Sunday, 14 September 2014

Knowing your ABC

I recently attended a prayer breakfast organised by Churches together in Swindon at which the Archbishop of Canterbury was the guest speaker. (The Archbishop was on a visit to the Diocese of Bristol for the weekend and this was part of his very full schedule.)

Firstly, what impressed me was Mr Welby’s ability to relate to people. There were over 50 clergy from all denominations present and he managed to talk to everyone beforehand I think. He certainly came and chatted to a Methodist colleague and me – about Street Pastors and the African Praise shirt I was wearing! ABC had gone out the night before with a Street Pastors patrol in Kingswood Bristol and had enjoyed the experience.

Our collective act of worship started with a reading from 1 Corinthians 3 and the Chair of Swindon Churches Together – Methodist Superintendent Rev Mark Barrett – referred to John Wesley’s sermon “The Catholic Spirit”. A sermon in which Wesley spoke of recognising that Christians have differences over worship, over how Baptism is conducted, over how communion is celebrated etc etc. But the key is if we all love God if we all believe that Jesus is our saviour then we are one. “Give me your hand my friend”

ABC Welby then spoke. And the thrust of his talk was how over the last few years we have seen the idols people have relied on and worshipped for so long – money and wealth – collapsing due to the banking crisis of 2007 / 2008. Many people have realised that what they worshipped for so long has collapsed and they have been hurt. However, there are still those who put their faith in this idol. He mentioned how in a conversation with a city banker he was told “We have changed Archbishop. We have greatly reduced our salaries. There are few now earning salaries of more than £4m a year”!!!

Churches have responded to the crisis in this country through the growth of Foodbanks. And what impressed him was the way Foodbanks for example have grown without the need for great committees or formal agreements between denominations. Christians in one place have recognised the need and got on and done the work of the Kingdom.

He used an image I found powerful. He reminded us how in the Book of Exodus the Israelites had fled Egypt having seen the gods and idols of Egypt destroyed. But as the Israelites fled they were pursued by Pharaoh’s armies. The Israelites reached the Red Sea. They were trapped. Moses raised his arm and the sea parted and the Israelites crossed over in safety.

The point ABC made was that this was an act of faith. There was no great discussion about the rights and wrongs of going forward in faith. These believers just went forward. We too in this age need to have that courage and faith. To show the true way to live.

When I was growing up, my grandmother had a friend called Hilda Adams. Mrs Adams was quite a character and I always liked when she came to visit. One on occasion she gave me a print of Kipling’s poem “If”. She said to me (I was maybe 7 at the time) “You won’t understand this poem now. But one day you will realise its importance.”

She was right. And yesterday having (briefly) met ABC Welby and heard him speak, Hilda Adams came back to mind as did “If” especially these words:

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,”

They sum ABC Welby neatly.

God bless you ABC Welby. Thank you for your leadership and for your inspirati

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Heart v Head Yes v No

It was an interesting two weeks to be in Scotland on holiday and it’s got even more interesting since we’ve come home.
During our time in Scotland (on Islay and in Oban) we had several conversations about the #IndyRef. The first one was with two couples who we met in a coffee shop on Islay. They were retired and probably in their 60s. They had heard us chatting and realised of course that we were from “Down South” and I was wearing a University of Gloucestershire hoody. They struck up a conversation with us and soon made clear they were firmly in the “No” camp. They just could not understand why Scotland would leave the union. They spoke eloquently and passionately.

A few days later we visited the beautiful fishing village of Portnahaven. The village church was open and they were offering tea and cake (sold to help the window fund.) We called in and two lovely ladies severed us. We got chatting and I made some quip about only having English money. And one of the ladies then turned serious and, almost in tears, said she was hoping and praying for a “No” vote. As we left (having established that I was a Methodist minister) she said to me “You will pray for us won’t you?”

The next day we called into the island’s Gaelic centre. (Anne wanted to make some enquiries about a possible Scottish link in her family tree.) Two of the ladies at reception chatted to us and as they looked into Anne’s query, the BBC’s Gavin Esler passed by. (He had come in to record an interview with “Yes” and “No” representatives from the island.) I then asked one of the ladies (probably in her 70s) what her voting intentions were. Her face lit up and she said “I’ll be voting ‘Yes’. The time has come!” We talked some more and she made it clear that her decisions were based as much on emotion as anything else.

On our final day we were in the café of the Kilchoman Distillery. As we drove in to the complex there was a prominent “Better together” banner. The aforementioned Gavin Esler was wandering around and he’d come to interview the owner of the distillery. The owner came into the café and one of the waitresses asked him how the interview went. “I expect you said you’d be voting ‘No’ as usual” she joked.

