Compassionate disruption. A Christmas Sermon

I’d sort of given up on this blog for a bit. I got pretty disheartened by the internet’s capacity for mean spiritedness. Rather a weak response, I know. Well let’s start again with my sermon for Christmas, including a story I think is the most beautiful of any news at the moment, of a small church in the Netherlands, and a young refugee family.

So, I’m terribly proud of our stable scene under our altar. Proud for two reasons. The first, as an asthete, because it looks beautiful, the second, as a yorkshireman, it cost about twenty p. It’s basically cardboard cutouts of old master paintings.

But the conesquence of using those beautiful oil paintings is that all of those characters in the scene share a certain look. It’s all very elegant. No-one is disgusted. But they should be. This was a child born into filth.

And I was thinking about that, thinking, why a stable.

Because there was no room for them in the Inn, yes we know. But why would anyone give a pregnant woman was given a stable? I mean even if you had to give up your own bed, wouldn’t you do that?

It’s such a familiar story but when you think about it, it’s bizarre. This was Joseph’s home town, where he was born, with a population of a few hundred. Most of the people in Bethlehem must have known Joseph, he would have had family there, and they would have heard about Mary.

And that is I think why they were given a stable. Because they’d heard about Mary. Pregnant before they were married.

The Gospel writers go out of their way to tell us stories about Mary’s disgrace and the family’s rejection. Doing the will of God meant that she was shamed by society. Even if you think this is just a story, it’s a story of a woman pregnant before marriage, of a man coming back to his own home to be rejected by the whole town, visited only by outcasts such as shepherds and foreigners. The Gospel writers work as hard as they can to emphasise the disgrace. It’s a gutsy move.

I think it’s there to tell us something about this child, and this religion. It tells us that doing the will of God, doing good, can sometimes disrupt society. Christianity is intended to be disruptive. Our religion is one of compassionate disruption. If it isn’t, it isn’t Christianity, not really. Because if we are to follow the God of love, we need disruption.

If you look at all the historical dictatorships, the great corrupt regimes in the world, there is one thing they all have in common. They are very well run. They are huge bureaucracies. Because without compassionate disruption, every system has the capacity to tyrannise those who live by it. Systems will always dominate us unless we let love dominate the system, and that is by compassionate disruption.

Capitalism as a system only works as a moral force for good because there is a compassionate disruption. Without that, the poor would get poorer. Capitalism works, because we interfere with it, because we care.

Democracy only works when there is compassionate disruption. Without it, there would be no room for minorities. President Benjamin Franklin once famously said that democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty was a well armed lamb questioning the vote. But the reason we don’t need to be armed to get justice and liberty for minorities is because we are compassionate disrupters. We don’t vote purely in our own interests – we are not wolves. And that stops the system being unjust.

The child that was born in the stable became the worlds’ greatest compassionate disrupter. The image that Christ chose for himself was that of a shepherd, one the outcasts that had visited him at his own birth. And because of his compassion, and because of his ability to let love dominate the system, he changed the world. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. He changed the world, because he gave love full reign.

If ever we do lose sight of that, then Christmas becomes nothing, the detritis from a once great feast, not the feast which feeds the hungry. But when we remember it, when we live it, something wonderful happens. Outcasts know they are valued, that they matter. Everyone matters when love dominates.

And that breaks every system which causes division and hatred. And that can make everything bearable, everything beautiful, everything possible.

There is one church in the Netherlands who are living this spirit of Christmas, this spirit of compassionate disruption, in a very real way. Bethel Church in the Hague took in a refugee family from Armenia, who were seeking asylum from political persecution.

The family were about to be deported by the government. Like many countries the far right has gained a foothold in the Netherlands, and this has resulted in tighter immigration policy. The Armenian father had been a dissident and he had a good chance of never being seen again had they returned to Armenia, their children had grown up speaking Dutch. So the church felt they had to do something, and offered them sanctuary.

Only the government repealed the sanctuary law. The police told the church that they were going to take the family away after the Sunday morning service. But there is an ancient Dutch law which says a church service cannot be interrupted, even by police. So the church decided not to stop the Sunday morning service.

It went on all of Sunday morning, and Sunday afternoon, and when it came to Sunday evening, more people turned up to take over, taking part in disrupting what they felt was a system which was not compassionate, and worshipping God in the process.

