Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Reflections on 7/7

As the 10th anniversary of the London bombings on 7/7 is marked with wreaths, services of remembrance and moments of silence, my thoughts are taken back to that day in a very personal way.

Like millions of other Londoners, I caught the tube into the centre of London that morning.  I count myself fortunate that I was already off the tube and at my destination when the first bomb exploded, tearing through metal, flesh and bone with indiscriminate indifference.

I was visiting my wife, Mel at Bart’s Hospital (near St Paul’s).  She was half way through yet another 3 months in hospital after her near fatal accident in 2003.  It was not going well.  In May she began a final series of reconstructive surgery on her leg and abdomen, attempting to cover areas of flesh which had been torn away by the tarmac and the lorry’s wheels.  After the first operation she was held together with over 120 shiny metal staples which made her leg and stomach look like a giant zip, but the wounds intended to improve her appearance wouldn’t heal, and bit by bit, the necrotic tissue which resulted had to be removed, painfully and hopelessly.

I was in the ward with her when news of the bombs started to come in.  We had already heard an unusual number of sirens outside, and now the hospital was gearing up for a major incident.  Beds were being emptied of all but the most seriously ill.  Patients were being sent home or moved to less acute wards.  Those being admitted for planned surgery were being turned away, and the hospital staff were whispering the latest reports to each other.

Our first reaction was fear.  They wouldn’t try to send Mel home, would they?  With the number of tubes and machines she was linked to, it would have been a nightmare.  We need not have worried.  Mel’s situation was too serious for that to be an option, and so we settled into waiting in the largely empty ward – waiting for whatever would follow.

By now the streets outside were eerily quiet.  Traffic was almost non-existent cut off by the many road closures.  The only sound of traffic was the wail of sirens from ambulances, police and fire trucks, often travelling at high speed along the empty roads.

A television was brought into the nursing station, and hospital staff gathered there in every spare moment to try to glean more information in the confusion which followed the blasts.  Mixed in with the unfolding horror of what had happened, there were fears of more bombs, more attacks.

In the end only a handful of victims were brought to Mel’s ward, and only one stayed beyond a few days.  But the effect on that victim’s life was clear and dramatic.  In the bed next to Mel’s was a young woman with severe lacerations to her face, arms and legs.  She too had parts of her body held together with stiches and staples.  She too had to endure painful changes of dressings and wonder at the long term effects on her life.  But her wounds had not been caused by accidental negligence – they had been coldly and deliberately inflicted in a planned and co-ordinated attack designed to kill and maim as many people as possible.  Mel and I heard her crying with her fiancĂ© and family, day after day as they came to terms with what had happened.

At the end of the day, I remember having to walk home to Brixton – along with many other people for whom it was the only means of getting out of the centre of London.

I also remember all the security alerts on the tube in the days that followed.  In the heightened levels of alert, every suspicious bag or situation was met with trains being stopped, and announcements over the tannoy asking passengers to exit the station immediately.  I remember the calm and stoic way in which commuters responded each time, without panic as we made our way to the surface and tried to work out how to complete our journeys.

Finally, I remember the shooting and killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station – one of our two local stations – by police who mistook him for a bomber because of bungled intelligence and the puffer jacket he was wearing.  Yet another victim of the bombings.

Today, 10 years on, what has changed?

For the UK, the focus has shifted from Al Qaeda to ISIS, but the threat remains the same.  Around the world, acts of terror continue on an almost daily basis.  Suicide bombers have become common place and lone gunmen still wreak havoc in people’s lives, claiming allegiance to some misguided creedal cause.

Over the last 10 years, the terror of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza have been met with the terror of missiles and artillery rounds fired from Israeli jets and tanks.  Iraq and Syria have descended in to the anarchy which has allowed ISIS to grow and impose its brutal power on millions.  The lives of people in hotels and shopping centres in Mumbai and Kenya have been devastated and hundreds of children and young women have been abducted in Nigeria. In the USA, marathon runners were blown up in Boston.  In Europe, cartoonists, journalists and Jews have been targeted with bullets designed to exact retribution on  anyone who believes that the pen is mightier than the sword.

In recent days, tourists were gunned down on a beach in Tunisia, mosques were bombed in Kuwait and Nigeria, and a young white man killed worshippers at a Bible study in the ‘black church’ which had welcomed him in Charleston, USA.

