Anatomy of an outrage (or, a prayerful revolution)

The Church of England thought it would be good to record one of the ancient prayers of the Christian faith for a new generation to hear as a prequel to watching about a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

It was rejected by the largest agency distributing adverts to cinemas meaning it will not be seen in Odeon, Cineworld or Vue screens. The agency, DCM, referred to their policy which clearly states they that they reject religious adverts because of the potential they have to offend people of different or no faiths.

Cue outrage.

    1. Saturday night as the first front pages hit twitter the outrage began, how dare they stop us from praying the Lord’s prayer. Well, they’re not actually stopping it, they just have no obligation to screen it. Some of the early outrage suggested discrimination that wasn’t actually taking place.
    2. The National Secular Society never miss a chance to miss the point: “The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience.” Presumably they will be leading the campaign against all adverts and trailers before films .
    3. People with different beliefs speak up for the prayer being shown, the Muslim Council of Britain, atheist MPs, Stephen Fry, even Richard Dawkins got in on the act. Which both reminded me of the strong cultural memory of Christianity in the UK, and the passivity towards it’s infusion across society. The latter is not necessarily a good thing.
    4. Enough time had passed for people to start writing blogs about it. Nonsense on stilts opined Giles Fraser.
    5. Eagled eyed observers who looked at the DCM policy realised it was no surprise that the advert was rejected. Although the Church of England state that the policy wasn’t in existence when they first inquired about running the advert.
    6. But the Lord’s Prayer is offensive. If I’d been quicker off the mark I’d have gone with this angle but Stephen Croft and Andrew Wilson beat me to it.
    7. Over 200,000 people have watched the advert on YouTube, and a similar number from the Church of England’s facebook account.

Two very brief comments on this fandango: first, I initially thought this advert had been designed to be rejected, however, this wasn’t the case: when the Church of England first put the advert forward for publication it was accepted before being declined later. The new policy from the DCM is abundantly clear – it may be ‘nonsense on stilts’ but it is clear. The policy may warrant a legal challenge in that it privileges non-religious beliefs over religious beliefs, but from my non-legal perspective I think that would be a hard case to make.

This was a brilliant piece of marketing, it’s been all over the news yesterday and today. I had wondered if this was all part of a grand stategy, but instead seems to be a great example of a PR victory coming out of the censor’s jaws of defeat. Far more people will see it than if ever it was run before Star Wars. In season 6 of the West Wing when Santos’ primary campaign is running very short of cash they can afford one TV spot. They know they need to leverage it to get people to cover the coverage, and thereby exponentially increasing the impact. That’s exactly what’s happened here.

Second, I hope it helps Christians to think about what they pray. The words of the Lord’s prayer are offensive. They are counter-cultural, they do offend the norms by which our society runs. They should provoke and challenge us, they should disrupt and disturb, they are about a King whose Kingdom is yet to fully come, it is about a God in heaven who is above all other rulers. It’s a prayerful revolution.

[UPDATE: I’ve amended the paragraph beginning two very brief comments to take account of things I’ve read and picked up today.]

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False Flags and Public Grief

Used under Creative Commons from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shauser/

Used under Creative Commons from https://www.flickr.com/photos/shauser/

On Wednesday evening nine men and women were murdered during a bible study at their church. No murder is normal, but this was less normal than most. It was the killing of nine black men and women by a white man, Dylann Roof, because of their race, and the church in which they were shot was of a denomination founded over 200 years ago when church officials pulled black people off their knees and stopped them praying. The shooting was about race, undertaken by a man who decided others shouldn’t live because of the colour of their skin – designed, the US Justice department said in a statement, ‘to strike fear and terror into this community’.

Many words have been written and many more will follow. I doubt any will carry the force of those spoken by the families of the victims who stood in the court on Friday and offered their forgiveness to Roof. Some of the words have been angry, some have been defensive, others dry, but most quenched in tears.

Twitter was ablaze with anger that two of America’s gravest indignities combined to orchestrate this horror. Gun crime in the United States is a travesty that should be indefensible. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had in mind the liberal gun laws advocated by second amendment defenders, and if they did it’s high time that amendment was struck from the bill of rights. In the last 6 years Obama has come to the podium 6 times to give speeches following mass shootings.

The second scar on America’s conscience is the deep racial tensions that pervade across the country. Those words do not do justice to the pain suffered and that continues to haunt America and is endured by men and women because of their skin. As Jon Stewart put it: “I honestly have had nothing other than sadness that once again that we have to peer into the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend does not exist.”

And as the words of forgiveness cut through the anger, one symbol continued to flutter and flaunt its obstinate recalcitrance in the face of fury.

Above the South Carolina State house flies three flags, the state flag, the US flag and the old Confederate flag. On Thursday the first two were lowered to half-mast out of respect.

First, the technicalities: unlike the other two flags which are on a pulley the Confederate flag is fixed and can therefore only be removed and not lowered, and the removal of any of the flags flying from the building requires a vote of the state legislature.

Second, what was always going to be about race and gun crime is now also about a flag.

For some that’s a distraction from the grief experienced by the families and close ones of those who died. Others say it’s politicising a tragedy.

Russell Moore, president of the ethic and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has written perhaps the most important post of the past few days. Important because of his role in one of the largest evangelical groups and one which has a significant public voice that is associated with religious and moral conservativism. Important because he is the descendant of a Confederate soldier. Important because it is unexpected. Important because it is timely, prophetic and unequivocal. And important because it recognises the importance of symbolism.

Others have been far more equivocal and refused to comment. I’m not asking everyone to have an opinion, but if you’re going to write this, then you deserve all the flak you get.

