Wednesday, August 05, 2015

They Didn't Think It Through No 19, Sunday Trading

Ministers will challenge the Church of England to support the biggest shake up of Sunday trading laws in a generation to help boost high streets and cut shopping bills for every household in Britain.
Under plans unveiled in a consultation today, local authorities will be given the power to prevent large supermarkets from opening longer in an attempt to revive Britain's high streets.
The Government will encourage councils to use the new powers to help town centre stores at the expense of larger out-of-town shops.
thus spaketh the Telegraph, amongst others. 
So lets get this straight. The Conservatives want the church's support in a plan to make Sunday identical to every other day, apart from in out of town supermarkets. Though that in turn will be up to local authorities, who may or may not use the powers they've been given.
Implicit in the plan is that supermarkets and out of town shopping are undermining the high street. That doesn't just happen on Sundays. It seems bizarre to pick on a few hours in the week on the most common day of rest as the saviour of the high street, when there are 6 other days already to work with. And the idea that a local authority can resist a supermarket is laughable - council are already bowing the knee to big money over the planning laws, rather than fork out thousands to fight court cases. Can we really see the big supermarkets taking it lying down when some puny District Council steps on their toes?
And then there's the maths. Or the 'maths', to be pedantic.
The government calculates that relaxing Sunday trading laws will lead to £1.4billion worth of benefits to the economy a year and increase the amount people spend by as much as 12.5 per cent.
I may be dense, but where exactly is that money going to come from? The entire argument around Sunday trading is based on economics - fair enough you say, trading: the clue's in the name. As though how we organise economics doesn't have any impact on anything else. There are other valuable activities beside shopping - worship, sport, relaxing, having time with the family, having a rhythm to life which includes a communal day of rest etc. There's no monetary value on this, so the governments calculations are one-sided. The only maths they've done are on what might be gained by extra shopping hours, not what might be lost in the process. 
Once we know the economic cost of people being fat, depressed, divorced and in debt, then we'll know the true cost of 'liberalised' Sunday trading. There is a price, and the people lobbying or legislating for this change won't be the ones paying it:
Retail and associated workers are hardly well off, and it is they who will pay the price of longer opening hours on Sundays. While most of their bosses will still enjoy weekends off, many retail workers already find they have no choice over Sunday working. They have lost, for a large part, the premium payments they enjoyed at first. In addition, they will face more childcare costs, which will probably be more expensive on a Sunday, or lose precious family time.
So it's a No from me. But blogging about it is a waste of time, far better to engage with the newly-published consultation about the proposals

Update: here's what I've put in the only bit of the consultation where you can actually write anything:
1. More Sunday opening means more Sunday working. For us as a church, meeting on a Sunday, this will compromise some of our members, and reduce both the quality of mutual support which members receive, and the church's capacity to act for community benefit. Our church provides a valuable service to the community, as well as a place of worship and Christian fellowship for its members, with preschool groups, lunch club for the elderly, support for local schools, 2 youth clubs, many hours of home and hospital visiting, and voluntary time and money given to the local food bank, debt counselling service and Street Pastors. Extended Sunday trading is likely to deplete the congregation because some will not be able to attend due to work commitments. It is also likely to make membership of town centre churches more costly, as the local authority will quite naturally want to levy parking charges. The church is a key component of the 'Big Society' and relaxing Sunday trading laws will undermine some of the social and community good the church provides. 

2. Sunday is an important day of rest and socialising. Moving to a 7 day a week pattern of working, with no difference between one day and any other, will undermine family life and social cohesion, by denying families and communities a shared day of rest for leisure, worship and recreation. More people will be excluded from family celebrations and community events because of work commitments. 

3. As a church we are involved in debt counselling and relationship support. Any changes to working practices which  result in couples spending less time together, or facing increased financial pressures, will put more demands on us as an organisation. It is claimed that the changes will result in increased spending on the high street - where will this money come from? There are other things for people to do with their leisure time than shop. 

