Monthly Archives: October 2011

We’re the 99% – so I’m told



I wondered  where I was in the 99% opposed to the 1%, so I typed my stipend into Global Rich List and awaited the measure of my oppression.  Blow me,  I am in the top 3% of earners on the planet. If you add my wife’s income we are in the top .89%.   Despite all this “wealth” we are still entitled to child tax credits.

Do we think of ourselves as wealthy fat cats in our everyday lives? No, because we measure our wealth in spending power and against the ultra rich rather than the basic standard of living we enjoy. In my experience it takes a lot of money in your pocket for someone to admit to being “rich” in the west.

I learned this lesson serving my curacy in a prosperous Surrey village. Across the street from the church was a school which  cost thousands of  pounds a year to send a boy to. They used our church like a chapel for Harvest and Christmas.

One year I drew Harvest duty. This meant standing in my best vestments, representing the Established Church with a smile and a harmless word as the boys and their parents arrived with traditional harvest gifts of produce and tinned food. This annual service was part of the process of forging them into the fine Englishmen who would run the country and economy for the rest of us. We sang traditional hymns and prayed traditional prayers thanking God for this abundance.

Then in all my finery I stepped up for the talk. I started by asking people to put their hands up if they thought they were rich. No one did in a mix of false humility and suspicion of  a trick question.

I proceeded to ask questions about being employed in a steady job, regular holidays, flying on planes, running water (hot and cold) on demand  in their house,  car ownership, money in their pockets, readily available food on demand, transport, shelter etc. As you have probably worked out, the point was that by the standards of the rest of the world,  they (and I) were rich beyond the dreams of most of the planet and all of it displayed by the simplest of things that we take for granted.

When you do this sort of thing in church usually lightbulbs appear over  people’s’ heads as they get what you are saying, even if they don’t agree. Afterwards at least one person says, “lots to think about vicar”.

Here, it was stony silence. The headmaster didn’t thank me and led the rest of the service with not even a glance towards me. Clearly I had deviated from the script by drawing attention to wealth and how easily it sits with us.  I guess they thought I was being critical. All I was trying to do was acknowledge how rich our everyday lives are in the west and to be thankful.

A couple of days later  a group of boys from the school arrived to ask me questions.  They were researching a project about the community they lived in and they were interviewing people who worked in the community.  They asked, “What one thing do you think would make this village a better place to live in?” Without thinking I said, “If everyone made less money”. Their teacher went white and wrapped it up quickly. I was never asked to do anything associated with the school again. Apparently it was okay to be rich but not to have it pointed out or questioned.

It is easier to hide behind this 99% figure than to come clean about our own addiction to unsustainable standards of living funded by the capital we are all suddenly against. Maybe we need to be a bit uncomfortable at our own wealth which has come at the expense of others. Maybe it’s time to let the true global poor point at us and single us out as the fat cats they must see us to be.  And unlike the City and global capital, perhaps we should be moved by their accusations enough to attempt a different way of living as far was we have the power to do so.

That thing you do

In the mythology of successful Church of England ministry,  success is measured corporately and individually. Corporately, it is based on numbers and income. Big attendance + Big money raised = Big priest.

Individually it is measured by jobs held. The higher into the hierarchy one goes, so says the myth, the shinier and more special that clergy person must be. After all,  you don’t get onto the staff of  St Paul’s Cathedral by using my post meeting catchphrase “could you send me an email reminding me what I said I’d do because I’ll have forgotten by the time I get home”.

So when those stellar clergy get into the news it makes a good story.

Headlines can make for exciting national debates  But down here in the  small time  ministry of the bog standard CofE clergyperson, there is more on our minds than the hassles of our brighter and shinier colleagues in London.

For thousands of clergy like me,  an occupation of our church yard takes the form of kids on the roof (or metal thieves), kids (or drug users) using the church yard and all the hiding places church architecture provides as smoking or shooting dens. Protests take the form of calling you a f****** w***** as you tell them to go away or call in the police to remove them (no riot shields just a fed up beat bobby who wants to help). So far our connections with world capitalism have gone uncommented upon.

