Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Building community online

One of the most distinctive elements about the Busan Assembly for me so far has been the amount of time and effort that has been put in by those coordinating the youth PreAssembly to building community in advance of the event through social media and online conferencing. I guess it should really go without saying that this is something new, after all it's easy for those of us who've been relatively early adopters of things like facebook and twitter, and used them for a large part of our lives, to forget how recent this sort of technology is. However, it has been wonderful to be able to share stories and have discussions on facebook with people we will be meeting in person in Busan. It has also meant that we have been able to do something like planning the prayers without ever meeting in person. The group involved has been spread across Europe, Africa and Asia and yet we have all had the chance to speak together and contribute without the time and expense of travelling to one place to meet for a week.

The thing which has been newest for me though has been the "webinars" (as you can probably work out easily enough, this is an online seminar). These have lasted around 90 minutes with two or three presenters giving presentations and then a question and answer sessions. Presenters can share their screen to show powerpoints, attendees can "raise their hand" virtually to let the moderator know they want to ask a question, and the moderator has control over which screens or microphones are on at any point (I've added a picture below of the style of software although it's not exactly identical).


This has given an opportunity to hear and see people as well as just read their comments on facebook and has really enriched the feeling of community as one of shared learning and discussion. Before big conferences such as this it is easy to get completely lost under a pile of documents you have to read, where you have no idea what to prioritise, or any real background for some of them. So these webinars have been a great chance for youth delegates to hear from experts in a wide range of areas and then to be able to ask questions and discuss issues which have come up. We have been really privileged to have top presenters from churches and humanitarian agencies across the world who have generously given their time. This style of informal learning is something I am very familiar with through Church of Scotland youth gatherings and I have always felt that it has made a huge difference to the level of engagement in the more formal discussions later on and allows a far greater number of people to engage. People would often comment on how well prepared youth delegates are at our General Assembly and I hope this is shown in Busan too. It also gives you a chance to spread out your preparation because you know that in two days time there will be a webinar on the document "The Church: Towards a Common Vision", rather than knowing that in the next month you have to prepare twenty of thirty documents.

There is perhaps one concern about building a community online though and that is whether there is a danger of "technological imperialism". There are always people left on the margins in any community and the ecumenical movement has made huge progress in recent years to make sure that groups who have historically been lacking a voice in discussions, such as women and those from the "global South", are fully included. I got extremely frustrated at the WCRC Assembly in 2010 that almost every time someone from one of these groups stood up to speak it seemed to be to complain about their lack of a voice. While that was obviously true historically and possibly still true in other forums, what they didn't realise was they had a voice now but they weren't using it effectively. However, there is a danger that the online tools we are using are ones that are pervasive in some parts of the world but not others. There are issues of how accessible technology is for poorer people, not just in far flung parts of the world but also in rural and deprived areas in Europe and North America. Using facebook as a primary means of networking makes sense in these same places where there is an extraordinarily high proportion of the population who are part of it, but what about countries such as China, India, Brazil and Japan where there are alternative social networks which are more popular.

Now, I am not saying that the way things have been being done has been wrong, we should definitely make use of whatever technology is available to us in the increasingly small world we are living in, but just that awareness of how it can be exclusive as well as inclusive is important. I know that WCC staff have been making a huge effort to include people who have issues with technology, whether that means making follow up phone conversations with people who couldn't connect to a skype call properly or sending recordings of webinars to people who couldn't stream it live. This care taken to make sure we are still an inclusive community perfectly demonstrates how much effort we need to make, even with technology where everything appears quick and simple. I hope that those of us who have had the privilege to be able to be part of this community so far will be as as welcoming to those who haven't been able to once we are all of an equal footing in Busan.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

On the way to Busan...

In six weeks time I will be starting a journey to Busan in South Korea for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches where I have been asked to be a delegate for the Church of Scotland. This post is the first in what will hopefully be a series of reflections before, during and after the Assembly. While I have been to international ecumenical assemblies and gatherings before this one is on a completely different scale. There will be 825 delegates attending and thousands of visitors, guests and observers from over 110 different countries, representing nearly 350 different churches, with a combined membership of over 500 million people. In many ways it is the embodiment of the growth of the church in the last two thousand years since the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down and gave the disciples the power to spread the Gospel around the world. I wonder if they could have imagined the scale of what they started that day. The theme of the Assembly is "God of life, lead us to justice and peace".