Today, like so many churches throughout the world, that church is worshipping as we are, right now, celebrating the coming of the Christ child. Only they have been worshipping non stop for sixty days and over fourteen hundred hours, and when we’re settling down to our turkey and crackers, they will still be singing the praises of the God of love, And while we put our heads on our pillows they will still be singing, and into the night, and in the days to come. SO far they have a rota of 650 clergy from 15 different denominations, because if there’s one thing the church is good at it’s rotas. They have invented what they call hoovering services, so they can clean the church and keep worshipping. And they won’t stop. Because they can’t. Because once you start doing what love demands, you begin to know that you can’t stop until love wins. Day after day, as long as it takes they will be worshipping God. Because they are Christians. And because of them, there is a frightened Armenian family who know they are loved. And they worship a child who was born in a stable, because no-one would give him house room.

Our Christmas story is the story of a child born into poverty, and rejection. The very thought of that calls love out of us and inspires us to help. We don’t want to be the ones who say “no room”. We open our doors, we open our hearts, and indeed we open our wallets, to help those in need. And that’s what makes this story beautiful. Not the scene, not the crib, not the old master paintings. But our response. Our compassion.

Because now we know what homeless travellers look like. They look like a child in a manger. Now we know what women who are no better than they ought to be look like. They look like his Mother Mary. Now we know what asylum seekers look like – they look like this holy family, who fled the tyranny of Herod. So now we know what to do, when we see someone outcast by society. We give them room. We open our arms.

And when we do, just like that small, elderly church in the Hague, we worship the King of Love who makes all things new. And indeed, in the words of the hymn, Christmas comes once more.


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On Offence

Will Young was in the news recently, because he asked for Sadik Kahn’s help, as Mayor of London, in finding the identity of a bus driver. He was on a bus and was abused by a homophobic driver, who apparently called him a “poofter”.

The online commentary was …. interesting. Some were supportive, as you can imagine. Others were more on the “get over yourself” camp:

For instance:

“Is this really news? Will Young is called a name!??! A bus driver once called me a **** because I asked him to drive slower with a packed bus. I didn’t feel the need to report it to the Mayor of London… “

“What should Sadiq Khan tackle first? Terrorism Knife Crime Acid Attacks Hell no, spoilt luvie Will Young has demanded Khan intervene after a bus driver yelled poofter at him as he drove by. This despite admitting TfL are already dealing with it “

And one person linked to a video of comedian Steve Hughes, who had an interesting little tirade about the notion of offence:

Political correctness is the oppression of our intellectual movements, so no-one says anything anymore in case someone else gets offended.

What happens if you say that and someone else gets offended?” Well they can be offended. What’s wrong with being offended? When did ‘sticks and stones may break my bones’ stop being relevent? Isn’t that what you teach children, for God’s sake? That’s what you teach toddlers – ‘He called me an idiot’ ‘don’t worry about it, he’s a dick’. Now you have adults going ‘I was offended! I was offended and I have rights!’ Well so what. Be offended, nothing happens. You’re an adult, grow up, deal with it. ‘I was offended’ I don’t care! Nothing happens. NO-one says “i went to the comedy show, and the comedian said something about the Lord, and I was offended and in the morning I had leprosy”

How do you make a law about offending people? Being offended is subjective, that has everything to do with you as an individual, or a group, or a collective, or a society, your moral conditioning, your religious beliefs, and you want to make laws about this? I’m offended when I see boy bands, for God’s sake. It’s a valid offence, I’m offended! They’re corporate shills posing as musicians to further a modelling career, and frankly, I’m disgusted. But what am I going to do, call the cops? ‘Hello, it’s me again. They’re on telly this time. Five of them, white suits, dancing like girls.”


It’s funnier live than it is written down, but it does point to one side of the argument on offence. Which is that offence is a notion that is completely subjective, and that being offended is an emotion which the individual ought to deal with, rather than expecting other people to deal with their behaviour.

That’s certainly a valid argument. I’m rarely offended at things, and often when I see in particular religious people being offended at things where people are critiquing or satirising religion, I find that a bit wincingly embarassing. Think of the “offence” caused by the Life of Brian, or Jerry Springer the Opera. I found neither offensive, and whilst I really don’t like the things said by folk like Ricky Gervais about religion, that’s mainly because he’s aiming at straw men, and deliberately wanting to make fun of people like me based on a very ignorant perception of what religious people are. That’s annoying, and I suppose I could call myself offended by it, but I wouldn’t want to do anything about it, other than call it out if I got the opportunity, which so far I haven’t.

But – and this is strikingly important – all the people criticising Will Young for bring offended that I have read are almost all male, all white, all straight. IN fact, just for the purposes of research (very poor research but there you go) of the latest 100 commentaries on twitter, 99 were male, all were white, and whilst you can’t tell someone’s sexuality, I’d be surprised if they weren’t all straight.

