The Human Face of Inhumanity

The February General Synod debate on the sanctioning of benefit claimants for non-compliance with complex bureaucratic procedures might have become monotonous. Everyone who was called was against them, though one or two made a low key defence of the principle that there must be some control over public expenditure.

What saved the day,  was the almost farcical litany of crazy decisions which might have been amusing were they not to result in serious difficulty for ordinary people, in real cases of hardship. One became almost transfixed as one outrageous decision vied with another for the accolade of worst decision to illustrate the point.

Two examples fixed themselves in Brother Ivo’s recollection.

There was the claimant who had suffered a burglary overnight, and telephoned the Work and Pensions Department to explain she would be late because the police were at the home undertaking forensic examination and needed her presence. For that non-attendance on time, her benefit was suspended for some weeks. She could appeal, but that did not help in the immediate future. She needed the help immediately but this was being ignored.

Even worse was the woman with disability who set off in good time to catch the bus. When it arrived, the mechanism to lower the bus platform was faulty, so she was cheerfully invited to wait for the next one: that was no problem, she had given herself time …except the later bus was cancelled, she arrived late,  and she suffered benefit sanction for weeks. She could appeal etc etc.

One response is to ” blame the Government” and many will, although as indicated, there is a legitimate point in initially requiring claimant compliance when public money is disbursed. That argument slips when it is put to those defining the policy, none of whom is likely to defend such decisions.

Former MP and Synod member Tony Baldry urged members to take the problems to their MP’s surgery, yet surely they are hardly likely to defend the indefensible and one can be sure that the Ministers in charge will blame operational malfeasance.

Nobody invited us to consider the role of the local offices and their staff.

It is at that banal level that such evil is perpetrated. Somebody hears the facts, and decides to sanction the woman who has just been burgled. Somebody goes home to cook the supper having devastated the lady who couldn’t get on the bus.

What is this about?

Are they stupid, cruel, undertrained, bullied by superiors or simply callous?

Do they ever think “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt” or are they like workers on a slaughter line,  blotting out the sensitivity, on the basis that “its a job” or even that “I was just following orders”.

It it is maybe here that the Church should apply itself.

Instead of joining the queue at our MP surgeries, maybe we should be talking to centre staff, their superiors and their trades union representatives. If our faceless bureaucrats are having their humanity checked in at the staff entrance door, we need to know why. If they are having to meet refusal quotas, we need them to tell us.

At present, those making these bad decisions have no “skin in the game”. They suffer no consequencesfor crass  decisions made. Nobody is engaging with them, getting alongside them to ask how such bad calls happen and asking what can be done to put an end to a public scandal. We cannot help them if we don’t hear them. Only when we understand what discretions – if any – exist , and how we can restore the exercise of common sense will we see these examples disappear from our public authorities.

What is happening in our public administration is partly the responsibility of individuals, and it is at that level that humanising it must begin.

Sharing Archbishop Justin’s Confidence in Christ

At a time of challenge, the Church of England is very fortunate to have at its head, one of its most respected leaders for many years.

The recent story of his own history, within a very human messy family life, resonated with believers and non- believers alike, and part of this arose out of the fact that he made perfectly clear that his own sense of identity could survive, because of his clear and unshakeable confidence in Christ.

That confidence is not passive, only comforting him when life’s vicissitudes bring difficulty to his door. It has actively directed choices.

Although many may have forgotten, this quiet, prayerful man has previously given his own personal safety to God’s grace when he stepped into a boat with armed terrorists in Nigeria to negotiate the release of hostages, many in this country retained a sense of respect for him that derived from this and stories like it.. They may have forgotten that he first telephoned his wife to say goodbye in case he should be killed by those to whom he was surrendering his safety, but with every story , an unconscious sense of authenticity is added to our subliminal memory that here, at least, is a public figure of integrity.

Even better, he speaks like a normal person.

Unlike his fine but stereotypically academic predecessor, Archbishop Justin sounds like people we know: more articulate, perhaps , more prayerful – certainly – but  nevertheless just like us. He also has a familiar sense of his own fallibility. He does not rely on his own strength but on Christ alone.

Brother Ivo recently heard him describe how he responded to his early church’s encouragement of the young pre-ordination Justin Welby to join them knocking on doors during its evangelisation week. He hated it. He is , in that, “just like us”

The Lord  clearly had plans for his hesitant follower however.

As a result of that recollection of embarrassed Englishness, he confided that when it comes to speaking of faith matters, he now has his own personal mantra; before every press or television interview, just before the first question he says inwardly to himself “Don’t forget to mention Christ”.

He doesn’t.

You cannot engage with him with any serious question, whether it be migration, tax or family without him bringing it back to his deep personal relationship with Christ. He does what it says on the Mitre.

In Archbishop Justin we have a priceless asset, a leader who naturally and authentically shows to the world what It is to have a daily engagement with Christ in prayer , and how this can affect how we live in a way that many will secretly envy.

In a video released yesterday, we are being given an opportunity to share that witness. Young people especially are receptive to this kind of testimony. They can spot a fake.

Justin Welby is no fake.

Many of us are shy to speak so openly of our faith as he does. Whilst it is certainly ” his job ” to do so, we should not underestimate what that costs him in daily devotion and struggle, to maintain hope in a world where that often becomes very difficult.

That he does so is testimony to what Christ gives to his faithful. He lifts us up.

So why would Christian people not want to learn from this? Why would we not want to share it?

Now we can. Through the magic of the digital world, you can let the Archbishop encourage you in your doubts and point you to the way in which you and your church can share what he wishes to give, which is quite simply, what Christ has given him.

All you have to do is click here That is what Brother Ivo did, and he shared it with you,

Go and do thou likewise.

 

 

The Church remains inadequately prepared for “Digital Evangelism”.

Brother Ivo is not – and should not be – privy to the secrets of the in-house discussions of the Church of England when it comes to the delicate financial and staffing discussions surrounding the creation of the Digital Church initiative.

He is an informed outsider.

He is also free to ask questions, raise awareness, make representations, provoke debate and draw conclusions from what is said and, equally importantly, what is not currently being said.

