What does it say about us when we pay a pretend nurse more than a real nurse?

There is no doubt that some in Government are up to mischief in insisting that the BBC’s top earners are named – many politicians have a love hate relationship with the BBC and in particular the way it is funded. It may be a sad and unintended consequence of this rather silly policy that salaries will rise rather than fall.  It is to be hoped it will lead to more gender equality.  However, within the broadcasting industry, surprising though the salaries may seem to outsiders, none of those publicly named are being paid anything unusual or exceptional.  In earning what they earn none of them have done anything wrong or inappropriate.  At one level it is a lot of fuss about nothing.

Nevertheless any discussion of salaries does hold up an interesting mirror to our values. Football in the person of Gary Linekar (£1.75m) is valued more than News and Current Affairs (Huw Edwards £550km) whilst in turn sitting in a safe studio (like Huw does) is valued more than putting yourself in harm’s way as say Jeremy Bowen does (£150K).

It is also curious that Derek Thompson at £350k is paid so much more for pretending to be a nurse that we pay real nurses.  Is entertaining us to be valued more than those who heal us?  Money of course is not the only way of valuing people and high earners do pay more tax and the media industry does generate wealth for the nation.  Nevertheless these salaries do suggest we have grown used to living in a rather Alice in Wonderland world; an upside down world where nothing is quite what it seems.

I would not want to suggest the salaries journalists earn consciously influence the way they work nor the integrity they bring to their profession.  However, at some level, the size of salary must impact on a person’s world view, the circles they move in and their approach to living.  Consciously or unconsciously if you are earning £150k plus you will think and question differently than if your life is one long struggle to make ends meet. This is not to say one is better than another but it is about acknowledging the significance of difference and trying to understand its impact.

Today’s revelations may mean that the questioner will now sometimes also face uncomfortable questions.  Yet despite the unpleasant smell of government game-playing over all of this, there remains a deep affection for the BBC but also a nagging sense that we are living our lives with the wrong sense of priorities.

I will pay more tax to end austerity

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People are now marching to call for an end to austerity and apparently even some Conservative MPs are talking about ending the cap on public sector pay.  The latest Social Attitudes survey shows a larger percentage in those supporting an increase in taxation to pay for public services.  Sadly this survey does not ask a more crucial namely: would you be willing to pay more taxes to pay for public services?

The danger is that we all look to others to carry the tax burden – ideally of course the rich, who we define as those with more money than us.  Interestingly the Labour proposal for a new higher tax rate was set at an amount just above salary of an average MP.  How much more powerful if that rate had been set to include the income level of MPs – then it really would have been a statement that we are all in this together.

Yes those earning more should pay more in tax and yes taxation does need to be used to help with some re-distribution of wealth.  Similarly it has to be hoped the poorest can be protected from tax rises and even taken out of the lowest tax bracket.

But all of this would be much more powerful if there were more voices from people not just protesting about austerity but also saying: yes I am willing to pay more tax to end austerity.

In saying I am willing to pay more tax I know that this will mean a further tightening of belts in this household but if that means that the health service and social care can be better funded, that schools and the emergency services can be better resourced then so be it.  Sometimes we have to come together for the greater good and be willing to pay the price.

So this turkey is voting for Christmas.

Rage, rage at the revelations of that night.

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The Queen has spoken of  “a very sombre national mood” in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.  The images of the fire itself are too unbearable to watch, the glimpses of individuals still trapped in the building engulfed in flames and the heart-breaking last text and phone messages.  Then there is the unimaginable agony of those who still do not know the fate of their loved ones, hoping against hope for some good news, that they fear will not come.

Amidst the unfolding horror the best of the human spirit was also revealed in the heroic work of the emergency services and the sheer bravery of the fire crews.  The best of humanity was also revealed in the generosity of the local community, responding to the best of instincts to help in whatever way possible.