The analogy about being offended by boy bands is an interesting one. Because straight white men can be offended at something which is external to themselves. But that’s being annoyed. It’s not being offended.

Is it offensive to imply to someone that their mother sleeps around? It wouldn’t offend me – I’d be annoyed that someone was trying to insult my mother as a way of irritating me, but it wouldn’t offend. But if my mother was someone who had had a number of boyfriends, who needed emotional stability and was treated like dirt by the men she was with, then you bet I would be offended. Because in that instance you would be insulting something core to me, something deep within me.

Is it offensive to insult someone for their sexuality? It wouldn’t offend me, because I’m perfectly okay with my sexuality, and I’ve never had to live in a society where my sexuality was a problem. But if someone insulted my sexuality, something very core to who I am, in a world where just being me was the cause of prejudice, violence, threat and hatred, then yes I would be offended.

Is it offensive to insult someone for their physical appearance? It wouldn’t offend me, because I’m okay with my physical appearance. I’ve been made fun of for wearing glasses, or being bald(ing), but other than finding that slightly ridiculous, that’s genuinely water off a duck’s back. But when I was overweight, and deeply ashamed of it, as I was when I was on occasion in school, and people made fun of me for it, then I was offended. I was hurt, not just cross but emotionally bruised, and it felt like a physical injury.

For some people the reality of their lives is that every day that happens; every time they walk down the street they’re ready for that to happen; that every bus they go on, every shop they enter, the core of who they are is being challenged, threatened, mocked.

So yes, boy bands are annoying. But comparing an opinion on boy bands with demanding the right not to be demeaned in public? That’s a whole different thing.

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The Lord Loves a Hufflepuff. The Anglican communion and the SEC

There was a recent social media fad concerning what Hogwarts house one belongs to. Of course, amost everyone likes to think they’re going to be in Gryffindor. Particularly the liberals in the church like me. We like to think we’re a little bit edgy, eccentric, rumbustious, bold. The reality is more often that we think we’re Gryffendor, but act like Hufflepuff – cautious, careful, not too hasty.

At the recent vote on same-sex marriage, it felt to me that we were being a bit, just a bit, like Gryffendor. We were doing something difficult, but right. And now we have apparently been censured by the rest of the Anglican communion because of it. Although not being allowed to be on a few committees doesn’t really sound like all that much, it is quite a big deal – it means we’re not trusted to take leadership roles in the wider church.

SO when something like that happens, we feel a bit Hufflepuffy: and a bit sad. But being a good Hufflepuff is not a bad thing to be. But there were, I am slowly realising, the true courage of the Hufflepuffs, an inner steel in caution, a determination and heroism which belongs not to the liberals in our church, but to the conservatives.

There has been a lot spoken about how brave we liberals have been in voting for same-sex marriage. But to my mind there has been great bravery and decency on the part of the conservatives in our church. They are the ones who have had to bear the brunt of the implications of our decision; their ecumenical connections with conservative churches have doubtless become strained; they have had to explain to their congregations why this decision has been made, without having the luxury of believing it to be the right thing. Theirs has been a hard road as a result of our decision.

The church of which I am a part has often spoken of radical inclusion. That has tended to mean including those who have traditionally been isolated and sidelined by the church and society, such as LGBTQ people, refugees, women. But what I witnessed in our debate over same-sex marriages was a different but equally profound sort of radical inclusion. The radical inclusion in this instance was on the side of those conservatives who have kept loyal to people like me – who have refused to turn their back on their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, even when they have had every opportunity and every excuse to do so. They stated their views with passion and compassion, they spoke up but not with anger or exclusion. But when the deed is done, they have stuck with us, even though we are, to their eyes, leading us in the wrong direction.

Why they have done this is truly I think the grace of God. They know, in some way, that we need them. We don’t often tell them that we do, but hopefully they know it. Perhaps they even think that in some way they need people like me. Their desire to keep faithful to God’s call to be one church is stronger than this one issue. But now they are suffering the consequences of the decision that we made against their better judgement, and with the Anglican communion’s decision about the piscy church, they are being excluded by the people who agree with them.

I feel honoured to be a part of their church. That sort of bravery may be more the bravery of Sam Gangee than Frodo, tmore Hufflepuff than Gryffindor, but it is as courageous, and more loyal, more decent and more brave, than those of us who like to think of ourselves as Gryffindor.

I think the Anglican communion can learn a lot from the SEC about how to debate things with courage and decency. But I think much of that learning can come from the conservatives in our church, who never let anger or frustration calcify into opposition. I have never felt I didn’t belong. And that is a radical inclusion the church can listen to.

