Thursday, July 30, 2009

40 Days since Graduation and waiting on the Lord.

When I got up this morning my dear wife described herself, apropos nothing in particular, as a Domestic Goddess at her peak and me as an inept worker ant. One can not help but wonder whether this will set the tone for the day.

Do you ever find smells evocative? I was putting on aftershave this morning and was immediately taken back to Tallinn. I bought this particular aftershave at Stanstead Airport on the way out to my Parish Placement last summer and I realise, too, that it is pretty well a year to the day that I set off for that wonderful, affirming experience.

I read back over my log of that month before I started this post today and it was as if it was yesterday.

The strongest sense I have after reading my own words was of a real peace over the call to priestly ministry: my time there confirmed that this was indeed the right track to be on. I remember with the sort of nostalgia made the more intense by recent events here, the people, the events, the experiences and the affirmation that I had there. How I wish I was there again now as the joy I experienced in my call to ministry feels less easy to access just now.

We were walking across a windy car-park at Morrisons when my bloved unaccountably said:

"Would you like me to look after your penis?"


"I said would you like me to look after your keys? Are you going deaf?"

Or mad!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Odds and Ends

I woke up this morning to BBC Radio 4 as usual - a whole half an hour later thanks to the school holidays. The article I focused on amid the dozing made me wonder whether I had, in some sort of a sleep-debt double-bluff, still been dreaming.

The greatest named place in Britain is inviting applicants for possibly the country's greatest job - to become the modern-day counterpart to the legendary witch of Wookey Hole.

The Somerset caves have long been home to a witch turned to stone in the middle ages by a Benedictine monk with a flair for that kind of thing called Father Bernard. Now, however, the popular tourist attraction is in need of someone with a wider skill set than that possessed by the average vaguely person-shaped rocky outcropping, and is advertising for a living witch to take up residence in the caves at weekends, school holidays and special occasions such as Halloween.

The post is advertised at k£50 pa.

Several hopefuls were interviewed by the BBC team and all were invited to state what they could bring to the job. The answers were quite interesting while at the same time giving an insight into the great British quality of eccentricity.

"I used to be a Black Witch but now I am White" (My brain involuntarily ran the chorus to "Thriller") and I want to use my powers for good." responded one. She was invited to cackle. It was very impressive. One couldn't help but wonder whether she might be a touch too frightening for her younger visitors, but I guess if you've been brought up on the Harry Potter films a deluded Goth is small beer.

Another talked about the herbs she had brought with her and their various properties. I rather liked the sound of her earth-wisdom and her cackle was quite perfect.

At the end of the interview the assembled witches were invited to cackle in chorus.

Awesome! How many warts did they collectively own? I headed into the shower in very high spirits with a smile on my face.

A little later I was listening to an item on Britian's first anti-religious children's summer camp. Billed as a "godless alternative" to traditional religious summer camps. The five-day retreat is being hosted by Camp Quest, an American organisation which uses the advertising slogan "Beyond Belief" and has a growing following in the States. It is for the children of "atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view".

The five days in Somerset will consist of traditional outdoor activities such as canoeing and cycling, combined with discussions about religion and non-belief. The centrepiece of the camp is an ongoing discussion where participants are encouraged to try to disprove the existence of unicorns, which serve as a metaphor for God.

Campers are told that two unicorns live in the area and cannot be seen, heard or touched. The adult councillors pretend to believe in the unicorns on the basis that an ancient book handed down through the generations says they exist. The children are encouraged to try to prove that the unicorns do not exist. If anyone is successful they will be awarded a £10 note which has a picture of Charles Darwin on it and is signed by leading atheist academic Richard Dawkins.

The emphasis is on rational discussion and debate with an emphasis on stressing that morality can exist apart from religious values.

Now as someone who encourages rational discussion and debate and who has no problem accepting that morality exists apart from religion and, indeed, that religion can actively impede morality, it sounds like my sort of camp. (Apart from the physical activities, obviously.)

Grace Davie, who wrote Religion in Britain since 1945, frequently asserts that religion is alive and well. It just doesn't necessarily conform to the traditional expressions these days. She clearly has a point.

By the way: what is it about Somerset?

Postscript: What are people doing about the pandemic and Communion? We had the ostentatious use of medi-gell before setting out the elements, other than that we have had no instructions.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sunday Sermon. John on the Feeding of the Multitude.

2 Kings 4. 42-44
Psalm 145. 10-19
Ephesians 3. 14-21
John 6.1-21

Today the Lectionary moves us on and we abandon Mark’s Gospel but we continue with the story we heard from Mark last week when Bishop Walter told us how Jesus’ compassion led him to feed the multitude. This dramatic miracle is the only miracle from Jesus’ public ministry told in all four Gospels, and in all four it has overtones of the Eucharist, so in that respect it is a very relevant passage for the type of liturgy we share today.

John’s version of this event, though, isn’t the major emphasis of this section of his version of Jesus’ ministry: it serves as the introduction to Jesus’ discourse on the “Bread of Life” which we will explore more in the coming weeks and in doing so enter more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist. However, I tell you this with the strong recommendation that you take the time to read the whole of John chapter 6 a couple of times so that you see how the bite-sized chunks we offer week by week fit together.

(You can tell he’s a teacher. He’s even giving us homework and it’s the school holidays!)

So: the crowd clamours after Jesus and there are many in search of his healing touch. Yet there is something more going on here beyond the healings. John tells us “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”

I remember some time ago telling you of two colleagues I had when I first started teaching and how their individual approaches to scripture were so entrenched that they both missed the point, or at least only partially grasped it in my view. One of them, Mr. Forest, a Biology teacher, embodied the literalist or fundamentalist approach where everything was to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as the account said. His response to this miracle would be to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” Doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ.

Mrs. King, my first R.E. Head of Department, on the other hand, took the reductionist approach, wanting to “demythologise” the miracle accounts to reveal the morals that lay behind the stories. In this case the moral to her was that when Jesus fed the multitude he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle was when everyone discovered the joy of caring and sharing with others.

She referred to him as a snake-handling Baptist and he referred to her as a wet, liberal Anglican.

I didn’t sit with them in the staffroom.

John has an agenda in his Gospel, a gospel which seems to have been written with the early Jewish community in mind. The early verses of John speak of Jesus’ own, the Jews, not accepting Him, whilst others did. The Jews, the very people who were supposed to be waiting for the messiah and who repeatedly failed to believe in Jesus. John contains a great deal of material not found in the other gospels including much private instruction to the disciples. Only in John is Jesus explicitly identified with God and only in John do we find the “I AM” statements: “I Am the Bread of Life”, for instance, which comes in a later sermon.

Now in this passage notice that John tells us the crowd “saw the signs.” This would have had Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King arguing straight away, so let’s be clear. In John’s gospel, miracles are signs that point beyond themselves – to God. Every time Jesus performs a miracle he is saying something about God and about himself in relation to God. The miracles are not important merely because this or that person is healed or because Jesus changes water to wine or whatever. The miracles are signs that point to the reality of who Jesus is. Yes the crowd gathered for healing, but they kept following him because of the signs, even if they didn’t yet fully understand the implications. Why should we expect them to? Even the Disciples didn’t fully appreciate what was going on at this stage.

But we do with the benefit of hindsight, so we don’t have that excuse.

In both the readings from 2 Kings and the Gospel of John, crowds of people are in need. Not only are they hungry; the food supply is limited, and there doesn't appear to be enough to satisfy the hunger of all. Obviously, some will be sent away with little or nothing and those responsible for controlling the crowds wonder how this limited supply should be distributed. Then, in the midst of this need, something extraordinary happens. Not only is food provided, but more is available than is required. How did this happen? What are we to make of it?

In John’s theology this is simple: Jesus has provided another sign. The crowd is hungry and Jesus will feed them. He has been feeding them spiritually and now he’ll fill their stomachs as well. The miracle unfolds quickly. Jesus asks Philip how they’ll feed the people. A boy comes forward with “five barley loaves and two fish.” In language that is similar in all four accounts and echoes the Last Supper: Jesus “took the loaves, gave thanks and distributed them”. There are important distinctive ideas at work here and they are deliberate: John alone among the gospel writers uses the verb eucharisteo - (“to give thanks”); Jesus alone distributes the bread, and commands the disciples to gather the fragments – all twelve basketfuls - (using a word that becomes a technical term for the eucharistic elements).