During the Assembly I have been asked to do two different jobs in addition to my role as a delegate. In fact both of these have also involved some work over the last couple of months. Firstly, coordinating a group who are writing the prayers for the Youth Pre-Assembly, a gathering of hundreds of delegates, stewards and visitors aged 18-30 in the two days before the Assembly itself starts. Ecumenical prayer is one of my particular passions and it has been wonderful to get a chance to try and bring together something which people from all confessions can take part in fully. Whether we have succeeded in this we won't know until it happens but at some stage I will share some reflections on this process. Secondly, I have been asked to be Rapporteur for the Programme Guidelines Committee, meeting daily during the Assembly itself. This is a rather more daunting task, supporting the committee in bringing together a report which will help the WCC find priorities and methodologies for its programme work over the next eight years. I am expecting this to be an extremely steep learning curve but the leadership of the Assembly committees had a great meeting in Bossey just before the Summer where the WCC staff guided us expertly through the background to the Assembly and what our jobs would entail.

This post is just a general introduction to what the Assembly is and what my role in it will be but I will hopefully manage to reflect on some different elements of this over the next few weeks as a way in which I can start to prepare myself as much as anything. Given that this is the first gathering of this type where I have been so involved in the preparations, the prayer that has been shared for people to use has taken on a fuller meaning, as I can start to appreciate that the Assembly is really a step on a journey. Many people in Busan will have been involved in the ecumenical movement for decades while some will be complete newcomers. However, everyone can share in this prayer together.
On the way to Busan,
may we humbly walk
with you, God of life.

On the way to Busan,
guide us as we gather,
pray and deliberate
as disciples of Christ.

On the way to Busan,
lead us in the way of
justice, peace and joy
in the Holy Spirit.


Monday, 13 May 2013

Flying with an instrument

Until this year I always took note of the difficulties musicians have with airlines without really feeling particularly strongly about it. However, studying in another country has meant that I have to travel with my viola by plane for the first time and I have started to discover just how much hassle and stress it becomes.

My first experience was with Norwegian. Just over a week before I was about to fly I phoned them up and asked them to confirm if they would allow me to take my viola as hand luggage, giving the exact dimensions. I was assured that this would be fine and asked them if I could have it in writing in case of problems with airport staff so was told to email. After a week with no reply I thought everything would be fine. However, the day before I was about to fly I then received a reply telling me that they wouldn't allow it onto the plane. I then called them again to complain but there was no way they were going to budge. I could of course have just turned up and there is a good chance I could have got away with it but I didn't want to take that risk so in the end my Dad had to travel via Manchester when he came to visit me so that he could go with an airline which allows small instruments as hand luggage.

This airline was Easyjet and they are really the reason I'm writing this post. Yesterday I had to fly back to Scotland with my viola and had checked in advance on their website that I could have it as hand luggage with my laptop as a small additional item. The person at the check-in desk didn't seem quite so sure of the rules though as he checked with a colleague as to whether this was ok. She then gave a wonderful response, "Yes that's fine - because easyjet loves music."  How refreshing not just to have a policy which doesn't just reluctantly allow instruments on board but actually values musicians as loyal customers and treats them with respect. It goes without saying that easyjet will be getting a lot more of my custom as a result of this.

That instruments such as violins and violas aren't allowed to be carried as hand luggage across all airlines is a scandal. They easily fit into overhead lockers without disturbing the total volume of hand luggage that can be carried. Of course they are typically expensive hand made works of art that can't possibly travel in the hold without being in huge danger of damage. The people carrying them are often professional musicians who rely on travelling for their livelihood or in my case for studying. There have been various campaigns to sort this and in the US there has been legislation passed, however there was recent news that the Transport Secretary is delaying it being enacted. In the UK, the Incorporated Society of Musicians has been leading a campaign to introduce industry standards and has also been petitioning individual airlines and there has also been a European level petition which highlights a lot of the issues.

Just before leaving this I thought I should share a video which is now quite old but is a superb example of a musician using his art to tell his own story...

Sunday, 12 May 2013

General Assembly 2013

It's the time of year where I turn my mind to the business of the Church of Scotland General Assembly. This will be the seventh year I have attended and every year is a chance to learn, to share, to make new friends, to catch up with old ones, to worship, to debate, and generally to feel the power of people gathering from across Scotland who keep a Christian presence alive in their local communities. For the last few years I haven't been there to participate directly but instead to support the young people who attend as youth representatives. Because of that I don't want to give my own view on any of the subjects coming up (although maybe afterwards) but I think it is important to say that there are a lot of important issues that will be debated and not just one. Inevitably press attention will focus on the sexuality debate but in my experience it is in the less publicised debates where the most significant motions are passed and where the most powerful comments are offered. My hope this year is that people allow themselves to be open to these and not to become dragged in by the media's obsession with the church talking about sexuality.