It is not difficult to draw agreement from the Church Institution about the need to engage with communication. It has ever been thus.

Early Churches did well not to economise on the costs of scribes to copy the early Pauline letters- they might have decided otherwise but did the right thing for us, investing in communication to the benefit of the Church of the future.

The creation of Illuminated manuscripts was costly, in training and implementation. Printing was a challenge, as was the advent of film; Brother Ivo once enjoyed a hilarious conversation with the woman who first secured access to catalogue the Vatican Film Archive, which was an unexpected treasure trove of important early material for the history of cinema. At an early stage, the 19th Century Popes recognised the importance of the new medium and engaged with it.

Social Media is older than we recall. The magisterial Archbishop Cranmer Blog recently celebrated its tenth Anniversary. It continues to be the benchmark for quality and sheer dogged determination to produce weighty and well considered material on a virtual daily basis. Those of us who have attempted to replicate such outreach know the impossibly high bar it sets. One suspects that only political prejudice has prevented the Government from honouring that blog’s founder for services to Christianity and the development of Social Media.

Amongst the other noteworthy exponents held in respectful affection by this blog are DigitalNun and Bishop Nick Baines, yet in this fast moving field we are seeing younger initiatives emerging.

The text based blog  is giving way to the “vlogger” – the digital blogger who shares short film. Brother Ivo must give a brief promotion to TGI Monday and the Virtual Pastor – both coming out of Lichfield Diocese. May Lichfield show the way!

At the February Anglican General Synod we had no scheduled report dedicated to this aspect of the programme called Renewal and Reform, to the newcomers and no illustrated presentation for those new Synod members who have no real notion of what can be done,  or how to conceptualise “Digital Church”.

That absence was nevertheless raised, with an early question to the Business Committee about the absence of a current budget and the fact that if that budget is not in place soon, it will be problematic to call the authorities to account quickly because the York Synod is already virtually closed to new business by reason of a continuation of the ” shared conversations”

The progressing of Renewal and Reform at that Synod focussed on spending £50 million on Ministerial Education; with the shared conversations and sexuality dominating the time on the next occasion, if there is no budget approved by July, the Issue of Digital Church may not pressed by the Church’s elected representatives until after next February.

That would not be a mistake it would be an outrage.

Canon John Spence is spearheading that initiative. Brother Ivo has confidence in him and his team. He did tell Synod that an 81 year old is 8 times more likely to attend Church than an 18 year old. Whilst discussing Evangelism we were told that most Christians have engagement with the Church before they are 25. After that, reaching the ” lost generation” becomes increasingly difficult and unlikely.

Yet our focus  last time was on examining the minutiae of spending £50m to train people to be Ministers who do not currently know that they have a calling; they cannot come ” on stream” for the best part of 8 years.How many young people will have been lost by then?

That budget would have financed a sophisticated professional Digital Media outreach to the young for over ONE HUNDRED years! Such a programme could be formed up and running within a year for an annual budget of £350- £500k per year.

Brother Ivo is not against training vicars, but the contrast in terms of money and focus is arresting.

Jesus taught ” Where your money is so shall your heart be”; he spoke of the Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to their own devices whilst he stakes all on the rescue of the lost. We seem to prioritise circling the wagons and doing what we know well, rather than embracing” the scary new” and heading off in search of engagement with those who, as yet have no idea of their need of Christ.

Synod was briefly reminded, this is not a ” budget for social media” – it is a “budget for the evangelisation of the un-churched young”. Yet a year after announcing it the budget is still not allocated.

We, as a wider church, do not seem to have understood that young people no longer obtain their news, opinion, culture or affirmation other than online, yet, when we were joined by young people in the pubic gallery for the debate on evangelisation, it was noticeable they were looking at their mobile devices throughout. Maybe, like Brother Ivo, they were following the parallel debate online amongst those not called by the Chair!

Yet actually doing something about this remains institutionally problematic and currently under addressed. The last Brother Ivo heard the all important budget consideration had been put back to later this month.

Canon Spence did assure us that all will be well, and that the powers that be will get this done, and Brother Ivo accepts his bona fides. No apology however should be made for flagging up the problematic delay that plainly has occurred. The Canon is a diplomat negotiating his way through the labyrinthine processes of Church House; fair enough, but do not assume that all is yet well in the development of this vital outreach.

It is important to set this strand of the Renewal and Reform agenda in its missionary context.

Currently the CofE has 58,689 Twitter followers. The KitKat chocolate bar has 310,401 twitter followers.

Strip out the CofE payroll vote and the story looks incredibly bleak.Yet ask some questions.

Both have a message; each is saying ” look at me” in a culture where every individual makes a daily choice to pay attention to a few of the myriad messages that comes his/her and to ignore the many.

When somebody invites us into their social media world it is an immense privilege. They are giving us permission to break into their world 24 hours a day and to offer our story. It is a preferential position, a great honour to be trusted to that degree. It says- “Your message / story / opinion is important to me and I allow you to tap me on the shoulder and share your thoughts in the midst of my busy day”.

Why would we not be interested in developing such relationships? Why would we not respond to that invitation by offering that person the best of our care love and intellect?

You may be sure that Kitkat employs a highly professional team to calibrate its message into simple and accessible terms. Do you sense that the Church “gets it”?

What does is it say about our attitude to mission that we are so meagrely   engaged in perfecting our skills in responding and developing that outreach. Yet if the person to whom we outreach likes what we say and how we say it, will they not share it with their  friends, cousins, yoga class, book club etc?

The crazy thing is how cheap and cost effective it is to make wider communication. It costs no more to communicate with 5 million people than 500 once the message has been devised and professionally executed.

Digital outreach is a highly professional industry; the Church would be mad to try and reinvent it when there are brilliant professionals out there ready to take away the stress of creative content, keeping up with new platforms, negotiating the licences for the necessary analytical software that underpins the cutting edge targeting of the best campaigns.

We cannot imagine how our message can be packaged for the unchurched young, but we can employ those who can.