I profoundly believe our decision was the right one, and that in time God will show us the next step forward. But I have learnt something more that I thought I would in this time. I have learnt about qualities I don’t really have, qualities that the conservatives in my own congregation, my own diocese and my own province possess. And I am truly humbled and honoured to be part of their church.

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Your pastor is not your friend. Really?

I read a blog post on facebook entitled ” your pastor is not your friend” which caused a little pause for thought. It basically said that to be a good pastor you can’t be a friend to people like their other friends. Because a pastor would have to do things that other friends wouldn’t – like … well… hmm,.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the idea that as a pastor you can’t be someone’s friend. There’s a tendency of the ordained to try and find out what’s “different” about them to others, and I get a little suspicious of that as it often causes differences without any real distinction.

But the main issue I have with that idea is that somehow there is a qualitative difference between the sort of love you have for your friends and the sort of love you have for your congregation. It smacks of that awful idea that you can “love someone without liking them”.

The idea that you can love someone without liking them is utter rubbish, dangerous, hypocritical, smug, self-defensive cack of the highest order. Maybe it depends on your definition of like, and love, both of which are greedy words which suck in a great deal of meaning. But my experience of ordained ministers using this phrase has often been to justify what is in fact unloving and unkind behaviour.

I remember one priest of my acquaintance who spoke very unkindly to a member of their church, to “keep them in their place” on many occasions because “sometimes the loving thing to do is to tell them they’re behaving badly”. It’s amazing how, when you love people but don’t like them, you feel the loving thing to do is to treat them as though they are unlikable, as though they are annoying, or incompetent. Those things may be true, but there are kindly ways of telling the truth and there are brutal ways – loving but not liking tends to favour the brutal. Especially, when you’re a priest, a Rector, or Minister in charge of a church, and you tell people this “loving but not liking” sort of truth, you’re not being a pastor, or a friend, you’re being a bully.

Now we’re all human, we can’t like everyone. But there’s a huge category error between saying “I should love and like everyone, but because I’m human, I fail” and saying “I am not required to like everyone” One is admitting we are human, and say we fail, one is saying we don’t need to try.

So what sort of friendship should pastors have with their congregation? It’s hard to know if my friendships with my church folk are different from how they would be if I weren’t a priest. It’s hard to say ” I wouldn’t be like this if I wasn’t ordained” because I feel I’m called by God to be the person I am trying to be. Being a priest is not a job, it’s a life, a self-definition, so I don’t behave differently now than I would were I not a “pastor”.

Believing in God as I do, I think that showing and modelling the God of love is what we are all supposed to do, and it’s the stuff of my life – not just my work life, but my whole life. In pastoral situations, I do that in a variety of ways – rarely is that by talking about God, although often it involves praying with and for people. It’s certainly not trying to foist your beliefs on others, or doing that “God loves you” (so I don’t have to) thing that sometimes happens. I know that when I sit down to talk to someone in a pastoral situation – or for that matter in most other situations too  – my aim is to be as loving, kind and supportive to that person as I can be, because I believe what the Bible tells me – that God is love, and that when love is shared between two people, be it compassion, joy, or whatever, then God is present and the world is genuinely a better place. In pastoral situations that manifests itself by showing people that whatever they are going through, they are not alone. Sometimes that develops into a reciprocal relationship, but rarely. But even with the people I really love and call friends, I don’t have expectations of them helping me in that way. I love my friends and like my friends because I love them, not because they are useful.

Sometimes when people are in really dire straits, and I spend a lot of time with them in their darkest hours, be it addiction or mental ill health or bereavement or homelessness, I feel a pang of sorrow, because I know than when the crisis is over, and then when they walk into brighter days, the likelihood is that I won’t see them again. They are grateful for the love and help I gave them but my presence reminds them of dark times and I am one of the things they need to move on from. That often feels sacrificial, because I have invested a huge amount of emotion and prayer and love in them, and it feels like they’re taking a part of me away with them – indeed they are. But that’s sort of the point. The love and care and shared tears and practical help that they take away have always been a gift. The only way of avoiding that is by not being their friend – by doing something similar but not emotionally investing in them. And that’s just not authentic, not real. It’s a care service package, not what most people most desperately need – a fellow human who cares for them.

If your love for those you care for is anything less than your love for friends, it’s not love. If you hope for anything in return, then it’s not a gift it’s a loan, and if it’s a loan it’s not love. And if it’s not love, then you shouldn’t be a pastor.

Friends are people who tell you the truth; people who you can rely on; people who will share your joy and your pain; people who will do what the can to help you, and work their arses off for your sake, and do it with a smile on their face, and you know that they will never ask for anything back, other than you acknowledge them as a fellow human being. If that’s not your definition of what a friend is, you need better friends. If that’s not what your definition of what a pastor is, I’m going to find someone else to talk to when I need someone to care.