In the meantime I was delighted to see recently that Desmond Tutu's address to the 2009 General Assembly has been put online as I thought it had disappeared when the CofS website was updated. As a conducting student I have often discussed the concept of "charisma", what it really means and whether you can learn it, find it within yourself, or you can only just have it. However, I have never understood it better than seeing this wonderful man speak live, with his mix of humour, humility, charm, flattery, cheekiness and prayerfulness.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Cycling in the snow

I always find it rather amusing to read the headlines in the English media whenever a small bit of snow hits London. Apparently all it takes is a few cms and the whole place grinds to a halt. Of course in Scotland people are much better at getting on with life but that is even more the case in Copenhagen. We've had lots of snow the last few days just like the rest of Europe but everything seems to keep running as normal. What's particularly fun is that people keep cycling. Here's a photo of my bike after I came out of church yesterday to demonstrate what you're up against and also a video from about cycling in the snow. Although, the snow the people in the video are cycling in is quite tame compared to yesterday.

Monday, 12 November 2012

A new vision

Yesterday was Remembrance Day in the UK and it was marked by a very moving service in St Alban's Anglican Church here in Copenhagen. I have been involved in Remembrance Day services in many different situations, including in a parish with an army barracks where it was particularly poignant. However, it was slightly odd to mark it in a country where it is not known by anyone else. The church was full, there were ambassadors from many of the Allied nations and members of the Danish Resistance. Yet there is an odd feeling here as though that the Danes and Germans haven't really resolved the tensions since the Second World War. I don't claim to know the details but basically Denmark saw that resisting the German invasion would be futile due to the mismatch of military forces and instead there was a surrender "under protest". This meant that Denmark was allowed some degree of sovereignty and the Danes were treated well compared to other occupied nations, with even very few Jews being killed. But whether it is a sense of guilt, or an inherent suspicion of Germans that is fostered, there is a definite tension.

Put into a Christian context this becomes a difficult situation as it is impossible to look for future peace if you have not resolved feelings from the past. That was what was recognised in South Africa with their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although their are obviously difficult racial tensions still present there. Churches already tread a fine line between honouring those who have served their country while standing under a banner of peace. There is a difficulty in recognising conscientious objectors. The church claims sympathy with them and yet is often scared to say this out loud in case it offends those who feel this day is only for remembering those who served in the military. Remembrance Day is one of the few times in the year where people feel it is natural to go to church and yet they place their own judgement on what the church is allowed to say. There is a wonderful hymn by the New Zealand writer Shirley Erena Murray called "Hymn for Anzac Day" which I think deals with this particularly well in it's third verse.
"Honour the brave whose conscience was their call, answered no bugle, went against the wall, suffered in prisons of contempt and shame, branded as cowards, in our country's name."
We need to remember that war claims victims under many different circumstances and those who suffered by standing up for their belief that violence is wrong should be honoured for their bravery without it detracting from our respect for those who suffered for their belief that they should take up arms to fight injustice and oppression. For people my age who are two generations removed from conscription it is impossible to imagine the sort of decision which a young man would have faced, knowing that to stand up for his beliefs he would be branded a traitor and a coward, made an outcast by many, and possibly even imprisoned or shot. You can read some stories from conscientious objectors on the BBC's WW2 Archive.

Of course, above all the church needs to stand up for a new vision of the world, in which conflict is not resolved by violence. And many Christians (along with people of other faiths and no faith) have taken the lead in protesting against nuclear weapons, or against wars such as the most recent invasion of Iraq. Whether this can ever be attained on earth we don't know. This video from an Harvard University academic claims that wars between countries have been getting fewer and that it is very possible for world peace to be achieved. This is of course a wonderful thought and many around the world pray that ongoing conflicts such as those between Israel/Palestine and North/South Korea can be resolved but even if they can that is one small part of what we need to achieve. With the power of multinational corporations growing exponentially at the expense of ordinary people, there are different types of war which we need to recognise and wars between countries are perhaps not the most relevant to modern times. However, on a positive note let me leave you with a beautiful setting of a passage from Revelation by Edgar Bainton, where John sees a vision of a new world with no more suffering for any reason.