4. The changes will undermine trust in politicians. David Cameron said this earlier in the year: “I can assure you that we have no current plans to relax the Sunday trading laws. We believe that the current system provides a reasonable balance between those who wish to see more opportunity to shop in large stores on a Sunday, and those who would like to see further restrictions.” This legislation is a clear breach of that statement, and would provide a strong signal to the public that politicians cannot be trusted to keep their word. Trust in public life is a vital commodity, and this undermines it. 

5. Your consultation document presents a very one-sided argument. The only thing is has to say positively about Sundays as a day of rest is that its' important to some religious people. I don't think this is the reason why the changes are opposed by unions and the Association of Convenience Stores. Sunday as a day of rest is valued by millions of workers, small business owners, and their families and friends. 

6. Workers rights are very poorly protected. To be able to refuse Sunday working, you are proposing that someone remain in continuous employment at the same place for 21 years. The courts have already decided that nobody can refuse to work on Sunday for religious reasons (, there is no protection for workers rights offered here at all. The experience of workers who try to opt out of Sunday working for family or religious reasons is very mixed.

7. I don't see any evidence that you have fully done your research. There are no figures on the likely impact on participating in sport, religious activities, Big Society social capital activities, parenting, tourism etc. For example:How many people will be unable to take part in next year's Yeovil Half Marathon (held on a Sunday) because of work commitments? In turn, how much fundraising will charities miss out on? And therefore how many jobs will be lost in the charitable sector? And what knock-on costs will this create for public sector bodies?  etc. etc. There is no calculation of the likely costs of childcare at a weekend (likely to be at a premium), and what kind of costs and benefits will be applicable to workers. By only presenting data around retail sales, you only seem to have taken account of one side of the argument. Either this proposal is poorly researched, or you have deliberately skewed the background information in the consultation. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Not Doing What Comes Naturally

YouGov has surveyed attitudes on polygamy, to see if there is a direction of travel for further 'liberalisation' in the definition of marriage. (I put 'liberalisation' in quotation marks because the word has a positive suggestion of freedom. It's like using the word 'decay' to describe change, it's not a neutral term).

39% of Brits think humans are not monogamous by nature, but at the same time only 18% think that polygamy is morally acceptable. Even though only 42% (!) think we're naturally monogamous, nearly 3/4 think that monogamous relationships can be successful if people work at it hard enough.

So for some of us at least, we don't think the law around marriage, sexuality and relationships should be based on what comes naturally to us. I'd have liked to see a follow up question to those who thought having multiple partners was natural but immoral: why? Or to the 47% who believe that, even if everyone involved gives their consent, having multiple relationships at the same time is wrong. Why?

YouGov, from what I can see, hasn't started tracking these results over time, so there's no way of telling if attitudes are changing, and by how much. Much of our education and culture around sex is based on informed consent: if you want to do it, and they want to do it, then what's the problem. There's also a presumption of freedom: do what you want to do, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone.

There's a sizeable chunk of Brits (I'm one) which doesn't believe that 'natural' is a reliable guide to 'moral' or 'legal'. If it was, we wouldn't need so many laws: but many of us find it 'natural' to hit people, cheat, speed, steal, fiddle taxes, lie, be greedy etc. Deferred gratification is one of the key skills learned early in life, to learn to say 'no' to what we want RIGHT NOW. Self control, in other words. The idea of self control when it comes to sex has become counter-cultural in the space of 3 generations. We've also been very nervous about promoting monogamy and its benefits (look at the recent fight around the token recognition of marriage in the tax system) because that's seen as stigmatising lone parents or being nanny state about people's sexual choices.

We may one day arrive at the right balance of nature and choice on one hand, and morality and self-control on the other. But leaving it all to the individual to make their own mistakes and find their own way is cruel. We're surrounded by the wreckage. There is an accumulated wisdom about marriage and relationships from many generations, and from Christian teaching, but we've been too nervous in talking about it because we don't want to be seen as lecturing people about sex and their own personal choices.

