Monday, 31 December 2012

Mental illness

The perception of mental illness in the Western world is not very good. If I am honest, we have come a long way since we were burning schizophrenics because we thought that they were demonic. But we still stigmatise mental illness as something "dangerous" or "violent". The shootings in Newtown have only served to enhance this image, with quite a lot of debate about whether Adam Lanza was mentally ill or not, with the assumption that mental illness explains this sort of violent outbreak.

The problem is twofold here. The first problem is that mental health problems do not necessarily mean that sufferers are violent. Secondly, this would be a big problem if it did, because a very substantial proportion of people in the western world suffer, at some point in their lives, from mental illness. Let me address these two issues separately.

Firstly, mental illness exhibits itself in a whole range of forms. Many people who suffer from mental illness - including myself - are not particularly violent, any more than other people. Yes, some are violent, but then some people are violent without this as an excuse. There are also a whole group of people who suffer from mental illnesses who may react more violently than others, because they act out of frustration in being unable to cope with the world around them. The truth is that this is liable to be a violent outburst at a point where their particular frustrations are being vexed. This does not make them murderous, this does not make them liable to random shooting, any more than any other person.

Of course, there is the argument that violent acts, especially like the Newtown shooting, are definitively the act of someone who is mentally disturbed. There is a truth in this, that these explosions of violence are, often, the expression of someone whose mind has been warped by (often) hatred directed to them, by someone who has found no other way of screaming their anger at the world than in this way. But that is a short term mental aberration, something that can occur to anyone. It is not about mental illness. It is about how we teach people to deal with their frustrations, about how we train people to work out their frustrations, about how we actually deal with bullying in schools or workplaces. This is not about mental illness.

The other aspect to this is that we are, as a whole, very scared of mental illness. There is a terrific fear about people who suffer from it, that we might "catch" it from people, or that they might "go crazy" on us. While these are largely unfounded, it does mean that people do not talk about their mental illness. It means that the secrecy around this perpetuates, because it continues to be a problem "out there", and not something that affects anyone we could actually know.

The truth is that it almost certainly does affect someone that we know. In reality we all know someone who has some form of mental illness, because it actually directly affects near enough half of us, and indirectly affects every one of us (because every one knows someone who is directly affected). Mental illness is something that impacts and affects everyone, and the frustrations of not being able to talk about this, not being able to be open about it, are one of the things that drives some people to having to express themselves more aggressively, more violently.

What are the lessons we should be learning about mental illness from the Newtown shootings. Nothing is the simple answer, because mental illness is not a definitive factor in the shootings. It may be that Adam Lanza had mental health issues, but that does not mean that this was the reason why he shot the school up. The other lesson is that mental health needs to be talked about openly, because not talking about it is screwing us up, and is causing many of the problems that we blame them for.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Anarchism at Christmas

As a follow up to my last post, A few thoughts on why I see Christmas as anarchistic. It might help to explain Christian Anarchism better.

When the wise men came to visit, they first went to Herod, because they assumed that a person of importance would be born there. They were wrong. Jesus was born in an animal shed, not in a royal palace, not in the temple. He rejected the trappings of power and religion, to just get born. And his first visitors were not powerful or "important" people, but shepherds, a group who were socially discriminated against, not least because they were dirty and smelly. Of course, being born in an animal shed meant that this was not very noticeable.

The thing is, in his birth, he rejected the system, the hierarchy, he circumvented the powers that ruled in the land. At this point, he did not confront them directly, but simply said that they were unnecessary. That is anarchism in action.

 As he grew up, he followed the Jewish law, he was circumcised and had his Bar Mitzvah. But when he was left behind in Jerusalem, he was teaching the religious leaders! He was not just prepared to accept the things that they had to say, but challenged them and discussed with them.

Through his teaching years, he was constantly challenging the "established position", saying "you have heard ..... but I say......." taking the Jewish message back to the original concept of a relationship with God. His most common outbursts were against the religious leadership, who he denounced as being "irrelevant", because people could have a relationship with God without them. The one time when we see Jesus acting aggressively is in the temple, but once again saying "all of this is not needed". In fact, it got in the way of the place being a house of prayer.

And in the end, the religious leaders got rid of him because he was challenging their power system. He told people that the religious establishment was not needed, and so the religious establishment had him killed. Today, the religious establishment is not needed, but those who say so get sidelined. What the church needs is not more courses, more vision, more programs, more stuff. What the church needs is less of itself, less system, and just let people get on with it in their own way.

Saying so is the heart of Christian Anarchism. This is only one partial interpretation of the life and story of Jesus - you may not agree, and there are many other interpretations. My only point is that the Christmas story, for all of its retelling in schools and churches across the world, is a very anti-establishment story.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Christian Anarchism

I have struggled to find out how to describe myself and my position. I do not chime very well with David Haywards Christian Atheism style - that would seem to be the opposite of what I have done and where I am, because I am not rejecting God in any form. Yes, even the oppressive forms that I no longer find helpful or positive I still believe represent some part of God - maybe just one I cannot yet understand.

I was reading my copy of Geez magazine, which is an excellent resource for challenging Christian thought, and I realised that a form of Christian Anarchism is much closer to where I am. Of course, I cannot just take a title and leave it at that, I need to define it rather better for myself.

The problem is that anarchism has a bad name - it is seen and used as a synonym for violent, destructive acts and people. Whenever there are riots, it is the "anarchists" who are so often blamed for the smashing of stuff and the aggression towards the police. The truth is, I suspect, that they re scapegoated, and used as a justification for police force, but that is not my theme here. The point is, they have deliberately been used as a label for destructive forces in our society.

But I am not destructive. I am not out to destroy anything, at least not by violence. I am happy to destroy the edifices that have been erected in the name of Christianity, where they are oppressive. I am happy to destroy the ideas that people are forced to accept, against their rational minds, because this is what Christian belief says. But I am not out to smash churches up, or destroy peoples beliefs.

The other side of Anarchy, and especially Christian Anarchy, is that it seems to be strongly associated with a left-wing political perspective. Now, this is a natural connection, a rejection of authority marries very well with a rejection of the capitalist ideal. However, to associate with any form of political position is, it seems, to weaken the anarchist perspective, to accept that one political ideology is better than another is not anarchic, it is just revolutionary. Anarchism is about rejecting all political and structural answers - which means, conversely, accepting people who hold any positions.

Anarchy, in a true or literal sense, is about a rejection of externally imposed rule. For me, this mean a rejection of any systems having an authority to tell me how to be a Christian. It does not mean that  reject God as one whom I willingly submit to, and whose authority I accept. It does not mean that I reject the Bible - I don;t, I accept the Bible as a divinely inspired word to me. What I do reject is other people telling me what God is or is like, or how I should behave to him. I do reject people telling me how to interpret the Bible, what is actually means. I will listen, I will hear, and I might accept, but I do not accept that anyone has the authority to tell me how to run my relationship with God.

Somewhere along the line, if I don't take responsibility for this myself, then in what sense is it a relationship, in what sense am I a Christian, if my faith is totally defined by what other people say it is?

The point it about necessity, and freedom. It is not about destroying, it is about saying that church is not necessary for Christian faith. If you find it helpful or positive, then that is fine, but insisting on it is not. Similarly, insisting on a particular biblical interpretation means that you are limiting Gods revelation to one very narrow route. It may be a useful one, but there are others too, and others may be valid. It means that you and I have the freedom to engage with and experience God however we want, and however we find the most productive and useful.

Isn't this dangerous? Of course. That is part of the fun of it. If we are to take responsibility, we also need to take responsibility for keep in touch with others, for keeping ourselves going in the right direction. It means taking responsibility for exploring new dimensions of faith ourselves, drawing on the resources that are available, and being guided but not directed by them. It means not relying on others to interpret and understand the world around us, but doing it ourselves, doing theological exploration ourselves. Maybe it means working with others who want to explore the same sort of areas too.

If I were to relate it to music, I think anarchism is very often related to punk - so often violent, expressly anti-establishment, and so easy to define it as seeking to undermine the entire establishment. Which, in theory at least, it was. However my understanding of it is much closer to the dance revolution, the music I like and enjoy, which is a different form of anarchism. It is no longer anti-establishment, it is simply saying we don't need the establishment. The thing is the experience, here and now, not the record companies, the clubs, the "system". When you can put together music in your bedroom, when you can get it played to thousands over the internet, when you - a single individual - can take charge, and say that the "system" is not required, that is a far more sinister threat than the punk approach of smashing the establishment.

A Christian Anarchism which does not seek to destroy the existing way of doing things - if people find this helpful, then who am I to argue - but instead seeks to say "however, it is not necessary" this is a real threat to people who are heavily invested in the system.

This is Christian Anarchism. Not destructive, violent and nihilistic. But uplifting, freeing and exciting. Well I think so, at least.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Casual sexism

There has been a lot of twitter activity in my timeline about casual sexism, and the fact that it seems to be increasing. This made me wonder, and I am not entirely sure that this is true.

