Taking Offence

The SEC has found itself, somewhat inexplicably to my mind, the centre of attention recently, because a section of the Quran was read out (chanted I think) at a service marking the feast of the Epiphany.

The Provost, and the Cathedral in general have been subject to the spectrum of disapproval from commentors as a result, from the “disgusted” to the slightly less honest “Sad and disappointed” to the full “we’ll burn you down you heretic” threats of physical violence.

I’m somewhat mystified about the reasons for the anger about this. Not by those who issue threats of violence of course – they are by no means mysterious. I’m confused as to why rational folk like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and Ian Paul, on what I believe is Peter Ould’s website (I might be worng, apologies if so) might see this as something which, according to one, requires “appropriate discipline”.

I believe appropriate discipline has indeed already been exercised – which is none.

Is the issue that churches should not share the views of those with whom they disagree? Should we not, for example, read from the God Delusion or from Josephus the Jewish historian, or from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, as I myself have done both in sermons or other contexts? Should the church protect itself from other belief systems?

Whenever I have done this, I have always done so trusting that my congregation are intelligent enough to be able to work out that I am not promoting or espousing those beliefs. Most of the time those things have been read because they provide an interesting context for our own beliefs. We do not exist in a vacuum, either historically, theologically or culturally. Many Christians find it fascinating and hopeful that Mary is mentioned as a great Prophetess in the Quran, and provides a point of dialogue.

The Cathedral in Glasgow had invited a Muslim to read a part of the Quran in the spirit of hospitality and dialogue. Hospitality and dialogue are two of the things the world needs more than anything else at the moment. It was a public sign that dialogue was possible between faiths – and even though there is an impassible gulf between those faiths in terms of belief, the fact that dialogue takes place makes us better and wiser humans as a result.

Anyone making the claims that the Provost is promoting syncretism understands neither the Provost or the church of which he is a part. There are a small number of conservative Christians who believe that anyone who promotes same sex marriage, as Kelvin does, must be “watering down their beliefs”. Anyone who has met Kelvin knows that his beliefs are 100% proof, full-strength Christianity. Just because he and I may come to different conclusions about some issues than the conservatives says nothing whatsoever about the strength of faith, or of the measure of passion we hold about our beliefs.

One blog post suggested that there was some sort of skulduggery going on, in that the translation of the section of the Quran given in the service sheet did not include the “offensive” part a couple of verses later, which was chanted out. To be offended by this requires not simply a conspiritorial mind, but also a degree in Arabic.

But the issue which has got me thinking about this most has been the statement issued by ++David Chillingworth, our Primus. I would hate to be in the Primus’ place on most issues, and this is no exception. But at the risk of straining gnats, I would take one small issue on the Primus’ expression of being “deeply distressed at the widespread offence which has been caused”. The issue I have is the nature of “offence”. To my mind, offence is not caused, it is taken.

My son who is ten, often talks about something being “offensive” You hear it a lot in school. Children are offended, things are offensive, things cause offence.

Being offended is a modern curse. It feels authentic, being offended enables us to feel righteous anger. It bolsters our beliefs and normally provides us with a passionate group of fellow believers. But offence is simply anger with a prettier face. Offence is not an adjective describing a noun, it is an emotion felt by one person.

What St Mary’s in Glasgow did, by asking Muslims to take part in a service of Christian worship, may have triggered emotions, causing them to feel angry, but it did not cause the feeling of offence. That belongs to the people themselves; to their understanding of the world, to the nature of their faith, to their character and their temper. None of that is governed by who reads what in a Glasgow church.

I am sorry that people were offended. But I take no responsibility for their offence, and I dont think St Mary’s Cathedral Glasgow should either. This is the third time the Cathedral invited a Muslim to read from the Quran and people weren’t offended the first two times. I am sorry that people are more keen to publicly criticise, and less keen to do as Jesus asked in Matthew 18 more – engaging in dialogue and conversaiton with those with whom they disagree. I am sorry that people find reserves of anger inside themselves which comes out as being deeply offended. I’m sorry that people intellectualise around that inner anger, showing themselves to be clever, but not perhaps wise. There are many things about this that I’m sorry for.

But that a bright young Muslim woman sang a part of her holy book in a place full of Christians, and found hospitality and dialogue in a church, despite the fact I disagree with its contents – that I’m perfectly content with.

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Leonard Cohen, my blessing.

Leonard Cohen has slipped from the earth. 2016 has taken away many of our best and most beautiful, but there’s no point in being sad for Leonard. When he wrote his farewell letter to Marianne, his lover of years ago, he said he was close behind her, and so he was.

For me his death feels like saying farewell to a lover. He was an intimate friend.

I found him in the way that people of my generation often did, when there was no online to find things on – in my mum’s dusty record collection and yellowed books of poetry. I found him in the middle of my teenage angst – something which started thirty years ago and I often wonder when it’s supposed to go away. I found a book of his poetry, and then the albums, and then more poetry, and a bizarre, rich book.

I was low when I read his stuff. I felt not just angsty, but black, frustrated, full of pain. I found this man who blessed me with music – felt like a blessing.