We meet the world at our front doors. A couple of years ago the door bell went. I  opened it and was greeted by a man who said, “I’m glad you’re home vicar, I think I might be possessed.”  “Of course you’re not. You’re probably just a schizophrenic, come in and let’s get you in touch with your doctor”.

When the knock comes at the vicarage door you hope it will be Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses but alas, it is usually a request for money, a sandwich, a room, help with a mental illness or someone telling you their marriage has broken down. Sometimes people come to the door to tell you what a crap vicar you are and why they are leaving your church, though they usually do that by email now.

After reading the headlines of our decline I started listing all the good stuff an adequate local church does to love its neighbours like God loves us. As I got going I had some really good stuff written down.  But when I read it my list looked shrill and defensive:

“Look at us! Look how important we are! Look at the relevance! Appreciate us! Please!”

In truth, we don’t need to feel defensive or a have a PR strategy because St Paul’s has found itself in hot water it can’t deal with competently. For all the saintly and sage writing from clerics and non-clerics alike, there is another truth that London-centric commentators and the media miss: the church is not shaken to its foundations.  It has been and always will be the highly compromised institution you would expect from broken sinners looking for mercy and redemption.

Local churches all over the country have been caring for and welcoming the poor, the bereaved, the sick , the lonely, the marginalised, mentally ill, abused, confused and depressed long before they seemed to be officially discovered by the rest of the world after the last election. And shock of shocks, we welcome the rich and the comfortable, the sinners, the doubters and those who just want some peace. It isn’t always a happy productive enterprise,  free of human foibles. But it is grounded in real life and real people.

The only piece of advice I would give the chapter of St Paul’s is good advice my training incumbent gave me when I stumbled into a bit of a churchy cat fight in my early days. “You never win a public fight, so don’t get into one. It undoes all the good no one will take the time to praise you for.”

So while in London the church is apparently being brought to its knees, out here in the provinces we’ll just get on doing what we do best. Trying to be faithful. Trying to be loving. Hoping that people will get a glimpse of God while we do it.  Shake on. The foundations are deep and very hard to shatter.

Mine’s a pint

I spent Monday night in the pub finishing the confirmation preparation of a guy in my church.

He and I are very different people. He’s working class, I’m not. He finished his education when he left  school, I’ve got three degrees. He’s a joiner and I can’t cut a piece of wood straight. We’ve got two things in common; we live in houses we don’t own and we  go to the same church.

His wife was confirmed two  years ago. Since then, most Sundays, she has turned up with the whole family. I figured my guy would last about two weeks. Two years later here he is sitting  in a pub with me getting prepped for confirmation.

You don’t see many guys like  him in churches like mine. In secular British society (and on the estate where  the church is based) there are no brownie points or respectability to be gained  from going to church. If anyone is interested at all that you go to church the  question would be: “why?”

But on Sunday morning you’ll  find him there, chatting to old ladies, singing hymns, listening to sermons, fixing broken stuff for us and generally being part of the whole enterprise. At first he respectfully declined to receive communion. Now at my prompting he comes up for a blessing and looks really happy when he does.

So here we are in the pub  talking about the church. I asked him the “why” question the other night. He  just said, “I feel better when I’ve been.” Fair enough I say.

We chatted around a few  things as we sipped our beer and then I made the observation: what other  setting in our town would lead to two guys like us to sitting in a pub enjoying  a pint? What could bring lives that understandably run in parallel lines to a  meeting point on a regular basis?

We talked around it a bit and came to the conclusion that our humble church has offered us a place where we can make sense of the world in a way that isn’t based on class, income, education, housing or job descriptions. I know this isn’t always true of churches (Anglican or otherwise) but it is always a possibility.

Over the last couple of  weeks St Paul’s Cathedral has inadvertently offered a public vision of the church as a confused  dinosaur that can’t see the right path. In light of that, it’s been good to sit  in Wetherspoons celebrating a small local demonstration of how the church can bring people together and unite them in looking towards a better life for all.

Occupation of the Heart

For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed. Amos  2:6-7

Amos was the forefather of the Occupy (insert name of your town) movement. He was a shepherd in Israel in 760 bce.  For various reasons this was a time of prosperity for Israel. The rich, as they did for millennia before and millennia afterwards, took the lion’s share of the wealth. As we can see from the sort of practices he rails against, they also seemed to have quite a knack for sucking  back up whatever wealth managed to trickle down to the poor. 