But over this scene is a growing cloud of anger.  How in 21st century Britain could this happen and in the richest borough in the country?   Voices had long been raised in warning about the safety of this housing block and we are faced with the frightening truth that may be, just may be, these voices went unheard because they came from the poorer and more vulnerable part of the borough. And to compound this, the local authority seems to have been remarkably slow in offering support and help to those affected.  In the shadow of Grenfell Tower are some of the most expensive high-rise flats in the country, built to the very highest specification whilst this tower block was seemingly refurbished to just minimum standards.  In one terrible night the inequalities that blight modern Britain have been laid bare.

Much is made of London’s international status, the wealth it generates and the super rich who move in.  Less is made of the poor and vulnerable who get caught up in the outwash of this growth, who on minimum wage and zero hour contracts, and priced out of all but the poorest housing, help sustain the city that too often ignores them.  And what is true of London is mirrored to different extents in cities around the country.

When the rich bankers got it wrong for the sake of all (or so we are told) the government immediately bailed them out taking the nation into debt.  In times of debt austerity becomes the order of the day and when belts are tightened it is too often those already struggling who find the little they have becomes even less.  Austerity does not affect everyone equally meanwhile our public services, most needed by the poorest and most vulnerable, are all starting to show the signs of chronic under funding.

When individuals are in crisis, or tragedy hits communities, again and again the local churches will be found there amongst the mix of those helping and reaching out – the Church were it should be alongside people in need.  In Norfolk it is estimated that church communities are helping feed some seven thousand people each month.  Rightly the churches should feel proud of what they achieve and the part they play in supporting some of the most vulnerable in our communities.

But the Church should also rage, rage that so many people are dependant on food banks or soup runs, rage at the treatment of the unemployed, people with disabilities and asylum seekers, rage at the inequalities that underpin too much of our society. 

We are each made uniquely in the image of God, beloved of God, a living temple to the Lord.  And when ever a fellow human being is treated less favourably than another, or some thrive at the expense of others, or the voices of the needy go unheard then a blasphemy against God has been committed and the Church cannot remain silent.

Yes the Church needs to be their helping and supporting those in need but it must also loudly challenge the social, economic and political structures that lead to such inequalities.  This too is part of bringing in the Kingdom of God on earth.  We will not always be popular, some of our friends will leave us and we will be compromised but such is the struggle to grow the Kingdom.

 Light candles, say prayers, offer comfort, donate goods, give of your time but also fight to change all that can help end this terrible plight.  Rage, rage against the revelations of that terrible night.

Choral Evensong; osteopathy for the soul

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Backs take a lot of punishment.  Bad sitting, too much standing, incorrect lifting, all take their toll.  The stresses and strains we carry work their way out in the tension in muscles and joints.  Over the counter gels and pills only go so far in bringing relief yet alone addressing the underlying causes.

So off to the Osteopath – once regarded as rather alternative, now increasingly seen as main stream.  The restorative massage, the careful manipulation, the gentle holding and the body starts to let go, to correct itself and restore balance.

As the Osteopath’s hands move with expertise the length of the spine and amidst the knots of muscle, there is a deep relaxation and a calm seeps through mind and body.  The Osteopath holds the body, gently rocking it side to side and the trust is absolute.  The only warning is a slight movement of the hand as it seeks the exact right place.  Then there is a sudden exertion of pressure and a rapid expelling of breath.  The joint clicks back into alignment, then the quiet rocking of the body continues, slowing until the body is still and the pain has been released.

Souls too take a lot of punishment.  Events that erode our confidence, damage our self-worth and build our guilt.  Mist and murk start to wrap the soul and the guiding light of God shines less brightly.  Mindfulness, mediation and prayer help a little but do not quite clear the fog.

So off to Choral Evensong – once regarded as a normal act, in recent times falling from fashion but now almost becoming alternative and growing in popularity.  A shape of music and words that echoes deep in the memory; calming in its rhythms,  restorative in its familiarity.