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and their shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." (Revelation 21:1-4)

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Moderatorial Trends

The Church of Scotland announced their nominee for Moderator of the 2013 General Assembly yesterday. Congratulations to Lorna Hood who I'm sure will be an excellent Moderator. Many people are delighted to see another female nominee (after Allison Elliot in 2004 and Sheilagh Kesting in 2007). There have also been some conspiracy theories regarding Kilmarnock Academy (John Miller, Andrew McLellan and Bill Hewitt are all former students). However, now that gender seems to no longer be an issue and Kilmarnock Academy is running out of former pupils who can be considered (unless John Bell is nominated) I think there are two important questions to be asked about some trends which have been appearing. These are not supposed to be a critique of this year's nomination but of the process in general. Apologies to those of you who thought this post was going to be about the changing dress sense of different Moderators. I will put some photos showing this so as not to disappoint.

The clothes may be old fashioned but 16th Century Moderators were more
comfortable putting their hands in the air during their favourite worship songs
The first is to note that the majority of the time the Moderator is being drawn from people who have filled a very select group of roles. If we consider all 12 Moderators of the 21st century plus the Moderator Designate then we have eight Conveners or Vice-Conveners of Assembly Councils and Committees, which includes four Conveners or Vice-Conveners of the Business Committee. Among the others we have a Principal Clerk, Clerk to the largest Presbytery and a Council Secretary. There now seems to be a pattern appearing where someone from the Business Committee is appointed in years when there is going to be a controversial debate (2009 - Aberdeen Presbytery Case; 2011 - Report of Special Commission on Same-Sex Relationships; 2013 - Report of Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships). I would say that every time the nominee for these years has been announced I have thought that it is exactly the right person but a trend is a trend and worth noting.

James Bond demonstrates what a full lace jabot looks like, perhaps
explaining why Moderators seem to go for a more half-hearted attempt
While on the subject of the number of former Conveners who are subsequently appointed as Moderator, dare I say that it is also an open secret that those who aspire to the office of Moderator (tut tut) see Convenerships as a stepping stone to this. I would temper this by saying that almost no Conveners that I have come across actually aspire to this. However, there are those around committees to whom some suspect it does apply and this raises the question of whether someone has to have been involved in the "politics" of the Kirk in order to be qualified to be Moderator as that is certainly the perception. While it is undoubtedly beneficial and many of the best candidates will have been, the weighting does appear to be heavily in this direction at the expense of many who focus on working at a local or regional level.

Often Moderators just go with a business suit these days but there is still
competition with other church leaders to see who can wear the largest cross
The other trend, and perhaps the more important one to address, is that since 1567 only one elder has been Moderator (Alison Elliot in 2004). And with no disrespect to Alison, someone who had served almost twenty years in a Theology department and held the Committee Convenership with the greatest public exposure (Church and Nation) is perhaps as close to a minister as you could ask for. Indeed, it would probably surprise many people to know that you don't have to be a minister to be Moderator. However, when you go back to looking at the roles which this century's Moderators have held (for example Council Convener, Professor of Theology, Chaplain to the Queen, Clerk to the Assembly or a Presbytery, Council Secretary), very few of these are ones which lay people will hold. Perhaps, someone could have a job such as a Council Secretary or Professor of Theology without being a minister but in fact very few do, and those who do don't seem to be as prominent within the church as the ministers. Council conveners are rarely member or elders because the amount of time that has to be given up is very difficult for someone not employed by the church to give up.

The Dalai Lama asks the right way to
 measure himself for his new frock coat
Perhaps it is a general issue around leadership within the church. Do we genuinely consider lay people to be church leaders in the same way? In fact you often find people who are prominent leaders in society as members and elders in the Kirk, but this is not held in the same esteem as someone who has trained to be a minister. Does the General Assembly require a minister, or even someone versed in Theology to Moderate it? That certainly wouldn't be required for chairing debates or acting as a representative of the Kirk. It is perhaps useful in leading worship, both at the Assembly and when invited elsewhere, but it is often underestimated how well our elders and members can lead worship if called on. Someone who has a strong faith and a leadership role within wider society should certainly be capable of giving an address, whether you give it the title of a sermon or not. And ministers often take their ideas for the rest of worship from many different sources anyway. Of course a lot of time is also required but it could be a role for someone who is retired, has a flexible job, or is willing to take a sabbatical. Or it could be that the role is not appropriate if it can only be realistically filled by a minister, now there's a controversial suggestion!