I should point out that sexism is wrong. There is no way that I would support or agree with sexist behaviour, and there is no doubt in my mind that there is sexist behaviour around, that there are many people who will denigrate others, based purely on their gender. The problem is, I think, rooted in the fact that men no longer know who they are meant to be.

It started in the 1960s, with the feminist movements. Actually, it started earlier than that, but I have to find some place to begin. the more aggressive feminist movements told men that they were not wanted or needed. They were hated. And we felt that anger. This is not to say that the early feminist movements were wrong in principle, just that they did not endear themselves to men, rather, they put men on the defensive. Actually, in some cases, they were wrong, because some of them wanted to build a new female hierarchy to replace the male one they so despised. If you want to know where that would have led, then Margaret Thatchers style and government is probably the closest we have experienced to this, and it is not good for men or women.

Then we got the "new man" - the man who was perfectly happy with the feminist equality principles; who would take on tasks around the house that had been female preserves; who would take their part in baby care, nappy changing and feeding. For some men, this was perfect, but for many, it had the effect of feminising them - while quite rightly encouraging their more "feminine side", it tended to dismiss and disparage their "masculine side". This, incidentally, is where the church, by and large, still is, and part of the reason for many of the problems the church as a whole is facing.

Then we had the "men behaving badly" phase, where ladishness became more acceptable, at least among younger men. It is easy to dismiss this as a simple return to an earlier stage, but it isn't. It is a reasserting of the masculine aspects, while not dismissing the feminine aspects of a person. The rise of the "ladette" is a part of this, where women are allowed to explore their masculine side too.

Incidentally, this is not my original analysis, although I cannot remember where I heard it - it may have been Elaine Storkey, but there were others who I heard and read, and it was a long time ago that this was being explored. I need to bring it up to date. This specific exploration is mine, however.

So where are we now? We are in a situation where men are very unsure of their position, and of their behaviour. What is more, we are now in a state where children have been brought up by New Men and Men Behaving Badly, and are also struggling to find their role model and place in society.

The result, sometimes, is that men are very confused. Please bear with me, as I am not excusing anything. The problem is that women have also developed differing styles and approaches - the aggressive feminist; the strong woman; the ladette; the sexual person (not object). Women, I think, are also confused with their roles, with so many different styles. So a confused man compliments a woman, and it comes out slightly wrong, because he is not sure what he should be. She hears it and doesn't know whether to be complimented or offended, and so may take the offended line.

OK, this is not how it always happens, but maybe it is more often than it should. Men flirt with women in work environments - I see it everywhere. Usually, it is not about wanting sex, or even wanting to sexualise them - it is about them trying to identify what the relations between them should be. This is often something that needs to be reassessed daily. Of course, sometimes it is about abuse or sex, and as such is unacceptable, but this "unacceptable" is not always as clear cut as it may seem.

Yes, some things are always unacceptable - treating others as objects is always unacceptable. But treating others as if they are also sexual beings is, often, intended positively. Sometimes the messages get mixed on the way out and/or the way in, but, more often than some people would like to admit, the intention is not sexist.

I would emphasise again that some people are sexist and see other people as sex objects, and nothing more. Their behaviour will often reflect this (although not always, so don't assume that the lovely person sitting next to you does not see you as a sex object), and this behaviour is also - separately - unacceptable. If you make it clear that you don't like being patted on the bottom, and they continue to do it, that is unacceptable. If you see him staring at your breasts, and then wear lower cut tops, then don't complain when he continues to stare at your breasts. Maybe, take it as a compliment that he considers your breasts worth staring at, and he assumes that your choice of garment means that you like to have them stared at. And slap him if he tries to fondle them.

I am not putting all of the responsibility on the women either. Remember that people that you work with are people first and foremost. They may be very attractive, you may consider that sex with them would be extremely pleasurable, but they are also people and it is important to respect that. Find, define, and remain within the boundaries of the relationship that you are in with them. Don't make assumptions.

Oh, and this works both ways. Women do make men into sex-objects as well as the other way round. Which only helps to confuse matters even more. Sex is one important part of all relationships, but never the most important.

And if we can stop shouting "sexism" to stuff that isn't, but keep it for the stuff that is, that would help everyone, I think. Most of the time, I suspect, it is not active sexism, it is just confused people trying to work out how to get on with each other.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

There but for the grace of God go I

This phrase is generally attributed to John Bradford, from the 1500s, and the contorted nature of the phrase makes it hard to understand and appreciate this concept. But once I grasped it, I realised that it was at the heart of my faith.

It does need unpacking. The real meaning is that I can put myself in the same position as another unfortunate, and am only not there because of "the grace of God". That can mean quite a literal sense, that God has kept me from that situation, but it can also mean that there is nothing that I have done, or that I could do, to separate myself from them.

The point is that this means I am no different from them. The fact that they have suffered or encountered some misfortune is nothing to do with them, the reality is that it could have been you in that situation, but wasn't. That is not because you are any better than they are, it is good fortune, or Gods grace that meant that you avoided it.

So criticising or condemning them is criticising or condemning yourself.

When someone goes mad with a gun in a school, and we ask "surely, someone who does that must be evil/insane/divine judgement" maybe we should just say that we have no idea why it happened, but accept that it could be me, if something just triggered wrongly. That is not to condone the actions, just to accept that the people who do this are not, at heart, different to us.

When someone is convicted of pedophilia, it is easy to say "they must be twisted, broken, evil, demonic" or whatever. If we rather say that it could be us, if we had not restrained ourselves, or we had been abused as a child, or whatever. There is nothing that makes these people "different" from us. That should give us a chill, and a new perspective on them,

When we see someone who is homeless, we can easily suggest that they have almost certainly used drink or drugs. That may be true. It is very likely that they have mental health issues, because a large proportion of them do. Drink or drugs may be a part of their problem, but they are rarely the whole story. But that could be me. It has been said that we are only 3 paychecks from poverty so we are not that far apart.

When we see people we do not easily relate to, people we are liable to reject, we need to consider this perspective, we need to say "there, but for the grace of God, go I". Not that they are right - it doesn't mean that. It means that they are just like us. It means that we could be just like them.

If God hates them, then God hates us. If we hate them, then we hate ourselves. If we accept them, acknowledge them, seek to help them, then we can accept and understand ourselves better.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Westboro Baptist Church

I have heard that Westboro are planning to protest at the funeral of the Newtown victims. I am as revolted by this as most people are and should be. @Rosamundi made a point that we should shout about this more and louder, so I thought I would do a blog post on them.

Now I do have a problem with being critical of another church. The problem is, I am all for Christian groups finding their own way, finding their own expression of their faith, and I don't expect to agree with it. I am adamant on this, that another groups expression of their faith does not need to meet with my approval for me to accept them as authentic Christians.

In principle, this should even extend to a group as extreme and as antithetical to my position as Westboro. In principle, it does, but there is another side that also needs to be considered. It is not valid to say that just because a group calls itself "Christian", and justifies its positions from the Bible, that we have to accept this as being valid.

Westboro preaches hatred. On their website, they even have a page about "the hatred of God". Their site is called "GodHatesFags", and they have sister sites of "GodHatesxxx". Their message is one of hatred, and their activity is a demonstration of this hatred. The work they do is to picket pretty much anything that they think will get them publicity, and any place that they can proclaim the hatred of God. I could go on, but this provides quite enough to start with.

"The hatred of God" - it is interesting that there is only one quote from the New Testament in their list, and this is itself a quote from the Old Testament. In total, they have 18 verses. This is not a lot to provide a fundamental underlying principle for your faith. What is more, a lot of these passages are about Gods relationship with his chosen people. The word used in their translation (the King James) is "abhor", which does not necessarily have the sense of "hatred", but also the sense of "reject" - the challenge from the Bible is to purify the church, to keep the chosen pure, and free from idolatry.

What is more, these expressions are about Gods reactions to sin and failing in the world. There is nothing in here which implies that we should express this hatred to others. This "abhorrence"is a way of expressing that God does not tolerate or accept sin. That is part of his nature, and a lot of the Old Testament message is about establishing this. Gods response to this is not to picket funerals of sinners, but to send his own sin to bring people to him. Gods actions in response to his "abhorrence" is to show love, to send his own son to love and die for sinners. That is the core Christian message, if you take the whole biblical perspective, and not just a few verses.

"God Hates Fags". Anyone who has followed their activities over the last few years will be aware that they have a particular hatred of homosexuals, something that drives the majority of what they do. I have posted previously on the very poor Biblical justification for dismissing homosexuality. The truth is that they have built their entire belief system on a very dubious argument. To express it as strongly as they do is utterly mistaken, and does not reflect the Biblical message at all.

What is more, their absolute and unrepentant approach suggests that, somewhere, they know this. Somewhere, they realise that their entire position is built on a false premise.

