergy as spiritual director or other resource. In these and other ways cathedrals offer themselves as a place of nurture.

Increasingly there is an expectation that cathedrals will be engaged with the diocesan mission plan and central Church initiatives.  Some wish to see cathedrals more directly under the control of their bishop and more responsive to the needs and wishes of the diocese and more “on message”.

Intended or not many see in the Church of England’s present Renewal and Reform programme a centralising tendency but there is a danger that this could damage the very mission they are seeking to promote. Although seen as rooted in history and tradition, for many who discover cathedrals and their worship, cathedrals are a fresh expression of Church, even a refreshing expression of Church.  It is not a claim to be better but a desire to be different and difference can be enriching.

Part of the very success of cathedrals – and cathedrals have been one of the signs of growth for the Church – is that they are independent, that they do sit at times more on the edge of the Church.  The very significant numbers visiting cathedrals, their engagement with the wider community through civic events, exhibitions, concerts, conferences and a wide variety of other activities means they meet and engage with a range of people who otherwise the Church might not otherwise be in contact with.  They are seen as places which are acceptable to people of all faiths and of no faiths, often acting as a bridge between Church and Community.  Being different, being independent, is part of their mission.

Too close an association with either diocese or national church could stifle the very success of cathedrals.  As far as possible cathedrals need to be free from imposing others’ agendas on those who cross their thresholds – to do so would be to undermine the sense of cathedrals being safe places, where all are welcome and difficult conversations can be had, where anonymity is acceptable, places large enough to hide in, big enough to point beyond themselves and hint at something other.

Inevitably there can be tensions between independent minded cathedrals and diocese and national Church but tension in and of itself need not be a bad thing.  As long as the reason for the independence is clearly articulated and it is shaped by a genuine desire to reach out and be that bride between Church and Community, then the wider Church can only benefit from independent minded cathedrals.

At times rightly and properly cathedrals will play their part in being “mother church” in all the positive connotations of that phrase, but at time, please also let the cathedrals be a distant aunt, allowing them to be at times slightly eccentric, “off message”.  But hopefully through their social and community engagement, by their welcome and cherishing of their visitors also a beloved, if distant, aunt.  We all need relatives who are different, even slightly mysterious or intriguing.  They enrich our sense of being a family and family life is richer and stronger for their presence.

So, long may diocese and national Church resist the temptation to meddle in the life of our cathedrals.  Rather let them be given the freedom to do the things they do best, in their own distinctive way, and allow them, at times, to be less mother and more aunt – if distant at times hopefully still beloved.

Remembrance Day and the next generation

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One in five adults will not wear a poppy this year, rising to one in three of under 25s.  The two main reasons given are firstly concern that wearing the poppy glorifies war and secondly because they feel bullied into wearing it.  One in twelve report experiencing hostility for not wearing a poppy.

Whilst the Poppy Appeal is in essence just another charity flag day which raises in the region of £43million for service personnel, veterans and their families, the reality is that something bigger is happening here.  A jumble of other issues have now adhered to this act of remembrance.  It is remembering the fallen, gratitude for their sacrifice but also an affirmation of national pride, an expression of support for the armed forces, a reminder of the importance of public duty and a pledge to work for peace.  And perhaps it is these additional messages that have led to a seeming revitalising of the place of Remembrance Day in the public conscience?

Despite the numerous conflicts that have happened since, the focus remains on the two world wars.  The very name “world war” raises the stakes in terms of remembrance although there have been other wars that have been equally significant for the peace of this country not least the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Napoleonic Wars and numerous other wars in Europe but time has faded their memory. But will/should the memory of the two world wars also be allowed to similarly fade?

Perhaps more significant is the fact that the First World War was really the first occasion in which the ordinary soldier was memorialized.  In the Boer Wars it was largely the officer class to whom memorials were erected and prior to that in most conflicts it was only the commanders who remembered.  In the most recent conflicts the return of each coffin has taken on the significance of a national event as our attitude to the casualties of war has radically changed.

As we move beyond the generations who have any memory of the actual conflict of the first world war – or memories of relatives who served in the conflict – and soon the same will be true of the second world war, the Royal British legion is growing its campaigns in schools and among young people to ensure they do not forget – but what is it we do not want them to forget?  And should this not rather be left to the teaching of history in our schools rather than using the valuable resources of the Royal British Legion.

What is it that must not be forgotten?  Why do we need to remember?  We are told that if we do not learn the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat its mistakes?  So far remembering has not helped this nation avoid a number of rather ill-judged military engagements in the past century.  Lloyd George hoped 1914-18 would be the war to end all wars but that hope seems as distant as ever.