Yet this passage can be understood on more than one level and the Mr. Forrests and Mrs. Kings of this world, wedded to a single understanding of how scripture works, miss much of it. Yes it is a story where Jesus again reveals himself as God, and yes it prefigures the Eucharist but we can still find more here: it is not accidental that so many stories throughout the Bible use food, eating or hunger images to make a theological point. These readings invite us to reflect on hunger deeper than those related to our physical survival. Jesus meets that most basic human need, hunger, and does so with generosity and compassion. Could those writers mean us to understand that God is as essential as food for our existence? Add to that the first theological idea that Jesus IS that God and we have a lot of personal challenges.

Jesus operates out of abundance. Not only is there always enough, but there is more than enough. With this hungry hoard, there is fish and bread enough for all to get what they want and enough to gather together twelve basketsful of leftovers.
This is a sign that points beyond Jesus to the earlier experiences of the children of Israel. John has quite deliberately tipped us off that the Passover was drawing near. And at that time of year, thoughts of the Jews naturally turn toward the Exodus experience. Under Pharaoh, the people had been enslaved and as they were brought out of Egypt, they were fed in the wilderness with manna. Everyday God gave the people all the food they needed. There was always more than enough. Whether you see that Exodus story as history or religious myth or a combination, the moral, if you like, is the same: this was a sign that God would be faithful day after day after day with enough to meet their needs.

With this story in mind as the Passover approached, as well as the miraculous feeding stories of the prophet Elijah, the people gathered that day on the grassy hillside saw a new sign.

Here was Jesus on the hillside, freely offering abundance. Everything the people needed for life came without cost. Jesus offered not merely healing food. Jesus offered a change from scarcity to abundance for those who could see beyond the physical act. There would be more than enough for everyone.

What should this mean to you and I as we seek to apply this message to our own lives?

John tells us, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Jesus pulls back. The people have seen the sign and misinterpreted it. Jesus did not come to set up an earthly kingdom, but to inaugurate God’s eternal reign.

Just after our reading for today, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” Jesus wants much more than to heal people who will later get sick again, or to feed people who will again hunger. Jesus wants to give them more. The something more Jesus offers is what these signs point to. Jesus tells them, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.”

That is what is on offer here beyond all the references to the satisfying of physical hunger and that is the challenge to you and I today.

As we continue reading through John’s gospel in the coming weeks, Jesus will draw out the lesson of how he is the Bread of Life and will further connect what he is doing to how God fed the people in the wilderness during the time of Moses. For now, we see that the crowd wanted Jesus to be their king. O.K. they had the wrong vision of Kingship. But we don’t today.

Who wouldn’t want a king who fed you spiritually and bodily? Who wouldn’t want a king who could heal both the body and the soul?

Who wouldn’t indeed?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What line

"You're well out of order!"
"He ain't done nothing."
"Fuck off man, Leave him alone."

Not bloody likely. He may not be the greatest threat I've ever seen, in fact he may not even be the greatest threat I'll see this evening. Some of the barstaff probably pose a greater threat and that's only because I let one rip in the staff room earlier.
He is however rather drunk and feeling a little too inhibited has decided it great fun to pinch girls, ladies and pigs in makeups back sides as they move past the end of the bar he and his tribe have occupied. I've watched him for a few minutes and he's grabbed a handful of arse from 15 or so girls. Some have turned and faced him, called him a cock or worse and moved on. Others have just jumped, reddened and shot back to their friends swiftly. He's been grinning like he's won the lottery throughout.
I wander over, aware that he's in with a gaggle of lads. I've got at least one pair of friendly eyes on me from my team mate. I approach all smiles and open posture. I get his attention with a slow hand on his upper arm. I make eye contact and tell him "It's time to go home."
He stares blankly, smile starting to falter. "I think you've had enough now sir, time to go home"
More blank staring, "The doors over there sir, time to get through it"
His eyes wander past me, no doubt another potential victim has drifted by out of range this time due to my presence.
Staring straight into his face, when his eyes return to mine I say for the final time. "Sir, you've had enough. Time to go home. Lets go now." I place my arm around his back, still keeping a fairly open stance and slowly apply my size to direct him away from the bar and his mates towards the door. A slow walk to the front door being the plan.
His mates finally clock the plot and then start the shouting. Yelling the daft requests over the racket of the music.
My colleague emerges from the background and with the numbers better balanced the slow shuffle to the front door begins. The shouting continues though not from the prime nugget, he's just very bemused by the slowly approaching front door.
Out in the quiet by the front door the cheer squad were still bitching. Time for some crowd control.
"Gents, He's had too much, he's acting like a muppet, he's upsetting other customers. It's time he went home. He's leaving!" That was intended to end the conversation. Making it quite clear it was time he was off and why.
"You're out of line, you fat prick!"
What line is there that thinks upsetting customers whilst being insensible through drink is acceptable. What line am I out of when I think it's time this drunk bloke needs to be gone. What line am I out of when he's being escorted gently and slowly out as he's not a nasty threatening bloke, just a drunken dick.
"You're leaving now as well sir."

Reflecting back

Now that the whole college experience is behind me I have been looking back in my journal at my thoughts and feelings as I got closer to starting.

Once I began to tell my friends that I was going to undertake ministry training I was surprised by their reaction. I had assumed that people would think I was joking or bonkers but there was none of that at all. My Christian friends were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and comments from other friends like Dick in the choir were quite common:

“Go for it. I think you’d make a good priest. (Pause) Only don’t expect me to start coming to church.”

Dick is a source of mystery to me in many ways. He is such a good musician that he is quite sought after and this has meant that as a choir member he has sat through more religious services than most people have had hot dinners but without noticeably absorbing any understanding of Christian teaching.

Gerard is another friend from the choir, a lapsed Roman Catholic with the unusual view that there is nothing wrong with the church, it is religion which has got it wrong. I still ponder that view from time to time. Gerard is my own personal agnostic and because, unlike Dick, he has an understanding of the issues and the language he has become a great sounding board. He was the first person outside the family I discussed my sense of calling with and I remember one long trip back from the BBC studios in Manchester when, in what seemed to me to be my heightened sense of sensory awareness, I filled him in with my news. I think I needed to hear myself say these things out loud and if I couldn’t explain myself to Gerard then I knew I would have problems elsewhere. It seemed to make sense to us both. Another small milestone passed.

I was told about a church committee who would want to meet with me at some stage. In the meantime we looked at training options.

As a consequence of these discussions I attended a taster evening at the ecumenical Northern Ordination Course in Mirfield, a course designed for part-time students. I went straight from school and the journey by car was about ten minutes. It really couldn’t be much more convenient. Every Wednesday evening for two years – two years because I am already a theology graduate, one week’s residential each Easter, seven residential weekends a year and fifteen hours of study a week. Am I completely mad?

It was a cold rainy evening when I arrived at the College of the Resurrection, the full-time theological college which hosts the Northern Ordination Course. This weather was not what we had been hoping for at this stage in the summer, and my spirits were low through lack of warmth and sunshine and as a result of a long hard term. The college grounds are beautiful and the place is a real haven of calm and tranquillity. I could envy the full-timers who studied here, but I have no desire to join them. The full-time route is not for me, nor the churchmanship of this full-time course.

I had a pleasant conversation with Revd. Stephen which I belatedly realised was an interview. Stephen told me that the course is pretty much for Anglicans and Methodists so it would be good to have my perspective which I though was most affirming. I filled in an application form with him and was then taken to the student’s common room where all three year groups were gathering before their teaching sessions started. I chatted with a very pleasant couple of students who put me at my ease and at about 6.45 we all went into a large room for notices and prayer and then split into teaching groups. The first year’s study of interpretation and use of scripture, and the second year’s study of Christian tradition did not particularly appeal much and I went with the final year students to their session on pastoral and practical theology. They were looking at counselling skills and how to give bad news. There was role play followed by discussion and analysis. As a qualified counsellor I felt on familiar ground. After half an hour I had lost the will to live and I mentally berated myself for this negativity.

At coffee, the point at which I had agreed with Stephen that I would leave, I sought out the session leader, thanked him and gave my apologies.

“Good.” he said. “We’re a bit short of seats.”

I went home deeply depressed.

That weekend Rachel and I were processing what happened at the college and my feelings about it. We looked at the course syllabus.

“I think my problem” I said “is that I have no great desire to duplicate theological study or skill development that I have already covered. At the same time I don’t want to appear like a know-all who thinks he doesn’t need to undertake further study.”