My understanding of the Christian message - which I fully accept may be wrong - is that God is intolerant of sin and sinfulness. However, most crucially, his ultimate response to it is to send Jesus. It is not to condemn, it is to show love, to seek to bring people back to himself. this is not weak, sissy, pathetic never-mind-all-is-forgiven. It cost Jesus his life. It is hard love, it is painful love, but it is about the one who cannot accept sin taking the action, and suffering to bring the sinners back. If the Westboro people were to go to Newtown to give care and comfort to those suffering, that would be a better representation of Christianity than making it all about them. Love, care and compassion, not hatred, is the core of the God I worship.

Westboro Baptist Church are not a Christian organisation. Their message of hatred is a deliberate misinterpretation of Biblical writings. The simple fact that they use Christian language, Christian texts, and style themselves a church should not hide the fact that they preach and practice hatred.

My God does not preach hatred. My God hurts and cries with the suffering. My God seeks to bring people to him, not drive them away. My God is not their god. I would like to apologise for the confusion.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


Once again, we are hearing the news of another school shooting in the US. Another tragedy, another 20 children dead. Another community devastated. There are a number of comments that I have seen on twitter, some of which are generating a lot of anger. I want to explore some of these responses.

"It's part of Gods plan". Often with the corollary that we cannot see  the whole picture now, but there is a bigger picture. I find this response makes me angry. I do not want or follow a God who has to include the murder of young children in his "plan". I do not want a God who has to inflict this pain and suffering on a community for his "plan". I want nothing to do with such a God or such a plan. The God I know and believe in is curled up on the sofa, sobbing, holding his head, screaming with the pain and anguish. He shares the suffering of that community. Or He is no God at all. Assuming everything is part of some "grand plan" is not faith, it is fate.

"Now is not the time to discuss Gun regulation" This is the response from President Obama, and I think he is wrong here. It is precisely this sort of time that there is a desire and a motivation for change. In the UK, whenever we have avoidable catastrophes, there is often an announcement of something to change and avoid this happening again. The reason is that there is then a desire and reason for Doing Something. This does not always create good laws or action, but often, in the longer term, it does make important changes.

"This should drive the banning of guns" Actually, this is also wrong. The reason for changing gun law, or making any other changes should not be outrage, but because it is the sensible thing to do. Gun restriction in the US - which I am all in favour of - should be done because the current situation is wrong, and leads to these sorts of tragedies. The problem is that Americans hold onto their guns like British people hold onto their cars and their right to drive. Both are causing problems.

The problem is that the "right to bear arms" is enshrined in the constitution by the founding fathers of America. They would, I suspect, be appalled at the recent events. When these rules were made, the power of existing guns was not that great, and at that time, self protection was quite an important aspect of life. We do not live in the same world today. The weapon used in Newtown was far more powerful than anything you need for simple self-protection. Maybe the rules should be altered to allow weapons to the same power as the most powerful ones available at the time of the constitution.

I think there is a place also for asking why people feel a need to express their anger in this murderous way. Surely it is worth taking time to help people deal with their anger and frustration. Surely there is something wrong in a society that drives people to this level of anger and frustration. This is not just a US problem - every society need to allow this sort of expression, in ways that are safe. The problem in the US is that, so often, this expression is violent and deadly. Addressing not just the weapons but the people is crucial. Somewhere, this is a people issue, and if we ignore the people side of it, we will fail. Americans will find ways of getting guns whatever, and the results may be even worse.

In the end, ranting is not the response at this point. Shouting and screaming that "Its all part of Gods plan!!", or "We need gun control!!" is not the total of the response to make here. At this point, we should be praying and seeking comfort for those who have suffered. We should be hurting with God for the pain that has been caused. And yes, we should have a reasoned commitment to make changes to the society that produces these hurt people.

My prayers and my thoughts are with the people of Newtown today. May God be with you in your anguish.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Do anything you want to do

Why don't you ask them what they expect from you ?
Why don't you tell them what you're gonna do
You get so lonely, maybe it's better that way
It ain't you only, you got something to say
Do anything you wanna do
Do anything you wanna do

This is the chorus of "Do anything you want to do" by Eddie and the Hot Rods. They were a one hit wonder, but it is a spectacular hit. It is an earworm too - once you hear it, you will struggle to get it out of your head. The title seems to indicate it is a rebel song, and it is, but I think there is more to it that this. I want to give it some analysis from where I stand.

Why don't you ask then what they expect from you? Good question. Why not challenge the establishment, the church, the systems and structures that you are in, ask then what they expect, what their demands are. Not least because you can be sure that they will actually be demanding more than they admit to.

Why don't you tell them what you are going to do? This is, in my experience, the place of freedom - when you start to define and state what your faith actually means. It is often a point of freedom just trying to work out what you are going to do, never mind actually telling your church or whatever how you intend to live your faith out. It is the point when you decide to make your faith your own, and not just what others tell you it should be.

You get so lonely, maybe its better that way. Well living your faith outside the church can be very lonely. It may be that this is the only way that it can be - that being apart from the church community is the better way. But it is lonely, and there can be a lot of rejection. Maybe its better, but it is not easier.

It ain't you only - you've got something to say. You are not alone. The truth is, however you feel, however you want to explore and pursue your faith, there are others who can help you. What is more, you do have something to say - to the church, to others, to the world at large. Never give up.

Do anything you want to do. This is not a call to faith anarchy. It is a call to follow your faith wherever it leads you - into church, out of church, wherever. And enjoy the journey. As they say in the verse "I know I must be someone, now I'm going to find out who". That is our life mission.

And after all of that analysis, it is still a good fun punk rebel song. Worth a listen whatever.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Jacintha Saldanha

Jacintha was a nurse at a top private hospital. Such a good hospital, that royalty used it when needed.

At 5:30 in the morning, one presumes towards the end of a long shift, the phone rang.

Quite why she answered it, rather than a telephonist, is not clear. maybe at that time in the morning, she was just close by, and took the call. The voice on the other end of the phone may well have sounded like the Queen at 5:30 in the morning. Having never had such a call, I wouldn't know.

So she put the call through to the Duchess of Cambridges suite. Where another nurse, presumably believing it to be the Queen herself, revealed details of the Duchess' condition.

This was probably wrong even if it was the Queen, but I am not sure I would have been the one to tell Her Majesty no. The staff are, I presume, used to important and powerful people using the facilities of the hospital, and calling for updates. That makes me wonder why there was not better security precautions, but, on the other hand, it does mean that having the Queen phone up is not an unreasonable eventuality.

The caller was, of course, a DJ from an Australian radio show, making a spoof call. People have said, hearing it over the radio, that it was clearly a spoof, that the voice was not very good etc. That is an easy judgement to make listening to a radio-quality recording, but over the phone at 5:30 in the morning is a different situation.

2 days later, Jacintha appears to have taken her own life.

It is not yet completely clear whether she did kill herself, or that the spoof call prompted this, but both would appear to be the case. This is a tragic end to a stupid prank. And it highlights very pointedly the dangers of this sort of prank - someone is made to look stupid.

Now anyone who has worked with me knows that I have no problem with making jokes at other peoples expense. But I am always careful not to humiliate people, not to make them feel stupid or worthless. I am never cruel in my humour, or when I am, I apologise, because that is not the point. It sometimes takes me a while to understand a new work colleague, to know what I can get away with and what I can't. In case you are wondering, yes I do get as good coming back at me, and take it in good humour. My experience is that it builds some great camaraderie - within the sort of people I work with, at least.

The truth is that this event, traumatic and challenging as it undoubtedly was for all of those involved, is not the entire story. I am sure that Jacintha had some history of problems, and may have been suffering from depression. It may be that she had some job history of small mistakes, or lack of attention. I don't know, and I don't care. What I do know is that she was working as a nurse, a profession that demands a whole lot from people - more than I could give - and often returns comparatively little. Nobody gets rich or famous from being a nurse, and yet our medical services would simply not function without them. the excellent sitcom Getting On showed this difficult role brilliantly well.

At some point, Jacintha felt that she could not continue, and her only option was to end her own life. That is a desperate position to be in, a terrible state to have arrived at. And yet many people hit that judgement daily and weekly. Some people do end it, while others don't - sometimes, the ones who do are the stronger ones. Some people live with the reality that their life does not appear to be worth living for weeks, months, years. Some people have to live with a member of their family having taken their life, something that stays with you forever.

Suicide is a terrible action, for all involved. To have been finally driven to this by a prank call is especially tragic. My thoughts are with her family - including young children - and friends, who have to deal with this in the glare of publicity.

For anyone who needs to talk, please do call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. There are other ways of getting in touch here

Monday, 3 December 2012


The long awaited Leveson report is now out. Not unsurprisingly, it has caused come controversy. Some of this has been cause by (deliberate?) misreadings of it.

