Sunday, 29 September 2013

Back to Church Sunday

Some time ago, when I said that I believed that I wanted to focus on those who were leaving the church, or had left, I was told that "We don't want to be seen as poaching from others churches - we want to focus on bringing new people into the church". I was - and remain - unconvinced.

Of course, focusing on bringing new people in, rather than working with those who might want to leave, is much easier. You don't have to deal with the reasons that people leave, the problems that people have with church. "New" people don't have all the knowledge and hangups of people who are dissatisfied with church.

And then we have "Back to Church Sunday", a concept that is misguided in several ways. Firstly, there is the idea that people who have stopped going to church might want to try it again. By naming it a Sunday, of course, it removes any need to consider why people might have stopped going. Yes, some people leave because they just drift away, but many people these days leave through deliberate choice. And if people just drift away, that itself is an indication that they no longer find anything to keep them there.

Of course, having a single Sunday with a name means that all of this can be ignored.

 There is also a strange focus on church, not on God or faith. The fact that people may be engaging with God more outside church is ignored. The fact that people may wish to focus on a relationship with God rather than going to church is ignored.

I have heard that it should be called "Back to God Sunday", but, of course, for so many, this is considered the same thing. For many people, returning to God is not something that is done on a random, nominated Sunday. for many, the church has so hurt and damaged them, has so destroyed their relationship with God, that it will take years to find that and build it again.

Naming a single Sunday like this trivialises the pain and anguish that so many people have in leaving the church, and that the church had done to them. It makes an assumption that returning to church is like returning to a social club, or a knitting circle. It puts church - and a relationship with God - on a level with a book club.

And that is wrong.

The third problem is that church so often put on something special for this Sunday. Something that is intended to appeal to those returning for whatever reason. Now in my experience, churches are astoundingly bad at doing this. Actually, they are very good at doing the odd and peculiar things that church do, at performing the strange ceremonies that happen. What they are unbelievably bad at is making this in any way comprehensible or attractive to those outside.

What is more, should anyone decide to return to attending church on the basis of events put on for this Sunday, one presumes that they will return next Sunday, and remember all of the reasons that they stopped going.

Back to Church Sunday? A good candidate for worst idea from the church ever. And there are a lot of good competitors in this category.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Mental Illness

There has been an interesting flurry of activity in the last few days about mental illness. It was sparked off by Asda offering a fancy dress costume.

As someone who has a mental illness - depression - this was rather offensive. The image being given was that mental illness means psychopathic killer. We are not - some of us actually hold down proper jobs, live a full life, and control any urges we might have to kill other people, at least most of the time.

However, what has been more interesting is the response that has generated on twitter. Firstly, the outcry was sufficient to get Asda - and Tesco - to withdraw these costumes and apologise. But more importntly, today there has been a whole lot of responses using the #mentalpatient hashtag, with people posting pictures of themselves dressed as mental patients. That is, in their ordinary clothes, exactly as they normally are.

I have seen one question raised - why is it that getting kids to dress up as a mental patient promotes such ire, but dressing up as a serial killer is acceptable? Well actually I don't entirely think it is. Celebrating the mythological creatures of evil is one thing, and I know a lot of people have issues with this, but I do think that celebrating modern day killers, or celebrating outmoded stereotypes of mental illness is not acceptable.

There is a bigger problem here. The problem is one of perception of mental illness in our society. The mentally ill are seen as being dangerous - the image of the mentally ill as serial killers is subtly reflected in many peoples perceptions of the mentally ill. The truth is that one in three people will suffer from mental illness in their life. That means that everyone - every single person - will be affected by mental illness.

And yet many people are still scared of the phrase "mental illness", taking an assumption that those suffering from mental illness are dangerous to themselves and others. The reality is that a few are - although mostly this is only an issue when medication is failing. The mentally ill can be difficult or unpredictable at times, but then so can those without diagnosed problems. The vast majority of those with mental illnesses are quite capable of appearing to be perfectly normal people. As the #mentalpatient tag has shown.