One of the big advantages of being married to a university careers advisor is that at times like these Rachel is very proactive. She was able to obtain a generic clergy job description from work and we went through that and the syllabus in a systematic way.

Something crystallised in my mind that had been bothering me since my interview. I had been told that I would only be required to take two years of the course in recognition of my theology degree. I could miss out either year one or year three. If I could drop either, what did that say about the nature of the content of both years – and indeed year two – in relation to my existing academic qualifications?

The Bishop subsequently met with me and told me that the committee did not now want to meet with me. However it would be helpful if I submitted a copy of the training needs analysis Rachel and I had done. “You know, I don’t think you need to do that course.” He told me. “Not with your experience and background. You can do a correspondence programme through Westfield House, the Lutheran College in Cambridge, and we can find a tutor at the university here to meet with you from time to time. I’ll put it to the committee”

This was the best news imaginable. I’m not James. I’m not thirty. This is a late vocation and two years duplicated study before ordination did not seem a good use of my time. Nor did it seem good for the church with its chronic shortage of ordained ministers. I was impressed that the Lutheran Church was prepared to be so flexible in its approach to training. Certainly the Anglicans don’t do such a tailor made individual programme to take the needs of each candidate into consideration.

What do they say about not counting your chickens?

The committee met and that evening I waited by the phone for the Bishop’s call. He didn’t ring. It must have been a long day.

The next evening I rang him.

“Hello, what can I do for you?” This surprised me. Had I made a calendar mistake?

“I was wondering if you had any news about the committee meeting.”

“Ah, yes. They found your documentation helpful and they want you to go on the Northern Ordination Course. I argued against that but they were adamant. They want to meet you at their next meeting in November.”

“I’ll already have been on the course for two months by then.”

“Yes. They will write to you about it formally”

It was odd to be thinking of undertaking training at this stage in my life after so long out of the practice of formal study and even odder trying to rationalise what was going on in my head so that I could discuss it sensibly with other people. I have to say that the innate laziness in me baulked at the idea of fitting any part-time study around my already busy life and the prospect of joining a course did not appeal at all but the church has systems and processes and won’t ordain any Tom, Dick or Harry just because he or she thinks they have God’s call. Ordination is not a right. It is both a calling and a gift and the churches must be as sure as they can that someone who believes they have that calling actually does have it.

I have heard many accounts of people who have firmly believed they have that call and the church has not recognised it. This is such a difficult area and I suppose in the end all we can say is that for all the checks and balances the selection processes are not foolproof and mistakes are made in both directions. There have been occasions when I have met clergy – only a small number, fortunately – when I have wondered how on earth they got through selection and I have met other people who have been turned down who seemed to me to be ideal candidates for the priesthood. Some of their personal testimonies of rejection are terribly moving and often show the church at its most pastorally inept. Of course rejection is not a concept we are encouraged to dwell on in these circumstances but it is absolutely clear that this is the reality for many folk and it is corrosive and destructive, working away as it does at an individual’s sense of self-worth and their understanding of themselves and their place in God’s scheme of things.

I have heard people talk of the freedom that came with the Bishop’s letter to put aside ideas of priesthood and be enabled to look instead at what else God might be calling them to in a real anticipation of a different kind of Christian service. Many such folk talk about a sense of a release as if from a burden and the discussion is often couched in terms of a test of faithfulness to God that they have come through with the Bishop’s “no” and that “no” is often a cause of quiet relief.

I have no statistics, merely anecdotal evidence over a long period but it seems to me that for everyone who felt positive about not being selected to go on to training and who was able to move on quickly there were many more who were devastated by the decision and who were paralysed emotionally and spiritually by the experience. For some it was so destructive that they were never fully able to recover. It is also my observation that the churches are very bad at the pastoral care and follow-up of such people: sometimes it hasn’t been the decision itself which has been so damaging but the way the decision was couched in terms of the feedback from the selectors. As one person told me: “I was quite sanguine about the decision that I should not proceed to training until I heard the selection panel’s feedback on me. I could not accept it. That was not me they were talking about. In fact to start with I thought there had been some awful administrative mistake and they had sent someone else’s report. Then it occurred to me that if I couldn’t accept the rationale on which the decision was made where did that leave me with the decision itself? I’d gone from being reasonably reconciled about it to being completely screwed up.”

I also had a friend, a senior civil servant, who told me of his period as an assessor on Anglican selection panels some years before. “I haven't got time to go in to what I thought of the procedures, but they were truly appalling and unprofessional. In a nutshell, they just did not want anyone "outside the box". They actually used that expression and then could not, or would not, explain to me what that meant - "you just know"! I asked them what professional advice they would expect from me, and basically it was to ensure the legality of their procedures (which was not surprising giving that they were breaking just about every employment law for fair selection).”

It was with this in mind that I had my conversations with the Bishop and the Pastors and subsequently with the committee who endorsed my candidature.

My first experiences of life on the Northern Ordination Course were not entirely positive. It would take some time for me to get over that taster evening but I had to remember not to let my lack of enthusiasm for study get in the way of the experience and so it was with some anticipation that I set off for the college one Sunday early in the autumn term for my induction afternoon.

The weather was lovely and my spirits were accordingly high as I stood in a nice garden chatting with the people who were my fellow students and who were to become my friends. We would be a small year group, a mere eighteen of us, and that would help the group dynamic. Seven would be taught at York on Monday evenings and eleven at Mirfield on Wednesday evenings. We would join together on our residentials. In situations like this, where I am meeting new people, I have a default position: I tend to listen a lot but say little myself. I like to observe and weigh people up. The early basis for conversation tended to be about something called a BAP. I had always understood this as being a Yorkshire variant on bread-cake but it became clear that what was being discussed was people’s experience of the Bishops’ Advisory Panel, or selection conference. I began to hear about who had been where and which diocese people were from. Some even recognised each other from the same conferences. It became increasingly apparent that I was the only non-Anglican and I began to dread the question “Where did you do your BAP?” as my selection process had been quite different as I duly discussed with an older Geordie gentleman. I certainly didn’t want to be the odd one out with these people from the outset of our knowing each other. That was inevitable, however, and we subsequently sat in a circle and introduced ourselves.

We were an interesting group. The age group seemed to be from the late thirties through to the early sixties and there were more women than men by about two to one.

More significantly, there was no-one I took an instant dislike to.

There were teachers, a lecturer, a computer technician, someone from Christian publishing, a youth worker, a retired salesman, an accountant, a mental health worker, a housewife, a banker, someone who had run the Falkland Islands, a children’s nurse plus one or two that I didn’t quite pin down and they ranged sartorially from dippy-hippy to dapper.

I found myself in conversation with a man I would guess was in his early forties. He had the most incredible eyebrows. He was very friendly and I liked him instinctively. I also liked the mental health worker: she had one of those laughs and I just knew that time spent with her would be time well spent.

Revd Stephen introduced us to the other staff which included the Revd. Ian, the course’s newly appointed Principal. How nice that we should start together and find our feet together. On to lunch in the company of one or two students from the years ahead of us, there to help us to settle in and so that we would have some familiar faces when teaching began that week.

All in all, a good experience. I was actually looking forward to being a theological student.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Face to Faith

The suffering on all sides of the homosexuality debate must be borne by the entire church

The Guardian 18th July 2009

The general convention of the Episcopal Church concluded its triennial meeting in Anaheim yesterday, and apparently succeeded in annoying Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham. In some circles this accomplishment in itself justifies the expense of lodging some 880 deputies, 150 bishops and thousands of visitors in hotels near Disneyland for 10 days.

Writing in the Times, Wright asserted that the Episcopal Church is seeking to perpetuate the schism it began six years ago in consecrating Gene Robinson, who lives in a civil union with his partner, Mark Andrew, as bishop of New Hampshire. This is not the case, but I am always grateful when Wright comments on my church. Those of us who argue in favour of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the Anglican communion and against the centralising agenda of Rowan Williams are in need of foils, and Wright, who seems to believe condescension is a charism, fits the bill perfectly.

Wright is among those who assert that the Episcopal Church's desire to move toward ecclesial equality for gay Christians increases the strain in the Anglican communion, in this case, to the breaking point. But this formulation assumes that gays and lesbians are not themselves part of the communion and that the rejection and demonising they have endured at Anglican hands somehow doesn't count.