I think it is worth pointing out that the enquiry looked at all sides of the various arguments, heard a lot of evidence form various people, and drew conclusions and proposals on the basis of this evidence. This is good scientific process, and it means that if you want to argue against the conclusions or recommendations, then it should be done by re-visiting the evidence, assessing it differently, and putting other arguments from the evidence.

It should not be argued against because "It doesn't seem like the right way forward".

What is more, David Cameron did state that as long as the recommendations were not "bonkers", he would implement them. The recommendations are not bonkers, so he should implement them - although that was a rather naive promise to make.

I was also interested by comments from Ian Hislop on "Have I got news for you", where he argues - not unsurprisingly - against any more regulation of the press. He makes two point, quite good ones, that a) the activities were already illegal, and so there is already legal recourse against what they did and b) if you break the law, you should expect to pay the consequences. As he has done on numerous occasions.

I think it is worth mentioning that nobody wants a state controlled press. That is a bad situation all around, and in this country, we have a long tradition of the media as a whole playing the fool to the authorities. It is an important aspect of our culture that those in authority can do stupid things, but they should expect to be pilloried in public by our comedians and have questions raised by our journalists. That is one of the core balances in our system, and it is critical to keep this, to ensure that those who have power are also subject to ridicule and challenge. State controlled media would kill that, and would be a disaster for everyone.

On the other hand, self regulation is not working and has not worked. The "hands off" approach had meant that serious abuses have been endemic in the industry. I heard Ruth Gledhill at Greenbelt this year explaining that she had no idea about phone hacking from within the business, implying that it was not as widespread as suggested. My suspicion is that Ruth may have been unaware because those around her knew she would have a problem with it - something that is not uncommon in work environments - and because she was not working on areas where this would have been used. But I don't know, and Ruth is quite welcome to respond on this. I suspect that it was widespread enough that it was considered a tool available for use by those journalists who would do anything for a story.

What I understand Lord Leveson to be suggesting (and I have not read the entire report, nor do I intend to) if for an independent body to oversee the press. That seems a good idea, someone to watch over the self-regulation to make sure it works. And that this is underpinned by statute seems to be a necessity, otherwise it has no teeth. The report could have been a whole lot harsher. the job now is to implement it, to put the British press back on the road to being trusted, at least to a greater extent than currently.

If  not, then clearly government control of the press is already happening, and we should all be scared.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Entwistle and the BBC

Well I did promise a non-church post, but had to post about the Synod decision. Anyhow, a few weeks ago, George Entwistle resigned as the Director General of the BBC, in the wake of the Savile enquiry and the Newsnight programme. This raises some interesting questions.

Firstly, while it did seem initially that this was an acceptance of failings within his area, the financial settlement does cast suspicion on his motives. He has server a few weeks and been rewarded by half a million quid. It seems that he had other motives, and his resignation becomes blurred, with his motives being rather more flexible.

However, the real problem is the negativity attached to the BBC in all of this. Let me make clear, the poor journalistic decisions of one program are serious and need addressing: what is more, the possibility of the BBC having covered up the Savile scandals is problematic. There is some badness, some rot in parts of the organisation. As there is in all organisations.

The other side of this is that the BBC has produced over time some remarkable material. The dramas that they have produced in that last 2 years are a testament to the creative minds that exist in some parts of the organisation. The BBC website is a testament to what can be done with vision and imagination. The news output is also, as a rule, something we can be proud of, a source of largely independent information provision, that is highly regarded across the globe. Of course it is not without bias, but it does tend to be less so than many other news organisations. In many areas, it is the news source most trusted.

The danger is of tarring the entire corporation with one brush. No it is not perfect, but if we lose the BBC, we lose something extraordinary, something that is core to our culture. We lose something that is critical to the wider world too, the place that we, as a nation, hold in many other cultures. Yes it is critical to identify and root out the problems, the areas that threaten to tarnish this great organisation. But we must not lose the BBC, and all it stands for. If we do, we lose everything.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

General Synods rejection of Women Bishops

This is just a quick post noting that the General Synod has again rejected the measure to allow Women Bishops.

Some part of me is astounded that they cannot sort this out. The problem is that the church is being shown to be so far behind the times - there is no other area in life where this would be a matter of debate.

Of course, as some people have pointed out, it is not that Synod have rejected the principle of women bishops - they have accepted this. What they cannot do is agree the measure to allow it. Which does not make things any better.

I have tended to ignore this subject, for the simple reason that it is a pointless and meaningless debate. There is no reason for not having women bishops. I am all for it happening, if - a matter for debate itself - you have to have bishops. I just have no time for all of the stupidity that has surrounded the topic of late.

The impression this gives is that the church is not a place that has any relevance to the 21st century. That is my problem with this - I might not have a lot of time for the church as a whole, but when it insists on making Christianity seem stupid, I have a problem.

I also accept that for some people, women bishops is a problem. I accept and understand that, but I cannot see how that position has a place today. What is more, it does not have any real biblical support - the matter is not as simple as people seem to argue. And it is very damaging to women to constantly tell them that they are second class citizens - especially at a time when they constitute the majority of the church members.

There is a part of me, however, that thinks it is a good think that this has passed, because I suspect that Parliament may feel that they have to step in, and enforce equality legislation, and push the matter. I think it may, in the end, serve to give the Church of England the kick it needs.

On the other hand, it might be the final death knell of the Church of England. That is a real possibility.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Where are new Christians coming from?

It is a strange question, but one that I believe is a critical one for the church and the wider Christian community to address.

Now there was a report that church attendance figures had increased by 2% - I have searched for confirmation of this, but have not found it. There is some suggestion that there have been increases during the recession, which may well be the case. I am glad that some people, i a time or hardship, find some degree of solace in returning to the church - because that is what is happening, people who have attended churches in the past are returning for a while in a difficult time. These are not new people, and this does not change the overall trend, consistent over nearly a century, of decreasing church attendance.

What is more, church attendance figures are not the same as numbers of Christians.Not everyone who attends church would count themselves as Christian, and not everyone who would consider themselves a Christian goes to church. It is dangerous to equate these, or, for that matter, to equate either of these with a "more Christian country" and similar phrases, because to change the "Christian-ness" of the country requires influential and powerful people to be Christians, something that may happen and may be a result of less influential ad powerful people attending church, or may not. In all honestly, I do not see the power structures of the UK showing any signs of a more Christian approach.

But this is not the core question here, which is, where do we expect new people to encounter, engage with, and accept Christianity from? The days of big rallies with well known speakers like Billy Graham are past - and quite rightly, not because they were wrong, but because they are no longer appropriate or relevant. Churches, which used to do some work in the public gathering places, have tended to reduce this work for a range of reasons, not least because these public gathering places are not the same as they were. There are no places where everyone goes any more, that make sense to focus attention in that way. The world is a different place, the places of meeting, the means of making decisions and choices are different.

This presents an interesting challenge, which some Christian groups are trying to address, but many others are not looking at all - there is, I think, an unfortunate tendency for many groups to simply try the same things they have always done, just louder. The worry I have is that the Christian community is failing to bring new people in. Any new people are family members of existing people, or, as mentioned above, people returning to their faith in times of trouble. People will always leave, and often take their families - and definitely their family connections - with them.

So the question here is, how does the Christian community - church and non-church - bring new people into an engagement with God? People who are not part of any faith community at all - some of the hardest people to reach. How do we actually enable people to engage with God in the 21st century? The problem is that if we don't address this urgently, the community that can make this happen is shrinking, and the opportunities will slip away. The longer we leave it, the more family groups have no contact with the Christian faith at all, and the harder the job becomes.

And sorry that there have been a lot of church-specific posts of late. It is just that I have been made to think about church issues again of late. I tend to post whatever I want to explore, so it goes in cycles. This happens to be one of my current cycles, but I will return to other matters next post.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Why Justin Welby is irrelevant

I have some concerns about the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. To some extent, the problem is not with him, but with the role, but it is personified in Justin. I want to explore them here.

My first problem is that he has only been a bishop for a year. I am reminded of George Carey. Now I should say that I likes George Carey, and I think he made a good archbishop, in a difficult situation. It is significant that he saw through the ordination of women, which is a massive achievement, even though the agreement that they came to was and is extremely flawed - it is a start. I compare this with Rowan Williams, who is leaving before women bishops come into effect, and has skirted around the problem of gay relationships. This is not intended to sum up either of their archepiscopacies, just to note some differences.

The problem that Lord Carey had is that he never realised in his early days how to be an archbishop, because he had not yet learnt how to be a bishop - I have been told that it takes at least 2 years to learn the job. He struggled with the challenges of the role, and, I suspect, struggled especially with the 9/11 attacks, and the world change that was focused around that event.

Justin Welby has only been a bishop for a year. Now he has come from a senior position in an oil company, but there is nothing quite like the very public role of Canterbury, and I wonder whether he is up to that. I very much hope that he is, and I very much hope that he can use his skills and learn very quickly. Let me make it clear - I do wish him well.