That is what Leonard felt like, and actually, what he craved for himself I think. In spiriuality, in sexuality, in life, he rejoiced in blessings, and gave them because he couldn’t do anything else.

My job as a priest is all about blessings. – it is to find out where God is in the world and to bless it, just to say “yes, this is where God is, and it’s beautiful”. And we do that with new life, with a baby, at a wedding, and even at a funeral, and when people are in despair. “God is here” we say, “and that means that even this is beautiful, and it will be transformed until there is nothing left but beauty”.

And Leonard Cohen came to me when I felt terrible, and in his music and his poetry expressed how I felt in words that I didn’t have, and said “you are beautiful. This is beautiful.”

I remember this one:

This is the only poem I can write

The only poem I can read.

I didn’t kill myself when things went wrong.

I didn’t turn to drugs or teaching.

I tried to sleep,, but when I couldn’t sleep I learnt to write.

I learnt to write what might be read on nights like this by one like me.

That summed up his life for me – an introspective broadcaster. He wrote his words and his music out of compassion for people who felt like him. It was always communication, you never got the impression like you do with so many writers that he was writing to himself, he was always talking to you.

Went on tour out of necessity in 2008, time of the economic meltdown, all his original fans about to retire to very little, younger people afraid of the future.

His balm was not explanation, making sense of it, but telling stories. His spirituality was like that too – never doctrinal, always mysterious and could only be communicated by something beyond his words.

Like Jesus, who never responded to a theological or doctrinal question with an actual answer, but a story.

Someone on radio 4 asked him once about one of his songs “tell us what it’s about” and he replied. “If I could do that, I wouldn’t have needed to write the song”

So I can’t really write what he means to me. But I had to write something. There will be many somethings written by people like me, who are not writers like him, but need to write something. They are the ash of his fire, to paraphrase him.

But anyhow, Thank you Leonard.

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Re-writing the narrative of despair

Okay, twenty four hours on and it turns out Trump is still going to be president. Congratulations to those who won, the election was fair, those who voted for Trump did so I believe out of the best interestes of their country and their party. Disagree as I might, that is what happened, just like at every election.

Felt pretty horrible for me though. It was with the same sick, pit-of-the-stomach feeling as Brexit happening that I went to sleep in the early hours, not knowing but suspecting that the worst (from my point of view) was going to happen, and it did.

Liberals such as myself love a good narrative, and it’s already been written. Discontent by the working class in America has caused them to believe Trumps claims of bringing jobs back and making America great again. They agreed with Trump that they had nothing to lose, so chose the (hopefully not literally, but then again…) nuclear option. Mixed in with that is a fair suggestion that Trump won, not in spite of being sexist, racist etc, but because of it – that this was “white America’s last stand”.

I don’t buy any of that, not for a single moment. Anyone in my job knows what grief looks like, and this is what grief looks like. Reasoning around a tragedy, finding ways in which it could have been averted. It happens all the time, and the liberal narrative writers are very intelligent, and so they are intellectualising like mad around this tear in their heart. But the assumptions of the narrative which have swiftly been developed in the media are not only speculative but counterfactual.

It’s important to re-write the narrative which has been devised, because I think that liberals need to be strong and fight the right battles. The narrative which is being written are going to cause them to fight the wrong battles. Here’s my take.

Trump didn’t win because he was sexist/racist.

He won because enough people thought that the reasons for voting for him were more important than the reasons not to. The issue isn’t that people like sexism and racism, it’s that it doesn’t impinge on their lives enough to take it more seriously than jobs and the economy. To engage people in the fight against sexism and racism, we need to tell stories, to share experiences, to persuade, to share, to move these issues higher up people’s priority list. We do that by listening, not by screaming. We do it by using those peope’s virtues of compassion and justice – not by treating every Trump voter as an irredeemable trailer-trash hick. We do this because that’s a reality of human existence – compassion and virtue are more powerful than suspicion and prejudice. But when the more liberal group demonise those who could be persuaded, then they are creating an enemy. And when the fight is framed as “you can’t vote for him, or you are a racist/sexist” then that becomes a battle about someone else’s identity – and demonising doesn’t win elections.

The poor didn’t vote for Trump to give Washington a bloody nose. Some people did, certainly, but it wasn’t the poorest. Most supporters of Trump were in the $50,000 pa or above bracket. That’s not rich, but the voting was pretty even 60/40 from that wage bracket up. There was a definite race issue, with white people (particularly older white men) voting Trump – but again, see above – they were the ones who didn’t have too much of a stake in the racist/sexist issue, because of the way that issue has traditionally been famed. That’s where the battle needs to be fought.

This wasn’t an underclass rising up. Trump did not create a whole new voting block of newly engaged voters. Those who wanted to give Washington a bloody nose were those who were already politically engaged, not people who were not . New voters registered to vote, or people voting for the first time in years, was as far as statistics can tell us, no different from any other election. Voting was actually down on previous years. This election generated more heat than usual, but it didn’t electrify an underclass. The battle was fought by those who normally vote, the usual electorate, and some of them stayed at home instead of voting Clinton.