Our church has not sought to increase the strain in the communion, but to redistribute it. The suffering on all sides of the debate over homosexuality must be borne by the entire church. Ideally, it would be borne by the entire communion in the form of generous pastoral discretion and respect for the discernment of individual provinces, but Williams and a majority of the primates have rejected this most Anglican of accommodations in favour of a single-issue magisterium on the issue of homosexuality.

Gradually, tentatively, the Episcopal Church has begun to push back. The result, in Anaheim, was a pair of resolutions that attempted to be firm yet conciliatory, recognising the need to move, but move slowly, in order to bring along as much of the church as possible. A resolution that touches obliquely on the consecration of gay bishops is best understood as a description of the conflicted state in which we find ourselves, and the tortuous road we took to get here. It recognises that gay and lesbian Christians are called to ministry in our church, notes that some people oppose their participation at certain levels, and makes clear that as we work through this issue, we aren't in a position to guarantee the outcome.

Members of the communion unhappy with this legislation will be even less pleased by a resolution that will allow bishops to practice pastoral generosity in dealing with gay couples who want their unions blessed. This same resolution also authorised the collection and development of "theological and liturgical resources" regarding the "holy unions" of same-sex couples. These "resources" could not be adopted by the church until 2012, at the earliest, but they might be deployed in dioceses in which the bishop is offering pastoral generosity.

In passing this legislation, the Episcopal Church asserts the false nature of the choice we are being offered by Williams and other leaders of the communion. It is not necessary to toe a narrow doctrinal line of the archbishop's choosing to enjoy deep fellowship in the Anglican communion. Fifteen primates, along with priests, theologians and lay leaders from around the communion, were with us in Anaheim. These relationships, parish to parish, diocese to diocese, are unlikely to founder whether we get invited to the next big Anglican purple party or not.

In short, we did not resolve the tensions either in our church or in the communion, but we learned better how to bear with one another as we attempt to discern the will of God. I'd like to think that is a contribution to the larger church.

Jim Naughton is the canon for communications and advancement at the Episcopal diocese of Washington

Friday, July 17, 2009

Read it and Weep. It should make you angry!

This is a report from Sarah, a friend of ours from Rachel’s church. It is the verbatim account from Hansard of a debate yesterday in the House of Commons regarding our friend Enid and her asylum application. I am sorry it is long but please stick with it.

Greg Mulholland (Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Leeds, North-West): First, I wish to thank Mr. Speaker for very graciously allowing this debate to take place, because I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the case of Enid Ruhango in the House. I truly hope that this debate will finally lead us to a just resolution of this matter.

I make it clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that at no point during this debate will I refer to any aspect of this case that is considered sub judice. I would not normally bring an individual asylum case before the House, but I do so today because this particular case is such a sorry saga of administrative incompetence, systematic failure and a worrying disregard for human rights. My objective today is simply to put the facts of this case on the record and highlight them to the Minister and his Department. It concerns a young woman who suffered great abuse in her home country and, I am sorry to say, at the hands of our own immigration system.

Enid Ruhango first came to see me in 2006. She was being supported by her friends in the community of the All Hallows church in my constituency. Before approaching me, Enid had sought and received assistance from the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), to whose work on this case at that time I pay tribute. I will never forget hearing Enid's story. Her description of what happened to her in Uganda was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to listen to in my life. She had experienced things that most of us could not imagine and certainly would not want to contemplate. She was clearly traumatised, yet she retained a quiet courage and dignity despite all that she had been through.

Enid Ruhango entered this country as long ago as 5 December 2003, having fled Uganda where she had been subjected to torture and rape at the hands of Ugandan forces. Enid claimed for asylum on 15 December 2003, but her claim was refused on 9 February 2004 on the grounds that she did not qualify under the 1951 United Nations convention on the status of refugees. On 30 April 2004, a further appeal was dismissed on both asylum and human rights grounds. In 2004, both Enid's original application for asylum and her appeal were refused on the same grounds.

On 17 May 2004, she was detained at Waterside court, in Leeds, and was transported from there to Yarl's Wood. At Waterside court, she was offered no food. In addition, she has a long-term condition for which she needs to take medicine, but she had no medication with her at that time. Someone was sent to her flat, but they did not find any medication and she was not provided with any replacement medication. Transport left at around 7 pm and arrived at Yarl's Wood around midnight. She was not told that she would need to go to the toilet before she left and, although the van stopped on the journey, she was not allowed out. She was given no food by the escorts on the journey, and staff at Yarl's Wood gave her none on arrival. She was alone all that time in the back of the van, which smelled of urine and faeces.

Enid was taken to the reception at Yarl's Wood around 7 am. Staff there gave her no food, though the van did not come for her until some time between noon and 2 pm on 18 May. Early in the morning, she had received tea and chocolate, but only from her room-mate. The transport arrived at Heathrow around 5.30 pm and Enid had to wait inside for a period. She asked to use a toilet and was refused; she was told that she would have to wait until she got on the plane. Again, she was given no food. Not surprisingly, Enid was highly distressed when escorts forcibly attempted to put her on board the plane and, as a result, airline staff refused to fly her to Uganda. She also reports that she received racial abuse from escorts, and that handcuffs were used in a way which resulted in cuts to the wrists-they left scars that are still visible.

In July 2005, in protest at the way they had been treated by the detention centre, Enid and her close friend Sophie Odogo-as well as several other women at Yarl's Wood-began a 38-day hunger strike. Enid's health deteriorated rapidly and she wrote to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, who wrote to the then Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), informing him that the women were on hunger strike and saying that this proved their desperation. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire also raised concerns about the quality of legal advice available to the women. In his detailed and substantial reply the Minister rebutted the suggestions of inadequate legal advice and ignored the information regarding the hunger strike.

Enid and her friend Sophie Odogo were both admitted to Bedford hospital, but only after they had ended their hunger strike and had started eating again. At no time during the hunger strike were they taken off the premises at Yarl's Wood.

In a letter dated 23 August 2005, the Immigration Minister stated that the Home Office took no account of the well-being of an individual once they had returned to their country of origin, and therefore the problems that Enid might have securing the medication for her condition when in Uganda were not a consideration in her appeal. On 17 October 2005, the Minister wrote again, saying:

"The doctors at Yarl's Wood assessed Ms Ruhango yesterday afternoon and concluded that there is no medical or psychiatric problem with her. She is eating and normally mobile."

Surely someone who has been in that situation cannot be considered to be in a state of physical and mental well-being. Both Enid and Sophie continued to be held at Yarl's Wood despite their medical problems. Sophie's condition deteriorated so badly that she was transferred to a secure mental health facility, and they were of course in no condition to be deported.

Enid complained that she was not receiving correct treatment for her condition and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire wrote again, voicing his concerns that Yarl's Wood did not seek second options from objective medical sources in the treatment of detainees.

On 7 December 2005, Enid's bail hearing was ordered for 10 am at Sheldon court in Birmingham. Transport left Yarl's Wood around 9 am. It did not go directly to Birmingham, but arrived at Colnbrook immigration removal centre around 12.30 pm. Only then were toilet facilities made available inside the building. Enid was taken to Birmingham, arriving between 3.30 and 4.30 pm, when the bail hearing had been fixed for 10 am. No food or toilet facilities were made available between Colnbrook and Birmingham. On the return journey to Yarl's Wood, Enid was supplied with Kentucky Fried Chicken-escorts had contacted Yarl's Wood, saying she had not eaten since the morning. She arrived back at Yarl's Wood around 6 pm.

As is well documented, the chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers launched an inquiry into health care at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in May 2005, after concerns were raised not only for the safety of Enid and Sophie but for that of the other women taking part in the hunger strike. The report refers to Enid as Ms B and Sophie as Ms A, and it states:

"The delivery of healthcare was undermined by a lack of needs assessment, weak clinical governance systems, and inadequate staff training in relation to trauma...When clinical concerns were raised, the information was not systematically addressed or actioned. Nor was independent medical opinion sought or adhered to...Towards the end of the hunger strike, they were probably being advised inappropriately to re-feed in Yarl's Wood. One seems to have been denied painkilling medication while on hunger strike."

I could go on. Those devastating criticisms of the procedures in Yarl's Wood completely undermine the assertions made in correspondence between me and the Home Office that Enid was in receipt of good care there. Moreover, health reports since then have shown that this is a woman suffering from psychological problems.