There is another aspect to worry about. How many Bishops are “owning” this project? Are our leaders priming our Ministers to seek out evangelising content on the web and to share it with their congregations? There is a already a lot of good material out there, but we seem very poor at seeking it, recognising it and sharing it. We do not have to be good creators of suitable material but we can all be digital evangelists.,sharing the good news at the click of a button.

Brother Ivo closes with an industry story that needs to fire our hope and ambition.

A top advertising agency secured new business and sent the pitch document round its creative teams with the brief to find an angle to make a successful campaign. It was a rather dull prosaic product and many of the top creatives in the agency shook their heads and passed it on until it reached the team that always got the scraps off the table of the more established players. Nothing worked when they did the expected, then somebody had a mad idea.

In that moment “Compare the market” became “compare the meerkat”. The rest is marketing history.

Oh that we in the Church had a similar digital Damascene moment when we realised that our faith can be shared in new and attractive ways.

In the modern era we have the chance to reach many many more than our forebears; but do we have the imagination and drive to make it happen?

Might you, for example. share this amongst Church folk you know, might you raise the need to “click and share” so they too may appreciate the opportunities for evangelism that are slipping away every time we see something online and fail to pass it on?

 

Will Helen Archer ever forgive herself?

Whether one follows the radio drama “The Archers” or not, the drama of the abused wife Helen finally “snapping” and stabbing her husband has gripped the nation with the storyline being seriously analysed on Woman’s Hour and now the flagship Radio 4 news program Today.

It is clever production, and they have plainly been well advised as to how emotional abuse is conducted, denied, and concealed. It has raised awareness of a problem that arises throughout the country, amongst all manner of peoples, and frequently the victims of such behaviours are children. Now, perhaps, people will better understand how victims are silenced by manipulative abusers who are very clever and skilled at it.

It might not be a bad thing if some of the lessons are applied in ecclesiastical circles, both in being alert and not accepting glib explanations, but also perhaps in being a little kinder to some bishops who , like Pat , the hapless mother of the victim. was taken in by the “kind concern” of her son in law.

The average vicar, and even bishop, is rarely a match for a skilled practiced abuser; it is uncomfortable to say it in the light of so many dreadful stories of clerical abuse, but we often have to learn to forgive ourselves which is the main thrust of this post.

We have seen the Archers explore one aspect of the drama, but will they be equally well advised to explore the aftermath? Will Helen ever forgive herself for her dramatic break out of the abuse, or for falling into it in the first place?

Let Brother Ivo share a true story, for he was once involved in an even more tragic event.

An elderly man whom we shall call W was a cultured, kindly, devoted family man. He was well known and respected locally and had had a heroic war, coming to the UK when his own country fell behind the Iron Curtain. He probably suffered a degree of survivors guilt which came out as his homeland became free. In later life he suffered dreadful depression

One morning he went downstairs, made his wife a cup of tea and returned to find her dead in bed. He called the undertaker – a family friend – who duly called the doctor to certify death. It was only when they moved her body that they discovered the dressing gown cord around his wife’s neck.

Somehow, inexplicably this loving husband had killed his wife. As the story was explored – the police were kindly and sensitive – it became clear that his deep depression had precipitated the tragedy.

Brother Ivo got to know him well over the subsequent months, and listened as he sorrowfully recounted the depth of the tragedy.

W had appreciated that his own depression was an increasing  burden to the wife who he loved; he was desperately sorry for her, and did not know how to help.

In a striking phrase he explained ” I know that in the moment I did it, it seemed the right thing to do – but I can never recapture that logic”.

He was content for justice to take its course – though what justice is in such a case is problematic. He was content to co-operate with the judicial system which he valued and respected, he co-operated with all the necessary reports , but he wanted nothing out of the process for himself.

We  would spend some of our time together discussing the nature of evil – he was interested in Arthur Koestler on the subject – and would  gesture to his fellow inmates , who were a rough lot, but they liked and respected him and treated him well. He would say ” these fellows have had so few chances in life; I have nothing but compassion for them – but I can find none for myself”.

At his trial he was sentenced for manslaughter and the High Court Judges sentencing remarks sounded more like a eulogy; both he and the hardbitten lawyers in Court were visibly moved. A Hospital Order was made.

A year or two later, Brother Ivo was surprised to have a visit from W who had been allowed out under escort. He had been putting his affairs in order, and we had tea together; he offered thanks for the support Brother Ivo had given in his most difficult time; his family were supportive and things were as good as they could be.

Shortly afterwards, W was dead. He had hanged himself. He had put everyone important to him at ease and then executed himself.

Is this what happens when we cannot forgive ourselves? Does hopelessness triumph?

How many people are equipped in this modern age to handle this most complex of dilemmas? For all our emotional sharing, what can the mechanism be for those without faith when they are called upon to handle tragedy at this depth of sorrow?

In the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde – who knew a thing or two about tragedy. self loathing and remorse – we find the line “For each man kills the thing he loves..” and in the two examples we have been considering, we see that being worked out, one fictionally , one in real life.

For all our modern emotional openness and self reliance, all but the truly psychopathic can lacerate themselves with guilt.

Yet those of us who follow the risen Lord Jesus have a clear pathway to dealing with this problem

. Giving one’s guilt to the suffering Christ may seem easy – almost like a “get out of jail free card” but the truth is that this only truly works for us when we first recognise, and own, our responsibility.

Jesus takes away the sin that we have first owned, as our own, though repentance. Yet once owned and offered to the crucified Christ, it is taken into the tomb with him – and left there , like the folded grave clothes. Only then can we rise with the risen Christ to live again.

Wilde understood Christianity better than many of his secular admirers appreciate.

In an open letter De Profundis, addressed to his ex lover Lord Alfred Douglas, he recognises that his own fall from grace was, in a tragically beautiful way, the necessary beginning of his own redemption. At the end of his life, he would not have had it otherwise. This is a long way away from the superficiality of much of the self help advice offered today.

Christianity offers an emotionally literate way to free ourselves from such tragic guilt, though we do not pretend it is easy.

It will be interesting to see if the Archers writers can explore this equally compelling part of such tragedies with a similar degree of depth and psychological insight.