Swathes of scripture are heard and sung as psalmody, canticle and anthem wrapping and holding mind and soul safe and secure. Their balm eases the fog and mist that trouble the soul and the spirit relaxes and finds space to breath, lulled by gentle harmonies.  Then, seemingly without warning one chord, one musical chord strikes like lightning and in its spark the soul is illuminated.  In that moment the presence of God is neither felt nor believed but known with utter certainty, the divine light shines with a new brightness, stilling the body and refreshing the soul; a moment of pure undiluted worship.

The moment is often fleeting and impossible to describe and not necessarily to be repeated but it is enough; the divine osteopath has worked their healing touch.  Here amidst the ancient liturgies of the Church, set in prayer-soaked walls, word and music lift the veil to deep mysteries for which the soul with longing waits.

This may not be conventional wisdom, but for the healing of your soul take yourself to Choral Evensong in the setting of one of our great cathedrals.  There let words and music wash over you, let mind and soul relax and unwind and when least looked for or expected the divine healing touch may find your soul too.

Reflections on a small boy standing at the foot of the cross

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It is Good Friday Morning.  We are gathered in the Cathedral and at the foot of the cross.  Before us, beside the cross, are the instruments of the passion, dice, hammer, nails, spear and crown of thorns.  People are sitting on the floor, kneeling or standing.

Amidst our devotions a small two boy pushes his way through to the front.  He gazes at the cross and starts to approach it then turns and looks at all the people gathered around. His gaze moves between cross and crowd uncertain which is the more curious.  His mother looks on anxiously wondering if or when to intervene; her fear that in this solemn moment he will do something inappropriate.  The reverse in fact is the case for he has now become integral to the scene.

At two years of age he is the picture of innocence.  He does not understand the significance of cross and spear nor does he understand why the people have gathered around this strange scene.  For him it is just a matter of curiosity but unknowingly he has become part of the tragedy.  Despite the best efforts of his parents and of this community, this little boy will grow up and discover a world where people hurt and hate, where cruelty can too easily be inflicted on another human being.  There will be no escaping the darker side of life.  This much is certain, his innocence will be crushed.  There will be no protecting him from harsher realities.  Good Friday reminds us of what humanity is capable of; even God’s own dear Son cannot escape that truth.

At two years of age, unknowingly he is part of the tragedy of the scene but he is also part of its fragile hope. This strange object he is looking at, and which has drawn this crowd, is also the symbol of hope, and of love, that we gathered in this crowd pray he will also discover.  As yet, most likely, he has no concept of being beloved of God yet the hope is that he will grow up discovering that truth.  With the best efforts of his parents and this community, it is to be hoped he will be drawn into faith and to an understanding of the significance of this scene and why this day can be called Good Friday.  There is nothing certain about passing on faith; it is at best a parental, and this community’s, ambition.

But all that lies in the future.  Right now he is just two years of age and very curious and for we who are gathered his presence only serves to sharpen the significance of this day, its horror and its hope, the collision of love and hate, of innocence and corruption

Perhaps in his curiosity he will also wander into the Easter Garden and one day spot the footprints in the dew and discover that it is love not death which has the final word.

Footprints in the Dew

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This is one of the most beautiful times in the life of the Church as we journey through the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day. Churches will be holding a wonderful range of services as well as public acts of witness and even passion plays.

There will be Passover Supper shaped Eucharists to draw us into the events of the Last Supper, the Washing of Feet as we remember Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another, and Vigils late into the night as we recall Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. On Good Friday the cross will have central place in many churches as we think of Jesus’ last hours on the cross and preachers will reflect on the final seven words of Jesus. On Holy Saturday many will be busy decorating churches ready for the following day and that night, bonfires will be lit and the first light of Easter will be brought into darkened churches and candidates will be brought forward for baptism and confirmation. Hardy souls will gather for sunrise and think of the first visitors to the tomb. Then as Easter Sunday fully arrives there will be shouts of “Alleluia” and “He is risen” and no doubt a few Easter Egg hunts as well.