This wasn’t a whitewash. It was a polling prediction disaster. Clinton won the overall vote by over 200,000. Clinton lost four key states by less than that margin combined. If those votes had been spread into Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, we would be celebrating a Clinton victory. This was in almost every respect other than the quality of the candidates, a completely normal election.

This wasn’t a battle of policies, but personalities. America always votes for the most charismatic leader. This is so important to understand. The problem with those who are currently busy writing the narrative of the election is that they are obsessed with politics. Most people aren’t. If you look at ALL the Presidential elections going back to the sixties  ever since the advent of television, the winner has always been the most charismatic:

Kennedy v Nixon, Johnson v Goldwater, Nixon v Humphrey, Carter v Ford, Reagen v Carter, Bush v Dukakis, Clinton v Bush, W. Bush v Gore, Obama v McCain.

Any unbiased observer would have to conclude that the one who becomes President is the one which the most engaging personality, the most folksy charm, the most charism. Putting Clinton against Trump is a non-starter.

It is really important to understand that. The narrative which is being formed is about the economy, about the underclass, the disenfranchised, about those who have lost jobs and those who have just had enough.Sure, there are people who have lost jobs who have tipped this election in the rust belt states – but the margins in those states were by thousands of votes, not hundreds or millions. But the reality is that the battle was lost because of already voting, engaged political people, who were fed up of Washington, and who were attracted to someone who wasn’t from that camp. Sanders may well have won – he would certainly, certainly have won had he been twenty years younger and more charismatic. These are the margins of victory.

There are many reasons (from my perspective) to mourn for this result. I suspect President Trump will be nothing more than hot air, and will make America slightly worse again, but it is equally possible that he could start world war three – especially if as I suspect he is frustrated at all turns in his domestic policy.We’ll have to wait and see on that one.

But let’s not paint a narrative which isn’t true. Democrats have failed because they didn’t get enough people to vote for Clinton, by a percentage point or two. Democrats failed because they battles against racism, sexism, insularity and xenophobia have been fought in a way which implied enemies not potential allies. They failed because they chose someone who was far less charismatic than the other guy. They failed because they wanted to tweak the system not change it.

In short, Democrats will win when they are more like Obama than Clinton –  less superior, more engaging, more charismatic, and more canny. Not more self-righteous.

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And so farewell. Leaving Labour.

So here’s my letter of farewell to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

I was an entryist, really. I hadn’t been a member of the Labour party for years, but I decided to put up the money in order to vote at this leaderhsip election. Like 40% of those who joined for this purpose, I voted to try and vote you out. We lost, as you probably know… I didn’t vote against you because of your policies. I voted against you because you are unelectable.

I think the Labour party is dead and gone for a generation at least, possibly for all time. But Jeremy, I wish the best for you, I really do, so for what it’s worth, here’s my advice as a concerned bystander.

 

Have a vision, not a complaint. The strategy of pointing out how horrible the Tories are, and mumbling about “hope” and hoping people will vote for you is a losing one. It didn’t work for Ed Milliband, and it won’t work for you.

 

Become media-savvy. The media really want to report on a soap opera, and not on your policies. If you give them any hint of a soap-opera, that is what they will report. That’s why you need to have a united party. That’s possible, if you try and become a leader, rather than an activist (see below) but there’s absolutely no point being cross that the media won’t listen to your policies. Get some knowledgable media people, who are happy to disagree with you. When you do things like sit down on the floor on a train, and put it on youtubeu look more like Rik from the Young Ones than a party leader – and that is currently how you come across.

 

Prioritise your party above your own convictions. All parties are coalitions, and you have to lead a coalition, not be the spokesperson for any one ideology. There will always be people in your party who will be against you whatever you do (you were one of those in previous times). But most of your MPs want to win an election, under the genuine hope that they can do good. That will only work if you can let your party be more important to you than your own personal convictions. You will think that is a lack of integrity – in reality it is prioritising one integrity over another – the integrity of your party over your own personal integrity. You have to work out which matters to you most.

 

Learn to communicate. If you are going to be genuinely radical (which is probably necessary in terms of what is happening in the world) then you have to reassure people that you are not going to be dangerous. Remember the Yes Minister Maxim. If you have nothing to say, make sure the way you style your message is new, thrusting, visionary, dynamic. If you are going to be radical, house yourself in oak panels, leather seats and music by Purcell.

Stop being so religious. I was a big fan of Tony Benn in his later years, but in his prime he had a sort of religious fervour about his political ideology – in a way that he never did about his actual religious beliefs. There is no absoute right or wrong in politics, and only the zealots think that way. We are a democracy, and zealots don’t get elected. Over the last few decades we have drifted into a form of capitalism which needs to change, but that will also take decades. If you sound as though you want it to happen tomorrow, people will think you’re a revolutionary. Democricies are very large ships, and you don’t turn them by throwing them into reverse.