The perception of mental illness has to change. Too many people are hurt by the negative image that it has in the public mind. I can only hope that the result of this is that we learn to see mental illness where it is - all around us, everywhere.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


The group at Greenbelt who I found most engagement with was a series of discussions by Serum. They are open discussions, on a variety of important topics and areas, without an expectation of the Christian faith as a starting point. In fact, they are discussions on faith-like issues without any assumptions to start from.

Which I found very refreshing.

This is one aspect of what I think church should be like. Open and frank discussions and explorations of spiritual matters, working though our faith with other people, challenging it, seeing how it works for other people. My faith is improved by being honed with others who don't agree with me.

Many people in churches - clergy included - seem to run scared at this sort of open and challenging discussion. There is an idea that by exposing our faith to challenge and critique, we will probably lose our faith - so it is far safer not to expose church people to this sort of thing. I have also heard, far too often, that "people may ask questions I don't know the answer to". That is the point, sort of - it is about exploring our faith, finding the areas we don't know about, and seeing if anyone else can help you work out a direction.

But I also ask, what are the churches doing, that people are so scared? How come these people can be in a church for 30 years, and still have absolutely no idea what they believe? How can you go to church for 30 years and not be able to discuss and explore the Christian faith with other people?

How come people go to church for 30 years and have no real faith? They have routine, they know what to do how to behave, they have process, but faith? If it cannot cope with some debate and discussion, is it faith, or just ritual?

Questions - which is what Serum is about - are the lifeblood of faith. Not answers, which is what so many church Q&A sessions are about, but questions, and the exploration of what they mean.

That is difficult, that is faith, that is fun!

Monday, 23 September 2013

The secret Diary of a Call Girl

I have been watching this on Lovefilm recently, and have been intrigued and surprised by it. I had caught clips and trailers for it when it was on TV, but only part of episodes, inconsistently.

I had expected it would be sleazy and sordid, but was pleasantly surprised - it is definitely justifying its 18 rating, but it is also humerous and insightful. In its way.

It is, for those who don't know, the televised version of the diaries of a genuine escort, who worked as a prostitute for a few years when she didn't really know what else to do. In honestly, it does rather glamourise the world, not least by staying in the high end market only. I am in no doubt that it does not entirely reflect the business, and it probably rather over-glamourises the top end of the market. But there are a couple of important aspects that it demonstrates.

Firstly, it identifies a distinction between sex and relationships. In fact, at least one series is all around this very issue. Can a prostitute have a relationship? Well, according to the story shown, the answer is yes, although it does require the right sort of man, one who can separate the relationship from the job. Yes, sex is part of the relationship, but, for some men at least, there is more to a relationship than this, so for Belle to be continuing to have sex for money is not a problem.

I think this is a rather more positive approach to both relationships and sex than the one normally taught by the church. I am not suggesting that prostitution should be a career of choice for Christians, but I do thing that the focus on "get married so that you can have sex" demeans both. A loving relationship, that might include marriage, will tend to include sex. But - and I am sorry if this is shocking to you - embarking on a life-long relationship just to have sex seems rather drastic. Embarking on a relationship because you want to stay together for life seems like a far better reason and justification.

Secondly, one of the recurring themes is loneliness. This is twofold - Belle is having lots of sex and enjoying her work, but is still very lonely - there are very few people she can talk to about her work, and about why she does not have a boyfriend. Despite being an outgoing, likeable person, she is desperately lonely. I think that this is probably not just about her particular line of work. I suspect that there are many people who cannot talk about their problems, their lives, their failures as Christians with anyone, because there is no-one who would understand.

How many Christians cannot talk about their doubts and worries, because they don't want to be seen as losing their faith? Or men (especially) about their work challenges, because they do not want to be seen as weak to their colleagues, the only people who might actually understand their problems? Or people struggling with mental illness, who cannot talk because so many people are scared or prejudiced about mental illness?

The other side, which is the same coin, is how many of Belles clients are lonely. In many cases, the sex is just the justification for the meeting. They are actually lonely, want someone they can talk to about anything - as Belle says a number of times, her clients can talk about anything, in complete confidence. Maybe high class escorts are the new confessional priests.