To say that this is a time for grief and a time to leave politics to one side is to sanitise grief and partition politics. When anger is burning it offers a clarion call, when pain is raw it exposes the wounds we might otherwise try to deny. When tears and fears are all we have to offer they etch deep a testimony that politics is always personal.

Because if it isn’t, what is politics about? Is it about the maintenance of faraway institutions or managing systems and structures? Because if we take people out of the equations – people who cry and shout, and experience joy and happiness, people who, this week, are asking not just ‘why’ but ‘why again’ – all we are left with is a faceless, soulless set of bodies that serve no one but the inertia of political gridlock.

Grief can make things happen. Aged 13 I walked into church one Sunday morning with my family, we were late and the announcements had begun. As we pieced together what the pastor was saying it became clear a member of the royal family had died, the Queen Mother we first supposed, then realised it was Princess Diana who had died in a crash in a Paris subway in the early hours of the morning.

On that occasion a flag mattered too. The royal family, and the Queen in particular, were away in Balmoral, and protocol until 1997 dictated that when the Queen was in residence the Royal Standard flew, when away no flag was displayed, and never was a flag flown at half-mast. Even when a monarch died the flag of the next most senior royal in residence at the palace is flown.

But combined with maintained distance and what the royals presumably considered dignified silence, the empty mast became the may-pole around which the British tabloid press strung the Queen. “Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?” cried the Sun, “Has the House of Windsor a heart?” proclaimed the Daily Mail.

Protocol be damned. The rules were changed. A nation was in grief. The Union Jack – which now flies whenever the Queen is not in residence – was flown at half-mast on the day of the funeral, an act now repeated when members of the royal family die or on significant moments of national mourning such as after the 5 July 2005 bombings.

I’m an outsider, and one who has already told Americans to rescind the second amendment. But the Confederate flag is more than historical memorabilia – if that was all it was it would be in a museum and not flying over a government building.

Like the empty pole on Buckingham Palace, the Confederate flag flying is like defiantly sticking a middle finger up at those in pain. It’s like revelling in the memory of wounds inflicted on others.

And it’s also just a flag, just a symbol, just a piece of cloth with colour, stripes and stars. But the arrangement of those colours, stars and stripes matter. Taking it down is not going to solve race relations in the United States but it would be a significant symbol, one which empathises with pain.

I’m a Brit who doesn’t get the obsession with flags. I don’t get why it’s such a matter of importance, I don’t get why churches drape their alters with flags. But I do get symbols, and Christians the world over should know better than most their role, after all at the centre of our faith is a symbol.

Symbols can become rallying points, in fact they often are. The Confederate flag is now a focal point and not a distraction. The question is, which way will it blow?

2015, a musical of the general election from the pen of Taylor Swift

From Buzzfeed's '19 photos of politicians improved with Taylor Swift lyrics

From Buzzfeed’s ’19 photos of politicians improved with Taylor Swift lyrics”.

[Opening credits – a montage of campaign rallies across the country, to the tune of Welcome to New York]

“Everybody here wanted something more, searching for a sound they hadn’t heard before.”

“Like any great lie, it keeps you guessing, like any real lie it’s ever changing, like any true lie it drives you crazy.”

[Final meeting of the Quad, to the tune of The Last Time]

David Cameron: “This is the last time I’m asking you this.”

Nick Clegg: “I find myself at your door, just like all those times before.”

George Osborne: “I was there to watch you leave.”

Danny Alexander: “All roads, they lead me here.”

George Osborne: “This is the last time you tell me I’ve got it wrong.”

Danny Alexander: “This is the last time I say it’s been you all along.”

David Cameron: “This is the last time I let you in my door.”

Nick Clegg: “This is the last time, I won’t hurt you any more.”

[Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, no music initially, then into We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together]

Backbench Liberal Democrat MP: “Rose garden filled with thorns.”

Nick Clegg: “Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn you, so it’s going to be forever or it’s going to go down in flames, you can tell me when it’s over if it was worth the pain.”

Backbench Liberal Democrat MP: “You’ll see me in hindsight.”

Nick Clegg: “It’s been a long six months.”

Backbench Liberal Democrat MP: “It was months and months of back and forth.”

Nick Clegg: “We are never, ever, ever, getting back together.”

Backbench Liberal Democrat: “You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends talk to me.”

Nick Clegg: “I used to think that we were forever?”

Backbench Liberal Democrat MP: “No.” “You chose the Rose Garden over Madison Square.”

[Conservative strategy negotiations – in CCHQ, to the tune of Style]

David Cameron: “We never go out of style, we never go out of style.”

George Osborne: “Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the wood yet, are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods, are we in the clear, are we in the clear?”

Lynton Crosby: “Looking at it last December, we were built to fall apart, then fall back together.”

David Cameron: “Remember when you hit the brakes too soon?”

George Osborne: “You were looking at me, oh, you were looking at me.”

Iain Duncan Smith [behind a closed door]: “Why’d you have to go and lock me out when I let you in?”

David Cameron: “Stay, hey”

Iain Duncan Smith: “You say you want it, back now that it’s just too late.”

[Election debate – to the tune of Bad Blood]

David Cameron: “This slope is treacherous, this path is reckless.”

Ed Miliband: “You made a really deep cut.”

Nick Clegg: “Did you have to do this? I was thinking you could be trusted.”

David Cameron: “Did you have ruin what was shining, now it’s all rusted?”

Ed Miliband: “Did you think we’d be fine?”

David Cameron: “Long handwritten note, deep in your pocket.”

Nigel Farage: “Now we got problems, and I don’t think we can solve them.”

Ed Miliband: “You made a really deep cut.”

