Friday, 8 May 2015

Five thoughts on 2015 UK election results

  1. This result is a huge win for big business and vested interests and a disaster for ordinary folk across the UK, especially the poor and vulnerable. However, I don't believe that's because people really want more of what the Tories are offering but because Labour failed to offer a true alternative. We've had world leading economists saying in recent weeks that austerity has been driven by political ideology against evidence of what has worked economically both in the UK and elsewhere but all that Labour offered us was Tory-lite.

  2. There is now an unarguable case for electoral reform. Not because of the Scottish result where it is frankly laughable to hear talk of a "one party state" which is essentially what we've been for decades (just with a different party who apparently weren't so objectionable). However, the fact that the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens got millions of votes with very few seats shows that there is a clear desire for alternative voices to have a larger say. Especially since these votes came under a system where most people knew they wouldn't contribute to a victory, if we had a form of PR these parties may have had much larger vote shares.

  3. Jim Murphy may not be exclusively responsible for the defeat of the Labour Party in Scotland but he is certainly not the solution. Despite talk of trying to find a clear message it has appeared in recent times that the only thing Scottish Labour stands for is opposing the SNP and it's priorities have changed daily. It was noticeable that the one section of the leadership ballot Murphy didn't win was the union vote, ie. the one part of the ballot where those voting aren't neessarily committed Labour voters. This is exactly the part of the electorate that Labour has lost touch with and until it stops blaming everyone else, claiming that people have been "duped" (does anyone really think calling people stupid makes them more likely to vote for you next time!), and taking responsibility for it's own results then there is no recovery in sight.

  4. Both unions are left on shaky ground. If there is an in-out election on the EU as now seems likely then this will open the Scottish question again. However, will UKIP's failure to win significant representation in Parliament and the resignation of Farage mean that Euroscepticism has lost energy after this election. The timing of a referendum compared to the elections for the Scottish Parliament could be crucial in terms of how the debate is framed in Scotland.

  5. Renewal of Trident now seems a fait accompli. With a Labour government there could have been debate among backbenchers who would have allied with anti-nuclear parties but while the Tories are not known for party unity this seems one issue where there would be a consensus.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A window into our true values

During Advent the Church of Scotland website has been hosting an Advent Calendar. It's great to see the church starting to use the internet in an up-to-date way, not just having pages of information sitting there for years but creating new content almost every day and engaging with different forms of media (shameless plug here for the Different Voices blog which I have been involved in setting up). However, if we are going to use new media then we have to make sure that it also reflects the vision we have of our church and doesn't reinforce some of the negative structures and perhaps stereotypes which exist currently.

One aspect of this is in terms of the permission we give to different groups of people to have a voice in setting the agenda for conversations and of being involved in the governance structures of our institutions. There are of course many ways in which people self-identify and it is impossible to maintain a perfect balance at all times. Indeed the experiences I have had in ecumenical circles where balancing certain criteria such as confession, gender and age is seemingly the only thing that matters while individual gifts are of little importance makes me very wary of talking about balances. However, the important thing is that our structures are at least accessible, even if they don't go as far as positive discrimination.

As a Presbyterian one of those balances which is of most importance to me is the one between clergy and laity. We are very proud of our structures which give an equal voice to a minister, elders and deacons. We are also always keen to remind people that we don't have a hierarchical system of governance like many other churches, and that even when someone is given a position of authority it will be for a limited time. However, what we like to say often doesn't really seem to measure up with how we act.

Let's go back to the virtual Advent Calendar and consider who has written the reflections so far. Out of eleven days all but one of them has been by a minister. It may seem like a trivial point but to me it reinforces the idea that the role of spiritual reflection is done by clergy and the role of the laity is to sit there and think about it quietly. This is especially noticeable when it is on the internet and where there are no hierarchies, I could offer my own reflection here if I wanted but the point is that when an institution chooses to give a voice to someone it offers them an elevated position. There is certainly not a lack of ability among our membership to do this as you can see from some wonderful blog posts about hymns by lay people who hold positions in the Guild and the National Youth Assembly. To me there is a beauty and honesty in these reflections which offer a deeper insight into faith than many sermons I have hear over the years!