A nation standing in silence for two minutes feels important and significant but when it is over and the poppy sellers pack up for another year what will have changed.  Money will have been raised in a good cause but will the world be any safer and future war any less likely?

A poppy and shared silence feels like a good start but by itself it is not enough.  It is what follows next we need to understand and it is this we need to pass on to the next generation.  On 11/11 pause and remember but for the rest of the year do not forget.  As the echo of Reveille fades the real task begins; it is discovering and walking in the paths of peace. It is this not just memories that need to be passed on to the next generation – it is the ingredients for peace.

The Long Walk to Equality

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Four girls, aged 16 and 17, sit in our front room.  They are both angry and feeling powerless.  They describe how when they are out and about it is routine for them to be the object of wolf whistles and passing male drivers winding down their windows and making suggestive comments.  For them, and for their friends, this has become a normal part of growing into womanhood.  It makes them angry but they feel powerless to stop it.

Would those who behave in this way be so comfortable if it was their sixteen year old daughter who was being the object of this unwanted attention?

Many older women report it has always been this way  and some have implied that modern women should not be making such a fuss about it all. And some men blame the feminists for being kill joys and moan that soon men will not feel safe asking a woman out on a date for fear of being accused of inappropriate behaviour.  But since when has inappropriate touching, wolf whistles and suggestive comments been essentials in asking a girl out?

Rightly some point out that in all of this men can be the victims too and that is undoubtedly true but overwhelmingly it is women who suffer from this everyday sexism.  Of course those who endure such behaviours should be encouraged to speak up and break the silence but never underestimate how much harder that can be than it sounds. So often such behaviours are about the inappropriate use of power.  Even with the best whilst blower policy, people still feel inhibited from making a fuss or making a complaint.  Only when those in power remember, and demonstrate, that they are called to act as servants not masters might this changed

And the sexism that encourages such behaviours is all-pervasive.  The same newspapers that have outraged headlines about “sexpests” on the same page will have a scantily clad young woman to entertain its readers.  It is there in advertising and is common at promotion events.  The latest ATP Finals tennis draw had female models deciding groupings by revealing letters hidden under their clothing.  Whilst this later event has been condemned so much sexism passes unnoticed and uncommitted upon.  It has simple become engrained in the fibres of society so we think that this is just the way that it is.

Whilst an increasing number of women are making it to the top of their professions, this must not delude us into thinking that equality has been achieved.  For women discrimination, patronising and glass ceilings are very much facts of life. Bizzarly the very success of some woman can make the inequalities that other endure more hidden.

Similarly for people of colour, because some have achieved more high-profile roles, we think racial discrimination is a thing of the past.  However recent reports on the criminal justice system and on entrance to Oxbridge show racism is alive and well and hate crimes are on the increase.

And again whilst we may have taken paralympians to our hearts, people with disabilities still report discrimination and face barriers of all sorts to their full participation in the wider society.

Despite equalities legislation, equality remain illusive and discrimination is an everyday reality. In recent years some have wanted to tempt us into thinking here in the West equality has been achieved.  We have been so busy wagging our fingers at other cultures and societies that we have forgotten how far we have still to travel.

It seems such a simple thing to ask that we each learn to treat the other with respect and honour but seemingly this is still the hardest lesson for human beings to learn.  The stories currently filling the media are just one more reminder that we still have far to travel on the long walk to equality.

Whether leave or remain it is time to end the special case mythology

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All sides in the Brexit debate consciously or unconsciously peddle the mythology that Britain is a “special case”

Those who still long for us to remain “at the heart of Europe” quietly forget to mention that Britain always slightly sat on the side of the European project.  We did not join in with the Euro.  We carefully avoided anything that hinted at fostering “ever closer union”.  We demanded limitations on freedom of movement when new countries joined the Union and were for ever going on about our rebate.  We always wanted to claim that Britain was a special case and so, although part of Europe, should be allowed to behave differently.

Those who favour a soft Brexit believe that because Britain is a special case, the EU will want to negotiate a special deal with us, allowing us special terms and conditions to trade etc because, after all, we are so important to Europe – what ever relationship the EU has developed with other non EU-nations, our relationship will be different because we are special.

Those who favour a hard Brexit are bullish because the rest of the world knows we are special and will want to make trade agreements with us.  Why would you not want a special deal with Britain?  And of course some point to our “special relationship” with the USA – surely the original fake news item and this more often seems like embarrassing begging – and even if it were true do we really want a special relationship with a Trump-led America?  Is that really the best we can do for an ally?