Christian teaching about sin is clear: doing what comes naturally isn't the same as doing what is good. Judging by the survey results, a lot of people get that, but talking about 'sin' will get us nowhere in a post-Christian society. How do we talk about God's gift of sex in a way that holds on to the wisdom, but still gets heard?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

BBC Dreadful Language Swarm Shock

David Cameron has been in the firing line for using the word 'swarms' as a collective noun for people. How very very dreadful. After all, the BBC wouldn't do that would they?

Oh: it looks like Americans swarm
you can see the vast swarms of people who turned out to see the inauguration.

and so do Christians
The preacher and other members of the crowd swarm around him, and join him in dance

How very very shocking, dreadful, divisive and inflammatory. I feel whipped up against Americans and Christians just as a result of hearing the term used once. But I'm sure all the people having a go at Cameron today are, behind the scenes, working really really hard to find a way to solve the problem, rather than just having an opportunist pop and trying to get people worked up about a non-issue. 

and Syrians
and Nigerians

If I didn't know any better I'd venture that 'swarm' was a common way of referring to the behaviour of crowds.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The New Leader of the Opposition Is.....ITV

In the absence of a functioning political system, thank God for journalists who are prepared to do the politicians job. In the days when the Conservatives were as dysfunctional as Labour is now, the official opposition was Bremner, Bird and Fortune. This week ITV has picked up the baton:

It is why on ITV News this week we are running a series of reports on the state of mental health care in Britain. An investigation by ITV News and the charity Young Minds has revealed that in the last year alone £35m has been cut from children and adolescent services, £80m in the past four years.Worse, it is the early intervention services including those provided by local authorities in schools that have been hit hardest. So children with mental health problems are not being dealt with early enough and are ending up in wards – if they are lucky – where their problems worsen.We highlight the case of one teenager suffering from depression who tried to take her own life and who claims there were no appropriate services locally to help her. Eventually she was referred to the child and adolescent mental health service but was placed on a waiting list for months. This cannot be right. We also met a 22-year-old girl with mental health problems forced to spend a night in a police cell because there were no beds available. It is a dire state of affairs and needs urgent attention.
Read the rest of Mark Austins piece here. In the Coalition the Libdems made some good noises about mental health, but this all happened on their watch. Having said that, the health secretary was a Conservative then, and is a Conservative now. A recent survey on people's experience of mental health 'care' found that:
Just one in seven (14%) of the patients surveyed said the care they received provided the right response and helped to resolve their mental health crisis. Another 42% said it had helped a bit. But two in five (40%) said the care they had received was not right and had not helped them resolve their crisis.
We have a National Health Service for physical illness, and a badly resourced imitation for mental health. Following Jeremy Hunt with a sousaphone might be fun, but what he really needs to do is to try to get an appointment at his local mental health unit before Christmas. But maybe the good people at ITV have already set that up.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Reflection

Monday, July 20, 2015

Don't Read All About It

Christians need to exercise a healthy scepticism towards the mainstream media, and find alternative sources of news alongside it. That seems to be the lesson of the last 7 days. If you're a newly elected political leader, you can expect more scepticism towards your faith than towards your politics, and if Jesus does play any part in your life, don't bother mentioning it to a journalist because they'll leave that bit out anyway. One high profile BBC broadcaster notes that 'it's almost socially unacceptable to say that you believe in God'

A sensible approach might be to assume, even if it seems unkind, that every worldview is worthy of suspicion and scrutiny, and that it’s not just some chap in the Lib Dems talking to someone who may or may not exist in the sky who should be grilled about his fundamental assumptions, but everyone who expresses an interest in making big decisions on voters’ behalf. Yes, we should be suspicious of Tim Farron’s Christian worldview – but only in so far as we suspect everyone’s funny jumble of beliefs and assumptions.

Reasonable (mostly) words at the Spectator, but just look at the headline it's been given. 