 

Finally, You need to lean the difference between being an activist and a leader. Like many people, it wasn’t your politics which set me against you, it was your lack of leadership. You have been an opposition politician for many years, voting against your own party’s government, and that’s an important role. But it’s not a leadership role. This is why you have been accused of bullying – because you’re still behaving as you were when you had no power. When you are powerless and you’re shouting, you may be called a prophet. But when you’re in charge and you’re still shouting, you’re a bully. You may feel as though many people are against you. But you have power now. You’re the one in charge. You can use it to unite or to divide. You can use it to take revenge or to reconcile. That takes more than words, it takes time and listening and action. I’m leaving the party because I think I know the way you’ll choose. But I’d loved to be proved wrong.

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The Great British Bake Off Buggers Off

My wife and I have been watching the Great British Bake Off since the first series. It’s been part of our very sparse viewing habits – the only thing we sit to watch together is #GBBO and DVDs of the West Wing – and of course, Doctor Who.

A wee while ago, when it looked as  though John Whittingdale was going to manage to fillet the BBC entirely, I popped this in a facebook post:

“So following John Whittingdale’s ideas concerning the BBC, where they ought not to compete with ITV and others, I can imagine the meeting where the BBC tried to pitch terrible ideas, so they can make sure they don’t attract too many viewers.

“how about a story involving a crotchety old man who kidnaps two teachers and his Grand-daughter in a phone booth which travels through time? Surely no-one will be interested?”
“erm….”
“oh, okay, how about pro-celebrity ballroom dancing? Surely no-one could possibly complain about us trying to grab ratings if we put on pro-celebrity ballroom dancing on in primtime?”
“ahem…”
“Right, alright. How about a detective show which involves people dissecting corpses? No-one can think forensics are glamorous.”
“ah.”
“Last chance. We’ll put on a show about a group of complete amateurs, and we show them baking cakes. The prize at the end is a cake stand. No money. We’re basically televising a cake . Surely, surely no-one will watch that?”
“We’re screwed.”

The BBC has lost a number of its flagship programmes recently. The Voice has channel-hopped to ITV, as has Jonathon Ross, Top Gear has in all but name gone to Amazon, and any sport the BBC used to have has long gone, Cricket and Formula 1 chief amongst the losses. In the era when little is produced “in house” and therefore where the BBC does not own the copyright, it may be an increasing trend amongst shows in the future.

But Bake Off without the BBC is either a pastiche or a departure from the success. But it’s loss points to something about the BBC – an institution which is one of the few things which makes me truly, unashamedly proud to be British.

Here’s why I think the BBC is the best of British, and why it is the essential ingredient to bake-off and so many other shows:

Firstly – The Winner gets a cake stand. Despite it’s incredible success, the BBC has cultivated a programme where people want to take part because they like baking. Even now in the latest series, they’ve managed to find people in that tent who seem to have no interest at all in being famous. They just like baking.

Secondly – it’s not lowbrow. So much commercial TV strives to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s almost as though the editorial decisions made in shows such as the x-factor are deliberate to make sure there is nothing at all that the viewing audience can’t easily and completely grasp. Aaron Sorkin, one of the greatest writers of our age, said that the greatest crime a show can commit is to tell the audience what it already knows. Built into the DNA of the BBC is the desire to gently stretch the viewer as well as entertain and amuse. That’s why even in the most popular programme in the country, there are those little Lord Reithian moments when Mel or Sue tell us all about the more obscure bakes, their history and culture etc.

This was never more evident than in the “Chronicles of Nadya”, a two-part (only two!) series concerning last years’ Bake-Off winner, who took us all to her ancestral home in a small village in Bangladesh. It was educative, entertaining, touching, just brilliant. And no-one would have been able to do it in a way which was “broad church” enough for a mainstream viewing audience. The great gift the BBC has is not just that they make shows no-one else does, but that they make them in a way that a large audience wants to watch them.

Thirdly – Generosity. I love the generosity of the programme where everyone wants everyone else to do well – and that the editorial decisions emphasise that, rather than the competition and the tension/drama. I’m sure they could cut it like that if they wanted, but they don’t. This was evident in the Voice, which is now lost to the other side. It’s also the case with much of the BBC’s output, from Who to Strictly to almost anything it makes. There is a genuine virtue woven into the fabric of the programmes. I don’t know if they’re all happy places to work, but you certainly get that impression. That’s bourne out by the reason they lost Jonathan Ross and Jeremy Clarkson – they were sacked because in the end ratings were less important than what feels like decency. In a world where anything to do with the media feels cutthroat, it feels that the BBC wants to hang on to something better – in fact, I’d go further. It feels as though the BBC believes that it has a duty to reflect something genuinely good about the British character. It’s a good news broadcaster.

Fourthly – and I know some will find this to be a controversial statement, it is scrupulously unbiased. I have many issues with the way that politics is covered in this country, and the BBC is part of that: I think they like to focus too much on the soap opera rather than the policies, and they often fail to employ that great ability to communicate facts in an easily digestible way when it comes to political news. But they are never biased for or against any one side. This is again an ethic in the BBC. I know from my own very modest input, that the folk within the beeb seek above all else to be impartial – almost to a fault, one might say, and certainly to a lot of expense and effort. The ethic of being unbiased, and of giving voice to the sides of the debate that the BBC, as a liberal moderate institution, would not want to hear, has been one of it’s hallmarks.