David Cameron: “Band aids don’t fix bullet holes.”

Nick Clegg: “You live like that…”

Ed Miliband: [interrupting] “You say sorry just for show.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “So don’t think it’s in the past, these kinda wounds they last and they last now.”

Nigel Farage: “And I could go on and on, on and on.”

Natalie Bennett: “You always knew how to push my buttons.”

Leanne Wood: “Did you think it all through? All these things will catch up to you.”

Nigel Farage: “It’s so sad to think about the good times.” “It’s like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “I knew you were trouble.”

Leanne Wood: “You’re drowning.”

[Living room of undecided voters, to the tune of How Your Get the Girl]

[News report of day’s campaigning playing on TV]

David Cameron: “She’ll open up the door.”

Ed Miliband: “Here we are, see my face, hear my voice:”

David Cameron: “You were too afraid to tell her what you want.”

Ed Miliband: “That’s how it works. They don’t want you to know”

[Camera pans to Nigel Farage addressing a UKIP rally]

Nigel Farage: “Remind me how it used to be.”

Undecided voter #1: “He’s so bad, but he does it so well.”

[Back to David Cameron]

David Cameron: “Say you want me. I’ll put it back together.”

Undecided voter #2: “His voice is a familiar sound.”

Undecided voter #3: “We are alone with our changing minds.”

Undecided voter #4: “I can’t decide if it’s a choice. ”

[Labour party election broadcast, to the tune of Red]

Soundtrack: “And that’s why he’s spinning round in my head. Comes back to me, burning red.”

[Voting, montage of voters at polling stations, to the tune of Blank Space]

Voter #1: “I’ve got a blank space baby and I’m going to write your name.”

Voter #2: “So I punched a hole.”

[Election night, to the tune of 22]

Commentator: “It feels like a perfect night for breakfast at midnight.”

Jeremy Vine: “It’s 2am.”

John Curtice: “It’s miserable and magical at the same time.”

Jeremy Vine: “I don’t know about you.”

John Curtice: “It seems like one of those nights.”

Jeremy Vine: “We won’t be sleeping.”

Commentator: “Everything will be alright.”

Jeremy Vine: “You look like bad news.”

John Curtice: “Tossing, turning, struggled through the night.”

[Cuts to count where heavy favourite has lost]

Reporter: “And you were just gone and gone, gone and gone.”

Defeated candidate: “Heaven can’t help me now”

Defeated candidate: “There was nothing left to do.”

[Coalition negotiation part 1, to the tune of All Too Well]

Nick Clegg to Ed Miliband: “Here you are now, calling me up, but I don’t know what to say, I’ve been picking up the pieces of the mess you made.”

Ed Miliband: “I wish you would come back, I wish I never hung up the phone like I did.”

Nick Clegg: “You know baby we’ve got bad blood. Take a look what you’ve done.”

Ed Miliband: “Say you’ll remember me.”

Nick Clegg: “In your wildest dreams.”

Ed Miliband: “Maybe we got lost in translation, maybe I asked for too much.”

Nick Clegg: “This thing was a masterpiece until you tore it all up.”

Ed Miliband: “You remember it all too well.”

[Coalition negotiations part 2, still to the tune of All Too Well]

David Cameron: “I walked through the door with you”

Nick Clegg: “Something about it felt like home somehow

David Cameron: “I’m never going to risk it.”

Nick Clegg: “Realising all you ever wanted was right in front of you.”

David Cameron: “This love left a permanent mark.”

Nick Clegg: “You come back to what you need.”

David Cameron: “Flew me to places I’d never been.”

Nick Clegg: “Your sweet disposition.”

[SNP strategy meeting, to the tune of I almost do]

Nicola Sturgeon: “It takes everything in me not to call.”

Alex Salmond: “I bet it never occurred to you.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “We made quite a mess, babe.”

Alex Salmond: “It’s probably better off this way.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “Want to try again?”

Alex Salmond: “I almost do.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “Without me?”

[Coalition negotiations part 3, to the tune of Stay, Stay, Stay]

Nicola Sturgeon: “You think it’s funny when I’m mad, mad, mad.”

Ed Miliband: “All those times you didn’t leave; it’s been occurring to me I’d like to hang out with you.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “I think it’s best if we both stay.”

Ed Miliband: “I’ve been loving you for quite some time.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “You took the time to memorize me: my fears, my hopes and dreams.”

Ed Miliband: “You have given me no choice but to.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “Put my name at the top of your list.”

[Outside No 10 Downing Street]

Prime Minister: “This is the golden age of something good and right and real.”

Easter: I don’t think that word means what David Cameron thinks it does

Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

I’ve hesitated for a few hours, but I can’t managed to hold back any longer. David Cameron’s Easter message is dreadful. I’m used to the charm-offensive-say-something-nice-to-Christians-at-Christmas-and-Easter type of message, but this is in a league of its own. Here are a few extracts and my only slightly restrained commentary.

In a few days’ time, millions of people across Britain will be celebrating Easter. Just as I’ve done for the last five years, I’ll be making my belief in the importance of Christianity absolutely clear.

As Madeleine Teahan has already noted, it’s not clear whether it’s David Cameron’s belief in Christianity or the importance of Christianity that he’s making clear. And by the end of the piece the reader is still not clear what Cameron is making clear, perhaps other than the fact he has a confused understanding of Easter and wants you to vote for his party.

But I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country. And for me, the key point is this: the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility – are values that we can all celebrate and share.

I’m not going to try and suggest that compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility are not values driven by Christian belief – I believe they are – but this is an incredibly reductionist and secular attempt to read the Easter message in a pliable and acceptable way.