However the biggest problem is that the role of Archbishop of Canterbury is becoming an anachronism. The process of choosing Welby has come in for some significant criticism - it is secretive and then the result was leaked early. It is not clear how the decision was made, what the basis of the decision was, why Welby was chosen. That opacity is, today, a problem. It reflects an opacity across much of the church, where the requirements for ministry - in any form - are not clear, defined or even consistent.

What it tells me is that the church actually does not know what is required for ministry. Being able and willing to tow the line, to fit in and conform, to provide appropriate theological insight and challenge, but only within the right constraints and framework. Not rocking the boat is, it would appear, the only clear requirement.

The problem I have is that Jesus rocked the boat. As did Paul, Peter - in fact most of the early church. I don't think anyone from the biblical writings we have would have made it into ministry today, and I don't think that most of the church leaders today would be leaders in the early church.

That is my problem with Justin Welby - that we are appointing people to a role in the church that is dying on its feet. Unfortunately, I don't believe that anyone in the role of Archbishop could make a real difference to that. And that is, at core, the biggest problem facing the church today. There is a real danger that either Welby or his successor will have to accept and preside over the death of hte church. I am not sure he is up to that.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The stages of church engagement

1. I'm a Christian, therefore I go to church
2. I am a Christian because I go to church
3. I am a Christian. I go to church because I find church is a helpful aspect of my faith
4. I am a Christian. I don't go to church because it is not helpful to me

These are not "growth stages" or anything like that. Some people - many people - will not go through all of them. Stage 1 may be very short. But what is interesting is what happens when the church is damaging and negative, and a person becomes disillusioned with it.

At stage 1, the response is liable to be "Maybe I don't understand this Christian lark. Forget it"

At stage 2, the response is liable to be "I no longer go to church, so I am probably no longer a Christian"

At stage 3, the response may be a move to stage 4.

The point here is that it is very difficult to move to stage 4 - to maintain a faith, and grow and develop your faith, if you have not reached stage 3, where church is helpful and positive, but your faith is not defined by church. Of course, defining and expressing your faith externally to the church, in fact, making church an optional extra to your faith, is extremely challenging to the power structures of the church.

The thing is, Jesus did not come to start a "church". He came to bring people to God. There was already a religious system and structure in place, so if his purpose was to produce another one, he would probably have started with the existing one. And probably not been so outspoken in his comments about it. The truth is that stage 3 is the point of maturity, where faith is something that may find church helpful, but is not dependent on it.

The church is helpful for some people, and not for others, in their Christian development. The important thing is that we engage with God, that our relationship or experience of God is important. Some things are helpful, others are not. We need to work out which is which, and not be told by others.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

We need to talk

"Step one you say we need to talk he walks you say sit down it's just a talk" - Lyrics from "How to save a life" by The Fray. These words "we need to talk" are enough to send a chill down the spine of most men - it is women who say it mostly, although not entirely.

The thing is, different people deal with issues and problems differently. Some people want to talk through the problems, whereas others don't - they appear to want to ignore them. However, this might not be the case - it might be that they don't see a problem, it might be that they are doing what they can to resolve it anyway. Talking it through is not always the best or right way to resolve problems.

I want to consider whether there is a biblical response to trying to resolve disputes or problems between people. The first place that most people refer to is "do not let the sun go down on your anger" - taken as a reasonable injunction to deal with things immediately. However, there are other issues involved. There is also a sense from the bible that considering others before yourself is important. Maybe we should look at St Paul who says "do not cause your brother to stumble".

There is, I think, a strong indicator towards just not saying anything, not saying anything, and just accepting the problems.

Then there is the bit about "if your brother sins, talk to him". Of course this relates to sin, not relationship problems. In particular, it relates to sins that are impacting the church. There is nothing in this that relates to how to handle someone who annoys you, somebody who doesn't behave as you expect or want.

I may be wrong, but my reading of the biblical approach is that you have to just accept that things are not perfect, and lump it. Change yourself, don't expect others to change. Maybe rant and rage about it in some other environment - not gossiping, just expressing your irritation - but in the end, the Christian way is to deal with it. People are not perfect, and we have to accept and work with them as they are.

I think that if we all did this, it would make life a whole lot easier.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Sandy is punishment for gays

I have seen this from a few people, the argument that hurricane Sandy is a punishment on the US for allowing homosexuality. This is not uncommon - pretty much every natural disaster is taken as being punishment for some perceived sin of the nation. I would just dismiss this as certain fanatical Americans doing there thing, but it seems like it is worth a comment.

Firstly, there is the question of whether God punishes people in this sort of way. The answer, oddly, is yes, there is some significant evidence for natural events being seen as divine punishment, and - significantly - this being done to entire populations. Jericho and Sodom and Gomorrah being the ones that come to mind. Whether it is "natural events seen as divine judgement" or "God punishing a group of people" is a moot point, as they are equivalent. All of the writing we have is post-event interpretation, so it is how the events were seen afterwards.

The real problem I have with this approach is that, in the biblical writing, the punishment or devastation was clearly on a specific and small group of people - yes it was sometimes a "nation", but a nation of hundreds of thousands, not millions, meaning that the impact would him all of them. Hurricane Sandy seems to be affecting a small group of Americans - some 60M is 10% of the population - and they are fairly random. Surely, if God wanted to make a point about homosexuality, hitting Brighton in the UK would be a more obvious target. Or maybe California. The "choice" of location seems to be rather random, and so the "interpretation" of the punishment relies on other individuals, who will, of course, make it about their particular bug-bear.

The other problem I have is that, if God wanted to make a point to America through this storm, surely it is about their financial arrogance (something that most of the West is guilty of, so I am not singling out the US). The real issue is that I can see the West does stand deserving the judgement of God - we have abused, exploited and killed across the world, and so often done this in the name of God. I have no question that we deserve punishment, although not for the trivial matters that some people claim. I also do not think that the East Coast of the US is an obvious target - the financial collapse is probably more of a punishment or judgement.

If we want to see Sandy as a punishment, maybe it is for out damage to the climate. We don't need to invoke God punishing anyone, as the hurricane might well be partly enhanced by the climate damage we have done. Of course, those claiming Sandy is Gods punishment seem not to want to explain it as punishment for financial arrogance and/or climate change, because that would impact on their lifestyles and beliefs. And Gods judgement would not be on them, surely?

For now, however, my main response to Sandy is prayer for all of those affected, those who have lost homes, family, lives (in the Carribean already - it is not just about the US), and those who will.

-does god punish like this?
-punishing random group of people - why not Brighton
-punishment for financial arrogance

Saturday, 27 October 2012


I don't know what it is about this time of year, but there are a combination of contraversial events that happen around now. So I thought I might address them.

The first two have a transatlantic divide, although I think it is fair to say that this division is not rigid. There are people on both sides with all views, but it serves as a convenient shorthand.

Firstly, we have Halloween. In the UK, many Christian groups are strongly opposed to this, because it is a celebration of evil, of the whole gamut of the demonic. This has some truth behind it - the origins of "All Hallows Eve" are in the ascendency of the evil, as their "last stand" before All Saints Day, and they are defeated. To be honest, in the way it is celebrated in the UK, it tends to be rather focussing on the evil side of this.

In the US, it is treated as a time of fun and play, and some Americans find the horror in the UK at this event to be rather over the top. Personally, I find it a rather disturbing time, not necessarily because of the overtones, but because of the darkening nights, the shorter days, the oppressive season, and this is emphasised in the Halloween celebrations.

Just a few days after that, in the UK we have Bonfire night. And some of the US response here comes as "What! You are celebrating burning a Catholic? How grotesque". Which is also true, but it is a distinctly British celebration. It is a gruesome celebration, but very few people actually treat it as an anti-catholic celebration. And, of course, the real origins are in Samhain, the Celtic pagan celebration of the end of harvest, and the start of Winter.

This is also linked in with Halloween, of course, and we end up with some distinct celebrations with close connections, and some strange additional baggage. But at core, we are declaring that the Summer, the growing season is at an end, and the Winter is arriving. We are accepting that life has its cycles, life and death, birth and growth and ending. That is what we celebrate.

And then, shortly after, we have Remembrance day and Remembrance Sunday. Maybe the timing of this is not co-incidental, that the time we celebrate life and death, we also celebrate the ending of the war. But this year, more than any other year, I have seen a number of people questioning whether the poppy celebrations are a glorification of war, rather than a call for peace. It is a difficult balance, and I have always struggled with it, and don't like Remembrance services.

Of course, nobody would admit to glorifying war. the problem is that the way Remembrance is done - and other aspects of the work of the armed services - can be seen to be raising soldiers to being saints. Any suggestion of criticising them is treated with shock, because these people put their lives on the line - and many die - for "our country". The BBC insists (I gather) that their presenters are all wearing poppies through the season. It is true that the military do go into difficult and dangerous places, and do important work that often risks and takes their lives. What is more, historically, the two world wars cost a huge number of lives. Many of them wasted by stupidity, I should point out.