Lastly– it’s the one element of our establishment which is truly innovative. The BBC has a unique link between radio and TV and much of the best comedy in the last fifty years has come from the fertile soil that the BBC has given to young comics, as well as drama writers. When I see parliament, a stodgy, antediluvian, hierarchal, male-dominated institution, criticising the BBC, it’s like watching Boss Hogg bullying the Dukes, or Jabba laughing at Luke. Because the BBC is always going to be the slightly naughty one with the better morals and the lightsabre.  Only its victories are through the medium of dancing and bread.

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COUNSELLING, PASTORAL CARE AND THE WAY WE LIVE NOW.

I have often been told, normally as a result of some pastoral care encounter, that if ever I gave upon the priesthood I would have a career in counselling. I suspect most clergy will get something similar. Normally people say these things as a way of saying thank you, just like when they like you they say you would make a good bishop. I’m pretty clear that I would neither be a good bishop or a good counsellor, but I thought it might be interesting to think about the differences between counselling and what clergy and others do as pastoral care. Other than the very obvious – one is based on living out a faith in God – there are significant differences, more, I think, than similarities.

What I do in pastoral care is pretty simple. I try and show people by any means I can, that God loves them, and therefore there is hope, they are blessed, and that whatever they suffer at this moment can be overcome.

That’s a pretty basic description, and of course it doesn’t mean saying “but Jesus loves you” all the time – often silence and shared tears can convey what “Jesus loves you” far better than just reciting those words. But that’s basically the point of what I’m there fore, I think.

There are two main differences between counselling and pastoral care in my own faith context: one is that in pastoral care, I do not try and help them sort of their problems. I don’t focus on their problems. The other is that I make myself as vulnerable as they do, in lots of ways.

Often in a psycho-dynamic form of counselling, and behavioural therapy, there is a desire to unpick the reasons why people are unhappy at this present moment in time, and that often involves going back into their history and finding out the reasons that they behave in certain ways today. In other methodologies, there is a preponderance of focussing on the emotions of the moment, and often allowing the “client” carte blanche on what is being talked about.

I find people who have been in counselling for years and years, who have used counselling as a crutch, and feel a heavy reliance on it and on their counsellor. It feels very important to them, and it feels as though what happens in their counselling sessions is vital to helping them lead better lives. But much of their time spent in counselling is going back to unhappy times and places, trying to work out what went wrong.

But if I spend all my time dwelling on the unhappy parts of my life, whatever conclusions I come to about those times, I end up unhappy. More problematic for me, however is that often counselling in this way gives an intellectual justification to people as to why they behave in ways which are upsetting for them – and often as a result locks them into this behaviour.

Knowledge of self can be a dangerous thing – I know people who have come out of a Myers-Briggs or Eneagram process feeling fully justified in being excessive in their behaviour. I have heard people say “I’m not a good listener because I’m an INTJ” or “I’m sometimes rude to people, but I’m not being rude, I’m just an [insert personality-type here]” Well being rude is being rude whatever your personality. But having a self-diagnosis like this can relax people into patterns of behaviour which are not helpful to them or to others in the long run.

So when I engage in pastoral care, I do so as a friend – a friend in faith, who knows God loves the person I am talking to – that God is in fact love, and that God is in the room with them at that moment. I try and focus on that moment if possible, and find the light in their lives, and enable them to see what is good, loving, kind, generous, about themselves and about the people who are around them. I focus on the good, and I do so, not as an impartial sounding board, but as a friend – a friend who has lived and suffered and rejoiced just like everyone in life, and a friend who is prepared to talk about their own experiences if it’s helpful to the person.

That’s the second major difference as I see it – one which I have been told is fraught with danger. Which is that I am involved in a relationship of trust and love with the person coming to me for pastoral help. That can have a great danger of dependency, or inappropriate relationships built up – or so counsellors have told me. In fact, thought I’ve found that the sort of dependency, crushes or obsessions which I have been told will be the result of this form of pastoral care, are in fact far more common with counsellors, whose relationship with their clients are far more removed and careful – and to my mind, permit the clients to build up an imaginative relationship rather than a real one.

I suppose the form of counselling which is most like what I do is what’s called “client-centred counselling” which, according to the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, is mainly about allowing a relationship of trust to build up between client and counsellor so that they are able to talk about emotions and feelings that they have. I would say that is the first stage of any pastoral encounter, but only the first stage. Often wearing a dog-collar is something of a short cut to that level of trust (for some I suppose the opposite, but they don’t come to clergy for pastoral care).

It is no surprise that what we often look for in a counsellor is someone who has the skills that we would hope to find in a friend. But the professional consequences of charging a fee do alter that dynamic. Clergy do not charge fees, but counsellors do, and when there is money involved, it no longer becomes two people who look after one another, it becomes one who looks after the other, and can easily become a form of dependency. It also means that a sense of perspective on our own problems can be lost in the process, and the client can feel that they are the only ones in the world with difficulties. As I understand it, counselling rarely if ever involves the counsellor sharing anything of their own life with the client. But one of the most useful things I can do as a pastoral carer is to lay alongside some aspects of my own life in conversation – to show the person involved that bad things happen to everyone, that they are not alone in their pain, and that people who experience the problems they experience, can move on and feel good about life again.