But even so, in the toughest of times, my faith has helped me move on and drive forward. It also gives me a gentle reminder every once in a while about what really matters and how to be a better person, father and citizen.

This is the bit designed to show the personal, honest, side of David Cameron’s faith, and it has been paraded as such. Everyone has their own beliefs and I’ll let him have his. But I have one question that rears its head whenever David Cameron talks about Christianity: he talks about faith as though it is an end in itself, faith in what, faith in the role of faith, faith in the importance of Christianity, or faith in Jesus?

As Winston Churchill said after the death of his opponent, Neville Chamberlain, in the end we are all guided by the lights of our own reason. ‘The only guide to a man is his own conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.’

Way to go Dave, imploring relativism in an Easter message to an audience committed to the timeless truth of the death and resurrection.

This government has consistently taken decisions which are based on fundamental principles and beliefs.

Vacuity 101: everything we do is based on some sort of fundamental principle and belief. When I leave the house I walk on the pavement because of the belief that cars will stay on the road. The more important question is what those beliefs are, whether they are good ones, and whether actions match up to the principles they are supposedly based on.

Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.

No. It’s not. My four year old niece has a better understanding of Easter than Mr Cameron. Maybe I’ll get her to lend the Prime Minister her VeggieTales DVD and fuzzy felts from Sunday School.

I have no problem with politicians appealing to any audience they can get in front of them, and I appreciate their warm thoughts about the contribution Christians make to the country. But an Easter message without mentioning God, Jesus, the Cross or the Resurrection is an incredibly poor effort.

And when it is done to suggest that he is ‘one of you’ (even if a lazy and not a very good one) the crime is even more egregious.

The issues that matter most to evangelical voters

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Yesterday the Evangelical Alliance published Faith in politics? which reported on a survey of over 2000 evangelical Christians investigating their political views and habits. One key feature of the report was two questions examining the issues of greatest concern, the first asked what was the most important issue facing the UK, and the second asked how important various issues were for voters. The report shows that evangelical voters have a distinct profile even if overall their votes are distributed to parties broadly in line with the general public. Last autumn, when the survey took place, the general public listed immigration and race relations as the most important issue, whereas for evangelicals it was some way down the table. In top spot instead for nearly a third of voters was poverty and inequality, while among the UK population only 4 per cent ranked it top.

For the list of issues respondents could select whether the issue was either: ‘Important and will affect my vote’, ‘important’, ‘not very important’, or ‘this would lessen my support for them’. The top five issues in order of importance policies promoting religious liberty followed by policies helping the poorest, eliminating human trafficking, opposing same-sex marriage, and a pro-life stance on euthanasia.

Faith in politics - Top 10 policy concerns

I’ve dug into the data and broken down the response to both questions by the party respondents are intending to vote for because I thought that might be both helpful and interesting! First of all, on the most important issues facing the UK today for Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green and undecided voters poverty/inequality was the top issue – for Labour and Green supporters over half chose that option. For Conservative voters the economy came top, and for UKIP the EU was seen as most important. While trailing poverty/inequality, a sizeable minority of Green Party supporters selected the environment.

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Turning to how important supporters of each party considered the 27 policy areas you can see the divergence of issues. Regardless of party either protecting religious liberty or policies making a positive difference to the poorest came top: religious liberty for Conservative, UKIP and undecided voters, and helping the poorest for Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green Party supporters.

Conservative issue importance

The top five issues for Conservative supporters are:

  1. Ensuring religious liberty: 70%
  2. Economic growth: 53%
  3. Eliminating human trafficking: 49%
  4. Opposing same-sex marriage: 48%
  5. Pro-life position on euthanasia: 42%

Labour issue importance

The top five issues for Labour supporters are:

  1. Helping the poorest: 80%
  2. Ensuring religious liberty: 61%
  3. Introducing the living wage: 60%
  4. Eliminating human trafficking: 59%
  5. Reducing the need for foodbanks: 58%

Liberal Democrat issue importance

The top five issues for Liberal Democrat supporters are:

  1. Helping the poorest: 74%
  2. Ensuring religious liberty: 64%
  3. Eliminating human trafficking: 53%
  4. Protecting 0.7% international development aid: 51%
  5. Introducing the living wage: 50%

UKIP issue importance

The top five issues for UKIP supporters are:

  1. Ensuring religious liberty: 82%
  2. Opposing same-sex marriage: 81.7%
  3. Pro-life position on abortion: 71%
  4. Pro-life position on euthanasia: 63%
  5. Reducing immigration: 59%

Green issue importance

The top five issues for Green Party supporters are:

  1. Helping the poorest: 87%
  2. Introducing the living wage: 74%
  3. Reducing the need for foodbanks: 69%
  4. Tackling climate change: 61%
  5. Eliminating human trafficking: 58%

undecided voters issue importance

And finally, the set of issues that might be of greatest interest to political parties, here are the top five issues for undecided voters:

  1. Ensuring religious liberty: 78%
  2. Eliminating human trafficking: 67%
  3. Helping the poorest: 65%
  4. Pro-life position on euthanasia: 58%
  5. Opposing same-sex marriage: 56%

While examining this breakdown of the data what occurred to me was the position of undecided voters on many of these issues. Although it is not a uniform pattern the groups of voters line up on a spectrum on many of the issues, this spectrum runs from UKIP to Conservatives to Undecided to Liberal Democrats to Labour to Green, or vice-versa. Tentatively this could suggest that many of those yet to make up their mind are caught between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, it also suggests that in order to win over these voters the Conservatives would be better tacking towards the centre than to the right.