I am aware of the white "peace" poppies, and have considered getting one at times. However, they are often rather aggressive (oddly enough), and I have no desire to offend or upset people for whom Remembrance is significant, and a part of their healing process. In the end, maybe we should look at an "ending" - a focus on the fact that war is crap, killing and dying is bad, and we should work towards ending war and fighting. That needs a radical change in the attitudes from the top, a change to say we should talk, we should accept difference. This needs to apply globally, that everyone - whatever their faith, belief or principles of leadership - should work for peace in their countries, and across the world.

How? I don't have those sort of answers, but an attitude change to say "live and let live", rather than "If we don't like them, lets threaten". There needs to be a very radical change to everyones approach, that does not support a "macho" sabre-rattling approach to diplomacy, to seeking for a secure world. That should be the message for Remembrance. This year and always.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cars, roads etc

I have a constant dilemma. I am a member of the Green Party, because I support their policies, and I believe that they offer an approach to politics that is different from the main parties, and we are definitively in need of some radically different approaches.

However, I think there is a real challenge with regards transport policy - and this is an example of a problem that is far more endemic in our society. It is not that I disagree with the green approach, just that there are bigger problems.

The core difficulty is that we have created a society that depends on transport. We live in one place and, very often, work somewhere else. Therefore we need to travel to somewhere else, usually on a daily basis, but sometimes on a weekly or longer. In particular, around London, millions of people live in the suburbs and the home counties, commuting into London each day - or to other places around London. This makes for a very substantial transportation problem, on a daily basis, that is not getting any better.

Of course, the answers normally come that people should find work nearer home, or live nearer their work. This is not always possible. For example, I more around where I am working, so I cannot relocate every few months depending on the latest assignment. It is also a problem that much of the work is in places that I cannot afford to live - Spitalfields, for example, or Chelsea. What is more, the need for flexible workers in a very difficult economic time means that I am not alone in this, by any means.

I cannot always find work "near to where I live". I would very much like to, but this assumes a ready availability of specialist work, something that is most certainly not the case. As a society, we actually don't seem to want this, because we have for decades tried to separate our living areas from our working areas.

I think there is another approach that we need to take - actually, two areas that we need to progress before we can make a real difference. The first is to enable and allow more people to work from home, or remotely, by properly utilising the internet and the facilities that we have available today.From a technological perspective, very many people could work remotely today, if companies were prepared to let them, and the technology infrastructure was completely up for it - which means good, high-speed, broadband access far more widespread.

The other area we need to progress is the transport infrastructure across the country. This includes roads, railways, buses, trams, cable cars, boats, and whatever else. The progress needed is to integrate this, make the pricing far more sensible, and make sure that people who need to travel can do so using public transport where possible, but also a combination of car and train, or bus, or whatever. I think more companies would be happy to let employees work remotely, if their manager could, easily, visit and check up on them as needed, if they were able to get into a central office when required.

Unfortunately, the current approach to green transport seems to be making cars more expensive. This doesn't work - especially not as public transport is still more expensive than cars for 2 or 3 people. It would make sense to make cars more expensive, if the other approaches above were implemented first. As it is, raising the cost of motoring just drives up inflation.

Ah, so what about the HS2 line - the  proposed new train link from Euston to Birmingham? Surely, this is a good idea, then? And Even Davis, in his "Made in Britain" series, made a very good argument for supporting this. While it may be a good idea for a new line - although I am not entirely sure this one is needed, rather than improvements to the existing line - the environmental damage this will cause, and the devastation that this will cause to many places along the route weigh against the proposal. Maybe it should be put underground? Yes, that is far more expensive, but one argument for supporting it is the economic benefits. Or put proper investment into the existing line.

Cars are evil. But we need to change our society structures, not just ban cars, or make them too expensive. And we need firstly to invest in the existing networks, not just assume we have to build new ones. We need proper improvements to existing systems, not just new services for specific journeys.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Mary and Martha

I am watching a documentary about an extraordinary young girl called Martha Paine. You may remember her, because she hit the headlines a few months ago because her blog get her into trouble. She started her blog talking about her school dinners, but was sometimes critical of the quantity and quality of the food. The local authority banned her from taking photographs in the dining hall.

This provoked an outrage, not least because she was only being honest about the meals that she had. Sometimes, she would be positive about them. The coverage - helped by social media - meant that she had thousands of hits on her blog, but it did not stop there, because she had realised that her school meal problems were nothing compared to other peoples.

She had set up a JustGiving page to help a local charity called Marys Meals. This was a charity with a very simple aim, which was to provide children who go to school in Malawi with a meal, which was often the only meal they would get in the day. It was an incentive to encourage them into school, which was the best way to get them out of the poverty trap. Martha had hoped to raise something like £2000 for them, if people would be kind enough to give, her target was £7000. It seemed like a positive thing to do to help others.

The publicity for her blog caused donations through the site to rocket. It seemed that people heard of Marthas problems, and supported her by giving money to Marys meals. Giving to the sum of nearly £120K. She has just returned from Malawi after seeing some of the work that this money has done.

What I find interesting is the names here, and the inverse relationship to their biblical namesakes. In the Bible, Martha and Mary are sisters, Martha being a busy housewife while Mary was sitting listening to Jesus. In the same sort of way, it seems to me that Martha Paine listens to comments, problems, issues, and discusses them, while Marys Meals does something practical without any complexity, philosophy or strings.

The thing is, they need each other. Marys need Marthas, and Marthas need Marys. This particular example just goes to show what can be achieved when they work together.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Noonday Demon

As a change from normal, this post is going to be a review and assessment of "The Noonday Demon", by Andrew Solomon, which is one of the most significant assessments of depression, from someone who has - and continues to - experience it

Overall, the book is 450 pages long, and the pages have a lot of words on them. What is more, the words are not quick and easy. It is a difficult book to read, not least because the subject matter is very difficult and challenging. He tells some of his own story, his own depressive breakdowns. He did not have an easy time of it. It is an interesting insight into what depression feels like, for those who have not experienced it.

However, this is not, to my mind, the most important or significant aspect of the book. Rather, he then explores what depression means and implies in modern (American) Society. As a Brit, there are some times when the discussion is not completely relevant, but interesting nonetheless. He covers a number of topics: treatments;demographics;addiction; suicide;history;poverty;politics and evolution. He finishes with an interesting chapter on hope, which I will return to later.

The treatments mainly cover the various medications, and their history and development. While interesting, the work is becoming dated (the book was published in 2002), and most of this data updated is available in the internet. However he does cover ECT, a treatment that it would appear is more common in the US than in Europe. The European model is far more based on medications and talking therapies, whereas the US model was, it would appear, differently structured. Of course, this may have all changed.

The demographics is an interesting section. What becomes clear is that the big-scale statistics indicating that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men will suffer from depression at some time in their life is reflected across most sub-groups, although there are some interesting and important differences. What becomes clear is that there are no groups who are immune, there is no-one who can claim that they could never suffer. One interesting population is the Innuit, who have an 80% change overall of suffering, which may reflect a cultural difference, but is also very sobering reading. We also find in the poverty section that being poor does seem to be a stronger indicator for depression, especially unreported depression. Once again, the differences between the US and the UK become significant - and should make another good reason for keeping and supporting the NHS - the cost in the US of people who cannot afford to be treated is probably very significant, although it is incredibly difficult to quantify.

The section on addiction is quite sobering reading. What is clear is that addiction can easily hide depression, sometimes, it would seem, serving to hide it completely, and the depression only becomes an issue if the person breaks their addiction - at which point the depression that may have been a driver for their addiction may overwhelm them. It is, apparently, not uncommon for recovering addicts to take their own life, which may be related to a depressive breakdown because they are no longer handling it through their addiction. The suicide section is also a challenging read, and one of the best assessments of suicidal feelings that I have read. The psychology of suicide is very complex, and exceptionally difficult to analyse, not least because one cannot do post-event analysis.

The historical analysis is very useful from a church perspective, because there are some churches today that are still reflecting the position that the church held on depression and suicide from centuries ago. The fear of mental illness historically - both in the church and in society - is disturbing reading, but also shows that untreated depression (and other mental illness) has been an aspect of society for thousands of years. What is more, the indications are that most mental illness does not get better if untreated, but may be hidden because the stigma attached to mental illness is substantial.

This stigma is still significant, even though it rarely results in a lynch mob or stoning today, and this does make the politics of managing mental illness a challenge. Once again, the book addresses the US situation, but the challenges of providing the support and resources to the mentally ill is the same wherever you are. This is especially the case for depressives, who are, by the nature of their illness, not liable to be motivated to action and to campaign over years for change. The real political problem is that resources for the mentally ill are not seen as contributing to the economy directly, although in truth, they do enable people to be productive. What is more, politicians are aware of the stigma of mental illness, and so are very unlikely to admit to it, meaning that there are very few active and experienced campaigners in the positions of power.