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Foster parents and religion

I’m rarely driven to impotent rage. Not that I never rage about anything, it’s just that normally I can do something about it. But the news reports about a “Christian” child being fostered my a Muslim family have made me feel angrier than I remember for some time. I know something about the fostering process, partly through my job and my interactions with people who are foster carers, and those whose children have been put in foster care, and partly through my experience of being a parent of an adopted child. The reality of what was written in the Times report of a Christian child being fostered by a Muslim family is so far removed from the deeply xenophobic misreporting that I truly begin to despair of a section of our society which can still, after years of multiculturalism and tolerance, manage to be so unremittingly, blatantly, proudly, racist. The report in the times was racist – there is no other word for it. The report of August 28th claimed that the child had had her crufix taken away from her and that she had been encouraged to learn arabic. It said that the child was distressed. It also said that she had later told her mother that “Christmas and Easter are stupid” and that “western women are stupid and alcoholic” Her family wanted her housed with her, says the report, rather than with the arabic families.

Many papers eagerly backed up this “outrage”. The Telegraph reported “To place a Christian child with Muslim foster carers is emotionally tone-deaf”. The council of course can’t comment, because they are legally restricted from doing so. But the Times, who are also legally prohibited to, kindly informed it’s readers that “to protect the child, the Times has decided not to reveal her name”. How kind of it to obey the law.

I know only a very little of the fostering system, but I know enough to know that this reporting is so biased, so horribly prejudiced and so skewed that, whilst it may not be illegal, it is certainly a moral outrage.

On the statistics which the Times used, you might be forgiven for thinking that there were enough foster carers to go round. It said 58,000 children had been placed in care last year, and there were 62,400 approved foster carers. That doesn’t take into account that many of the foster carers are couples, so the number of households goes down to something around 45,000. Many of those are respite carers, who take children for short periods of time, weeks or days. It talks about the number of children who need foster care, ie 51,800, but does not mention that in the course of a year a child may be fostered and then put back with their families, then put back into foster care. Social workers are very, very reluctant to place children in foster care if there is a family option, because foster carers are so thin on the ground, and it is so damn expensive. Add to that that the parents still have rights over the child even when they are in foster care, so they have to be within a reasonable geographical distance, whereas the foster carers are more geographically spread, and you can imagine the pressures on a place like Tower Hamlets.

So I know that for this child to be put in foster care, there must have been something significant, and often chronic, about the situation she found herself in. Sometimes it is abuse – often the boyfriend of the mother – most often it is drug misuse. A few years ago, there were 10,000 children of drug misusers in the Glasgow area alone, and they were often in and out of care. When we adopted our son, the average number of house moves a child made before being adopted was fourteen – from parents to care, back to parents, back to foster care, to grandparents, to parents, to care, on and on.

The Times report said that the child was distressed. Of course she was distressed! She’d been taken away from a parent who was not able to look after her for whatever reason. We can’t know, but we can know that it was serious for her to be taken away from her mother, and that there were serious family issues for her not to be housed with her grandparents. This story, whosever’s interest it was in, was certainly, certainly not in the interest of the child.

The article claimed that her crucifix had been taken away, and that she had been encouraged to learn arabic. It was reported in a way which suggested that the family were not native English speakers. The foster family was in fact English speaking and of mixed race. The crucifix thing seems to have no basis in truth at all. The Daily Mail did not have a picture of the girl, so they took as stock photo of a Musilm family and added a veil to the face of the Muslim woman in the photo. Just for added inaccuracy.

When the foster care order was rescinded, and a Judge decided that the child should now reside with her Grandmother, it turned out that the Grandmother (her mother’s mother) was a (non-practicing) Muslim, who doesn’t speak English well, and needed a translation of the court documents. She desired to return to her “country of origin and foster the child there”.

So the picture should have been a picture of a mixed race child, the granddaughter of a Muslim, and first or second generation immigrant, whose mother had drug and alcohol issues.

The foster placement was always going to be temporary, while the social services assessed whether the grandparents would be a suitable family for the child to stay. Because, presumably, unlike the foster carers, the grandmother didn’t speak English.

There are many things we cannot know about this case. What we can know, unequivocally, is that the story was neither accurate, or in the best interests of the child. We can know it was written by someone who is either so prejudiced that he does not know his prejudice is showing, or so story-hungry that he will stoke up xenophobia and bigotry in order to get on the front page.