So what is the answer?

Certainly not the law of revenge which seems to dominate the conflict between the Israeli Government and Palestinians.  Certainly not the spiral of violence that we see in some parts of the world as different communities become more and more sectarian, demonising those who have hurt them to the point where retaliations are just as inhuman as the acts which led to them.  Not even the ever higher levels of security and surveillance which affect all our lives and yet cannot detect every threat.

In the long run perhaps the only way forward is one which at first appears weak – yet demands huge inner strength.

It is the path which family members of many Charleston victims have courageously sought to embrace when they faced the murderer of their loved ones in court.

People like the daughter of victim Ethel Lance:
“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again.  You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you. I forgive you.”

Others acknowledged how hard it is to forgive and yet spoke of beginning that journey, “For me, I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I'm very angry. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won't be around when your judgement day comes.”

In such forgiveness, there is a powerful challenge – the challenge to change.

Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told the killer, “I forgive you, my family forgives you. … We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now.”

Nor is this simply a Christian response.  Malala Yousafzai hit headlines around the world after miraculously surviving being shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan when she was just 15.  Two years later she became the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

When she addressed the UN on her 16th birthday, she said these words,

“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me.  Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him.  This is the compassion I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and the Lord Buddha.  This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Muhammad Ali Jina.  This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa… That is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”


In the end, hate can never conquer hate – costly, committed, forgiving love can.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Too Young to Vote?

As the General Election Campaign continues, there has been a rather noticeable auction of promises for pensioners and older people.

All the main parties appear committed to the ‘Triple lock’ which ensures that the state pension will continue to rise at or above increases in earnings and inflation.  The Conservatives are promising to retain all universal benefits for pensioners, while Gordon Brown has been promising Scots the power to ‘top up’ pensions and benefits north of the border.

But where are the promises for young people?

Just as conspicuous as the promises to pensioners, is the lack of positive commitments to young people.  Yes - there have been commitments to provide more apprenticeships, but they is more about up-skilling for economic growth than about attracting the younger person.  Apart from the Labour pledge on University Tuition Fees, young people seem to be in line for more stick and less carrot when it comes to benefits and finding work.

So why is this?

The reason, of course is rather obvious.  Older people vote!  The ‘grey vote’ is vital to winning seats all over the country, and our political parties are clamouring for their backing.

Young people on the other hand tend not to vote.  18-25 year olds are the least likely group to vote in our country based on figures from the last General Election in 2010.  If you are under 18 years old, you can’t vote, and if you are 18-21 you are half as likely to vote as someone aged 74-80 despite the reduced mobility of many in the older age group.    Put simply, the older you are, the more likely you are to vote - and the more attention you will get from the politicians vying for your support.

This has not always been the case.  In 1964 when turnout was 77% overall, 18-24 year olds were just as likely to vote as pensioners (both 76%).  Since then there has been a steady downward pattern for young people right down to only 40% of 18-21 year olds voting in 2010.

As a House of Commons briefing paper on Election Turnout from 2013 states:

“The decline in young people’s engagement in politics has been a common theme of late… in the context of falling overall turnout at General Elections, the decline has been sharpest amongst voters aged 18-24.”

The situation is also being made worse this year by the introduction of new procedures for registering to vote in this year’s General Election, with the result that the number of 18 year olds registered has crashed by almost 50% in the last 12 months.

For political parties the bottom line is about winning, so they are not going to waste their precious resources on lost causes – and where elections are concerned young people are a lost cause.

So why don’t young people vote?

Perhaps it’s apathy?  Perhaps they don’t trust politics?  That they are too busy drinking in bars to bother about who runs the country?  Or is it that they feel disconnected from election campaigns run by older people for older people, with little apparent relevance for their lives?

Whatever the truth, in the year when we celebrate 800years of British Democracy, such a wide disenfranchisement of the next generation is something which should trouble us greatly.  It is something which we should and must do something about.

The disenfranchisement of a generation will lessen our democratic processes both in the present and for the future.  People who don’t think their vote matters in their teens and twenty’s, are increasingly likely to think exactly the same in their 30’s, 40’s 50’s and 60’s – and then who will the politicians be able to appeal to when this generation become pensioners?

But perhaps the recent Scottish referendum might provide a way forward.