What's the message? Keep quiet about your Christian faith. If you don't, and it's something positive, it won't be reported anyway, either that or we'll use it as a stick to beat you with. Welcome to a 'free' media. 

So, head for the bunkers? No, the suspicion and misunderstanding faced by the first century Christians was several orders of magnitude worse than anything in the UK at the moment. And what is the advice of their main leader? "Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you, but do it with gentleness and respect." (1 Peter 3) We still need to be PG certificate Christians, Prepared, Gentle, and suitable for a general audience. And meanwhile, pray for Tim Farron, who has suddenly become one of the most high profile Christians in the country. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Knowing Your Helicopters

Westland helicopters is by far the biggest employer in Yeovil, over 3000 work there, plus hundreds at associated businesses in the area. Last week they had a celebration to mark 100 years on the site, including fly-pasts by some rare aeroplanes.

One of our church, who works there, said how great it was to hear the sound of the engine of the rare planes. I was thrown, my assumption was that the sight would be the striking thing, but for him it was the sound. Many people locally can tell by the engine sound which helicopter or plane is flying overhead. He explained that when you hear the sound several times a day, over time it becomes pretty easy to identify which is which.

Later the same morning, I was chatting to another church member, about God's guidance, and how we work out what God is saying. How do we discern the sound of God's voice from the sound of the crowd, our own wishful thinking, or the received wisdom of our church? The experts on our doorstep at Westlands would say that the discernment comes from regular exposure. The more we read and recieve of scripture and the words of Jesus, the easier it will be to identify the whirring downdraft of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Not in front of the children

I'm sure there's a perfectly sensible proposal behind this report on reforms to CofE communion practice, but how about this for a paragraph:

It comes despite fears from the Church’s most senior liturgical body that children could spill communion wine, which represents the blood of Christ. It would also mean children being invited to distribute alcohol in churches - almost a decade before they could legally drink it in a pub

a) adults can spill communion wine too. I know, I have. Maybe we should refuse to give it to people who have Parkinsons too? 

b) hopefully communion is closer to a family meal than a consumer transaction. I would hope that most children are involved in preparing and serving the food and drink of a meal by the age of 9 at home. So why not in church? 

c) my theology may be a little ropey, but for those who think transubstantiation actually happens, surely the wine is no longer alcoholic in that case? 

we really do tie ourselves in knots over some silly things. God is more offended by children being driven into poverty by welfare reforms than he is by them spilling communion wine. 

Thursday, July 09, 2015

I warn you not to be poor

Does anyone benefit from the budget?

I put in my 'average' family circumstances, age, 2 children etc. to the BBC's budget calculator, and had a play around with some figures

Salary £10,000   lose £1484
Salary £15,000    lose £1182  (this is just roughly what someone working full time on the new 'National Living Wage' would earn, except it's not a living wage)
Salary £25,000    lose £1351
Salary £35,000    better off by £80
Salary £45,000    better off by £141
Salary £55,000    better off by £141

Everyone who benefits from the welcome rise in the minimum wage will be slapped straight back down again by the cuts to tax credits. If you're working 40 hours a week on the minimum wage now (£6.50) you'll earn £13,520 a year. The increased minimum wage raises this to £14,976. 81% of that increase of £1456 wont be seen. That's one heck of a marginal tax rate. Someone earning that level by working part time, at a rate already above £7.20 per hour will simply lose out with no compensating rise in income.

Whilst someone earning over £50k a year could probably find nearly £1500 of savings in their annual budget (cheaper holiday, cancel the Sky subscription, shop around for haircuts), I have no idea how you do that on £10,000 a year.

At the bottom end of the pay scale, this is pretty much a direct swap of pay for tax credits, transferring the financial burden from the state to the employer. Of course the employer has the option to sack the worker, (though the governments welfare assessment programme has been doing its best to duplicate this), which means your annual wage drops to £0. I applaud the attempt to raise the minimum wage to what, by 2020, will be a living wage, but I can't see it happening without a rise in unemployment. Meanwhile for those whose income is just above the higher rate minimum wage, it's just hefty cut to tax credits (though these are still over £6k a year to a couple with 2 children).