I can only imagine what it feels like to be a Muslim reading these stories. But it reminds me that we need to face the reality. We are a racist country, with a racist press. And that needs to change.

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Being a liberal. The “persecution” of Tim Farron

I’ve read a great deal about Tim Farron in the last few days, following his resignation from being leader of the LibDems. He said that it was impossible to reconcile being a Christian with being a political leader. That is a very ambiguous statement – but most people have taken it to mean that his views on homosexuality made it impossible to be the leader of the LibDems. I shouldn’t imagine that the DUP would find his views problematic, so it is not an issue about politics in general, more his own party and his own views.

I had rather wished Farron would have worded his speech better – his implication is that being a Christian means holding the views he does, and as we know well in the ‘pisky church, there are a multiplicity of views on the subject of same-sex relationships. But that’s by the by. The real issue I have with what he said was the flavour of self-pity which his speech brought to the issue. This has been taken and run with by many people, accusing Farron of being persecuted for his beliefs, and how “illiberal” the LibDems are if they can’t have someone with his views leading their party.

There is certainly a discussion to be had about the place religion in the political and public sphere. But also there is an issue concerning Farron’s inability to be honest about his own views.

I suspect (and it is simply a suspicion) that he lied about his own views on homosexuality, when he said he had no problem with gay sex, because people told him he had to. If he did “have” to lie that is indeed a shame. But he didn’t have to. The issue is about how he answered those questions, and the fact he wanted his Christianity to be public only when it suited him.

There are many ways in which Farron could have successfully answered the question – he could have said “I have an issue with equal marriage, but I would never vote against it because I don’t demand my opinions become universalised”. Or he could have said “I have no issue with equal marriage” But what he actually said was a series of fudges, and something about his private beliefs not being at issue.

Of course they are. People want their politicians to have a morality which they can see and understand. To say that your views on homosexuality are not important would be like saying your views on Trident, or austerity, or equal rights for women are private. If you are a Christian, that is a huge part of what you are, and I simply can’t understand any Christian saying that their faith is compartmentalised in the way Farron believes it can be. Either you are proud of your beliefs, in which case, proclaim them, or you are ashamed of your beliefs, in which case, examine them. To do anything else is to refuse to trust people with the truth – and that is something people are heartily sick of in their politicians.

His speech had the whiff of self-pity to it. Some have even suggested that Farron has been persecuted because of his beliefs. He has not. If someone does not vote for you, that is not persecution. If someone does not want you as the leader of their party, that is not persecution. Beinc bullied, isolated, treated as a lesser human because of your sexuality is being persecuted. Someone disagreeing with your opinions is not.

All political activists do what they do out of a sense of morality. Imagine being a LibDem activist, leading a morally good life, with a same-sex spouse. Imagine finding that again and again your leader refuses to say whether he disapproves of the life you lead or not – a leader whose voting record on LGBTQ rights is mixed, wont tell you what he thinks about your life because he feels it’s none of your business. If Tim Farron can move towards seeing the position he has put those people in, rather than focussing on the position he put himself in, perhaps he can move on from this without regret or rancour.

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Goodbye Indyref 2, Goodbye HardBrexit. Beware the Scottish Tories.

One vote went the way I wanted it to yesterday – the same-sex marriage vote in the Scottish Episcopal Church. I hadn’t expected it, but I certainly hadn’t expected what happened in the second vote, ie the General Election. The people have spoken, but what they have said is a confusing matter.

What happened in Scotland will cause an end to the calls for another Indyref any time soon. When John Swinney tells the media that worries over the Indyref was the reason for their losses, then that tells you a little something of the policy the SNP are going to start adopting. Which will be for an incremental increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament, with, I suspect another Independence referendum in the long distance. I suspect that will happen within the next twenty years, and I expect it will be won, but it will be evolution not revolution.

On the face of it, Theresa May is going to try and rely on the DUP’s ten seats to form a minority government. But what I think isn’t being said in the media, is that she has another party that she has to go into an uneasy coalition with – the Scottish Conservatives.

The Scottish Tories are a very different breed from down south. They are more Ken Clarke than George Osbourne, and the success of Ruth Davidson has been in spite of her brethren in Westminster, rather than because of it. Those Scottish Tory MPs will be all too well aware that their constituencies were hard Remain, and that how they behave will govern what happens in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2020. Add to that the “English votes for English Legislation” principle, which would imply that over much of the legislation for the UK, neither the Scottish Tories or the DUP would vote, means that the English Tories would not have a majority for much of their agenda.

So when it comes to a hard Brexit, there is little chance of May taking all the Scottish Tories with her in a hard Brexit. And she only needs one or two to dissent and she’s lost.