I don’t think I’m doing anything exceptional in this, and I know that where often people call for a priest, what they really need (and wonderfully, often get in our churches) is a good group of friends, who can do a good deal more good than I can.

But anyway, that’s why I hope I’m a good pastoral carer, and would make a rubbish counsellor.

 

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Losing weight

It was about this time last year that I decided I ought to lose weight. I had some good reasons for deciding to lose weight:

  • I was too fat.
  • That’s about it.

Actually it’s not as simple as that. I wanted to lose weight because I have a food addiction, and it was winning. Also I was ashamed of how I looked. And I almost always have been.

There are many reasons why people gain weight: there are those who put on weight after an active earlier life, as their metabolism slows down; there are those whose jobs mean that they have lots of eating and not much exercise (clergy a good example); there are those whose diet is limited due to geography or wealth; there are those who discovered beer in University and hang on to the beer habit when the other habits, such as sport, hijinks, and general larks, disappear.

But I am not of their number. I am one of a different group. I am a fatty. I am fat because I have always known I am a fatty.

If you are a fatty, you know immediately what I mean. Fat is truly a state of mind. It isn’t true that handsome is as handsome does (ugly, kind people are not handsome, just kind and ugly), but it is equally untrue that fat is as fat does. If you’re a fatty, then however thin you are, you’re still a fatty.

The criteria for being a fatty are twofold – firstly, you have something of a food addiction. Secondly, you know that your default state will always be fat. I was always being told by well-intentioned parents and grand-parents that I was too fat, and I believed them.

I don’t blame anyone for giving me a complex about my weight – but I certainly had one. I can remembering being ashamed of how I looked when at primary school, secondary school, University and beyond. Even when I had a growth spurt and was skinnier than most of my fellow pupils, I knew that I was just a thin fatty, and that the fat would come back. And of course it did.

Self-image is certainly part of it, but added to that is that famous “unhealthy relationship with food”. For me, food is a constant addiction, only unlike every other addiction you can’t give it up, you can only moderate your need for it. And if there’s one thing that fatties really don’t like the idea of, it’s moderation. We fatties work on a very decent, simple principle – if one is good, two is twice as good, and all of it is just great, thanks very much. When my wife overeats, she feels full for the rest of the day. When I overeat, I feel hungry. Moderation is for skinny people. That’s why they’re skinny, and why, unless I get a control on my eating, I look like a bin bag full of yoghurt.

It’s a socially embarrassing addiction, food, because you bear on your body the marks of your addiction. My shame over how I looked was always a factor in deciding what I did, thin or fat – because to me I was always fat.

Fatties cope with this social shame in two ways:

We might adopt the “happy fatty” routine – being a bon-viveur, enjoying their food. Of course that’s true – we enjoy our food. In fact we’d enjoy yours too if you gave us the chance. But the reality is that if you’re a fatty, you will eat whatever is available, fois gras or Pot Noodle. Alternatively, we might pursue the “there’s something wrong with my metabolism” routine. We only eat white fish and tomatoes in public, talk about glands or suchlike, before going home to finish the contents of the fridge.

I don’t blame people for having no sympathy. For some people it’s simply inconceivable that someone might choose to overeat. After all, all they need to do is to not put things in their mouth. If you’re not the sort of person to be addicted to anything, you won’t be able to understand. You won’t understand alcoholism, drug addiction, over-eating. That’s because you’re different. It’s not the same for you.

For instance, my wife eats little and often. She can break a Mars bar into sixteen bits and eat one a day, and then forget about the rest for days at a time. She can do this without the mars bar calling to her every moment of that day, occupying her every thought, as it would with me. When we go on walks, she has a supply of snacks, eating a little bit, quite often. I never eat when we’re on walks. Because if I started, I’d want to eat the entire contents of the rucksack, up to and including the cagoules.

Does that sound extreme? It is. We fatties are extremists – and the thing is, everyone is keen to help feed our addiction. If you’re overweight, it’s almost certain that you will be given more food and offered seconds far more often than if you are not. That’s the problem with being addicted to something that everyone consumes, and which is a part of everyday life.

Imagine being a heroin addict, where there are adverts on the television for a new, easy to prepare, delicious type of heroin that is on special offer at your local supermarket. Imagine half the TV programme schedules being occupied with “heroin connoisseurs”, many of whom are also addicts like you, exploring all the huge variety of heroin available in different cultures and geographic regions. Imagine going round to someone’s house and having them say “You look as though you like your heroin, would you like another helping of heroin? There’s plenty.” Imagine having to sit and watch whilst other people take just a little bit of heroin, and seem to manage with just that little bit. It’s bizarre.

Being a fatty is no-where near as horrible as being a heroin addict, but it’s an odd social world to live in. Even now, in a very healthy state, when I go round to lunch at someone’s house, and they have a “help yourself” lunch, ham, cheese, tomatoes, bread, etc, I have to impose strict rules on myself. No cheese, no refills. Otherwise I’d eat everything on the table, and then slope off to see what’s in the cupboards.