Amos confronted his society and said, “If God was here he would definitely be in smiting mode”. He rails against everyone. They all wait for the “ but if you” that will bring relief; it never arrives.  If Amos had access to emoticons it would be frowny faces from start to finish. 

If you read the Old Testament you’ll notice there is relatively little text about sex (it’s not as obsessed about it as we are) or rules that we take to be controlling stories in our lives. It talks a lot about justice.  When God tells his people they are in the wrong he points to their economics as an expression about how they deviated radically from His path. This is the tradition Jesus follows. 

Scripture talks about wealth starting with the poor and powerless and revealing the tendency of the rich and powerful to trample them.  God chooses a slave nation to be his chosen people. When he says the rich and powerful have an obligation, he names who they are obliged to: the widows, the orphans and aliens. These are the people who have no one to stand up for them. The king was meant to stand up for those who would be preyed upon by the powerful and woe betidesthe king who failed to do so. 

Amos knew this and expected that everyone who signed up for God’s chosen people project should have known this too.  

So our ancient friend Amos would have a lot to say to our society starting with those who made dodgy loans that were rigged against the people who received them. He would have lots to say to governments who stayed asleep when that was happening and then recapitalised the predators rather than the prey. He would chastise the merchants who encouraged us to spend and spend with cheap credit. 

He would also add our names to the list for accepting the idolatry of “we deserve to be living better than this” at all levels of society. The financial crisis was generated by people loaning money they didn’t have to people who couldn’t pay it back to buy things they couldn’t afford.  We believed that money would buy us the happiness we wanted.  

However, as my wise friend Eric (in one of his Amos moments) pointed out, “Happiness has been replaced with the pursuit of happiness”.  

So we might imagine Amos occupying some town square and letting rip against all the bad guys. But we should be careful. He might tell us that we, people who are not widows and orphans and aliens, need to scrutinise ourselves too. He might say to us: 

“Self worth is not based on our new car or big house or how many times we eat out or get new clothes or go on holiday or change our phone. If it is, the problem isn’t financial.  If we can’t say no to what is clearly a bad deal and something that will blow up in our faces later, the problem isn’t financial. If we can’t organise a decent economy and society without maxing the out credit card, the problem isn’t financial.”  

The right blames the poor and the vulnerable and the left blame the rich. All the finger pointing and scapegoat hunting distracts us from looking into our own idolatrous hearts to see how we have played our part.  

No matter who spread the rumour that the good life could be bought regardless of your ability to pay for it, we all allowed it to become our mantra. Amos was an uncompromising guy. He tells us that God isn’t interested in us and them. He is interested in us demanding and living in a new society that is just, first for the poor and then for us all. We know how to form it, we just lack the will.





A Life Well Lived

Sometimes you leave a funeral feeling better about life than you did when it started. Yesterday I had the privilege of leading Jane’s funeral. Jane was a recent worshipper at St Barnabas, my homely and yet amazing little church on the Moss Rose Estate.  I didn’t know her very well and her death was very sudden and unexpected. She was 48 and had learning disabilities.

I was a bit reluctant to mention that last bit in case you decided to categorise her by her disability. Jane, I discovered, defined her life by what she wanted to get out of it rather by what it had dealt her. As I mentioned in my last blog, it is often hard to learn about the person in the normal course of  preparing for a funeral. What I didn’t mention was that the funeral tells you a lot and all of it is the truth.

300 people braved the rain and the wind to come to Jane’s funeral. Some were quite powerful people from the town, some were neighbours, work colleagues, church people, friends and family.  They were not there because Jane’s life was a tragedy or to commiserate with her family. They were there because Jane was an important part of life; because her presence would be missed and because she was a gift from God to them.

During that funeral, I was told about a woman who challenged herself and those around her. She sought to change people’s perception of those who shared her disabilities. Her aspiration was that everyone should be treated as fully human regardless of who they were. She was a focussed and creative fundraiser. She scrutinised plans and helped solve problems. She pushed others to raise their standards, just as she pushed herself. She made presentations at boardroom level and pressed the agencies she had to deal with to get their collective acts together. Her aim was to have the best life possible. Just like everyone else.