All in all, yesterday was a good day for me. Hope you’re having a good one too.

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Chess or Church?


As the Scottish Episocopal church engages with the question of same-sex marriage, there is another group within the Anglican communion who is prepraring to make some news in Edinbrugh today. Gafcom, the grouping of those who are of conservative theology, may appoint a Bishop for Scotland, should the SEC vote in favour of licencing clergy for same-sex marriage.

This would not quite be in the “flying bishops” mode of the C of E, who appointed bishops to service the needs of those who opposed female clergy. The difference, and it is a big one, is that the Gafcom Bishop would be operating within Scotland, without being licenced or approved by Scottish Bishops.

Can Gafcom do it? Within Scottish canonical law, probably not, within the wider context of episcopal authority, possibly. The question is not can they, but should they?

To me it points to a question of what sort of church we want to be. I want to be the sort of church the Apostles founded, a spirit-breathed bible-based, divinely institued communion of God. But what does that sort of church look like? If we go by the Acts of the Apostles, it looks like a passionate, messy, argumentative but faithful church, full of vibrant people and full hearts. And occasional arguments. That’s part of the package. What it doesn’t look like is a bureaucratic, procedural, ecclesiastical church, whose communion with one another is through pronouncements, regulations and canons.

Jesus knew the sort of church he was setting up when in Matthew 18 he gave them some sort of rules for how to disagree. He did that because he knew they would – often. If you have an issue with your brother or sister, he said, speak to them personally first, then if that doesn’t work, bring along a few friends to help sort the matter out, if not speak to the whole church, and keep working on it until you see no choice but to split – and even then, he said, treat them like a Gentile – that is, someone in need of the loving mercy of God, someone to be brought back into the folk and taught the good news. At no point was there an opt-out of communicating with those with whom your disagree.

Paul may not have heard that part of the teaching when he confronted Peter about Gentile converts, but it was certainly what he did. In his own Pauline way, he more or less bawled Peter out for backsliding on his attitude towards Gentiles. Paul didn’t talk about Peter, he talked to him, he travelled a long way to speak to him. They had a passionate discussion, possibly and argument, and they kept debating and discussing.

By contrast, a theological discussion about the nature of God as expressed in the Creed took place a few centuries later. By now the church was powerful and well-organised. The controversy was about whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the son together, or just from the Father – known as the filioque clause.

Now that theological discussion had been simmering for centuries, from the 6th scentury, but in the 11th century things changed. It changed because both sides of this debate became associated with political power. The place of the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Constantinope in the church became a subtext to a simmering argument, the issue of how the church was governed became a power-grab, and in 1054 the schism between what is now the Orthodox and Catholic churches took place. It is for this reason, the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or the father and son together, than the churches have been split fromm the 11th century to this day. Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty embarassing to me.

The question of what sort of church we are boils down to this – are we a family, or an ideology? Should we behave like a family, with our arguments and disagreements, or like a political party, with a given party line, and occasional schisms?

My Dad and I disagree about many things. We disagree about divorce and remarriage, about female clergy, about same-sex marriage. We even, believe it or not, on an evening with rather too much whisky, disagreed about the filioque clause. But he’s still my Dad. We still talk together about all of these things, and many more. And we still love each other. If we have a problem we talk it through. Sometimes it’s resolved, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it takes time.

I believe we are supposed to be the family of God, not a political party. Political parties can have nice clear lines, and nice clean policy statements. But they also have machinations, power-bases and subterfuge, none of which is part of our Gospel. I’m afraid the Gafcom move feels like a political move, not a family argument.

It might be that having an alternative oversight bishop could keep some of our churches in the Anglican commuinion, should the same-sex marriage vote go through. I wouldn’t like it, but then again I don’t like lots of things that my family members do. Loving people who are different is a compromise.

But not this way. Not this political way. By all means, let’s talk with passion. Let’s discuss and wrestle and fight and pray. Let’s shout at each other if we need to in the street like St Paul. Let’s lose our tempers if we must, and come together and talk of other things, like normaly families do.

But let’s not seek to out-manouvre one another. This isn’t chess, this is church. If we do it this way, there may be a winner, but it won’t be the will of God.

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Vengence is mine. Thoughts on the Manchester Bombing.

There is a horribly familiar feeling about the news from Manchester. Shocked but not surprised is perhaps the feeling. We are shocked by the horror of what happened, we grieve for the families whose future will be so very different from what they hoped, full of compassion for those who suffer. But not surprised. We knew something like this would happen again soon. We didn’t know where or when, but we did, somewhere in the back of our minds, know it would happen.