These celebrations all seek to draw us deeper in to the events that lie at the very heart of the Christian story. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that shapes Christianity. One of the very earliest Christian creedal statements was “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. This is the distinctive heart of our faith, for us this is nothing less than the salvation of the word.

But for all the richness of the liturgies, for all the wise words of the preachers, for all the joy in the shouts of “Alleluia”, I find myself increasingly wanting to shy away from all these words.

It is silence that engulfs my soul as I watch God’s Son take a towel and kneeling washes his disciples’ feet. I gaze in awe as bread is broken and wine is outpoured and I am commanded to do this in remembrance of Him. My heart silently breaks as I contemplate the loneliness and desolation of the Garden of Gethsemane. I stand rooted to the spot before the cross, unable to meet His gaze. Then a fearsome awe seizes my whole being as I spot the first foot prints in the dew beside the now empty tomb.

So forgive me if I only whisper “He is risen” and appear a little withdrawn amidst all the celebration. As I contemplate all that God has done for me in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, I instinctively fall silent. I know it will take all my life and more to even begin to truly understand the significance of the events that we will mark in these coming days. Awe, mystery, wonder wrap themselves around me. The wisest words seem inadequate. Instead I am drawn to footsteps in the dew and know – if I can but comprehend it – that here is a truth that changes both me, and the world, for ever.

Sacred Space open to all

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It is 7.10am and it might be expected that, apart from colleagues also gathering for Morning Prayer, I will have the Cathedral to myself.  But each morning either just ahead of or behind me there are others entering the building.  Sometimes the same people but often different; all ages but often younger rather than older.  They come not to join us for the Daily Office but to light a candle or leave a prayer; this is how they choose to start their day.

Worship is the absolute heartbeat of the building.  Unfailingly, each day, every day, Morning Prayer, the sharing of the Eucharist and Evensong – familiar words that echo in and around the building, soaking the walls, scenting the air, permeating the space. It is a pattern that has been repeated for 900 years and that in its faithful repetition has created sacred space.

And into this space visitors enter, some coming deliberately and purposefully, others stumble and find themselves taken unawares.  The dazzle of the lit candles is testimony to the number of prayers/thoughts/desires offered, the written prayers but a small glimpse into all that these pilgrims are carrying.  Yet many more prayers are spoken silently into the space while sitting in a chapel, gazing at a statue, or wandering on floors made uneven by centuries of footprints.   For some of these wayfarers faith will be fully formed but for others it will be a more tender plant or perhaps riddled with doubt and uncertainty.

But where ever they are on the faith journey every visit is a valid visit, every prayer, fully formed or half grasped at, is heard and held by the One who is at the heart of the mystery of this space.  And by our smile, the kindness in our eyes, our words of welcome, the free offering of this space, we seek to affirm these travellers in their personal and private quest.

Whilst we might want to argue that every where is sacred, that God is fully present in all times and in all places, we humans have always sought out thin places which have spoken in deeper more profound ways to us.  And this Cathedral is one such significant place.

Our task as a Cathedral Chapter and a Cathedral Community is to remain faithful and unwavering in our offering of this rhythm of worship, affirming this as sacred space.  First and foremost this is always for the greater glory of God and this is the essence of it sacredness. But beyond that we do not create this space as something for ourselves, something for us to hold onto or even feel we have to protect.  We create this space to gift it to others; it is our offering to this city.

Some will not understand it, a few may mis-use it, but still freely it is offered and many, many embrace the gift.  We may in quiet and unobtrusive ways signpost towards the more that faith can offer, but never in a way that distracts from the significance of the encounter that is already taking place.  In what ever way and for what ever reason, it is enough that they come; this is why we are here.

This is not our space, it does not belong to us. This is sacred space open to all, we are but its guardians. Our welcome must be an echo of God’s welcome, who accepts each of us just as we are.

 

 

Please don’t give up chocolate for Lent

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With a great sense of virtue too many people announce that they are giving up chocolate for Lent, but before you follow in their wake pause and think.