Of course trying to change who writes content for a website is a small change but there are much bigger problems in the Church of Scotland when it comes to what might be termed institutional permissiveness of lay leadership. In my view the single biggest barrier to any change in this is reflected in the position of Moderator of the General Assembly. The Kirk is very clear that the Moderator is not the head of the Church of Scotland, and that apart from chairing assembly business the role is merely an ambassadorial one. But while that may be the official function the perception is just as important. If that was what the job was really about then the main criteria would be someone who can control meetings and who can schmooze well.

Regardless of whether it is intended this way or not, the role of Moderator is viewed as the ultimate leadership position in the Kirk. And herein lies an issue when we say that we are not hierarchical and that we value clergy and laity equally. Because since 1567 we have only appointed one elder. And with no disrespect to that former Moderator who I hold in very esteem, 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 in a lay person.

Now of course you are reading this and wondering why talking about one job is a solution for radical change given that the Kirk has 400,000 members. The issue is that if the Kirk really wants to empower lay people at a local level then it needs to demonstrate at a national level that it values their leadership. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether the establishment actually values lay people or whether individual ministers do, it is entirely to do with self-perception. While lay people see that the church is led by ministers then they will act as if that is true, regardless of how much encouragement they are given to the contrary. Think of what the election of Barack Obama did in terms of the self-confidence of ethnic minorities, or the difference that high profile women have made in many different fields.

So how can we tackle this issue? I'm never someone who advocated quotas and I don't like the idea that you would have a minister one year and an elder the next (when do you have a deacon?). Perhaps one solution would be to look at what one of our closest sister churches, the United Reformed Church has done. In 2008 they moved to a model where they have co-moderators, with a minister and an elder serving alongside each other for two years and sharing the responsibilities of the office.

This type of model also offers us a different perception of what it means to be a leader, people working together rather than one person at the top by themself. In a culture where many are also questioning the sustainability of a strict one parish-one minister model, looking at different forms of team ministry, and requiring more focus on lay ministry where there aren't enough ministers to cover ever parish, this could also be a way to change the view that if you don't have a full-time minister to deal with you then you are somehow being shortchanged.

Some may view this type of suggestion as changing our traditions and the offices in our church which give us our identity. But if the practical working of our structures does not reflect some of our most important values and does not give a way forward in terms of opening up ministry to everyone who considers themselves part of our church, then that part of our identity will just be another contributing factor to becoming more and more out of touch and we will never take full advantage of our single best resource for mission, the "ordinary person" sitting in the pews.

In the meantime there are still thirteen windows to open on the Advent Calendar...

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What does it mean to be a church member?

The Moderator of the General Assembly today questioned whether our current understanding of church membership is really reflective of how people are involved in congregational life. In particular he makes a call for the Church of Scotland to try and gain 100,000 new members over the next decade and asks how we can use technology appropriately in engaging with our communities. (link)

This question of what church membership means is something I have been pondering on and off for the past few years and I really hope it is a conversation we can have in the Kirk. Membership numbers have been declining for decades but that is true of almost every organisation. The question we should be asking is not how we achieve more members but what does membership mean?

One of the most inspiring "religious" books I have read in the last few years is Mole Under the Fence, a series of interviews Ron Ferguson held with the influential but reclusive Father Roland Walls. I probably have more bookmarks stuck in there than any other book I own in order to remind myself where I can find sections that have really provoked me to think about faith and the church. One of these is where he points out that the only time numbers are mentioned in the gospels is the feeding of the 4000 and 5000. We never hear about how many people came to hear Jesus preach, we don't really know how many disciples there were beyond the apostles, but we do know how many people were fed (or at least how many men!) and the feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle that we can find in all four gospels.