Those who find themselves in real life in tragedies akin to that of the fictional Helen suffer a double tragedy when the outcome of their despair follows the path of the tragic W, who never found the path to forgiveness which was as close at hand as his his saviour’s love.

 

Migrant Children – compassion is not enough.

The plight of unaccompanied migrant children has been attracting much media attention in recent days and political capital is being made about the Government’s disinclination to set an early number on how many children  it is willing to admit, whether those accepted are best drawn from the refugee camps of Syria, and whether the proposed 3000  are within, or in addition to, the Government commitment to accept 20,000 refugees in all.

It is very easy to express anger at an apparent slowness of pace, and this is but one of many issues where “virtue signalling” becomes widespread.

Given the current net migration figure of 333,000 per annum, the number involved looks very small but anyone with experience of such matters will have begun unpacking the complexity of the task that is in prospect.

Each year the Child Protection Services of England and Wales are already charged with the task of finding new homes for some thousands of children removed from their UK birth families, by reason of either an actually or perceived risk of “significant harm”.

It is a task which they find very difficult to keep up with. The entire process of advertising  for carers, providing them with relevant information , meeting, vetting, matching  volunteers and then introducing individual children to their possible carers, is both complex and time consuming. Even after placement there is a considerable necessity to monitor and follow up; some children will have ongoing therapeutic needs given their experience of broken family.

A significant number of such placements, whether temporary foster carers or long term adopters, fail, with particularly damaging results to the child concerned.

Older children are notoriously difficult to place, not least because they tend to have longer histories of disturbance and/or rejection. Failed placements hit these young people especially hard.

In the final stages of Care Proceedings, where Placement Orders are considered. Courts are regularly reminded  – and if not , many Judges remind themselves that – “The State is a notoriously bad parent”.

Look at the statistics of young people falling into crime, substance abuse, homelessness, depression or self harm and you will find those with a history of State Care significantly over represented within that cohort.

The young girls abused by the Rotherham sex abusers were all in State Care, and as we now hear of a young Swedish volunteer murdered by a 15 year old refugee, we see that the venue of the attack was a hurriedly put together hostel to “warehouse” young people whose numbers have overwhelmed the normal assessment processes with appropriate risk management.

In the UK we already have a significant “backlog” of unplaced children numbering several thousand. Distasteful as it is to say, certain children are more “marketable” when it comes to securing stable long term homes. The new born are plainly easier to place than those with a history of psychological disturbance and multiple placement breakdown.

Every would be substitute parent has a choice, and whilst there are saints – many drawn from the Christian community – who will deliberately take in the child with restricted life span or acute disability, there are a large number of children who struggle to find suitable matching.

Again it is distasteful to record, but it is a fact, that mixed race children are over represented in the cohort of those still awaiting placement. The arrival of new children into the pool of those awaiting new families will negatively impact upon those who have already been waiting too long ,

Any consideration of the acceptance of refugee children needs to take place in the knowledge of such facts as they stand on the ground.

“Calling for” children to be admitted is easy; managing their arrival involves a huge logistical exercise for a system that was already struggling before the problem of unaccompanied refugee children presented itself.

Many of the new children will present specific problems.

They may come from multiple cultures. Do we try and match them, as was always regarded as a proper approach?

Do we try to place a Muslim child with a Muslim carer? Leaving aside Sunni/Shia complexity, many of our own Muslim families come from the Indian sub-continent. Not only is there a massive cultural and linguistic divide, but those cultures do not have a tradition of fostering and adoption – in difficult cases within such communities extended family routinely steps in.

There is no criticism behind this, simply a recognition that matching is not straightforward if one begins to apply the usual standards of finding suitable matches to maximise the prospects of success.

Are we going to place such children with gay couples? How will that play out if the young people are kept in touch with their ethnic communities in some fashion, or do we abandon any attempt at cultural sensitivity?

Many of these children will have had very traumatic experiences. Will the well meaning volunteers be up to the task that their kindness leads them towards?  The full measure of the impact of this was brought home to Brother Ivo when he recently read that since 1999 over 130,000 US War veterans have committed suicide.

Will we warn would-be carers of the full gamut of problems which they may encounter?

Some of the children will have learned a hard form of independence, having already  lost a capacity to trust, a steely self reliance and possibly a recourse to sexual manipulation, which may come as a shock to carers, as behaviour is exhibited either towards other children in the household or the carers themselves. This is especially the case where children have been rescued from traffickers.

Many of the children will have learnt to act beyond their years and be unwilling or unable to give up the self confidence that got them across Europe. Some will claim to be younger than their true age whilst, counter intuitively, others will pretend to be older to preserve a degree of self determination. Giving over your hard won self determination to complete strangers may not come easy.

All of the considerations – and more – will come into play as real desperate needs cry out to be met.

Brother Ivo’s is not a voice against meeting the needs of such vulnerable children, but if those charged with making the plan work seem slow, cautious, or bureaucratic, we must appreciate that getting a good outcome must be the first priority.

Making it up as we go along is not a good strategy.

A successfully integrated outcome of rescued children akin to those who benefitted from the Kindertransport programme of the 1930’s is one to be aspired to. Many of the dispossessed children we are now looking to take will have much greater histories of trauma than the who were sent from Nazi Germany.

If we do not meet the children’s needs in a broad, well planned individually considered, long term fashion, we shall simply produce a resentful cohort of angry, let down ,adolescents ripe for radicalisation and resentment.

It is more important to implement the right measures than simple to admit numbers to satisfy our desire to feel good about ourselves. We should get on with the task purposefully, but not without careful planning and proper resourcing.

Compassion is not enough.

In what way do we “Belong”

Three story lines seem to be dominating the news headlines at the moment and each has the same underlying question.

Much of a recent “Today Programme” was devoted to the commitment of £20m of public funds to increase the capacity of Muslim women to speak English; a major story of last week, centred upon the issue of whether the Anglican Communion could hold together in any meaningful semblance of unity ( Hold the front page – it can! ) ; and it will not be long before the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European community returns to prominence in our news channels.

The underlying theme is that of “belonging”.