So that’s what it’s like being a fatty. Currently I’m in remission, I’m healthy, very fit, and enjoying it immensely. But I know on what shallow soil my health is founded. It doesn’t take much to slip off the wagon, and on to the waggon-wheels.

But why am I writing all this now? Because of my son. My son has put on a few wee pounds – nothing remotely unhealthy, and he’s certainly not overweight by any standards – he’s simply no longer the skinniest boy in school, which he was when we adopted him. He has been worrying about the fact that one or two of his friends have a “six pack” and he doesn’t. His friends tease him for being fat – when he’s not, not remotely. He’s nine years old, for heaven’s sake, and he’s being teased by his friends for not having a six-pack.

Unlike when I grew up, the TV is now full of ultra-styled teens and pre-teens, designed to look like models. There is not a bare male torso on tv, young or old, which isn’t “buff”. The advertisers try and sell junk food by showing skinny, muscular models eating it, and the pressure to be perfect is stronger than it ever has been. When me son is older they will try and sell him stuff to help him lose weight, and they’ll keep trying to sell him stuff that will make him put on weight. It’s a harder, mentally tougher world for the young, and there’s no escaping those pressures.

I’ve done everything I can to tell him he’s fine, that he’s healthy, he’s beautiful, and there’s nothing to be worried about. I hope he believes me. Because it’s true. Because being a fatty is a state of mind –a mental illness. And it’s one which we should not allow society to inflict on the young, in order to sell more stuff.

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The myth of “post-fact” democracy.

There has been a change in politics in the last twenty years or so, and it’s a reflection of the change in society. And because of it, I think the type of democracy we have doesn’t really work any more.

A great deal has been spoken in these post-Brexit debates concerning how we are now a “post-fact society” or a “non-fact” culture. I think this is a faddy myth. I think it’s a very convenient way of specialist political-nerds like myself to criticise those who vote against us.

But is this something new? I don’t think so.  I don’t think we are any more or less factual in the way we make our political decisions than we were ten or even fifty years ago. I don’t  think people have ever been particularly fact-based in terms of decision making processes. But we have been given the impression of being more factual in our decision making because of a media and political elite who have, in fact, being doing their job well.

Saying that politicians and newspapers and news media doing their job well is hardly a popular opinion. But I think for years, the political parties and the press have managed to quietly sideline the extremists, the liars, and the egoists. Their nets may well have been a little too wide for many untruths to have been caught, but the big ones, such as the lies of the extreme parties of left and right, and the more bombastic politicians whose egos write cheques their intellects cannot cash, have been found out before they seep into the public eye.

That filter is now at an end. We have seen characters such as Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Boris Johnson and others making untrue claims which have not been filtered and ridiculed by the media and other politicians. We have seen the rise of the far left, and, soon to come, the rise of the slightly-racist-but-bafflingly-respectable far right, which I believe is going to replace Ukip (or is what Ukip will become). And all of them on the ticket of “holding the elite to account”.

So why has it happened? Why have politicians and the media failed in their filtering of the nutty slack?  The big difference between “then” and “now” – both terms which are entirely fictional descriptions of a time in the past when things were normal, and a culture in the present which is by no means pervasive – the big difference, if there is one, is that we no longer trust people who are cleverer than we are. We don’t trust experts.  The notion of an “elite” has become taboo.

In one of his audio lectures, the theologian Richard Rohr spoke about how we have no mentors. Both individually and as a society, we have fewer people in our society that we will listen to, when they tell us things we don’t want to hear. He speculates the reason for this, whether it was the loss of mentors in the second world war, the rise of the age of questioning in the sixties, the end of modernity etc. But whilst the cause is speculative, it certainly resonates with truth. We have moved from a society which votes for people because of their intelligence, expertise, integrity, to a society that votes for people we would most like to go out for a drink with – people who are like us, because we think they must know best. Hence the move from, say, John Smith, to Jeremy Corbyn; from austere folk such as Edward Heath to clubbable folk like Nigel Farage, from Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson. We like the idea of people in the public eye being “like us” rather than better than us.

Is this because we’re now in a “post fact” world? I don’t think so. It’s just that once we trusted people who were really good at discerning facts, and now we insist on doing the job ourselves. We’re not very good at it – and sometimes that’s because we trust people who are really bad at giving us the truth. We have had years and years of the press feeding us bad news stories about politicians – many of which were true. So we trust the people telling us the bad news stories, and not the people telling us the truth – such as more respectable newspapers and media outlets who will give us both sides of a story.

The slow death of newspapers has contributed to their fall from grace as providers of truth.  As circulation has declined, so newspapers have become more populist, giving column inches and headlines to those who people want to read about, rather than actual news. So we have learnt to distrust those in authority. What begun in the sixties with iconoclasm has metastasised into an allergy towards authority figures, and a distrust of anyone who tells us anything we don’t want to hear.