Maybe it it time that Christians stopped being so judgmental, and started behaving like Belle - being prepared to listen to people, and accept whatever they have to say. If anyone does want to talk, please get in touch (, because, while I may not be a prostitute, I try not to judge.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Links for my writing

I have published three works so far. This post is simply to provide a central place to contain all of the links for all of my writing. Note that I tend to write my science fiction under the name Schroedinger. They are usually available as both e-books and printed copies, published by Lulu, and so available from there as ePub and print, as well as on kindle from Amazon.

The ePub reader, if you do not already have one, is a simple download from the Lulu site. Alternatively, a kindle reader is available from Amazon to download onto a computer. Both of these readers are free. They are not available for the Nook, because of problems I have had with the Barnes and Noble site.

They will also be available in print format from Amazon, and iBookstore format should that be your preference. There are probably other places too, that they don't tell me about.

My first short story is called Bubbles, and is available across all of the platforms. It is a story about Michael, who wakes up to a nightmare beyond his wildest imaginings, and a whole lot of new possibilities and challenges.

 Available as ePub and as hard copy from Lulu, and on Kindle across the world - these are the links for the UK and the US.

My second story is Ideocide, a full length novel about - well, you will have to read it to find out. But it is about the death of ideas, the process of challenging and rediscovering beliefs. It is split into three parts - Deicide, Infanticide and Suicide. And yes, it is quite hard hitting in parts.

It is available as an ePub, and as a hard copy from Lulu. It is available in Kindle in your own country, including the US and the UK.

The latest work is the start of a collection of short stories, provided on kindle only - in the uk, but available in all countries. I wanted to make this free, but there is a problem with making kindle books free, so I am doing promotions on it instead, so it will be free each Saturday that I can make it so. I will add any other stories I produce to this collection.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Grace Petrie

One of my highlights and new discoveries at Greenbelt this year was the singer Grace Petrie. Her performance was excellent, and really enjoyable. But there was another reason why I was impressed.

She is a protest singer, in the style of Billy Bragg and the like. Well actually, there is no real "the like", which is the problem. We do not have any real political protest singers today, who are well known enough to get played and so get their message out to many people. Grace is not quite there yet, but nearly, having had some exposure on BBC 6 Music. Her message is one that we all need to hear, because music - like comedy - is a good way to spread a message.

On my first evening at Greenbelt, I spoke to a couple of people and one question came up which was "why are there no controversial political speakers at Greenbelt? Which there were not really, although there have been in the past. As we discussed, one of the problems is finding the people who are making spiritual political statements - and there are none. After that discussion, it was good to hear that there are those making their political mark - and those who are prepared to appear at a spiritual gathering like Greenbelt.

She is an engaging person, someone who is clearly passionate about what she says and does. She also does love songs, but not lovely sweet ones, of course. She has her head screwed on, is not an idealist, which makes her protest songs even better, because they are not dreaming of a supposed ideal - she is quite realistic about life. But she is angry and hurt, and that comes over in her music.

Anyway - that is enough - check her out, listen to her, go and see her, support her, partly because we need her voice in this country, but also because she is good, entertaining and fun.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Today, it is comedians who speak the truth

This is another quote from Milton Jones at greenbelt, who was quoting someone else, and I am now going to try to remember this quote. Please, do not blame anyone else for this!

The quote was, roughly, that since Life of Brian, people have trusted comedians to bring them truth, not clergy or the church. I though this was an interesting idea, and one with a whole lot of truth.

I think this is actually a much older tradition, going back to the court jesters or fools. The fool had an important and complex role in court, which was not just to provide entertainment, but to say whatever needed to be said. Most rulers would have advisors who would all have political alliances and intentions, and would also be trying to curry favour with the ruler.

The role of the fool was to say those things that the ruler needed to hear, but no-one else would be prepared to say. The fool would be the one who could tell the ruler that one of his advisers was compromised, or not telling the truth, or tell the ruler that a plan of theirs was rubbish. In principle, the fool could not be punished for telling the truth - although it was a risky role, as truth telling is always risky.