If you've a food bank or debt advice charity near you, and you have any spare time or compassion, please ring them up and offer your services. They're going to need you.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Bear Grylls in the Big Issue on Faith, Fear and God

It was around 16 I found my Christian faith. I wasn’t brought up in the church but I had a natural faith when I was a little kid, I always believed in something. Then when I went to school I thought, if there is a God, surely he doesn’t speak Latin and stand in a pulpit? But when I was 16 my godfather, who was like a second father to me, died. I was really upset and I said a very simple prayer up a tree – if you’re still there, will you please just be beside me. And that was the start of something that grew and grew and it’s become the backbone of my life. I’m more convinced than ever, no matter how crazy it sounds, that there is a God and he is love. It’s a very personal relationship, I still don’t go to church very much. But to this day I start every day on my knees praying by my bed, and that’s my grounding for the day.
I see miracles everywhere I look, in mountains and in the jungleBelieving in God definitely makes me less scared in life in general. People say I’m not scared of anything. Well, I am, I’m scared of lots of things. After my sky-diving accident in the military [a fall doctors feared would paralyse him for life], I still have to parachute quite a lot and I find that hard. But having a faith reduces my fear hugely because I’m not alone, I’m fighting these battles with the creator and that’s amazing. My faith definitely plays a part in my love of the outdoors – I see miracles everywhere I look, in mountains and in the jungle. And I think I have less of a fear of death as well because I see it as going home.
read the rest of the article here

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Sanctifying Facebook

The BBC reports on a 'sin free Facebook' (a title given by the Beeb, not by the site itself) set up in Brazil. Bad language and porn are banned, and 'Like' has become 'Amen'.

Spend any time on Facebook and you can see the attraction. Like the rest of human society, and the internet, it's a mixed bag, to put it kindly. If you don't want to be exposed to violence, sexual content etc. then it's the online equivalent of avoiding most TV channels after 9pm.

But I doubt I'll be joining when the English version appears. Why?
1. It looks a bit too insular. 'Facegloria' and 'Amen' will all tick boxes with certain churchy types, but will be completely lost on anyone who's not in the know. If the intent is to model a different sort of online community that focuses on what is good, true, honest, etc. then at least don't create a language barrier to those who aren't Christians. There may be hordes of people who'd love a FB alternative that isn't going to expose them or their children to distasteful stuff, but cloaking it in 'Kingdom language' will ensure that they never sign up. One of the intentions of Facegloria is to spread Gods word - so make it easy to hear.

2. If it ends up siphoning Christians away from Facebook into their own sanctified little world, thats a problem too. The early church met in the open air, in a place where everyone could see and hear them. We do nobody any favours by putting ourselves behind thick walls, whether made of medieval stone or computer code. Salt and light have to be mixed with food and darkness to do their job.

For many Christians, Facebook is actually a place where we live out our faith: mediating in arguments rather than escalating them, encouraging people rather than whining, putting out content which promotes truth, justice, love, generosity, respect etc. Bailing out on it actually shows a lack of confidence in God, who's capable of redeeming just about anything.

The health check we never get

Prevention is better than cure, at least that what my mother said. This doesn't apply to all aspects of the NHS. We are given cardiac checks, bone density checks, regular dental checks, all sorts of fiendish tubes are inserted into our bodies, and yet, at no time do we have a regular mental health check. As our brains control the functions of our body, would it be sensible to look after the brain first?

It's only when we are experiencing mental illness do we get noticed, and then it's luck of the draw if we actually get speedy and efficient help. Different areas offer varying services. Some are excellent, some are definitely not!