So 300 people laughed and cried and reflected together. The people who knew her best spoke lovingly about her. They told us about her key lesson of life: a life fully lived requires you to be fully human. Her demand was to let her be fully human because that is what she was.

At every funeral I take there is one message I always offer. As we live and make our way through the world we give our lives away like a living will. Positively or negatively we leave an inheritance in our wake.  I ask them to claim what was good from the life of the one they are mourning and celebrating. I exhort them to also make sure their lives are full of good gifts to pass on as they go through life. This congregation didn’t need to be told this. They came clutching the good gifts Jane had given freely from her life.

Later, a small group of us made our way into rural Cheshire. In an ancient churchyard, under a rain soaked yew tree which plopped fat drops of water down my neck,  we committed her to the grave. The air was still and silent as we tossed handfuls of soil on to the lid of her coffin. There was real peace among us as we said  thank you and goodbye and made our way through the gravestones and on towards home.

Naked and Alive

Steve Job’s death has come in the middle of my residency at the local crematorium. For me, a tough year for funerals might see me do ten in a year. When this fortnight is over I will have done 5 with a couple more turned down. So as you can imagine, death has been a major theme for me recently.

A key part of the funeral process is sitting down with family and friends (often people you have never met before and probable won’t see afterwards) and coaxing the story of the deceased out of them. At this point people look at you blankly because they are trying to picture something amazing to tell you about their loved one’s life while  editing  a lifetime of “home movies” in their head into some coherent story for themselves.

“He worked in many of the local mills”. “She was a dinner lady”. “She loved dancing”. “He loved Manchester United”.   I am often impressed with how important  “ordinary” lives are. People to whom you entrust keys, cats and children. People who volunteer, clean up, maintain and feed.  These are the sorts of lives we need to be thankful for along with the giants of our times. At the same time many of these can be sad stories about people plodding through life till they pop their clogs.

The difference between a simple life and a life put on hold can be very thin.

There is a disturbing tendency among church people  to see life as something to be got through with faith as a comfort and heaven as a retirement destination.  Seeing the bad old world as something to be endured can make us a people of small vision and even smaller expectations. At the heart of this smallness is the truth that God isn’t really what we love the most.  If we did, that love would expand our vision and our horizons.

I suspect that Steve Jobs didn’t love Apple or its products the most. I think what he loved most was the freedom to create and enthuse and control. He loved  Apple as a place where he could do that. His vision for life was big before he knew he had cancer, facing death just validated it.

Armed with this knowledge he told a graduating class at Stanford University something very biblical:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

The church has been saying this for over two thousand years using Baptism as a living metaphor: we enter the water, we die with Christ. Here we are stripped naked and we emerge from the water with the risen Christ full of freedom and hope and a future. To cover our nakedness we are advised to put on Christ in the same way we would put on clothing.

Just how alive would we be if we took that advice seriously? Putting on Christ is choosing life.  The Jesus who touched lepers, went to cocktail parties in the houses of his biggest critics, who spoke to people who were clearly sinners and untouchable, who was at home where ever he found himself. Jesus loved God more than anything else and his world was enormous.

Jesus lived as one who had nothing to lose because he had nothing that could be taken from him. Instead of doing risk assessments and management courses, he wandered into the messiness of life with stories, credibility and the simple mission statement: “Repent, the Kingdom of God is near”.

The church has been inward looking over the last decade as it has obsessed about its own decline.  Like a failing bank or local store we discuss it as if the church is separate from us.  The church cannot decline if we are healthy because we are the church. If we don’t love God like Jesus did then we won’t be the body we are called to be.

Maybe another metaphor for the church should be a wardrobe. Here the naked can continually find the clothes of Christ and be dressed for going out to live without fear, anxiety, pride and avoidance of failure.  Fashionable lives offering the world the must have item of the year: a life worth living.

After all, Steve Jobs invested all that we admired about him in restoring a company producing  electronic devices. We are called to restore heaven and earth.