We need to remember that our actions do not stand in isolation – giving up chocolate has consequences for more than just the chocolate eater.  If all Christians were to give up chocolate for Lent imagine the impact on the cocoa growers, the manufacturers and the suppliers.  We forget that a product that may be a luxury to us is the means by which others make their living.  Saying we are giving up chocolate for Lent shows how little we think of the growers and suppliers and their needs.

Don’t give up chocolate but switch to one of the smaller fair-trade suppliers, like Divine or Traidcraft’s More Than range.  And don’t look for it in the supermarket but head to your nearest Oxfam shop or support your local Traidcraft rep.  Instead of giving something up you are making a positive difference .  Suddenly eating chocolate can be an action for a more just and fairer world.  And when Easter comes make sure you are eating a Real Easter Egg.

And in addition to this, is “giving up chocolate” really the most fitting way to mark the great season of Lent?  It may be a big act for a small child to do but for an adult? As we re-call our Lord turning his face towards Jerusalem and so prepare to embrace his death and passion, is the best we can offer is giving up a small piece of confectionary.

As we journey into Lent the challenge is how can we each be a more faithful follower of Christ, how can our lives more fully reflect the values of the Kingdom of God, how can we help the world be more fully shaped to the creators intention.

To give up gossip, cruel words, and hurtful comments now that would be more of a Lenten discipline.  What do I need to give up that, come Easter and beyond, I might be a truer and more faithful disciple – and might that not be a more fitting response to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour.  And more challenging still what do I need to take up to be all that Christ needs of me to be gospel for the world.

In keeping a good and holy Lent chocolate does even begin to cut each  Switch supplier and brand, yes, but keep the comfort food – we are each going to need it as we tackle the challenge of the things we really need to change in our lives.

When I meet the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread I will need to know in my heart that I have tried to make a real and lasting change this Lent.

Dethroning the mythology for a richer vision of marriage

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The Church of England has recently talked much about the sanity of marriage but much that has been said seems to owe more to an idealise, even mythological, view of an institution that in reality is much more diverse than often presented.

In the Old Testament there are examples of polygamy, the use of concubines and of wives discarded.  For much of the history of marriage it has been linked to deals on land and property with the bride just a sweetener in the deal. With the bride veiled looks were unimportant and the wedding ring now worn with such pride was in effect a means of branding a woman to show she was owned.   And often the poorer classes were excluded from the institution altogether.

It is only in the West, and then only in more recent times, that love has been the primary motivator for marriage – most marriage has been about learning to love a partner you might not, given free choice, have chosen to marry.  In the main marriage now comes not at the beginning of a relationship but more as the affirmation of an existing relationship, often after the commitment has been made to a joint mortgage and perhaps before the arrival of children or at least before they go to school.

And for all the vaunting of love there remain offensively high levels of domestic violence whilst we have learnt to accept high level of marital breakdown, playing down the known emotional costs to those involved, including the children, and the wider economic impact on society.  In honouring the significance of marriage there are bigger issues at stake than preserving it as the exclusive realm of one man and one woman.

The Church of England’s own liturgies reflect this evolution.  The Book of Common Prayer speaks of marriage being ordained for the procreation of children and the research does indeed show that a happy marriage remains the best place to bring up children.  Nevertheless we also need to recognise the role of marriage in caring for children born by donor, surrogacy, adoption and the blending of families.  It is better that the alternative preface in Common Worship speaks of marriage as the foundation of family life.

BCP also speaks of a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication.  Given the high levels of marital breakdown, the sexualisation of society and the pollution of pornography this remedy is clearly not all that it might be.  In a more positive vein Common Worship speaks of the joy of the bodily union strengthening the union of hearts and lives.  Sex is something to be celebrated not just contained.

Thirdly BCP speaks of marriage being ordained for mutual society, help and comfort.  This is the gift of God in creation.  Genesis has God saying it is not good for man to be alone.  Our knowledge of genetics shows us that there is also a strong biological driver with man and woman each only carrying half the DNA code for reproduction.  But if genetics shows us LGBTI to be also a gift of creation, why can this also not be accepted as part of God’s purpose?  Why should LGBTI individuals be denied the God-given gift of not being alone?