Even the broadcast media, who are regulated by offcom and so have some duty to give the truth an airing, have fallen from grace. Often they live by the golden mean fallacy – where if there are two sides to any story they are given equal weight, under the myth that this is somehow “balanced” reporting – instead of grossly distorting the issue. Recently a professor of meterology was pitted against Nigel Lawson, on the issue of climate change. He is as ignorant as any of us when it comes to climate change, has no qualifications, no experience, no reason to be on the programme other than he is a well known name. The professor he was on against had years of experience, a lifetime dedication to the subject, and was more or less beaten all ends up by Lawson’s ability to win a debate, rather than Lawson’s better command of the facts. He won the debate by simplifying it, dumbing it down, and speaking louder and longer.

And that’s the problem. When we don’t trust the experts, the elites, we trust the loudest, the most bombastic, the ones that say exactly what we want to hear. Not because we are now “post fact” but because we are what we always have been – bad at making good choices. We used to trust other people, experts, to make those choices for us, and now that we have lost our trust in them, we’re lost.

They say every country gets the democracy it deserves.  When I look at the steaming pile that is our current democracy, it’s disquieting to realise it’s a mirror.

 

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Now is the time for all good folk to come to the aid of the party.

I have disavowed political parties for some years now. I have said, and I still think, that I can never become a political party member. I know the limits of my patience, and I find that being a member of a political party means that I have to attend lots of meetings and discuss lots of strategies that I have absolutely no interest in. I also have to sign up to opinions that I can’t necessarily hold with integrity. It’s like being in a church but without the freedom of expression, and without the desire to reconcile when we fall out. More than that, I think I can do more good being politically involved in other ways. But I’m going to become a  member, for one reason – I have a right, as we all do, to have a choice when I vote. And as long as Jeremy Corbyn is leader, I have no choices left to me.

If you saw the demonstrations outside parliament in favour of Corbyn, there were lots of Momentum posters, but there were also Socialist Worker banners, and many other left-wing folk who are not members of the Labour party. This was a gathering of the extreme, wearing t-shirts which called “Blairite” MPs “vermin”.

To me the worst, the most shocking thing that happened yesterday involved John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, and Corbyn’s ally. According to several reports, one MP angrily called on McDonnell to call off his “rabble”. The reason for this was that Momentum and SWP members had been campaigning outside constituency offices for some time, calling on MPs who disagreed with Corbyn to resign. And by campaigning I mean threatening.

It is less than a fortnight since one of their number, Jo Cox, was murdered. MPs are frightened, and rightly so. They have a duty of responsibility to their staff, who must also be frightened. It’s still too early to know exactly what happened with Jo Cox’s murder, but my interpretation would be that there were too many dog-whistles in the Brexit campaign – too many things which were too close to racism, and the extreme right wing were excited and motivated. It was enough for one man with mental health issues to break. It was only one man, but one man is enough. You can hardly blame MPs for being worried.

John McDonnell waved off the complaint, and instead of listening, understanding, and trying to help, immediately walked out to the crowds that the MP was afraid of, and started telling tales: telling the crowd calling MPs “scum” “Vermin” and how they needed to be eradicated, telling them how some MPs wanted them to stop, and how he was on the side of the crowd. It was as near incitement as I could imagine. I can only assume this was out of ignorance rather than malice, but the effect is the same. His MPs were frightened for their own safety, and he has magnified that.

I’m sure there will be a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, and I am sure he will continue to stand. Corbyn is a man of great principle, but he values his own principles far more than he values anyone else’s – and that means Labour can no longer be a broad church. Corbyn wants his values and his understanding to hold sway. I’m not even sure he wants Labour as a party to stand together. He wants the Unions and their money to stay with him, but I think he would regard losing 100 or so MPs in the next election as collateral damage. He will go on as long as he can, and the hard left has joined up in droves to ensure that he continues in post.

So I’m going to join the Labour party in order to vote for whoever I think can make the Labour party a possible option again. Not just for Labour, and its values, but for those who voted LibDem, and Conservative, and Green and UKIP in the last election. Whether you have never voted for Labour, or whether you have only ever voted for Labour, the UK needs at least two electable parties. If Scotland becomes independent, it will need Labour too.

So  whatever your party allegiances, join in. I don’t know if there will be the same opportunity as before – to become an associate, for a one-off £3.00. This is what got Corbyn elected, and I have mixed feelings a to whether it should happen again. But however it happens, I’m going to make sure I vote.  Because I  won’t just be voting for moderation instead of extremism, I’ll be voting for the chance of  democracy.

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Anger and Xenophobia in the land of lost content.

frpip

The way I react to problems is that I think I remain pretty cool headed and then, when things calm down a bit, I go to pieces. Probably it’s more like channeling all my angst into control-freaking intellectual analysis, and then realises how useless that is.

I had time to think since this referendum, to think of times past, people and places past, and had time to see the  news. The Polish embassy announcing the deatails of threats that their citizens are suffering in Newcastle and London and Cambridge. Banners telling immigrants to “go home”. As someone said on twitter, it’s obviously not true that 52% of the country that voted to leave are racist – but it seems that 100% of racists think that 52% of the country agree with them.

I wrote in a previous blog that Farage’s poster was the nadir of the UK’s xenophobia. I was…

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