How long before we require all
Moderators to wear a cape?
One idea for how to address this is the United Reformed Church's structure of having two Moderators serving alongside each other for two years, one a minister and one an elder. I have no idea of how this works in practice but it seems like an interesting approach. I would be very interested to hear about it from people who have experienced this or to hear any other ideas or examples of how we can address this under-representation of laity among our leadership.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Back again

It seems like I go through phases of blogging and apparently it's now well over a year since I wrote anything here. However, having made a fairly large change in my life recently I have decided to blog again more regularly. I did consider starting a new blog, or even a few for different topics, but decided that it's nice to have one place to see your reflections on life, even if they are intermittent! Also I still like the title of this blog and can't be bothered coming up with anything more original.

 So what is the change in my life? I have moved to the wonderful city of Copenhagen to study. I am on the postgraduate class in Orchestral Conducting at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and (finances permitting) I should be here for the next three or four years. Moving abroad makes you realise quite how much you take people for granted, and I have made lots of promises to myself about keeping in touch with people better, although I'm sure I won't manage to keep all of them. However, updating this blog regularly is one of them, so whoever reads it (and apparently a fair amount of people do), can look forward to some thoughts on life in Denmark as well as my standard musings on music and church.

In the meantime here's a wee video to introduce you to KĂžbenhavn if you don't know it.


Sunday, 24 April 2011

Psalm 22

On Good Friday Christians around the world focus on Psalm 22, which is where the cry "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me" comes from. Despite (or perhaps because of) this being one of the most powerful psalms there are very few musical settings of it which can convey the raw emotion behind it so I thought it would be worth sharing a few of those videos which do, in their own very different ways.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Horning it up in Mahler

One of my favourite blog posts of all time is Kenneth Woods exhaustive summary of youtube videos of the hammer blow in Mahler 6 (here). While this post will be slightly less entertaining it is on a similar theme. I'm conducting Mahler 1 at the end of May and my horn section (and others) have been having a debate about whether and when they should stand in the last movement, and the position of the reinforcing trumpet and trombone. The opinion between players ranges from being excited about trying anything, wanting to do it but not thinking it works in the one beat Mahler asks for it to happen in, to not being convinced it works full stop. Similarly there is a wide range of opinions over the placement of the extra trumpet and trombone Mahler asks for. So what do you decide to do as a conductor based on these differing opinions?

Obviously the first thing is to look at the score. It's important to remember when conducting any of Mahler's music that he was one of the best conductors of his time, and constantly changed the markings in his score after performances in order to make them more practical for players and conductors. While you may look at scores for other composers and find there are balance issues and effects asked for that are nigh on unplayable, Mahler was incredibly practical and anything which made it into later revisions of his score will have been tried countless times. Not only that but when he has long footnotes for the conductor or indicates that something should explicitly not be done in the way which might seem natural, this will be emphasised because it goes against what players expect or would like to do.

This footnote translates as "From here on (and definitely not 4 bars earlier) to the end, it is recommended that the horns be strengthened to the extent that the all-overwhelming hymnlike chorale reaches the necessary fullness of sound. All the horn players stand, in order to obtain the greatest possible power of sonority. If necessary also one trumpet and one trombone may be added." We can see that Mahler leaves no room for doubt about what he wants, with the position of the extra trumpet and trombone also clear ("placed near the horns").

So the first point for any conductor and players must be to assume that Mahler knew what he was asking for and to try that. However, browsing youtube videos indicates that this isn't what always happens. Here's a quick look at some attempts. I've not included any where the horns don't do anything, and this even includes such legendary recordings as Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic! All the videos start just before the horns should stand up.

Spot on!

A bit messy but in the right place.

Not only early but all over the place.

Also early but great to see the woodwind with their instruments up in the air just afterwards.

Interesting one where the put their bells up instead.

I'll leave you to judge for yourself which of these work best but for me there is an extra burst of energy and excitement doing what Mahler has written in the score. For any conductor these are the sort of practical decisions can turn a performance into something special for both orchestra and audience as can be seen by the response (see 12 April post) to a recent performance by the Philharmonia. "When the last movement came, and all the Philharmonia horns rose to their feet at the climax, nothing could stop us! The performance got them standing on their feet and roaring their approval."

So in conclusion you'll have to turn up to St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral on Saturday 28th May to see what our horn section do, but in the meantime - don't mess with Mahler!