Read more:

An eclectic review of 2014

Usually a mainstay of the few days between Christmas and New Year I’m getting in early with my review of 2014. I often intend to write about the year about to come to an end but writing time around Christmas is rather sparse. This is a slightly eclectic review of the year and some of the things that have stood out.

It might be considered the year of the #icebucketchallenge, or the rise of UKIP, or some celebrity doing something they shouldn’t. I’m not really covering any of that. Let’s start with food.

Best baked good

1010214_10153680690410364_1304191195_nFrom fairly early in the year these blueberry and cream choux buns are probably my favourite baked good of the year, although making focaccia for the first time was also a lot of fun.

Best newspaper column

Next year’s general election will be mired in disenchantment and discord. The public are unhappy with politicians and conflate that with a disdain toward politics. Minor parties are on the rise and the share of the vote going to the two major parties will likely be the lowest ever. Internet memes go crazy, whether it’s Ed Miliband pointing at things, airbrushed posters of David Cameron, or spoof UKIP twitter accounts. And they just add to the disconnect between politicians and the public.

At the heart of this is a paradox of what the public want, they want politicians to be special and they want them to be like them. Dan Hodges, a Marmite columnist, put this brilliantly in the summer in which he basically called for more boring politicians.

Dan Hodges: Want to rekindle faith in politics? Remember most MPs are like Annette Brooke

Best talk

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At the end of November I returned to Trent Vineyard – where I went to church while a student at Nottingham – for the national Vineyard Cause To Live For conference. One of the draws was Simon Ponsonby speaking. I’ve got his tome on Romans with me over Christmas and hope to get started on it. When he spoke at a student conference I went to in 2004 on ‘more of the Holy Spirit’ I was scribbling faster than I thought possible. This time I didn’t take any notes, I just sat and absorbed his 65 minute one point sermon on learning to love the bible. I had hoped to link to the talk but it’s not online yet – I’ll definitely be sharing it when it is.

Honourable mention: as I can’t share my top talk of the year, here’s one that deserves a mention. I’ve been away at weekends quite a lot this year so tend to listen to as many sermons as podcasts as sat in the comfortable theatre seats. One Saturday I set off to walk to a friend’s flat, fairly normal except this was seven miles away – which made it a three sermon walk. The last of these made me walk up and down the street before arriving to catch the last few minutes. Take a listen, it’s really quite brilliant and beautiful – especially as on a topic so often preached about.

Hannah Elwyn: Who is my neighbour?

Best Walk

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For the shear ridiculous nature of it’s endeavour attempting to climb Slieve Donard on a rainy Janury afternoon could grab this award. I wrote about what not to do when walking in the Mourne Mountains after that particular failure.

The prize, however, has to go to the Yorkshire 3 Peaks which I walked in July. Up and down Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in 10 and a half hour, leaving me aching for the next couple of days, in love with the Yorkshire Dales and with an appetite to even more insane single day walks in 2015!

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Best film

I loved the latest instalment of the Hunger Games, I was unimpressed with the final Hobbit movie. I was moved by 12 Years A Slave, and I’ve watched Frozen more times than is appropriate to mention.

But a couple of weeks ago I watched The Imitation Game, which is definitely my film of the year. It’s a beautifully acted and shoot work and captured the haunted genius of Alan Turing in exquisite detail. He knew what he needed to do and couldn’t cope with the distractions and tangents others insisted on pursuing. A goal kept him focused.

Some have objected to the film for its use of the story to campaign and promote homosexuality. Yes, there is a campaigning edge to it, and I probably wouldn’t subscribe to all the associated goals of those who use it as a campaign tool. But in the midst of debates over sexuality and marriage the church often ties itself in knots. I think Christians, in an attempt to protect the view that marriage is only ever between a man and a woman, are sometimes passively coerced into supporting or opposing more than they should. The treatment of Alan Turing was shocking, and should never have happened, and Christians should not be afraid of denouncing cruel treatment wherever it occurs. What’s often lost in such debates is that the Church of England was one of the leading voices calling for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the 1950s, insisting then (as it does now) that such a position can be consistent with not endorsing them.

There’s sometimes a spill over effect with beliefs and attitudes, if I believe this then I must also believe that. It happens in the United States where policy positions on taxation, gun control and the environment become rolled into a basket of political positions that become ever more tangentially  connected to their original beliefs. We have to be on guard for why we stand for or against certain things and not axiomatically assume one thing leads to another, or that because we oppose certain people on certain issues we should oppose them on other issues as well. That’s the way you end up with culture wars and Christians need to be more intelligent than that.

Best photo

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In March I was thrilled to go to Cambodia with Tearfund. As part of their bloggers trip I got to visit several projects close to Phnom Penh where they work with local organisations to mobilise churches and communities to deliver long lasting development. I was awed by what I saw. I saw people resilient even with the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge still lingering – like the fragments of bone that occasionally surfaced at the Killing Fields, the destruction he caused was not far from view. The pastor who walked miles home after losing his parents. The guide to the torture and execution prison who as a teenager was a forced labourer and whose body still suffers because of it.

I saw land that was beautiful, people who were thriving, and opportunities that were being taken. As well as writing about what I saw I took a lot of photographs. For several of the pieces I wrote I offered a selection of photographs, this one was used quite a few times. If you want to support the work Tearfund do in Cambodia you can.

Best graph

That disenchantment with politics I mentioned above, well this graph shows all the polls of the past four years along with a 15 poll rolling average. It’s going to be an interesting election.

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Best new discovery

This was the year I discovered Alissa Wilkinson’s film reviews. She’s the chief film critic for Christianity Today, and writes about film and culture and its intersection with Christianity. As someone frequently frustrated with sycophantic Christian reviews, or kowtowing to movie studios by dancing to their tune and unquestioningly promoting films with a vague Christian link, her writing is a breath of fresh air.