The discussion of evolution is addressing the question of why, from an evolutionary perspective, depression is still a significant part of our makeup. The conclusions reflect one of the core issues with treatment, that it is not clear what causes depression, or how it should be treated. The problems come because the factors that cause depression also seem to have other impacts, other effects, that might be positive. If he comes to any conclusions, it is that depression may be a result of the society we live in and the challenges of adapting to this society. It could, therefore, be argued that depression is a normal response to the society we live in, and those who do not suffer from depression are the ones who are deluded, the ones who do not see reality properly.

His final chapter on hope is a positive end to a difficult book. However, it also reflects some of my experiences, and may show a place for Christianity in treatment of depression in particular, and mental illness in general. Hope is critical to most illnesses, and hope is something that Christianity can provide. This is not to deny that sometimes Christians and the Church crush and destroy hope, but Christianity is about hope, it is about a belief that there is something more than the world we see around us. That is a really positive note to end the book on, which I was glad about.

Is this book worth a read? Well maybe, if you have the stamina and strength for it. It is not an easy book to read, but it does provide a vital insight into what depression actually means to the sufferer and to the society that we live in. Of course, realism does not make for gentle reading.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Jimmy Savile

Well I thought it is about time to discuss this, as it has been rumbling for a while now. I have changed my position on this as more of the stories have emerged.

I should point out that everything so far has been accusations. There is a need for investigation, to ascertain whether the accusations are actually true or not. This sounds like I am accusing the victims of lying. I am not - I just think that it only fair for everyone that the accusations are properly investigated, that the truth emerges and people are not condemned by accusation.

Let me clarify this. If I accuse you of something, that means nothing until it is properly explored and investigated, and the truth identified. Even if I get other people to support my accusations, they are still only claims until they have properly been assessed. The truth is important, whatever it is.

I was initially skeptical of the claims against Savile. To be fairer, I thought that it might have been more a case of star-struck young girls, and a hyper-star who didn't resist. We forget in this celebrity-cynical times exactly how big and powerful these people were at the time. That is not to excuse him, but to apply 21st century morality to the 1980s is wrong - people did things then that would be clearly considered unacceptable, but were considered part of life then. As an example, the sexual revolution was different before we became aware of AIDS, which changed attitudes. That doesn't mean that they were right, just that their ethical boundaries were different

What is more, and needs to be considered, is that Jimmy Savile did a lot of excellent charity work, raised a whole lot of money for Stoke Mandeville and other charities. He also raised the profile of celebrities doing charity work, and putting real effort in - not just random appearances at events, but running marathons, putting real effort into his fund raising. He raised millions that has been productively used in helping people.

However, that does not excuse him. Some faiths work with a balance approach, that your good deeds will balance your bad deeds. Christianity does not take that approach, and, to be honest, most people don't accept that his good deeds balance of his bad deeds.

I have become convinced that there is a case to answer. There are too many accusations from too many places to ignore, although none have yet been proven, I have been convinced that there was something going on, that Savile had, at times, acted inappropriately towards underage girls. He abused his power over them. That is a disgrace.

The truth is that this is not just something from one person in the past. Churches and clergy today do the same - abuse their power over people, use their position of power to tell people what to do. Sometimes, use their positions of power to sexually abuse children. What is more this abuse is  continuing, and is not just in the past.

The actions of Jimmy Savile - whatever they were - were reprehensible. Doing a lot of good does not justify this. But maybe we should also focus on current and ongoing abuses of power, because - dare I say it - doing it in the name of God is even worse than doing it in the name of celebrity.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Rochdale and Eastborne

This last week has seen two interesting stories relating to children. They are quite different but both have some interesting insights.

Firstly, the story of Megan Stammers, who ran away with her Maths teacher, Jeremy Forrest. There is still some doubt over exactly what went on, but they are back, which is good. The problems I have are the betrayal of trust that Forrest showed, because his job is to look after the children in his care, not to abduct them.

If that is what happened. Of course, Megan might have been far more willing than "abduction" sounds. And, as others have said, she will be seen as the victim, and get all of the support, he will be seen as the perpetrator and be demonised. But, at this point, we do not know exactly what went on.

Now I do accept that Megan is 15, and so is the victim, but Jeremy may also be a victim. And all of those who are so insistent that at 15, Megan is still a minor, remember that she is just a few months away from the age when she can expose her breasts legally in the Sun. That does not justify it, but it shows that the age of consent is not some clear fixed point, but a randomly determined age at which every child is determined to be an adult, at least partly.

What of Jeremy? Recently married, and yet runs away with one of his students? The oddity of this makes me certain that there is more to this than we have yet heard. It is, I am sure, more complex than seems to be assumed. We - myself included - are often too quick to just to assumptions, but I think there is something more in this story than we yet know.

Rochdale is a completely different story. Here, young girls were abused, raped and pimped out systematically, and - to me the most shocking part of the story - when they told the authorities, they were dismissed. the official position was that they were willingly engaging in sexual activity, and were working as prostitutes.

The fact that this activity could continue - they were being picked up outside school - without anyone picking up that this was an issue shows a lack of oversight. The fact that they were not listened to is a disgrace - the accusations should have been investigated, even if they proved false. This dismissal of the complaints, without ascertaining their veracity, makes this the more sickening of these two stories.

Just his weekend, accusations have come out about Jimmy Savill, also about child abuse. It is interesting that, given these accusations, the BBC says that it has investigated in depth and found no complaints raised, and no basis of these accusations. It is interesting to see that when a celebrity is involved, the investigations are done properly.

"Suffer the little children" said Jesus. Not in this way though. When we fail to nurture and enable our young people, we are failing our society and our faith. This is not an easy or simple thing to do, but I understand it as meaning trusting and respecting our young people. It means listening to them when they talk, it means ensuring they are safe when with others. This does not mean simply CRB checking their group leaders.

It does mean treating them as thinking people, especially as they hit their mid teens, and allowing them to think for themselves. It means listening to them, trying to help them work out their problems, not just spoon feeding them our answers. If we can enable them to act responsibly, think through their faith, grow up to be mature members of society, who know what they believe and can discuss it, then we are doing them well. My experience is that too many churches do not do this.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Great British Bake Off

The Great British Bake Off is a BBC series that is a must see. I realise that this post will be dated very quickly, as the weeks progress, but the points are still valid I think. It  has shown me a number of things:

1. The British art of the Innuendo is most definitely not dead. this weeks episode had them cooking buns - need I say more? The humour - intentional and otherwise - does provide a very light-hearted banter background to the show.

2. Interactively watching TV while being on twitter does make the experience something very different. There is interaction with all sorts of people watching and enjoying the same show. It is a spur to watch them live, as you lose the interactivity if you watch it on record.

3. This year, there is a clear winner - Brendan. If I am honest, I find him a bit boring, because he is so good, so technically talented so perfect. This is nothing about him as a person - I think, from twitter, he is a good laugh. I do not have a problem with him, just that as a baker, I do not find him interesting or exciting. Hugely talented - head and shoulders above the others in terms of talent and ability - and his productions are excellent. If I wanted a centrepiece for a celebration, something that blew people away when they first saw it, and first tasted it, I would use Brendan.

4. I prefer watching Sarah-Jane (who sadly went out this week) and Cathryn. Cat has a stock expression, used pretty much every week, which is "I have no idea what I am doing". Cat throws her strudel dough on the floor - ably assisted, I should point out, by Sarah-Jane, and has hemorrhaging strudels and doughnuts. And yet she produces good bakes every week - she is very talented, because she has made it to the last 5. She has a natural ability, that brings her through, but in the process, she has a lot of fun, and is fantastic entertainment. If I wanted to do an afternoon baking workshop, where people would have fun and produce something edible at the end, I would use Cat.

I think there is something in this for Christianity and worship - no seriously. Sometimes, our theology and worship we trust to the Brendans, and they use their learning and talent to produce something that is carefully nuanced, perfectly structured, and unexciting. Alternatively, we could trust to the Cats of our world. The process would be messy, fraught, involve something ending up on the floor at some point, and the final results will always be in doubt.

I know which one I prefer. I would always rather have a fun time, get involved, get messy and throw the dough on the floor than be presented with something perfect and pristine that hasn't involved me, and doesn't involve me.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

I like Nick Clegg

Well that got you reading, at least. I feel that I should qualify that a little, however.

I think Nick Clegg is a great speaker, a really personable talker, and someone who could be a wonderful politician. Unfortunately, the world has not been nice to him.

The leaders debate, before the last election, he won hands down. He was clearly the most reasonable and sane of them all, which is why he attracted a lot of attention.

However, he believes in coalition, because that is at the core of their politics. He entered into a coalition with a firm belief that he could make it work.

He failed, probably due to naivety more than anything else. He ended up dealing with David Cameron, who was in no mood to compromise, and he has not been able to use his coalition position to do anything at all really. He has been outmaneuvered by Cameron, and has ended up supporting a minority government who have policies that his party opposes. What is more, he has ended up being the blame takers for everything, which is exactly what the Tories wanted.