On 22 December 2006, Dr. Christina Pourgourides, a consultant psychiatrist, said of Enid:

"She is currently suffering from very significant mental health problems, namely post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive illness...She is at very substantial risk of a grave deterioration in her mental health, particularly if faced with the prospect of further detention and/or removal. Should this occur, I believer her to be a significant health risk."

Enid was eventually released from detention on 26 February 2006. Even though Yarl's Wood is supposed to be a temporary detention centre, she was there for nine months. Although both a Member of Parliament and a solicitor have raised concerns independently about the medical attention at Yarl's Wood, I do not feel that that has been taken into consideration in this case.

Throughout this time, I have had much correspondence with different Ministers on this issue, as has the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. In 2006, he wrote to make the point that Enid should be allowed to stay in the country because of her association with Sophie Odogo, who was then involved in a civil case and has now been granted leave to remain.

Enid's treatment in the asylum and immigration system has been a scandal. The Home Office continually changed the schedule according to which Enid had to report to the immigration centre between weekly and fortnightly, despite the fact that she and her supporters had provided psychological reports detailing the emotional damage that these increased visits were doing. When the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, took over responsibility for the case at the Home Office, my requests for a meeting about Enid's asylum case were repeatedly declined. Despite several requests, the Home Office has not altered its position.

In a letter that I wrote on 25 July 2006, I ensured that the Minister was aware of the damning verdict on the centre as detailed in the report by the chief inspector of prisons. I have written several times to express my frustration at the clear lack of progress since that appalling time at Yarl's Wood.

Enid made a fresh asylum and European convention on human rights claim on 9 May 2008 but, notwithstanding its complexity and obvious merit, the Home Office refused to treat it as a fresh claim and sought therefore to deny her a right of appeal. Two psychologists said that Enid was clearly not mentally fit to be deported, but it took the Home Office 11 days to reject those submissions, with no right of appeal. The Home Office quickly withdrew its refusal to accept them when Enid's lawyers called for judicial review-surely a sign that they knew their case was weak-and Enid's solicitors agreed to suspend their application for judicial review at the Home Office's request.

In 2008, the Home Office again ignored psychiatric reports and put Enid back on a weekly reporting schedule, causing her great distress. In March, an extraordinary series of events led to the cancellation, on the day, of an immigration hearing on the case. I made considerable effort to attend the hearing, as did several witnesses, including a consultant psychiatrist who travelled from Birmingham and a witness who travelled from Bedford, as well as the barrister and solicitor, who travelled from London. On the very day, however, the Home Office withdrew the procedure, which frankly beggars belief given that everyone was already in place. I wrote to the Home Office asking for the costs of the cancellation, but I still have not had a response. That, I am afraid, epitomises the way this case has been handled.

Let us consider the history of this case. It beggars belief that no one at the Home Office reviewed the decision before the hearing on 30 March. Responsibility for the farce of withdrawing the hearing on the day lies entirely with the Home Office. Again, it caused enormous distress to an already traumatised woman. Then the Home Office agreed to make a new decision in 10 working days; it did not keep to that deadline, but it did then decide to refuse asylum and grant discretionary leave to remain for six months. That, frankly, was particularly cruel, because, given that leave was granted for less than six months, it meant that Enid had no right of appeal-the cruellest twist in this cruel case and the end, effectively, of her asylum claim.

I have raised this matter in the House on several occasions, but never received a satisfactory reply. I have written numerous times to Ministers, and before that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire did so. Most recently, I raised the case in this House with the Minister for Borders and Immigration, the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who reassured me that the Government were looking into the case. Again, however, I have heard nothing since.

I appreciate the opportunity to put the facts of this shameful case on the record, and I hope that the Minister will consider it in its entirety. I shall assist him in doing so and will happily meet him and his colleagues, if they so wish. The simple reality is that this woman, who was terrorised in her home country of Uganda, has been let down in the United Kingdom. Enid's only family now are her friends and the community in Leeds and, in particular, at All Hallows church. The handling of this case, and the treatment of Enid Ruhango by our immigration system, is a stain on the reputation of this country as a bastion of democracy and a haven from political persecution. It is surely time to let her get on with her life-a life so damaged-which has now, in this country, been in limbo for such a long time.

Will the Minister, or his colleague the Minister for Borders and Immigration, look into this case and intervene personally, not just out of compassion-one could hardly not feel that listening to the facts-but out of a clear sense of the need to right the wrongs done to this woman in the name of his Department? I implore him and his ministerial colleague to intervene and finally bring this sorry saga to the only just conclusion and to fulfil the manifest moral responsibility to end Enid's years of suffering by finally granting her indefinite leave to remain in this country. After so many years, and after so much failure and suffering for Enid in our immigration system, anything less would be an insult to justice.
6.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this debate. He is continuing his long interest in this case and the wider issues that it raises. He sought, as is his right as a Member of this House, to put his concerns on the record, and he has done that in a forceful but measured way. I want to try to respond to some of the specific points put to me, but he will be aware that it is not the policy of the Government to discuss individual cases, especially when they are the subject of ongoing legal proceedings, as they are in this case.

The wider context is that the Government are delivering the biggest shake-up of the immigration system in a generation, and are transforming the asylum system. The Government proudly maintain the United Kingdom's tradition of providing protection to individuals who are found to be at risk of persecution or ill-treatment if they return to their home countries. To honour those obligations, the UK Border Agency has established an entirely new process for managing asylum applicants. Case ownership has improved the asylum process by giving responsibility for concluding consideration of applications to one person. That has created a strong incentive for cases to be concluded by giving case owners clear targets to work towards. Trained caseworkers in UKBA carefully consider all asylum and human rights claims on their individual merits, in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention and the European convention on human rights.

All applications are considered against the background of the latest available country information and after full consideration of all the evidence provided. By the end of last year, as a result of those new processes, 60 per cent. of new applicants were granted permission to remain or removed within six months. By comparison, in 1997 it took an average of 22 months just to take an initial decision on asylum applications. We are succeeding in our goal of handling applications faster. That helps those who need our protection to integrate quickly into our communities, and it means that those who do not need that protection know quickly that they should leave. Asylum intake has remained broadly at the same level for the past four years, and it is less than a third of the level at which it peaked in 2002.

Last year, around 30 per cent. of the applications for asylum that were considered resulted in some kind of protection being granted in the first instance. Each of the applicants who were refused had a right of appeal to independent courts. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal hears and decides such appeals, and it is for judges in the tribunal to decide the remit of the appeal hearing. The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about the use of immigration detention in the case that he described. Again, I must stress that there are ongoing legal proceedings on that matter, and I do not want to prejudice those in any way. However, I can talk about the wider issue.

John Battle (Labour M.P. for Leeds, West): I understand that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister. We should be grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) for the way in which he raised the issue, and for the facts that he has put on the table. I represent the reception centre for the whole of west Yorkshire-it is in my neighbourhood-and Waterside court. I probably see 100 or more asylum seekers a month, and have done for years. I have to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there has been a lack of care-indeed, a neglect of the duty of care-at Yarl's Wood. On Enid's case, may I offer her and the hon. Gentleman a word of support? She has tremendous support and there is strong, personal, in-depth solidarity with her in the local community. Will the Minister assure us that he will not let the case lie in a Department in-tray, and not let it be backlogged in a legal procedure, but will instead seriously get his Department to look at her case again, from tonight?

Mr. Campbell: As ever, my right hon. Friend makes a powerful case and speaks up for his local community. He will appreciate, I am sure, that there are legal processes at work. I cannot comment on specifics, but his remarks are on the record, and I assure him that they have been heard.

UKBA has 11 immigration removal centres. They provide 3,000 bed spaces, which are predominantly for individuals who are awaiting removal, or whose applications are being processed under the detained fast-track arrangements. Let me make it clear that no one likes to use detention, but it is an essential part of the Government's commitment to operate a firm but fair immigration and asylum policy, as it assists us in removing those who do not qualify for leave to remain here and who refuse to leave the UK voluntarily, or who would otherwise abscond. The use of immigration detention is always a last resort, but if people refuse to go home, detention becomes a necessity.

Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre has just over 400 bed spaces: about 280 are designated for single females, and about 120 are family bed spaces. The centre has full-time independent social workers and a range of trained experts to monitor welfare 24 hours a day, and it has been praised on numerous occasions for its facilities. In fact, Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons has recently praised it for the "significant progress" that has been made.