In a bold move, 16 year olds were given the vote for the first time.  The effect was dramatic. Suddenly young people were engaged in the democratic process as never before.  Seasoned politicians found themselves having to learn how to address the aspirations of the young as well as the old.  By referendum day 89% of 16 & 17 year olds had registered to vote and overall turnout in the referendum was the highest in modern British election history at 85.4%.

So what if we reduced the voting age throughout the UK?

Reducing the voting age to 16 would rejuvenate our tired political processes. 

Citizenship classes in school would take on real and present meaning by preparing the majority of students to register and  vote for the first time in local elections before finishing their GCSE’s.
  
Continuing citizenship education in 6th Form and Colleges would mean that the majority of 16-18 year olds would have the opportunity to vote in a General Election or European Election before leaving compulsory education.

This process of re-franchising would be further assisted by situating Polling Stations in 6th Forms and Colleges (while not closing the school or college for the day).  Students could then vote during the day at their place of education and the younger generation would be placed at the heart of our democracy.

Political parties would find themselves having to take young people seriously – to find ways of communicating – to identify policies which would speak to a new generation instead of ignoring them or scapegoating them.

The idea is not new of course.  MPs, Lords and political parties have pursued the idea several times.  No less than 5 Private Members Motions and 3 debates have been introduced in Parliament in the last 15 years calling for such a change, but each has failed to change the goal-posts despite the most recent debate securing a vote of 119 MPs in favour to 46 against.  The Lib Dems included it in their 2010 manifesto, but it failed to make the Coalition agreement after the election. Today - Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have all made it an election pledge for 2015 but the Conservatives oppose any change.

The longer we delay the greater the democratic deficit that will need to be addressed.  It was Eddie Cochran who first put the issue into song in ‘Summertime Blues’ back in 1958 when he wrote the lyric,

‘Well I called my congressman and he said "Whoa!”
"I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote"’


We need to resolve this quickly before another generation passes into political apathy.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Apostolic Regression

According to Christian Today, we now know that the Church of England is set to further deepen its division over Women Bishops.

In yesterday’s article by Ruth Gledhill, she has revealed that when the new ‘Traditionalist’ Bishop - Philip North - is consecrated, the Archbishop of York and his new Diocesan Bishop will not participate in the consecration of the new Bishop at the crucial moment – at the laying on of hands.

Why is this?

At first sight this may sound like a snub to the new Traditionalist Bishop. Not participating in his consecration sounds like a snub – but nothing could be further from the truth.

The reason why they will not lay hands on him, is because a week earlier they will both fully participate in the consecration of the first woman Bishop, Libby Lane. 

And because they will participate in the laying on of hands of a woman Bishop, traditionalists appear to consider them ‘tainted’.  Or in plain English, because they have consecrated a woman, they no longer qualify to take part in the consecration of a man - well, not a real man anyway!  They have become ‘tainted’ by consecrating a woman.

At the heart of this issue is the Anglo-Catholic belief in Apostolic Succession – an unbroken line of consecrations and ordinations properly conducted by the hands of men to the heads of men – which they believe can be traced right back to the Apostles, who were in turn ordained by Christ.

In the minds of traditionalists, this unbroken line is everything.  It’s like an unbroken electric current connecting today's priests and bishops to the Apostles and Christ.   If you break the circuit, it ceases to connect you to the heavenly light bulb – the whole thing breaks down.

Not only is such a connection Biblically spurious, but it also assumes that God’s hands are bound such an arbitrary set of rules.  It is a theology which negates the ministry of all Christians who have not been ‘properly’ ordained in the line of Apostolic Succession.  It couldn't be further removed from the wind of the Spirit which Jesus talked about in John 3 - the wind which blows where it wills.  It couldn't be further removed from Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4 – where Spirit and Truth replaces slavery to places, regulations and restrictions.

This kind of belief in Apostolic Succession is designed to exclude those who do not fit the ‘right’ ecclesiastical mould – to restrict and constrain rather than release and set free.  This is not the truth which Christ talked about - the Truth which sets us free.  Rather it harks back to an Old Testament legalism – the very same legalism which got Christ crucified in the first place.

It is more like Apostolic Regression than Succession – regressing to a pre-Christian understanding of God and priesthood, and ministry.

So what should the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Blackburn do?

They certainly should not give in to this superstitious legalism.  If a new traditionalist Bishop is to be consecrated, it should be a consecration by the whole church – not just by those who are ‘untainted’ in his eyes.