Today, some of the comedians on the market serve a similar role - Have Got News For You is a prime example, when it does things well. There is nothing sacred, nothing that cannot have fun and ridicule poked at it. It is not the only one, of course - Mock the Week is another example. There are those who find these programs far too negative and critical, who have a problem that religion, for example, is not sacred, or God. But religion is just as in need of a jester as the political world.

On the one hand, we should celebrate that comedians are providing that role, that someone is able to hold the politicians to account, whether in Westminster or Lambeth.Comedians speak powerfully to people, and are respected, so their critiques of political actions are listened to, often more than other political commentators.

On the other hand, this does mean that is comedians are the ones speaking the truth, we should also work to see that they are held to account, that their critiques are as addressing the right topics, and all of the topics. And we should learn how to use comedy properly to convey a Christian critique of politics and religion. That does not mean telling jokes at the start of a sermon. It means acknowledging that that place that truth is heard is in the comedy clubs, not the churches.

And so we should be praying for Milton Jones and other Christians in the world of comedy, because they are front line prophets. They have a power over public opinion that politicians and clergy can only dream of. We should pray that they use that power well.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Science fiction

My proof-reader, @amyunchained told me that she doesn't normally read science fiction, but she quite enjoyed my stories. It made me think about the nature of science fiction, and about what I write. My writing is SF without a doubt, but it is in truth about real people. The core of good SF is that it asks the question "What If?" and explores this in some depth, dealing with the human implication of the change. This change can be small or it can be huge. A book like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel starts from the premise "what if magic was real?", and explores the implications in a historical setting. Iain M Banks Culture series starts from the premise that unlimited free energy is available, and scientific progress takes off. The novels then explore certain implications of this - in a universe that is radically different from ours.

There are, I think three main streams of science fiction work. A lot of people who are not familiar with the broader range may only see the first two, not least because these are the ones that get most of the film and TV time. That is unfortunate, because there is a whole lot of really good material that people would enjoy in the third category, people who do not normally like science fiction.

First category: fan-sci-fi. This is the broad area that covers anything Star Trek or Star Wars related, or draws from any other popular genre (Buffy is another core genre here - covering anything to do with vampires etc.). This is not to be critical of them, but just to acknowledge that they are not always original in concept, even if they are in execution. I would even include Firefly in this category, despite the fact that it was quite unique in concept, and is still the best SF series ever, cruelly cut short before it had a chance (not that I am bitter or anything). These stories have the advantage of being set in a universe that the reader or viewer already accepts, and so there is a lot that does not have to be defined or built. It means that the writers can explore new and challenging ideas - but it also means that they are restricted by the history of that particular genre.

Second category: apocalyptic sci-fi. This is the stuff that the sci-fi channel fills its days with - end-of-the-world scenario films. Personally, I enjoy them, even though they are usually very stylistic. In fact, I have sat at my desk at work, and realised that the group I work with is actually the cast of an apocalyptic film: The geek who is the first to die; the old embittered man who will eventually be reconcilled with his ex-wife; the underachieving manager, who will show what he is really made of, and get; the girl, who will start off being all girly, and end up showing how mentally and emotionally strong she is. They are all the same plot, they are all highly unlikely, they are usually shot on a budget rather less than my weekly fuel bill and they are fun and entertaining.

You are allowed to despise me for enjoying them. I am not by any means alone - this is why they are a staple of the sci-fi channel. I will fully acknowledge that they are not the best representation of sci-fi, but they are not intended to be. And one of the best sci-fi films ever - The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 version, of course, not the appalling Keanu Reeves remake) - comes under an apocalyptic theme.

Third cateogry: human sci-fi. This includes my recent book Bubbles, and my next one Ideocide, out soon. It is the area of sci-fi that I find most engaging as far as stories go, because it is about real people, about our world, but with some change. The settings may be different (Ideocide is set in the future), but the real stories are asking "what if" about here on earth, today. John Wyndham - famous for the Triffids - wrote a lot in this sort of way, asking what if parallel universes existed; what if some people had telepathy or other curiosities; what if spiders were to organise themselves like ants (this is Web, a good example of this approach). The core point is that we can look at other people, in other situations, with some significant change, and apply the lessons and the insights to ourselves. They are people stories, just alike any other fiction, but are classified as "science fiction" because there is some technological abstraction.