There is no one party in the this process that is more patriotic and all in their own way want the best for this country. However we need to understand none of this makes our country a special case.  We are one nation among many nation and as the centre of global power shifts away from the West, and other economies start to flourish, the days of special pleading for any one nation are over.

In part the idea of seeing ourselves as a special case reflects our loss of identity as a nation and our uncertainty where we belong in the world order.  This is a process that has been happening since the decline of empire.  Our role in the global order can no longer depend on our former history rather it has to be about a vision for ourselves in the new emerging world order.

The reality is that whatever kind of Brexit is achieved, it is going to take the nation awhile to find its feet again.  There is going to be a wilderness period and most likely it will be Britain post-May and post-Corbyn – perhaps another ten years – before we emerge to clearer water.  But this is not bad news – wilderness experiences are important.  They are times for conversations and reflections, a time to rediscover our common identity, to agree the kind of nation we want to be and the part we want to play in the world.

So please, no more special pleading, no more delusions about being a special case.  And similarly no more wringing of hands – this is a moment to begin a conversation we have put off for too long.  Who does Britain want to be in the 21st century and what part can Britain play in building a more peaceful and just world.?

Grave Talk: learning to talk about the inevitable

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Awaiting the birth of a new baby is full of hope and excitement and, as with any momentous moment, also a little fear and nervousness. Antenatal classes do their best to prepare the expectant parents. A special place or room is prepared at home with decorations, and toys and one or two special clothes. A cot and pushchair are placed on order as expectations grow and the moment of birth draws closer. Although it is never enough, we try our hardest to be as best prepared as we can.

And once born and the arrival of new life has been celebrated, there is one inevitability that is kept a secret, that by unspoken agreement we refrain from talking about. And those who break this pact are regarded as doom mongers, people to be avoided, harbingers of bad luck.

The truth that we are all trying so hard to avoid is that we are all going to die. Although it is the one absolute certainty of our lives nobody wants to talk about it. Where are the ante-mortem classes, where are the signs of preparation at home, where are the conversations about choice of our final resting place and of our type of coffin?

Death has become increasingly hidden away. Once around every parish church, at the heart of each community, was a graveyard, where there was always the sight of a fresh burial and as the hearse drove by all would stop and stand in silence and men would doff their hats. Now Crematorium are built in out of the way the locations where only those who need to use them pass by and the passing of the hearse is regarded as an encumbrance to speeding traffic.

Yet for all the pact of secrecy, and however hard we try to avoid it death will come. And whilst public conversations about this subject are few and far between, each of us, if we are honest, will find ourselves pondering our own death, not least its when, where and how?

So can we change this death avoiding culture? If there are preparations for birth, can we not also have preparation for death? Death Café, and the Church of England version, Grave Talk, provide an opportunity, over tea and cake to talk about death, dying and funerals. Such occasions seek to provide a chance to talk about death, think about your funeral, ask questions, air your thoughts.

To face up to death, to even dare to befriend death, helps both us and those we leave behind. This is not just a conversation for when we know our last days are approaching but to think about now when we are relatively fit and healthy. Such conversations help us take stock of our lives and re-assess our priorities. It means when others may have to make decisions on our behalf, when perhaps we are too weak, too confused, to express our wishes, they will know what we would want. And when we die it is a great comfort for our loved ones to know that they are following our wishes. The best funerals are when we know that the hymns, reading and music are exactly what the deceased would have wished; it makes the service one last precious shared experience.

Norwich Cathedral seeks to be a safe place to have difficult conversations. So amidst the season of Remembrance, and when some in the city will be marking the Mexican Festival of the Dead, the Cathedral is organising, in the Weston Room, Grave Talk on Saturday 11th November, 10.00am – 12noon. There will be tea and cake. There will be talk. There will be questions. This is for people of all faiths and doubts; drop in any time. There will be resources to help you think about these last things of life. There will be a solicitor, a funeral director, a priest and other people like yourself wanting a chance to talk about death.

It is time to break the taboo, to talk about the inevitable and learn to be as comfortable talking about death as about birth. Some may want to say that this is all too depressing but those who have learnt to engage in grave talk find it brings, comfort, re-assurance and peace. None of this to deny the fear, anxiety or sorrow that thoughts of death may also bring but it is to dare to say that it is love not death that has the final say in life.