We then became party to a really interesting debate. Two of the waitresses were adamantly “Yes” but one was wavering. The owner asked her had she decided. “I think I’ll vote ‘Yes’ I may as well give it a go”

The owner got very animated. “It’s not just a case of ‘giving it a go’! Once Scotland goes that’s it. No way back.”

“Oh well if goes wrong I’ll just go to England”
she said in all seriousness.

A few days later we were in Oban. As we drove along the Esplanade the lampposts were festooned with “Yes” posters. The next morning these had been joined by “No” posters. On the third morning the “No” posters had been torn down.

Most people we were introduced to at church on Sunday morning were “No” but this seemed to be against the feeling in the town.
Back home it strikes me that this huge decision for Scotland and the rest of the UK is Heart versus Head. The heart the passion is near the surface for most people. But the “Yes” people seemed to be more passionate with a lot of resentment at “that lot in Westminster”

I can understand the “heart” a bit. Being Welsh there is always part of me that feels angry toward “the establishment”.

Similarly many of the resentments the pro Yes Scots have I share e.g. privatisation of the NHS, not wanting Trident nuclear weapons, cuts to public services. And these things clearly drive the Scots who are pro-independence. And yet the head part of me kicks in and realises the consequences.

We lose the checks and balances Scotland brings .

Come the 19th September we’ll know.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ernie's story

I conducted a funeral earlier today of a lady who was born in a small Cotswold town and then moved in her late teens to a small Wiltshire village along with her 4 sisters and her brother. She moved no further than 5 miles from the Wiltshire village and is now buried alongside her husband who came from the village.

After the service I struck up a conversation with her brother, a local preacher. He must be close to 90 but had a wonderful memory and he shared with me stories of his (and his family’s) early life in the Wiltshire village. Including a time after the Second World War (in which he served) when he worked as a deliveryman for the village baker. The baker refused to use a motor van and even in the 1950s all deliveries from the bakery were via a horse drawn cart. The brother (I’ll call him Ernie) remembered a time when he was delivering on Christmas Eve to other villages in the area and finished his final delivery at 1 minute to Midnight.

Ernie then told me about how he had served in the Second World War. He’d been with the Royal Army Medical Corps and was in France from late in 1939. He had been stationed on the outskirts of Paris (“I could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. And I said to my mate ‘Next leave we’ll go and see that.’ We never got there.”) He left France via Cherbourg in June 1940.

In due course he was stationed out to North Africa. There he developed hepatitis and was hospitalised. Once he was better he was put on a hospital ship and sent to Malta as a medical orderly in a hospital.

“There were only 4 of us going to the hospital. And a lorry came to collect us from the port. As we drove up through the Maltese countryside I saw a woman shepherding sheep. It was a very moving sight and I found myself reciting Psalm 23 ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’. I’ve never forgotten than.”

On returning to Britain he returned home to the village.

“I remember getting off at the little station in the next village. I knew the station master and he told me to leave my kit bag at the station. He’d arrange for it to be delivered to my home later.

As I walked up the hill to my village, I met a man who I didn’t know out walking his Collie dog. The man stopped and wished me good evening and the Colley came and fussed round me. And I found myself in tears. I’d not been home for 5 years. I carried on walking up the lane and a wood pigeon, a blackbird and a thrush started to sing. David, it was like evening vesper. And I said a prayer of thanks.”

I usually blog about things that have happened to me or things on my mind. But these were such gentle words from a gentleman I felt I had to share them.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Fleeing from a holy land

There are some books that stay with me and every so often I re-read them. Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus detective novels. (I have them all by the way.) Kenneth Graeme’s “Wind in the willows”. And William Dalrymple’s “From the holy mountain”

I first read “From the holy mountain” around 15 years ago. I bought it in one of the 3 for 2 offers bookshops have during the summer holidays encouraging people to buy books to take away with them. (I clearly though I would have plenty of time on my hands that particular holiday as I vaguely recall that I also bought Pat Barker’s “Birdsong”.)

“From the holy mountain” recounts William Dalrymple’s journey through the Middle East following the footsteps of a 6th century monk John Moschos who travelled through the Eastern Byzantium world, culminating at Constantinople, where Moschos wrote his book Pratum Spirituale or The Spiritual Meadow.

Dalrymple's journey in the footsteps of Moschos starts at Mount Athos, Greece, proceeds to Istanbul, and thence to Eastern Turkey. Here he crosses the border and enters Syria. The next stop is Lebanon which is just at the end of its civil war, after which he crosses into Israel, the West Bank and concludes his trip in Egypt at the monastery of Deir ul-Muharraq which had just been attacked by the Gemaat al-Islamiyya.