When Paul talked to Timothy (in 2 Timothy 1)  about “the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands”, he first reminds him of a different succession involving two women in his life – the succession of faith passed down from his grandmother to his mother, and then to him.  It is the succession of faith which counts in God’s eyes – from believer to believer – men and women - of faith in the Good News of Christ.

When the Church of England finally authorised the consecration of women, it was a wonderful (if overdue) sign of Apostolic Progression.  As a sign of respect and care for those who could not agree with it, it was deemed necessary to provide Bishops to look after their needs.   But allowing this theology of taint to flourish will be both divisive and regressive.  It allows the creation of a ‘pure sect’ within the church which defines its own rules and its own boundaries of who is in and who is out.

I pray that those in authority will think again, and when the Bishop of Burnley is consecrated, that he will be consecrated by all Bishops present – not just a few.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Sex or Gender?

I have become increasing uncomfortable with the concept of Same-Sex Marriage recently.

Now before you reach out to delete me from your contacts list, I should explain!  I am perfectly happy with two men or two women marrying each other – I would even go so far as to say that I believe that recognition of Same-Sex Marriage is the latest stage of our deepening understanding as Christians of the very nature of marriage itself.

The problem I have is with the name.

Sex has always been a stumbling block for Christians.  For most people in churches, it’s super-embarrassing to talk about – if they can bring themselves to talk about it at all.  Most churches are still very Victorian in their approach to sex and the sum total of teaching on sex in most Evangelical churches consists of:

  • Don’t do it before you get married
  • Don’t talk about it when you have got married.
  • Don’t let your children do it before they get married.


Yet when the church talks about relationships between two men or two women – the thoughts and concerns of most church-goers and church leaders immediately go to ‘Sex’.  Terms like “practising homosexual” and “same-sex acts” seek to define what more conservative Christians regard as sinful but they only serve to exacerbate the problem.  It’s all about sex!

I have a gay friend who noticed an elderly gentleman at church looking at him strangely, week after week, at church.  Finally the elderly gentleman plucked up the courage to say to my friend, “I can’t do it – no matter how hard I try I can’t imagine what it must be like for you having sex with a man!” My friend was horrified and replied, “Then please don’t!  Let me release you from feeling that you have to!”

When David Ison (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) was a Canon in Exeter Diocese, he found himself leading a number of seminars on sexuality.  At the beginning of each seminar, he began by asking the participants to get into small groups and talk about their sex-life.  As the look of horror spread across usually composed, calm faces, he let them off the hook saying, “It’s private isn’t it, so why do we think it is OK to discuss a gay person’s sex life?”

As an evangelical gay priest once wrote, “When we talk about married people, we do not suddenly imagine them having sex and then rush to affirm it as a good thing. Instead, we naturally think in terms of relationships, families and communities. There is no reason why we should think differently about gay relationships. It is tragic that so many evangelicals collude with the world in sexualizing gay people. If we could talk about love instead of about sex, we might well find that we have distinctively Christian things to say to gay people.”

It is truly bizarre that when it comes to heterosexual courting, we emphasise developing the relationship as of primary importance – not sex.  But when it comes to homosexual relationships, the first concern of the average evangelical church is sex – not relationship.  Perhaps that is why gay or lesbian couples are made to feel so unwelcome – because they ‘make us’ think about sex in church!

So here’s the thing…

Why are we perpetuating this by talking about Same-SEX Marriage?  For nervous Christians it has the dreaded word right at the centre of the phrase, thereby reminding them of everything they feel uncomfortable about – not just for gay couples but also for themselves – and it perpetuates a subliminal impression that gay marriage is all about sex.   Newsflash:  History has proved beyond any doubt that gay couples don’t need to get married to have sex!

As a result, I am going to break the habit of colluding with this.  It will take some time, but from now on, I will be talking about Same-GENDER Marriage (which is actually what we have been talking about all along).

Gender is a much more neutral word and crucially, it is the true heart of the issue whether you are in favour of marriage between two men or two women, or against it.  Same-Gender Marriage is less emotive, less confrontational, and points to the real pinch point in the theological debate.

I also hope this will catch on so that we can de-sexualise the whole debate about marriage – and start to de-sexualise our attitudes toward same-gender couples and LGBT people.


Why don’t you do the same?