This, in defence of the magazine’s one star review of Left Behind, is among her best. And this about the upcoming film Unbroken was a fascinating read as well.

Most annoying feature on a website

Having said that, the multipage articles on Christianity Today really frustrates me. Never do I just want to read the first few paragraphs of an article before changing page, or another couple before clicking again. Maybe sometimes I do only read a little but surely they should want readers to view the whole piece.

Band of the year

Not a new band, but another discovery. Over the Rhine have dominated my playlist this year – this was the track that first hooked me. They also have a new album out.

I’ve given up on…

Controversies. Whether it’s Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, I’ve not had the energy nor the inclination to engage with them. I’m over trying to find a way to write strong enough words to make my disagreement heard, but in such a winsome way to command respect from those who I disagree with. Often I’ve thought about writing something only to be glad not to get around to it.

I’ve fallen in love with… 

The church. The local, known, accountable, seen body of Christ which I am a part of. The controversies that rage on twitter, fought out in vying blogposts have nothing on the long hard work of forming a community of disciples striving to make new disciples. In a time of celebrity commentators tied to nothing but their own appearances and likelihood of success it is reassuring to be known and to know others.

I was aware while in Cambodia that development agencies come and go but the church remains.

I’ve also thought quite a lot this year about authority. A verse in John 19, where Jesus before Pilate responds that Pilate only has authority because it has been given to him by the Father, has resonated with me time and time again. This is freeing, liberating and reassuring, especially at times when I most unsure of what I’m doing. But that freedom isn’t just an individual thing, it helps us in relationships, and helps us become part of the community of believers working out our faith. Being a part of a church is where that dance of freedom and authority works itself out – all with the realisation that we’re not going to get  it quite right just yet.

What I’m ready for

Peace. It’s Christmas, we talk about it as a time of harmony and joy when often it’s one of rushing and frustration. I’m ready to stop for the year and spend some time with my family. With four small children under four around it won’t be quiet, but I’m not entirely sure that’s all peace is about.

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But there’s a wider peace that I’m looking for, searching for, desperate for. The hurting of the world is manifold and impossible to ignore. Whether school children murdered in their classroom in Pakistan or families grieving for loved ones killed by a truck in Glasgow while Christmas shopping. There is pain in this world, sometimes almost too much to bear.

There’s war that refuses to cease, violence that does not end, and we can seem powerless in the face of its relentless advance. The most powerful of the Christmas words for me is Emmanuel: God with us. It’s not a panacea, it doesn’t remove pain, but it reminds us God became human, became known, came to earth and suffered. He doesn’t run from pain and hurting, from what we’ve done and been done to us, he stands with us and takes the pain.

While I’m ready for peace, I’m glad for the Prince of Peace while I wait.

What I’m waiting for

On New Year’s Eve I fly to New Zealand, actually to China before jumping on another plane. I’m away for most of January, a mix of work and holiday, about which I’m incredibly excited. In some ways it has distracted from the lead up to Christmas, only confirmed a fortnight ago I’ve not had time to enjoy the anticipation and put it to one side and get on with what I’m up to right now. Instead it dominates at the moment, and as much as I’m ready for the Christmas break, looking forward to the food and my family, and some much needed rest, I’ll be looking forward to New Zealand throughout.

And I wonder if there’s a bigger lesson in that. The excitement of the greater thing distracts from everything else. It’s there in Exodus 33 when Moses turns down a blessing from God if he doesn’t get his presence. It’s then that Moses is placed in the cleft of a rock as God passes by.

What I find myself constantly waiting for and reaching after is that overarching thing that dominates what I’m doing and gives me purpose in pursuing everything else. There are plenty of things that keep me occupied and excited but one thing gives way to the next and then the next.

In 2015 I’m looking forward to a year that will no doubt be busy when I want quiet, boring when I thirst for action, crowded with people when I want time alone, and without company when I am lonely. I am sure there will be excitement and frustration, joy and disappointment. But with it I hope it is also a year of purpose. Quite what that purpose is, I’m not quite sure.

Remembrance in the shadow of the Berlin Wall

On the 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached. For the previous 28 years crossings had been made, and many more attempted and failed, with those fleeing from East to West shot as they sought freedom. The line that stood between East and West crumbled that night as guards looked on bewildered as their commands to fire never came, as families cleft apart for a generation were reunited.

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In the weeks and months leading up to that symbolic ending, the façade of the Cold War slipped and the decayed state of the Eastern Bloc became visible for the world to see. The Soviet Union refused to send tanks into Poland to support the communist government. The Hungarian leader told Soviet leader Gorbachev that his border with Austria would be neglected and unguarded if he didn’t get the funds to reinforce it.

Gorbachev was a communist but his actions and inaction hastened the decline of the Soviet empire and brought the Cold War to an end. It was an economic decision as much as anything, the cost of maintaining an empire was one that could not be afforded. Gorbachev reasoned that dispensing with the satellite states might give the Soviet Union scope to prosper. Instead it gave permission for collapse. Those countries that attempted to maintain a one party communist dictatorship soon fell, the crowds took impetus from the revolutions across the border, in Czechoslovakia peaceful protest led to the Velvet Revolution. In Romania Nicolae Ceausescu desperately tried to cling onto power but after his security forces fired on protestors violence erupted, he was ousted, charged with genocide and killed by a firing squad on Christmas Day, just six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I was five when the wall came down. All I have ever known is a world in the shadow of the Cold War. We did not watch the fall of Soviet states in Eastern Europe in my primary school classroom (but I do remember my year one teacher switching on the TV just two weeks later for the first televised parliamentary debate). Continue reading

A Baker, a Sign Maker and a Printer walked into court

A printer, a sign maker and a baker walk into a courtroom. And if this sounds like the start of a joke…

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The printer stands accused of refusing to print a leaflet backing the death penalty and therefore committing political discrimination against people who want the death penalty reintroduced. And presumably also discriminating against dead people.