Along the way, Dalrymple encounters several communities where Christians and Muslims worship in the same places. And Dalrymple comments how in Syria (then being ruled by President Assad senior) the regime actively protected Christians (perhaps because the Christians were willing to support President Assad in return.) Dalrymple was aware that tensions were high in places. But nevertheless Christians and Muslims coexisted failry peaceably for the most part.

It was in Israel that Dalrymple felt that Christians were most under threat. I can’t put my hand on the book at present, (the joys of moving – though I know the book is in the house somewhere) but he mentioned how many Palestinian Christians were fleeing Israel as they felt they were being pushed out by the influx of Jewish settlers coming to Israel from elsewhere in the world – notably the USA. He commented (and this is from memory) that if the numbers continued to leave at the same rate, by the middle of 21st century, there would be virtually no Christians in Israel.

When I started the process of candidating for the ministry around 2003, we had to review a book and discuss the contents at interview. One of the suggested books was “From a holy mountain”. Even then, the Middle East was a different place from the when Dalrymple conducted his journey. The invasion of Iraq by Britain and the USA had seen to that.

10 years on things are different again. In Iraq ancient Christian communities such as those in Mosul are under threat.

Apparently they are being told by a hard line Muslim group called ISIS that they must either convert to Islam or pay a large fine or “face the sword.” ISIS are marking Christian houses with this symbol.

The Arabic equivalent of “N” and it stands for Nazrani i.e. Christian. Unlike the Passover in the time of Moses, when Jewish people marked their houses so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” this symbol could mean the Angel of Death pays a visit.

In The Independent newspaper today (28th July 2014) Robert Fisk has written an excellent article analysing the situation. The article notes how Muslims and Christians have coexisted throughout the Middle East for centuries, on the whole fairly peacefully. But, as I noted earlier, there is now a major change happening with the Islamic extremists in Iraq chiefly (but also in Syria) seeking to impose strict Islamic rule – a caliphate – across many of those countries. This will mean that Christians will be persecuted but also there is a threat to moderate Muslims too.

Fisk quotes the Lebanese Catholic Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Rai asking “What are the moderate Muslims saying? We do not hear the voices of those who denounce this” A very fair point.

Fisk notes that Koran demands respect for minorities.

Meanwhile, in a separate report, in the same newspaper on the same day, Muslim Palestinians, who have been seening their homes destroyed by the current Israeli action to combat Hammas rocket attacks, have taken refuge in the church of St Porphyros in Zaytun.

I find it very concerning that the media is so silent on the fate of Christians in Iraq. But equaly I find it very concerning how Israelis are attacking Muslim (and Christian) Palestinians. That said Hammas should know better than to poke a stick in to the cage of the Lion of Israel.

You have to wonder what on earth George W Bush and Tony Blair thought they were doing going into Iraq as these two Christian men should now be hanging their heads in shame at what is happening to Christian and Muslim minorities in Iraq and Syria. And whilst recognising that Israel should not be subject to terror attacks from Hammas,why does the USA (on the face of it, a far more Christian country say than the UK) support Israel in the killing of Christians and Muslims in Gaza?

The wonderful singer song writer Beth Nielsen Chapman wrote a song on her 2007 album Prism, called “My religion”. It contains these words:

My religion
I am a Hindu-Buddhist-Jew-Islamic-Christian
Combining one soul, one vision~
Living peacefully where music is the only divinity
And sharing your art, the sacred creed~
My confession of faith is to struggle, go out of my way~
And find love to the end of my days

She has a point. Trouble is I can’t imagine she is listened to very much on Caliphate FM.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The power of prayer

On 30th June Pastor Christian Fuhrer died in in Leipzig aged 71. The name will mean nothing to many - it didn't to me if I’m honest . And yet Christian Fuhrer was a one of the great Christian leaders of the late 20th century. But until I stumbled cross his obituary in The Independent newspaper last week, I wasn’t aware of him – though I was well aware of his actions.

Mr Fuhrer was born during the Second World War in Nazi Germany. With the ending of the war he found himself in East Germany living under Communist rule.

He worked initially in a car factory and at other times had jobs as a telegram delivery boy and as a waiter on a train. But all the while he was being called to ministry and from 1968 to 1980 he was a pastor of several different churches. In 1980 he became pastor of the Church of St Nicholas in Leipzig.

It was at this church he started Monday evening prayers for peace. Gradually over several years these became the focal point for East Germans protesting against the regime led by Erich Honecker.