But it is when we come to the vows, that I believe we come to the real sacramental heart of marriage.  The vows call each party of the marriage to love the other unconditionally, even as God loves us unconditionally.  Marriage is the sacrament of the unconditional love of God.  Those of us blessed to be married know of the struggles to try to love one other human being unconditionally and can only marvel in awe and wonder at a God who loves each and every single one of us unconditionally.  In marriage we are called to be like God towards one other human being; this is indeed a high and sacred calling.

And it is precisely because it is such an honourable, significant and socially stabilising calling that I would want it extended to all couples, regardless of sexuality.  In reading the words of the Common Worship Marriage Service I find nothing that need exclude same-sex couples and much that can only enrich, inform, sustain and, yes, bless, their relationships.

The truth is that the nature of marriage has always evolved, is still evolving, and this wonderful and venerable institution is robust enough to embrace equal marriage for all.

How does a Church grow? #DioGrowthConsult

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This week dioceses from across England and Wales (and even a delegation from Brisbane) gathered for a national consultation on Church Growth and Evangelism.  Three days of wall to wall presentations on new strategies and programs, new visions of ways of being Church and promises of changes of culture and much re-imagining.  If the energy and enthusiasm in the room was anything to go by then the Church, even if facing challenging times, is in good heart.

This was a time to hear of both scary and exciting statistics, of mission action planning on a diocesan scale, of both moving beyond inherited church and of re-invigorating it.  There was talk of fresh expressions, Costa, Messy, Forest, Neighbourhood and Network, of church plants that plant churches that plant churches and of churches becoming greenhouses.  Some have decided to grow young, others that where clergy are fewer more Archdeacons are needed (and there is a good explanation for that) and that the future is lay – or at least non-stipendary.

We were reminded that Britain was not evangelised by Vicars but by religious communities and the parish system was about sustaining the faithful and so not suited to re-evangelising a nation.  We heard of the need to prepare the ground for change and about releasing finances and skills and encouraging rules of life. We were told we needed a change of mind and of heart to change how we do things.

At times it all felt terribly driven, more management speak than gospel, occasionally arrogant, presuming of God’s blessing and judgemental of those not with the programme.  It felt like an activist charter and hinted at a theology and ecclesiology  that drained the spirit from my soul.  It seemed more about placing a heavy yoke upon the laity rather than bringing comfort to the heavy laden.

It was good to hear of local churches resourcing one another and being resourced to resource others and a more co-operative and genuinely collaborative approach to ministry.  Although there was much big thinking we were reminded that satsumas are not failed oranges; small can be beautiful, even best.

I would like to have heard more about the role of Chaplains who have opportunities of meeting people in ways parish clergy never can, whether that be in hospitals, schools, shopping centres, coroners courts or a host of other settings.  Their role in the Church is too often unacknowledged and under resourced.  And following on from the recent Theos report it would have been good to hear more about doing God by doing good and the role of social liturgy – living the gospel, meeting people at their point of need, showing faith in action are the sermons most people understand – walk the walk don’t talk the talk. It is about the fruitfulness of the Church in the world, not just its growth; it is about changing the world not filling the pews.

When the last speaker finally sat down; what did I take away?  In a diverse world we need the modern diversity of expressions of Church, no one approach should be prioritised nor the inherited model be automatically seen as a bust flush.

There is no one perfect way of doing Church; what matters is that which ever way we do it, it should matter.  Whatever path we follow it is about being confident, compassionate and creative. It is about at least doing something and doing it well but also with deep humility.  We are but servants not masters of the future of the Church, not seeking success but to bring honour and glory to God.

In the end the abiding image is that shared of Gromit, in The Wrong Trousers, rapidly laying railway track as he chases the penguin.  For all our proposed strategies, we make the path by walking it. At least we have set out on the journey; God alone knows where it will take us.

gromit