That may not surprise philosophers and theologians; in our secular age, many have cut themselves free from ties of connection which formerly answered their questions of identity, and unsurprisingly human beings, who are social animals, look for “people like us” with whom to associate.

Go to a comedy club, an art exhibition which “challenges” social mores, or any anti-Establishment demonstration, and you will find a collection of folk with remarkably uniformity in their collective attitudes proclaiming their counter cultural credentials. Individualism isn’t what it used to be.

Underneath all the three issues I have identified – and doubtless many more- lies the old questions “Who belongs?” and “How do we know?”,

The second question discloses an interesting divergence of discernment technique. One can draw up a collection of rules and demand allegiance and compliance; one can simplify them into a checklist of questions – a score of 95% and above gets you in the club. This is a very black and white technique – and yet encompasses an inherent weakness.

What if one plainly and strongly scores well on 94% of the criteria but weakly fails the final 1%?

A binary approach lacks any concept of “weight”.

Take the vexed and recurring issue of what it is to be “British”.

There are any number of criteria which could be suggested. We could invite nominations to add to a “basket” of matters to be evaluated. These might include, understanding of the complexities of our still largely unwritten Constitution, but also, inter alia, a love of sport, sentimentality towards animals, and an interest in Television soap operas and reality shows. Yet one who scores lowly on all of these factors might redeem themselves by the sheer weight of enthusiasm which they display towards gardening and the Royal Family.

On the European front we might test our commitment with a similar cultural comparison. Imagine a Football World Cup Final between a British Home Nation team and a South American opponent. There may be a few die hard fans of another Home Nation who would cheer for the opponents but wouldn’t most UK citizens instinctively identified with the British option? Now imagine the match is between a South American Team and an EU partner side. Would you assume a similar generalised identification? Probably not. In fact many of us have more in common with our American or Australian cousins than most of the EU population with whom we are nominally encompassed.

The gravitational pull of some identities are plainly stronger than others.

The more Brother Ivo reflected upon this the more he appreciated that the more incisive question is not “ What are British Values” “Why are we European” or “What are the rules of the Anglican Communion” but a rather more diffuse one.

“In what way does this person belong?

Posing the question in such a way allows the individual to offer up their case in personal and broader terms. You can hear and evaluate their choices of priority, their tone of voice and even more importantly, the warmth with which they advance their claim to belonging.

As the Archbishops depart from the 2016 Primates Meeting they can be judged by the content of their communiques and explanations; we might bring out our clipboards which may be annotated with our chosen questions, so that by their responses, we rule them in or out of association. We might even have a selection of preferred trigger words or phrases by which we label them as sheep or goats. “Inclusive” … “Bible believing”, “Inerrant” , “diverse” – you know the kind of thing.

Archbishop Justin has set the bar for inclusion into the Anglican Communion pretty low. If the Primates want to continue “walking together” they may freely do so; if they don’t, they are free to wander off. That is not weakness but a recognition of the reality of the institution, but it is more than that.

It is a permitting of each of the flock to determine whether there is enough of core identification present to enable them to continue that ‘walking together”.

Whilst many would have liked the meeting to have centred upon the principle points of division, the meeting explored their Catholicity which is not only a highbrow concept of what it means to be Church, but also enabled them to identify through prayer fasting and worship the many areas in which they are and remain very much a community which belongs together.

Brother Ivo does not know whether they specifically asked themselves to look across the room and ask “In what way does that brother belong?” but much of final position implies that they might thereby have assembled not only a lengthy list but one of considerable weight.

Jesus wished all his people to be as one; His is the voice of the Good Shepherd to which the flock individually and collectively responds. Even the lost sheep continues to belong, but we are surely united in our faith that the Master will not easily abandon them.

We may identify that we belong on a variety of levels; often that implies exclusion, but the ultimate test of belonging may be more generous than we realise.

Dogged Theology

It is Little Dog’s second birthday today.

At the moment she looks like a rather fluffy Dalmation, but in a couple of months she will be back looking like a Rastafarian Old English Sheepdog with “cords” more typical of the breed.

The Spanish Water Dog is a ” primitive breed ” which, though comparatively new to Kennel Club registration, is depicted in paintings over a thousand years ago, and thought by some to be the origins of both the Spaniel and a Poodle families. If you cross those dogs in various forms you end up with an approximation of what was known in Spain as the ” Turkish dog”, Spaniel ears and Poodle coat ,though more rustic. They probably originate in the Middle East and made their way to the Iberian peninsular via the North African coast. They are cousins to the Portuguese Water Dog made famous by President Obama’s dog, Bo.

Little Dog has been the Inspiration for more than one sermon.

She has a name, but is commonly referred to as “Little Dog” as a reminder of the Syrophonecian woman who used such creatures to model the supplicant nature of all those of us, scarcely daring to hope that we to might share in the feast, but asking for inclusion anyway. She teaches us that persistent petitioning has its reward and thus encourages us to pray in similar hope and expectation.

When preaching before Christmas on the meeting of the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, Brother Ivo’s sermon centered on that part of the story where Elizabeth reports St John the Baptist “leaping in the womb” at the approaching Messiah.

The ancient Jews had a custom of never speaking the name of Jehovah or Yahweh: there are two words that cannot be spoken in Little Dog’s presence. They are spelt out w-a-l-k and b-a-l-l.

Imprudent use of the words launches Little Dog into paroxysm of enthusiasm, characterised by joyful leaping!

Do we contemplate the coming of the Messiah with anything like such a response? We ought to and are put to shame by our canine friends in their expressions of delight.

She is not always active.

If one is tired, ill, or despondent, one finds oneself accompanied by quiet reassuring companionship, wordless but nonetheless valued. Dogs seem to have a talent for empathy from which we all may learn. Simple presence is sometimes enough for the downcast, but often we withhold even that.

Finally there is the trusting faithfulness.

Leave Little Dog alone and on return she will be found by the front door patiently waiting her master to return. It may be hours; when Brother Ivo’s grandfather died, his dog would go to the end of street to sit patiently as he had done lunchtime and evening throughout their lives together.