Mental illness can develop slowly or very quickly. At least an annual check up would help. If this was routine, then the stigma of mental illness would soon disappear, and just like popping to the nurse for a blood pressure check, it would be simply part of our lives.

by guest blogger Miriam

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Fresh Expressions of Vicar 4: My Generation*, Your Generation, Regeneration

The CofE cannot continue as it is. The Church that hundreds of Curates are being ordained to serve this weekend will be very different in 20 years time: have we prepared them for the church of the past of the church of the future? Guest blogger Andy Griffiths continues his thoughts on Titus as a model for CofE ordained ministry....

The final theme I see in Titus is that of the generations.  This is a book all about discipleship – but there is no expectation that Titus will “disciple” the Cretan Christians himself.  Rather, as we see in Titus 2.3-5
The older women … [are to] urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind…
and we can infer a similar dynamic with the older and younger men.

Before Titus leaves Crete, he is to have established the sort of church where the generations interact healthily, for the sake of Christian maturity.  How this can be done is another matter entirely.

The country is filled with churches that prioritise the needs of one, or at most two generations, and then co-opt incumbents to be the chaplain for that age group – this most commonly happens where churches are institutionally age-ist (so music, language and preaching style disenfranchises younger parishioners), but it is by no means unknown for a younger generation to “take over” and exclude their elders.

I believe it would be a mistake to concentrate on the separation of the sexes (crucial in first and second century Crete, no longer very relevant in Essex), and should instead ask how incumbents can be sponsors of intergenerational relationships for the good of all.  This is an area where my performance has been poor, though we have sponsored “team-preaching” on six occasions (the sermon being delivered in dialogue by one person in their 40s and one person in their teens)

On Monday, Caroline Gemma and I (aged 47, 51 and 35 but not in that order!) met to plan Holiday Club.  We have about 100 children coming, aged 5-10, about 10 young leaders aged 11-18, and about 6 retired leaders, plus ourselves.  Our discussions focussed on how we could help the event be intergenerational.  We decided that the children would be assigned to groups, each led by 11-18s, who would be the primary storytellers; but each secondary student would be assigned an adult leader to support them, ensure proper safeguarding, encourage them and step in only when needed.  We would love these relationships to continue into the future.

The bottom line is this: when I, like Titus, leave the local church for which I’ve presently been assigned the “cure of souls”, I want there to be a discipling culture so strong that it won’t depend on the next incumbent to underwrite it; and that culture has to be an intergenerational one.  Ask me how this is going in a couple of years.

Church tradition tells us that once he had spent a few years in Crete, Titus’ next assignment was in Dalmatia (what we would call the Croatian coast).  Such is the lot of the incumbent – unlike the ministry team, who are generally longterm members of the local church, we move on to new assignments, hoping that we have made ourselves dispensable enough for our successors not to have to struggle as hard as we did to be successful at equipping from the margins.

A few years ago, I was given an icon of Titus by a colleague who had just visited Crete.  An elderly Titus is in Crete, reading the scroll of the letter sent to him as a young man.  And if church tradition is right, Titus did indeed, eventually, end up back in Crete – not as a member of an apostolic team, but as an old man, retiring back to the scene of his earlier ministry.  Now finally, the story says, he has the chance to be a part of a local church team as an overseer.

The icon captures the moment that he reaches the part where Paul declares that Jesus’ purpose was
to purify for himself a people that are his very own, zealous to do what is good.

He looks into the middle distance.  Possibly, the icon writer intended that Titus is looking on us, seeing how we are doing with the legacy he left us.

If you’ve read all four of these reflections: respect!  Thank you for your patience.  What do you think?

Andy Griffiths is now an Area Dean (“middle management in the Church of England”) and Vicar in Essex, and has been guest blogging this week about incumbent ministry.  This is the fourth and last post. Follow the Titus Series tag to read the others, or click...
Part 1 - from manager to team member
Part 2 - from do-it-all to enabler on the margins
Part 3 - keeping the main thing the main thing: but what is it?

* The Who's recent gig at Glastonbury 'inspired' the title of this post. 'People try to put us down' takes on a whole new meaning when the band are all in their 70s. If the song was released today, it might be seen as a protest against legalised euthanasia.