How would it be if we measured our work as a church not by the number of "signed up" members we have but instead by the number of people we "feed", ie. meaningful engagements we have as a result of our faith. One of the problems with the concept of membership is that it has essentially become something passive. To be frank the main expectations we have of our members in the Church of Scotland is that they will give some money and occasionally come to Communion. Some of the most active people in our congregations aren't members and when we consider trying to engage with a younger generation we are caught somewhere in the middle where we get so excited by a new face that we can make so many demands on their time that we scare them away, but when someone makes a commitment to being a member there is nothing that actually changes because of that and they can lose the energy which got them there in the first place.

In Scotland we have of course recently seen a dramatic increase in the membership of some political parties. This is actually quite a challenge for those parties because what they have realised is that these new members have signed up not just to show their support, but to try and change something. The Moderator is right that society's concept of belonging has changed over the last fifty years. In many ways it has moved away from mass movements into people putting their energy where they feel their individual contribution will make a difference.

This is a perfect opportunity for churches to change the perception of what it means to be part of a religious institution. We can say all we want about how being a member of the church is not about following a set of rules but when we only get excited about debates over what people can or cannot do (gender, sexuality etc.) then we can never change this image. Being a Christian is about having a personal faith and about living that out as part of a community. As a Protestant church our focus is on how we enable the ministry of all, not how we can sign up more members to support the ministry or our clergy or our eldership.

My solution to this is perhaps counter-intuitive, abolish church membership. It is time to recognise that while it may be a model which has worked for us in the past it is not in keeping with either the reality of how most people engage with the church or a way to either sustain or grow involvement.

A different model could be that those involved with a congregation would meet with their minister every year (or two or three) and agree on what actions they would take as part of their Christian commitment. For some that could be a big public role, for others it could be something in the background like looking after flowers or giving someone a lift on a Sunday morning, for others it could be simply prayer and personal nurture because they needed a break from church work or didn't have time. The important factor is that to be a Christian is something active (even if that sometimes means being passive) and instead of membership we should be helping everyone to find their role in the ministry of their local church.

One possible side effect of this might be that the numbers of those making that commitment was less than the number of members we have now. That would seem to go against the Moderator's challenge to find 100,000 new members. But it seems to me that we need to find a different way of labelling what we do as a church. We may have a smaller number of "members" but by encouraging their ministry we will find that as a church we are "feeding" a far greater number in the end.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Where next?

I thought long and hard about whether to blog during the referendum debate but I have struggled to find words to express what I wanted to say. However, the day after the result has been announced it is important to take stock of where we are as a country. Even if I still can't find the right words it is important to try and say something because I believe this is potentially a turning point in our history and the direction of travel is still to be determined.

The first thing to say is that a 45% yes vote is remarkable, especially when you consider that the entire weight of the British establishment (political parties, media, business etc.) was trying with all its might to get a no vote. The second thing is that this does not mean that half of those living in Scotland subscribe to a parochial nationalism. A poll conducted after all the votes had been cast found that the single biggest factor for those voting yes was disaffection with Westminster politics. It also found that while 72% of no voters had always known they would vote that way, that the majority of yes voters only made up their mind during the last year. I don't believe that these things are a coincidence. It is no secret that most people feel disconnected from politics but it is a new thing to see the ugly head of power lashing out in terror when it saw itself threatened. Many Scots, including many of those who voted no, have become aware of the lack of accountability in the governance of the UK and this knowledge is something that is not going to go away.

For a short while we have allowed ourselves to dream. A grassroots movement rose up across Scotland where people have asked questions about subjects which politicians have for generations considered their own personal domain. Organisations such as National Collective and Common Weal have gathered all sorts of creative people and experts to imagine what a better Scotland should look like from scratch. New media outlets have sprung up online such as Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland, giving a platform to ordinary voices and those who feel their view is unrepresented by the mainstream media. All of this may appear chaotic, it may not give out polished messages or talk in soundbites, and there may be things said that are controversial or even offensive to some. But above all it is passionate and it has refused to believe that the job of making a better country should be constrained by whichever party happens to be in power. The dreams of many are now much harder to achieve but that should not stop us having dreams.