Do we show such faithful patience? Do we not regard our time as the priority, our wishes pre-eminent, our needs to the for? Maybe when God leaves our petitions in abeyance there is a higher priority and we need to sit and abide our Master’s wishes, as Little Dog seems content to do.

Of course, tomorrow may be different; she may be racing around, being a playful nuisance, showing her guarding instinct by barking at every household visitor, chewing up a rubber ball under the sofa, but today she is being addressed by one of her more affectionate nicknames  which is ” the Finest Dog in the Kingdom”; just maybe if he learns and follows some of the simple virtues she displays, Brother Ivo might have a sporting chance of joining her there.

Why I signed the Letter to the Archbishops

Today a letter has been publicly addressed to our Archbishops as they meet with other leaders of the Anglican Communion to address the divisions that painfully exist around our understanding of gender and sexuality.

The text of the letter is relatively short. Perhaps it needs to be in order to attract signatures from as wide a spectrum as possible: had a more detailed or nuanced letter been offered, the negotiations over amendments would have been prolonged and taken the process beyond the available deadline for publication.

Dr Martin Luther King Jnr spoke of the ” paralysis of analysis ” and sometimes the pressing needs of the times requires us to unite behind a less than perfect proposition.

Here is the letter in full

The Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

The Most Revd and Rt Hon Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York

Your Graces

We the undersigned ask you, our Archbishops, to take an unequivocal message to your meeting of fellow Primates this week that the time has now come for:


Acknowledgement that we, the Church, have failed in our duty of care to LGBTI members of the Body of Christ around the world. We have not loved them as we should, and have treated them as a problem to be solved rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ to be embraced and celebrated. We have made them feel second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, often abandoned and alone.

Repentance for accepting and promoting discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, and for the pain and rejection that this has caused. We, the Church, need to apologise for our part in perpetuating rather than challenging ill-informed beliefs about LGBTI people, such as the slanderous view that homosexuals have a predisposition to prey on the young.
We understand that the Primates come from a variety of contexts with differing ways of interpreting the Scriptures, but we urge you to be prophetic in your action and Christ-like in your love towards our LGBTI sisters and brothers who have been ignored and even vilified for too long.

Please be assured of our prayers for you at this time, and that the world will know by our words and actions that everyone who is baptised into the faith is of equal value in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yours sincerely

Brother Ivo was amongst the earliest oppponents of the redefinition of marriage; he is critical of many of the tactics adopted by some supporters of the wider LGBTI agenda. Yet when invited to join the initiative he felt it important to accept.

Being a great supporter of the institution of traditional marriage was never necessarily antagonistic to gay people; one can hold such a position whilst fully supportive of the need for our gay friends to enjoy legal rights and securities which Civil Partnership conferred – and more.

Brother Ivo shares the view of like-minded, much-loved, gay friends who say “we can never be married – we are not male and female”. Yet is perfectly possible to wish to uphold traditional marriage and to simultaneously to wish to embrace and celebrate gay relationships as they are, for what they are.

In parenthesis, Brother Ivo is not greatly enamoured of historic apologies: we have more than enough of our own deficiencies to repent, without donning second hand sackcloth and ashes.

Yet reading this text there is an important core of truth.

We as a Church are not always welcoming to those who are “different” in a variety of ways: we have prevaricated for too long on this subject probably out of cowardice: we are frequently insensitive to gay Christians as they seek to join in our worship of The Lord and offer service to the needy. We know that in some parts of the Communion, the Church remains complicit in some dreadful treatment of gay people legally and culturally and we ought to have been more active against it.

Brother Ivo knows from professional engagement that the confusion of homosexual orientation and paedophilia is mistaken,

These thoughts alone would probably have been sufficiently persuasive, but the sermon by the Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa at the Westminster Abbey service at the opening of General Synod was decisively influential . The sermon was entitled “Rebuild my House”.

Set within the context of our leaving behind historic and unnecessary division, Fr. Raniero urged –

“We should never allow a moral issue like that of sexuality divide us more than love for Jesus Christ unites us.”

Those words should be etched onto all our hearts.

In the spirit of this, bridge building is needed, and so it was that Brother Ivo reminded himself that if we are going to find a way forward, compromises will have to be made. If he presses compromises on others, it seemed incubent upon him to set an example and to accept “the good ” even if it is not “the nuanced best”, even if does not say all that he might wish in the way he would prefer.

Making that choice is not cost free. Asking Christians in other parts of the world to remain within a more gay friendly communion,  asks them to accept greater tension with Islam in areas where that is a hard ask- easier for us than them.

Yet it is the treatment of our gay brothers and sisters in Africa that also made a difference for this Christian. Even the firmest upholders of strict biblical interpretation within our own country are surely troubled by the oppressive legislation throughout much of the African continent

We must, however trust our leaders and allow them some “wiggle room” – not being too prescriptive in our expectations as to how they present and when they they raise these issues. Sometimes in negotiation, the timing is as important as the substance. What is agreed on the fourth day would often have been impossible at the outset

If the talks break down, as well they might, Archbishop Justin has already said that the door will remain open. That is good.

One might therefore ask, “Then why sign the letter” at all?

At the last General Synod, Brother Ivo attended the launch of the Church Army course on sharing the Gospel “Faith Pictures”, at which Archbishop Justin confided his own early embarrassment when asked to join in public evangelisation. Even today, he told us that his personal mantra immediately before engaging inevery interview is ” Don’t forget to mention Jesus”.

On that basis, one trusts he and Archbishop John will not take it amiss if they are invited to adopt a similar mantra as they enter these present discussions –

” Don’t forget the pain of our LBGTI brothers and sisters”.

Do we need a liturgy celebrating Companionship?

Companionship is one of the deepest of human needs.

When God contemplated the singular human being he made in Adam his first response was that “it is not good for man to be alone” and He immediately fashioned him a companion, one with whom he could break bread – for that is the derivation of the word.

Towards the end of his life,  Jesus seals his ongoing companionship, not only with his immediate companion-disciples,  but with all future followers, when he breaks bread and distributes it to future generations, so that we too are drawn into a relationship of special significance, we with Him and He with us.