His apology this week has been rather dismissed, because he apologised for making a commitment that he couldn't keep. He should have apologised for not keeping the commitment, but he didn't, and he should know that in coalition he will not be able to keep all of his promises. Or, in fact, any of them.

But despite this, I like Nick Clegg.The problem is, we lack any decent politicians at the moment. Cameron is an arrogant prat, who has shown that he is in power to help the rich and squeeze the poor. If he were to do the two things he should - taxing the rich, and regulating the banks - he would be able to reverse all of the cuts he has made. Of course he won't because he does not believe in supporting the poor, just the rich. For this, I hold him as contemptible.

Ed Milliband is completely unbelieveable as a leader of the country. In fact, I struggle to remember his name, he is so forgettable. The problem is that there are no others senior members in the party who could lead, and this is the core problem with Labour at the moment. I know that others will not agree, but I think that Gordon Brown was the only person who could have lead this country out of recession. Doing that was not going to be popular, but necessary.

So against the opposition, I think Nick Clegg is the most likeable of the main party leaders. And this is why, many years ago, I went a different way - I support and am a member of the Green Party. One major reason is that I do not think that economics should be the core decider in politics. I believe that we need to get away from the Left/Right division and follow something different.

Politics - especially party and national politics - should be about making things better for everyone. It should be about using the power that you have to make the country the best one for everyone. Exactly what that means is a case for argument. But it seems that the last 10 years or so we have had very partisan politics, and we have damaged our country in doing so.

I believe - and this summer of sport has encouraged this - that we can be a great country. What we need is politicians who can make this happen, not line their own pockets.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Faith and writing

At Greenbelt, I went to hear the wonderful Deborah Fielding, who, among other things, had the best jumper on site. But she was also excellent on the subject of writing too.

It inspired me, and I am currently writing a set of very short stories, which I will get published eventually - watch this space for more details. I would like to make it free, but it will be dirt cheap, honest!

If Jesus was around today, I suspect he would be writing short stories.

The reason is that short stories - especially - make a point and leave a lot of the surrounding history and future to the imagination. Jesus Parables were short stories, although they had a different structure and purpose than most short stories, they share something in common - memorability, and a point to make people think.

Stories are of critical importance to any culture. However much people wish to assume that they are "too advanced" or "scientific" to bother with "folk tales", we all know stories from our childhood, from our culture, and they impact the way we do things, and what we believe. At core, stories tell us what to believe, and belief impact action.

Take, for example, the currently popular philosophical writer Ayn Rand. She wrote stories, like Atlas Shrugged, which contained and expounded her philosophy.Even the hardened, capitalist right who follow the (frankly ridiculous) principles she expounds, learnt them from stories. In fact, anyone who wants to expound a popularist philosophy needs to do it in stories - and Christianity in included.

The think is, Christianity is based on myths. Now don't misunderstand me, because I hold myths in very high regard. Myths, like fairy tales, are not "untruths", rather they are truths, conveyed through stories, intended to tell a reality and truth that is difficult to explore any other way. Myths and stories help us to link to a truth that is beyond our empirical grasp, help us link to truths that we can only express in stories.

If we lose our stories, we lose our truths and reality. Stories are important, because stories make us think, an stories encompass our thoughts. My faith, my belief, my truth is built on stories. I am not ashamed of that, because the same applies to everyone. I am just prepared to admit it. Are you? What stories is your truth based on?

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Olympics and Paralympics

They are now over, so it seems like a good time to look back on them as a whole and assess what happened, and what we have learned.

1. We - Britain - are quite capable of putting on a world-class, world-beating event like this, and raising the bar significantly.

2. Clair Balding is our best sports reporter by a country mile. Actually, most of them did a fantastic job, but from what others have said as well as my own observations, Clair was head and shoulders above anyone else. She has been on TV 10 hours a day for the last 6 weeks, it seems!

3. The BBC presentation of the Olympics was exceptional. Channel 4 of the paras rather less so. Did anyone not get irritated by the constant ad breaks? Yes, I know that is how they paid for them, but there were times when they were really inappropriate.

4. The opening and closing ceremonies - in fact, for me, the first and last especially - were real examples of how to put on a huge, multi-media presentation to the world and the stadium.

5. Many thousands of games-makers were some of the stars of this summer. people will give their time and holiday to help out and make the event something special. This is the reality that David Cameron drew his "big society" idea from. However, Cameron expect people to do this all the time, and to replace services that he is withdrawing. It won't happen - people will volunteer to make a difference, but we don't like to be pushed into having to do stuff.

6. A lot of the predicted chaos in Londons transport systems never materialised. I suspect people found a way around it, although I did hear some complaints that the trains were far busier. But this doesn't excuse the fact that LOGOC prioritised some "special" people over the regular residents of London. That elitism does not go down well.

7. Having said that, I never heard of any complaints that the public transport was not working well. That in itself is an achievement.

8. We love our NHS. We are rightly proud of it. And we are rightly appalled that the government wants to destroy it.

9. Having been to the Olympic park, and watched a session in the stadium, the venues are stupendous. The stadium is an exceptional venue that we should be very proud of.

10. The British people love quality sports. The ticketing fiasco should have been organised better, knowing that the British people love sports, and would all want to go. Lets be clear, we could have packed every venue for every session. We went to see some top-class sports, and were rewarded with an excellent session of athletics.

11. British people are patriotic, but also very supporting of all quality sporting achievements. The venues roared for the British athletes, but also cheered and applauded and encouraged ALL of the athletes. Yes, we want to see the Brits win, but we mainly want to see spectacular sporting events.

12. We support and believe in our disabled people. As various people have said, the paralympics have changed our perceptions of disability, but I think these changed perceptions were already there. We are the ones who started and have continued to promote disabled sporting activity. The paralympics are, very much, a British creation. That will change from this point onwards, because they have been very decisively made a part of the global Olympic movement.

13.Against, this, David Camerons and ATOSs constant attacks on the disabled are a disgrace.

14. We have come out of a celebration summer of sporting achievement where we feel good about being ourselves. Throughout this, David Cameron and the government policies have been shown up as very much going against this. Given the choice between a summer 2012 country and a Cameron country, I know which one I would choose. Cameron has got it wrong, very wrong, and he needs to change tack.

15. A final spiritual comment. The summer Olympics - both parts - have shown how much we can achieve as people. They are a testament to the wonderful inventiveness and drive we have. People are wonderful - I believe because we are made in the image of God, but YMMV, they are wonderful anyway. I am proud to be both human and British.

ETA - because I forgot!

11.5 If you want people to provide security, then find people who have a commitment to the country, not just to making profits.The armed forces stepped in to do this without a fuss, and did a great job. G4S were only ever in it to make money. The more parts of the country infrastructure focused on making money, not providing a service, the worse off we will be. Cameron, take note. Stop trying to give away our country to profit makers.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Faith and social media

I went to head Vicky Beeching at Greenbelt, who was very good, and there are some interesting issues that came from her talk.

She was talking about social media, and the importance of it. I was reading this week an interesting book, including the claim that people will take any sort of technology and use it for being social with. The core reason is that we are social beings - yes even the most antisocial geeks. SMS texts were originally included because they could be, and no-one thought anyone would use them.Today, there are billions of messages sent every day. People took a piece of technology, and used it to be social.

Some of the biggest and most heavily used web sites today are social networks - twitter and facebook in particular. Emails - ignoring the spam - are very heavily used, although the precise number that are "social", rather than strictly business is hard to identify. The internet - which is the most significant technological development of our age - is substantially used for socialisation.

Some people argue that all of this technology is depersonalising communication. I don't agree, although I understand the concern. The problem is not the technology, it is the people, who depersonalise the recipient of their comments. We should remember that, whatever, there is a real person on the other end of the message, and consider their feelings. I still struggle to understand the mentality of people whose only communication with particular people who they choose to follow on twitter is to be rude or offensive to them. If you don't like what they say, don't follow, and so don't listen. Seriously, your views are not that important.

My experience is that electronic communication can be very personal. It is possible to make friends - real friends, who care and pray and do what they can to help - within ever meeting them, but purely through social media. What is more, I think more and more people - especially, but not exclusively, younger people - will define their social interactions substantially though electronic means. Whether this is swapping mobile numbers, or finding each other on facebook, this form of interaction is often the first and most important way of cementing the start of a relationship.

That is why it irritates me when clergy and other church leaders shun the use of social media. Or, even worse, seek to control the use of it. The truth is, as I see it, that the church of the future will be a virtual church, where the core communication, interaction and organisation will be done through these networks. This is not to say that people will not meet up, but that this will be organised online, and it will be just a part of an ongoing interaction.

And interaction does not just mean setting up a twitter account to tell people what is going on. It mean engaging and listening at least as much as taking. Engaging, not controlling. That, I suspect, will be too much of a shock for some leaders.