Gardeners’ World; a parable of modern Britain

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There is surely nothing more harmless than sitting down on a Friday evening to watch BBC’s Gardeners’ World.  Monty, and the ever endearing Nigel, draw us into a gentle and charming world of beautiful gardens, whilst sharing hints and tips on how the viewer can get the best out of their own garden along with suggestions of gardens to visit.

Whilst keeping us all unto date with the wonders of Monty’s own garden and introducing us to other gardens worth a visit, the programme seeks to keep its feet in the realm of the more typical garden by championing saving front gardens from tarmac, tackling overgrown back gardens and following community garden projects.

Yet even in embracing those so-called more ordinary projects Gardeners’ World shows how far it is divorced from the reality of gardening for most people.  Monty shows off his five (or is it six?) compost bins where as most of us just have one local council issue plastic compost bin, indeed the area he has given over for composting is bigger than many people’s gardens.  When Monty is showing us a quick cheap way to propagate plants he has great vats of different varieties of compost whilst most of us have one sack of multipurpose which has to do for everything, and then places his cuttings in one of his glasshouses , which in turn are bigger than many people’s homes.  And when an “ordinary” front or back garden is shown, the project undertaken usually involves a payout on new plants that would leave many of us struggling to pay the next week’s food bill.  It is rare indeed to see on Gardeners’ World the kind of pocket-handkerchief garden many of us have on modern housing estates, or an allotment or our one north facing balcony in a block of flats.

The divorce between the gardening world presented by the BBC and the reality of most people’s gardens reflects the growing sense of disconnect between the powers that be and the nature of most people’s lives.  There is a growing sense that politicians, policy makers, media, Church, and others who fall in the classification “establishment” simply  do not get how the majority live, how they think and feel, the reality of their lives.  Even when they talk of “ordinary” lives, just like Gardeners’ World, they get it wrong.

And when you feel so regularly unheard, mis-represented, over-looked, you inevitably look around for those who offer a different take on the world we live in.  Politicians who do not speak and act like the mainstream, news sources other than the traditional outlets, belief systems that do not rely on bishops and synods, all start to seem much more attractive, more real.

Gardeners’ World is a parable of modern Britain.  It appears warm and friendly, in touch with everyday folk.  It presents an image of how we might want to see ourselves but, albeit in a kind harmless way, it just offers a fantasy that bears little or no resemblance to most people’s worlds.  It seeks to present as normal something which is far from normal.

Gardeners’ Wold is an innocent enough program but unconsciously it has become a symptom of a wider malaise.  Until we are able to fully acknowledge the diversity of ways people live, work and have their being, Britain will remain a divided land.  As long as the world view of a particular elite is presented as the norm for everyone we will remain disconnected one from another.  Our nation at the moment feels rather lost, lacking a sense of direction and ill at ease with itself – there is no sense of common ground or understanding of what is the common good.

 

Has the Church lost the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven? (and should we worry?)

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St Matthew’s Gospel describes Jesus as promising to give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven with the words: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  And with these words the fledgling Church took on the role of Gate Keepers and brought itself trouble and strife.

So the early Church struggled if Gentiles could be let in and then what of those not circumcised or those who ate certain food stuffs. Onwards there would be arguments about what beliefs were essential and which were heresy and then about which books should be included in Scripture and the language it should be read in.  Were Popes and Bishops necessary and what about women, the divorced, gays – in short there seems to have almost been nothing on which Christians could not fall out about in deciding who was in and who was out.

And whilst the Church gets on with its own squabbles, the signs of the kingdom of heaven sprout up everywhere and often unconnected to Church.  Most recently in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bomb and the attacks on London Bridge and outside Finsbury Park Mosque and the fire at Grenfell Tower, yes churches did engage well but acts of generosity, love, reconciliation and compassion flourished well beyond the borders of anything that might be seen as Church.  In these selfless acts glimpses of the kingdom of heaven were seen; the Church did not have a monopoly on them.

The rise of the “nones” – those of no religion – is not about atheism or humanism but a rejection of the gatekeeping role of the Church in what or how or where to express faith and belief.  For a growing majority acts of what are fundamentally Christian action and faith are no longer seen as needing to be associated with this thing called Church. Or to put it another way the nones no longer believe the Church holds the exclusive keys to the kingdom of heaven.

In the face of these changes some cry for a more inclusive Church but the very concept of inclusion is itself the problem.  When we have the most women, disability LGBT friendly churches in the world there will still be other groups we are consciously or unconsciously excluding.  The very idea of inclusion is the problem and not the solution. The concept of inclusion still assumes it is “our” tent albeit that we are trying to be very generous who we let in.  One way or another we are still playing at gate-keepers to the kingdom of heaven.  The problem (and the true good news) is that the tent is not “ours”, it is God’s.