Companionship takes many forms. Some describe themselves as “soulmates”, special people with whom similarities and differences can be shared with a special confidence, and with whom discord and loss is felt with particular acuteness. Other relationships may be less intimate but no less meaningful.

Companionship is important not least because both in its desire and fulfilment, it is God Given.

We might pick examples of companionship from a multitude of sources biblical, personal, even fictional.

In 1 Samuel 18;3 we are told “And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself”.

At John 21;20 we read  – ” Peter turned and saw following them the disciple that Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper”, a signifier of close companionship even by He who loved the whole world.

Close companions are not immune from discord. Consider, in a secular non-sexual context the songwriting partnership of  Lennon and McCartney; they are inseparably linked as the embodiment of an era; they became estranged, but who can doubt that the loss of John Lennon was felt especially deeply by his rival/companion Paul?

We could easily make a lengthy list, which might include inter alia Boswell and Johnson, Holmes and Watson, and then there was Grey Friars Bobby.

We almost define our humanity by the relationships and loyalties which we develop and sustain, and few of us would wish to experienced prolonged periods of loneliness, even if we had our eight favourite gramophone records to remind us of happier times.

The bond of marriage is a recognition of such companionship, though in practice that comes in a variety of forms. Few of us can know the interior lives of most marriages, but the well documented and unconventional relationship of Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville West was both challenging to most of our notions as to what a marriage should be, and yet touchingly human in its devotion.

Sexual relations may or may not feature in marriage or companionship; in the right context it is plainly a fortifying blessing. It can also be a stumbling block and a difficulty to be negotiated patiently and sensitively, sometimes with suffering, as with the marriage of Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard.

The more one thinks about this subject, the more textured and complex it becomes. Companionship is undoubtedly a blessing which is identifiable when seen, but difficult to define.

Last year, soon after his election to General Synod, and as he realised that he was going to have to address difficult issues of sexuality, Brother Ivo was recommended the book “Covenant and Calling” by Robert Song. It  has been one of those works to which one’s mind returns from time to time to reflect on events as they arise.

As a prelude to its exploration to the nature of non-procreating relationships,  Robert Song offered the interesting invitation to consider that, whilst marriage is an institutional good, it is, in Biblical Terms, a temporary state.  It may be the right context for the multiplying of humankind, yet our heavenly future lies in a relationship beyond marriage, with God, and within that relationship, all who can be will already be; there will be no reproductive imperative in heaven, and all need for companionship will be fulfilled in the restored relationship with God through the sacrifice of Christ.

This longer perspective matters. Marriage is not a sine qua non of salvation indeed Robert Song reminds us that initially, celibacy was the more recommended status for believers. Our needs for earthly companionship were recognised as strong and so the accommodation of human desire was acknowledged as the Church matured.

Not all good intimate relationships of trust and vulnerability are marriages; whether married or not, they may or may not have a sexual component.

When they are deep, meaningful, and defining of identity, should not the church not have a liturgy of blessing for them? We may debate the qualifying criteria, but in principle..?

Everyone in the Church knows we are going to have to look again at issues of human gender and sexuality, and many dread it because we cannot see a way through without pain and fracture, yet this book opens up the thinking on the subject without being dismissive either of traditional scriptural thinking or of the needs of those who suffer pain and rejection because of their minority orientation.

Is it  even possible to reconcile such diversity of views within a single institution? Many think not, but we do declare that with Christ, all things are possible, and exploring a liturgy for Companionship  may be part of the process by which we edge towards the seemingly impossible.

How we approach these issues obliquely without polarising the discussions immediately is, of course, the underlying question facing our Archbishops as they engage with the diversity of Primates from across the Communion in the coming days. It will also arise during the term of office of members of the newly elected General Synod.

Robert Song was a University tutor of Archbishop Justin. One suspects that the theological subtlety and integrity of “Covenant and Calling” will have informed the preparations for the meeting of Primates. Certainly the openness of our Archbishops in  not setting an agenda of their devising, but rather inviting the attenders to prayerfully construct their own,  is entirely congruent with the exploratory spirit of Robert Song’s writing.

In the last General Synod there was significant support for two Members motions; neither was debated whilst we awaited the outcome of the  “shared conversations”. One motion affirmed that marriage was between a man and woman, the other seeking to open it to gay people.

In a time when some are prepared to espouse the cause of “gender fluidity” it was interesting that there was not a motion to take us beyond thinking soley in binary terms.

Is this all we have to offer?

Will moving the needle of opinion from 49% /51% one way to 51%/49% the other way do anyone any good all – least of all the institutional Church?

Robert Song may help us to approach the subject from a very different angle.

Not all gay people want to get “married”. Indeed some share entirely the traditionalist view that ” we cannot be married – we are not male and female”. That cannot be the entirety of the discussion, unless we see early fracture of the Communion as a desirable outcome.

One only has to listen to the pain expressed by those who have tried to live lives of fidelity to traditional models of gender, and “failed” to reconfigure their orientation, to understand the peace we could confer upon them by celebrating “Companionship-Covenant Relationships” even without conceding the entire surrender to the redefinition of marriage.

Let us not ignore those in deep non-sexual relationships for whom such a liturgy might also be a blessing. A rite that was serious in intent, low key and inclusive might offer a useful contrast to the razzmatazz of some of the wedding parties we see using our Churches as a backdrop.

At the conclusion of the book, which is a prolonged invitation to think about these issues deeply and seriously, Robert Song writes as follows

“..we might make a start by pondering observations such as the following; people will be drawn to the good by beauty rather than forced to it by the law; romantic and erotic desire point us towards God rather than away from God: it is better to make goodness possible rather than condemn where it is absent; marriages and committed relationships exist for goods beyond themselves, not just for the mutual satisfaction of the parties, and so on.” 

Earlier, reflecting upon how we “seek emotional survival and retain a degree of persona integrity” he suggests

..part of this is looking for guidance and reassurance from sources of authority that make sense.. not those that lay oppressive burdens of moral rectitude, but those that manage to evoke in people some sense of personal meaningfulness and hope of a way forward’.