On Monday 9th October 1989 about 70,000 people took to the streets – in peace at Pastor Fuhrer’s urging – to protest, after 500 Honecker loyalists had occupied the seats of the church during the prayer session. Clutching candles and flowers the people peacefully protested. There were few arrests and no bloodshed. One police officer said afterwards “We were ready for anything except candles and prayer”

“What I saw that evening still gives me the shivers today,” Führer said in an interview in 2009. “And if anything deserves the word 'miracle’ at all, then this was a miracle of Biblical proportions. We succeeded in bringing about a revolution which achieved Germany’s unity... It was a peaceful revolution after so much violence and so many wars that we, the Germans, so often started. I will never forget that day.” (Quoted in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph 1st July 2014)

The following week 120,000 people turned up for the vigil. The week after that 320,000. On 9th November the Berlin Wall came down.

I am one of those Christians who really struggles with prayer. I know I should pray more than I do. I find it difficult to find the right words. I lead prayers week in week out for peace in the world and look at the state the world is in. I look at the divisions in this country and know I’ve prayed about that and things continue the same way. And I wonder what is the point?

But then I read Christian Fuhrer’s story and I have to think again. For this story shows me the power of prayer. Yes, I still wonder why if so many people are praying for transformation between Israel and Gaza say, why doesn’t God do something? But then maybe the secret lies in the story of Christian Fuhrer and the Leipzig protests. Not only were the people in his church praying for peace, they ensured peace was practiced not just preached as it were. (Surely though there must have been something miraculous in a protest of 70,000 not turning violent?)

"We experienced it together," he said of his role in toppling the old regime. "Thousands in the churches, hundreds of thousands on the street around the city centre. Not one broken shop window. The unbelievable experience of the power of non-violence." (Quoted in his obituary in The Independent 9th July 2014)

Maybe if we in our churches were more focused in our prayer things would be different? Or maybe Christians, powered by prayer, need to take to the streets on occasion?

Perhaps the obituary writers thoght it would be tactless to comment on Christian Fuhrer's surname which is of course the same word as Hitler used to describe himself. But the word translates into English as leader and, I believe, guide. Pastor Fuhrer truly was a great spiritual leader and guide. (And for people who notice these things, I know the "U" in "Fuhrer" should have an umlaut, but I don't know how to create one of these on my computer)

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Police under pressure

BBC 2 screened the first part of a documentatry series last night called "Police under pressure". It looked at what it is like to police Sheffield in South Yorkshire today when police budgets have been drastically cut by the current government.

The episode centred on neighbourhood policing in the Page Hall and Parsons Cross areas of the city. Both areas have high levels of unemployment and in Page Hall this is a potentially volatile mix of "communities" - White British, British Asian and, the most recent, 700 Roma families from Slovakia. (In one slight glimmer of hope in a dark picture the White British and British Asians seemed united - albeit over their condemnation of the Roma immigrants.)

The police were shown as constantly being pulled from pillar to post to deal with calls from people claiming there was crime taking place whereas in reality it was anti social behaviour. Interestingly, the gangs of youths didn't appear to be doing anything illegal as such. There were few arrests. In fact there was some discussion over what would constitute a crime. But to the Whites and Asians, gangs of Roma youth standing on street corners talking until the small hours was deemed anti social. And, in some instances, intimidating.

In an effort to get some control over the Page Hall area (the home of the Whites, Asians and Roma) the police applied a Section 30 order in order to disperse the gangs of youths hanging round.

(Under section 30 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 it allows the police or local authority to impose a Local Child Curfew. A local authority or local police force can ban children under 16 from being in a public place during specified hours - between 9pm and 6am - unless under the control of a responsible adult.

In order to make the Section 30 work, the local inspector had to deploy a very heavy police presence all the time. This included officers mounted on horseback but also meant he had to move officers from Parsons Cross to Page Hall. Parsons Cross had been the subject of a Section 30 and it had worked with the reports of anti social behaviour greatly reduced. But of course as soon as the Parsons Cross officers were moved, youths in that area started to cause trouble again.

Put simply, there just weren't enough officers to go round.

What saddened me watching the programme was how demoralised the officers were. They looked fed up and exasperated.

Last week, I attended the National Association of Chaplains to the Police conference. The theme of the conference was "The challenges of modern policing" and the speakers (all serving police officers of different ranks) told similar stories to that shown on the programme. It is clearly part of the role of police chaplains at present to listen to officers (and police staff) as they go through this time of feeling undervalued and despondent.