Well that is science fiction for you. If you thought you might not enjoy it, then maybe you have been looking in the wrong categories. Maybe you need to read my books, my stories, and find something different.

Theological insight? Simply that stories are at the core of our  understanding of truth. We need to read good stories, including the ones in the bible, because good stories lead us to truth.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

How do we make liturgy fun for outsiders?

This question was raised on twitter a while back, around the discussion of the christening/baptism of Prince George. It raises a number of questions for me, wider than the original question.

There are some who argue that liturgy is meaningless to those outside the church, and so we should do away with it completely. I don't agree with this - you might be surprised to hear this, but I don't believe this is the answer. Oh and those churches which claim to be free from liturgy - this just means that you don't have a formal, written liturgy, not that you don't have one at all. The question of liturgy is far wider than this.

So what do we mean by liturgy? And can we make it "fun" for outsiders? More, should we?

Liturgy is, I think, simply "the way we do things here" - this means that it is not necessarily or only written. It can be very obtuse to outsiders - in fact, it can be very obtuse in insiders too, but if you are used to it, you tend to accept it. That is not necessarily a problem, because all groups have certain ways of doing things, and it is difficult if you don't know the rules and expectations of a group. I work in a range of different places, and in each one, there is a slightly different dress code. I have to learn this and fit in to work there successfully. I have to learn the terminology of their particular business to fit in. I have to learn each organisations liturgy.

So can we and should we make church liturgy "fun" for outsiders? A lot of the work I do has been about working on public web sites for clients. In these, the company needs to present what it is selling to those outside the business, and talk in the language of the customers, not using the jargon of the business. This does not mean that the business jargon is bad, just that it is not easily accessible to those outside, and customers should not have to understand it to buy from the site and the company.

The style and approach varies for different companies. Some need to be "fun", some need to be serious, but all - critically - need to be talking to and relating to the clients, not the company. This is a hard sell to many organisations, believe me, because they want to represent their company on the web site, and relate it to the organisation, not the clients.

The problems with the church are that the main church services are, to a large extent, the "public" presentation of the organisation, they are the web site made flesh, if you want. And so they should be represented in a way that is accessible to those outside, not to those inside.

Others might disagree with this perspective - the church, they will argue, is the community of believers, and so the liturgy should be appropriate for those inside, and not for those outside.

In honesty, which of these you follow probably indicate who you think the church is for.

But should it be "fun", even if it is for those outside? Is that the right image? I am not convinced that this is the primary aim. Accessible, yes - and so using whatever terms and phrases people want to use (the original comment was about confusion between "Christening" and "Baptism"), whatever they fell happy using. But it should also reflect the truth that Christianity is not just a fun game. At the same time, I think that Christianity does not suffer from the problem of seeming far too flippant. So making the image, the presentation of the faith, fun is unlikely to go too far.

The truth is, the church is far too often fussing about the trivial and minutiae of language and ideas, and far less often getting on with enjoying life. If by making liturgy more "fun" we mean taking our heads out of our behinds, I am all for it.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Another fracking posting

I remember, many years ago, when the concept of fracking ( or hydraulic fracturing) was first suggested, or rather, the first time it was raised in a public way as a possible source of further oil. I cannot remember where or when precisely it was, but I do remember that, at the time, it was totally uneconomic to pursue. At the time.

Of course, the economics have all changed in the last 15 years or so.

In the last few weeks, there have been protests in Balcome, one of the most significant sites in the UK. In the last few days, Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP for Brighton, was arrested for her role in protesting there. If nothing else, I think it demonstrates that there are some politicians who are prepared to stand up for their principles. In honesty, I don't know of any other party leader who would be so brave.

To my mind, there are two core issues with fracking, both of which represent major issues. The first is that the process appears to be problematic, causing potential geological issues in the areas that it takes place. Actually this is a difficult one, because the impact of the fracking process is complex and disputed. The truth is that there might be some problems with the local ground water. There might be issues about ground disturbance. However, in honesty, these are also problems with, for example, coal mining.