The sign maker is charged with racial discrimination – he wouldn’t make a sign for a shop that wanted to put up a ‘no blacks allowed’ notice, and therefore is guilty of discriminating against people who are not black.

The third is a baker who wouldn’t bake a cake with a slogan supporting the introduction of gay marriage. This, apparently is discrimination based on sexual orientation, and religious because the bakery cited the religious beliefs of the owners as behind the refusal, and political discrimination, because they’re disadvantaging people with a particular political view.

And this is one big joke. But not the kind with a witty punch line, but the sort that leaves you hanging your head in despair. These three examples all surely exist in the category of ‘you couldn’t make it up’. For the first two I have made them up, but the bakery is a real example, and they are now being pushed to court by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland.

First of all let us be clear what this is not. This is not a case of a Christian refusing to serve someone because they are gay. Those ‘no blacks allowed’ signs were taken down for a reason, and more recent equality legislation extended protection and you cannot refuse to a good or service to someone because of their sexual orientation (with protection also for age, gender, religion, marital status as well as race). There’s been controversy over this, and concern for what happens when these protections might come into conflict, but in Great Britain at least the legal situation is clear.

In this situation the sexuality of the customer is not relevant, the customer could have been gay or straight, the issue was not who the customer was but the cake they were ordering. If the cake was for a same sex wedding ceremony it would be a clear case of discrimination, that they made wedding cakes for straight couples, but not for a gay couple.

Secondly, I should clarify I have a very limited understanding of the law in Northern Ireland on this point. It differs from Great Britain and includes provisions relating to religious and political discrimination which I imagine were designed due to the particular history of the nation and the religious and political tensions that run through it.

As far as I understand the law in Great Britain (and of course it may be different in Northern Ireland) one is free to choose not to publish political campaign material if they disagree with it. So I can choose whether or not to print a poster advocating the death penalty, or cancelling international development, or I can refuse to print a sign for a political rally. Yes, this is a form of discrimination, in the same way a shop not serving alcohol to someone under 18 is discrimination, but it is legal.

As far as I can see the choice not to bake a cake with a campaign message in favour of gay marriage is part of this latter category, it is the choice not to endorse a political message, and not the discrimination against a person on the basis of a protected characteristic.

Who, exactly is being discriminated against here? The customer for not being served, the baker for being told their religious views should not be allowed into play, or the cake for not getting Bert and Ernie gracing its icing?

The bakers were not discriminating based on the sexuality of the customer because both gay and straight people campaign for the introduction of same sex marriage. This wasn’t religious discrimination because the religion of the customer had no bearing on whether or not they were served.

The provider’s beliefs did make a difference but is this now suggesting that people are unable to make decisions over what they do or don’t do based on religious belief? The most obvious example is whether the same approach in Great Britain could be taken to force a doctor who objects to abortion on religious grounds to carry out abortions because to not do so would be religious discrimination.

I suppose the logic of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission is that in refusing to make this cake on the basis of their religious beliefs Ashers bakery were discriminating against people who did not share their religious belief. A comparison to this logic would be to take a Christian newsagent to court for not selling pornography which they object to on grounds of their faith. The newsagent down the road who took the same decision but without any religious motivation would be free not to sell pornography. Absurdly, to apply the regulations in this manner would be discriminating against the Christian newsagent for taking action on account of their religious beliefs.

Comparisons are frequently made between LGBT rights and the civil rights, some of which are fair, others are questionable. In this case, the comparison would be for someone who refused to print a ‘no blacks allowed’ sign to be guilty of discrimination. This is ludicrous, nonsensical and of course shouldn’t be allowed.

Neither should this current action against the bakers. If it is allowed to continue it is shutting down public debate, and a supposedly independent equality commission is acting as a coercive force stopping those who disagree with changing the law from the freedom to stand by that political opinion.

This is not about gay rights, it is not about homophobia. It is not even just about religious freedom (although it certainly is about that), it is about ensuring that fundamental freedoms of political disagreement and debate are not undermined and dissenting voices protected and not prosecuted.

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Read more:

My colleague in Northern Ireland has also posted on his blog ‘Are the Equality Commission baking mad?’

Peter Ould posted similar thoughts to mine on facebook

Scotland: Henceforth forward the honour shall grow ever brighter

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If I owned a kilt today is the day I would wear it.

Today is a day for unity and solidarity. After a campaign designed to see the United Kingdom pulled asunder, in the wake of its failure is a never greater need for reconciliation.

Voting is sometimes easy and done with little thought, but this vote was not. Deciding the future of a nation is not a small step. I woke up in the early hours to follow the results as it soon became apparent that the surge in support for Yes, and for an independent Scotland, had shrunk slightly in the closing days.

The votes have been counted and the politicians leading the no campaign are reaching for their prepared lines or hastily redrafting speeches to express just the sufficient amount of pleasure without taking on a patronising tone. Or for those pushing for a yes, acknowledging the people of Scotland have spoken but trying to salvage scraps of victory to take away from the counting table.

In the days and weeks to come the pledges the party leaders cobbled together to give more powers to the Scottish Parliament will be tested. The yes campaign will want to squeeze all they can out of this defeat, well others will feel the promises lacked any mandate and will seek to back pedal on further constitutional change.