Greg Mulholland: I am very pleased to hear that there have been improvements since the damning report. That news is extremely welcome and hugely important, but this case is about historical failures. It is wonderful that things have improved, but, to echo the comments of my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), I must ask, will the Minister please assure me that he will consider the issue in its entirety? The best asylum and immigration system in the world will still get things wrong sometimes.

Mr. Campbell: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my comments to some extent. I am aware of the time scale involved, but I think that it is important to put the issue in context and to address some of his criticisms of the system by saying that lessons have been learned from the inspector's report and that changes have been made. The hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) have put on the record the need to proceed with the matter expeditiously, quickly and properly, and to see it in the round; and, as I keep repeating, there are legal proceedings to address those requirements.

The hon. Gentleman's concerns do not just relate to the use of immigration detention and the facilities at Yarl's Wood, but to the treatment of those people arriving at Yarl's Wood who claim to have been the victim of torture. At Yarl's Wood, there is an on-site dedicated health care centre with a small in-patient facility. I know that Medical Justice raised concerns about Yarl's Wood in 2005, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, UKBA commissioned the chief inspector of prisons to undertake a review of its provision of health care services. The chief inspector made 48 recommendations, of which 38 were accepted, eight were accepted in principle or in part and two were rejected. The health care team that residents can now access is made up of GPs, general nurses, mental health nurses, health visitors, midwives, dentists, counsellors and allied health care professionals and consultants. There are 14 full-time and two part-time nurses at the centre, and a bank of seven can be called upon, if required, in an emergency.

UKBA's policy is clear and consistent with the detention centre rules of 2001, which require that, unless the detainee refuses, they should be given a physical and mental examination by a medical practitioner within 24 hours of their admission to the detention centre. When there are concerns or allegations that the detainees have previously been the victims of torture, health care staff are required to report such cases to the centre manager, and those reports are passed to the office responsible for managing and/or reviewing the individual's detention. In the light of the information in the report, case workers must then review the individual's continued detention and respond to the centre within two working days of receipt of the report. It is important to note that anyone detained under immigration powers can apply for bail at any time. The courts then consider whether detention is appropriate.

The issues that have been raised this evening are serious and complex. I assure the hon. Gentleman that UKBA is dealing with the case in line with its procedures, and that his constituent will be allowed to remain in the United Kingdom to conclude her ongoing litigation.

Sarah adds: Greg was also really appreciative that some of us were able to be there. He was a bit nervous before the speech and asked us to pray with him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Our Big Day Out.

Between showers from the cable-car.

Today I could dress-down for school. Today was the day when everyone went out on the end of year trip. My Year Group were going to Flamingo Land: eight coachloads of over-excited fourteen year olds and their teachers and support staff off to a theme park in North Yorkshire. In the rain.

I am not really a Form Tutor. My role is as acting tutor and I cover long-term absence: Mrs Kazmi left at Christmas and I have had her form for the rest of the year. "They're not my form. They're Mrs. Kazmi's. I am just looking after them until they get a replacement tutor." became my mantra, particularly in the presence of senior management just in case they got any silly ideas. I still had them for longer than Mrs. Kazmi ever did. I have grown to quite like them - well most of them anyway. Not so much that I was cut up when in some administrative error I was put on a different coach to them, however. They got the Headteacher.

I was on the same coach as Shakir which was a good omen for the day. For him too. When I am with him people are less likely to think he is a suicide bomber. Its the beard. And the brown skin, obviously. He is leaving at the end of the week and is going to teach at an international school in Saudi Arabia.

"Is it true you're going to re-hab, Sir?"


"I heard you were leaving to go to re-hab."

"No. I'm going to Riyadh."

Thanks for your unstinting service. Have a day out with your form at Flamingo Land.

"Sir, did you know that Susan Boyle has been recruited to the war against terror? Once the terrorists realise she's a virgin they'll be less likely to be suicide bombers."

"Thank you Alex. Put your seat belt on. Over your mouth."

As we left the car park we passed by the room where those who were not to be trusted on a rewards trip were under house arrest. Shakir and I just managed to conceal our glee as we espied all the usual suspects pretending that they didn't care about not going out for the day. Some of the kids in front of us on the coach were less inhibited, making "Knob-head" signs. We felt they had a point so we decided not to remonstrate with them.

"Has Mr. Brocklesby been naughty then? Only he's got to stay with them."

"It's O.K. He has a set of science weights."

Aren't teenagers a joy to travel with?

"Are we here?"

"Yes, we're definately here."

"Is it going to rain all day?"

"I don't know."

"You're a teacher. You're supposed to know. Look it up on your laptop."

"Oh silly me. I forgot to pack it with my cagool and sandwiches."

"I can look it up on my mobile phone Sir. What's the web address?"


"I can't find it."

"Read it back to me."


There is a lull. Someone decides to play music on their phone.

"Do you have anything with a tune?"

"Is that it?"

"No. That's an electricity pylon."

"I feel sick."

"Don't give her a bin bag. Put her in it and tie it up."

"Are we there yet?"


"No we aren't."

"Then why ask?"

"Is this it?"

"No. These are roadworks. We've driven for an hour to drive over bumpy ground to give you the impression of a white-knuckle ride. We're going home now."

"Is that it?"

"No. That's a grain silo."

"There aren't any buildings."

"This is called the countryside. You see those things over there?"


"They're called trees. And those black and white things standing in that field: they're beefburgers at an earlier stage."

We overtake a coachload of pensioners.

"Are they going to Flamingo Land Sir?"

"Yes. There's a new white-knuckle ride. It's called the Mobility Scooter drop."

"Is there?"

I doze for a while.

"Is this it?"


"No. stop messing about."

"No. Actually it is. The clues are the big sign that says Welcome to Flamingo Land and the car park with forty coaches in it."

Mr Delaney starts to count the pupils.

"Shouldn't you have done that before we sat out?"

"It's for the tickets numb-nut."

We stood in line as he dished out the tickets.

"Hang on. I've got one left over."

"How many did you get?"

"Thirty two."

"There are thirty one on the coach. Numb nut yourself."

"What do I do with this then?"

"See you."

We filed out and into the theme park and Shakir and I headed to the far end of the park and a nice cafe for the biggest chocolate muffin ever and a coffee, served with little enthusiasm by a young lady from Slovakia.

"Can we sit outside?"

"Eet rain."

"Not at the moment."

"I haf to whip taybel." Only she didn't so we sat inside and watched the world go by. This involved a ringside seat at the newest ride (no, not the mobility scooter drop) but the Mumbo Jumbo. (Big Fanfare.) This has "the most extreme drop in roller coaster history, followed by a host of twists, spins and turns."


Personally, I'd rather lick my own armpits but our lot seemed happy to queue for three weeks for a two minute ride.

I suppose once you've done one theme park you've done them all.

It's not exactly Disneyland.

Still we wandered around the zoo area and had a good laugh at the Meercats, found the two semi-submerged blobs that are rumoured to be Hippos deeply disappointing, were turned off by that red arse-thing that Baboons have going on, fell in love with the Giraffes, failed to see any Lions, watched the Emus steaming after the rain and had a very close encounter with a Tiger.

One wonders whether they should be quite so free-range.

Satisfied by this we decided to risk the little train thing that skirts the park. White-knuckle it was not but it got us from a-b and then we came back again on the monorail and once more on the cable car. This, we felt, would enable us to answer in the affirmative when our kids asked us if we'd been on anything.

And then one of those showers we'd been warned of hit. Actually it was the monsoon.

"I think this is now officially a disaster." Shakir said as we sheltered under an awning and I ate a portion of chips and he ate a Philadelphia cream-cheese sandwich. ("We've not been to Tescos yet") I wouldn't say it was a long shower but we both felt able to sing the irritating tune that was piped out into the Muddy Duck Farm area for the rest of the day. Indeed, I am humming it it as I type.

We took shelter in the reptile house. This was surprisingly interesting and we came across snakes, frogs, gekkos, skinks and lizards in all shapes and sizes. I was particularly impressed by the snake that some people in some foreign place keep as house pets to keep the rodent population down. The information point helpfully told us they were docile. It didn't, however, say whether or not they were poisonous. I didn't feel one could take it for granted.

It isn't a huge theme park and we soon got the measure of it bumping into groups of kids (high on adrenalin and e-numbers) and pairs of staff as we went.

All too soon the unalloyed joy came to an end and we were back on the coaches. There was much comparing of notes. "Did you go on.....?"

"Did you see that girl being sick. It was awesome!"

"Let's play a game to pass the time."