Maybe, just maybe, in giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is showing that keys are no longer needed and they are given to Peter precisely to ensure they are never used.

Maybe, just maybe, the point of Peter’s dream in Joppa when the sheet of animals is lowered is to remind him to not use the keys.  Although the immediate message is that Gentiles are included too, the real implication is that there is no boundary to the kingdom of heaven.

If Peter, who the early Church so well documented as repeatedly messing up, can be included in the kingdom of heaven (and myself who has similar spiritual ineptitude) how then can Peter (or me) dare to suggest that others are not worthy to be included in the kingdom.

Some will immediately fear a free for all and want to argue that it matters how we behave and what we believe.  Of course such things do matter but it is a reminder that the way, the life and the truth are God’s not ours and that in the kingdom we are called to be servants not gatekeepers. The signs of the kingdom are radical hospitality and over-flowing generosity – who am I to fence the hospitality or limit the generosity?

Maybe, just maybe, it is only when the keys of the kingdom of heaven are lost that we can really begin to build heaven on earth.

Thank you Norwich Pride for showing us a glimpse of life in all its fullness

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It was at one level so outrageously in your face and yet at another level so very simple and either way enough to bring a lump to the throat.  For some Norwich Pride was their chance to publicly parade their inner gorgeousness and flaunt it for all it was worth.  Others came as just themselves in all there beautiful ordinariness.

Everybody was out to show they were rainbow friendly. Shops vied with different ways of introducing rainbow colours into their displays, the police strutted their stuff with rainbow epaulets on their shoulders, parents dressed their babies to match the day’s theme and you were left feeling naked if you did not have rainbow face paint.  But most impressive of all was the all-pervading friendliness.  Stranger engaged willingly and easily with stranger.  It was the very embodiment of that wonderful phrase joie de vivre.

And when the parade moved off, the sense of joy was infectious.  Everywhere there were just people having fun.  In this relaxed, rainbow coloured, wonderfully diverse gathering of all ages, (and joy of joy so many young people), Norwich Pride gave us for a moment a glimpse of what it means to live life in all its fullness, to be human beings fully alive.  There felt to be a greater spirit of true carnival than on carnival day itself – no disrespect to the Lord Mayor’s procession intended.

As the slogan on the Stonewall t-shirt said: Some people are gay, get over it.  For these all too brief hours of pride Norwich really had got over it – this is who we are and we are proud of it.  What is the problem?

… And of course the Christians had a stall.  It was good they were there challenging the too oft portrayed negative image that many have of the Church’s attitude on this and other issues.  And clearly conversations showed that for some a visible Christian presence was very affirming and an important way of saying Christian and Gay is ok.

But of course with the Church there is always an agenda.  In a sense there is a very big agenda – The Church is struggling to truly affirm and accept the LGBT community in its midst and not a little hung up on equal marriage.  But equally would it not be wonderful for Christians to simply come and be and not on their own special stall but just there, dancing with hula hoops, offering face paint or standing alongside those campaigning for mental health issues.

Is it just about another agenda issue, another drum to be banged?  Or is it deeper and more fundamental? Is it more about the very nature of Church?  Churches draped in rainbow colours is not what matters.  Rather how can our churches, both buildings and communities, be safe spaces where all are welcome and all can dare to be themselves?  It is not just the LGBT community that struggles with Church.  Those who too often find themselves on the margins of society find themselves also on the margins of the Church, whether that be people with disabilities, mental health needs, the economically marginalised, the homeless, the over-burdened carer, the old who feel the Church only wants the young and the young who feels the Church does not understand their culture – the list goes on.

The words “inclusive” and “welcoming” have become essential church-speak but their very familiarity can blind us to the people we do not see and the voices we do not here.  They can also become the clothing that helps us turn away those we feel are illiberal – being code for those who think differently from us.  If we truly mean God loves all people sometimes that “all” can be very uncomfortable.

Can we discover a radical hospitality where the Church is known, unquestioningly as the go to place for acceptance and understand, challenging and questioning but never judgement or dismissive, honest in debate but always with a spirit of love and tolerance?

As people pranced and posed, drummed and danced, cheered and cried, laughed and loved, hugged and honked, drank and dreamed their way through Norwich Pride, there was a moment when we gained a glimpse of what that radical hospitality might look like.  As the procession poured into the park it really did feel that all, all were welcome in this place.

If only we could have bottled that moment and gifted it to the Church.