But I am sure change will come. It may not look exactly like what Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband promised, but it will come. It will also not just be about Scotland, as more powers go to Holyrood great the pressure becomes to revisit the powers of those MPs representing Scottish constituencies who have a vote over issues that do not affect their areas. This is not simple, you could exclude Scottish MPs from voting on these matters, but that would also need to apply to Welsh and Northern Irish MPs for the more limited areas of devolution there. You could also create an English Parliament meeting at Westminster to decide English only MPs, but once again, what about those votes affecting England, Wales and Northern Ireland? This would also be problematic, because what if the government has a majority for UK wide votes but not for English matters, or vice-versa?

More ambitious ideas, and you could sense the twinkle in the Liberal Democrats’ eyes, include a fuller federalisation of the United Kingdom. Voices have also risen up calling for regional devolution, whether for the North of England, or the Greater Manchester region.

My prediction is that the Government will attempt to give the Scottish Parliament more powers early next year, but this will be delayed and pushed beyond the election due to objections within the Conservative Party. In the Prime Minister’s statement this morning he announced that the changes would be agreed by November and draft legislation published in January, whether it gets further than that is dependent on the good will of his backbenchers. The broader constitutional questions will then become a key part of the electoral battleground at next May’s general election.

I don’t have a kilt to wear today – a checked shirt is as close as I can get. If I were to have a kilt, it would be the Buchanan kilt, as that’s the clan I can trace some roots to. Their motto seems particularly apt today: “Henceforth forward the honour shall grow ever brighter”.

It is my hope that Scotland and the United Kingdom will benefit from staying together. But if, for whatever reason times become hard, I am glad we get to find a way forward together.

Today is a day for celebrating unity, but also for acknowledging that unity does not simply happen, it is a task we have to give ourselves to, commit to, and persevere with. There are many months of hard work ahead, for the politicians as they seek to honour their promises. And for the Scottish people as they continue to live side by side with those whom they have disagreed so passionately and campaign against these past months and years. And it is here that the Church can play a role. It can bring people together, it work for the common good, it can help build a society rooted in values that are not restricted to vote winning manifestos or coalition compromises.

For Scotland the brave, please don’t leave

Facebook-20140914-124754Watching Braveheart won’t be the same, it won’t have the same sense of irrational patriotism – cheering the Scots to rebuff the English won’t feel quite the same. It’s illogical, it is borderline nonsense, but seeing the resistance against the invading armies and the defence of their nationhood seems more stirring knowing that three centuries later it was a Scottish king who took on the united crown of both countries.

When the Union came it was not an invasion, it was not the conquest of a marauding army, but the coming together of two countries.

I have a little Scottish blood in me, I occasionally consider getting a Buchanan tartan to mark that part of my heritage. I have never lived there, visited only a few times, but it is a connection I do not want to lose.

And this week I’m scared about what might happen. And I am saddened too. The idea of a United Kingdom without Scotland seems wrong, it’s like a wedding where the groom doesn’t show. This is no more than an emotional defence of why I want Scotland to stay as part of the United Kingdom. I have heard the arguments – I have seen them shift like the sand beneath tidal turns. I have watched the politicians make the case for independence, and the counter arguments against them. I have listened and tried to comprehend the financial, constitutional and political dimensions of the debate and in each there are reasons why Scotland might want independence, but they fall short against the logic, the romance and the attachment of the Union.

Scotland might be better off if they kept all the revenues from their oil, but they would have to deal with a national debt on their own. They may want to retain the pound, but no one is quite sure how that would work without leaving one union only to re-enter another straight away.

The devolution of powers to Scotland caused all sorts of constitutional niggles – not least the West Lothian Question whereby Scottish MPs have a vote in Westminster on matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and therefore have not impact on their constituencies. But what happens if they vote yes, do MPs stand in 2015 and hold their seats for a year, what if those seats are what ensures a governing majority?

There are certainly political issues at stake, the Conservatives have not fared well north of the border in recent years, their standing in Westminster would be much stronger without Scotland, the dynamics of politics in a Scotland-less-union would be very different. And yet they put aside short term political opportunism to stand for a Union that is more important than who governs it at any particular point.

And this is because this decision goes beyond the logistics and the politics, and the practicalities of how it would work. Maybe Scotland might suffer financially, maybe the rest of the UK might be changed politically, but while those are the battlefields the independence debate has be fought on, they are not the field upon which it will be decided.

Facebook-20140914-124801Despite all this I’ve not really engaged with the campaigns, and perhaps that is because I don’t have a vote. Or maybe it is because I have no doubt how I would vote. This is not a decision that rests on the tactics or strategies or the policy promises. It is not about the preening of the politicians or the caricatures of each other’s character. It is about the gut. I care more about the result of Thursday’s vote than I have about any election I’ve observed.

I have leafleted for local council candidates, I have canvassed for prospective parliamentary candidates and I have the wonderful record of never campaigning for the winning candidate. The disappointment of standing at the count and seeing the candidate for a council seat you have work with for weeks lose by a handful of votes fades into insignificance against the prospect of Scotland ceding from the Union.

Needing a passport to get into Scotland isn’t a big deal, if you fly you need it anyway. Even changing currency is a frustration that would be swiftly accommodated. The pain of this divorce would not be in the short term logistics, or the financial turmoil it may lead to. The pain is in the decades and centuries to come when the Union that stood through centuries, that brought peace and stability to these isles, that worked together, accommodated differences and thrived on unity, is only a relic in the history books.

And that is the thought that saddens me, that what made us strong, what helped us through strife, what stood against foes internal and abroad, has slipped away. That’s why I am hoping beyond all hope that Scotland votes no.