My experience in Wiltshire as a volunteer chaplain suggests the issues aren't as extreme here. Nevertheless there is a continuing sense among officers (and staff) that it wouldn't take much for things to get out of control. Meanwhile "efficiencies" such as changes to shift patterns and closure of local stations meaning officers now have further to travel to start shift, will take their toll. (All officers I've spoken to find the new shift patterns disruptive to their own sleep patterns but also disruptive to their family life.)

As we watched the programme last night my wife commented "This isn't what the police should be doing" and she had a point. What Page Hall and Parsons Cross needed was input from social workers, family workers, youth workers and so on to try and fix some of the problem families. And, of course the levels of policiing that will deal with crime. But in the absence of these (and facilities such as youth clubs) the police are left picking up the pieces and sticking plasters over the wounds. Meanwhile the causes such as high levels of unemployment go untreated.

I was reminded of something one of the officers at the conference said. He'd spoken of how the police now have to pick up things that previously would have been dealt with elsewhere. But "elsewhere" has been cut too. The officer remarked "Surely there must come a time when someone gives us the authority to say 'No! We're not dealing with that.'"

I'd like to think so but the way things are I can't see it happening soon.


I emailed a fellow chaplain about the programme last night. And in her reply to me this morning she said this:

"I thought the issues came over really well and I hope people and ministers start to listen. Let those who have ears hear!"

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The right medicine

On our various visits to the USA, we’ve often used a Walgreens store. Walgreens is (to British eyes) a cross between Boots the Chemist and Woolworth. We first encountered Walgreen in San Francisco but have realised since they are not just in California but many other parts of the USA too.

The company started in the early part of the 20th century with a pharmacy in Chicago founded by Charles Walgreen. Since then the company has expanded and expanded and now has stores in all 50 states as well as in Washington DC.

Last Sunday morning (8th June) I heard an interview with a director of Walgreens – Randy Lewis – on BBC Radio 2’s Good Morning Sunday programme. Mr. Lewis was interviewed by Clare Balding.

In a very moving interview Mr. Lewis explained how his son Austin (now aged 26) has autism. And Mr Lewis mentioned that he was always worried about how Austin would cope without his parents. Like many others with autism (and I suppose other disabilities) Austin could not get a job. This in turn led to Mr Lewis to think about whether there was a way in which the company he worked for could find a way of employing a large number of people with disabilities.

The company was at the time taking on 1,000 people a year. So Mr. Lewis came up with an idea of employing people with disabilities specifically. In fact the ultimate vision was that 1/3 of employees would have disabilities.
The important thing was that in doing this there should not be an increase in costs.

The project was agreed and now the company employs a great many people with disabilities on the same terms as those without disabilities. And the project has had an enormous change of culture to the company as a whole.

In the interview Randy Lewis made clear that as well as being driven by the thought of his son, his Christian faith was also a factor. He said that he has always felt that Christians believe in a time of hope. A time of no tears when every wrong will be righted. Therefore his understanding is how do we build this world in anticipation of that time? Something I wholly believe too.
Therefore, through wanting to do something for people like his son and driven by his Christian faith, Walgreens have become an employer of thousands of people with disabilities. And many of those had never worked before.

In the interview Randy Lewis explained that Marks & Spencer in the UK have shown great interest in what has happened at Walgreens and the American electrical retail company Best Buy have also started to adopt the approach. As he said:

“Once you have decided to do something like this, there are others who want to join you”

Walgreens have a 45% stake in the company that owns Boots in the UK and in May there were reports that Walgreen was looking to take over the company as a whole. So who knows, if that happens maybe Boots will adopt similar employment practices to Walgreens?

I find it encouraging that some companies are prepared to do the right thing and act ethically or at least try and make a difference to the lives of others. All too often large companies just don’t seem to have a heart for people. Everything is driven by the bottom line. Walgreens shows that the bottom line can still be taken care of while at the same time people can be taken care of too.

Much of my dissertation for my degree in applied theology was taken up with looking at business ethics and I particularly focused on the work of Sir William Hartley. Hartley was a 19th century self-made multi-millionaire who made his fortune from jam. But his Christian faith (he was a Methodist) dictated that he was a philanthropist. His employees had exceptional working conditions and he ensured they had health care and schooling. And he tried to ensure that his suppliers were paid fairly.

There were other companies at the time who acted in the same way – such as Cadbury and Rowntree for example.

What a better place the world would be if companies sought ways of making profit certainly but also found ways of being good employers and ethical businesses. What a better world it would be if companies did more than just play lip service to corporate responsibility.

Mind you, before we get too misty eyed over Walgreen, it is apparently looking at basing its headquarters in Switzerland in a move that would mean the loss of $4billion in taxes to the US Treasury.