"No, please, let's not."

"I spy with my little eye something beginning with A. D'ya give in? D'ya? D'ya? Air. Hahahaha. I win. My turn again."

"How about a game of "My shopping basket?"

"If I must."

"In my shopping basket I've got..." And in turn each participant adds something to the list while remembering and reciting all the items which preceded it in order.

"In my shopping basket I have got a pair of flip flops, hair extensions, a pair of socks, a pair of shoes, a takeaway curry, a car, a private jet...."

"You missed out the lemur, the lion, the mars bar and the hamburger."

"Look. The lion ate the lemur and I ate the mars bar and the hamburger. I win. Right?"

"Mr. Laher said you were on songs of Praise." Shakir seems suddenly absorbed by something out of the window."

I smile at him. "You're going to die."

And we never saw a flamingo all day.

Monday, July 13, 2009

In your home

In pubs and clubs I often wonder what the home life of some customers is like. Do the "blingin' gangsta" wannabe boys walk, talk and swagger like that when their mum's made their dinner and is ironing their overlong T-shirt?
Do the loud, singing swearing, threatening, football following types terrorising the whole pub and being crude and abusive to the staff in equal large measures speak to their wives, children or co-workers like that?
Do the skinny, shaven headed chav lads and lasses spit on the floor in their own homes?
I know a pub or club isn't a family or home setting but it's an environment people work in, some people like to have respect for it. If I see spitting on the floor/walls or abuse to staff, offensive behaviour of many kinds I generally advise the punter to make a swift exit. Most seem sorry and unsurprised at their unexpected departure. I think when they actually interact with people they remember they're part of the same species, locality and social group.
Most do. Some do not and have their own impenetrable ego so firmly established that only the swift removal of their drinks and their ejection into fresh air of the night illustrates the point to them in terms they can understand. Whether they bother to take it on is another whole matter.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Curious Incident of the Teacher and the Charge of Attempted Murder.

British newspapers (and the Daily Mail) have been full of this incident over the last few days. It seems that on Wednesday of last week Peter Harvey, a 49 year old science teacher recently back at work after recovering from a stroke or stress, depending on which account you read, assaulted a fourteen year old boy called Jack Waterhouse at All Saints' Roman Catholic School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. The assault, which involved two other children, left the pupil unconscious in a pool of blood and with a fractured skull as the result of being hit with science weights.

On the radio one broadcaster concluded the news item with the comment "We send our children to school with the expectation that they will be safe."

Now, call me a cynical old teacher (27 years service) but I also think we send our children to school with the expectation that they will behave themselves appropriately.

What has been interesting about this case is that since Peter Harvey has been in custody the pupils of his school have been out in force SUPPORTING him, even taking cards to the police station where he has been held. I doubt this is the outcome that the media, who are very good at bashing teachers, expected.

My colleagues and I were discussing this on Friday and the general consensus - all speculation I may add - is that the poor man lost it and lost it big time. This led on to a conversation about why a much respected teacher would do that in a moment of madness he will surely regret for the rest of his life. We could all (a totally unscientific survey) to a man and woman recount situations when we have come close to losing it big time: the boy who squares up to a teacher, the girl who screams "Fucking Cunt" repeatedly when her make-up is confiscated, the herd mentality which causes kids to stand passively by while a fight takes place, or, worse, to egg the participants on while chanting "Fight, Fight", the parent who threatens to call the police because you have used your poiny finger on their child, the boy who screams into the face of a teacher who had remonstrated about his behaviour. All these, by the way, are examples from my own school in the last term and the school photos of each child suggest a little angel in whose mouth butter would not melt.

Now I would not wish to suggest that physical assault is in any way acceptable but I do wonder what planet some of our political leaders inhabit if they are not aware of the huge underlying problem of pupil behaviour in schools. Respect is increasingly a thing of the past; low level disruption, chellenging behaviour, the barrack-room lawyer mentality and levels of disaffection are all on the increase. In addition, it is virtually impossible to permenantly suspend a pupil: schools incur a three figure financial penalty for every child they manage to get through the levels of red-tape and remedial support schemes to exclusion. That child has then by law to be picked up by another school. We have one such recent admission and he is a nightmare. The problem is not solved, merely moved, the original school is financially worse off into the bargain and the new school will in all likelihood go through the same process. Perhaps the case of poor Mr. Harvey might just cause our leaders to pause and ask some searching questions about what is happening in schools.

Please pray for Jack Waterhouse and his family.

I shall be praying for Peter Harvey and his. There but for the grace of God.....

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Thought for the Day: G8, Christianity and Climate Change.

BBC Radio 4, 8th July 2009

In the place where the earth quaked to devastating effect the leaders of the world's richest nations will meet today for the G8 Summit in L'Aquila. Global recession and climate change will be on the agenda. And tonight here in London the Prince of Wales will give the Dimbleby Lecture. He too will be addressing global problems.

Over in Italy at the G8 Summit President Obama will be leading the session on Copenhagen. Unless America comes to the table with serious proposals the deal will not be worth the laptop it's printed from.

But it's what's happening in the Republican party in America that's so vital. The President's People know that whatever deal they strike in Copenhagen has got to get through the Senate - and it's there they need Republican votes to get a majority.

So cut to Washington, a week ago today and more specifically to the Washington Post and an article about the President's Climate Bill.It was a story about how 8 Republicans in the House of Representatives had voted for the President's proposals on climate change.

But that's not why the story's so big. The author of the article which ends by commending their action as "admirable" was none other than Mike Gerson, once President Bush's Chief Speech Writer.

His conversion to the realities of climate change and the need to save the rainforests show a major shift and rift in the Republican Party. Crucial, if President Obama is to get Copenhagen through Congress.

Mike Gerson is known not just as one of the conservative intellectuals but as a person of deep religious conviction.

For him as for all Christians the earth is sacred, for according to the New Testament, it has come into being 'through and for Christ'.

To see the planet desecrated is to behold the undoing of God's creation, which is why it's not just a political but a moral and theological issue.

There's a famous Liverpool poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. In a poem called "Binsey Poplars" he laments the wanton felling of trees. It's almost an ode to the destruction of our forests and our changing climate.

"O if we but knew what we do when we delve or hew - Hack and rack the growing green!"

Well, over a hundered years later we do now know! And it would be good for the earth if the G8 leaders in L'Aquila knew it too!

The Rt Rev. James Jones

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thought for the Day: St. Paul's Cathedral, Artwork and contemplation

BBC Radio 4: July 9th

The contemporary artist Bill Viola was on this programme yesterday, speaking about his latest project that involves installing several large plasma video screens at St Paul's Cathedral. Down one side of Wren's great masterpiece, these screens will play images of the Virgin Mary, and down the other, images of martyrdom.

In his interview with Bill Viola, John Humphreys seemed a little sniffy about the whole idea - and I suspect he won't be alone. I imagine quite a few people will think it inappropriate to have all this technological wizardry in such a beautiful house of prayer.

Perhaps this lack of ease originates in the association that screens have with noisy video games or fast moving action movies. But the thing is, Bill Viola's work could hardly be more different. For in Viola's fantastically moody videos, things often happen very very slowly indeed. Sometimes the image looks motionless - or just makes the slightest of movements, giving the impression of an even greater stillness than a fixed image ever could. In his work Reflecting Pool Viola invites us to sit for several minutes and watch the ripples and reflections in a pond.

In other words, Bill Viola demands that we give him our time. Which means that impatient people like me - who have the ability to skip through a traditional art gallery in ten minutes, often looking out for little more the next picture I recognise - are forced to stop and wait and watch and take their time. And that is exactly what a place like St Paul's Cathedral has been trying to get people to do for centuries.

Outside the cathedral, the city of London races on at a thousand miles an hour, with banks making millions of trades a minute. Inside the cathedral, people are led along by the completely different rhythms of matins and choral evensong. Here is time to think and be still.

This is why, in my view, Bill Viola's artworks are entirely appropriate for the cathedral. For Viola does not feed the impatient ego, forever greedy for the next new experience or the next glittering distraction. Rather, his work takes its lead from the wisdom of contemplative prayer where many have discovered in the discipline of silence profound sources of human nourishment that can shape our lives. We are often only aware of these when we remove ourselves from the maelstrom of perpetual forward motion where the big questions of life are easily and conveniently dodged. And I wonder if - amidst all this current talk of regulating banks and financial controls - the very simple proposition that we ought to slow things down a bit might actually have a far greater impact on our destructive boom and bust philosophy than any government legislation could ever hope to have.

Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thought For The Day: The Human Face of "The Axis of Evil"

From BBC Radio 4, 2nd July:

The columnist Jonathan Freedland, writing about the recent riots and upheavals in Iran, made a very interesting observation in yesterday's Guardian. "Seven years ago" he wrote "Bush cast Iran as the axis of evil, a faraway, abstract place clothed in black and bent on destruction. Now the world's people have seen that Iranians have a human face." Freedland goes on to argue that, having seen the human face of the Iranian people, the old style belligerence of the United States has become all but impossible.

This connection between moral obligation and the human face is one that was extensively explored by that great twentieth century philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas. Famously, Levinas argued that: "To see a face is already to hear: 'Thou shalt not kill." For Levinas, the concrete human encounter with the face of the other is the basis for all moral obligation. Simply put, in its nakedness and vulnerability, the human face cries out not be be harmed.

It might be assumed that behind Levinas's moral philosophy is that thought that the face of the other introduces moral responsibility because it reveals that the other is, at base, just like us. That, in terms of Freedland's article, a war between Iran and the US is less likely because the US people now recognize how much they have in common with the people of Iran. This may be Freedland's point, but it's not what Levinas is saying.

On the contrary, Levinas argues that the face of the other is indeed other, that it has an irreducible mystery, a certain something that cannot be collapsed back to me or stuff about me. Too much of the time, Levinas argues, we try to reduce uncomfortable difference back into things that we understand and feel comfortable with, forever translating difference into familiar sameness. In the Bible our moral obligations are supremely to the stranger, to the person who is different to me. What is so challenging about Levinas is that he demands we take seriously the sheer otherness of the other.

And indeed, for Levinas, this is just as important when thinking about God. For with God we are constantly seeking to retranslate God's otherness back into comfortable immanence, making God all about me and my life. But the inscrutible God who appears in the burning bush or the cloudy mountain top ought not to be so easily requisitioned by my own needs. Against the tide of popular assumptions for which everything is returned to the familiar, always defined in terms that centre my culture and my understanding, Levinas posits the enigmatic and the mysterious, the genuinely different and supremely other. This is the face of the stranger. And this is the face that cries out and pleads: 'do not harm me'.

Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser

Monday, July 6, 2009


This last sweaty week has been timed to coincide with the students finishing exams and A level students finishing their exams. Its meant all day drinking with a clubbing finish, sunshine, cider and alcopops. Sweat, beer and dancing all leading to an awful lot of drunken tomfoolery. It's the last time they'll be in so we have to keep an eye on anything not screwed down and somethings that are from wandering past us at the front door. There are old scores to settle. There are old girlfriends, old boyfriends to clear the air with. So amongst the very drunk and the very sweaty we've had domestics and scuffles and just folks causing havoc. All on nights too damn hot to be stuffed into a club with hundreds of sweaty students. Too hot to sleep during the day and too light to sleep well in the mornings.
I'm bloody glad that the heavens have opened and I'm not going to be boil in the bag again this week.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Today is the day when the Church of England ordains its Deacons. Please pray for those who are to be ordained today, especially the other leavers from the Yorkshire Ministry Course.

Rachel and I will be in Sheffield Cathedral this evening to celebrate with my dear friends Hilda and Dr. Bob (real name Richard).

As the ordinations are on the same day, sadly I can't get to Bradford Wakefield and York to celebrate with my other friends.

One day this may be me.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Internal Dialogue

I was looking back in my writings and found some notes I had made when I was getting to grips with the idea of vocation. This seems to be a good time to dust it off.

God wants me to be a priest. (Well I’m pretty sure he does anyway.) I know! Me! Of all people!

Right. Two things on that. Firstly you may want to consider how you express that to other people if you want to avoid the men in white coats being sent for and secondly, we’ve been here before haven’t we?

Yes we have, at various stages throughout my adult life. But that’s the point. It won’t go away.

So … what… you’ve heard voices? What did I say about men in white coats?

Don’t start.

So how have you heard this call if not through voices?

Well not voices in my head certainly: it’s been a long standing feeling that asserts itself now and then and demands that I pay attention to it. Sometimes it comes through the things that others say in conversation or through hearing a sermon – very much so this time, through my own private devotional time and ... erm … oh dear … erm … through dreams.


Look, I’d really rather not overstate this one, O.K. They were just part of a whole wider thing.

So let’s just consider what happened last time you felt this call.

I know. It came to nothing. Perhaps the timing wasn’t God’s timing: but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a call. Maybe that’s why it seems so insistent now.

And the times before that?

I think those times were preparatory nudges. It was first mentioned when I was twenty for goodness sake: no-one becomes a priest in their twenties. Well hardly anyone. And the other times … well, I don’t think I was in the right place, spiritually, emotionally, geographically … I’m not even in the same denomination as I was then.

So you rationalised those nudges away?


But you’re taking this one seriously?

I think I may have run out of excuses.

And you think you have what it takes?

I don’t know. What does it take? I’ve been a committed Christian for thirty five years or so. I’ve been around more clergy in one guise or another than I care to remember all my adult life and I’ve discerned no particular model. Do I have what it takes? Other people have seemed to think so and in the end it’s not down to me is it?

So what do you think you have to offer?

Well, I’m a Theology graduate, a qualified teacher and a qualified counsellor. I’ve had up-front leadership roles in the church for years and I am a licensed Lay Minister: you’d think that was a good starting point wouldn’t you? But it’s not like I can pop down the careers office is it? It’s not a job like other jobs. “Good morning. Got any leaflets on vicaring?” You don’t choose it. It chooses you. Who in their right mind would choose it anyway – other than masochists obviously? It’s not exactly a career choice. It doesn’t offer great pay and prospects with high status and lots of fringe benefits. If anything it’s really counter-cultural in that respect. Long hours, low status and low pay. You may even not get paid at all with the way church finances are these days and have to carry in your other job to pay your way. Yippee. Bring it on.

You’re not exactly selling it.

Sorry. You see I’m trying to use unchurchy language here which isn’t easy. My clergy friends talk about mission and ministry and service and despite what I just said there is the privilege of working with God. It has to be awesome in every sense surely? I see priesthood as being with people; being an advocate for them and seeing God in them while desperately hoping that they see God in me. I just have a problem with unpacking mission and ministry and service and really hope they don’t encompass the sugary and lobotomised “Just come to Jesus” approach, the aggressive evangelism which says “Well I’ve done my bit. I’ve told you about Jesus. You’re going to die in your sins so don’t blame me.” or the “It’s in the Bible so you’d better believe it.” style because I think they are all basically signs of inauthentic religion and I’d rather lick my own armpits than buy into any of that.

That’s not very pious.

I don’t do pious. It’s not in my repertoire – not unless I’m messing about anyway. I’m too pragmatic for that. My feet are firmly on the ground and my head is nowhere near the clouds. For goodness sake I’m an Enneagram profile four which if you apply it to Biblical characters puts me fairly and squarely (and unsurprisingly) in Thomas’s camp.

Anyway, you don’t like Christians. You’re always telling people that.

That’s not strictly true. I have a love-hate relationship with the church but that’s true of most people I know. As for Christians they are a hard group not to make generalisations about or stereotype. I do have a thing about “Not in my name” when I rant about the nutters on the fringes who do mad things. You know: Dickheads for Jesus, that sort of thing. In the end I don’t think people take enough notice of personality types and churchmanship. I was never destined to be a Pentecostalist or a Creationist because my brain just doesn’t work that way. Anyway, I have to say I sometimes wonder what “Christian” means when I see so many poor role models and interdenominational bad-tempered exchanges. Take the Phelps clan in Topeka. Am I supposed to call them Christian and if I do am I not tarred with the same brush for calling myself a Christian too?

So what will you do about this calling?

I have no choice. I have to follow it up or I’ll never have peace.

Are you sure you’re up for this? For the emotional turmoil; the possibility of rejection; the disruption to your family, professional and social lives; the additional study; people perceiving you differently ….?

Am I sure? No, given a free choice I wouldn’t want any of those things but I don’t feel I have a free choice. I have to follow it up. It isn’t going away. Things will never be the same again.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Prayer Request

The Examinations Committee meets tomorrow. One of the things it will discuss is my progression to the next stage. It will look at references and reports and at the essay task it gave me.

Your prayers would be appreciated.