There is also a whole lot of disturbance when a locality has a new major industrial complex introduced. There are major impacts: new roads, lorries, industrial development, all sorts of impact. However, these are always the impacts of new industrial development in an area - Ironbridge, at the start of the industrial revolution, was a hideous place to be, because this is the nature of early industrial processes. Fracking will also turn places that might be rural into industrial sites. Is that a good thing? I suppose it depends on whether you like industrial developments, I guess.

So the first problem is really an issue of whether we want new major industrial development in our rural communities. It is not an issue with fracking per se, it is an issue with industrial development. I am in two minds about this, because the truth is that we have outsourced a lot of our industrial business to the third world. This has its own issues, because we outsource the pollution, the danger, the damage to other people. Is this fair? Probably not. Should we therefore re-introduce industrialisation to the UK? I am not sure we really want it.

However, the second problem is more critical, I think. The issue is that the development of a new source of fossil fuels puts us off any serious consideration of what we will do when they run out - and they will, within the lifetime of people alive today. The money that is put into the development of fracking technology and sites could be used to make a real impact on alternative energy sources. It will make the question of "what about when it has run out" a non-question again, which is a problem because it is a question that we need to address now, and find alternative energy sources now.

There are some suggestions that there is enough fuel in the currently known sources for 100 years.Maybe that is the case, or maybe not. The point is, they are expensive resources, and they will run out. It is our job now to find alternatives - alternatives that are less polluting, and less destructive. If not, all we are doing is leaving our children with a world where energy resources are again at a premium, and whose world is polluted beyond anything imaginable today.

Fracking is a bad idea. We need to address the wider and bigger issues around this, and put the resources into something else. Otherwise we are simply delaying the problems and compounding them for later generations. and I love my kids too much to do that.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Anonymity and Pseudonimity

Recently, I changed my twitter handle to my real name. I did this mainly because of a small poll @VickyBeeching did about how much people trusted other tweeters who didn't use their real name. It made me think.

I should point out that I was technically pseudonymous, not anonymous, because I always posted from the same account, under the same name, and I tended to have similar Schroedingers Cat related names across all of the forums that I post on. I have never had truly anonymous accounts, because that is always suspicious. I am always prepared to stand by what I posted, and apologise if it is taken/expressed wrongly.

The reason I started being anonymous was twofold: firstly, I met some rather deranged people on the net, and I didn't want them to be able to identify me. I was also aware that by being anonymous, I could post my thoughts and irritations without people in my church or my work being able to identify me. It gave me a freedom to express what I wanted to without fear, and, in various places, I have.

I should point out, in light of recent events, that this does not include being offensive or abusive to people without them being able to respond, it just meant that I could be more honest. There was never any intention to hide behind my persona online, just to enable me to separate the online me from the physical me - I won't say "real" me, because both of them are really me.

The reasons I have decided to stop are various, but one is that too many anonymous people use their anonymity to be abusive and offensive. I wanted to stand up against this, I wanted to be open about who I am, so that no-one would suggest that I was hiding.

I was also made aware that some people find that they do not trust anonymous tweeters as much as those who tweet under their real name. I have no wish to make people distrust me (for any other reasons than being an idiot). I do not want to raise anyone's anxiety levels unnecessarily. If the simple act of being more honest and open about who I am can help this, then I will do this.

It is also true that, having left church, I no longer have to worry about what others at church think about my comments. Over the years, I have also learned that there are areas I should not touch on in any online forum - any criticism of work situations or colleagues. There is nothing that I post online that should cause me any work-related issues, because anything that might I should not be posting anyway. So anonymity is not so much of a problem anymore.

But the other reason that I want to be more open about myself is that I no longer have a church community - in truth my online community and friends are all I have, and it is therefore important to be open and honest with them, to varying degrees. I sat in the Jesus Arms at Greenbelt this year on the Friday night on my own, but knowing that there were probably others in there - maybe others I saw - who I knew on twitter or Facebook or through the Ship of Fools. There were probably others there who were sat thinking the same thing. It is one of the core problems with online relationships and community that it can be very lonely if you don't recognise others.

I will still take care of my online profile - that is something everyone should do. But I will become a whole lot more open about myself, in places that I have not always been so candid. I may regret it, but I hope not.