I’ve been thinking about those who suffer, and I’ve been thinking too of the wonderful compassion of the people of Manchester, whose kindness to those who needed help has done so much to make this more than a simply story of tragedy. I heard an American news reporter tell CNN that in all the terrorist atrocities she has covered, she has never seen goodness like it. Police and news reporters being given sandwiches and drinks by locals, people put up in hotels without question, people being welcomed into the houses of strangers, everyone sharing the common humanity in a time when one man showed none.

My thoughts have also been turning to him. What was going through his mind, as he strapped bombs to himself, as he did up his coat and went to a venue full of excited happy children? Was he full of hate, or anger, or triumph, as he ended both his own life and the lives of innocents? Was he mentally ill? Well of course he was. No-one in their right mind kills children.

There is a common thread to many of these mass-killings, whether it is terrorism, or the sort of right-wing ideology put forward by the murderer of Jo Cox a year ago, or Andreas Brevik in Norway, or indeed the mass-shootings in American schools. Despite the huge variations in ideology and politics, there is a single common thread which unites these murderers – a sense of vengence. Vengence which is turned into malice by self-righteousness That self-righteousness is a corrosive, malicious feeling. It hides our own darker nature from us, and gives us a confidence in our own conscience which nurses evil and feeds it.

Whenever I hear the word “vengence” my mind goes to Pulp Fiction, and to Samuel L Jackson’s character, who used Ezekiel 25 to make himself feel justified and powerful before he ended lives. Vengence is mine, saith the Lord.

But that quotation, like so many in the bible, says the opposite of what some think it means. “vengence is mine” says the Lord – and again and again the scriptures of all religions say that means that vengence does not belong to humans, but to God. Only God, all-knowing and all loving, can have that judgement. To presume to know the mind of God to the extent of ending life is not just mistaken, but is a blasphemy.

Some in the media, Katie Hopkins being the most brutal example, have felt that the best response to vengence is more vengence. She calls for a “final solution”.  I dont’ know if she is frightened or whether she, like the terrrorist, simply enjoys the self-righteous passion which floods through her veins as she becomes more angry and outraged. But the lesson we must learn from both the terrorist is that vengence always, always, makes everything worse.

The Ezekiel quotation which was used in Pulp Fiction also says The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.“

Our purpose, our task is not vengence,  but to do charity and good will. And while the murderer sought to divide and fragement our society by his evil actions, the people of Manchester have truly become their brothers’ keepers and the finder of lost children. They, and not the shrill voices of revenge, have shown us the way. They have resonded to the worst of humanity with the best of what we are. And I pray God’s mercy that we can stay on that path.

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I just want to share a wee story with you from today. A story which has melted my heart once again.

It’s late on Easter night, I’ve been awake for far too long, and I’ve finally broken my lentern fast of alchol, so you know, this might not end well.

Holy week has been intense this year for a number of reasons, and the path of passion was very real this time round. I’ve been walking with some folk whose way has been painful, including one elderly couple (who are happy for me to tell this story) who lost their son six months ago. Their son’s widow is naturally in great grief, but one of the expressions of that is that they have not been allowed to see their grandchildren since the funeral. The pain of that separation has been sharp and terrible, and I’ve prayed for them with tears as well as with hope.

On Maundy Thursday I knew they would be there, and it was hard to try and say anything of hope and good news when you know some people feel little but despair. I don’t believe in despair, I believe Christianity means there is no such thing, but for them the valley was dark indeed. How can you preach to people about the loss of Jesus when they have lost their own son? I don’t rightly know what I said to them, or if it helped, but if compassion means anything I know I shared their pain.

Even now I can’t really bear to think too hard about what it might feel to lose my own son, I know the idea is so terrible, so heart breaking that I cannot dare to imagine it. I know that their pain is darker than anything I have ever had to experience. I know that they are the kindest, most gentle, most decent of folk, the apotheosis of the sort of people you want to protect from harm and hurt, and I wanted to howl in outrage at what they are having to go through. To lose their son is one thing. To lose the hope of ever seeing their grandchildren again is devastating.

As time wore on, and there was nothing but silence, they began to feel that perhaps this was how it would always be. They are not young. They may not have long. All they have is a yearning love for their grandchildren, expressed in anxiety, pain and an inability to stop hoping.

After Easter Sunday Eucharist we always have a meal in our house for the congregation, and they always come along. Only this Sunday they couldn’t make it. Because on Holy Saturday, they got a card. Written in scrawly handwiting from their grandchildren. It was an invitation. To Easter lunch.

So we didn’t get to see them this Easter lunchtime. They were too busy being resurrected.

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