That sense of the discussion opening the way forward, to re-examine the importance of relationships – of all characters of seriousness and  meaningfulness- seems to Brother Ivo to be important.

If Synod were to consider developing a liturgy celebrating  companionship, a celebration of ” all this is, and all it may please God for it to be” it would be a “good” not only in and of itself, but also as a prelude to the discussion of what marriage is, whether we retain it in its traditional form or bow to the zeitgeist.

Brother Ivo has always been a defender of traditional marriage for a variety of reasons which he may re-state another time. Yet the contemplation of a liturgy which blesses companionship, for the Davids and the Jonathans, and many others, does not seem to him to be Biblically offensive.

Prioritising the debate of such a liturgy may even be profoundly beneficial to the restoration of marriage as “an Honourable Estate”, from which it has frankly slipped under the weight of secular redefinition.

That is not a reference to the re-definition of “marriage” for gay people, but rather by its morphing into a rather vulgar consumer fest of which this is but the latest rather gross example.

Such lavish extravagance  poses the question, which is the greater affront to the Institution of Matrimony; which treats it with more serious and God centred respect, the performance art of the celebrity bash, or the request for extended affirmation of the companionship of those who love God and seek to serve his Church within their calling?

“Covenant and Calling” does not take us to the promised land where all will be well; if we were to explore a liturgy to celebrate companionship, we will still have to touch upon issues of difference , but we would be doing so in a context in which the world can see that we are open to explore and celebrate goodness with a seriousness that often slips from the debate when it is is conducted in unsophisticated terms.

 

Is Donald Trump the new Cassius Clay?

Brash, boastful, boorish, successful, not much of a gentleman, riding for a fall, hated – all words and phrases that might be applied to Donald Trump at a time when many British people have petitioned Parliament to ban from entry to the UK, the man who could become the next President of the United States of America.

Was it not only a few weeks ago that we entertained the Chinese Premier without any such foolishness, notwithstanding that the Chinese Government is infinitely less congenial to British values than ” The Donald ” will ever be?

What his detractors appear to miss is that Mr Trump thrives on the disapproval of those who dislike him. Both in this, and the full set of unflattering epithets listed above, Mr Trump resembles none other than another upstart braggart hated on these shores – one Cassius Marcellus Clay, the ” Louisville Lip” whose outrageous pronouncements propelled him to become both the heavyweight boxing champion of the world – and in later life, to the status of “National Treasure”, under his new name, Mohammed Ali.

In public perception as in theology, one can be “born again”.

Along the way, Ali flirted with some borderline racism in his association with the Black Power movement. He upset the Establishment, sporting and political, and eventually won his detractors round by doing exactly what he said he was going to do.

America loves success and forgives winners.

Could this be the fate of Donald Trump? He is certainly talking a similarly good game. He also has the media dancing to his tune.

His promise to ” Make America Great Again” resonates with many of those who once threw reason and caution to the winds to deliver with acclamation a landslide victory to Barrack Obama, who had similarly stepped onto the National political stage with no record of political achievement but a lot of populist rhetoric.

The public is fickle and may be again. Nevertheless, from time to time they take to an outsider. That certainly applies to the Republican Party field which is dominated by successes from outsider cañdidates. Trump, Cruz, Carson and Fiorina have all performed better than expected. Even Hillary Clinton now tries to step aside from her First Lady and Secretary of State status, and attempts portray herself as outsider champion whilst being challenged by another genuine candidate from ” Left field” in Bernie Sanders.

A dissection of the proletarians claims of Ms Clinton is best left to another time.

Like Ali, Trump is the master of the counter punch. Opponents who attack him see their subsequent poll ratings fall. You can’t best him on one liners and if you try to fight ugly, he can roll in the gutter with the best ( ie the worst) of them.

When Hillary Clinton accused him of sexism, he showed no squeamishness, and put into play her own complicity and lack of feminist outrage over the multiple women abused by her husband, and silenced by the Clinton “War Room”. Asked if his own less than pristine marital history was also in play Trump disarmingly answered ” Of course”.

Like Ali, he dominates both the centre of the ring, and the pre and post match interviews. He intimidates many, so that they are emotionally beaten before they begin. What is especially alarming to the political Establishment of both parties is his extraordinary personal resources- which he has not even begun to spend yet. Ms Clinton is very rich woman – her net worth is about $38m : her husband is worth around $80m. Mr Trump’s income last year was approximately $400k

Getting into a financial battle with a Donald Trump is like entering a bleeding competition with a blood bank. This even intimidates National Parties, especially the GOP that is terrified of him running as a third party candidate.

Unlike the British, Americans love this.

For the first time, the inner beltway Washington political machine and the lobbyists who work within it are bemused; they have  an opponent they don’t like, who they can’t outspend, can’t crush, can’t shame, doesn’t need their money and can dictate the terms of fight as a complete loose cannon. Joe Public USA loves the sport.

So does this make him the next GOP President?

Possibly, but far from certainly.

Those who think Ms Clinton invincible are drawn largely from those who thought the same when she fought Barrack Obama. Her husband’s legendary campaigning skills nor their formidable campaigning machine  did not save her then, and not only does she have her own vulnerabilities today, but her husband’s charm may not cut it with the new generation of PC voters they helped to create: they may be less charitable towards his predatory behaviour than the electorate of 16 years ago.

If you talk to Boxing fans about which fighters from another era could live with the supreme Mohammed Ali only two names are offered.

Rocky Marciano’s record is better, but those he fought were inferior to those with whom Ali contended.

In more recent times only one name recurs, that of the Canadian born Lennox Lewis. He was never so popular, but had a formidable physique, great technical ability, was equally resilient and of greater stature. He might have had what it takes to defeat the self proclaimed “Greatest”.

Of Donald Trump’s opponents there is also one whose raw intellect outguns even “The Donald’s” intimidating 154 IQ. He too is a Washington outsider, one who can draw and hold not only those who dislike Donald Trump, but those who adore him : that should not be underestimated.

He is younger, even more hungry, forensically equipped to dissect the Clinton record and has a cleaner record than either of his possible opponents. His name is Ted Cruz: he too was born in Canada.