The talk now is of reconciliation and unity, but to what end? I am a proud member of the Church of Scotland and I believe it has an important voice in national dialogue but this week I fear it has let itself down. It is possible to stay neutral and preach reconciliation while at the same time to speak strongly about the important issues in society with which the church is concerned and it has failed to do that, resulting in bland platitudes and adding to the scaremongering about division. There was fantastic work done by Church and Society in Imagining Scotland's Future but why aren't we shouting about the priorities which came out of that rather than spouting platitudes about how nice it is to work together. The Kirk says time and again that it prioritises helping the poor and giving them a voice but in all the talk of unity I have not heard it said that those on the margins will not get the fresh start they had hoped for and that they are the ones who are now most likely to suffer when we return to politics as normal. Unity in itself has no purpose so tell us why it matters!

The debate between yes and no was characterised by many as "hope v fear" but in reality the vote turned out to be between the "haves" and the "have-nots". On Thursday night I stayed up to watch the results come in and it quickly became clear that they had nothing to do with political allegiance and more to do with how much we believe the status quo is working for the benefit of the community where we live. Here is a simple graph I made which shows the percentage of yes voters in each local authority, with the local authorities ordered according to their Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2012 low income score.

This is an extremely crude way to try and look at just one factor which contributes to poverty but it was the only ranking by local authority I could find. There are a few outliers which can be attributed mainly to geographical factors, but apart from that we find a remarkably strong correlation. This doesn't mean that those who voted no didn't believe it was the best thing for those in poverty too. It also doesn't mean that the referendum saw a disproportionately large turnout among poorer areas. According to the BBC analysis as the votes came in there was an similar increase in the turnout in every local authority area compared to the 1997 referendum on devolution. All that is shows is that there was a much stronger vote in areas where many are struggling but that is incredibly important to take note of in itself.

We are consistently failing the poorest in our society who are desperate for a change in the status quo. As a country we are not divided as much by yes and no as by the inequalities which have been built into our society for generations. Until those who are better off take this seriously and stand in solidarity with those who are on the margins then we cannot claim to be making any real move towards healing and reconciliation whatever nice things are said in the days and months ahead. This doesn't mean that independence was necessarily the solution but going back to politics as normal can't be either.

It is not no voters who have failed the poor and the young, it is all of us. We have allowed politics to become a profession and to become disconnected from wider society. Political parties try only to appear to the average middle class voter to get themselves elected, forgetting they have a responsibility to every person living here. As a country we have consistently expressed our outrage over government policies we disagree with - illegal wars, tuition fees, the privatisation of the Post Office etc - but we are only ever reacting to decisions that have been reached after years of discussions and political manoeuvring. If we want politics to reflect our views then we must be proactive. The policies of political parties are made by those who are members and who try and influence their decisions from inside.

I consider the single most important thing I did during the referendum to be joining a political party, one which I believe is responsive to the concerns of its members and which will stand up for ideals rather than selling itself out for political power. I had been thinking about it for almost a decade but the last year or two made me realise that I can never really hold politicians accountable unless I engage myself. Already we are seeing that the "promises" made by politicians during the last few weeks are being torn up. Politics moves quickly and if we only ever concern ourselves with what we are told when there is an election or a referendum then we will never be satisfied with what our governments do.

It is surely the height of self-conceit to quote yourself but on a day when I am disappointed and struggling to know where positive change could come from it is good to be able to use words that were written when I was still full of hope. The rest of this post is what I wrote on facebook on the morning of the 18th September. The quote is attributed to St Augustine and I first came across it being used by Karine Polwart in a wonderful article she wrote almost 18 months ago.

"Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”
Today is an historic day. People across Scotland will be voting for whether they are better governed within the UK or as an independent country. The right to a democratic vote on their future is one that many around the world have literally given their lives for. We are privileged to have been able to spend time discussing our views and then to make a decision not with weapons but with a pencil and a piece of paper.
However, my hope is that it is not today which Scotland is remembered for, but the days still to come when the world's media leaves but we can get down to the hard work of showing how a people working together can change their society for the better. Neither outcome offers a better future unless we harness the anger about the problems in our society which many have expressed and then have the courage to act together and effect real and lasting change.

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)